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 Post subject: Shadows of the Evergreen
 Post Posted: Mon Feb 17, 2014 2:54 am 
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All the sides near the great Evergreen Forest considered the area to be a Bubble Kingdom. Personally, Warlord Grey Shades hated the term. He preferred the term "Croak Trap." His side of Everclear had spent the hundred turns since the conclusion of the Everlong War to leave that impression on all the surrounding sides, at least. It took a while for some sides to realize that if they sent units into the forest, they only emerged on Everclear's terms, but after all the adjacent sides learned this as a fact, Everclear began to see many a peaceful turn. Which was the reason why King Shindig had standing orders for all Warlords to train their units with their full diligence, because peace was the one thing that was always in short supply for Erf.

"Welcome to Everglade," said Warlord Grey Shades, as he walked along the two ranks of ten scouts in front of him. Grey was neither very tall, nor impressively framed for a unit that had once held the station of Chief Warlord. Indeed, if anything he looked only slightly more sturdy than your average stabber, maybe as strong as an unpromoted knight. But his Signamancy gave him the air of a unit you would not want to engage with. The sharp green of his eyes gave the feeling of piercing through a unit to see into and though them, and the stubble of his face showed he cared more for results than looks or manners. Not the kind of Warlord anyone would approach half-heartedly unless they knew they would receive a warm welcome, and as he strode before the newly popped units in his mail backed hardened leathers and drab billowing cape, the scouts were sure there was no warmth in him today.

"It's been a while since an entire dispatch of scouts has arrived in Everglade without losing a unit, but don't go thinking that impresses me," lied Grey as he watched every unit in the ranks follow his movement with their eyeballs. A breech of discipline in any other unit, but promising in a scout. "As far as I'm concerned, none of you truly understand anything about the world. But that is why you are here, to learn. I and a few others here will be teaching you what you will need to know in order to serve our side, and keep our borders secure. We have no Lookamancer to watch our lands. We have no Thinkamancer to maintain our lines of communication. We have no Florists to delay charges. And we don't need any of them. The scouts of Everclear are the first and most important line of defense for our side, which is why you are all here, in the most hostile and unforgiving terrain the Evergreen can offer. Only those who flourish here will become true Everclear scouts, and join the ranks of the Farstriders."

Warlord Shades couldn't help but say the name of the Farstriders with pride, and for good reason. The distinction was created during the Everlong War against Everglade and the Hickson tribe. The war lasted longer than any unit can remember without checking a library, and the brutality of the fighting was still a cautionary tale told amongst the barracks. A war between two Forest capable sides in a Heavy Forest with no roads of any kind, it couldn't help but be brutal. The entire war was an uninterrupted series of Search and Destroy missions, only Luck or Fate keeping you from stumbling into a stack larger than your own. And the larger battles reduced entire hexes to Ash terrain. Warlord Shades had been among the first units to receive the Farstrider distinction, and the responsibility of searching, seizing, sapping, and slaying any vulnerable enemy resources. It's not a stretch to say that without the Farstriders, Everclear would never have won the war.

"Any unit that does not flourish here," continued Grey, "will croak trying. No one leaves our classes as anything but a success or a corpse! You will be taught how to survive in hostile hexes. You will be taught to remain undetected by enemy units from any distance. You will be taught how to reconnoiter an enemy force. And you will be taught the Everclear way of fighting. Only after learning all of these lessons will you be able to begin fulfilling your Duty to your side. Do I make myself clear!?"

Not a sound could be heard from any of the new scouts, they just nodded slightly. Another good sign.

"Good. Now, your first lesson-"

Warlord Shades' thought process stopped dead in it's tracks, skipped a beat, and then dove onto a new bearing just quick enough to avoid being detected by the new units.

"-Will be taught to you by Warlady Brittney," said Shades, indicating a blond Warlady from the Hickson tribe that was promoted up from a Piker and who was standing attentively nearby. "She will teach you about the local wildlife. Your quartering will come after."

This was not the plan for the day, as her purpose there was originally just to see to quarters and vittling, but Brittney was just bright enough to adapt to her orders. Stepping forward in her green and grey trimmed Everclear colored armor, with a pair of Hickson shorts underneath, she began her unprepared speech. "Well, like, the first thing you should watch out for in the marshes are the Haters. They're big foul-tempered beasts with enormous mouths that'll tear into anyone that grabs their attention. And once you get one of them on your case, it's real hard to get 'em off. Best way to deal with a Hater in your way is to lead it to another Hater, cause they're really territorial, ya see, and they'll start tearing into each other..."

Grey had turned on his heel and started walking out of the spacious courtyard of the level 4 Everglade before Warlady Brittney had even begun her lesson. Grey continued to stride quickly past the wood paneled buildings that made up it's construction. The city was far messier than a city belonging to a side with a Signamancer should ever look, but the Marsh Capable units the city popped found this setting to be the most relaxing. The defenses didn't suffer for the rough materials used for the empty buildings. The walls were solid, the tower tall, the garrison tough, and the terrain lent itself to natural Dirtamancy traps, so Everglade was left as it was after being conquered - though all the living Hicksons at the time were put to the sword. The fact that Everglade was uncomfortable and dangerous to outsiders was why it was a perfect city to use for the training of Farstriders. And even if it wasn't, the Hickson tribe was indispensable to the security of the south and south east perimeter of the Evergreen forest, where marshes predominated the terrain. An invading force would have to cross the marshes in light watercraft to have any hope of attacking with minimal losses, and the Hickson tribe were masters of light watercraft combat. Add to that the stacks and stacks of hard rock golems patrolling along the bottom of those shallow water lanes with boat hooks, harpoons, and halberds to destroy watercraft from below, and you had a path into the forest that had yet to be breached by outsiders.

But Grey couldn't stay there any longer, not even to give the new scouts their first lesson, "How Not To Be Seen." He'd received orders from the King.

Warlord Shades paced quickly and silently through the city, so absorbed in the possible contexts of his orders that he didn't even bother to look at his surroundings. That's why he was actually surprised when he heard his name shouted while crossing in front of the tower of this former capitol site.

"Grey!" shouted an overweight man from the Warlord's blind spot.

Turning to look, Grey saw the Warlord charged with overseeing the city. A stocky man with a horseshoe bald spot, a beard growing only under the jawline, and a stained white undershirt exposed through the opening of a red and blue patterned over shirt made from a material the Hickson tribe called "flannel." A ridiculous type of garment in Grey's opinion, but the Hicksons loved it as much as they did their short cut pants. Warlord Shades returned the wave from the man and called out, "Boudreau!"

The stocky governor hurried up to Grey, his belly and neck waddle bouncing as he did so, asking what the hurry was about. Despite the urgency of his orders, Boudreau was not a man to be brushed aside. He'd led four minor campaigns to repel attempted invasions through the Evergreen marshes, the latest being Stopgap's attempt to take Everlast on the eastern fringe of the kingdom, which he fought off with his current Signamancy. He was a Warlord worthy of respect and his current position. But Duty was Duty. "I'll tell you Boudreau, but you'll have to walk with me."

Even with Grey's slightly longer legs, Boudreau had no trouble keeping up, and so with a steady voice he asked the question, "So where ya off ta', Grey?"

"I'm heading to the Aviary, right now. I've been summoned to court."

"HA! Good fer yew! Maybbe you'll be able to get a banquet under yer belt! Live it up whil' ya can, son!" cried Boudreau, despite the fact that Grey was older than him.

Turning into the Aviary where the flight capable mounts for Everclear were kept, Grey shook his head a little and said, "Somehow I don't think I'll have a chance to enjoy myself on this trip, Boudreau." Grey stopped by a nest prepared for a Bluebird, though it was actually colored a bright yellow. The fowl, seeing that it would be ridden this turn, gave a very depressed sigh and stood up. Grey used this time to turn to Boudreau and said, "It's an emergency summons. It seems like something very bad is going down."

Grey mounted the Bluebird in one swift motion, which released a resigned moan in response, and was preparing for take off when Boudreau said, "How do you know? That it's something bad?"

Grey Shades flipped the hood of his cloak over his head to prepare for travel, which cast a shadow over his eyes. Grey turned to Boudreau and said flatly, "Is a court summons ever a good thing?"

And from the branches of a nearby tree, a wild Who Owl screeched.


Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

Last edited by BakaGrappler on Thu Oct 16, 2014 11:09 pm, edited 8 times in total.
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     Post Posted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 10:29 pm 
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    It had been the most unusual movement for Warlord Shades in all his hundred turns. He had ridden his Bluebird out of Everglade, but the flight route he'd been ordered to take didn't have him go directly northwest towards Everclear, the true capital of the side. He'd been instructed to take a more circular move further north, closer, but not into, Wherever. There, in the air over the trees, had been another Bluebird waiting for him out of Wherever, this one a light green. His orders had him change mounts and fly due west, until he'd found another mount, and repeated the mount change. A trip that would have taken four turns via high level Bluebird was completed in only one, but a total of six high level Bluebirds from four cities had been required, and the ones without the movement to get back to a city were left behind, vulnerable and unprotected. It was the fastest Grey Shades had ever traveled, but as a Warlord, potentially squandering those military assets felt... wrong somehow. The entire journey, Grey had been pondering the implication of the pluses and minuses of such a means of travel. The limited numbers such a method could afford to transit, the potentially lost units through ambush or natural predators, the upkeep costs for mounts being away from stables...

    But every thought in Grey's mind stopped dead as the city of Everclear began to crest the forest canopy. On approach, Grey could only watch the structure of the city coming into view. The capital's main tower rose first, the spire gleaming from the white marble and light grey slate roof shingles, rising so high and thin that one might think it could break off in a storm. And from that needle like tip, came a flight of stairs revolving around and around the tower, the tower growing thicker and sturdier at every landing in that endless flight of stairs. Various rooms and chambers were in active use, not a one was left for pure decoration, but they were all magnificently built and maintained, even the high level roosts for the air forces. And from the larger of these chambers came other smaller spires. There were nearly ten spires in all coming from the intricately simple spiral structure of the main tower, and Grey had been assured that each one was capable of firing off spell defenses, though in a more limited quantity than the main spire, and could act as a vantage point for archers.

    Closer to the base, on the fourth through sixth floors of the tower were spaces large enough for artillery emplacements with catapults installed there. The munitions for them were not visible however, kept inside holds in the tower itself that were covered by removable tiles so as to not interfere with normal foot transit. There were also gapless railings along all the sweeping edges for archery units to form up behind, going all the way to the top for additional range to their attacks. But the most beautiful feature was the flowing water.

    Using some method far beyond his understanding, there was a large natural fountain contained in the very top spire of the tower, and the excess water from that fountain flowed out into a series of channels to make a series of flows, falls, and rivulets spider-webbing down the length of the tower, with more and more fountains adding to the quantity of water so that the building itself looked like a terrain feature formed by the Titans instead of the work of a Signamancer's hands. The beauty of such a sight was undeniable, but the utilitarian practice was to have readily available water for every unit, no mater their placement, for quenching thirst or for fighting fire attacks. There were also methods for flooding individual pathways in the case of a fighting retreat up the length of the tower itself to slow enemies and sap their combat bonuses. Either way, the tower had long served as a place for units to have trysts during the night when the requirements of Duty were far less pressing.

    The rest of the level 5 city was less impressive, but only just. The same sweeping, rounded, outspreading, water abundance which made the tower such a joy to behold. Tall buildings with domed roofs and openings for flying units were spread around the town, with an uncountable number of fruit trees along all the walkways, in the parks, training areas, sluice canals, and even next to the latrines. The entire city was filled with the smell of flowering, budding, or ripe fruit trees and clean, clear water. In fact, the site was named for the ever clear water, and the way in which the city reflected off the surface of the gently flowing, giant river, as it was doing right at this moment as Grey looked upon it. In this moment, Grey recalled the words that their Chief Signamancer had said while looking at the city from afar after it had finally been "completed."

    "It really is like looking at a slow motion daydream," agreed Grey in a whisper to himself.

    And then the explosion occurred.

    With an echoing boom, a tongue of fire expanded out of the natural cave on the far side of the hex on the eastern bank of the river. The feral Doombats that lived there came out screeching in anger and alarm, and proceeded to flap around in circles, lost in the mid afternoon sun. It looked like Alfred was in the cave again, working on his experiments. Well, that's Caster business.

    With his mind returned to his approach, Grey gave himself the luxury of a full circuit of Everclear, flying first over the western bridge leading out of the city, the West Bridge, and then over the eastern one, the Adam Bridge, skirting the slowly dissipating cloud of Doombats. During his approach flight, Grey looked over the wall of the city. Great, curved, right against the water, and thick as a Warlord could ever wish. Which meant that without an impractically large naval force navigating an inland river the only practical approaches were the Adam and West bridges. With their thick, wide, and sturdy construction, the bridges could certainly hold a siege laden invasion force, which was why Everclear had means to collapse them at will via Shockamancy. Any invaders would have to construct their own bridge, under fire from catapults and archers from the walls and tower, and then face the flood traps built into the thick gatehouses in addition to the ranged units fire. Which left the final option of an air assault against the multi-point Shockamancy enchanted spell defenses while fighting the airborne Knights.

    Warlord Grey Shades felt a swelling of pride at the reconfirmed sight of these defenses, which made Everclear one of the hardest and hardiest defensive positions in the world. A level seven or eight by proxy, and a place where he always felt a comforting sense of coming home whenever he entered it. At least until he got into the presence of the nobility.

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

    Last edited by BakaGrappler on Sat Oct 25, 2014 7:36 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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    The final approach to the main aviary of Everclear was quick, uneventful, and completely unremarkable for the garrison of the capital. But even so, there was already a security team entering the building when Grey was just dismounting his Bluebird, and handing it's care over to a Stuffed Shirt. An incredibly simple cloth golem used for the large amount of labor the capital required to stay so pristine, and for a far cheaper upkeep than having dedicated servant class courtiers doing it. The Stuffed Shirts were useless for combat purposes, but it kept the real combat units at training rather than mucking the stalls. As the polka-dotted humanoid shaped Stuffed Shirt led the jet black Bluebird away, Grey was approached by the welcoming party consisting of four Stabbers, and four Eager Elves, of whom one was the dirty blond haired Chief of the tribe, and charged with the security of the capital.

    "Brink! Nice to see you again," exclaimed Grey as he reached out to grab the red garbed Elf Chief's forearm in a friendly greeting. Friendly due to the two of them having known each other for a while. Eager Elf Chiefs tend to croak quickly compared to other natural ally tribes due to their drive to be in the thickest of battle, and Brink is about the thirtieth Chief since the tribe allied with Everclear. Far more competent and reliable than the last one, Stink. But Brink had held the Chieftain post for several hundred turns, which was quite possibly an Erf record.

    "Grey, welcome back," replied the elf, returning the grip and shaking. "How long are you going to be with us this time? Do we need to see about vittling right away?"

    "Honestly, I don't know. My orders only have me rushing on site," said Grey, walking out of the exit on the first level of the long aviary's structure with Brink and his stack following as an escort.

    Brink immediately turned his head to one of the other Eager Elves and nodded upwards slightly, and the unit broke stack and rushed off. A subliminal order to take care of vittling just in case, no doubt. Brink had always been serious in his watch dog role, which just made him all the more valuable as a natural ally. Brink then turned back to Grey, and said, "To the tower it is then. Is it an audience with the king, or the Chief Warlord? Both maybe?"

    "Dunno, Brink. Order was just the travel path and court summons. No specifics."

    At this point the group walked under an apple tree with ripe fruit hanging from the branches. Though the fruit would pop in the larder in another turn, there was a fruit grabber, a metal netted do-dad on a wooden pole, sitting at the foot of every tree's trunk, including this one. Grey paid it no mind and just threw one of his daggers up as he passed underneath, striking a large red apple dead center with enough force to break it off the stem and fly up in a tight arc before coming back down into Grey's hands. Grey was one of the few units popped that had the Throwing special, and he greatly enjoyed using it in an utilitarian manner and not just for combat "It seems to me you'd be in a position to know more about what's happening than I would, Brink. You want some'a this?"

    "I'll take half, yeah. As for what's happening, I have no idea, but the royal family seem worried about something."

    Grey twisted the knife in the apple, bisected it, and gave a half to Brink before taking a bite of his own. The stack, now including Grey, walked on in silence as the ones who were allowed to speak chewed their fruit. The silence only lasted for two bites though, interrupted as the stack passed by the archery range, where the garrison archers practiced in competition against the Shady Elf tribe that were Everclear's second, and last, natural allies.

    "Why, Grey Shades. I thought that was you I saw on that Bluebird."

    The voice was low, feminine, and somehow managed to sound bored and enticing at the same time. The voice was also quite familiar, and caused Grey's bite of apple to go down in a harder lump than it should have when he swallowed it. The apple forced Grey to clear his throat before replying, giving a note of vulnerability to his reply that the other party did not miss.

    "Oh, Lydia, it's nice to see you again."

