The Walking Unled
“When there’s no more rhyme in Hellabad, the croaked will dance on Erf,” quoted Vance Macabre. It was a well known line from the Book of Fanon, a bit of scripture often used to slander the noble art of croakamancy.
One interpretation was that the uncroaked were animated using evil spirits. That croakamancers summoned the souls of the dishonorable dead, wrenched from their torment in Hellabad, brought back to Erf to wear the slain bodies of other units.
“Don’t tell me you’re starting to believe that nonsense,” snapped Dawn Romero. “I’ve animated hundreds of bodies, I don’t remember talking to any nefarious ghosts.”
Vance shrugged, and gestured at one of the meat puppets to bring him another drink. The Bone Zone was a popular croakamancer hang out in the Magic Kingdom, an outdoor bier garden of stone picnic tables beneath somber willow trees. The waiters were burlap sack golems stuffed with raw ground meat, a simple but reliable uncroaked servant. Unlike true uncroaked they wouldn’t decay and need replacement. A fresh scoop of raw meat every few turns and a little juice was enough to keep the meat puppets going indefinitely.
The puppet handed Vance a bloody mary and lurched off to service other customers. “Not for normal uncroaked of course, but I dunnow, maybe that’s how Wanda does it. What if the secret of decryption is summoning evil spirits to pretend they’re the original?”
“No, they’re real enough. I’ve spoken with some of the decrypted, “ countered Dawn. “Ace, Jack, some of the troops Lord Hamster brought through the Jetstone portal. They’re the originals but with rejiggered loyalty, better than any turnamancer could achieve. Really beautiful work.”
Vance waved his hand in dismissal. “If Wanda’s that good, maybe they’re evil spirits that have been made to think they’re the originals.”
She laughed. “Maybe the moon is made of banana pudding. If you start throwing around maybes Vance, we’ll never get anywhere.”
They shared a chuckle over that. The two croakamancers had very different approaches to their craft, different as night and day, but they always managed to find common ground.
Vance was a traditional doom and gloom type, a bald skeletal man who preferred black undertaker suits. At the moment his maroon shirt was tied together by a silver spider bow-tie. Dawn eschewed gothic drama, and wore a yellow floral print dress with pink roses. Long golden hair spilled down over her exposed back. Most people mistook her for some kind of hippiemancer at first glance.
“Get anywhere?” asked Vance after a moment. “You’re trying to get somewhere with decryption?”
“Not here, not now,” whispered Dawn. She glanced around at the other croakamancers sitting at their tables. “We’ll talk about this tonight. For now, let me just say that I aim to move from idle speculation to practical research.”
They met inside Vance’s mausoleum, at midnight of course. Dawn was a sided caster, so Vance’s home was their only completely private meeting spot in the Magic Kingdom.
Dribbly red candles in iron candelabras cast a gloomy flickering light over the ornate marble walls and mahogany furniture.
A mummified butler, bound in white rags beneath its tuxedo, delivered tiny crystal goblets of sherry to the assembled casters. In addition to the croakamamncers there were two others. They were Dawn’s friends, not Vance’s, and he eyed his guests critically.
Foolamancer Mystique Mirage was staring into one of the mirrors, a pane of glass inside a rectangular frame of gilded vertebrae. To pass the time she idly altered her reflection, replacing her normal blue skin and white dress with the visage other units. A male knight with a thick black beard and three clawed gauntlets. A female shockamancer with ebony skin and brilliant white hair. Vance knew she was showing off; mirrors usually pierce through illusions, and veiling one so fluidly was master class foolamancy. It was far trickier than simply disguising a unit.
Another caster sat on the burgundy leather couch, resting his dirty shoes on a wooden coffee table. It made sense that a carnymancer would have poor manners. Ron Ponzi was a flim-flam man in a red and white striped jacket and a straw boater hat, surrounded by a vaguely acrid scent of cologne. Vance had taken an immediate dislike to him when they met hundreds of turns ago, and avoided him since, even though Ponzi was nothing but polite. Something about the friendly smile of carnymancers always reminded Vance of a landshark sizing up a meal.
“All right Dawn, what’s this about,” said Vance, after refreshments had been served. “And why have you invited these two lovely guests?”
