Ethereum: day fifteen
“Hey! Wake up. C’mon, it’s almost dawn.”
Charlotte opened her eyes groggily. She’d been up late, working out the details of a last-minute project that Riley had suggested, then doing the detailed crafting and dabbing in precise amounts of juice. It was now Riley who was shaking her awake, looking disgustingly bright and chipper, her Ethereum livery conspicuously absent from her apron. She had a shiny wand in her hand that looked like gold but which Charlotte’s Changemancy senses told her was actually pyrite.
“Check it out,” Riley said. “Unkie NV’s wand. Dad said I could have it for the battle, cos I don’t have much juice of my own. Pretty cool for a Healomancer, right?”
Charlotte blinked the sleep out of her eyes and tried to connect everything. She’d never had much to do with NV, he tended to run off single-stacked under disguise and do his own thing, but he was one of the masters who’d got a suitable wand core early on. Apparently he’d finished charging it just in time.
“We were talking the other day,” Riley chattered away, stowing the wand in her apron, “he’s actually a really good artist in his spare time, he showed me these imaginary creatures that actually got me thinking, but anyway he told me about this other master-class Foolamancer he used to know, who was part of a side, and he just, like, messed around with his powers most of the time, right? So then one day there was this big battle, and he had to cheap out on his spells to save juice, stuff like displacements instead of proper veils, and it was a big battle so eventually he ran out anyway, and so then the Chief Warlord had him play commander instead, and he got croaked, cos Foolamancers don’t really do that sort of thing. NV’s been having the new girl veil us while he charges this” she patted the wand “and Flacutono writes scrolls, so it won’t happen to us. Mom’s giving out the scrolls as escape items cos Akira can’t do the luck thing.”
Escape items were anything that could allow a unit to survive losing a battle. The theory was good, but they weren’t very common in practice. Free casters didn’t have much use for them, because they were expensive and sides took it badly when mercenaries fled during a battle, even if they had already spent all their juice and had nothing more to offer. Sides sometimes gave them to their most valuable units like the Chief Warlord, but warlords rarely had the right mindset to use magic gear properly and couldn’t use scrolls or certain other items at all.
Charlotte tried to be excited for her friend and probably would have been, under other circumstances. “And you couldn’t have waited for me to wake up by myself and then told me after dawn, because …”
Riley tutted. “Ethereum’s going to stop existing as a side in a few moments. Would you really want to sleep through that?”
“How badly do you want an honest answer?”
“Come ooon.” Riley gave her friend a hand up and out of her bedroll, which promptly added itself to her inventory. “We have to stack up properly, the mundane units will disband if we do it wrong.”
Charlotte frowned. “How do the rules work, again?”
“Sided field units disband when the capital falls, except the ruler’s stack. Before that happens, if you see it coming, you can order units to turn to another side, and they’ll survive. Normally you’d tell them to turn to an ally, but we don’t have any, so instead we casters are going to go barbarian and form a bunch of single-stack sides, and turn back to Tom after we take the city. It’s kind of complicated because the mundane units will only be loyal to the commanding caster they’re stacked with, and units disband as a state-based action so we can’t split them up and restack. Mom and Dad spent ages figuring it out.”
They had ended turn in a heavy forest hex, courtesy of Loony, which put them just within striking distance of Pro Toast City while being outside the reach of a spoiler attack by the city’s infantry, not that this was likely when they had three Foolamancers in the hex. Casters are normally kept in cities and most are very domestic, but this wasn’t the first time Tom had camped them out in some desolate hex for tactical reasons.
Charlotte hopped over a large tree root. “You’re in a good mood. Aren’t you worried?”
“What, about the loyalty penalties?”
“That we might lose the battle. And we have people trapped in the Magic Kingdom, and now we have to deal with Mal too, and …”
“Nup,” Riley said cheerfully. “Mal’s small potatoes. She’s strong and all, but she’s only got like three other casters, and they aren’t even loyal, and she can’t hire more, and she’s not smart enough to think up the kinds of shenanigans we do. Dad’ll get the others back from the Magic Kingdom, easy-peasy. And this battle’ll be a piece of cake. Cheesecake,” she added, making Charlotte roll her eyes, “like, we wouldn’t even have come if we didn’t think we could win, right? Even without Sharkey and the gang, we’ve still got a bunch of heavy hitters. Dad, Mom, NV, Jess, Koume, even Loony, sort of. And the rest of us aren’t pushovers, you know.”
Charlotte didn’t regret joining the side, exactly, even though things weren’t exactly going well, but she had a sense of unease, and the fact that Riley didn’t share it didn’t abrogate it. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Hey, turn that frown upside down,” Riley said, pushing the corners of Charlotte’s mouth up with her forefingers. Then she got a thoughtful look, pulled out her ideas journal, and began writing as she walked.
The dawn arrived at about the same moment that they reached the rest of their forces. Tom and Koume were with May and Grim and their stack of flying cloth golems. Jess and Loony sat against a tree, Jess leaning on Loony and apparently still half-asleep. NV and his understudy Foolamancers were in a little knot, playing some sort of audio/perceptual game Charlotte didn’t have the senses to follow. James had an eight-stack of assorted, powerful ferals, shared with Lady Jane Silver and six knights; their other knights were under Lecter’s command, along with the uncroaked Lord Spear and most of the daemons. Pete, Hedera, and the Croakamancers were in a corner; Hedera looked sorry for herself, since she would be fairly useless, but Pete was steeled, being in charge of making sure these knights didn’t turn too; apparently time and space away from Mal was a factor. Arthur looked confident, and Saito was impassive as usual. Tom was the only one who still had Ethereum livery.
Because they didn’t have a Moneymancer, and even Riley’s genius had failed to mimic it beyond making a fistful of rands, they’d had to scramble to find ways to liquidate their treasury in one turn. They’d done a few gratuitously expensive upgrades, such as buying metal plating for James’ tame caruso, but most of it had gone into breeding up the daemons. Stack after stack popped into the clearing, roaring their approval at existence. Loony looked them over with interest, temporarily forgetting her crumple-horned hamburger.
Two seconds later, almost a hundred hexes away, Lady Thursday dusted Ethereum City’s only remaining defender.
Here, the only visible change was that Tom’s livery vanished and his scowl deepened. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again and sat down to his rations of pumpkin pie. “Eat up. We’ve got a big day.”
Riley, who had a bowl of sugary cereal in condensed milk, wrinkled her nose. “Not having a Chief Warlord bonus is no fun,” she remarked to Charlotte. “I liked it better having a side.”
“Me too,” Charlotte replied. It struck her that they were closing a circle of sorts. Tom had created his side with a surprise capital strike that wiped out another side, what felt like hundreds of turns ago, even though it had only been fourteen. Now, they were following in his footsteps, creating a new one the same way. Perhaps this one would stick; would anyone betray a side which they themselves had helped create? She’d had the impression that the hot casters had a greater sense of camaraderie than the cold ones, even before Mal’s treachery.
“Hey, Loony,” Riley called, “you can give leadership, can’t you?”
