Season 2.0: Into the Woods
Episode 27: On the road again
Isabelle looked over at Arthur as they crouched in the back of one of the caravan wagons bouncing along the forest path. He had a strange gleam in his eyes and an almost cocky grin on his face. She shifted her weight uncomfortably. "Save the world often?"
Arthur tore his attention away from the passing trees and arced a critical eyebrow at her. "I wasn't aware that Black Jong had the resources to threaten the entire continent, much less the world. At worst he takes the capitol and finds himself so over-extended that the outlying Loyal Kingdoms go with Avallonis Redemption and march the better part of one-hundred-thousand troops into the capitol while the fifth-column loyalists harass the usurper and let the relievers into the city. None of that requires heroes such as you or I; it merely requires that everyday heroes follow their hearts and do their jobs." He went back to watching the trees go by.
"Err . . . I suppose you're right. Why are we here, then?"
Arthur's head snapped around and he stared at her. "Don't you—" His head snapped back to the passing trees. "This is our stop. C'mon!" His entire body flexed for a moment and sent him flying out of the back of the wagon to land, skidding, on the dirt of the path. He shifted positions and sprinted into the trees.
Isabelle, blinking, followed as quickly as she was able. Her natural agility let her soon catch up with his restrained power. They slowed down slightly and moved at a slow jog for another quarter-mile before stopping next to a small brook. Isabelle asked "Where are we?"
Arthur looked around once to confirm his location. "An agreed-upon meeting place for situations such as this. We have to keep a lot of things about the village a secret, so there have always been a number of ways of sneaking out when necessary. The others should be here presently. Our horses will be brought up the brook from a stream that it joins about half a mile that way." He pointed to the east, the direction that the caravan had been headed in. He paused, thinking. "Ah, yes." He turned to look at her. "I'm doing this because if I don't, my country is going to suffer. My people are in need of me. I have sworn an oath." For a moment his countenance was wrathful, but it drained back to his emotionless operating state as someone splashed their way up the stream. He drew his sword and waited for the approaching party to come into view.
It was the remaining members of the group, sans Thunder. Arthur did a quick head-count. "Where's Thunder?"
Isabelle and Arthur spun around. Thunder was leaning against a tree a few feet behind them.
"Well, then," Arthur commented, "That's all of us. The horses should be along shortly."
It was another half-hour before the horses arrived, being led up the brook by one of the caravan's handlers. "There's one for each of you. Try to keep them in good health; some of them are only loaned." He turned around and plodded back down the brook.
Everyone mounted their horse. It feels good to be back in the saddle, Isabelle thought. She glanced over at Arthur to see what came next.
Arthur drew his sword and held it aloft. He called out loudly enough that each of them could hear him clearly, "By this blade I pledge my life to service!" He paused while the other military men did the same, even Max with his hammer. "Special Unit Campion, move out!" They left at a trot, heading south-east.
Episode 28: Imperium
They made camp at dawn. Max, who appeared content to remain in his armor, was sitting next to Arthur, talking. Isabelle was near enough to overhear their conversation.
Arthur was looking down at one of his hands as he flexed it idly. "Do you feel it?"
Max looked over at him. "Feel what?"
"Yeah. A tingle when you recalled me to service; a thrill when you assigned me to Campion; a rush when we renewed our pledges. Think the others have it, too?"
"All of them do. Not much, and they probably haven't noticed the feeling, but it's there."
"It's not quite like being in charge of the Brigade again, but it's close. It's still nothing compared to being a governor."
"Yeah. Still, you ever wonder why they let you keep your armor? There's less than two dozen of those things, you know."
"I know. I guessed what was on the Emperor's mind when I could still feel the Imperium after losing my province. It's all about the hero teams, isn't it?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes." Arthur paused and looked around. "I guess I'd better brief the others on this." He rose to his feet and whistled to attract everyone's attention. When they had gathered around, Arthur looked at Isabelle. "Max tells me you did surprisingly well against those wolves. Are you always that quick?"
She shrugged. "I was near the top of my form, but nothing spectacular."
He looked back at the group and explained, "I think that all of you will find that you're at the tops of your forms until this whole affair is over or Campion disbands. You all feel a little extra energy, a little extra will, a little extra of something that's impossible to describe, am I right?"