“Decryption is the most fascinating and important magical discovery in all of Erfworld,” said Dawn. “Through the power of the pliers Wanda Firebaugh has conquered death! More importantly than that, she conquered upkeep! It’s a revolutionary step forward for croakamancy, but she’s squandering it on petty warfare.”
“Gobwin Knob wouldn’t call their war petty,” Ponzi said with a smug grin. “It’s their ‘grand titanic quest’ to fulfill fate’s plan for the world.”
“Like I said, petty,” said Dawn. “Decryption should be used to heal the world. Not conquer it.”
“Well, I’m sure Wanda will be open to suggestions,” Vance said dryly. “She was always a good listener. Or were you planning to steal the Arkenpliers, hope you attune, and draw the wrath of Gobwin Knob down on your head?”
Dawn waved her hand in dismissal. “What if I told you I didn’t need the pliers to make decrypted?”
“How? That’s impossible.”
“Remember my upkeep free uncroaked spell?”
Vance did remember Dawn’s spell. It was an impressive bit of croakamancy, some of the most groundbreaking recent research in the Magic Kingdom. It allowed a croakamancer to produce zero upkeep undead, at the cost of a much faster decay rate and a higher initial juice cost. As such, it wasn’t a particularly practical spell.
He nodded. “Yes, but that’s hardly decryption. The unit only survives a few turns, even if their body is in perfect condition and you spend all your juice to animate them.”
“That’s where I come in,” said Ponzi. “I have developed a spell that prevents an uncroaked from decaying. Ever.”
Vance blinked. “That is very... useful.” He hadn’t realized carnymancers possessed that kind of power.
“It is useful,” said Ponzi. “It’s even more useful when you cast it on an uncroaked made with Dawn’s no unkeep spell.”
“Free upkeep permanent uncroaked…” mused Vance. “What’s the catch?”
“How did you know there was a catch?” Dawn pouted. “The spells contradict each other. After a few turns the unit instantly croaks. Turns to dust on the spot, as all the decay they cheated catches up with them in one moment. Remind you of anything?”
“The decrypted.” Vance could see where she was going with this. “They turn to dust when they croak. You think the pliers also use carnymancy to cheat decay.”
“Of course it’s carnymancy,” said Ponzi. “Decrypted are OP are heck, and break like fifteen rules every second they breathe. No way the pliers aren’t cheating to pull that off. The difference is, Wanda is doing something to make the spell stable.”
Dawn nodded. “If I could study a decrypted unit, examine them up close and see how they work, I think we could replicate whatever the pliers do,” she said. “We could adjust our spells to work in sync, to make free uncroaked that never decay.”
“It wouldn’t restore the unit’s mind,” Vance pointed out.
“No,” she admitted. “That’s trickier. I can fix bodies, Ponzi can cheat upkeep, but minds are outside our areas of expertise. Maybe we could do it in a thinkamancer link, but the thinkamancers aren’t permitted to act against Gobwin Knob right now. Still, even just inventing perpetual uncroaked would change everything.”
Vance signaled for his mummy butler to bring him a fresh glass of sherry. “You still haven’t explained how you’re going to get a decrypted unit to study. I’m pretty sure Wanda doesn’t loan them out.”
The butler walked up and handed him a fresh glass. As he took it, the uncroaked servant shimmered and transformed into Mystique Mirage. “Wanda won’t miss what she doesn’t know is missing,” said the foolamancer.
Vance swiveled his head towards the couch, where Mystique had been sitting. The image of her there waved at him and fizzled out of existence.
“Mystique is a master of self-veiling,” said Dawn. “Probably the best at it in all of Erfworld. We’ll grab one of the decrypted soldiers for an hour, that’s all I need. Mystique will take their place so the other decrypted don’t notice their man is missing. Then we use a thinkamancy scroll to wipe the soldier’s memory, and slip them back in. Gobwin Knob will never even know we borrowed one of their decrypted.”
“Clever plan,” said Vance. “The one thing you haven’t explained is why a foolamancer and a carnymancer want to help advance the field of croakamancy.”
“We have a sponsor,” said Ponzi. “A patron of magic who cares deeply about fairness and equality between all the sides of Erfworld. They are generously assisting us in discovering the secret of decryption for everyone to share.”
Vance glowered at the carny. “Charlie.”
