Tunnels in the Swamp (Part I)
IT IS LIKELY that none of the original ninety nine sides of Erfworld – those royal sides created by the Titans at the dawn of the First Turn according to Scripture – remain extant within Erfworld. By all accounts, however, Stillspear was spun off directly from one. Although the name of the parent side had been lost to the sands of time, some couriers suggesting Thrustspear or Sweepspear, Stillspear had long since come into its own as a side. Surrounded in each direction by subservient but largely autonomous colonies, the empire enjoyed the leisure of easy power. It was reflected in the signamancy throughout: age and decadence had begun to sweep through the ranks of the upper nobility and royal family. The old cities of the central empire went largely neglected, far from any substantial action. It is likely that sooner or later one colony or another – fat off the riches of some imperially-sponsored conquest, would realize this internal weakness and turn banners inward. A war to end the easy power, to dismantle the empire, to end the peace.
It was because of that decadence and decay that when Count Pour received his orders, he was not surprised or thrilled. It would seem that he was being relocated. On many a side, being granted a city was perhaps the ultimate aspiration of any warlord, but for Count Pour, it was merely an annoyance. A trifling distraction from his infinitely more interesting pastimes exploring the worlds of Flower Power and flesh alike. The ancient capital of Stillspear – Verona – was not celebrated for its temperance or chastity. He suspected that he had angered someone to earn his exile, but in truth, the Count was not a wise politicker in the first place. Perhaps the peace and quiet would be good for him. The grant came on the heels of the croaking of the previous Count of Hamlet, an eccentric if isolated individual. By all accounts, the previous master of the city had been quite mad, and Pour took a moment to ponder whether it had come as a result of his disconnect from the other warlords on his side. The end of that aging caretaker was ruled a "croak by misadventure", but Count Pour shuddered, somewhat unsettled with the grisly fate of his forebear. According to the report, one evening he had run screaming from the lower levels of the castle, straight up the Tower, and without any pause, lept. Hamlet did not have a reputation for a particularly tall Tower: indeed, the city was singularly unimpressive. Its geography guaranteed the croaking, however. The city was unusual in that it was perched at the edge of a large cliff, Tower looming over a gorge below. As the sole high-point in an area surrounded by lowland swamp, it was a strategic center, and had oft-changed hands between various sides in the hundredturns of old. The swamps: another misadventure waiting to happen. Count Pour was not swamp capable, and to rule from Hamlet without the Special guaranteed he would essentially remain garrisoned indefinitely, unless summoned to the capital. For the ride in, he was given a Nevermore – a great black heavy flier with some capability for Language, although their natural Predictamancy left them unusually frustrating to speak with. They had a tendency to answer questions before they had been asked – sometimes even turns in advance. This meant that they were essentially incomprehensible at times. Still, the flight had been a long one, and the Nevermore would likely not be left for his use in Hamlet, in spite of how much he needed a mount to avoid the trials of the swamp. With this last chance for kinship in mind, Count Pour made to speak. He was preempted by his mount:
"Nothing but croaking."
He furrowed his brow. That was not a meaningful answer to his question: 'How much longer until we land?' -- but he wondered what the beast was Predicting... or if it was unrelated to anything at all. He again made to speak, and was once again interrupted.
"In the night, after the last turn passes. There! The heart! The crux!"
He was beginning to understand why the birds were called Nevermores. He should think that after this experience, he would like to bother talking to one nevermore. He almost spoke up, but finally decided against it, and spent the rest of the flight riding in silence. There was a certain level of wonder surrounding Predictamancy: as a warlord, he was not well-suited to pondering its intricacies. He was troubled, however: if his question had indeed been Predicted, and he chose not to ask it, how could it be Predicted in the first place? Or should he become desperate enough to seek the company of the Nevermore once again?
