End of Ethereum
A man in a hooded cloak strode through Portal Park, and into the verdant growth of the Hippiemancy octant. He smiled at everyone he passed, offering slight shakes of his head to the odd Date-a-mancer who returned a brighter one. It’d be nice, but he had a tight deadline.
Eventually he came on a clearing with two casters, two large women. One was a dark-skinned Predictamancer, the other a blonde Florist, her hands bent in concentration. There was a quiet rustle of wind in the leaves and distant voices, but other than that silence, until he broke it.
“You won’t succeed,” he said, very quietly.
The Florist let out a long sigh of defeat, then rallied. “How would you know?” She looked at him, but it didn’t tell her anything. He had one of those Signamancy or Foolamancy items that blocked others from seeing your stats, a ring or something. “You’re not a Florist.”
“Neither are you, Date-a-mancer,” he said. He pushed back his hood, revealing messy black hair and brown eyes behind plain, utilitarian glasses. “Hippiemancy isn’t known for its powerful casters. Too hard to level. Once upon a time, there was a Florist who fought that destiny, and became powerful enough to prevent all combat within a hex for an entire turn. But she went back into the box a long time ago, and there’s no-one left alive who can do the same. You’re barely mid-level, compared to her.”
The Predictamancer squinted at him suspiciously. “What are you?” she asked with a thick Ebonic accent. “I can’t see your future.”
His smiled turned sad. “I know. You’re not missing much.” He inhaled, exhaled. “I came to give you three hints. First, you have to survive. Second, Findamancy and Lookamancy. Third, never despair. Eternal darkness is a real threat, and Fate is cruel, but there’s exists a path to a happy ending for at least some of us, if you’re willing to fight hard enough for it.”
The Florist stared, then looked between him and her friend, who looked equally lost, not at all her usual smug precognitive self. “I don’t understand. Any of it.”
“I know,” he said. “The first hint will be the most important one today. You’ll figure out the second sooner or later. Remember the third when things seem darkest.” He turned and began walking away. “I’d say I’ll see you later, but it’d be a lie.”
“Wait,” said the Florist. “Who are you?”
He didn’t break stride. “It doesn’t matter.” In a moment, he was swallowed up by the trees.
The Florist stared after him. “Findamancy and Lookamancy? I’m a Hippiemancer. Do you know any Findamancy?”
“Nothing worth mentioning,” the Predictamancer said.
“… We have to survive today. Marie, isn’t today when Tom the Marvel comes back?”
The heads of the six foremost guilds sat around their table in Knocks Bank. An open letter sat in the middle.
“I don’t like this,” said Lady Jasmine. “You said we’d have them two days ago.”
“Tagg only said they’d lose their capital,” Mewlin Pendwagon said, interlacing his fingers in front of his mouth. “And so they did. He sometimes doesn’t ask the right questions, but his answers are never wrong. Tom will appear today, and he will lose the trial.”
Penny Arcane nodded to the letter. “He confirmed it just this morning, after all. If you trust him not to lie, it’s as close to the truth as we can get.”
“He doesn’t lie,” Mewlin said, with absolute conviction. “Ever.”
Revolver Oscillate sat back. “I know Seed and I are only hired muscle here,” he said, “but my guild is the one that’s paid in blood. It’s past time you told us more about this Tagg fellow.”
The other four exchanged glances and slight nods.
“Do you know the legend of the omniscient caster?” Penny asked. “An ancient master of every informatic discipline, with enough juice to see the entirety of Erfworld, who uses couriers to tell you what you need to know when you need to know it?”
“Just a legend,” Revolver scoffed. “You can’t master cross-class disciplines. And even the Titans aren’t omniscient.”
Mewlin shrugged. “Perhaps, but there’s at least a kernel of truth. I’ve dealt with him for a long time, and he’s never once been mistaken. In all that time, I’ve never been able to learn his full name or true face. Given the resources I have at my disposal, that should tell you how good he is.”
“Could he be a front man for a conspiracy?” Seed Rick asked.
“We’ve speculated he might be anything from a master-class Luckamancer to three marbits in a longcoat,” Penny said. “He’s never given anyone any information about himself. He’s given us a lot of information about Ethereum, though.” She locked eyes with Mewlin, who nodded. “The real reason we’re fighting them is something else he told us. Either Predictamancy or Mathamancy, we think. If Ethereum survives long enough, in any form, it will draw the Magic Kingdom and every free caster in it into war with Charlescomm.”
“What?!” Seed exclaimed. “Why? How?!”
“Tagg never said. He didn’t explicitly say that Charlie would win, but he did say we’d suffer over ninety-nine percent casualties.” She paused to let that sink in. “He said this would happen within one thousand turns; it’d be likely to come much sooner. So the why and how don’t matter. All that matters is stopping him, at any cost, and that’s just going to get harder the longer he has to build up his defences. Tagg coordinated much of our countermeasures, too; it was on his intelligence that we captured Gus Tone.”
“Charlescomm,” Seed repeated numbly.
“Did he tell you to plant Flacutono?” Revolver asked.
Penny shook her head. “He hadn’t told us much back then, and he didn’t give any indication that he would. He only ever tells you what you need to know; you need to make your own inferences to complete the picture. Mewlin assumed an ace in the hole would be a good bet. It might have worked, but with so many different casters working together perhaps it was inevitable that some combination of disciplines would make him.”
“So what do we do now?” Jasmine asked.
“We stick to the plan,” Mewlin ruled. “We bring the largest Quorum we can, we conduct the trial, and we convict them. We’ll execute the ringleaders and have the side, and Mal’s side for that matter, dissolved. We can’t just murder them. We have to discredit the very idea of a caster side for the next thousand turns, or the Magic Kingdom itself will be utterly destroyed.”
