Part 8 of 21 in Shall We Play a Game?

Shall We Play a Game?

(Is it real or is it a game?)

Part Eight

Side by Side...

(We Will Cross that Great Divide)

My intention when the turn began was to do some cursory scouting of local Avon and Naughtyham forces before having Scarlet use as much of her move as feasible to scout out Fail Wail’s forces. I was after all being paid twice for each Fail Wail occupied hex and unit I reported on. I was also getting paid twice for each Avon and Naughtyham unit I reported on, however. So what really swung things towards wanting to scout out Fail Wail was that I was wondering if they posed a credible threat to Naughtyham. Extricating Tip during a siege would be problematic to say the least.

I found that along the frontier of Fail Wail’s advance were numerous archers and flying units. There were far more than there had been the previous turn and all quite suitable for engaging a dragon. I made sure that Scarlet didn’t enter any Fail Wail controlled hex just in case they decided to start taking pot shots at her. That meant I couldn’t scout past the very edge of their force deployment.

One of those frontier hexes stood out from amongst the rest. It was the only one that Scarlet reported as containing units other than Fail Wail units.

.

They were in a hex with a stack of knights all mounted on flying broomsticks. They were supported by flying monkeys.

Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored the message from last night. Either way however, that hex represented a very grave potential threat to my dwagon. And if she had spotted them, there was an excellent chance they had spotted her as well. It was a little odd that they weren’t back behind the screening forces or attempting to camouflage themselves in some way. That meant they were likely meant to be seen.

It seemed to me that Fail Wail was sending a message to me to boop or get off the pot. It was clear that they were planning on dominating the local air space in a big way. Naughtyham only had a few Orlys for air power. I didn’t know what Avon could bring to the table but so far their forces had appeared to be mounted knights and other cavalry forces that could keep up.

That meant I was the only other significant air power in the area. They were showing me that they had the ability to hunt me down and take me out of the game. So either it was time to leave the area or maybe ally with them. Clearly they were willing to work with allied flying units as well. No doubt I could expect a message at end of turn offering me an alliance.

That’s when I cancelled further scouting of Fail Wail forces by Scarlet, I had her turn back and fly a slightly circular route back to my hex. Then I had her grab me in her talons and carry me as she had in the wastelands. We flew slightly east of her previous route for the day but mostly south, straight for Naughtyham territory.

Scarlet and I landed well within Naughtyham territory. Between Fail Wail and me there were now a line of hexes filled with Naughtyham archers (who were often also forest capable) and flying units. The hex with the archons in it was close enough that I was sure they could technically reach me when it was their move but they’d have to fight their way to me.

Now came the time to send the intelligence reports to the three sides. To Naughtyham and Avon I sent complete reports on the other two sides they were each paying me for. To Fail Wails I sent only reports on what was on the frontiers of Naughtyham and Avon. I was hoping it would appear as though I hadn’t scouted those sides any deeper than I had Fail Wail’s. The contract only required that any hex I reported on had to be as accurate and truthful as possible. It didn’t require me to report on every hex I saw, though. I was a mercenary trying to get as many shmuckers as possible out of them by reporting as many enemy units as possible. Why would I withhold such intelligence?

Because I intended to manipulate the battlespace as much as I could, was why.

Though it seemed like this would be the last turn I would get away with that so far as Fail Wail went.

I sent out the reports and smiled as the shmuckers came in. It’d been a profitable couple of days for me. I expected Fail Wail to cancel my services shortly but the jig wasn’t quite up. I would still be able to safely report the frontier of Fail Wail’s forces to both Naughtyham and Avon. Not to mention Naughtyham’s and Avon’s locations to each other. Offering my services to allies who distrusted each other was proving to be quite profitable to me.

Now I had to decide what to do next. I could leave Scarlet where she was and make it the rest of the way to Naughtyham under my own move, perhaps sending updated intel reports to Avon as I went. Or I could end turn after I finished some final preparations after the day, letting my remaining move go to waste. Or I could scout the surrounding hexes and do some hunting and foraging as I went.