Ponzi shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’d tell you who it is, but I’m under an NDA. What’s important is that he or she is paying to help croakamancers reach the highest possible pinnacle of their craft.”
Vance turned to his friend. “You’re okay with this, Dawn? You really want to get involved with GK and Charlie’s war?”
“For decryption, yeah,” she replied gravely. “For decryption, I’d do anything.”
The snatch and grab went easier than expected. Kidnapping a decrypted from the thinkmancer temple was impossible. Even Mystique couldn’t veil herself against that much lookamancy. Fortunately, Gobwin Knob sent escorts with all their casters when they traveled around the Magic Kingdom.
Gobwin Knob’s dirtamancer was known to pay regular visits to the hippiemancer glade, and sometimes stayed there overnight. A stack of decrypted soldiers always traveled with him, and camped nearby to escort him back to the portal in the morning. It was fairly trivial for a master foolamancer to lead one astray from their campfire.
Dawn and Vance were waiting in the mausoleum when Ponzi led someone in, a man concealed in a large trench coat and fedora. They didn’t want any casters spotting someone in Gobwin Knob livery walking to the croakamancer’s home.
“Lay down on the table,” ordered Ponzi.
“Yes, Lord Hamster,” intoned the decrypted soldier dully as he trudged over to the coffee table.
“Must have been a pretty good domination scroll,” remarked Vance.
“Our patron provided the best,” said Ponzi. “But it won’t last long, so make this time count.”
Dawn hadn’t wasted a moment. She was already running her hands along the decrypted soldier’s body. Vance admired her at work as she performed analytical magic far beyond his level. Although they were both masters of croakamancy, Dawn was a genius at studying the underpinnings of their craft, improvising and expanding on them. Vance was a traditionalist, perfecting ancient spells and techniques, but rarely straying from old methods. His friendship with Dawn had given him a chance to discuss new and exciting concepts of croakamancy, possibilities he had never considered before.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered Dawn. Her magic eye witnessed the powerful magical forces controlling the decrypted soldier. Physically he was alive, no magical motion needed to animate him. But it wasn’t normal. There were glowing strings of loyalty and duty. Energetic flows of magic completely bypassed the usual rules on upkeep, where the numbers axis demand their tithe. It was beautiful, and titanically powerfully, but also mostly understandable. “I can do this,” she said.
Dawn returned to Feudcourt, the capital city of her side Costcrown, to perform the spell. The tower bonus would be necessary to pull this off. Ponzi accompanied her to cast the carnymancy portion.
Although Vance had wanted to witness the spell, they all decided it was best if he stayed away to avoid attracting extra attention. This entire operation was something they preferred to keep secret from Gobwin Knob as long as possible. Mystique Mirage could have hidden his passage through the Costcrown portal, but her contract with their mysterious “patron” was now over and Vance couldn’t afford to pay the foolamancer’s rates.
King Sears Shopaholic had provided the corpse for them to decrypt, a fallen Costcrown warlord who had been slain a few days ago by Amazone barbarians. They were a warlike tribe that rode into battle on immense guerillas, a breed of powerful ape mount. Amazone primates were capable of ripping Feudcourt soldiers to shreds. Dawn was thankful that the corpse on the slab had emerged from the battle with nothing worse than a broken neck.
“You’re lucky to have a king that lets you experiment,” said Ponzi. “Most rulers don’t even like croakamancy.”
“King Sears didn’t, when I first popped,” said Dawn. “But in time I showed him the value of my craft. And now we really need a new weapon to defeat Amazones’ guerilla warriors. They keep raiding our cities, and we don’t have the forces to drive them off for good. Decryption could end their threat once and for all.”
The carnymancer cracked his knuckles. “Then, what are we waiting for?”
The spell didn’t take long to cast. The two casters chanted together for a minute, their words forming a rhythm.
“Frankensteen Skynet Doomguy Andromeda!” shouted Dawn.
“Enron Tyco Madoff Lehman!” screamed Ponzi.
A swirling orb of green energy gathered above the body and a bolt of emerald shockamancy lightning zapped down and struck the corpse. The spell’s energy dissipated.
“Did it work?” asked Ponzi.
A tense moment passed where nothing happened. Then, slowly, the warlord stood up. His emotionless eyes were glowing green ovals.
