Queen Jillian did her best not to be able to see the tower as her forces attacked Progrock. A stack of her lowest units was screening fire, led by the Level 1 Lord DeTrop. She kept her own stack tight in behind them, with her Chief Warlord and only Caster on megalogwiffs to either side of her, close enough to bump. Ahead and below, the target threw some Shockmancy bolts up at them.
The defense was automatic. Not only were there no casters there to direct the stored spells, but there were apparently no commanders of any kind in the city. The defending units would attack by rote. As the Faq forces closed over the dull, industrial-looking garrison, a small contingent of archers thwanged a disconsolate volley. The few arrows flew limply and uselessly against Faq's Royal air force. With so close a screen, only two units in the leadership stack were even nicked by the air defense, and those only barely.
Ansom had been quiet and good through the past couple hexes, so Jillian allowed her prisoner to watch from a vantage similar to her own. His body was enveloped and held within her megalogwiff's huge gummy form, and she ordered it to poke his head out between the armor plates in front of her saddle. He was cute there, like that. She kept having to resist the urge to muss up his hair.
She took her only recon as they advanced. They were in a hurry, and there was no need for a circuit of the garrison if it was so obviously helpless. She lowered her mount's nose and pointed her sword to signal her intention. Fly on. Hit the tower.
Ansom tilted his head back but couldn't turn far enough to meet her eyes. "What, you're not going to check the enemy deployment first?"
"Doesn't matter," muttered Jillian. The city walls below rolled by, peppered with just a few infantry.
"Surely so!" protested Ansom.
Jillian eyed him, and willed her mount to turn him around to face her. "Why? Do you know about anything in the city that would change the outcome? You wanna share something, prisoner?"
Ansom looked insulted. "Not at all. That's just a basic precaution before engagement, in case of surprise," he said sourly. "Really. Extremely basic, Commander."
"Queen!" Jillian snapped, then shut her mouth just as quickly. Oh, what was that? She was defending her Royal title to Ansom now?
"No, in tactical terms, Commander," sniffed Ansom. "Rulers shouldn't lead battles, anyway."
The need for a retort was mercifully mooted as DeTrop's gwiffons crash-landed into a stack of defenders at the tower top. Spilling off their mounts and directly into sword combat, Faq's soldiers slashed through Gobwin Knob's like scissors through a line of paper dolls. The tower was nearly secure before Jillian and Duncan could even spot a place to land.
When she did settle her mount on the tower, she gave Ansom a pat on his head. "You worry too much about me," she said, her voice sweet with sarcasm. Ansom chose to glower in silence.
She took an athletic leap to the stone floor, where her feet landed to either side of the arm of a fallen enemy stabber. She bent down and lifted the arm by the wrist.
Her Chief Warlord stepped around his mount and came to her side, looking down where she indicated. "Queen?"
Jillian held up the hand of the croaked soldier for him. "Not dusted. The defenders aren't Decrypted."
Duncan nodded. "Yes. I think the livery's an indication," he said, pointing to the fallen soldier's armor. He was wearing the Stanley-and-star emblem, rather than Wanda's. "If that's true, then from the air they looked about two-thirds living to one-third Decrypted."
"Huh," said Jillian, dropping the arm and standing straight. She looked around the tower top. DeTrop's stack was already deep inside the tower, in the process of cleaning it out. Racking up all the experience, and the fun. Only the Titans knew how much she was craving combat.
But strategy was more important, and this was a lucky break. "Vanna!" she yelled. "Got a question real quick!"
Jillian did get to split a few faces before the end of the battle, carefully picking on the Decrypted and picking up the living with her megalo. Hers could capture as many as twenty-five normal units.
When she accidentally picked up a Decrypted unit, she had the megalo squeeze it to dust. Ansom seemed really bothered by this. But Vanna had said she wasn't sure she could turn a Decrypted unit, and Jillian needed troops. Next turn, when the Turnamancer had juice, she would be able to cast a mass spell that should convert half these prisoners to Faq units. The rest could be worked on in future turns.
Taking Progrock's garrison was straightforward and clean, with none of Ansom's "surprises." In no more than twenty minutes, the Faq banner flew atop the tower of this Level 3 city. For however briefly, the Kingdom of Faq now had four cities.
Prisoners from the outer walls were marched in, loaded into the megalos if they were living, and executed if they were Decrypted. Ansom's head stared at Jillian from the megalo as this was carried out. She refused to let it bother her.
Without word or ceremony they lifted, and Jillian willed the city razed. With a great swirl of sparkling natural Dirtamancy, and a tinny crashing sound, Progrock turned to dust and rubble below them.
The Queen felt her treasury jump by more than 40,000 Shmuckers. Not bad. Her side's entire upkeep, including the new units, would be secure now for eight or ten turns at least. And more easy targets lay ahead. They could possibly get to--
"Do you intend to ransom me?" demanded Ansom, breaking his long silence. "Is that it?"
Jillian looked at him. The heads of other prisoners poked out like pimples all over her mount, but she had allowed Ansom to keep his place at the top of her saddle. "No, I told you. I'll turn you."
Ansom looked flustered, but it was hard to tell in his position. The wind from their flight blew his hair into his eyes. "I see no reason to believe that's possible!" he said angrily. "But if it is, why would you dispose of the other Decrypted as if they were refuse?"
The Queen rolled her eyes, and said nothing.
"Well?" demanded Ansom. She did not even look at him. "I want to know. If you believe the Popped Again are merely talking golems of some sort, then I could understand. But to you I am still someone who is...who is alive enough to turn, to be 'saved' by you! So then what of the others?"
Jillian shrugged. "Least they're free of Wanda," she said, looking off to the side.
"If that's meant to be amusing, I can't say I find it so," said Ansom.
For a while, they flew on in silence. Jillian scanned the treeline ahead. She considered taking out their route plan, but Duncan seemed well oriented. She thought about hitting the provisions in her bag.
"Jillian," said Ansom quietly.
She met his eyes at last. He looked at her earnestly.
"We are alive."
She felt a bizarre sense of relief to hear him say so. "I want to believe that."
"I know. But understand this: we do have a will. I choose to serve her, because it is through her that I serve the Titans." Jillian shook her head to object, but he raised his voice and continued. "So if you think you can convince me to choose otherwise, then try! By all means, try to turn me."
His voice became grave. "But what I have seen so far from you is not a very fine start."