Loony looked up, startled, her protuberant eyes looking madder than ever. “I can, but it costs rather a lot of juice, and I’m going to need mine for other things this turn.”
“Don’t you have a charged wand?”
“No, Riley,” Tom said firmly.
They finished their breakfast in relative silence. Finally only Loony was left; when she realised why everyone was looking at her pointedly, she panicked and scarfed down her burger in two bites. Tom ignored this and got to his feet.
“My friends,” he said. “You know why we’re here. For the longest time, we lived, scrounging for just enough scraps to get by, dreaming of a homeland where we would be safe at last. Fourteen turns ago, we found one. And from that very first turn, our enemies have done everything in their power to snuff that dream out and push us casters back to the fringes, using every dirty trick they could imagine. Last turn, they even resorted to treachery.
“Because for all they talk about the Royal mandate, they’re afraid of us, and, really, they’re right to. Casters are simply better than mundane units.” Jane rolled her eyes but said nothing. “United, nothing can stop us. They know this. They know that the only thing holding us back is doubt and division. They’re good at exploiting that; they’ve done it before, they’ll do it again. But not this turn, not this battle. For this battle, we stand as one. For this battle, we’re taking the fight to them. For this battle, we are the greatest army Erfworld has ever seen, and we are going to take them down, because we can. Maybe it was Fate that you’re all here right now, or maybe that’s all a crock and it’s all down to your own decisions. I don’t care, because either way, we didn’t come all the way out here to lose now. Their time is done. It’s our time now.”
Charlotte had a strange feeling in her chest. She knew, academically, that the odds weren’t as certain as he made them out to be, but in the face of his self-assurance, it was impossible to believe other than that they would win. Looking around, she could tell that everyone else felt the same way.
“Loony, Hedera,” Tom concluded. Loony started. “You’re up first.”
There were several different kinds of poison, with effects ranging from croaking through lethal and nonlethal incapacitation down to additional damage, as well as inflicting a number of debuff specials that could last for multiple turns. Hedera claimed that there was a use for every poison, but on the industrial scale of a large battle, where they simply needed to maximise total damage, Misty had determined that the best value was to stick to two kinds: one particularly cheap blend with a low chance to instacroak, to be given to all their front-line troops’ weapons as an effective damage buff, and a disproportionately more expensive type with a high chance, to be given to a few units kept in reserve to counter elite defenders. Hippiemancy had a reputation for rather unimpressive magic, but Flower Power’s instacroak poisons made it one of the hardest counters to top units.
Hedera had the knights line up in rows with their swords out and walked past, tagging each blade, imbruing them with glittering green iridescence. From each stack, she picked one to give a bright Scheele’s green, signalling a 75% chance of instacroak.
Loony, on the other hand, was focused on the daemons. They’d got the usual menagerie, a mix of all shapes and sizes, including a lot without enough move to reach Pro Toast. Her first job was to fix that. She spent a few minutes wandering around them and James’ ferals, planning her spell at length, touching one or another, then murmured a word of command, and six of the largest fast units gained mass mount. Then she went back over the slow daemons and removed heavy from those that had it, so that they could ride the others. She made a third and final pass, gifting as many units as she could with digging or tunnel-capable. Her hands smouldered with spent juice by the end.
“I’m out, I’m afraid,” she said. Hedera nodded.
“That’s fine,” said Tom. “You’ve done your part.”
“Mount up, everybody!” May said, hopping up onto her biggest golem’s shoulder, side-saddle. “We’re heading out!”
Pro Toast City was a level four on the east bank of a river, by a bridge. Ordinarily, a contingent would have guarded the bridge; they wouldn’t get the city’s defence bonus, but they also wouldn’t be rendered entirely useless if Ethereum blitzed past the outer defences, took the garrison, and captured the rest of the city, as they had tried every chance they got. However, Pro Toast knew they had a Weirdomancer and a Croakamancer, and had made the sensible decision to pull the vanguard back. This meant the Ethereum contingent reached the open field hex before the city unmolested.
“Hey,” Riley said, “if we’re technically not Ethereum any more, what do we call ourselves?”
Tom frowned, but he’d been doing that since yesterday afternoon. “We’re still Ethereum. This is just a setback. As soon as we get Miles back, we’ll rename this city.”
“Okay, but … technically, Mal’s Ethereum too, that’s what her capital’s called, right? Won’t that get confusing?”
Tom visibly would have snapped if it hadn’t been his own daughter. With an act of will, he looked for a civil response. “Her actions are a betrayal of everything that name stands for. In ten thousand turns, every caster in Erfworld will know that they owe us a debt, and her nothing but contempt.”
“So … they’re the Contempt Ethers,” Riley said, “and we’re the Debt Ethers?”
Tom rolled the phrase over in his mouth. “I like it,” he said. Riley beamed; she was normally bad at coming up with names. “Jess?”
The Findamancer nodded, cracked her knuckles, and dismounted. Loony and Hedera followed suit; without juice, they’d just get in the way. Jess knelt in the grass, shut her eyes, and began casting.
Charlotte watched her oldest friend, then threw a glance at the walls. They were massive, the toughest fortifications she’d ever seen. The Dirtamansion had to have spent more than a few caster-turns making them impregnable; knowing this from Sharkey’s espionage, Tom had quickly discarded any hopes of going through them. They actually weren’t manned very well for a capital, only by a few stacks of archers. Pro Toast had guessed they weren’t going to assault the walls; most likely their fairy allies had Predicted this, and they’d split most of their troops between covering the airspace (they knew about Loony, after all) and the tunnels. Pro Toast City happened to have a sizeable tunnel network; with a Weirdomancer, it was too obvious a route to ignore.
Slowly, Jess’ projection took shape. For once, rather than her preferred gargantuan heavies, she’d found a humanoid form her own shape and size to fit into the tunnels, which even looked remarkably like her. It was a woman, with waist-length hair, covered head to toe in black and white stripes, naked but without anything to show for it. Charlotte approached and pushed a precise handful of juice into extending the fingernails into wicked claws.
Tom raised a finger, and Lisa’s voice crackled out, distorted and clipped. “Lisa Holmes, ready to MC this. We have a Mathamancer and a new Lookamancer here, but no Luckamancy or Hat Magic, and these calls really go through my juice, so keep it short.”
Tom tapped twice for acknowledgement and dismissed the Thinkagram, then gestured to NV, who in turn gestured to Flacutono, who conjured a rolling smoke cloud and sent it over the hex boundary. They ran after it, and the battle was on.
Changemancy is not a perfect solution to anything. But with a little creativity, in a pinch, it’s an adequate solution to just about everything. It can’t create music from nothing on the spot like real Rhyme-o-mancy, but it can cover and remix phrases already heard and prepared ahead of time; this lacks the flexibility of a fully dynamic spell and takes precious minutes to build up to rocking out, but, if done correctly, can retain all the power. As Charlotte ran through the obscuring cloud, she pulled out her trumpet, twirled, and blew.
