Part 12 of 15 in Shadows of the Evergreen

Signamancy's a strange magic.


There's a saying that goes, "What you see is what you get." Foolamancers hate that saying. And any Signamancer worth their upkeep would also disagree with it. Which was probably the only point of doctrine the two caster types would agree on. The Foolamancer and the Signamancer would both respond, "What you get, is what you see."


Both caster schools had truck in changing what one saw. One part of Foolamancy was the art of tricking the senses, causing people to see things that were not really there. One part of Signamancy was the art of changing the appearance of objects or units to trick others into seeing them the way the Signamancer wished them to be seen. Two completely different magical paths, but with broadly the same result.


That was why, when a black suited Floorin' warlord carrying a chest full of confiscated equipment slowly strode out of the torture tent as the sun was just clearing the horizon, the sight had nothing to do with Foolamancy. But everything to do with the Infiltrator's Cap.


The black knit cap that Grey had pulled down over his entire head. The cap that now had a semi-cartoonish illustration of the face of Mr. Wyatt in place of Grey's own face.


The Infiltrator's Cap had two effects imbued into it. The first was the copying of a unit's Signamancy, most significantly, the status of it's side. It was a form of natural Signamancy that identified a friend or a foe, one that could change at a moment's notice should a peace treaty be signed or broken. One that often automatically prodded the more common, more simple minded units, to attack or salute on sight. And with the Signamancy status of Warlord Wyatt Rice of Floorin' copied, Grey projected the natural Signamancy of a friendly unit as he half hobbled across the camp towards the nearest hex border he could see.


The second effect of the Infiltrator's Cap was much like that of the Farstrider cloaks, a muting of one's presence. Except dozens of times more powerful. Because while a Foolamancer would render something invisible to the naked eye, a Signamancer would make that something so unremarkable to look at that you didn't bother to notice it. So that something would become invisible through mere inattention. It was a powerful magic, and one that was working, as none of the units Grey passed as they were clearing the camp so much as gave a second glance to Grey.


Which was why Grey was sweating bullets down his spine. Because if any unit took an interest in Grey for more than a fleeting moment the magic keeping him uninteresting would likely collapse. Which, aside from secrecy, was another reason the cap was rarely used, and even then only near dusk or at night.


With every step Grey took, he was praying madly to the Titans that no one would give him a second glance. That the sound of the chains still attached around his ankles would not be heard through the shredded Farstrider's Cloak he'd wrapped around and around them. Grey prayed he would not trip or snag on a rock, tumbling him over to suddenly become interesting and leave him helpless, to be made a prisoner all over again. Over and over again Grey prayed, each repetition shortening until the prayers became little more than "Oh Titans, oh Titans, please oh please" in his head.


Grey nearly jumped out of his skin as a stabber's eyes flicked up from dousing a campfire and nearly made eye contact with him. Any kind of interaction would be enough to break the enchantment. Then the stabber's eyes flicked back down to the fire as she chased around some rolling embers and crushed them into the dirt. Grey nearly let out a rattling sigh, and it was all he could do not to shudder with relief, since he couldn't afford too. It would be too interesting.


Grey desperately wanted to break out into a run. The clearing made for the tents was too wide, too open, too free of obstructing obstacles. He was perfectly visible but for his boring aura. And with a sudden feeling of dread, Grey realized the camp was too bare. The tents were almost done being struck. Reflexively, Grey turned his head over his shoulder to check the torture tent to see if anyone was moving to strike it, and thus discover the bodies. No one yet made a move towards the tent, but it was only a matter of minutes. As Grey turned to look forward again, he turned green under the fabric of the cap. That swift movement of his turning head had caught the attention of a sentry, standing at attention and trying to watch every part of the entire camp without moving from his post. Grey saw the sentry's eyes squinting at him from up close, maybe two strides away. Grey put power into his arms, preparing to use the heft of the chest to smash the sentry's face in and then make a break for it, it was only another forty or so steps to the edge of the encampment, and then Grey would have all the trees of the forest to conceal his escape. But the sentry's reaction was faster. Automatic. Primal to his station after seeing Grey's Signamancy.


