IPTSF Text 46
Jillian already knew that the enemy was no major sky power. If Haffaton could even muster a regular patrol of flyers, then she would never have been able to lead her forces as far around their edges as she had. So it was pretty empty air, at that.
They did have a decent ground network, though. She bombed two scouts on her first full turn with the yellow dwagon, but there was no guarantee she’d seen them all. And besides, every time she took action against a Haffaton unit it was another red pin in their battle map, tracking her location and making it that much more likely they’d be planning something for her up ahead.
She juked and weaved in her course, using some of the dwagon’s move as slack. A route that generally led her home without being predictable would be her best bet. She didn’t need to draw an arrow for the enemy pointing directly at Faq, but she did need to get there as soon as she could.
In theory, there were one or two options other than making it all the way home. If she could take a city—not just a city site, which she wouldn’t have Shmuckers to build on, but actually capture a city—then she could claim it for Faq. This would reclassify her as a Faq unit and no longer as a Haffaton fugitive. It might even be possible to do it, too, given the lousy defenses she’d seen at Diecast. If she found a soft target like that, she might have to go for it.
Seemed unlikely, though. And she would be risking another trap, maybe from air defense this time.
Even more unlikely would be meeting up with another Faq unit in the field. If Jillian could manage to stack up with any regular unit from her side, then she would be considered “rescued” and would be a Faq field unit once more. She would even pop new equipment, at the expense of the treasury, of course. But nobody from Faq ever went out in the field, except the ones she led. And she’d managed to get every single one of those croaked.
Rescue was still a fantasy that teased her dreams, though. At night she frequently dreamed of running into some of her old troops, Chip, and Hedda...all miraculously alive. (She didn’t ever dream of seeing Bart.) Or there were new Faq warlords, sent to fetch her. Once, it was even her father himself who came out to her aid. All ridiculous, but in her dreams she believed.
Her waking fantasy was revenge. In variation after variation, she played out her mental conquest of Haffaton. In the evenings after Haffaton’s turn had ended, she talked about it for hours until she fell asleep, clinging to the surly dwagon’s neck. Beasts were good listeners.
In the afternoon following her third full turn out, she had to shout those angry plans over the wind and pelting rain.
They’d been lucky enough to find a stormy hex, with all but zero visibility from the ground. This meant sitting in the air getting drenched, with the bony leather spine-scale of the dwagon her only perch.
Her tailbone never stopped complaining, but she gave it no heed. She was a Chief Warlord. When the job called for it, any and all necessary suffering could be borne. Besides, a dwagon scale jammed in her bum still beat the snot out of Mistress Firebaugh’s Box of Tricks.
“That’s one thing she did for me!” she laughed at the dwagon. “Gave me a whole new perspective on suffering! Maybe I’ll use it on her when we get back!”
The dwagon snorted and shook another bucket of rain from its head.
“Yes, ‘we!’ You’re coming, too! You’re not my first choice, either, mister. But we need all the heavy flyers we can get!”
The dwagon grunted, twisting its head around, sniffing and snorting. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen it do this. She didn’t know much about these units, but it seemed like it was smelling something. Campfire below, maybe? She couldn’t see or smell anything herself, only the rain.
If there was someone on the ground down there, it didn’t much matter. A unit with specialized natural Lookamancy might be able to spot them, which would be unfortunate, but Haffaton had already ended turn. Whoever was down below probably couldn’t hit her, and definitely couldn’t expect to receive reinforcements before she moved again.
And he couldn’t be smelling a flying unit, either. She’d swept the air of this hex for any flyers when she’d arrived, and again after Haffaton’s turn was over. Nothing.
Still, that seemed for all of Erfworld to be what the dwagon was indicating. She let it drift on its own through the downpour, curious what it thought it was doing. One end of this rainstorm was as bad as any other, right? There was nothing to see here but falling water and wisps of mist, and the only thing her nose was detecting was the ever-present drop of water on the end of it.
The weather was wild up here. It rained sideways, even upward at times. The cloud tops swirled in columns and sheets and whorls. The yellow dwagon beat its wings with some purpose now, moving them up to the edge of a particularly weird-looking swirl of cloud, like three little pillars.
It sniffed at the cloud. Jillian raised her hand to her forehead in a rain-visor salute. Three pillars, man-sized. Very like men, in fact... Or, even more like women.
Her hand slowly fell to her waistband, where she had tucked Bart’s resized sword. Cautiously, she removed the thing, barely larger than a butter knife, and began pulling on the tip.
“Stop,” commanded one of the cloud pillars.
The sky filled with light, like a lightning strike that kept going. The dwagon roared, and Jillian did not heed the order. In a single swift motion, she had the full-sized sword raised and at the ready.