There were nods and quiet words of assent.
"What you're feeling is called the Imperium. The Emperor has extended a tiny portion of his supreme power, the Imperium, to Special Unit Campion. He became aware of us the instant I declared Campion's activation. There is a great secret at work here: For all of the propaganda to the contrary, the Silver Order is not the Empire's last line of defense; we are. Special Unit Campion and the rest of the code-named units assigned to retired heroes such as myself, other members of the Silver and Gold Orders, successful military governors, members of the Imperial Family, and others whom I may not name have always been waiting to pick up the Empire's fallen banner and march onwards with it. As far back as the days of the first Emperor, Avallonis Rex, who led his band of heroes across this land to free it from the great evil that had then befallen it, it has been the heroes of the Empire who have been its true strength. We now venture forth in the footsteps of the greatest heroes that this world has ever known, from Avallonis Rex to Saint George Avallonis to Saint Albus of The Order of White. We are not employees of the Empire; we are the Empire. And there is nothing in this world that can prevent us from winning."
Episode 29: We'll make an intelligence officer of you yet.
Early that evening, once the group had resumed travel, Percy nudged his horse closer to Arthur and asked him "Who else do you think is leading another one of these squads against Black Jong?"
Arthur shrugged. "Who knows? You're the student here; consider this your first test. Who would you expect to see out and about?"
Percy blinked and thought about it for a moment, idly adjusting the green cotton blouse he wore underneath his leather tunic/armor. "Well, any hero who retired to the occupied farmland would have resisted the army's passing, but the reports brought by the traders indicate that the active-duty heroes have been killed and we haven't heard anything about a resistance movement. I doubt that there's anyone of any importance left behind the front lines. The last reports placed the front line about a third of the way into this kingdom, although they aren't so far in towards the western edge where we are. Anyone previously on standby in Avallonis is probably going to be arriving soon, as will be those on the eastern border who were remaining there in case Black Jong's actions sparked sympathy rebellions. Most people probably see this as a particularly bad flare-up of the border wars, not as anything earth-shattering, so the biggest names from northern and western kingdoms will likely hang back until the fight starts threatening the borders of Avallonis itself or things turn into a stalemate.
"I'd expect that heroes of the 3rd Frontier Strike Force are remaining in location even though the 4th Force has been wiped out. Anyone with ties to the 1st Special Operations Division will be moving on this, though, and are more likely to have a Special Unit number assigned to their use. The same goes for retired commanders in the Imperial Guard and possibly the Imperial Army, although Army troopers are more likely to target supply lines and occupied areas, and we haven't heard about anything like that. Likely they're meeting with no more success than the active-duty members of their old outfits, and traditional hero targets such as Black Jong's leadership structure are notoriously hard to find. I suspect magic of some sort, which can take a while for even experienced heroes to find their way through.
"Anyone with a mundane background isn't going to have any luck cracking the secrecy surrounding his operations, and support & supply ops are all in the hero-dead zone. I suppose that we're probably the group with the best chance at finding anything out on that count, since we're right next to one of their lumber-harvesting companies. The company is actually sitting on or around the front line this far west, so anyone following the same train of thought as me will be heading in this direction. On the other hand, there's not as much fighting this far west, although there is a valuable intelligence opportunity in the support operation that we're heading towards. I'd expect to see smaller groups, including a number of unique individuals, rather than Special Unit forces. We've got a pretty combat-heavy group and are heading towards the intelligence asset rather than a military asset in large part because it's what happens to be closest; anyone else is coming here because they're better at thinking than hitting things."
Arthur nodded, grinning widely. "We'll make an intelligence officer of you yet."
Episode 30: A day in the life (forest journey)
The night passed without incident. Out in front rode Percy, who would dismount and scout ahead whenever he deemed it necessary. He was entirely at home in the forest; often Isabelle wouldn't even realize that he had slipped away until she spotted him re-mounting his horse. A little ways behind him was Orlaith with her bow. The men assigned to Max rode in a loose six-point protective formation surrounding Arthur and Isabelle, while Max guarded the rear. Thunder's horse, it's rider asleep, wandered from the left flank to the right and back again. How Thunder avoided falling off was anyone's guess.