The sentry saluted, his eyes unfocused with discipline.


Grey nearly missed the next step, but recovered soon enough to growl "As you were" while passing the rigid sentry. Over the next few dozen steps, Grey ran those seconds over and over again in his mind, finding all the points that added up to his improbable salvation.


The squinted eyes, those were the unit's natural Signamancy. The unit had yellow skin, something of a rarity in these regions, and the naturally squinted eyes were sometimes a natural extension of those unfamiliar features, causing Grey to misread them as scrutinizing. The disciplined inattention of the unit, common for basic infantry, but alien to Grey who was use to his own scouts and Farstriders that habitually eyeballed him. And, with an uplifting of his heart as Grey closed on the last few steps into the forest, the realization that the black jacket and neckcloth he was wearing were possibly just as much of an indicator of him as a friendly warlord, Mr. Wyatt specifically, as his current Friend / Foe Signamancy.



Grey nearly burst out laughing as he sidled past a common piker filling in the night's latrines with a shovel with relief and unwinding tension. For those last few strides carried him solidly into the woods, the bushes and branches closing in behind him and shutting off the camp from view. It was a pleasant moment, looking back to not see the disassembly of the last tents. A moment that was ruined by a blundering sentry that turned a corner around a tree and into Grey's side, nearly knocking him over.


"My apologies, Warlor- huh?"


The Signamancy aura was dispelled instantly, and the stabber turned his head with an arched eyebrow as he felt the sudden change from "Friendly Warlord" to "Escaping Prisoner." The stabber's face was still showing confusion as he reached for the sword at his hip, but that time Grey was faster than the sentry. Grey's body remembered his previous plan, and power roared into Grey's arms to fire the heavy chest directly into the sentry's face with an impact that knocked the man backward to drop flat on the ground. Grey instantly hopped to cover the distance, the hobbling chains preventing a normal stride, and brought his strength and body weight down through the chest, and into the sentry's head as it lay on the forest's floor, crushing the skull flat so that everything above the neck looked like a pancake with exed eyes. Definitely croaked.


But it was still a bad situation. The Signamancy aura had vanished, and Grey would need a subject to use the Infiltrator's Cap on to make a new one. And something told Grey the cap wouldn't fit over a pancaked head.


Grey yanked the cap from his head, stuffed it into the chest, and started hoofing it to the hex boundary again. If he could cross, it meant freedom. If his current "in between" status prevented it, he would still be able to hide himself far away from the camp. It all just depended on Luck and Fate.


Which apparently was not on his side, as Grey distinctly heard the aghast whisper of Yellin' back from the camp say, "EGADS! MR. WYATT IS CROAKED! SEND OUT SEARCH PARTIES, THE PRISONER HAS ESCAPED!"


The camp instantly sprang into a chorus of clatter as every unit within earshot, the entire camp it seemed, hurriedly formed stacks to carry out Yellin's orders. But Grey had a head start, Grey surmised as he moved at as fast a walk as his chained legs allowed. As long as Grey could get some distance before anyone caught his trail he could run or hide at his leisure, especially if he had the chance to re-equip his gear.


"I found a croaked stabber! He must have gone this way!"


"Ark' stealth!" Grey cursed to himself and then skipped and hopped as quickly as his imbalanced body could manage, no longer minding his footing and passage. The sound of rustling leaves, breaking twigs, and trodden earth filled Grey's ears along with the pounding of his heart. Grey was certain he was making a racket, that his movements that could only be described as throwing himself bodily forward with every movement would bring his pursuers down around his ears. In truth, Grey made little more noise than the whisper of plants brushing against plants in his passage, his training so deeply ingrained that he subconsciously chose the optimal paths for the sake of silent passage.