While I was trying to decide, my phone rang. “Hello Major.”

“Hello Justin.” Her face was impassive. “You know we have a pretty good idea where you are now.”

“How did knowing where I was help you last turn?” I asked her with a cocky smirk.

“It was quite expensive, actually.” She admitted. “And we’ve over extended our forces looking for you last turn. That has Wobin very concerned about this turn’s intel report from you.”

“Yeah. There’s a lot of enemy units that can get to your city this turn.” Assuming they didn’t waste move looking for me where I wasn’t, of course.

“Do you have any move left?” The Major asked plainly. “Can you get to the city?”

“I can.” I admitted. “But Scarlet can’t.”

“You should consider abandoning her and then allying with us.” She suggested.

“I can’t.” I rubbed Scarlet’s neck affectionately. “She’s my friend.”

“She’s just a dwagon.” The Major looked like she was being quite sensible. “You can always try to tame another one.”

“But it wouldn’t be Scarlet.” I objected while shaking my head. “Fair or foul, we’re friends to the end and I don’t abandon my friends.”

“I think you’re wasting an impressive loyalty stat on a mount that you can’t ride while flying but there’s nothing I can do about that.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Given the amount of airpower we’re now facing and that there’s no chance of turning Tip before we’re facing it, Wobin has empowered me to offer you new terms of alliance. We will release Tip into your custody if you both agree to an alliance with Naughtyham. I am working with Warshmuckers to compose a suitable and binding contract.”

“Can we write it so that I sign it today and it takes effect at dawn?” I asked while considering it.

“Why would you want to do that?” The Major frowned at me.

“I have my full move and Scarlet has none. If we ally with you now, then our turn order switches to yours. I’ll still have my full move but Scarlet will still have none. She won’t be able to move again until your turn tomorrow which is at the end of the day. However if we’re both barbarians at the start of the turn, we go first and both have full move.”

The Major nodded. “I see your point. Very well, we’ll word it so that you can sign today and the alliance will take effect when you arrive here on your turn tomorrow. However we will compose a non-aggression treaty to cover both sides from now until then.”

“Fair enough.” I agreed. “But I don’t want you putting any contracts in front of Tip to sign until I’ve reviewed and approved them. That will be part of my terms for the non-aggression treaty.”

“Clever.” She said with a note of approval. “I’ll keep that in mind while I write Tip’s contract.”

“You could release her now, you know.” I scratched the tip of my nose as I thought quickly. “Make her swear to return with me to sign any contract of alliance that I’ve approved for her. Also get her to promise to come right to my hex and do nothing but help me defend it for the rest of the turn.”

Her stoic brows were raised. “An interesting proposition and potentially more useful than leaving her in the dungeon. But the peace treaty will have to stipulate further limits to your movements and actions as well as a requirement to engage any Fail Wail units that enter your hex. And of course we won’t release Tip into your custody until you’ve signed both the non-aggression and alliance treaties, regardless of when they take effect.”

“I’ll engage any Fail Wail Units I figure I can beat.” I corrected her. “I’m not going to commit suicide for Wobin and I’m certainly not having Tip do so.”

“That seems reasonable.” She decided. “I’m going to send you a standard treaty draft that I’ve already amended. Make your changes and then send it back so I can review it.”

“Agreed.”

The treaty actually went back and forth between us a few times but we were able to come to terms.

In between exchanges with the Major, I scouted the neighboring hexes. I foraged and hunted and I also arranged some nasty surprises for any units who might enter those hexes. Of course the treaty would require me to reveal those preparations to Naughtyham but they weren’t the intended targets anyway.

I also considered additional clauses for the alliance I was preparing to make with Naughtyham. If they were still in possession of my shotgun, I would be wanting it back. I wasn’t sure if after all this time that paying my upkeep would restore the empty casings I was carrying around for it or not but I very much wanted to find out.

By the time I returned to the hex with Scarlet, we had hammered out a treaty to cover us until the morning.

