Past the point when dreams go dark, there is the mercy of a deep sleep. The visions and landscapes, the patterns, the otherworldly dimensions all slip away. Something still happens to you in that place, but the experience of it is lost.
Jillian had been there for hours, with her inner and outer senses all gone blank, when some tiny awareness got through to her. A message from existence, via her chief warlord‘s sense.
Enemy units entering the city.
Opening her eyes brought light and images, but for a moment she remained blind to their meaning. She sat up. She had been lying on something soft. A straw bed. Not one she‘d ever seen before.
Pain messages flooded in. Her knee, her head, her back, almost everything else... She was still in her gear. Wounded, with no move. Not Faq‘s turn, then. Someone had dragged or led her here, to sleep it off. The wilted flower that had been in her hair was missing, and her head throbbed with need of one.
With difficulty, Jillian stood up. She limped pathetically through the room‘s only door and out into the street. This knee was really bad.
The building she‘d been left inside was one of a row of little townhouses, all with green brick sides and black roofs. She scanned the airspace for hostiles, but the alleyway afforded only a narrow strip of clear blue sky. There was only a hint of smoke left in the air.
Wondering if it would be possible to get a new flower now, she hop-limped east, abusing her sword as a cane.
She rounded the row of houses and stepped into bright sunlight. The main gate of el-Efbaum stood only two blocks up the main thoroughfare from here. It hung open, with the portcullis raised. Beyond the edge of the city there was a riot of bright colors that Jillian couldn‘t immediately make sense of.
In the archway of the gate, two robed figures were standing in the sunshine. Faq units. Okay. Both were gaunt and leaning. Neither looked healthy. She blinked.
It was the Lady Firebaugh. And an uncroaked Commander unit, with zero leadership.
Her view of the world beyond the city gates swam into focus. Colorful, ragged-looking tents stood outside the city gates. Troops! They could march right in here! What were they doing?
“Wanda,” she croaked. Her parched voice carried far enough. Wanda looked up, then she and her new unit began heading toward her. Jillian watched over their shoulders, eyeballing the troops outside for any sign of trouble.
For the second time today, she willed the portcullis closed, and hobbled forward to meet Wanda. “What‘s going on? Are we under attack?”
“Chief Warlord,” said the Croakamancer a bit dreamily as she approached. She wore a beautiful pink flower in her hair, and Jillian‘s stomach tightened with envy. Otherwise, she looked terrible. Her shoulder was dislocated, and her arm was hanging wrong. The reality of her emaciated body shocked Jillian. She had come to see dream-Wanda as the real Wanda. “I don‘t believe so.”
“Something entered the airspace,” said Jillian, looking up again. “Something‘s in the garrison!”
“Archons, from Charlescomm,” said Wanda, limping as she drew near.
The uncroaked Olive Branch looked blank-eyed, and had a hole in her chest that you could fit a fist in. But she was oddly lovely this way...no guile, no evil left in those pretty, empty eyes.
“Three of them came over the gate, asking King Banhammer‘s whereabouts,” added Wanda. “They seek a parley.”
“You told them where my father was?” said Jillian, alarmed. “They could croak him!”
Wanda‘s lips curled, and she gave a slight shrug. She seemed dazed. “Then you would be Queen, and have your vengeance, I suppose.” She raised her good arm and put a bony hand on Olive‘s shoulder. “As I have mine.”
“You‘ve got a flower,” said Jillian, hating herself for her priorities. She should be limping down the street to save her King, but...
Wanda smiled. A couple of her teeth were missing, and one was broken in half. “The last one, I am told. The Olive Garden has burned down.”
“Oh no...” said Jillian, before realizing what she was saying. Right, that was a good thing. Sure it was. She just stared at the flower. The last one, ever.
“You could order me to give it to you,” Wanda pointed out, as if reading her thoughts.
She almost did. But Wanda was so far gone. She must be hurting for it, needing it more than Jillian ever had. She‘d been a heroine herself, today. She deserved it.
“What‘s that army outside?” Jillian asked instead.
“High Elves,” said Wanda. “Do not worry. They cannot attack. It is not their turn. It‘s Charlescomm‘s.”
The High Elves were Haffaton‘s natural allies, and when the side fell, they could have continued their turn. They could have taken this city while everyone was incapacitated, sacked it for Shmuckers. Why didn‘t they?