“While Chynna is on the call, are there any topics of no strategic interest that you would care to discuss?” asked the one named Wendy.
“Um, I don’t think so,” said Jillian. “I’ll think about it.”
As Chief Warlord of Faq, Jillian liked to think there was a kind of professional code between mercenary sides. There really wasn’t. Charlescomm had an elaborate code their field agents followed, but it applied only to their own side. To competitors, they showed only the courtesy which followed rational self-interest. They didn’t tend to accept constraints on their behavior that didn’t involve binding contract language.
So they hadn’t engaged. Not in a fight where nobody was footing the bill.
That was the relief. Yes, they were in Haffaton space, but they had not been hired to hunt down the fugitive as Jillian feared. Their mission was their own business, and details would not be discussed unless for the appropriate fee. Jillian could only guess that they’d been drawn to this hex for the stealthy weather, just as she had been. They were sneaking around up here, too.
By their own standards, the Archons did behave professionally toward her, as they did toward everyone. Too much so. They were way too polished.
And they made it work for them. They were the bane of Jillian’s existence half the time, because the sides that hired her were generally the ones who couldn’t afford Charlescomm’s rates. She rarely swung a sword for anyone who wouldn’t rather have hired Charlie’s Archons. Got to be a bit demoralizing.
She hated them. But wow, would she love to command a few of them.
“You have the right of first refusal,” they’d told her, and of course she did refuse. Didn’t matter how much hush money they wanted to keep them from contacting Haffaton; Jillian had no purse. She couldn’t make a deal against Faq’s treasury in the event of her successful escape, either. If her side had any kind of future left, then it would be just as deadly to give Charlescomm information about Faq as it’d be to tell Haffaton.
Before the thinkagram, a moment came and went when Jillian considered attacking them preemptively. She would have the upper hand, but it might be close. Her own feelings about professional code aside, there’s something about being cold and wet and wearing a few crappy pieces of stolen armor and carrying someone else’s sword that makes you think twice about picking a battle with caster units.
So she waited, sizing them up and thinking about how she planned to fight them if Haffaton decided to hire them on the spot...which seemed increasingly likely, the more she thought about it.
“Chynna” kept her arms folded, head turned away, thinking silently. Perhaps she was even talking to Lady Firebaugh. Jillian shivered. The two that were screening for the one on the call kept their prim little made-up faces to her, the bonnets of their visored ponchos keeping them unnaturally dry.
“Are those things magical?” asked Jillian, out of jealous curiosity.
“Our Rain-ment? Yes!” beamed the one called Carnie. “The Charlescomm All-Weather Rain-ment Poncho is the perfect gear for displaying your side’s livery, even in extreme weather hexes. In addition to making the wearer comfortable and toasty dry, they also mitigate weather-related movement and combat penalties for the unit who’s sporting them! Limited quantities are available for sale, at very reasonable rates for Dollamancy of this unique combination of value! Would you care to purchase one or more of these items today, on favorable credit terms against your eventual repatriation?”
A gust of wind plastered a sopping wet lock of Jillian’s hair across her lips. She spat most of it out, staring at Carnie like a raptor. The dwagon shot two streams of rainwater out of its nostrils, squirting from opposite sides of its enormous head.
“No. Thank you,” said Princess Jillian, and spat out a few more strands of wet hair.
“Team meeting!” shouted Chynna cheerily, apparently having finished the thinkagram.
“Excuse us, Warlord,” said Wendy. The Archons pulled away into a huddle.
Jillian fingered the hilt of her sword, its bare steel on her leg felt as cold as one of Lady Firebaugh’s stones. After a minute or so, the discussion broke, and the Archons began approaching her. She raised Bart’s sword, and tensed her legs. The dwagon responded, rearing back and waving its claws.
The Archons appeared completely unfazed by the posture.
“Good news, Warlord!” said Chynna. “For you, I should say...haha! No, Charlescomm was unable to negotiate any sort of agreement with Haffaton this evening. So your status as a fugitive will receive no new challenges from that quarter.”
Jillian’s sword arm slackened a bit. Her wet face broke into a smirk. “They couldn’t afford you,” she said, feeling many things, but mostly vindication. “They’re too poor! And you guys charge way too much.”
In the first dent Jillian had ever seen in a Charlescomm unit’s professional demeanor, Chynna’s smile vanished. Her shoulders stiffened, and her eyes went ice cold. “Actually, most times, when a client refuses such an offer, it is because the target is of little worth,” she said flatly. “We’ll be moving on now. It’s still our turn, and your presence compromises the security of our mission. Good bye.”
They turned and flew away. Jillian put away Bart’s sword, and turned her dwagon in the opposite direction.
“You sure about the Rain-ment?” called one of them after her, tauntingly. “You look soaked!”
“Stick it in your toasty dry hole,” she muttered.