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 Post subject: Shall We Play a Game?
 Post Posted: Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:28 pm 
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Shall We Play a Game?
(Is it a game or is it real?)

Part One

The White Stag and the Red Dragon

The old lumber road made my jeep jump like a bucking bronco. The regular roads had stopped many kilometers ago and this was the only way to get to the property I had purchased with my severance money from the Canadian Armed Forces. I’d had the chance to switch to the ‘new’ system and extend my service by another five or more years. They’d even offered to promote me to Master Warrant Officer. But after twenty years of loyal service to her majesty the queen, and being just shy of forty years old, it seemed long past time to start living for myself now.

My dad would have loved this place, with it’s tall pines and outcroppings of raw bedrock. The land was intended for lumber and I full rights to harvest the trees. I had all the mineral rights too, not that it mattered. I didn’t want to harvest the trees or do any sort of development here. I wanted it for it’s natural beauty. The land was bracketed by crown land on two sides and tiny lakes to both the north and south. It was the perfect place to build a nice log cabin and get away from it all. The hunting here would be world class.

Finally, even the lumber road came to an end and I pulled the jeep over. This would be my base camp for the next month or so while I explored my land. I’d made several trips here already but this was the first time I planned to stay for any real length of time. I had to decide where my log cabin was going to be built, after all.

Mostly however I just wanted to get out into the wilderness. It was something my dad had always wanted to do with me while he was still alive. Things just never really worked out that way however. He’d had crippling arthritis his whole life though that never stopped him from working in a factory until retirement. It did mean that our camping trips were tame affairs. Regrettably retirement hadn’t been any better for him as he dealt with both lung disease and steadily worsening dementia.

It was his death two years ago that had prompted me not to extend my time with the army and to buy this plot of land. I had a decent pension being deposited into my bank account every month, paid off my mortgage with my last tour in Afghanistan and had a decent nest egg set aside. I would probably get a part time job somewhere just for something to do but there was no rush as I was financially secure. For now, I could just try and enjoy life a little bit.

The canvas miners tent with the small Yukon stove was where I had left it on my last trip. I fired it up and cooked a can of beans before laying out my sleeping bag on my cot and enjoying a restful sleep after a long drive.

In the morning I used a portable propane stove to cook myself up a hearty breakfast. I was planning on living on rations for the next few days while I hiked around the property so I decided to savor the bacon and eggs.

After breakfast I secured the site and then went over my gear. I had an expensive and modular 70 litre hiking bag. It was modular in that there was a smaller pack that detached from the main compartment and another compartment that came off like a sort of wilderness ‘butt pouch’ or ‘fanny pack’. It was loaded with everything a prepper could want in a wilderness bugout bag.

There were bears in these woods so I had along both a short barrelled 12 gauge with a pistol grip and no butt as well as a 30-06 hunting rifle. Nothing that I wanted to hunt was in season so the rifle was only for target practice.

I also had a Jericho 9/41 pistol in a drop down holster. Such side arms were illegal to carry anywhere in Canada except on a range. This including on one’s own property. I got around that by doing all the paperwork necessary to have my property made a legal range. Every thing from liability insurance to posted rules had been set up. I was even carrying around a roll of paper targets and a staple gun to make it all legit. Besides, I intended to do some target shooting with it as well.

The last thing I made sure I had was my cell phone. I checked to ensure it was fully charged before turning it off and sliding it into an arm carrier that joggers use for them. I didn’t want to be disturbed while I was hiking but if I ran into an emergency or got lost, having it might just save my life. It was also loaded up with a wide range of books I could read if I got truly bored. It was certainly lighter than carting around a small library in the woods. I had a portable solar device charger that could be strapped to the top of my pack if needed.

What can I say? I like to be prepared. Like we say in the army, better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Of course carrying everything you might need on your back had a tendency to narrowly divide luxuries from needs.

I set out due north, hoping to get the lake and back on this trip. The route would also bypass any areas I had seen on previous trips.

It was after lunch when I saw it. A beautiful five-point stag. Even if it had been in season, I wouldn’t have taken a shot at this animal however. Its fur was snow white. A rare mutation that cropped up from time to time. It was even rarer in the wild. Such animals had a difficult time hiding from predators. Contrary to old legends of the mystically elusive white deer, this animal would be easier to find and track than its ordinary kin.

The only way I wanted to catch or shoot this animal was with the camera on my phone. It was the only way anyone would ever believe me about this. I was scarcely believing it myself. The buck noticed me as I pulled the phone free of its carrier. It stared at me for a moment and then snorted. Before the phone could power up, it was gone, prancing through the woods.

It had been a magical moment but all too quickly it was gone.

Walking over to where it had been standing, I noticed that it had went off north, the same direction I was headed. I shrugged and then put the phone back in its carrier. This time I left it on, just in case I saw the animal again. Really, I was wishing I’d brought a proper camera with me.

That night I set up my small one-man tent and went to sleep. I fell asleep thinking about stories of the wee folk and the little people. All night it seemed, I dreamed of witches crossing the water in egg shells.

+++

I awoke with a start. The sun was rising. I was much more alert and awake than I had any right to be after having slept out on the ground. It wasn’t until I unzipped my tent and got a look outside that I noticed that things weren’t quite right. I was still in a forest, but not the same one I had fallen asleep in. For one thing, the trees weren’t pine.

Out of habit I packed up my tent and checked my gear. It was all accounted for. Oddly, despite having been on for a good portion of the day yesterday, my cell phone was fully charged. I hadn’t remembered plugging it to the charger at any point during the hike, either.

When I hung a mirror on a tree branch to have my morning shave, I noticed that there was no stubble on my face.

Icy fear gripped me. My father’s dementia had caused him to lose his memory frequently and it wasn’t uncommon for these issues to run in families. How had I come here, anyway? How long had it been?

I pulled out my phone again. The date and time were what I expected. Unfortunately, there were no bars. So no calls out and no GPS.

“Don’t panic Justin.” I told myself. “Maybe you just forgot a couple of minor things about yesterday and last night. It’s just the light playing tricks on you.” But the deciduous trees I was surrounded by were no trick of the light.

My stomach rumbled, reminding me to eat breakfast. I was using American style MRE’s with chemical cookers. I’d stripped them down to their essentials before leaving to save space. Three days of food could take up a lot of volume and add to the over all weight. Less so now that I had started my second day.

With my compass, I got a bearing on north. I should be about half a day’s walk from the lake.

I did find water but it was well before noon and it wasn’t a lake. Instead it was a river. There were no rivers on my property or the neighboring crown lands. There was a stream that ran through to the western plot of crown land, I’d seen it from google map pictures of the area. This was no stream.

It was too deep and the current too strong for me to attempt crossing it. So I decided to follow along its bank and hoped to find someplace I might be able to cross successfully.

Eventually I found a part of the river that could be crossed but I didn’t make the attempt right away. The way was blocked by a massive bear who was fishing for its lunch.

A massive yellow bear.

It appeared to be made of gummy candy.

“So this is what dementia feels like.” I said to myself in a bemused whisper. I’d always wondered if crazy people knew they were insane and apparently the answer was in front of me and it was a resounding “YES!”

Slowly I started to back away while pulling the shotgun free of the straps on the side of my pack. Hallucination or not, I didn’t want to engage if I could avoid it. Possibly this was a real bear and my mind was representing it as candy. Or maybe I was in the middle of downtown Toronto about to unload a bus of school children.

The big yellow gummy bear noticed me. It sniffed the air with it’s little yellow gummy nose which was sort of amusing in a surreal way. There was no fish on the bank of the river so it was probably still hungry.

Did gummy bears get hungry? And what did they eat?

Based on the way it was looking at me and how it was moving to the shore near me, I could guess what it thought it might want to try to eat.

“I don’t taste good, I promise.” I told it as I continued to back away and worked the slide of my shotgun, putting a slug into the chamber. Based on the size of the bear, I guessed it must be male. Not that I saw any genitals on it’s gummy hide.

It charged.

It took three slugs before it stopped.

Curiosity drove me examine the carcass. I couldn’t help pulling off a small chunk and tasting it. The taste of gummy was unmistakeable. “Holy Boop!”

I blinked. “Boop? What the actual boop? Mother booper!” Apparently I now had some form of Tourette’s that prevented me from swearing. Thanks to the media, everyone thought that syndrome always resulted in uncontrollable swearing. If that had been true than every NCO in the army probably had it. But no, it could manifest in other ways as well, I just wasn’t sure this was one of them. If I had a moment of lucidity in the near future, I would be sure to seek out a therapist and ask.

Looking up, I was briefly reassured that sky was blue and there were clouds drifting lazily by. Then long established routines took over. I reloaded the shotgun and put it on safe before strapping it back onto my pack. I now had seven shells in the shotgun and ten still in my pack. Then I collected the spent casings. I’d be able to reload them once I got back home. If I got back home, I corrected. If I’d recognize home when I got there. If they’d let me keep my firearms in my current state.

It had been a hard thing to take my father’s drivers license from him for his own safety as well as others on the road. It had been a loss of independence and dignity for him and heartbreaking for me. It would be no less a loss of independence and dignity nor any less heartbreaking for me to lose either my license to drive or to own firearms.

“I hope they put me someplace nice.” I thought as I examined the carcass some more. There was more here than I could carry, for sure. I wasn’t sure what I would do with five hundred pounds of gummy candy in any case. Type two diabetes in adulthood ran in my family so it was probably unwise to harvest so much candy in any case. Was it candy or raw meat? Could I cook it?

Removing a plastic bag from my pack, I cut off a chunk of the body where I guessed a good roast would be and put it away for later. I’d try cooking some of it and if that didn’t work, I could always eat it raw. If it was candy then the sugar energy would keep me alive and if it was meat, then the protein would be even better. It just seemed to be a shame to waste so much of the carcass. What would a gummy bear rug look like, anyway?

Having found a place to cross the river, I opted not to cross it after all. At this point I realized I was in unfamiliar terrain and essentially wandering around randomly. There was no reason to believe that the other side of the river would be any better than the one I was on. So I carried on through the woods.

Every so often I noticed there was a break in the land. A stretch of land where the trees not only grew further apart but didn’t even touch. And it oddly seemed to go on for a straight line. Nature doesn’t make straight lines. In this case, this imaginary line angled away from the river, which itself was angling away in another direction. If the direction I had been travelling was the stem, then the continued path of the river made one fork of a Y and this line in the trees made another.

“Curiouser and Curiouser.” I thought as I examined the odd features. “Maybe this is some sort of path?” Shrugging, I started down the divide between the trees.

Eventually, the path through the woods came to another sort of Y junction. On my right, the deciduous trees continued but on my left, coniferous trees began. “Well, this is more like it.” I decided and followed the fork to the left. Maybe I wasn’t that far from my property after all. I could be on some sort of loggers trail for all I knew. Maybe this was how the logging companies kept the trees divided after harvesting. Regrettably I didn’t know much about logging. Checking my phone showed that the battery was wearing down the expected amount and that there were still no bars to be had. Oh well, google would have to wait.

In time I came to another Y-split. This time there was more deciduous trees straight ahead. It was time to make a decision. Night would be coming soon and I needed to make camp. I had seen the ideal spot a couple of hundred yards back but I was sort of curious about what up ahead. I didn’t figure it would hurt to explore for another hour so I plunged on ahead.

I didn’t find anyplace better to sleep after an hour so I doubled back to where I had seen the ideal camp spot, chastising myself for a fool for having walked past it so close to evening anyway. Generally speaking, it was a novice mistake to be wandering around in strange wilderness anyway. Any rescue party looking for you would have an easier time of finding you if you stood still. The problem was that no one was expecting to hear from me for at least two weeks and probably wouldn’t be overly alarmed about not hearing from me until sometime in September since everyone knew I was going to be exploring my new land and would also be doing some hunting later on in the summer.

I was lost in these thoughts when I walked full bore into an invisible wall at the Y junction. The impact was hard enough to send me flying back on my boop. Seriously? Tourette’s of the mind too?

In any case, I couldn’t advance back the way I had come any further. Nor could I go down the other branch of the Y junction. The invisible wall felt like glass but I couldn’t break it with my fist or my hatchet. Nor could I smear it though I could lean things like sticks up against it.

Frustrated, I pulled out my shotgun. I decided to angle the shot so that no bullet would come ricocheting back at me. Instead what happened was the slug was caught in mid air. I threw some sticks then some stones and observed the same odd phenomenon. Continued experimentation left my knife and hatchet stuck in the air too. Odd that they stuck when thrown but were just deflected if I held them. But once stuck, I couldn’t pull them free again.

“Well mother trucker!” I exclaimed in frustration. Then I smiled at the work around I had found to my little Tourette’s problem.

My eyes scanned both ways down the branches of the Y. It would surely be getting dark soon but I had too intriguing of a mystery here to ignore. Was I now in a padded cell and this was how I was perceiving it? Time to test things out. So I picked a direction and started walking, keeping my hand on the ‘wall’ as I went.

I came to another Y junction and the wall made me turn to the right. Again and again this happened until I came full circle back to where my hatchet, knife and slug were all still hanging in the air. The wall appeared to be a hex shape. Well, at least my delusion didn’t align with that Stephen King novel. Or worse, the Simpsons Movie.

Since I was trapped and night had definitely fallen, I decided to make camp where I was and tackle the problem fresh in the morning. I did attempt to cook some of the gummy meat. It burned terribly and smelled horribly sweet. So I scraped it back into the bag as I didn’t feel good about just dumping it on the ground. I ate an MRE instead.

+++

“Sgt! Sgt Case! We can’t get in! Its combat locked from the inside!”

There were screams and the sounds of nearby small arms fire. The screams were coming from inside the armored personnel carrier, which had been immobilized by an RPG.

“Why hasn’t the fire suppression system engaged?!” I demanded of a Corporal who couldn’t possible give me the answer as one by one the screams ceased.


+++

*Snap!*
*Crack!*
*Thunk!*
*Thud!*


I sat up, dripping with sweat and in a state of full readiness. Had that been the sound of a bullet whizzing by?

In a desperate panic I fumbled to get the tent opened up and look outside, my shotgun at the ready.

It took a few moments for me to comprehend what had happened.

The slug and my tools were no longer hanging in mid air. They were all now embedded in trees. It was as if they had been merely trapped in time over night and then had continued on their way once morning had come. And indeed, morning had arrived as light filtered down through the trees. I had over slept.

I collected my tools and then took down my camp. Again I found that I had no stubble on my face, which was odd. None had grown since I had woke up in the wrong forest. I checked the cell phone and found it was fully charged again as well. The date had changed however. No bars still. What the boop was going on?

Seriously? I can’t even think boop? What kind of PG delusion was this, anyway?

Sighing, I hefted on my pack and started walking around in a circle within the Y junction between the different types of trees. It seemed as though I had full mobility again.

That was until I walked face first into another invisible wall.

“MOTHER TRUCKER!” I screamed my rage to the heavens.

This time I was on the side where the ideal camping spot was so I wandered in that direction to set up a new camp. Then I explored as far as I could to find that I was again in a hex shaped prison.

Once camp was made, I decided to start searching the area I was trapped in for something resembling food. I used a guide I had downloaded into my phone for just such an emergency. The guide included color pictures of edible plants I could pick.

Loading my shotgun with scattershot rounds, I went hunting. I saw a massive white owl circling overhead. “You’re a big one. Probably feed me for a few days.”

Its call was less a hoot and more of a sarcastic, “Orly?”

“Yes, really!” I said before pulling the trigger, bringing it down with one shot. Oddly, it didn’t bleed though it appeared to be quite dead.

I’d never cooked owl before but I prepared the carcass like I would a turkey and roasted it over an open fire. After eating my fill, I put portioned out the remainder into plastic bags I had with me. Then I watched the fire for a bit.

Was it night time already? It hadn’t seemed that long at all. Well, I had spent a lot of energy today so some rest was probably a good idea.

Mercifully no dreams came to me that night.

+++

The next morning, I set out once more. I now realized that somehow the land was divided up into hexes. After I had crossed an undetermined number of them, the one I ended up in would become a sort of prison for me. So choosing which land areas to cross into became a bit of a guessing game.

On my travels I was able to scrounge some wild berries and tubers to add to my limited ration supply. I was getting used to not having to shave or put my phone on the charger every morning. So I put the phone to more use, taking pictures of things as I went. It drained the battery at the normal rate but then led to another discovery. When I plugged in the solar powered device charger, the phone didn’t take a charge anymore.

That caused me to purse my lips. Did that mean it was useless and therefore dead weight? It was taking up space that could be used for food. I wasn’t sure what was going on exactly so I decided to keep it with me for now. Besides, I really didn’t want to pollute such a beautiful wilderness.

I learned something else that day. I could move into a total of eight new hex shaped areas before I ran into an invisible force field. And like all the other times, there was no turning back after that happened.

Another thing I realized was that I was only really hungry first thing in the morning after waking up. I could eat at other times in the day but didn’t seem to feel like I needed it. I’d have to see how long I could go with just one meal a day.

+++

I was on my fourth hex of the day when I heard a racket coming from about a kilometer away. That probably meant it was in one of the neighboring hexes as I estimated each one to be about a kilometer and a half across. That would be pretty close to a mile, so was this the imperial system at work here? In any case, I climbed a tree and took a look around through the scope of my rifle.

At maximum magnification I could make out a number of massive white owls attacking a large red dragon.

It wasn’t like any dragon I had ever seen before… no, that was a lie. It looked like a red version of either puff the magic dragon or maybe Barnie. It looked like it was meant for some sort of children’s book at any rate. Or maybe like a vicious and dangerous over sized plush toy.

As I watched, the dragon broke away from the attacking owls and started in my direction. Automatically I cycled a round into the chamber of my rifle. The dragon whipped by over my head and the owls came screaming “Orly?” after it.

I decided now was a good time to do some impromptu hunting. Each of the three rounds in my 30-06 found its target and dropped an owl out of the sky. Then the owls started to circle the tree I was in. My shotgun was on the ground with my pack so I had to sling the rifle and draw my pistol. I wondered if the .40 caliber would be enough to drop one of these creatures. I supposed I would just have to make my shots count.

The question was left unanswered as the dragon had returned for a little pay back, biting one of the owls in half between its massive jaws. The remaining three decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere. One of them never made it out of the hex before it was caught in a gout of flame from the dragon.

That left me up a tree with an empty rifle and a pistol that suddenly seemed quite small in my hands. Fortunately, the dragon only eyed me for a moment before diving towards where one of the birds I had shot had crashed. Apparently it thought the giant owl was more appetizing. I fully supported that conclusion as I made my way at best possible speed back down the tree.

On the ground I was beat up and scratched a bit by my rapid descent but adrenaline kept me going. First order of business, reload the high powered rifle. Next, make sure the shotgun was loaded and then put the pack on. Then I ran to where one of the other owls had landed. I was starting to run out of food and I hoped to salvage at least one of the carcasses before the dragon decided it was hungry enough to eat them all. And maybe me too.

I’d plucked and quartered the owl when I heard a thunderous crash through the woods. The dragon had arrived.

We both looked at each, then at the owl and then at each other again.

“Truck it.” I decided. “We’ll see how much of this thing you can eat. I may be able to get by for another day with what I’ve already found.” Then I tossed the birds head at the dragon, hoping that perhaps would satiate it.

It caught the head with a snap of its mouth and swallowed in one fluid motion. Then it looked at me, the carcass and back at me again.

“Greedy beast.” I accused it before tossing one quarter of the good meat at it.

Again it snapped up the morsel and looked at me expectantly.

We repeated this ritual until all of the owl was gone. “That’s it. There is no more. You ate it all, you greedy beast.”

The dragon growled at me.

“Did I say greedy beast?” I said quickly and defensively. “I meant ready feast! As in there’s a ready feast over this way. I think I know where the last one landed."

It followed me at a cautious distance through the woods. The owl had landed on just the other side of a neighboring hex. I crossed over to grab it.

The dragon went to follow me but then slammed its nose against an invisible barrier.

“Huh. I guess I’m not the only one who can only move so far per day.” I regarded the owl’s body for a moment. I supposed a full dragon was a happy dragon and might not come looking for me in the morning if it was full today. So I hacked up the body and tossed the dragon each chunk. It snapped the pieces up as I tossed them over across the hex border.

When it was all gone, the dragon laid down and eyed me speculatively. It didn’t seem to be acting like a hungry predator anymore.

“Are you friendly?” I asked it.

It only blew air through its nostrils in a huff.

Hesitantly and perhaps stupidly I crossed back into its hex.

The dragon did not seem to object to my company and did not stir as I drew closer to it. In fact, it let me put a hand on its snout and rub. It responded to that with a rumbling coming from deep within it’s belly.

Was it… tame?

“Do you understand me?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

One eye regarded me but it made no reply.

“Flap your wings.” I suggested.

To my great surprise, it did just that, causing a gust of wind to nearly knock me on my boop.

“Okay! Okay! That’s enough!” I said, laughing a bit. This was probably the best thing that had happened since I had started this unreal journey. “Wow, why did my brain dream you up?”

It shrugged and then nuzzled my chest until started scratching its nose again which returned it to a contented rumbling state.

“You need a name.” I observed. “I guess maybe I’ll call you Scarlet.” It wasn’t the most imaginative name I could have come up with, I admit but my mind was working on other things just then.

Things were starting to fall into place. The hex spaces each with different apparent terrain types reminded me of when I was a kid playing the old boxed sets of D&D. Overland travel was measured in hexes, if I recalled correctly. It was a holdover from D&D’s roots as a turn based strategy game. Later iterations of the game had moved to squares though optional rules existed for hex moves as well. The combat mats I had at home had squares on one side and hexes on the other.

The giant gummy bear was like some sort of weird pun creature. And here was a fantasy dragon which might seem almost cute if I hadn’t seen it cut a giant owl in half and toast another on the fly. This was no D&D game, that was for sure. It was like Piers Anthony and Gary Gygax had a love child who then made a PG war game and now I was stuck in it somehow.

Unfortunately, when it came to war gaming, the closest I had ever come were board games such as Risk or Axis and Allies. Certainly I knew a lot of people who played games like Warhammer 40K but it had just never appealed to me. When it came to strategy I had always preferred the Age of Empires line of games.

So why did war games seem to be the foundation for the delusion I was currently suffering from?

The worst thought I had before night fell was, just where was the war, anyway?

_________________
"The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
— Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Sun Jan 24, 2016 10:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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     Post subject: Part Two
     Post Posted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 12:54 am 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it a game or is it real?)

    Part Two:

    Wee Folk of the Forest


    I ate my breakfast while Scarlet watched me. In my mind Scarlet was a ‘she’ but the truth of the matter was that I had no blooping idea what gender it was. “Well Scarlet, I guess you’re proof that I’m not in Kansas anymore. Maybe I should have named you Toto?” I chuckled at the thought but Scarlet only cocked her head sideways at me.

    After I’d stripped the last of the meat off the last of my owl bones, I offered the bones to Scarlet and she took them with a gentle slurp from her tongue. Then her stomach rumbled. “I guess that won’t be enough for you, huh girl?”

    Packing my gear, I was still thinking. Scarlet hadn’t flown off in the morning as I had half expected her to. In fact, she seemed to be waiting around for me to get my boop together. Certainly she was watching my every move carefully. She probably needed food and I certainly need more as well.

    “Can you fly with me on your back?” I asked her. She shrugged but then hunched down as though to offer me a ride.

    It was my turn to shrug as I mounted her. It felt all sorts of weird. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a teenager and never bareback. Only when playing games like D&D had I ever even imagined flying on a dragon’s back. Even a goofy looking dragon from a kids coloring book. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. “Alright, um… up, up and away?”

    Scarlet's wings began to flap with normal flaps at first and then furiously. They kicked up a of underbrush and dust. She managed to jump a bit sort of like a serpentine version of the moon bounce but never really got any serious air time. Finally, she stopped trying and looked over her shoulder at me. She let her annoyance be known with an indignant snort in my direction.

    “It’s okay Scarlet,” I said while patting her neck affectionately. “You gave it your best shot. Can you walk with me on your back?”

    She snorted again and started to trundle along. She wasn’t exactly quiet as she pushed her way through the forest but neither did she seem to have any trouble with mobility, especially by sticking to the edge of the hex where it was a little bit clearer.

    “I guess we should hunt while we go.” I said out loud, wondering if she understood me. “If you do, then keep your eyes peeled. We both need some munchies.”

    Apparently she had understood as she suddenly darted into the woods where she startled two of the owls that had survived yesterdays encounter. The noise of her crashing through the wood startled them into flight. Her flame ended their escape attempt and she had some BBQ fowl for her breakfast.

    “That enough for you, girl?” I asked her.

    She was rumbling contentedly so I took that as a yes. “Alright. Still keep an eye out for something for me to eat too.”

    I might have felt silly expecting it to understand what I was saying if it wasn’t for the fact that I was riding on the back of a dragon. While I was starting to realize that I was thinking a tad too coherently and rationally to be crazy, I still wasn’t sure this wasn’t some sort of delusion. But delusion or not, it was how I currently perceived reality and that perceived reality was responding in consistent and eventually predictable if incredibly strange ways.

    Later in the day we came across another river. Caught out in the middle of it was another gummy bear. Scarlet was on it before I could even register it. She ate the front half of the hapless creature and then stopped and nudged the back half towards me. Apparently that was my share.

    Sugar was energy so it’d have to do. I ate some and then stuffed as much into bags as I could, emptying out several other bags to do so. When I was done, Scarlett finished off what was left.

    “You know, if we’re going to walk anyway, maybe I should walk under my own power and you can walk beside me. That way if something happens, you can get off the ground and fly if you need to.”

    She shrugged and just started to pad along beside me. It really was disappointing that I couldn’t ride her above the treetops but it seemed I was just a bit too heavy for her. Maybe she was still a young dragon and would get bigger. Once she was bigger then maybe she could carry me. Assuming she wasn’t already fully grown, that is. Not that she was exactly small as it was. She could probably intimidate a full grown elephant. Hell, she could probably eat a full grown elephant.

    As we approached a new Y junction between hexes, an arrow flew out of the opposing wood and landed in front of us. A man dressed in green and looking rather like Kevin Costner stepped out of the wood across the way from us. Well, if Kevin Costner was about four feet tall and had unearthly, beady little eyes. “Ho there, stranger! I was wondering why a dwagon was walking along when it could fly and here I see it walking beside an unknown heavy unit type.”

    Behind him stepped seven archers and on the other opposing hex, eight more men with bows also stepped out.

    All of them could have been cast as munchkins for the Wizard of Oz. If they hadn’t been pointing very real looking arrows at me, I might have thought they were cute. “Unknown heavy unit?” I was rather offended. I had kept in shape and only had a little flab on my belly.

    “Aye. I suspect you’re a barbarian. Maybe a warlord.”

    “I really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Not entirely true. Barbarian was gamer parlance for a character type or class. Of course it had real world meanings too but in this world I was betting on the gaming definition. Which means either this individual was possibly a horrible meta-gamer. “Would you maybe tell me where here was, exactly?”

    “Sure Would.” He smiled with a nod.

    “Alright.” I waited for a moment. “So where are we?”

    “I already told you.” He shook his head as though he was talking to a simpleton.

    “No you didn’t.” I said frowning. “You only told me that you would. So would you please now tell me where we are?”

    “Sure Would.” He said again. “Like I said before.”

    “Sure would…” I repeated. “As in Sure Would Forest?”

    “The one and only.” He agreed. “So what brings you here?”

    “I’m lost, actually.” I glanced around at his archers. “And to be honest I’m guessing I’m not very welcome here either.”

    He hitched a thumb into his belt. “Well, that just depends on where your allegiance is friend. You wouldn’t be a barbarian looking for employment with Prince Jonny O. Spot of Naughtyham, are you?”

    I raised a brow at that. “Naughtyham? No, I can honestly say that I’ve never even heard of the Prince Jonny Spot of Naughtyham.”

    “Well then, barbarian, perhaps you’d care to join me and my outlaws? I was the heir designate to Naughtyham before the current prince killed my father and took over. If you join us, I’ll pay the upkeep for you and your dwagon. I should have enough in my purse to cover you both.”

    “Pay my upkeep?” I asked, not understanding what he was talking about.

    “Yeah, you know, food.” He explained and then gave the archer a look that suggested that maybe I was crazy.

    “She eats a lot.” I patted Scarlet's neck affectionately.

    “I’m sure she’s worth every shmucker.” He said with a hungry look as he looked her over. Seemed he was more interested in what he knew of her capabilities than he in my own unknown abilities.

    “We’ve been hunting our own food rather successfully.” I said as I put my poker face on. “I imagine you’re planning some action against the usurper prince in Naughtyham. You want us to stick our necks out for you, you’re going to have offer us more than just food that we could get on our own anyway.”

    He laughed. “I like you. Tell you what, I’ll pay your upkeep for every day you work for me and fill your purse with shmuckers and your pack with provisions if you help us retake Naughtyham.”

    Shmuckers must be the local currency I decided. “I don’t know; I have a pretty big purse.”

    “And I’ll fill it to capacity. Plus, provisions.” He promised.

    “Maybe.” I hedged. “I don’t even know your name yet.”

    “Wobin the Hood.” He supplied.

    Well, he’d called Scarlet a Dwagon, so maybe he had a speech impairment. It wouldn’t be nice to make fun of him for it. Especially in the middle of negotiation. “Alright. Well, this is Scarlet and I’m Justin…”

    “I think we’ll call you Little John.” Wobin the Hood interrupted me.

    “Are you sure it shouldn’t be Widdle John?” I said a bit sourly, already forgetting my decision not to make fun of his speech impediment.

    “What? No.” Wobin was shaking his head. “That would just be silly. So do we have an accord or not?”

    “Sure. I’ll work with you.” I agreed.

    Wobin stepped across the hex and spit into his hand before offering it to me and I did likewise.

    His eyes went wide suddenly. “Holy crap. Over a thousand shmuckers? And that’s just for you? You better be some kind of caster unit.” He frowned. “I can’t see your stats at all.”

    “Should you be able to?” I asked him, wondering if this was like some sort of video game where blocks of unit data could be called up on demand.

    “Yes, I should. I only get the upkeep cost. Your stats better be bloody amazing. I don’t suppose you’ll except provisions in lieu of shmuckers. I mean until we’ve retaken Naughyyham. Than I’ll fill your purse up as promised.”

    “Sure man.” I agreed. “As long as Scarlet and I get to eat.”

    “Alright, stack up with my boys here. We were expecting other company when you arrived. So you’ll get a chance to earn your keep and show us what you and your pet dwagon can do.”

    I shrugged and joined the other archers who were melding back into the tree line. Dropping my pack, I then got my firearms ready for action. I also filled the loops on my rifle sling with rounds so I could reload in a hurry if needed.

    “Nice leadership bonus on you.” One of my new companions beside me said. “You a warlord?”

    “I don’t know why anyone would want to be a lord of war.” I commented sourly. “I’ve led troops before though.”

    She nodded but really didn’t seem to know how to take it.

    While we waited I had Scarlet hunker down a distance back in the trees so she’d be out of sight until needed. “When I yell, 'Now!' you come flying up and fry anyone who isn’t on our side or isn’t surrendering, okay?”

    She just hunched down and looked ready to spring into action at a moments notice.

    “I’ll take that as a yes.” Then I waited behind a tree for the action to start.

    I could hear the approach before I saw them. It was a carriage being pulled by some sort of squat lizard creature. Marching in front of the carriage was two ranks of eight archers each. Marching behind the carriage was a cart being pulled by another lizard and that was followed by two ranks of eight spearmen each.

    “Volley!” commanded Wobin.

    “Now!” I yelled for Scarlet and then started firing, taking time to place each shot carefully, center of mass. Big messy holes opened up in their chests before they fell down but not one of them bled. It added an unreal, video gamey quality to it all that I had never experienced in battle before. It was like I wasn’t shooting at actual people but video game sprites with no real lives or soul of their own.

    By the time the spear men were rushing forward, Scarlet arrived and lit the scene on fire. And then it was over.

    “Thank the Titans!” Wobin exclaimed. “And look at you, croaking half a stack of archers by yourself. Maybe you are worth your upkeep.”

    I was reloading my rifle. I was down four more rounds for it that I doubted could be replaced here. I would have to look at getting a bow and some other weapons for myself. “Just pulling my weight.”

    Wobin nodded and then walked up to the carriage and knocked on the door. “You can come out now. The fighting is done.”

    The scorched carriage door opened up and a tall (compared to Wobin and his fellows) bald man stepped out. He looked to be about fifty and wore a tuxedo.

    “So much for having a consistent theme.” I thought to myself on seeing a man dressed in early twentieth century attire be greeted by a man dressed in twelfth century clothing. That thought became instantly ironic the moment a miniature Major Motoko Kusanagi also stepped out of the carriage. Or at least a miniaturized look alike version of her.

    In more ways than one, I was to learn.

    Both of these new arrivals seemed well acquainted with Wobin, who was turning to introduce them to me. “Little John, I want you to meet two fellow barbarians. The chap with no sense of humour is Ollie Warsmuckers. He’s a moneymancer, no doubt hired to see a pile of gems escorted safely to the capital. His lovely companion is Major Tanaka, a thinkamancer.”

    Then he gestured to me. “This is Little John. I haven’t figured out what his class is but his upkeep is more than all the rest of us combined.”

    The major put two fingers to her temple. “He’s not using foolamancy or thinkamancy to hide his stats. Maybe he’s a signamancer. Or has a signamancy special.”

    “If he was going to be a hippiemancer, I’d rather someone skilled in flower power.” Wobin seemed a little disappointed in this alleged discovery.

    It was a bit annoying how he talked about people who were standing right there like they weren’t, however. “Did you just call me a dope smoking long haired hippie friend of Jesus?” I demanded.

    He furrowed his brow at me and again his expression suggested he was trying to evaluate my sanity. I couldn’t really blame him on that count. “What? No. You definitely have short hair. And I don’t even know who this Jesus person is. Was he a caster?”

    “A healer.” I decided to play along with the game this world was throwing at me. “Could make the lame walk and the blind see. Even brought people back from the dead.”

    “A healomancer and a croakamancer? We could really use a caster like that. Is he a barbarian like you? Whatever his price, he’d be worth it.” Wobin seemed excited by the prospect.

    “Sorry, he was killed.” I shrugged casually.

    By the looks on everyone’s faces, you’d think I had just harvested the tears of their kittens for my tea. “What?”

    “Why would you say that?” Wobin looked horrified. “I mean, we’re all barbarians here but that doesn’t mean we have to act uncivilized.”

    “Well, what the boop was I supposed to say then?” I went back to frowning.

    “That he croaked.” Wobin explained.

    “Croaked?” I was incredulous.

    “Yes, croaked. Please don’t use that other word again. It’s vulgar.”

    “So I can’t say boop but I can say kill and that’s vulgar?” I planted my hands on my hips.

    “Yes! It is! And I won’t ask you again to stop using it.” His hand brushed the hilt of his sword.

    I wasn’t intimidated at the moment. I knew I could draw on him with my pistol before he could close the distance between us. Besides, I was still quite annoyed. “That’s because it is vulgar. I don’t care if you dress it up with words like croak. Death, dying, killing and being killed, these are all vulgar things. Pretending they aren’t by saying croak instead is even more so.”

    Wobin looked like he might press the issue more but the Major intervened. “Definitely a signamancer. He knows forbidden words.” Then she turned her attention from me to Wobin. “I trust we are now your prisoners.”

    “That’s right. You’ll be given proper provisions. If you break alliance with Naughtyham and switch to me, we’ll dispense with the shackles and other formalities.”

    “Done.” She said right away.

    “I love it when a plan comes together.” Ollie Warshmuckers said. “The gems are all in the wagon. You were right, he was going to use them to bribe the Duke of York to send his army in and wipe you out.”

    “We have a fighting chance now.” Wobin said as he walked back to the wagon and pried open one of the chests. Inside were ridiculously over sized gems. “A signamancer with a dwagon shows up and everything starts falling into place for us. If that isn’t a sign from fate, I don’t know is.”

    Ollie was patting another one of the chests. “A foolamancer and his shmuckers are soon parted.”

    “Indeed.” The Major agreed. “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

    The three turned to look at me and I felt as though I was expected to say something. “There is no fate but what we make.”

    +++

    Wobin had the Major and five of his best archers ‘stack up’ with me so that she could direct us to find all nearby Naughtyham patrols that were supposed to be screening for this one. The Major would use her mental voodoo powers to confuse the enemy and our archers would protect us. My job was to direct Scarlet to make everyone die in a fire. Only he said croak in a fire.

    It occurred to me that the Major being some sort of telepath might be consistent with this being some sort of video game setting. After all, she was basically hacking people’s minds or their ‘ghosts’, if you preferred. Certainly I felt it signified something.

    That evening I joined Wobin around a campfire. He was sitting with Warshmuckers and the Major. A plump man in a brown robe who was balding on the top was also with them. I took him to be the ‘Tucker’ they had been discussing earlier. A few others were present as well. Apparently they were Wobin’s lieutenants but he called them warlords.

    “So this is our Little John, huh?” Tucker said as I sat down somewhat awkwardly beside him. “You’re a heavy unit and make no mistake. So how long have you been a barbarian?”

    “I don’t consider myself a barbarian.” I replied with a frown.

    “We’re all barbarians here, Little John. There’s no shame in that.” For once Wobin seemed sincere and consolatory. “We’ve all lost our sides at one point or another.”

    “I don’t know about any of that.” I said as I pulled out my phone and checked the date. “But I’ve been in this place for five days now and until I ran into you I was on my own the whole time.”

    Scarlet snorted behind me. “Okay, okay I met her yesterday so not the entire time.”

    “So you’ve never belonged to a side?” It was the Major who asked.

    I frowned. “I did once. For twenty years I served in the Canadian Army. But I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Canada.”

    Wobin gave a low whistle. “That’s over seven thousand turns.”

    “So who did they fall to, my lad?” Tucker asked.

    “They haven’t. At least I don’t think they have. It was just my time to retire.”

    All of them were staring at me. “What?”

    “What does it mean, that it was time to retire?” The Major asked.

    +++

    That evening’s conversation revealed a fundamental rift between how I saw and understood things and how these people did. For example, until I had used them, they had not known or used words such as die, day or year. They knew what they meant as soon as they heard them but preferred their own words such as croak or turn. They didn’t have a word for year, though they understood it meant 365 turns.

    To them, it was like I was a person who Couldn’t Understand Normal Thought. Heh. Another work around. I’d have to type that into the text program of my phone later to see if it’d stick. I’d already discovered all my books had been censored based on this world’s sensibilities.

    So I started asking questions and the revelations started pouring in.

    For example, shmuckers weren’t hard currency. They took fiat currency to a whole new level. So when Wobin offered to ‘fill my purse’, he was referring to what was essentially an abstract construct that could be sensed by those who had them. Not unlike a bank card but everyone had a mental ATM. Or more accurately, an online account to do banking with but it was the internet of the mind. The Major’s appearance was making more and more sense all the time.

    I had to use a banking app on my phone to explain how I understood the concept. Except I had to set it to work offline.

    Not surprisingly, the Major took a keen interest in the phone. “This is a powerful signamancy artefact, I’m sure of it but I don’t sense any magic from it.”

    “I want to see that banking app again.” Warshmuckers was saying. “You know, if Little John here really is a signamancer, than we could form a link with him. Really figure this thing out.”

    “What’s a link?” I asked.

    The casters stared at me for a moment.

    “I take it back, a caster who doesn’t know that much is no kind of caster at all. It’d be too dangerous.” Warshmuckers handed the phone back to me.

    I didn’t put it away. “But what is a link? Why is it dangerous?”

    “It’s where a thinkamancer links two other casters to form combined magic or to make certain magic items.” The Major explained. “It’s dangerous because casters can become lost in the link. Breaking the link can harm the minds of the casters involved. A thinkamancer like me can protect themselves but Warshmuckers has no such assurance. In theory I could protect him too, but it would be at the cost of the third mind in the link.” She shook her head. “It won’t work with a non-caster.”

    “But weren’t you saying that I was some sort of, what do you call it, signamancer?” I asked, not willing to let it go yet.

    “I thought you were.” She admitted hesitantly. “I’m not sure now though. Maybe you just have some signamancy specials. That’s not the same as being a full caster and it won’t help you form a link.”

    “Here’s the thing though. I have a purse. Warshmuckers there says I do. He says he could sense that it was empty but has a capacity for five thousand shmuckers. But as it stands, I can’t use them. And if someone tries to pay me, I won’t know if they held up their end of the deal or not. And if my upkeep depends on these shmuckers, then I could be really screwed, right? Scarlet too, if her upkeep is dependent on me. I need a way to see that purse and to manipulate it.”

    “You do.” She agreed sensibly enough. “But not this way. It won’t work.”

    “Have you ever tried it with a non-caster?” I asked. “Or is it just something everyone knows without testing?”

    The Major and Warshmuckers exchanged looks. “It would be dangerous to include an undisciplined mind.” Warshmuckers said, though he was starting to sound unsure.

    “Then the Major can protect her mind and yours. It’s for my benefit, I’ll shoulder the risk.” I was growing excited at the prospect of trying something new. The risk made my stomach clench up but it also sharpened my senses like no drug ever could. And that would be nothing compared to the exhilaration I would feel if it actually worked.

    “Not now.” Wobin interjected forcefully. “I admit to a certain curiosity about this… experiment too. But we have a city to take and I’m going to need all of you fully functioning to do it. If you want to risk your necks when the city is secure, then they’re yours to risk. Don’t worry about me cheating you, Little John. I’ll pay you in provisions and gems if you prefer. Or you can do this thing and you’ll get your shmuckers just like promised. Just not now, okay?”

    Sighing, I nodded. He was being reasonable. “Alright. I’ll wait. If you two will promise to go through with it.”

    The Major cocked her head to the side. “Since you’re willing to take the risk, then I suppose.”

    “Nothing ventured, nothing earned.” Warshmuckers pronounced his agreement.

    +++

    My days were to be spent leading stacks of archers into battle while commanding my dwagon (apparently that was what they were actually called) against the enemy. What we faced were mostly unled stacks of what they called stabbers, pikers and archers.

    I led the stacks because I had the second highest leadership bonus next to Wobin himself. Wobin was an eight while I was a five. They knew what my number was based on the bonus people I was stacked with received. Me just standing there made the troops better troops. Apparently it helped Scarlet as well. Scarlets spare move after any fighting was used for hunting to support herself as well me and usually with enough left over for a half a stack of others as well. Any wounds were healed by Tucker. He was primarily what they called a turnamancer (and thus the source of many of their stabbers and archers) but also dabbled in healomancy. Seemed Wobin was getting the better end of this deal by far.

    That was just as well. Archers got new arrows every morning as part of their upkeep but my bullets were running out. As we were making plans to finally attack the castle, I counted them. I had only one slug and six shot for the shotgun. Out of twenty exposed core rounds I had brought for the 30-06, I was down to my last seven rounds. I had all forty of the .40 caliber rounds I had brought with me in four magazines still. So far I had managed to recover every spent round though it was still out of habit more than any functional purpose at this point.

    The dwindling ammo supply had led to me to ask Wobin to teach me the finer points of archery.

    “You either have the archery special or you don’t.” He said with a shrug.

    “Maybe here. But where I come from you can learn things like that. So let’s see, huh?” I pressed.

    After giving me some basic instructions “That you should already know anyway,” I demonstrated that I could indeed learn and improve beyond the basic level a stabber might. So he started training me in the evenings.

    He promised to see if I could learn other weapons too but for now he’d stick to archery. “With your size, you probably don’t need that much skill close in, anyway.”

    I was of the opinion that I could bleed out from a small stab as easily as a large one.

    Apparently bleeding was something else they weren’t familiar with.

    Of course. PG rating. We want to sell the video game to as many users as possible. That vaguely made me wonder if there was some ten-year-old somewhere typing commands into a computer to make me do whatever it was I thought I was choosing to do on my own. I didn’t dwell on it for long however. Madness lay in that direction. I didn’t want my mind to get Fubar’ed before the caster link got a chance to fry my noggin.

    Sweet. I could use Fubar!

    I just couldn’t tell anyone what the effing F stood for.

    Our battle plans were simple. Draw out the enemy forces from the safety of the city and croak more units than they could pop in a day. Once they were softened up enough, Wobin would organize the men for a massed assault, relying on me to get Scarlet to do some strafing runs before smashing down the main gate.

    The trick would be the tower. They had a dollamancer named Andy who specialized in cloth golems. Those golems would be on the ground but he would be in the tower, charging its anti-air spells. Something they called shockamancy that I should watch out for. There was the outside possibility that they might have hired other casters to help out but we had been draining their treasury pretty heavily so that seemed unlikely.

    I had another idea.

    “No one who has seen Scarlet has survived to report it, right?” I started after Wobin was done laying out his battle plan.

    There were nods of agreement.

    “So give me a stack of men. I’ll show up at their gate and offer them my services as a Dwagon mounted warlord. That’ll get me on the inside and they’ll pay me to do it. Then once we’re ready, I break alliance and attack from the inside. Start by taking out Andy and any other mages they may have.”

    Wobin considered that for a moment. “Why don’t we sweeten the pot for them even more?”

    “How so?” My brow was raised with curiosity.

    He grinned wide. “You show up with prisoners.”

    And thus the plan was refined.

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Sun Jan 24, 2016 11:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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     Post subject: Part Three
     Post Posted: Wed Jan 20, 2016 12:10 am 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it a game or is it real?)

    Part Three

    Signamancy on the Dotted Line


    I led the way while Scarlet flew overhead. Stacked with me were seven archers. Behind us was another stack of archers that also contained Wobin and Tucker. Wobin had figured that if things went south, my stack would benefit from my leadership bonus and the stack he was with would benefit from his. Personally, I could never tell if I was stacked up with someone properly or not. Everyone else seemed to know it though and I supposed that was good enough.

    The Major wasn’t far off, keeping us connected with her thinkamancy. She was also going to work on the minds of the guards somehow, to make our deception easier to swallow. I figured it was like a Jedi mind trick but at range.

    We were met at the front gates by two stacks of pikers while another couple stacks of archers watched from the walls. The archers were watching Scarlet with more than a little concern. The lead Piker addressed me with an impatient tone. “What is your business here, barbarian?”

    “I’ve come to offer my services to your leader. And I’ve brought him prisoners he might want to interrogate. They used to work for Wobin of Sure Would. Until I caught them, that is.”

    There were considerable doubts in my mind about bringing Wobin along on this mission. He was sure to be discovered sooner rather than later. The boop was sure to hit the fan once that happened. Well, no plan survives contact with the enemy anyway. That was why god had created contingency plans.

    The piker eyed Wobin and Tucker who were both concealing their features under dirty cloaks and robes. Wobin would have walked in with just the cloak but I pointed out that his clothes still had his emblem emblazed on them (it was a black silhouette of a head wearing a feathered cap on a rectangular yellow field). It had taken a little convincing but now he was decked out like one of his common stabbers. He’d wanted to at least go as an archer but I felt it was too obvious.

    He considered it for a moment. “Alright, but land the dragon while I get the boss.”

    “The dwagon can remain in the air.” The Major’s voice echoed in my head with my words.

    “The dwagon can remain in the air.” The piker repeated and turned to enter the garrison.

    Eventually the head piker returned. “Alright, the warlord said you and your prisoners could come in but your dwagon has to land and your men have to wait out here.”

    “Alright.” Then I yelled up to Scarlet. “Land here girl.” The Thinkamancy seemed like a waste now but it had been worth a shot.

    Scarlet landed with a thump and eyed the pikers threateningly. I rubbed her neck affectionately while whispering in her ear, “If I call, roast the pikers and archers then huff and puff until you blow that gate in.”

    She rumbled contentedly at my rubbing. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Then louder in my most commanding drill voice I said, “Prisoners will advance.”

    Some of the archers almost broke stack to advance with their leaders but caught themselves in time. Apparently they were used to responding to a voice of authority.

    “Prisoners will stack up with me.” The Major was coaching me on what to say and how to say it. Wobin and Tucker fell in behind me and I took that to mean that we were now ‘stacked’. Then I followed the piker into the garrison.

    In the courtyard were four stacks of archers forming a hollow square. All of them had arrows nocked. In the middle stood a black haired and bearded man. His clothes were all black and his emblem seemed to be a snake wrapping around a rusty spoon. He had his fists planted on his hips and looked like he wanted to either gloat or monologue. Apparently this was the Chief Warlord of the enemy, called the Sheriff. “So you’re the barbarian who has prisoners to sell me.” He leaned forward and sneered, “what’s to stop me from just taking them from you now, barbarian?”

    I drew my pistol and pressed the barrel against the back of Tucker’s head. “This one here’s a caster. If I don’t get shmuckers for the both of them, I blow the back of his head through his eyes and you lose your chance to turn him. If I lose, everybody does.”

    The Sheriff raised his brow at me. Slowly he drawled, “Fifty points to you for audacity.”

    “I only accept shmuckers, gems and provisions in payment. Not interested in points.” I didn’t lower the pistol.

    “You’ll get your reward.” He strolled up to them and examined Tucker first. “I know you. You’re Wobin’s turnamancer, Tucker.” Then he looked at Wobin but seemed unable to focus on the archer warlord’s face properly. “This one isn’t worth much.”

    “S’not my problem.” I spit on the ground. “Yours or his, not mine.”

    The Sheriff snorted and then nodded. “I hear you’re looking to work as well as to sell these prisoners.”

    “Two times my upkeep and that of my dwagon for seven turns. I promise to have Wobin of Sure Wood standing here in this courtyard in front of you before that time runs out.” It was a contract I couldn’t help but fulfill.

    “If you can do that, you’ll be worth it.” The sheriff said. “Let me go get a contract.”

    “No need.” I reached into a pocket and produced a contract I had written the night before with the help of the Major and Warshmuckers. The Major and Warshmuckers were both convinced it would be binding. I wasn't as sure about this part of Wobin's plan. “Got one.”

    He arched a brow at me. “I like a man who is prepared to get right down to business. Very well. Follow me to the throne room. The prince will sign it after reading it. My men will see the prisoners to the dungeon.”

    I didn’t lower my pistol. “Prisoners stay with me till I’m paid for ‘em.”

    The Sheriff smirked slight, “yes, of course. Very well. Follow me.”

    “Prisoners will march in front of me.” I commanded and the two of them seemed to comply. I holstered my pistol but freed my shotgun instead. Loaded with shot, I was hoping I might be able to get clustered groups with each blast once the fighting started. Which would be soon, I was sure.

    As we walked up the winding stairs up the tower, he casually asked, “I can’t help but notice that I can’t recognize much about you, stranger.”

    “Signamancy special.” Was all I said about it.

    “A heavy with a signamancy special? Never heard of a unit like that before. Where do come from originally?” He seemed awfully interested in me.

    “Just a little village.” I said non-committedly.

    “Well stranger, you pull this off as advertised, there would be a place for you here.” We arrived at the next level and he opened a door. “We’re a single city side and the city is only level two. Wobin’s banditry and constant attacks keeps us from upgrading to level three. If it weren’t for the farms, we might not be able to manage the upkeep of all our popped units.”

    We followed him into the throne room where the prince was waiting. I was immediately reminded of the “Men in Tights” parody movie. There was even a mole on the princes face.

    “This barbarian has two prisoners to sell us. He is also offering us his services. Promises to have Wobin of Sure Would in front of me in the courtyard within seven turns.”

    “Let me see the contract.” The prince held out his hand and the sheriff handed it to him. “Twice seven turns upkeep for a barbarian heavy and his dragon? Seems like a steal if you ask me.”

    “Paid in advance.” I pointed out.

    “Yes, but if you fail to deliver, you promise to turn to my side, which gets me my money back anyway.” The prince said with a smirk. Then with a flourish, he signed the contract.

    Immediately there was a rumble and shifting of balance as the building shook. I had been told to expect this as he couldn’t help but default on the contract.

    I had delivered Wobin to him as a prisoner in less than seven turns. So he immediately owed me twice seven turns income from his treasury. We figured the treasury wasn’t actually big enough to accommodate a sum that was just over 18,000 shmuckers. Even if it was however, he couldn’t help but default. My purse could only hold 5,000 shmuckers so he still owed me over 13,000 shmuckers.

    In the supposedly unlikely event that he would default, then the city would immediately downgrade to a level one to generate the necessary funds. There weren’t further defaults but that was fine. The city was now nearly defenseless. Scarlet would scarcely be needed to bust down the front gate, Wobin’s men would be able to swarm over the site in short order.

    Two defaults on payment would lead to an immediate break of alliance, though whatever had been paid would remain in my purse.

    “Surprise!” Wobin yelled as he pulled a sword out from under his cloak. Tucker was likewise transforming his shackles into a staff.

    The Sheriff went for his sword but found the business end of a 12-gauge barrel pointed at his nose. “Go ahead and grab it.” I said casually, “And slowly put it on the table there.”

    The Sheriff complied and shackles appeared around his wrists.

    Outside there was a roar followed by the screams of those dying in a holocaust.

    “You’re our prisoner, now.” Wobin was gloating over the Prince who was glaring imaginary daggers at me. Then Wobin grabbed the Prince’s wrists and forced his hands behind his back. “It’s the portal for you, mate.” The Prince’s face went pale white before Wobin started marching him away.

    I turned to Tucker, “What’s that mean?”

    “Every capital city has a portal to the magic kingdom. Even a single city side. Only casters can pass through them though. Everyone else disbands on contact.” He shrugged and started away at a high speed wobble, pushing the sheriff ahead of him. “We’ve got a caster on the tower to deal with, lad.”

    Starting after him, I spared a glance over my shoulder to watch Wobin frog march the Prince away. “What’s disband?”

    “Well, it’s sort of like croaking but not as pleasant.” Tucker managed to sound casual as he raced to the tower stairs. His bulk suggested he should be huffing and puffing more than he was.

    “Wait, Wobin is going to kill a prisoner?” I stopped dead.

    Tucker slowed a few paces but didn’t stop. “Well yeah, lad. He’s not likely to turn and really, I need to save my juice for Andy and the Sheriff here. A dollamancer and a warlord is more valuable to our future side than a prince with low loyalty will be.”