    She stood a full head shorter than Grey, with hair darker than black bundled into a stylized mess on the back of her head with half hanging down her neck in wavy bunches. The high cheekbones and deep brown eyes somehow caused her to look cute and pretty at the same time as she looked Grey in the eye through her long eyelashes. And as the Chief of the Shady Elf tribe, her clothing only added to her presence. Lydia wore a baggy black sweater dress with loose cuffs around the hands, but the leather armor around her body highlighted her figure and the thick slanted black on red spiderweb patterned belt highlighted her hip line. The sweater dress showed a lot of thigh for ease of movement, and black transparent tights stretched over what wasn't covered by the long black leather boots. And somehow, the various tiny skull decorations about her failed to make her look dangerous, but only added to the over all blending of cute and pretty. But her bodily mannerisms showed her to be both a quiet and unassumingly confident unit, as well she should be, considering the fact that Lydia Doe-Ryder's the longest living Shady Elf in Everclear, and another survivor of the Everlong War.

    "Hmm. I believe you," said Lydia as she closed the distance between them, ignoring the rest of the stack Grey was in. "How long are you in the capital for this time? It's really been too long since we've had a chance to... catch up."

    The slight lift of the eyebrow missed no one's attention, and as innuendo it certainly hit the mark. Grey and Lydia had been with one another on many an Order over the hundred turns, and had been close with one another nearly from the start. A casual kind of closeness, though, never really crossing from convenience into serious territory. Grey felt his role with her constantly crossed back and forth between being a friend with benefits, to being a plaything for her amusement. But since Lydia was never nasty with their relationship, Grey was perfectly okay with playing his part all this time.

    "I, uh, don't rightly know yet, Lydia. I'll make sure to let you know when I do, Duty allowing."

    "Make sure you do, Grey," said Lydia, as she reached over to pluck the half apple from Grey's left hand, and took a very slow and modest bite right over Grey's own bite mark. Lydia then returned the apple to Grey's petrified hand, purred a "Delicious" and slowly sauntered her way back to her girls to once again oversee the capital's combined training.

    After some time, Brink finally cleared his throat bringing Grey's mind back down to Erf.

    "Oh, yeah, uh- what were we doing?"

    "Walking," said Brink quietly, self amused.

    "Right, let's get back to it then."

    It was another hundred paces before Grey remembered he had an apple in his hand that needed to be eaten.

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

    Last edited by BakaGrappler on Sat Oct 25, 2014 10:25 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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     Post Posted: Sun Mar 09, 2014 4:54 am 
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    The rest of the walk to the tower was uneventful. Everclear had many open spaces covered with grass that doubled as training fields and as recreation areas. The Chief Signamancer once called them "parks," Grey believed. And throughout most of them the side's units were practicing, often against each other to simulate real life combat, but using safer padded weapons that would sound with a boff every time a unit was struck. But in the park just before the courtyard some units were exercising the side's heavies, the Were-Woofs, by throwing branches or balls a far distance and having the heavy units retrieve them in a repeated pattern that only ended when the Woofs grew bored of the activity. In fact one of the Woofs approached Grey near the gates. Pure white fur with a black circular blotch over one eye, named Patches, Grey thought. Even though the bipedal unit was larger than him it's eyes seemed vulnerable and begging.

    With a sigh, Grey tossed his apple core over a shoulder, where it disappeared in mid air, and held his hand out to receive the red ball in Patches' mouth. Taking it into his hand, it was more slimy than he'd expected, but Grey still threw it hard and long, and the big hairy Woof took off running after it, bounce after bounce.

    "Ugh," uttered Brink in disgust as Grey shook a gobbit of slime from his hand. Grey was pretty much in agreement and washed his hands off at a fountain spout close to the garrison's main gate before entering. Inside was an open air courtyard, large enough to house a small army, luxuriating in the open space with turreted hard points growing almost organically from the walls at every fifty paces on the wall top. And in the center of the parade ground stood a great fountain with an ornate base with carvings showing the Battle for Everest, the pinnacle of the violence and turning point of the Everlong War, the battle where Everclear's Healamancer Mother Wrappings was croaked while preserving the command stack until the Knighthood could annihilate the Hickson's left flank and come to the relief of the center. Grey could see the image of the Caster, and the units surrounding her, covered nearly from head to toe in her Magic Item bandages. Losing her had been a great blow, but the Hicksons had lost their Dirtamancer in that battle, which cost them the war.

    And the central pillar of the fountain showed mounted Bluebirds flying up its base, or sitting resting on a crawling mass of thorny rose vines, the same as the emblem which sat on Everclear's livery; a few blooming roses that sat on a grey tangle of thorn covered vines, all on a field of green. An emblem of something beautiful, but also deceptively dangerous. And at the top, is a great flowering rose, in gilt gold, as water poured over the sides in a steady stream.

    Grey reflected quietly about how the entire city was like this while rounding the fountain and walking toward the tower's main entrance. How the capital was filled with tiny pieces of masterful artistry, each one a tiny part of a larger whole of interwoven imagination given form, because once the Chief Signamancer had finished sculpting the form and layout of the capital itself, he'd turned his spare time to reworking all the tiny parts he could manage. He was probably still working on half a dozen projects around the city, even now.

    "YO! Grey!"

    Well, not right now, because the Chief Signamancer was the one who just skip strode down the stairs from the gated garrison entrance, calling out. Instead of replying right then, Grey approached the Chief Signamancer until he was within a respectable distance and said politely, "It is very good to see you again, Chief Signamancer." More for Brink's sake than for the Chief Caster's, since the fairly stiff Brink minded these things.

    Chief Signamancer Artakis however, did not. You only needed to take one look at him to see that he wasn't much one for authority, even his own. His hair was toned bright blond through Signamancy, he wore short sleeved shirts and loose fitting trousers of a sturdy blue twilled cotton. And on his arms was a type of permanent Signamancy that Artakis called "ink," forming images that either stood alone or wove in and out of each other to form a collage on the backdrop of a living unit's form. A Signamancy that Artakis changed on a regular basis. Artakis was a very relaxed unit, but one of vision, drive, and unusual passions. Grey still remembered the turn he'd been introduced to the Chief Signamancer, as he'd introduced himself in a voice that held both pride and rebellious spirit with the words, "I am Artakis," before following up with a mellow, "but call me Art."

    "Oh, yeah," said Art, remembering they were in front of others. "You're dismissed to... do whatever. Come with me, Grey."

    Art quickly led Grey into the tower and towards the ascending stairway. Nothing was in the tower's dungeon other than Woof kennels, prison cells, storage, and cellars for larder usage. The portal for the Magic Kingdom was also down there, but the Casters were the only units it mattered to. But going up the tower did nothing to narrow down the myriad questions of why he was summoned to the capital. So he asked his questions.

    "Say, Art, why was I ordered here? Are you the one I'm suppose to see?"

    "Huh? Oh, no, Shindig and the Princess both wanna see you. But they're still in a meeting with Dame Montoya and Bookkeeper Dewey about- well, whatever, I tuned out Dewey pretty quick. Shindig asked me to keep you entertained until he was free. Shindig wants to talk about what's happening himself."

    "And what's happening?"

    "That's fer Shindig to tell you, Grey," said Art playfully.

    "Oh," said Grey a little disappointed. But this was a good opportunity for the second most pressing question on Grey's mind, now that Duty was put on hold. "So, uh... Could you do something about my, -uh, ink?"

    "With your what?"

    "My ink. The ink you gave me. Last time I was here, after the feast."

    "Oh, yeah!" Art laughed to himself a bit. "You got pretty wasted that night."

    Grey turned a shade red in embarrassment. It's true he'd gotten completely plastered, but then again Everclear's specially brewed alcohol bearing the side's name was incredibly potent, despite being as clear as water. "Yeah, yeah I did. But, uh, that's not what- Look, do you remember giving me some ink that night?"

    "Oh, yeah. You were pretty serious about getting inked up. Real specific on the design, too. Can barely remember what it was, though, I was pretty well sloshed myself. Why?"

    "Well, I was kinda wondering if you could... uh... remove it?"

    Art stopped dead, the light of the wide open windows beaming across his face as he turned with a shocked expression, and asked, "You don't like my work?"

    "Oh, no, no, no! The thorn band on my arm is great! No, no... I just... well, I don't think I really knew what I was asking you to put on my chest that night. Seeing as how I was drunk and-"

    Art's laughter broke Grey's train of thought in half, leaving him standing there speechless until Art had collected himself again. "Titans, you're an easy mark, Grey. I've been expecting this question since I put that ink on ya. Just bad luck you were ordered out of town the next morning before you sobered up right and remembered it."

    Art then quickly turned a corner and into his very well lit living quarters, which doubled as a studio. Stepping inside the large one room studio apartment, Grey picked up where the conversation had left off.

    "Wait, you remember the- why did you even give it to me if you knew I wouldn't like it!"

    "Like I said, you were pretty forceful about getting that ink. Not my call to say what art people should put on their bodies, I just give it to 'em. And the answer is no, I can't remove it, not this turn at least."

    Crestfallen, Grey asked, "Why not?"

    Art snatched a round contained and threw it side handed at Grey, who caught it in mid air. "Cause I used my juice to make you some more make up. Thought you might be running low."

    Grey was grateful, it's useful makeup, indispensable to the side. But he was really hoping to get his ink removed. He'll have to take a rain check on "catching up" with Lydia until it was gone or he'd never live it down.

    "That, and I was finishing up a commission all morning. Took most of my juice to get just right."

    With that, Art cocked a thumb at the easel on the far side of the room and walked over to it. Grey naturally followed. There was a finished painting on the easel, as tall as a unit and then some made out of some kind of black fabric as a background. On it was a Titan in all his glory, on a stage apparently, perhaps singing some Rhyme-A-Mancy, and his arm was around the shoulders of someone he didn't recognize. A warlord definitely, perhaps a noble from the bearing and dress, but a stranger. And down the Titan's face were streaming tears. Grey tilted his head trying to understand the picture, but no matter what thoughts he tried to connect it all just came to the same end. Complete garbage. And his face showed that thought.

    "I know, right," said Art, not as a question. "Completely tasteless. But the King of Kitsch had his Moneymancer commission me to make it, to honor his croaked son Nicknack, that's him the Titan is crying for. The entire thing is crap, but they paid five thousand Shmuckers up front, the rest on delivery, so who am I to argue. In fact, it was then I'd heard about the relay system. What did you think of it?"

    Five thousand up front? That's a lot of upkeep. Art was pretty good about supporting the Side through his craft like- wait, relay?

    "That was you? The Bluebird mount switching was you?"

    "Naaaaaw, I'd only heard about that in the Magic Kingdom. Apparently some side way to the west started doing that and the Mathamancers and Moneymancers have been arguing about cost and logistics of the thing. And when Shindig said he needed you here quick, I thought, hey, why not give it a try! So, what did you think?"

    "Well... it was useful. But only for small numbers. But if King Shindig agreed to test it today... then is what's happening bad enough to warrant it?"

    "Oh, Grey," said Art, turning serious. "It's worth the relay and more. I'm not sure where we stand exactly, but I can tell you this. The Side is in trouble."

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

    Last edited by BakaGrappler on Wed Aug 13, 2014 9:47 am, edited 2 times in total.
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    Art refused to talk about the state of the Side, no matter how Grey pressed him, claiming it was on orders to keep things quiet. Which meant they were left with small talk. After Art had mixed a couple drinks from the Everclear brand alcohol and a syrup made from reduced fruit juice, with a distinct impact of pomegranate on the tongue, Grey asked about the Side's Shockamancer.

    "Say, what's Alfred up to these turns? I saw the blast from the Doombat Cave on my way in."

    Lord Alfred of Winchester was a prized Noble Caster, a very serious unit that always wore a three piece suit. He was one of the sons of a side far to the east and had a strange accent where he put emphasis on consonants in a somewhat forceful manner. He'd nearly been disbanded when his experiments in Shockamancy killed the Side's Heir, his brother, and a few other high level units. Instead, Art was able to make a trade for him for two hundred turns of Signamancy service, not all at once, with a few caveats for his own personal safety. That's how little Alfred's home side had thought of him, trading him away for services instead of for units or Shmuckers. Everclear however gave him appropriate space and testing material for him to work with. The results of his experiments were another reason why the nearby Sides didn't like picking a fight with Everclear.

    "Oh, something about chained explosions, seeing if the timing of the detonations can cause more damage with less juice. He's working on half a dozen prisoners to test the effects of different timings."

    The Side's Shockamancer often used prisoners that other sides had declined to ransom as test subjects. Alfred's research was worth more than boosting a Warlord's experience points with an execution. Most prisoners came from the Trap Hexes that the side's Dirtamancer set up, catching survivors of expedition parties who had been caught in the non-lethal traps instead of crushed, maimed, impaled, or swallowed by the more numerous lethal ones. A trickle of prisoners, but somewhat constant, since the nearby sides liked to probe the Everclear for possible weaknesses with more expendable units. Everclear was not on friendly terms with anyone, but treated as more of a necessary evil since Everclear fighting units rarely ever left the forest.

    "Heh. The poor guys," said Grey with detached and theoretic sympathy while taking a sip of his drink. Very little, very theoretic sympathy. Grey had never been captured himself, but he was under no illusion that it was thanks to his skills alone. The gear given to a Farstrider on acceptance was an enormous help to their Duty.

    Then Grey and Art both looked up at the ceiling at the same time. Orders had just come down summoning them to the Battle Room.

    Art instantly put his drink down and stood up, making for the door. Grey downed the rest of his drink in one go, screwed his face against the burn in his gullet, and put his glass down as he stood as well. And with a second to think about it, while Art's back was to him, Grey drank the rest of Art's drink as well. He'd have never done that if Art had been watching, though, because even though Art is a relaxed guy, he's still a Noble popped unit and minds that sort of... common vulgarity.

    But Grey needed a bit of liquid courage.

    Art looked back at Grey during the long climb up a spiraling staircase on the inside of the garrison until the boundary into the tower was crossed, somewhat arbitrarily given the building's design, and continued to rise. But Art said nothing. Grey was glad, he'd never been a very good conversationalist, and his mind was not in a place to attempt it. It would have been painful, really. Instead, he focused on the burn of the liqueur inside his belly and the intense heat that was spreading out from it. He began to feel just a little bit lighter and carefree, even as his steps were becoming ever so slightly off rhythm and his cheeks grew slightly hotter. Hardly any of the effects had been lost when Grey and Art arrived at the landing at the top of the stairway. To go any higher in the tower, one would have to use the exterior stairs.

    Grey very nearly carried on through the door following the order he'd received to report to his King, but stopped a little awkwardly when Art knocked at the great double doors for permission to enter. Permission to enter. Grey closed his eyes and groaned inwardly as he started repeating the mantra he so often did when he was in the capitol. That mantra being the single word, "manners."

    The door soon opened, revealing a Stuffed Shirt made of blue twilled cotton, with brass colored buttons for eyes, the favored servitor of King Shindig, it was the most advanced of the Stuffed Shirts, able to speak about fifty programmed sentences and repeat messages that were meant to be relayed. The Stuffed Shirt opened to door wide and spoke in a tone that seemed unendingly bored and unimpressed, "Guests, Sir."

    "Thank you, Jeans," said Kind Shindig to his Stuffed Shirt. "Please prepare some fresh tea for the Warlord."

    With a bow that curved it's back in a way that is only possible for a unit without bones of any kind, Jeans stepped out of Grey and Art's way and exited the chamber, closing the door behind him. It. Whatever.

    The Battle Room was a massive affair, probably even among sides with a taste for opulence. The entire floor consisted of a single chamber with buttresses and highly reinforced walls, with the entry doors cut into a hexagonal central pillar aiding in the support of the entire tower above. The doors were cut out of one side of a pillar that was decorated in a mural of the capital as seen from the respective directions, including the side with the doors. The floor was tiled, hex-tiled to be specific. And colored green, darker green, blue, and all the other colors that showed a perfect map of the entirety of the Evergreen Forest, reproduced in vivid likeness thanks to the Chief Signamacer's work in recoloring the tiles according to the Farstriders exhaustive scouting of the terrain. Even the rain tiles were represented with the underlying terrain as well. What was not represented though was the city of Everclear itself and the immediate surroundings, that space being taken by the central pillar and it's mural. The thought behind it being that if an enemy ever got close enough that a map of that region was needed, having a pretty battle map was the least of the side's concerns.

    The walls of the Battle Room held large stained glass windows of the Titans, and a few of the more important battles of the Everlong War, specifically the battles of Everest and Everglade. A tiny grey cloaked figure of himself could be seen commanding the charge through the breech in Everglade's wall as siege stones and arrows filled the sky. Seeing that particular pane of glass always left Grey feeling... out of place.

    Below the stained windows were hexagonal tables with glass tops and silver framed bodies in an hourglass form. They were constructed in such a way that when the placement of figurines for strategy building was required, they could be moved to the respective tiles and have the underlying terrain visible through them. After all, it would not do to place unit figures on the floor, and this allowed the king to keep abreast of any and every action taking place throughout the entirety of the side's territory, all without a need for a jumble of paper maps on a battle table. Not to say there was no battle table in the great chamber, but it served more as a surface for documents and for strategy meetings than for real planning, which is where everyone still in the Battle Room was clustered.

