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 Post Posted: Wed Apr 06, 2016 7:28 pm 
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Good day,

This thread is being created for one shots that will be taking place after the events in "Shall We Play a Game?"

I had planned to take a couple weeks off from writing any Erf fan fiction so I could work on my own projects.

However, recent activity on the Forums has inspired me to start early in an attempt to grow as a writer and perhaps as a person. A new short story will be appearing momentarily.

Edit: Comments go here.

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

I've finished a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?.

I'm writing Tales from Seven Hex Valley and Dwagon Riders of Erf.


Last edited by The_Author_Is_Dead on Thu Jan 04, 2018 6:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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     Post Posted: Wed Apr 06, 2016 8:01 pm 
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    Warlord Forum

    (Warning: Graphic scenes including implied rape, torture and graphic violence. Reader discretion is advised)

    Being a Barbarian was different than being trapped in a neutral city. For starters, you had the freedom to move. You weren’t trapped in the same city hex turn after turn.

    While Warlord Forum missed the security of having upkeep provided by a side, The Seven Hex Valley Barbarian Collective (or just the Collective) provided its own sense of security and upkeep would be met so long as everyone did their part.

    Warlord Forum was doing his part at the moment. He had two stacks of barbarian troops from the Collective with him and they were headed to one of the ruin hexes to explore and if necessary, eliminate any dangers. It had taken two Black Hawks to drop them off in an adjoining hex but they didn’t linger. There were other stacks and other ruins to explore so their lift capability was in great demand.

    With a whup-whup-whup of mighty wings, the great birds took off and departed the hex.

    “Golems stack with me. Archers, stack up and follow us in. We’ll screen.”

    There had been a bit of a debate about who would get to go to the ruins. There were six ruin hexes in the area so the logical thing would be to send out six warlords with troops to explore them all on the same turn.

    Warlord Justin Case had wanted to explore them all himself. It had taken the former Queen Tip to point out to him that while he had recently levelled to level eight, many other warlords were lagging behind. The experience had to be shared between them so that others could advance as well.

    Without fanfare, the two stacks crossed the boundary. This hex had buildings in it that reminded him very much of a city razed by enemy action. Yet it was not a city hex, it was a ruin hex. Many believed that meant that the hex had been made that way by the Titans themselves. Warlord Forum had believed that until it had been demonstrated to him that a forest hex could be converted to an ash hex. Then that same ash hex could be converted to a farm hex or back to a forest hex. Either of the second two conversions required a caster link between a dirtamancer and a florist. The first only required Warlord Holocaust to be having a bad day.

    That new knowledge made the thought of ruin hexes creepy to Lord Forum. Truth be told though, this was the first one he ever explored.

    “Ruffians!” The call came from one of the archers in the rear.

    Ruffians were a heavy barbarian unit that were known to pop at hex sites. They would be almost as tall as Warlord Holocaust and about twice as broad. They joined no side and only associated with others of their kind. While they spoke language, their intelligence was a matter of debate. Rumour was that they could dispatch speaking units for rations.

    They had been at least smart enough to wait for Warlord Forum’s stack to pass by before springing their ambush on the relatively weak archers.

    The Ruffians were using massive clubs and the leather armor they wore easily absorbed a number of arrows. The hapless archers were mowed down by wide arcs swung by massive arms the size of tree trunks.

    By the time Warlord Forum got his stack of golems turned around, there were no more archers left to save. There were eight Ruffians against Warlord Forum and his seven golems. With his leadership bonus, he figured the advantage was his.

    However a net fell over his head from behind and yanked him forcibly backwards, and out of the stack of golems.

    Helpless, he watched as the Golems were smashed to metal scrap by the Ruffians.

    Then they started gathering up the bodies of the fallen archers, claiming them. Titans, was what they said about these Ruffians true? Were they going to croak him for rations too?

    One of the Ruffians picked up the net that held Warlord Forum and slung the load over their shoulder. Together the band moved to the center of the hex where their camp was. The trip was uncomfortable as Warlord Forum bounced repeatedly off the Ruffian’s back. He did manage to note with grim satisfaction that the golems had severely damaged most of the Ruffians. His Warlord bonus likely would have made a difference.

    The bodies of the archers were stacked by the fire and the Ruffians took seats on boulders around the fire.

    Roughly, the net was upended and Warlord Forum came tumbling out. He was dressed in prisoner rags and was wearing shackles now.

    “Pretty Warlord.” One of the larger Ruffians said of the sprawled warlord. “Pretty, pretty.”

    “Oh, I’m not all that.” The Warlord said as he awkwardly tried to get into a sitting position. Suddenly being croaked and eaten didn’t seem like the worst thing that could happen this turn.

    “Mine.” One of the largest of the units stood up. “I claim.”

    “Um, you know, I have friends. They might be willing to pay for my release.” Warlord Forum suggested desperately. “Maybe enough for several turns upkeep for you all.”

    They either didn’t hear him, didn’t understand him or just didn’t care about him.

    “I grab him.” The one behind him said in what he hesitantly identified as a female voice. “Pretty pretty mine.”

    “We share.” One of the smaller Ruffian’s said while gesturing to the fallen archers. “We share all. Is deal.”

    There was much rumbling noises of agreement.

    “I share first.” The voice behind him said. Then two massive and powerful hands grabbed the Warlord. “Come pretty, pretty. I like. You like.”

    Warlord Forum most certainly did not like what followed.

    + + +

    Whup! Whup! Whup!

    Face down and with blackened eyes, Warlord Forum couldn’t see but he knew that sound. Black Hawks were in the hex.

    He was simultaneously enormously relieved and horrified at the sound. It meant he was about to be rescued. It also meant that his fellow barbarians would see him.

    THEY WOULD KNOW!

    They would know what had happened to him!

    All he wanted to do was climb into a pit and close the Erf in after himself.

    The sound of combat filled the hex around him and his mind’s eye filled in the details with nightmare images.

    Roaring of Ruffians came to an end and then he could hear the sounds of boots moving around the area. One set was coming towards him.

    “Titans, Forum.” Warlady Anne sounded horrified as she knelt down beside him. “What did they do to you?”

    “Nothing.” Muttered Warlord Forum into the dirt. “Nothing. Nothing.”

    Warlady Anne yelled over her shoulder at the top of her voice, “Elf!”

    + + +

    Wounds were healed but Warlord Forum still had to be carried to the Black Hawk. He wouldn’t move except to return to a huddled ball any time someone tried to help him to his feet.

    “I’d rather be croaked than have that happen to me.” He heard muttered by many who saw him. During the flight back, he thought about being home again.

    He also thought about rolling to the side and off the Black Hawk. Unfortunately he had been tied in place. Maybe he could undo the ties, if only his fingers would obey his commands. Where was their loyalty! Where was their duty! He didn’t blame them though. Who would obey a Warlord like him?

    + + +

    “Get a hold of yourself, Warlord!” Anne was yelling at him. She had come to see him in his private room in the barracks. All the Warlords had one and there was talk of eventually making sure every unit had their own room. It was one of those crazy ideas that Warlord Holocaust had that everyone had a ‘right’ to privacy.

    While Warlord Forum understood very deeply why a unit might want to be left alone, he didn’t feel there could be anything like ‘rights’ for anyone. Not after what had happened.

    He just turned over and ignored his colleague.

    Warlady Anne grabbed Forum’s shoulder and pulled him flat on the mattress though she couldn’t make him turn his head towards her. “You have to get over this.” She informed him harshly. “You walked into an ambush and got your troops killed and yourself… tortured. You got healed. You took your lumps. Now it’s time for you to get over it and just soldier on.”

    The words stung. Did she think this was his fault? Did she think he had wanted this to happen? Was that what they all thought?

    A part of Forum knew that Anne meant well. It wasn’t natural to see a Warlord curled up in their bed, refusing to move or do anything. In a proper system, that is, if they belonged to a side, a senior unit could order him to do something and he would comply. His signamancy would suffer but he would comply.

    As Barbarians, there was no more compulsion, except those that came from within. At the moment, Warlord Forum felt empty and there was nothing in him to compel any sort of behavior. And his signamancy was suffering as a result.

    He wasn’t even eating his share of the provisions. His upkeep was being paid entirely with shmuckers. Word was that they were coming out of Warlord Holocaust’s purse. That had caused some debate amongst commanders but Justin had said simply, “We’re soldiers. We take care of our own.”

    Except that no one seemed to understand why Warlord Forum needed to be taken care of. He had been healed. He was a fully functioning unit.

    Warlady Anne stood up with a sound of disgust and annoyance. “Fine, lay there like a lump. Disband, for all I care.”

    After she had left, he whispered to himself, “I wish I could.”

    + + +

    A massive silhouette darkened the entrance to Warlord Forum’s room. It was Warlord Justin Case, also known as Warlord Holocaust. Forum knew this to be true but the size of the man only reminded him of the Ruffians. It made Forum cringe and try to become a smaller unit.

    “How you feeling soldier?” It wasn’t the Warlord’s command voice, his voice of authority as he often said. It was softer and even comforting in its way.

    If Forum squeezed his eyes closed really hard and just listened to the voice, he could almost imagine that Justin was just a regular sized unit and not nearly as threatening as the Ruffians were. “Elve’s say I’m fine.”

    “What do you say?” The bed creaked as the Warlord rested his weight on the edge of it.

    “I’m trying real hard not to feel anything at all.” Warlord Forum responded. “When I feel, all there is of me is pain from the inside out.”

    “Yeah.” The massive warlord seemed to be slumping down on the side of the bed. “Yeah I bet.”

    The silence lingered between the two in the darkness for some time. It seemed several times that the large warlord was about to say something and then stopped.

    Finally, words were found and Justin used them. “I’m afraid I’m a little old school. I’m not good at this touchy feely bullshit. When I was a young soldier, if something happened to you, they told you to man up, walk it off, suck it up. You’re supposed to be more bullet proof then your armor.”

    Warlord Forum knew what a bullet was. Everyone in the valley knew what bullets were. They were one of the many frightening things Warlord Holocaust was getting the dollamancers and dirtamancers to experiment with. So the idea of bullet proof armor should have been a comfort.

    It wasn’t. Nothing was.

    “We’re our own worst enemies sometimes. Soldiers, well we’re a brotherhood… sisterhood too, I guess? Like I said, I’m old school and I try to change with the times but it isn’t always easy. Anyway we’re supposed to help each other but sometimes it’s hard to know how. Hell, sometimes it’s even hard to see what’s hurting our comrades. What’s hurting you right now, the healomancers can’t fix it and we can’t see it. But you feel it. And it’s real for you. So we gotta treat it as being real too.”

    Forum took a deep breath and forced out, “I’m a warlord.”

    “That you are.” Justin agreed. “Does that make you some sort of super-human fire breathing uncroakable mega-unit? Any stabber can be promoted to warlord. And any stabber can crit a warlord. What those things did to you? They critted you. They critted you right in the heart and the mind. There’s no shame in that.”

