"I don't like it," said Ace.
When the Dollamancer had called for a huddle-up, Chief Healomancer Pierce had joined it (technically allowed it) without much enthusiasm. Their orders were clear enough. They were to wait at the tower top and escort the King down in a protected retreat from the garrison zone.
But Ace Hardware seemed to have mastered the trick of overthinking and underthinking the same thing at the same time. And Pierce wasn't the only one to notice it.
"You don't like what?" said Dittomancer Lloyd, testily. "What don't you like?"
"Running away," said Cubbins, looking up at the scowling Ace Hardware. "Right, Ace?"
Pierce was Chief Caster by dint of his levels. Jetstone had become too poor to support natural allies, and had eventually sent even the Altruist Elves off to fend for themselves. So he was needed in or near combat most of the time now. He had leveled up to a seven in all of that action, bucking for an eight.
He also had seen too much out there. Ace's untested warhawk enthusiasm grated on him. Pierce had been on Prince Ossomer's shorthanded charges into Haggar, throwing heals at the top units and leaving good men and warlords to fall. Too often he ran out of juice. Too often, good soldiers croaked when he should have been able to save them.
And the slaughter he had just seen here in the sky and down below was just more of the same waste. No, Ace had a lot to learn about–
"Actually," said Ace, "I think the Prince is right. Retreat for King Slately is the right thing to do." The Dollamancer sounded bitter and reluctant, but sincere.
Pierce raised his eyebrow, and the glass in his hand. It contained a healing elixir of his own devising, the recipe of which varied, but usually consisted of "two gin rations, stirred with a Wand of Cure Incapacitation." Which was odd, because the elixir usually had the opposite effect. More research was clearly required. He took a sip, and waited for Ace's "but."
Ace thwapped his fist into his palm. "But he should be going out by air!"
The Healomancer's face split into a grin, broad and sarcastic. "Ohhh," he nodded, "I see. Good, you started to worry me there, but we're still playing the same game. Aces are still wild."
Ace shot him a glare with spring-loaded action. "I'm serious, Pierce. We could clean the sky of all that flying trash, then fly him out without risking any contact at all with that Croakamancer. It's how a king should go, anyway."
"Hey, hey," said Lloyd. tugging Pierce's drab green sleeve.
The Healomancer tilted his head and used his glass to indicate to the right. "Speaking of..." he mumbled.
King Slately strode with purpose out of the tower interior. The casters fell back without a word as he passed between them, toward the edge of the veranda. Mighty Ossomer was still lingering there, in the enemy's colors. A healthy, breathing casualty.
"Looks like he wants to talk to his son's body again," said Pierce.
"And that, that is why," said Lloyd, pointing with a full straight arm at Ossomer but looking at Ace. "Why we can't...can't clear the airspace, Ace."
Ace followed Lloyd's pointing finger. King Slately did indeed seem to be talking to Ossomer now.
"His leadership is pretty high, Ace," said Cubbins quietly.
"So we target him first. It's easy," said the Dollamancer, "he's not even stacked up." His face was rigid, but there was doubt in his tone. Other than Cubbins, Ace had never gotten along with anyone else in Jetstone except Prince Ossomer.
Pierce shook his head. "He could restack before we finished him. The Archons could screen him, too. And the longer he lives, the tougher they are." Pierce took another sip of his potion, winced, and let out a little satisfied breath from the back of his throat. "And even if we shot him down, we wouldn't have enough spells left on the tower afterwards. To get every last Archon, we'd have to bring in the last of the archers off the Outer Walls. Play cat and mouse for a while. Even then, we'd probably still have to send up the flyers to get the stragglers."
Ace squinted to spot the enemy Archons, who had retreated to various corners of the city in small stacks, presumably organized around the ones with Leadership. "Nah. They're not that tough. We're all more than half full of juice..."
"You ever face one?" said Pierce. Then he held up his free hand and shook his head to wave off an answer Ace was forming. "Lemme rephrase that. You ever face three or four Archons working together? They're nuts. Daze you with Foolamancy, shock your commanders, mess with your mind... Maybe they can't do that much right now but their Foolamancy alone makes them hard to hit. We'd waste a lot of juice and arrows before we could shoot down that many."
Cubbins and Lloyd nodded at Ace. The Dollamancer looked lost in thought for a moment, then he straightened and took a step backward. King Slately was coming back.
Again, wordlessly and purposefully, their Ruler passed among them and into the tower interior. Pierce had a brief urge to thumb his nose at the pompous little... But instead he pointed at him. "There's the one you'd have to convince, Ace. But you're on your own."
Ace frowned, and looked at his boots. He walked over to the tower wall and picked up the twin-tubed item that he had explained (three times, excitedly) was a rear armor plate which imbued a Commander unit with the flying special. He held it up to Pierce, looking sad and beaten.
"But...this," he said pleadingly.
Pierce took a step toward Ace and plucked the magical accessory out of his grasp with one hand. With the other, he gave the Dollamancer his glass. "Here. Don't drink and fly."
Ace stared at the half empty vessel for a moment, then drained it in one chug.
Lloyd walked over and patted him on the shoulder. "There, there."