    “It’s not right, Tucker!” I objected. “He surrendered!”

    Tucker finally stopped and looked over his shoulder at me. “Yeah, he did lad. And maybe Wobin will give him a chance to turn before he tosses him through the portal but I doubt it. Besides, putting him to the portal will also disband all his field units. It's what would have happened to Wobin’s men if they hadn’t been with an heir designate when the Sheriff killed his father.” Then the caster started back up the stairs at best possible speed.

    No one had mentioned the execution of prisoners to me when we were making plans. Maybe it was just something that was done here but I couldn’t accept it. Killing unarmed prisoners was a war crime and I wouldn’t be a party to it.

    Unfortunately, Wobin had a head start on me. Furthermore, stabbers and pikers were starting to pour into the stairs in a last ditch effort to save their overlord. I would have let the have a go but they rightfully saw me as the enemy and engaged.

    I gunned them down until my shotgun was empty. Then I swung it like a club, batting their little bodies around like they were sacks of flour. “Major!” I yelled while hoping the added emphasis would grab her attention. “Do you hear me?”

    “I hear you, Little John.” Her voice was calm and steady in my head.

    “You have to stop Wobin!” I was still shouting. “He’s going to use the portal to disband the Prince!”

    “Yes, of course he is.” She said without missing a beat. “A little unconventional but less messy than throwing him from the top of the tower.”

    “That’s what you’re concerned about, the mess?” I shouted as I cracked the pistol grip off my shotgun while slamming it into the side of a stabbers head. The stabber crumpled to the ground, never to rise again. I was being fueled by an anger that was rising again, breaking chains that had contained it for a long time.

    Finally, there was a break in the enemy combatants and I made a dash for the dungeon and the portal.

    I flung open the door, shouting, “Noooo!”

    Even as the Major’s cool voice was intoning in my head, “It is done.”

    Looking on in horror as the Sheriff disbanded before my eyes, I heard Wobin sneer, “That’s for my father. Game over, prince.”

    +++

    I was bothered. While I was extremely uncomfortable with Wobin’s summary execution of his enemy, I could understand seeking revenge on behalf of one’s father. If dementia had been a person, I would have thrown it through that portal for what it had done to my pop. So while I wasn’t happy about it, a part of me could admittedly understand it.

    What was bothering me was that the battle had been entirely too easy for our side. Terry Pratchett often wrote on the qualities of narrativium and it had occurred to me that similar principles might be at work in this world as well. Or at least something very much like it. This did seem to be a world built around fictional constructs, after all. If so, then this easy victory would be misleading. Something else would happen, all when we were most at ease. I’d have to be watchful for it. Hopefully I wouldn’t be wrong genre savvy.

    In the meantime, I was having other difficulties.

    “I promised you that your purse would be full if you helped me win. You helped me win, your purse is full.” Wobin said with a slight smirk.

    “No, you promised me that you would fill it or pay in gems if that wasn’t possible.” I said stubbornly.

    “Did I?” Wobin shrugged with a ‘what can you do?’ look. “Should have gotten it in writing.”

    “So is that what kind of overlord you’re going to be, Wobin? I guess once a thief, always a thief!” I growled in his face.

    He managed to look hurt. Which might have been more convincing to me if he wasn’t in the middle of attempting to stiff me.

    “Okay, look Little John. We have to rebuild here and not just back to a level two city. We have to get to level three. That’s just so the other sides don’t move in on us right away. But if we’re going to survive as a side, we’re going to need to expand. Once we have half a dozen cities or so, we’ll be secure enough in our position to be able to afford extravagances and of course pay off debts.”

    Wobin held up a hand to forestall my response. “Look, how about I keep you in provisions until then? Help yourself to the larders. Maybe send your dwagon on a few missions for me to help things happen quicker. And hey, I’ll top up your purse in the meantime. Warshmuckers tells me that it can hold six thousand now. And the archers who have stacked with you since say your leadership bonus is a six now. So you must have leveled. Level six ain’t bad. It’s no level nine but what is?” He was pleased as punch at having leveled himself.

    My eyes were narrowed at him. “I suppose that will have to do for now.”

    He leaned forward. “You know, there are other options. You could join the side. I’d make you chief warlord. Maybe even designate you my heir. It’d be pretty sweet.”

    “I like being a free agent.” Then I hedged, “but maybe we could keep our working relationship going while I figure the world out a bit more. Then who knows? I did one twenty-year stint and could have done another five or ten years if I’d wanted.”

    “Anything’s possible.” Wobin nodded. “Maybe if we’re successful enough, I could spin you off on your own side. Imagine being your own boss. I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty great from where I’m sitting. It’s good to be king, as they say. Or overlord at any rate.”

    “Alright. There’s one more thing you could do for me in the meantime.” I relaxed as though I was more or less happy with the current arrangement and might be truly grateful if I was placated just a bit more. “There’s some things I’d like from your casters. Maybe we can take their services out of what you owe me.” I paused. “Including the 13,000 shmuckers that were in the treasury that the Prince couldn’t pay me but was mine by rights.”

    He paled at that a bit. Maybe he had hoped I would forget I had a claim to those shmuckers. “Well, I suppose they could help you out. To be paid against what’s owed, of course”

    “Of course.” I agreed with a nod.

    “And it’ll have to be juice at the end of turn. The needs of the side come first, of course.” He added.

    “Sure.” I nodded again. “Of course.”

    Then I stretched. “I think I’ll retire to the library for the evening. I’ve got some more reading to do.”

    Wobin smiled broadly, “A good place for someone with a signamancy special. I’ll see you tomorrow, Little John.”

    I didn’t actually see much of Wobin in the turns following that one. I was spending more time with his casters and in his library.

    Andy had been turned during the fight. He had a red mop of hair and looked rather ragged most times and there were a lot of demands on his attention. Wobin had him making golems until he was nearly out of juice and everyone wanted items crafted. The rather large debt owed to me got me to the head of the line though. That and the fact I wasn’t afraid to throw my weight around.

    “So, can you do anything with it?” I asked him as he examined my shotgun. “I mean, it’s out of ammo anyway so it doesn’t really matter.”

    “Well, it’s not magic. But it’s not like any weapon I’ve ever examined before either. I’m not entirely sure how it fires projectiles.”

    “Well that would be the cordite that is ignited by a blasting cap at the base of the shell. That creates a small explosion which launches a bullet down the barrel.” I pulled out one of my collected spent shells and pointed to the different parts as I explained. I even demonstrated the action of the shotgun. “Problem is the pistol grip is shattered and I put some dents in the barrel.”

    “I'll see what I can do but I can't make any promises.” He said with a deepening frown.

    “Maybe. Just do what you can.” I agreed readily. “Put it on my tab.”

    Andy nodded. “Anything else?”

    “I want some pimped out weapons and some armor as well. If you could make some armor for Scarlet too, you’d be my favorite munchkin in all of Oz.”

    “What side is Oz?” He asked with his brows furrowed together.

    “Don’t know. Never been there.” I shrugged.

    “I’ll see what I can do.” He said without enthusiasm. “Thanks. I appreciate it. Maybe I’ll tip you some shmuckers too. Something you can spend in that magic kingdom of yours next time you get to go.”

    He pursed his lips and nodded. “That’d be nice. And appreciated.” Then he smiled, “thanks.”

    I clapped him on the back. “No worries. Got to keep your maintainers happy.”

    +++

    “So let me get this straight,” Tucker was saying while he, the other casters and I were sitting around a table in the hall after the stabbers, pikers and archers had all left. “You think you may actually be from a whole other world, not just another side? How’d you come to be here then, Little John?”

    “I don’t know, Tucker.” I shrugged. “I was sort of following this white stag, got a bit lost so camped out and then woke up here. In my world we have stories about things like white stags. They’re associated with all sorts of fairy tales.”

    “Fairy tales?” the Major asked. “What are those?”

    “Old stories about magical places. And well… the little people.” I actually sort of blushed when I mentioned the term.

    “A white stag?” Andy slammed his hands on the table dramatically. He tended to be dramatic when he’d been into his cups. “You followed a white stag? Are you crazy?”

    “Don’t tell me you believe those old stories, do you?” Warshmuckers asked him.

    “What old stories?” I asked, curious now.

    “Just old stories they tell to the newly popped to scare them out of a night’s sleep. Especially if they’re going to be on watch all night. That’s why sometimes standing watch at night is called standing stag.” Warshmuckers shrugged.

    “So what’s so bad about the white stag?” I pressed.

    Andy hiccuped. “If you follow one they say… they say it will lead you away to a far off side. A side of unfathomable magics and of…” He trailed off as he looked up at me.

    “Of giants.” The Major finished for him as she regarded me. “Perhaps not just stories to scare the newly popped, after all.”

    “You know…” Warshmucker’s voice was a hushed whisper. “…they say that there was once a side that would recruit giants by going to this side and stealing their newly popped, leaving golems in their place. Golems made of flesh.”

    It sent a shudder up and down my spine. “We have stories about the so called fair folk stealing our children and leaving dopplegangers in their place.”

    Fortunately, I had already explained the concept of children to them in a previous conversation. Apparently everyone here popped full grown and ready for action.

    +++

    When I wasn’t reading in the library, chatting up the casters or asking them for favors or magic items, I was earning my keep. My keep being paid in provisions to eat for Scarlet and myself. Apparently the side couldn’t afford the shmuckers just now, you see.

    Despite the lack of payment, I was still working for my daily bread. Usually that meant commanding Scarlet. Half the time it would be on some combat mission but just as often I just had to direct her to hunt. First to fill herself and then to bring the excess back for the larders. Wobin really was getting as much out of this association as he could.

    My other activities included continued training in the use of locally available weapons and learning to move in the armor that Andy had made for me. Scarlet had adapted to her armor easily enough though it did impair her mobility and reduced her total move by a third. It sort of torqued me off, too. She could fly carrying that armor that weighed more than I did but not with me on her back. Stupid arbitrary gaming rules!

    +++

    It was nearly thirty turns later before Wobin left Warshmuckers and the Major with enough juice at the end of the day that we could attempt a caster link. The three of us sat in a triangle with my cell phone laying on the ground between us.

    “I’ll lead us through it.” The Major said in her even and peaceful tone. “Think of the first time you cast a spell, a happy place…” She touched our minds and then brought us together. It was sort of like a thinkagram but even more intimate. It made me feel distinctly uncomfortable but I tried to roll with it. I really wanted this to work. I didn’t have a spell to think of so instead I concentrated on rolling dice and coming up all crits.

    I could feel my awareness spreading to the outside and from the inside as well. I became aware of an untapped potential within me.

    “Juice” Warshmuckers and the Major both thought in my mind at the same time.

    Then the Major continued. “You’re not like any caster I’ve ever seen. You may not be a caster at all. Still at the very least you have a signamancy special. That may be the source of your juice. But what I’m seeing here… it’s just not quite right. I’m not sure why this link is working at all, to be honest. We best beware.”

    My attention was brought to the phone.

    “It’s not just signamancy.” Warshmuckers was sounding excited. “It’s mathamancy too. I can work with this. We can attach these lines to his juice pool.”

    “See this line?” The Major held up what looked like fibre optic cable. “It leads to that thing you called a charger. This is how it is powered every morning. We’ll attach it to your juice. You’ll be able to charge it now too.”

    Without her explaining, I understood it was signamancy. It was part of a deeper understanding of signamancy I was currently experiencing. The charger had been a symbol and through that symbolic link had kept the phone charged without actually having to charge it. It was the same way meat appeared in the larders because there was a butcher shop, even though the animals were never slaughtered. They simply depopped from the farms.

    “There is a sort of thinkamancy to this device.” The Major thought with interest. “Enough symbolically at least that I can work with it.”

    We did far more to my phone than merely modify a banking app to let me see my purse.

    “This here? This thing you call encryption and a password?” The Major was explaining to me within the link. “I can use it to allow you to send and receive thinkagrams. Your end will always be secure though eavesdroppers might hear the other ends thoughts.”

    “Wait, thinkagrams can be eavesdropped on?” I said, alarmed at the thought. Was someone listening in on this link?

    “You’ll be able to transfer shmuckers to other accounts now.” Warshmuckers announced, interrupting. “In fact I’ve modified your purse. It’s effectively unlimited now. Well not really but whole sides never see a million shmuckers. Plus, you can deposit gems directly into your account, making them shmuckers. You’ll be able to keep track of all transactions too. Really, a handy little device.”

    “You can use this app to see your own stats now.” She opened up a page that had blue square with an S in the middle of it. Statbook. “You’ll be able to take pictures of people and creatures. If their stats are knowable to you, they’ll appear in this app for you. You’ll be able to save those stats too, even if they un-ally with you.”

    “Look at all these books!” Warshmuckers exclaimed when he found my digital library. Which in this link, appeared as an actual library.

    “Let’s see if we can’t find a way to add books from our world to it.” The Major examined it for a moment. “This.” She held up a miniature camera. “When you take pictures of a book, they will be scanned here. You’ll be able to organize them into books once you have all the pages. And with this app you’ll be able to write books of your own.” She paused and pursed her lips. “And yes, store scrolls here too.”

    “I’m running out of juice.” Warshmuckers announced. “How about you?”

    Suddenly I was aware that my pool was almost dry. “Yeah… almost all gone.”

    “Same here.” The Major agreed. “Time to end the link.”

    I woke with a headache but also with a certain joy and excitement. I understood so much more about magic now. It was like a part of me had finally awakened to a hidden potential that had been with me my whole life but had been left to shrivel, underused.

    Then I leaned forward and tapped my password into my phone and checked my account.

    It read zero shmuckers.

    “What the hell?”

    The Major looked apologetic. “Wobin told us to bill your purse before putting charges against your debt. He also ordered us not to tell you we were doing it.”

    “Sorry old chap.” Warshmuckers put a consoling hand on my shoulder. “He had to order us to do it though. We wouldn’t have otherwise.”

    “You really can’t disobey an order from your overlord?” I asked, staring at the zero in disbelief.

    “We really can't.” Warshmuckers said with a sigh and a nod. “Unless it’s for the good of the side or for the overlord.”

    “That’s a heavy contractual obligation.” I observed. “How much do I have left in the debt?”

    Warshmuckers pointed to an icon. “There.”

    Tapping it, a new sum came up. “Six thousand shmuckers. So my account should have still been full. Instead he snagged everything I had.”

    “He’s got to do what’s good for the side.” The Major tried to explain.

    “And what’s good for the overlord is good for the side.” I turned the phone off. “I don’t blame you guys. You did what you had to. Can I get you to do me a favor though? I promised Andy a tip for the work he’s been doing for me. Take him to the magic kingdom tomorrow and give him a thousand shmuckers to spend. Bill against my credit.”

    “Yeah sure.” Warshmuckers said. “We’ll take him, won’t we, Major?”

    The Major had narrowed her eyes at me and almost seemed suspicious. “Yes.” She said after entirely too long.

    Warshmuckers cleared his throat. “Well, it’s getting late. I’m going to my quarters for the night. See you two tomorrow.”

    “Yeah, and thanks for your help.” I smiled up at him, a genuine and sincere smile. I was thankful for what he’d helped me accomplish.

    After he left, I noticed the Major staring at me. “It would be good for the side if you joined us.”

    “Yes, I know.” I said, wearing my poker face.

    “It’d be good for you too.” She suggested.

    “No, it wouldn’t.” I shook my head, my lips a thin line.

    She looked at me for several moments before admitting, “no it would not. I knew that was a lie even as I said it. But duty compelled me.”

    “I understand.” I just nodded and looked down. Duty and loyalty shouldn’t be such awful things.

    The Major stood up and started out of the room. She paused at the door and looked back at me. “I’m glad you knew it was a lie too.” And then she was gone.

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Thu Feb 18, 2016 5:33 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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     Post subject: Part Four
     Post Posted: Thu Jan 21, 2016 8:51 pm 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it a game or is it reality?)

    Part Four

    o/~
    I shot the Caster!
    But I did not shoot the overlord!
    o/~


    I’d had thirty days or turns to contemplate my situation. From what I had observed and read in the library, it seemed as though I was in an entirely different world from the one I knew even though there were elements of this world that were quite familiar to me. The physics of this world were quite different from what I was used to, however. Still, there were elements to them that I could sort of recognize.

    That there were elements of war games present was unmistakable. While I wasn’t a wargamer myself, I was familiar enough with them to recognize one when I saw it. There seemed to be elements of table top RPG’s as well, at least so far as there being individual stats for each unit. Everyone had a name too, if you bothered to ask. There were also strong indications of video game mechanics at work too. It was an interesting combination. To my knowledge, which was admittedly limited on this specific subject, there were no turn based war game video games. This isn’t to say there weren’t any, only that I was unfamiliar with them.

    Of the three aspects of gaming I thought I observed in my surroundings, I found the RPG elements to be the most familiar and therefore comfortable. On that level I felt I could find a place in this environment. It might be a big mistake but I had to work with what I had.

    This line of thought got me to thinking about the only RPG video game I’d ever played. It was called Neverwinter Nights Two and I had been interested in it because it was a game based on the D&D 3.5 rule set. It wasn’t the first version of D&D I had played but it was probably the one I had played the most.

    Like any video game, there were bugs that cropped up. Some of them could grant limitless gold or experience points. Most of these were fixed with patches from the game designers as time went on. I knew of one that I had discovered that never got fixed.

    I had discovered it by accident. After clearing out a dungeon of gothic teenagers dabbling in the dark arts, I had found a book which I took back to the City’s lord. He gave me gold for the mission and the game awarded experience points for accomplishing the story objective.

    Because I was playing a Rogue at the time, I decided to see if I could pick the lord’s pocket. It turned out that I could and I got the book back into my inventory. I went to pick his pockets again but hit the wrong button and wound up opening a dialogue with him again. That led to me being able to get the rewards again. After which, I could pick his pocket and retrieve the book again. It was a cycle that could be repeated endlessly or at least until you got bored of it.

    Such exploits are possible in a video game due to the limited nature of the A.I.s and writers. But this ‘game’, was far more interactive and the intelligences involved much higher. I didn’t expect to get that exact sort of exploit again. Where the exploits would come from would be in the game world mechanics themselves. Likely most exploits had already been discovered by those who were already ‘playing’ the game, that is to say the rulers, the casters and the warlords. While other units were intelligent, they didn’t have much freedom in how they interacted with the world.

    Sure it’s a common belief that if something could be done, it would have been done by now, but that was fallacious logic. Every new discovery was something that could have been done by the time it was discovered but wasn’t for whatever reason. There was always a first time anything was discovered and more things were always being discovered. So there might be some secret gems for me to uncover still.

    First of course I would have to learn what was already known and then cipher out what was known from what was thought to be known or only believed. I wasn’t some sort of gaming genius however so there would be a lot of trial and error involved. And this world didn’t seem to play to my strengths when it came to my preferred type of game.

    I remember when I was a teenager RPG’s would advertise in comic books. One such ad that stuck out in my mind was a picture of Darth Vader and the emperor walking in front of a line of storm troopers. One of the storm troopers head was circled and the question was asked, “What’s this guy’s story?”

    I wanted to know that guys story!

    So, it made me wonder if I couldn’t attack the problem of living in Erf (what the locals called their world) like it was an RPG? Could I somehow answer the question of “What’s that guy’s story?” Of course I intended to be ‘that guy’.

    It was generally very difficult to get very far in most RPG’s alone. The default assumption was that any character was part of an adventuring party. The mechanic of ‘stacks’ suggested that the optimal party size probably topped out at eight people.

    So what would make a good party composition?

    A warlord seemed like a good start. They could provide their stack with a leadership bonus to combat. And since this party would be made up of barbarians, someone would need to have a purse to support them in times where provisions could not be scrounged.

    I strongly suspected that a shockamancer would fill the ‘glass cannon’ role of a blaster type wizard.

    A healomancer seemed like a no-brainer of course.

    Perhaps a dirtamancer could fill the role of battlefield control? They might also fill double duty as a rogue, at least when it came to detecting and eliminating enemy traps.

    How about creating items? Dollamancers seemed like the go to casters for items. But was one necessary in the party? It would probably save you shmuckers to have a party dollamancer as opposed to having to pay one. Assuming one could be found.

    Speaking of money, how important would a moneymancer be? I think like a dollamancer that they might be optional additions to a party as their services might be otherwise available. It might be better to fill those positions with some knight class warriors.

    Was a thinkamancer required for a small group? I sort of felt they might be important for communications as well as a counter to others of their kind.

    There were so many other sorts of useful casters, it soon became obvious that it would be quite difficult to do everything possible with just one party. So you’d have to determine and fill essentials first. For example, Barbarians needed to hunt and scrounge for food. That made having a ranger unit absolutely essential for such a party. One or two heavies for screening and assault would also be important. One or two archer units had their uses too.

    Every time I considered that one or two of something would be useful, that was quickly reduced to one due to the limited number of spaces. And I was still having trouble fitting everything I thought I would need into a single party.

    Fortunately, there were some units that could be considered utility units that could fill multiple roles. This was due to different specials a unit could have. Royal units and popped warlords especially seemed likely to have specials. For example, you could have a warlord prince be born with the forest capable and archery specials. Such a person could fill two or three roles within a party simultaneously.

    So any well rounded party would have a lot of ‘specials’ in it. Well that fit with my experience too. Player characters were often considered ‘a cut above’ the more common classes or ‘units’.

    Examination of my own stats with the new capabilities of my phone indicated that I could fill several of my own proposed roles. I had leadership and a purse so I could fill the warlord role. Apparently I had the archery special. I wasn’t sure if this was from the instruction I had recently received or if it was a result of my firearms training or a combination of the two. Either way, I had it when I checked. I was also classed as a heavy unit which meant I was tougher and stronger than most other units. It was also why I couldn’t ride Scarlet and have her fly at the same time.

    Furthermore, I had the ‘forest capable’ special which was probably related to my hunting and military field experience. It meant that I could hunt and scrounge for food in forest hexes as well as engage when other units couldn’t. It also meant that I could fill the role of ranger in a group as well as warlord. If I had been a natural born Erf unit, I would likely have been a warlord with the archery and forest capable specials. That was similar to what Wobin was.

    It was my next special that made me unusual. It was Special (Signamancy). From what conversations I’d had and things I had read in the library, I thought that this might some sort of unique special. If I was a caster, I wasn’t a novice because I didn’t know any spells yet. So it was like I was a native caster trying to learning another discipline of magic but without having learned any other discipline first.

    I suspect that this ability was unlocked somehow during the caster link I was a part of or perhaps I merely became aware of it through the caster link. Either way, I was now aware of ‘juice’ in a way similar that I was aware that I was ‘healthy’ or ‘hungry’ or ‘sleepy’ or ‘fatigued’. For example, I sensed that my juice was still depleted when the next morning came after the link. Possibly because my upkeep wasn’t being paid. I was only managing to survive from day to day because I was a barbarian and they could live off provisions or food they hunted and scrounged. But without the upkeep payments other essentials weren’t being seen to. For example, if I was injured, it wouldn’t heal at dawn. And I was being forced to clean myself manually while others were just clean at dawn. My lack of a need to shave wasn’t hygiene here though. It was signamancy.

    The full extent of by how much Wobin had been short changing me was sinking in. It was made worse by the fact that he had my purse drained by the casters which prevented me from paying my own upkeep. Something I could now do using my phone (it could be set for automatic or manual upkeep payments).

    For the entire duration of my stay in Erf, I had been one missed meal away from disbanding due to lack of upkeep.

    In any case, all I needed to do now was to attempt learn some spells. That would answer the question of whether or not I was a caster unit or not. The trouble with that was that casters were normally popped with knowledge of their spells and usually figured out more as they went, with or without guidance. It was sort of like the spontaneous magic mechanic from D&D third edition. But with the optional spell points rules from Unearthed Arcana. So I would either have to figure some spells out on my own or find someone who could initiate me into the folds of Signamancy from the ground up. The Major knew some basic signamancy but couldn’t instruct me effectively.

    Which raised another question. Why signamancy? The Major had assumed I was a signamancer based on how I was interpreting the things I was seeing in Erfworld. But that was only because of how they resembled things in my world. Did that mean everyone from my world would also be signamancers?

    Maybe not, if they weren’t familiar with Western culture.

    Another thought occurred to me about video games and how they seemed to influence the physics of this world. In Age of Empires, if you were playing a one on one game against another player, you would see your units as blue and their units as red. On their screen, your units would appear as red and theirs would be blue. Sure those settings could be changed but that was the default.

    Was that how signamancy worked? You perceived units as ‘blue’ or ‘red’ based on your own point of view? And was that point of view influenced by your past experience? So I only saw Scarlet as a ‘Dwagon’ but really she was an abstract set of numbers and rules mechanics and I only saw her the way I did because that was how my mind interpreted that data? So I saw wings and knew she could fly. I saw teeth and know she can bite and so on.

    It did make a sort of sense to me.

    Yet everyone from Erf recognized her as a Dwagon. So there was some common frame of reference. Again I thought of Age of Empires. On one hand the units might change color based on perspective, but the unit types would remain the same. So a villager would be recognized as a villager despite the color they were. There were other tells in that game as well. Different starting ‘nations’ or ‘tribes’ would have different styles for the same unit, especially for buildings. This too, was a type of signamancy in action.

    So maybe I did understand signamancy to some extent and that made me a potential caster. But I still needed to learn some spells in order to be sure. I had spent all night looking through and coping books into my phone but I didn’t see anything like a how to book on spell casting. I guess it was something they just figured you could do or you couldn’t.

    I didn’t stop in the library until the sun came up. I stretched and left for my room when I met Andy in the hallway.

    “Justin! I just wanted to say thanks for the shmuckers!” He was smiling brilliantly. "I'm still working on your shotgun. I straightened out the barrel and I think I can also add a shockamancy special to it. Be a few more turns though, since I have to use juice left over after making golems.

    “Thanks Andy.” I said. “I appreciate it.”

    “I finished your Dwagon’s armor. It’s in the stables with her now. It’s black, to match the armor I made for you a few turns ago.” He flashed me a big goofy grin. “I’ll see you later, okay? I gotta go to the magic kingdom and see if I can’t spend some of those shmuckers.”

    “You have fun.” I said with a grin.

    After he ran off, I went to my room and packed up a few loose odds and ends into my pack. Then I put on my armor and went down to the stable where Scarlet was being bedded down.

    I grabbed some lackeys on my way. “You stack there, come with me. Andy’s just finished Scarlet’s armor and I want to take her out today. Get her armored up and then load up my provisions, please.”

    They nodded and hurried to comply. There was no duty or loyalty that drove them but Wobin had asked them to do what I asked so long as it wasn’t against his orders.

    Then I went off to find Wobin himself.

    I found him alone in his office, writing out something in his ledger.

    “I’m headed out now, Wobin.” I announced.

    He glanced up, “Off to do some foraging or hoping to obliterate some enemy patrols for me?”

    “Neither.” I shook my head. “I mean it’s time for me to move on. I’d like my payment now. In shmuckers or in gems but I want it now.”

    Wobin sighed. “That’s what, a thousand shmuckers still outstanding?”

    “Five thousand.” I said firmly. “Four days’ upkeep and change or twice as long if I forage.”

    “That won’t get you very far.” Wobin observed, looking thoughtful.

    “Maybe it won’t.” I agreed. “Maybe I’ll have to come back or maybe I’ll hire out to another side for a spell. But for now I really think it’s time to move on.”

    “Why don’t you join my side?” Wobin offered, not for the first time. “Then I’ll be paying your upkeep, reduced by provisions of course. And I’ll make sure you see lots of action. As much as you want. I’ll make you chief warlord right away and we’ll put the five thousand shmuckers I owe you towards making you my heir designate. It would be good for me, the side and for you.”

    “I value my freedom too much.” I insisted. “I’m afraid I’m really going to have to decline.”

    Wobin looked genuinely upset as he stood up. “I’m afraid that I really must insist.”

    Then I heard something that sent chills up and down my spine.

    “WOLOLO! WOLOLO!”

    Turning around I saw Tucker dressed in leather BDSM gear and chanting as loud and as hard as he could. Behind him was a stack of pikers.

    For the first time in Erf, I drew my pistol and fired.

    A hole appeared between Tuckers eyes before he fell over backwards.

    The Pikers rushed me but at such a short range, I couldn’t help but score lethal hits on all eight of them.

    Then I turned to face Wobin who had drawn his sword. “Don’t bring an eight-man stack to a ten shot gun fight. Put the sword on the table or we’ll see if I get to crit before I run out of ammo.”

    More stabbers and pikers started rushing into the room, so I took a chance and closed in on Robin without waiting for him to comply, booting him in the chest as hard as I could. His sword clambered to the floor as he hit the ground and I was on him right away, picking him up and putting him in a choke hold. Then I pressed the barrel of the pistol against his forehead. “Command them to leave. Command every field capable unit to leave the garrison and order all garrison units except two lackeys to the dungeon. The lackeys are to let Scarlet out into the court yard and then also go to the dungeon.”

    “You won’t shoot me!” Wobin insisted.

    “I’m sure Tucker thought the same. But that was before the two of you tried to mind rape me. Now shall we see how long your side lasts without a living ruler or an heir?”

    At his silent command, the stabbers and pikers left the room. Looking out the window I watched as Scarlet was brought into the courtyard. She had her armor on and what appeared to be fully loaded saddle bags. I could see stacks of troops march out the front gate.

    “Come on Little John…” Wobin started.

    I slapped the heavy barrel of my pistol up side his head. “My. Name. Is. Justin.”

    “Alright… Justin.” He swallowed. “Look, I’m sorry about the turnamancy thing with Tucker but I have to do the right thing for the side. You understand, right?”

    “What I understand is that you tried to take away my free will so you wouldn’t have to pay me five thousand shmuckers. After I basically won this city for you.” As I talked, I walked, carrying him by the neck as I went. He struggled but couldn’t escape.

    “You know if you take me prisoner, all the field units will disband!” He tried desperately to reason with me.

    “Is that so?” I said as I continued walking. “And what does it take to make you my prisoner?”

    “Um, well…” He hesitated.

    “I’m guessing that hasn’t happened yet, or you’d be telling me I had killed all the field units. So don’t worry. I’m not taking you prisoner.”

    Wobin seemed to relax until we arrived in the portal room. “What are you going to do?”

    “It’s the portal for you.” I said cooly, reminding him his own revenge thirty turns ago.

    “Two-hundred-Fifty-six!” He shouted desperately.

    “What?” I demanded as I held him in front of the portal.

    “That’s how many field units are outside the garrison at the moment.” He said quickly. “That’s how many will croak if you push me through.”

    “You didn’t care how many there were when you killed the sheriff.” I pointed out.

    “I wasn’t a ruler then. I care about my people now. Turn to my side, you’ll see!” Oddly, he wasn’t sweating. “I know you care too! You’re not like me.”

    “You hope I’m not like you.” I pushed his face to within millimeters of the portal. “But everyone else on this side I ever talked to is on the other side of that portal. Want to see for yourself?”

    He shook his head. “Irene. That was the name of the archer who took an interest in your leadership bonus on the day we first met. She’s in the field right now. Too far away to make it back to the garrison this turn.”

    And now there was a face and a name to the mass murder I was proposing to commit.

    “Twenty-five thousand shmuckers. I want it in my purse.” I pulled him back from the portal only to make as though I was about to toss him through it. “NOW!”

    My phone chirped to alert me to a new message. I forced Wobin face down on the ground and checked it. Sure enough, I had the shmuckers in my account. “That’s a good start. Now I’ll take what’s left of your gems and as many provisions as Scarlet can carry. Then you and I are going for an eight hex walk in a random direction away from here with Scarlet flying through neighboring hexes to scout for your men. Once we’re eight hexes away I’ll drop you off. After that I’ll use all of Scarlet’s remaining move to get as far away from you as possible. If I ever see any of your people ever again, I’ll kill them. Then I’ll come back here and I’ll kill all your stabbers. I’ll kill all your pikers. I’ll kill all your archers. I’ll kill all your mounts. But most of importantly, for you, I’ll throw you through that booped portal!”

    Wobin didn’t test me with any tricks. We got eight hexes away like I promised and then I let him go. Then I used all of Scarlet’s remaining move to get as far away from him as I could.

    After setting up camp for the evening, I transferred the required shmuckers to the account marked ‘upkeep’. I was curious what would be different in the morning.

    I’d no sooner put the phone away when it chirped to alert me to a new message. An image of the Major appeared on my phone. She seemed to be looking at me through her framed fingers.

    “Hello Justin.” She said.

    “Hello Major.” I replied, putting my best poker face on.

    “In case you’re wondering, Wobin made it back safe. One of our sourmanders had enough move to get him.”

    “Too bad.” I shrugged.

    “Is that why you asked us to go to the magic kingdom?” She asked, wearing a poker face of her own.

    “Well I did decide to leave when I found out my purse was empty.” I admitted. “I didn’t want anyone I liked caught in the crossfire because of duty or loyalty if Wobin tried to stop me. Which he did. Sort of forgot about Tucker though.”

    Part of me wanted to claim that it had just been a coincidence. Or that I had only meant to bluff. But the truth was, when I was angriest with Wobin, I had fully intended to throw him through that portal.

    “Thank you for that. Thank you also for not croaking our overlord.” She said formally. “But you understand that we’re enemies now.”

    “I understand.” I admitted. “I already changed the password to my phone. Just in case you put in a back door to it during the link.”

    “I noticed.” She said, betraying nothing. “A wise precaution. I would have taken back our shmuckers with Warshmucker’s help otherwise.”

    “Honestly wasn’t sure if the password change would cut it.” There was some relief on my face.

    “Thus the gems.” She said evenly.

    “Thus the gems.” I agreed.

    “This will be a hardship for our side.” She pointed out.

    “Blame your overlord. I’d probably be still happily working for you guys if he hadn’t tried to screw me over. And Tucker would still be alive if he hadn’t tried to mind rape me.”

    Her façade broke and she winced at the word. “We prefer the term turned.”

    “I’ll call it what it is, thank you very much.” I replied stiffly, unable to keep the anger out of my voice. “He was going to make me a slave, just like everyone else on his side.”

    “I am not a slave.” She objected, raising her chin proudly.

    “Do you want to be my enemy?” I asked with a raised eyebrow, searching her face for hidden signs.

    She frowned slightly. “Well, no.”

    “Is there anything else he’s made you do that you didn’t want to?” I pressed.

    The Major met my gaze. “My loyalty is to my overlord. But my greater loyalty is to my side.”

    “Was it loyalty to your overlord or to your side that allowed you to help him cheat me? How has that worked out for your side?” I stared into my camera at her.

    “I’m not a predictamancer. I didn’t know how it would turn out.” She paused and then said, “I was hoping that you might decide we were close enough friends that you’d turn willingly. I didn’t think Tucker would have to become involved and I didn’t think the shmuckers would matter then either.”

    “If I’d turned of my own free will, things might have been different.” I agreed. “But I could never serve Wobin. He’s a thief and being overlord hasn’t changed him. He’ll keep thieving until someone comes along and steals the city from him like he did the Sheriff. And how the Sheriff stole it from his father. I checked the history of that city. It’s an endless loop of one ruler after another taking it from the one before them.”

    “All cities are like that, to some degree.” The Major protested. “They’re always being fought over. Captured by one side and then another. Sometimes recaptured, sometimes not. You go out there for long enough, you’ll see it’s true. And you’ll see you won’t be able to make it if you’re not part of a side.”

    “Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. But if and when I die, it’ll be as I lived. Free.” And with that I ended the conversation.

    +++

    The next morning, I woke up feeling more refreshed than I had in a long time. A hearty breakfast of bacon, sausage, hash browns, eggs and toast popped for me and some raw meat popped for Scarlet. My juice was back and my phone was fully charged. Checking my gear, I found that all the empty casings I had collected out of habit had new bullets and caps in them. Twenty 30-06 rounds. I was still down one pistol round however. I had neglected to recover it after shooting Tucker. One missing round to remind me of the caster I had forgotten.

    The shotgun casings were also still empty. Maybe because I didn't have the actual firearm in my possession. On the up side, my upkeep had gone down a marginal amount.

    I didn’t waste time after eating. Once everything was packed, I hoped on Scarlett’s back and she galloped away at her best armored land speed.

    As the sun was setting and we were entering the last hex of the day, I looked back to see a white stag on the other side of the hex border. He seemed to regard me with mischief in his eyes. Then he nimbly leapt away without a care in the world.

    Still didn’t get my camera out in time to take a picture of the booping thing.

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Thu Feb 18, 2016 5:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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     Post subject: Retconjuration
     Post Posted: Mon Jan 25, 2016 12:40 am 
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    This user is a Tool! This user has been published! Here for the 10th Anniversary Has collected at least one unit
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    Good day,

    I've spent today going over the first draft of the first arc of this story. I've made a number of minor changes here and there to wording, spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on.

    There have been a few story edits as well that I decided on while looking at the story during a sober second look.

    Basically they are as follows:

    Justin does not wake up feeling refreshed on the first morning in Erf.

    Just about done sketching out the next story arc and writing and posting will then commence.

    He's still shaven though.

    Wobin doesn’t comment on Justin not having stats when they first meet. Instead he comments that Justin is an unknown heavy unit.

    Wobin references a ‘Prince Jonny O. Spot’ as ruler of Naughtyham instead of an overlord. This is also as opposed to the Sheriff being in charge. Now the Sheriff is the chief warlord.

    Wobin will reference having warlords, suggesting how he can maintain such a large force. Not counting caster commanders like Tucker and then later Ollie and the Major.

    The prince will be disbanded, not the sheriff.

    The question of whether or not Justin is a true caster is put back into the unknown category. What he is remains unanswered but it is suspected that he has a signamancy special at the very least. Why the caster link works is a mystery to those involved.

    Justin doesn’t get Andy to make his shotgun a shockamancy item.

    EDIT: New Retconjuration:

    I've taken away Justin's shotgun. It's still in the hands of Andy at Naughtyham. He still has the empty casing for it, which are worthless without the shotgun. And the shotgun is worthless without the shells (sort of).

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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     Post Posted: Thu Feb 18, 2016 5:45 pm 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it real or is it a game?)

    Part Five

    Wastelands


    There were squat and colorful little humanoids all around me. I heard the barbarian warlord who was commanding them refer to them as ‘marbits’. I was sure I had heard that term someplace before but at the moment I just couldn’t recall where.

    Having put enough distance between myself and Naughtyham that Wobin’s forces were no longer a direct threat to me, I now had to deal with fellow barbarians hoping to cash in on the bounty he had placed on my head. It had started low at a mere one thousand shmuckers but was now up to six thousand. I had my doubts about his willingness to pay at any price but it wasn’t something I was willing to put to the test.

    As for me? I had my pistol out and was gunning them down right and left as they charged at me. When they got close enough to me to use their own weapons, I holstered the pistol and switched to the sword I had gotten while still allied to Wobin.

    This warlord barbarian had sent in these marbit creatures instead of attacking me directly with his led stack. Perhaps he hoped to soften me up a bit before committing his main force. Unfortunately for him I was dismounted from Scarlet and ordered her to go after him while I held off the marbits.

    Scarlet roasted him and most his stack in one strafing run. Then she made quick work of the others with her fangs and claws. They scored a few hits on her, though none that were serious. Thankfully the dwagon didn’t bleed so her injuries wouldn’t get any worse.

    The same could not be said for me however. Unlike any unit I had encountered in this world so far, I bled when wounded. I had used my first aid kit many times since leaving Naughtyham. I also learned a couple of things from those experiences. If I paid my upkeep then my wounds were healed at dawn and my first aid kit was replenished. If I didn’t, then I was still wounded and the first aid kit was still missing the supplies I had used from it the day before.

    I could hunt and forage to keep Scarlet and me alive most turns but on turns we saw combat, we also usually saw injuries. Hunting and foraging reduced the cost of our upkeep by half but the other half still had to be paid in shmuckers for our wounds to be healed as well as have my ammo and certain other supplied replenished.

    Fortunately I managed to avoid injury until Scarlet could turn her attention to the stacks of marbits I was still fending off. She let loose with a jet of flame that incinerated most of them. They smelled rather like burnt marshmallows at a campfire. I wasn’t inclined to see how they would taste but Scarlet had her fill of them.

    With the battle done, I did what any self-respecting adventurer would do. I looted the corpses. Only the warlord carried any gems and not many of those. Then I took a picture of him with my phone. I could then access his stats in statbook. I could also transfer the funds from his purse to mine. That was something I could only do with either willing or dead units. He didn’t have much. If I foraged successfully or used my slowly dwindling supply of provisions, what he had would cover the day’s upkeep for Scarlet and me.

    He’d only been a fourth level warlord and his stabbers averaged at second level. I added the picture of the warlord and all his stabbers to a file labelled “Barbarian Bounty Hunters”. I don’t know if I was doing it as some sort of memorial or as a score card, to be honest. It just seemed like a shame that come the next turn, these bodies would disappear and there would be no further record of them. Well, the bodies that Scarlet didn’t eat would disappear… letting her gorge on the bodies of the fallen seemed profoundly wrong to me despite the necessity of keeping her fed combined with her bestial nature.

    Aside from some provisions, they only had one thing worth salvaging, a map. I tucked it away to examine later.

    I took a picture of what was left of the marbits too, though that was more for the purpose of continuing to build a growing bestiary for this world.

    Later that day I shot something that looked rather like a wiener dog but with rams horns. It tasted like a hot dog after I cooked it. There was enough meat on it to keep me fed for a few days and Scarlet had eaten well after the battle today. I allocated the shmuckers to pay my upkeep and then made a thinkagram call.

    “Justin.” The Major’s face appeared on the screen.

    “Major.” I greeted her.

    “I don’t suppose you’re contacting me with an offer to turn to our side yet?” She asked while betraying no emotion on her stone like face.

    “Not at all.” I said confidently. “If fact I lifted enough off this last barbarian bounty hunter to extend my freedom another couple of days, I’m sorry, I mean turns.” It was an exaggeration to keep the enemy guessing. “Did you know I can transfer funds from dead unit’s purses to my own? I really do owe you a solid for rigging this phone for me.”

    “You can repay me by turning.” She said with just the slightest upturn at the corner of her lip that she quickly squashed.

    “I can, but I won’t.” I replied as I opened up the map I had found on the dead warlord. “I doubt I’m very popular back in Naughtyham right now anyway.”

    “I can’t promise you’d be Wobin’s favorite warlord.” She conceded. “And Andy feels a bit betrayed by your departure. Word is out that you very nearly disbanded our ruler with most our units in the field. You can understand there’s some lingering bitterness over that fact.”

    “What about you?” I looked up from the map to study her response. “Any hard feelings?”

    “Not as such, no. Your tactics were sound. You maneuvered most of the casters out of your way and then positioned yourself for a decapitation strike against our side.” Only then did she frown betraying a trace of annoyance. “Had you wanted to take over the side, it would have made more sense though, which is why I don’t understand why you didn’t go through with it.”

    “Wobin was never really a friend of mine but I wasn’t out to kill him or take over his side. All I wanted was the freedom to come and go as I pleased and for him to honor our agreement. At the end I would have accepted just being allowed to leave, never mind what I was owed.” My eyes drifted back to the map as I tried to work out where I was in relation to it.

    “You are quite ruthless in the defense of your perceived freedom.” She observed coolly. “But you’re not really free. You’re a slave to the requirement to make your upkeep and yours is quite high. That cost of living will either drive you to join a side or else force you to take any job that comes your way. Including work you may find objectionable.”

    “And is Wobin hoping to force me to choose his side sooner by wearing down my shmucker and gem reserves with these constant barbarian attacks?” The map showed Naughtyham on the far right, which I took to be east. Not far to the left of where I figured I was now, there was an expanse of blue hexes that continued past the edge of the map. To the top of the map were white hexes and the bottom showed tanned hexes. Apparently I was in territory labelled as "Fail Wail"

    “You know very well that I can’t discuss my side’s strategy with an enemy unit.” She seemed almost indignant that I would ask.

    “Very well, can you discuss an enemy unit’s strategy with the enemy unit?” I asked, not looking up from the map.

    “Perhaps. If there’s an advantage to it for my side.” She admitted.

    “On maps, what do navy blue hexes represent?” I asked her.

    “You’re the one with the signamancy special.” The Major pointed out. “Shouldn’t you be able to figure that out?”

    “Well, I’m assuming they represent a body of water of some sort.” My lips pursed in thought. “So it’s likely that white hexes are artic or snowy landscape and tan hexes are probably some sort of desert.”

    “It sounds as though you have captured a map of the area you’re in.” The Major observed with confidence. “You must be realizing that you went the wrong way when you fled here. With expanses of three hostile terrain types boxing you in, you’ll have to turn around and go back the other way. This will eventually bring you closer to our field of influence and perhaps those of our allies.”

    “Or I can risk one of the expanses.” I was frowning despite myself. “Though I can’t tell how far any of them go.”

    “If you weren’t a heavy unit, you could ride your dwagon out over the water. You’d remain airborne when you ran out of move and then you could continue on when it was your turn again. Regrettably you are a heavy unit so it is likely the two of you would drown once she got tired of swimming and carrying you as well.” Her voice was quite reasonable. Which wasn’t surprising since she wanted to guide me to what she thought was a reasonable course of action. “You could try to ride Scarlet over the snow hexes but the foraging will be bad and the cold could kill either of you. That leaves the desert hexes. Scarlet won’t suffer from the heat there but you will. And the wastelands are just as barren for foraging as the snow hexes.”

    “Why are the desert hexes called a wasteland?” I asked as my eyes wandered to the bottom of the page.

    “No one really knows.” She admitted with a shrug. “They’ve always just been called that. I’ve heard some old casters claim it used to be a massive side that collapsed in on itself. Certainly there are a lot of ruin hexes and the barbarians and heavies those tend to generate.”

    “Hmmm. Looks like my best bet is to head for the coast and make a deal with the side there. I’m no deck hand but I could learn plus I could add Scarlet’s power to any crew I joined.” I folded up the map, making it look like my decision was made.

    “They don’t much care for land loving warlords on ships.” The Major explained. “Or fire breathing dragons for that matter. You can try but I think you’ll find yourself coming back our way eventually.”

    “I almost hope I do, Major.” I managed to smile. “I’d really like to introduce you to a game called poker. I think you’d be good at it.”

    “Not many people are willing to play games with thinkamancers.” She observed with a wry smile.

    “Fair enough.” I agreed after thinking about it for a moment. “Well either way, night is here and I need some rest. Good night, Major.”

    “Good night, Justin.” And then the screen went blank.

    I reopened the map and studied the southern hexes. “So that’s where the dungeons are, huh?”

    +++

    The next day I started out due west and as expected, Scarlet and I ran into Barbarians. It was almost as if some thinkamancer was broadcasting what direction I was likely to be going in. Fortunately I’d only used up half of Scarlet’s ground move by the time we encountered them. In fact it was quite a profitable encounter for us, yielding several large gems from the warlord leading them.

    It was interesting to me that not many of these barbarian groups had casters in their number. Perhaps it was because most casters wound up in the magic kingdom when they became barbarians. One of many things for me to ponder another time. More immediately I doubled back a couple of hexes and turned my course in a zig zag south-east direction. There were no more encounters that day and I managed to forage successfully to boot.

    The day after that I continued on my zig zag south-east direction, foraging as I went. I wanted to build up my supply of provisions as well as conserve every shmucker before plunging into the desert. My plan wasn’t to cross the desert; instead I was going to go about eight hexes deep into it before heading east and bypassing Naughtyham safely and undetected. I also hoped to run into one of these so called ruin hexes. If this was a game world, I wanted to know on how many levels could it be played alone and was a solo campaign actually viable?

    In the short term, the answer was yes but I still needed to know about the long term.

    By the end of the day, I arrived at the edge of the forest and desert boundary which is where I made camp.

    When morning came again, I stripped all of Scarlet’s armor off of her. She had the greatest range with the armor off and flying. The armor slowed her move and walking with me on her back slowed her even more. Interestingly she could carry considerable weight in the saddlebags provided by Andy without slowing down at all.

    Then I sat her down with the map. “I want you to go that way. Explore the desert hexes, using up all your move but coming back to this hex when you’re done. I want you to find any ruins, you know, buildings? Do you understand?”

    Scarlet eyed me for a moment and then turned her bulk around towards the desert hex. With a rush of wind, she was airborne and gliding into the desert hex.

    “I’ll take that as a yes! And take any opportunities to hunt and forage if you can!” I called after her. Then I spent the day exploring the local forest hexes and spending time foraging and hunting.

    By the time Scarlet got back, I had enough food gathered for both of us. She started right for the pile of food that was obviously for her. Apparently the desert hexes were as barren as advertised.

    “Did you find any ruins?” I asked her as I finished cooking the last of the meat I was going to take with me from the days hunt.

    She glanced up at me and grunted before going back to her meal.

    “I’ll take that as a yes.” Shrugging my shoulders, I took a bite of tough meat. I really needed some salt and spices. “Tomorrow we’ll go take a peek at these ruins you’ve found."

    Morning came again and I put the armor back on Scarlet. It would slow her down but I wanted to be prepared for combat. I also had her flying, scouting nearby hexes as we went for signs of danger or anything we might successfully hunt or forage for.

    That meant that we were travelling at my best foot speed which. And since travel wasn’t possible during the night, I had to walk during the day when it was hottest. Fortunately Scarlet could carry my pack any all our supplies. I carried only my clothes, some weapons and a few other small essentials.

    My own armor came off after the first hex. Scarlet seemed to be doing okay with hers still on however. As I loaded my armor into the saddlebags I speculated that her ability to resist the heat must be related to her ability to breathe fire.

    Five more hexes later and I was out of move and the day was over. We’d encountered nothing we could hunt or scrounge so we had to eat provisions. Unfortunately Scarlet couldn’t carry more than a day’s supply of her own food. Tomorrow we would either have to have a successful hunt or I would have to pay upkeep.

    Another day in the burning sun left us without any water. No other animals were seen so hunting wasn’t successful either. What’s more, the dry desert conditions were taking an obvious toll on me. I was forced to pay upkeep so Scarlet could eat and we could both drink. Fortunately it meant that I was feeling fresh again when the morning came.

    We didn’t encounter the ruins until the fourth hex on the third day. This far out, I figured we were at the extent of Scarlet’s scouting flight and she may have only seen this hex from a neighboring hex while she was flying. I had to admit though, she had led me straight here. It would take two days to get back to where we had started from if I rode Scarlet's back. If necessary, I would be able to cover our upkeep for a few days even if we didn’t have any luck hunting or foraging. Still, we had come much farther into the desert than I had intended. On the upside it seemed unlikely that any bounty hunters would be willing to risk a trip so deep into the wastelands and none of them would have known that we had come to this specific hex.

    Best of all, I still move left and Scarlet had even more. So if things went badly for us in the ruins, we could still escape before the day was out.

    I patted Scarlet’s neck at the Hex boundary. “You ready for this girl?”

    Scarlet let out a defiant roar at the sky.

    “I’ll take that as a yes.” I said as I took a step back from the mighty beast. “You better get airborne, girl. Just in case.”

    With a mighty leap, she was above me, cloaking me in her shadow. Between her shadow and the beat of her wings, it felt relatively cool. “Boop it. I could have had her fanning me the whole trip here.” Then, still shaking my head, I crossed the hex boundary.

    The ruins seemed to have been of a city. In general they reminded me of Naughtyham in that there were the same sorts of buildings and fortifications though on a grander scale. Maybe this was a city that had been razed in a previous battle? If it was and if I was the only person present, then I should be able to claim the city as my own.

    “I claim this city for my side.” I said, looking around to see if anything happened.

    Nothing did.

    “Maybe we’re not alone, girl.” I muttered. “Or maybe this isn’t a city that was razed. Maybe it’s always been ruins.” It made me think about video games. Had this been a city in an alpha or beta test of the world? Were these ruins of a city that had featured in a previous edition of the world? Had they always been ruins as a unique hex type? Or were the rumours true and this was once a side that had been laid to waste?

    “Circle the hex girl, let out a roar if you see anything dangerous. Engage if you think you can kill it, otherwise come back to me. Understand?” I shouted my instruction up at Scarlet who was still flying directly overhead.

    Slowly she veered off and started a long lazy circle around the hex. “I’ll take that as a yes!”

    Then I started my own exploration of the ground.

    Scarlet’s roar drew my attention skyward. She was unleashing a gout of flame at something on the ground about half a hex away from me. I couldn’t see what it was because of semi-standing walls between her and me.

    Taking my pistol off safe, I started to run even as Scarlet went into a dive at some unseen opponent. Rounding a corner I was confronted by a spindly scarecrow like being but one that had a pumpkin as a head. It bore down on my with its arms raised menacingly. One of its hands held a sword. In some ways, it reminded me of an old Disney cartoon about the headless horseman except that this one was wearing the pumpkin and wasn’t on a horse.

    I wasted no time firing into it. The surprise of seeing this thing and a half remembered childhood fear caused me to lose my cool a bit. The first few rounds entered the body of the creature but did little to stop it. Two more rounds into its head splattered seeds and goo over a pile of rubble.

    It fell to the ground and on closer inspection I found that it wasn’t a scarecrow at all. The limbs appeared to be jointed wood branches with a trunk of a tree as its body that was hidden beneath it's clothing. No wonder my bullets had such a limited effect on it.

    Scarlet was still roaring, not far away. Now that I was closer, I could hear another noise, rather like gears grinding on one another. I ran between piles of rubble and shattered walls. Between the gaps I could see Scarlet’s head bobbing and weaving as she tried to bite something. There were a couple of new slashes on her face and two of her teeth were broken.

    Coming around the corner I finally saw her opponent. It was some sort of metal golem. It had a round body made of brass or copper. Its limbs and head were also made brass. The joints all appeared to be gears and springs, like you might find in an old fashioned wind up pocket watch. In its back was a wind up key like the ones I remember in some old toys when I’d visit my grandmother as a child.