My turn lingered only briefly. It was long enough to finish some final preparations in this hex and to get Scarlet and myself as hidden as possible.

Fail Wail’s turn started. I knew this when a single knight flying on a broomstick entered the hex and started scouting from the air. I had considered that view point when I was camouflaging Scarlet and myself so I hoped I had done a good enough job. I was still technically under contract with Fail Wail and couldn’t engage one of their units unless they engaged me first—at least not without incurring a formidable penalty in shmuckers. The reverse was also true.

When it finally left my hex, I reported it to both Naughtyham and Avon, earning more shmuckers. I also included the direction it had come from and the direction it was going. The Major confirmed that it had already passed through a hex occupied by Naughtyham forces and along with a complete stack of fellows. Only the one had made it out of the hex alive. That was also reported to Avon for extra shmuckers.

Then the Major reported to me that I could expect real trouble soon. The enemy was deploying massive units called Black Hawks. They were, as she described them, giant hawks that were colored black. But they were large enough to carry an entire stack of ordinary units or a single heavy. Black Hawks were a unit that could be popped by Fail Wail and apparently they were deploying their entire complement on a push against Avon and Naughtyham.

Naughtyham’s forces along the frontier were already decimated and it was likely that at least one of these Black Hawks would be nearing, if not entering my hex.

Sure enough, a massive black hawk entered the hex and began circling like it was looking for something. Had that scout spotted me? It must have.

A volley of arrows hit the trees around me. One arrow even knocked the knee guard off the armor Andy had made for me. Good thing I was wearing it or my adventuring career might have come to an inglorious end. My cell phone went off, no doubt to inform me of the shmuckers being deposited into my account due to contract violation and termination.

“Go cook yourself some Fried Chicken, girl.” I yelled at Scarlet while returning fire with my rifle. All my bullets hit the giant bird but it was hard to see if they did any real damage to it.

Scarlet burst out of hiding and launched herself at the massive bird, leading with a jet of flame. It was only when they passed within feet of each other that I gained an appreciation for how massive this bird really was.

That didn’t deter Scarlet however. She quickly proved that size wasn’t everything as she flew rings around her opponent, keeping out of reach of the hawk’s talons and beak. The stack of archers on its back attempted to engage but Scarlet maneuvered herself under the bird carrying them to stay out of their line of fire as much as possible. A few arrows did connect however though they were blocked by her armor. The smell of burning feathers and fowl meat soon filled the hex. With plumes of smoke trailing it, the Black Hawk went down, croaking on impact along with half the archers it was carrying.

I picked off half of those with my rifle while Scarlet distracted them. Then she dived down and quickly finished the others off, taking some minor damage in the process. Then I reported the incident to the Major and Avon, gaining even more shmuckers for the intel.

Then I checked the earlier message and confirmed that Fail Wail had in fact broken the contract and the shmuckers had been deposited in my account. Sure enough it was all there. I was impressed that they were willing to spend ten thousand shmuckers and risk one of their troop transports to engage me. Clearly they considered me a high value target now. Maybe they had figured out that I was double dealing them and were a bit bitter about it.

Through my scope I was able to watch as more and more Fail Wail forces started arriving in a neighboring hex. A few of them found the surprises I left for them there and a few more found the surprises in a couple of other hexes as they moved to join their comrades. They were mostly ground troops with a smattering of flyers as well. They were clearly laying up to attack my hex all together.

There was little I could do but pray they didn’t have enough move to do it this turn. Either that or hope that most of them didn’t have enough move to continue and would wait until next turn for those who didn’t have enough move so they could all gank me at once. Maybe being a high value target wasn’t such a good thing after all. Regardless, I dutifully reported their presence to my two clients. I doubted there was anything Naughtyham could do about them but maybe Avon would feel obligated to engage them.

When I noticed them lining up archers along the hex boundary, I retreated to the far end of the hex, taking Scarlet with me. They expended their entire quivers in arrows only to have them be soaked up by the trees. It had been an obvious Hail Mary gambit but one that didn’t cost them anything since it was still their turn and the arrows would re-pop at dawn. Or maybe they just wanted me to move farther away so I couldn’t see what they were doing.