“We succeeded,” said Dawn in an awed whisper. “He has no upkeep. He won’t decay. The spells won’t fail this time.”
“We did it! We decrypted him!” Ponzi danced a little jig. “Who needs an Arkentool?”
“Well, it’s not quite decryption,” Dawn said modestly. “He isn’t intelligent, and the spell didn’t repair any damage to his body. Let’s call it, ‘uncryption.’”
The upcrypted warlord began walking towards Ponzi, one foot shuffling after the other.
“Did you order it to start moving?”
Dawn shook her head. “No, it’s doing it on its own. Stop!”
Ponzi glanced nervously at Dawn. “It’s your side’s unit, right? Why is it ignoring you?”
“Not sure, let me try again,” said Dawn. “Warlord, halt! I order you to halt!”
The uncrypted raised his arms and lunged towards at Ponzi.
“Okay, screw this,” said Ponzi. “I’m putting it down. Hoboken!” His shockmancy bolt blasted into the uncrypted’s chest, but didn’t slow it down. “Hoboken! Hoboken! Ah, crap!” The uncrypted warlord initiated a grapple attack, clawing at Ponzi with its hands. Its jaws snapped towards his neck as the carnymancer struggled to push it away.
“Boom deadshot!” Dawn casted, firing a shockamancy bullet into the warlord’s head. It spasmed and flopped lifeless to the floor.
“What the hell was that?” screamed Ponz as he stood up.
“Obviously decryption is a bit more complicated than we assumed. Next time we’ll have to restrain the corpse before we animate it.” Dawn glanced over Ponzi’s body. “You okay? Did it hurt you?”
“Nah, not really. It bit me,” said the carnymancer, raising up his arm to show a red crescent of bite marks. “But it only took off one or two hp. Man, this sucks. I really thought we cracked decryption.”
Dawn shrugged. “This was a learning experience. It may seem like a failure, but I think we accomplished a lot.”
It was uncharacteristic of Dawn to be late. When she was four hours tardy for their meeting at the Bone Zone, Vance began to grow worried.
He swung by the Carnyvale to find Ron Ponzi, and discovered he was missing too. The carnymancer hadn’t been seen since entering the Costcrown portal that morning. His friends assumed he had been hired for some kind of big multi-day contract.
Vance walked to Portal Park and found Costcrown’s glowing yellow portal. He tossed through a polite and formal letter from Croakamancer Vance Macabre, cordially requesting that Chief Caster Dawn Romero respond at her earliest convenience. Ten minutes passed. Thirty. An hour. Eventually Vance grew tired of waiting and walked through the portal into Feudcourt.
The portal room was slick black granite tiles and tan wallpaper. A few decorative potted ferns greeted him, but no units, which was very odd. Since Parson Gotti’s attack on Jetstone every side had started posting guards on their portal.
“Hello?” he shouted tentatively. “I’m a friend of Dawn’s. Anyone here?”
Vance left the portal room and walked through the dungeon level, still encountering nobody. Eventually he found an elevator to the surface and rode up. It deposited him in broad promenade inside the castle.
Mall Hall had a rather unusual castle design, more like an opulent warehouse than a fortress. Every turn, Costcrown units with the fabrication special would make thousands of different items, like shirts, cookwear, furniture, weapons, and store them in the castle. The following turn those items would vanish and turn into extra shmuckers for Costcrown’s treasury.
Usually the castle’s gleaming corridors would be bustling with hundreds of units stocking the shelves with items, but now it was desolate. Vance started to feel really creeped out, and that doesn’t happen often to a man who lives in a mausoleum.
Then he noticed a quiet sound, barely perceptible. A wet repetitive crunch. Someone was chewing something. The croakamancer nervously walked towards the noise, passing by colorful signamancy banners on the walls labeled “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” and “SALE!”
Vance turned a corner and saw two units, both Costcrown infantry. One of them was laying on the floor and the other was hunched over it, chewing at the prone unit’s torso. It gnawed and tore chunks out of the soldier’s flesh, panting heavily as it feasted. The unit on the ground had no legs. Those had already been eaten.
The croakamancer froze and tried to be as silent as possible. He slowly took one step back and the unit on the ground opened its eyes, a pair of glowing green circles staring accusingly at Vance. It sat up moaning and reached towards him.