    Standing on one side of the hexagonal table with a green velvet surface was King Shindig. He was tall, broad shouldered, and had a face that looked like it had been chiseled from hardship with eyes as green and sharp as any Gem. His demeanor and dress was that of a warrior King, a longsword always hanging at his side, bracers on his arms, and metal plated leathers for armor. His crown was a fairly simple piece of head wear, green velvet under a reinforcement of silver forming the domed shape, with rose vines carved intricately into the metalwork. But his Signamancy was that of a warrior passing from strength into decay, as the hair at his temples was greying and the hair atop his head was thinning, and some noticeably excessive flab around the belly. But he'd held that particular Signamancy for many a hundred turn. He was a ruler who stood at the razor's edge of remaining in fighting condition and being held down by his throne, thanks in large part to his practice battles against the Knights of Montoya every night after end of turn. He was a shrewd king, who knew when to be patient and when to act, mainly by trial and failure before the establishment of Everclear, it seemed. Everclear was not his first Side after all, but was established by the grace of the Titans after King Shindig had stumbled onto the ruins of Everclear while an unfortunate barbarian. Which is also probably why he holds the particular view of the Titan's Mandate that a Royal's right to rule is valid only for as long as they are worthy of it, leaving him highly critical of himself and his decisions.

    It is also why Everclear does not try to expand beyond the Evergreen forest. King Shindig has long felt that trying to reach beyond his station, his well consolidated station, would invite potential disaster and once again leave him without a Side of his own. King Shindig was happy with what he had, but watchful that he kept it. Truly a marvelous man.

    On the king's left with an edge of the table to herself stood the Dame Montoya, Captain of the Knights of Montoya. Her real name was Maple Tapping, and she was previously a Baroness, but upon accepting the command of the Montoya Knights her noble title was forfeited to preserve the legacy of Prince Montoya, the King's first Heir and posthumous hero of the battle of Everest. To sacrifice one's previous rank to become a simple Sir or Dame of the knighthood was considered a great honor in Everclear and showed a willingness to put duty above all else. As can be imagined by her being the leader of the knighthood, Maple was rigid and straightforward, in stance as well as in personality. She stood tall for a female warlord, and surprisingly slim even in her armor. As a knight meant for field duty instead of garrison, she was clad in the same mail backed, thin metal plate covered hardened leathers that the king was wearing. The heaviest armor one can wear and still ride the Bluebirds. But as opposed to the rose vine motif that the king's armor held, Maple's armor was decorated with the shapes of five pointed leafs of various colors around the collar bone, on the pauldrons, and various other parts of her gear. She also wore her caramel brown hair in a braid inlaid with ribbons of multiple colors hanging down her brown sugar tinted neck, and on her back was her long spear, which was also decorated with ribbons of various colors braided around the haft. She gave Grey a long, even, dignified look as he approached the battle table. Perfectly balanced to say, "I don't know why you are here, but it is not my place to openly judge."

    On the king's right, also with an edge of the table to herself, stood Princess Sasha, the Heir and Chief Warlord of the side. Her plated leathers held a motif of feathers curled into the shape of elegant bluebird wings, minus the bodies and depressing faces of the beasts. She stood shorter than Dame Maple, but was actually a more imposing presence. Her body had a flexible musculature that granted dexterity, strength, and a powerful beauty at the same time. Like her father, Sasha's body existed at a precarious balance of extremes. Her personality was like that as well. Being calm and adaptable outside of combat, but becoming fully animated in the heat of battle, and fighting almost as if she were dancing through battles with a smoothness like she was gracefully sliding on ice. Framed by her light brown hair, Princess Sasha cocked her cutely rounded face a bit as she gave Grey a friendly half smile of greeting at his approach to the table, the most outspoken greeting one could politely give before King Shindig could officially recognize Grey's presence.

    Art quickly strode over the the side of the table next to Dame Maple, taking his place, and Grey stood on the side next to Princess Sasha. The side directly across from King Shindig was left vacant, granted only to those who were visiting the table to bring information or granted the rare right to stand in at a strategy meeting for the side's actions.

    Yes, a strategy meeting. King Shindig, along with his own self-critical tendencies and personal views on the rights of rulership had established a council to direct the top down strategies of the side at this Hex Table, or another one in a more comfortable corner of the garrison for longer and less battle oriented affairs. A table of six sides where every part of the side was equally represented and valued, a bit of Signamancy that Art no doubt suggested way back when. The King, to be advised. The Chief Warlord for overall strategy and deployment of the army. The Captain of the Knights to advise on the practical application of force. The Chief Signamancer for advice on all things magical. And the Captain of the Farstriders... for some reason.

    As always, Grey felt awkward and horribly overshadowed in this room, standing shoulder to shoulder with the royal family and those who give him council. All of them of noble blood, dignified, blessed by the Titans with divine rulership and gifted with leadership, insight, and excellence. And there was he. A Warlord that had been raised from a lowly scout. A unit that had no place in this room, at this table, or in the presence of anyone else in here, truth be told. He had once shared his concern about the council, his presence being it's only flaw, with Lydia. She had told him that the wisdom of a former chief warlord was nothing to ignore, but in truth, it was. He'd only been made Chief Warlord near the end of the Everlong War because he was the highest remaining Leadership unit remaining, a Level Four at the time, and his bonus was required for the final push on Everglade. He was wisely replaced with the next Heir to be popped after the consolidation of the side's military to a number proper for self-defense purposes, and never made Chief Warlord again after. Even after the following Chief Warlords croaked. Instead, the Captain of the Montoya Knights would always be the interim Chief Warlords.

    And so, in this room filled with capable units, there was Grey. Feeling tiny and insignificant as the stained glass Titans looked down on him with glares that felt like the one he'd received from Dame Maple. Glares that he agreed with entirely.

    "Welcome back, Chief Signamancer Art," said King Shindig in his deep, even, slightly melodious voice. "And Warlord Shades, I'm glad you could be here so quickly. We will have to look into the relay system further at a later date. For now though, I believe we are in need of your personal expertise."

    Grey's stomach lurched a bit, at the thought that the side actually did require excellence comparable to the others in this chamber from him at this point. "Of course, my Lord. I am here to serve."

    "We have recently had one of our cities razed by an invading side, Warlord. The defenses torn through and the garrison lost in one swift attack."

    The king paused after speaking. Feeling the weight of the silence in the air, Grey felt that he needed to say something, was expected to say something. But he didn't know enough to say anything worthwhile to his king, who seemed to be lightly brooding. "Which side was it that attacked us? How many are there?"

    "That's the problem, Warlord Shades. We don't know. Every Farstrider in the region is being croaked by something before we can get a report of this enemy." King Shindig leaned forward, his hands pressed against the table, and said gravely, "The invaders have found a way to neutralize our Farstriders, and destroy our ability to gather information. For the first time in the hundred turns since I established this side, Everclear is truly blind."

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

    Last edited by BakaGrappler on Thu Aug 14, 2014 7:14 am, edited 2 times in total.
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    Grey couldn't process what King Shindig had said. It's impossible, after all. The Farstriders were the best scouts of any side within reachable distance. They were the Side's primary source of Shmuckers outside of city income. Sides would hire Farstriders to scout military distribution and city defenses, observe battles to report tactics and losses, and even, rarely, destroy resources or units. When other sides did not hire the Farstriders as scouts, they would investigate sides under their own judgement, and then blackmail sides into moderate Shmucker payments to not sell the reports to other sides. The Farstriders were Stealth honed to the point of weaponization. They existed to be invisible. They survived by being undetectable. Any failure meant being croaked in the field, and the Farstriders had not only survived but thrived as a resource for intelligence gathering. The excellence of the Farstriders was the sole purpose of Grey's existence, keeping other sides afraid of Everclear's information network. If anyone other than his king had told him that the Farstriders were being one-sidedly eliminated, he'd have called him a liar or worse. But the fact that his king had said it made Grey's stomach turn and his blood run cold.

    "What... are our losses?" asked Grey, finally.

    King Shindig breathed in, and then out through his nose before saying, "I had Dewey write up all the relevant details of the past few turns in the report that is sitting in front of you. Please take your time and read it."

    Grey would normally feel a tinge of horror at having to do such a time consuming task in front of his betters, forcing them to wait on his action. But with slightly trembling hands, Grey could only concentrate on the words on the paper in front of him, a log of the happenings in chronological order, starting with croaked Farstriders.




    They were reliable Farstriders, and had been watching the Guilter and Floorin' boarders because of their recent military build ups. They had a cease fire contract in place after their recent fighting, but with the two sides being adjacent to the Evergreen along the northwest borders it was still a situation that needed an eye kept upon it. But whatever had happened to those three had happened fast. Glenn and Hale were croaked the same turn, one turn after Oaks. The hex coordinates for the three losses were spread far apart, too. Whatever did it was well coordinated on top of having excellent spot checks. But most of all, whatever took out his Farstriders had to have had a system for finding them in the first place. Lightning only strikes the same place if there's a lightning rod.

    The next entry was a copy of a message sent to a magic hat in the field that made up Everclear's Hat Network. Everclear had no Thinkamancer, and any properly reliable Thinkamancers were expensive and in demand, so the transit of reports and complicated orders in the field were handled with magic hats hidden in key locations in and near the borders of the Evergreen forest, and sometimes farther afield. It would be too expensive to give every Farstrider a hat, and any croaked Farstrider would not only be a large financial loss because of a lost hat, but a free hat to any potentially hostile side that croaked the Farstrider in the first place. The date on the message was two turns after Glenn and Hale were croaked, obviously delayed waiting for the Farstrider to receive it to reach the intended hat. No, two Farstriders. Their orders were to proceed as a team to the hexes where our previously lost Farstriders had been croaked in order to investigate. Their names were Kitty and Cord, seasoned Farstriders that could be trusted with just such an expedition.

    They were croaked two turns later just inside the borders of the Evergreen, on Everclear's turn. The next morning, before Everclear's turn came around, a level 2 city was taken and razed, the city of Whatever. Meh, that in itself isn't really important. Whatever was a pretty soft target even with Dirtamancy defenses added, and close to the borders of the forest, so it was little more than a source of extra foodstuffs. This wasn't the first time the city was razed, and it won't be the last, which means it's destruction was not the interesting part of the report. It was Farstrider Brook's report of the aftermath that was.

    Brook was near a hat when Shindig sent orders, and was able to get to the remains of Whatever on our turn that same day. She found a lot of bodies from the fight, very nearly even losses after taking the Dirtamancy traps into consideration. All Everclear forces were croaked and left behind, seeming to have croaked in combat and not through execution. A level 2 Warlord named Christoff was in charge, and the placement of bodies seemed to indicate a last stand in the garrison with most of the croaked arrayed there. Curious. That would mean the walls were compromised quickly. After the list of Everclear's croaked and their placement was a list of the attacker's croaked, units from Guilter.

    Wait, what?

    "I thought you said we didn't know who had attacked us!" exclaimed Grey, forgetting that he was supposed to be on his best behavior just long enough to put his foot in his mouth. Grey then chided himself silently with the word "Manners" once again, as Dame Maple shot him a look with plus two piercing. "I-I'm sorry my Lord, I didn't mean-"

    "Keep reading,"said Shindig with an outstretched palm, ignoring the apology and the offense alike.

    Pausing for a moment to collect himself, Grey went back to reading the report. The list of Guilter's croaked. Archers almost solely around where Wherever's perimeter wall would have been, not the main gate. Stabbers at where the breech was suspected, with a concentration of Everclear croaked, but more along the length of where the walls had run. They'd gotten on top of the walls... siege machinery, then. Guilter diggers croaked at the breech location, and then a path of croaked of each side leading to the garrison, with a carpet of croaked where the final battle occurred. And that was all for that page.

    Grey blinked. He checked the next page for more croaked and their arrangement. He saw none and turned the current page over, looking for a continuation on the back. There were none there as well.

    "There were no Ramsteins?" asked Grey, confused.

    "None," replied Shindig, his voice flat, factual, but still loaded with meaning.

    That made no sense. The Ramstein was a Guilter mount that doubled as a siege unit. Something like a muscular goat who's porcelain colored horns connected together in a loop atop it's head to form a battering ram. But it's siege and mount capabilities were not why every army Guilter fielded contained a healthy supply of them. Every Ramstein produced a hoppy alcoholic beverage when milked that the common units and the nobles alike enjoyed having out in the field. Guilter warlords fielded them as often as possible as an excuse to keep them a part of the established army. There is no way a siege attack like this would not have ended without at least a few croaked Ramsteins. And come to think of it... a Ramstein rush usually targeted gates, which were normally faster to break through.

    "If this report is accurate," said Grey, not adding aloud the continuation that it is, of course, accurate, since it was written by one of his Farstriders, "then it would mean Guilter has made a massive shift in their military strategy, as well as finding a one hundred percent accurate means of finding our scouts."

    "There's more," said Princess Sasha, taking the chance that she would be speaking out of turn to speed things along. "The final page is a report by the remaining Farstriders in the northwest. None of our trap hexes have been triggered."

    Grey looked at the princess, his Chief Warlady, aghast. His mouth hung and his eyes stretched. After a few minutes, he read the final page of the report to verify what Sasha had said. She was right. Not a single trap had been sprung.

    If a Farstrider could be considered the deadly shadows of the Evergreen, then the trap hexes were the monsters. The entire forest was filled, filled, with hexes that were overloaded with Dirtamancy traps. The side's Dirtamancer had spent the hundred turns building this network of croak traps, concentrating them along the boarders in a whimsical and unpredictable pattern, to make sure that any force that entered would experience heavy losses before ever seeing combat. It had been proven an effective deterrent even as far back as the Everlong War, as the Farstriders were originally established to map and counter the trap hexes the Hickson tribe had made. The concentration of trap hexes was so thick near the borders, and so erratically placed, that no one had been able to mount an invasion without going through at least a few of them before. The only records of their placing was here, in this room in the map tiled floor, so far away from any foe that even a Master Class Lookamancer would not be able to read them, and in the memories of the Farstriders tasked with checking up on the trap hexes every few turns during their patrols. And the traps themselves are so insidiously concealed that only a hand full of unit types would be able to sense them before it was too late, and none of the nearby sides had Dirtamancers or Lookamancers to risk on exploring the dangers of the Evergreen. Your typical scout wouldn't even notice them until one had sprung. The trap hexes were an enduring defense almost akin to an iron wall.

    For it to have been bypassed as well...

    "Then that would mean... Guilter has found a way to destroy, avoid, and overpower every single one of our side's defenses... and we have no idea how they're doing it..."

    The pitiful words having come out of his mouth, Grey was left feeling shame and frustration. Never had Grey felt so utterly useless, so helpless. The defenses he'd spent his entire lifetime reinforcing were rendered ineffective all at once. Grey's body bowed with the weight of his failure, and in a momentary lifting of his vision he saw Art's ashamed face as well. The Farstriders were partially his child as well, his magic items having made them so effective and dangerous in the past. Grey's eyes passed over the others at the table as well. Dame Maple had her eyes closed, her facing showing a glower of annoyance. King Shindig had a look of pained resignation. And Princess Sasha's face showed undisguised pity, which only made Grey feel even worse. After what seemed like a full turn of torment, Dame Maple spoke, her words blunt, but her voice as characteristically sweet as always.

    "None of this matters."

    Dame Maple opened her eyes and looked at her king directly. "The invaders are of Guilter. Our records indicate they lost most of their higher level warlords in the last war with Floorin', along with their Chief Warlord. Any units they field will be lower leveled, and untested in battle. Their elites are a shadow of their former self, and their ranks will be swollen with mass produced infantry. Please allow me to take the Knighthood to However, my Lord. Using However as a base, the Knighthood will track down and destroy the dogs of Guilter for setting foot in our territory."

    "Why However?" asked King Shindig, ignoring the rest of the table to engage with Dame Maple, as the table's rules of courtesy dictated.

    Dame Maple lifted her chin a little, giving her words an even more dignified weight to them. "The fact that Whatever was razed and not occupied shows that this is obviously a razing party from Guilter, to recoup the lost treasury they spent in the last war with Floorin'. That means the razing party will be traveling to the next city closest to Whatever," Dame Maple paused momentarily as she pointed at the floor to indicate the named city's tile. "Which is However. I would like my Knights to be there to meet, and defeat, the enemy. Mine and the Chief Warlady's combat bonuses will most certainly be enough to destroy the Guilter party."

    "Why only the Knighthood," asked Princess Sasha when she was certain she would not be interrupting Dame Maple. "However may be a level three city, but it is not a fortress. We may be over run with only the Knighthood and the garrison. Why don't we join with the standing army stationed at Eveready and then move with them to However. With the combination of the Knights, Eveready, and However, we would be far more certain of victory."

    "I understand your view, Chief Warlady, but I'm afraid there is a fatal flaw in it," said Dame Maple, speaking as an instructor. It was not too far from the truth considering she had been leading the knights for a long time even before the princess had been popped. "A razing party would have to be traveling light, and swift, especially in the heavy forest hexes that make up our territory to have a hope of escaping without losing their entire company to a counter attack. That means we will have to travel and act quickly if we are to catch them before they reach However, and then escape with their Shmuckers. The airborne Knights would be able to make it in time, but a column from Eveready would not arrive before However was a smoking crater. The situation requires the utmost dispatch, your highness."

    "Speed means nothing if it just places us in the jaws of a beast," said Princes Sasha. her hazelnut brown eyes flashing with conviction. "We have nothing but a surmise on the strength of the invaders, or their destination. We have no information on their unit disposition or their method of gathering intelligence. For all we know, Guilter has a column ten times the size required to take However. Fighting them on such terms may only serve to annihilate our strongest units in a meaningless battle."

    "You have read the same reports as I have, your highness, so you should know that Guilter doesn't have the extra forces required for such a massive attack. Their side has been all but crippled by their recent fighting, and their Leadership gutted. They simply cannot afford to do anything on the scale you are suggesting."