“Hey, Undine? Undine!”
Drow Hands, their group’s Signamancer, pushed his head into her tent, and was promptly pushed back out again by her foot, applied directly to face. A minute later, she dressed and came out.
“I know this is the Shockmancers’ haunt, but in my camp, we wait for permission to enter a girl’s tent,” she said crossly. Drow sheepishly rubbed his nose. “What is it?”
“A courier came in just now,” he said. He offered her a letter.
“‘Came in’? You mean he met you outside the perimeter, don’t you?” He shook his head. “This place is ringed by your restriction signs, and then there are the traps. Remember?”
He shrugged. “There’s a saving throw against restriction signs. Anyone above level four would have a good chance to bypass them. And the traps … well, there have to be gaps between them, or else we’d trigger them ourselves, wouldn’t we?”
She frowned. This was a major breach of security. “I don’t like this. If their level is high enough to pass your signs, it’s high enough that they wouldn’t be working as just a messenger. We should add more atomic wedgie traps.” She unsealed the letter and read it.
Trust in justice.
Lisa came up behind her and read the letter over her shoulder. “Belay that,” she said. “We were never supposed to have casters in the field without a Luckamancer shoring up the screens, and yesterday showed why. Tom’s probably going to want to hire all of you, so you should save your juice.”
“Sure, we’ll hold off for the day,” Drow replied, and wandered off, humming. “Triple dent gum …”
“What’s this about?” Lisa asked Undine, of the letter.
“It just came in. Do you understand it?”
“No, but it rings a bell. I’ve seen something like before, another cryptic message couriered back when Ethereum was still intact. I can’t remember any details, though.”
“Is it just a prank?” Undine asked.
Lisa frowned. “I think that was what I thought back then, too, but … I don’t think so, not now. That’d be a stupid risk; whoever’s sending these has to know how many people have croaked in connection to Ethereum. And this guy who just waltzed past our defences …” She considered asking their Lookamancer to try to find him, but Tom had been emphatic that they should save their juice, and she agreed. “It’s like they’ve been planning something, and the plan’s almost complete, so they aren’t bothering with full security any more.”
“If it’s almost complete now, and Tom’s coming back today, then that can’t be a coincidence. Is this guy a friend or foe?”
Outside of certain rare events such as a side being founded by a barbarian capturing a capital on the capital’s owner’s turn, new sides’ natural turn position is at the end of the day, after every other side in Erfworld. Debt Ethereum’s turn was therefore the very last. It was almost evening, the sky over Portal Park cast red-purple.
Normally, casters would hire out during the day, since capital sides often needed work done specifically on their turn, and would return later with their juice depleted but their purses flush. Today, though, almost nobody had hired out. The various message boards had gone idle, even the Hat Magicians operating them distracted and on edge. The tension in the air was overwhelming.
One by one, or in pairs or small stacks or large groups, casters migrated to the Park, and specifically one livid green portal that had opened the day before. The six major guild heads faced it, standing shoulder to shoulder, backed by their followers, almost a hundred casters all together. Gus Tone the turned Rhyme-o-mancer stood beside Revolver. Lisa and the other three former Ethereum members advanced, until Railgun stepped in front of the Moneymancers and shook her head, warning them away from the portal and escape. Undine and the seven members of her Barnacle Battlefront stood beside the Ethereum four. Unaligned Qualified casters formed a third major faction, fifteen of various disciplines. Interspersed between the three blocs were upward of a hundred more casters, undecided or unwilling to commit to any faction.
“It’s time,” Revolver announced. “Ethereum … Tom’s side has just begun its turn.”
The portal rippled and shimmered in space.
“He is coming, right?” Undine undertoned to Lisa.
“It’ll be a hilarious anticlimax if he doesn’t,” Lisa replied, “and, uh, nice knowing you if that’s the case. But I really don’t think –”
A gasp arose from the assembled casters, as someone stepped through the portal. They were hidden behind a white bone mask and swathed in billowing black robes, clearly high-end Dollamancy body armour, very illegal. Railgun took a step backward, alarmed, and raised her hands, ready to cast. After the figure marched five more, a six-stack, all clad in the same all-concealing armour. With military precision only possible with sided units, they advanced ten paces in formation and stepped right. A second stack followed behind them and moved left. A thirteenth caster went last and stayed in the middle; the others closed ranks around him, and he took off his mask. It was Tom, of course.
“Oh boy,” Miles muttered behind Lisa, looking at the robes.
She agreed with him, but she’d seen it coming: she remembered May stitching it back in Wolf’s Lair. At the time, Tom had implied it was for fighting Archons, but she’d guessed even back then that he was anticipating a day when he’d need a show of force in the Magic Kingdom. A level one Dollamancer with a single turn’s juice could make gear that could tank a few blasts, although a true Shockmancer could bypass it. Ethereum had had May and Grim and sometimes Koume or Charlotte, more than twenty levels, mostly at master class, and who’d put multiple full turns of juice into it, sometimes with tower bonuses and musical accompaniment. That was a lot of magic for two Archons.
“Well,” Tom spoke into the silence. “Your prodigal son has returned, Magic Kingdom. Are you not pleased?”
Mewlin stepped forward. “Tom, I’d like to think you’d just forgotten the laws against armour in the Magic Kingdom, because it’d make an arms race that would allow criminals to overpower enforcers.”
“I don’t forget things,” Tom said, “I’m making a point. Unlike you, I’m a sovereign ruler. I’m not under your jurisdiction any more, Mewlin Pendwagon. I’m here as a courtesy. And that means it’s my prerogative to do so under my terms, not yours.”