She could never have built a fortress like this one, and with only one turn’s juice, even punching through was out of the question; but conjuring a small barricade against arrows and digging a short, narrow tunnel under to break into the existing network was not only possible but actually quite easy. Dirtamancers, in her experience as a fellow Stuffamancer, are very powerful, but they tend to suffer from tunnel vision; they work best in teams with other casters to keep them grounded, or they do things like building super-hardened fortifications and neglecting to cover the air or the tunnels.
In moments, she breached the tunnels; inside, a mass of infantry and elves was waiting. She ducked back and let her song finish its intro and enter the second phase; at the same moment, Jess vaulted over her head and into the defenders, twirling in time to the music. For all that this body wasn’t a heavy, it was ridiculously durable; she took a dozen spears without flinching or even seeming to notice, rhythmically tearing the defenders apart. Behind her, Lady Jane and her knights flowed through the breach, mounted on heavies that normally could never have fit into the narrow access tunnel, never mind move so gracefully. Lecter came in next and threw Jess a heal, then Saito, reanimating their knights as they fell, and then more stacks of daemons and casters.
Against all this, Pro Toast had numbers, and apparently a good Chief Warlord, because despite all of Ethereum’s bonuses, they were inflicting solid losses. Rows of pikers stood firm against their feral monsters and daemons and uncroaked, and they fell, but they took units with them. Ethereum had daemonic reinforcements, but not that many. Most were weak, and they had only a handful of stronger units. Unlike a traditional side, they didn’t have a core of veteran knights and heavies levelled up through long campaigns.
May tumbled through the breach, flanked by Grim and their stack of cloth golems, and advanced to cover Jess’ flank. Tom was behind them, saving his juice; he paused to open a Thinkagram. Charlotte moved closer to overhear, because the din of her song and the battle was deafening.
“They’ve got diggers making their own tunnels,” Lisa’s voice crackled. “They’re trying to flank you. Misty says you can’t cover everyone unless you keep moving.”
Tom broke the Thinkagram. “Jess, get to the tower! Support, follow her! Everyone else with me!”
Charlotte broke off to follow Jess, along with the Healomancers, Arthur, Pete, and a few stacks of mundane units. Most of the casters were holding back; they’d planned the contingency of sending a detachment to rush the tower, reasoning that if they succeeded, they could bring up the rest and exploit the casting bonus atop the tower.
The defenders thinned out and vanished altogether as they moved along the tunnel, then rounded a corner. It was a classic counter-offensive network, with plenty of exits like the branches of a tree, built to allow victorious defenders to sally out and encircle fleeing attackers; conversely, it had choke points near the garrison to prevent invaders from bypassing the walls. A force of eighty or so infantry was assembled at one, pikes levelled. Jess held back and let the support take point. The uncroaked Lord Spear had apparently got caught up with them, because Arthur sent him forward; he and his stack only took out twenty defenders before he was dusted. Arthur promptly reanimated the twenty fallen.
“This is inane,” Lecter remarked. Combat uncroaking was frowned upon, as nearby enemies got attacks of opportunity, so it wasn’t a great use of juice. “Miss Pyotr, can’t you do something?”
She nodded and blasted another tunnel diagonally upward.
Jess and the casters broke off the fight, leaving the uncroaked to hold the line, and ran up the tunnel, blinking in the bright daylight rather than the dim natural tunnel light. They were in an empty alleyway near the main garrison building.
Arthur, who was good with maps, looked around, then pointed left. “The tower’s this way.”
“Ooh, hold up,” said Riley. She drew NV’s wand and waved it, transforming them into a stack of Pro Toast scouts; Charlotte wrapped up her song. “Try to keep away from any other units, cos I don’t think this’ll survive if they get too close or bump into us.”
A pair of knights and six stabbers rounded a corner. “We heard music. Where are they?”
“We don’t know,” Riley said glibly. “They were just here, but then they vanished under a veil, and even we can’t see them. They were moving toward the throne room.”
The knight cursed all Foolamancers under his breath. “Spread out and find them.” He and his troops ran off toward the throne room.
“I really hope Dad lets me keep this,” Riley said.
They jogged down the alley and came across the tower. It was rather blah; larger than Ambese Tower, certainly, but without any character. It was high and square, and clearly received little use except perhaps as a reservoir for anti-air Shockmancy. Charlotte could still see its potential, once she’d had a few turns to play Dirtamancer and talk Tom into spending some money on it.
More immediately, two stacks of knights and Follower elves stood guard outside the tower, and two of pikers and Jam elves inside. One of the inner stacks had a warlord. He waved them down.
“The Ethereum troops are attacking the throne room,” Riley said.
“I didn’t send a patrol,” the warlord said. “Who’s your commanding officer?”
There was a beat. They had fairly good intel from Lookamancy, but not that good.
“We were ordered out by the Prince directly,” Riley said, taking an educated guess; royals always had a spare prince or two sitting around.
“Uh-huh,” said the warlord. “State your names.”
“… Scouts have names?”
Jess was quick off the mark. Her baffle fizzled as she dashed forward, through the tower threshold, through five screening elves before they could start dancing, and through the warlord.
Astonishingly, Pete moved next. He threw four spells rapid-fire at the four knights in the outer stacks, instantly turning three of them. Riley swished her wand, conjuring smoke; in the confusion, they ran into the tower, slammed the door behind them, and barred it.
“Scouts have names,” Charlotte repeated to Riley incredulously.
“How was I supposed to know that?” Riley asked. “Why would they even bother? None of ours ever lasted more than like six turns.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Hey, Arthur, hold up a sec. Charlotte, you have the traps?”
The Croakamancer paused. The project Riley had suggested was a half-dozen small Dirtamancy-style bombs like the one she’d put into the lamp near Pattycake. As traps, they were more powerful than direct damage would have been, but harder to use. Riley’s insight was a dust trigger. She drew her scalpel and slit open the chests of six corpses at random; Charlotte took the bombs and placed them inside the cavities, and Riley stapled the incisions shut. Arthur cast his mass reanimation spell, and they rose to their feet.
“Stay as a single stack, the warlord stays at the back with a guard that protects him at all costs, keep the ones with bombs away from the rest, and croak any Pro Toast that tries to come through,” Arthur ordered.
Riley’s original idea was to baffle the bomber uncroaked as Pro Toast scouts, have them look for warlords or other high-value targets, and launch suicide attacks, but as a non-capital side, they would have disbanded when they broke stack. The best Arthur could do was make the warlord into a sort of aligned, quasi-loyal barbarian side, so they could at least operate away from him.
“Uh, guys?” Pete said. “How’s everyone doing for juice? I’m almost out.”
Lecter threw another full heal at Jess. “Out.”
“Full,” Riley said. She flicked the wand. “This is getting low, though.”
“Low,” said Charlotte. “One or two more decent spells.”
“Low,” said Arthur. “I can still do one more mass spell if I get to the tower top.”
Jess snapped her fingers and pointed to the spiral stairwell. Charlotte really wished that she would at least try to find a speaking form, but they took the hint and followed her up.