It was his movement that gave Grey away, not his sound.


From somewhere in the middling distance, Grey's sharp ears heard a voice say, "There, did you see that? Something over there moved!"


By that time, Grey was already muttering the word "crap" with every exhalation of breath, with every legs together skip of his body. But then he said it even more vehemently, with real desperation in his throat. There was no way Grey was going to outrun his pursuers in the long term, not while lugging the chest along with him. It horribly imbalanced him when he was already hobbling because of the chains. It turned every movement into a struggle to keep from falling over, and slowed Grey's movements in proportion to the extra strength he had to expend to keep his grip on the chest. The thought of throwing the chest away flickered through Grey's mind. Lightening himself enough to reach the barrier and safety beyond.




The word was intoxicating. Considering the last day and night Grey'd had, it was a word that held the meaning of the greatest of gifts the Titans could bless. But it was a fool's hope. No matter where Grey went, a man like Humperdink would pursue him. Grey had croaked one of his prizes, and worse, defied being made into a lackey. Grey would never be forgiven, the chase would never end. Grey would need his gear to fight back. But more importantly, Grey's hat was in the chest. He needed it to send a report back to King Shindig.


As the muscles in Grey's neck constricted like cords in his full body exertion of will to keep moving, some small part of Grey's mind that was obviously a self-centered jerk mused about how inappropriate a time it was for thinking about Duty. But Duty had a way of winning over practicality, and that rule held true even as the sound of determined pursuit echoed from behind Grey. A sound that was getting closer. Then there was a sound that didn't need to be close for Grey to hear it, but close it was.




The myth-myth sound of arrows, two or three at a time, struck through Grey's overloaded sense of hearing, striking into the deepest parts of his mind. The inevitability of failure, complete failure, capture, torture, and eventual croaking or impressment into service to a man Grey hated with a fire he'd never known crushed every other thought in Grey's mind, forcing every ounce of effort into his legs and his lungs. More than necessary force into the lungs as well, because Grey was screaming constantly as white hot fear turned into anger and aggression, leaving him delirious to the point that he couldn't hear himself but just the displacement of air around the arrows and the stomping of armed pursuers.


It was like a new form of torture that seemed to last for an eternity. A torture that was only interrupted when the lancing pain of an arrow shot up into Grey's mind from the rest of his body. And Grey fell forward under the weight of his gear in the chest.


New hex; heavy forest, no traps, patrolling Farstrider croaked, three turn(s) from Whatever on the current safe path towards Everquest.


Grey was laying in a heap in the dirt, and blinked at his own complete ignorance. It had felt like he'd crossed a hex boundary. Had he not noticed? Grey looked back, and saw the shimmer of the boundary right behind him. With his legs at the knees on the other side, his manacles still attached, and Yellin' and a stabber were reaching to grab the chain to haul Grey back to the other side. With one last screamed expletive, Grey tucked his knees into his chest, pulling his feet and ankles into his hex with them. But Yellin' had still gotten a grip on the chain connecting the manacles together, and pulled.


The glittering lights the manacle chain dissolved into were thrown everywhere as Yellin's determined attempt to bodily drag a unit his body's length on the ground suddenly lacked all tension the moment Grey's toes cleared the hex boundary, and the sparkles fell all over the pursuit stack which, Grey noticed at some deeper level of his subconscious, contained three archers in it and a miss match of other basic infantry.


And none of them could touch him.


Grey was safe.


For a few long moments, the pursuit stack glowered at Grey from the other side of the hex boundary and Grey looked blankly back. Grey had honestly not expected to make it out of that hex alive, so the reality that he had done so took some time to sink in. When it finally did, Grey began to chuckle, which turned into giggling, and then into full out laughter. All while still on his back with his legs dangling in the air. After a minute or two of the most uncontrollable laughter in his life, Grey bounded to his feet and started slapping his backside at the stack that had tried to run him down, laughing near to hysteria.