“It doesn’t work like that, Shockmancer,” said Lady Jasmine, stepping forward too. “You were a free caster when you broke one of our cardinal rules. That doesn’t go away just because you stole a capital. Any more than that other Shockmancer caught kidnapping free casters can get away with because he’s sided.”
“It so happens that Shockmancers aren’t all the one person, and so I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but if a sided caster breaks a rule you imposed, the difference is that by choosing to come to the Magic Kingdom, they accepted your authority. I never did; I did only what I had to to survive. Who here can’t say the same?”
“As a Qualified caster,” Railgun interjected ahead of Jasmine’s response, “I have to say that you’re all getting sidetracked. Tom the Marvel, you have been formally charged with a crime, and as a Qualified, it’s my duty to help adjudicate the trial, not stand around bickering. Either we begin proceedings, or throw the case out.” She eyed the Dollamancy robes warily. “Or start a different one. Either way, this isn’t the place.”
“Trials are customarily held in the Hippiemancers’ forest, with the Signamancers,” Mewlin said.
“Except that this is a political trial, and one of the major plaintiffs is a Hippiemancer, and it’s my prerogative to demand neutral ground,” Tom said without missing a beat.
Lisa nodded. He probably wanted a favourable audience, and the Hippies didn’t really approve of his dreams of conquest. Even the Date-a-mancers were lukewarm about it. Undine had said that they were more interested in the sense of purpose behind the idea. Florists were rich and generous enough to cover their upkeeps, usually, but units without an active purpose eventually suffered Signamancy decay, and became feeble and insane. Barbarian Date-a-mancers invariably croaked of this sooner or later, but James was healthy and handsome.
Tom was a Naughtymancer, and there were six antagonistic guild heads, each of a different class. They all took a moment to mentally scratch out Hippiemancy, Naughtymancy, Eyemancy, Stuffamancy, Clevermancy, Hocus Pocus, and Spookism.
“That leaves Stagemancy,” Railgun said.
A Signamancer in a sharp suit stepped forward from the knot of Florists and cleared his throat. “I believe the World Stage would be a suitable venue, given the number of interested people,” he indicated the large crowd, which would be far too large for any of the conventional courtrooms. “We could hear initial arguments now before we all turn in for the night, and call witnesses over the next I should think” his eyes flicked over the robed Ethereum casters, Undine’s and Lisa’s groups, Gus and the guilds “ten to twelve turns, as a nonbinding estimate, before adjourning to –”
“Yeah, no,” said Tom. “We have crap” one of his shorter Debt Ethers obediently put her hands over her ears for the word “to do, in the overworld. There are at least three hostile sides in our battlespace, and we can’t afford to give up two hundred caster-turns while you all have a mass debate. We resolve this right now, or I and my followers are going home. We’ll leave a liaison to discuss it after.”
“Tom,” Railgun said pleadingly.
“This is highly irregular,” said the Signamancer, his voice thick with disapproval. “As I’m sure you remember from the case of your late former Mathamancer, Marvin Gael, refusal of terms posted by a Quorum is considered contempt of court, and even if the prosecution doesn’t care to append such to the charges, jurors are required to interpret the facts unfavourably for the defence.”
Lisa spoke up this time. “You just don’t get it, do you?” she asked, settling into a didactic tone. “In our legal system, most cases are decided when one party runs out of money and has to settle or disband, not when the truth comes out, whatever that is. That might work out well for you if you’re rich enough to cover your fees indefinitely, or can represent yourself, but most of us don’t have that luxury. It’s a pretty neat catch twenty-two, isn’t it? The only ones who can afford to challenge it are the elites who control most of the society, who would lose out, and therefore can’t afford to change it.”
“This isn’t relevant,” the Signamancer replied tightly.
“Case in point,” she replied, not missing a beat.
“Your anarchistic perversions have nothing to do with the rule of law in the Magic Kingdom!”
“Tyranny!” shouted someone in the crowd, and suddenly, everyone was shouting at everyone; the guilds, the crowd in all directions, the Barnacle Battlefront. The only stationary points were Ethereum, held still under Tom’s mental commands, and the Great Minds. Someone in the crowd shoved someone, initiating an engagement.
Mewlin snapped his fingers, and drew Lisa into thoughtspace. “Is this what you want?”
They spoke at the speed of thought within the bubble. She watched as one caster went sprawling in slow motion and conjured a hoboken, took the time to pick her words. “Why are you asking me? They’re beating each other up because of your laws, not mine. You have at least as much power to change this as Tom does.”
“He’s the ruler. I’m just the first among equals. I can’t order the Qualified to drop a case against the entire Magic Kingdom.”
“We both know that’s a rationalisation. Why don’t you just say it, that you could but don’t want to? You can’t be worried about losing my good opinion.”
“I like to think I could appeal to a fellow Thinkamancer’s better nature.”
She chuckled. “Spare me the heroic speech, Headmaster. Can you say that your faction is improving the lives of free casters?”
“Can you?” She raised an eyebrow. “Does this look like an improvement to you? How about all the casters who croaked under Tom’s command?”
She smiled affably. “Have some perspective. In the past thousand turns, how many have disbanded on the Short Pier? A few hundred? You might say that none of that is your fault or the fault of your politics, but if you did, you’d just be saying words and there’d still be hundreds of casters back in the box. Disbanding croaks just as hard as a spear does. And mentioning casters who croaked because Akira wasn’t available, because of an attack that Pro Toast could only afford because of the money you gave them to abduct our Rhyme-o-mancer, and also try to assassinate me?” Her tone remained conversational. “I’m going to shove those words back down your throat, you little scumbag. Between then and now, if you actually care about those poor shmucks out there, we’re not the ones trying to croak you, so if one of us is going to blink, it isn’t –”
They were knocked out of thoughtspace by a flash and a deafening crack of thunder. Everyone ducked. It was Railgun, her hand raised, smoke gently wisping off her forefinger; she brought it down and blew on it.