Pro Toast didn’t have sentries throughout the tower, having apparently relied on the gatekeepers. Nobody molested them as they ascended, until they reached the roof.
It was a no-ceiling design, lined with dusty telescopes and old drapes from whoever built it first. Standing at the far end was a caster man, looking out over the city. As they piled out of the stairs and spread out, he turned to greet them, smiling.
“You must be Ethereum,” he said. “Malcolm Braford, Chief Turnamancer of Pro Toast. Six casters, plus however many you have in the basement? That’s brave, some would say reckless, but I can see why you’ve been so successful so far. Your luck won’t last forever, though. Or your Fate.”
“Like you’d know anything about that,” said Charlotte, an actual Fate caster.
He raised his eyebrows. “I do, actually. I asked the fairies. I knew there’d be a caster duel here, and I know that I’ll win it. Four of you croak today, and the other two flee.” They started. “I know, I was surprised by those numbers too. I would have thought I’d only match one or two of you, but I suppose you’re all probably low on juice, and I am rather high level.”
“Wait wait wait,” said Riley. “Duel? Why are we fighting? I thought we were all on the same side.”
“… I’m with Pro Toast,” Malcolm said.
“Yeah, but you’re a caster. You should change sides and join us.”
He gave the rest of them a look, like ‘Is she an idiot?’ They shrugged. “I’m loyal. What about you? You could as easily surrender and join us.”
“I don’t want to surrender,” she said. “I like being with Dad and Mom and these guys. We’re like one big family here. I don’t want to have to share it with a bunch of boring … well, in one way it’d be nice to have so much infantry cos you’d have enough to spare for golems, but only that one way.”
“Units for –” His expression twisted into disgust. “You’re the one that made that thing at Bogchog.”
She clapped her hands together in delight. “Pattycake! It was a group project, though, I couldn’t have done it alone. What did you guys think of him … her … of Pattycake, from the other side?”
He gave her a flat look. “That I’d enjoy this far more than I ought to.”
“I hope you do too!” Riley said, grinning widely. “Jess, stick to nonlethal damage, ‘kay?”
“Lisa, some help here?” Charlotte said.
Lisa’s voice was oddly muffled this time. “We’ve been a little preoccupied here,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“I’m Fated to croak most of you here,” he offered helpfully.
“He says he’s –”
“I can hear him. And I’d say that too, all the time, if I had Predictamancer natural allies. Flip, I should try saying it anyway; with all the other casters we have I’d probably get away with it.”
“Oh, by all means,” Malcolm said. “Talk yourselves into attacking if you like. Or just stall, either way. I was just signalling to the ground; reinforcements will be arriving presently.”
“Alright, let’s get one thing straight,” Lisa said. “Nobody beats me at smugly condescending manipulation.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Lah, please. I’ve been doing it since I was two.”
“I’ve been doing it since I was one.”
“I’ve taken on six guild heads at once and won.”
“Ooh, you beat casters who couldn’t even keep their sides intact? Impressive.”
“Against someone whose side’s been crumpling like wet tissue paper ever since we got here, I’d say it’s more than enough.”
“As someone whose side hasn’t ceased to exist altogether, I’d say you should be careful about underestimating your opponents.”
“As someone who’s not about to have his spine pulled out through his mouth, I’d say the same. You know, you could surrender. You’re a caster, and decent level. Tom would take you, no worries. We’re trying to make a caster side; you’d fit right in.”
“Your abomination surgeon Croakamancer said the same thing.”
“Hey!” Riley said, offended. “I’m not a Croakamancer!”
“Lisa, he’s just trying to waste your juice,” Charlotte interrupted.
“I prefer to call it a filibuster,” Malcolm said pleasantly.
Lisa huffed. “If I were in his shoes, I’d wait atop the tower and try to mass turn the daemons when they pop out. And if I were caught by surprise, I’d bluff. Leaving aside whatever Misty means by a prior, if he really had a Prediction, he wouldn’t have left those guards out front to get slaughtered and uncroaked. People only try to talk you down when they know they won’t win a fight, that’s why I always do it. Uh, problem elsewhere, I’ve got to go. Break.”
“‘Problem elsewhere’?” Malcolm said thoughtfully. “I wonder what that could be.”
“Hey, are we attacking or what?” Riley asked.
Jess nodded, and charged the enemy Turnamancer.
He smiled and moved to cast. “Continuity with change!”
There was a flash of light, and Jess stopped in her tracks and looked around. Her alignment changed to enemy.
There was a lull in the noises of battle from below, during which they considered exactly how screwed they were. Charlotte had thought that this was impossible; projections were channelled magic, so Jess should be able to just dismiss the summon, and if he had somehow turned her through it, either Loony or Hedera could smack her out of the trance. But apparently not.
“Get out of here, everyone,” she said. “I’ve got this. Bebe!”
She changed into her clown snake form and reared up, trying to draw the projection’s attention. She wasn’t even close to a match for it, but she could buy time for the others.
“By all means, throw away the tower bonus,” Malcolm said, walking forward. “I’d be happy to finish this downstairs.” He clapped a hand on Jess’ shoulder amicably.
Jess turned, thrust a hand through his neck, bounced him off the floor twice, and tossed him over the parapet. There was a crunch when he landed.
Riley walked up to the edge and looked over. “Dang it! I’ve wanted a caster prisoner since, like, forever,” she said. “Hey, how come you’re registering as an enemy?”
Jess put one hand to the small of Riley’s back and tipped her over the edge too. Riley gave a yelp and grabbed for the first thing she could hold on to, which happened to be Jess’ other hand; Jess reached down to Riley’s elbow and pinched it in half.
Charlotte roared and lunged at Jess; Jess twirled, slashed layers of flesh off her face, and spin-kicked her into the far wall. She crunched into a crenelation, leaving spiderweb cracks; unable to maintain the shape change, she snapped back into human form and fell prone, seeing stars.
Arthur drew his hand-and-a-half sword and jump-slashed at Jess; she blocked it bare-handed, batted it aside, grabbed him, used him as a club to knock first Lecter and then Pete off the tower, then lifted him over her head and snapped his back. Then she turned back to Charlotte.
The spell splashed off Jess’ raised forearm, barely even registering, but it bought just enough time for the little Healomancer to run past, draw her wand, dive, grab Charlotte, tumble, and veil them both. Jess was only a moment behind; she barrelled into the wall hard enough to knock the chunk of stone off and over. Riley dragged Charlotte out of the way, waving the wand to screen out the noise. Jess looked around, saw nothing, and gracefully hopped over the edge, catching at the edges of the building to slow her fall and prevent damage. Riley waited for a count of sixty before lifting the veil and reviving Charlotte.
Charlotte looked around. “Uh, Lisa …”
There was an indescribable feeling, a mental I know, I’m busy, shut up.
“… Well, crap,” she said instead. She slumped onto her back.
“Don’t swear,” Riley said, but her heart wasn’t in it. She touched Charlotte’s skin to give her magic senses a better perspective. Her arm was fresh and pink below the elbow. “You’re fine now, right?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” She looked around dully. “Are the others still alive?”