    It hadn’t noticed me which allowed time to get closer and take careful aim with my pistol. I couldn’t tell if there was an especially vulnerable part of the thing to aim at, I just hoped that having bullets tear through its body would do enough damage to kill or incapacitate it. I fired the rest of the magazine I had loaded into the pistol into the golem and reloaded and unloaded the second magazine as well. Each round that entered its body made it slow down until eventually it stopped moving altogether. Scarlet seemed to take perverse pleasure in smashing it into tiny bits of brass scrap.

    While Scarlet played with her new chew toy, I set about trying to recover the casings that had been ejected from my pistol during the battle. I couldn’t find two from where I was shooting at the metal golem and one was missing from the shots fired into the wood golem. That was three more bullets that would be lost to me forever. “God boop it.” I muttered to myself over the loss.

    The fight hadn’t been a total loss however. The pumpkin headed golem had been as tall as I was. Probably both golems had been heavy units. Thus the sword it had was scaled to my size already. It also had a rather nice scabbard for it. There was no way to know if the sword was magic or not but its blade was quite sharp. The hilt was large enough to use it two handed but it was light enough to use with one hand. It was certainly a nicer sword than the one I had already.

    Besides, having a backup just in case I lost the first one wasn’t a bad idea. Whatever sort of unit I was by this world’s definition, I wasn’t popped and weapons didn’t pop with me, only ammo and only for rounds whose casings I still possessed. I dearly missed the loss of my shotgun.

    There wasn’t much else on the surface of these ruins though I did find some stairs leading down. I reckoned this was where the dungeon entrance would have been had this been an actual city hex. Dungeons and Dwagons indeed.

    Holding a flashlight in one hand and my pistol in the other, I descended into the dark depths while wishing Scarlet hadn’t been much too large to follow me.

    The first couple of rooms were nothing but strewn rubble of what had once been golem parts. These chambers led me to a larger one with white walls. At regular intervals mounted on the walls were black half spheres, similar to the ones you see hiding security cameras at the mall.

    As soon as I stepped into the large white chamber, it lit up and a massive multicolored ball of light appeared in front of me. The colours of the ball swirled around on the surface of the ball rather like oil floating on water.

    “Who dares?” A thunderous voice demanded. Then without waiting for a reply, a ray of energy shot out at me from the sphere.

    I barely dodged out of the way in time before returning fire. The bullets went right through the energy sphere with no apparent effect.

    More rays of energy shot out at me and I was forced to dodge out the door I had entered in to avoid them. The sphere didn’t pursue me but it did fire a few more rays of energy out the door whenever I appeared in its line of sight.

    So physical attacks probably didn’t work on this thing. What was it, anyway? Some sort of shockamancy golem, perhaps? Was such a thing even possible? It was more likely to be a shockamancy trap though. Maybe the black spheres were what powered it, like projectors of some sort?

    Briefly I popped my head past the door frame. The sphere was hovering in the middle of the room again so I took a quick shot at one of the black half spheres. The sphere rippled immediately after the shot hit. It shot at me again but the blast was slower than previous attempts had been.

    Back and forth I went, poking around the door frame to take pot shots at the projectors and then dodging back out of the way of the shockamancy counterattacks. I was pretty successful taking out most the projectors that way, causing the sphere to slow down with each hit. Unfortunately there were a few projectors mounted to the wall I was hiding behind. I would have to actually enter the room to get those ones.

    A part of me wanted to do something dramatic and showy like combat rolling into the room. Fortunately years of training and experience squashed such silly Hollywood notions. Taking a deep breath I rushed into the chamber and then lunged to the right before taking a shot at one of the last projectors.

    Running, pausing to shoot and then running again kept me ahead of the sphere’s attempts to blast me into atoms. When the last projector was shattered by a bullet, the sphere exploded in a harmless show of light.

    In its place appeared an erratic holographic image that spoke in a voice often interrupted by static. The image portrayed a man in a hooded robe that resembled Obi Wan Kenobi.

    “If you are seeing this <static> then our last defenses have <static> and we have failed our <static> and one true heir to <static>.”

    “If you are the enemy, then our failure is complete.”

    “If you are our ally, then we are sorry for the golems and <static>. I hope you can understand that we did what we had <extended static> her safe.”

    “We were running low on shmuckers when <static> this place. We couldn’t have afforded upkeep for another turn. So <static> in <static>. This projection will take the last of our <static>. On the next turn, we will disband, never knowing the fate of <static>.”

    “If you are neither friend nor foe, then please leave this place without ever waking our beloved <static>. Should you awaken them, then please take responsibility for them and their upkeep. Maybe our side can rise again.”

    “Be warned, that before we got away, <static> used <extended static> never be the same. <Extended static> guidance.”

    There was more but both the image and sound lost fidelity and were incomprehensible. Nor did there seem to be a way to replay the image.

    On the other side of the room, a door slowly creaked open.

    “Walk away.” I thought to myself. “You don’t want the trouble that you’ll find on the other side of that door.”

    My internal monologue did nothing to stop or even slow me down from crossing the room and opening the door the rest of the way.

    In the middle of this room was a raised stone dais. Hovering over the dais was a female erf native of about average height and her frame was slight. She had blonde hair that cascaded down her back. She wore grey woolen rags and had no shoes on her feet. Her eyes were open but they focused on nothing and did not move. Her eyes were silver orbs that sparkled in the light of my flashlight. Aside from that flashlight, the room was illuminated by a green glow emanating off the girl.

    Slowly I circled the dais, seeing no obvious way to awaken the occupant. How had they managed to put her into stasis without paying the requirement for upkeep? Was it a unique property of the dais perhaps? Or a unique spell created by some sort of caster link? Or was this whole set up part of the worlds back story and thus was some sort of one off encounter?

    If she really was in stasis, then maybe she was neither alive or dead. Maybe I could add her to my friends list on the phone and see her stats? With nothing to lose, I held up my phone and took her picture. Then I dragged it over to my friends tab.

    Her stats appeared under her picture.

    Apparently her unit type was ‘Archon, Royal’. Her level was the highest I had seen at thirteen. Her health, defense and attack were all similar to my own. What was astounding was her list of specials.

    Leadership
    Flight
    Dance Fight
    Shockamancy Special
    Dollamancy Special
    Thinkamancy Special
    Foolamancy Special

    That explained her upkeep cost of a thousand shmuckers. It was almost as high as my own.

    She also had a couple of statuses on her, stasis and cursed. That last was worrisome. She was also set to ally now.

    What wasn’t shown was her name. It was blurred out.

    I looked up at her and realized that she was slowly drifting to the ground and her eyes were starting to flutter, as though trying to focus after being asleep for a long time. The ‘stasis’ status blipped off on my phone.

    “Of course.” I said as realization hit me. “They were hoping an ally would come and wake her up.” By allying with her, I had woken her from stasis automatically.

    Her eyes turned to me and her lips curved into a smile. “Hello there friend. I am Tip Temple.”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Tue Mar 15, 2016 12:26 am, edited 1 time in total.
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it a game or is it real?)

    Part Six

    Tip of Erf


    “Hello Tip,” The name was resonating within my brain, forcing connections to form from childhood memories to actions I had taken less than an hour before. Even as some connections were being made, there were inconsistencies that were causing severe dissonance within my mind. The rags fit the name but the gender was all wrong.

    “I’m Justin.” Automatically I offered her my hand.

    She looked at my hand as if uncertain of what the gesture meant. “You’re offering me alliance without terms?” Then her eyes drifted to the sword I had recently acquired. “I think… I think you must be a friend, though.” With that she put her tiny hand in mine and we shook.

    Inwardly I winced slightly at her recognition of the sword. Unless I missed my guess, I had taken it from her creation and treasured companion’s body.

    “I can’t see your stats.” She commented as she regarded me with a quizzical expression. “I sense that you’re my ally now and your leadership bonus is lower than mine. So you must be some sort of warlord. What side do you belong to?”

    “I’m a barbarian with leadership, archery and signamancy specials.” I explained to her.

    Tip looked around the chamber. “This place seems familiar, as though I’ve seen it many times in my dreams. And yet I somehow feel that there’s something missing. Like there should be more people here.”

    “Don’t you know where this place is?” I asked her as it dawned on me that she might have some sort of amnesia. That might explain the signamancy of her name. I took another look at her profile on my phone. Her name was still blurred out but Tip had been added in brackets under it. I also noticed the date at the top, for the first time that turn. It was August twenty-first.

    “What’s that?” She asked when she finally noticed the phone in my hand.

    “It’s a phone.” I replied while considering a way to explain it. “It’s a sort of magic mathamancy device that helps me manage some thinkamancy, dateamancy and moneymancy issues. I took your picture and then added you to my list of friends. That’s when you woke up.” I showed her the picture on the phone’s screen.

    Her eyes went wide as she looked at herself on the screen. “May I?” she asked, holding her hand out for it with a questioning look.

    “Sure.” I said as I handed it over, a little nervous about her fiddling with the settings by mistake.

    “Yes, I see.” She said as it shrank down to fit into her hand comfortably. Her fingers began manipulating the touch screen as though she had been doing it her all life. “You only have me and a Dwagon in your friends list.” Then she smiled broadly, revealing dimples. “Aw, you named it Scarlet. That’s cute.”

    “I don’t have any other friends.” I admitted. “And to be honest, I don’t think you do anymore either.” I reached for my phone.

    Reluctantly she passed the phone back to me where to my surprise it auto-resized to fit my hand. “Why do you say that?”

    “There was a sort of message in the other room.” I thrust my thumb back over my shoulder to the door. “It seems you were put here by your friends but they’re not around anymore.”

    Her frown revealed her dimples as much as her smile did. “Oh no!” She ran past me to the next room.

    She was already fiddling with one of the broken projectors by the time I caught up to her. The image reappeared but it was jerky and seemed to reset every second. The audio began to play. “o-our fail-fail-failure is com-com-complete.” Then it cycled once more, smoothly. “our failure is complete.” And then it went silent and nothing she could do would bring it back again.

    “I’m sorry.” I told her.

    “I don’t remember him.” She whispered. “I saw his face but I don’t remember him. I don’t know how I got here or why I’m here.”

    “Does it really matter?” I asked as I took a knee beside her. “You’re here, I’m here and we’re friends. Where we go from here doesn’t have to depend on the past of who you were and who you knew. It can be about the future and who you want to be and who will go with you.”

    Her big silver eyes looked up at me and seemed to be holding back tears. “What can we do?”

    I offered her my hand as I slowly stood up. “I’m new to this world. Maybe you could say I’m recently popped. There’s a lot of basic things I don’t know yet and I’m trying to learn. You have lost your memory of your past but you seem to remember and understand those basics. How about we explore this strange world together?”

    Hesitantly she smiled, “I think I would like that.” Then she took my hand and stood up.

    “You should have a weapon.” I decided and unbuckled the pumpkin headed golem’s sword to give to her. I just couldn’t bring myself to even think his name properly given my role and guilt in his end.

    She took the sword and it resized automatically for her. She strapped it to her back like an expert. “I really hope this won’t be necessary.”

    “It’s a dangerous world out there, Tip.” I advised her. “I’ll protect you as best as I can but you need to be ready and able to protect yourself as well.”

    She favored me with a smile that could melt a glacier. “I’ll do my best, Justin.”

    I used my flashlight to help me find the brass casings that had been used during my fight with the shockamancy trap. When Tip noticed what it was I was picking up, she started looking for the little casings too. She didn’t have a flashlight but she could form a glowing ball of light in her hand to supplement her own natural glow. It looked just like a miniature version of the sphere that had tried to end me.

    When we had searched as best we could, I was down one more casing. This world was eroding my fighting capability day by day.

    Then I led Tip back up to the surface. “Tip, can you sense what sort of hex this is?”

    Tip shrugged, “It’s a ruin hex.”

    “It looks like it used to be a city.” I observed. “Do you think it could be claimed?”

    Lines of concentration crossed Tip’s face. “No, it can’t.” She replied, shaking her head. “They’re just ruins. Even if they weren't ruins, I don't have the shmuckers to rebuild it.”

    “Seems a shame.” I mused aloud as I looked around. “I wonder if a dirtamancer could fix this place up at all?”

    She just shrugged again.

    Since it was pointless to speculate since we didn’t have a dirtamancer, I whistled for Scarlet. I was inwardly thankful when she arrived without bits of the metal golem she had been chewing on hanging from her mouth. That would have been awkward.

    “Oh, she’s very pretty.” Tip exclaimed when Scarlet appeared and landed in front of us. “Can I pet her?”

    “Sure.” I agreed with a smile. “She likes to have her neck scratched.

    Scarlet rumbled happily as Tip scratched the dwagon’s neck.

    I sat down on some rubble and thought. Both Scarlet and I had used move today. That meant I had only a little move left while Scarlet had more if she walked, or much more if she flew while wearing the armor. If I stripped the armor off of her, she would have just enough to get her back to the forest hex we had departed a few turns ago.

    Something I had been wondering but hadn’t tested yet was could I ride Scarlet until she ran out of move and then get off and use up my move as well? If that was something, then I could ride her for the rest of her move and then get off and walk some more.

    It had taken three days to get this far into the wastelands at my pace. It would take two days if I rode Scarlet the whole way back. That was problematic. Now that I had to take care of Tip’s upkeep, I had only enough left for two days but only if we ate provisions. I had enough provisions for me for three days, or enough for Tip and I for one day and one of us for the second day.

    While we were in the wastelands I expected that I would have to feed Scarlet by paying her full upkeep. If I sacrificed her by not paying her upkeep, I still wouldn’t have enough to cover the gap on the second day.

    If I rode Scarlet today, she would run out of move after just a few hexes. If I could keep moving after riding her, I could get a little further. Tip was a flying unit so could probably do at least that far.

    Tomorrow I could move as far as I could and order Scarlet to fly ahead. She could reach the forest hexes with move to spare to hunt with. She wouldn’t be able to bring anything back with her but at least she could forage for herself. That wouldn’t be enough though and on day two I would still have to figure out how to cover the short fall.

    Well Tip was small. She might be able to fly alongside of Scarlet or even on her. So tomorrow both could forage in the forest hexes. If they successfully foraged and were in the forest hex, I might not have to pay upkeep for Tip since she might not be suffering from exposure to desert hexes.

    Actually, if she had enough move left, then the smart play would be to get her to the forest hex on this turn. Even if she didn’t have enough move, I could strip Scarlet’s armor off of her and let the dwagon carry her. Then Tip might be able to forage or use provisions to survive. Even if she suffered some exposure, I would only be paying her upkeep for today and tomorrow I could skip paying her upkeep and let her just eat provisions. It would mean that she would have to avoid using juice or getting hurt.

    It would split us up though, and I didn’t like that. Not one bit.

    “What’s the matter?” Tip sat down beside me.

    I explained the situation to her.

    “So wearing the armor slows Scarlet down, right? Just take it off her and she’ll be able to carry you part of the way today while I fly. Then she can carry you the rest of the way tomorrow with move to spare for hunting and foraging.”

    “But I don’t want to abandon the armor.” I objected.

    Her laugh was like the sound of bells. “Then don’t, silly. Take it off her, shrink it down and have her carry it in one of her bags.”

    That was of course, the obvious answer. Well obvious if you knew how to resize the magical armor which was something I hadn't really tried yet.

    It made me wonder about something else. “When you resize armor, the weight decreases, right? Can you resize it so just the weight changes?”

    Her brows went up in surprised contemplation. “I don’t know, I’ve never tried.”

    “Could you? Try, I mean.” I smiled hopefully at her.

    “Of course!” She agreed as she jumped up and ran over to Scarlet. She put her hands on each plate of the armor. The armor seemed to ripple at each touch but didn’t change size. When she was done, she ran back to me. “It worked. It took a little bit of juice each time but it worked!”

    While she had been busy, I had started pulling my own armor out of my pack. “Can you do it for this armor too?”

    “I don’t see why not!” Tip exclaimed as she set to work.

    When she was done, I tried it on. It felt as light as paper but was still as hard as it ever was. “Thanks, Tip. I owe you.”

    “Now we can fly the whole way back to that forest hex.” She grinned with satisfaction.

    “I’m too heavy to ride on Scarlet’s back.” I objected.

    “You are a heavy unit.” She agreed with a nod. “But she could probably carry you in her claws.”

    “Why would she be able to carry me in her claws but not on her back?” I frowned at her.

    Tip shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe her arms are stronger than her back?”

    “But it’s her wings that would be doing all the work, either way.” I continued to object.

    “Well, you should at least give it a try. After all, I didn’t think your resizing just the weight idea would work but I tried it and it did.” She crossed her arms across her chest stubbornly.

    I sighed heavily. “Alright, I give up. Scarlet!”

    The red dwagon swung her head over to regard me curiously.

    “Can you carry me back to the forest hex?”

    Scarlet snorted the way she did when I asked what she deemed to be silly questions. Then she flapped her wings and hovered above me. Gently, her claws wrapped around my body and to my amazement, we both remained off the ground.

    It wasn’t dragon riding but it would get me to where I wanted to go. “Tip! Do you have at least half as much move as Scarlet?”

    Gracefully she lifted off the ground and hovered in front of me. “I have much more than that, Justin. I’ll try not to leave you and Scarlet behind.”

    It wasn’t comfortable and I couldn’t fight in this position but I did get a decent view of the ground as it whipped by underneath me.

    Tip couldn’t seem to resist showing off by flying circles around us. Sometimes she did it on the horizontal axis and sometimes she did it on the vertical axis. I didn’t mind as her laughter was infectious. Even Scarlet got playful, occasionally doing a barrel roll or a loop.

    Then something occurred to me. “Hey Tip!”

    She floated up and underneath me, flying upside down and sideways so we could be face to face. “Yes, Justin?”

    “Do you think you can ride Scarlet for the trip without slowing her down?” I had to yell to be heard over the rushing wind.

    She shrugged, “I don’t see why not, but why?”

    “I want to test a theory. I want to see if you can use your remaining move after riding Scarlet.” After a quick thought I added, “For that matter I want to see if I can use my remaining move after being carried.”

    Again she shrugged. “Sure, but we won’t be able to talk anymore.”

    “Hmmm. That could make the trip rather boring.” Then another thought occurred to me. “Ride on Scarlet’s back only when we cross hex boundaries. Then fly down to talk to me while we move across the hex. Let me know if you’ve used any move that way.”

    Tips lips pursed in thought. Finally she said, “That sounds a lot like cheating.”

    “This world enforces its booping rules magically.” My demonstration of that rule enforcement caused her to make an O face of shock. “So if we can do it, then it’s not breaking the rules, it’s exploiting them.”

    “I don’t know if the rules would like being exploited.” She said with a frown after some thought.

    “Why would a rule even care?” I asked, completely perplexed by her attitude.

    “I don’t think I would much care to be exploited.” She pointed out in a reasonable tone. “Why should a rule be okay with it?”

    Rather than debate the idea of a rules feeling anything, I decided to play along with the craziness a bit. “Have you ever asked a rule how it would feel about being exploited?”

    That seemed to stump her for a bit though she still seemed uncertain.

    “Tell you what, we’ll try it and if the rules don’t raise any objections, we’ll assume they’re okay with how we’re using them. After all, Scarlet doesn’t speak but she seems to be okay with how we’re getting her to carry me and give you a ride, right?”

    “Yes, I suppose that is true.” She agreed at last. “We’re coming up to the boundary now. I’ll go get on Scarlet’s back while we cross it.” Then she floated up and out of my sight.

    It was hard to tell where one hex ended and another began in the wastelands. There were telltale signs I could make out however. I wondered if that was how other units navigated or if they had more of a sense for where the boundaries were.

    Shortly after crossing the hex, Tip lazily floated back down so we were face to face again. Her cheeks were flush with excitement. “I didn’t use any move!” She exclaimed. “I got to fly all around the hex but it didn’t count because I was riding Scarlet’s back when we crossed the boundary.”

    “Still think the rules might be upset?” I asked her in a slightly teasing tone.

    “No.” Tip shook her head, sending curls bouncing off both her cheeks. “I think they’re happy that we understand them better. Everybody likes being understood better.”

    She really did remind me of her namesakes. “That’s what I want to do, really.” I explained to her. “Being new to this world, I want to understand all the rules better.”

    “I think you’re very clever to want to understand the rules. If I’m ever ruler of a side, I shall want you to be my chief warlord.” She nodded to reinforce the sentiment.

    Frowning, I shook my head. “I don’t want to join any side, Tip. I prefer being a barbarian.”

    Tip’s face wrinkled in confusion and maybe a little hurt. “Why wouldn’t you want to be on my side, Justin?”

    “I would like to be allied to your side and to remain your friend.” I assured her. “I would be very proud of both those things, I think. But I couldn’t abide being forced to obey orders due to magically enforced loyalty and duty. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone should have to do either.”

    “But I would be a good ruler to you.” She seemed to be trying to reassure me now. “I would never give you bad orders! You’re my friend and friends don’t give bad orders to their friends.”

    It was sort of strange to me that she considered me a friend already despite having known me for less than a turn. Despite it being my suggestion to become friends, I generally felt the process should take longer. Yet even so, I felt the feelings of friendship were blooming within me already. Was it being artificially accelerated by some artificial means, such as her thinkamancy special, perhaps? Or was it because I already felt I knew a lot about her based on her signamancy? A combination of the two, perhaps?

    “What if duty compelled you to?” I countered. “And then I would have to obey, whether I wanted to or not. It might be an order I would choose to obey but being forced to obey is something I find deeply offensive. Thus I would rather be an ally.”

    “Well what if you formed a side and I joined it?” She replied reasonably. “I think I’d be willing to join a side you founded so that shouldn’t be a problem, right?”

    Truthfully I hadn’t even considered forming a side until that moment and her question made me think quite hard for several moments. “No.” I said finally. “I still think it wouldn’t work. I resent the idea of anyone having that sort of power over me so it would be very hypocritical to have that power over someone else. I would definitely accept you as an ally though. So if I asked you to do things for me and my side, you could decide if you wanted to do them because we’re friends. And wouldn’t that be better than doing them because you have no choice?”

    It was Tip’s turn to think hard for a few moments. “What if I didn’t want to do something?”

    “Then you wouldn’t have to.” I explained “If push came to shove you could even break alliance if you felt strongly enough over something.”

    Tip thought about that for a little bit. “If I ever form a side, I’ll accept your alliance and hope that you’ll trust me to join my side, but I won’t force you to. Since it’s so important to you.”

    “Thank you Tip.” I said with a smile. “I appreciate that.”

    “We’re coming up to another boundary.” She announced. “See you in a little bit.”

    While we crossed into the next hex, I thought. Tip seemed very childlike. It hadn’t bothered me at first because if I was right and she was this world’s Princess Ozma made flesh, then it was consistent with what I had read about her. It was also consistent with Shirley Temple having been best known for her work as a child actress. The trouble was that there were no babies, children or teenagers here. Everyone was popped as an adult. Perhaps her behavior was modified somehow. Was this part of her curse?

    Certainly having a childlike innocence and mindset could be seen as a curse in a world of war. A childlike ruler would certainly be one. And what if she had Ozma’s pacifist stance? In this world? That would be a curse.

    Assuming that this was related to her curse, what would happen if her curse was lifted? Would her signamancy change? Would she be less sweet, kind and innocent? What kind of monster would want to take someone like Ozma and turn her into someone more jaded and cynical? Could a pacifist side exist for longer than it took for another side to discover it?

    It was of course mere speculation at this point. She had already suggested the possibility of establishing her own side. Maybe she wasn’t a pacifist at all. After all, she wasn’t Ozma of Oz. She was Tip Temple of Erf.

    “Hello again Justin!” Tip exclaimed as she zipped up from underneath me, approaching from my blind spot this time. “I didn’t use any move this time either.”

    It was time to determine Tip’s feelings on things. “Can I ask you some questions, Tip?”

    “That is itself a question, that you have asked quite without my permission. What happens now if I refuse my consent?” She smirked at me mischievously.

    “I withdraw the question.” I replied while wishing I could scratch my nose but my arms were well and truly pinned by Scarlet. “Instead I am stating my desire to ask you questions. I also state that it would please me if you were to consent to that.”

    Tip grimaced. “You’re adept at finding your way around rules. Are you sure you don’t have a carnymancer special?”

    “I am not in fact, certain of that.” I wiggled my nose with irritation. “I guess I’m still learning about myself as well as this world. I also note that you have not addressed the issue of permitting me to ask you questions or not.”

    She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Very well, Justin. I grant you consent to ask me any questions you wish from now to the end of turns.”

    “What if we stop being friends and allies?” It wasn’t the first question I had wanted to ask but it was one that had suddenly popped into my head.

    “You offered me alliance without conditions.” She said and then held out her hand like she was shaking it, mimicking our common greeting earlier. “I accepted. There was no set duration so I understand that to last until the end of turns.” She grinned up at me and poked me on the nose, scratching the itch, perhaps accidentally. “You are not the only one who can use the rules for their benefit.”

    “All that just from shaking hands?” I asked, incredulous.

    “Well, to be fair it’s a weak contract.” She admitted with a sigh. “You probably could break it easily if you wanted to. It’s not like we spit into our palms first like is proper. Or pinky swore.” Tip looked up at me with wide silver eyes. “You’re not planning to break alliance are you?”

    “No Tip, I’m not.” I assured her, vowing inwardly to be more careful about who I shook hands with in the future. There were many things I took for granted that worked a little differently here. I’d offered alliance and friendship without defining terms and she had accepted, while defining those terms for herself. I had given her some limited power over me. Which might also explain the accelerated feelings of friendship I was feeling and she was displaying. It might also be her thinkamancy special in action however.

    “Good.” She was smiling again. “So do you have other questions for me?”

    “My phone tells me that you have good defense and attack scores as well as a shockamancy special. Plus you seemed to know what you were doing with that sword I gave you. All these clues suggest you can fight.”

    “That’s not a question.” She observed, her eyes twinkling.

    “No, but it leads up to one.” I took a breath and then asked, “Can you fight?”

    “Well, I suppose that I can.” Tip shrugged. “Any unit with attack and defense can.”

    “Alright.” I nodded, “Will you fight?”

    Tip’s face clouded up with emotion. “I… I think… I think that I don’t want to. I think I would rather that no one had to fight or got hurt. Ever. That would be better, wouldn’t it?”

    “It would.” I agreed slowly, looking to choose my next words carefully. “Unfortunately that’s not what most people in this world seem to believe. Well, at least the ones I’ve met so far. If one of those people were trying to hurt Scarlet or me, would you fight to prevent them?”

    “I don’t like that question.” She then confronted me with the full power of her pout.

    I’d dealt with petulant recruits before so I hardened my heart and put on my stern drill instructor’s face. “Tip, frowning and pouting at me will not answer the question or resolve the issue. I would fight to protect you. I need to know if you could protect Scarlet and me. If we encounter enemy units, I need to know that I can depend on you.”

    “You’re mean!” She pointed a finger at me accusingly. “You can depend on me, Justin. I wouldn’t want others to hurt you and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it.”

    “Even fight?” I pressed, without softening my demeanor.

    Crossing her arms defiantly, she spun around one-hundred and eighty degrees so her back was to me. “I don’t want to fight. I’ll find another way.”

    That seemed to answer that. “Will you stop me from fighting to protect you?”

    She turned around to face me again, no longer petulant but something else. She reminded me of many of the officers I had known and respected now. “Will you only fight when there is no other choice?”

    “Yes.” I agreed easily.

    “And will you only do the minimum amount of harm required?” Her face was deadly earnest and serious.

    “Of course.” I agreed readily.

    “You’ll only ever fight to protect others, do good and stop evil?” Her tone continued in the same serious manner, reminding me very much of ceremonies when oaths are pledged.

    “Certainly.” Everything she had said so far was in line with my personal morals and the ethics I had learned in the military.

    “Pinky swear.” She held up her own small finger.

    “Just a second.” I wiggled a bit and encouraged Scarlet to move one of her claws slightly so I could get my own small finger free. “Okay.”

    Tip hooked her finger around mine and shook it slightly. “I’ll let you fight to protect me if you follow those conditions, from now until the end of turns.”

    I didn’t really feel any different except that some of my feelings about when and how to use force seemed clearer and somehow more validated.

    “Are you satisfied now, Warlord?” Tip asked me with a raised eyebrow.

    “I’m not a warlord. I’m just a heavy unit that happens to have leadership.” Then I added, “Not entirely satisfied, but at least I have a grasp of your limitations and will adapt to and overcome them.”

    “My limitations?” She seemed bemused. “Shall we have Scarlet release you and see which of us is the limited one then?”

    Despite myself, I laughed.

    Planting her fists on her hips, Tip proceeded to mockingly imitate my voice and demeanor. “Oh, Mister Serious Not-A-Warlord Justin can laugh! There goes my theory it would break his face!” Then she doubled over while clutching her stomach from laughing so hard.

    “Yuck it up.” However, I was still grinning.

    “I think I see the edge of the forest hex.” Tip said as she squinted at the horizon. “Time to get back up on Scarlet again.”

    Soon we were flying over trees and Scarlet was lowering me gently to the ground. Tip dismounted and started looking around. She reached out and touched a tree and giggled before withdrawing her hand.

    “Scarlet is out of move now. So it’s going to be up to us to find something to eat. Hopefully there will be something nearby.” I stretched and started to unload my gear from Scarlet’s saddle bags. “And hopefully we can still move ourselves.”

    “Even if we can move, your move is still pretty limited.” Tip observed. “I should use my move to scout the nearby hexes and then you can go hunting. I’ll gather fruits and vegetables.”

    “Seems fair.” I agreed. “But first cross a neighboring hex and come back again. Just to prove it’ll work.”

    “It’ll work.” She said as she rose up from the ground again. “I’m somehow sure of it.” She crossed back into the desert and then rejoined us in the forest hex. “You see, we understand the rules better and they like us better now. You stay here and I’ll scout.” Then she flew off out of sight.

    I busied myself getting camp ready. Occasionally I would get a thinkagram from Tip telling me about the game and forage in the surrounding hexes. I had enough move left to do some hunting and gathering so I did, while Tip continued to explore.

    It surprised me when my phone rang again. The ringtone was “Over the Rainbow”.

    I swiped to answer the incoming call. “Hello?”

    Tip’s face appeared on the screen, framed by her fingers. “Justin!”

    “Hey Tip.” I was smiling until I noticed that she wasn’t.

    “There’s these people here, they’re looking for you. I’m sorry, I told them we were friends. I didn’t know they were bad people.” She sounded desperate. Text was appearing under her face, giving me directions to her location as well as numbers of enemy units. A stack of seven forest capable stabbers and an archery warlord. Additional information about forage and game was also included in the text. I hadn't realized that so much information could be transmitted with a thinkagram before. I had just considered them a sort of radio or phone call that transmitted voices only. “They want to take you to someone called Wobin!”

    “That’s enough!” A woman’s voice came from offscreen. “We’re coming for you, Justin. To turn you or croak you. Either way it’s the same to me.” Then the thinkagram ended abruptly.

    I glanced at Scarlet. “They got Tip girl. Shall we go fetch her back?”

    Scarlet roared her rage to the moon that was rising.

    “I’ll take that as a yes.”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Tue Mar 15, 2016 1:42 am, edited 2 times in total.
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    Shall We Play A Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Seven

    Crouching Warlord, Hidden Dwagon


    Anger.

    It’s all hot passion in the heart.

    It’s all ice cold focus in the mind.

    Where they meet, is nothing but turbulence.

    This was my fault. I was in such a hurry to get back to forest hexes so I could hunt and forage, I had gone back where exactly I had left the forest for the wastelands. I might have gotten away with that but then I had allowed Tip to go off on her own. I knew that Wobin was out looking for me. Tip wouldn’t have known better than to talk to strange units and her hesitation to use violence had led to her capture.

    Thus it fell to me to fix the situation. I had to rescue her.

    As barbarians, Tip’s and my turn came before Wobin’s. Scarlet had used all her move getting back to the forest hexes. Tip still had move left but her turn was shifted to that of her captors when she became their prisoner. I’d had a little move left when we arrived in the forest hexes. I had used that up following up on some hunting and foraging that Tip had tipped me off to during her explorations. I should have called her back after that.

    Then her message had come and been cut off while it was still our turn. So she had wandered into a hex that had already been occupied and pretty near at the furthest extent of her exploration as well.

    Presumably on their turn, they had moved her as far away from me as they could while perhaps moving up to try and intercept my attempt to rescue her when it was my turn. They had done it fairly quickly relative to time in my own square too, as night had fallen fast.

    I also had to assume that they had gotten my position from Tip. She might not have revealed where I was but that wasn’t a safe bet.

    All I knew about their forces was that Tip had been captured by a Warlady along with two stacks of forest capable archers. The archers would be a danger to Scarlet if she flew over any hex they were in.

    The burning question was, did the Warlady have other forces in nearby hexes she could call upon? If she had forces within reach in the direction of Naughtyham, she could have ordered a stack to take Tip towards the city while she took the remaining forces closer to me. They hadn’t arrived so they likely didn’t have the move to make it all the way to my location from where they had taken Tip. Not surprising. She was farther away than I could get with all my move. I would have had to be carried by Scarlet or ride her to conserve my move in order to reach them. Either could leave me vulnerable, especially at hex boundaries.

    Unhindered by me, Scarlet would be able to cover a lot of ground. She would be ideal for scouting out the terrain tomorrow. The problem was that would mean sending her out on her own without being able to give her directions if she encountered a problem.

    Or could I?

    I pulled out my phone and opened Statbook. Under Scarlet’s profile picture was a message option. Shrugging, I sent her a message. “Flap your wings for a moment and then stop.”

    A little holographic like screen appeared in front of Scarlet. Simultaneously I got a notice. <Order received>.

    A heavy breath escaped from an apparently exasperated Scarlet who then began to flap her wings. A new alert was received. <Order acknowledged> followed immediately by, <Order obeyed>.

    Scarlet stopped flapping her wings and the holographic screen was still in front of her eyes. She watched it patiently.

    So I sent another message. “Send me a status update.”

    All Scarlet did was blink at the screen but I got a reply. It showed me her current stats, including the fact that she had no move left but was otherwise at full readiness. There were some additional statuses however.

    <Sad.>
    <Ally Gone.>

    “Aw, girl.” I swiped the phone off and scratched her neck soothingly. “We’ll get her back, I promise.”

    She rumbled. It wasn’t her usual contented rumble.

    “I don’t suppose you can initiate a message to me?” I asked her.

    She just swung her head around to stare a me.

    “I’ll take that as a no.” I sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to keep a channel open to you or something. Then you can send me status updates.” Inwardly I was berating myself over not having discovered this ability sooner. It is true what they say however, necessity is the mother of invention. I hadn’t discovered the ability because I hadn’t really needed to before now. Or at least the need hadn’t been great enough until now.

    My phone rang. It was the Major’s ringtone. I let it ring for a bit before picking it up. “Hello Major.”

    “Hello Justin.” She greeted with her normal stoic formality.

    “I suppose you’re calling to gloat.” My poker face was on as a matter of habit.

    “To thank you, actually.” She said with a raised brow and a bemused look. “You’ve delivered a unit into our hands which is even more valuable than you are. Wobin is willing to call it square if you just leave the area in the morning.” Then she paused. “Of course we don’t have a turnamancer anymore thanks to you. If we can’t hire one from the Magic Kingdom, then turning this new unit is going to be a… process.”

    “For a minute there I almost thought you were planning on offering me a way out of this situation.” The anger was boiling up from my stomach but I forced it down and smothered it with an icy exterior.

    “You could walk away.” She shrugged. “But I just thought that things might go better for this Tip if they had a friendly unit on our side already. Someone they had seen turn freely. Then they might want to turn just to stay with their friend.”

    “I’m not going to turn.” The vehemence snuck into my voice despite myself.

    “Even to save your friend?” She asked, looking surprised. “I always assumed you thought more of your friends than that.”

    Angrily I replied, “I’m not going to let you or Wobin turn her either!” I hadn’t really intended to reveal that much but I had allowed her to provoke me.

    “So you are planning on coming for her.” She looked smug, as though she had been sure of it the whole time. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. She’ll be in the capital by the end of next turn.”

    “What you mean is that she’s not there yet.” My frown turned into a slight smirk. “Meaning there’s a good chance Scarlet will be able to reach her when my turn begins in the morning. Scarlet scorches Tip’s captors and then Tip uses her own move to return to where I’ll be. Then Tip and I prepare to take on what is likely to be only a recently popped Warlady with a single stack of archery units. Honestly, why did you even bother capturing her if you couldn’t get her behind walls in the same turn?”

    She didn’t look as perturbed as I was hoping. Which was telling. “You have no guarantee that Scarlet will be overcome the units guarding Tip. Even if she does, she’ll be quite far away from you when your turn ends. She definitely won’t be able to come help you while you fight our Warlady and her archers.”

    “So the Warlady did come in my direction.” My smile grew. “That’s what I would have done.”

    The surprise on her face showed me that she had revealed more than she had intended. “I was merely going off your assumptions, Justin.”

    My brows creased as something occurred to me. “Why did you even have forces in that area? You can’t have still been looking for me. By now you must have assumed I either plunged into the wastelands to meet my end there or managed to get by your attempts to detect me. Forest capable archers led by a recently popped Warlady and with troops within a turns distance?” My eyes narrowed further. “You were reconning in force. You have an enemy in the area you’re looking for. And it’s not me.”

    The call immediately ended. No doubt duty had compelled her to end the call before she gave anymore intel to me. For fun I sent her a message but she didn’t reply.

    Thinking for a moment, I looked up another profile from the Naughtyham side.

    “Offering to turn finally?” Wobin asked when his face appeared on the screen of my phone.

    “Well that would really depend.” I drawled confidently.

    “On what?” He squinted his eyes at me.

    “Well on how well your war is going for one.” I smirked and leaned casually against Scarlet’s side. “I’m afraid that the Major spilled the beans on that score. So I’m thinking we may be able to cut a deal.”

    “I’m listening.” He crossed his arms over his chest. A sign of potential vulnerability.

    “Well, I’m not going to turn to you and I’m not going to let you turn Tip either. I want her back by my side again and obviously I want enough shmuckers and provisions to take care of us both until we’re well outside your territory.”

    “And why should I agree to any of that?” Was that a bit of white hair appearing at his temples? He had been so young not many turns ago. Maybe the stress of being a single city side was getting to him.

    “You’ve seen what Scarlet and I can do as a team. On the other hand, the enemy hasn’t. Hell, they think we’re enemies and wouldn’t expect a turn around like me working for you again. Because they don’t know you have my friend either, right?”

    Slowly he grinned. “I see where you’re going with this. So you work for me and in exchange when it’s over I let you and your friend walk away. Might be worth it.” He held up a finger. “IF you can help me beat them. Maybe take over their side. And of course I’m going to hold onto your friend in my dungeon until the war’s over. Collateral against my investment, to make sure you don’t break alliance.”

    “Seems only fair.” I agreed. “Though forming an official alliance would only give me away to the enemy, right? So we’ll need to write out a proper contract.”

    “You’re good with contracts.” It wasn’t a compliment, more like wary suspicion. “You already helped take down the former Prince and the Sheriff with one.”

    “And maybe I’ll be able to do the same with your current foe.” I shrugged indifferently. “I’ll need to know more about them of course.”

    He shrugged. “I don’t see the harm in that. It’s Fail Wail, led by the Witch Moregains. Her chief warlord is a prince named Moredread who defected to her side when she split off from Avon.”

    “Huh.” I said as I digested that. “I imagine those two sides are still fighting as well.”

    “They are.” Wobin agreed. “Naughtyham was a spin off side from Avon and when we didn’t join the war on the side of Fail Wail, they attacked us.”

    I remembered discussing this with some warlords when I was still an ally of Naughtyham. The side had been split off by Avon and granted to King Patrick the Steward. They had a portrait of him in the library. He looked just as you might imagine. The Prince had popped as an heir but then the King had chosen Wobin as his heir instead which had shocked a number of people and had apparently led to the Prince’s rebellion. Supposedly the rebellion had been justified by the fact that the King had reduced the city from a level three to a level two in order to afford the transferal of the heir status.

    Wobin had been a recently popped non-royal warlord who had been King Patrick’s chief warlord when the side had been spun off. Apparently the two had gotten along quite well and the King had preferred Wobin’s strategic capabilities over that of his own son. In fact, until his heir had popped, he had often referred to Wobin as his son.

    If I remembered the maps well enough, Naughtyham would be on the frontier of any war between Fail Wail and Avon. Fail Wail was to the west and had a sea side capital. Avon was to the east and was the side I had hoped to eventually slip into from the wastelands.

    Not that I wanted to stick around in the area. If the various signs were right, all these sides were doomed, and possibly sooner rather than later. No doubt something else would eventually rise to take their place but I wasn’t that interested in finding out how it would all turn out.

    “Scarlet’s got a lot of move. She can scout a lot of territory in a single turn. We might be able to find and report troop movements to you.” I leaned in closer to the screen and whispered. “I could report any Avon troop movements I spot too. You know, just in case.”

    That last appealed to his suspicious nature as I had hoped it would. “It’d be good to know that they’re gong to be where they say they are, when they say they are.” He scratched his chin. “Tell you what. You spend your next turn scouting for me and tomorrow night once I see you’re on the level, we’ll hammer out a written contract.”

    “That contract will be retroactive.” I informed him. “Starting last turn when you took my friend prisoner.”

    “Alright. But I’ll be having both Warshmuckers and the Major reviewing it for signs of signamancy trickery.” His eyes were still narrowed at me.

    “Fine. I mean, I needed their help to write the last one so I’m sure they’ll spot anything sneaky I try to get past you.” I sort of shrugged, suggesting I was stuck for it.

    Feeling like he had the superior bargaining position, he nodded and smiled. “Alright. Learn what you can about enemy positions and movements tomorrow and we’ll see about compensating you.”

    “One more thing.” I added as a last thought. “If your people spot Scarlet flying over their heads tomorrow, they’re going to have to know not to fire at her. Unless of course she fires on them first.”

    “I’ll have the Major let everyone know.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “If this is some sort of treachery, it won’t go well for your friend.”

    “I haven’t forgotten you are holding someone very dear to me.” Then to impress upon him the leverage he had over me, I pleaded, “Don’t hurt her.”

    “I won’t, as long as you stick to the arrangement.” He promised and then ended the connection.

    Then I typed “Moregains” into the contacts list and sent another thinkagram.

    A dark haired woman with dark eyes answered. “Who is this?”

    “My name is Justin, and we have a mutual friend, by the name of Wobin.” I smiled my most charming grin at her.

    “He’s no friend of mine.” She sneered.

    “Nor of mine. However, he has taken an actual friend of mine prisoner which means we may have some common interests.” I peered closely at what I could see of her image. She was seated in a chair and behind her was tapestry with a red dwagon on it. That confirmed a suspicion I had about the nature of the name Fail Wail.

    “That doesn’t mean we’re friends or allies.” She narrowed her eyes at me further.

    “I’m so glad we agree.” I maintained my charming façade. “It’ll make dealing with each other easier.”

    “What are you proposing?” She asked, getting right down to business.

    “I’m proposing to sell you intel on your enemy. I can give you data on Wobin’s stats as well as all his casters and most his warlords. In addition, I’m going to be doing some battlefield reconnaissance tomorrow. Maybe for every turn until the current war is over. As a Barbarian, I go before either you or Wobin. So I’ll be able to give you pretty good information before the start of either yours or his turns.” I leaned forward. “That’s got to be worth something to you.”

    “It would.” She agreed, revealing little. “How do you propose to gather this information?”

    “Do you put much stock in the omens of signamancy?” I asked her with a smirk.

    Moregains sort of shrugged. “Depends on whether it’s legitimate signamancy or foolamancy.”

    “And what do you think this is?” I asked her as I turned the camera towards Scarlet’s face and then back to my own. “Just a coincidence or aligned along the axis of fate?”

    Her brows going up a couple of milometers was the extent of her emotional reaction. “Interesting. I want intel on Avon forces too.”

    I had expected that. “If I see any, I’ll sell them too you as well. Same rates as for Naughtyham forces.”

    The caster ruler nodded her agreement. “What are your fees, barbarian?”

    We negotiated for quite some time before finally agreeing to her paying for me to identify hexes with enemy units at the start of turn. Then I would receive additional payments for each unit I identified within those hexes. She also agreed to allow for free passage for Scarlet and myself through hexes that her troops controlled. Nor would she attack us if her forces went through hexes that either Scarlet or I were in when it was her turn. In exchange for the intel I had on Wobin and his commander’s stats, she agreed that if she took Naughtyham, Tip would be freed and reunited with me. Having learned my lesson the hard way with Wobin, I wrote up a contract and sent it to her. She marked the accept tab and we had an agreement.

    When that call was done, I made another.

    “King Author Pentagram.” The face before me had once been square jawed and strong but was now covered with grey stubble. The eyes looked troubled and were sunken into his skull. Here was a king whose doom was near. Yet his voice was still regal and commanding. There was some fight in him yet. He would go to the grave but his enemy would go before him. “To whom am I speaking?”

    “I am Justin, a Barbarian, your majesty.” I bowed my head respectfully. Then I turned the phone to show off Scarlet. “As you can see, I have a dragon and I’m offering to scout hexes for enemy units. For a price, of course…”

    The King had agreed to pretty much the same terms as Moregains. Including data on the locations of Wobin’s troops. Apparently the old guy didn’t quite trust his ally. I certainly didn’t blame him. He was also interested in relatively up to date data on Wobin’s stats and those of his commanders. Which I provided on the condition that he would use his diplomatic pull to help secure the release of Tip and should she come to be in his care, he would release her into my custody.

    With the wheeling and dealing done in preparation for setting the stage for tomorrow’s action, I let out a long deep sigh and started thinking about getting some sleep.

    Then my phone went off, with the tone being the theme to Charlies Angels. Creasing my brows, I looked at the screen. I had a message alert on Statbook.

    “Incoming Thinkagram from CharlesComm. Will you hold for Charlie?” was what it said.

    I did what I always did whenever I was contacted by anyone I didn’t know by social media. I blocked the user. I had after all, spent the evening cold calling strangers as part of a phishing scheme. It would be a bit foolish then to expose myself to what might be the scheme of someone else.

    The irony that perhaps Moregains and Pentagram should have blocked my messages was not lost on me as I finally drifted off to sleep.

    + + +

    Morning came and I gave my directions to Scarlet. She would fly ahead in a zig zag pattern, scanning the hexes she was in and surrounding hexes for signs of unit activity. She would also keep her eyes open for potential game and forage. All the while I would keep in touch with her using my phone. In every new hex I would request a status update and I would send new directions. When she was nearly out of move, I would start moving as well, in order to meet up with her in the same hex.

    Her updates to me included detailed information on units she spotted while she flew. For example,

    <Archer Warlady, mounted on sourmander. Red Cloak.>
    <7 Forest capable archers, mounted on sourmanders. Wolf Cloaks. Stacked with Warlady.>
    <8 Forest capable archers, stacked; in wolf cloaks.>
    <Spotted, not engaged.>

    This was remarkably handy. Between the thinkagram I had received from Tip combined with the data I was receiving from Scarlet, I was starting to realize that thinkamancy could be used to transmit so much more than just conversations.

    As I expected, Wobin had forces in a direct line between Naughtyham and where I currently was. It was the Warlady. With her were eight forest capable archers on foot. Also with her were seven archers mounted on sourmanders. She was also mounted. The War Lady had a red cloak but all the units with her wore wolf cloaks.

    On the far right flank of Scarlet’s scouting pattern she found two hexes with forces from Avon in them. Each one had two stacks of mounted knights. No archers or casters.

    On the near left flank of Scarlet’s scouting pattern, she found three hexes with forces from Fail Wail. Each one had two stacks of mounted knights. One of the hexes was lead by a warlord.

    In the Hex just beyond where Scarlet had wound up, there was a stack of unled and dismounted stabbers. I was guessing that until the start of last turn, they had been mounted. Still, they were well within range of the red cloaked War Lady from Naughtyham.

    After Scarlet was settled into her final hex, I started my move. I swung west to avoid the cloaked Warlady. I had considered moving straight down the middle to test whether or not Wobin’s people really would leave me be or not. However, the temptation to slit her throat would probably be too strong and I wasn’t sure I could take out two stacks of troops. Besides, I already expected treachery from him.

    As I made my way from hex to hex, I sent Scarlet an instruction to dig a pit big enough for her to crawl into. Preferably in a thick copse of trees.

    In every hex of the trip up to the second to last one, I set up a booby traps. Activation was easy. It was simple trip wire made of fishing cord that was hidden by leaves and connected to trap via pulleys. The traps themselves were a series of sharpened wooden spikes secured to branches that had been pulled back like a spring. Pulling the trip wire would release a branch, swinging across the path with force and hopefully impaling someone.

    When I arrived in the hex, I ordered Scarlet into the pit. Then I use my entrenching tool from my gear to bury her with the dirt she had displaced. Then I used the foliage to camouflage her until she looked like a small mound and a natural part of the landscape.

    With that task done, I used dirt to darken my skin and clothes and foliage to camouflage myself as I had done with Scarlet. For once I missed my old combats. I climbed a high tree with my rifle. Then I sent all the intel I had collected to all three sides I had made deals with. Payments in shmuckers automagically entered my account. Finally, I ended turn and waited.

    I didn’t have to wait for very long. A Naughtyham archer mounted a sourmander entered the hex and started zig zagging along the terrain, clearly engaged in a search. A single unit was most definitely a scout and likely in contact via thinkagram with the Major. Easy to off but it would bring all Naughtyham units with enough move to this hex.

    We were lucky and the scout didn’t detect either of us. I tracked him in my scope the entire time he was in the hex. I was half hoping that he would get to close to one of us. His sourmander would be enough to feed Scarlet and if Wobin held to form, he would be carrying provisions.

    Not knowing how close to death he had been the entire time, the unit passed onto the next hex. I could still track him for a time from my high vantage and with my scope. Right until the time he tripped the trap and was impaled. Gruesomely, the sourmander immediately started eating the corpse.

    No doubt the Major was aware that one of their units had just croaked and which hex the croaking had occurred.

    Moments later, a stack of mounted archers were rushing through the hex and into the one where their comrade had fallen. I watched through my scope as they searched the hex methodically and found nothing else.

    They clustered in the middle of the hex for a moment. Then six of them split off, each going into a neighboring hex, including one doubling back into the hex I was in. Two remained in the neighboring hex they had just searched.

    I tracked the one that had re-entered my hex through the scope. Every few moments I switched back to the two in the neighboring hex or tried to find the ones who had entered two other bordering hexes.

    “Keep perfectly still, Scarlet.” I whispered and thought hard as the mounted archer in our hex got closer and closer to her. The sourmander was sniffing close to the edge of the mound when it’s rider suddenly looked south.

    My scope followed his gaze. The two riders who had been left in the neighboring hex were starting south. Apparently another of my traps had been found and the Major was directing all forces to converge.

    But that booped sourmander wouldn’t stop sniffing and getting closer to Scarlet. “Come on you boop.” I thought harshly. “Your buddy just got croaked. I’m obviously not in this hex.”

    The rider glanced in the direction of his fellows and seemed about ready to turn the sourmander around when suddenly the beast indicated in the direction of Scarlet.

    I didn’t think my bullet would stop him from alerting the Major. It would be just one less combatant I would have to deal with. He dropped off the sourmander and Scalet’s head emerged from the ground, snapping the sourmander in her jaws and drawing it to its death.

    The mounted archer to the west entered the hex first and I took his head off as soon as he did. An arrow imbedding itself in a tree right beside me alerted me to the enemy unit entering from the east. I took his head next. Then I shimmied down the tree as quick as I could and grabbed some ground before reloading.

    Unfortunately, the remaining units didn’t come at me in ones or twos like that. They regrouped in the hex where my first trap had went off while I cursed not being able to shoot them from where I was.

    Fortunately for me, they were an unled stack and Scarlet’s position was revealed to them. They had no choice but to engage her instead of looking for me. Alone, she might have been able to take five of them but the chances of one of them critting her was actually pretty good.

    Waiting until they passed so close it was nearly impossible to miss, I opened fire on them from my hidden position. Four of them dropped from my rifle rounds and the last one was knocked out of his saddle when I shot him in the face with my pistol. Scarlet fell upon the sourmanders with an eagerness that suggested to me that she had acquired a taste for them.

    So despite my best plans, Naughtyham would know where I was now and I could expect every available unit to converge on my position. Assuming I survived, that would make reporting their positions to Avon and Fail Wail that much easier.

    Quickly I concealed Scarlet as best as I could and then hid myself as well.

    The enemy didn’t leave me waiting for long. A new mounted stack entered the hex. This one was led by a warlord who was screened by a pair of knights. The other five were archers who spread out and started methodically searching the hex.

    It was nice of them to split up like that for me.

    Creeping along with my sword in hand, I got behind one of the archers. His sourmander must have heard me because it started turning around as I crept up on them but not fast enough. I swung my sword and took the archer’s head off first. I continued the blade on an upward arc before turning it point down and slamming it hard into the sourmander’s head. Then I faded back into the bush.

    One sourmander had Scarlet’s scent and was making a beeline for her. So I used my rifle to shoot it in the head. The sound echoed around the hex and the eyes of all the enemy units were turned to my direction but I was already running back into the thick of the forest. Arrows flew from bows but hit only wood. I was successful in drawing attention away from Scarlet’s location however.

    The three remaining archers stacked up and urged their sourmanders through the thickest of the wood. I led their mounts in a circle. By the time the riders realized that, I was behind them, blasting them rapidly with my pistol. Two of the sourmanders were shot down with the rounds I had left in the pistol but I didn’t have time to reload before the third was on me. Dropping the pistol, I ran it through with my sword.

    “Scarlet!” I yelled. “Attack!”

    The mighty red dragon burst from the ground and lunged for the three remaining mounted units who were charging my position. A gout of flame caught the nearest to her, frying knight and sourmander both.

    Pulling my rifle off my shoulder, I started firing at the remaining two. I knocked the warlord out of his saddle and put two solid holes in the chest of the other knight. Scarlet fell on the sourmanders, finishing them off in no time.