Once it seemed that their arrows were all fully expended, I set out to collect them all. They would all de-pop at dawn of course but before then would come the turns of both Avon and Naughtyham. And if they did happen to have any units with move left this turn who were thinking of entering my hex, I figured I might as well prepare a suitable welcome for them. Besides, it was something to do.

While collecting the arrows, I got close enough to them that they could obviously see me. No one took any shots and I visually confirmed they were all out of arrows. That actually worried me. It suggested that they were confident that no friendly units would get to them before dawn.

I also got a better look at what was in the hex now. There were three Black Hawks which had arrived with only one or two archers still on each of their backs. Enough archers had arrived on foot however to fully load the birds back up. There was also a stack of broom mounted knights. Thirty-five units were more than I could hope to take, even if all of them were showing signs of battle and wounds of varying severity. They would steam roll over me and then move on to Naughtyham. Assuming I planned to be here when it was their turn again.

Their turn ended and Avon’s began. Only then did I start feeling a little bit easy about my situation. It was likely that this show of force was meant to intimidate me. It was working. I wanted to get as far away from that enemy group as I could once my turn started again.

The Major’s ringtone went off. “Hello Major.”

“Hello Justin.” She was all business. “You remember when Warshmuckers and I performed that experiment with you?”

“Yes, I remember.” I nodded my head.

“And you remember the security feature and the question you asked about it but I never answered?” Her focus on me was intense.

Thinking back, I mentally went over the conversation again. “Yes…”

“The answer is maybe. I didn’t think it would be an issue but after your intel reports today I suspect that it may be a problem. You understand.” I’d rarely seen her so rigid and emotionless and I generally considered her quite stoic.

“What I think you’re saying is that I can speak in the clear but you can’t, am I right?” I returned her scrutiny.

The Major nodded slightly, once.

The implications started to sink in, filling me with an icy chill. “Do you think Fail Wail may have been listening to your messages to me and used that to figure out I was feeding you intel and then nail down where exactly I was?”

“Maybe.” She looked like she might be hedging.

This is the part of a poker game where you have to try and figure out why the other player is acting the way they are. Fortunately I could straight up ask.

“Did they use your replies to figure out I was feeding you intel?” Was my first question.

A nod.

“Did they use your replies to figure out where I was?” I asked next.

Again a nod.

That didn’t make sense and I creased my brows in frustration. “Am I asking the right questions?”

The Major shook her head in the negative.

“Do you think they are the ones actually intercepting your messages?”

Again she shook her head no.

I was closing in on something here. “Is it the ally I reported on during my turn that might be doing it?”

She said and did nothing at all.

That caused me to frown. “Is there some reason you can’t verify that suspicion?”

The Major nodded.

“Are you sure they can’t intercept my side of the conversation?”

She looked relieved and nodded. “Yes.”

“Will you be sending Tip to me on your turn?” I was wondering whether or not that would still be a good idea.

“Yes.” Came her confident reply.

“Are there any other Naughtyham units that can reach me or that hex that’s causing me so much concern at the moment?” I asked hopefully.

She shook her head. “No.”

I couldn’t help but frown with disappointment. I would get away from these jokers on my next turn anyway but I sort of wanted to do something more proactive to them in the meantime. “Major, can a fire cross hex boundaries?”

“No.” She looked quizzical.

“Never mind. I was just considering options.” Then after thinking for a moment I added, “Can you have Andy magic up some barrels and fill them with oil?”

Slowly the Major nodded.

That was good news. “Then can you give Tip every barrel of oil you can spare? Have her shrink them down so she can carry them.”

“Alright.” The Major looked confused and a little bemused.

“You know, the way this conversation is going, it’s likely that if we are being tapped they may have figured it out by now. You should throw them off the scent by revealing false intel to me from your end. Stuff you can accidently let slip and have them try to act on at the start of their next turn.”