“Nup. Cadaveriffic. What should we do now?”
“Is there anything we can do? I’m out of juice, and you must be low.”
Riley checked out her replacement arm. “Autoregeneration is cheap, it’s a Healomancer bonus, but I think I should save what I have left to patch up anyone mortally wounded.”
There was a bang from the base of the tower, and Charlotte levelled to four.
“That would be Pro Toast coming to finish us off,” she said gloomily.
“I think I can still wrest one more charge out of this,” Riley said of her wand.
When you have nothing left, it means you have nothing left to lose. It’s liberating, in its way. “… Save it for yourself. Get to the portal, escape to the Magic Kingdom, and stay barbarian. You weren’t even popped when Tom croaked Hiller, you’re not wanted by any Enforcement Councils. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Riley said, offended by the suggestion.
There was another bang, and another. From somewhere else came the discharging sound of Tom finally entering the battle. He’d been staying at the back, keeping himself safe since they didn’t have a Luckamancer and hoping to wait to use the tower bonus. It had to be getting desperate. Pro Toast didn’t have the guilds helping them, but they still had reinforcements.
Charlotte looked around. They had the old telescopes, one of which had been broken by Jess’ rampage. They had Arthur’s corpse. If she survived this, she was going to start carrying more gear around, a wand or scrolls or a bunch of bombs. “Can you uncroak Arthur?”
Riley trotted over and checked his corpse. “Yeah, he’s in pretty good shape aside from being croaked. It’s cross-class, though, it’d use a lot of juice and he’d just be basic infantry. I had this idea for revivifying corpses, like a sort of Croakamancy plus, you know, cos a corpse is basically everything you need for a basic flesh golem, right, but it wouldn’t work properly on a caster because of –”
“Focus,” Charlotte said. Riley tended to get wrapped up in her ideas.
“Right right. Um, yeah, but I don’t think it’d be worth it. I mean, what’s one guy going to do? If they come up here, they’ll bring at least a six-stack. And if we win the battle and anyone’s mortally incapped, I wouldn’t be able to heal them.”
Charlotte chewed her knuckle. “You also wouldn’t if you’re croaked. What if you veil yourself, find Tom, and get him to send one of the Foolamancers here to escort me out? He’s keeping them in reserve, right?”
“I guess? But I don’t think I’d make it in time.”
Charlotte knew perfectly well that Riley wouldn’t get down the tower, into the tunnels, find Tom, then get back, in less time than it took for Pro Toast to fight through the handful of uncroaked guarding the base of the tower, but there was no sense letting them both be captured and this would be an easier sell than ‘leave me to croak’. “May has those speed boots, right? Tell her to loan them to NV, and –”
There came the sound of horns, three times, and the noises of battle quieted.
“Well, that’s a thing,” Riley observed.
Lisa’s voice echoed in Charlotte’s head, barely audible. « Ceasefire. Go garrison. »
“Come on,” Charlotte said aloud. “They’ve called a ceasefire. Apparently.”
“Is that good?” Riley asked doubtfully, but following. “Either it’d help us, and they wouldn’t agree to it, or it’d help them, and we wouldn’t agree. Right?”
“Ask me when we get a Thinkamancer who can do a decent Thinkagram,” Charlotte said. For a side with a dedicated comms caster, they sure had crappy comms.
The ground floor was littered with dust, scorch marks, and fresh corpses. They must have got the uncroaked warlord, then withdrawn when the horns blew. They pressed past and outside. A patrol passed them, but did nothing worse than give them the stink eye and continue on their way.
“This is weird, and not in the Loony way,” Riley whispered.
The two casters followed the patrol into the main garrison building. It was a broad stone structure built around a stadium lined by row on row of seats. The scattered remnants of Ethereum were gathered at one end; Charlotte led Riley over, doing a head count. Jess, Hedera, and Loony were still in the next hex. One of the other casters was missing. Jane had been slain and uncroaked and now stood stock-still beside Saito, who had levelled and had a handful of other uncroaked knights beside her, all in reasonably good condition. Only four of James’ ferals were still alive, two badly wounded. They had six knights left, and under two stacks of daemons. May and Grim still had five of their golems, with only one missing more than a little stuffing. Tom stood near them, with Koume, and NV and Suss were two-stacked in the centre.
Opposite them was Pro Toast’s leadership, or what was left of it. In the centre was the king, going by his crown; he was surprisingly young and burly, a fighter. Stacked with him were a younger copy of him who had to be a prince; a tough-looking warlady or princess in a cloak; two warlords; and three knights. Around them were two more led stacks; thirty or so infantry, half of them slightly wounded; and four gohts, the heavy mounts Shakepikee loaned them. If that was all they had left, it was a pitiful force. If they had more than a few drops of juice left, they could have crushed it in moments. For Tom to have agreed to parley, they had to have almost no juice left at all.
King Jasper spoke. “Former units of Ethereum. You have fought well. But this battle has gone on long enough.”
May would have been the best person to ask what had happened, but the Chief Caster was not the best person to interrupt during a parley, so Charlotte tugged her lieutenant’s sleeve instead.
“Did Lisa fill you in?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Grim replied. “It sounded Horrible.”
“What happened to Flacutono?”
“He was a Spy for the Guilds,” Grim said. Charlotte and Riley blinked. “He veiled and ran for the Portal during the fight.”
Charlotte thought back. She’d assumed the guilds would try something, but she’d never thought they’d be smart enough to send someone who’d keep his head down like a spy should. And Tom had known, from the beginning. He’d never been in the same hex as Flacutono without some sort of insurance; mostly NV, but there was that stretch at Wolf’s Lair, when he knew the Foolamancer couldn’t have veiled and backstabbed him, or he would have been trapped in a hostile city that might have gone neutral, she couldn’t remember the neutrality rules. That self-preservation was the difference between barbarians and truly loyal sided units.
“We ran into some Fairies and had to use up most of our Juice beating them. This is all we have left.”
“Is Jess okay?”
“Okay enough to have Lisa warn us about her Projection. She said she’d ‘omitted certain technical details of Findamancy’.”
Charlotte let out a sigh. Casters always did that. Riley had her faults, but her tendency to monologue to whomever would listen, voluntarily or not, meant that at least everyone was clear on what she could and couldn’t do. “Where is it now?”
“Gone. Lisa said it ran into an elf Battalion and croaked a pile of them before they Destroyed it.”
So, what, projections go feral when turned?
“If you think we’re going to surrender as things stand, you’re deluding yourself, Warlord,” Tom was saying bluntly to King Jasper. Jasper frowned; that violated about twenty etiquette rules for talking to royalty. “But … you’re right about one thing, this fight’s gone on long enough. There’s no need to eliminate the rest of your army; they’d be much more useful serving me alive. They’d take longer to decay. I propose we finish this by duel of champions.”
Jasper beetled his eyebrows. “We don’t think you understand that you’re talking to a descendant of one of the Original Ninety-Nine. Even standing before us is an honour, and we would be well within our rights to have you cut down where you stand for such disrespect.”