    As I approached, I could hear the warlord speaking.

    “…used signamancy to baffle the dragon and him…” was all I heard him say clearly before I drove my sword through his throat, severing his larynx and spine and ending any thought of further communication. Or any further thought at all, really.

    “Keep wary girl.” I ordered Scarlet as I recovered my pistol and what casings I could find. Soon night fell and I could breathe easy again.

    The first call was incoming, from the Major.

    “Justin.” She greeted, her lips pressed into a thin line.

    “Major.” I grinned at her. “You know where I am now but you won’t know where I am by the time your turn starts tomorrow. And you’re down at least two stacks you could ill afford to lose. Maybe more. Tell me, did that Warlady survive? Her stack was in the way of some Fail Wail stacks, as I faithfully reported this morning as per my agreement with Wobin.”

    “They found her. Killed her troops and took her prisoner.” The Major said, her poker face solidly in place.

    “Ah, too bad.” My face suggested it was anything but. “As always, Wobin tried to double deal me and as always, it cost him. Of course I expected it this time and as your warlord reported, I had some surprises waiting for your people.”

    “Yes you did.” The Major agreed. “In both intelligence gathering and combat, you have shown your prowess and value to a side. Wobin is furious at the losses but it means he can ill afford not to take advantage of the intelligence services you’re offering. I’m ready to review your proposed contract now.”

    “I was expecting that.” I sent it to her and then watched her face as she had read it. The advantage of having dealt with Fail Wails and Avon was that they both introduced me to clauses to protect themselves from me. I then used those clauses plus some of my own to protect against Wobin’s treachery.

    “You’ve been learning.” She remarked with a raised brow. “I’ll recommend he accept. Though I’m going to suggest that formal alliance be added to the conditions.”

    “Don’t waste your time.” I shook my head. “After today, there’s just no way. If I hadn’t had to deal with his boop, I might have considered it. Now? No, that ship has sailed.”

    “Are you sure you want to take all of this so personally? There’s no sense in burning bridges. Not even with Wobin.” The Major was stoic as usual.

    “If this gives you any clue as to my feelings on the subject, the prices on that contract are twice what they would have been last night.” I grimaced bitterly at her. “Given that this my freedom and my life and that of my friend, I can’t help but take it a little seriously.”

    “Would it help if I created a thinkamancy link with her? With your friend?” The Major asked, almost casually.

    That caught me off guard and for a moment it showed on my face before I caught myself. “Yes, I would like that. I won’t lower my prices but you need to start showing me that you might actually stick to our agreement when this is all over.”

    The view flipped and Tip’s face filled my screen. “Justin! They wouldn’t let me thinkagram you on my own but I’m glad to see you.”

    “Tip.” I smiled at her. “Are you okay? Are the treating you okay?”

    “I’m not hurt and they’re feeding me. They gave me the nicest cell in the dungeon. With only one bunk and I don’t have to share it. Even with the rats. They’re giving me the same provisions they give the soldiers. And the Major brings me books and a candle to read them with.” After blurting all that out, she took a deep breath and then went on. “They tell me you croaked two whole stacks of their units! I told you that I didn’t want you resorting to violence to protect me unless absolutely necessary!”

    I sighed. This was a more sophisticated HUMINT tactic than I was expecting from Wobin’s people. It was probably the Major’s doing at a guess though. “It was necessary, Tip. Besides, I’m not protecting you at the moment. You’re not in my care so I can’t protect you. I’m protecting myself and I’m working on rescuing you or securing your release. So I’m not bound by our pinky swear right now.”

    “Technicalities!” She yelled and then backed away from the screen a bit and crossed her arms across her chest, affecting a look of stubborn petulance.

    “I have books too.” I said in an attempt to change the subject. “I have some things to do but if the Major will allow it, when I’m done I’ll call back and read one of them to you if you like.”

    “Is it a book from your world?” The Major’s voice asked off screen, sounding interested.

    “What does she mean, your world?” Tip asked.

    “Well, I wasn’t really popped in this world.” I admitted to Tip. “I’m from another world and just sort of stumbled into this one. Like crossing a hex boundary off turn. It’s supposed to be impossible but somehow I managed it.”

    “You’re always trying to find ways around rules.” She looked disapproving. “But I would be interested in hearing a story from where you’re from.”

    “As would I.” The Major agreed. “Do whatever you have to do while I take the contract to Wobin. Gram me when you’re ready.”

    “Will do.” I agreed. “I’ll see you again soon, Tip.”

    “Okay! Bye!” She waved, having forgotten that she was cross with me.

    I didn’t have a whole lot to do. I butchered the remains of a few sourmanders that Scarlet hadn’t completely devoured and I also contacted both Moregains and Pentagram to confirm they would like to continue to pay for my services for another turn. They each agreed to the terms I sent them. Those conversations also filled me in on the natural order of turns. It was me, then Fail Wail, then finally Avon and Naughtyham.

    When that was all done, I searched the library on my phone. I didn’t know how many public domain stories I had downloaded into it. Maybe hundreds. But there was on in particular that I wanted. Once I found it, I called the Major.

    “Hello Justin.” She seemed to be a bit more relaxed. “I’m sending you Wobin’s signed contract.”

    I reviewed it to ensure there were no changes. Everything checked out. “Alright. We have an accord.” I hit accept and then checked to ensure the shmuckers from today's intelligence were deposited. They were.

    “Alright, who’s ready for a story?” I asked.

    The image moved and showed Tip’s face. “I am!”

    “Alright.” Her enthusiasm was infectious. “I think you’ll really like this one, Tip. Especially the heroine.”

    “The hero is a girl?” She sounded excited. “What are you waiting for, read!”

    I cleared my throat and began. “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry…”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Tue Mar 15, 2016 1:39 am, edited 2 times in total.
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    Shall We Play a Game?

    (Is it real or is it a game?)

    Part Eight

    Side by Side...

    (We Will Cross that Great Divide)

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

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

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

    <3 Archons, Charlescomm (Allied Fail Wail)>.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes, I remember.” I nodded my head.

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

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

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

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

    The Major nodded slightly, once.

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

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

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

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

    A nod.

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

    Again a nod.

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

    The Major shook her head in the negative.

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

    Again she shook her head no.

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

    She said and did nothing at all.

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

    The Major nodded.

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

    She looked relieved and nodded. “Yes.”

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

    “Yes.” Came her confident reply.

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

    She shook her head. “No.”

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

    “No.” She looked quizzical.

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

    Slowly the Major nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “That should keep them guessing, Major.”

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

    Not long after that, Avon’s turn ended and Naughtyham’s began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I just didn’t want to.

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

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

    It was a note.

    Justin,

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


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

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

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

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

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

    “Well, technically true.” She agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Scarlet snorted and black smoke spilled out of her nostrils.

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

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

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

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

    Things went black after that.

    + + +

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

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

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

    We made them pay in their blood.

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

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

    “Sgt Case! Sgt Case!”


    + + +

    “Justin! Justin! Wake up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Tue Mar 15, 2016 6:28 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Nine

    It’s a Long Way to Tipperary


    It took less than half of Scarlet’s move to reach Naughtyham. Once we made it over the city, I set us to alliance with them and then directed Scarlet to land.

    Wobin was there to meet me flanked by his Chief Warlord (who he was calling Little John) and the Major. Every archer in the city was on the walls. They had been tracking Scarlet and I with bows drawn right up until we had formed alliance. Even now they were watching us warily. Every stack of infantry was also in the court yard.

    “Well Justin, it seems you came back here after all.” He looked smug. “Not going to try anything like toss me through the portal again, are you?”

    “The turn’s young…” I said as I loomed over him.

    “Justin!” Tip yelled her protest and put her fists on her hips to show she meant business.

    “I’m not going to throw you through the portal.” I sighed after I said it. “We’re here to help you fight Fail Wail. We’ll honor our promises and the contract of alliance.”

    His eyes shifted between Tip and I a couple of times and then he seemed to finally relax. “I’d still rather have you on my side but I’m not going to force that issue anymore. I can’t afford to have any more enemies. I can’t afford much of anything right now. Did you do any scouting before coming here?”

    “No. Though we did manage to destroy the enemy units in the neighboring hex. So you won’t have to worry about them at least.”

    “You did? Must have been some fight.” He raised his brows as he looked between us again.

    Tip was looking at the ground and her face was clouding over.

    “I’d rather not discuss the fight at the moment. Suffice it to say that the oil that the Major sent was put to use.” I put a reassuring hand on Tip’s shoulder.

    Wobin shrugged. “Well, whatever. There will be plenty enough enemy forces to deal with today anyway, without them joining the party. Based on your own intel and the losses we suffered, we think they plan to swarm us with flying units this turn in hopes of overwhelming our defenses while their cavalry, siege and infantry push against Avon.” He turned and started walking towards the keep.

    “Do you have a plan to meet them?” I asked as I fell in step beside him.

    “When I got your intel report yesterday, I started calling back every unit that was in the field. Well any unit that wasn’t croaked in action, anyway. We’ve got the tower loaded with defenses and juice. Plus I’ve had Andy making dollamancy accessories since shortly after you left. And we some more golems that I’ve been holding in reserve. And I’ve sent every spare shmucker and gem I’ve got to the Magic Kingdom with Warshmuckers to hire barbarians and to buy scrolls with. He’ll be back shortly. Hopefully he’ll be back before Fail Wail’s move brings them to our gates.” Wobin was walking briskly as he talked, looking haggard and strained.

    “I’m going to put you and Tip in the tower. You’ll have a good vantage to control your dwagon from plus you can use those weird shockamancy weapons or whatever they are from there as well.” We entered the tower and started climbing stairs.

    “Where will you be?” I asked.

    “I’ll be in the tower as well, directing the battle.” He replied non-chalantly. “This is an all or nothing fight and I can still use a bow. Every arrow will count and mine fly truer than most. I’ve chosen a stack of our best archers to form a stack with me. I’m going to stack archers with both you and Tip, so they can benefit from your leadership bonuses. Combined with the chief warlord, there will be four stacks of archers up there with us plus all three of our casters.”

    “You know that Tip won’t fight, right?” I asked him, sparing her a glance over my shoulder. She was still looking miserable.

    “Maybe, maybe not but either way she can lend her leadership bonus to my men.” Then he shrugged. “Maybe she’ll be a bit more proactive when her life is directly threatened by the enemy.”

    “They’re going to try and croak us, aren’t they?” Tip asked as we walked out onto the top of the tower.

    “They are.” I agreed. “They’re the enemy and they’re going to try hard to croak Wobin, the Major and every unit in this side. And they’re going to try and croak Scarlet, you and me as well. Our job is to do everything in our power to stop that.”

    “It would be better if they would just talk to us.” She said as she examined the sky. “We might be able to avoid all of this then.”

    “None of us have any way to make them stop or to make them listen.” I pointed out to her, not especially enjoying it. “I don’t think anyone really enjoys fighting. Or maybe some do. But I don’t. Sometimes it’s necessary. Like when someone attacks you. Or your friends.”

    “You said you weren’t friends with Wobin.” Tip pointed out, causing Wobin to snort.

    “He’s not.” I agreed. “He is however my ally. We’re in this fight together so I’ll do my best to protect him and hope he does his best to protect me. When you’re in a battle, politics often become unimportant. What becomes important is the person you’re fighting beside. Because it’s the only chance you have of surviving it and hopefully helping some others survive it too.”

    “That’s all they’re doing too though, right?” Tip asked as she looked back at me. “They’re just trying to survive the fighting too.”

    “That’s right.” I agreed and then raised my voice in Wobin’s direction. “Which is why we do not summarily execute prisoners.”

    “It’s better to try and turn them.” The Major added to the conversation, surprising me a bit. "Or sometimes trade them for prisoners the enemy has taken.”

    Warshmuckers finished climbing the stairs, followed by Andy. “I got scrolls.” He said. “No barbarian casters though. Everyone’s up in a tizzy over some nonsense. They’re saying a Warlord entered the Magic Kingdom. Can you imagine? A warlord? In the Magic Kingdom?” He shook his head disbelievingly.

    I glanced over my shoulder at him. “What would be so wrong with that?”

    “Only casters are allowed in the Magic Kingdom. Well, only casters can even get to the Magic Kingdom. Anyone else disbands when they hit the portal. But more than that the Magic Kingdom is neutral territory. No fighting allowed. And what else is a warlord good for if not for fighting?” Then sheepishly he added. “No offense.”

    “None taken.” I squared my shoulders. “I’m not a warlord. I’m a heavy with the leadership and signamancy specials.”

    “Might be an interesting way to test if you are a caster or have potential caster though.” The Major said thoughtfully. “If you’re willing to risk disbandment, that is.”

    “I’ll pass, thanks.” I said with a grimace.

    “Heads up people.” Wobin announced with authority. “Our guests are starting to arrive.”

    Black Hawk’s were arriving in every hex surrounding the city. One per hex. Each Black Hawk had a stack of archers on it’s back, ready for air to air combat. In three of the neighboring hexes they were joined by stacks of knights on broom sticks and flying monkeys. On the ground, knights on sourmanders rode into the three hexes with the largest troop concentrations.

    “Andy, launch the Iron Eagles.” Wobin commanded.

    With a mental command, Andy summoned his newest golem creations from hidden locations all over the city. Dozens of steel eagles took to wing around the tower. They were about the size of bald eagles and their claws looked rather like knives.

    More traditional stuffed golems joined stabbers and pikers in the courtyard. All the troops had armor and weapons that were upgrades from the ones they had been popped with. Andy had been busy and Wobin had been holding his work back until needed.

    “There’s a lot more than I would have guessed.” Admiration crept into my voice as I watched the units form up and get ready for battle.

    “I formed a link between Andy and Warshmuckers to reduce the cost of Andy’s dollamancy.” The Major explained with a slightly smug look. “Those spider units were my idea.”

    My eyes followed where she was indicating. Four blue and white metal golems each with six legs and a large hump rolled into the courtyard before they started climbing the walls to find places on the battlements. I nearly had a nerdgasm watching the Tachikomas in action.

    “Expensive units.” Wobin told me after noting my interest. “Even after the caster link. I hope they show their worth today.”

    “I’m hoping they will be a decent counter to the Spidews that Fail Wail sometimes deploys.” The Major said, still looking a tad smug.

    “One on one, it’s no question.” Andy said, confident in his work. “The question will be whether or not they’re worth it, shmucker for shmucker.”

    As if on cue, spidews started appearing with the other massed enemy troops. “Looks like you’re going to find out.” I gave my rifle one last once over before taking up a firing position behind the towers castellation. My stack of archers fell in beside me on my left.

    Tip joined me to might right and her archers fell in beside her.

    “Stay near me.” I said quietly to her. “I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”

    She looked up at me and nodded. “I know you will.” Then she looked out to the hex boundary and whispered. “I just hope I will be able to as well.”

    At an unseen signal, the enemy fliers started across the boundary. Archers engaged and Iron Eagles swept in to meet them.

    “Hold off on the tower.” Wobin commanded. “Wait until they commit the Black Hawks.”

    Spidews started up the walls and where they weren’t taken down by archers, they were met by Tachikomas.

    Knights sped into the hex on their brooms and dive bombed archer units, knocking them down by the ones, twos and threes with their lances.

    “Burn their brooms, girl.” I ordered Scarlet.

    She swept into the battle, burning brooms as she went. Knights fell and most died when they landed. The others were dispatched by waiting pikers and stabbers.

    Finally the Black Hawks entered the airspace and seemed to be focused on engaging Scarlet. The protected each other’s flanks, making her earlier tactics of attacking from the bottom less effective. Black Hawk archers that didn’t have a line of sight with Scarlet were engaging Naughtyham archers on the walls and raining arrows down onto units in the courtyard.

    Wobin tsked. “Didn’t even attempt a parley. They either have nothing but contempt for us or have no intention of showing any quarter or both.”

    “Scarlet!” I yelled over the din of battle, “Back to the tower!” In my mind I envisioned her circling around and below us, with the Black Hawk’s following her.

    The first couple Black Hawks did follow her closer to the tower where the casters started raining shockamancy attacks on them. They were forced to the ground where cloth golems finished them and their riders off.

    Scarlet banked away from the tower and lunged at another Black Hawk, catching some tail feathers in her jaw. Unfortunately, it left her exposed to her targets wingman. The second Black Hawk raked it’s claws viciously across Scarlet’s hide.

    “Scarlet!” I yelled. Then I remembered the Rifle in my hand and started picking off archers from the backs of the Black Hawks.

    While hurt, Scarlet rallied and turned the second Black Hawk into blackened Cajun chicken. None of its archer’s survived the crash to the ground.

    On the walls, the Tachikomas were being swarmed by spidews. One had already been dislodged and fell into the courtyard, crushing a few stabbers in the process. Wobin frowned as he counted the costs in his head.

    The same story was unfolding all over. Sheer numbers were overcoming our best defenses. Scarlet was doing her best to engage the remaining Black Hawks but wasn’t managing to outmaneuver them. Iron Eagles were being knocked out of the sky by flying monkeys and broom riding knights. Expensive units from both sides were starting to litter the courtyard.

    “Bring all our fliers in close to the walls or the tower!” Wobin ordered.

    This allowed archers on the walls and casters on the tower to more effectively engage. It also forced enemy units to pay more attention to the more common and less expensive archery units. Archer’s took down one Black Hawk while the casters use shockamancy to bring down another. One on one with the last, Scarlet proved her superiority by opening it up from beak to tail feather with her claws.

    Unfortunately, Scarlet herself was impaled on a knight’s lance and plummeted to the ground, crushing an unfortunate stack of pikers. She was alive but only barely and incapacitated.

    “Scarlet!” This time it was Tip who was screaming her name. “Get those monkeys away from her!” At her order, her stack of archers volleyed and brought down some flying monkeys who were threatening to swoop in and finish the job.

    “Do you have a healomancy scroll?” I asked Warshmuckers over my shoulder between firing shots at enemy units with my rifle. I would very soon be out of ammo for it and would have to switch to the much closer range pistol or perhaps my bow.

    “Seems like waste of a scroll.” He replied, unsure.

    I turned my head to the other side to yell, “Wobin, tell him to get down there and heal Scarlet! She’s the biggest and most powerful unit on our side right now!”

    Wobin nodded. “Do it.” Then he let go with another arrow which unerringly found its mark.

    “I’m out of juice!” Andy announced.

    “Get to the portal.” Wobin commanded. “You’ve done all you can here, boy.”

    The order caused me to shoot Wobin a sidelong glance. Maybe he wasn’t all bad. Didn’t make him good mind you, just not all bad.

    Andy fled the tower. One by one, our archers were being downed by enemy units. Most of our stabbers and pikers were fine but this battle wouldn’t be won or lost on the ground.

    “Wobin, you should maybe withdraw to inside the tower.” I advised. “We have plenty of stabbers and pikers left. If the enemy overcomes our defenses here, we can force them to come after you on foot, where you’ll be screened by the bulk of our remaining forces.”

    “I’ll stay where my bow and my bonus will do the most good for as long as they’re doing good.” He said stubbornly. “Besides, I don’t think that will be necessary. If we can hold until Warshmuckers can heal Scarlet, then she’ll easily be able to clean up the enemy units left in our airspace. Thank the Titans you took the initiative and took out that hex last turn. Those units would have tipped this battle against us for sure. If we survive this, we’ll all owe you our lives.”

    I fired the last round from my rifle and switched to my bow, for which I had ample arrows. “Tip, you and your remaining archers join my stack. I could use your leadership bonus and between the two of us we’ll form a full stack again.”

    Tip nodded and suddenly I was much more accurate with the bow than I had been.

    “Veiled units inbound!” The Major yelled suddenly. “Tip, blow their veils if you can.”

    With grim determination, Tip nodded. Her silver eyes flashed and suddenly I could see new units entering the hex.

    From three different adjacent hexes came three trios of archons dressed in blue for a total of nine.

    “Archons!” Wobin bellowed. “All units, focus fire on them!”

    One of the Archons was already acting, piercing Warshmuckers through the chest with a bolt of energy from her fingertips. She looked like a child pretending that her hands were a pistol. The others were flying for the tower, looping and weaving through the air to make them harder to hit.

    Wobin and I started shooting arrows into them like men possessed. Each one took about three arrows to knock out the sky. We each downed two.

    The Major expended use the last spells on the tower to down another three. “I’m out of juice.”

    “Get to the portal.” Wobin commanded between shots and she immediately complied.

    “Wobin, get yourself below too.” I yelled as other archers took down two more of the Archons.

    “You’re not my chief warlord.” He laughed as he lined up a shot to take down one more Archon. “You can’t order me around!”

    “Overlord, get…” A lance of light shot from an Archon’s finger cut off the last words of Wobin’s chief warlord.

    “Maybe I should.” Wobin started backing away from the edge of the tower’s castellation’s.

    Tip was tracking the last of the archons with her fingers. Several times she seemed to have her opponent dead to rights but no light came from Tip’s fingers.

    “Shoot her Tip!” I fired an arrow into the archon’s shoulder and Wobin did likewise before turning to run for the stairs.

    My next shot missed and Tip still seemed frozen.

    The archon lined up her shot and scored a direct hit on Wobin, putting a smoking hole right through his chest. Then she turned on me.

    She never got her next shot off as I put an arrow through her neck and the remaining archers also assisted in creating her pin cushion cosplay costume. Then she landed with a thump on the ground beside me.

    More spidews and flying monkeys entered the city. Only the archers on the tower with us had leadership. The pikers and stabbers and wall archers were all on auto-engage mode. As barbarians, Tip and I could only apply our leadership to allied units stacked directly with us.

    The rest of the battle was a meat grinder as units from both sides threw themselves at each other in an orgy of chaotic violence. One by one every remaining Naughtyham unit fell to the enemy, even our stacked archers until it was only Tip and me left on the tower and I was out of arrows.

    I drew my pistol and used it to kill the last of Fail Wail’s flying monkeys. “That’s the last of them, I think.”

    “We’re the only units left in the battle space.” Tip marvelled then brightened. “Scarlet’s still incapacitated but alive!”

    I bolted for the door and then ran down the stairs before bursting out into the courtyard. I paused only to snatch up the scroll that was still in Warschmucker’s hand. “Sorry buddy, but Scarlet still needs this.”

    Opening it up, I stared at it. At first it didn’t make any sense. But as I stared the more I realized that it was like one of those games I used to play as a kid where you had to figure out what a sentence was when words were swapped out for objects. In this case, some of the objects were band name logo’s.

    “Bayer, Aspirin, Thermometer! Band-Aid, Antidote, Temperature! Miracle Cure!”

    Scarlet’s eyes opened and she stood up, shaking off the gore of other units.

    “How you feeling, girl?” I asked her, smiling and crying at the same time. “All better?”

    She licked my face.

    I wrapped my arms around her neck. “I’ll take that as a yes!”

    The city suddenly shifted. The walls around me changed shape and the livery was altered. And there was a message alarm coming from my phone.

    <New Alliance: Tipperary>

    Dark Emerald green banners were now being flown.

    “Where’s Tip?” I asked Scarlet as if she’d know.

    She pointed her nose in the direction of the fortress.

    “What has that girl done?” I shook my head, “Scarlet, get airborne. Watch for enemy units. Engage anything from Fail Wail that enters the hex.” Then I ran back the way I had come.

    Tip was sitting on the throne. Her hair was now dark brown but still curly. Her rags were gone, replaced by an elegant green dress. On her head was a crown and there was a scepter in her hands. “Justin!” She smiled at me as I entered the room. “I’m a queen!”

    I quickly reviewed the tactical situation in my mind.

    I was allied to a single city side which had a single unit. That single unit was unwilling or unable to engage in direct combat. The side was situated between two much stronger sides that were at war with each other and had no reason to necessarily ally with this new side.

    Yeah, that about covered it.

    There was only one thing to be said about a FUBAR situation like that. Only one thing that could be said.

    “Well fuck…”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?


    Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Tue Mar 15, 2016 6:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Ten

    Her Majesty’s Warlord


    “I formally ask you to join my side.” Queen Tip said with a broad smile.

    I ignored the request. “Tip, what the hell were you thinking? You’ve just painted a giant bullseye on your ass in the middle of a warzone!” In my outrage, I was only vaguely aware that I had suddenly regained the ability to swear.

    Tip looked hurt. “I was popped to rule, Justin. I understand now why you fight, even if you don’t always like it. It’s what you were popped for. I understand that about you now. And I was popped for this, won’t you please understand that?”

    “Okay… okay.” I held up my hands. “Let’s say for a moment that’s true and you were popped to rule. Fair enough. But do you really have to rule this place at this time?”

    “Did you have to get me to burn the units in that hex at that place and that time?” She asked bitterly and then continued before I had a chance to answer. “Yes, you did. If you hadn’t then we would have croaked here this turn. And because we are alive here on this turn, I can now rule this city. It was fated.”

    Fate was supposedly a thing here in Erf. As in it was an actual power that influenced people and events. It was the whole shtick behind a whole class of casters called predictamancers. I didn’t want any truck with it.

    “You can’t know that.” I objected.

    “It happened, therefore I know it.” She said smugly.

    “Then it’s your fate to be doomed!” There was naked desperation in my voice as I pleaded with her to see common sense. “You’re a single unit in a single city side in the middle of a war zone. A strong breeze could conquer you right now.”

    “I know that.” She stood up. “That’s why I want you to turn to my side. Scarlet will turn with you and we’ll be three units.”

    “Three units can’t hold this city!” I spread my arms to encompass the room and all beyond it.

    “I’ll pop more on my turn.” She explained. “And I’ll thinkagram the Major and Andy. If they turn, then we’ll be a side of five units. Plus whatever I pop on my turn.”

    “You’re assuming that Avon will leave you alone.” Shaking my head, I pulled out my phone. “I’ll call the Major. Maybe she’ll be able to talk some sense into you.”

    “Justin, you’re alive!” For once the Major wasn’t wearing her poker face. Andy stood behind her, peering over her shoulder. “We were worried when the portal disappeared and then reappeared.”

    “Tip has claimed the city and formed a side.” My voice and my face conveyed my feelings on that.

    “We’ll be right there.” The screen went blank.

    “Avon has started their turn.” Tip noted. “I shall have to thinkagram their king soon and form an alliance.”

    “Why form an alliance with Avon?” I challenged her. “Why form an alliance at all?”

    “Because I am a single unit in a single city side.” She pointed out, echoing my own words. “And I like Avon’s signamancy better than I do Fail Wail’s.

    “You haven’t turned even to Tip’s side?” The Major asked when she walked in, Andy hot on her heels.

    “Major! Andy! I formally request…”

    “I turn.”

    “I turn.”

    “…that you both turn to my side.” Tip smiled at them both. “Welcome!”

    Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. “That was fast.”

    “Neither of us had shmuckers or rands. Maybe we could have earned or secured some by turn’s end but why risk it? Belonging to a side brings security.” The Major looked me over.

    “I would have lent you whatever you needed.” I said defiantly.

    “Yes, I believe you would have. But for how long? You have yourself and a dwagon to worry about. You may have soaked Wobin for a lot of shmuckers and can afford to be generous now, but what about five turns from now? Ten? A hundred?” The Major shook her head. “I don’t understand why you’d rather be a barbarian than know where your next meal was going to pop from.”

    “How can you be worried about five turns from now when you’ve just joined a side that may not be here next turn?” I demanded.

    “We’ll make an alliance with Avon. They’ll be able to send troops to help us this turn. They’ll demand shmuckers and that we pop units to help in their fight but they are the stronger side. They’ll win and we’ll have their protection and gratitude. Besides, Tip is a royal and the King of Avon will respect that.” The Major walked over to Tip and bowed. “I would send the thinkagram now your majesty but I lack the juice.”

    “It’s okay. I have enough to spare.” Tip smiled at the Major and then sat down again. “Will you not reconsider joining my side, Justin? I need a chief warlord, especially if my fate is as dire as you predict.”

    I clenched my fists. “I won’t abandon you to your fate, Tip. I’ll remain your ally and fight for you. But only because I choose to.”

    Andy got in my face suddenly. “That’s your majesty, to you.”

    “Easy Andy.” Tip said soothingly. “Justin has always called me Tip and he may always call me so. He has just promised to fight for me as an ally and friend. Even though he thinks we’re doomed. That is a higher sign of respect and fealty than remembering a title he has no real duty to use.”

    “As you wish, your majesty.” Andy backed down and joined Tip and the Major on the dais.

    “He may fight for you but your side won’t benefit as much from his leadership bonus. It’ll take a long time to get a newly popped warlord’s level to his.” The Major pointed out. “He is your friend and ally of course, but he is not doing all for your side that he could be.”

    “There must be a solution to this dilemma.” Tip’s face fell into a pout as she considered the issue.

    “I wonder if I could offer my services as chief warlord and assume the position without joining the side?” Despite myself, I felt compelled to try and help Tip. Maybe this was a compromise that could work. “If we use a contract to automatically transfer my leadership bonus, maybe?”

    “I don’t know.” The Major looked doubtful.

    Tip clapped her hands together. “We’ll find a way to make it work. Major, I’ll ask you to work with Justin on this. And in the meantime, I want you both to treat him as my chief warlord and ensure other units do too.”

    Both bowed their heads but only the Major spoke. “As you command, your majesty.”

    Because of course while she might word it as “I’ll ask” or “I want”, both meant the exact same thing. “You will.”

    “Now I need to contact the King of Avon.” Tip smiled and her eyes glittered. “I’m looking forward to this.” Then she squared her fingers in front of her face.

    “King of Avon here.” The King’s image appeared between her fingers. “To whom am I speaking?”

    “Greetings your Majesty. I am Queen Tip of Tipperary, a newly formed side where Naughtyham once stood.” She looked sad, “Regrettably they were wiped out on Fail Wail’s turn. Only the Major and Andy survived by going to the Magic Kingdom. However the barbarian warlord Justin and I were able to hold out against the Fail Wail forces. As I am a royal heir, I was able to claim the site as mine when the fighting was over. I understand that Naughtyham had an alliance with your side and we would like to negotiate such with you as well.”

    “Are the Major and Andy still in the Magic Kingdom?” The king asked her.

    “No, they came back and have joined my side.” She answered, looking sweet as candy.

    “So it’s just you, two casters, a warlord and a dwagon?” The king asked, appraising the situation correctly.

    “Yes, your Majesty.” Queen Tip confirmed. “Which is why we are seeking an alliance. We need protection from Fail Wail.”

    “I do owe you a debt of gratitude for keeping that city out of the hands of Moregains.” He acknowledged. “They committed every flying unit they had to that siege. So you not only kept the city out of her hands, you’ve helped create a strategic weakness for her.” His smile grew. “And while you’re not one of my progeny, you are at least a royal.”

    Stepping around behind Tip, I asked, “Is that important, your majesty? Wobin wasn’t a royal but you had an alliance with him.”

    “That alliance was out of necessity for both of us. He was of unsavory character, unlike your queen here. Moregains founded a non-royal side, betraying me in the process. She can’t be allowed to rule. It’s a mockery of the Titan’s plan.”

    “Of course, pardon my ignorance.” I bowed my head.

    Queen Tip looked apologetic. “He’s not a good courtier, your majesty but he is an excellent warlord.”

    The King graciously inclined his head. “So long as you are satisfied with the quality of his service to you in the role that the Titan’s popped him for.”

    I stepped ‘off screen’ so he couldn’t see me roll my eyes.

    “Oh, I am.” The Queen assured him. “But I’m afraid he can’t properly serve that role for me as I have no army for him to command.”

    “You shall need one.” He said sagely. “Not a large one perhaps but a good one nonetheless. I’ll send some forces I have in the area to your location to protect your city until you can pop an army of your own. Of course since that will detract from my war effort, I beg that you’ll understand that I am in the rather crass position of having to request compensation for such protection.”

    “It is only fair and just that we repay your generosity, you majesty.” Tip acknowledged graciously. “Though I’m afraid the city treasury is currently empty. I could provide provisions to your men right away but I couldn’t afford their upkeep until next turn.”

    I cleared my throat as I pulled my phone out. “I may actually be able to help with that, Tip.” Then I showed her the balance.

    Her eyes widened slightly. Then she addressed King Patrick again. “I have just learned that my chief warlord has enough in his purse to afford the upkeep on a reasonable number of units. So long as they are provided with provisions.”

    “Actually, depending on how your stores are doing, you may be able to pay in provisions rather than shmuckers.” The king explained. “The army is starting to move beyond our territory and where we can easily resupply them. If they can start drawing provisions from your stores, it will save my treasury.”

    “Wobin kept his larders full and most his units were good at foraging and hunting. Our farms were always quite productive and he made a point of raiding enemy provision trains.” The Major advised her queen. “Given that we will have very few units for some time, this is something we can definitely support.”

    Tip nodded her agreement. “We would be happy to provide for your army, within our capacity to do so.”

    “Looking to the future, when you have popped an army of sufficient size, I will of course withdraw my forces from your territory. If you continue to send us provisions and send some troops with us to season your newly popped forces by participating in the campaign against Fail Wail, then I promise to be generous with the spoils. As much as a third of the enemy’s cities and treasury. Once you start contributing fully, that is.”

    “Your majesty is very kind.” Queen Tip said with a bright smile. “It is certainly an opportunity worthy of consideration. Perhaps we could create a short term contract to discuss our immediate issues and over the duration of that first contract, work out the details of the second?”

    The King gave a respectful nod. “A wise suggestion and I concur. Though there is one more issue in the immediate short term I would like to discuss with you. I would like to have the services of your thinkamancer and dollamancer. I would have your thinkamancer relay messages for me. As you can perform thinkagrams yourself, you should be able to spare her. I would also like to have your dollamancer producing accessories for my army. I understand you need to build your defenses so I propose he make one golem for you per turn and his spare juice be used for accessories for my troops.”

    “Also,” the king continued, “I would like the use of your chief warlord and his dwagon starting next turn to be deployed immediately against Fail Wail.”

    For the first time, Tip looked hesitant and even reluctant. Part of it was probably because she knew she couldn’t actually order me to go, so she had to hope I might acquiesce to her request. More was revealed in her response. “I do not wish to be deprived of his service. Perhaps I am being silly but I would be more comfortable and feel more secure if he was here with me.”

    “He’s a valuable unit in the field.” The King contended, his face suggesting that he intended to be stubborn about this point. “He will be a great aid to us in the battles to come.”

    I stepped back into view. “If we are contributing all we are able, and given that you have asked for service from all of my queen’s currently popped units in your campaign, then it is only fair that shares of the plunder be granted to her side starting immediately.”

    “That is not an unreasonable request.” King Patrick conceded before turning his gaze back to Queen Tip. “Would your majesty consider perhaps ten percent to be fair?”

    “A third.” I said immediately. “You’re gaining the services of two casters and a heavy warlord unit who commands a dwagon. While this doesn’t represent a third of your total forces, the hardship on our side is quite high and the rewards must be consummate with that fact.”

    Slowly and reluctantly he made another offer. “I think your majesty would be well compensated with twenty-five percent of the plunder given that the four units’ services are reasonably valuable.”

    “Don’t accept less than one third, Tip.” I advised sternly. “You can hardly afford to give up the service of one of us, much less all of us.”

    Queen Tip looked apologetic. “I’m afraid my chief warlord has just given me a tactical order, your majesty. Duty compels me, I’m afraid…”

    Chief Warlords could command their rulers on tactical matters? That was news to me. Though I wasn’t technically her chief warlord so she was bluffing. Her natural charm created an impenetrable poker face that even I didn’t see any cracks in.

    King Patrick sighed. “The Titans give them that ability for our own good, as irksome as it may occasionally be.” Then he smiled. “Very well, you will be rewarded one third of the plunder. Captured provisions and shmuckers will be credited to you however and repaid at the end of the conflict. Every third enemy city captured will be ceded to you immediately however, with the option to trade cities for those closer to your capital. Does this sound fair to you and your warlord?”

    Tip glanced up at me and I nodded. “We believe it is a fair arrangement. We look forward to reviewing a contract of alliance from you.”

    “Perhaps you could compose the contract?” The king suggested. “I do have a turn to manage. I’ll review it and hopefully sign it this evening.”

    “Very well. I’ll have my thinkamancer and chief warlord work on it.” Queen Tip bowed her head respectfully and the connection was broken.

    “Well, Chief Warlord.” The Major addressed me formally. “Which project shall we work on first? Ironing out the alliance with Avon or trying to see if we can use your signamancy special to match your abilities and bonuses to your responsibilities as chief warlord?”

    “I think that the alliance agreement we discussed with King Patrick is hinged somewhat on me being the chief warlord of this side. Therefore making that reality somehow should take precedence.”

    “I agree.” Queen Tip declared and stood up. “A side needs a chief warlord.”

    After what seemed like hours of discussion between the three of us, the contract I signed appeared something similar to but not exactly like this:

    Contract of Employment:
    Position: Chief Warlord of Tipperary.
    Client: Queen Tip of Tipperary.
    Service Provider: Justin Case, Barbarian.
    Services to be Provided:

    The Barbarian known as Justin Case, henceforth referred to as the Chief Warlord shall provide services and bonuses to the Side of Tipperary and Queen Tip of same, henceforth known as the client, consummate with those of a normally appointed Chief Warlord. These are to include:

    1. Providing his leadership bonus as a chief warlord bonus to the client automagically for so long as he is so employed.
    2. Provide sound tactical and strategic council to the client whether asked for such or not.
    3. To command all the forces of the client with the best interests of the client in mind.
    4. To give orders to all forces of the clients with the best interests of the client in mind.
    5. To defend the client to the best of the chief warlord’s ability.
    6. To lead campaigns as directed by the client.
    7. To command battles as directed by the client or required due to enemy invasion.
    8. To be vigilante to threats to the client and to be at all times prepared to counter them to the best of the chief warlord’s ability.
    9. To follow the strategic orders of the client, except where such orders are against the best interests of the client or go against the morals, ethics and values of the chief warlord.
    10. To train and develop the forces of the client to the best of the chief warlord’s ability.
    11. To work with and when necessary command the casters for the defense and betterment of the client.
    12. To continue reading to the client except when the duty of either demands they do something else or if either party is otherwise unable to communicate with the other.
    13. To honor the agreements, alliances and treaties of the client.
    14. To perform whatever other duties and assignments that the client may require excepting when they might be a detriment to the client or run contrary to the ethics, values and morals of the chief warlord.
    15. To remain the friend of the client at all times.

    In order to perform his duties as chief warlord, the chief warlord shall be granted all the powers, privileges and abilities of a side’s chief warlord, granted automagically upon acceptance of the contract. In addition, the client promises the following to the chief warlord.

    1. The client shall obey any and all commands of the chief warlord that are of a tactical or strategic nature so long as they are for the good of the client and her side.
    2. The client shall obey any and all commands of the chief warlord that are for the good of the side.
    3. The client shall not attempt to disband, croak or otherwise attempt to end the chief warlord’s existence so long as this contract is in effect unless the chief warlord has committed or attempted to commit treason.
    4. Notwithstanding the above, the chief warlord shall not hold the client responsible for the actions of rogue units or unauthorized actions by units of the client’s side.
    5. The client shall provide the chief warlord’s full daily upkeep in shmuckers or both provisions and shmuckers as is convenient to the client.
    6. The client shall make every effort to ensure that the chief warlord receive healing should they need it. This includes purchasing healing scrolls or hiring a healomancer as required.
    7. Every seventh turn of employment, the chief warlord shall be paid in shmuckers one full day’s upkeep. This is in addition to the chief warlord’s daily upkeep.
    8. Every turn of employment that the chief warlord engages in direct combat, the client shall pay him a ‘danger pay’ in shmuckers equal one half his daily upkeep at the time of the engagement. This is in addition to the chief warlord’s daily upkeep.
    9. The chief warlord may hire up to seven barbarians of any kind at his discretion. The barbarian’s upkeep shall be paid or provided for by the client in shmuckers or a combination of provisions and shmuckers. The client reserves the right to dismiss any of these barbarians for any reason. If the chief warlord wishes to continue the employment of dismissed barbarians, he must pay their upkeep out of his own purse. The chief warlord shall be responsible for the actions of these barbarians at all times.
    10. The chief warlord may give any command to any unit he deems necessary in the executions of his duty as chief warlord.
    11. The chief warlord shall be automagically granted full rights, abilities and privileges of a chief warlord.
    12. No attempt by the client, the client’s allies or agents shall be made to turn the chief warlord to their side.
    13. No attempt by the client, the client’s allies or agents shall be made to void, invalidate or circumvent this contract in intent or wording.
    14. The client shall not unjustly imprison, detain or harm the chief warlord. Payments shall continue to the chief warlord regardless of imprisonment or detainment.
    15. The client shall pay the upkeep of any creature that the chief warlord has tamed or will tame.
    16. The client shall make available to the chief warlord the full resources of the side in the execution of the chief warlord’s duties and responsibilities.
    17. The client shall make reasonably available any resources the chief warlord wishes access to during down time for leisure activities.
    18. When not filling the obligations of this contract, the chief warlord is to be granted leisure time to pursue his own interests.
    19. The client shall be responsible for the maintenance, upkeep, supply and upgrade of all the chief warlords gear, weapons and armor.
    20. The client shall be the chief warlord’s friend at all times.

    Duration of Terms:

    The terms of this contract shall be in force until:
    1. The chief warlord terminates the contract.
    2. The client terminates the contract.
    3. The side of Tipperary is ended.
    4. The client is croaked or disbanded.
    5. The client ceases to be ruler of Tipperary.
    6. The chief warlord is croaked or disbanded.
    7. The chief warlord is unable to fulfill their duties as chief warlord.
    8. The chief warlord is captured and imprisoned by an enemy side.
    9. The client or Tipperary is unable to meet the obligations of this contract.
    10. Both parties agree to terminate the contract.
    11. The chief warlord, of his own volition, turns to the client’s side.
    12. The chief warlord founds his own side.
    13. The client grants the chief warlord a capital site with which to found a new side.
    14. Erf ends.
    15. The chief warlord returns or is returned to their world of origin.

    Violation of Terms and Penalties:

    Should the client violate the terms of this contract at any time, the chief warlord may at their own option immediately terminate the contract at no cost to them. If the contract is not terminated then a penalty of one turn’s full upkeep in shmuckers shall be automagically paid to the chief warlord’s purse.

    Should the chief warlord violate the terms of this contract at any time, the client may at their own option immediately terminate the contract at no cost to them. If the contract is not terminated then a penalty of one turn’s full upkeep in shmuckers shall be automagically paid to the client’s treasury from the chief warlord’s purse. Additionally the chief warlord may be imprisoned for severe infractions up to a maximum of 730 turns.

    Should the chief warlord commit or attempt treason, then the client may seek to disband, croak or otherwise terminate the chief warlord. The client reserves the right to be merciful and spare the chief warlord should the chief warlord agree to turn to Tipperary at that time.

    Termination of Contract:

    Either side may terminate the contract for any reason at any time. The side terminating the contract shall automagically pay to the other party a sum of shmuckers equal to the chief warlord’s full upkeep. If that sum cannot be paid, then the terms of the contract shall remain in force. Should both parties agree to terminate the contract, then the client shall pay the chief warlord one full day’s upkeep in shmuckers.


    It wasn’t a masterpiece but we did feel a bit of a time press so much was left undefined. We were relying on each other’s good will to a large extent. If we decided we wanted to amend the contract, it could be terminated and a new more detailed one drawn up. Mostly this was to test if the contract could magically allow the side to use my leadership bonus as a chief warlord bonus.

    I reviewed the contract one last time and then signed my name at the bottom of it.

    Then Tip signed it as well.

    “I can feel it.” Andy announced. “I can feel his leadership bonus.”

    “So can I.” The Major agreed. “I didn’t think it would work.”

    “I believed.” Tip said with a large smile. “I still can’t see your stats though, Justin.”

    “And I can’t see any of yours.” I frowned. “There may be limits to what can be done with a contract.”

    “What’s important is that we’ve gained the benefit of a chief warlord and you don’t feel like you’ve given up your freedom.” Tip walked over to her throne and took a seat.

    “We should test it though.” The major suggested. “Try giving Justin an order.”

    Tip put a finger to her lips thoughtfully. “Well, we should celebrate. Why don’t you dance a jig, Justin?”

    “I don’t know how to dance a jig, so I cannot comply.” I said flatly, crossing my arms across my chest. “And it’s not pertinent to my duties as chief warlord.”

    “It will be in a dance fight.” The Major pointed out.

    “Which isn’t happening at the moment.” I countered.

    “Advise me on what sort of units I should pop first.” Tip commanded.

    “Naughtyham seemed to have an affinity for popping forest capable archers.” I said without hesitation. “You should start there. Also, you should officially appoint the Major as your chief caster.”

    “Seems to be working well enough. Major, you’re my chief caster now.” Tip decided with satisfaction. “Try giving an order to Andy or the Major.”

    “Your queen wishes to see celebration.” I observed before commanding, “dance a jig together.”

    Immediately the two of them started to dance together though the Major’s sour face suggested she wasn’t entirely happy about it. Andy seemed to be enjoying himself though and Tip was laughing and clapping her hands.

    As amusing as the dance was, there were other things to attend to. “Major, that’s enough. We have an alliance proposal to write up.”

    We went to the library and the Major started gathering books off the shelves. While she did that, I pulled out my phone and opened the banking app. Then I transferred most my shmucker’s to Tip’s treasury.

    She immediately called me. “Thanks Justin! What’s that for?”

    “I earned those shmuckers while working to free you. So in a way I think half of them should be yours. Besides, you’re going to need them. The rest are a loan to help get your side started. Send Andy to the Magic Kingdom and have him hire some casters. Priority should go to a healomancer and a dirtamancer. If they’re looking to join a side, so much the better.”

    “Good idea.” She agreed. “Though I think I’ll ask him to recruit a dirtamancer and buy some healomancer scrolls for now. I’ve already got him inventorying the scrolls that Warshmuckers managed to gather. I’m also going to allocate shmuckers to produce another warlord as soon as possible. If you’re going to be out fighting battles, I need someone here to command my troops defending the city.”

    “Good call.” I agreed. “Looks like the Major is done. We’ll talk later.”

    “Alright. I have to go greet the troops that are arriving from Avon.” She agreed and the screen went blank.

    We were several hours into researching specific clauses for the alliance when the Major looked up suddenly. “Our turn has started. We seem to have the same natural order that Naughtyham did.”

    My phone rang with a message from Tip. “Look Justin! My first archers!” The scene panned to a view of the walls from the tower. “There’s Adam, Albert, Arnold, August, Addie, Alta, Ann and William. I call them Tippers! Wave to your chief warlord, Tippers!”

    Obediently if a touch confused, the Tippers all waved. Then the image switched back to Tip. “I’m going to go talk to them. When you guys are done, come out to meet them.”

    “Alright.” I agreed with a smile. “We’ll meet the troops from Avon then too.”

    “Of course.” She agreed. “Later.”

    It was nearly end of turn before the Major and I were done composing what was a much more complex contract of alliance to submit to Avon. We went over it with Tip who asked numerous questions about many of the clauses before she submitted it to the King of Avon. He accepted it surprisingly quickly.

    Tip took a deep breath and pronounced proudly, “end turn!”

    Night fell and I got to meet Tip’s Tippers. Then I got to meet the Avon troops who had arrived earlier. They were mostly knights and were led by a warlord named Gala Band. Seemed to me to be an odd name for a warlord since it probably would have been more appropriate for a rhymomancer. Still, he seemed like a nice guy.

    A single stack of knights and mounts would be left behind when Avon started it’s next turn. At the same time, a couple stacks of stabbers and a stack of pikers was expected to march to the city the same turn. Meanwhile I would ride out with Gala Band and his two remaining stacks of knights.

    I didn’t linger in the hall to drink with the units from both sides however. Instead I retreated to the library to copy as many books as I could so I would have something to read on the road to battle and for the long nights between turns.

    Not long into the evening, the Major joined me. “You’re quite the reader.” She observed.

    “It is one of many ways we learn our ‘specials’ in my world.” I explained.

    “I think it may be related to your signamancy special.” She said as she sat down across from me. “Though it may only be an assumption that your special is signamancy.”

    “Seems like a good one.” I observed as I flipped and scanned pages. It was book by someone named ‘Lord Crush’.

    “Maybe. But maybe you’re like that device of yours. An odd amalgamation of disciplines. Signamancy may merely be the most developed of them.” She shrugged. “We’re still trying to figure you out.”

    “Seems only fair. I’m still trying to figure all of you out too.” I looked up at her for a moment. "You wouldn’t believe how different the rules of this world are from mine.”

    “So I gather.” She casually opened one of the books I had already scanned and started to leaf through it. “I was wondering. Do you see Queen Tip as being your queen?”

    I paused and looked across the table at her. “I do, actually. Though I’m worried how well she’ll be able to perform her duty, among other things.”

    “Do you find your concern for her safety has increased since signing the contract?” Her eyes looked up from the book she was leafing through.

    “I don’t think so. It’s about the same. If it had been up to me I would have had her raze this city for the shmuckers and then move on.”

    “Then eight archers wouldn’t have popped.” She pointed out.

    “No. But I have reservations about that as well.” I shrugged and went back to scanning.

    “They don’t have purses. They wouldn’t manage upkeep on their own.” The Major explained, easily anticipating my unnamed concern. “They need a ruler to provide for them.”

    “There could be another way.” I said after a moment’s thought. “Promote them all to warlord and then force them to turn barbarian. Then offer them the choice to remain barbarian with a full purse or sign a contract like I did.”

    “That would be expensive.” The Major observed with a raised eyebrow. “Is that why you didn’t suggest it to the Queen?”

    “I only just thought of it, actually.” Then I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “But the idea is still forming. Until I’ve worked it all out in my mind, I don’t think I should suggest it. Still, there’s an idea that’s been gestating in the back of my mind since I first came here.”

    “Care to share?” She smiled slightly.

    “Is it feasible to have a side of barbarians? Of people who are all free and serve only because they choose to?” I looked down at the book I was scanning. “I’ve been looking to see if it’s ever been done before and trying to think of ways it could be made to work.”

    “I think the closest thing to what you’re thinking about is the Magic Kingdom.” The Major folded her hands in front of her on the table. “Though it’s not a side as such. It does have its own currency, called rands. One rand being equal to one unit’s upkeep for one turn.”

    That caused me to raise both brows. “Interesting. Care to experiment?”

    “What do you have in mind?” She asked with interest.

    “I’m going to give you one day’s upkeep in shmuckers and Andy one day’s upkeep in shmuckers. Both out of my purse to your purses. I want you to go to the magic kingdom and change them into rands then come back. See if you can transfer them to me afterwards. If not, consider the rands to be a reward for you and Andy.”

    “Interesting.” She stood up. “I look forward to the results.”

    While the two casters were gone to the magic kingdom, I read the next of the Oz books to Tip. She decided right away that Tip was the wrong gender. Thus she approved when Tip was transformed into Ozma and it was revealed that Tip had been a woman the whole time. Descriptions of Jack Pumpkinhead seemed to produce bittersweet feelings in Tip but no recollections were triggered as I had hoped.

    It made me wonder how closely Erf was related to Oz. Frank L. Baum had employed the “Literary Agent Hypothesis’ when writing the Oz books. That is to say that as part of the fiction he created for the books, he claimed that he was receiving the stories from Oz and publishing them on their behalf. Was there a kernel of truth to that?

    On the other hand, the ‘signamancy’ of Erf contained a great many more references than just that of Oz. Some were much older such as the stories Robin Hood and his Merry Men or King Arthur and his knights of the round table. There were also references that were far more modern as well. So it seemed that there was some sort of connection between the worlds where one was effecting the other or they were effecting each other. My appearance here also demonstrated that physical crossovers were also possible.

    Were the “Titans” fans of my world? Was that why they included so many references to it? Assuming the Titans existed of course. Just because this world’s physics followed what I perceived to be gaming physics, didn’t mean they weren’t the end result of natural phenomenon. Didn’t mean there weren’t some sort of creators either.

    My musings were ended when the Major and Andy returned with one rand each.

    I pulled out my phone and opened the banking app. “Try to give them to me.”

    Two rands appeared in a new account. I immediately moved one to the ‘Upkeep’ payment tab and it was accepted. This was exploitable. It was a game changer though not necessarily game breaking.

    I looked up and addressed the other three. “Alright, here’s what you need to do. Andy is to convert shmuckers into rands in the magic kingdom. Those rands are to be used to pay for the upkeep of the more expensive units. Which is the rest of us at the moment. That will save the side shmuckers. Should we recruit or pop a caster with a lower upkeep than Andy, then they will be the ones to start converting shmuckers into rands for us. In fact, we should consider recruiting a low upkeep caster from the magic kingdom for just that purpose. If they never use their juice to our benefit, this service will still more than pay for their upkeep.”

    “Furthermore, when paying for scrolls or services from the magic kingdom, try and determine the upkeep worth of the caster you’re dealing with. If their upkeep worth is less than Andy or whoever our lowest upkeep caster is, then pay them in shmuckers. If it’s more than Andy or our lowest upkeep caster, then pay them in rands.”

    They all nodded but the Major seemed to be the one who appreciated the nuances of what I was proposing the best. She did see one flaw in it however. “Your contract stipulates that you be paid in shmuckers or shmuckers and provisions. No allowance for rands was indicated.”

    I considered that for a moment. “Alright. I’ll still take the payment in shmuckers and then have Andy convert a portion of those shmuckers to a rand which I will use for upkeep. Then I will split the balance of that turns shmuckers with the Tipperary treasury, as payment for the service of conversion.”

    “Everyone wins.” Tip smiled.

    “Yes.” I agreed. “Before you send Andy back to the Magic Kingdom though, I have some business with him.”

    “Of course.” Tip agreed. “Please assist our chief warlord in whatever way you can, Andy.”

    Andy bowed formally to Tip, “Of course, your majesty.”

    I walked with Andy to his workshop. He didn’t smile or initiate conversation. “You’re not very happy with me, are you?”

    “No, chief warlord, I’m not.” He said tersely. “You acted like my friend and then nearly eradicated my side after tricking the other casters and me into the magic kingdom.”