She grinned and nodded. “Clever idea. They’ll never expect you to circle around like that.”

“Now you’re getting it.” I grinned back at her.

“I’ll make sure our Gwiffons meet up with you in that hex.” She agreed. As far as I knew, they didn’t have any gwiffons. “Then we’ll be able to hit them behind their own lines.”

“That should keep them guessing, Major.”

“Indeed.” She agreed. “I have other communications to attend to. I’ll talk to you later.”

It wasn’t long after that before Tip was flying across the border and tackle me at speed. “Justin!”

“Umph!” Was my eloquent reply after my butt hit the ground. “I’m glad to see you too.”

“I can’t wait for tomorrow, Justin. We’ll become allies with Naughtyham and then they’ll all be our friends.” She silver eyes glowed happily.

“They may be our allies but trust me Tip, they’re not our friends.” My voice was a tad harsher than I intended. “This alliance is one of necessity only. As soon as I’m able to, I want to leave this place far behind and never come back.”

She frowned at me. “I don’t like it when you talk like that, Justin. They want to be friends and have an alliance like we have.” Her frown deepened. “Well, not exactly like we have. We have an unconditional alliance which is why I knew you’d be doing everything in your power to try and save me and get me out of the horrible, smelly dungeon. And you did.”

Her words made me consider my actions from the last two turns. I had been inordinately focused on getting her back, going so far as forming an alliance with a side I hated against a foe that would probably crush them shortly. I figured these were things I would do for any friend or comrade in arms—except that I had known her for less than a full turn when Naughtyham had grabbed her.

More and more I was getting the impression that simple handshake was influencing my behavior. It hadn’t completely changed who I was and I was still controlling how I went about being Tip’s unconditional ally. She hadn’t approved of me croaking units, for example. And if it really, truly bothered me, I was still free to break alliance with her.

I just didn’t want to.

An argument I had used before, as a smoker trying to justify the decision to smoke. Now addiction was something I knew could change how you behaved and acted. In subtle ways that were hard to spot from within and sometimes even to outsiders. Addiction could be beaten however, so maybe the compulsions of this world could be too. It was something I would have to think on.

Then she seemed to remember something. “Oh, the Major wanted me to give this to you.”

It was a note.

Justin,

They captured the warlord that captured Tip and we had sent to capture you. She was fully briefed on you. Just so you know.


Well, that was troublesome but there was nothing I could do about it at the moment. In the meantime, I had work to do. “Did you bring the oil like I asked?”

Tip nodded and emptied her pockets of tiny barrels of oil. I then went about using string from my backpack to start tying each barrel off to an arrow I had scrounged. This would be an even better use for them than making spiked pit traps with.

“Do you have the archery special, Tip?” I asked as I was finishing up.

She shook her head. “No, I can only use melee weapons.”

“But you can shoot a bow though, right?” I pressed, "and it’s still your turn since you were a prisoner of Naughtyham?”

“Well, technically true.” She agreed.

“Good, take my bow here and start shooting these arrows into the neighboring hex. Try and hit the enemy units if you can.” I offered her my bow.

Hesitantly she accepted the weapon. “I won’t hit anything.”

“That’s okay.” I assured her. “Just do your best.”

“I don’t want to hit anything.” She said rebelliously but drew the string back anyway and fired. As predicted she didn’t hit anything but the ground. When the arrow struck the ground, the barrel burst open, spilling its contents all over as I had hoped.

“Keep it up.” I encouraged her. “Maybe you can learn the archery special.”

It quickly became clear to the enemy units that Tip couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. They started making faces at her and ‘dodging’ comically away from her ‘attacks’. They seemed to think it was quite entertaining.

“Last one.” Tip announced, frowning at the enemies antics and name calling.

“Wait just a second.” I put a hand on her shoulder. “Scarlet, light this one up before it passes out of the hex, okay?”

Scarlet snorted and black smoke spilled out of her nostrils.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” I took my hand off Tip’s shoulder. “Alright, fire away.”