Regardless of the disquieting flight – riddled with riddles in a troubling sort of way, Count Pour found himself confronted with new troubles upon landing at Hamlet. The city was truly ancient. It was decrepit and dilapidated: a level one with no walls. A great manor, built in the traditional gothic style of his side, was errected upon the highest precipice of the cliff upon which Hamlet stood. The city was not without buildings, however: what amounted to a town existed further down the mountainside, hosting a number of the usual structures which a city should come to call upon. He sensed that this field constituted his courtyard, the manor housing the Tower, Dungeons, and Garrison. Even so, he could see a blacksmith, a couple of barracks, a larder, and even a little abbey among the buildings here below. Built in a time when the Titans were fresh in the minds of Men... what stories that abbey could no doubt tell. Dismissing the Nevermore, Count Pour had hoped to find company amongst the local soldiers: regular stabbers usually made for poor company, but there was no doubt that they would make better conversational partners than the disquieting heavy he had ridden into the city. His hopes were foiled upon reaching out to sense his available troops. The city, when it had been a genuine battlefront, had popped mostly trappers and keepers. Trappers were a special sort of unit, similar to a weak knight with access to Dirtamancy to lay traps for the enemy, but unfortunately there were none garrisoned within the city limits. Instead, he had access only to keepers: a sort of swamp beast that was typically used for cheaply defending cities. Keepers were advantagous in that they were quite strong, especially given their cost, but had the unique disfunction of being unable to be promoted from garrison: essentially, forcing them to stay bound to the city in which they were popped for all time. The other advantage, and the one which Count Pour now cursed, was the fact that keepers did not speak Language, or even understand it beyond Orders, which could be conveyed to even the simplest of beasts. There was nothing for it: he could manage the city, but he couldn't decide what it would pop. Still, there had to be something to pass the time. Perhaps the castle had a library: the signamancy suggested it might.
The good Count flipped a page in the book. The work was a sort of city annal – mostly uninteresting information like production, but for one with a keen eye, there is always something to be revealed. There had been no change in production at all for several hundredturns. Had it really been so long since the city had been attacked? Why had the city not been upgraded? Indeed, past records suggested that the city was once upgraded to level two and even level three on several occasions long, long ago back when it was oft-warred for, but perhaps after some frustration it was left to languish in its status at level two for a great amount of time, and with the decay of the side came the decay of its cities. The natural weathering of the swamps and lack of management led the city to decay to level one, and from that day forward a city manager was always kept in place to compensate. Did the king even remember Hamlet existed? He must: he assigned a new warlord after the previous one had died. What had driven the previous Count of Hamlet to leap from the Tower? Surely boredom alone could not do that to a warlord. He began to turn the page when the door to the study groaned, and he gave a sudden start. Glancing up, one of the hulking keepers lingered at the threshold, staring at him. After a pause, the door swung open slightly wider, and he could see that it was balancing a tea tray with a single cup upon it.
"Right... right. I ordered tea. Thank you... you're dismissed."
The creature left in silence, sans cup. The Count knew that he was a little uneasy because it would be his first night, but perhaps in time he would grow to be more comfortable in his accommodations. If nothing else, there was a considerable library. He had hoped that it would be near the tower, so that he could enjoy his tea and book. Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite: the library was one of the lower rooms in the castle proper, situated near the dungeons. Surrounded by storm hexes on all sides, and night swiftly descending... the fact that this city was on the sole perch above the moor was not a comforting one, as the night would be cold regardless. There was a fireplace, but it was without wood. To make matters worse, if he should like to have wood for the fire, he could not rely upon his lackeys to acquire it for him. Keepers cannot leave the garrison.
The sun fell, and the moon rose on Count Pour's first night in Hamlet. Perhaps, by morning, his mind would be more at ease.
This is my second time reading this story and I've loved it both times: I'm hoping part 2 (and many more) come out some day. The story promises a great atmosphere of mystery and possibly of slow burning horror. As someone who enjoyed reading most/all of HP Lovecrafts works, I love seeing erfworld fan fiction that reminds me of that style/ genre.