It was Yellin's reproachful comment of "HOW UNCIVILIZED" that got Grey to finally stop slapping his butt at the Floorin' troops. It was also at that time that Grey realized he had an arrow stuck in one of his butt cheeks. His first thought was, "Oh, so that's why I fell." Then Grey realized he'd been slapping his rump at other people. He turned red up to the ears, picked up his chest of gear, and then walked until he was long lost to sight in the trees and bushes.


Grey walked in a slightly aimless manner, allowing his mind to churn. He had duty to attend to, as well as personal safety, and inevitable pursuit. But what form of pursuit would it be? "The Archons," Grey declared aloud as he saw what appeared to be a displaced boulder, possibly from some long ago battle, that was cracked in two and settled into what could be called an adequate seat and table as a terrain feature.


"He'll send Archons," Grey said again, reveling in the luxury of being able to make noise. "I've already proven I can beat Humperdink's warlords and dodge his infantry. And Humperdink won't spare the scouts to track me, since he doesn't trust Charlie's guarantee of a trap free pathway. The Archons beat me once before, found me once before, carried me into the camp tied up like a parcel once before. Of course Humperdink will assume they can do it again."


"They can definitely do it again," said Grey, setting the chest down on the table. He stared at the chest for a moment, letting his mind wander over how on Erf he could fight a team of three Archons and win. The question was too great in scope for him at the moment, Grey decided dismissively, and set about the immediate task of writing a new dispatch to King Shindig. The old one had been lost with his capture, and had probably been depopped as garbage littering the forest floor that morning.


So Grey sat to his task, or would have if the arrow had not perfectly jammed on the stone seat to prod Grey's hinder in a jet of pain that produced an accompanying yelp.




The mocking sound of the Woody Pecker's laughter caused Grey to pick up one of the smaller lumps of the boulder lying nearby and throw it at the current source of Grey's annoyance. With some satisfaction, Grey struck the Pecker square in the noggin, knocking it from the tree it was perched in. Incapacitated with swirly eyes, but not croaked.


"Well, on the bright side," mused Grey as he walked over to the Woody Pecker, "I was in need of a new quill."


Grey bent down, pulled a large red feather from the almost Man shaped Pecker's crest, and turned back to his task at hand. Halfway back to the stone, Grey was struck by a thought. A very, very crazy thought. One that appealed to him on the most primal of levels.


Grey turned back, resting his eyes on the Woody Pecker, and smiled a predatory grin that completely changed the nature of his eyes without changing their shape or color.


Grey abandoned sitting as he wrote the dispatch to his King, it would take time to remove the arrow from his... body and Grey wanted to waste no time for the moment lest a detail slip from his mind. Quill, ink, paper, hat, and rope was spread on the rock table as Grey scratched his message, the curves of his writing sharp and the periods stabbed into the paper. With it's completion, Grey sent the message directly to his king with the word "Copperfield," grabbed the rope, and turned back to the Woody Pecker with a smile somewhere between a grin and a snarl resting on his face.


* * * * *


King Shindig felt a jet of pain from his head as he was awoken with a full hangover going strong. Then he felt the pain again as his ears picked some low fast paced buzzing. It was the crown set upon his head, vibrating.


"Damn text messages," muttered Shindig, slurred and surly as he removed the crown and said the magic password to receive his mail. "Merlin."


The wand companion to the hat tapped the rim of the crown and a message appeared. Shindig read it uninterestedly, even though he'd have liked to throw it out the window at that moment, but rulers had their own Duty to follow. Shindig's complete antipathy quickly disappeared, to be replaced by excitement and joy. Shindig was so happy that he let out a single sharp laugh, and then painfully cringed from the sound of his own voice.


It was a report from Grey Shades.


It held the identity of their attackers.


It held their numbers.


It held their goals, and their location.