    "How can we trust this information, Dame Montoya? How can we trust that a side that has devastated our Farstriders could not fool our scouting reports as well? We cannot attack something we can't find, understand, or predict the destination of. It would be a waste of our resources and units."

    "Then you would suggest we do nothing, Chief Warlady? You would suggest we sit here, and wait for more scouts to croak and more cities to be razed before we make a decision? Make a strategy based on the elimination of possibilities? Your highness, I know there are risks involved in fighting the Guilter invaders before we fully understand their new methods, but it is far riskier for us to do nothing."

    Grey simply listened to the continued proceedings, as each of the high strategists to the king argued their cases back and forth. He had no part in it, it was not his area of responsibility. It would have been out of line for him to have said anything about the proposed plans. In all fairness, both Dame Maple and Princess Sasha were right. The side cannot afford to do nothing, but striking out now may be worse than doing nothing. Neither option was really any better than the other. Then there was a rap on the table as King Shindig struck it with his knuckle, calling the discussion to a halt and grabbing the table's attention.

    "Both sides make compelling points. We cannot attack something we don't understand, but we are being attacked ourselves. We cannot do nothing, but we don't know how to react. Therefore, our first priority is to gather information. What, how, and where. Chief Signamancer, how long would it take for you to hire a skilled and reliable Lookamancer?"

    Grey's stomach turned. Lookamancers were one of the more sought after casters from the Magic Kingdom during times of war, eliminating a need for scouting and giving a ruler the ability to command a war from the comfort of his own throne room. They were popular and expensive to the point where they could name their own prices and get away with it. Grey didn't know much about the magic Kingdom, but apparently Lookamancers were one of the caster classes that could afford to be picky about jobs and sides they hired themselves out to. Hiring one of them would be a complete preemption of the Farstriders role in the Kingdom.

    "This very turn, your highness," said Art, a little startled, before adding sheepishly, "...if you don't mind paying a premium. Worst case, we'd have to pay the damages for breaking a Lookamancer's previous contract to get him here quickly."

    "That won't be necessary, just look for one that would be willing to work with us in the near future. You will have time to negotiate." King Shindig then turned to Grey and said, "Warlord Shades, I will authorize one more Farstrider attempt to scout out the invading Guilter forces before hiring a Lookamancer. We need information on them. Who amongst your ranks would you suggest for this admittedly dangerous task."

    "Myself," said Grey without hesitation.

    King Shindig let the word hang in the air a moment before asking with the force of an order, an order demanding full explanation. "You are certain?"

    Grey had, indeed, chosen himself hastily. The prospect of his Farstriders being replaced by some barbarian caster was wounding... perhaps intentionally so, and Grey was not a little upset about losing so many Farstriders so quickly. He had trained all of them, and granted them the Farstrider cloaks upon graduating the training courses. Even now he could remember their triumphant and proud faces, each one so different from each other. He can't let their losses be for nothing. But upon being forced to examine his selection, what he said was this. "If I can't accomplish this mission, no other Farstrider can. And should I croak, I have full confidence in Cam replacing me as Captain of the Farstriders, and in Seeke training new recruits. ...I am expendable."

    Art sighed through his nose. Princess Sasha's jaw clenched. Dame Maple's eyes closed as she solemnly nodded her head. King Shindig held eye contact. Eventually he said, as an order, "How many turns will you need to search out the Guilter forces?"

    Grey turned away from the table to almost collide with Jeans, who had returned seemingly soundlessly in the tense atmosphere. The Stuffed Shirt was in the process of pouring fresh light brown tea into one of several cups on a serving tray with his / it's oddly boneless arm, saying in it's flat voice, "Tea for you, sir." Grey accepted the teacup and saucer, but did not drink from it. He wasn't really sure how to in the first place, drink right that is, but more than that, Grey didn't think he would be able to swallow it right now. Instead, he just held it as the aroma of freshly boiled and fragrant leaves filled his nose while he studied the map on the floor tiles.

    Grey spent a good few minutes studying the tiles, running through all the pathways the Guilter army could take. If they avoided all the trap hexes so far, that only left a few paths in the forest they could take, considering cities were most likely their goal. But which one was uncertain, and then there was the possibility of their retreating immediately, leaving the forest with minimal losses. All the paths had to be searched. A dance of natural Mathamancy swirled in Grey's mind as the tiles seemed to change color in his eyes to show all the possible paths Grey could take to cover the most ground in the least time to pick up a trail and then home in on his target. Heavy forest penalties for the invaders. His movement bonuses as a scout. Terrain obstacles and shortcuts. The mass of information seemed to swell and intermingle with his sense of smell, calming him into a focus that the tea on it's own could never have achieved, until he reached a certainty on how he should proceed. Grey then turned and said with a solidarity he never would have felt if he hadn't have dived so deep into his own specialty.

    "Three more turns to find their trail, three turns after to catch up to them, at the most. Investigating the camp may take longer. But only if you can get me to this hex by end of turn." Grey pointed to a particular tile, and King Shindig approached while taking a sip of tea.

    King Shindig squinted slightly, seeing the side as only the ruler could, and said a minute later, "Yes, I can, with a Bluebird relay. But only just. Very well, Warlord Shades, you will have your six turns. In the mean time, the standing army from Everbilt will be moving to relieve the forces here at Everclear, and the standing forces here will move to Eveready to prepare for a confrontation, along with the Knighthood. In the mean time, Artakis will be in negotiations for a Lookamancer in the Magic Kingdom should you fail. I would prefer it if you do not fail, Warlord. This meeting is dismissed."

    King Shindig reached out and deposited his cup on Jeans' tray in what should have been a blind spot, and walked out of the battle room. The tense atmosphere in the room survived the king's departure.

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

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    The violet Bluebird gave a disappointed sob as it wheeled into an air current to pick up speed, passing right over the Adam Bridge as a stack was traversing it. The stack had a clipboard carrying Alfred in the lead with stabbers and a couple Shady Elves escorting almost half a dozen black burnt prisoners. Alfred had learned to hold back on his experimentation to preserve his subjects a while ago, but it seems he'd croaked at least one this turn.

    The survivors are probably pondering Turning right this moment.

    Grey's eyes were pulled away from Alfred's stack as the wind rose from behind and the Bluebird sharply gained altitude and speed. The loft brought Grey and his mount high enough to get a good view of the buildings in Everclear past the initial skyline and the layout of the streets and parks. And in between two roosting towers, Grey saw Lydia at such a distance that only two unit types in the side would be able to clearly see who it was. Scouts, and Shady Elves.

    Lydia looked straight at Grey, and gave a single half turn wave of her hand as a wave meant only for Grey. Grey returned the wave in kind, and then their view of each other was cut off. Grey's eyes ended up lingering in the general direction that Lydia had been, seeing nothing more than the walls, buildings, and battlements of Everclear now.

    She had been disappointed. When Grey had run into Lydia on his way to the aviary again and had to tell her he was leaving right away, she was disappointed. She'd hidden it well, but Grey's eyes caught that slight twitch at the corners of her own. Lydia pretended it was not a big deal and that she'd expected it all along, but the truth is that she'd been looking forward to spending time with Grey. And Grey had felt likewise, ink or no. Grey had been dispatched to a high profile client to the south and been gone for a good many turns, and then received the order to begin teaching a new bunch of recruits in Everglade just as he was returning to Everclear's territory. So today was the first chance they'd had to see each other in a long time. But Lydia had followed Duty and worked hard to make it easier for Grey to leave.

    Which, of course, made it harder for Grey to go.

    A part of Grey wanted to turn the Bluebird around, even if only for one more pass of Everclear to give Lydia a more proper goodbye. She meant that much to him and more. But a blend of Duty and conviction prevented him from doing so.

    And then Grey passed the hex border, and his chance to turn around was gone. Somehow, that point of no return made it easier for Grey to leave Lydia and Everclear behind, and the part of Grey's mind that was taken up with turning around was freed to ponder other things. Duty and Loyalty primarily, and his mind returned to the Map Room when Grey had volunteered for what may very well be a Suicide Mission. He hadn't hesitated to volunteer, and his own wants hadn't been involved in his thought process. Grey would have loved to stay in Everclear for one turn. Have a chance to catch up with Lydia and get this cursed ink off his chest. But the thought of delay hadn't been in his mind at all.

    It wasn't Duty that made him choose service over convenience. Nor was it what had caused him to volunteer himself. Hyde was the best Farstrider at concealing himself, he'd have probably been a better choice for the mission. But he wasn't in the capitol at the time, as of the reports sent to Grey ten turns ago his post was the Stopgap border, watching for signs of another invasion. It would have meant a possible delay to get him on sight. An acceptable delay. No, it wasn't Duty that made Grey instantly throw himself into harms way for this, it was Loyalty. Everything he cared about, everything he... it was all in Everclear.

    Grey crossed another border. A natural sort of Findamancy told him the grid number he had moved into, and a subconscious part of his mind instantly translated it into topographical information. Wide river, deep water, fast current, no active traps, no patrols, heavy rock formations built by Dirtamancer as "natural" defenses to pierce the hulls of any heavy watercraft moving through. The complete information flowed directly into Grey's mind, and back out, like a wave of surf at the shore, unnoticed and not disturbing his active thoughts at all. Just natural background noise.

    The Map Room had been awkward after the king had left, so resolute and unhurried. The king had been deathly serious, but hadn't seemed worried in the slightest, despite the unprecedented events of the past few turns. Everyone who had remained was grave, and worried though. Dame Montoya had been the first to speak to Grey, an act different from her usual behavior he hadn't overlooked. She thanked and congratulated Grey on his dedication, so admirable for one of his station, and that she would remember his bravery. Maple's sweet voice was hard to withstand as it was obvious she was saying such pleasant things because she was certain she was having her last conversation with a croaked man. Grey could only smile stiffly and nod, he had no idea how else to react to such terrible good intentions being a common unit at heart. Thank the Titans that Art stepped in when he did.

    Art had reminded Maple of the logistics she'll need to see to for the Knighthood to move out. More like guessed at their existence, really, but it was enough to get Lady Maple to excuse herself and stop her kindly intended stupidity. Dame Montoya was an excellent Warlady, and had been an excellent Chief Warlady during the last lengthy change of power, but she could be a thick as a tree's trunk sometimes. But Lady Maple had made eloquent, though blunt, farewells and left the Map Room, Art following close behind. And with that, Grey had been left alone in that room with Chief Warlady Sasha, Heir Princess of the Side. She had taken that opportunity to give Grey her goodbyes, her words of comfort. Such well worded intentions that he'd actually been comforted by them. Really, the Nobles are so... compared to common units like himself, Royalty is just so much more...

    Hex change; heavy forest, regrown from Ash Hex, no traps, occasional patrols, current main thoroughfare to Fortress Everbilt, no enemies spotted just now, probably safe for column traversal.

    Grey knew just how powerless he was in the larger design, but Princess Sasha had given her sincere praise concerning, and confidence in, his abilities for this mission. Citing her first hand experience, which she did have.

    King Shindig was a bit peculiar.

    Grey had heard one of the Knighthood describe Everclear as being... what was the word again? A memo... merry... meritocracy, yeah. Grey had had to ask Art what the word meant later on, after he'd sobered up from the night of conversing with the knights, but it was pretty much spot on. King Shindig would only have one child at a time, barring extenuating circumstances, and would always pop them as an Heir. But upon being popped, he always assigned the Heir to subordination to his Chiefs and Captains instead of designating them Chief Warlord immediately. Which meant that since the founding of the side, every Heir of Everclear had been assigned to Grey's command as a student as he walked them from one end of the kingdom to the other, making sure they understood the nature of the Farstriders and scouting from the eyes of a scout. It was the same for Art, teaching the nature of magic and it's current and past roles for the side. And the captain of the Montoya Knights, with finer war strategies and replaying the more important battles with figures in the map room. They teach the new Heir for the span of time they are given by the King, and then secretly submit their opinions on the new Heir to the King.

    Princess Sasha's predecessor was... disappointing. Prince Bretl held his designation as Heir for only the short time he was being educated. He chose not to understand the Farstriders, couldn't care about the side's use of magic, and was always correcting Dame Maple even when he was actually wrong. King Shindig stripped him of his designation as Heir and put him in the lowest ranks of the Knighthood. Bretl was croaked in the fighting against Stopgap, Dame Maple claiming a lack of attention to training as the cause. And while Princess Sasha had popped while Bretl was alive, the two had never met, such was the Kings disappointment of his son. Both emotional and status-wise, Grey supposed.

    Princess Sasha was the complete opposite of Bretl. She had been attentive to learning the ways of scouts, magic, and tactics. She was also gifted and diligent in training herself and her body. She hadn't been squeamish in the slightest to camping outdoors without any comforts. And Grey had seen her first battle as a level 1 Warlady. It had been a wild Jag, black as pitch and with a powerful roaring growl. The black Jag had stalked them well past end of turn, waiting for them to let their guard down to pounce. Grey had been able to make a false opening after setting a tripwire trap, but the Jag had only been wounded by it and came roaring into the campground. That was when Grey saw how Sasha fought. Her footwork was marvelous, causing her to flow out of the way of the Jag's attacks like she was sliding around on ice, landing blows as the breast passed her, exploiting openings for attack almost as if it had been scripted out in advance. Grey had been so spellbound by the beauty of Princess Sasha's fight that if the Jag had turned on him at that time, he may not have survived the predator's first blow. When the beast fell, and Princess Sasha had earned her first level from it, as she invited Grey to teach her how to treat and cook wild game, Grey knew she was something special. He knew that-

    Hex change; moderate rain hex, heavy forest, trapped, light and easily spotted anti-personnel traps to funnel enemy, constructed pathway leading through large area mudslide trap, light patrols.

    Grey pulled the cowl of his cape over his head to protect himself from the rain. The Bluebird made a deep sigh of disgust. King Shindig could have chosen a better route, one without the rain. But realistically, this flightpath was made on the fly, having to connect mount to mount without the luxury of being able to fly into a city for a mount switch. Perhaps if some mounts were dedicated to the relay the paths could be made a bit more comfortable with the option of stopping inside a city for a warm meal. Grey had already had a long day, longer than it ever should have been, having traveled farther than any single unit on Erf ever could without this unnatural system set in place. He had been looking forward to the prospect of a warm meal, warm bed, and after running into Lydia, perhaps a warm companion.

    Friends with benefits, huh?

    That was what they were, solidly and completely. Grey cared about her. He loved her as well, but they couldn't be more than friends. They tried, a few times, and it never worked out. There was some sort of disconnect, some sort of mismatch between Grey and Lydia that prevented the two of them from being able to be happy being more than just friends with benefits. But at the same time, they absolutely couldn't be anything less to each other. They'd tried that, too.

    It was like an addiction. They were addicted to each other. And too much or too little left them crippled. But they were okay with that. Lydia and Grey had known each other for about as long as two units could know one another. They had fought side by side since they had been popped, fought through many a battle, many a war, many a skirmish, whatever words you can use to describe fighting, they had gone through it depending on one another. They had a whole and complete trust for one another. They knew everything about each other, and their twisted sort of love could accept all of each other. Lydia knew everything about Grey and she still loved him.

    Lydia knew Grey was completely in love with Princess Sasha, and she still loved him, exactly as she did before.

    Grey didn't have the words to convey how much that meant to him. Literally, he didn't have the vocabulary to describe his feelings, which was just another one of the pile of things he was ashamed of in his life of constantly being placed above his station as a common scout. Even if Everclear is a meritocracy, he was not meant for the position he had been given. Cam was popped as a Warlady, she could easily replace him. Even a Courtier, properly educated about Scouting tactics could replace him. Grey was a unit meant to exist in the field, dirt under his boots, knives whipping from his hands. He had no business giving orders. He had no business being at the same table as Nobles and Royalty. He had no business being near the Princess...

    Grey was fulfilling Duty. His king had requirements of him. His side had requirements of him. Of him and the position he held. His Loyalty though, that had him perform his Duty without questioning the decisions of his king. Well, not out loud. Not to anyone but Lydia, and Grey was mostly sure she hadn't told anyone else. She wasn't above painting crude words like "Flip me upside down" on his head while he slept, but she would never betray him with anything important, at least.

    And here he was, fulfilling both Duty and Loyalty. Best case scenario, Grey discovers the underlying truth of what has been happening to his side and King Shindig comes up with a plan to solve it. Worst case scenario, Grey croaks, a Lookamancer is the one to give his king the exact same information, and a more suitable Captain of the Farstriders is installed. It's pretty much win-win for his side, Grey supposed. Lydia would probably call him a nitwit with that disappointed stare of hers if she heard-

    New hex; heavy forest, no traps, patrolling Farstrider croaked, two turn(s) Move from Whatever. Targeted hex has been reached.

    Grey had been so deep in thought that he hadn't bothered to count the number of mount changes in mid air he'd performed, or the number of hexes he'd traveled through. He was tired, hungry, cold, and his cloak was still damp from the rain hex he'd passed through. But as he dismounted and his boots struck the dirt, he felt invigorated. Grey took a deep breath of air through his nose, smelling the forest's sweet fragrance of fresh air intermingled with feral life.

    And all thoughts and worries washed off him.