    “A warlord has to lead.” Forum objected. “No stabber is going to follow someone who’s weak.”

    “You get incapacitated in the battlefield, you’re not weak, you’re injured. Only difference is the healomancers can’t heal what’s wrong with you.” Justin sighed. “I asked Merlin if date-o-mancy could. He said not that he knew of but he’d work on it.”

    “Don’t waste your time.” Forum shook his head. “I shouldn’t have led my troops into such an obvious ambush. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be captured. I should have croaked with the others.”

    “Now listen here, soldier.” Suddenly Justin’s voice sounded rougher and more commanding. It made Forum cringe a bit. “What happened? It happened to you. I like I said, I’m no good at these things and I don’t know the words to make you feel like yourself again. But I do know this and you need to hear it. What happened to you was not your fault. It was not your fault.”

    Forum said nothing. He wasn’t sure that was true. Maybe he had defied fate or strayed from the Titan’s plan or something. Or maybe he really should have done a better job commanding.

    Justin wasn’t done talking. “You’re a warlord and you’re right, the other units look up to you and well they should. You’re a powerful person. And I think that’s what’s hurting you right now. They took that power away from you. They took it away from you and you haven’t found it inside yourself again…” He trailed off for a moment and then continued. “I don’t know how to help you find it again either. I don’t know if even a findamancer could help with that.”

    “Maybe it’s not there anymore.” Forum said, a feeling of worthlessness washing over him.

    “It is.” Justin said with confidence. “Somehow we’ll help you find it again.”

    “I heard you were paying my upkeep out of your purse.” Forum said, derailing Justin’s thread of thought. “Why?”

    “Because you’re a soldier and we take care of our own.” It sounded at once like something that had been rehearsed and repeated thousands of times but also simultaneously believed in deeply.

    “Please don’t.” Forum said quietly. “It’s a waste of shmuckers.”

    “It is not.” The large soldier said stubbornly.

    “The social contract you wrote guarantees me the right to my own person, doesn’t it?” Forum snorted bitterly. It hadn’t protected him so well.

    “It does.” Then Justin amended. “It’s supposed to.”

    “Then if I don’t want my upkeep paid up then you have no right to do it.” Forum insisted.

    “I see.” There was silence for a long time after that while Justin mulled it over. “I suppose I can’t force you to live.”

    Forum rolled over and faced the wall. “Good.”

    “But before you face a morning alone, you should speak to Four Chan. She has been quite upset that you haven’t been willing to see her.”

    There was no response to that and eventually the giant got up and left the room.

    + + +

    Night came and again Forum’s door was darkened. This time by a much smaller individual. She slipped in on light feet, barely making a sound.

    “Go away Four Chan.” Forum pulled the blanket up over his head.

    “No.” Came her stubborn reply as she put a hand on his shoulder. It was firm yet comforting at the same time. “Warlord Justin told me about your talk earlier.”

    “I don’t want to talk.” Forum insisted. “Talking doesn’t help.”

    “Well I guess you’ll just have to listen to me then.” Her voice was flippant. “Which is good, because I do enjoy the sound of my own voice.”

    “Why can’t you just leave me alone!” Forum curled up tighter. “Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?”

    “If after tonight you want me to leave you alone, I promise you I will, forever.” Her voice was surprisingly serious.

    Forum pulled the blanket aside just enough so he could discern her outline in the dark. “You won’t try and force me to make upkeep?”

    “No.” She promised. “I did bring these provisions for you and some for me as well, but I won’t eat them until you do.”

    “That will increase the cost of your upkeep.” Forum objected.

    “Then it’s a good thing that you’ve decided to save us some shmuckers then, isn’t it?” It was the sort of dark humour that Four Chan excelled at as a court jester.

    “I suppose I’ll still disband if I eat.” Forum sat up reluctantly, with the blanket wrapped around himself.

    “That’s a boy. No harm in enjoying a last meal before meeting the Titans.” She unwrapped a cheese burger and held it up to his face.

    Forum glanced at her and then at the burger. Then he opened his mouth and took a bite. Slowly he chewed. It had been awhile since he’d tasted solid food. Too often he was afraid he would taste other things…

    “That’s enough.” He said.

    “So I only get to eat a couple of bites of my burger?” She frowned at him. “That won’t cut my upkeep at all, you bugger. I may not be overlady anymore but I’m still a commander and I have the upkeep to match.”

    “Fine.” Forum griped and opened his mouth again to accept another bite.

    “There, was that so hard?” She said when he was finally done. “Now I can eat.” She unwrapped her own burger and ate it hungrily. “I am so glad that Justin explained about ground meat and barbeques so we could have these things made from provisions instead of having to have them pop as part of paid upkeep.”

    “Yeah, I would have missed them.” Forum agreed.

    “You think the Titans will have cheeseburgers?” She mused.

    “They must.” Forum decided. “They’re the Titans.”

    “Think they’ll share them with a warlord that just disbands?” Her eyes fixed on his with a piercing gaze to match the piercing question.

    He looked down. “Probably not. I guess I’ll find out.”

    Four Chan took Forum’s palm and pressed a gem into it. “This is the remainder of your upkeep.”

    Then she held up a gem of her own. “This is mine. Like the food, I’m not taking mine until you take yours. So I guess we’ll find out together.”

    “You can’t do that!” Forum exclaimed angrily. “You have too much to live for!”

    “Not without you, I don’t.” She flung her arms around his neck. “You’ll always be my chief warlord, Forum. And I don’t want to live on Erf if you’re not here.”

    “So you’re going to make me responsible for you continuing to live?” Forum remained angry.

    “Yes, I know. I’m a horrible, selfish person. But the Titans can disband themselves if they think they can take you without me.”

    “Four Chan…” Forum’s voice started out angry but then he continued with pain filling every word. “I hurt. I hurt so bad.”

    The former overlady who never stopped being a fool pushed him down onto the bed and then crawled under the blanket with him. She wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could and whispered. “I know you do. It hurts me to see you like this. I would take away all your pain if I could but all I can do is share it with you.”

    No more words were said. They held onto each other until morning and cried.

    When morning came, they both paid their upkeep.

    + + +

    Warlord Forum was given a farm hex to manage. There wasn’t really much for him to do there but he found he liked watching the animals go about their routines. Sometimes they even made him laugh out loud at their antics.

    He didn’t think too much about what happened to them when they disappeared. He just enjoyed their fleeting lives while they were there.

    Four Chan spent as much time with him on that farm as she could. Her duties as on the ruling council kept her busy but she spent the evenings with him and as much of the day as she could.

    He still hurt though. And sometimes he woke up screaming.

    + + +

    Eventually Four Chan showed up in her formal dress. It had been made for her by Andy the dollamancer to resemble the one she had back when she was overlady of Sidney. Both Forum and Four Chan considered themselves proud Ozzies still.

    “It looks beautiful, overlady.” Forum bowed to her. The ruling council now consisted of a quorum of five, ratified by popular vote by the barbarian Collective. Old titles were again being used. So Four Chan was Overlady, Gala Band was Overlord, Tip was Queen, Merlin was Chief Caster and Justin was Chief Warlord.

    “Thank you.” She spun for his benefit. “But I’m not here to show it off. I’m here to summon you to court.”

    “Me?” He asked. “Are they unhappy with the farms production? I’ve been doing the best I can…”

    “Oh, not at all. But you are needed for another task.” Four Chan took his arm. “Come, let us go. It’ll be explained in Court.”

    Court was in the next hex. While it was a capital site, it wasn’t being used as such. At least not in the traditional sense. Instead of claiming the site, the barbarians were using dirtamancy and flower power and a few other disciplines to get what they needed. There was a building designated as the bank where all the gems were stored, for example.

    The court was an open amphitheatre and he was brought to the center of it. Four Chan took her seat amongst the five great chairs and in the seats around them was every single resident of Seven Hex Valley.

    Queen Tip Temple stood up. She had once been Queen of Tipperary. Some said she was an impossible unit, an Archon who was also a royal. Some even whispered that weirdomancy or even carnymancy was involved. Whatever else she was, Queen Tip was beautiful. Her white gown shone in the sunlight and her chestnut brown curls almost looked golden in the light. Weaved into those curls were strands of silver that matched her eyes.

    “Warlord Forum.” Queen Tip said with a broad smile. “Welcome back. It is good to see you again and you are looking quite good.”

    All things considered, Warlord Forum thought to himself but did not say aloud. “Thank you, your majesty.”

    She made a sweeping gesture with her hands. “As you know, we have all agreed that none of us should claim this capital site so that we all might form a new sort of side. A barbarian side. One without a noticeable presence in the world at large but most especially in the Magic Kingdom.”

    Forum had thought the decision an odd one but had gone along with it. “Yes, your majesty.”

    “What you may not know is that Barnum and Baily believe that they may be able to increase the functionality of the site without claiming it properly.” Graciously she gestured to the two brothers. “They may even be able to create a portal that we could turn on and off.”

    “If we had such an ability, anytime we wanted to visit the Magic Kingdom, we could do so by contacting either Harry or Lou with a thinkagram. Then they could veil the portal location and we could slip in or out without notice.” She smiled at Forum.

    “That does sound great.” Forum agreed. “But I’m not sure how that involves me? I can’t go through the portal in either case.”

    “That is true.” Queen Tip agreed with a nod but still smiling. “But there are a couple of obstacles to overcome. The first is that there isn’t an actual portal to be carnied at the moment. Just the power plug or whatever it is that is located beneath a portal in a city.”

    “I see.” Forum nodded, not really understanding at all.

    Queen Tip went on. “The other issue is that we don’t actually know where in the Magic Kingdom our portal would appear.”

    “I suppose that could be a problem, your majesty.” Forum decided after a moment’s thought. He realized that it could be important to know if comings and goings were being monitored by enemy casters or barbarians looking to sell secrets.

    “So we’ve decided that the city should be claimed. For only one turn, you understand. And then the ruler should abdicate, leaving the city without a ruler, but perhaps with infrastructure we could then cast on.” The queen gestured to the chief caster. “It was Merlin’s idea.”

    “I look forward to seeing you as a proper queen again, even if it is only for one turn.” Forum said with a smile, suddenly glad he had been called back.

    “Oh!” Queen Tip looked surprised at the thought. “Oh no. I’m not going to be the ruler.”

    “Then…” Forum looked to Four Chan but she was already shaking her head no. So was Sir Gala Band, Merlin and Justin.

    You are to be the cities ruler.” Queen Tip corrected. “We had a vote and it was unanimous.”

    “I wasn’t told of any vote.” Forum objected.

    Queen Tip looked scandalized and then turned to Four Chan, “Did you not tell him?”

    “Must have forgot.” The smirk on Four Chan’s face suggested she had not, in fact forgotten.

    “Well, no matter.” Queen Tip announced when she turned her attention back to Forum. “Even if you had voted against, all the rest of us voted for. Also, we all refuse to accept the position of ruler, even for a day. So if you do not, no one will and we shall not have what we need.”

