LIAB Text 52
Oblivion was trying a new tack. It was flirting with her.
And not flying downward like the arrows before, but sideways. Someone nearby was trying for her. Someone wanted her dust to float upon the breeze.
She looked up and spotted a Level 8 female warlord with a stack of a dozen knights, lurking in a passageway within the garrison walls. She grinned, as much to share the joke with Fate as to greet her opposite. Someone looked very disappointed.
The knights charged her stack at once. But their muscular legs were not faster than Sylvia's fingers, which she brought to her mouth and licked. Hampered a bit by a smile she couldn't quite let go of, she managed to rip a shrill whistle to the stack of red and green dwagons positioned along the wall, off to her right rear flank. Engage. Burn 'em up.
The vantage from the servants' corridor hadn't given Artemis the complete tactical picture, she now saw. As her stack emerged, charging, her heart leapt at the number of decrypted dwagons actually positioned along this side of the Atrium. The redhead had not been quite so careless about her flanks as it appeared.
Only one stack was near enough to force an engagement before they could reach the purples, though: three reds and three greens, with a Heavy Hobgobwin Knight. Restricted to the ground by lack of move, the dwagons gallumphed forward like walruses. Their tiny arms lifted their bodies up just enough for their powerful legs to vault them forward, but it made for a surprisingly swift method of locomotion. In only a few graceless lunges, they crashed into Artemis' stack. Roar! We're here. Whatcha gonna do about it?
"Greens!" she shouted, without breaking stride. She drew an arrow from her quiver and juked to the right to screen behind Canidae.
A warlord who rises to Artemis' level will tend to develop a reliable combat instinct, and hers was exceptionally sharp. This decision was instant, but had there been time to break it down consciously, her reasoning would have gone something like this:
Consider your options, Warlady.
Option 1: Disengage and retreat. Red/green dwagons can combo breath attacks: gas boosts fire. We can disengage this dwagon stack and fall back to the walls, fighting, but this would allow them a set of combo breath attacks. Some or most of us would survive, but all would be seriously wounded. No further attack on the enemy siege would be possible. Result: enemy victory. Inglorious defeat for Jetstone. King Slately falls.
Option 2: Engage and punch through. Though this is a powerful stack of all heavies, it is unled. Initiative is ours, and I can call this engagement intelligently. And if we win this fight, we will be able to engage the purples without further interference. Result: not one of us will survive, but we can save the King.
So 2 being the only option, the question is order of engagement. We could probably eliminate the combo effect by taking out all of one color or the other before we take hits in retaliation. The reds can do more damage, but my stack is tough. We can probably all withstand one round of un-boosted fire. But if we hit the reds and leave the greens, the gas breath might get lucky and croak one of us instantly, maybe me. We stand a much better chance of wiping out the greens, anyway. So, Knights vs. greens, and screen for my bow. Give order. Go.
If anything, she underestimated her powerful Knights. In fours, they cut into the greens with ferocious swipes and cuts. The first one burst before Artemis could nock her arrow. It was like nothing she had ever witnessed. The decrypted dwagon's flesh went ashen for the merest moment, then the gas inside it blew up in a ball of green, outlined by black dust. The cloud floated straight up and away, while the dust slid away from it and fell off like like a discarded skin.
She had a bead on one of the other two greens, but held her arm cocked. Perhaps she could save a shot?
Surely enough, both dwagons went up in similar clouds of green and black, as her eager Knights scored brilliant slash and stab hits. She had never seen them fight quite like this. Titans, had any of them missed?
The reds were rearing and sniffing to prepare a breath attack. Artemis took aim at one, and placed an shot through its nostril. The arrow disappeared entirely into the dwagon's head. Its eyes became Os, then Xs, then boom. There was her crit, disband it!
Before that red had fully exploded into a dusty fireball, the other two opened a storm of flame down upon the Jetstone attackers. Artemis felt the searing heat, and shielded her face with her arm, but she was screened from any actual damage. Her Knights accounted for more than the maximum number of targets for two reds, but had she not felled the third, she would have been scorched. The fire bloomed before her, engulfing her brave units. Their screams were muffled by the roar of flame, but they seemed more defiant than agonized.
Into the still-smoking wounded charged the Hobgobwin Heavy Knight, a unit she had never seen and rarely heard of. Even unled, something like that was a formidable threat. While Artemis' eyes were still clearing from the fire, the Hobgobwin singled out the two most heavily wounded, Proplan and Iams, and croaked them both with a swift double-stroke of its broadsword. Now they were eleven.
No orders were needed now. Artemis withdrew another arrow as her burned and scarred Knights tore into the remaining three enemy units at will. If their luck continued, she dared hope they might win the engagement without taking more damage.
Then suddenly Innova fell, by enemy arrow to the chest. Now they were ten. Artemis glanced at his body, lying on the paving stones among the boots of his comrades. It looked to be an expert shot, by a very skilled or perhaps well-led (or just lucky) archer. She looked around, but could spot no-one.
Well, two could play at the sport of popinjay. Archery worked independently of engagement, after all. She readied the arrow and returned to her original objective. It might be unusual to pick a target outside the stack one was engaged against, but she could take a shot at any target within range.
If she got another crit, they might all yet live to see another turn.
The redhead's attention seemed divided. It looked as if she didn't want to look away from the skirmish, but also would not tolerate a delay on the next siege volley. Artemis kept an eye to her, waited until she was glancing away to give an order, then quickly struck a clout archer's pose. It wouldn't be her most careful shot, but it did feel very good as she loosed it high. Maybe...