It held the details of Charlie's contracts with the Floorin' dogs, along with the limitations imposed on them.


It held a request for items to be sent by hat to Grey to be used in a fight that turn.


It even told Shindig about the Overgourds. Constructs that seemed to be products of insanity, but there it was in the handwriting of his own Farstrider Captain. It had to be believed.


And it had to be acted upon.


Shindig wasted no time. He used his privilege as ruler to summon Dewey to the study, had him copy out the report fair, omitting details not necessary for other units besides himself, and send those copies to all the pertinent hats through Dewey's own blue and white cap. Shindig summoned Alfred, showed him the message, and got him to work supplying Grey with what was needed, saying that if the required items were not on hand that Alfred was to contact Art and procure the supplies from their contacts immediately.


Then Shindig left his study where he'd spent the night sitting in his own seat of power, sloshed out of his mind with good wine, followed by stronger spirits. When asked where he was going, he said curtly, "To wait by the portal in the dungeon."


Shindig had held himself together well, but his head was pounding a hex a minute. He wanted to be away from the room where the scratch of quill on paper would be continuing for a time to come.


* * * * *


"C'mon, Leo," said Art, almost impatiently. "You know you're not doing anything that can't be interrupted."


Art was speaking to one of the best Lookamancers in the MK. One that had his own manor and was a Master Class in the art. He was also a bit of a shut in with his large magic item made of tubes and glass lenses built into a movable dome at the top of his home that allowed him to Look anywhere he wished if he spent the juice. Mostly he used it to stare at the sky during the day and the night alike. But it was strong enough to keep work coming to him in the MK, instead of his having to leave the MK to find work.


He was one of the best Lookamancers, alright, even though he didn't look like it. He was stocky, overweight, with lumpy eyebags and a large curly white beard. His face matched his nature. He was unmotivated and sedentary. He didn't like to interrupt his musings for work. Art had worked on getting him to accept his job the day before, given up to find someone else, and returned that morning when no one else who could do the job would take it.


Leo seemed to bristle under Art's suggestion, and half turned away in his seat, his arms crossed.


"Look," pursued Art, intent on making himself such a pain in the rump that Leo would take the job just to be rid of him, as everyone knew they had to in order to get the man to work, "We can make it worth your while, my King has-"


Art broke off as he turned to look solidly at the direction of his side's portal in the park, and continued his broken off sentence with completely different words. "Just summoned me with new orders."


"Really?" said Leo half disinterested and half hoping he wouldn't see Art again. "What are those orders?"


"At the moment? Just to report to him, and to bring a Healomancer with me."


* * * * *


Cam's beret rumbled on her head as she was eating her breakfast at the table in the darkest corner of the galley of Everlast, her preferred location when eating around non-Farstriders. The regular units looked at Farstriders strangely, like they were a race that only looked like Man. And some looked at her in particular with odd faces, sometimes with weird smiles and red cheeks. It made Cam uncomfortable, which was why the only person eating with her was Seeke, another Farstrider warlord whom she'd met with in town the previous turn.


They had both been recalled with both their mounts used specifically for the recall not having enough move to get them out of Everlast. It was why they spent the night there instead of moving on to Eveready, and Neverever afterward.


"You gonna answer that?" asked the ebony skinned warlord. Seeke stood a head higher than even other warlords without being a heavy. He was as tall as a hobgobwin, and as the joke went, just as pretty. He was certainly as bald as one, and the beret that sat on his head seemed to remain there by the will of the Titans alone. Seeke didn't speak to Cam politely, but the same way he always had. Cam was grateful. Seeke was now her actual subordinate instead of a nominal one like before, but Cam wasn't ready to process that thought. She wasn't ready for her authority, she wasn't ready to be giving orders like a Captain would.


Cam wasn't ready to take Grey's place.