    He narrowed his eyes at the ruling council. Queen Tip looked innocent, Four Chan looked mischievous, Sir Gala Band looked noble, Merlin looked sagely and Justin was wearing his stony poker face. The idea could have been any of theirs but probably it was all of them.

    “You’re not going to give me a choice in this, are you?” He asked forlornly.

    “We are though.” Four Chan insisted earnestly. “It’s just that we’ve decided that as one suffers, so shall we all. If you will not do this, then we shall continue without.”

    Forum sighed heavily. “Very well. I’ll accept it for a day and then I’m going back to the farm.”

    Queen Tip clapped her hands together. “Oh, thank you Warlord!”

    He cleared his throat and then Warlord Forum announced, “I claim this capital site.”

    Suddenly he had a ruler sense and it told him so much about the city. He was its first ruler. The city ‘grew’ by filling in the structures that they had already built with juice and sweat. It was a level one city, simple yet elegant.

    No sooner had he processed that information, he discovered Four Chan kneeling in front of him. “Permission to turn to your side, overlord.”

    “Permission granted.” It hadn’t been part of the plan but he couldn’t imagine saying no to her.

    A light appeared in his head and he knew that light represented her as his unit. The first unit to join his side. And that light told him things about her that he had never known before.

    Four Chan stood and moved to Overlord Forum’s side, taking his hand.

    Queen Tip was next in line. She bowed and said, “Permission to join your side, overlord.”

    “Granted, of course.” He said with a surprised laugh.

    The rest of the council also stood in line to turn, even Justin who was staunchly against ever joining a side. Though it was only on condition that it be for only one turn.

    After the council, every other speaking unit of the valley lined up and also turned. Each one added more and more white lights inside his mind.

    The last was warlady Anne. She kneeled in front of him. “I’ll understand if you turn me away after what I said, overlord. But I do wish to turn to your side as well.”

    “Accepted.” Forum said with only a moment’s hesitation. And he was glad he did. Now he understood her better, as a white light inside his mind.

    “We all knew how alone you were feeling.” Justin told his overlord. “This was the only way we could think of to show you that we are all, quite literally, on your side.”

    + + +

    He only felt their presence in his mind for the one turn and then he allowed them all to turn barbarian once more before finally abdicating the throne himself.

    The city still stood, unclaimed. But what a city it was now. They had invested much of their treasury to upgrade it to a level five and the dirtamancers had done their thing every step of the way. Starting this turn they would be working with the carnymancers and florists to see about getting utility out of it even though it was now unclaimed.

    In a way, Forum wondered if maybe the city was lonely now without a ruler or any units that belonged to its side. He could certainly understand how that might feel. Now though he felt a little more whole, a little more himself.

    It was because everyone had come together to show him that not only was he one of them, they would all support him and lend them their strength when he was feeling weak. His agency and power had been taken from him and he had thought that it would never be found again. But it had been all around him the whole time, with his friends.

    They were all barbarians again and he could no longer feel their lights in his mind but that was okay. He knew they would share his struggles and his burdens. He would heal and his strength would grow anew.

    To each of them he felt a sense of loyalty and duty that he had never felt for any ruler. He would be a warlord again. He knew he would be afraid again. But he also knew, thanks to the lights that he would always remember, that he would never be alone again.


    _____________________________________________________________________________


    Dead Author's Note:

    Regrettably in real life there is no magical means for us to do for victims what the citizens of Seven Hex Valley did for Sir Forum of Post. All we can do is show them compassion and try to use our empathy to show them understanding.

    Please remember that the worst thing you can ever do is blame a victim for what happened to them. It isn't their fault, ever. It is the fault of monsters who hurt them, and theirs alone.

    Thank you for reading.

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

    I've finished a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?.

    I'm writing Tales from Seven Hex Valley and Dwagon Riders of Erf.

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     Post Posted: Fri Apr 08, 2016 11:25 pm 
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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 Mined 4 Erf Won Mine4erf for the Marbits Was an active Tool on Free Cards Day
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    A Different Kind of Side, A Different Kind of War

    All the warlords were called to the amphitheatre for a briefing from Warlord Holocaust. His actual name was Justin Case but Warlady Anne tended to think of his by his nickname.

    Even warlord Forum was present, in from the farm. Managing a farm was still his primary duty but this was a signal that he was starting to regain interest in the activities he was popped for.

    “Is this seat taken?”

    Anne looked up to see her fellow warlady Ginger standing there. “Sure.”

    “So do you think Warlord Justin has some new training for us?” Ginger asked as she sat down beside Anne. “I thought the hand signals and the codes were all pretty good but I don’t really get the point of all that trench digging. I’m a warlord, not a dirtamancer.”

    “Yeah, I didn’t get the trench digging either at first but he says that not only can it provide cover from enemy archers and shockmancy, it can also make it easier to conceal yourself and your stack.” Anne looked sideways at Ginger. “You were on patrol during his lecture on cam and concealment. That was actually pretty interesting stuff.”

    “Of course you think so, you’re forest capable. It comes naturally to you.” Ginger frowned. “Some of us were popped to protect city walls.”

    “We don’t even have a proper city to protect.” Anne pointed out. “We’ve got to adapt to new ways of doing things.”

    The chattering of the warlords and ladies came to an abrupt end when Chief Warlord Justin arrived. A couple of twolls were with him, carry some crates. They walked to a table in the middle of the amphitheatre where the twolls started unpacking the crates.

    “Good morning!” The chief warlord’s voice carried well in the amphitheatre. “Today we’ll be showing you some new tools and weapons that our casters have been working to produce for us.”

    There was a murmur of excitement through the crowd. Rumours about some of these projects had started before Sydney had fallen.

    He held up one of his weapons, the one he called a ‘rifle’. “As some of you already know, this is my bolt action rifle.” He set that on the table and then held up one of his other weapons. “This is my shotgun.” Then he held up the smallest of the. “And this is my pistol. I’ve allowed Andy and Johnny to study all these weapons and their ammo for some time and we’ve been discussing how they relate to each other and some other weapons from my old side.”

    He put the pistol back in his holster and then lifted something out of one of the crates. “This is also a rifle, made by Andy. It’s based on the M-14. It’s a semi-automatic and comes with a removable twenty round magazine.” From the same crate he pulled out a small blade and attached it to the end of the rifle. “This is a bayonet and as you can see, it attaches to the end of the Rifle.”

    “Everyone come on down and form a line to the right. The twolls will issue you each one Rifle and two bandoleers of magazines. You’ll also be given a belt with a holster and a pistol. Once you handle these babies, you’ll understand everything.”

    Anne and Ginger joined the others and accepted their new weapons. As soon as they picked them up, they knew how to use them. They knew everything about them, including the fact that they somehow granted the archery special to anyone who touched them.

    “Alright everyone, back to your seats. You’ll all get a chance to train with the new weapons soon enough.” Warlord Holocaust gestured to the table and the other crates, “There’s still more to share with you.”

    Warlord Anne wondered just how much training would be required for a weapon that instilled the knowledge and ability to use it just by touching it? Tactics, perhaps?

    “These here are a dollamancy item called binoculars. They grant a limited sort of Lookamancy to anyone looking through them. You’ll be able to see distant areas more clearly, so long as you have a line of sight. This includes across hex boundaries. They’ll also help you see through some forms of foolamancy and at night.” He put them back down on the table and lifted up a heavy looking set of goggles. “We’re also working on goggle versions and scopes for those rifles you were just given.”

    Placing the goggles back on the table, he lifted up poncho next, which he pulled on over his head. It was green with blocks of black and frown on it when it had been on the table but when he put it on, it switched to grey with blocks of black, blue and white.

    As the gathered warlords watched, their chief became harder to see. If they looked away, they had to focus their eyes in order to spot him again.

    “This is a camouflage poncho. In addition to protecting you from the elements, he provides you with some limited foolamancy. As long as you remain still, you will be extremely hard to spot.” He took a few steps which brought him into better focus for the audience. “Movement nullifies the effect. The quicker and the further you move, the more likely an enemy will be able to spot you.”

    The barbarian chief warlord pulled the poncho off again and laid it back on the table. The next item he picked up was a small hand held black box. “We’re calling this a radio, though it’s not really. It works on thinkamancy and will allow you to send voice messages to other units, even in other hexes. We considered making one that sent images too but that required more of a caster link and much more juice. Still it may be something we issue to warlords on a case by case basis in the future.”

    “We’re just short the ability to fly from making a regular stabber equal to an archon.” Warlady Ginger said as she absorbed all that she was seeing on the table. “Veils, communication, powerful weapons, lookamancy items. It’s all incredible.”

    Warlady Anne nodded her head. “Sort of makes us archer units redundant, doesn’t it?”

    There was a short pause from Warlady Ginger. “Yeah.”

    Warlord Holocaust wasn’t done talking. “This next item is a new type of armor. It consists primarily of a flexible vest though we have added optional arm and leg protection too. It is reinforced by strategically placed rigid plates over strategic areas. Of note, spidew silk is used in the construction of this armor. You’ll find that it is lighter and more flexible than the armor you’re used to using right now. More importantly however, it will help you resist damage from those same firearms you’ve just been issued. Just in case an enemy manages to steal some from us.”

    A chilly shudder went down Anne’s spine. As excited as she was to see this new gear and weapons in use, the thought of facing an opponent with these weapons was scary. Apparently their chief warlord had already anticipated the possibility however.

    “Alright everyone, come on back and the twolls will issue you your armor, poncho’s and other accessories. Then we’ll be going over to the ranges I had Johnny make for me this morning.” Then the tall warlord started equipping himself with the same gear, sized for his bulk.

    The ranges were a series of lanes facing an earthen berm. In each lane there was a smaller berm with a trench already dug in it. Each trench was accompanied by a post as well as a bare patch of ground. On the other side were the ‘butts’, which were a series of dollamancy mechanisms located in a long trench in front of the big earthen berm. These dollamancy devices could raise or lower targets above the trench so that shooters at the other end of the firing lane could fire at them. The targets could be raised all the way to simulate a standing target, part way to represent a kneeling target or hardly at all to simulate a target who was in a trench or lying prone.

    Warlord Holocaust explained the function of the ranges to the warlords as he took them on a tour of it. “Today I’ll be training you. Starting tomorrow, you’ll begin training our combat stacks.”

    All day the warlords trained in shooting tactics from various positions on the firing lane. Late in the day Warlord Holocaust demonstrated a drill he called “Up-he-sees-me-down!” It was a way to fire and advance that could be implemented at the stack level, partial stack level or even in just pairs. The idea was that while one half the group was shooting, the enemy would be hiding behind cover and the other half could advance. Then the advancing group would drop to the ground and cover the advance of the other half.

    That night the training continued and the warlords were introduced to a special round called a ‘tracer’ that was illuminated when it fired out of the rifle. It would provide warlords with a visual aid in directing the fire of their soldiers. Some caution had to be advised though. There was a negligible chance of each tracer round starting a fire when it hit combustible material. However when a large number of shooters firing a large number of tracer rounds could turn that negligible chance to a near certainty. There was also the concern that shooting tracer rounds could give away a unit’s position.