“I think we were just in the middle of going to the World Stage?” she said into the sudden silence. “So that we could talk this over like civilised human beings?”
A concerted riot could take her down, but the first three people who tried would never try anything else ever again. People grumbled, but they began migrating toward the Stagemancy octant.
The World Stage was a massive outdoor structure by the outskirts of the Carnyvale, but actually owned by the World Orchestra, the Rhyme-o-mancy association. They were too fractious to form a true guild capable of wielding political or economic power; whenever they tried to pass a resolution of any sort, it’d be a matter of turns before two of them picked an argument over it, and the deal was off. It was more like a social club in practice, as well as a convenient place for any employers to find them.
The Stage itself was a wide ellipse with a curved wooden backing along the broader axis, elevated so that an audience could watch, constructed many turns ago by Changemancy. It served as the premier venue for performances, as well as a favoured duelling ground for epic rap battles.
Tom led his followers onto the stage, taking the left side, while the guild heads and a few of their ranking members and assorted Qualified casters took the right. The crowd gathered around on the grass; Railgun was down with them. Lisa and the other three Ethereum refugees followed Tom up. Undine gave her a look, asking if she should join in; Lisa gave a little head shake. Not the time.
“Wait a minute,” said Seed; Lisa paused. “That Dollamancy makes it look like you’re looking for a fight. I’m not going to let them get reinforcements that easily.”
“You came here with a force of a hundred casters,” Lisa noted.
“I’m one of slightly under a hundred plaintiffs, yes.”
“Well, I’m one of slightly under twenty defendants. Are you going to take a shot at me for the crime of rejoining my old side?”
“No, but I’m not –”
“Roger that,” she said, and continued forward. Seed opened his mouth to protest, but he only had a moment before Lisa high-fived one of the robed and masked casters to align, the familiar sloshing green goblet reappearing over her heart. Akira, Miles, and, hesitating, Misty, were only moments behind her.
Tom’s voice echoed in their minds. IF FIGHT STARTS, MAY HAS MORE SUITS. DUCK AND COVER. AKIRA WILL DEFLECT SHOCKMANCY TOWARD ME WHILE YOU SUIT UP.
Yep, he expects to have to fight his way out.
“Hmph,” said the stiff Signamancer. “Then I hereby call this Quorum to order, to hear the case of Magic Kingdom vs Tom the Marvel and the former side of Ethereum. The plaintiffs charge that, as of fifteen turns ago, Tom the Marvel committed the crime of mal foi, bad faith, specifically by passing through the Magic Portal to the now-defunct side of Bell-End with the understanding between him and said side’s ruler, Lord Adderal Hiller, that the defendant would contract unspecified services to that side; and instead did engage and croak that ruler, without provocation.”
Akira leant over to whisper in Lisa’s ear. “Is he being boring on purpose?”
Lisa made to whisper back, but Tom’s ruler-orders came again. PICK HIGH-VALUE NEUTRAL TARGETS, SUBVERT.
Yep, definitely looking for a fight.
Her eyes scanned the crowd and settled on Railgun. Perfect. She opened a connection.
“Hey,” she said with a half-grin.
Railgun looked around. It was a rare experience for her. “Not interested in the trial? You’re standing too.”
“True, but either Tom has it in hand or he doesn’t.”
“I guess. Did you want to talk about something? If you want me to change sides, I’m not interested.”
Lisa would normally be tempted to use suggestion, but with the Great Minds nearby, she’d never get away with it. They might let her talk, though, if only because it would be a bad look to interrupt her. “Not exactly. I was wondering about you, trying to get inside your headspace, so to speak. I think maybe we’re pretty similar, but I’m not sure. You’re hard to understand.”
“Not really. I just try to do the right thing.”
“Sure.” Hesitation, uncertainty. She wasn’t lying, she just didn’t know what the right thing was. “You take your pay from the Bank, but you’re not a guild flunky. If you happened to be independently wealthy, you’d play cop for free, wouldn’t you?”
“It sounds like you’re trying to bribe me,” Railgun frowned.
“Pshyeah, like we could afford it. The overworld is expensive, and we recently lost our treasury. No, I’m trying to figure you out, because I don’t understand you. You want to protect people, don’t you? That’s your entire justice shtick. But you know that most free casters disband from upkeep, rather than croaking from violence. And when there is violence, ninety percent of the time it’s a mugging for upkeep.”
“That’s not –”
“Not something you can do anything about, because you’re a Shockmancer, not a Florist. You can’t make food, and you don’t have the money to feed everyone. Playing cop is probably the best thing you could be doing, no argument. That’s not the question. When I said I thought we were similar, I meant that you care enough about people to devote your life to protecting them from violence. Meanwhile, I’ve joined, and will maybe pay with my life for that, an organisation dedicated to protecting people from upkeep disbanding. The question is, why do you think there’s a difference?”
There was a crackle at the boundary of thoughtspace. Lisa winced, and turned to glare at the newcomer, a man with messy black hair and brown eyes. Not anyone she recognised; probably some new Great Mind who joined in the past few turns.
“Hey, this is a private conversation,” she said, annoyed.
“Yes, and it’d be a pretty good one, but we’re low on time,” he said. “You’d go back and forth for a little, then have the idea of sending your Croakamancer Saito Pomp the order to take off her mask. She had nothing when she joined your side a dozen turns ago; less than forty percent of Croakamancers last that long, although those that do can go for a while if they get a niche set up. Railgun would recognise her, and compare her to the other Croakamancers in the crowd, and she’d have the sudden epiphany that there’d be more than twice as many of them alive right now, if any of the money produced in the overworld went into their purses. After that, there’s no way she could possibly stand against Ethereum.”