    “I’d like to point out that I didn’t eradicate your side and I had reasons for what I did.” I shook my head. “But I understand. I probably wouldn’t be too happy in your shoes either.”

    He opened the door to his workshop. “So what is the business you have with me?”

    “My shotgun. What’s it’s status?” I looked around his shop. It was better stocked now than it had been under Wobin. Given Tip’s dollamancy special, that only made sense.

    “I repaired it.” He walked over to a wooden box and opened it up. Inside was the shotgun, looking as good as new. “I also added a butt to it, like a crossbow’s. I can’t make the ammo for it though.”

    Andy held up what appeared to be a complete slug. “I can make the components except for the powder that makes it work. We’re going to need a dirtamancer for that, I think.”

    “Wait and see if we can pop or recruit one.” I advised. “We can contract out upgrades to the city if we need to but I want to keep this to just units loyal to the side.”

    “Wobin was of a similar opinion.” Andy noted. “Maybe Wobin and you aren’t… I mean weren’t so different.”

    “We often dislike people for traits we see in them that we dislike in ourselves.” It was something I had heard many times before and I supposed was true.

    Opening up a utility pouch, I pulled out one of my pistol rounds and one of my rifle rounds. “Keep these. If we get a dirtamancer while I'm gone, then they can examine the cordite powder and maybe together you will be able to make duplicates of the shotgun. Use a link with the Major if you need to.”

    Andy nodded. “Anything else?”

    “Yes.” I pulled out my phone next. “I want you to see if you can replicate this. Examine it now because I have to take it with me. The Major knows how it works so you can work with her on it. Tip understands both dollamancy and thinkamancy so she may have some insights on how they might work together. I want you to create dollamancy accessories similar to it that we can issue to warlords, castors and maybe other units to communicate with. Preferably without juice and it has to be secure.”

    He took the phone and examined it. His eyes slowly widened as he did so. “I don’t know if I can. Not without a caster link at least. This has like a lot of different disciplines built into it. Mathemancy, moneymancy, thinkamancy, lookamancy, signamancy and shockamancy in a way I’ve never seen used before.”

    “Focus on the communications elements of it.” I advised. “We can look at adding the other elements later, if needed.”

    Andy handed the phone back to me. “I get the gist of it, I think. Even a stripped down version is going to be expensive to create. And most of my juice is spoken for in the foreseeable future.”

    “Look into it for now. When we’re in a better spot, we’ll look at actual production.” I pulled a piece of paper out of a pouch. “I have a list of other accessories for you to consider as well.”

    We were up until morning, exchanging ideas. I knew it was morning when I suddenly felt refreshed again.

    “Well, I guess I better get ready to go. And you have a lot of work to do too.” I left Andy to his shop and went to the courtyard where I found Queen Tip, the Major and the recently popped archers.

    “I have to go with the Avon forces as soon as their turn begins.” I said, addressing them all. “I wish I could stay and help oversee the building of a new side. A side that I have helped to establish by defending this site against the very same forces I’ll be riding out to engage this turn. I do this so that Tipperary will have a chance to not only survive but grow into a strong and prosperous side in its own right. It may sometimes be difficult for all of you to have your chief warlord away. Many new units will pop here who have never met me. So it will be up to you to pass a very important message along to all of them from me.”

    “Tell them all that they are Tippers, and Tippers are awesome!”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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    Shall We Play A Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Eleven

    We Know the Game
    (And We’re Going to Play It)


    Fail Wail’s turn was first so we posted our defenses and waited. While we waited, I went to the library with Gala Band to discuss our marching orders and what the plan of action would when Avon’s turn started. He laid out a number of maps of the entire area.

    “These cities in red are Fail Wail’s. The cities in Blue are Avon’s. This green city is of course Naughty… I mean Tipperary.” He explained as he pointed out fifteen red and fifteen blue city hexes.

    “What are these orange city hexes?” I asked him, noting that there was nearly as many of them as there were cities belonging to either side.

    “Those cities are neutral cities.” He tapped the nearest with his finger. “They date back to the time of the August Empire. When that side’s ruler was slain and the old capital sacked, they all became neutral cities. In fact most of this territory was once part of the August Empire. King Pentagram expanded mostly by conquering neutral cities left in the wake of the fall.”

    “So what’s the deal with them anyway?” I asked. “Do we have to worry about them attacking or raiding us? Can they be swayed to our side maybe?”

    He looked at me like many Erf natives did when I said asked about something they all took for granted as common knowledge. Fortunately for me he didn’t make a big deal about it and instead just answered my question at face value. “Units in neutral cities can’t move and they can only fight if they’re attacked. They can’t pop new units, either.”

    “Can they turn to a side or become barbarians?” I looked down at the map. There were quite a few neutral cities in the area.

    “Cities don’t become barbarians, individuals do.” Gala Band explained. “Casters and warlords have purses and will often become barbarian in order to leave the city and make their fortunes elsewhere. Often they take stacks of other high level units with them based on how many troops they can support with their purse. Common units tend to be left in the city however. The city will support what units it can based on it’s shmucker output. Units it can’t support, disband. It actually makes them choice conquests since there’s rarely any casters, warlords, high level or expensive units present.”

    “What about turning them to a side?” I asked, feeling that question hadn’t been addressed at all.

    “Well again, individuals turn, not cities.” He looked like he was trying to be patient with me. “Often after a battle is done, the surviving units will turn very easily.”

    An idea was slowly forming in my mind. “Ever try to turn them before a battle?”

    He shook his head. “Unless they had leadership, you’d have to turn them one at a time. That would be taxing, even for a Turnamancer.”

    “But it could be done.” I pressed. “Can people turn, off turn?”

    Gala Band took a deep breath and then sighed. “I suppose they can.”

    My finger landed on the nearest orange dot. “Care to try something?”

    The Avon warlord was looking thoughtful as he considered my line of questioning along with the map in front of us. “Maybe. What do you have in mind?”

    “I would like to turn some of these cities to Tipperary.” I tapped the orange city hex for emphasis. “The shmucker production isn’t as valuable to you as they are to us. However if we are able to increase our shmucker and unit production, we’ll be able to enter the fight sooner and more decisively then if we wait until we get our first conquered Fail Wail city allotted to us. Shmucker for Shmucker, each of these neutral cities is more valuable to the war effort in the possession of our side than any city of Fail Wail’s you retake.”

    “Hmmm.” Gala Band examined the board carefully and was doing some mental calculations. “It’s only a slight detour to our next objective anyway. Actually, if you are successful, it will save us move as we were just going to go around this city anyway, treating it as an obstacle. But if you can get them all to turn and claim it, then we should be able to go straight through it. Maybe even add a few units to the assault.”

    “Sounds like a win-win to me.” I said confidently. “I can always go ahead to negotiate with them on my own relying on Scarlet’s move and then you can sit just out of range, ready to assist or go around based on how the situation evolves.”

    “You’re right. Since there really isn’t anything to lose, I’ll give you a shot at it.” Then his finger came down on a red city hex. “Then we move on to take this city. Your dwagon will have to scout the best route for us to take and then help in the siege. It might interest you to know that our own scouts report having seen a Naughtyham warlord and units turned to their side and based out of that city now.”

    “Hopefully that’ll make them easier to turn to Tipperary.” My lips pursed in thought. “Their loyalty should be pretty low, after all.”

    “I’ll let you have first crack at turning them then.” Gala Band said with a grin. “With the threat of rotting in our dungeons if they don’t turn.”

    “Sounds like a plan to me.” My eyes continued to scan the map, marking the locations of Orange cities on the map. “There’s a few more of these neutral cities behind your lines. Far enough from the fighting that we would be able to empty them of units to push to the front without leaving any sort of garrison behind. We’d be dependent on your protection of course but that’s already the situation and as long as we keep pushing the frontier towards Fail Wail’s capital, it shouldn’t be an issue.”

    “You could end up almost as big as Avon when the war is done.” Gala Band observed with a frown as he considered the ramifications.

    “I think you’ll find Tipperary and Queen Tip to be peaceful neighbors.” Then I pointed out some nearby blue hexes. “And we can trade cities so that all ours are clustered together and Avon will effectively surround us.”

    “That is probably worth considering.” Gala Band agreed. “However, King Pentagram will likely want to set a limit to how many of these neutral cities you absorb. I think a limit of ten is reasonable. Plus a future third of Fail Wail’s cities will bring you up to fifteen. A respectable number of cities, maybe even more than you need.”

    “I actually agree.” As I continued to consider. “We may wind up razing up to five of those sites and abandoning them to you to use however you please. Ten total cities should be enough to make us a stable and viable side.” Especially surrounded by a larger and friendly ally I noted to myself.

    “Not a bad aspiration for a single city side.” Gala Band noted with approval. “Moregains and Moredread were both greedy. That is what led to our current war. It’s good to see that you and your Queen do not seem to share those faults.”

    Which reminded me that at some point I would have to discuss this with Tip. She didn’t seem to be a greedy sort and hopefully I could sell her on the overall strategic plan that was developing in my mind for Tipperary. In my mind there were basically two options.

    In the first option, we would successfully help Avon conquer Fail Wail. Avon would eventually soak up thirty of the cities in the zone and we would absorb ten, letting them surround us on all sides. That would insulate us from other attackers. That would allow us to keep our army to half of what a side our size would normally have. If Avon was attacked, we would send our army to attack and produce more units as needed to replace the fallen. Fewer units meant lower upkeep costs over all. Halting our expansion at only ten cities would mean we weren’t running into a situation of dwindling returns. Then we could focus on slowly building all our cities upwards to level the highest levels possible.

    The second option was what I was afraid would be the one we’d have to implement. It was my plan in case Avon either taking Fail Wail or shortly after by an outside party. The details of this plan was still evolving but as with plan A, it took its inspiration from Lord Crush’s book. For now though, I was hoping I could go with plan A.

    “Assuming my plan works for taking this neutral city, and we work together to take that Fail Wail city, maybe we could work together to convert a few other neutral cities to our banner. With Scarlet’s help, I could probably make these four within a few turns. Gather the units in those cities to form a second expeditionary force we can drive into Fail Wail territory. Meanwhile, Avon can continue its current push forward.” With my finger I traced a path of neutral cities that would take us ‘north’ towards the snowy wastes “With Scarlet scouting for us from here, we might be able to get all the way to the coast without being detected by Fail Wail. Maybe dip into the snowy hexes as needed.”

    “I’m not going to say no, but I’m not going to say yes either.” He smiled at me. “To be honest I would like to see what you could do with a force of your own to command. And I’d love to see Tipperary pulling its weight in this war as soon as possible. Let’s see how viable your strategy of turning neutral cities is first however, before we starting planning any grand strategy around it.”

    “Fair enough.” I agreed. “So let’s discuss Scarlet’s recon route for this turn…”

    + + +

    When our turn started, Scarlet picked me up in her claws and took to wing. We took the most direct route to the neutral city of Outpost Four. Clearly whoever had named that city had been a creative genius. I sort of had the feeling that there was some signamancy involved or there might have been at one time but it had long since faded. Like a continuity that had been erased by some sort of ass pulled retconjuration. Ultimately I decided it didn’t matter and we could rename the city once we held it.

    There were no Fail Wail units on the route. Apparently they had all withdrawn to prepare for the coming Avon assault. As I moved, Gala Band and his troops followed, one hex behind. They didn’t catch up to me until I was on the Hex bordering Outpost Four.

    The archers on the walls could see us but they couldn’t engage unless we attacked them first. There was only two stacks that we could see but it was probably every archer they had. Gala Band and I approached the hex border by the city gate, with Scarlet looming behind us.

    From the top of a gate house, an armored unit yelled down to us. “What is your business here?”

    “A knight unit.” Gala Band observed. “Probably the highest ranking unit left in the hex.”

    “I’ve come to offer every unit in this city a chance to turn to the side of Tipperary, freely and of your own accords.” I shouted back up at him.

    “And if we decline?” The knight yelled back down.

    “Then perhaps I’ll accept the turns of any units that survive my assault.” Gala Band answered with a cocksure grin. “You won’t be the first neutral city that Avon has absorbed.”

    “We’ve repelled a recent attempt by Fail Wail to take this city.” The knight replied. “I don’t see enough troops here to take us. We’re still a level three after all.”

    “This is just a reconnaissance force.” I advised him. “We haven’t met up with the main army yet. I just thought you might want to discuss reasonable terms for turning to us. Because sure you’re still a level three now. And let’s say we can’t take you. We will damage this city in the attempt and kill units. It’ll make it that much easier for the next would be conqueror to take you. And without the offer of terms first. Be reasonable man, it can’t hurt as much to discuss the possibility than it would for some side to force the issue, would it?”

    “Do you offer truce for parley then?” The knight shouted down after conferring with someone we couldn’t see.

    “I do!” I shouted up with a smile.

    “Avon also agrees to a truce for parley.” Gala Band yelled after me.

    “I’ll be right down.” The knight disappeared from view.

    A few moments later the draw bridge was lowered and the knight stepped out onto it. He pointed to me. “You may disarm and enter the hex to negotiate.”

    I shrugged and then lowered my rifle to the ground. Then I pulled off my pistol belt which also held my hunting knife. Next off was my sword belt. I piled my quiver and bow next to the sword. It seemed likely to me that my can of bear spray might also be considered a weapon so I removed that from my pocket as well as a smaller folding knife.

    “Forget anything?” Gala Band asked with a raised eyebrow.

    “Do scrolls count as weapons?” I asked him.

    “Yes! They count!” The knight yelled from the bridge.

    So I deposited my pouch of scrolls that Tip had insisted I take with me on the ground.

    “Boot knife.” Gala Band whispered to me.

    “Oh right!” I smiled sheepishly at the knight while I pulled it out. “Sorry about that.”

    The knight was staring at the pile of gear. “What sort of unit gets popped with all of that?”

    I stepped onto the bridge. “My name’s Justin Case and I’m the barbarian Chief Warlord of Tipperary, bound by contract to serve that side.”

    “A heavy barbarian warlord, huh?” The knight looked up at me. “I’m Sir Forum.”

    There was no way I could keep a smile off my face. “So I have come to converse with Sir Forum of Post? Well, hopefully we’ll be able to add each other to our friends lists and not become foes.”

    “Of Outpost Four.” He corrected. “So what can you offer us, Warlord Case?”

    “A chance to be a part of the world again.” I started out. “Support from a small but growing side. A chance to see your city to grow again. Access to provisions from farms, to decrease upkeep and allow the city to support more than it does now. A chance for this city pop units again.”

    “A chance to see war again.” Sir Forum noted.

    “War has come to you here because it surrounds you.” I pointed out. “It will come to again. And again. Until you are all killed or imprisoned. I offer you a chance to be proactive in your fates.”

    “By joining a side? We’ll have to obey your ruler’s orders.” Sir Forum didn’t look convinced. “The only choice you’re offering us is to join your side or croak.”

    “Maybe I can offer you more than that.” I held a hand out towards him. “What level are you, Sir Forum?”

    “I’m fourth level.” He replied. “And a knight.”

    “How would you like to be a fourth level warlord, Sir Forum? We could promote you from our treasury.”

    His eyes lit up a bit at that. “Maybe.” He agreed. “But that just covers me.”

    “Do you speak for this city?” I placed my hands on my hips. “Or don’t you?”

    “I’m not the highest level unit here.” He admitted. “That would be our court jester.”

    “Court jester?” My brow raised at that. I hadn’t heard of that unit type before. “What’s their name?”

    Sir Forum shrugged. “Her name is Four Chan.”

    “Fucking son of a bitch!” I swore without thinking.

    “I beg your pardon?” The knight took a step back as though struck in the face.

    “Sorry.” I grimaced and gritted my teeth. “They wouldn’t happen to be a twoll, would they?”

    “No,” the knight shook his head, looking baffled by my behavior. “Though it’s been mostly twolls in the court since she took over.”

    “Of course.” Regardless of my growing trepidation, I felt compelled to push forward for the good of the side. “Perhaps I should make my pitch to her and the court. To everyone left in the city, if possible.”

    “Please wait here.” He asked before passing through the gates once more.

    To pass the time, I pulled out my cell phone and readied some apps I thought I might shortly need.

    It seemed to be taking quite a long time but then I noticed the archers disappearing from the walls. Then Sir Forum returned. “The others have gathered in the court. Four Chan says she will see you there.”

    “Please lead on.” I gestured with a smile.

    Sir Forum led on, through a city that was abandoned now. As promised the court was packed with units. There weren’t actually as many twolls as I was expecting. There were a number of feline like animals and a couple of disturbing bear units present however. They were especially unnerving in a world where most units were the height of children. I wondered if this city could pop either one.

    Four Chan was sprawled across the arms of the throne. The throne wasn’t part of the architecture like the one in Tipperary. This one had been fabricated for this non-capital site. The Jester had a hat that suggested cat ears and her clown make up included whiskers. In all, she looked as though she could appear on the musical, Cats by Sir Andrew Lowd Webber. To drive the point home, she was lazily scratching the head of one of the feline units. Rather than purr, it made a noise that sounded rather like a rolling “LOLOLOLOLOLOL”

    Four Chan appraised me with keen and intelligent eyes. This was in contrast with her flippant smirk. “Sir Forum tells me that you wish for us all to turn. Turn to this side of Tipperary. It’s not a long way to Tipperary. Still, I see no reason to surrender ourselves to you easily, Warlord. So make your proposal and don’t let it be indecent.”

    I bowed with a flourish, my phone in my left hand. My thumb pressed enter on my Karaoke app. Music began to play and I began to shuffle awkwardly. Dance fighting was a thing in this world, as was Rhymamancy. Maybe both could help in negotiations as well as in combat or casting. The words appeared on the screen and I sang along to them as best as I was able, which admittedly, was not very well at all.

    “Oooh!”

    “We're no strangers to love,
    You know the rules and so do I,
    A full commitment's what I'm thinking of,
    You wouldn't get this from any other guy!”

    “I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling,
    Gotta make you understand!”

    “Never gonna give you up!
    Never gonna let you down!
    Never gonna run around and desert you!
    Never gonna make you cry!
    Never gonna say goodbye!
    Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!”

    “We've known each other for so long,
    Your heart's been aching, but
    You're too shy to say it,
    Inside, we both know what's been going on.
    We know the game and we're gonna play it!”

    “And if you ask me how I'm feeling,
    Don't tell me you're too blind to see!”

    “Never gonna give you up!
    Never gonna let you down!
    Never gonna run around and desert you!
    Never gonna make you cry!
    Never gonna say goodbye!
    Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!”

    “Never gonna give you up!
    Never gonna let you down!
    Never gonna run around and desert you!
    Never gonna make you cry!
    Never gonna say goodbye!
    Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!”


    “(Ooh, give you up)" Some the audience began to sing.
    "(Ooh, give you up)” More of them joined in.
    “Never gonna give, never gonna give”
    “(Give you up)” The audience continued to sing.
    “Never gonna give, never gonna give”
    “(Give you up)” The audience seemed to be getting into it now.

    “We've known each other for so long.
    Your heart's been aching, but
    You're too shy to say it.
    Inside, we both know what's been going on.
    We know the game and we're gonna play it!”

    “I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling,
    Gotta make you understand!”


    The music started to fade but the audience took up the chorus with gusto.

    “Never gonna give you up!
    Never gonna let you down!
    Never gonna run around and desert you!
    Never gonna make you cry!
    Never gonna say goodbye!
    Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!”

    “Never gonna give you up!
    Never gonna let you down!
    Never gonna run around and desert you!
    Never gonna make you cry!
    Never gonna say goodbye!
    Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!”

    “Never gonna give you up!
    Never gonna let you down!
    Never gonna run around and desert you!
    Never gonna make you cry!
    Never gonna say goodbye!
    Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!”


    As the voices finally died down, Four Chan was clutching her stomach because she was laughing so hard, “Warlord, if your side must ever be saved by your dance fighting skills, then I am afraid your side is doomed!” Then she wiped a tear from her eye. “Though perhaps not, if you can paralyze your enemy with laughter.”

    “Just because I brought a dwagon doesn’t mean you should flame bait me.” I sniffed. “That having been said, Queen Tip of Tipperary enjoys song and dance and laughter. And the position of fool is currently unoccupied at her royal court.”

    Four Chan’s eyes lit up. “My previous king banished me to this city. He had a lot of rules you see. He made us all recite them every turn. I had no trouble with the first thirty-three, but the next one stuck in my throat, you might say.”

    “Of course it did.” I couldn’t entirely keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “I don’t believe you’ll need to fear my Queen’s sceptre.”

    The jester’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Perhaps it is her chief warlord’s sword I should fear.”

    I raised my hands and shrugged. “As you can see, I have come here unarmed. Even so, I keep my sword sheathed at court so I won’t be needing to test your skill as a sword swallower.”

    Her legs swung around so she was sitting properly in the throne and she rested her elbows on her knees and her chin in her palms. “Such a cunning linguist you are. With such a silvered tongue, one would almost think you were a signamancer or perhaps a dateamancer. As charming as your song and dance were however, I am still waiting for actual terms.”

    “My terms are simple.” My drill voice filled the chamber and echoed off the walls. “I offer you all choice. You can choose to turn to Tipperary. Join the side and serve Queen Tip Temple. Or you can turn barbarian and serve her as I do. So long as you are allied to her and obey her, then your upkeep is assured. If you don’t like that situation, you are free to break alliance and walk away. Or there’s your final choice. Stay here and see what fate brings to your city next. Fail Wail? Avon? This is a world at war and few sides will offer you the choices I have. None will offer you the love that Queen Tip will.”

    “In addition, you, Four Chan may resume your role as a court jester once more. Serving a Queen in a royal court and no longer banished to a forgotten outpost. To Sir Forum I have promised a promotion to Warlord should he turn and he shall have it, if I have to pay for it out of my own purse. Though it may take a little time if that is the case.” I pointed my finger and swept the room. “As for the rest of you, promotion may come to those who turn and prove themselves with loyal service.”

    “You have made your case, Warlord.” Four Chan stood up with a hop. Then she clapped her hands together. “Please wait on the bridge while we discuss this.”

    Again I bowed with a flourish before turning on my heel and marching sharply out of the chamber. It sort of felt good to be doing drill again. I thought it might have been a memory practiced only on November eleventh from now on.

    “How’d it go?” Gala Band asked me from across the hex boundary when I reappeared on the draw bridge.

    “Better than I thought.” I said and allowed myself to relax.

    “Warlord!” Sir Forums voice called from the courtyard of the city after a few moments. “Please return and hear our answer.”

    “Well, this is it.” I said to Gala Band. “Take care of Scarlet for me if things turn bad.”

    “She shall be the first to avenge you, and I will follow as a close second.” He promised me.

    Squaring my shoulders, I marched back into the city and then halted in front of the gathered crowd. On one side were military units such as stabbers and archers. On the other were the lackeys, twolls and non-combat units.

    “On behalf the city garrison of combat units, we accept your offer to turn!” Sir Forum announced with a militaristic swagger. All the troops had green added to their raiment.

    “And on behalf of all the non-combat units, I accept your offer of alliance as barbarians.” Four Chan said with a cocky grin.

    The city’s banners turned green.

    My phone rang.

    “Hello Tip”

    “Justin! I just sensed a new city added to my side!” She looked excited. “And new units too!”

    “The formerly neutral city of Outpost Four has joined your side. There is a knight here by the name of Forum who I promised a promotion to Warlord.” I told her and then turned the phone so she could see him.

    “Granted.” She said immediately and then squealed. “I just promoted my first unit!”

    “There is also a barbarian Jester here who would like to serve at your court along with other non-combat barbarians. Upkeep in exchange for loyal service.” Then I turned the phone so she could see Four Chan.

    “Oh, she’s pretty!” Tip and Four Chan seemed to say at the same time before they burst out into giggles. If the jester and ruler got along, that suggested that other recipients for jokes and pranks would have to be found. I suspected that Chief Warlord and Chief Caster were both valid targets so inwardly I apologized to the Major. At least she would have some company in the grieving whenever I was at court. Which I now suspected would be as little as possible.

    I turned and yelled back through the gate. “The city is ours, Gala Band. Bring them in.”

    + + +

    We did not linger long at Outpost Four. I took all the archers and the infantry, leaving the feline and bear units for defense. I also left Sir Forum behind to take charge of the garrison. I also use a spreadsheet in my phone to set the production of the city to archers to defend the walls from any invaders for four turns, then four turns of infantry and then switch to cavalry units so that they could catch up to us as the campaign progressed.

    “Once the archers and infantry are popped, you are to proceed to Tipperary and take charge of its defense.” I told Warlord Forum. “When the first warlord pops in Tipperary, they are to come here and take charge of the units that will pop as cavalry. That warlord will lead them to me so I can take charge of them before they return here to take charge of this garrison.”

    Warlord Forum nodded. “Yes my lord.”

    “I’ll use my phone to thinkagram you nightly so have reports of the turn ready by then.” I added. “Instructions may change by thinkagram as well, so be ready.”

    “Of course, my lord.” He bowed his head respectfully.

    I thought for a moment. “As soon as units pop, start drilling them. Make sure they all practice hard and then review at the end of day. And if they aren’t doing it at the capital when you get there, make them start.”

    “It shall be as you command.” He agreed. “Is there anything else, my lord?”

    “That’ll be it for now. Oh wait. Yes, escort Four Chan to Tipperary when you go there yourself. I don’t think it’ll be safe to travel before then.”

    Then I mounted my Trojan horse that had been brought up with the main group. “Wish me luck.”

    “Good luck, my lord.” He gave me a sharp salute before turning to the garrison to give them the last orders he would for some time. “Fall in behind your Chief Warlord!”

    Sharply, my stacks formed up and fell in behind me and together we left the city, following Avon’s forces. Scarlet was already gone, scouting her way to the enemy city.

    Urging my mount on, I caught up to Gala Band.

    “There’s not many of them.” Gala Band observed. “But there’s more than there was when we started this turn. So how’s it feel to have your own troops to command in the coming battle?”

    “Frankly my stomach’s tied up in knots in worry now.” I frowned. “It’s one thing to be responsible for yourself during a battle. Quite another to be responsible for the lives of others.”

    “You have commanded before, correct?” Concern creased his face for a moment.

    “I have.” I assured him. “The worry never goes away until the battle’s done and all my troops are accounted for.”

    Gala Band nodded. “You should have been popped a warlord of Avon. That is how King Pentagram commands us all to be though some like Moredread never really followed those orders.”

    Whenever Scarlet encountered small groups of Fail Wail troops, Gala Band allowed me to lead my troops to eradicate them so that the could gain some easy experience. His intention was to keep his own troops fresh for the main siege and hold mine in reserve. That suited me just fine.

    We managed to avoid any fatalities on the march and a few of my first level stabbers and archers levelled up before we ran out of move. Scarlet used hers up doing some more scouting and eliminating a few scouts from Fail Wail she found in nearby hexes before returning to our hex.

    With the marching done, I led my troops in some practice combat and drill in the early evening. Then I called Tip for her bedtime story as well as my daily report and strategic suggestions. Finally, she had some gossip for me.

    “Justin, you remember what Warshmuckers said about a Warlord in the Magic Kingdom?” She asked in a stage whisper.

    “Yes. He seemed to think it was quite impossible.” Warshmuckers name was like a bucket of ice water in the face. I hadn’t had a chance to mourn his passing yet. He’d died trying to save Scarlet and I owed him a debt that could never be repaid for that.

    “It’s true!” Tip exclaimed. “The Major went to the magic kingdom to buy some scrolls and try to recruit someone. It’s really hard to get a dirtamancer since they all have it made there I guess. Anyway, she said that everyone was talking about it. He was a heavy warlord and he just jumped through Gobwin Knob’s portal to the Magic Kingdom. Some Hippiemancer said he was one of theirs though. A caster.”

    “Did he cast any spells?” I asked her.

    “He must have!” She exclaimed. “They’re saying Gobwin Knob was surrounded by a coalition of sides. All of them far west from here. Across the water hexes even. There was Jetstone, Translivito and others but they’re saying that they all got wiped out. The Major said she was talking to Jetstone’s chief caster to buy the healing scrolls. Jetstone has lost all contact with their expeditionary force. They’re saying all the forces sent after Gobwin Knob are just gone. Puff! It had to be some sort of powerful magic!”

    A deep frown creased my face. That sounded like some serious mojo. “What was this Warlord’s name?”

    “Parson Gotti.”

    If there was signamancy to that name, I didn’t recognize it and that worried me more than anything else I had encountered in Erf.

    Dead Author's Note: This was apparently view 1,000 for this thread. Great signamancy, that.

    _________________
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    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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     Post subject: Part Twelve
     Post Posted: Sun Mar 20, 2016 2:22 pm 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Twelve

    Battlefield Erf


    The day started with Fail Wail’s turn. We had assumed that they would draw all their forces to the city and turtle before our impending siege. Instead we saw them marching into the hexes adjacent to ours. Some quick thinkagrams from my phone confirmed that the other two major concentrations of Avon forces in the area were witnessing the same troop deployments at their locations.

    If our calculations were correct, Fail Wail had emptied the city of units in order to go on the offensive, leaving them vulnerable if this gambit didn’t pay off.

    The units we were facing were mostly infantry. What cavalry there was, would be faced by Gala Band’s own mounted units. So I gave my orders. “Stabbers form stacks in the front. Pikers form up on the flanks. Archers form ranks to the rear! Scarlet, get airborne, target leadership and heavies.”

    I moved up to the rear of my own lines on the back of my Trojan horse. From there I could watch the battle and engage any leadership or units of note with my rifle. After a couple of minutes of combat, I blew on the red rescue whistle I had as part of my field kit. Stabbers and pikers in the front stack stepped back and were replaced by fresh stabbers and pikers in the next rank. Fresh units hacked apart wounded enemy units and then engaged enemy units.

    “Pikers! Close in!” At my command, the flanks came forward and folded around the sides of the enemy forces. Their hooked spears grabbed onto the enemy and pulled them down to the ground, making them easier prey for the stabbers. As the last of those units fell, more were arriving in another hex.

    “Shields! Screen the archers!” Stabbers and Pikers alike pulled back and held up shields to block volleys of arrows coming in from the enemy held hex.

    “Scarlet! Burn those volleys down!” The mighty red huffed and puffed and turned the arrows to ash.

    “You want us? Come in and get us!” I taunted the enemy warlady commanding the neighboring hex. “We’ll surely come to get you on our turn!”

    Gritting her teeth, the blonde and red cloaked warlady ordered her wolf cloaked archers forward. Apparently the warlord that had originally caught Tip had indeed turned to Fail Wail.

    The wolf cloaked archers moved from tree to tree, seeking cover as my own archers volleyed into their advance. They were seeking to perform hit and run tactics on an individual level.

    Well, I had an answer for that. “Follow my trace!” In the military, that would have been a signal for my section to shoot where I was. Here my mental intent carried the command that my language didn’t entirely. “Shoot at what I do!” The concentrated fire pretty much guaranteed a kill each time we volleyed. Someone in the stack always seemed to roll high enough for a hit, if not a crit.

    The Warlady I left for last. “Scarlet! Fetch!”

    Scarlet swooped down and though the warlady scored a hit past her armor, the mighty dwagon still pinned her to the ground with her foreclaws.

    “Reform new stacks! Heaviest injured to the rear, un-injured or lightly injured to the front!” I commanded my infantry though I could have saved some words. There were no un-injured. “Archers, cover me. Remainder, march across the hex and assist Gala Band’s men!” The cavalry had been flanked by the sudden appearance of enemy pikers and could use some screening.

    I pulled 550 parachute cord and zap straps from my pack on Scarlet’s side so I could tie up the prisoner. “Let her loose.” I commanded.

    The warlady lunged to her feet and charged me with a dagger in her hand, her bow having been broken by Scarlet’s collision.

    She was introduced to bear spray. It was a very rude introduction to say the least. The red cloaked warlady was left at a loss for words. Really, she was brought to tears by the whole encounter.

    Unceremoniously and with very little pity, I tied her up and then secured her to Scarlet’s back. This unit was the reason I was in the middle of a war again so needless to say she wasn’t my favorite munchkin. Still, she could be a valuable addition to Tip’s side so I felt compelled to capture and attempt to turn her.

    A few of the wolf cloaked archers were moaning. Incapacitated but still alive. My instinct was to render first aid to them but the fact was that they didn’t need it. They would either be healed by Gala Band’s Altruistic Elf or they would die at the start of the next turn. They wouldn’t get worse and first aid wouldn’t make them better.

    Besides, the battle was still waging in the hex.

    Another stack of enemy pikers were entering the hex in an attempt to move around my infantry and flank Gala Band’s cavalry.

    “You hit them high, I’ll go low.” I commanded Scarlet. My rifle was out of ammo so I was forced to use my bow now. Scarlet dive bombed them, knocking them flat while my arrows took out any that remained standing. Then I ran up and introduced the prone pikers to bear spray. They didn’t like it any better than the warlady had.

    Then just like that, the battle was over. Enemy units were either croaked, incapacitated or captured.

    Gala Band dismounted and strode over to clap me on the back. “Well fought, my friend. We wouldn’t have done half so well if we hadn’t picked up those units from Outpost Four.”

    “We all got chewed up pretty bad as it is though.” Few of our units were actually lost however.

    “Don’t worry about it. My elf will heal them up and then we’ll be able to move on with the siege.” He looked over at the units that Scarlet was guarding. “Have to deal with them first. Want to see if you can turn them quickly? Otherwise I’ll have a knight escort them back to Outpost Four on our turn. They can rot in the dungeons until they decide to turn.”

    “Let’s put the choice to them, shall we?” I suggested and then walked over to the warlady, Gala Band in stride beside me. I glowered at her. “This one has caused me quite enough trouble already.”

    Recognition was in her eyes when she looked up at me. Though we had never met until this turn, she had been given a pretty good description when tasked to find me. My height compared to other units surely gave me away.

    “She’s level three now.” Gala Band pointed out, assuming a good cop role. “She’d be a worthy addition to your side. Shouldn’t be hard to turn her, she only recently turned to Fail Wail as it is so her loyalty is low. It’d be a waste to just croak her outright.”

    “I’m only allied to Tipperary, I’m still a barbarian.” I reminded him without really needing to. “We do things differently in the wastes. Someone crosses you, they die. But not fast. Never fast. I can pay for her upkeep out of my own purse for enough turns to extract what she’s cost me in pain.”

    “But if she turns to Tipperary, your alliance forbids you from harming her, doesn’t it?” He asked with a sidelong glance at the prisoner.

    My frown deepened. “Why’d you have to go and tell her that for? Just transfer the prisoner to me and I’ll pay you for her.”

    “I turn to Tipperary!” The young warlady shouted. “I turn! I turn!”

    “Damn it!” I swore. “My alliance compels me to accept on their behalf.”

    Her cloak remained red but gained a green trim and her sigil changed from a blue whale to that of a golden crown with green emeralds.

    What surprised Gala Band was when all the other soldiers present immediately turned along with her. “It seems that you have something of a dreadful reputation amongst the enemy. Either that or some truly impressive turnamancy.”

    The shackles fell away from the warlady and she stood up. “We call him warlord Holocaust. It’s said he stands by and laughs while his dwagon burns up units by the hex.”

    “The enemy often distorts the truth.” I said with a frown. “Propaganda is an age old part of warfare.”

    “And is it propaganda or truth that you were selling reconnaissance data to all three sides?” The warlady asked as though playing a trump card.

    “Yes, it’s true. I wasn’t allied to any of the sides at the time and abided by the letter of all my contracts to each side. Which is more than Fail Wail did, I might add. But I got paid for that too.” Then I smiled. “My real grudge was against your original side however. Not that they exist anymore.”

    “What’s your name, warlady?” Gala Band interjected.

    “Anne Cap.” She replied readily. Then she turned back to me. “Oddly, you seem to be my chief warlord without being a Tipperary unit.”

    “What’s really odd is you are now in the service of Queen Tip Temple, the unit you captured. But don’t worry, I’m not going to burn you all alive off turn or anything like that. Tipperary needs every soldier and every warlord they can get their hands on right now. And what happened before wasn’t your fault. You were just doing your duty to your side. It’s not like Tip or I were anything to you then.”

    “You were bluffing. About torturing me for as many turns as you could afford my upkeep.” Her eyes were blue but lacked proper pupils, just like everyone else I had met in Erf. It could occasionally make them hard to read if only because their eyes were so unnerving to look at.

    “Yes, I was.” I agreed. “With Gala Band playing the role of good warlord, there was a chance you’d turn to Avon. But loyalty might interfere with that as that is the side that is the biggest threat to Fail Wail at the moment. So I set up a scenario where only turning would save you from whatever horrors you were imagining and Tipperary was the side that was less offensive to your current, low loyalty.”

    “How did you know I’d turn?” She asked with a frown.

    “You’ve turned once already to save yourself, haven’t you? Or you would have disbanded when Wobin died.” I watched her carefully.

    Her eyes looked down at the ground. “They told me their plan and told me what units and how many they were deploying. I didn’t think the side could possibly survive so yes, I turned.” She looked up, looking fierce again. “I wasn’t doing my side any good as a prisoner anyway. And it turns out I was right about the side not surviving, even with your help. I don’t see it as betraying my side but as saving myself.”

    “I probably would have done the same thing in your shoes, if I was facing disbandment.” My gaze was still appraising her. “However your loyalty to Fail Wail would have been low. And having turned again so soon after having been on their side, I imagine your loyalty is still very low. Perhaps even lower than it was to Fail Wail.”

    “Turning out of fear probably didn’t help with that.” She pointed out, a little bitterness entering her voice.

    “No doubt.” I agreed with a shrug. “So you’ll understand if I don’t entirely trust you at the moment. You can expect a lot of garrison duty, managing either Outpost Four or maybe our capital until you’ve shown me you can be trusted.”

    “There’s a certain irony in being lectured by a barbarian warlord known for triple dealing on the subject of loyalty.” There was a bitter grimace on her face.

    “My loyalty to my friend Tip has never wavered in the slightest. Those who have my loyalty, have it absolutely.” I led her away from the others. “Now tell me about your incarceration and how they turned you.”

    “Like I said, they laid out their battle plan to me.” She explained, the bitterness leaving and being replaced by a more professional bearing. “They literally took me out of the dungeons to their war room and showed me the maps. That was when I learned you were feeding them intel for shmuckers. After I turned I told them you were feeding our side intel too. It seemed likely to all of us that you were selling our locations to Avon as well. It sort of made me realize what they were showing me was real.”

    Anne sighed as she remembered. “They already seemed to know though. I sort of got the impression that the flying mercenary knights had told them that though I don’t know how they knew. In any case, those mercenaries seemed very interested in you for some reason. After I turned I was ordered to tell them everything I knew about you. Apparently they were offering Fail Wail reduced rates in exchange for the information. That’s all but unheard of.”

    “What sort of questions did they ask?” That would tell me a fair bit.

    “They wanted to know where you originated from. What side. They wanted to know what abilities you had demonstrated so far and how many people knew about you. They also wanted to have a detailed physical description of your abilities. Finally, they seemed to know about your shockamancy archery weapons and asked some detailed questions about how they operated. Not that I had all the details on that of course.” She shrugged.

    “What happened after that?” Their areas of interest where curious and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it yet.

    “They convinced the other warlords that you were a huge threat and would have to be eliminated at all costs. They also predicted that you would make your way to Naughtyham as soon as you could and so far their intel and predictions had been spot on so they were believed.” She laughed a bit at that. “I had been the skeptical one but you’ve shown everyone how right they were.”

    “I’m not actually all that dangerous.” I gestured to where Scarlet was gorging on a carcass. “She’s where all the firepower comes from. My fire arms haven’t been much more dangerous than a bow in the hands of a skilled archer in a led stack. In any case, do you know how many archons were in Fail Whale’s employ?”

    “Only nine.” Anne answered. “There wasn’t enough in the treasury for more and still wasn’t as of the start of this turn.”

    “You’d think they would work at a reduced rate if I was so dangerous.” It did seem a touch odd to me.

    “They really seemed to more imply that you were a danger to us, not them.” Anne explained. “And apparently they were under another major contract elsewhere which was drawing quite a lot of their resources.”

    “Well it seems they’re out of the picture for now anyway, so that’ll be a problem for another time.” I glanced around. “Get yourself and your people healed up then gather every arrow in the hex and redistribute them. We may need them before the turn is out.”

    “You don’t need to worry about being attacked again.” She assured me. “No units with enough move to reach here were left in the city. Apparently another stack was expected to arrive by a newly popped Black Hawk after we left but we weren’t told their composition. In any case, those are the ones that will be holding the city now.”

    “One Black Hawk and one stack of units?” I frowned. “Could be just a skeleton crew to hold the city. Won’t be any heavies.” I narrowed my eyes. “Unless they get promoted to such after touch down.”

    “Is that possible?” The Warlady asked with wide eyes.

    “I assume everything is possible until I encounter a rule that says otherwise.” I grinned evilly. “Then I try to break the rule. Now go.”

    Anne took off to follow my orders and I went to find Gala Band to relay what I had learned what to expect at the city.

    “My elf has enough juice to heal everyone in this hex but not a bit to spare.” Gala Band looked thoughtful. “Contact the other friendly hexes. See how they fared.”

    The battles were over and had been won by Avon. The one hex was commanded by Avon’s chief warlord, Sir Lance of the Lakers. He was a warlord that had departed his original side (the Lakers) by turning barbarian before making his way to Avon and joining the side. He had served King Author Pentagram well and had risen to the rank of chief warlord. That hex had weathered the battle very well and their elf had healed up the surviving units just as ours had. Like ours, his elf was out of juice.

    The third hex had been chewed up pretty badly with few battle ready units left. What’s more, they had lost their elf in the fighting. They had incapacitated units that would croak at dawn and there was little we could do to prevent that.

    “I have some healing scrolls.” I told Gala Band. “I could send them to the wounded with Scarlet. And she’ll still have lots of move left over for scouting our way to the city. Heck, she should be able to take part in the siege.”

    “We would be in your debt.” Gala Band inclined his head respectfully. “Seems our turn has started. Whatever plans Fail Wail has laid for us, are set now.”

    Scarlet was finishing up her meal when I went up to her. “I have an errand of mercy for you, girl. You have to take these healing scrolls to our allies so their units don’t die at dawn.” I patted her neck affectionately. “Can you do that for me, girl?”

    The red Dwagon rumbled happily.

    “I’ll take that as a yes.” I smiled and then put the scrolls in a messenger pouch and tied it to her neck harness. “Get to it, you lazy oaf.”

    She snorted at me then licked my face. Then her wings took her up to the air and out of the hex.

    Scarlet sent me reports as she flew. As the allied units were healed and the way was cleared, we went on the march to the city of Idiot Ball. Seriously, Fail Wail did not have good signamancy at all.

    Made me wonder if we really wanted to take this city though.

    As we gathered all three groups on a hex neighboring the city, I opened a thinkagram to Scarlet. “Keep this channel open, send continuous reports.”

    <Order acknowledged.>

    “I’m ready to send Scarlet into the enemy airspace.” I told the other warlords. “But I’m worried about that tower. If there was a caster or casters on that Black Hawk, it could be a real threat to her.”

    “The tower had nothing cast on it otherwise and there wasn’t a caster in the city when the Warlady left at the start of her turn.” Sir Lance said with confidence. He was tall for an erf native but still much shorter than me. It was sort of talking to a young teen who worked out and maybe took steroids. “Moregains isn’t going to waste a caster to protect a city that is doomed to fall this turn.”

    “What if she wasted eight casters?” I replied.

    “Eight casters? On one side?” Sir Lance scoffed. “No side could afford that sort of upkeep. Most sides have only three or four. Some have only one or two. The most I’ve ever heard of is five to one side. And so far as we know, Fail Wail only has Moregains and two others at the moment. We croaked two of her casters including her chief caster three turns ago.”

    “So far as you know.” I pointed out. “It’s not what you know that gets you, its what you don’t.” Then I took a deep breath. “But there’s only one way to find out.” I entered the command to enter into my phone.

    <Entering enemy air space.>
    <Enemy units spotted.>
    <One stack, seven heavy knights.>
    <One caster.>

    “Scarlet! Get out of there!” I yelled, already too late.

    <Shockamancy attack.>
    <Unit incapacitated.>
    <Unit falling.>
    <Dirtamancy trap triggered.>
    <Connection lost.>

    I tried to reinitialize the thinkagram.

    <The unit you are trying to contact is no longer in service.>

    “SCARLET!”

    My scream was drowned out by a rumble as the city before us collapsed. The walls sunk into the ground. The city was being razed by Fail Wail to provide their treasury with shmuckers and to deny it to us. What’s more, if Avon wanted to claim the site, they would have to spend shmuckers to rebuild the city. To add insult to injury, we had lost a very valuable flying heavy unit.

    I had lost a friend.

    The dirtamancer formed an earthen wall to shield the heavy knights and himself from our arrows. I noted that the dirtamancer was as tall and as broad as Sir Lance was. As our infantry advanced, they had to contend with pit traps that seemed to form at their feet.

    I ordered my men back.

    “What are you doing, warlord!” Sir Lance demanded. “The battle is not won.”

    “I’m not throwing more lives away in this battle, pointlessly.” I turned on him angrily. "That dirtamancer has turned the hex into a mine field. We have no fliers and I can’t snipe him properly since I’ve used up all my rifle ammo. So we’re going to do this the slow way and the hard way, but no more of our units need to die here today.”

    Then I turned away from him. “Pikers! To the front! Lay down on your bellies! Probe the ground in front of you for traps with your spears! When the ground is clear, advance at a crawl. Stabbers, form up behind them. Archers in the rear. Hold your fire until you have a clear shot. Only move on the ground that has been cleared by the pikers.”

    “You’re using your infantry as sapper units.” Sir Lance raised a brow at that. “It’s not what they’re meant for.”

    “You have any sappers, Warlord? No? Then we use what we have. Any infanteer can be taught to probe for traps. Mine will just have to learn on the job is all.” Mentally I was directing them in mine clearing drills. Those spears would greatly increase the range that could be probed over what I was used to but the troops seemed to be getting the gist of it.

    The dirtamancer started lobbing hobokens at my advancing troops as that was the only range attack the stack possessed.

    “Go prone!” I ordered everyone. Then I took some pot shots with my bow to force the dirtamancer to get his own head down again. Everytime he popped up again, I provided covering fire and had my archers do the same.

    Fear grew on the faces of the enemy knights and the dirtamancer as my troops slowly but steadily grew closer. Sir Lance decided to take advantage of that fact. “Surrender yourselves!” He yelled at them. “We’ll spare all of you. Otherwise you face total extermination.”

    “I’m in no mood for accepting the surrender of that bastard!” I pointed at the dirtamancer and wished I could fire all my pent of rage through my finger.

    Perhaps cowed by my murderous intent, the enemy units all raised their arms and stood up. “We surrender to Avon!” Announced the dirtamancer.

    “Disable all your traps, dirtamancer!” Commanded Sir Lance.

    “It is done!” He answered, his arms still raised though now they wore shackles.

    He was no sooner done talking and I was running across the field to them. Powered by rage I picked the caster up by his throat and held him up over my head. “You killed Scarlet!”

    The dirtamancer gargled something incoherent.

    “Bastard!” I screamed at his face as I started to unholster my pistol.

    “Warlord!” Sir Lance and Sir Gala Band were running up. Sir Lance was the one yelling. “I promised we wouldn’t kill any of them!”

    I dropped the dirtamancer to the ground and then brought my foot down on his chest as hard as I could. “You’d be surprised what you can survive. A shot to the kneecap, for example.” My pistol was finally free.

    “Warlord!” Sir Gala Band grabbed my shooting arm. “Get a hold of yourself. This prisoner should be turned! And has valuable intel. That Black Hawk is still out there!”

    Glancing at Gala Band restored some of my reason and I nodded, letting him know I had some marginal control again. He released my arm and I glared down at the dirtamancer. “The Black Hawk! Where is it?”

    “I can’t tell you that!” He objected, curling up into a ball on the ground. “I still have my duty!”

    “You see?” I turned to Gala Band. “He doesn’t care about his kneecaps either.” Then I started to level the pistol at the dirtamancer again.

    “I-I’ll t-talk!” The caster shouted desperately at Sir Lance. “Just get that monster away from me! I don’t want to be burned alive!”

    Sir Lance stepped forward between us while Sir Gala Band pulled at my arm urgently. The chief warlord knelt down beside the dirtamancer and managed to look kind. “Don’t worry. I won’t let him hurt you. But I need you to tell me where the Black Hawk is. I know you have your duty and I respect that. You’ve impressed me with it, to be honest. So I will allow you and your stack to turn to Avon. You’ve fought well this turn but the turn is lost."

    The caster looked hesitant and then finally hopeless and defeated. “I turn.”

    “You did the right thing.” Sir Lance assured him. “You’re newly popped, aren’t you?”

    The dirtamancer nodded once.

    “Well, you did not bad for your first engagement. You levelled from croaking the dwagon, didn’t you?” Sir Lance’s voice continued to be kind.

    “Twice.” The newly turned caster risked a glance in my direction and then quickly looked away.

    “Well, what’s your name?” Sir Lance asked.

    “It’s Johnny Dean, warlord.” It was then that I noticed he was wearing two metal gauntlets. Steel or iron? I wasn’t sure.

    “Johnny, where is the Black Hawk?”

    “I don’t know exactly.” He said, still looking a little scared. “Moregains was controlling it directly and didn’t tell us where it was going. I do know that it only had six move left.”

    “So she anticipated your capture.” I was frowning. “We need to find it and kill it.”

    “I agree.” Sir Lance said, standing up. “You seven knights, you still have all your move, right?”

    They all nodded. They hadn’t used any move while riding on the back of the Black Hawk.

    “Good, go scouting for the Black Hawk. Don’t engage though. We’ll send you thinkagrams every so often so you can report its location.” Sir Lance nodded to Galaband. “Most my mounts still have move. How about yours?”

    Sir Gala Band nodded. “We have more than enough if its found.” He glanced at me, wondering how my Trojan Horse was doing. I nodded and then collected every available arrow in the hex.

    The Black Hawk was located and we rode out to kill it. I was the only archery capable unit in the group. So I started firing into the hex before we committed ourselves further. One of my arrows scored a lucky shot in the giant bird’s eye, critting and killing it.

    “Good work.” Sir Lance nodded as he wheeled his mount around. He signalled for Sir Gala Band and myself to ride beside him.

    “I’m going to use Johnny to rebuild the city site next turn.” He informed us. “After that, I’m going to turn him over to Tipperary as their share of the spoils and in recognition of the valuable unit they lost today.”

    It was an excellent gesture he was making, I knew. One he didn’t strictly have to make. A caster and especially a dirtamancer would be a valuable gain to our side. But now that my anger had subsided, it introduced some disturbing connotations for me.

    Johnny Dean was being given to us, like a chattel slave. With no choice at all in the matter. How would he feel about being turned over to a side with a warlord that had nearly killed him after surrendering? Not very good, I was sure.

    And of course, there was the reference to Scarlet as just a valuable unit. She hadn’t been a speaking unit, sure but she had been able to communicate in her way. She had emotions and a limited intelligence. More than any of that, she had been my first friend in this world and now she was gone forever.

    Johnny seemed a poor replacement for such a noble companion.

    My grief at her loss was being compounded by my shame at nearly committing what I considered a war crime. What would Tip have thought of that if she had seen me? Or if she had heard about it afterwards?

    Which reminded me. I had to inform Tip about the loss. I waited until evening to place the call, finding a place to be alone in the hex.

    “Hello Justin.” She seemed unusually sombre. “I sensed we lost some of my units today.”

    “We did.” I agreed and sent her the names. “We lost Scarlet too.”

    Her eyes widened and then teared up. “Oh no! I’m so sorry Justin.”

    At least there was one person on Erf that understood that Scarlet wasn’t just a unit. It was with that realization that I finally allowed myself to break down and cry.

    + + +

    The next morning, the walls of the new city went up at the direction of Johnny Dean. The part of the Hex I was in became the barracks for troops that would eventually be stationed here. In short order, Sir Gala Band came to collect me.

    “Come on Justin.” He urged me. “I want to show you something. You have to know, that Johnny wasn’t told to do it either. He just did it.”

    In the courtyard was a life sized red marble statue of a dwagon. Many units from both Avon and Tipperary were gathered around it including Sir Lance and Johnny. There was an inscription at the base of the statue.

    “In Commemoration of the loss of Scarlet the red dwagon. She served faithfully and well. She was an example of loyalty and duty for us all to aspire to.”

    I looked over at Johnny. He might actually be a little taller than Sir Lance. “You did this?”

    He nodded. “The Queen sent me a thinkagram last night. She told me about Scarlet. Even though she said that she didn’t blame me for following my duty and killing Scarlet, I sort of felt that maybe I could at least spare some juice so she could be remembered.”

    “Queen Tip and Scarlet were very fond of each other.” I looked back up at the statue and again tears welled up in my eyes. It reminded me that there were many things to aspire for and many people who could inspire us. “I suppose if she can forgive you, so can I.”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Thirteen

    Campaign Trail


    Recent developments necessitated a change in overall strategy. It seemed that Moregains was going to employ a scorched earth strategy. This meant we could expect her to raze any city we were going to attack before it became contested. That put shmuckers in her treasury and cost the Avon treasury to restore the cities. Of course it also reduced Fail Wail’s production and shmucker income but if we were going to conquer the city anyway, that was inevitable.

    Nor could we risk ignoring cities and pushing onto the capital. Those cities would have units that could attack us from behind or interfere with our supply chains and attack reinforcements. They also contributed to the production and income of Fail Wail so we had to deny both capacities to the enemy.

    Avon had an advantage that Fail Wail didn’t though. An ally who hadn’t reached the diminishing returns on city shmucker production yet. Every city added to our side was more units and shmuckers that could be added to the combined war effort. I had just demonstrated that the neutral cities in the area could potentially be converted to a side without conquest. This meant that Tipperary could potentially expand without incurring cost to our military capability. Indeed, each expansion would increase our military assets.

    After much discussion and debate, we managed to hammer out a plan.

