IPTSF Text 47
On this journey, the physical landscape and Jillian’s emotional landscape were two different things. For five more turns, she passed over the same dull, flat, even terrain, always keeping within sight of the forest, always looking for food and a spot to take cover: forage and stealth, forage and stealth.
Inside, though, she was a mess of peaks and valleys and jagged cliffs.
The joy of finding every scrap of useful food or hidey hole was elevated to pure glory and bliss. But the spike of fear from every enemy encounter and close call had started to wear her down. Off turn, with her loneliness and endless second-guessing, every field decision she’d made that day came back to nag at her.
So when she breached a new hex and saw high white mountaintops in the distance, the terrain and her mood finally converged. She’d had no idea that the range extended this far into Haffaton, but those were almost definitely the Minty Mountains. She was a dozen turns from Faq yet, but she could see the peaks of home.
The mountains were a blessing and a curse, like everything else on this trip. There was a lot more enemy activity around here. The roads and narrow passes concentrated their units, which made it easier to avoid them, since by air she could travel where no commander would waste the move.
But the roads also followed the best routes. Sometimes there was no choice. She had to blow past—or blow up—any Haffaton units that were occupying the choke points. On her first turn into the highlands, she gave away her position at least four times; it couldn’t be helped. At least the dwagon leveled, and they acquired some small provisions.
She split off between the peaks, using a generous amount of move to follow the natural lines in the rock the way she always did. Jillian knew how to hide a heavy flyer up here, even a big yellow one. Especially a big yellow one! This was an old and trusted habit. It always worked, and it worked for her now. They tucked themselves in a deep and shadowy crag, as good as any veil.
On the frigid stone of the mountainside, she slept in a stolen bedroll, feeling safe for the first time since her capture. In nine or ten more turns, she would be within Brother Orwell’s range of view. And two turns after that, home.
Her dreams were fun that night.
The gray stone city surprised her: first that it was there at all, and then that it was so huge, so empty, and such a mess. It was a Level 2, but probably had been a Level 4 or 5 when it was conquered by Haffaton. It stood squat and unprotected from the air, with mostly barrel turrets and heavy walls built for repelling a ground attack. The square stone tower looked respectable, but seemed to her warlord’s eye to have been a strategic afterthought.
All along this ride, Jillian had been skirting cities as soon as she spotted one. But by her third turn in the mountains, new confidence had made her dare to spend a couple of move for a closer look. The chance that she might actually be able to take a city that size by herself was remote, but it was at least a chance. Stranger things had happened.
She flew in cautiously. No defenders stood on the thick walls. Signs of a battle were everywhere: anti-siege left in states of depletion, both gates smashed and torn, wagons in the streets without draft animals to pull them. There might still be air defense spells on that mid-height tower, but if they hadn’t cleaned up after this battle. So...
She risked it, crossing matter-of-factly into the airspace.
Not a fizzle was fired her way. Wow. This...was good. Well, probably. The lesson of Diecast was still fresh in her mind, but she couldn’t help feeling a little giddy here. Poor Haffaton had left another city undefended, had they? Just don’t do the nasty in front of any mannequins and you should be okay...
Or...no. Not undefended. The dwagon spotted the enemy first, snapping its claws to the ready as they glided over top of the broken garrison wall. Two tall green triangles spangled in silver garlands stood in the courtyard. Slowly, the triangles bent in the middle and followed her with eyes embedded in their trunks.
She hadn’t seen tannenbaums in a while. They were treelike, forest-capable units like gumps, but nastier. These two looked pretty tough, too. Both level 4, and highly decorated. They were exactly what tore down the city gates, and some of the walls.
Still, they were only ground units, with no capability for archery, weren’t they?
“You get enough to eat last night?” she shouted to her dwagon, slapping its neck. The beast grunted, and climbed.
She and the dwagon were both just getting the hang of the swoop/dive/J-hook maneuver against specific targets, but defenseless, largely immobile targets like these required no aim at all to hit. She concentrated fire on one, bombing it repeatedly until it crumbled under the acid and fell in a heap of brown needles. It took a surprising amount of damage to down.
She then emptied the rest of the dwagon’s battlecrap on the other one, but it wasn’t enough. The thing still stood. She’d have to land to fight it.
It had a whole lot of fight left in it, she discovered at once. Jillian stayed mounted, hacking at its tough, metallic garland as its flailing branches tried to ensnare her. The dwagon snapped its jaws and couldn’t figure out how to deal with it, confused and distracted by the ringing of tiny bells and the flash of its battle ornamentation. Silvery balls of lead whistled by her head. Every time she had a good angle, the dwagon lurched the wrong way. Some of those decorations were landing on his head, and he didn’t like it a bit.
Somehow in the chaos of the fight, the disbanded tree actually managed to get a noose around her neck.
She took a couple of off-balance cuts at the silvery garland, but before she could cut herself free, the tannenbaum yanked her off the dwagon and slammed her body to the stone. She landed hard on her sword arm. The sword clattered away.
With all the strength of both her hands, she clutched at the noose and wiggled her head out of it before the tree could pick her up and dash her to the ground again. This cost her her helmet, and now that clattered away. Branches cut and lashed at her, and one of the bludgeoning balls of lead smashed down on her chest, bruising her through the lousy fur-trimmed leather armor. Another loop of garland caught her by the ankle.
This was starting to get serious. One of those lead balls could get a crit on her head now, and that would be end of story. She had no weapon and her armor wasn’t going to cut it.
Well, she had one weapon. Dwagon.
“Hey! Get it from below, you stupid sack of crap!” Jillian yelled, as the tinsel rope jerked her along the paving stones. The dwagon took the order as a stroke of sudden insight, and chomped the tannenbaum hard at the roots, just as she was being lifted into the air. There was a satisfying crack and splintering sound.
The tall green tree made a profound bass grunt that sounded like, “Ho!” and fell over. In actual effect, it set her down on the pavement gently on her back. It then shuddered with a jingle of bells, and obligingly croaked.
Jillian rolled over and rose to her hands and knees, panting for breath. “Yeah,” she gasped. “Yes! Just like that, Crapsack. Good beast.”
She rose to her feet, feeling her injuries. The sword arm might be a problem, if she had to fight again. She retrieved her sword and tested her shoulder. It didn’t want to cooperate at all, but sort of could when she forced it to. So...not the best, but maybe.
She glanced up at the square tower, hoping to see Faq’s green up there. Nope, still a fugitive. Something still remained in the garrison. She would have to fight again. She sighed. Where was her helmet...
There was a squeaking sound in the middle distance. The dwagon roared alarm.
She turned and saw a unit she couldn’t identify. It looked like a small bear, but wearing a white conical hat adorned with puffy bits of black fur. It was propelling itself across the courtyard at her on some kind of two-wheeled cart, alarmingly fast.
In Haffaton, small unknowns were fatal. Forgetting the helmet, Jillian leaped to remount the dwagon. She painfully climbed to its neck and raised her sword to face the little bear-thing.
As it sped closer, she saw it more clearly.
It wore an unsettling expression of infinite, pitiless evil.