Both warlords could feel the hesitation mixed into their grief and anger. And so the meal had been silent even for Farstriders, who typically kept away from the normal units, keeping to themselves. The question helped relieve the meal's tension slightly. So Cam pulled the beret from her head and said, "Houdini," with a little wand tap.


What appeared was a copy of a dispatch, reproduced in Dewey's handwriting, prefaced with two sentences that struck Cam in the gut so hard she nearly refilled her breakfast plate.


What follows is a reproduction of a scouting report submitted this morning by the recently escaped Farstrider Grey Shades, still a fugitive. All questions concerning the report should be submitted to Grey Shades for clarification.


Cam's mouth started to work, but it failed to even produce the complete word "It" as the sound fell from her lips over and over again. Cam finally stopped tripping over her own tongue and looked up from the paper into Seeke's worried and dumbfounded face. Cam couldn't find the words, and just passed the pages to Seeke, who read it, his eyebrows shooting up as his face became a blank mask. Seeke read the flawless report the whole way through, then slowly lifted his eyes to meet Cam's numbly hopeful gaze. As the two looked at each other, a smile slowly crept across Seeke's face, and an answering one spread across Cam's own as she felt certain, now, that she hadn't misunderstood the message.


"HaHAA!" bellowed Seeke, slamming his palms down on the table. "Only the Captain!"


Seeke pumped his fist a few times in the air as Cam took back the missive, and read it over attentively, or at least tried. Her joy kept interrupting with a laugh to follow up on Seeke's own happy antics. Finally, Cam gave up and shouted her first order as Captain of the Farstriders, which she happily predicted would also be her last.


"Quartermaster! Wine! Now!"


Cam and Seeke exchanged a shouted toast to Grey Shades before the astonished garrison soldiers of Everlast. The report was only slightly wine stained before Cam and Seeke got down to business to properly study it, with only minor interruptions as they threw around theories about how the true captain had escaped from such an impossible situation.


* * * * *


King Shindig rested his forehead against the cold stone of the dungeon walls. The stone was hard, but it was cool. That was what mattered at that moment. The damp stone felt good enough that Shindig closed his eyes in pleasure, like a cat getting its chin rubbed. All that saved him from humiliation was his ruler's sense that Art had been displaced. In that split second, Shindig bolted upright and turned to look at the portal Art was striding out from.


With a mental order, Shindig made sure that Art did not speak loudly as the king approached from the side of the portal. Shindig had chosen that spot so Art wouldn't see him the instant he'd stepped back into Everclear territory.


Royalty had an image to maintain after all.


Shindig cut Art's greeting short, asking where the Healomancer was. With almost perfect dramatic timing, the Healomancer in question stepped through the portal that, from Shindig's position, seemed to be a slim line of vertical light. The effect was as if the Caster had materialized out of thin air.


The Healomancer was tall, thin, bald topped with a ring of black hair, wore a black fabric bodysuit with blue trim. In an authoritative voice, he said, as if by habit, "Please state the nature of your medical emergency."


The words were so automatic that the Healomancer said them to thin air, looked around afterward, locked in on Shindig, and approached. His eyes ran over Shindig, automatically checking symptoms and calculating the request to come. Shindig could already see the caster's eyebrow raising, knowingly.


"Just a simple detoxification spell," said Shindig, low and authoritative.


"Of course, your Highness," said the Healomancer as he pulled out a little palm sized magic tool from his belt, slipped a tube out of it, invested it with some juice, and slid it back inside before saying, "The fee will be five thousand Shmuckers."


Art looked aghast, and Shindig had several dozen methods of croaking the Healomancer pass through his mind. But that would mean delays of treatment, not to mention a violation of the Magic Kingdom's rules of neutrality. The delay in treatment was the larger concern, though, Shindig admitted to himself, staring longingly at the magic item in the Healomancer's hand.


Shindig had already reached acceptance, though Art tried to bargain, saying, "That's not exactly the normal price range for a detoxification spell, you know."