“Do you know,” Tom said, “other than the part about the Ninety-Nine, I was just thinking the exact same thing. This conversation is beneath me.” One of Jasper’s warlords was stacked with a longbow maiden, who nocked an arrow to her bow; the warlord shook his head, and she frowned but quivered the arrow. “So to spare me it, let me sweeten the offer. Agree, and I won’t have you executed and uncroaked afterwards. And did you get any reports back about what we had defending Bogchog? I won’t let my Healomancer make you or any of your other units into anything like that.”
“When you say like Pattycake,” Riley began, before Charlotte elbowed her in the side, hard.
“That witch is an abomination who needs to be put to the sword,” Jasper said, his lip curling.
“Word,” Suss undertoned.
“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Riley fumed under her breath.
“And I’m the one who’s going to do it,” the prince at Jasper’s side put in, locking eyes with the Healomancer, who poked out her tongue.
Jasper ignored this. “We won’t consider cutting any sort of deal that would let it escape.”
“Then you’ll cut this one,” said Tom. “She will escape with ease if I order my Foolamancer to escort her to your portal and slaughter whatever guards you might still have there. Or if I simply blast you all and take the city by force.”
“We are not impressed by your little threats,” Jasper said boredly, which was probably untrue. “So we’ll want concessions if you expect us to humour your request. You have a lot of casters there. It would be a shame to waste them, other than the witch. If we win, they will serve us and rebuild our side. Except the Healomancer, who will be executed.”
There was a flicker, like if a Foolamancer was playing video and inserted a single off frame, in which Tom’s expression flashed from a calm sneer to a snarl of rage, before it was gone. “I’m hardly going to agree to let you execute my most loyal follower,” he said.
“Your compliance isn’t needed,” Jasper said.
Tom narrowed his eyes. “You don’t have the authority or the power to demand that, and you can hardly call it fair to demand my entire side as your slaves when most of yours would go neutral.”
“We think it’s perfectly fair. Your minions have damaged our side; they should make reparations. We haven’t been invading you.”
Tom’s eye twitched, but he smoothed his expression, the tell that meant he was trying to pull a fast one. “I suppose I can’t argue with that, if it’s fair. I vow to uphold terms as stated, under my authority as Overlord of Ethereum. All who accept, vow it.” He curled his pinky finger.
Wait, what? But May was already curling her finger and casting around that pleasant smile that promised agony to anyone who didn’t do exactly what she wanted, and everyone else was doing it, so Charlotte extended her pinky. Hopefully Tom’s plan worked this time.
“We vow likewise,” King Jasper said.
Tom smiled pleasantly, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck to either side. “You’ve made a fatal mistake. I’m not some neophyte Shockmancer with barely enough juice to croak a single Battle Snake. Even after all that’s happened today, I still have enough juice to croak any one of your surviving units three times over.”
Jasper mirrored the smile. “Since you didn’t detail your own rules, it’s to be assumed that we agreed to the standard set. Did you know that the duel of champions is described in the Book of Fanon with over two hundred rules?”
Tom froze. Charlotte was fairly sure he’d never read the Three Books, or if he had, it had been a long time ago and he’d only skimmed them.
“Most of them are minor points of etiquette that don’t influence the result, but one obscure but critical one is that neither combatant is allowed to cast any spells or use any limited-use magical items such as scrolls. It would hardly be fair if a side with a Shockmancer always won, would it?”
“… You’re bluffing,” Tom said.
Jasper extended his pinky again. “We swear that we are not bluffing. To be honest, the system isn’t really fair anyway, because other casters’ powers can influence the duel indirectly. For example, if every turn a level eight Findamancer conjured a powerful monster for a unit to train against, and that unit reached level seven, he could use all his skill without any restriction.” The prince smiled, stepped forward, and loosed his sword. “It’s also forbidden to withhold or lie about rules in the hopes that the other side inadvertently breaks one and is disqualified, so here are the major ones. The battle continues until either champion is croaked, flees the arena, or forfeits; their rulers may also forfeit. Nobody else is allowed to interfere in any way, including but not limited to providing or cancelling bonuses, items, or magic, and nobody else is allowed to attack anyone not a part of the duel. Rhyme-o-mancers playing an undirected song is allowed. Withdrawing now would be considered a forfeit. And, of course, no magic.”
May cleared her throat. “Is it no magic, or no spells?” she asked. “Because that sword looks magical to me.”
The prince smiled easily and drew it. It was a large one, hand-and-a-half. “Our Dollamancer crafted it, before we evacked him east. Plus two. Magic items are allowed, if they’re not limited-use.”
May smiled widely, looking eerily like Riley. “Then I’ll see your two, and raise you five,” she said, drawing her scissorblade, and hopped from the stands down into the arena, light as a feather.
Tom nodded. She was the highest-level unit on their side, and without magic, probably the best fighter. “I choose Harriet-May Stitch as my champion.”
The prince leapt down after her, landing harder and rolling to his feet. He saluted with his sword; May responded with a deep and elegant curtsey, and they advanced on each other.
“We choose Prince Tastar as ours. Let the duel begin!”
May was fast and aggressive, dancing back and forth and feinting, trying to bait Tastar into countering and getting off-balance, but while that worked well enough against level one filler units and while they had a Luckamancer helping, the prince was good. He didn’t have the superhuman speed granted by her enchanted boots, but he was disciplined and a popped fighter. He kept his balance and maintained guard as he batted her blade away and advanced, responding to counter her threats without committing himself. Pro Toast cheered him; Ethereum cheered back, although they were outnumbered and could barely hear themselves.
Tom moved over to Saito and said something very quiet to her. She blinked, pulled out her notepad and pen, and wrote a question; he said something else back. She nodded, and looked at one of her uncroaked, who drew its sword and thrust it through Tom’s knee, then pulled it free and sheathed it. Tom staggered, but braced himself against Saito.
Charlotte stared for a moment, but Tom caught her eye and shook his head, so she returned to the duel, wondering what on earth he was thinking. A level seven royal warlord would normally beat just about any caster alive without spells, but May had combat experience, and that was a very good sword. She wasn’t a Mathamancer, but she had to call it even. It would come down to Fate and Luck. If only they had much of either.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” May asked conversationally, now standing her ground; they hammered away at each other’s weapons, throwing sparks across the arena. “That warlady you had at the front ages ago, Thursday, is she your sister, or just a nobody? She looks a bit like you, is all. Heh, we had fun turning her. I got to, ah, soften her up, for, lemme think, seven whole turns. I know a little Turnamancy, you know, and FYI girls are way more fun to do than boys. Shame it didn’t stick, but no biggie. Turnamancy’s just an overpriced duplicate of Croakamancy, right?”
If he’d only ever trained against projections and had no real combat experience, it was a smart bet that he had no idea how to deal with head games. She beat his sword out of the way and spun into a roundhouse kick that shattered his left elbow; Ethereum cheered, and Pro Toast went silent. She’s done it! He staggered back, trying to clutch at it without dropping his sword.