Lisa narrowed her eyes. Railgun stared.
“Are you a Predictamancer?” she asked. “But then, how –”
“I bought a scroll from the Great Minds a while ago. It’s got a limited word count; I’ve accounted for that, but I’m afraid I can’t spare more for you, except that, out of everyone involved in this tragedy, you’re the one who’s doubted herself the most, and the one who should doubt herself the least. You’re a good person, Railgun. Never let go of that. There’s a turn of phrase in the speeches out in meatspace right now that will affect you deeply, so you should go listen to it.”
Railgun blinked, then nodded, and broke the connection.
“Tragedy?” Lisa repeated, fishing. This was unusual enough that she needed more information.
“For me, for you, for a certain lonely girl you’ll regret not having got to know better. For everyone, if Tom isn’t stopped. I’m the reason the guilds have been fighting him.”
She quirked an eyebrow and opened her mouth to make a sardonic quip, but he spoke first.
“Telling you is necessary. One of Predictamancy’s abilities at master-class is to see subjunctive futures; if this happens, there will be that consequence. It’s been very useful for staying undetected long enough to stop anybody moving against me. It also means that I know much of Tom’s future. He’d go eventually anyway, and under more favourable conditions, but later today I’m going to manipulate him into going on a quest for a great power. You will let me. He will succeed. If he isn’t croaked immediately after, he will use it to declare a war on the Magic Kingdom and then the world. All but two casters currently alive anywhere will be croaked in the course of this: him, and Riley. They will both croak eventually, nothing lasts forever, but it will take a very long time. Once they do, this world will be bleak and barren, and it will have lost its only chance to attain peace. It’s either permanent or longer than my time horizon, which is a very long time.
“You believe I’m lying, and badly at that, to trick you into stopping him. I’m not, but you’re not going to believe me until you remember the contents of the letter I sent you when you hired Plum Dirigible. After that, you’ll go along with my plan, and in fact you’ll be the one to execute it. You will manipulate him so that when he finally finds that power, he’ll make a single mistake, and lose it all.”
She blinked. His style of speech, pre-empting her questions and interjections, was unnerving. Normal Predictamancers weren’t anywhere near this good.
“Yes, I’m Spoiler Tagg, master-class Predictamancer. Don’t ask my level. I’m asking you for help because you’re the only one who is both cunning enough and whom Tom trusts enough. You’ll betray that trust, because of this conscience you’ve been developing. That’s why I let you alone so long. I didn’t simply assassinate Tom because he has a minor Fate of his own: there will be a certain warlord, and either he or Tom is Fated to croak the other. For anyone except that warlord, fighting him will be and always has been futile, and would only serve to make him more cautious. The other reason I picked you is that you’re smart enough to figure out what you need to do with only a few hints. It gets harder to foresee what happens the more I interfere, so I only say as much as I need to when it’s needed. Bye.”
There was a pop as his scroll’s word count kicked in; his connection fizzled, and he vanished. Lisa dropped out of thoughtspace, disoriented, and shook her head like her ears were full of water. That was strange. He was right about one thing, though: she didn’t believe him.
The trial was ongoing. The lawyer Signamancer was talking, his pinky finger raised and curled. Gus was beside him. “… with my senses I was able to detect six separate Signs that confirm that the engagement was the result of neither an unprovoked attack by Lord Hiller, nor the result of an unfortunate ricochet by the defendant’s magic, but, beyond all reasonable doubt, an unprovoked assault by the defendant against the deceased. This analysis has been corroborated by Daisy Chain, who despite being a popped Florist has a cross-adepthood in Signamancy. I have here Signed documents by each of myself, Mr Tone, Miss Chain, and the three Thinkamancers who enhanced the memories in question for my perusal.” He produced a stack of parchment. “Bailiff?”
Railgun climbed the stairs like she was carrying lead weights, took the papers, and read them.
“These are in order,” she said.
“The prosecution rests,” said the lawyer.
“No it doesn’t,” said Revolver. “What about Eternity Hourglass?”
“OBJECTION!” Miles shouted, delighted to have the opportunity. “That is unrelated to the charges in question, and unrelated to the majority of defendants. Request a separate trial or immediate mistrial.”
“Conceded,” Mewlin said, giving Revolver a quelling look. Stick to the plan. “There is additional evidence and further charges to explore, but given Tom’s refusal to allow a full hearing, this will suffice. We request that the jury consider this when reaching their verdict.”
“Noted,” Railgun said. “Tom, how do you plead to the charge?”
He stepped to the front of the Stage and spoke to the crowd, paying no attention to the prosecution.
“Of course I did it,” he said.
Muttering broke out throughout the crowd. The other Ethereum casters followed his gaze into the sea of upturned faces: despairing, disappointed, angry, approving, proud, resentful, amused, furious, at him, the guilds, rulers, and life itself.
“For hundreds of thousands of turns, free casters have lived with a single hex and no income. Everyone here knows a dozen, a hundred people who’ve croaked because of it, and we’ve each ignored ten times that number, when just ten cities would provide enough income to support the entire Magic Kingdom. And the law orders us to allow this travesty, to seek no retribution when a ruler abducts or harms a free caster, to simply sit by and do nothing when our own kind are suffering? It even goes so far as to punish the only one to stand up to this great injustice? Sides do not acknowledge the Magic Kingdom as a legitimate entity. The only way to correct this is to force them to. Everything I have done, I have done in pursuit of that.”
There was silence.
“Is that the entirety of your defence?” Mewlin asked.
“It will suffice,” Tom replied.
“Then let us deliberate,” said Mewlin.