    Avon’s forces would gather at Scarlet Fields (renamed from Idiot Ball) under Sir Lance’s banner. Once the expedition was of sufficient size, it would begin a traditional campaign of conquest against Fail Wail, laying siege to one city at a time and taking it. The path of the conquest would be southerly and aimed directly for the capital of Fail Wail itself.

    While that was going on, King Author Pentagram would sally forth from the capital of Avon. He would attempt to use his natural date-a-mancy and the aid of his chief caster to turn a few neutral cities and would start building a massive expeditionary force to eventually rendezvous with Sir Lance’s forces.

    While that was going on, Tipperary would be carrying out its own two prong strategy. Queen Tip with the assistance of Four Chan and Warlady Anne would head to neutral cities in the east that were safely surrounded by Avon territory. She would try and recruit four of those cities to our side.

    Meanwhile I would head west and recruit neutral cities that were in Fail Wail territory. In particular cities that were in the northern quadrant of their territory. Like Queen Tip, I had four targets designated to capture.

    That would leave three neutral cities in Fail Wail’s territory. It was hoped that these could be absorbed by King Pentagram when he started his push west.

    That way we hoped to open up a three front war against Fail Wail. Avon would be responsible for two fronts and Tipperary would be responsible for one.

    Avon would be a juggernaut in terms of number of cities and production capabilities but they would quickly exhaust their treasury. It would be Tipperary’s job to help staunch their hemmoraging cash flow problems. The primary way we would do that is feeding them all the cash we had left over after providing for the upkeep of our own units. That meant we wouldn’t be popping any more warlords than the one we already had in the que. It also meant we wouldn’t be hiring any casters from the magic kingdom. Scrolls were also a luxury we couldn’t easily afford anymore.

    I had several ideas to also help with costs.

    Avon had a number of expensive units, their chief caster especially. I introduced them to my shmuckers for rands exploit to bring those costs down significantly. That was just a drop in the bucket however.

    The first big cost saver was Johny Dean. Avon would reduce the level of most of their cities, especially those away from the fighting. They would get schmuckers added to their treasury and then Johny would shore up their defenses.

    The next cost saver was Andy. Avon and Tipperary would both pop cheap units and then he would provide them with dollamancy items to increase their effectiveness. He would actually halt production of golems to accomplish this. Relatively cheap items he could make were shock lances that provided a limited number of shockamancy attacks to knights (or really anyone). He also made shields that could soak up one shockamancy attack from the enemy before becoming an ordinary shield again. Another favorite were footwear for people and beasts both that would increase a unit’s move. Just a simple matter of adding motion to the items, apparently. Tip’s own skill at dollamancy though limited, allowed her to assist Andy on these projects, lending some of her own juice to the effort. These items would be transferred to Avon through the portals in the magic kingdom.

    Focusing on the management of farms for the production of provisions to reduce the upkeep of both sides was another thing Tipperary would do for the war effort. We were even providing some non-combat courtiers to Avon so they could free up more of their warlords for battle.

    King Pentagram invested some shmuckers to increase the number of Altruistic Elves in his service. A few of those he provided to our side so we would have a means to heal troops and reduce the number of losses we would incur. Most of them he sent to the front however.

    In addition to the Major, Tip and my phone, Avon had three magical hats that could be used to send small objects and messages. Turned out that Four Chan’s cap was another such device. So we felt that we had communications more or less squared away. Regardless, we used the hats to share a code so that secure messages could be sent via thinkagram. It doesn’t matter if the enemy can hear you if they don’t understand what you’re saying. New codes would be sent every evening, just in case the enemy cracked the previous turn’s code. In addition, every code phrase had an alternate in case we suspected that the code was broken. A real possibility since Moregains was a master class signamancer. Not to mention being an adept in both date-a-mancy and flower power.

    For transportation, I had a limited number of saw and Trojan horses. So I tasked the twolls at Outpost Four with creating battle wagons to carry troops and supplies while being pulled by our wood golems. One advantage is that I could set up a supply camp where our horses ran out of move or close to it and then march the troops the rest of the way to battle. I generally kept a small contingent of defenders back at camp along with the elves.

    In addition, I ensured there were at least one saw horse or other mount with good move at every city. This set up a sort of pony express so that important units such as casters, messages or small but valuable items could be moved throughout the allied territory.

    As courtiers were popped, Sir Forum was relieved of garrison duty. His new role would be to start taming ferals that we could use for battle as well as transportation. In particular, I wanted him to find us some flying mounts, such as gwiffons. When our first warlord was popped (a red head named appropriately enough, Ginger), I set her to recruiting ferals as well.

    Queen Tip was soon reporting her successes, every second or third turn. The cities of Epsilon Legato, Gamma Hydra, Delta Cherry and Sherman Nirvana all joined the Tipperary roster. King Pentagram was reporting similar if slower success with his neutral cities.

    That left me to deal with Shinzon, Alegeron, Pythos and Canaris. The campaign to recruit them wasn’t especially exciting though it did seem to take a long time. None of them were bought for a song like Outpost Four was. On the other hand, I managed to avoid any expensive promotions for any more units. Usually I had to bribe the highest level piker, stabber and archer present with a promotion to knight and the highest level non-combat unit usually received a promotion as well. It was actually a positive source of managers for cities and farms both.

    Somehow Queen Tip had managed it in half the time and with no bribes at all. Her natural date-a-mancy was apparently quite strong. Well, that was consistent with my impressions of her signamancy.

    Through it all, Sir Gala Band stayed by my side. He assured me that it was because he enjoyed my company but I was pretty certain that he was there to keep an eye on me. I definitely thought that Sir Lance considered me something of an unpredictable and unreliable barbarian. Given how I had behaved at the battle for Idiot Ball, I couldn’t blame him.

    That was all just laying the foundations however. The time came for the invasion to start in earnest. Queen Tip sent ninety percent of the side’s entire army to my command as well as all of the warlords and most the casters. The Major was imbedded with King Pentagram’s forces to provide him with communications capabilities. All told we had a little over a thousand infantry and three hundred cavalry and axillaries. We travelled as a single army and I trained my warlords as we went so they could train their units in turn.

    Since it wasn’t part of my strategy to increase our holdings past the ten cities we already possessed, I left the sieges to Sir Lance and King Pentagram. They were better equipped for those anyway. Instead I focused on open engagements and raiding enemy supply lines (another source of income and provisions for us). I also tackled a lot of the scouting.

    In other words, this campaign was a lot like every other one in history. There was a lot of hurry up and wait. There were long periods of boredom on the trail or at night that were interrupted with brief flurries of activity and danger. The days bled together and one battle seemed like any other.

    Moregains continued her scorched earth strategy. In some ways that made things easier for us. But it also meant that the final battle would be hellabad. That was because she was withdrawing her prime troops to the capital and she had a lot of them.

    The port city of Fail Wail bordered three water hexes and three land hexes. It was a level five city that had been (recently) enhanced by a dirtamancer (now in our employ). They had three ships in their fleet, arrayed in the middle water hex. The fleet had been larger but it was believed that she had hired them all out as mercenary forces to other units to keep paying her upkeep. Either that or they were raiding and razing weak cities of other sides. In a way, it was a classic supply by water scenario.

    She also dominated the air space. Half a dozen Black Hawks had been popped and were at her disposal. They were supported by knights on brooms. The brooms were provided by a master class dollamancer in her employ by the name of Cover Girl.

    Her last caster was Lady Jay, a master class healomancer who was an adept at moneymancy and dabbled in luckamancy. No doubt she was the reason the side was afloat at all but their treasury was surely nearly depleted by now. They only had one city to support a military created by fifteen cities.

    The most powerful caster on our side was without a doubt Merlin Morgan. A name I thought to be ironic and appropriate. He was a master class signamancer and date-a-mancer and an adept healomancer, florist and weirdomancer. He also dabbled in such fields as shockamancy, changeamancy, lookamancy and foolamancy. Apparently the Major had picked up some new lookamancy and foolamancy tricks from her time with him. To Gala Band, I referred to Merlin as an Omnimancer. He agreed with the assessment.

    Six thousand allied forces entered five hexes in a semi-circle around Fail Wail. The three land hexes closest to the capital were filled with their troops with more in the city itself. We would have to fight our way through them. The intent was to wipe out or push back all the forces surrounding the capital before attacking the city itself. This was a war that would be of total extermination.

    We couldn’t afford a long siege. We were at the end of a very long supply chain. Of course, Fail Wail couldn’t afford one either. They would soon start to depop units due to lack of support. In just a few turns, we would be in the same boat unless we wanted to start razing Avon cities. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how King Pentagram intended to keep his side economically viable after this battle anyway.

    As our forces prepared to move into our hex, I addressed my commanders, knights and senior stack leaders.

    “Tippers! We have come a long way to be here. We have earned a place of respect beside our Avon allies. We have pulled our weight and more throughout this entire campaign. Many of you joined us from neutral sides. Some of you were popped as Tippers. From wherever you came from, you’re all equal here on the battlefield. Criticals are the great equalizer from newly popped infantry to the highest level commander!”

    “Some of us may die in the battle to come. Some of us may level. I expect all of us to kill the enemy!” Despite my use of the vulgar words, my troops cheered. Soldiers have always loved a commander who swore like one of them. I didn’t pull punches with them either. I told them like it was.

    “We have been given the northern most hex to take. I say that Avon has underestimated us! We will take our hex! We will help Avon with the hex beside us! Then we begin our attack against Fail Wail itself. And we will do all this before turn’s end!” Again they cheered.

    “Remember your training! When the whistle’s blow, front rank goes back to be healed, next rank steps up fresh and ready to lay a hurt on the enemy. Kill the enemy in front of you but protect your brother and sister units to your right and to your left. Remember that they are also protecting you!” There were nods of agreement from them which is what I wanted to see.

    “For your brothers and sisters, for the side, for Queen Tip, for the Titans, let them all see your mettle. May you crit and not be critted! Today will be the day that Tippers will be remembered when the last book of Fail Wail is written! History waits for you!”

    The cheers became deafening and I smiled. They were as ready as I could make them. Now was the time to see if it had been enough. “FORM STACKS!”

    As rehearsed to exhaustion the night before, my army fell into formation. Sir Gala Band rode up beside me. “Impressive date-a-mancy in that speech. I’m beginning to believe the rumours that you’re one-part warlord, one-part hippie caster.”

    “I’m an old war hippie.” I said with a smile and a wink. I gave my weapons all one last once over. I was down to half the ammo I had originally started with as shells had been lost here and there in battle after battle. Andy and Johny had been too busy to see about providing me with new ammo and honestly, it was a pretty low priority. Besides, arrows were popping in my quiver every morning now.

    It was my bow that I would be starting with today. “Archers! Prepare to volley! Target air power!”

    We made it rain.

    Enemy fliers were exterminated before we ran out of arrows. Regardless I had more bundles brought up by our twolls who had been working day and night to ensure we would not run out. Once we took the hex, our archers would assist Avon to the south and engage targets of opportunity on the city walls. For now, however they would soften up the enemy infantry as much as they could.

    Fail Wail’s infantry was well protected by their shields however.

    “Archers fall back!” I bellowed my order. “Cavalry prepare to charge! Target enemy cavalry and heavies. Infantry, march in after them. Stabbers screen them from enemy infantry. Pikers, flank enemy cavalry. Charge!”

    Sir Gala Band and I led the charge. My massive Trojan horse crashed past ranks of pikers. Barding provided by Andy protected it from damage. I had a dollamancy sword in each hand and I was mowing enemy pikers down like wheat. The belly of my horse opened up and two knights rolled out and started screening me from infantry.

    Behind me I could hear whistles blowing, signalling the steady changes of stacks to the front. With healers in the rear, my infantry was a meat grinder that chewed up and spit out enemy corpses. At least as long as the elves’ juice held out.

    An enemy warlord charged me. He was the hex commander. My Trojan horse stomped enemy infantry in front of me into the ground and I swung my swords to cut a swath to him. We exchanged blows for a few moments before he managed to knock one of the swords out of my hand.

    “That was a mistake!” I yelled at him as I parried a two handed attack from him.

    He sneered at me. “And why is that?”

    “Because I brought a gun.” My pistol whipped out of its holster and I shot him in the face. Then I emptied the magazine into enemy knights that were rushing towards me. One of my own knights handed me back my sword and I continued to hack and slash at the enemy. He took the pistol and traded magazines for me as I had taught him and then it was returned to my holster.

    “Our boys beside us are having trouble with those broom knights.” Gala Band advised me and gestured.

    “Acknowledged. Help me disengage!” My order brought up several stacks of infantry and I pulled back to the rear of the hex.

    “Archers! Watch my trace!” I unslung my bow again and started to engage enemy fliers in the neighboring hex. As I had taught them, my archers volleyed the targets I selected until they were dropping like flies.

    “Bring up the magazine wagons!” I commanded over my shoulder to the hex we had recently occupied. Soon more arrows would be arriving.

    Then I turned my attention back to the battle. We were driving the enemy units back and decimating their stacks but they weren’t retreating out of the hex. They were going to fight to the last unit with no surrender asked or offered.

    I sighed at the waste. The hex would soon be ours.

    Sure enough, the enemy were so many corpses on the battlefield.

    Sir Gala Band rode up to join me.

    We both received a thinkagram from the Major at the same time. “Sir Lance has fallen. Gala Band, you are now chief warlord. Move to the far south hex. King Pentagram wants that you send your cavalry units with him, Justin.”

    The newly made chief warlord looked at me questioningly.

    I nodded. “Cavalry units! Go with Sir Gala Band. You’re under his command now.” Together they rode out the way we had come and the long way around to the far enemy hex.

    Ginger rode up to me on her saw horse. “The hex is ours, chief! What are your orders?”

    “Bring me my commanders.” I decided after a moments thought. “Casters too.”

    Ginger turned her saw horse around and fetched them all.

    “Warlady Anne, take direct command of the archers. Line up on the border with the city but don’t engage yet. We don’t want to have them firing back on us just yet. Johnny, create some defensive barricades for her archers to hide behind once the volleys begin.” They left to carry out my orders.

    “Sir Forum, I want you in command of the pikers. You’ll be leading the march into the next hex to help our Avon allies.” He nodded and left to organize the stacks.

    “Ginger, you’ll be with me, fighting with the infantry. Andy, you’ll be with us. Use your toys and hobokens to take out targets of opportunity amongst the enemy leadership and heavies. Also, split the elves between the infantry and the archers. When they run out of juice, rotate them out of the battle space.”

    We marched into the middle enemy hex but there was barely room for us. The enemy had filled the hex with heavies and knights. My infantry was harder pressed to make headway against them then they were against the lighter enemy forces we had just engaged. It made sense. Fail Wail had underestimated us and had focused their defense against the expected approach of King Pentagram.

    I scanned the hex with my scope. The King was at the front and was being pushed back by some heavies. It was for situations such as this that I reserved my rifle these days. My Remington delivered precision shots against the enemy heavies. Ten rounds later, I was out of long rifle ammo but the King now had some breathing room that his knights rushed to fill.

    Only then did a warlord in heavy black armor enter my view. His face was covered with a pair of goggles and a mask. In fact he looked rather like an apocalyptic enforcer of the law. He matched the description of Sir Moredread. “Why couldn’t that bastard appear when I still had rounds in my rifle?”

    He was cutting swath through Avon units to their king.

    I pulled out my phone and made a call. “Gala Band! Your king is in trouble. Drop everything and charge into this hex!” I didn’t wait for his reply.

    “Make me a wedge to the center of the hex!” I commanded. “We have to stop that black armored knight at all costs!” My bow was out and I started firing.

    To my frustration, every shot either bounced off his shield or hit another enemy unit who just happened to move in the way at the worst possible moment. It was like he was a GM’s pet and the GM was a cheating bastard.

    Then an enemy piker got a lucky swing at my bow, past the screen I had around me. The bow snapped in two. “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK!”

    Enemy units in the immediate vicinity collectively took a step back. I drew a sword in one hand and my pistol in the other and then urged my Trojan horse forward.

    Between sword swings and pistol shots, I saw Moredread close with King Pentagram and the two start to exchange brutal, two handed blows. It was a drama I had seen and read about many times and just as those times, I seemed to be helpless to prevent it.

    On the other side of the royal melee, Gala Band was experiencing similar frustration as he pushed forward through a mass of enemy units.

    To our mutual terror, we both saw Moredread’s sword plunge into King Pentagram’s belly. Why hadn’t the fool listened to his warlords and stayed off the battlefield?

    With a superhuman push, Gala Band broke free and his sword plunged into Moredread’s side all the way to the hilt.

    Likewise, I had a clear shot and my last bullet blew Moredread’s brains out the back of his head.

    “Gala Band!” I shouted over the din of the melee. “Get your king out of the hex! I’ll take command here!”

    “Chief!” Andy rode up beside me. “The elves are out of juice!”

    “Of course they are!” I followed that up with a litany of curses that would make a sailor blush and pushed enemy units well away from me.

    Gala Band was personally pulling his sovereign up onto his horse and riding for the rear of the hex with all due haste.

    “Tippers! Reform ranks! Avon forces! Reform with them! Protect your king’s withdraw! For Queen Tip! For King Author!” Hectic movement took place around me. The allied forces formed a wall of infantry from one end of the hex to the other. “Commanders! Blow your whistles!”

    The meat grinder started churning out corpses again though now we were taking casualties as well. “Commanders! Take the heavily injured out of the battle!” I supplemented my orders. “Cycle back the lightly wounded in reformed stacks.”

    “Out of juice.” Andy reported.

    “Leave the hex. You’re too valuable to risk here.” Then I added. “You’ve done good here.”

    “I levelled.” He informed me without pleasure, blood splattered on his face and probably in his red hair as well. Then he turned and rode out of the hex.

    “Ginger, stay here in the rear. Keep on the commanders to keep the stacks changing and as fresh as possible. I have to go the front and help against those heavies.”

    She nodded, looking a little relieved at not having to return to the front of the action.

    Before I charged forward, I called Anne. “Warlady, fire all remaining arrows into the front of this hex.”

    “We’re not attacking the city this turn?” She asked.

    “No. We have to secure the remaining hexes first.” Then I ended the call and started for the front line.

    With no ammo left, I was left to hack and slash with my two swords. Mounted on a Trojan horse, I had a serious advantage height against the enemy heavies which was further enhanced by my magic swords. With a rain of arrows falling on their heads and our combined infantry pressing against them, they were being whittled down.

    Finally the arrows stopped. There was a shout from my left and I saw Gala Band leading a charge of the cavalry from the other Avon hex. Apparently he had returned to the battle and finished up in that hex.

    It was the last nail in the coffin of the enemy defense. They had no leadership left, all they could do was fight until the last of them fell to our swords, spears and lances. And fall they did.

    Finally the din died and the hexes were all ours. I made a call. “Johnny! Continue your defensive fortifications along the frontier of all three hexes. Line the ground in front of them with traps and then build tunnels between all three hexes and to those behind us so we can move troops around without the enemy observing it.”

    “Roger.” He answered and set to work.

    Then I found Gala Band giving orders to his men. He looked ten years older than he had when the turn had started.

    “How bad is he?” I asked, fearing the worst.

    “Bad.” He said grimly. “He’s incapacitated and will die without healing.”

    “And all the elves are out of juice.” I frowned.

    “They are.” He agreed.

    “Chief Warlords.” It was the Major contacting us both again. “The King wishes to speak with you both. You are here by ordered to fall back. Queen Tip supports this order.”

    “Acknowledged.” Then I exchanged grim looks with Gala Band before we moved to the rear logistics area.

    The King was laying on a stretcher with the Major and Merlin both attending to him.

    “Can you heal him?” Gala Band asked immediately of his chief caster.

    Merlin shook his head sadly. This was the first time I laid eyes on the chief caster of Avon. He was tall. Very tall. He would have passed for a short human. His eyes looked over me appraisingly before he answered Gala Band. “No. I used all my juice in the battle. Even if I had not, my skill at healomancy is insufficient for wounds of this magnitude.”

    “So that’s it then.” Gala Band looked resigned.

    “N-not quite yet.” The King managed to lift his head. “There is one way to save the side.”

    “We don’t have enough in our treasury to pay for an heir.” Gala Band objected but then turned to me hopefully. “Unless Tipperary has enough?”

    I shook my head sadly.

    “I have already spoken to Queen Tip.” The King said. “That is not an option.”

    “If your commanders all turned barbarian…” Gala Band suggested though he didn’t seem pleased with the idea. A lot of units would still disband at dawn.

    The King shook his head. “No, chief warlord.” Then he coughed. “You will all turn to Tipperary. Queen Tip will be your monarch now. The campaign will continue against Fail Wail until it is done.”

    “My liege! I can’t!” Sir Gala Band objected. “You are my only King!”

    “And I shall always be such. But you will serve a queen now.” The King mustered all his strength. “That is an ORDER, chief warlord the entire side shall turn immediately. Come dawn, Avon will end with me. But only with me.”

    A tear stained Sir Gala Band’s face, pushing blood from its path down his cheek. His raiment turned green as did that of all the other Avon units around us except for the King’s.

    I left them to attend to their king. I had a siege to plan. Stock was taken of our remaining troops and they were redistributed along the hex borders to prepare a possible sortie from Fail Wail at the start of the next turn. Most of them I kept underground and out of sight so that Fail Wail wouldn’t know where we were strong and where we were weak. Then I moved up the heavy siege units and the logistics units.

    When it was all done, I returned to the hex that held the king and let out a heavy sigh. “End turn.”

    Night immediately started. I was surprised to find Tip amongst those around the dying king. She was wearing green plate armor and had her sword strapped to her side.

    “What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded of her.

    “Language.” She tsked at me. “I used your pony express to get here. I’m here because I would see this noble man to his last turn. Then I will see this campaign to its end. I do not intend to be a royal who does nothing.”

    “You’ll be a royal who does nothing because you’ll be dead!” My language shocked all those present.

    Tip turned on me, looking fierce. “You will protect me.”

    “And the best way to do that is to send your ass back to Tipperary using the same pony express that got you here.” I gestured back to the neighboring hexes where tomorrow’s battle would begin. “I don’t know if the line will hold. If the enemy punches through, our entire side ends when they cut you down.”

    “Your defenses will hold.” She said with supreme confidence. “You will protect me.”

    “I can’t protect you if you don’t do what I say!” I yelled at her. “I order you to retreat at the start of our turn!”

    “The troops need to see that they are still led by a royal. One who will lead them properly.” She planted her fists on her hips. “We can’t afford the hit to morale if I leave now.”

    “We can’t afford the hit to the entire side if someone gets a crit against you tomorrow.”

    “You don’t understand.” Merlin interjected. “There’s a prediction in play here. Moregains can only be defeated in battle by a royal. That is why King Author came up to the front. That is why Queen Tip must be part of the battle tomorrow.”

    “She won’t engage enemy units!” I protested. “How is she supposed to defeat Moregains?”

    “She doesn’t have to defeat her personally.” Merlin explained. “It is enough if she commands the battle.”

    “I have a prediction too.” I said angrily. “This is all going to end in tears!”

    Tip stepped up to me and placed a hand on my chest. “Please calm down Justin. We’re still friends, aren’t we?”

    I took a deep breath and then sighed. “We’re still friends.”

    “Until the end of turns?” She pressed.

    “Until the end of turns.”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Fourteen

    End of Turns


    I didn’t sleep that night. Instead I paced a groove in the grass as I waited in nervous anticipation for the next turn.

    This was the worst escort mission ever because I actually cared about the target. There was no game reset for this one. If I failed, I would lose another friend.

    So I endlessly ran scenarios in my head, trying to figure out some way to win the day and protect Tip at the same time. If I hadn’t already ended turn, I could have sent her away on her own move. She could have returned under her own power when our turn started. Now she was vulnerable during Fail Wail’s turn.

    Damn it all anyway, why hadn’t she told me what was happening?

    Because I would have ordered her away. Like I had tried to do. Or I would have thrown her over my knee and spanked the daylights out of her! Who did she think she was, anyway? Putting her life in danger so recklessly? That was my job!

    In the end, I decided that I would keep her in my Trojan Horse. And then I would tie the blasted thing up from the outside! If things went badly during our turn, I’d order it out of the battlespace, prediction be damned! A second chance could only happen if she survived tomorrow.

    Morning came and I felt refreshed as I always did but my mood didn’t improve. I consumed my breakfast alone and in silence before I rejoined the others.

    “Tip, get into my Trojan Horse. Don’t leave it until I grant you leave to do so.” Was the first thing I said to her.

    “But…”

    “THAT WAS AN ORDER, YOUNG LADY!”

    She winced from the force of it but complied.

    “Good idea.” Sir Gala Band noted after she had left.

    “Indeed. I’ll be able to keep an eye on her and protect her.” I started to check my ammo. “Motherfucker!”

    “What?” Sir Gala Band was startled by my sudden profanity.

    “I never recovered my shells from yesterday’s battle. I’m out of ammo.” I slammed the pistol down on the table.

    “Not every round.” Andy corrected as he reached into his pouch. “I still have one rifle and one pistol round that you gave me. I even put them back together again after I examined them. Assuming we survive this, Johnny and I will be able to make more of them. As many as you can carry.”

    “If we survive this.” I echoed as I accepted my last two rounds and loaded them.

    “Fail Wail has begun to sortie out of the city.” The Major reported dutifully. “Into all three hexes our troops occupy.”

    “Let the traps do their thing while the archers engage.” I said. “Then have them withdraw and play hit and run with support from the infantry. Rotate injured units back to be healed by the elves. Hold the cavalry in reserve until needed.”

    Moregains expended her cheap units as fodder for our traps. Then her heavies and knights started entering the tunnels as our units pulled back. We hit them, then pulled back some more. In the hex that Johnny was, tunnels were collapsed on enemy units who then had to bring tunnelling units up to advance. We weren’t suffering heavy losses yet, but eventually she would push us into a corner and we would either hold or we wouldn’t.

    Somewhere in the city, Moregains must have flinched. Her troops withdrew back to the city and her turn ended. Maybe reports of a slaughter under similar conditions had reached her ears from the Magic Kingdom. It seemed I owed this Parson Gotti a beer if I ever met him.

    “Bring the heavy siege forward.” I commanded the Major. “Tell the commanders at the front to move all units into the center hex but to await my arrival before beginning the assault.” After a moment I added, “Bring all our barrels of oil up as well. They want to call me Lord Holocaust? Let’s give them a reason to.”

    “Well Sir Gala Band,” I clapped the warlord on the shoulder. “Once more we ride into the breach.”

    “That we do, chief warlord.” Then he seemed to hesitate.

    “Yes?” I prompted.

    “It is customary to parley and offer terms. If you can get Moregains to surrender, then that would count as a defeat against a royal.”

    “And the odds of her doing that?” I asked him.

    “Not good. You’d have to offer her the moon, I think.” He didn’t look happy to be delivering the news.

    The air seemed to almost solidify around me. As if powerful forces were suddenly converging on my person. Somehow I knew my next decision would be a fateful one.

    “No dice.” I declared. “We didn’t come here to negotiate with Moregains. We came here to eradicate Fail Wail.” Immediately the pressures relaxed and I hoped I had made the right call. Either way, the die was cast.

    “As you command.” Sir Gala Band bowed his head. “Let us be about our business then.”

    “Indeed.” I agreed as I led the way to our mounts.

    After mounting my Trojan horse, I tapped on it. “You comfortable in there, your majesty?”

    “No!” Came the muffled reply.

    “Good.” I said with entirely too much satisfaction. Then I spurred my mount forward.

    I rode across the hex boundary. “Archers! Volley.”

    “At least the enemy will get to fight in the shade this turn.” Sir Gala Band remarked dryly.

    “Let that be the only courtesy we pay them this day.” I replied just as dryly.

    A caster appeared on the wall and was waving her arms around while archers around her returned fire against well protected fortifications.

    Unslinging my rifle, I fired my last bullet and caught her right between the eyes. Then I made sure to recover the expended casing. “Hopefully they’ll think I can do that again.”

    “Hopefully.” Sir Gala Band agreed grimly.

    Once the walls were cleared of archers, I ordered the barrels catapulted over the wall and lit in the air by our archers.

    My phone rang. It was the Major. “The enemy has put out the fires with minimal casualties. They seemed to have been able to use the water from the adjoining hex to do it. Not sure how though.”

    That made me think. Water in rivers moved freely between hexes. Maybe it wasn’t bound by the same physics? Something to consider.

    “Deploy the heavy siege. We’ll just have to do this the old fashioned way.” I ordered.

    Infantry and archers fought their way up siege towers while cavalry waited for wiener rams to force open the gates so they could charge into the courtyard.

    Units on the walls were met by knights who fought fiercely. When the gate finally gave way, our own knights were met by heavies.

    “Casters!” I ordered throughout the battle space. “Join the battle in the breach. Blast those heavies!”

    “I should join the battle.” Sir Gala Band advised, eager to prod his mount into a charge.

    “No.” I said firmly. “You’re our best fighter left. Your job is to protect the queen at all costs. If she is lost, the side is lost and this battle won’t have mattered.”

    He nodded. “I’ll give my life for her.”

    “Hopefully it won’t come to that. I’d rather see her retreat and try again some other time then risk her life. Be sure to make it happen if I don’t come back.” Then I dismounted. “And if I get killed, have her promote you to chief warlord. In the meantime, though, my bonus is needed in that hex.”

    Sir Gala Band nodded again. “As you command.”

    Sprinting, I joined the melee at the gate. The enemy was holding the line, despite our rotations. There was a caster behind them, probably healing them as ours were. “Somebody shoot her!”

    Volleys followed and she fell. Unfortunately, the archers had let themselves become vulnerable to enemy knights in the attempt and were cut down.

    “Two casters down.” I muttered grimly. “One to go.”

    Our own casters were taking hits too however. Smokey Bears had converged on Andy and tore him apart. So much for ever getting more rounds again. It was a cold thought given the loss of his life but I didn’t have time for emotion at the moment.

    Bodies pressed against each other and for a long time, neither side budged though both sides thinned.

    Finally, there was a break in their defenses and our forces started pouring past them.

    Unfortunately, they started running into dirtamancy traps. “Johnny! Do something about those damned traps, would you!”

    “Will do chief!” He responded but didn’t get far. A lucky and surviving enemy archer chose that moment to crit before being taken out by one of our knights.

    Unit by unit, soldiers on both sides died but a way was cleared to the tower and I charged up it, dodging bolts of shockamancy that were raining down.

    I had to fight for every stair up the tower. The enemy landed blows against me and for awhile, they were healed by an elf that had managed to follow me in. Eventually a piker got their spear past me and ended the elf’s efforts. It cost the piker his life however and I managed to clear the remaining units between me and the roof.

    Footsteps came racing up behind me. A stack of knights joined me for the final push and then we were standing on the roof. The knights screened me and we engaged the knights protecting their ruler. Neither stack would yield and the knights fell, one by one.

    The last enemy knight’s head flew off his shoulders at a swing from my sword. But I was finally alone on the roof with Moregains who was standing before me.

    “Wait!” She shouted. “It doesn’t have to end like this! Let me take a ship…”

    “Just die!” My sword swung and her head landed beside that of her knight.

    Exhausted, I walked over to the edge of the tower. There was nothing but corpses below. Suddenly as I watched, all the ones in green disappeared, leaving only those of Fail Wail behind. Then the flags of the city changed color from blue to black.

    The city was mine. Not Fail Wail’s. Not Tipperary’s either. “What the fuck?”

    Slowly I walked back down the stairs and over the corpses in the courtyard. I walked out of the city to find the field outside empty of anything.

    Except a spiked pit trap, a Trojan horse shattered on the bloody spikes below.

    I let out a Fail Wail of my own. “NOOOOO!!!!!”

    + + +

    I was the new ruler of Fail Wail. A single unit in charge of a single city. With three barbarian ships docked offshore who might well have a mind for revenge come the start of the next turn.

    At a lost and emotionally empty, I toured my conquest. Somehow I found myself in the library. There was a book on the shelves that caught my attention. It was newer than the rest. The Fall of Fail Wail.

    Almost automatically I took it off the shelf and started scanning it into my phone. Numbly, I read it, trying to discern where I had screwed things up. What decision could I have made differently?

    Once it was scanned, I saved it as I usually did. On a whim, I tried to edit passages in it but to no avail. Then I noticed in the drop down menu that there was an option to delete.

    I hovered over the command and contemplated pressing it. Suddenly a strong feeling of déjà vu hit me. I had been here about to delete this file before! I was sure of it.

    But had that changed anything? No, probably not. Without any new stimulus, I would have made all the same decisions I had today. Maybe deleting the file reset the day, but it couldn’t change anything. Too bad I couldn’t edit it. Somehow that seemed entirely too unfair. After all, it was said that winners write the history books. Was I not the winner of this pyrrhic battle? Should I not have a chance to write the story of the victory?

    Then another whim hit me. I cut and pasted the entire text to a new document but didn’t save it. Instead, I started changing the text. I had figured out where I had gone wrong and if I had it all to do over again, I knew exactly what I would change. One decision was vital, but others were probably important too. The rest would fall into place like dominoes.

    When I was done, I named the file and changed the file type. Then I hit save.

    <There is already a file by that name. Do you wish to overwrite it?>
    <Accept> <Decline>


    Again I felt the forces build up around me. Stronger this time. So powerful it nearly paralyzed me. But the image of that shattered Trojan horse impaled by blood red spikes wouldn’t leave my mind. Whatever happened, I couldn’t keep living with that memory.

    I hit accept and then…

    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Fourteen

    The Retconjuration


    I didn’t sleep that night. Instead I paced a groove in the grass as I waited in nervous anticipation for the next turn.

    This was the worst escort mission ever because I actually cared about the target. There was no game reset for this one. If I failed, I would lose another friend.

    So I endlessly ran scenarios in my head, trying to figure out some way to win the day and protect Queen Tip at the same time. If I hadn’t already ended turn, I would have sent her away on her own move. She could have returned under her own power when our turn started if that was what was truly needed. Now she was vulnerable during Fail Wail’s turn.

    Damn it all anyway, why hadn’t she told me that she was coming?

    Because I would have ordered her away. Like I had tried to do. Or I would have thrown her over my knee and spanked the daylights out of her! Who did she think she was, anyway? Putting her life in danger so recklessly? That was my job!

    In the end, I decided that I would keep her by my side the entire time. If things went badly during our turn, I’d load her up into my Trojan horse and order it out of the battlespace, prediction be damned! A second chance could only happen if she survived tomorrow.

    Morning came and I felt refreshed as I always did but my mood didn’t improve. I consumed my breakfast alone and in silence before I rejoined the others.

    “Tip, I want you to stay by my side all turn.” Was the first thing I said to her.

    “But…”

    “THAT WAS AN ORDER, YOUNG LADY!”

    She winced from the force of it but nodded. “If you say so, Justin.”

    “Good idea.” Sir Gala Band noted as he joined us.

    “Indeed. I’ll be able to keep an eye on her and protect her.” I started to check my ammo. “Motherfucker!”

    “What?” Sir Gala Band was startled by my sudden profanity.

    “I never recovered my shells from yesterday’s battle. I’m out of ammo.” I slammed the pistol down on the table.

    “Not every round.” Andy corrected as he reached into his pouch. “I still have one rifle and one pistol round that you gave me. I even put them back together again after I examined them. Assuming we survive this, Johnny and I will be able to make more of them. As many as you can carry.”

    “If we survive this.” I echoed as I accepted my last two rounds and loaded them.

    “Fail Wail has begun to sortie out of the city.” The Major reported dutifully. “Into all three hexes our troops occupy.”

    “Let the traps do their thing while the archers engage.” I said. “Then have them withdraw and play hit and run with support from the infantry. Rotate injured units back to be healed by the elves. Hold the cavalry in reserve until needed.”

    Moregains expended her cheap units as fodder for our traps. Then her heavies and knights started entering the tunnels as our units pulled back. Hit them, then pulled back some more. In the hex that Johnny was, tunnels were collapsed on enemy units who then had to bring tunnelling units up to advance. We weren’t suffering heavy losses yet, but eventually she would push us into a corner and we would either hold or we wouldn’t.

    Somewhere in the city, Moregains must have flinched. Her troops withdrew back to the city and her turn ended. Maybe reports of a slaughter under similar conditions had reached her ears from the Magic Kingdom. It seemed I owed this Parson Gotti a drink if I ever met him.

    “Bring the heavy siege forward.” I commanded the Major. “Tell the commanders at the front to move all units into the center hex but to await my arrival before beginning the assault.” After a moment I added, “Bring all our barrels of oil up as well. They want to call me Lord Holocaust? Let’s give them a reason to.”

    Tip winced but said nothing.

    “Well Sir Gala Band,” I clapped the warlord on the shoulder. “Once more we ride into the breach.”

    “That we do, chief warlord.” Then he seemed to hesitate.

    “Yes?” I prompted.

    “It is customary to parley and offer terms. If you can get Moregains to surrender, then that would count as a defeat against a royal.”

    “And the odds of her doing that?” I asked him.

    “Not good. You’d have to offer her the moon, I think.” He didn’t look happy to be delivering the news.

    The air seemed to almost solidify around me. As if powerful forces were suddenly converging on my person. Somehow I knew my next decision would be a fateful one.

    “I don’t have the moon to offer her.” Still, I hesitated and looked at Tip. “What do you think, your majesty?”

    “I think I prefer it when you call me Tip.” She said with a hint of her normal mischievousness. “But I also think if we can at all avoid a battle, then we owe it to the side to at least try. That, and you did pinky swear to always use the minimum force required to protect me. Surrender without further fighting would accomplish that.”

    “That settles that then.” Finally, the forces seemed to relax and I was able to breathe more easily again. “Major, contact Moregains. Inform her we wish to offer her terms.”

    “As you command.” The Major replied. A moment later she said. “Moregains says she will meet you at the hex boundary at the bridge.”

    “Tip, you stay here. I’ll go meet her alone. Make Gala Band your chief warlord if I don’t come back.”

    “You’re calling me Tip again.” She smiled. “But I’m coming with you.”

    “It won’t be safe.” I insisted.

    “It won’t be.” She agreed. “My side needs its current chief warlord and I can’t protect him if I’m not there.”

    “You can’t or won’t engage.” I pointed out to her.

    “Maybe not.” She agreed to my surprise. “But I have other tricks I can use. Just trust me, Justin.”

    “Alright.” I said reluctantly. The decision left me conflicted. On one hand, I felt it was a mistake. On the other hand, I had a strong need to keep her close to me. Even stronger than normal, as if some outside force was compelling me.

    Together the two of us walked to the hex boundary.

    Three female casters were waiting for us there, each one screened by a stack of Smokey Bears.

    “Trusting sort, aren’t you?” I raised an eyebrow at the gathered firepower.

    “I’ve heard it’s currently in vague to attack your enemies during parley.” Moregains replied. She was a beautiful woman with long, jet black hair. Yet there was a sinister air about her. Despite that, I wasn’t afraid of her. It was like facing an enemy you’ve defeated already in a game. Sure they’re tough but you’ve got this. Odd.

    “My warlord is honorable!” Tip came to my defense with a fierceness that surprised even me.

    Moregains raised a brow at her. “So you’re the Queen of Tipperary. Brave of you to come here in person.”

    “Do you lack honor then?” I asked. “Because if so, we’re wasting our time.”

    “I do not lack honor or courtesy.” She said firmly. “But parley’s such as this are usually a false courtesy used to insult a foe that is thought to be all but defeated.” Her back straightened. “I assure you that the battle is not won or lost yet.”

    “We’d rather there not be a battle at all.” Tip told her. “But if there is, you can be sure that we will win. Despite that though, I believe you would make any victory very costly for us. Thus we will offer you terms in the hopes that you will take them rather than force a battle neither of us want.”

    “What do you propose?” Moregains demanded.

    “Here’s what I’m thinking.” I said, as a fully formulated plan popped unbidden into my mind as though by magic. “You have three ships, correct? So we write a contract. You surrender the city and we allow you safe passage to those ships at the start of the next turn with as much of the treasury as your purse can carry and all the gems you have. You can take whatever combination of units your ships can transport. The rest remain behind and turn to us. Of course there will be a long term non-aggression pact signed by yourself and all your commanders to prevent further hostilities.”

    Both of Moregains’ eyebrows went up. “Those are… surprisingly reasonable terms.”

    “I suspect you’ll be left with more than if we continue the fight today. Your life, and those of your key units, for example.”

    She looked thoughtful. “I want one more thing.”

    “Go on.” I prompted her cautiously.

    “I want my moneymancer to convert the remaining treasury into the gems so I can take that with me as well. And all the ships in my fleet shall remain in my command, not just the ones docked here. I’ll need them to start a new side.”

    I glanced down at Tip and she nodded up at me. “We agree, in principle. But a binding contract will have to be drawn up.”

    “Very well. I will await your first draft.” She turned and re-entered her city. Her fellow casters and their Smokey Bears followed her.

    Tip and I returned to our lines and summoned Merlin and the Major so we could hammer out a contract.

    Merlin’s insights into contract clauses and phrases was impressive. He was also able to explain how some things could be automagically enforced and others couldn’t be.

    “Yeah, I was hoping to gain the ability to see unit stats and a proper treasury sense when we wrote my contract to be Tipperary’s Chief Warlord. I was able to grant the side my bonus but not gain those new insights.”

    “It was a worthy experiment.” He assured me with a kind smile. “Very worthy. However, signamancy can’t grant you what you don’t have already. To gain those abilities, you would need a weirdomancer, I think. A real one, not a dabbler such as myself. You could grant your bonus however, because it was something that you already possessed.”

    “With signamancy you can effect life or matter along the fate axis.” He continued to explain. “You can create books or scrolls for example. But you can’t make something move. That’s more the realm of stuffamancy.”

    “So you can use signamancy to affect a unit’s fate?” I asked, looking up from reviewing the first draft of the contract we had composed. We’d already sent it to Moregains for review but I wanted to be sure we hadn’t missed anything.

    His head moved from side to side as he hedged his answer. “Potentially. In small ways I suppose. If you write something inspirational, you could for example motivate a unit down a course of action they might never have undertaken before. What can be really interesting however is using it spot the flow of events. Almost like a predictamancer but not as precise.”

    “Yes, I think I understand what you’re saying.” This whole war between Avon and Fail Wail had been an excellent example. “But you can’t necessarily avert that flow.”

    “A unit sees which way a river flows, he doesn’t change it. But he can look for the best place to cross it, or go along with it if they so choose.” He affected a sage like demeanor.

    “Unless someone has a motor boat.” I pointed out.

    “That would allow that one person to go against the flow.” Merlin admitted. “But would not change the direction of the river’s flow.”

    No, that would take damns and serious landscaping and engineering feats. Though perhaps the analogy wasn’t intended to be taken that far. That was part of good signamancy too. Not just recognizing good metaphors but also recognizing their limitations.

    “Date-a-mancy is related to signamancy.” I said as a revelation struck me. “It’s in how you read and manipulate the signs in people. Signamancy is about communication of not only language and the icons or signs of the world. But date-a-mancy is about how people themselves interpret that. It’s basically theory of mind and empathy.”

    “Your grasps of the subjects are impressive.” He said with approval. “It’s a wonder you can’t cast any spells because your perceptions are beyond any mere novice or someone with a natural special.”

    “I would like to learn.” I admitted. “If only to see if I could. It’s a shame though. I looked for a spell book or magic book in every library I’ve seen and so far have come up empty.”

    “You can learn magic and spells from spell books.” Merlin confirmed. “But they are specially created items. If I were to form a link with the Major here and let’s say, Andy, I would be able to transfer his level of knowledge and dollamancy spells to a book that another caster could use to learn them.”

    “What if…” An idea was occurring to me. “What if the Major, you and I were to form a link? Then I could use my knowledge of signamancy to write the book, and you could fill it with your knowledge and spells on the subject to it, through the Major?”

    He lifted an eyebrow. “An interesting experiment. One we shall have to attempt when we have a chance.”

    “Agreed.” Said the Major who had been following along. “I wouldn’t mind increasing my knowledge and understanding of signamancy as well.”

    Tip’s eyes lit up. “Thinkagram from Moregains. She has reviewed the contract and is willing to sign it if we are.”

    “Alright.” Merlin nodded and then waved his wand over the table. A true, magical copy of the contract appeared without the effort of writing it out long form. “We shall meet her on the bridge and both sides leaders shall sign it.”

    We met on the bridge and some twolls brought out a table and chairs for us all to sit on. Merlin read the articles out loud and then Moregains was allowed to read it one more time. She signed and then Tip signed.

    The contract created an immediate alliance between the sides. “I hereby turn over the city of Fail Wail and all its units to Tipperary.” Moregains announced, enacting the first clause of the agreement. The pennants and flags turned green accordingly.

    Tip in turn, started ordering units specified in the contract to turn barbarian. Then she filled the purses of Moregains and her commander units from the treasury. “Please consider yourselves our guests until tomorrow morning when your turn as barbarians begins.” Tip said with her usual smile. “Until then, feel free to enjoy our hospitality.”

    Fail Wails had officially fallen as a side and Moregains had been defeated by a royal ruler. Tipperary was now officially a side with a total of forty-five cities including three capital sites. Despite our size, our army had been whittled down substantially from the war with Fail Wail. We were also seriously cash strapped. Making the upkeep payments would be an immediate challenge that was not helped by having only a pittance in the treasury. That would have to be my first concern as chief warlord.

    There were other concerns that pressed for my attention. I called our dirtamancer. “Johnny? If there are any more dirtamancy traps left untriggered, find them and neutralize them. I don’t want anyone accidently falling into any of them and getting killed or incapacitated.”

    “Roger, chief.” He agreed before ending the call and setting to work.

    “If you’ll excuse, I have an urge to go check out the library. There will be a new book popping there and as one of the author’s of today’s events, I’d like to see how it all turned out in print.” Then I smiled at Tip. “I’ll leave the celebrations and formalities to you, my queen. However, I would like to see you and the casters and commanders in the library this evening.”

    “Of course Chief Warlord.” She said with mock formality and a smirk. “Enjoy your reading time. You’ve earned it.”

    I found the auto-published book of Fail Wail’s fall and flipped towards the end. When I first started reading it, there was a serious sense of déjà vu. Yet that feeling quickly subsided and was replaced by a different sense. A feeling that what I was reading didn’t match how it had happened. Yet the words exactly matched my memories of events.

    When I was done, I closed the book and contemplated. You know that feeling, when there’s a word you’re thinking of? You know the word, it’s right there, on the tip of your tongue. If only you could just find it in your mind. I had that feeling. But it wasn’t a word I thought I was missing. Rather, there was something else. An idea perhaps. A revelation or paradigm shifting epiphany that I felt I should have but didn’t. Something Erf-shattering was gnawing on the edge of my consciousness.

    Finally, I shrugged. Whatever it was, it didn’t really matter and was probably just my imagination anyway. All that really mattered was that the day was won and all my friends had survived it.

    What could be more important than that?

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Fifteen

    Signamancy of the Warlord


    “We have set ourselves up to fail. As a side, we are too big to succeed.” I announced once Tip and all the side’s commanders were gathered in the library.

    “The side now has forty-five cities including three capital sites. The shmuckers per city that we’re currently receiving is horribly low. Despite the losses that all three sides took in the recent war, we cannot maintain the side’s upkeep for more than a round or two and then the treasury will be completely depleted. And that is taking into account ensuring all units consume provisions to reduce their upkeep and having our most expensive units’ upkeep paid for with relatively inexpensive rands. Even refunding every shmucker in every commander’s purse including my own will not extend this nor do we have sufficient gems to make a difference.”

    I planted my palms on the table. “The traditional answer to this dilemma is to conquer cities and raze them for shmuckers. Even if that weren’t a morally bankrupt answer which would lead to this side becoming nothing more than a side of roving raiders and plunderers, it’s not currently feasible. Nearly our entire army is here in Fail Wail. We have no ships to load them up to go attacking other sides from this location nor can we pop any, anytime soon. Our nearest neighbors are on the other side of the territory to the east with nothing but snow to the north and desert to the south. So even if we were a side who was willing to engage in war for profit, there is no one close enough for our army to engage before mass depopping of units begins.”

    Queen Tip was looking a little horrified at the prospect of either raiding other sides or depopping her own units. The warlords and casters were simply nodding to the grim reality. “Do we have any other options?” She asked, directing the question to me.

    “We do.” I replied, hoping to relieve some of her anxiety right away. “It’s a hypothetical scenario I’ve been pondering for a number of turns now. If we were three sides instead of one, the total shmuckers per city produced would rise and would make our current numbers a little more feasible. If we raze some cities, perhaps as many as fifteen, that will get us out of our immediate cash crunch that we’re in right now. That will leave each side with ten cities, well under the point of diminishing returns.”

    “It would be better to have twelve cities per side.” Tip said after a moment’s consideration. “We’d only have to evacuate and raze nine cities total. That would reduce our immediate cash reserves but also substantially increase each sides income.”

    “That’s…” I paused to consider, “actually a valid point, Tip. Okay, so yeah, we split the current side off into three separate sides with twelve cities each of more or less equal income. Then we take the shmuckers from razing the cities and divide that equally between the sides and we divide all our current units except casters equally as well.”

    “Why not split up the casters as well?” Sir Gala Band asked. “That doesn’t seem as fair.”

    “You have to understand that while I’m splitting the sides up technically, in spirit we will remain one united side. Our collective goals and strategy will be the same.” Understanding was beginning to dawn on some of their faces. “The new overlords will sign contracts along with Queen Tip to bind all three sides together. So the advantage of putting all our casters on one side is that I think that it will increase the chances of a caster popping in the other two sides. Though we may bypass that random mechanic entirely and set about recruiting directly from the magic kingdom. Regardless of which side a caster technically belongs to however, all three sides will have equal access to them based on their needs and the collective agreements.”

    I placed Lord Crush’s book on the table. “As of tonight, this book is required reading for all commanders and casters or any other senior units that are part of this side or future spin off sides. In fact, I took the liberty of contacting Lord Crush before this meeting via thinkagram. He discussed it with his queen and they are willing to allow one of our casters travel to their kingdom through the magic kingdom so they can examine and copy the contract for our modification and use. I think we should also consider this possibility to open a dialogue with them to open the doors for a possible alliance though we are too far apart to really support each other. However, trade should be possible at least. Especially for small items we can ship through the magic kingdom. I suggest that due to his mastery of signamancy, that Merlin be the one to go there.”

    Tip looked over at Merlin questioningly and he sort of shrugged and nodded. “Alright.” She agreed. “I like this strategy of making friends.”

    “I’m just getting started, Tip.” I assured her with a smile. “I believe there are other ways we can grow and prosper as a collective side above and beyond the method found by the So-Be-It Union. For starters there’s trade. Some of our cities can produce units that aren’t produced by other sides. Like the Black Hawks the Fail Wail pops. We can trade them to other sides for gems or shmuckers. Some sides have made a living as mercenaries, providing troops to warring sides. That’s another way we can consider earning shmuckers. Andy has proven himself to be a talented dollamancer and I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what he can do. All our casters can provide valuable services both here and in the magic kingdom. That’s one reason I think we need some good start up capital. We need to attract some experienced casters to us.”

    I turned to the Major. “From what you’ve been saying, this warlord, Parson Gotti, has got the magic kingdom all up in a tizzy, yeah?”

    She nodded so I went on. “We can take advantage of that. The casters there are used to it being a neutral zone. Someplace they can go where war can’t follow them, right? Well now there’s this warlord shaking things up and they have to be wondering how long it’ll be before he does bring the war there. Some of them may be weighing other, more stable options. We can offer them that stability with a system already tested positive for over sixteen-hundred turns by another collection of sides.”

    “We might be able to recruit some desperate or low level barbarian casters at the pier.” Andy suggested quietly, making all the casters look grim.

    “What’s the pier?” I asked, my momentum derailed for the moment.

    “It’s a place on the eastern side of the magic kingdom.” Andy explained. “It’s were barbarian casters go to see one last sunrise when they can no longer make upkeep.”

    “Oh my god!” Tip and I exclaimed in unison and with the same inflection.

    “Yes, definitely recruit from there!” Tip exclaimed and I nodded my agreement.

    The force of the double order caused Andy to immediately stand up and start to leave.

    “Not yet!” I ordered.

    “But someone might be there to disband!” Tip exclaimed and Andy started walking again.

    “No one will disband there before morning.” I pointed out. “And the kingdom’s portal is currently many turns walk away for Andy. So there’s nothing we can do until we iron all of this out. However, if anyone is there, they should still be there just before morning, right?”

    “Yes, I suppose that is true.” Tip agreed almost reluctantly. “So let’s hurry and get these things dealt with!”

    “Of course, your majesty.” I inclined my head to her. “Andy, have you ever been to this pier before?”

    “Yes.” He returned to his seat. “When you tipped me those thousand shmuckers, I gave them to a croakamancer I found there. I think it bought him ten more turns. Haven’t seen him since though.”

    I stared at him for a moment. “You’re a good man, Andy. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.”

    Then I looked down at the table and thought. “Where was I? Oh yes. So we’ll recruit from the magic kingdom until we have a total of fifteen casters between the three sides. There are a few caster types that we must recruit, even if they don’t happen to show up at the pier however. We can only afford to show charity to the less fortunate in the magic kingdom if we ourselves are showing a profit.”

    I looked around and saw nods of agreement. “We’ll also look at hiring specific casters for specific jobs at a decent rate of exchange. The more work we’re sending their way, the less charity they’ll actually need and the more benefit we gain as well.”

    “I think there’s a lot of experimentation we need to do with magic so we can explore methods of being a stable union of sides.”

    “What are we going to call ourselves, collectively?” Anne asked. “You mentioned this other group called themselves the So-Be-It Union?”

    “I would like to propose that we call ourselves the United Federation of Sides.” I turned to Tip to see what she thought.

    She pursed her lips and pressed a finger to the bottom of her chin in thought. “It does sort of have a ring to it. UFS for short.”