Tip looked uncertain but fired anyway. The arrow burst into flame as I hoped when Scarlet lit it up mid-air. Then it failed to hit the unit who was mooning Tip.

It succeeded in hitting the massive puddle of oil that had spread over nearly the entire area. The fire spread quickly to the foliage of the forest and rapidly became an inferno. As it spread, Tip’s face became one of horror while mine became one of grim satisfaction.

Until the screaming started. The screams of men burning alive with no way to escape. As if to punctuate the point, one of the archers ran into the hex boundary, desperate to escape. With his face pressed up against an invisible wall, he screamed until he burned to death.

Things went black after that.

+ + +

“Sgt Case! Sgt Case! Niner’s been hit!”

I ran, as I had thousands of times before, already too late. Forever too late. Through the thick armor of the LAV we could all hear them screaming. A hell brought to earth that they couldn’t escape and we couldn’t save them from.

And when the screaming had stopped, I had turned towards the battlefield again. Out there was the bastard who had shot the RPG into Niner. Training took over even as cold fury threatened to overwhelm me. I took the charge of the men and we swept through the village like angels of death. The civilians were long gone, having been forced out by an enemy determined to ambush us.

We made them pay in their blood.

It was the first time I’d ever killed but it wouldn’t be the last.

The screams of the men and women who died might go silent but they would echo forever inside my mind.

“Sgt Case! Sgt Case!”


+ + +

“Justin! Justin! Wake up!”

Slowly, painfully my eyes opened up and let the light in again. Tip was bending over me, her face streaked with tears. “What happened?” I asked her.

“You made me set all those people on fire!” She accused angrily but didn’t hold onto the anger for long. “But then you just got a funny look in your eye. You started banging on the hex boundary with your fists, until they were bloody. Then you kept throwing yourself at it as if you could break it. I had to ask Scarlet to hold you down so you didn’t keep hurting yourself. You were thrashing around, having some sort of horrible dream, I think.”

Slowly I sat up. I had made Tip kill those people too, hadn’t I? Looking down at my hands, I saw blood. Based on how sore they were, I guessed it was my own. “I need my first aid kit. It’s in my back pack. It’s the red pouch with the cross on it.”

Watching me warily, she got up and fetched the pouch. It was only then that I noticed the night sky. And the black smoke billowing from the neighboring hex. Nothing was left in it but scorched bones and trees.

Tip returned with the pouch. I noticed she was avoiding looking at the neighboring hex. I certainly understood why. She followed my directions and bandaged up my hands without saying much herself.

When she was done, Tip stood up. “You’re my friend.” She announced, sounding very cross. “But I don’t think I like you very much right now.” Then she stormed off to the opposite side of the hex.

That was okay, I decided. I didn’t much like me just then either.

There was a good thing there was no alcohol in that hex. It had been a struggle to get off the sauce after Afghanistan but I had managed it with the help of family and friends. Despite all that though, that night I wouldn’t have just fallen off the wagon, I would have dived head first into a barrel of Vodka.

Sleep wasn’t even a consideration as I stared up into the night sky. All I could do was wait through the long night. But as long as it was for me, it was longer perhaps for others. I could hear sobbing from the far side of the hex.

Mechanically I stood up and walked over to where Tip was hugging her knees, her face buried in her arms. I sat down behind her and wrapped my arms around her. “I’m sorry.” I said and then repeated it again and again like a mantra. Many justifications jumped into my mind for what had happened. Some of them may have even been valid.

No amount of justification and an infinite number of apologies would ever undo what had happened or make her feel good about it. Maybe, if I tried to be a real friend to her, I could help her learn to live with it at least.

When the sun came out, our tears had long since dried up. The light hit her hair and I noticed her locks were no longer golden. They had darkened considerably, as if by the smoke. “Come Tip.” I said softly. “We have to get to Naughtyham. We have promises to keep.”

She only nodded and rode on Scarlet’s back the whole way, never once flying down to say hello or anything else at all to me.

Part 8 of 21 in Shall We Play a Game?