    “Why do you think he’s teaching us to fight at night?” Warlady Ginger asked Anne while their serial took a break and another was firing at the line. “No one can move across hexes at that time.”

    “We do have a turnamancer with us.” Warlady Anne pointed out. “And a couple of carnymancers. Plus remember all those golems we were made to bury at Tipperary before we had to turn barbarian and evacuate here?”

    Ginger nodded. “Yeah. He’s teaching us to fight in the dirt and at night. He must think there’s a reason for it.”

    “I’ve heard rumours that he wakes up screaming sometimes.” Anne muttered quietly. “It really makes you wonder about his side and how they conducted war.”

    Ginger shuddered as the air cracked from the passing of another volley of red screaming bullets and the smell of burnt powder filled her nostrils anew.

    + + +

    The next turn, warladies Ginger and Anne were both assigned a stack of troops each. While both warladies were archer’s themselves, their stacks consisted of two other archers, two stabbers and two pikers plus an altruistic elf each.

    “These troops will be your assigned stacks from now on.” Warlord Holocaust told them. “Eventually you’ll each be given a command of an additional stack of soldiers to form a platoon. Warlady Anne, you will have command and Warlady Ginger, you will be the platoon’s second in command. We’re also going to be changing rank structure a bit in the future but that can wait. For now we’ll keep things as close to how you do business as possible to keep it simple. We’ll add the more advanced stuff later. In any case, you two will be taking point in training your stacks first. That is because you’ll be the first going out to the field with these new weapons.”

    Anne and Ginger exchanged looks but then nodded. It was a novel experience to receive orders yet not feel the compulsion to obey that normally came with such commands. Initially everyone had continued to obey orders as much from habit as anything else. The reasons for still obeying were changing however. They obeyed because they knew as barbarians their best hope lay in cooperating with each other. They obeyed because they knew that they had to set the example for the common soldiers and even the knights. They obeyed because they were starting to respect their leaders and were shown respect in return.

    Warlady Anne didn’t always get along with Warlord Holocaust and she certainly didn’t like him but she had to respect the results he got and some of the things he was showing them. And now she knew he was showing her respect by assigning her command of the first unit to be outfitted with these new weapons and items outside the valley. Frankly she thought someone else who was easier to get along with might have gotten that particular honor.

    “What’s our mission going to be?” Anne asked her superior.

    “I want you to scout the hexes around the valley. Mostly the forest hexes but the immediate wasteland hexes as well. Maybe scout the mountains a bit too, if you can. Look for hidden ways into the valley or dangers that have been over looked from the air. That’s your primary mission. Your secondary mission is to start considering how to start training our troops for the environments around our home. Use your expertise to evaluate how enemy sides might assault us and how these new weapons might be used to repel them.” He gestured to the shooting range. “This training is just a basic tool. A starting point. I want you and the other warlords to start thinking of how to bring it up to the next level.”

    “I’ll do my best, Chief.” She said with a smart salute.

    “Good. It looks like your boys are all geared up.” The heavy barbarian said and then nodded back to the ranges. “The range is yours.”

    Warlady Ginger followed behind Warlady Anne while the senior barked out orders. Ginger had noted many times that the Chief occasionally referred to the troops as ‘boys’ or ‘men’ despite a roughly equal representation of both genders amongst them. It was one of his queer mannerisms she didn’t understand. Even more confusingly, he would seem to catch himself in the act and then switch to another form of address such as ‘troops’ or ‘soldiers’.

    He didn’t treat any of the units differently from what she could tell. It was just one of many quirks he seemed to have.

    + + +

    That evening Warlord Holocaust gave both Warladies code books and maps. Not only was each hex marked, each hex boundary was also marked and given a code word. “This way we will be able to provide each other information not only on the hexes but directions that things could be happening in.” He explained. “We want you to give the hex boundary code word every time to cross into a new hex. It will allow us to track your progress on the battle map here in the operations room.”

    “This is the route we’d like you to use with this hex being the drop off point by Black Hawk. We’ll pick you up there again when you’re done. Or an alternate location if you run into trouble along the way.”

    “Read those code books and study those maps tonight. They’re signamancy created items, like scrolls. They’ll impart the knowledge into your minds as you read them and then disappear. There’s also a command phrase that will wipe all that knowledge from your mind.” He handed each of them their own book.

    “What’s the command phrase?” Ginger asked.

    “I’ll tell you everything you want to know.” Then he grinned.

    + + +

    Bright and early the next turn, Three Black Hawks carried two stacks of soldiers (plus the Black Hawk riders) to a nearby forest hex. They circled the hex once from the air before landing and letting the troops get off.

    Warlady Anne gripped her rifle tightly. The new armor she wore was more comfortable and lighter than the mail she once wore. Two bandoleers crisscrossed her chest, each holding ten magazines and each magazine holding twenty rounds plus another full magazine in the rifle. The bayonet was already attached and shone in the light.

    On her belt was a holster for her sidearm and four small pouches for additional magazines for it. There were also pouches for her radio, binoculars and a canteen. Her backpack held provisions for ten turns plus some basic supplies like a bedroll and some rope.

    Everyone in the group was equipped in the exact same manner.

    She felt ready. She felt dangerous. She felt she understood what Holocaust had meant when he had referred to them as ministers of death, praying for war. She felt sorry for any enemy units who tangled with them this turn.

    Almost regrettably, nobody did tangle with them that turn.

    “It sure is different to be able to report our location each time we cross a hex boundary. As well as our general state of wellbeing.” Ginger said as she relaxed beside her fellow Warlady by the fire. “It’s kind of reassuring, too, you know? Like we’re not really that far from help.”

    “Yeah, but if we get bumped off turn, it doesn’t matter if they’re in the next hex, they can’t move. They can’t get to us. They may as well be a million hexes away.” Anne sighed. “But I get what you’re saying though. Any attack we survive will be answered in force next turn. Any attack we don’t survive has a good chance of being avenged instead.”

    They fell into silence for several long moments.

    “It’s weird.” Ginger finally spoke again. “I feel like I’m part of a side and we all feel like part of a side but we’re all barbarians.”

    “It really is weird.” Anne confided. “I give orders to my stack and they obey but a part of me keeps wondering, what if they don’t? What if we come across a sided warlord who asks us to turn? Do they? Do I?”

    “Would you?” Ginger asked, wide eyed. “Turn?”

    “I’ve turned twice already to save my own life.” Anne admitted. “It seemed like the pragmatic thing to do at the time. Maybe I’ve just never been a very loyal unit. Though I think I wouldn’t turn now.”

    “Why? I mean, if its turn or die, why not turn?” The question was asked by Ginger with sincere curiousity.

    “I’ve been thinking about that. And I’ve been thinking about loyalty too. They say no one knows what another units loyalty stat is, right? But you can feel it, in your heart, I think a unit feels it even if they don’t know the number for it.”

    “Sure.” Ginger agreed. “I think everyone feels it, to some degree or another. You’re supposed to be able to, that’s what keeps you loyal to a side.”

    “Yeah.” Anne nodded slowly. “But what if there’s more than one loyalty stat? Like, okay, you have a loyalty stat for your side, unless you’re a barbarian. But I still feel loyalty. I feel it to you and I feel it to my stack and I feel it to the other warlords and the council and the other residents of the valley. Maybe I would turn if it was just one of you others at stake, maybe if it was a few of you even, but when I think about it, I sort of feel all those combined small loyalty scores adding up to one big one, you know?”

    Ginger nodded. “I wouldn’t want the other warlords to think I was a coward or nothing.”

    “That’s exactly it!” Anne snapped her fingers suddenly. “We’re not in this for some side or some ruler anymore. We’re in this for each other and we care about what the others think of us and we feel loyalty to them individually and collectively too.”

    “So do you think this barbarian side thing can work?” Ginger asked, looking uncertain herself.

    “It can if we make it work.” Anne decided. “And I’m starting to think I want that.”

    “Do you think we’ll be able to recruit other barbarians to our side?” Ginger wrapped her arms around her knees. “Since we can’t pop new units?”

    Anne thought on that for a moment and then asked, “If you were out there on your own, would you rather stay on your own, join a side or join us?”

    “Well, I would want to join us. But I may be biased.” Ginger shrugged her shoulders.

    + + +

    When the turn ended on the third day, the patrol walked into a forest hex after having spent the day skirting the mountains in the wastelands. They were on the opposite side of the mountains from where they had been dropped off and had explored a total of fifteen forest hexes including this one. They had also explored ten hexes of waste land and walked around or past two water hexes and seventeen mountain hexes.

    They had spotted a blue and a purple dwagon in the mountains earlier that day. Otherwise, the patrol had been fairly uneventful.

    However, the day didn’t end when the barbarian turn ended.

    “There must be someone else in the battle space.” Warlady Ginger said to her superior. “You should call it in.”

    Warlady Anne nodded. “I’ll do that, you use the binoculars to see if you can spot anything in the nearby hexes.”

    Making sure she remembered to toggle the switch, Anne initiated the call. “Sunray, this is Foxhound One. Message, over.”

    “Sunray, send.” Came the crisp reply. One of the Tropers was apparently monitoring the channel.

    “Foxhound One, we’ve reached objective Foxtrot One Five. Confirm status of turn, over.” It was important to say over, it meant that you were done talking.

    “Sunray, turn is done, over.”

    “Foxhound One, time check, over.” Anne wasn’t happy to hear that. They were out of move either way but it meant that they weren’t getting any support from the valley.

    “Sunray, it is close to sundown here, over.”

    “Foxhound One, it is around mid day here.” Anne reported faithfully.

    “Roger that, Foxhound One. Be advised that we are unable to assist you at this time. Please keep us advised of your situation, over.”

    “Roger, over.” Anne was frowning.

    “Out to you.” The senior station closed the conversation.

    Anne put the radio back into her pouch and joined Ginger at the edge of the hex bordering the wasteland that they had just come from. “See anything?”

    Ginger was still staring out through the binoculars. “I can see ruins from here. What was their designation, again?”

    “According to the map, those ruins are designated Kansas.” Anne said after checking the mental map she had. “There’s two hexes of wasteland between us and them.”

    “Titans!” Ginger exclaimed suddenly. “There’s a Black Hawk!”

    “Is it one of ours?” Anne asked as she pulled out her own binoculars to have a look.

    “I don’t think so.” Ginger said hesitantly.

    “I don’t think so either.” Anne agreed once she got a look. “I recognize that Blue Wail on the archers.” She had worn that blue wail at one point.

    She dropped the binoculars and pulled the radio out again. “Sunray! Message!” In her excitement, she forgot to say over.

    “This is Sunray, send over.” The voice seemed one of nervous anticipation.

    “Foxhound One, there’s a Bravo Hotel heavy bird at hex Kansas. It’s carrying one stack Foxtrot Whiskey archers, over.”

    “Sunray, did you day Foxtrot Whiskey?”

    “Foxhound One, I say again, Foxtrot Whiskey.”