There were many Qualified casters present, but few willing to join a jury and cast a vote either way, not with the powerful guilds on one hand and masses of disgruntled free casters on the other. The six major guild heads stacked up on the Stage. Penny gave Railgun a look that ordered to come; Railgun pretended not to be paying attention. The lawyer joined in, and a trickle of Qualified casters walked up from the crowd, ten in all, making seventeen. They formed a huddle and began whispering amongst themselves in turn, trying to reach a verdict.
Miles edged toward Tom. “I know you’re the Overlord, but that was a bad move,” he undertoned, not moving his lips. “I don’t think we have good chances.”
“It’s all accounted for,” Tom murmured back.
Miles winced; Tom kept his voice too low to be heard from far away, but every Signamancer in the crowd would be able to read his lips, and probably half the Eyemancers too, he wasn’t sure.
“Patience,” Tom added. “We’ll give them half an hour. Any longer and we’ll walk away.”
“You haven’t been back here in the Magic Kingdom,” Miles said. “This is the biggest trial in ten thousand turns. This is a revolution! A third of the jury is made up of the prosecution! You’re not going to get a favourable outcome in half an hour.”
“I said it was all accounted for,” Tom replied. “Do you doubt your Overlord?”
“…” Miles said. “… No,” and he wasn’t lying. “But –”
“Miles,” said James, not removing his mask. “We’ve got this.”
Miles frowned, but shrugged. There was nothing to do except wait anyway.
As the minutes stretched on, they began to experience something they hadn’t in some time: boredom. Out campaigning, one forgot how much one depended on time contraction and dilation to eliminate the dull periods, but here in the Magic Kingdom, there was no such luxury.
After what felt like days, the jury stack broke up.
“I, Mewlin Pendwagon, Qualified Thinkamancer, vote guilty,” Mewlin said.
“I, Jack Pollock, Qualified Dittomancer, vote to acquit,” said the next man.
They went around, one by one.
“Then,” Mewlin said, when they were done, “this Quorum of the Qualified finds, by majority vote of ten to seven, that the defendant is guilty.”
There was silence. Then Tom smiled.
“Wonderful,” he said. “I don’t care. Now get out of my way.”
Mewlin scowled. “You don’t have the right to dismiss a Quorum after it has reached a verdict.”
“And you don’t have the authority or the power to enforce one. Did you honestly delude yourself into thinking I’d put this corrupt status quo above the lives of good casters? At what point have I ever given anyone reason to believe something like that? I played along because it would have saved everyone a lot of hassle if you’d acquitted and let me get back to my work, but I never had any intention of actually listening to a hostile verdict. Why on Erf would I? So now that we’ve finished with this mockery of justice, we’re back to square one: I’m the ruler of a sovereign side, and you’re standing in my way. That’s an act of war. Get out of my way, now. I’m not going to ask again.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Railgun said, raising her hands placatingly. Lisa skipped to one side and lifted Saito’s mask; Saito gave her a blankly perplexed look, but Railgun recoiled as though slapped.
“If you want war, you’ve got it,” Revolver said, rolling up his sleeves.
“Please, stop, both of you,” said Daisy. “Think what you’re saying! This is insane.”
“There’s no way we’re going to surrender to the likes of you,” said Jasmine.
“Showing your true colours in front of the entire Magic Kingdom?” Penny asked. “That’s brave by your standards.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you leave,” Seed said, drawing his limit wand.
“Nor I,” said Mewlin.
Tom’s smile vanished. “Then so be it.”
He and the guild heads exchanged glares.
Many things happened at once.
Tom pumped one wrist and fired a bolt of bright blue light into the stack of guild heads; chain lightning jumped between them, deftly avoiding the other Qualified, silhouetting their skeletons for a split second. The others scattered. Charlotte clapped her hands and pressed them to the ground, with Koume twinning the action; the Stage rose and twisted around the Ethereum group and changed into a double-thick chest-high protective circle of rock candies and plastic jars. The rest of Ethereum ducked beneath it. Riley pulled out two of Charlotte’s bombs and threw one overhand into each of the knots of Thinkamancers and Moneymancers standing at the foot of the Stage. May pulled out a pile of robes and tossed one to each of Lisa’s group. NV and Suss conjured fog baffles and illusory monsters.
Without the benefit of a ruler giving orders, the guild casters were slow to react and poorly coordinated. The Findamancers ducked and scattered, frantically looking for a vantage point to safely project from. Some of the Turnamancers moved forward to attack, some back to get out of the open; Tom pumped his other wrist and fired a sickly green blast into the attackers, croaking one and sending the others running for cover. Some casters threw hobokens into the Foolamancy monsters, wasting their juice.
Behind them, the crowd of unaligned free casters broke into pandemonium, caster throwing magic at caster with a chaotic mixture of hobokens and specialised spells. A stack of Rhyme-o-mancers broke into song and began dancing, narrowly dodging a hoboken thrown their way. A hail of spells were directed toward Ethereum too, but between the Stage’s elevation, Charlotte’s wall, and May’s armour, none inflicted real damage.
In that sort of maelstrom, true Shockmancers were supreme. A level two in a haze of bloodlust blasted his way through three casters more or less at random, spotted Railgun, and threw his strongest attack at her back; she spun, grounded it bare-handed, and flowed into an axe kick that knocked him to the ground, mortally incapacitated. She turned and came face-to-face with Undine, crouched at the head of her eight-stack. A Hippiemancer, even with a stack of other low-level casters, had no chance against someone like her. Undine trembled, but looked her in the eye, daring her to do it.
“… There’s no justice here,” Railgun said. “So let’s try mercy.” She seized Undine’s shoulder and dragged her away from the battle, the rest of the Barnacle Battlefront following along.