"Oh, yes, it most definitely isn't," said the Healomancer, "But we Healomancers have a different price range for, ahem, self-inflicted toxicity."


The still nameless Healomancer's smile was very telling. There was no chance of a better bargain from any acceptable Healomancer in the Magic Kingdom. "Fine," said Shindig, his courtesy croaked dead.


"Very good," said the Healomancer, chipper and upbeat as he leaned over Shindig, pressed his magic item against Shindig's throat, and activated it. There was a rush of juice along with a hiss of released power that Shindig felt immediately. His head stopped pounding, his eyesight lost it's bleary edge, his humor and ability to think coherently returned.


"Well," said Shindig aloud as he shook the Healomancer's hand, simultaneously transferring the five thousand Shmuckers into the caster's wallet. The price was steep, but Shindig sincerely felt that the cure was worth every Shmucker. "Thank you very much... I don't think I caught your name?"


"Oh, just Doctor, will do. Keeps things simple. I wish you well, and please," with a self-amused smile, the doctor concluded, "stay in good spirits."


The doctor disappeared into thin air again as he returned to the Magic Kingdom, the last pun leaving a bad taste in Shindig's mouth. He may not ask Art to summon that one again if there was a choice in the future.


To dispel the atmosphere of the doctor's departure, Art asked, "So... Why the summons, my Man? Has there been a new development?"


Shindig felt his excitement return, as the prospect of activity showed itself. "Yes, Art, yes there has. You see-"


With what could be bad timing, or good timing, Alfred walked stiffly into the room, bluntly saying in his accent, "Ah! Art, I vwas hoping to cahtch up wit' you. I have prepared zhe raw materials but I mahst meet with Chubbs for zhere completion. Wood you mind accompanying me to his phlace of business? You know zhe contorachts so much better zhan I."


"Yes, do," said Shindig immediately, "And Alfred will fill you in on what has transpired."


Shindig did not even wait for the two to enter the Magic Kingdom before turning around and swiftly striding back to his study. He only hoped he'd make it back in time to be seated for the coming unpleasantness.


And Shindig knew it was coming. With his head clear he was able to start to see the pattern being formed by recent events, and he was able to hazard a guess as to the true nature of the current invasion of Everclear.


* * * * *


Princess Sasha had barely finished adorning herself in her armor when the hat she'd been assigned started to vibrate. It was a generic top hat, since her infrequent dispatches from the capitol had not required the outlay for a specialized variety. It was resting brim side down on the dresser, but Sasha didn't bother to turn it over as she tapped it with a magic wand, saying, "Blaine." Picking up the hat, the dispatch was resting right there on the dresser top. Sasha hurriedly read the dispatch, needing to be out of her tent shortly for the breaking of camp.


It had been hard to sleep the previous night, the conversation with Maple had weighed upon Sasha's mind. As such, Sasha was only half rested, and her reading of the dispatch was slower than normal. As was the dawning of what the true meaning behind the dispatch was. Half way through reading, Sasha turned back to the front page and reread the introduction. Five times, until she looked up and whispered aloud, "He's alive." Then she reread Dewey's introduction again. Then, fully refreshed, Sasha strode purposefully from the tent.


Sasha knew the absolute first thing she had to do.


It took a few precious minutes of inquiry, her target had not been where Sasha had been expecting, but Sasha was able to narrow her search fast enough. As the morning sun was gaining in intensity and light filtered through the canopy throwing strangely jagged beams of light throughout the dense forest, Sasha saw the first arrow stuck in the ground. Then another few, which let Sasha backtrack through the trees, until Sasha found a tree with a single arrow stuck dead into it's center with a unit resting under it.