The six warriors assigned to Max were oddly silent, often coordinating their actions without saying a word. Three wore the colors of various nobles, two bore the patches of the knights that were their masters, and the last simply bore the insignia of the Imperial Legions without so much as an indication of whether he was from the Imperial Army or the Guard. Max himself bore no such emblem but was impossible to mistake for anyone else in any case. He did not so much watch the rear of the squad as he did ride along secure in the knowledge that someone could catch him entirely unawares and yet not incapacitate him quickly enough to prevent him from warning the others.
When they made camp for the day, Percy and Orlaith slipped off to obtain some fresh game. They had plenty of supplies, but conservation and fresh meat never were always a good idea. Percy was the better hunter when it came to stalking prey, but Orlaith was infinitely better with a bow. Thunder woke up when the food was ready, then disappeared up a tree where he napped on a branch until his shift was to begin. Another day or two of this and they would be at the south-east corner of the forest.
Episode 31: A Shinigami
Isabelle watched Arthur looking through a rough-bound book of parchment sheets sandwiched between two thin pieces of wood. "What's that?"
"Oh, it's just a record of various interesting people that I've met. I keep notes on those that might be useful to me later."
She blinked. "That seems a little cold."
"Nah. I remember a lot more than what's in this logbook, but I kept notes for the Empire. There's a clean copy sitting back at Silver Order HQ. Right now I'm looking through to see if there's someone that I've forgotten about who might be able to help us out here."
"Well, I haven't seen anybody so far, but I did run across an entry on someone that I met almost exactly one year ago. I wonder if I'll get to see her again?"
"One year ago? Did she stop by the town?"
"No, I was out on a recruitment mission for the Silver Order. They occasionally call old members out of retirement to do diplomatic missions like that."
"Really? So this isn't the first time you've gone adventuring since you retired?"
"Well, the others weren't combat missions. Not intentionally, anyway. This girl, for example,"—he flipped the book around so that Isabelle could see a sketch of the person that he was talking about—"is supposedly the priestess of a Shinigami, a goddess of death. Not that I've seen this 'Shinigami' in anything other than some artwork drawn by the priestess, but you get the idea. She lives in one of the other Imperial Kingdoms but was forbidden to join the military until she was older. I still hold out hope that we'll be able to get her some day, but it's not very likely."
"I'm sorry. Did you recruit anyone else?"
"Nope. I had a lot of promising leads, but none of them ever contacted us."
"Well, don't try to recruit me. I've already got a job."
"You're a freelancer," he said, grinning. "You don't want the steady support of a job with Avallonis?"
"No." Her voice was hard.
He shrugged and put the book away. "It's time to sleep; we've got a long ways to go yet."
Episode 32: The hall of twisted mirrors
Isabelle leafed through Arthur's book of people that he had met. He had left it out when he went to sleep, and she was curious to see if she was in it. She didn't find herself, but she did find a few other interesting entries. She stopped to read one under the bland heading "Internal Diplomacy Corps: Troubleshooting Teams."
TST codename: "Twisted Mirrors"
Secondary skill: Leader
Notes: Named for his choice of weapons and feline qualities; a moderate and probably the only person who could hold this group together
Secondary skill: Poet
Notes: Dispassionate & analytical
Guard: Adulath II
Secondary skill: Reproductive activities / innuendo
Notes: "Wandering, innuendo-slinging bastard bard" driven mainly by natural desires and partially by a love of annoying Kali-ra
Religious expert: Kali-ra
Secondary skills: Combat and mothering
Notes: Female, unlike the others; belongs to the Church of the free states, devoutly, including those parts that let her disagree with it; violently feminist; often fights with Adulath
Secondary skill: Sarcasm
Notes: Does his job a little too well; unclear why he remains with the others
Prophet: Marc Yves
Secondary skill: Creativity
Notes: Has dream-visions (very abstract); fairly withdrawn; possible counterbalance to Nirin-khai
Secondary skill: None
Notes: Female; shy and insecure; relative newcomer
She put the book back where she had found it and went to sleep. A short while later, a man in black climbed down from the tree where he had been napping and began leafing through the pages.