    After ordering the Bluebird to sleep in the trees this turn, to protect against wandering predators, Grey turned and lightly sprinted in the direction he had to go in order to prepare for hunting an army. His footing was solid with every step, he bounded off roots, leapt over small rocks, and hurtled with a supporting hand over big ones. His senses existed only to provide him with information about his surroundings and his mind was occupied with nothing more than keeping up with those senses. Grey moved on instinct and sensory interpretation. No doubts. No fears. No shame. No hesitation.

    Grey was in his natural habitat once again, and he had a job to do.

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

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    Grey inhaled sharply as he rocketed out of his deep sleep at the sound of the jailbird's call. He could remember the fact that he'd dreamt, but no details. It didn't matter though, because Grey's whole focus was on taking stock of his surroundings.

    Units naturally woke at dawn to be ready for the start of turn, whoever's turn it was. But Farstriders were taught to wake before dawn, prepare, and be ready for whatever may happen while on dispatch. The jailbird was a favored wake up call just for that purpose.

    With Grey finished listening to and eyeballing his surroundings he'd decided that he was either safe to move or completely outclassed in stealth, in which case he'd have to move anyway. Grey extricated himself from the hollow under the overhanging roots of a tree he'd chosen as his sleeping spot for the night. Grey had no bedding, no blankets, no campfire. Farstriders were trained to have no need for a camp site to decrease the chances of their being located during missions, and to leave no traces of themselves as they moved through contested territory. Camp sites were a luxury only allowed in completely safe hexes.

    With a flourish of his cloak to knock the dust off, Grey was off to the hiding spot he'd chosen while scouting the hex the previous night. He had to wait until start of turn so he could start hunting an army.


    One of the greatest enemies a scout faced, was boredom.

    Grey had climbed a tree that twisted in strange directions instead of having grown straight up and nestled himself on a large bough before dawn, his cloak and hood covering his entire body. Slowly, the Farstrider cloak had taken on the color of the brown bark of the tree, it being a Signamancy Magic Item and one of the secrets to Farstrider success. It did not Veil a unit by any means. It did not hide a unit from prying eyes. Instead it muted one's Signamancy, made them blend into the background just a little easier, let the eye pass over them without catching sight. And no side aside from Everclear really knew about the special nature of the cloaks, as the enchantment on them was just fragile enough to not survive a unit's being croaked. To all outward appearances Grey was just another misshapen part of the tree.

    And he'd been that lump on the tree for the past several hours. Hence the boredom.

    Something non-scouts don't appreciate is just how hard it is to pass the time when you can't move a finger. But every good scout has a few ways to deal with it. One he knew dabbled in Rhymamancy, constructing limericks that he shared with the other Farstriders every time he returned from deployment. Grey though, liked to listen.

    For the past few hours, Grey had had his eyes closed as he kept his ears and his mind focused on every sound in the hex around him. He'd listened to the tunes of some humalongbirds, the scampering of squirrels in the boughs around him, and now an ongoing dispute between some stacks of magpies and cherripies in the next tree over. The two stacks of birds had some rather advanced tactics going on, but lacked the focus to see any of their plans to the end, so neither side had the advantage even after squabbling for so long. They'll probably just get tired of harassing one another and eat whatever bugs are in the tree side by side.

    Then Grey heard the sharp crack of a twig being broken, and Grey found he was no longer fighting against boredom but against a surge of adrenaline.

    Very slowly, Grey opened his eyes just a crack, just enough to see out of, and began to scan the surroundings without moving his head. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but that was to be expected. Grey was certain he was dealing with a stealthy unit, feral or otherwise.

    If it had just been any old feral creature, there would have been accompanying sounds of calling out to others of it's kind or of it moving around. The rustling of bushes, the sound of snacking on leaves, the heavy thump of a bound over an obstacle, the sound of carrying out it's normal routine. There was none of that. But the sound of that twig, it had to have caught on something passing by in a moment of carelessness while working hard to remain silent.

    Minutes passed, and Grey worked hard to keep his heartbeat under control, quite the task without the luxury of taking deep breaths for fear of his breathing making too much noise. It's harder to hear properly over a heavily beating heart, after all.

    More time passed. And finally Grey saw a flicker of movement. The coloration made it hard to be certain what it was, but it was movement. And the fact that it was to hard to be certain, left Grey with a single conviction. With a surge of aggression, Grey knew it was camouflage; it was an enemy.

    Grey had not been expecting Guilter to go this direction. The straightest path to all the nearest cities did not run through this hex. Grey had just been paranoid about detection out of habit and pragmatism, never believing he'd run into any Guilter units during their turn. His plan had been to cut along the likely travel paths that had no trap hexes to search for traces of passage. He'd traveled his way pretty far southeast of Whatever and planned to head north into the travel lanes, then work west seeing if he ran into Guilter forces in order to rule out possible targets to give King Shindig more information for setting up his strategy sessions before the knighthood was dispatched. He was eliminating possibilities instead of blindly chasing down a potentially fatal goal.

    A clearly distinguishable head poked out through some brush, the skin as brown as the tree trunks in this forest. It had no helmet, it was a scout unit, as Grey had thought. But what was he doing?

    The Guilter scout slowly moved his head from left to right and back again, causing Grey to tut-tut silently. That kind of overt movement would not be tolerated in his Farstriders. But Grey kept his squinted eyes trained to those of the scout, trying to figure out what he was looking for. The scout's eyes seemed to have no target, they were looking at everything. The ground, the bushes, the tree trunks, where his next step would land, the spaces in between the trees, and so forth. The eyes even looked into the tree Grey was in, and Grey and the scout locked eyes.

    And the eyes carried past without having noticed the leaf green pupils that were lightly staring at him. The scout moved forward after that, coming close to the base of the tree Grey hiding in. Grey very slightly tilted his head to keep the scout in view, studying him. His uniform was recolored to blend with the forest with none of the red, white, and gold of the Guilter heraldry showing. The scout was geared for stealth, not for combat, and would be easy pickings should Grey choose the roll out of his perch to fall on him with sword and dagger drawn. But croaking or interrogating this scout would get him nothing, worst than nothing. Guilter losing a unit here would alert them to his presence, and he would be hunted down until he was croaked or captured. No, it's best to let the small fry go, and get his answers another way.

    The scout was now studying the sides of the tree's trunk, for something. Seeming satisfied to have not found anything, the scout moves on, with his peculiar task of looking at everything. Everything that might be a trap, Grey realized in a rush. The scout was an advanced unit, looking for possible traps or troop deployments in the hex. Grey instantly lost interest in the lone scout and began scanning the rest of the forest around him with his eyeballing. After a few minutes, sure enough, he saw another scout, and then another. All of them working their way southeast.

    Not to However in the southwest. Not to Neverland in the east northeast. But southeast. The closest city in that direction was Everquest, which was twice as far away from Whatever than even Neverland. This was obviously no simple razing party. What was their real goal?

    And then Grey heard the loud crack of something shattering in the distance, followed by a loud thud. Grey heard this sound again, and again. It was getting closer with each repetition and Grey thought he could hear a grinding whirr preceding each one. The sound was muffled, quite muffled, but eventually Grey placed the sound. Falling trees.

    The sounds suddenly became louder, probably part of crossing hex boundaries. Trees within his field of vision began to tip and fall. Tip and fall at an alarming rate. It was not unheard of to cut a path through rough terrain for larger units and constructs to traverse, but it was slow and impractical. It should have taken hours to cut down the number of trees that Grey had just seen be felled in minutes. Does it have something to do with that strange sound, that grinding whirr?

    Far, far sooner than it should ever have been possible, the source of the noise was close enough for Grey to make out through the trees. They were Craftsman units, Courtesan specialists wearing deep blue jackets and carrying strange devices consisting of a block with some handles on them, and a thin metal fin almost as long as a stabber is tall. These Craftsmen were pushing these whirring, buzzing objects against the trunks of the great trees of the heavy forest hex, and the objects started tearing into the wood like an enchanted sword through a straw dummy. The Craftmen were cutting wedges out of the trees, then cutting the other side to precisely angle the fall away from the center of the lane they were making in the trees. After cutting down a tree, those Craftsmen moved on to the next, and other Craftsmen descended on the fallen tree, cutting it into pieces and slicing off the stump closer to the ground. After the trunks and stumps had been cut into manageable pieces common pikers and stabbers moved in to haul the wood away for the rest of their column to walk the new path without any difficulty. This invading column of units was able to use this tactic to spend far less move per hex than otherwise.

    An invading column of units wearing the deep blue and golden interlocked plank heraldry of Floorin'. And there, near the head of the column on horseback and surrounded by Knights and Warlords was Prince Humperdink, heir of the throne and the real power of Floorin'.

    King Shrinkidink of Floorin' had declined so far into inability that he'd long ago taken the form of a white haired, stick figure of a man, with a mind to match. Normally a ruler in such a condition would be forcefully abdicated if required for the good of the side, but rumor had it the courtiers preferred to control the addle brained king to rule vicariously, and the realm's princes were not above such matters either as it allowed them to rule the side through their incapable father and fight at the front at the same time. The best of both realms, it was supposed. And this heartless form of rulership had lasted through five heir princes, Humperdink being the most recent in the line.

    Grey could see him quite clearly now, there in the distance. Fine thick silks under masterfully made armor, for the Craftsmen of Floorin' were exceedingly skillful in all Fabrication, not just woodworking. Humperdink stood tall and straight backed in the saddle, a ruler's crown on his head of curled brown hair and a face as handsome as his body was sturdy. Just this far sight of him caused Grey to finally wholeheartedly believe the report he'd read saying the man had succeeded in croaking a feral Grape Ape barehanded using a bear hug. It was not just his figure that was impressive, for he was also an exceedingly sound strategist as well.

    Prince Humperdink had inherited his position as Heir and Chief Warlord with a Floorin' in tatters. His predecessor, Rinkidink, had completely failed in moth military and political matters. The realm had no allies, it's armies were in tatters, and there was no consistency in policy because Rinkidink had allowed enough freedom that all the ranking courtiers were pulling the king's policymaking every which way, but the correct one. Humperdink had been able to reform that side into the military powerhouse it currently was, swelling it's territory and taking several sides as "allies" which were in truth no more than vessel states, paying tithes to Floorin's swelling treasury every turn.

    If it were this man then Grey could believe that he was able to conceive of this plan to invade Everclear. For an invasion it was, Grey was certain of it. Even if he wasn't after the first part of the column passed through the hex, he soon saw siege towers, carts of supplies and stored foodstuffs. More carts filled with lumber and metal girders for siegeworks construction. And-

    Oh, Titans. What are those things.

    For all Grey's hundred turns of experience, his jaw dropped.

    Right there floating, floating, above the enemy column were enormous bulbous constructed troop transports, heavy, flying, made of metal reinforced lumber and thick cloth. Each one had at least one stack of units in an undercarriage and a siege machine on top, a ballista or a catapult with extra ammunition collected nearby, and units to work them. Each of the bloated main bodies were painted a disgusting orange and had the troop undercarriages hanging beneath them with chains securing them, but for some reason there was a multitude of ropes hanging down, curling and wiggling about in the sparse winds that hit them, almost seeming alive. Such... things could not possibly exist. But there they were, and in such numbers that they could not possibly be an accidental perversion of all that is right on Erf. There were dozens of them.

    Grey's horror only increased as a natural Mathamancy he'd acquired had dedicated a part of his mind to counting the troops passing by in the column. Heavies. Cavalry. Archery. Stabbers and Pikers. Diggers and Siege. Over five thousand in all. It was enough to cut the heart out of Everclear, the capital. He could see the siege of the city in his mind already. The Craftsmen building a new sturdy bridge as the original one is blasted to pieces. Siege towers and Battering rams targeting the main gate as those flying abominations assault from the sky, landing scores of units on the walls to reinforce the main assault and catch the wall defenders on two sides. And those strange transports would make it, too, reinforced fliers huddled together, at least half of them concentrated on a single point of assault would survive all the tower spells the city could bring to bear and more. After the gate fell, it would be a cavalry rush, followed by an infantry push up the tower to the final stand for his king at it's peak. Everclear would croak more invaders than they would incur losses, but with these numbers of attackers that meant little to nothing. Everclear's forces have been pulled out of their regular formation because of the Guilter assault, the knighthood wouldn't be there to take air superiority, grant Leadership bonuses, or generally reinforce the whole of the capital's defenses.

    The entire Guilter razing parting was a decoy for this attack. Prince Humperdink must have made it a condition of the last peace settlement in order to get Guilter to go along with the plan. That's the only way the two sides would ever work together, that was how long and bitter their relations went. It may even have been the entire reason Floorin' had for fighting in the last war. Grey wouldn't put it past Humperdink. Truly, a royal's mind really was far more suited to tactical thinking than someone like Grey. But that was not what was important right now.

    It took hours for the column to pass. Hours of dread so deep that he could feel his hands shaking under the cloak as they gripped the pommel of his sword and dagger. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the column passed completely through the hex. The enemy was on it's way to attack his home, but Grey was there, he knew what they were doing, and he had a magic hat to report his findings before it was too late.

    Grey waited a good long time after the last units of the column passed through the hex before even thinking to climb down from his hiding location to write his report, and then waited even longer just to be certain the area was secure. The sight he'd seen had been just that Titans awful. After the sun had crossed it's zenith, and into early afternoon, Grey finally had pulled together the confidence to drop down from his perch in a controlled fall to land on his feet. He was high enough that a tumble from that limb could have Incapacitated him or worse, but a controlled jump or fall was an exemption of the rules up to a certain height, a rule he took advantage of in order to waste not a moment of time in writing the scouting report to his king.

    Grey whipped a long vial out of his pack, pulled the cork on it's top with his teeth, and stuck it in his left bracer to hold it steady. With his right hand Grey pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill. Grey dipped the quill in the ink that filled the tube and hastily scrawled out the general plan of Floorin', the feint and invasion path, and a suggestion of producing more Natural Allies for the coming battle and hiring Shockamancers to reinforce the air defenses. Next, Grey related his description of those ghastly floating orange things. Last of all, Grey began to note down the near correct approximations of the enemy forces, their numbers, their disposition, and the composition of forces within the formation of the column. By this time, Grey was sweating profusely in the afternoon sun from heat and nerves. He felt grateful when a breeze of wind sprung up strong enough to set some of the branches of the trees swaying and took the edge off his heat. He was nearly done writing the report after all, and would rather not deface it with drops of sweat. It was going to go directly into a king's hat, after all.

    Then Grey froze. He tilted his head and cocked his eyes. And reaffirmed what he'd noticed out of the corner of his sight.

    The branches of one of the trees was swaying in the wrong direction.

    Grey immediately turned and ran in the other direction. Right after, Grey heard a shout from some woman calling, high and startled, "Hurry, we've been discovered!"

    "You mean you have," replied a second voice, gruff and petulant for a lady. "You only had the one job, how could you blow it?"

    "The veil held! I swear! Something tipped him off!" The first voice answered, closer than it was before, obviously in pursuit.

    "Knock it off, the both of you," said a third voice, obviously the one in command. "Our project is unchanged, we're just going to have to work a little harder is all. Decentralize!"

    A team of three noted Grey as he stopped just long enough behind a tree to re-cork the ink - he couldn't let the report be ruined, not now. Grey won't have a chance to rewrite it if that happened. If it were two pursuers he might have a chance but not with three. He had to send the report to his king now, before he was done in. But he just had to make one last note on it, the most important note that would explain exactly how the Farstriders had been devastated. How Floorin' had managed to navigate the Trap Hexes without loss with such sloppy scouts in their lead.

    "Paradigm!" called the second voice to Grey's left. Grey reacted by instantly diving forward, rolling behind a stone as a form of Shockamancy tore through the forest, cutting the tree he'd been behind to pieces and cutting deep scores into the stone he hid behind. As soon as the salvo was over, Grey dashed for more trees, making sure to put obstacles between him and his pursuer.

    "Hold back some, Ann," called the third voice, "he's a Warlord!"

    "That's why we can't afford to hold back" called back the second voice, seemingly called Ann.

    "You know our orders," stated the third voice, emphatically, which seemed to settle Ann's hash, and caused her to reinitiate pursuit.

    Ideas were flying through Grey's mind, and none of them seemed like they would pan out. He couldn't outrun his attackers, he'd get tired before them. He couldn't escape the hex, he was off turn. He couldn't hide from them now that they knew where he was. He couldn't ambush them for the same reason. Why did it have to be three!?

    Grey had no choice, finishing the report was the only thing he could do. To do that, he needed a surface to write on. Sending the report wouldn't make a difference if the writing couldn't be read, but he probably only had enough time to write a single word. Slowing his stride, and purposely impacting his shoulder against a tree trunk, Grey spun around the tree and planted the parchment against the trunk. He was able to write Ch before he heard "There" from above.

    Looking up, Grey saw the face to go with the voice of "Ann." The lips seemed huge with red make up, the long blond hair had curls, and her chest was large to the point of seeming to be bad Foolamancy. Grey didn't wait to see anything else, he immediately kicked the tree's trunk to launch himself backwards just as a bolt of something yellow and hot struck the ground where he had been standing from directly above, exploding the dirt into a flying cloud. Grey rolled on his back and over a shoulder to take off running from a crouch. Above him he heard Ann cry, "He went that way, Emm!"


    The answer to the directions seemed to have come from the third voice. Emm was the group's leader it seemed, but that was not important. Grey just needed a few more seconds! And he had an idea on how to get them, and it wouldn't be pleasant, but it just might work.