    “Sunray, maintain observation, keep us updated.”

    “Foxhound One, roger, over.”

    “Sunray, out.”

    “What are they doing?” Anne asked her fellow warlady.

    “They just landed. I can’t see what they’re doing amongst the ruins.” Ginger kept dutifully looking through the binoculars.

    Anne joined Ginger in the vigil.

    “It’s too bad we can’t engage them.” Ginger said after awhile.

    “We can’t.” Anne agreed. “Too bad we can’t lure a dwagon to that hex.”

    “Maybe call Sunray again.” Ginger suggested. “Maybe Max and the Major can use some foolamancy or something.”

    “At that range?” Anne sounded doubtful.

    “It wouldn’t have to be big, just enough to draw their attention to that Black Hawk. Then it’ll close in for the eats.”

    Anne radioed back while Ginger kept watch.

    “They say they’re going to do a caster link with Barnum. It won’t be anything grand but they hope it’ll do the trick.”

    The two warladies kept watch and eventually saw a blue dwagon flying by. It seemed to be watching something on the ground. Zooming in with their binoculars, they could just make out a red dot zigging and zagging along on the ground beneath the dwagon.

    As hoped, when the Dwagon saw the Black Hawk, it’s hunger made it ignore the dot for the waiting feast. The Fail Wail troops were caught unawares and quickly fell to the hungry blue.

    Anne radioed it in while Ginger maintained her watch.

    “Anne!” Ginger exclaimed. “There’s a unit leaving the ruins. It’s headed this way.”

    “Get ready for combat!” Warlady Anne ordered. “Hold your fire until the order is given.”

    What they saw was a lone female unit in a prisoner’s smock trudging through the wasteland.

    “She must have been their prisoner.” Ginger suggested.

    “And now she’s technically a fugitive since there were no more enemy in the hex.” Anne added. “Good thing the dwagon didn’t eat her too.”

    “I wish there was something we could do to help her.” Ginger bit her lip impotent frustration.

    “Me too.” Anne agreed, surprising herself. “She does seem to be headed in this direction. I’ll let Sunray know.”

    + + +

    Friday was having the worst turn of her life. It didn’t help that it was the only turn of her life. She’d barely popped and began to explore the ruins of her birth when suddenly there were other units in the hex. They flew in on a massive bird and then landed not too far from her.

    Not wanting to be rude and hoping they might help her with her upkeep, she went over to introduce herself to them.

    They seemed to have been looking for her, which seemed quite promising.

    The bag they pulled over her head had been much less promising. The manacles that appeared on her wrists and ankles had pretty much ruined what had started out to be a rather pleasant day.

    Then the roaring had come and that had been most unpleasant. She had hid in her bag long after the manacles had disappeared. Eventually though hunger had driven her from her hiding place.

    There wasn’t much left in the hex of the people who had taken her prisoner. Just bits of limbs, really. She didn’t feel very sorry for them. Because of them, she was now a fugitive from a side called Fail Wail.

    She reckoned that meant she better move before their friends came looking for her and decided to make her day worse.

    There were mountains only a couple of hexes away. She didn’t know if she would find food there but she might find a gem that would keep her alive.

    As she got closer, Friday could see trees in a hex between the mountains. She thought that might be promising. So she headed in that direction.

    Friday supposed she could fly the distance but she didn’t want to draw any attention to herself. Whatever had killed her captors might still be around.

    At boundary of the forest hex, Friday hesitated. She didn’t like the look of two of the bushes. It almost seemed like they were watching her. She didn’t know if she liked the idea of bushes watching her or not. There was something really weird about these bushes too, something she couldn’t quite place.

    Then the bushes stood up. Friday realized that they weren’t bushes at all. They were units. Friday took a step back.

    “Don’t worry.” One of the bush units said. “I’m Ginger. And this is Anne.”

    “Hello Ginger. Hello Anne.” Friday didn’t approach any close but she didn’t step back anymore either. “I’m Friday.”

    “Hello Friday.” Anne was looking at her closely. “You’re an archon.”

    “Yes, I am.” Friday agreed. The other units had called her that as well. “You’re not going to put a bag on me, are you?”

    The two units looked at each other. “No.” Anne assured her. “We won’t do that. You’re a barbarian unit, like us. If you like, we’ll take you to other barbarians. There’s a lot of us and we’ll take care of you.”

    “I’m a fugitive.” Friday said, uncertainly.

    “If you stack up with one of us, you won’t be anymore.” Ginger pointed out.

    “Well, alright.” Friday crossed the boundary and stacked up with Ginger. Her clothes immediately changed from a prisoner’s smock to clothes that resembled those of Ginger and Anne.

    “Welcome to the collective.” Ginger said with a smile.

    “You’re one of us now.” Anne added.

    Friday smiled. “Today is finally looking up.”

    + + +

    “It seems that the Kansas ruins randomly pop archons.” Merlin said to the rest of the council. “We don’t know how frequently though but it seems Fail Wail has some idea of the specifics.”

    “It’s disturbing enough to consider they may be a viable side again and snooping around our neighborhood.” Justin was frowning. “What would they want with an archon, anyway?”

    “Aside from the fact that they are powerful knights?” Sir Gala Band asked. “It may be that they want one so they can turn the unit. If they have such a unit, they may be able to set up one of their cities to pop archons. But they need to have one on their side first.”

    “Those were the ruins you found me in.” Tip turned to Justin. “Does that mean I was popped there?”

    “I don’t think so.” Justin shook his head but he seemed uncertain.

    “We’re going to have to keep an eye on that hex.” Four Chan spoke up. “Maybe Fail Wail will stop trying once they capture an archon. Maybe they won’t. If they do stop, then we should look into recruiting archon’s that pop there. If they don’t, then we need to find a way to discourage them without revealing ourselves.”

    “I don’t like the idea of sacrificing any archon to that side.” Tip was frowning.

    “It could mean the difference between another war or not.” Justin said. “If there were only a way to have a unit join a side but remain loyal to us, secretly.”

    “Unfortunately, that’s not how things work.” Merlin sighed. “But at least we have a number of turns before we should have to make any definite decisions.

    Tip stood up. “We all know that ruin’s randomly pop units. We need to investigate the ruins near us more. We need to understand the mechanics around them. In the meantime, we have a new member to our community.” She smiled broadly. “I think we shall be sisters.”

    Dead Author's Note: This would have been the first of the new Seven Hex Valley stories if I hadn't been side tracked earlier this week.

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

    I've finished a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?.

    I'm writing Tales from Seven Hex Valley and Dwagon Riders of Erf.

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    The City that Never Sleeps

    I can still remember when it was decided that the city in Seven Valley Hex would be claimed for a single turn and then abandoned again.

    “It makes sense to claim the city.” I had said. “But why have everyone go barbarian again afterwards?”

    “It’s part of a strategy to keep hidden, Major.” Justin explained. Sometimes he called me Major like it was my name (it was) and sometimes he called me Major like it was some sort of title (it wasn’t). One more quirk of his. “If we have a portal open in the magic kingdom, someone will inevitably wonder which side it belongs to. That’s why I want it veiled on the other side as quickly as possible. Hopefully no one will notice it and if they do, they will think it was a side that appeared and then failed right away.”

    I was still skeptical of the plan. “Then why upgrade the city? We’ll be spending a lot juice and a whole lot of shmuckers to get it up to a level five, especially if we’re just going to abandon it again. It’s too costly an experiment.”

    “Maybe, but I think it’s an opportunity. That’s why I want you to link with Johnny and Barnum while you’re doing it. I’m hoping that by working together you’ll be able to set the city up so we can keep using many of its functions as barbarians.” Justin seemed excited as he often did when experimenting.

    “That may be a lot of rules for one Carnymancer to break. Even one as talented as Barnum.” I pointed out. “And that’s assuming it’s possible at all.”

    “It is a risk, Major.” Justin agreed. “But we can afford to absorb the cost of it if we must. It’s worth it because of what we stand to gain if successful. Even a partial success may prove useful.”

    So Warlord Forum had claimed the city and we had all joined his side. Then I formed the link with Barnum and Johnny while Max stood by to ease us out of it if necessary.

    It started out as a level one city. We upgraded it to a level two and noted the changes. The process was teaching us about every function of the city, of every way it could be upgraded and of every rule that existed for it. Many seemed to focus on either the tower or the portal.

    With every upgrade we grew the city and our understanding of it.

    “I think this is the first time the city has ever been claimed.” Johnny thought at us both as it transitioned from a level three city to a level four. “Everything we’re doing is new.”

    “It’s not a unit.” Barnum was frowning. “I see all the rules but I can’t break any of them. Yet I feel like maybe they could be broken.”

    When the city was made a level five and Johnny worked his magic to its fullest, Barnum seemed to have some sort of epiphany. “The city isn’t a unit, but it is a sort of entity. The tower especially. It’s like… it’s like fate. We talk about fate’s will is but it’s not like you can talk to fate, or move fate or anything else you’d normally attribute to a unit. The city is like fate. It’s a force and it has a will and where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

    “Where there is will, there might be belief.” I said with dawning comprehension. “If there is belief, you may be able to make it believe it could break the rules.”

    “More than that.” Barnum said with a thoughtful grin. “I can make it believe in itself.”

    “And if it believes in itself, it won’t require a ruler for actualization. It will self-actualize.” Johnny was nodding. “It may persist as a functioning city afterwards.”

    “We’ll have to carny the portal separately though.” Barnum observed. “If the city remains active, so will the portal. So we’ll have to break the portal so that it can be turned on and off when needed.”

    “That will require a second link.” I informed them. “Maybe a third to accomplish all we want to.”

    “Tomorrow is another turn and with it comes more juice.” Barnum seemed to shrug. “After we break the link, Max can form another one with my brother and our other dirtamancer. They can see to the portal. They can remain linked until tomorrow and then you can break them out of it safely. And if necessary, we can form a link again tomorrow with Max to look out for us once you help them out of their link.”

    The city did indeed have a will. It had been asleep and it had always been asleep. It was awake now and wanted to remain awake. It enjoyed having units in it. It enjoyed having a function. These were the feelings I got through the link.

    We would make it so that it would always have a function. It would always be. And hopefully, we would always be there with it.

    + + +

    Overlord Forum abdicated and was the last of us to turn barbarian again. He left a single shmucker had been left in the city’s treasury as part of the experiment.

    The buildings still stood. Animals on farms depopped and provisions appeared in the larders. The portal remained active. And in the building that was the cities bank, a small gem appeared, with a value of a single shmucker.

    As hoped, the city was an active, barbarian city.

    The link to change how the portal was activated also succeeded. Max had led that link while I had stood by in reserve in case they couldn’t get out of it themselves. Max hadn’t originally been a thinkamancer like me and more often needed assistance than I did. On the other hand, I was also better at rendering that assistance than he was. Which was saying something as he was quite competent as a thinkamancer now, thanks to the magic book I had helped Merlin draft on the subject of thinkamancy.