Episode 33: Tactical planning
At the end of the next night, they came to the supply camp. The loggers wouldn't be out for a little while yet, so they could come to the edge of the trees without worrying about someone stumbling across them. The camp had made ample use of the lumber available to them; a log palisade surrounded the tents and even some wood buildings. There was a clear cart-path running away from the camp on the far side from the trees. They led the horses back into the woods far enough to avoid detection and met to plan strategy.
Arthur took charge immediately. "Team two, you're E&E. Max, get to work on your tacticals."
Max and his six men moved to form a separate group.
Arthur faced the remaining team members—except Thunder, who was asleep again—and explained his plan. "Team two will maintain an exit and extract us if necessary; you shouldn't worry too much about that. Our job is to penetrate the enemy camp, assassinate their leader, and retrieve whatever information we can about their operations. Going in is going to be the hard part because leaders themselves are rarely very good at combat; that's what the army's for. I've seen this camp layout before and have the most command experience, so I'll take point. Isabelle, you have my back. Orlaith, you are to provide close-range archery support from five feet behind her. Percy, make sure that nobody closes to melee range with Orlaith. Going out it will be extraction forces, Orlaith with her bow, Percy behind her, and Isabelle and I will spread to provide trailing cover for the flanks. Got that?"
"Good. Now, here are the tactical scenarios that we might have to adjust for. . . ."
Episode 34: Forced Entry
It was shortly after midnight when they attacked. Two guards slumped at the camp gate facing the forest; Orlaith had put an arrow in each of them before either could make a sound. The camp was silent except for the snores of the sleeping lumberjacks, and the only movement was the wind in the tents, but a light still burned in the upper windows of their target: the central log building.
Isabelle was no stranger to sneak missions; as a lone freelancer, it was often the only way to survive. Still, she had to admit that she was better mounted than sneaking about on foot. Arthur matched her in skill at sneaking, but just barely, and Orlaith was worse, but Percy . . . Percy was running circles around Orlaith and making less noise than Isabelle would have standing still. That kid was worth keeping an eye on, if you could find him. Isabelle shuddered to think what he would be like if he ever took lessons from Silent Thunder.
The group was almost to the central building when the wolf saw them. None of them saw the wolf at first, but they certainly heard its howl. So did quite a few other people.
Arthur started sprinting a half-second after the howl began. "Go!"
Arthur hit the front door to their target and went crashing through. A sword-point bounced off of the curved back of his breastplate; Isabelle, close behind him, ran straight into the blade. The guard, who had been waiting just inside the door, tried to draw the edge back across her chest, but she instinctively punched forward with her saber, sending the blade bouncing back off of Arthur. Arthur was already turning, and his counter-stroke crushed the side of the guard's skull.
Orlaith and Percy followed Isabelle in. Isabelle slammed the door.
Episode 35: Incoming fires
The door's wooden bar had been broken by Arthur's entry, but the dead guard's sword served as a replacement. Arthur started towards the stairs, which ran straight up to another door. Orlaith had an arrow drawn and aimed at it, while Percy was quickly searching for any papers of interest on the first floor. Isabelle followed Arthur up the stairs, Orlaith covering them from behind and Percy following a moment after. Arthur adjusted his shield-strap and then kicked in the door.
All hell broke loose.
Arthur, following his initial momentum into the room, was on his second step when he said "Oh shit!" and hit the floor sliding, his shield up.
All Isabelle had time to see was a blur of flame before she was thrown backwards.
Orlaith had just enough time to realize what was going on and duck the flying Isabelle before she popped back up and snapped off two shots at the lady who had been waiting for them.
Percy caught Isabelle and held her while she regained her balance; then he charge past Orlaith, giving a warscream fit to raise the dead (or at least distract the lady inside the room).
Isabelle's world shifted from fast chaos to slow chaos as her battle instincts finally hit high gear. Orlaith was crouched, knocking another arrow—no, two arrows; Percy was relieving his surrogate father; Arthur was crouched behind his shield, reaching for his horn; and in the center of it all was a lady wearing black with gold trim, red fire in her left hand and a sword in her right. Isabelle tapped Orlaith on the shoulder. "Guard the front door; I'm going in."