    Grey put on another burst of speed, dashing without regard to his stamina to where he needed to go to gain those few seconds. After the report was sent he wouldn't need to run anymore, his Duty would have been done. After running fast enough through the heavy growth to have gotten just barely ahead of his pursuers, Grey found the large stone where his memory of the previous night's terrain survey had said it would be, took the two long strides up it's slanted, oblong body, and leapt into the foliage of a tree with low hanging branches and no solid ground underneath to break any falls. Grey was just barely able to nail the landing, one hand grabbing another branch for stability for a brief moment before Grey took on a horribly unbalanced pose and wrote out ar.

    The rustle of leaves and the color of light blue stopped Grey as Emm sharply descended through the foliage just far enough away to be out of reach of Grey's sword, and just close enough to be at point blank range for Shockamancy. Grey locked eyes with the slim and shoulder length red haired Emm for the brief moment it took for her to say the word "Acquire!"

    But something in Grey's eyes caused Emm to feel something was off, and that was just enough for the highly agile Flight capable unit to barely dodge Grey's hastily thrown knife, the blade cutting deep into her cheek as Emm's Shockamancy went up and wide of the mark due to the twisting of her body. What came from her pointed finger was a blast of lightning that was so large and fierce that it would have caught Grey even after it went off target if he hadn't intentionally broke his delicate balance while throwing that knife to drop into a controlled fall from the branch. A controlled fall onto the sloping scree at the foot of this particular tree, starting at the oblong rock that overhung it.

    As Grey's back hit the rocks, Grey felt the pound of a dozen large rocks all at once through his armor, and then began sliding down the steep slope that was almost a cliff, gaining terrible speed over those sometimes jagged and always lumpy rocks. Grey could feel his Hits drop as he slid, holding the parchment tight in his arms to prevent it's being damaged, until he began to roll instead of slide. Finally, Grey hit the bottom of the slope and continued rolling. He was still master of his own body though and quickly slashed at the parchment with his nearly destroyed and tattered quill to form the li of the one word explanation, and the ugliest e in the history of Erf, but the report was done.

    Grey dropped the quill, rolled back onto his feet, and saw that Emm and Ann were still in the process of diving down the length of the slope after him, now that they'd confirmed he was not incapacitated. Grey hobble ran as fast as he could into the trees nearby while digging violently into his pack, yanked out a formless knit cap that could fit over the whole head, shoved the report inside while grabbing the wand out in one motion, and said the magic word to send it to his king. Or rather, shouted.


    The boom of a thunderclap slammed Grey's ears just as lightning tore into his body and sent him flying from the impact. The source had been, ridiculously enough, an ordinary tree in the forest that he was running past at that exact moment. Grey lost hold of the hat and the wand as he struck another tree, and slid down it's trunk. He had just enough of his consciousness left to see a shapely woman in a light blue jacket and skirt. Her light brown hair hanging down her shoulders had highlights of blond, and she was posing like she was expecting her portrait to be painted at that moment while the veil of a tree faded into sparkling nothingness around her. With her one leg bent, her hip pushed forward, one eye closed as if winking, she blew on her index finger as if clearing away smoke, saying in a soft voice, "Acquired."

    Grey was just able to hear the voice of Emm, the leader, as it called down from overhead, "Well done, Elle. To think, we'd been looking for him since dawn..."

    As the world went black, Grey's last thought was; Why did it have to be three Archons.

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    King Shindig's fingers twitched, involuntarily, and the handle of the cup of tea snapped in his grip.

    He'd lost his Farstrider Captain.

    Shindig's mind was so far away because of the shock that he didn't hear the smashing of the tea cup against the dinning table's surface or the concerned questioning from his daughter, his Chief Signamancer, and the captain of the knights. But Shindig did feel the clumsily dabbing napkin of Jeans as the stuffed shirt said, "Allow me, Sir."

    "Stand down, Jeans, I have it," said Shindig.

    Contrary to his statement, though, Shindig did not even attempt to clean himself of the tea that had splashed about him and the plate of food served for lunch. Though it had been a tasty treat a minute before hand, it now had as much value to him as a plate of sand.

    The captain of his Farstriders had fallen. Unilaterally defeated. Shindig had failed. Again.

    Looking up from his plate of what he had once considered food, Shindig looked into the eyes of his concerned daughter. Her deep brown eyes that all of his children had possessed, so different from his own light green. The same brown eyes as Meme.

    Oh, Titans, the wonders you work, and the hidden blessings within them. The omnipresent reminder of his greatest joys and his greatest failures, right there within those eyes.

    No. Shindig had not failed, yet. It was a set back, but salvageable. Shindig had hoped that Warlord Shades would be able to surmount the obstacle that was Charlie, but obviously he'd allowed his ideals to get ahead of his practicality. Or perhaps it was his faith, in the Titan's blessing or in their design. No, theory crafting had to come later. But obviously, Shindig had miscalculated combat values. Not against the still unknown invaders, but against Charlie.

    After all, only Charlie could have performed the impossible actions that had happened the past several turns.

    When Whatever fell, King Shindig had felt a type of... dissonance is the only word that would come close to that sensation, in his sense as the ruler of the side. It had only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to corrupt his sense of what side had taken Whatever. And the wholesale croaking of skilled Farstriders in the field. Finding them so swiftly, and disposing of them so surely.

    It could only have been Charlie. Shindig knew this. Because he had once made such liberal use of Charlie's services that he had a small measure of his capabilities, enough knowledge to know for a fact that there is nearly nothing Charlie can't do when paid enough.

    When the impossible occurred, you would find Charlie close by. And so Shindig had risked his captain, to see how the Shindig of today measured up against Charlie. It was foolish in hindsight, a bit of competitive immaturity. But Shindig had needed to know. Yet now was not the time for self-recriminations nor inner reflection. It was the time for action. The location where Warlord Shades had fallen in battle could only indicate one course of action, one path of attack that was profitable enough for Charlie to get involved in such a risky and long term assault.

    Their target was Everclear itself. Charlie was aiming for the capital and her treasury as the pay off, or, at the very least, a "modest" percentage of the treasury.

    An army was on it's way. And thanks to Warlord Shades' sacrifice, Shindig knew. Not his enemy's numbers, nor their plan, but Shindig now had proper warning and the time to make preparations.

    "Art," said Shindig, ignoring and quieting the entire dining table with one word. "You have until start of turn tomorrow to hire a reliable Lookamancer. Save what Shmuckers you can, but come back with one we can rely on."

    Art's face went pale and stiff. He nibbled his lip for the briefest of moments, stood up and said, "I'd better get to the Magic Kingdom now then."

    "Father?" questioned Sasha.

    "One moment, Art," said Shindig. And then he willed an action as part of his role as ruler of the side, and Art's personal wallet was filled. "Now you may go."

    Art's face was appalled, horrified, and confused. He'd been alive long enough, heard enough stories in the Magic Kingdom, even helped some down and outers when he could to know exactly what such an action meant. But he was compelled by the Order inherent in the King's conversational sentence and left the room without saying a word, looking like he'd be sick at a moment's notice.

    "Father, what did you just do?"


    And both Sasha and Dame Montoya's wallets were filled to capacity as well, and they gasped with the shock.

    "Dame Montoya, organize all the elves in the capitol to begin marching when our turn starts. I am popping another hundred of each tribe this turn, and I want them outfitted with High King Boots before leaving."

    The High King Boots were another benefit to the side's Dirtamancer. He dabbled in Dollamancy, knowing only the basics of the craft and the Stuffed Shirts were the most advanced form his magic took. The Dirtamancer had originally done so for the sake of being able to make his own Flannel shirts, but branched out a little bit. One of the things he'd invented was the High King Boot, crafted especially for Shindig who was the only non-Natural Ally unit in the side that did not have the forestry movement special. The boots had the most basic of Movement magic in them, mitigating the penalties for forest terrain on non-forestry units. Shindig still remembered the conversation where Art had insisted on a specific name for the boot type, calling it Branding. So the High King Boots were made and named. Shindig was wearing a pair now, with a dim, almost unnoticeable HiKi on the side with a fancy underline beneath the word.

    The boots were of high tactical value now, and the Dirtamancer had orders to use all his spare juice to produce more and magic hat them to the capitol whenever possible. The dungeon had rooms filled with crates of them, just for times like this, when the side needed an instant surplus of natural allies to be equipped.

    "You will leave for the fortress of Neverever with Everclear's garrison, the knighthood, the flyers, and all but ten of each of the tribes. The garrison of Eveready will march to meet you at Neverever to intercept the enemy."

    Dame Maple was reeling from the shock of such a drastic change of plans from the previous day. "My Lord," she managed to squeeze out, Duty compelling her, "The reinforcements from Everbilt have not yet arrived. Such a move would leave the capitol with the barest of defenses. You would be vulnerable."

    "Are you questioning my orders?"

    Dame Maple blanched, looking into the eyes of her king. Eyes she had never seen before, with a naked ferocity and urgency that had never before been directed at her, and she froze.

    "Yes!" shouted Sasha. "You cannot ask me to leave you unprotected, father, not without good reason!"

    "I have ordered it, is that not good enough!?"

    "No! What is going on! Why are you doing this, father? Why!?"

    Shindig looked his daughter in the eyes, his heretofore unknown look boring into her. But she didn't back down. A worthy successor to her eye's Signamancy. "We have an enemy coming for us, and you are to meet him in the field."

    "But Neverever is no where close to However, father. It's the west side's final fortress, why would you-"

    "Their target was never However. Was it, my Lord?" asked Dame Maple as she finally caught her breath.

    "...Warlord Shades has proven the raids were merely a feint. Judging by his coordinates, the invaders have only one goal. A strike at the capital while bypassing all other fortifications. As such, I will be having you meet them in the field with Neverever as the staging point. Farstrider Cam will join you there to command the remaining Farstriders."

    "Cam?" asked Sasha, utterly confused. "Warlord Shades is the captain of the Farstriders, why would Cam be the one to command them?"

    "Because Warlord Grey Shades has been defeated by the invaders, and he elected Cam to replace him at the last strategy meeting." Shindig did not hesitate in his response, stunning Sasha with his blunt words. Sasha turned her head to look at Dame Maple, to see if she was as stunned as she, but saw that the captain of the knighthood had inferred this already. In hindsight, Sasha understood, she realized. Why else would her father call for a Lookamancer so soon before the promised time granted to Warlord Shades had ended. It was because he'd been croaked, like all the other Farstriders.

    Sasha leaned back in her chair so fast it was closer to a fall, and just stared at empty air, reading the contents of her wallet over and over again. And she understood now, the actions of a ruler. Her father was preparing for the fall of the side. Everything was so clear, so horrifyingly clear now.

    "Dame Montoya, go see to the logistics of my orders."

    "Yes, my Lord."

    As Dame Maple stood, Shindig finished the second half of his order to her. "And make sure to stay stacked with my daughter at all times while off turn."

    Dame Maple's face went even more rigid, and it was a few moments before she swallowed hard, and softly said, "Yes, my Lord."

    With Dame Maple leaving the room, Shindig stood up and said to his daughter, "Please excuse me. There are some dispatches I must write," and left his daughter alone in the dining hall, staring at empty air as the food grew cold on the table.

    The only sound in the chamber was that of Jeans clearing the plates, having sensed the meal had come to an end.

    * * * * *

    Cam had had an interesting climb in order to get into position to watch the city of Dipstick belonging to Shortbus. The city lay close to Stopgap's borders, and was of very little strategic importance. The only reason either side wanted it was to increase their city count. In the long history between Stopgap and Shortbus, that city had changed hands more often than can be counted by anyone. The reason being how tactically insignificant the city was, meaning there was never a reason to assign many resources to guarding it for very long.

    Everclear was counting on that in sending Cam to reconnoiter, to get troop deployment and number information to sell to Stopgap and start a little dust up between the sides. Drain their treasuries a little so they'll have other things on their minds instead of attempting to take chunks of Everclear's territory for themselves. It was a tactic Everclear found enormously successful. Selling just enough information on "easier targets" to the neighboring sides to keep them interested in warring with each other and not with Everclear.

    And from that vantage point on the granite cliff face, Cam could see that Shortbus had indeed pulled most of their veteran forces and were popping basic infantry to prop up the city's numbers while they were away. Should be information worth paying for.

    Wrapped in the granite grey tinted Farstrider's cloak on an outcropping, Cam diligently counted troop numbers and types in preparation for writing the dispatches to King Shindig and Grey Shades. Then Cam's hat rumbled.

    A slim hand wearing a green jacket sleeve slid out of the overlapped folds of the cloak, removed the beret from inside the cowl, and a young woman's voice whispered, "Houdini" while the other hand tapped the underside of the hat with a tiny wand. A piece of paper materialized from inside the hat which Cam pulled out and unfolded. Cam left her red hat in her lap to minimize exposure while she read the message.

    Warlady Cam, you are hereby promoted to the position of Captain of the Farstriders, as per the recommendation of the previous Captain, Warlord Grey Shades, may the Titans have mercy on his soul. As such, you are hereby recalled from your current assignment. You will soon receive orders for movement and mount a waiting bluebird to begin traveling to Neverever to take commend of the remaining Farstriders in harrying the enemy that has robbed us of the previous Farstrider Captain.

    With the Titan's blessings.
    Shindig, King of Everclear.

    And pressed into the paper in the bottom right hand was a seal of wax, the King's signet ring imprinted in it. There could be no mistake.

    The first tear smeared King Shindig's signature, and the second smeared the Titan's blessings. The third and fourth fell on blank parchment that had been accidentally crushed by shaking hands.

    It was unbelievable, but there could be no mistake. Grey had been croaked. The man that saved her life, took her in when both her mind and her side had been destroyed, gave her a purpose and a home to serve, had been croaked. Grey was most certainly the most important person she had ever had in all the time she could remember, perhaps even for her entire life. He'd been there and helped her when she'd needed it most, when there was absolutely no reason for him to help her. Too save her. Cam was not a royal, she'd never had a real family, but Grey had felt like an older brother to her. He'd been precious in a way that Cam had never felt about anyone else, not even among the other Farstriders who accepted her as one of their own.

    The one wisp of hair Cam could never seem to tie back shook under the cover of the cowl as Cam continued to shake from her silent tears, tears that could not stop. She had nothing else she could do until start of turn but mourn. When the turn did finally start, and Cam began to climb the cliff face to start the long trip back to Everclear territory, Cam had come to her resolution. She was going to do everything humanly possible to live up to Grey's legacy, and to make the ones that croaked him pay for robbing her of her family.

    Cam's feelings were not unique that day. As the dispatches rolled out across the realm of Everclear, into the hats of the Farstrider Warlords, there was not a one that was not filled with sadness. Every Farstrider that learned of their captain's fate mourned his loss heavily, and then was filled with a fiery determination to take revenge.

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    Moving stillness.

    That was the only way his mind could describe it.

    The sensation of floating, moving inevitably from one place to another, through a force beyond his own power.

    Grey Shades could only conclude one thing. He'd been croaked and was being drawn to the Titans for judgment. Briefly, Grey's mind reflected back on his past. Victories and acts of careful inaction intermingled. Moments of daring and moments of cautious silence overlapped. But one thing Grey could be sure of is that he had never acted out of fear. He'd lived longer than most units in the world, and was still only level 7 for all that time. But his responsibilities had not lain on the field of combat.

    He had served loyally all his turns, placing Duty first and foremost. If there was anything he could call a regret it would be the fact that he would be leaving Lydia behind, but hopefully a plea to the Titans would have her rejoin him in the future, when her own judgment came. Oddly enough, never telling Princess Sasha his feelings for her had not counted as a regret. It was better that she never know.

    Would Grey be able to see to the City of Heroes on his approach? He couldn't presume to be worthy of such a destination, but it would be nice to see it, just once, before judgment. And so Grey began to struggle to open his eyes - if whatever a spirit had could be called eyes.

    He saw blue. An endless and warm sky. Not a cloud marred the perfect horizon. It was perfection itself.

    Except for a bit of cordage that split the view in half.


    Grey then eyeballed his surroundings more carefully, and came to the realization that he had awoken inside of a capture net. Some more eyeballing and he could see the Archons, Emma in the lead, with Elle and Anna holding either end of the netting that was cocooning him. Turning his head a little showed that they were in flight. Very far up, just over the tops of the clouds, high enough to croak a unit instantly should he fall. The Archons didn't seem to be taking any chances in escorting their prisoner, which meant the next time Grey would see the ground would be in the center of an enemy camp or stronghold.

    No hope of escape, then. It looked like Grey really would be standing before the Titans before the day ends.

    Grey began working his tongue into the hollow of his right cheek where the jaw, the gum line, and the flesh all met. It's in that spot that Farstriders kept their poison capsules, filled with a gentle but fast acting poison that one of Art's many Florist friends made for him, on commission. The only times a Farstrider did not have one of those capsules in their cheek was when they were in town, eating a meal, or sleeping - and sometimes even then. No Farstrider was permitted to be captured, as the terrain of the Evergreen was a closely guarded secret.

    And so Grey dug out the capsule, bit down on the shatter resistant glass, and swallowed the poison to croak a handful of seconds later. Or at least he should have.

    For some reason, Grey couldn't find the darn little thing. Did it slip out of position after he'd been blasted into that tree?

    Grey's intensely probing tongue ended up causing him to move his head, and even his body writhed just enough to catch the attention of Elle, who was holding the foot end of the netting. With a very slight double take, she looked directly into Grey's eyes and gave a friendly, and really quite beautiful smile as her hair was being swept by the winds. If it were not for her Signmancy showing her as an enemy, thus naturally putting Grey in an aggressive frame of mind, he would have been completely charmed by such a smile.