The other unit that had been feasting stood up and began lurching towards the Vance, and the legless creature on the floor followed close behind, sliding across the ground with its arms.
“Phasers Twokill!” he casted, drawing on his expert level shockamancy. A bolt of red hot fire blasted through the standing unit’s chest, leaving a hole the size of a dinner plate. Bits of the creature’s spine poked in from the top and bottom of the hole. However the soldier didn’t seem perturbed by this, and kept walking towards Vance with outstretched grasping hands.
“Oh, this is not good,” Vance muttered and ran for his life.
Dashing around the corner he almost collided with a crowd of the things. Thirty, forty, Costcrown soldiers quietly swaying in place. As Vance skidded to a halt the monsters turned around and started running at him, jaws hanging low.
Vance wordlessly turned around, narrowly dodged the unit that had already been chasing him, and sprinted down a random hallway. He was a caster though, not an athletic warrior, and there was no way he could outrun them for more then a few seconds.
“Over here! Hurry!” someone shouted at him.
A man flung up a steel gate, and beckoned him inside. Vance dived through the opening into a shoe store. His savior flung down the gate just as the crowd of uncrypted arrived. They started banging against the metal gate to the shop, a relentless pounding CLANG CLANG CLANG. The gate shook but seemed like it would hold for now.
Inside the shop were huddled a small crowd of living Costcrown units, less than twenty people. Vance’ savior was their leader, a man in a gleaming white suit and platinum circlet. Costcrown’s royal crest, a large ¢, rested on his forehead in diamonds.
Dawn had spoken of this man. “Thank you for saving my life, Prince Roebuck,” said Vance.
“You’re welcome,” replied Prince Roebuck. “Now, who the hell are you?”
“I’m a friend of Dawn’s, from the Magic Kingdom. I came to check up on her. What’s going on here?”
Prince Roebuck grimaced. “Death. Ruin. Some kind of experiment Dawn did with that carnymancer, making something she called an ‘uncrypted.’ They reported their failure to King Sears after the creature they made attacked them.”
“How did one spell make all of these?”
“The carnymancer… changed. He had been bitten by the uncrypted, and he transformed right in front of the king. Started biting everyone around him. He…” Prince Roebuck’s voiced wavered for a moment. “He bit my father. We chopped the carny to bits eventually, but it was too late. Everyone bitten transformed into more uncrypted. Then they started biting people. We tried to fight them, but they’re resistant to damage. Only crit blows to the head put them down. Before long all of Feudcourt was overrun.”
Vance was horrified. What he had just heard was like the tall tales told to discredit croakamancy, except this time it was real, and he had helped cause it. “Your father was slain? You’re king now?”
“No!” A flash of grief and anger crossed Roebuck’s face. “I’m heir, but he’s still king. He’s one of them and he’s still our ruler.”
“What of Dawn Romero? Did she survive?”
“I don’t know what happened to that witch,” Prince Roebuck spat it as a curse. “She destroyed our whole side. I knew that my father was a fool to trust in croakamancy.”
Vance didn’t take offense, under the circumstances. “What about your forces outside of Feudcourt? Your other cities? Do we have any chance of a rescue?”
The prince shook his head. “I have no way of contacting them. They’ll come check on us eventually, when they don’t get orders from the king for too long, but I fear they’ll only get turned also. A single bite from the uncrypted will defeat any living thing.”
A long moment passed as the croakamancer mulled over their bleak situation. The pounding hands at the gate, the snarling jaws, the vacant green eyes, told him there was only path out.
“I know what we have to do,” Vance said grimly. “We have to croak your king. Once he’s destroyed, you’ll become ruler and then you can disband all the uncrypted. They’re still your side’s troops, even if they don’t obey orders.”
“We can’t fight our way past all that,” said the prince, gesturing at the uncrypted horde. “With you, we only number eighteen people. To reach the throne room where my father is, we’ll have to battle through hundreds of the creatures. Merely escaping this room will be a challenge.”
“I know a defensive buff,” said Vance, a sharp edge to his voice. “A shield spell I can cast on your troops. It should make them invulnerable to bites.”
Prince Roebuck brightened up as hope crossed his face. “That could work! The creatures aren’t good fighters without their bite attack. With my leadership bonus, we’ll be able to get enough headshots to break through.”