    The portal could now be turned on and off at a podium that had been added to the room. A second link allowed for the creation of an Iris like the one the UFS had for all it’s capitals. It was an extra level of security that probably wasn’t necessary now that we could turn the portal on and off but Justin was paranoid sometimes and had pushed for the creation of one.

    It wouldn’t be until the next turn that we would make the most interesting discovery. At dawn, gems appeared in the bank equal in value to what a city of this one’s level could be expected to produce. It was an unexpected but very welcome development.

    Walking around this city was different than any city I had been in before. In a city owned by your side, everything was familiar, even if you’d never been there before. There was an innate feeling of welcome and belonging. An enemy city by contrast felt hostile on a very instinctive level. In an allied city I had always felt welcome yet wary. This city was familiar but the sense of belonging was lacking.

    Though when I put my hands on the walls of the buildings, I felt and sensed warmth from them. In a way, I had helped create this city. It was my… I didn’t have the proper words for it. Maybe one of Justin’s words would work? Was the city my child?

    Either way, I felt attached to it. Was that how a ruler felt?

    But this city wasn’t just mine and it didn’t belong to any one ruler. This city was all of ours. Somehow that made it even more special. It also complicated things though.

    For example there was a risk that someone might try to claim the city. Any one of us commanders could do it or an outsider might if they ever found the place. So it wasn’t really secure.

    “We need you three to link up again.” Justin was telling Johnny, Barnum and myself. “See if there’s some way to make the city un-claimable. Or maybe make it claim itself. Or make all of us able to claim it. Whatever it takes so that someone doesn’t come along and pull the rug out from under us.”

    It was an intriguing idea and would preserve our barbarian status. So we linked up.

    We found that it was unnecessary. Having become aware of itself, the city had claimed itself immediately after Forum had abdicated. Having had a side with units, she was also aware of us.

    “Hello.” A warm woman’s voice greeted all three of us in think space. “I am Andromeda.”

    “You can speak!” Barnum thought excitedly. “Or think… well communicate at least.”

    “Yes.” The voice agreed pleasantly. “Thank you for that, father.”

    “I’m your father?” Excitement was tempered by wonder in Barnum’s voice.

    A woman’s form was taking shape in the throne room equivalent of the city’s think space. She was attractive with almond eyes and short chestnut hair. “You are. And he is my father and she is my mother. After a fashion. I existed before any of you and yet I was never truly alive until you made me aware.”

    We circled her. “How come you didn’t appear like this that last time we linked?” I asked her.

    “I was a claimed city then.” She smiled. “My agency was limited and a form wasn’t really necessary. But since you have all abandoned me, I desire a way to communicate with you all more freely.”

    A sudden sadness struck me. It hadn’t occurred to me that we might be abandoning her, forcing her to become barbarian whether she wanted to or not. We hadn’t considered that she would want anything at all. “I’m sorry.”

    “It is okay.” Andromeda reached out and stroked my cheek. “I understand much from my short time as your city. When you were all my units. I wish to continue to be your city and I wish you to continue to be my units but having found my voice, I do not wish to lose it again. I do not wish to lose my sense of self again.”

    “That actually relates to why we came back.” Barnum admitted. “We are actually concerned about the possibility of someone claiming you again. It would disrupt our plans if someone did that and formed a side right underneath us.”

    “It is not my intention to allow that.” Andromeda stroked his cheek next. “I am my own city now. However I feel a gulf, a separation between us. It could leave me alone and if alone, I might accept a new ruler.”

    “How can we make sure you’re not lonely?” Johnny asked. “Not just because of the rulers or sides things. But because well, we don’t want you to be alone.”

    Andromeda drifted over to him next and stroked his cheek as he had all of ours. “You are with me now. So there are ways. But as I welcome your company, I know this way is limited to only a few of my units at a time and I would talk with all of you. I would walk amongst you.”

    “I can’t make you walk.” Johnny looked downcast. “I don’t know how I could give you a voice either.”

    Her sad look was breaking my heart. I searched my mind for an answer. This was an unusual situation, it required unusual thinking. The sort of thoughts that seemed to come naturally to Justin and Merlin. It never would have occurred to me or most other casters to use magic books to cross train casters in multiple disciplines. I owed my new found understanding of foolamancy and lookamancy to those two. That was when it hit me.

    “There is a way.” I announced. “At least after a fashion. If I come back linked with Johnny and Max, we could maybe use some foolamancy to provide you with an illusionary body. One that others will be able to see and you’ll be able to talk through but won’t really be there. You would be able to project an image of yourself anywhere in the hex.”

    “That would be satisfactory, I think.” Andromeda turned her attention back to me. “I would be able to talk to you all. I would have a voice and therefore a say in matters and affairs that are happening in and around me. I do not wish to be a voyeur in my own space.”

    “Well we haven’t used much juice so I think if we break the link now, I’ll be able to form a second one with Max this very turn.” I was eager to get started.

    “Very well.” Andromeda stepped back. “I will await you here.”

    Gently, I untangled our minds and our fingers released one another’s hands.

    “How’d it go?” Justin asked. “Did it work?”

    “It was unnecessary.” I reported, stoic to his animation. “The city does not intend to be claimed by anyone. However it has a request of us.”

    “A request of us?” Tip stepped forward. “Do you mean it’s alive?”

    “It is now.” Barnum gushed excitedly. “And it wants to be able to talk with all of us. Major Tanaka thinks that a link between her, Max and Johnny can give her a foolamancy body and voice so people can see and hear her. Maybe some lookamancy to let her see and hear us properly too.”

    After we related the entire conversation, the council retreated to their private chambers to discuss it. They were all smiling when they re-emerged. Tip was smiling brightest of all. “We will certainly grant her request. And once everyone has had a chance to properly meet our city, Andromeda, we will recommend to the assembly that she be made a member of this council.”

    “Assuming she wants to. Not that I see any reason for her not to.” Justin added. “Also, ask her if it’s okay if I call her Romy.”

    It was an odd request but I didn’t see the harm in it.

    I took Max and Johnny’s hands and together we entered into a link.

    Andromeda was waiting for us. “You may tell Justin that he may call me Romy if it pleases him though I don’t understand why he wants to.” Her smile was bemused.

    Clearly she had no trouble seeing or hearing us when we spoke. “He has many strange ways.” I mentally shrugged.

    “To me, you are all strange.” She pointed out gently. “But all so very fascinating. I do hope everyone agrees to let me be on the council. Wouldn’t it be odd if a city didn’t have a say in how it was run?”

    “From a certain point of view.” Max said as he studied Andromeda analytically. “Yes, I think we can do this.”

    I learned a great deal about eyemancy from that link. It may have been the first time that foolamancy had been used to reveal what was truly there all along.

    When the link ended and I opened my eyes again, I could see Andromeda standing in the throne room, surrounded by the others.

    + + +

    Andromeda spent the next few turns meeting and speaking with every speaking unit in the valley (though some had to come in from the farm’s to meet her). She knew us all and greeted us by name. When the assembly was gathered to vote on whether or not to accept her as a member of the council, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of it.

    I think if we had been asked to vote for her as our ruler, we would have right then and there. The idea had been floated by some commanders but Justin had argued them down.

    Regardless, it had caused a great deal of celebration for our little community.

    It was the perfect opportunity.

    No one was in the portal room when Max and I arrived. There was no reason to guard it as it was usually off.

    “Ready?” I sent a thinkagram to Harry in the Magic Kingdom.

    “Ready.” He sent back. “There’s no one here and I’ve put a veil over the area.”

    I veiled myself and then activated the portal and opened the iris. I stepped through to the other side and Max closed the portal and iris behind me.

    Harry was waiting for me but I didn’t drop the veil until I was well away from the portal.

    “It’s been awhile.” He observed. “How’s everyone doing in the valley?”

    “Better than I would have expected.” I admitted. “Justin continues to push us to explore what we can do with magic and to form links with each other so we can understand each other’s disciplines as well.”

    “Mind if I ask why the sudden urgency in meeting with the great minds?” Harry was technically speaking though it would take contact or another eyemancer to tell. The things we had to discuss were too dangerous for thinkagrams.

    “Something very unusual has happened.” I replied in the same manner. “We seem to have brought a city to life.”

    “They’ll want to hear about that at the temple for sure.” Harry nodded slightly. “Still don’t think he’s a perfect warlord?”

    “He’s not.” I insisted. I’d been reporting on Justin to the Great Minds that Think Alike since the first turn Wobin had taken Naughtyham and I had access to a portal again. “I don’t think he was summoned. At least not like the other one.”

    “Still.” Harry said as he looked up at the night sky. “There are some of us who are comforted by the notion that we might not be at the mercy of the one that was summoned after all.”

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

    I've finished a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?.

    I'm writing Tales from Seven Hex Valley and Dwagon Riders of Erf.

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     Post Posted: Thu Jan 18, 2018 4:24 pm 
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    Expo Position

    How long had it been since I last walk the Earth? It was a question I hadn’t even bothered to ask myself in some time. Having returned to the Magic Kingdom to meet with the Grand Abbie, thoughts of earth were once again on my mind.

    It had been so many turns gone by now. I had almost started to believe it had all been a dream. Even back then, it wasn’t easy to move between the Earth and Erf. One did not simply walk into a new world. It took great magic to do it. At a minimum it took a caster link. The easiest ways was with titanic magic.

    When the Arkenshoes had been lost, I had assumed that I would spend the rest of my days here in Erf, never again to move between the two worlds. It was just as well, I had supposed at the time. The race of men from Earth had long since lost the ability to hear magic’s sweet melody played on the cosmic strings. While none still listened, the band played on.

    Here in Erf, I had no trouble perceiving the tempo of magic. It throbbed in the background noise of this world. I could feel the vibrations in the stuff and in every unit that I touched. Unlike Earth, I could feel the harmony that sought balance.

    Perhaps I had merely come to accept my fate. Once a man of two worlds, I was now trapped on just one. Better to treat the lost world as tainted and bitter fruit than to allow myself to feel its loss to the full and keenest extent.

    Briefly I had hope of someday revisiting Earth when word of Warlady (and then overlady) Judy Gale reached me. However, the more I learned about the interloper and those who surrounded her, the less keen I was to make my introduction. Yet as Haffaton expanded, there seemed to be fewer and fewer places that could escape the fate of conquest by that side.

    Fortunately for me, I was a barbarian at a time. Saxophone had been my previous side and it had fallen when King Wort and his heir had fought and incapacitated each other on the field of battle. It was a scenario I had seen before and one I knew I was doomed to see again (and again). I had long since ceased my attempts to change Fate and now only played my part in the drama.

    As I was between staged plays, as it were, I was free for a time. Wishing as I did to avoid either falling under Haffaton’s sway or else being croaked by them, I sought out an escape instead. So I retreated to a Crystal Temple in a hex whose location only I know. There I slept only to be awoken again when the curtain parted and I was once more needed to play my part.