“What are they doing out there?”
“Celebrating, I suppose,” said Wanda. “It was they who burned the Garden.”
“Highness! Lady Firebaugh!”
Jack, with Betsy in tow, spotted Jillian and Wanda from a side street as they limped toward the garrison area. The Foolamancer and Healomancer hurried over the bricks toward them, but Betsy stopped when she saw Olive. Jack merely gave the uncroaked Florist a quick glance as he rushed up.
“Oh. You‘ve...acquired a new unit for the side. How unsettling. Sister Betsy, might you do a Service and tend to the, ah, living?”
Their gwiffon had perished too, and he and Rusty had both been incapacitated in the fall. Betsy had found them in a mangled heap, healed them, and sent the Shockmancer back to the garrison. King Banhammer was there, regrouping everyone at the site of the trial.
“He‘s in the Wizard‘s Hall, parleying with the Charlescomm units,” said Betsy. Her voice was cold and mechanical, and she kept looking over at Olive Branch. She held up her hands, intoning “Rexall, Revco, Eckerd...” and Jillian felt her body pulling itself back together. Titans, it felt good. If she could just take Betsy out into the field, she‘d come home with more soldiers than she usually managed to.
Wanda looked all right now, too. A little glassy-eyed. Her shoulder was back in place.
“You shouldn‘t bring that to your new King,” Betsy scowled, indicating Olive. “He‘s been disrupted enough this day.”
“I understand,” said Wanda.
“I don't know how you could do this. He loved her,” continued Betsy, in an accusing tone. “That should be plain.”
“Yes. Everyone does, at first,” said Wanda, her voice softly distant. “And then they are made sorrowful.”
She stepped over to the uncroaked woman and touched her blonde hair, brushing a little curl out of her/its eye. Olive did not flinch, or even blink.
“No-one who loved her ever failed to suffer for it. Nor could she feel remorse. King Banhammer shall be the last of her victims.” She turned and looked at Betsy. “I doubt he will find solace in that fact, but I do.”
She turned in the direction of the gathering, brushing past Betsy. Olive did not follow.
“She‘d have destroyed you all,” said Wanda, touching the flower in her hair as she walked away. “As surely as she has destroyed me.”
Everybody looked glum, subdued, wounded in spirit if not in body. When Jillian first caught sight of the sorry bunch of casters, she‘d shrugged. “That‘s how they celebrate victory over the biggest side in the world, huh?” she muttered to Jack when they came upon the scene. Jack offered no comment.
But as they approached, the fact that Brother Labeler had not cleaned up around here suddenly struck Jillian. In a day of such unimaginable weirdness, it was a tiny thing, but so completely wrong. Labeler always took care of everything. Faq was normally laid out for maximum neatness and harmony. There were no messes at home.
Here, the broken pots and furniture were shattered and scattered around the patio area, where the Court of Faq had gathered in muted mourning. This was a battlefield, Jillian realized. No less than any siege-toppled, fire-blackened city on a hill.
The casters offered their Princess only the barest acknowledgement as she sat down on a broken bench. They were grouped in twos and threes, holding quiet, muttered conversations.
“Orwell‘s back among us,” she commented to Jack, seeing the Lookamancer sitting alone, without shackles.
“He tunned back,” said Sister Marie, overhearing. “He wos left a prisonah of no side. Easy choice.”
“What‘s my father doing inside?” she asked Marie. The big doors to the Wizard‘s Hall were shut tight.
“Talking,” said Marie. “Deciding things, without counsel.”
“With the Archons,” said Jillian. Marie nodded. “Let me guess. One‘s called Chynna, right?”
“I don‘t know,” said Marie.
“Charlie‘s a treacherous little twoll,” said Jillian, eying the doors. “Nobody here is worried that they‘re just gonna croak him?”
Marie looked at Jillian strangely. “They won‘t do that, no.”
“Yeah?" she said, "Izzat a Prediction?”
Marie glanced over at Wanda, who was seated beside Jillian. She took a deep, tense breath.
Jillian felt a phantom tap on her shoulder, and a little arrow appeared in the air between Marie and the Lady Firebaugh. Jack was reminding her of a certain conversation they‘d once had.
“No, Cholly won‘t croak King Banhammah, Princess. Not today,” said Marie, her voice low and resigned. “This I Predict.”