May leant forward against her sword, laughing. “Hey, you want our Healomancer to take a look at that?” Tastar grit his teeth, stepped forward again, and took a swing at her; she swayed out of the way. “Come on, you can do better than that!”
His next swipe took her sword arm off at the shoulder.
May cried out in agony and stumbled backward. Tastar darted forward, stabbed his sword into the ground, grabbed her severed arm, tossed it and the sword still clutched in it out of the arena, and pulled his own sword back out. Ethereum had gone silent too; they could hear May muttering under her breath.
“I’m gonna croak you, I’m gonna croak you, I’m gonna croak you …”
“It’s over,” Tastar said, levelling his blade at her throat. “I’m giving you one chance. Surrender, now.”
“Who the flip do you think I am?!”
She flipped backward and out of range, felt at her waist, and drew her backup weapon: a pink parasol lined with rows of white lace and a viciously pointed ferrule. Tastar charged her.
Charlotte had the impression that the parasol was supposed to be two-handed, so that the user could open it into a shield and close it into an estoc as needed. May was good with it, but with only her left hand, she had a crippling dexterity penalty. Tastar was driving her back with every blow. He cornered her against Ethereum’s side of the arena; she made to manoeuvre out to one side and then the other, but he blocked her.
“So, you want to do this?” she asked.
“I want you to surrender. You don’t have to be croaked.”
“Yeah, so could you. So do you really want to do this?”
“If the alternative is letting filth like that Healomancer run free, I’ll do it with pride.” He raised his sword.
“That’s all I needed,” she said. She pointed her parasol at him and gave it a little flick, and a jet of fire spurted out the end and engulfed him.
The Pro Toast spectators were shouting and swearing, shaking their fists at Ethereum. King Jasper raised his hand for silence, fury on his face. “Casting spells is forbidden! We claim victory by disqualification.”
May twirled the parasol. “Yeah, no. I didn’t cast a spell.” With impressive dexterity for someone missing an arm, she threw it spinning in the air, caught it upside-down a quarter of the way from the handle, and pressed a button; the handle popped out, revealing the end of a wand. “Concealed Shockmancy wand.” She braced the handle against her jaw to push it back in. “Magic items are allowed.”
“Limited-use magic items are not allowed! Wands use charges.”
“You’re good with your duelling rules, but don’t try to argue with a Chief Caster about magic terminology,” May said with a patronising smile. “Wands are limited-charge, not limited-use. They can be used all you like as long as you recharge them.” She flipped the parasol over her shoulder and opened it, the very picture of ladylike elegance. “And if the rules do actually forbid limited-charge items, then you’re disqualified for lying about the rules in a way that made me break one.”
Prince Tastar was lying on the ground where he fell, moaning in pain. The blast had burnt off much of his skin, fused his armour to his body, left him on two hits and mortally incapacitated him, but hadn’t quite gone the distance to croak him. May walked over to fix that, closing her parasol to extend the ferrule.
“Wait!” King Jasper shouted.
The moment stretched out.
“If you’re trying to stall for time to think how to rules-lawyer,” May said, resting the point over Tastar’s heart, “time’s up.”
“We forfeit!” Jasper cried.
Like a spreading puddle of grey paint, the Pro Toast units lost their livery and gained shackles instead. Tapestries fluttered in a magical wind and switched to the old goblet sloshing with juice; the same livery appeared on Tom’s chest. Ethereum cheered, louder than they ever had before; not only were they home safe again, but their hated enemy had finally been defeated! The casters hugged or high-fived Tom to align or turn outright, then each other when the crush around him got too thick. Riley ran, fetched May’s arm, then hopped down into the arena to reattach it and let May turn to their new side.
“Ethereum is back!” Tom shouted over the din, eliciting an even louder cheer. “First order of business, I want the uncroaked to find the dungeons and take the prisoners there! Second, anyone with injuries, go to Riley for healing! Third, Riley, I agreed to terms if they were fair, and if he insisted on letting his son croak my daughter, then it isn’t fair that my daughter can’t do whatever she wants to his son! Fourth is planning for the victory feast and honours tomorrow night!”
There was a crackle of a Thinkagram opening, and suddenly everyone went very quiet.
This time, Lisa’s voice was loud and clear. “Uh, Boss? You’ve got mail.”
“And you’ve got juice,” he said, pleased but wary.
“Yeah … I’m, uh, I’m borrowing it from Mewlin Pendwagon. Sorry. He was going to contact you either way; it was all I could do to demand to play relay and block any fishy stuff. A Quorum’s issued a court order for you to return to the Magic Kingdom immediately and stand trial for the murder of Lord Hiller. Miles says that you’ll be exiled for contempt if you refuse to show this turn, and, uh, not to put too fine a point on it but probably none of us three will make it out alive.”
“I see. He’s asking us while we’re still exhausted from the battle, after putting a Foolamancer with us for fourteen turns. Is he trying to assassinate me?”
“Well, he says no, there’s no need when you’re certain to be convicted anyways, but I’m not really sure why he’d plant Flacutono with you if he wasn’t at least toying with the idea. It’s not like he doesn’t have half a dozen Lookamancers if he just wanted a spy for spying. Uh, also he says stop stalling.”
“That’s fine. Remind him that wounded units are allowed a day’s grace to recover from injuries.” A susurration of surprise spread through the crowd, as they stepped back and realised he’d been hit sometime. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? It couldn’t plausibly have happened if we’d still had Akira on side, but I suppose I got cocky.”
Charlotte ran a hand through her hair. It explained why he’d had Saito stab him, but it didn’t fix the part where her Overlord was a maniac.
“He’s saying the Quorum will order Riley to heal you,” Lisa said.
Riley glanced at Tom, who shook his head slightly. “Can’t,” she singsonged. “There’s a lot of patients here on both sides, and Lecter’s croaked. If I can even get through triage, I won’t have enough juice left for wounds that’ll heal by themselves.” She turned back to stabilising Prince Tastar.
“That’s all right, sweetie,” May said, hugging her with her reattached arm.
“Okay,” Lisa said. “You are actually coming, right? Because the people I’m with, the Barnacle Battlefront – we couldn’t think of a name – we’re making plans that are go to crash and burn if you don’t.”
“We will. Next turn, I promise. We just need to do it on our terms, not theirs.”
“… He accepts. See you tomorrow … morning? Afternoon? However the turn order works. Break.”
Tom looked out over the assembled casters. “NV, find Jess and the others and bring them back into the fold. There’s no time for celebration. Everyone, rest up. Tomorrow decides everything.”
That Debt Ether spoonerism was literally the entire reason I decided to call it Ethereum rather than Arcanum or anything else magicky-sounding.
I can’t decide exactly how liquid shmuckers are. On one hand, sides seem perfectly capable of hiring barbarians without involving an on-screen Moneymancer, and contracts can apparently shift them without limit or friction, but on the other, the entire point of rands is said to be to avoid having Moneymancers control the economy, and there was that miniplot with Benjamin and the gem for Slately. I fanon that sides can pay money directly into purses, but only with a steep natural ‘processing fee’. This is partly to buff Moneymancers, because if their main power is creating gems and if gems aren’t actually useful often then they fail the No Disappointment test. (I also give them a few other powers that for obvious reasons haven’t come up yet.)