Orlaith spun in her crouch, re-focusing her aim on the entry door.
Isabelle ran forward, taking the four steps in two leaps. Her saber at the ready, she dove at the mysterious lady just as another ball of fire blew apart a wooden chair that Percy had kicked into the air as a distraction. The lady danced out of Isabelle's way, the pressure of three people in the relatively small room with her driving her towards the window. She blew the shutters open with another blast of fire even as she parried Percy's thrust at her.
Alarum! Arthur's horn rang out. Alarum! Alarum!
The lady backed towards the window, putting one foot on the sill in preparation for a jump. She glanced over at Arthur. "I would have expected a much better fight had I known that Arthur Avallonis himself would be leading the charge." So saying, she pushed herself backwards out of the window even as she let loose with one final burst of energy that filled the room with lightning, blinding everyone inside, searing their flesh, and setting fire to the walls.
Arthur blew the call for extraction.
Episode 36: Burning room = not safe
There is a moment in most people's lives where they think "Oh shit, I'm gonna die," but then they don't. People who don't have this moment fit into four categories: the ones who never see it coming, the ones who are too optimistic to believe it, the ones who die, and heroes. Heroes never have that moment because they know that they're going to die and they just don't care.
Orlaith had been spared all but a little of the blast. Within seconds of seeing what was going on, she had her arrows in her quiver, her bow across her back, and resolution on her face. She charged into the flaming room.
Arthur was the least affected of them all, being more stunned than anything else. Orlaith grabbed him by the straps of his breastplate and heaved him towards the exit, trusting him to make it the rest of the way on his own. She seized a burning table and pulled it away from Percy, whom she bum-rushed to the stairs and trusted to find his own way down one way or the other. Isabelle had received a direct hit twice now, and it was a wonder that she was even alive. Orlaith carefully grabbed an arm and a leg and slung Isabelle across her back, grunting from the effort of lifting the much heavier woman. She staggered to the top of the stairs under this heavy burden, where she was met by the mostly-recovered Arthur; they split the weight of Isabelle between them and made their way carefully down the steps.
The fire was clearly growing; it was time to get out of there.
Episode 37: Primitive meatheads
The front door shattered inward, but it was only Max and the boys. Max barked "Situation report!" even as his men were moving to secure the area.
"One down, no dead, all P.A.F."
"Area secure; ready for exit."
"Exit's a rumble; we're circled."
Max nodded, then looked to Arthur. "I was wondering when you were going to let me return the favor."
Arthur grinned. "Even after this you'll only be halfway there, my friend."
He shrugged. "Whatever."
"So guess who the commander of the camp turned out to be."
"Aurora Elendur. A top-notch Class-B running a logging camp. What in Heaven's name is going on here?"
An eyebrow twitched. "Interesting. Now that my boys have got your casualty, let's get out of here before the place finishes catching on fire."
Four of Max's men led the way out of the front door while two carried Isabelle. Max himself was in the lead. The situation outside was as one of them had said: They were encircled by angry loggers with axes, plus a few better-armed guards. No-one wanted to make the first move, so Arthur stepped forwards, raised his horn to his lips, and blew the fanfare of the Imperial Legions.
"Listen up, you primitive meatheads! Special Unit Campion of the Imperial Guard has taken over this camp. Now I have neither the patience nor a legal requirement to take any of you prisoner even if you surrender to me, but I'm not going to let you stay here, either. You've got two choices: promise me that you're not going to aid Black Jong any more, go home, and don't let me catch any of you poaching trees in my forest ever again, or stay here and die; there is no third option. Now who is going to get the hell of of my country and who is going die over this stupid, illegal invasion?"
The humans scattered, but then the wolves came creeping out of the shadows.
"Oh bloody hell," muttered Arthur. "What Class-A idiot is doing this?" He took a defensive stance.
Episode 38: Deus ex ballista
Max stepped forwards. "I really wouldn't recommend that," he said to the darkness beyond the wolves.
The wolves growled.
"Okay, have it your way." He folded his arms across his chest. "Have at me."
A wolf leapt. There was a flash of lightning, and a wolf with a smoking hole through it fell at Max's feet. A crossbow bolt wreathed in fire lit up the darkness where a cloaked figure was hiding.