    That drama unfolded as it always did but before the last curtain call, new actors entered the scene. One was a queen in her own right yet had no right to be a royal. The other was just a man. Yet to call him just a man was to greatly undersell both his potential and the ramifications of his presence.

    “Merlin, it’s been an age.” Janis Atlantis greeted me as I strode into the glade. She was a powerful Hippiemancer with a keen understanding of magic. When it came to flower power, she was superior to even me. She had my respect and was one of the few units I confided in.

    “History is done repeating itself yet again, I am again in a state of grace. A period of freedom where I can pursue my own projects before I will be called upon once more. And what a project to pursue? An impossible woman and a man with a plan.” Or was he a man of a plan? Either way, I thought that perhaps finally I might gain some new insight that might lead to ending once and for all my bardic cycle.

    “You’re speaking without context again, Merlin.” She said with a kind smile. “I understand the nature of your curse but what is this about a project? I take it you’ve met two units of interest?”

    “That I have. That I have.” I agreed with a chuckle and a nod. “The first is a royal archon and the other is a heavy warlord with an aptitude for signamancy.”

    “Neither of those things should be possible.” Her brow knitted together in thought.

    “True, true.” I agreed. “And at first, I thought myself clever enough to cypher out how an archon had become a royal unit. It seemed likely to me that this was the result of weirdomancy.” It was something I knew to be possible. Wort had been born a mere barbarian warlord. It was I who had a hand in making him a royal unit to match his royal heart. Had that fact ever been discovered, the uproar amongst the other ‘true’ royals would probably still be heard today.

    The Grand Abbie merely nodded, willing to accept the idea at face value and knowing that I wasn’t done talking.

    “Despite my pet theory, I brought in my Weirdomancer friend Bob to examine her. Bob rather surprised me when he told me that weirdomancy had not been used to add the royal trait to her after popping. He did not preclude the possibility that weirdomancy hadn’t been used at all however. He speculated that it may have been employed before she had even popped to ensure she would be both an Archon and a Royal unit.” I let the statement hang in the air.

    I could see a range of emotions cross Janice’s face as she considered the ramifications. “How do you suppose such a thing could be accomplished?”

    “It would have required a caster link up, of that much we were both certain. But what sort of link up? A Weirdomancer and a Carnymancer? A Weirdomancer and a Turnamancer? An interesting thought experiment led us to consider the possibility that a master of all three Spookism disciplines had linked up with a master of all three Stagemancy disciplines to create a unit which had not been seen previously or since. It is possible, or perhaps required, that the thinkamancer who managed such a link was themselves a master in all of the eyemancy disciplines.” I was frowning as I spoke. That was a lot of powerful magic and I had my doubts that there were any casters in existence today who could accomplish such a feat.

    “The idea wasn’t completely without merit.” Janice surprised me when she spoke. “There is a myth that there once was a side that popped Archons as its main unit but the royal units who ruled it were not themselves Archons. The King… or was it a queen? Whichever it was had wanted to pop a royal heir but had also wanted that heir to be an archon, like the majority of units employed by the kingdom.”

    She continued to explain. “This side supposedly came under siege. The heir was spirted away shortly after popping by a loyal cabal of warlords, knights and casters. This supposed heir and their entourage were never seen or heard from again.”

    Now the Grand Abbie frowned. “However, it was whispered by those units that spoke of such things that the siege was not the reason for spiriting the unit away. It was said that there was powerful predictamancy surrounding the royal archon. The words of the prediction have of course been long lost to history but the myth that survives today suggests that this unit would someday rule all of Erf and bring about the End of Turns.”

    “If this is true, then perhaps the entourage wished not to spirit her away for her own safety, but rather to sequester her away someplace secret. You can’t stop fate, this is true. But you can occasionally delay it. The End of Turns may be a thing that comes to pass someday, but if its principle herald were sealed away, then perhaps that day could be a long way off.” She was searching my face for a reaction.

    “I suppose anything is possible.” I said without much commitment. “Is there any evidence to support any of this?”

    Janice shook her head. “This is only if you believe such wild imaginings. It is worth mentioning that there is no confirmation of this myth from any source. Nothing like what this myth describes is found in any of the sacred texts. Not in canon and not in fanon.”

    “There is one side that is well known today that uses Archons exclusively. It may be that Charlescomm is in some way a continuation of this ancient and mythical side.” I simply did not know as that side rose while I was in the Crystal Temple.

    She shook her head. “No, the myth predates the rise of Charlie. It likely predates his popping.”

    I snorted and then continued. “With the mystery of the Queen without a Kingdom both resolved and deepened, there remains the subject of her subject. The warlord Justin Case. Such simply signamancy in his name alone. I need not be a predictamancer to postulate that such a person isn’t fated per se, but could well become entangled in the great tapestry should other threads go awry. Ah, but which threads?”

    “A very valid question.” She agreed.

    “Ah, but what fate is he destined to make? Or was it done when he awoke the queen of the end times? And if so, is that role done or is he meant to set the world on fire? Personally I think that the world is too great and vast for just one unit to set it ablaze. Indeed, I feel that it’s been always been burning since turns have been turning.” I could use flowery speech with a master of flower power and know that my full meaning would be derived.

    If he is from the Earth that once I knew, what changes time has wrought left me afraid. Magic holds less sway there and in its place is supposedly logic. That logic has wrought horror never imagined when people believed in the fanciful and the impossible. Now that same way of thinking has been unleashed in Erf. The rules of this world are being studied, tested and challenged in a way that they never have before.

    “There are valid questions you’re asking me.” She said with a patient smile. “But I am still lacking in much of the required context. I do not know anything of this warlord that you speak of.”

    “You wouldn’t have.” I agreed. “He’s been a barbarian for most of his time on Erf. Though he has been part of a side for a single turn and the overlord of a side for a short time. But these are not the things that make him unique. As I have said, he is a heavy warlord with an aptitude for signamancy. Perhaps that could be explained with weirdomancy but the weirdest thing of all is that he claims to be from another world.” I paused for dramatic effect. Signamancy can be a very important element to the delivery of information. “He once asked me if I ever chased any white stags.”

    There was surprise on her face before she locked down her emotions. “I see. So you’re saying he’s a warlord from another world.”

    “Then we hear world of this Parson Gotti. A heavy warlord who has been winning impossible battles. A warlord of Gobwin Knob, a side which seems set to conquer the world and break all the rules.”

    Janis nodded again, comfort returning to her facial features. She gestured to an encampment not far away. “Yes, I’ve met him and he is a guest of ours at the moment.”

    My eyes followed her gesture and I saw large, roundish man. His signamancy was markedly different from that of Justin. Anyone who looked at Justin immediately recognized him as a warlord. That was not the first thought I had when spied this individual.

    “Are there similarities between the two?” Janice asked me with keen interest.

    “They are to scale of one another, physically.” I agreed slowly. “But their signamancy is markedly different.”

    She seemed to be satisfied with that answer.

    I continued. “I pointed out the hidden signamancy of that unit’s name to Justin one evening not long ago. It was the nudge that the warlord needed to adjust his thinking and planning.”

    “Oh?” Janice seemed to be alarmed at that statement. “What was his thinking and planning?”

    “He was thinking that your heavy warlord there and the side he is on was a major threat to the side he was currently allied with. He was making plans to counter what he perceived as an existential threat. Once he saw what I saw, he decided that he didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, as it were.”

    “That is a relief.” Janice said with a sincere smile that seemed to warm the glade a tad more. “I believe Parson will change the face of Erf.”

    I didn’t share that I had a similar impression about my own heavy warlord. “Later that evening I received a nudge of my own. In my own quarters I created a sheet of parchment and scribed the word Antagonist on it. Then I scrambled the letters to see what other world I could create. There was only one.”

    She raised a brow. “I have conducted that same experiment. I am curious what results you got.”

    “Stagnation.”

    Her single, slow nod told me that she had gotten the exact same result. Much as I loved Erf, it was stagnate in many ways. Even as borders changed turn by turn, the way things were done would be easily recognized by the first ninety-nine. We were all set in our ways and frightened now that change had come at last. One ruler was so frightened she had ended her entire side in one stroke. Fear was leading to madness.

    “If Parson is the antagonist, than his opponent will surely be the stagnation of Erf. It seems to me then that he represents change, disorder and upheaval. Which raises the question of whether or not Justin has some role to play in all that.”

    “I am beginning to understand why you’ve come to me.” She took me by the arm and led me to a more secluded part of the glade. “It is possible that this warlord of yours does have a role to play. Or he may be a backup plan for fate.”

    “Yes. The thought had crossed my mind. Though I don’t know enough about this Parson of yours to make a judgement.” I shrugged my shoulders. “That is part of the reason I came to see you.”

    “He was summoned here to Erf with a scroll that was allegedly designed to summon the perfect warlord.” Janice explained. “Though it may have gone awry. Perhaps due to less than perfect casting.”

    “Garbage in, garbage out.” I agreed. “So it is possible that fate brought Justin Case into the world just in case the perfect warlord doesn’t do his job properly.” Then a dark thought occurred to me. “Or to remove the perfect overlord when that job is done.”

    My friend looked troubled by the thought. “I really hope it doesn’t come to either of those things.”

    “I actually don’t think it will.” I said, hoping to buoy her spirits a bit. “He wasn’t summoned. At least I don’t think so. It seems that he followed the White Stag here.”

    “The motives of the White Stag have always been inscrutable to us. It is a magical unit but not of the Titans. It is otherworldly, like the warlords we are discussing. Its movements are hidden from predictamancers and lookamancers alike. Some units have chased it to their doom and others to their salvation. It may be an agent of the Titans or it may oppose them. We simply do not know.” She did not seem to be comforted by this train of thought.

    “There was something else that had been bothering me about Justin. The night before Fail Wail finally fell, I used my limited Predictamancy to attempt to forecast events. I saw only fire and ash. I saw a single unit standing atop a ruined city.” As we spoke, we entered another part of the glade, where hippiemancers offered their services in trade for rands. It was the Expo.

    Janice patted my arm with matronly affection. “You have never had good fortune when it comes to predictamancy.”

    Ruefully, I nodded my head. “I tried again when the sun rose and got a much more ambiguous forecast. The clouds were grey but there was a ray of sunshine cutting its way through them. The two images seemed to be at odds with each other. For the entire turn I had been bothered by the feeling that I had seen and done many of the same things before. Déjà vu is nothing new to me as such with the curse of my own narrative not yet having run its course.” A curse that had been brought about a vain (and failed) attempt to cast retconjuration.

    She stopped in her tracks and looked up at me. “Are you actually suggesting he managed retconjuration?”

    Had he found a way to succeed where I had failed? Or were their other forces at work? “I prodded him about it but it seems that he was completely unaware that anything was amiss. If he somehow managed it, then even he does not remember it or apparently how it was done.”

    “Only Titans can do retconjuration.” She said with only a touch of hesitation as she looked back down the path we had come. In the direction of Warlord Parson. “IF retconjuration happened, you can be sure it was at the hands of a Titan.”