    Until that moment, I hadn’t considered the acronym. Still, it didn’t seem to have bad signamancy though it did suggest yet again, a digital environment of some sort. “Alright, I’m fine with UFS for short. We can come up with names for the two splinter sides a bit later. I’m of the opinion that we should avoid using either Fail Wail or Avon though I’m sure the future overlords will have the biggest say in that.”

    “And are you going to be one of those overlords?” Anne asked, looking as though she had figured out my own personal grand strategy.

    “No.” I said flatly. “I may count as a caster, which would undermine my reasoning for some of the things I’m suggesting. My recommendations for overlords are Sir Gala Band and Sir Forum.”

    “Four Chan is a higher level unit than Sir Forum.” Tip pointed out. “Plus she’s a court unit anyway. It makes sense to make her an overlord.”

    My gaze fell on Tip as I considered it. Until then it hadn’t even occurred to me to promote a non-commander unit to the position, much less a court jester. Was it even possible? Still, Tip had a valid point about her already knowing her way around court and being a higher level. Plus, we wouldn’t have to sacrifice one of our more valuable remaining warlords. “That’s another good idea, Tip. Assuming it’s possible and she’ll agree to signing the contracts, we should do that.”

    Queen Tip smiled broadly at me and inclined her head. “I’m glad you approve, Chief Warlord.” It was a subtle and friendly reminder of who would ultimately be making all the decisions tonight.

    Perhaps with good reason, I thought. She had gotten to be level thirteen somehow, even if she didn’t remember it. Despite her somewhat childish mannerisms, she often came up with very useful suggestions and she definitely had a way of getting people to like her. Maybe being a pacifist wasn’t a curse. Maybe being a pacifist forced to live in this world was the curse.

    “I do. You’re the reason I’ve thought so hard about this, Tip. You’ve made it clear that violence isn’t your favored solution and would like to keep it to the absolute minimum. Everything I’m suggesting tonight is the culmination of those considerations of how to best serve you.”

    She looked so happy, she might actually burst into an explosion of rainbows. “So what do we do first?”

    “First you have to make this the new side capital. It’s a higher level city than Tipperary and I believe it’s in a better over all defensive position.”

    “But Tipperary was my first capital.” She pouted.

    “Tip, be reasonable. You can rename this site if you like. In fact, you should.” I sighed. “It’s got really bad signamancy as is.”

    The queen pursed her lips thoughtfully again. “I name the new capital…” Her brows creased. “Well, it’s a port city that was once called Fail Wail… and the side color is green… For some reason the name Sydney keeps running through my mind.”

    “That’s an excellent choice.” I said with a smirk I only half hid. “Maybe we could call ourselves Ozzies. You know, from the stories I’ve read you.”

    “I do like that.” She admitted. “It has a nice ring to it, as you say. Very well. This will be the new capital site and it will be named Sydney. But I think we should still be called Tippers.”

    “The problem is that we can’t change the capital from here.” Sir Gala Band pointed out. “It has to be done from the old capital site.”

    “Well that’s bloody awkward.” I frowned. “I suppose we could use the Pony express to get Tip back there when it’s our turn again.”

    “Or we could split the sides first.” Merlin suggests. “A binding agreement can be sent to Four Chan via thinkagram. Then Tip can designate her heir before abdicating the side of Tipperary to Four Chan.”

    “That’ll cost a lot of shmuckers we don’t have.” Gala Band was quick to point out.

    “Then we have to chose the cities to raze first.” I decided. “We need the funds. After we’ve picked them, they can be evacuated.”

    “They can only be evacuated on our turn.” Merlin pointed out.

    The limitations of this world were getting to me. “It seems that our options are somewhat limited then. So for tonight we’ll have to be satisfied with making plans. This is why we need three sides. When we’re three sides, we’ll have three portals giving us access to the magic kingdom. It increases our ability to move about.”

    “Then we can’t save anyone at the pier?” Tip looked crestfallen.

    “Does anyone here know any casters currently in the magic kingdom? If so, we can get them to go to the pier on our behalf and offer a rand to anyone who might be there and willing to join a side.” It was one thing I could offer to do for Tip.

    “I do.” The Major replied. “I’ll get in touch with them and see what comes up.”

    “Thank you, Major.” Tip smiled at the thinkamancer.

    “So what are your priorities for recruiting of casters?” Merlin asked the question that appealed to his particular skill set.

    “We need a second thinkamancer for starters.” I referred to some notes I had. “We’ve been lucky with caster links so far. We need to be able to safely bring casters out of them before we experiment any more down that path.”

    “I agree.” Merlin nodded. “What else? Is that a list I see?”

    “It is a list.” I agreed. “I think we need a findamancer and a lookamancer. Since we’re looking at being an economic power, a moneymancer is a must. A Hat Magician and a carnymancer would also be good casters to recruit. I think a wierdomancer and a changemancer are both essential. A turnamancer would be nice and we could benefit from a healomancer as well.” After a moment I added, “I think a Florist would add to our economic capabilities. I wouldn’t mind an additional dollamancer and dirtamancer as well. That’s not a slight to you guys, Andy and Johnny. I respect what you do so much, I want more of it.”

    “Maybe I should have asked what caster types you don’t want.” Merlin chuckled.

    “I’m not super interested in recruiting a luckamancer, a predictamancer or a croakamancer to be perfectly honest. I admit those are all for personal reasons though.” Croakamancers just gave me the willies and I didn’t like the idea of fate or luck controlling my destiny. Even I had to admit my reasons had nothing to do with their respective usefulness.

    “You may be in luck.” The Major said as her attention returned to the table. “My friend found a pair of casters at the pier. One is a carnymaster and the other is a hat magician. They’re brother’s named Barnum and Baily, respectively. What’s more, my friend is interested in joining. He’s a thinkamancer like me, named Max Plank.”

    “Anyone else know some casters who might be amicable to joining the UFS?” Mostly I was looking at Merlin who was by far the oldest caster present.

    “It’s been a while since I looked in some of my old friends.” Merlin said thoughtfully. “I may know a couple who might be interested. A wierdomancer in particular I know by the name of Bob.”

    “Just Bob?” I raised a brow at that.

    “It’s the only name he goes by.” Merlin shrugs. “He may be concerned about revealing the rest of his true name. He’s not completely ignorant of signamancy, after all.”

    “Fair enough.” I agreed. It was the first time the subject of true names had come up and Merlin had touched on the vulnerability they could present in this world. It also reminded me of the problem of no apparent signamancy of this Parson individual.

    “Well Tip, I imagine you’re willing to part with two rands and recruit two down and out casters and maybe a couple who are just interested in joining us.”

    “Of course I am.” She said firmly. “Major, make the arrangement. Get a hold of Merlin’s friends too.”

    The Major nodded once, already looking off in the distance.

    “In the meantime, let’s discuss which cities to raze. And perhaps which cities to reduce in level so that the three sides start out on a more or less equal footing.” That got the conversation going again, with the warlords dominating the conversation.

    I let them talk it out while I took notes and occasionally asked questions. The truth was they probably had a better understanding of this phase than I did. For her part, Tip seemed more than able to keep up. Which was a good thing since many of their questions about the specifics on the cities were directed to her and her ruler sense.

    “I think Tipperary will remain my capital.” Tip commented part way through the discussion. “So we’ll have to upgrade it to a level five. Make sure to factor that into the equalization of city income.”

    “I can help with the upgrade.” Johnny volunteered. “It will save you some shmuckers.”

    Eventually nine cities were chosen for complete razing to the ground. Only six needed to be reduced in level and one upgraded (aside from Tipperary) to even out the three proposed sides and of course twelve cities producing a combined equal income were divided up.

    Sir Gala Band wanted the old capital of Avon as his capital and Tip agreed. He intended to name it Commentary and his people would be Commenters. He figured that was at least equal to being a Tipper.

    Four Chan agreed via thinkagram with Tip that she would enter into an alliance with both Tipperary and Commentary if she was given Fail Wail as a capital to a new side. She also agreed that the name of Sidney had a ring to it. Tip convinced her that her people should be called Ozzies. Despite that having no direct relation to the name of the capital or perhaps because of that fact, Four Chan readily agreed.

    Next came the division of warlords. Four Chan wanted and got Sir Forum. Sir Gala Band wanted two of his colleagues from Avon that had survived and that was agreed to. The problem was Tip.

    “You can’t have Anne, Ginger and me.” I said for the fifth time. “Four Chan needs a second warlord.”

    “Well I’m not giving you up as chief warlord.” She insisted.

    “And I wouldn’t serve anyone else anyway.” I agreed.

    “And Ginger is my first popped warlord.” Tip continued.

    “That she is.” I continued to try to be reasonable.

    “And Tipperary was where Anne was popped.” Tip finished.

    “Also true.” I sighed.

    “So it’s settled then.” Tip crossed her arms defiantly across her chest.

    “No.” I remained stubborn. “You have to give up one of them to Four Chan.”

    “I’ll go.” Ginger volunteered finally. “I’ll always be a loyal Tipper in my heart, your majesty, but Anne is a higher level than I am. It’s better for the side if I go and she stays.”

    “Well,” Tip said hesitantly, “if it’s what you want.”

    “It’s what is best, your majesty.” Ginger looked sad but also determined.

    “Remember that we’re all going to remain together as part of the same alliance.” I ran my hand across the map we had out. “You’ll all be able to visit each other. Often.”

    “That’s right!” Tip exclaimed and the both looked relieved.

    I was beginning to notice that Tip was always very close to all her female subjects. That too was consistent with the signamancy of her name however.

    To my surprise, Tip spoke up in a commanding voice.

    “Alright everyone, first I’d like to thank my chief warlord for identifying the issue we are facing and for developing a plan to help us overcome it. I think it’s a very good plan and I want you all to do your best to implement it. Tomorrow we’re going to be very busy. I’ll be taking the pony express to Tipperary and Gala Band will take it via another route to his future capital. Meanwhile, Four Chan will be coming here. I will then command the cities razed, lowered or upgraded as we discussed here. That’s when I’ll divide the realm into three sides. Then Merlin, you will go to the Magic Kingdom and fetch a copy of the treaty that the So-Be-It Union wrote up then you’ll work with Justin to adapt it to our needs. After it’s been hammered out, everyone will sign it. Then I’ll divide the treasury between us equally.”

    Clever girl. I thought to myself. Keep hold of a carrot until everyone had signed on the dotted line. One more incentive in case the force of the orders she was now giving were diminished after the sides were made.

    “Is there any more business tonight before I adjourn this meeting?” She asked of us.

    “Just one more thing.” I put up my hand and she nodded. “I’ve been working on something I’m calling the social contract. It’ll be a contract between rulers and commanders and the subjects of each of our sides. It won’t impose any new duties to common units but it will guarantee them some basic rights. The idea will be to limit the abuses of those in authority. This may be my last order to you collectively so I want you to take it seriously. I want you to seriously consider what constitutes an abuse of power by a commander and how it might be curtailed in a codified document. I’d like all three sides to implement their own social contracts. While some of you may think this is silly or goes against tradition, I want you to consider the possibility that such a document might actually enhance the duty and loyalty of most units.”

    “Yes, very good Justin.” Tip smiled at us all. “A very good idea. Everyone think real hard about it.” Then she clapped her hands together. “You’re all dismissed.”

    Everyone except Tip and Merlin left. Tip moved to the seat beside me and opened up Lord Crush’s book. “It’s required reading.” She said and looked up at me.

    Merlin sat down as well. “I think I’ll stay to listen. It’ll save me having to read it later if I hear it. In fact, I’ll transcribe a copy while you speak.”

    “Yes, of course.” I said with a wry grin and then started to read.

    +++

    When my obligatory reading was done, Tip gave me a kiss on the cheek and retired for the evening. Now only Merlin lingered.

    “The date-a-mancy between the two of you is very strong.” He observed.

    “It was just an innocent kiss. I assure you there’s nothing romantic between us.” I said firmly.

    “Not all date-a-mancy is romantic. I mean only that the two of you are very close. You’d die for each other. I dare say one of you might even defy the will of the Titans for the other.” He was giving me an appraising look I didn’t entirely understand.

    “Let’s take this past turn for example. I’ve learned from talking to her that she does not much like killing though you’ve helped her understand it is sometimes necessary however distasteful it may be to her. Perhaps she can’t bring herself to kill anyone herself but ideally as a ruler she shouldn’t need to. It still weighs heavily on her that sometimes her subjects must kill others. And here you have been thinking long and hard about organizing a side where her subjects won’t have to. Her allies won’t likely have to either though they are merely bulwarks against hostile outsiders.” His gaze was best described as piercing.

    “I suppose that’s one way to view it.” I said without much commitment.

    “Did you know I’ve dabbled in predictamancy?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Yesterday, I would have predicted a victory for us, to be sure but a costly one. A very costly one.”

    His gnarled old fingers pulled the first book I had read today and he flipped it open. “This was a fine ending to a long and hard fought campaign. I do not think I could have written a better one myself.”

    “We all had a hand in authoring events leading up to this turn.” I was frowning, still not understanding what his gist was.

    “Yes, I suppose we all did. Some more than others perhaps.” He put the book down. “What is done, is done though, right?”

    “Yes, of course. There’s no mulligans in life.” My eyes followed where his gaze had drifted to. It was the book detailing Avon and it’s eventual fall.

    After several long moments, he spoke again. “I wanted to talk to you about Tip. Before I got distracted, that is.”

    “Of course.” I nodded, curious about what he had to say.

    “I suppose you didn’t know there have never been any archon rulers in the history of Erf?” He gestured to the book shelves. “All of the original ninety-nine sides eventually fell. All their books are up there. Not one of them was an archon. Yet all royalty descends from them.”

    My eyes narrowed at him. “So?”

    “So Tip is a royal. But she’s not descended from any of those sides.” He seemed to be waiting for me to say something.

    “Then what does that mean? Because she’s clearly identified as a royal archon.” I drummed my fingers on the table.

    “It means that I smell weirdomancy at work. That’s why I want to bring Bob here and introduce him to our queen.” His face creased into a deep frown. “Might be a touch of carnymancy as well.”

    “I still don’t follow you.” I shook my head.

    “I mean she may not have been popped as a royal. I think weirdomancy was used to make her a royal after the fact.” He sighed. “Royals make a big deal out of their blood lines because it’s an inherited special. But here’s the thing, it’s still just another trait, like the ability to fly or being a warlord. In theory, there’s nothing stopping a wierdomancer from turning a unit into a royal. But I think the royals would lose their collective cool if any unit ever tried it.”

    “So why would anyone?” I asked him.

    “I honestly don’t know, lad.” He shrugged. “Perhaps she was popped to a royal side and earned the respect and love of the ruler. Maybe he adored her enough to want to make her his heir. It could be that duty compelled the ruler to make such a powerful unit the heir. Who can say? But the side was a royal one, right? So the heir had to be a royal too. So this hypothetical ruler did something that would scandalize any other royal that learned of it.” Merlin shrugged again. “There’s no way to know without a weirdomancer’s senses.”

    “So what you’re telling me is that her very existence might be painting a big bullseye on her and anyone near her.” It was a statement, not a question.

    The old caster just nodded.

    I chewed that over for several minutes. It really was too bad those automagically published history books couldn’t be rewritten to include a side of Archon royals.

    As my thoughts drifted over our conversation, something occurred to me. “Can I ask you something, Merlin?”

    His gaze turned back to me and he nodded.

    “Have you ever chased any white stags?”

    Merlin blinked several times at me and then laughed. “You don’t believe those old tales, do you? The only thing I’ve ever chased was the odd nymph in my youth.” Then he winked. “May have caught one or two.”

    “Ah.” I just nodded with a smile.

    The old mage stood up and stretched. “Time for old bones to get some rest. See you tomorrow.” Then he started out of the library.

    He was nearly out the door when I finally said, “Erf Natives. They. Do. Not. Say. Kill.”

    Merlin froze in his tracks. Then he looked over his shoulder at me with a sly grin on his face. “I am a master class signamancer, lad. Besides, Erfer’s can say kill, they just choose not to because they consider it obscene. Seriously, it’s not like I said fuck.”

    The old wizard chuckled and then he walked out.

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Part Sixteen

    From a Certain (Royal) Point of View...


    I wonder who I was before I opened my eyes in that chamber in that ruin hex? Was I anyone at all? I think perhaps that I must have been. It’s not that I have any memories of who I was. For all I knew, I was just being popped into the world for the first time.

    Yet before I even opened my eyes, I could feel things. What I felt most was fear. It was the sort of fear that comes from being pursued by something that means to destroy you. Even now in my dreams I feel that fear and I have the sense that something is still chasing me.

    There were other feelings with fear. I felt a sense of deep loss. The loss must have been great because I think I was in mourning. There were also feelings of disappointment, regret and even betrayal. Strongest of all however was an incredible sense of loneliness. So bad was it, that the subject of my fear could have been there when I awoke and I would have embraced it as an old friend.

    Then something changed. I wasn’t alone anymore. Someone was in the chamber with me and they were offering alliance… friendship…

    So my eyes opened and I got the sense that I was in a temple of some sort. Which is just silly since it was merely a ruin hex. I knew that as I knew many things that any newly popped unit would. One thing that I did not know though I felt that perhaps I should, was my name.

    Standing in front of me in this strange temple chamber was a heavy barbarian unit who was aligned to me. So large was he that when my feet touched the ground again, I had to tip my head up to see his face, though it was clouded in darkness.

    It is rude not to introduce oneself when one meets a new person. I knew this to be true, even if I didn’t know my own name or my past. This unit, knowing nothing about me, had offered me an alliance. I wouldn’t start that alliance by being rude. So I took my first impressions and used them to make a name for myself. “Hello there friend. I am Tip Temple.”

    “Hello Tip.” He was holding some sort of light emitting device and it was illuminating me but I couldn’t make him out very well at all. I could just tell that he was very tall. I hoped he was a gentle giant. Then even as I was thinking he should introduce himself, he did. “I’m Justin.”

    Then he surprised me by offering me his hand. He hadn’t spit in it first like I knew was proper for sealing a deal but then he wasn’t offering any terms either. So I hesitated and looked for clarification. “You’re offering me alliance without terms?”

    The light device shifted and I caught a glimpse of a sword he was wearing strapped to his side. I’d seen it before, I was sure but of course I couldn’t remember where. But the feelings it stirred in me were of friendship, happiness and safety. “I think… I think you must be a friend, though.”

    I accepted his massive and calloused hand and shook it. I was surprised by how gentle his grip was.

    It wouldn’t be until we left the ruined temple where I was awoken/popped/repopped that I would finally get a good look at my new/first friend.

    He was tall. Very tall. And his shoulders were broad as well. His head was a little smaller in proportion to the rest of his body or so I thought at the time. Of course the only person I had for comparison was myself. I just reasonably assumed that I was normal.

    Justin had weird eyes. They were blue, which wasn’t strange, but they had black dots in the middle of them that made me wonder if they had been stabbed or something. They can sometimes be unsettling to look at so I’m glad I couldn’t see them in the ruins. I wouldn’t have wanted to start my friendship with Justin with a bad first impression of him.

    His hair was black and short. It was hard to notice because it was so short but there were a few white hairs near and around his ears. The signamancy suggested an older unit who wasn’t being fielded as often anymore. Perhaps that was why he was released by his side to become a barbarian.

    While mostly muscular, he had a bit of a gut that almost seemed out of place with the rest of him. That suggested that perhaps he wasn’t as active as he used to be. Well, I would have to make sure my new friend had lots to do!

    While I was contemplating the meaning of his signamancy, he introduced me to Scarlet. Scarlet wasn’t a speaking unit like anyone else with a name. He’d named a dwagon! He even called the dwagon a ‘she’, which was just silly. Why would a dwagon be a he or a she? A dwagon was just a dwagon.

    Still, I thought it was cute that he named her (how quickly I adapted to the idea of it being a her though!) so I didn’t enlighten him on the subject of dwagons. I also didn’t correct him the odd time he would mess up and call her a dragon. It’s not nice to make fun of people with speech impediments and he usually tried very hard to pronounce the word properly.

    That is how I met the barbarian named Justin Case. Depending on how you view the circumstances, you could say he was there on the day I was born and we have been friends ever since.

    Justin wasn’t the only person I met that day however. Working together we managed to get to some forest hexes and I had most my move left when Scarlet finally had to stop. Justin had a little move left but he had to conserve it for hunting and foraging. So I helped him out by scouting out and directing him to some likely hexes.

    I didn’t stop exploring then though. I mean, how could I? Everything was so familiar to me yet at the same time everything was fresh and new at the same time. I’d met two wonderful new friends and I was just happy to be out in the sun, feeling the wind in my face.

    So when I saw another group of people, I thought it would be a wonderful chance to make even more friends. So I zipped into their hex and landed by the prettiest of them. “Hello there friend! My name is Tip! You’re not friends of Justin, are you?”

    The blonde woman with a red cloak went from being just a little wary of me to being very wary. “You know Justin? Tall barbarian?”

    “You do know him!” I grinned at her. “Won’t he be happy that I’ve met some of his friends.”

    Suddenly and rather rudely I might add, the woman and the others were grabbing me and holding blades at me threateningly.

    “Surrender!” The warlady demanded.

    “I will do no such thing!” I replied in an indignant voice while struggling to pull free and get airborne. “Unhand me! Do you know who I am? I am Princess O…”

    “Aren’t you Tip Temple, friend of Justin Case?” The warlady demanded of me, cutting off my angry declaration.

    “Right! Of course I am.” I confirmed, already forgetting what I was about to say. “You’re not acting very friendly. If all of Justin’s friends are like you, I can understand why he’s a barbarian.”

    “He’s no friend of ours, knight. Now surrender or we’ll end you and find him anyway.” She thrust a knife a little closer to my neck.

    Conflict rose within me. I could blast her. I could blast them all. It would be easy. I might not get them all but it would be enough to allow me to escape out of the hex. It wasn’t their turn so they wouldn’t be able to chase me or shoot out of the hex.

    The problem was that if I blasted them, I would risk croaking them. I didn’t want to croak anybody. So I did the only thing I thought I could do. I sent a thinkagram to Justin. It let him know I was in trouble and where I was and who was in the hex with me. But then the warlady and her stack managed to overpower me, knocking me out. When I awoke, I was in shackles and was a prisoner of Naughtyham.

    I think they meant to let me send the thinkagram. It didn’t matter though because I knew he would be coming for me and Scarlet would be coming with him and then we could fly together again.

    They sent me off to their city and there I was sent down to the dungeon. That was when I got to meet Major Tanaka, a thinkamancer. She was nice to me within the bounds of duty. She also made a thinkagram link between Justin and me to show him they really did have me. I think she also felt sorry for me and the link helped me feel better. That or she was working towards eventually turning me by being nice to me. It was okay. I knew Justin was coming for me so they wouldn’t have enough time to turn me.

    I did like the story he read to me that night though. If I ever meet Dorothy Gale of Kansas, I think we shall be fast friends.

    Of course I was eventually reunited with Justin, though sometimes when I’m alone in my bed late at night, I almost wish I hadn’t been. That night, we both did something simply terrible. He didn’t tell me what we were doing either. And to think I was so smart by deliberately missing all those soldiers by so much!

    Though that last one really did annoy me so I actually did try to hit him. Not to croak mind, I just wanted to put an arrow into his big fat butt! I missed of course because I don’t have the archery special.

    But then Justin had Scarlet light up that last arrow and then…

    I don’t want to talk about all that.

    In any case for better or worse I was reunited with Justin and we wound up fighting on Naughtyham’s side. Well, he did all the fighting, I was just glad to be surrounded by friends. He kept saying they weren’t friends but I could tell he was wrong. They didn’t agree on some things and were cross with each other but I think there were good feelings there too. Especially between the Major and him. I think it’s because they’re both so smart.

    Despite our help, things didn’t go very well for Naughtyham. Warshmuckers was croaked along with so many other units. The Major and Andy had to flee to the magic kingdom and then Wobin was croaked too. Eventually it was only Justin, Scarlet and me left. Justin ran off to heal Scarlet, and I started to follow. I really did.

    But it called to me. The throne room. Somehow I was drawn to it. I just had to sit on the throne and claim the city and it would be mine. It wanted to be mine.

    I wanted it to be mine.

    Deep inside me, I knew I was popped to rule. The calling I was hearing was fate. One does not simply walk around, ignoring fate.

    So I sat and the city was mine. It adapted to who I was and I adapted to it in turn. We would need units to serve and defend us. And I knew there was only one unit I would ever trust to be my chief warlord.

    He had other ideas.

    “I’m a queen!” I had announced proudly when he walked into my courtroom. I thought for sure he’d be happy for me.

    Instead he said the horrible word. I can’t even bring myself to think it but he uses it all the time.

    Despite his vulgarity, he was my friend so I instantly forgave him his foul language and demeanor. “I formally ask you to join my side.”

    When he didn’t immediately say yes, I was heartbroken. Didn’t he like me anymore? Had he wanted the side for himself? If that was the case, I would have gladly abdicated…

    He used more vulgarity that I won’t repeat. But at least it became clear that his concerns were entirely for my safety. Though his anger made me cringe a bit inside, I knew now why he was angry so I sought to assuage his concerns and explain the situation to him. “I was popped to rule, Justin. I understand now why you fight, even if you don’t always like it. It’s what you were popped for. I understand that about you now. And I was popped for this, won’t you please understand that?”

    We argued for a bit. Stubbornly he wouldn’t join my side, even when the Major and Andy returned to set a good example for him. He said that we were still friends and that our alliance would hold but he wouldn’t join any side. He valued a stat he called freedom too much.

    It was so frustrating for me. He’d already demonstrated huge loyalty and duty stats to me. Turning to my side couldn’t possibly increase those. What was he afraid he might have to do as part of my side that he wouldn’t do for me now?

    Then it hit me. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to protect and even serve me. It was that he wanted to choose to do it. While choosing to join my side would certainly do that, it would be the last time he could show he was choosing it for himself. But if he remained a barbarian then every time he protected me or helped me, it would be from an untainted desire to do so for my benefit.

    That was when I realized the strong Date-a-mancy that we shared, that the hippiemancers call love. He loved me and I realized, I loved him as well. It was like we were popped together, like brother and sister. It made me want him to be my chief warlord all the more yet at the same time it made me accept that he would remain a barbarian. It was frustrating and glorious all at the same time.

    Plus, I think I liked that there would be at least one person who could call me just plain Tip. It would remind me that I hadn’t always been a queen and that once I had worn rags. Humility is important in a ruler, I think.

    Then Justin found a way for him to be my chief warlord and to remain a barbarian. It was through his affinity for signamancy of course. He drew up a contract that would grant my side the benefits of having him as a chief warlord but he would get payments for his service and could end his service. There were a lot of other clauses in there too and the Major often argued against them but I would eventually tell her to put them in over her objections.

    Justin didn’t realize the powerful date-a-mancy we were both under. Despite her experience, the Major hadn’t seen it either. I think it was the first handshake. Or maybe it was a lingering spell in the temple that would ensure whoever woke me would be my friend. Or maybe it was just a natural development. For all I knew, it was a combination of all three. That didn’t matter. The point was that Justin could no sooner betray me than I could disband him. The contract was just a formality, a way to maintain the illusion of separation when really there was none. It was important for my new chief warlord to have this illusion so I allowed it.

    That is why I never mentioned the date-a-mancy either as I was sure that might upset him too.

    It was duty to my newly formed side and not any lust for conquest that caused me to join Avon in an alliance against Fail Wail. Certainly I would rather have remained neutral and not engaged in any fighting at all. But neither side I was caught between would have allowed that and I liked Avon’s signamancy better.

    So we joined the war effort and I left the details all to my chief warlord. I knew units would croak. I knew some of my units would croak. During every battle, they were lights that went out one by one in my mind. If I’d had the juice, I would have been with there with each one at the end so that they wouldn’t have to go face the Titans alone.

    No one should ever have to be alone, I think.

    It made me think though. There must be a better way for a side to exist than constant war.

    I think my chief warlord felt that way too. I could see it in the cities he selected for Tipperary. He would surround us by Avon and they would be a shield from all other sides. If they wanted to fight, let them. We would be happy and peaceful in our small side.

    Throughout the war I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps things were really so bad that the two rulers couldn’t sit down and talk things out? They hadn’t always been enemies, after all. Did they not see the lights going out in their minds as well? Did they not understand what that meant?

    Then sadly King Author Pentagram died. To preserve the units on his side, he had them all turn to me. His cities and capitals as well. Technically he made himself a barbarian king. It was so sad. But I was able to stay with him until the end however. In his mind there was one last voice to comfort him and one other mind to see his light go out.

    We negotiated with Overlady Moregains rather than continue the fighting. She took her fleet of ships, her casters, commanders and best units as well as the entire treasury. She would leave to found a side far away from ours and signed a peace treaty lasting a thousand turns.

    Right now, I’m so very proud of my chief warlord. Not only did he manage to find a way to end a war that had seen many units croaked without further violence, he has found a way to manage the upkeep of all the units we have without resorting to disbanding any of them or going to war against any other sides. He’s even talking about making friends with other sides now.

    He’s even split the side three ways so that we can all be allies, which is just another way of saying friends.

    The idea to do that he got from someone named Lord Crush. I would like to meet Lord Crush someday, I think. I really enjoyed his book when my chief warlord read it to me.

    It’s tactically sound too, not just economically. My side will be smaller but there will be an equally strong side on either side of us. So no one can really attack us directly. If one of our two allied sides gets attacked, then we will be able to rush over to help them. We might be in trouble if we get attacked by two different sides at the same time though.

    The problem is that Lord Crush’s plan leaves each of our three sides with an army that is half the size of an army that a side of our size would normally have. Combined, that means we have one and a half armies which should give us an advantage in a war against one other side because we’ll all work together to beat them.

    However, sometimes two or more sides will gang up on other sides. If that happens or if we face a very large side, then we may not be able to defend ourselves effectively.

    That is why we are having meetings at Tipperary every turn. Four Chan, Gala Band, myself, our chief warlords and my chief caster sit and discuss ways of enhancing our position with the resources left to us.

    “Alright, so last meeting we agreed to set production ques for warlord’s and special units and all three sides have ended production of all other units.” My chief warlord confirmed. “And we agreed that the production of ships by Sidney would be considered special units.”

    There were nods all around.

    “Good. Since Tipperary is a level five city and Johnny has done all he can to shore up it’s defenses, I suggest he go to Sydney this turn and spend all his juice there upgrading that city’s defenses. The turn after that he can travel through the magic kingdom and do the same for Commentary. Any objections?” Justin looked around the table to meet all our eyes.

    No one objected but Gala Band did raise his hand to ask a question. “What are his priorities going to be after that?”

    “After that we’re either going to recruit or hire a florist from the magic kingdom.” Justin explained. “Then the two are going to team up in a tri-caster link and attempt to create new farms. Right now we don’t have enough farms for all three sides and our larders and hunting teams are only staving off inevitable depletion. The goal is going to be having all three sides producing a surplus. Not just enough to fill our larders but also to have enough provisions to trade with other sides.”

    “Do you really think that plan will work?” Four Chan asked. She was seated beside me, holding my hand as she often did.

    “I am certain it will.” Merlin answered. “We would have done it for Avon but we lacked the casters to pull it off. The reason Naughtyham and now Tipperary is surrounded by so many farms and forest hexes is because of the combined work of a florist and a dirtamancer in the distant past.”

    “If it does work, then it opens the door to try something else. For starters, some of the wasteland hexes might be reclaimed as forest hexes which will extend the territory that can be hunted and foraged.” Justin seemed to be excited, a state he often achieved when trying to think up new ways to understand the rules. “If hex types really can be changed, then maybe we can create some mountains. And mountains often have gems that could be mined. And in the northern hexes, I think we could build a wall of ice, securing that border forever.”

    “The trick will be finding the right combination of casters for the tri-links.” Merlin seemed to be sharing some of Justin’s excitement. “I expect that to create mountains, we’ll need a turnamancer combined with a dirtamancer.”

    “It seems that Johnny is going to potentially be busy for some time.” Gala Band observed. “There’s still a lot of cities in all three sides that need to be shored up and eventually upgraded.”

    “We’re still trying to recruit a dirtamancer.” I assured him. “If worse comes to worse, we’ll hire one but I’m still hoping one of your two sides will pop one for us.”

    “Hopefully soon.” Four Chan creased her brow. “We won’t be able to maintain warlord production for long before we reach the ceiling of units we can support with our current income.”

    “Have faith in fate.” I gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

    “How goes our attempts to recruit new casters?” Sir Forum inquired.

    “I have contacted Bob.” Merlin said. “He has a contract to finish up and then he says he’ll drop by for a visit. He says he’ll work a few jobs for us and if he likes the cut of our jib, then he’ll seriously considering joining one of our sides.”

    “That will make four casters successfully recruited from the magic kingdom.” Four Chan observed. “But the problem seems to be that the more desirable casters are doing a fairly lucrative trade of services for rands, so they don’t have the incentive to join a side.”

    “We should consider long term barbarian contracts like mine.” Justin suggested. “We might encourage a few more to bite then. We’ll have to include non-disclosure agreements for the sake of security however.”

    “I don’t think we’re financially stable enough for that yet.” My voice was full of doubt.

    “We may have to consider how each caster can benefit the side. For example, a florist, dirtamancer, turnamancer, moneymancer or a dollamancer can all each potentially pay for their upkeep by how they boost either our defenses or our economy. Some of those classes may also be able to create tradeable goods, creating new sources of income for us.”

    “Alright. Let’s take a vote.” I decided. “All in favor of offering up to five long term contracts for highly desirable casters?”

    The motion passed unanimously.

    “What’s the tactical situation in the east?” I asked while looking at Gala Band.

    “Frankfurter is currently engaged in a war with Octoberfest.” Gala Band reported. “That’s nothing new however. Those two sides seem to have been going back and forth at each other for as many turns as Avon was around. Sauerkraut is currently neutral in the conflict though they often join one side or the other for short durations. Cayenne is staying out of it altogether. They seem to be content on conquering neutral cities and building up their own possessions for now. Both Cayenne and Sauerkraut have responded positively to Commentary’s emissaries and requests for peace treaties. They also seem open to the idea of trade as well. They are especially interested in perhaps hiring the services of our casters. Our diplomats got the opposite answer from both Octoberfest and Frankfurter. They only want full alliances and help in destroying the other side.”

    “It would probably be best for the UFS if we remained neutral in their conflict.” I said thoughtfully. “You haven’t let any of these sides know that Commentary is allied with either Tipperary or Sidney?”

    “I have taken pains to keep that a secret, Queen Tip.” Gala Band assured me. He was always so polite and formal. “I think that we might see a coalition of sides form if they realized they had a three side alliance on their collective door step. Still, I think it’s important we show a strong front so they don’t decide Commentary is a weak side, ripe for conquest and razing.”

    “They may test you soon.” Justin suggested. “You’re basically a rump state of Avon’s empire. They may think you’re too weak and spread too thin to effectively hold onto your assets. I think a show of force is definitely advised. But nothing confrontational. We don’t want to provoke them either.”

    “I could use the next Black Hawk that pops.” Gala Band proposed eagerly. “Both for scouting and deploying forces rapidly against incursions meant to test us.”

    “How long will that be?” I asked of Four Chan.

    “Next turn.” She assured me. “I guess we can turn it over to commentary.”

    “Let’s vote on it.” I prompted.

    Again there was general agreement though chief warlord Forum abstained from the vote.

    “How have efforts to purchase maps from signamancers in the magic kingdom been going?” Justin asked.

    As it was his responsibility as my new chief caster, Merlin answered. “We’ve had quite a few show interest. Signamancers generally make enough to get by on but it leaves them hungry enough to earn a few extra rands whenever the opportunity presents itself. The problem is that many of the maps we might be able to get made will be anywhere from a few to many turns out of date.”

    “That’ll be okay so long as the locations of city sites and terrain hexes remain accurate.” Justin seemed to be satisfied with that. He had been quite upset at there not being a world map for him to study. He had also found it interesting that there were now more than twice as many sides as there had been originally. The fact that new city and capital sites were occasionally located also interested him.

    “What about finding additional natural allies?” I asked. We all had a small tribe of Altruistic elves now which really helped with healing troops. That was good. It meant less lights had to go out.

    “Oh yeah!” Four Chan exclaimed excitedly. “My scouts reported finding a small band of Tropers near the southern wastes. We might be able to recruit them.”

    “Tropers?” Justin asked, leaning forward in his chair.

    “Yeah.” Four Chan nodded. “I mean they’re not great in a fight but they can flame you if they must. They’re especially effective against twolls, which is actually sort of odd. But they do have natural thinkamancy and signamancy so they are good court units to have. Excellent for communications too, of course.”

    Justin turned to me, obviously having caught some of Four Chan’s excitement. “Can we please recruit the Tropers as allies?”

    Of course I wanted to just say yes for my chief warlord, but the very treaty that he himself wrote, compelled me to put it to a vote.

    Four Chan glared at her chief warlord and the vote was unanimous.

    Tropers would soon be one of us.

    Justin started handing out small books. “These are the code books Merlin and I devised for the next ten turns. Make sure you stick to them when passing sensitive information via thinkagram. Once we get used to using codes, we’ll extend their use to hat’s and couriers as well. We’re going to look at ways important documents and books can be coded against lookamancers as well.”

    I took my book and leafed through it. The magic that Merlin imbued into it allowed the information it held to be transferred to my mind, erasing the book as I read it. Justin had said that where he came from, anytime a message was ‘transmitted’ it had to be assumed that it would be heard by the enemy. Thus his people had used mathamancy to develop something they called encryption. It was what made his phone’s thinkamancy secure.

    There was a danger of an enemy mathamancer cracking the encryption however so signamancy was being incorporated as well. It was hoped that it would take a tri-caster link to crack our codes. And even if a code was cracked, they’d have to spend juice each turn to crack it again. This encryption was something only those in this room and our two thinkamancers knew the full details of.

    “How did we do at the pier last night?” I turned to Merlin for this question.

    “There was only one low level caster who visited. They were more than happy to help convert shmuckers into rands in exchange for a cut in the savings.” Merlin answered and then smiled. “They will probably be set for the next ten turns, your majesty.”

    “Good.” I nodded with satisfaction.

    “What news from the great western conflict?” Justin prompted of the chief caster.

    “There is, in fact.” Merlin looked as grim and old as I had ever seen him. “There are four new casters in residence of the magic kingdom now. Unaroyal has fallen. They are telling everyone about Gobwin Knob’s plan to unite the world and about a new type of uncroaked called the decrypted. I met with a moneymancer from Transylvito who confirmed the story and showed me a note that is the last correspondence any received from the Queen of Unaroyal.”

    Using his signamancy, he provided us each with a copy of the note.

    Grimly we all read.

    “Summon the book.” Justin didn’t even look up from the letter as he issued Merlin the first order he had ever given at one of these meetings.

    Unaroyal’s last book appeared on our table for us to read.

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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     Post subject: Casting About
     Post Posted: Fri Apr 01, 2016 9:28 pm 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Chapter Seventeen

    Casting About


    I stood in front of Tipperary’s portal to the Magic Kingdom. Not for the first time I marvelled at the height of it. A man much taller than me could walk through it without ducking. This thing was not scaled for use by the natives of Erf. At least not by the people I was interacting with. Perhaps they were scaled for the so-called Titan’s themselves.

    Supposedly, only casters could safely pass through these portals to the Magic Kingdom. If any other unit including commanders or rulers tried, they were instantly disbanded. I had seen it myself within the first week of my arrival to this strange world. The problem with a ruler trying to go through (or being pushed) was that all of their units in the field would instantly disband (unless there was an heir).

    Queen Bea had ordered all her units to the field so that they would disband along with her. That act and its ramifications had been the subject of much debate amongst the commanders of the UFS. Tip had been equal parts horrified and outraged that a queen would disband an entire side like that. She kept talking about all the lights going out. On the other hand, both Gala Band and Merlin saw it as an almost noble sacrifice to keep the enemy from gobbling up even more troops.

    Tip was so upset by the act that she made both Overlord Gala Band and Overlady Four Chan both promise never to do something like it. She called it the ‘Fight against the Dying of the Light” promise.

    I had kept out of that debate though privately I had mixed views. Growing up I had always been taught that suicide was the ‘easy way’ out or a coward’s choice. Having seen some of my friends go down that route and knowing firsthand what they went through prior helped me realize that it just wasn’t as simple as all that. Numerous suicide awareness and prevention briefs had also helped to educate me to a better level of understanding. Someone who commits suicide isn't taking what they consider to be the easy choice, they are taking what they think is the only choice they have left to them.

    This however was a whole new layer to the issue. Take your own life? Then you have my sympathy and regrets that someone couldn’t show you that you had other and hopefully better choices. But the queen didn’t just take her own life, she ensured that her entire side was exterminated. Excepting the casters, of course. If she could make an allowance to save her casters, then why not her other units?

    To me, it was personally quite horrifying to consider the possibility that someone else’s choice could end my existence without my input. Without any chance to save myself, no chance to decide for myself. A complete stripping of will as well as life. There was just no way I could ever allow myself to be that vulnerable to anyone.

    Beyond that, I wasn’t sure if Queen Bea was truly attempting a noble self-sacrifice or engaging in the ultimate of petty, spiteful and selfish gestures. I didn’t know the woman and therefore did not feel qualified to judge her on that point of nuance.

    All of that was quite beside the point. There were other much more urgent take aways from that letter. The first was that this side, Gobwin Knob, was intent on taking over the world. They were offering other sides. Join us now or join us later (after we kill you). This decryption was potentially as vile a threat to free will as any turnamancer might be. Though it had also illustrated through Queen Bea’s actions just how vile duty and loyalty to an uncaring ruler could be as well.

    Given that Gobwin Knob intended to take over the world, there were two possibilities. One, they would be stopped by another side before they got to us. Two, they would continue to expand until they were on our border and then we’d have to deal with them.

    Option one was wishful thinking.

    So option two was the one I had to plan for. So how do you fight someone who could turn your dead against you? The same damn way you should try to fight any war. Maximize enemy casualties while minimizing your own. Simple in principle, difficult in execution.

    The other wrinkle would be taking out the croakamancer or securing the artefact she was using, these so called arkenpliers. Sort of made me wonder if there was an arken stone around some place. Although Merlin assured me that lore said there were only four arken tools. The pliers, the hammer, the dish and the shoes. He just gave me a blank look when I asked him why there wasn’t a saw. In any case, two of these tools were in the possession of Gobwin Knob, one was in the possession of the mercenary side known as Charlescomm and the shoes were simply missing.

    Eliminating the croakamancer via assassination seemed like the easiest action for us to take given our current distance from Gobwin Knob. Surprisingly, there were objections from all the rulers and commanders when I suggested our casters gang up on her the next time she showed up in the Magic Kingdom.

    “You can’t do that!” Andy objected the loudest. “The Magic Kingdom is neutral. You can’t attack the casters of other sides there.”

    “Can’t or won’t?” I retorted. “If something like duty or loyalty prevents it then fine. Is there some treaty in place? Why haven’t we been asked to join? Or is it just another custom?”

    “It’s a custom.” Merlin advised. “But a very long standing one. Fighting in the Magic Kingdom is considered taboo.”

    I stroked my chin thoughtfully. I was reminded again of Axis & Allies. There were neutral countries in that game too. Technically you could invade them but there was a penalty so players often just worked around them as there was no benefit to holding the territory besides potentially more access to enemy territory. But the penalty wasn’t that great and sometimes it could be worth it.

    Whether I wanted to push for an assassination in the Magic Kingdom or not, it became quickly apparent that I wasn’t going to get my way. All the casters were refusing to be party to the idea and the rulers were refusing to order them to do it.

    After the meeting had broken up without much getting accomplished, I had gone to the portal room. Rumour had it that a heavy warlord who’s name held no apparent signamancy had stepped through a portal much like this and entered the Magic Kingdom. If I could do the same, then I wouldn’t need the permission of the casters or the rulers to eliminate a powerful potential threat to us and perhaps all of Erf.

    I reached out and held my hand up as though I was ordering someone to stop. The palm of my hand was a mere inch from the portal. Would disbanding happen instantly or could I pull away in time to prevent it from running its entire course?

    “Don’t you dare!” Tip’s voice carried all the weight of a royal order and the contract forced me to feel it though I also knew I could disobey if I so chose.

    I just didn’t want to.

    Taking a step back, I turned to face her. “I wasn’t going to touch it. I was just wondering if I could feel any warmth or maybe a breeze through it or something. I’m trying to figure out the rules to this thing.”

    Tip was eyeing me suspiciously. “I know how you like to test things, Justin. But I don’t want you testing that portal by touching it. Just because another heavy warlord managed it doesn’t mean you can and I won’t risk you trying.”

    “Don’t worry Tip, I’m curious but I’m not about to risk death just to find an answer. But there are other ways I can test it, I suppose. I mean, non-casters disband when they touch the portal, right? What about objects? Anything that is made of stuff?”

    “Why would that matter?” She glanced at the portal in question.

    “Well, could we shoot through it? Does it count as a hex boundary or something else? Golems are made of stuff, can they go through? What if a caster carries something through? Or wears it? Or swallows it?” There were so many unanswered questions bouncing around my head.

    “You’re still thinking up ways to bring war to the Magic Kingdom.” Tip observed dourly. “To assassinate Wanda.”

    “Maybe. I want to at least know what the options are if it comes to that.” In my head I was wondering if a golem could be shrunk down to the size of an action figure and carried into the Magic Kingdom before being grown to full size again. Or could golem’s be made that small to begin with? There were a lot of questions I would be pestering Andy with later.

    “We could always try diplomacy.” She suggested hopefully. “I would rather talk to them if I can.”

    “Maybe.” Doubt seeped into my voice however. “But I think that joining them will require a certain level of obedience and cooperation we may not desire. Even so, negotiation may be a good way of stalling them while we shore up defenses and gain intelligence. But the time isn’t right yet. We need much more intelligence before we can act.”

    Tip reached up and took my arm and started to guide me out of the portal room and towards the library. “Alright, so we will at least attempt diplomacy at some point. But I suppose as a ruler and a good queen I must prepare the side for the possibility that might fail. And you must also plan around not using the Magic Kingdom as a battleground.”

    “I would rather you didn’t tie one hand behind my back when planning strategy.” I waved my free hand in front of me for emphasis. “If an enemy warlord can enter the Magic Kingdom then it’s possible that it will become a battleground despite anything we may do or want. In fact, I want you to increase the guard on that portal room. And I’m going to talk to Andy and Johnny about forming a link with the Major. I have an idea for protecting our portal should Gobwin Knob’s heavy warlord decides to lead a strike team of casters through it.”

    “Do you think he would?” She looked appalled.

    “I was trying to figure out which of our casters would make a good strike team when you put your foot down and forbade it.” I pointed out to her reasonably. “We should assume that anything I can imagine, the enemy already has.”

    “They’re not our enemies yet.” Tip reminded me. “Thinking of them like that may sour future negotiations and peace overtures before they even begin.”

    “Fair enough.” I agreed, nodding. She had a good point.

    “So, let’s assume that my hopes for negotiation and your hopes for assassination both fail. What is your plan to engage this enemy?”

    “Dollamancy.” The thought had been sort of bouncing around in my skull but her question had crystalized it into an answer. “They can’t decrypt that which was never alive.”

    She pursed her lips and nodded approvingly. “That will limit their decryption advantage. Plus I like working with Andy in the workshop.”

    “It ties in with keeping the side’s upkeep costs low. Combined with using Dollamancy items to improve the quality of our common units such as stabbers and pikers, we should be able to get more bang for our buck.”

    We entered the library and I took a seat.

    Tip started to examine the spines of the books on the shelves. “It sounds like it is within our means to deal with this threat. So perhaps it is too soon to start panicking.”

    “Your majesty is correct.” I agreed with a smile. Sometimes she surprised me with her wisdom.

    She glanced over her shoulder. “I prefer it when you call me Tip. I feel there should always be someone who can speak to me on equal terms.” Then she went back to searching.

    “Of course, Tip.” It wasn’t the first time she had said that but sometimes I would throw out an ‘your majesty’ just for fun.

    She eventually brought me a book that had been ‘self-published’ by a Signamancer on behalf of a ruler. It was a vanity piece through and through.

    “Why do you want me to read this one?” I complained. “It’s just boasting in prose. There’s no real insights or anything new to be learned from it.”

    “Because it’s boasting in pretty prose.” She said as she firmly pushed the book over to me. “We’re not all signamancer’s, Justin. Sometimes the only thing we want from a book is its entertainment value.”

    “As you wish.” I sighed and opened it up.

    At least she was right. It was pretty prose and it was entertaining.

    + + +

    Major Tanaka’s friend, Max Plank arrived the next morning from the Magic Kingdom. The Major was on hand to greet him when he arrived and she introduced him to Queen Tip and myself.

    He was a balding man with a bushy mustache and wireframe glasses. His eyes were sharp however.

    “The Major tells me that you’re interested in joining our alliance.” Tip addressed him with a smile.

    “Yes, your majesty.” He agreed with a nod. “Though I’d like a couple of conditions met first.”

    “What is it you’d like?” Tip asked him with a raised eyebrow but still smiling.

    “I’d like to have my purse filled with shmuckers first. Then I would like an assurance that I will be allowed to retain all the shmuckers and rands I have and be allowed to spend them as I wish as well as retain access to the Magic Kingdom.”

    Tip smiled. “Of course. What is yours before you join will remain yours after you join one of our sides. I trust that the Major has explained the details of our alliance to you?”

    “She has, your majesty.” He confirmed before adjusting his glasses. “An interesting arrangement, I must say. If I may inquire, which side exactly is it that I’ll be joining?”

    “Well the truth is that I am capable of thinkagrams and my chief warlord has a magic device that allows for much the same. So we’ve decided that Sydney and Commentary each need their own thinkamancer. But as per the terms of the alliance, regardless of which of those two sides you join, you’ll be working equally for the benefit of all three. Thus you’ll be passing through the portal to the Magic Kingdom often. Even many times per turn.” Tip explained to him.

    “If you don’t mind, I was sort of thinking I should join Overlord Gala Band’s side when the time comes.” The Major interjected. “That would leave Sydney for Max here.”

    Tip looked between them. “Does that suit you, Max?”

    “I admit that joining a side that is ruled by a fool has a certain novelty.” Max seemed to finish adjusting his glasses. “The side I popped to had a fool who thought they could rule the side better than the King could. It will be interesting to see if a fool really can do a better job than a royal ruler.”

    While they had been talking, I had been typing into my phone. “If you could just tap accept here, the shmuckers will be moved to your purse.” He did as asked, and seven thousand shmuckers were transferred to his possession.

    “You’ll have to go to Sydney’s portal and formally turn there.” Tip told him.

    “But before that, I actually already have a job for you.” I interrupted. “At least potentially.”

    He raised a bushy brow at me. “Yes?”

    “I have a plan to create something new that will require a caster link. The Major will be performing the link for us but I want you to help them out of it if things go badly.” Then I gestured. “But don’t worry, it’s on the way back to where you’re going.”

    Tip stood up from her throne. “Oh, I remember you mentioning this. I’m looking forward to it.”

    I sent a couple of messages and led the way back to the throne room. Johnny and Andy were already waiting for us there. Raw materials were also present, brought in from Andy’s workshop.

    “Everyone remember what I’m looking for you to do?” I asked of the three casters taking part in the link. The dirtamancer and the dollamancer both nodded.

    “You want us to create a sort of barrier that we can open and close on demand on this side of the portal.” The Major confirmed, mostly for Max’s benefit. “You called it an Iris.”

    “Yes.” I agreed with a grin. “Please begin.”

    The three casters joined hands in front of the portal and entered a trance state. At first nothing seemed to be happening but then the ground by the portal began to bulge and undulate. Likewise the materials that Andy had brought started to move, joining with the ground. Eventually a circular shape took form, creating an armored entranceway quite reminiscent of a Star Gate.

    When the casting was complete, the three casters didn’t immediately leave their trance state, necessitating Max’s intervention.

    “It worked.” Johny said with a tone of amazement. “It’s connected to the city so it will obey the orders of the ruler, chief warlord or chief caster to open or close.”

    “That is why it’s important that all three sides have thinkamancer’s or the ability to send and receive thinkagrams. These gates are going to be installed on the portals of each of our capital cities. So for casters to come and go, they’re going to have to make contact with one of the three people able to command them to open.” I explained to Max.

    “Ah.” He nodded with understanding. “Because of the warlord?”

    “It’s fair to say he’s the inspiration but I think the danger has always been there, he just brought it to light.” I walked over and put my hand on the iris. It seemed to throb with power. “Taboo against striking from the Magic Kingdom or not, I’d rather we had control over who comes and goes.”

    “I see. An alliance that hopes for the best but plans for the worst.” He nodded at the Major. “Just as you said.”

    “Do you guys have enough juice to do it again this turn?” Tip asked of our two stuffamancers.

    They both shook their heads. “No. We’ll only be able to set up one per turn, your majesty.” Andy answered as the senior of the two.

    “Alright, well then you can wait until next turn before going on to Sydney.” She said to her casters then she addressed Max, “you could enjoy our hospitality for the evening.”

    “I think I would like that, yes.” He agreed with a smile.

    “Good.” I said, also smiling. “Because there is another caster link I want to try. Andy, do you have any juice left?”

    “Enough for that project you were discussing with me earlier.” He confirmed and then frowned. “Are you sure we should include Barnum though?”

    “He’s essential for what I want to do.” I assured him. Then I turned to Tip. “Could you have Barnum and Baily meet us in Andy’s workshop.”

    Tip nodded once. “Alright. I think I’ll come along for this one as well. But why Baily?”

    “Well, apparently the brothers have cross trained in each other’s specialties. Each is known for what they were popped casting but are reasonably proficient in the other’s trade. And this is really something that is going to call on both of them as carnymancer’s.”

    Max fell into step beside me as we walked to the shop. “I am sure that Tanaka has already told you that we can only link two casters at a time.”

    “She has.” I confirmed. “But entering a link doesn’t remove any spells that a caster is already under, correct?”

    “Well no.” He frowned. “But why Carnymancer’s? They’re not the most trustworthy folk.”

    “I like them. They feel the same way about rules that I do.” I said with a smirk.