Curled into a ball, back to the tree, head on her knees with arms wrapped around her legs, was the form of Lydia. She hadn't returned to the camp the previous night, but instead seemed to have slept there, at her impromptu shooting range, in that curled up position with her bow resting on the ground next to her. Sasha was suddenly hesitant, sensing somehow that disturbing Lydia may be the absolute worst thing she could do. But Sasha had to do it. She could not think of anything else until she had. With a new resolve, Sasha bent down onto one knee, placed a hand on Lydia's shoulder, and gently shook her until Sasha had grabbed Lydia's attention. As Lydia's head rose and she saw Sasha, the only thing he could say was an uttered, "Oh," that somehow conveyed disappointment.


Instead of being annoyed by the complete lack of subordination in Lydia’s reaction to seeing her, Sasha was instead shocked. The normal Lydia would never have made such a weak reaction to anything. It was the right thing to come straight to Lydia first, Sasha decided as she shoved the dispatch not sanctioned to be read by Lydia directly into her hands and ordered her to "Read this."


Lydia's hands moved slowly, precisely, mechanically. Her eyes drifted over the pages, taking in only knowledge without any understanding. Until something about the wording of the report seemed to knock something loose in Lydia's mind and she turned back to the beginning. Reading the first two sentences over, and then again, Lydia's hands began to tremble. As Lydia's hands began shaking to the point that she was wrinkling the paper, she whispered aloud, "He's alive" as a question, even as a fat tear began rolling down her cheek.


Lydia looked up into the face of Sasha, who had not removed her hand from Lydia's shoulder and asked again, with more vitality, "He's alive?" At Sasha's answering smile, Lydia instinctively hugged Sasha as a close friend, while laughing aloud in relief, as soggy tears of joyous release overflowed from her rapturous eyes. "He's alive," Lydia called, to no one in particular, as she did. After some minutes had passed and Lydia had calmed down and was only producing sniffles in regaining her composure, Sasha asked, "Are you alright now?"


Lydia had taken to her feet and was now looking at Sasha from an even height. Strangely, Sasha got the strangest feeling that the roles had somehow been reversed in some way, and that Lydia was now observing Sasha carefully, with a hint of… something showing in the corner of Lydia’s eye.  Sasha was completely befuddled as to what it could be when Lydia responded.


"Yes, thank you, Sasha. I'm much better. But could I ask a favor?" Permission being granted, Lydia continued to ask, "May I borrow something to write with?"


* * * * *


Grey had just finished all his preparations for travel, having put the rope to use, redressed in his own gear, and packed all his belongings. He'd have to unpack them all again when he got to his chosen ambush site, but that was a small price to pay for leaving the heavy chest behind. As Grey was about to pick up his new burden for the turn, which was required for a successful ambush, he felt his knit hat vibrated in his pack. Pulling it out, Grey gave the command to receive. Grey was hoping it was more rope, since he'd need as much of it as possible in the turn to come, and it was unlikely his order from Alfred had been prepared so soon.


"Dresden," said Grey with a tap of the magic wand, and a white note appeared in the hat. Grey pulled it out, and immediately read it thinking it would be a missive from King Shindig. It turned out to be from Lydia, she'd apparently just found out he was alright. Grey breathed a sigh of relief knowing she was okay, and that he still had one more reason to keep fighting for Everclear's preservation. Then Grey read the description Lydia had written out of exactly how she was going to repay him for making her worry, and going pale, Grey wondered if he had been better off as a prisoner of Floorin'.


* * * * *


King Shindig made it to the study just as Dewey had finished sending the last of his copies out, this one to the garrison commander of Neverever with the word, "Teller" and a tap of his wand. Shindig immediately dismissed Dewey out of his study to resume his daily work elsewhere as the King planted himself in the seat of power and began collecting his composure and resolve. A few moments after he'd gathered himself, Shindig accepted what was to come, and thus he heard and saw the tiny figure floating in front of his eyes.

It was a graceful archon, projected in light blue, that said, "Thank you for accepting the Thinkagram, Charlie will be with you momentarily."


Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.

Part 11 - Part 13

Part 12 of 15 in Shadows of the Evergreen