“Order your men to stand close together,” said Vance quietly. “It’s an area of effect spell, so they can’t be too far apart.”
The Costcrown troops moved together in a tight circle. When Prince Roebuck went to join them, Vance called him back. “No, sire. The spell can’t buff commanders.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Roebuck. “Well, my leadership bonus will still count even if I hang back in combat.”
Vance turned towards the soldiers. “Thank you for your assistance. I promise that your prince will survive. And I’m sorry. SHAZAM!“ He gestured one hand out and flung a bolt of explosive lightning at the troops. The men and women screamed as electrical currents ran through their bodies and croaked them where they stood. Wisps of smoke rose from the bodies on the ground.
Prince Roebuck stared in shock. “What?! Why? You…” He drew his sword and marched towards the croakamancer, murder written on his red face. “You vile snake! You’ll pay for this!”
“Wait, Prince Roebuck. Listen to me.” Vance lowered his hands, to show he intended no further attacks. His apologetic tone made the prince pause. “I’m a naughtymancer. I don’t know any defensive spells. What I do know is how to uncroak bodies.” He gestured at the mound of corpses. “Like you said, a single bite from the uncrypted will turn any living thing. Uncroaked aren’t living. I doubt they can be affected by this curse. And I can lead uncroaked in dance fighting. With you leading your soldiers, we all would have perished. With dance fighting, we reach the throne room unscathed and you can save your side.”
The prince was silent for several seconds before speaking. “They were good soldiers. Loyal and brave. They were my friends.”
“I know, prince.”
Prince Roebuck glared at Vance. “Very well, cast your dark arts.”
“TRIOXIN!” Purple energy flowed through the electrocuted Costcrown soldiers. As they stood up their livery changed to dark funereal attire, black armor with a skull insignia.
Vance turned to the prince. “I vow to save Costcrown, but first I must ask you to promise me one favor in return.”
The prince glared at the caster. “What do you want?”
With Vance’s uncroaked clearing the way it was easy to retake the city. The unled uncrypted were no match for a platoon of uncroaked soldiers led in dance fighting by a master croakamancer. Vance’s army did the mash, they did the monster mash, and smashed their way to the throne room.
After King Sears’ animated body was killed, the newly crowned King Roebuck used his ruler powers to disband the uncrypted throughout the city. All the uncrypted, except one.
His new project had been very expensive so far. Vance had hired Mystique Mirage to disguise his arrival through the portal, and paid a dirtamancer to dig out a new secret room underneath his mausoleum. Expensive but worth it. He would pay any price .to see this through.
Vance stood at entrance of the dark room, staring into the gloom beyond.
“All those turns we spent together as friends, I never had the courage to tell you how I feel,” he said sadly. “And then, it was too late.”
A yellow shape lunged out from the shadows. Dawn Romero ran forward snarling, then was jerked back by a chain connecting the muzzle on her face to the stone wall. She frantically clawed towards Vance with a savage hunger. Her eyes were glowing green.
“But don’t worry, I’ll fix this,” said Vance Macabre. “I’ll research how to undo your spell and restore you to life. I’ll save you, my love. And then we can be together.”
(Note: User was awarded 40 Shmuckers for this post. -Rob)
Yeah, I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful naughtymancers can be. If they master both shockamancy and croakamancy, you have a unit that can point at crowds of enemies to kill them instantly, them animate them into a zombie army they can lead in combat. It's a chain reaction effect that can turn a battle or even a whole war.
I love it. Dawn of the Uncrypted at a shopping mall under threat from Amazon. All the pun-puzzle pieces fit! Your choice of dancefighting tune was the part that really cracked me up. I was hoping you'd work in some drone attacks, or possibly a "Shaun" somewhere, but otherwise it was great
Dawn's signamancy implies she's the one with the hippiemancer knowledge that makes this all work. Nice subtlety there
...That one hit some heartstrings.
The casters were charming in their combinations of style, enthusiasm, and wonder, and the settings were picturesque. Dawn’s plan was thoughtful, but her magic words filled the tower with doom, and the entire conversation between Vance and Roebuck was one twist of the knife after another. I’m glad Vance was willing to tackle the danger. (With a name like that, I should’ve expected he’d dance-fight.) That said, the ending was bittersweet on every level.