“Hey!” a senior Moneymancer yelled at her retreating back. “Get back here! We pay your upkeep! Railgun!”
Tom instacroaked the Moneymancer from behind.
A very brave or stupid Healomancer vaulted up onto the Stage and pushed a dollop of juice into Lady Jasmine, jump-starting her heart. Tom turned and chambered another spell; Jasmine slapped her hands against the Stage, creating a trapdoor that dropped her, the Healomancer, and the other guild heads, a moment before a beam of incandescent energy wider than her carved a trench through the Stage.
A moment later, a wave of hobokens flew at Tom from all directions. He deflected three with a gesture and dissipated two with his natural resistance, and the next eight vectored into his chest. Three blew a hole in his robes, and then May tagged him, and it sealed over and blocked the rest.
The Dirtamancers dithered, before starting to conjure protective walls around themselves; Loony cast a counterspell, delaying them for the moment Koume needed to copy Tom’s chain lightning spell and incapacitate six. A Shockmancer down in the crowd threw a blast at Koume; Akira gestured, and it seemed to twist in midair, hitting Grim instead and beginning to disintegrate her robe until she simply patched it. A trio of Thinkamancers held hands and began casting; Hedera popped over the wall and hit them with a disengaging charm. Saito raised her arms, and corpses returned to life all across the battlefield, most going down easily but a few catching guild casters from what they had thought were secured flanks.
The guilds and their allies had superior numbers, but no preparation or cohesion; they hadn’t spent the past fifteen turns learning the hard way how to synchronise with other disciplines for maximum effect. They also had no cover, and with around twenty disciplines throwing completely unpredictable magic in all directions, some such as Foolamancers and Luckamancers and Carnymancers interfering with the others, they didn’t have time to regroup.
“Do you see!” Tom shouted. “You’ve been kept ignorant of your real power, but this is what casters can truly do! Join me, and together, we will have the power to rule the world! Or stay with the guilds, begging for scraps!”
From the rear, Janis Atlantis stared on, horrified, before setting her jaw and taking a step forward, preparing one final attempt at a spell to quiet the conflict. Her friend Marie caught her sleeve and shook her head.
“Not your time,” she said.
As they watched, James, who without any ferals to command had been given May’s Shockmancy wand, peeked over the walls, ducked under another hoboken, took aim at what he judged to be the greatest threat, and sent out a blast of fire that engulfed three guild Florists and sent the remainder scattering. The Dirtamancers moved to put out the fire, then ducked back behind their walls when an eye beam lanced past at eye level.
The surviving Moneymancers had apparently regrouped, because a colossal gem golem climbed to its feet, scattering casters in all directions. Tom aimed a single narrow beam into its midsection; it connected with a deafening kaching. The golem staggered back a pace, then kept coming, unaffected.
May pulled him back behind Charlotte’s wall. “Gem golems run on shmuckers, not juice,” she said into his ear. “As long as they have money, they can keep healing it.”
Tom frowned. He didn’t know how much money the Bank had, but they’d had a long time to accumulate it. “Jess!”
She had in fact been trancing since the first moment, but this was her cue to stop searching and manifest whatever she had: a nightmarish cross between a wolf and a lizard, studded with bone and exposed muscle. The Ethereum casters rolled out of the way as she stretched, and pounced at the golem.
She doubled-swiped it with powerful blows that would have croaked even most heavies, dodged its return strike, crunched one arm between her jaws, then took a haymaker to the face, sending her tumbling. The golem shimmered with another cash deduction, and returned to pristine.
Jess shook her head groggily. It felt like a broken jaw. At that level, it had to be Penny herself controlling it. As a Findamancer, she had the unique and dubious privilege of knowing very well what it felt like when one was in a fight with someone or something far too powerful to defeat and who was about to croak her, and this was it.
(A Turnamancer threw a turning spell at Tom himself; Loony popped up and countered, and Tom zapped the Turnamancer.)
The gem golem advanced on her. She crouched, then sprinted toward it; as it chambered a punch, she leapt, feinted, tumbled under its swing, and kept going, to where it had arisen, a concealing copse of blue trees. Inside were three casters, two Moneymancers and a Shockmancer, and a pile of gems. One Moneymancer was Penny, bent over and trancing; the other looked up at her in terror; and the Shockmancer chambered a shot. She was quicker. She dashed forward and slashed Penny; the blow was powerful enough to tear her apart, and the follow-through scattered the gems out of sight and across the island. A moment later, the bolt of Shockmancy entered her brain, and she woke up in Charlotte’s fortress on the World Stage.
She sat up and peered over the edge. The gem golem was falling apart. By now, much of the crowd had dispersed, either incapacitated, croaked, fled, or depleted of juice, but the guilds were still intact, and had finally found cover behind trees, depressions in the earth, wagons, rocks, or whatever else they could reach. One Dirtamancer or another had put out the fire around where the Florists had been, but more had sprung up across the battlefield, probably from stray Shockmancy; between the dim evening light and a haze of smoke over everything, visibility was falling.
“Are we winning?” Loony asked, then took off her mask with a grimace and threw it away.
“That’s probably about it for the Moneymancers,” Jess replied. “The Florists already fled. What’s the status on the other four?”
“The Turnamancers keep trying ranged attacks, but I can block them. I still have most of my juice. I don’t know about the other four.”
Charlotte pointed. “There’s one.”
From behind an overturned wagon appeared another projection, a daemoniac yellow rabbit-mouse thing with its face locked into a double grin. It quirked its zigzag tail twice, and turned to face them.
“It’s so cute!!” Riley squeed.
Tom raised his hand to zap it; Jess caught it. “Don’t bother. That’s Red Catchem’s favourite form. It’s immune to Shockmancy.”