Wood splinters tumbled.
An incoming arrow, aimed at Artemis (and certain to hit her), had collided with her own arrow in midair.
Too furious to be amazed at the sheer Luckamancy of it, she mentally traced the arc of the enemy arrow and spotted the source, at last. (To her left, one of the red dwagons exploded. Artemis barely noticed.) There, behind the redhead and stacked with her, hunkered behind the tail of a purple, was a dismounted Gobwin Knob warlord with a bow.
She glanced back to her fighters. The Hobgobwin and the other dwagon had taken massive damage, but were still fighting. Fire came down again, and then they were nine. The Hobgobwin, nearly hacked to bits, still swung. They were eight...
But winning the engagement from that point was almost an afterthought. The Hobgobwin went down in a brier bush of bright steel, and Eukanuba leveled with a swipe that dusted the dwagon.
Artemis wasted no further time. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and used it to stab the air in the direction of the redhead's stack. "Go!" she tried to shout. But she swallowed instead. The order was clear enough, anyway.
Her Knights, several of them badly wounded and charred, still covered the twenty-five paces of ground as if launched from Artemis' bow. They lost another on the way. That daemon of a warlord dropped Merrick with a crit to the throat, just as Beneful engaged the first purple.
They were seven. But now she had the redhead's full attention, and the initiative as well! Despite having just ordered her mount to inhale for a blast at the tower, the enemy Warlord turned her dwagons to the melee. The archer Warlord was somewhere out of sight. Artemis readied her arrow, allowing her Knights to choose how they would screen her shot. And how they would meet the Titans.
The first purple blew to dust with a horrible deep sound that she felt in her kneecaps. She had her shot, but the redhead was staring at her with smiling eyes, absent of any fear. Those eyes said, "I know something you don't know."
Suddenly, Artemis looked around in a panic, and lost the shot. Where was the archer Warlord? Where was he? The purples tore into her Knights now. Clawing, biting off limbs. Two of them grabbed Max and ripped him in half. Acana fell as well.
A tail moved. And there behind it, crouched to the ground, the warlord with the bow was taking aim on her. But...somehow...there was an arrow in the air between them?
The enemy Warlord jerked, loosing a wild shot. He fell to his back, a white-feathered arrow in his shoulder, and lay still.
She didn't understand who could have shot that arrow. In her mind, she traced its flight backwards. Someone behind her? No...that wasn't right. She looked down.
Her bow was empty. She had shot it herself.
Lips together, she silently drew another arrow, as her last five Knights rushed to spend their lives to allow her to use it.
Sylvia understood what the blond Warlord was thinking, what she was trying. As funny as this game was in many ways, inside her there was a former Royal who had been there. She wasn't completely without sympathy for her opposing number. They were sisters, in a way. Or would be. She looked forward to serving beside this one soon.
But Princess Cupcake there had still cost her a stack of dwagons and a precious purple. They couldn't keep trading high-value units like this. when Captain Archer was hit, she knew it was time to end the game.
She glanced back down at him, looking at his points. Archer was doing something very smart, playing at being incapacitated. If Fate decided to let this woman cut Sylvia's thread, Archer could pop up and take her, then get back to business.
Unlikely though! Not after the dwagonfall. Not today, not today. Her grin returned.
She pointed two unmounted purples at the Jetstone Warlord, but a wounded Jetstone Knight moved to meet each of them. Knights were already occupying the other two mounted ones, and a Valkyrie-class Knight with a horned helm was fighting Sylvia's own mount. Soloing a dwagon, they would all go down quickly, but the blond would get a close-range shot.
She was taking aim now, in fact.
Sylvia raised an eyebrow, looking down the shaft to meet her enemy's eye. Maybe today?
She kicked her mount. "Breathe!"
A sonic blast wave hit the stone at the Valkyrie's feet, churning up the ground and completely blowing the enemy unit to pieces. At the same moment, the Jetstone warlord loosed her arrow.
Silently and slowly, in the deafened moment of the blast, the Warlady's arrow struck the flying helmet of her fallen comrade in mid-air, and deflected away.
The helm clattered to the broken ground.
They looked at one another, unmoving, as one by one the other fighters fell to sword and claw and jaw.
The silence that followed was so complete that Sylvia could not be sure her hearing had returned. Then the Jetstone woman clearly asked, "Why?"
Behind her, Sylvia heard the twang of a bowstring.
"Is it Glorious, Titans?" asked the Warlord, breaking her focus on Sylvia and looking into the infinite distance. Her voice was like wind blowing through a ruin. "Is there Glory in just walking to the slaughterhouse after all?"
From a position flat on his back, Captain Archer had just launched an arrow high overhead, flying nearly straight up. As it fell to back to Erf, its intended target looked up to the heavens with questions only the Titans could answer.
Then the arrow sent her off to ask them.
Sylvia looked around the Atrium, wondering why she no longer felt like laughing. The other two riders said nothing. Captain Archer arose, and stood beside her. An arrowhead was still lodged in his shoulder, but he had broken off the shaft.
"I could have done that blindfolded," he said. "That shot was meant to find her."
Sylvia nodded. "Fate is fate."
"We've got some stray flame," he said, indicating a spot where the fallen reds' breath had ignited part of the Garrison ornamentation.
Sylvia looked at the fire wistfully.
"Barely a candle," she said. "Take some pinks. Go blow it out."