Arthur straightened up and grinned at the figure. "It would seem that we have you outnumbered."
The figure hesitated for a moment before growling and raising its hands as if to throw something, but a ballista bolt ended that. Isabelle shuddered at the drops of frozen blood that were now scattered about.
The wolves, suddenly freed from outside control, dispersed.
After a few moments, a familiar figure run up to Arthur; it was the tallest of the triplets. "Heyboss! Strangemovementinthenortheastofcamp; Oneeye'scoveringit."
Arthur nodded. "Max, deal with it."
Max saluted and jogged off, followed by his men.
After a couple of minutes, a somewhat confused-looking Max returned alongside a stranger in his mid-twenties. This stranger was of average height, perhaps slightly taller, with a very athletic build, and wore monks robes of primary blue; straw sandals, tan skin, blue eyes, and curly blue-black hair where he hadn't been tonsured completed the ensemble. He had a huge grin on his face and what appeared to be the remains of shackles dangling from his wrists.
Behind the two came Max's six men guarding a hobbling Aurora.
Ever further back was the man who had bought the solid-steel crossbow; his eyepatch left little doubt regarding the identity of "One-eye."
Arthur looked to the crossbow-toting newcomer. "Are we clear?"
One-eye lifted his eyepatch and surveyed the area with what appeared to be a perfectly normal eye. "Yep." He replaced the patch.
"Good. Now, Miss Aurora, would you mind telling me what in the Emperor's name is going on here?"
Episode 39: Party members: Collect all eight!
Aurora shrugged. "I twisted my ankle jumping out of the window and got caught by your boys here. Don't ask me about the guy in blue; for all I know, he's just monking around."
The apparent monk grinned and flexed. "As a matter of fact—"
"As a matter of fact, I didn't ask you a question," Arthur shot back. "Aurora, what the heck is a woman of your caliber doing in charge of a logging camp? I can understand keeping a Class-A away from physical combat, and a Class-C might not have enough magic skills to bother employing, but a balanced Class-B like yourself is wasted out here."
Another shrug. "Don't look at me. Maybe they knew that you were out here."
"I doubt it. Next question: What's a girl like you doing in an invasion like this? You usually have better judgement than that."
"Hey! I'm just trying to help liberate some of slave-states that you call 'republics.'" She glared at Max. "Would the 'Governor' to explain the political realities to you, or will you take my word for it?"
"At this point you're 'liberating' trees from a forest inside the border of one of the original kingdoms of the Empire; the king here enjoys about as much power as the head of your native city-state and considerably more protection."
"That doesn't make it okay for Imperial forces to invade peaceful border territories like Sark!"
"Wait a minute, that war started when Free City forces attacked us from Sarkian territory."
"Err . . . it did?"
"Yes! And last time I checked, Black Jong was spending that time learning how to meet new friends and influence people by helping the sponsor governments cover it up."
"Oh. Well, that doesn't justify your military dictatorship."
"An Black Jong's press gangs are any better?"
"He's using press-gangs?"
"I see why he wanted you away from the main army."
"Alright, how's this: I don't like you, and I'm not sure that I like Black Jong either, but right now I want some answers from him; I'll join you for as long as that takes." She paused and glanced at her ankle. "Besides, I'm injured, and you've got the numerical advantage. One-on-one and healed I'd only be your equal."
"Your offer is accepted; we can work out specifics later." Arthur turned to the blue-robed monk. "And what's your story?"
The monk grinned and held out his hand to shake. Arthur ignored it. "I'm just passing through; the guards here picked me up when I wandered by looking for somewhere to spend the night. When I heard the ruckus outside, I broke the stocks, beat the guards with my chains, and came on out to see what was going on."
Arthur looked to Aurora; Aurora nodded.
Arthur: "What's your name, kid?"
"Where're you heading?"
"Nowhere. I'm just traveling about, seeing what I can see."
"Feel like wandering our way?"
He shrugged. "Don't see why not."
"Great; consider yourself a camp follower."
"Uh . . . okay."
Arthur glanced around at the rest of the group. "Well, boys and girls, it looks like we've got ourselves a party."
They all grabbed their equipment and slipped out into the night.
End of Season 2.0