Battle by champion is a surprisingly sensible alternative to war if both sides would abide by terms, since it decides the outcome more or less fairly (the strongest fighter is typically a part of the strongest army), cheaply, and without collateral damage. (Of course, if both sides would abide by terms, they could just negotiate. Still, it would’ve been pretty awesome if there’d been an MMA deathmatch between George Bush’s and Osama bin Laden’s appointed champions, rather than what actually happened.) In Erfworld, it’s less so, because armies need to get destroyed to prevent a Malthusian catastrophe and they might as well be destroyed in a way that at least provides XP; however, if both sides have already fought to a standstill, it makes sense to switch so that a third party can’t swoop in and take it all.
Damn, but "Debt Ether" was well planned! I wonder what Loony thinks of the name...
I can't believe how many casters Ethereum have had croaked or captured or turned just recently. I'm looking forward to this trial now. This seems like it has to be Tom's endgame, so I'm half wondering if he's going to try to conquer the MK itself by convincing its inhabitants to join him.
By that "fair play" rule, do the Pro Toast units have to turn now since the deal was that Ethereum's casters would (except Riley)?
What's the current status of Ethereum's other cities anyway? Did they all turn neutral when the side fell and stay neutral? Did they rejoin the side when it reformed?
On Moneymancers, I think a case could be made that shmuckers can freely be paid to any commander unit that's directly in your hex without cutting into the Moneymancers' abilities - we've seen prices for valuable scrolls like 40,000 for a Dirtamancy one in Book 0, and 150,000 for the Summon Perfect Warlord one. Anything that would put you over your purse limit requires either converting some into Rands or a Moneymancer making a gem to store it, and it seems like that should be pretty common.
Without Rands, the Moneymancers would have a serious amount of power in the MK even without there needing to be a specific power to transfer shmuckers without an automagically applied fee. I mean, your rule of 1,000 shmuckers purse size per level would pretty much mean that (particularly at low levels) any caster with more than a few turns upkeep would need a Moneymancer's services practically every time they hired out without the Rand system.
I would also say that in a lot of strategy games, advantages involving money tend to be the best powers, or at least among the best. It mightn't necessarily be flashy, but it tends to make sides that are both flexible and powerful.
So, the summoned projection counts for Author's fate.
A number of mechanics things don't seem quite right. As far as shmuckers go, it seems more like command units can draw it into their personal purse, and that they can be transferred in person, but extraordinary measures are needed to transfer them across distances (like using a magic hat to transfer a gem). On the other hand, the cannon rules about a side losing it's capital are rather unclear at this point.
Something seems wrong about Tassadar the Xel'naga being turned over to Bonesaw to mutilate.
Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone!
I've been sitting on Debt Ether for most of a year. Feels good to get it off my chest.
Whether they strictly have to is fairly academic; between Riley, the three smart Spooks who only haven't been bothering with trying their hands at Turnamancy because they had a specialist, in a pinch the remaining Croakamancer, and the possibility and stated goal of hiring more casters anyway, prisoners are only slightly less useful before they turn.
At dawn, a Pro Toast/elves/Mal alliance formally conquered Ethereum, causing their remaining cities to go neutral and field units to disband, less those who went barbarian first. They gave the city to Mal off-screen, as a colony, and she is now Ethereum; this was part of the deal for her helping them take it, and while they had no need to honour the bargain, they figured she'd be useful both for flanking Tom's group if they retreated to fight on from Ellesstee or something, and as a buffer against Colesworth and Roham (remember them?). On Jasper's surrender, Pro Toast's other cities went neutral; Tom could have demanded them as a condition of winning the duel, but didn't think of it in the heat of the moment. His group is now officially Pro Toast; they're incorrect in calling themselves Ethereum, and will be until they get a Signamancer to rename their city. Nothing will un-neutralise either side's lost cities short of reconquering them; in general, loyal former warlords might welcome their old ruler and order the garrison to turn, but don't expect that here. Lisa's group is formally just a bunch of random barbarians right now.
Yes. Projections aren't popped, and they're not really Erfly.
Pro Toast is a slurring of Protoss and Jasper Fforde's Toast Marketing Board. Tastar is a bit of Tassadar, and a bit of a toaster, so it's not so bad.
You'll never believe this, but we were already thinking that! We'll make a day of it, soon as we have juice to spare. I call it Operation Skinslip.
The problem with unlimited intra-hex payments and purse-filling is that then gems are worthless except for mundane barbarian mercs, of whom Jillian is the only one known. Free casters can pay each other directly and save any excess as rands, which is no more inconvenient than carrying $50 notes and breaking them into coins for spending. Likewise, sides can pay each other via their MK liaisons, no gems/other Moneymancy needed. I can't think how to patch this parsimoniously.
A purse of $1,000/level is canon, or at least on the wiki, and I think it works well with a dystopian MK: with an upkeep of $150 upward, it means one has to live paycheque to paycheque, until the bankers in their gated guild hall decide you're rich enough to talk to. It's not fair; it's not even trying to be fair. My notion of balance is from the perspective of a ruler: it'd suck if you were playing Erfworld The Game and lost because your opponent got a better random caster. That's not the same thing as ability to survive as a barbarian; barbarians need to trade/hire out much more than sides do, so ones with an advantage at trade should expect to do well.
Man, wouldn't it suck really bad if King Jasper changed capitals (even worse, to Etherium) and the group still has no money for upkeep? Author's not as evil as I am, I hope.
Also I'm interested about the consequences of doing anything with Arthur's corpse, given the fate magic that was cast on him. I mean, it might also apply to whatever he gets turned into. Riley remakes him into some sort of unstoppable flesh golem juggernaut whose only vulnerability is projections?
I have a golden rule in all narrative settings: no resurrecting the dead. If there's anything that can resurrect them, it must be declared before the first named death, and the characters must treat death as the minor inconvenience it is. Decreased weight of protagonist mortality, and all.
I was thinking Worm, but this is Riley, so you never really know.
Not half a bad idea, and one that I didn't think of. Ethereum would have $4k/turn from the one city, which would just about cover their upkeeps, but with no army and no money to buy one, they'd be in bad shape; there are plenty of neutral cities to capture, but Shakepikee likely has plenty of troops in the battlespace plus a vicious grudge. Even if Jasper lost, they'd be able to avenge him, which is a big deal for royalty and when Riley is on the other side.
The in-universe reason he didn't would be that he was feeling useless and angry, a feeling that Lisa prodded the day before. The thought of another failure and retreat, or dependence on his father, after everything that's happened so far, was intolerable, so he committed himself: hold the city, win this one battle, and that would redeem it all.
Never gamble when you're in a reckless mood courtesy of having just lost a lot of gambles, especially if there's the slightest chance that the reason why you've been losing is that the house is cheating. Also, the house always cheats.