    "He's awake," called Elle to the others. Emma turned to glance over her shoulder, but paid Grey no mind. Anna though, looked Grey in the face, and apparently noticed the bulge in his cheek as she said, "Looking for something?"

    Anna reached into the breast pocket of her sky blue jacket and pulled out the capsule, with a wink and a kiss that somehow made Grey shudder, as if he'd been violated. He probably wouldn't have minded if it had been Emma or Elle, but something about Anna just put Grey off. Like there was some deeper problem with that unit that made her beauty unattractive to him.

    ...An unattractive Archon, huh? Who'd have thunk.

    But Grey said nothing in reply. He simply glowered at the Archons in turn. Anna didn't seem to care about his mood and continued on with, "You really thought we wouldn't know about them? After all the 'Striders we've croaked?"

    So it was the Archons that had been eliminating his Farstriders, as Grey had thought. Floorin' had to have hired Charlie to take care of Everclear's scouts, because the Floorin' scouts he'd seen, probably the best the side had to offer since their Heir was there, were very disappointing in quality. But just how deeply involved in the invasion was Charlie? Perhaps the Archons would drop a few more crumbs of information for him.

    "Ann," snapped Emma, from her place in front. The Archons stopped talking then, at least audibly. Grey could see the faces of Elle and Anna change in what could only be a conversation. The Archons were Thinkagramming each other, or something. So much for overhearing information. But even so... Grey was still picking up something at least. You don't survive as a scout without learning how to read body language, since you're usually too far away from an enemy force to hear what's said.

    Anna was very nearly a loose cannon. Willful, and unpleasant. Doesn't like bowing to authority but was probably doing it anyway because of Duty or Loyalty. Probably Loyalty, as Grey's heard Archons are fanatically loyal to Charlie and all his works, more so than any other Side he's encountered, except maybe the one that originally popped Cam. Probably self involved too, if you take her Signamancy makeup into consideration. The most likely to shirk her Duty in the group, but doesn't pull punches in combat. A vicious weasel.

    Emma was most definitely the leader, and not just for her Leadership special. It seemed that she was the one keeping Anna in check, which may be the most time consuming part of her position in the team. It's what's kept her focused, making sure that she's ready for any slip up or unexpected occurrence. Whatever traits she had as an individual were either being squashed by her role, or she didn't have a personality outside of being the wary leader of the pack to begin with. Team leader and watchdog. High pressure, high fatigue. If someone were to emotionally snap in this group, it would be her.

    Elle was definitely the support role, both in ability and personality. Based on the pursuit beforehand, she was primarily Foolamancy based, but probably use to moving around the field to cover for the others. The adaptable one in the group, but not the strong one. Her face was constantly taking on the look of someone trying to settle another's dispute. A peacemaker and an ambusher, not a point man. But to make up for it, she's probably the most mentally stable and reliable person in the team. And the most approachable one.

    "So, you wanted me alive, then?" Grey asked Elle.

    "Well, we did net you after all," was her frisky reply.

    "Well, yeah, but what I don't get is why. I'm just a scout, after all. I doubt I'm worth much to anyone."

    "Oh," replied Elle, flashing a smile, "You're worth much more than you thin-"

    "Elle, don't go answering questions for free," said the leader, in a voice of finality. After a sheepish "Sorry," Elle quieted down. So much for that, thought Grey, but Emma smugly added a little something at the very end. "Well, if he really wants to know why we captured him, I dare say he'll find out from the man himself."

    That set the girls giggling. An inside joke for them? Odd.

    But Grey did get something from them. They were paid extra to capture him alive. Him. Not just a Farstrider, since King Shindig said the others were croaked in the field, but Grey Shades. What did they say before? He's a Warlord, so hold back some?

    Someone wants something from him. A warlord of Everclear. But what?

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

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    Grey landed with an audible "dump" on the turf in the center of the head of the Floorin' invasion column, amidst a few stacks of basic infantry led by a red haired warlord with a rather impressive beard, minus the chin whiskers. The process of removing the capture net and stripping Grey of his weaponry was quicker than he'd expected it to be, and he'd been disturbingly helpless through the process. Even if he had not been in chains, there was nothing Grey could have done against so many alert units.

    As the last of his belongings were tossed into a portable chest, Grey overheard what the red haired warlord said to the team of Archons behind him. Indeed, it would have been hard not to overhear it since the warlord spoke much, much louder than he needed too.


    Emma, the lead Archon temporarily removed her hands from her ears to reply, quickly placing them back when she was done speaking.

    "I'm sorry, Yellin', but if we want to support the feint like we were asked, then we're going to need to spend the night in the field. Please do give the Prince our deepest thanks."


    The Archons turned and took to the sky as soon as possible, Anna making a screwed face and the others tittering. More inside jokes no doubt. Grey was led the other direction by Warlord Yellin' and a stack of pikers, who painfully wiggled their fingers inside their ears behind the warlord's back. Grey would have done the same if his hands had not been bound behind his own back.

    The stack made it's way through a smattering of tents and cooking fires that had been set up wherever the stumps and uncut trees allowed enough space until they arrived in front of one tent in particular. It was moderately sized, circular, and had four layers of cloth instead of the typical one or two layers. Grey had heard of these kinds of tents before, with extra layers to muffle the sounds of cries to allow peace for the rest of an encampment. The tent was either the camp dwelling for Warlord Yellin', or Grey was going to be tortured. Unfortunately, torture was the more likely answer, Grey decided as he was led to a solid post holding up the tent's center and his chains were passed through it to secure him in place.

    Warlord Yellin' placed a hand on Grey's shoulder, and gently uttered a "GOOD LUCK" before exiting the tent leaving two sentries behind just outside the open tent flaps. Grey spent the next minute or so wincing hard to try and work the pain out of his eardrums, wondering if the torture had already begun, but the next hour or so passed by uneventfully. About ten minutes after the horns to signal Floorin's end of turn blew, a somewhat stout white skinned and white haired warlord wearing a black coat and neck cloth over his armor entered the tent with one of the sentries, and gave the piker a non-vocalized order. The piker with short brown hair leaned her spear against the tent's wall and pulled out a small dagger. She proceeded to cut open Grey's undershirt, tearing the fabric apart to reveal the whole of his chest. After doing so, the piker stopped, somewhat stunned. Then she turned her head slightly to the side, confused, and looked up into Grey's face with her mouth open as if to ask a question. The glare from Grey's eyes dissuaded her though, and the piker stepped back, took up her spear, and returned to her post outside.

    The white skinned warlord had not given Grey a second glance as he was preparing a hanging leather container, tying it to a loose cord of rope near the entrance to the tent, his back turned to Grey. He was obviously making preparations for something, but they were cut short by the sound of heavy trodding outside the tent, and shortly thereafter in walked a man flanked by four knights in full gear. That man was Prince Humperdink himself, wearing flowing light blue casual wear, and he began speaking the instant he entered the quickly filling tent.

    "Salutations, Warlord Shades. I'm very glad to-"

    Prince Humperdink's smile instantly changed to a pair of pursed lips as his face screwed up in confusion. It was not just the Prince's face, but the faces of all six units that were lined up facing Grey were now showing pure confusion as they stared at Grey's chest.

    Oh, Titans, it was awkward.

    The Prince and his retinue then all tilted their heads to further study Grey's chest ink. One of the knights whispered half a sentence to his comrade before his own incomprehension caused him to shut his mouth. The Prince raised a finger as he opened his own mouth to ask a question, but instead just tilted his head to the other side, completely dumbfounded. If Grey had not been chained in place, he'd have run from the tent in shame, but as it was he just stood there on the verge of croaking from embarrassment. After what felt like a full hundred turns, the Prince finally asked his question of, "What is that?"

    "What does it look like?" replied Grey, realizing only after speaking that he'd done himself no good.

    "It looks like... a very large picture of a Titan, relieving himself on a latrine, while eating an enormous sandwich."

    "...Yeah, that's what it is." Yup, torture.

    The Prince waited for a few moments before asking, with all the possible nuances possible for the word, "Why?"

    "Well, I was kind'a drunk at the time..."

    The Prince uttered a sound while slowly nodding his head. He then cheerfully suggested, "Shall we pretend that that isn't there?"

    "Yes. Please," said Grey, nodding enthusiastically.

    "Well, Warlord Grey Shades, your sense of art not withstanding," Grey groaned audibly, "I am very happy to meet you, especially like this. I was wondering if you would like to defect to my side?"

    Grey's will and eyes instantly went hard as rock. His first instinct was to say "no," but he mastered it. It was in Grey's nature to acquire information after all, and instead asked, "Why?"

    "Because I want Farstriders of my own, of course!" The Prince beamed happiness at the so very simple answer and continued on, quite excited. "You see, it's my hobby to take the most useful parts of whatever side I conquer for myself. Why, Wyatt Rice here was once the Chief Warlord of Carboload before I annihilated their side. He has been an invaluable addition to Floorin' ever since."

    The pale man bowed slightly, his pink eyes locking with Grey's as if to verify the Prince's tale.

    "And since the most outstanding, and unusual, part of Everclear are their scouts, why, I just couldn't resist taking one for myself, even if it did require an additional bounty with Charlie."


    "Or more, if possible."

    "What about the Farstriders that were croaked by the Archons before now? Why didn't you have any of them taken alive?"

    The Prince snorted in amusement, his eyebrows lifting high, and then said, "Why would I ever settle for simple scouts when I can have the warlords?" shrugging his shoulders, palms lifted upward and fingers splayed to completely drive home how idiotic a question Grey had just asked was.

    "So," exclaimed the Prince, as if he had not just turned Grey's stomach with his attitude towards Grey's carefully trained units, "Since you will soon be out of a job when I conquer Everclear, how about you sign on with me. After a few loyalty spells, I can grant you the same semi-autonomy you were given under your previous ruler. It would basically be a lateral move, but under much more capable leadership. I'd jump at the chance if I were you. What do you say?"

    The Prince's smile was full of joyful expectation. As if his blunt charisma was all it took to have his way. Was the man always like that?

    Grey Shades said nothing. He just stared at the Prince.

    Finally the Prince's smile started to become forced, feeling the weight of the silence. Finally he said, "Well, we can leave that for later," and snapped his fingers twice. In walked a short bald retainer carrying an end table with the chest holding Grey's equipment resting upon it, set the table in an open spot, opened the lid, and then exited the tent. Conversationally, the Prince spoke while sifting through the chest's contents.

    "I had a chance to peruse your belongings before, and there are a few things in here that I am just beside myself to ask you about. This for instance," the Prince exclaimed while plucking something out of the chest, "This is a Magic Hat, correct? How many of the Farstriders have them?"


    "I mean, I can imagine it would get very expensive, very quickly, should all your scouts possess one."

    The Prince smiled winningly. Grey stared blankly.

    "Well, what about this one?" asked the Prince as he picked up a round flat container. Opening it, he showed the contents as being a form of disgusting black sludge. "What is this? Hmm? A form of poison perhaps? I've heard your people sometimes perform assassinations, after all."

    The Prince cocked an eyebrow. Grey lifted his chin.

    "Well. What about weaponry?" The Prince picked up Grey's sword, and exposed a hands breadth of the blade. "While the enchantment is not as good as my own, it is appropriate for one of your standing. And the black metal does in fact seem quite sinister. Heh, the better to hide yourself, my friend?"

    The Prince chuckled. Grey sniffed.

    Replacing the sword, the Prince took up another sheathed weapon. "I was most surprised by the sheer number of daggers you possess. I mean, what could you possibly use them all for? But this one in particular was striking." The Prince unsheathed the dagger and the long black metal caught the light of the powerball in the tent, reflected like obsidian along the honed double sided blade that radiated a dangerous enchanted killing edge. The brushed metal of the grip, knuckle guard, and jet black stone in the pommel took in the light, seeming to be more like solid shadow than metal. It held an intensely deadly beauty, a companion piece to Grey's sword and a reward for his work leading the last charge of the Everlong War at Everglade. Grey had tried to refuse the gifted blades, the damage to the side's treasury must have been enormous, but King Shindig had not only insisted, but ordered he accept it.

    Grey had no idea just how much his weapons meant to him until they were being handled by someone else.

    "I really like this one. I think I'll keep it. I can use it to open letters. But then again, my friend, should you join me, I may just gift this back to you in a few hundred turns. A reward for your hard work and loyalty?"

    The Prince's voice was probing. Grey's eyes were glaring.

    The Prince sighed, slipped the dagger into his belt, and gave an upward nod of his head. A silent order, as one of the knights immediately stepped forward to Grey's left side and punched him across the face with his gauntleted hand. Grey could hear the Prince utter a "Hm-hmmm!" of delight while he himself was seeing stars. When Grey's vision became less blotchy, he looked up and saw the knight standing close, glaring down at him menacingly. Grey twisted his right arm as far behind his back as he could while pivoting his hips, sending a low left hook straight into the knight's kidney with his full weight behind it. The knight immediately dropped to the ground gasping in pain. The other three knights immediately drew their swords and closed in front of the Prince to screen him as they prepared to fight.

    "Stop that! Stop right now, what are you, a bunch of barbarians?"

    Admonishing his own loyal bodyguards, the Prince pushed them out of his way and got them to sheath their weapons. The Prince then stepped forward towards Grey, ignoring the fourth knight picking himself off the ground and said with a radiant smile into Grey's face, a full head or more shorter, "Oh, I knew I'd like you." He snapped his fingers, and said, "You know, I just had an idea. Since you don't like to answer questions, why don't you ask them. I'll tell you the answers, and then you'll see just how great a side Floorin' is to join! Go ahead, ask me anything!"

    Grey was stunned, and his previously expressionless face showed it. Grey's face may have resembled the faces of the units behind the Prince. Could Prince Humperdink be serious, allowing his captive to interrogate him? Well, that could be easily answered just by asking a question... but what would the Prince gain from this? Grey looked into the Prince's face suspiciously as he let his mind dwell on the act rather than the potential gains from it.

    Asking questions and answering them. What is the significance of asking a question? The answer, is to learn something you previously didn't know. So the person asking the question would gain something, knowledge, from the answer. If it was a helpful answer. But what would the person being asked the question gain? He'd gain... knowledge. He'd know what the person asking the questions wanted to know, and as a result, what the asker did not know.

    The Prince was probably trying to learn what Everclear knew about the invasion by gauging Grey's questions. It was another form of interrogation, and potentially faster to gain information from than any other method. The safest course to take would be to say nothing at all.

    "What are those things you've been cutting the trees down with?" asked Grey, hoping to fill in the blanks of the current situation. After all, it's in the nature of a scout to investigate.

    "Oh, those," said the Prince offhandedly, yet with some semblance of pride. "The Chief Turnamancer made those, perhaps you've heard of him? Count Ruin of Guesthouse?"

    Grey shook his head no, even though he had heard of the man. Grey wanted to play dumb as much as possible so the Prince would underestimate Everclear's position. Anyway, the Count was in some of the scouting reports, but not many. Count Ruin was a recluse who worked more on inventive ways to torture units than field work, according to Art. The Count seemed to have something he called "The Machine" with many turning parts to inflict a type of wound that could not be seen, nor directly affect a unit's Hits, allowing it to be used for extended periods of time. Most of what Art knew about the Count was learned from other Signamancers, as the Count had published a book concerning the mental and emotional effect that torture had on units of various types. The book caused a rather unfavorable stir amongst the barbarian Signamancers of the Magic Kingdom who published it, and a very favorable stir amongst the barbarian Turnamancers who seemed to pass copies around to one another.

    "Well, no matter," said the Prince, waving a dismissive hand. "It's nearly impossible to pry the man away from his machine, but he's quite skilled at fulfilling my little requests. When I told him I needed a way through heavy wood tiles, he came up with those little beauties. He calls them Turnsaws. I dare say, it was the revolutionary invention that made this attack even possible."

    "Are they difficult to make?" asked Grey, leadingly.

    "How would I know? I'm not a caster," replied the Prince leisurely. Grey's hope of getting an approximation of those Turnsaws numbers quickly disappeared, so he tried a different approach.

    'How much did you have to pay Charlie to map the Everclear? It must have been quite a sum to get him to chart the entire area for you."

    There was no way those scouts could have found a safe path without half, or all, of them falling prey to the trap hexes. Only Charlie and his flying Archons could have navigated the forest in safety enough to find a clear path through.

    "Oh, it was pricey, no doubt, but I was able to get Charlie to give me a discount."

    "How did you swing that?" asked Grey, actually impressed.

    "Well, I only had him chart a few pathways for us. Fastest path from A to B, and so on, with a Trapless guarantee."

    Grey was no longer impressed. Having only one path you can travel is the same as having no choices in where you can go. But if there was a guarantee...

    "If Charlie gave you a guarantee of there being no traps in the way, why scout ahead?"

    "Trust, but verify," said the Prince, sounding sensible again. "Just because I have a guarantee of there not being any traps doesn't mean there are none. And besides, I wouldn't want to walk into an ambush, now would I?"

    Which meant that the Prince actually didn't trust Charlie completely, which was sound. But the Archons...

    "Why not have those Archons scout ahead? Their skills are... quite reliable. And I believe I overheard that yelling fellow say they were under a particular contract? The Full Service?"