    The brothers met us in the shop. They both looked like ring masters in a circus. “So what’s the action?” Barnum asked when we entered.

    “It’s simple.” I walked over to where my Remmington 30-06 was resting on a bench. “I want you to link with Andy here to allow this rifle to break a rule.”

    “What rule is that?” Barnum asked.

    “I want to shoot across hex boundaries off turn.” I noted the looks of surprise from everyone except Andy who I had already discussed this with.

    “I can do that.” He said hesitantly. “But it will only last for one turn. Like I said, we carny’s can break one rule for one unit for one turn.”

    “And that’s a rule for carny’s, right?” I asked him

    Barnum nodded and I turned to his brother. “Break it.”

    + + +

    Bob was the next caster to arrive from the Magic Kingdom. He was met by Merlin at the Iris who brought him to Queen Tip for introductions.

    “Interesting.” He said as soon as he laid his eyes on Tip.

    Merlin cleared his throat meaningfully.

    “Ah yes, of course.” Bob bowed with an exaggerated flourish. He was dressed in a multi-colored suit and had features that were clownish but required no apparent make up. “Your Majesty!”

    She smiled at him. “Welcome to Tipperary. Merlin tells me you’re an old friend of his and may be willing to join our alliance.”

    “Odd friends we are.” Bob agreed. “Though I’m interested in sticking around for a spell, I’m not looking to join a side over the long term. But I’m willing to stick around for a spell or three if you pay my upkeep and a bit on the side for when we part ways.”

    “You wouldn’t be the first or only one working with us under contract.” Tip glanced at me with a slight smirk. “Hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to teach us about your discipline and help us secure our alliance against any who would call us enemy.”

    Merlin pulled a scroll out from his sleeve. “I took the liberty of writing up a contract, your majesty.”

    Tip reviewed it and then handed it over to me.

    “Seems fair.” I said after a careful reading. Then I handed it over to Bob.

    Finally, Bob read it and then nodded before making his mark on the sheet. Then Tip signed her name and Bob became an allied unit.

    “Your timing is fortuitous.” Merlin informed his friend. “I’ll be helping with the creation of a magic book this turn.”

    “Helping?” Bob looked back at the aged wizard. “Shouldn’t you be writing it?”

    “Actually, our chief warlord here will be writing it using his own limited knowledge of signamancy. Tanaka will be linking us and I’ll be providing the content.”

    “Content?” Bob raised a skeptical brow. “Which discipline?”

    “Signamancy, of course.” Merlin seemed amused.

    “I should like to read that book.” Bob decided.

    “You’ll have to get in line.” I told him. “I’ll be reading it after the link is done.”

    “Why should you need to?” Bob seemed annoyed.

    “Because I’m not a signamancer. I understand it and magic during a link but those insights fade when a link ends. But I’m hoping that having a magic book on Signamancy I can read after the link may help instill a proper understanding of the discipline in me.”

    “Interesting idea.” Bob begrudged. “May I watch then?”

    “Yes, of course you can.” Merlin said with a grin while patting Bob on the back. “Our chief warlord is encouraging us casters to engage in all sorts of link ups. We’re experimenting, my friend.”

    “Like the old days.” Bob sighed. “Alright.”

    “The Major and Max are already waiting for us in the library.” I announced after checking a text message from the Major. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting too long. They’re expected back at their respective sides.”

    In the library, I sat down in front of a blank book that Merlin had created. I had out a pen that I had brought with me from my world. Merlin put a hand on the shoulder of my writing hand and the Major placed her hand on my other shoulder. Then the two of them also joined hands.

    The Major drew our minds together in thinkspace. She was the conduit through which knowledge flowed out from Merlin and into me. There was no time to think about what I was seeing however. Instead the words flowed out in an orderly fashion onto the book in front of me. Yet they all made perfect sense and seemed self-evident as they flashed across my mind on their way to my fingers.

    It had been night when we had started, all of us flush with juice. When Max gently pulled us out of the trance again, it was Tipperary’s turn and we were all drained of juice. Each of us had expended two full days’ worth of juice to create the magic book in front of me.

    Merlin lifted it up and leafed through it. Then he nodded as he handed it back to me. “It’s a magic book on the discipline of signamancy alright. I’d wait until tomorrow to read it though. You’re probably still too drained to focus properly on absorbing it’s lessons today.”

    I nodded, “I do feel tired.” Then I stretched and yawned. “In fact I think I need a nap.”

    It wasn’t until the next turn before I woke again. I sequestered myself in the library immediately and started reading the magic book. I managed to read it all in a single day though it was draining, as Merlin had predicted. But unlike a caster link, I retained my understanding after I was done reading it. I could now cast signamancy spells.

    Bob wouldn’t get his chance to read the book however. It had been consumed in the reading, just as a scroll would be. It was an expensive procedure, tying up several caster’s juice for two turns and then tying up the one to read the book for a third turn. And it could only pass on knowledge once, not endlessly as I had hoped. But it did explain how Merlin had managed to learn so many different disciplines, above and beyond his advanced age. It also explained how his apprentice Moregains had also learned so much at his feet.

    I intended eventually to cross train all our casters as much as possible with the same process. Not right away though. There were other tasks most of them were needed for first. This was just a test run. While Merlin knew it would work, I wanted to test its effectiveness. I also wanted to determine if I ever could learn actual magic and this had presented a relatively fast method to that end.

    My phone rang, interrupting my train of thought. It was Tip’s ringtone. “Hello Tip, sorry I haven’t read to you in a few turns…”

    “That’s fine, Justin.” Her voice sounded urgent. “Come to the war room.”

    “What’s going on?” I asked as I stood up.

    “Sydney is under attack.”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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     Post Posted: Mon Apr 04, 2016 12:43 am 
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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Chapter Eighteen

    The Beginning of the End


    “What’s the situation?” I asked as I entered the throne room.

    “A pair of ships each with two masts entered the port hex.” Queen Tip told me, her brow creased with worry. “Max says they’re from Surfer’s Paradise.”

    “We’re being attacked by surfer dudes?” I asked with open disbelief.

    “Yes, exactly.” She confirmed. “I didn’t know you were so familiar with the maritime powers.”

    “Never mind that now.” I refocused on the tactical situation. “How’s our ship faring?”

    “They’ve already sunk her.” Tip said sadly. “She would have left on her maiden voyage next turn.”

    “Do we have any units in that hex that can engage?” I asked.

    “None at all.” Tip shook her head sadly. “The archers on the wall can’t engage until they’re attacked.”

    “Alright, send thinkagrams to all our available casters. Have them travel to Sydney through the Magic Kingdom and reinforce Four Chan’s defenses.” I pulled out my phone and started dialing. “I’ll start with the ones in Commentary.”

    “What about you, Chief Warlord?” Merlin asked from where he stood behind Tip’s throne. “You’re a caster unit now. You can go to the Magic Kingdom.”

    “You think they would look at me and think caster or warlord, Merlin?” I looked up at him. “I don’t intend to get burned by a fire started by another. Also, I’m cautious to declare myself a proper caster. I am a unit that can perform the functions of a warlord and the functions of a caster. What does that make me, exactly? And how will the portal interpret that?”

    “There’s only one way to be sure but I think it would be safe to try it.” He started to move out from behind the throne. “There may come a time when you have no choice.”

    “So long as there is any possibility that my chief warlord would be disbanded by entering the portal, I forbid it.” Tip had stood up to add emphasis to her empathic order. “I will not spend the lives of my units cheaply, his most of all.”

    Merlin inclined his head respectfully to his queen. “As your majesty decrees.”

    The casters including Merlin but excluding myself and the Major were ordered to Sydney. The Major was the chief caster for Commentary and it was deemed that the lines of communication be kept open on the other frontier just in case.

    The ships used their masts to engage the city wall right up until the siege were able to sink the ship that had already been damaged engaging our only vessel. Our archers managed to kill a number of the crew on the second ship and the siege heavily damaged it before finally the enemy retreated from the hex.

    “The damage they did reduced Sidney to a level four city and killed several stacks of archers on the walls plus they sunk our only ship.” Tip reported after ending a thinkagram with Overlady Four Chan. “It’ll be a while before we have the funds to restore the city to a level five. Though with three sides saving together, that time should be less than it would be otherwise.”

    “We’ll have Johnny shore it up in the meantime.” It was pretty much the only thing we could do. “Now that our turn has begun, launch some iron eagles to scout the water hexes in every direction. When that ship is found, send the available Black Hawks to engage. Make sure each one has at least one commander with strong shockamancy. If we find any other Surfer’s Paradise vessels within striking range, we’ll sink those as well. When that is done have Max contact the ruler of Surfer’s Paradise on Four Chan’s behalf. To demand reparations or a declaration of all out war.”

    “We can’t project power against Surfer’s Paradise effectively, even with the Black Hawk’s.” Tip objected.

    “Maybe not, but we can wipe out everyone of their ships that pass within fifty hexes of our shores.” I pointed out. “Besides, we have to appear strong after their attempt to probe our defenses.”

    Tip frowned, as she always did when decisions like this had to be made. “I will pass your counsel onto Overlady Four Chan. I wall also seek Overlord Gala Band’s council on this, as our treaty demands. I expect however that your plan or some version of it will be implemented.”

    Again a flurry of thinkagrams were sent and the decision to take punitive action against Surfer’s Paradise was quickly reached. The raiding vessel destroyed a several others were located and likewise sunk.

    Four Chan had Max open a thinkagram with Surfer’s Paradise’s King and demanded reparations. He patently refused and ended the thinkagram.

    “We must consider the alliance to be at war with Surfer’s Paradise, your Majesty.” I said formally to Queen Tip. “I should take my leave of you and go there in planning the defense of Sydney directly.”

    She nodded her agreement. “Go Chief Warlord, before our turn ends. Do what must be done and then return here.”

    + + +

    Our shores were woefully unprotected without a navy. Our mercy in letting Moregains leave with all three ships was working against us now. However, there were things we could do until we could pop more ships. I had Andy link with Johnny through Max to create submerged traps in the water hexes bordering our shores.

    Then we arranged to have a lookamancer named Lou to be hired on from the Magic Kingdom. They signed on initially on a limited contract in order to link with Andy to create some relatively cheap scouting drones. I was hoping for something like predators. What I got were clockwork owls that Andy dubbed Raptors. They did the trick though and were deployed out in a semi-circle twenty hexes from our shores.

    The next dollamancy link involved our turnamancer, Solomon. They made what were effectively short range attack boats that could carry a stack of troops each. The boats had decent move on turn or could cross one hex boundary off turn, making them an adequate close range coastal defense option. In addition to the troops they carried, each boat also had a shockamancy weapon.

    While these dollamancy solutions were being sought, Black Hawks were using their tremendous move to scout the water and lands surrounding our alliance. This included an extensive survey of the wastelands and the snow hexes. Using a caster link with Lou, Merlin and I were able to create detailed maps of the region. We were able to locate twelve ruin hexes including the one I had discovered Tip in using this method.

    Surfer’s Paradise continued to test our defenses through this time but we were able to meet their naval power with our air power. It was however an ongoing distraction and a drain on our resources. The only advantage we had was that Surfer’s Paradise was far enough away and had enough competitors on the waters to make projecting power against us almost as difficult as it was for us to attack them. In fact, I found it curious that they were even trying since they had more immediate concerns.

    However, the immediate concerns of our coastal defense were met and I had to return to Tipperary.

    + + +

    “Welcome home, Justin.” Tip welcomed me when I walked into the throne room. Merlin was behind her throne as if he was a fixture that had always been there.

    “Thank you, your majesty.” I bowed. “I’m happy to report that Lou has agreed to stay on with us on an extended contract.”

    “That is good news.” She agreed though her lips were a thin line. “We could use some.”

    “What’s the matter?” I asked with growing concern.

    “Things have not been going well for the alliance out east.” Tip glanced at Merlin and then continued. “Overlord Gala Band reports that not only have Cayenne and Sauerkraut not joined our alliance, they have backed out of negotiations for both non-aggression and trade agreements. At least with us. They seem to have continued negotiations with each other however.”

    “That could be a problem, maybe.” I agreed as my brow creased.

    “It gets worse.” Tip informed me grimly. “Octoberfest and Frankfurter have ceased hostilities with one another. They seem to be in negotiations with Cayenne and Sauerkraut. Gala Band seems to think that they are forming an alliance against us.”

    The creases on my brow deepened. “Why would all four of them team up against just Commentary?”

    “It seems that they may have found out about or suspect our alliance.” Merlin added to the conversation finally. “We don’t know how they could have managed that though. I’m even more perplexed why they would feel the need to unite against us since we’ve taken no hostile action in their direction.”

    “Dammit. I just managed to get things stabilized out west and now we have to worry about a four side alliance in the east?” I shook my head.

    “Possibly six.” Merlin corrected to my chagrin. “Hazcheez Burg and Candyland casters have been spotted visiting Octoberfest’s portal lately.”

    “Wow.” The shock of this was just a bit much. Whey on earth would all of these sides be uniting all of a sudden? “Just wow. If they were uniting to deal with the threat out west, I could understand this. But then you’d think they would be more interested in forming an alliance with us, not less so.”

    “We’ve been recruiting a lot of casters from the Magic Kingdom.” Merlin pointed out. “That may have alarmed the local sides as the most likely justification is to use them in conquest.”

    “Surely we can explain to them that our real goals were to gain knowledge and reinforce our own security?” Tip’s voice was pleading.

    Merlin shook his head and cast his eyes down.

    Human nature being what it was, I sort of agreed with what Merlin’s body language was saying. “Alright, I guess we’ll have to prepare for a war on the eastern frontier as well. Against a numerically superior opponent. We’ll have to optimize whatever advantages we can leverage and create as many force multipliers as possible.” I looked over to Merlin. “How has that recruiting been going by the way? If it’s going to damn us, then at least let’s hope it also provides us with some advantage as well.”

    Tip brightened a little bit. “We had one more caster join us outright from the pier. Hypatia Turing, a mathamancer joined the other night. Well technically they joined Commentary but it’s the same thing.”

    “We have also had three more sign contracts with us.” Merlin added. “Harry Copperfield is a foolamancer I’ve worked with before. Then there’s Penny Worth. She’s a moneymancer as you may have guessed. Finally, there’s Brigid Pan, a very reputable healomancer with a taste for adventure and I’m afraid, hijinks. However, no other casters have demonstrated an interest in joining with us. It’s almost as though someone is paying them to stay away from us.”

    “Well then, we’ll have to plan our strategy around the casters we do have.” I started to pace. “Caster links are definitely the way to go I think. And thinkamancers are required for links. So our first priority is getting more thinkamancers.”

    “But Merlin says no one else will hire on with us.” Tip pointed out, reasonably enough.

    “I know.” Then I looked at Merlin. “You’ve said in the past that it’s easier for a caster to learn and even master disciplines that are related. So eyemancers learn each others disciplines faster and the same with stuffamancers, right?”

    “That is true.” Merlin agreed with a nod. “However, most casters only ever learn one discipline and few achieve mastery of one much less multiple.”

    “Yes, but we do possess the means to streamline that, don’t we?” I pointed to my temple. “We can create a caster link to write magic books and thus accelerate the process of learning. That means Lou and Harry can double as thinkamancers in just a few turns. Then they can help turn cross train Andy, Johnny and Solomon. We’ll effectively have four thinkamancers, three dirtamancers, three turnamancers and three dollamancers. Then we should go back to cross training Max, Lou, Harry and the Major so we can have four lookamancers and foolamancers at our disposal as well. This is what I mean by making the most of what we have available to us.”

    “A lot of those casters aren’t strictly on our side.” Merlin pointed out. “What’s to stop them from abandoning us as soon as the links are completed?”

    “Nothing.” I sighed. “Hopefully they will agree to extended contracts in exchange for the rapid increase in capability but even if they beeline to the Magic Kingdom as soon as the links are done, our native casters will still have benefited greatly.”

    “So it’s worth doing regardless.” Tip nodded. “The bottleneck in this will be the two of you, our only two signamancers.”

    “That is true. Merlin and I won’t be doing much casting of our own for some time. Fortunately, my talents as Chief Warlord shouldn’t be needed in the near future. Tipperary isn’t on the frontlines yet so we have some time.” I couldn’t keep the frown off my face though. I wasn’t sure it would be enough time and I needed accessories to enter mass production as quickly as possible. We had to maximize the capabilities of our infantry against such a large enemy alliance. “The only other casters we should worry about cross training with magic books for the moment are Barnum and Baily. They already have an understanding of each other’s disciplines but I really would like to have two carnymancers and two hat magicians available.”

    “I disagree.” Merlin said with a frown. “Common wisdom suggests that carny’s can’t be trusted. Such has been my personal experience.”

    “They’re people, like any other. I’m not going to discriminate against them just because of how they were popped.” I said firmly. “Frankly that same discrimination may be a contributing factor to your past experiences.”

    “They’ve been loyal to us so far.” Tip pointed out. “I trust them.”

    “As you say, your majesty.” Merlin bowed his head to her.

    It made me wonder if any silent orders had been exchanged. Still, there were other matters to address. “Tip, we should prepare contingencies. While I have ideas to enhance our fighting power, we may not get those up and running in time to make a difference. So we should plan for the possibility that all three sides will fall.”

    “What a horrible thought.” She looked quite distressed.

    “I agree. But if we don’t have plan’s in place for every contingency, then we can expect total obliteration by our enemies or else being absorbed into their empire and perhaps losing our agency. Our ability to act or even think independently. Therefore, I propose we have a plan for the worst case scenario.”

    “And I suppose you already have something in mind, Justin Case?” Merlin smirked at me as he said it.

    He wasn’t the first person to connect my name to my tendency to plan and sometimes even over plan for things. Perhaps signamancy had been with me my whole life. I pulled a map out of the map case strapped to my belt. “I do, in fact.”

    + + +

    I estimated that it would take approximately twenty-five turns to get just the eyemancers, stage magicians and stuffamancers all cross trained. I didn’t figure we would have that time. So the initial focus was on getting all the eyemancers cross trained as thinkamancers and then after that we would start cross training that stuffamancers. The stage magicians and further eyemancer cross training would have to be put on the back burner.

    The most dangerous of these links was the first one as it involved both of our thinkamancers. Merlin would write the book and Major would create the link and Max would provide the thinkamancy knowledge for the book. It was decided that if things went poorly, Merlin would take most of the backlash and then Max would take whatever Merlin couldn’t handle.

    It was reasoned that so long as one thinkamancer came out of the link unscathed, they would be able to help the other two casters. Merlin was also considered a tad more expendable than the thinkamancers as I could replace him if necessary though that would slow down the rate we could make magic books.

    The biggest risk they were facing was if all three became trapped in the link. The safest way to end the link was to have another thinkamancer do it but we didn’t yet have one to spare and none were available or willing to be hired.

    For two turns, Tip and I worried and fussed while the three casters were linked and produced a magic book on thinkamancy. They were able to brake the link on their own however Merlin took some of the backlash. Our healer was able to tend to him but the thinkamancers were too drained to help him. He would recover on his own but I had to take his place on the next link up.

    The Major handled the link and Andy was providing the magic knowledge. I of course would be writing the book. Max would stand by in reserve to safely break the link if required while Lou read the book that had already been created on thinkamancy. For two turns I was in a trance writing a book magically. Due to my inexperience, Max was needed to break the link. But it was worth it as now Johnny would be able to read what I had created in the link and we would have two dollamancers spending juice for our defense. In addition, Lou had demonstrated his new mastery of thinkamancy by restoring Merlin’s faculties while we were in the link still.

    Merlin returned to his place as the signamancer to write the next book on thinkamancy. The Major again provided the link while Max provided the knowledge. And this time Lou was on standby to break the link safely as needed. We weren’t going to risk losing one or more casters in a link gone bad.

    Besides, by that point my services as chief warlord were needed again. We received word that our neighbors to the east had in fact formed an alliance. They were calling themselves the Food Court Alliance or the FCA for short.

    Already scouting parties from the FCA had been spotted on the edges of Commentary’s territory, probing for weaknesses. I worked with Gala Band and his warlords to figure out a flight plan for raptor’s to locate enemy forces on our turn so that Black Hawk’s could carry our troops where ever they were most needed.

    Other than that all I could do was ensure that Andy and Johnny would be available to fortify positions and equip Gala Band’s people with superior gear. One of those upgrades included shockamancy weapons similar in appearance to muskets that we issued to archers and commanders.

    Andy was certain that my own firearms could be replicated and my ammunition could be made by Johnny. What he wasn’t sure of was who might be able to use such weapons. Presumably archers could but the advantage versus the cost might not be good enough to justify it. On the other hand, if common stabbers and pikers could use them then it would be a game changer. Especially since they were cheaper to create in terms of juice than shockamancy weapons.

    The downside was that if anyone could in fact pick up and use such weapons, then so could our enemies. And if they also had a dollamancer and a dirtamancer between them, then we would be facing the business end of our own weapons eventually.

    So I had them focus on dolls, armor and shockamancy weapons. Any spare juice they had at the end of each turn, they used to make a small number of firearms and ammo which we kept at Tipperary for the time being. I figured that a handful of such weapons wouldn’t make much difference at the front right now but a larger number might tip the scales later on.

    Our cross training caster links had successfully turned all four of our eyemancers into competent thinkamancers by the time the FCA attacked the first of one of our cities. They faced a defense that consisted of florist creations and golems and traps but no speaking units. The city held until our turn and then we razed it to the ground. The funds were then used to claim one of the unused city sites far from the front. A warlord and Johnny had both been in the adjoining hex to the new city, waiting for our turn to start to claim the site and then build it up again.

    The FCA claimed the razed city site on their turn and paid the shmuckers to build it up again. We retook the city on our next turn and then razed it again before withdrawing on our Black Hawks. This forced the alliance to divert forces from attacking a second city to retake the first city yet again. Yet again they spent the shmuckers to build it up. This time they garrisoned it with a force that we could not easily beat in a single turn.

    It did set the pattern for the campaign however. They would attack one of our cities. We would hold out for the first turn before razing it at the start of our turn while also claiming a new city site far from the front. Whenever we could, we would counter attack conquered cities and then raze them.

    The strategy helped us pay for the war while managing the hit to our by turn income. It also hit the FCA’s treasuries with each conquest they made, especially if we could force them to retake and rebuild a city multiple times. They were also forced to leave large garrisons at each of the conquered cities lest we maneuver around their forces and retake a city.

    Most importantly it bought us time.

    Every turn that we delayed them allowed us to create more golems and accessories.

    Every turn that we delayed them allowed us more chances to cross train our casters.

    Every turn that we delayed them allowed our combined cities to produce more units to meet the coming threat.

    Every turn that we delayed them made it that much more likely that their alliance would fall apart.

    Every turn that we delayed them made it that much more likely their treasuries would empty.

    Unfortunately, every turn that the conflict went on was a turn where resources were diverted east and not west.

    Eventually Surfer’s Paradise returned to our shores in force and they didn’t come alone. They brought barbarian ships (better known as pirates) and allied ships from Oceana. The Pirates were used to eliminate our drones on the perimeter and then soften up our defenses on the coast. They soaked a number of our traps in the process.

    Then the allied flotilla attacked. They overwhelmed our coastal defenses easily and landed troops on hexes boarding both sides of Sidney. When their ships were too heavily damaged to continue the attack, they withdrew from the hex and were replaced by fresh ships. Their shockamancy bombarded Sidney and reduced it all the way to a level three city.

    Fortunately Four Chan had been shoring up her city with every available unit popped in her side since the first attack so the city was able to hold. But the casualties they took were brutal. Rearranging the flight plans of surviving raptors out over the water revealed that more ships would be arriving next turn with more troops. Sidney would not withstand another assault.

    So the casters were evacuated via the portal to the Magic Kingdom. Four Chan promoted as many of her units as her treasury would allow to warlords. Then she started razing every city in her side and converted more of her units to warlords. Eventually she had enough warlord’s to have every one of her surviving units to stack up with. She filled their purses from her dwindling treasury and then ordered all the units that couldn’t be evacuated via Black Hawk to turn barbarian. Those that could make it to Tipperary’s cities were to do so. The others were expected to engage the enemy whenever and however they could.

    Finally, she razed Sidney and evacuated along with her other most valuable units to Tipperary’s territory and eventually the capital itself. There she resumed her role as court jester and advisor to Tip.

    In a single fateful turn we went from being a three side alliance to a two side alliance.

    Just as bad, the FCA had finally pushed our eastern front back to Commentary itself.

    Needless to say with one capital gone and another in Peril, the mood was somber that night in Tipperary. Unable to sleep myself, I lingered in the library after I had read Tip’s daily story to her. We were on the Odyssey now.

    I was alternating between leafing through books and scanning files in my phone. One advantage of being a signamancer was that I could create books now just by spending juice. I also found I could much more quickly and easily copy whole books into my phone. All of Tipperary’s library was now saved and most of the books saved on my phone were transcribed into paper books and added to the library. While I liked the portability of my phone, I much preferred reading actual books.

    “Trying to figure out where you went wrong or trying to find a way to salvage things?” Merlin asked, alerting me that he had entered the library at some point, undetected by myself.

    “A little of column a, a little of column b.” I sighed and set the book I was reading aside. “Mostly I can’t sleep.”

    Merlin walked over and sat down on the table opposite of me. “I’ve been thinking a great deal about column a, to be honest.”

    “And what have you come up with?” I asked, feeling weary.

    “Well tactically, I don’t think you’ve made any major mistakes.” He grinned and winked “But then I’m no warlord.”

    “You ever try?” I asked him.

    He ignored it as he often did when I probed into his past. “However that isn’t to say you haven’t made any mistakes. There are forces at work in this world that you have yet to acknowledge and until you do, you’ll always be at a disadvantage.”

    “Then by all means, educate me.” I leaned back into my chair.

    “Fate.” He said simply.

    “There is no fate but what we make.” I replied automatically. “I am the master of my own destiny.”

    “Being the master of your own destiny is not the same as fate.” Merlin said as he pointed his wand at the table’s surface. A piece of parchment appeared there.

    “I disagree but I don’t think that argument is going to get either of us anywhere. So instead why don’t you go on telling me about what mistake I made with regards to fate?” I crossed my arms defensively in front of my chest.

    Merlin tapped the parchment and two words appeared on it.

    Parson Gotti

    “What about him?” I asked.

    “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that thing started going down hill for us fast once you decided to prioritize Gobwin Knob as a potential enemy?” He pushed the parchment across the table to me.

    “So what?” I asked, still not picking up on his gist. “You’re not suggesting that they’re somehow orchestrating all our misfortunes? I’m not even sure how they would be aware of us or even care about us.” Regardless, I had long suspected that some force had been actively working to dismantle what we had built.

    Merlin shook his head. “No, not at all. I think it’s fate. It’s acting to ensure you don’t act against Gobwin Knob. Most especially Parson Gotti however.”

    My frown dominated my face. “And why would you think that?”

    Again Merlin tapped the page. “What sort of signamancer are you?” He held up a hand to forestall my answer. “A lazy one, that’s what sort. Use your juice. Combine those words.”

    With an offhand shrug, I touched the parchment and brought the two words together.

    ParsonGotti

    “So what?” I didn’t look up at him, trying to decipher the riddle in front of me. “It makes even less sense than it did before.

    “So? Rearrange the letters in that word until they make sense, boy.” There was a hint of impatience in his voice.

    “Fine.” There was quite a bit of irritation in my voice. So I separated the letters with a space between each.

    P a r s o n G o t t i

    If it was one word, then we didn’t need two capitals. Indeed, any of the letters might be the actual capital. Or none of them were.

    p a r s o n g o t t i

    Then I copied the letters beneath the original.

    p a r s o n g o t t i

    p a r s o n g o t t i

    Then I started rearranging the letters in the second column until they formed a single word that made sense.

    p a r s o n g o t t i

    p r o t a g o n i s t

    I rearranged both rows once more.

    Parson Gotti.

    Protagonist.

    “Mother fucker.” My eyes darted up to Merlin. “He’s the hero?”

    “I think it’s fair to say he is a hero. Or perhaps will be in time.” Merlin leaned back in his chair. “We are all the hero of our own tales, are we not? Though it’s worth noting that not all protagonists are necessarily heroic.”

    “It could be a coincidence.” I said uncertainly.

    “What does your signamancy sense tell you?” Merlin slipped his wand up his sleeve with a gesture.

    “The theory of narrativium applies here, I think.” I said after a moment’s thought. “Which tells me what the two most dangerous positions in this game are.”

    “And those are?” Merlin prompted hopefully.

    “The second most dangerous position is an opponent to the protagonist.”

    “Interesting.” Merlin mused with a smirk. “And what in your esteem is the most dangerous position to be in?”

    “Close to the protagonist.” I shrugged. “If you can’t build tension by killing off the hero of your story, you accomplish the effect by killing off those standing too close to them.”

    Merlin laughed. “I don’t think fate works quite the same as an author writing a book though. That would suggest we have no free will at all.”

    “My choices certainly feel like my own.” Then I sighed. “So do you think if I promise not to attack or interfere with Gobwin Knob or this Parson Gotti, fate will go back to leaving us alone? Maybe let us push back the FCA and re-establish our three side alliance?”

    He shook his head sadly, “No son, I don’t. You don’t believe in fate. Not really, even now. As long as you are able, you will resist and plot and plan. You see Gobwin Knob’s plans and actions as abhorrent to your world view. You can no more avoid trying to stop them then you can stop breathing or thinking. It is a fundamental part of who you are and it will take something major to make you divert from your path.”

    “Such as my death.” I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the thought.

    “Not necessarily.” Merlin shook his head. “Joining a side and falling under the sway of a ruler who will reign you in properly, force you along fates path or at least keep you out of the way of the bigger plan.”

    “So death.” I snorted and then reconsidered. “What if I joined Tip’s side?”

    “No.” Merlin shook his head. “Tip will never rein you in. It’s one of her weaknesses as a ruler. But also a strength. She values your opinion because it’s always honest and freely given. You’ll tell her the way things really are. Or at least how you see them. Between Four Chan and you, she should remain grounded when other rulers allow the praise and fawning to go to their heads.”

    “Not if her kingdom falls.” My face creased in a fretful frown. “Which might not happen if I stick around, apparently. Maybe she would be better off if I took off on my own.”

    “Things that are happening have an inertia of their own now.” Merlin objected. “Your departure will not stop the FCA’s invasion. Do you think Tip and her court will have any chance if you leave?”

    “Sounds like I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” What Merlin was suggesting was maddeningly frustrating. “So what do I do now?”

    “Your best.” Merlin shrugged. “It’s all any of us can do.”

    We sat in silence for a long while before I finally spoke again. “I don’t like rigged games, Merlin.”

    “So what are you going to do about it?” His bushy eyebrows went up in curiosity.

    “I’m going to break it.”

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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    Shall We Play a Game?
    (Is it Real or is it a Game?)

    Chapter Nineteen

    Lord Holocaust

    (Lord of War!)

    I led reinforcements from Tipperary to Commentary mounted on my Trojan Horse. It really made me miss Scarlet even though I had never been able to properly ride on her except on the ground. She had a personality and was responsive in a way that my Trojan Horse never could be.

    Gala Band had done an amazing job of holding the enemy at the gates of his capital for turn after turn. He organized the units in his other cities into relief forces that punched holes in the enemy siege and reinforced his own position. Those forces were further bolstered by Tipperary troops delivered via Black Hawk.

    Our main force was marching over land. Units from all over the side had been brought together for the expedition. The main delay however had been waiting on me. I was wrapping up some caster links, working in tandem with Merlin and all our eyemancers. However, we were switching over to upgrading all our eyemancers so that they were all thinkamancers, foolamancers and lookamancers.

    It was a huge gamble, to be honest. They would be powerful assets when the FCA finally started marching on Tipperary. But that meant keeping them out of the fight at Commentary. We had been relying on thinkagrams initiated by either Tip or myself and by hat for the entire campaign. For the last few turns, our stuffamancers weren’t producing much as they had been undergoing their upgrades during that time. Now they were busy turning the area around Tipperary into a murder zone and outfitting our units and building golems.

    While it had been a tough call, even Gala Band had agreed that we would all make our last stand there. And he was doing his absolute best to ensure he held the line for as long as he could. Even we weren’t marching to win the battle, just to prolong it for a few more turns.

    If Merlin was right and Fate really was trying to divert me from a collision course with Gobwin Knob, then it had certainly done a bang up job of it. Still, when I did get back to dealing with Fate, I intended to have over a dozen super casters at my back for the fight.

    I just had to survive the current campaign.

    My phone buzzed and I checked it. Another raptor report from the hex it had scouted. It was the last one I was waiting for, the way to our objective was clear. We would be engaging the FCA this turn.

    “All units, march!” I ordered and we crossed the first hex boundary of the day.

    My force was mostly infantry with an even mix of archers, pikers and stabbers. I had only a small group of mounted knights with me and a handful of mounted warlords. I was the only caster unit in the group. The others used the Magic Kingdom to come and go as needed.

    There was an absence of special units or dollamancy weapons that our stuffamancers were now starting to churn out. We wanted to save those as a nasty surprise for later. The only dollamancy we carried were the shockamancy muskets that the enemy had already seen in the hands of Gala Band’s men. The knights, warlords and myself all had pistols while the archers had rifles to supplement their bows.

    Finally, we were bordering two hexes containing enemy units. They were what stood between us and the city of Commentary.

    “Archers form stacks along each of those boundaries. Stabbers, form screening stacks and shield walls!” While it wasn’t strictly necessary, I always bellowed my orders. I felt it made the troops move with an increased sense of urgency. Time might be relative but my patience was not.

    The shockamancy weapons couldn’t shoot across boundaries, even on turn. That was whey they were additional weapons for our archers as opposed to their main weapons. So they were preparing their bows to volley.

    Once they were all in place, I nodded. “Volley!”

    A hail of arrows assaulted two enemy held hexes simultaneously. The enemy had shield walls of their own however so there was a limit to how much we could thin out their numbers.

    “Warlords! Take your commands! March into those hexes!” I watched with a certain amount of satisfaction as my troops divided into three groups. One marched into the right hex and one into the left hex. The third group stayed with me as a reserve force.

    Just as the enemy was meeting our forces in melee, Gala Band’s men sallied forth from the city to charge into the right hex. They were covered from the walls by archers.

    That was when I committed the reserves to the left hex. I led the charge in and we crashed into enemy stacks. My knights and warlords started blasting the enemy, using our mounts to circle around them, out of their reach. We caught their archers between volleys and decimated their ranks. Mobility combined with shockamancy proved to be a formidable combination.

    When our hex was cleared of enemy units, we swung around and joined the melee in the hex next to us. The enemy was already suffering massively to the two prong assault already in progress and our attack only really served to mop up the survivors and stragglers.

    With the enemy cleared out, we marched into the city to much applause.

    I dismounted and met with Gala Band in the court yard. We grasped each other’s forearms. “Long time no see, friend!” Gala Band greeted me.

    “I just wish it was under better circumstances and with more reinforcements.” I gestured to the troops behind me filing into the city and taking up defensive positions along his walls.

    Gala Band’s face became somber. “We’re not in it to win it. You know that. This is a delaying action.” Then he smiled at me. “But your signamancy has improved since when I first saw you. Level seven must agree with you.”

    He was referring to my gut. It had flattened out and showing abs again. In many respects I was starting to look and feel like a man almost half my age. While there was magic that could create the illusion of the same, my changes were a part of this world’s natural signamancy. Being an active field commander apparently agreed with me.

    Which caused me to worry all the more for Gala Band’s signamancy. I didn’t comment on it but he was showing a number of worry lines he’d never had before and there were streaks of white in his hair and beard. Being a ruler had agreed with him initially but watching so many lights go out in his head did not.

    And that made me worry for Tip.

    “So how many turns before we get some more reinforcements from Tipperary?” Gala Band asked me when we were alone in his office.

    “None.” I said bluntly, threating the news like a band aid. “We had Hypatia and Penny run the numbers. We sent you every unit available that we could re-pop before the FCA is invading Tipperary territory.”

    “In other words they ran the numbers and they don’t think the side can be saved and will fall soon.” Gala Band sat down heavily in the chair. “How many turns do we got?”

    “We think you could hold out for two, maybe three more turns. So we’re going to weather out the rest of this turn and then punch out next turn.” Then I added, “Assuming you agree of course. You are overlord after all.”

    “And I don’t?” Gala Band looked up at me.

    “I’d hate to incapacitate you in front of your troops and drag your sorry kiester out of here.” I deadpanned.

    Gala Band snorted. “So you respect my right to choose but you’re going to get your way regardless. I think loyalty and duty are less painful than your way.”

    “Free will can be a bitch.” I admitted. “It means being responsible for the consequences of our actions.”

    “And the consequence for my not going along with your plan is being incapacitated?” He smirked at me.

    “I serve a queen who very much wishes to see you again. I am but an instrument of her will.” I smirked back at him.

    “I doubt she directed you to incapacitate me and throw me over your shoulder on your way out of here.” He seemed to be laughing at the thought of it.

    “Yeah well, you know how she likes me to take my own initiative.” I laughed for a bit and then sighed. “Seriously though, that’ll give us the best chance to leave here with the maximum number of units still intact.”

    Gala Band nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about trying to punch out of here. I just didn’t think we’d have enough troops until you and your troops arrived.”

    “I’m glad we’re on the same page then.” I squared my shoulders. “The available casters should be arriving from the magic kingdom shortly. Hypatia, Penny and I will spell up the tower again and then they’ll head home again. They can’t contribute much to an actual fight. Brigid will remain in reserve and the others will join whatever forces have enough move for a sortie against the troops surrounding the city. We’ll do as much damage to them as we can before their turn begins. Then we’ll end turn with Brigid and the elves getting their heal on. Casters with no juice will then evacuate back to Tipperary and the rest will remain to assist in defense against the FCA. Sound good to you, overlord?”

    Gala Band nodded. “Yeah, pretty much a standard routine though it sounds like you plan to deploy the casters a bit more aggressively than we have before.”

    “We’ve been training them for combat in the evenings. They’re not stabbers much less warlords but they do well with their hobokens and spells. We’ll pair them up with warlords and knights and screen them heavily in the field.” I examined the situation map on his desk. “We should hit all siege within our range.”

    “Alright.” Gala Band stood up. “I could use you and that phone of yours. I have some promotions to warlord to make in my remaining cities so those few units not here can start migrating to Tipperary with the option of turning barbarian if things don’t work out. Then I’ll order the evacuations and raze all remaining cities.” He sighed. “I should appoint an heir but all my high level warlords have croaked and I can’t be reasonably certain any of my recent promotions will survive the turn.”

    I put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry buddy. We’ll get you out of here alive. Still, might want to promote some more warlords here and fill their purses.”

    He nodded and started using his ruler sense to make the promotions and then I sent the messages for a general evacuation to his other cities. Within minutes, Commentary was reduced to a single city side.

    “Everything’s set.” Gala Band told me. “Happy hunting.”

    As battles go, the rest of the turn wasn’t spectacular. FCA had withdrawn most of its siege and leadership at the end of its turn. Gala Band had already made a habit of targeting their valuable assets and as a consequence, they tended to withdraw and spread them out at the end of each turn. They left enough basic units surrounding the city to keep breaking out of the siege a little two difficult. Even if Gala Band’s forces cleared a way out, FCA forces would converge on them out in the open when it was their turn again.

    We ended turn with all our allied troops behind Commentary’s walls and many of our casters back through the Magic Kingdom. Andy, Johnny, Solomon, Barnum, Baily and Chuck all remained behind to help with the defense.

    The FCA alliance started their turn and we were greeted with a rather rude shock. They had veiled a large amount of siege in nearby hexes. We hadn’t even known they had a Foolamancer. Maybe one had been hired or maybe they just hadn’t risked them on the battlefield until now but either way it was a game changer. One that wouldn’t have mattered if our own eyemancers hadn’t all been occupied in Tipperary.

    “Looks like they plan to make a serious push of it this turn.” I lowered my rifle from my shoulder, having surveyed the scene with my scope.

    “Want me to send a message back to Tipperary?” Baily asked me, pulling his hat off his head.

    “Yeah, let them know what we’re facing.” I tapped my foot impatiently. “Then I’m going to need you and Barnum to start breaking some rules for me. We need to start engaging those siege weapons before they can be deployed against our walls.”

    While Baily sent a message back home, I started thinking about what we could do with what we had available. I had to think fast because the enemy was getting their archers into position and soon we’d be facing their volleys.

    “Johnny! Andy! Solomon!” I bellowed when a sudden thought occurred to me.

    My three stuffamancers came running up. “What can we do for you, chief?” Andy asked as the senior of the three.

    “I need the three of you to start launching as much material over the walls as you can. Preferably big or flat things like shields.” I pointed to the walls for emphasis.

    “But it’s not our turn and we haven’t been attacked.” Andy objected. “It’ll all just hang there.”

    “Exactly!” I exclaimed. “I want you to build a wall against their arrows using the hex boundary.”

    The three of them exchanged looks. “We can use rocks and debris as a basis.” Johnny suggested. “And maybe excess crap as a sort of mortar.”

    “We can bust up some barrels and furniture too.” Andy suggested as the three of them started running down the stairs.

    “Make sure you go from the ground to as high as you can go!” I yelled after them. “And hurry!”

    Our catapults started to fire, launching material at the hex boundary. As it hit, the material stuck in place and our stuffamancers used their juice to reform it into a useful barrier. It wouldn’t hold them but they would have to expend ammo and possibly juice getting past it. And then we would counter attack with our own archers and carnied shockamancy weapons.

    In response to the improvised wall, the enemy focused their attack on the city’s main gate. Once they blasted the makeshift defense out of the way, they started rolling the siege towers up. Our shockamancy weapons engaged and inflicted savage losses but they just kept bring more up. One of the advantages of a six side alliance, it seemed.

    “Hey Chuck!” I called our florist over. “I just noticed something about those towers. They’re made of wood. Can you do anything with that.”

    “They’re made of stuff.” Chuck shook his head. “There’s no life to them anymore.”

    “I’d kill for a thinkamancer right now.” I frowned. “Could you, I don’t know, make moss grow over them? Or vines? Anything?”

    Chuck looked thoughtful. “When they get closer to the wall, yeah. We could launch seeds at them and I could have those seeds grow in the cracks of the wood. That could tear them apart from the inside out.”

    “Do it.” I ordered. “Make sure you take a protective stack with you.”

    With a nod, Chuck turned and ran to carry out his orders.

    “Enemy fliers!” An archer warlord yelled out.

    “Engage!” I ordered.

    The ‘enemy fliers’ were dwagon’s. Or at least they appeared to be until they were engaged which revealed them to be illusions.

    “Save your arrows!” Commanded the archery warlord.

    “No, test fire a single arrow into each one.” I countermanded. “If it blows the illusion then fine. If it turns out to be real, volley.”

    “Roger.” The warlord responded, having adopted one of my mannerisms.

    Every dwagon that was spotted turned out to be an illusion. It was the ones that weren’t spotted that turned out to be a problem, entering the airspace under veil. Those veils weren’t blown until they started breathing fire against the city itself.

    “Fire Dwagons?” I frowned. “Nobody told me they had fire dwagons!” I didn’t dwell on it however. I was the only caster on the tower so engaging them were my problem. While I could blast them all out of the sky in one volley, that would also expend all the tower’s juice in one shot. Instead I engaged each dwagon one at a time.

    While I did that, our stuffamancer’s did their thing and put out the fires nearly as fast as they started. We lost quite a few stacks of archers before that however.

    There was a deafening sound.

    “Blue dwagon’s at the gate!” One of Gala Band’s warlords yelled between sonic blasts. “Two of them!”

    The FCA really was pulling all the stops out for this turn. Possibly they had hoped to end Commentary and capture or croak a large portion of Tipperary’s army in the process. So far our casters were just barely containing the damage they were inflicting on us.

    “Concentrate fire on those blues!” I ordered, probably unnecessarily. Then an inspiration hit me. “Johnny! Make a trap under those beasts! The collapse the sides of the pit in on them!”

    “On it!” Johnny responded and planted his mining pick into the ground.

    The gates got battered but Johnny pulled the ground out from under the Blues before they finished their work.

    Andy came running up the tower stairs. “Chief! The city is taking a beating. It may drop a level soon.”

    That was trouble. It had already been dropped to a level three though the talents of our stuffamancers had kept its defenses close to a level five. “How much juice do the three of you have left?”

    “Not enough. Especially if you want to keep some in reserve to fight any more fires they might start.” He was looking close to panicking.

    “Keep the fire fighting reserve juice.” I confirmed. “Make what repairs you can, put priority on the gate.”

    “Alright chief.” He acknowledged. “We’ll do what we can.”

    “Then split the golems up between the three of you. Meet them in the courtyard in case they breach the gate.” I added. “They’ll need your bonuses.”

    He just nodded before running off to carry out his orders. We didn’t always see eye to eye on things but he was a good kid and had proven to be a capable unit in a fight.

    Capable soldier in a fight.

    Sometimes I had to remember refer to them as people. Getting into the habit of calling them units was a bad one. One that I heard over and over again from the natives.

    Fortune was with us as the FCA’s attack died away shortly after that. They had apparently expended all their resources within range for that turn. Probably they had assumed it would be enough and it might have been.

    Night came and we licked our wounds.

    “I’ve been crunching some numbers.” Overlord Gala Band said to me as we discussed the battle. “Even if every Black Hawk we have shows up tomorrow, they can’t transport all the units. Discounting the casters escaping through the portal and our mounts carry what they can over land, there are still a substantial number of units who will have to walk. There’s no way they’ll be able to escape FCA’s reach next turn.”

    “I know.” I admitted. “They’ll be engaging in a straight on assault against the FCA tomorrow. They’ll be assigned low level warlords and ordered to prioritize enemy leadership, siege and special units, especially mounts and flying units. The idea is that they’ll be able to slow the enemy down, impair their ability to pursue us and inflict some expensive losses against the enemy. Any units that survive are to withdraw in random directions and then engage in attacks of opportunity against the enemy as they make their way back to the nearest Tipperary city or outpost where hopefully we’ll be able to reintegrate them into our army.”

    Gala Band looked down at the map. “They’re not going to survive.”

    “The odds are against them, yeah.” I agreed. “Soldiers die in war. We can’t take them with us and we can’t afford to have them captured and turned. So we need them to fight for as long as they can and then run if they’re able.”

    “You can be pretty cold sometimes.” Gala Band said, sounding a bit cool himself. “You don’t see their lights go out.”

    “No.” I agreed again, maintaining my icy exterior. “Tip will.”

    The overlord regarded me for a moment. “I guess it’s the only way then.”

    “It’s the only way.” I assured him.

    + + +

    The next morning Gala Band ordered all his remaining units to turn to Tipperary which they did. Then Penny came through the portal and she converted the side’s treasury to gems even as he reduced it level by level. Penny took those gems back through the portal and the other casters departed with her.

    When it was finally a level one city, he himself turned to Tipperary and the city turned to our side as well. Then he used his authority as a war lord to raze it.

    While that was going on, our raptors were scouting for the safest route back to Tipperary and Black Hawk’s were dispatched to take the most valuable units away, including Gala Band.

    I issued my last grim orders to the infantry and then led the mounted units away for the capital site.

    + + +

    I maintained contact with the infantry warlords using my phone. It allowed me to maintain command and control of them and coordinate their movements. As warlord’s fell, I reorganized the common units so that they were always with leadership. When they accomplished all that I figured they could against the enemy, I ordered them to withdraw in a dispersed pattern hoping that the enemy wouldn’t be able to waste the move in hunting them all down. In that way a potential route became more of a fighting retreat.

    Still, I was sure to deploy them so that they would interfere with the enemy’s pursuit of the mounted units.

    The enemy surprised me somewhat when they didn’t hunt down and exterminate the surviving infantry units on their turn. They were probably consolidating their forces at Commentary. Perhaps they anticipated an attempt to retake the city on our next turn which was consistent with our past behavior.

    So I plotted routes for the infantry to continue falling back along, with the hopes that once they were available again, our Black Hawks would be able to swoop in and rescue them. Plus, they could continue to screen the retreat of the mounted units.

    By the next turn FCA figured out we weren’t coming back for them. That was when they sent out their mounted units and fliers. They caught up to over half of our infantry groups and when they were found, they were wiped out.

    Spreading them out did save many though and those few units were successfully rescued by Black Hawks or could make it to Tipperary safe havens before the enemy could catch up to them.

    For a fleeting moment I had hoped all of them could be saved. In war though you sometimes have to focus on the ones you can save and try not obsess over it.

    That night I dreamt of fires and screaming soldiers.

    + + +

    The war for Tipperary went much the same way it did for Commentary but much quicker. With every advance, the FCA became stronger and we grew weaker.

    No strategy, no trick, no spell, no tactic and no clever dollamancy creation managed to tip the scales in our favor. The simple fact of the matter was that they had us sorely outnumbered and could out produce us at every level. We didn’t even have an advantage in the number of casters at our disposal though we were slightly more inclined to deploy them in battle.

    What’s more, our foes were not idiots. They adapted to our strategy and tactics. Sure we were able to inflict heavy losses against them but they could afford heavy losses more than we could light ones. They could afford mistakes and to learn from them.

    When finally, the enemy was marching on our capital, it was no longer a matter of saving the side. It was a matter of saving as many people as we could.

    For a number of turns our Black Hawks had been making trips into the wastelands. With the main enemy force a mere turn away from the capital, they were about to make their last trip as Tipperary units. This was to be an evacuation of people to a secret location where we had stored provisions, gems, materials, weapons, tools and ammo.

    The very last Black Hawk to be loaded up would be carrying Queen Tip, Merlin, Andy, Johnny, Solomon, Chuck, Gala Band and the Major. Barnum, Baily and Max were all on other Black Hawks already. Bob, Lou, Harry, Penny, Brigid and Hypatia were all staying in the capital with the intent to evacuate into the Magic Kingdom before the very end, their contracts having been held fulfilled. They had all been invited to stay with us but we understood their reasons for wanting to return to the Magic Kingdom.

    I met with Queen Tip and Merlin in the throne room.

    “I really wish you’d reconsider.” The queen said from her throne. “Keep the casters here with you and let them evacuate into the magic kingdom if the side truly is lost.”

    “The side will be lost, your majesty.” I said grimly. “Our loyal casters will be of far more value to you where you are going than to me in this last stand.”

    “Well, at least I shall have my fondest wish before it is all said and done.” She stood up and on the dais, was tall enough to look me in the eye with her silver globes. “Justin Case, I ask you to willing to turn to the side of Tipperary.”

    Taking a deep breath, I then exhaled and said, “I turn.”

    I didn’t feel any different than I had before saying it but Tip was smiling so it was obvious that it had worked. Plus, my black armor now had a dark green trip and I bore her sigil on my chest.

    “I hereby promote you to chief warlord of Tipperary.” She said with a wide smile.

    Again, I didn’t feel any different than I had before.

    “Kneel, Justin.” She commanded.

    For the first time since coming to Erf I felt the force of a command. I resented it even if I would have complied of my own free will anyway. Still, the ceremony was important to Tip so I didn’t raise any fuss or complaint.

    I took a knee.

    My queen drew her sword and dubbed my shoulders. “I hereby designate you my heir.”

    While I couldn’t sense it, I knew that shmuckers were being drawn from the treasury. I still didn’t feel any different.

    My queen took a deep breath and I could tell she was trying to be brave for us. “I hereby abdicate my throne.”

    Her crown disappeared and Tips royal clothes became apparel more suitable for a knight.

    This time I did feel different. I could see the white lights. Further, my phone sounded an alert. I checked it to find I had a new treasury account and various other apps that represented various ruler senses.

    I had sold this plan to Tip reasoning to her that it would allow me to better control the fight while she and the others escaped. The real reason was that I wanted to spare her the dousing of the white lights that was to come.

    “I request permission to turn barbarian.” Tip said. “Though I would rather not.”

    “Permission granted.” One light disappeared from my mind.

    “I also request permission to turn barbarian.” Merlin inclined his head to me.

    I nodded. “Granted. You two should join the other barbarian units preparing to leave.”

    “First, we have a farewell gift for you, overlord.” Tip smiled. “It’s with Andy in the courtyard.”

    “Lead on, Tip.” I gestured to the door and followed her out.

    Andy was standing by his Black Hawk, holding a box. Solomon and Johnny were standing with him. “We all contributed to making this.” Andy said, handing it over to Tip. “Though some parts of it required caster links.”

    Tip handed the box to me. “Even I helped where I could. Lending juice and such.”

    I took it from her hands. It was surprisingly heavy.

    “She under sells her contribution.” Andy said. “It was entirely her idea, we just made it happen.”

    I opened the box and found two red eyes staring up at me.

    “It’s no replacement for Scarlet, I know.” Tip was saying. “But I thought you might appreciate it.”

    A chrome plated dragon golem rose from the box. My ruler sense told me that it was a unit of Tipperary. It was small enough to rest comfortably on my shoulder.

    “Try resizing it.” Andy said eagerly. “As big as it will go.”

    I raised a brow at him but couldn’t help smiling. I touched it and watched as it grew. And grew. Until it was the size of a Black Hawk.

    “You’ll be able to ride it.” Tip exclaimed happily. “We named him Dragon Khan. I hope you don’t mind a bit of teasing about how you sometimes mispronounce dwagon.”

    “I don’t mind at all.” I said as I admired my new mount.

    “I expect you to use this mount to come and join us when you’re done here.” Tip said in her royal commanding tone. It had no power over me. At least none that was magical.

    “To hear is to obey, my queen.” I bowed to her.

    Tip took the opportunity to put her arms around my neck and kiss me on the cheek. Then she whispered in my ear. “I know why you did this, my loyal warlord. To spare me the dying of the lights. I shall never forget it.” Then she drew away with a sad smile and watery eyes.

    “Alright you barbarians!” I said in my most commanding voice. “Mount up and depart the city.”

    My friends nodded and mounted up. I watched as the Black Hawks carried them out of the hex.

    _________________
    "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
    — Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

    Just in case you're interested, I'm writing a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?

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