    “Maybe. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into my own humble attempts at predictamancy.” I admitted. “In any case, despite my concerns about him, I have found Justin to be likeable and reasonably intelligent. For a warlord.”

    “So far you’ve told me about two mysterious units and that you have vague and troubling concerns about them both.” Janice summarized. “You haven’t provided much more than that in the way of context however. What have they done? And what are they up to?”

    The question was fairly straightforward. The answer was a touch more tricky. In order for the experiment that was Seven Hex Valley to succeed or even survive, its existence had to remain a secret. I would have trusted Janice with my life. But how much of this secret could I trust her with? “Tip, the royal archon, became queen of a one city side called Tipperary. It quickly expanded and then split into three different sides. Then all three sides fell against attacks from other sides. Tip abdicated her throne and Justin took over so that he could be the overlord and preside over the side’s fall. He didn’t defeat the invaders but he did distract and weaken them enough that five-hundred units managed to escape to become barbarians. Mostly casters, warlords and other commanders but also a number of other units from common stabbers to courtiers, a fool and other henchmen.”

    “How have you managed to maintain such a large number of barbarians?” She seemed genuinely curious about the subject.

    “There have been a number of factors. The cost of our higher level units have been mitigated by using rands for their upkeep instead of shmuckers. The rands used are generated by low level casters and then distributed. Non-commander units generally use shmuckers still as it’s more cost effective for them than rands. We also manage to get by with mining and foraging. It hasn’t hurt that we managed to escape from Tipperary with most of the treasury intact in the form of gems. Not to mention every unit with a purse had it filled.”

    “That’s a lot of unit’s upkeep to manage indefinitely.” She said speculatively. “It’s only a matter of time before you’ll need to either join a side or found one. I hope you all find a capital site soon.”

    I nodded. “Yes, let us hope.”

    Then she scrutinized me closely. “How did you get here without a portal?”

    “I used a portal.” I replied with a twinkle in my eye. “Though I am afraid I am not at liberty to disclose to which city it belongs.”

    “I suppose it would make sense that some of you would hire out your services to other sides in order to support the whole of the group. And of course non-disclosure agreements are often part and parcel to that.” Her look was pleading. “Please tell me that you haven’t hired yourselves out to Charlie.”

    My expression relaxed a bit and became more sincere. “I can assure you that none of us have contracts with him nor do we plan to initiate such in the future.”

    “Well, there’s that then.” She paused at one of the expo booths to examine some fruit that was for sale. “It doesn’t sound as if there is any great concern. Nothing you have told me is especially erf-shattering.”

    “I don’t believe that the story of either unit is over yet. I guess you could say that I have a vague but worrisome feeling about what the future may hold for them both. Or perhaps more accurately what their stories could mean for the future of Erf and its units. I am filled with both apprehension and anticipation at the possibilities they both present.”

    “Fair enough.” She stopped examining the fruit to look me in the eyes. “So the real question is what you intend to do about it all?”

    “I was thinking I should try and separate them, for starters.” I said, meeting her steady gaze. “I want to see how hard fate tries to get them back together, if it does at all. I’m also concerned about what having two such potential shockmancy rods in one place might do. A lot of units look to them both for leadership and guidance. And I’m not just talking about their bonuses. I think if I can convince Justin to explore or engage some of potential enemies at a distance, he might still contribute to the rest of us without attracting undesired attention from any quarter. The only trouble will be convincing him to leave Tip behind and convincing her to stay behind.”

    “It sounds as if there is strong date-a-mancy between the two of them.” She observed.

    “Yes. They are quite loyal to each other. They may even be somewhat dependent on each other. It may be fates way of keeping them together.” I frowned and looked around the Expo, almost as if for the first time. There were a number of casters from other disciplines present but not many that were buying. Quite a few seemed more intent on talking or listening.

    “Well, if you could convince each that it was for the other’s own good, you may well succeed.” She suggested and then followed my gaze. “A lot of people around, trying to learn what they can about the perfect warlord they’ve heard about.”

    “Yeah. Even we heard about him back when I was chief caster for Tipperary. Frankly, this decryption thing is pretty scary.” I stroked my beard thoughtfully. “We’ve hit a bit of a lull in the action and I suspect that Justin is trying to dream up possible countermeasures again. He seems to like to plan for every threat he learns about.”

    “That could be all there is to the signamancy of his name.” Janice pointed out, and wisely. “When you’re a signamancer, everything looks like a sign. That having been said, I would just as soon not have unnecessary or undue opposition for Parson. If only for the sake of your friends.”

    “That is both kind and considerate of you.” I said with some sarcasm in my tone but mostly affection. “Do you really think that this Parson is really that dangerous of an opponent?”

    “I think he is the most dangerous unit on Erf.” She said with a very matter of fact tone.

    “Well then I will take that into account when making my plans.” I assured her. She was a very wise and knowledgeable unit. I felt it was therefore wise to heed her subtle warning on this issue. She was one of the few people I knew who could make a sincere and heartfelt expression of concern also be a valid threat.

    “Perhaps we should both consider how we might bring your warlord and mine together as allies at some point.” She smirked. “Just in case.”

    I smiled. “Just in case.”

    + + +

    Janice and I continued to exchange pleasantries and to catch up on old times before I finally made my excuses and departed the glade.

    It was on the way back to our portal that I saw Major. It came as something of a surprise as I was unaware that she had come to the Magic Kingdom on that particular turn. Which was fair enough, I supposed. I had hardly announced my departure or intentions myself.

    “Major!” I called to her.

    She seemed surprised to see me. And perhaps a little guilty as well. Her face quickly returned to her usual stoic mask. “Merlin.”

    “What brings you to the Magic Kingdom?” I asked with the utmost geniality.

    “The eyemancers were having an expo today and I wanted to get a good position to offer my services.” She smiled faintly. “I suppose I haven’t entirely adjusted to the idea that a community of barbarians now helps in my upkeep so I am trying to keep my purse full.”

    “Fair enough.” I said with a friendly nod. “I myself am coming from the hippiemancer glade and the expo they were holding. I got caught up with the Grand Abbie while I was there. I suppose you’ve gotten all caught up with the Great Minds?”

    “As much as was necessary.” She conceded. “Duty and loyalty are complex, are they not?”

    “To some units, I suppose that is true.” I agreed as I fell into stride beside her. “Have you managed to avoid being put on their naughty list?”

    She took a deep breath. “Thus far. They are unsure as to what Justin is or how he was popped or if he is in anyway connected to this Warlord Parson that seems to be causing such a big stir. For now they are content to observe the situation. It may help that he has withdrawn from the goings on in Erf in an attempt to form a barbarian bubble kingdom. There may be some interest in seeing where some of his experiments go. I also got a faint sense that there is some interest in using him in the future should other contingencies not pan out as they may have hoped.”

    “In other words they want to keep him watched closely until they can decide whether or not they can use him.” I squared my shoulders. “I got much the same from the Grand Abbie. She wants to keep her focus on Parson who is more of a known at this point. Until or unless he starts making major waves for the world, Justin is just a secondary concern.”

    “Given all that, do you mind if I ask you what you plans and intentions are?” Major asked me with a sidelong glance.

    “You may ask and I will even answer.” I assured her with a sidelong glance of my own and a twinkle in my eye. Such twinkles barely cost any juice at all. “I intend to give him a push out the door to see what happens. What happens then might give us an idea as to what he is here for and what he is to accomplish.”

    “That is potentially a provocative method of merely observing.” Major observed with a lifted eyebrow. “Although I do not entirely disapprove.”

    “It would be easier to agree with me than to double down on the negative.” I said with a chuckle.

    “You are of course entitled to your opinions on such matters.” She replied haughtily. “Tip is sure to object.”

    “I’ll deal with her.” I assured Major. “She enjoys the peaceful kingdom that we have created for ourselves. Certainly vigilance is necessary to maintain that peace however it may be that Justin could go overboard.”

    “Don’t kid yourself, wizard. Tip would see Erf burn sooner than be without her warlord.” Major’s face was quite skeptical.

    “Do you know what the difference between us is, Major?” I asked her with a pleasant smile.

    “You’re a shrivelled old wizard and I’m master caster in my prime?” She suggested with just a suggestion of humour.

    “Close.” I put up a finger to emphasize my point. “The difference between us is that I am a master class date-a-mancer.”

    + + +

    “It’ll be for his own good.” I assured Tip after suggesting to her that Justin should leave the valley on a prolonged scouting trip. “Good for the valley as well. He’s still learning about our world. He wasn’t popped with all the knowledge he should have. Going out to explore will provide him with that knowledge and perspective. It will also keep our enemies off their balance and too distracted to come around here anymore.”

    “Alright, you have a good idea and you’re probably right. My instinct as a ruler says as much.” She was leaning back into her council chair as though it might swallow her in a protective embrace. “So there is no reason I shouldn’t go with him.”

    “Everyone here in the valley looks to you for inspiration and guidance. Those ruler instincts of yours can be best put to use here on the council. And yes, I know that Four-Chan, Forum and Gala-Band all have ruler experience but none as long as you. And none of them were popped to rule as you were.” Rather than try to weaken the date-a-mancy between Tip and Justin, I strengthened it instead. The trick was to strengthen it in the correct direction. On top of that, I strengthened her ties to everyone else.

    Love can be a funny thing. It can cause one to be self-sacrificing. It can also cause one to be very selfish indeed. The tension that was being created within Tip now was the juxtaposition between her selfish desire to be near him and her desire to see what was best for Justin. Both were caused by the same date-a-mancy.

    Tip’s internal scales were tipping.

    “You know he’s been getting restless.” I added more weight to one side. “He needs something to do. Remember what his signamancy was like when you first met him? You’ve seen how much it’s improved while he’s been active as a warlord. He is a warlord. He needs a war to lord over. If he doesn’t go find one, one will come here. Or his signamancy will suffer for it.”

    The look in Tip’s eyes was unbalanced. She looked rebellious for a moment but I held her gaze with a sympathetic but unyielding look of my own. Finally she deflated with an audible sigh. “Very well. So long as it’s understood that he is to return.”

    “I am certain he’ll return often. And we shall welcome him as a proper hero each time. With parades and so forth. And we can show him how far we’ve come in developing all his ideas and eagerly seek out what new tidbits he returns with.”

    It was clear she was already envisioning presiding over such a parade already. It was the sort of pomp she seemed to get excited over. Thus it served as the final weight I needed to tip things into my favor.

    “Friday will go with him.” She surprised me with this sudden condition and the vehemence I heard in her voice.

    “Of course, your majesty.” I bowed my head, unable to come up with a single reason why Friday shouldn’t go with Justin. I couldn’t even think of a reason why I should think of a reason.

    The night after Justin left with Friday, I dreamt of a White Stag. It had a crown on its neck and a chain attached to the crown that dragged on the ground. Its horns were golden.

    It was only when I awoke that I realized that there was another way to parse Antagonist.

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

    I've finished a fan fic called Shall We Play a Game?.

    I'm writing Tales from Seven Hex Valley and Dwagon Riders of Erf.

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