    Grey knew about that particular service, dating back to the days when the Farstriders began to sell their services to other sides. King Shindig had had a hand in forming the contract rights of employers, and one of the options, he mentioned, was like Charlie's Full Service, except no "canoodling." The scout's every action would act as if their Loyalty was to the hiring side, except in case that acting on behalf of said side interfered with their original loyalty, or was certain to result in the scout's being croaked.

    There were other price listings for Certain-Croak missions.

    Anyway, if the Prince had hired those Archons for Full Service, then he should be able to trust them at least to scout out the tiles ahead.

    "Oh, no, I have them assigned to destroying your scouts."

    "Yeah, about that," Grey recalled the words he heard as he was blacking out earlier that day. "How are the Archons finding my Farstriders? How did they find me?"

    The Prince cheerfully said, "Oh, the Archons don't find the scouts, Charlie does."


    "Yes, I made a separate deal with Charlie to pay him a bounty depending on the type and number of Everclear scouts that he can destroy during the course of the attack. He made it quite clear during negotiations that despite the Full Service contract, the Archons would only be as effective as my own orders. But for an additional fee, Charlie would be able to devote more resources to locating the scouts, and for every successful croaking, a bonus payment would be made."

    ...Then wouldn't that mean the Full Service contract was meaningless?

    "If that's the case, then wouldn't a normal contract with the Archons be just as effective, and cheaper?"

    "Ah, you see," said the Prince wistfully, "My bed gets so lonely at night, away from all my courtiers. Someone has to keep it warm. And the more the merrier, you know."

    That's all? That was the entire reason? Grey knew that Floorin' was flush with funds from all their vassal sides paying tribute, but wasn't that just wasteful? No, no, there were other things to ask about.

    "What about those giant orange things? The troop carriers?"

    "Oh, yes, handy little siege devices. I call them Overgourds, since they look like flying pumpkins. Pretty witty, eh?"

    Grey waited for a moment before asking, only slightly impatiently, "What are they? Where did they come from?"

    "Oh, I had my casters make them. I told Count Ruin I wanted a floating battle platform, and he set our Casters to work."

    Grey knew from the intelligence files - that Art had supplemented with Magic Kingdom rumors - that Floorin' had a Carnimancer named Earl Vince of Cecil, but nothing else, and the Wierdomancer Minmax, who was something of a disgrace to his profession. He'd been banished to the Magic Kingdom for a time because of his experiments to use Weirdomancy to alter the Croaked status of units, and was only allowed to return to his side after he'd "learned his lesson." But Grey knew nothing more.

    "Those units are actually Magic Items, formed from a framework made by the craftsmen, and then given some mishmash of enchantments that... honestly, I don't really care about. The final result is useful and I don't really care about the rest. As for where they came from," said the Prince as his grin widened, "We've had them for many a hundred turn. I actually had a barbarian Foolamancer dedicated to keeping them veiled whenever they were not in use, as my own little precaution against..." the Prince halted for a meaningful pause as he looked purposefully at Grey. "Prying eyes. You have no idea how annoying it is to always have your forces watched, counted, and have that information sold off to all the neighboring sides."

    A hard knot formed in Grey's gut. "Is that why? Why you're attacking Everclear? Because you got fed up with our Farstriders?"

    "One of many reasons, but not the most important," replied the Prince, tilting his head in consideration. "Charlie's projection of your side's treasury was another, but honestly..." The Prince paused to muster the full weight of the words he would speak. "I want to cause some chaos."

    The Prince stood there, smirking at Grey until the unit had tried and failed to take this in. And Grey replied, wholly sincere, "...I don't understand."

    "Yes, I'm sure you don't. It took even me a long time after Floorin's boarders touched those of Everclear's to realize the fact that your side, and it's forest, were a stabilizing factor to this entire region. It's counter intuitive, I know. But having an entire expanse of terrain that is so deadly that no army is willing to march through it is almost the same as having an impregnable wall around an entire side of one's territory. None of the sides touching the forest have any real military build up to protect against the hermits of the Evergreen! Not Shortbus, Lowrider, Guilter, Stopgap, Shatnerfreude, or even Floorin'! It wasn't until after I had seen the troop deployment files I bought that I understood. No one. Is willing to attack anyone else. Through the Evergreen. And that has to stop."

    Grey felt like he was drowning. It's wrong, it's all wrong. But one thing stood out in what the Prince had said, and Grey had to ask. "Bought? From Charlie?"

    "Yes, actually. It was a bulk discount package, it was obliged to be, because no one else was willing to buy the darn info! But reading those files, I came to understand the role the Evergreen forest had come to occupy in this region. And the way your King had been manipulating the surrounding sides all the time. Tell me, Warlord Shades, did it never seem peculiar that the size and number of sides near your Evergreen forest is nearly identical to how it was near the end of your Everlong War?"

    Grey couldn't breathe. The weight of what Prince Humperdink was saying was pressing down on his mind and soul.

    "No," said the Prince in self satisfaction, "It wouldn't be apparent to one who was merely in the field. But the fact is, that in all the time that you and your Farstriders have been actively interfering in the activities of sides outside the confines of your forest, your King has been using your reports and selling your services in a game to keep the entire region around him in a perpetual stalemate. Every time one side grows too powerful, the Farstriders scout their weaknesses and sell the reports. Every time a side grows too weak, Everclear sells lists of easy targets for them to hit. Every time an outside force begins to affect the region, your Farstriders are hired out to counteract it. It really is quite impressive. But it will only continue to get in the way."

    "Of what?" asked Grey breathlessly.

    "Of taking over this entire region, of course. Despite my best efforts, I've only reduced Lowrider to vassalage in this particular area in the seven hundred or so turns that Floorin' has expanded to this region. True, I've been distracted with cowing that impertinent Epicphail to the north and that last war with Guilter, but really, it's because I haven't been able to employ my usual tricks in an area that is as well monitored as the Evergreen region. So, I'm just going to destroy Everclear, take her cities, sell them to the highest bidders, and let everyone fight to their heart's content. And with your King and 'Farstriders' gone, or rather, working for me, I'll be able to use my old strategies again!"


    "Yes, yes, one can't possibly conquer Erf, or at least," said the Prince with a shrug and an affectation of humility, "A modest part of it, without a proper strategy. Mine is to trick two sides into fighting one another, and then swoop in after they're weakened and conquer them both. Then I have their rulers sign vassalage contracts at sword point, allowing me to have all the power and all the Shmuckers of that territory, with none of the diminishing returns of having too many cities. It's a strategy that has served me well many times over."

    Grey was having a hard time processing everything. In fact, it seemed almost like he was hearing too much all at once, like Prince Humperdink was intentionally unloading all this information on Grey instead of allowing Grey to question the Prince. But Grey did have an important question. "That... doesn't make any sense. A tactic like that is practically impossible to pull off."

    "Ooooh? And why is that?" asked the Prince, obviously having fun with Grey's confusion.

    Grey hesitated for a moment, collected his composure, and said, "Because just about every side out there is unwilling to fight a war to the point of exhausting themselves so badly that a third party, one known to be a conqueror, can step in and snatch up both sides of the conflict. If only one side is on the losing end, then yes, they're not long for the world and other sides may jump in to take a chunk of the fallout for themselves. But if both sides are losing units to the point where they're vulnerable to an outside force, they'll either make peace or join against the invading third party."

    Grey spoke from experience on that last one. The only break from the Everlong War happened when a third side tried to invade the forest during the turmoil. Everclear and Everglade made a temporary ceasefire under the condition of the extermination of the third party. The outsiders were croaked to a man, and the war began again, bloodier than before for the brief pause.

    Prince Humperdink smiled at that, the kind of smile that a jag that just ate a magpie might have, and said, "What if, every time there was a chance of peace, or temporarily setting hostilities aside, there was an attack by one or both of the warring sides?"

    "That would be idiocy!"

    "Why, pray tell?"

    "Because it would keep the fighting going, leaving the sides vulnerable to the third party's attack!"

    "Exactly!" cried the Prince with excitement. Grey was struck dumb, and the Prince used that opportunity to continue on another topic. "Now tell me, who attacked your city of, what was it, Whatever?"

    "It was Guilter."

    "You sound certain of that, why?"

    "Our scout found the remains of the battle, including the croaked soldiers of Guilter that had taken the city."

    The Prince had that smile again. "So it's because of a scout that just so happened to escape the Archons' attention and report back. Now, why do you trust that report?"

    Grey was stunned. It was like asking why he had faith in the Titans. "Because it was one of my Farstriders that wrote it! She saw the field of battle with her own eyes and sent back a report of what happened!"

    The Prince laughed to himself slightly. "Very well, you trust what your scout saw, and, likely, your King did as well. But you, Warlord Shades, have seen the true face of your aggressor. Now, ask yourself, why on Erf would Guilter agree to attack Everclear, just to act as a diversion for my personal benefit?"

    Grey answered immediately. "Because you forced them to, most certainly as a clause in the peace treaty you signed with them after your war."

    Prince Humperdink looked stunned and amazed, and seemed to look at something that was not really there as he said, "I could have done something like that. That would have been so much easier. Oh, I can't wait to break your will, Warlord, and then make you an advisor. Oh, that is brilliant!"

    Grey was stupefied. "What? You mean, you didn't coerce Guilter into attacking? Then why did you agree to a peace treaty, you were winning the war with Guilter."

    The Prince waved away the weight of Grey's question and replied offhandedly. "Oh, I started that war because I'd heard from our diplomatic courtiers that the new princess of Guilter was a woman with such looks and form, that one would never forget a glimpse in a hundred lifetimes. So of course I wanted to take her and bring her to my bed. I fought the Guilter armies until they had no choice but to field her, and the courtiers were right." The Prince started laughing even as he continued the story, the words cracking with mirth. "She was so Titans Cursed ugly that I'll never forget that hideous face, nor her dumpy body in all my life! I was so disappointed that I just sued for peace and signed the dotted line to be over and done with it!"

    The Prince shrugged his shoulders in resignation and said, "All the better anyway. I've had terrible luck with women lately. My last 'pet' was taken from me by a barbarian in black before I even had the chance to enjoy her. But no, Guilter did not attack Whatever, those were Floorin' soldiers."

    "But my Farstrider-" Grey cut himself off. No, Grey had complete faith in his Farstriders, and Brook was reliable. She reported what she saw, which means her eyes had been deceived. The Foolamancer then, the one that veiled the Overgourds. ...No, Brook would have been right on top of the bodies, checking them for documents and anything else. Casting a veil on that many slain units, all of them being checked up close by a Farstrider, at least one of the veils would have been blown. Which meant it was something else, but it would still have to have been magic. What else did Prince Humper-

    "The Carnymancer," Grey said with absolute certainty. "You had him break the Rules of Raiment."

    "Yes," hissed the Prince in complete satisfaction. "Oh. You have no idea how long I've been waiting for someone to catch that before I explained it. Oh, you're a fine catch. Yes. I've been having my units attack sides in the guise of other kingdoms. The 'attackers' deny it of course, but the bodies of the croaked are always more reliable than a king's word of honor. I've been using this strategy ever since I took power, and it has never failed me once. Vince has become very reliable with raiment rules, so whenever I need someone deceived, I always count on my Cecilian. And when I need a city sacked to keep a war going, well, Charlie's fee is roughly twice what I make back on the razing, but he developed a method to keep the rulers from realizing it was my side doing the sacking, thus, it is Shmuckers very well spent."

    Grey might have automatically asked "How" if his mind had been less unsettled by what he'd heard, but common sense answered the question for him. Charlie could do anything as long as you paid him enough. And this Prince had very obviously been doing just that, using enormous amounts of funds to have Charlie supplement his deceitful tactics and exploitative plans. If it was just that, it may not have left Grey so shaken, but it was more that just that.

    "Well! Now that you have run out of questions, it's my turn to ask," said the Prince, no, said Humperdink as he turned back to the chest and fished out a musical instrument of green glazed clay Grey had received from an Eager Elf Chief a long time ago. "What is this strange contraption?"

    Grey did not answer Humperdink as he just stared at the mockery of a royal that stood before him. Grey had been alive for a long time, he'd met a great many nobles and royals. Those who were not popped by Everclear had belonged to sides that were paying for Farstrider assistance. Those he had seen and not met were of enemy sides. But none of the nobles that Grey had encountered had left him feeling sickened like Humperdink had. Not even Prince Bretl had instilled these feelings, and he'd looked down his nose at everything the Farstriders worked for.

    Humperdink was a crude mockery of everything that Grey had come to think of as a Royal. He was completely self-interested, and willing to plunge his side into a war to satisfy his cod. Deceitful on a personal and national scale, with all his great military victories delivered through his dependence on a mercenary side. And Grey may be wrong, but there seemed to be a great deal of completely off-hand cruelty in the man, and no desire to treat anything around him as being more serious than a dried fig. He probably considered what wine he took with his meals to be more important than troop deployments and battle strategies, as he seemed overly fond of delegating anything and everything to others. Probably the only reason Humperdink was there in the tent right that moment was because he was happy with the idea of getting himself a new plaything, a new piece of property to delegate more matters of his side to. And had Humperdink really thought that being a braggart over all his worst qualities would be so endearing to Grey that it would win him over? The man could only be considered a masterful buffoon! A man with so many gifts from the Titans that he could only think of himself as an untouchable entity, and pissed away his sense of obligation to actually put any work towards anything.

    "My king was right," said Grey with determination, flat against his better judgment. "The Mandate of the Titans does not apply to all the royalty, but just those fit to rule. And you are not fit to rule a soiled latrine."

    Humperdink's face took on the look of indignant disappointment, then solidified into one of extreme annoyance. Humperdink then looked at one of his knights and jerked his chin upwards. The knight stepped forward and backhanded Grey with his mailed hand. Then smacked Grey again with his open palm, and then backhanded him again. Grey took at least a half dozen of these strikes, he couldn't count them because his head rung from the blows. Finally, Humperdink ordered an end to the battering, and Grey could just barely hear and see the not-so-royal prince say to the pale skinned warlord, "Yes, you're right. T'would be a pity to croak him here. Make him compliant."

    The warlord bowed, and Humperdink stepped out of the tent. There Humperdink stopped for a second and told the short haired stabber that she was to follow him to his own tent, and the stack left for good. The only ones left inside were Grey and the Warlord Rice. The warlord did not speak, and merely set about his business. The warlord picked the chest off the table and set it on the ground, far away from Grey. Rice then pulled something out of the leather satchel, resized it, and put it on the table. It looked like a cooking stove top, but with many notches on it's surface instead of being flat, and it's box like side had a knob that seemed to control the temperature of the top plate. The warlord turned that knob and then proceeded to remove something else from that satchel that any field unit would recognize, as they were indispensable for cooking foraged foodstuffs. Skewers.

    By this time, Grey had succeeded in hunting down all the loose teeth that were floating around in his mouth, three he thought, and spat them out. It was at this time that the warlord had begun to place the skewers into the grooves in the top plate. He seemed to be humming to himself. The warlord was a conquered unit, Grey may be able to bargain with him.

    "Hey," said Grey, "Warlord Rice."

    The Warlord Rice looked up at Grey, and started to speak in a gratingly hoarse voice. "Call me-" That's where Rice broke down into a coughing fit, cleared his throat noisily, and then spat something out. Even Grey was disgusted, and he wasn't that big on manners outside of noble company. Then Rice spoke again, his voice low and dignified. "Call me Mr. Wyatt."

    Rice pulled out a strange dagger that unfolded from it's grip, had a flat end, and only one cutting edge to it. Grey was getting a strange vibe from the man, but decided to press on. "Alright. Mr. Wyatt. You lost your side to that man, Humperdink. I can offer you a chance-"

    "No," said Mr. Wyatt. Caught off guard by the swift response, Grey echoed the word back as a question. Mr. Wyatt slowly strode toward Grey while he continued to speak. "Whatever else, the Prince is my Chief Warlord now, and Duty demands my service."

    "What about Loyalty?"

    "Loyalty?" asked the pale warlord, amusement in his pink eyes. "I've only ever really been loyal to myself, so it doesn't matter who I serve, as long as I serve well. And on that note-"

    Mr. Wyatt swiftly slashed through Grey's eyes with a single swing of the dagger. After the pain ebbed and Grey's cry of astonished agony diminished, Mr. Wyatt finished his sentence.

    "I didn't much like how you were looking at my Chief Warlord."

    Grey had never really thought about how scary it would be to not see. His eyes were an integral part of his purpose, and now he was plunged into darkness and only able to use his sharp hearing to make out what was happening around him. Mr. Wyatt seemed to be humming a tune as he went about his business. Grey heard a rustling and felt a rope tighten around his neck. The smell of heated metal filled his nostrils. Grey found himself saying and asking things he was not even thinking before they left his mouth, the strange musical humming unnerving him as it seemed like his torturer was dancing around him. All of Grey's utterances basically fell under one category, requests for mercy.

    Mr. Wyatt was no longer humming, but softly singing some lyrics. Grey was able to hear a snippet as Mr. Wyatt took hold of one of his ears.

    "Carnies to the left of me, Jesters to the right, and here I am..."

    Then Grey's ear was cut from his body.

    "Stuck in the middle with you..."

    Wow! My hack writing has made the front page! Read Shadows of the Evergreen here with art by ElvenAvariel!
    And what's this madness?! Strongman the Barbarian is in the Community Stream now, too?!

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