“People say that about miracle poles, too.”
“He’s the guild enforcer. He’s spent the past five hundred turns finding the perfect form to beat Shockmancy, and he’s higher-level than you. If you can do it at all, it’ll use up the rest of your juice.”
“Well, what will work?”
She sighed. “I really hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Charlotte, get ready to patch the wall, because I’m pretty sure it won’t survive this.”
“Aren’t you out of juice?” Loony asked.
“Not even close,” Jess said, and she drew her limit wand.
Most wands store charges of a specific minor spell, like a sort of reusable scroll. Findamancy is an exception. Their limit wands instead store a specific major spell, one too large to cast with a single turn’s juice.
She twirled the wand, then brought it against her knee to smash it into a thousand pieces. “Limit breaker! BEHEMOTHMANIA!”
Ten turns’ stored Findamancy flowed from the shattered crystal; she gathered and focused it with the last of her own juice into a single cohesive purpose. There was a rumble that shook the ground beneath their feet, and a craggy, obsidian-black arm three times as long as a man was tall clawed out of the Stage, throwing up planks of splintered wood. It tore through Charlotte’s wall as it pulled itself out: a head covered in horns, a texture something like ash mountain terrain, a gash for a mouth glowing with red light, a top-heavy torso more like a bear’s than a man’s, two heavily-muscled legs, a second arm. It was covered in glittering red and black skin-tight spandex.
Jess got her legs under herself and rose to her full height, seven or eight times that of a man, high enough that her face was partly obscured by the clouds of smoke, and gave a roar that shook the bones in people’s bodies. What little was left of the crowd broke and ran.
“That thing’s real!” shouted a Thinkamancer down below. “Take it down! Hit it with everything you have left!”
Red Catchem’s monster squeezed its cheeks, sending energy arcing toward the projection, and a barrage of dozens of amateur and professional Shockmancy bolts whistled out from hidden guild casters to join it. Loony took only a moment to assess the situation. There was no way even a limit breaker projection could survive all that, and it was their only chance. So she ran forward, hugged Jess’ foot, and poured all her juice into the strongest anti-Shockmancy spell she could muster.
The bolts slammed into Jess’ upper body, failed to penetrate, ran down her skin toward earth, and grounded in Loony, disintegrating her armour and hurling her against the far wall. She crumpled, charred and smoking, bolts of residual energy arcing across her body. Charlotte was at her side a moment later, cradling her head. She was burning hot.
“Loony! Can you hear me?”
The Weirdomancer’s eyes were unfocused, her eyelids half shut, patches of her skin either burnt black or peeling off altogether. “Are … we, going to be, beaten?”
“Never,” Charlotte breathed, her voice catching.
“That’s … okay then,” Loony said, and her eyes turned to crosses.
At some point, the rocking Rhyme-o-mancers had left, and with the hail of Shockmancy against her walls dying down, the battle almost seemed quiet in the moments after. Charlotte just stared, and white hot fury bubbled up from somewhere inside her that she hadn’t known existed.
“Jess,” she said, very quietly, “show no mercy.” She reached into the wellspring of wrath to channel music like she’d never made before, and screamed it aloud.
Jess roared again, then leapt, further than anything without wings ought to. Red threw another bolt of Shockmancy at her without effect, then tried to spear tackle her; Jess grabbed him, locked him against her, and twisted into a vertical suplex, dropping him hard enough to snap his neck, sending up clouds of dirt and ash.
After Jasmine had had him and the other guild heads healed, Seed had managed to reunite with his Sett, or those few who’d made it in one piece, behind their wagon. He peeked out. “That’s a limited projection. Disband it. Screen against the Shockmancer. She’s my problem.” And he drew his own wand and smashed it.
Five more projections took shape, four small ones from adepts or even novices and one Titanic figure like a giant badger, larger even than herself. The small ones moved to either flank, staying out of the way but ready to step in; Tom raised his hand to cast, but thought better of it. Jess locked eyes with Seed, sized him up for a long moment, then charged. He mirrored her, blurringly fast.
She brought a knee up to meet his face; he sped up even more to tackle her, knocking her sprawling, then straddled her, slashing at her face, the impacts tearing off her rocky horns and sending shockwaves through the ground. She clinched and headbutted him, smashing his nose before rolling him off. He was back on her a moment later; she caught his paw, twisted it around, kneed him in the gut, and body-slammed him.
He mule-kicked her, sending her tumbling; he turned and charged her again, and this time she rolled under, knocking his feet out from under him, then rolled to her feet and seized him in a choke hold. He reverse-headbutted her; she took it and tightened her grip, then rolled from side to side, shaking him. He thrashed, kicking at her knees, until there was the snap of his neck breaking. His body depopped. Jess climbed back to her feet and roared again in victory.
“Riley?” Tom said, quietly.
“Got it. Panacea!” A full heal flew out; Jess’ crushed face filled out, her horns regrew.
“This has gone on long enough,” Tom said. “May. Croak the spare.”
May grinned and motioned to NV and Suss, who nodded. May pulled out NV’s wand, and they all veiled themselves and hopped over the wall, going in different directions.
May’s enchanted boots made her the fastest; she zipped past Jess’ gargantuan form, between the four opposing projections while they stacked up and made ready to attack, and around the Findamancers’ cart. Seed was drinking a cup of squirtjuice to recover; he and Red were watching over the four now battling Jess. May dropped her veil.
“There’s nothing I hate more than watching other people play when I’m not invited,” she pouted, drawing her scissor blade.
“Wait,” Seed said, jumping to his feet to get between her and the channellers, “you can’t, they’re not –”
May’s blade flashed, and a moment later Seed’s upper body flopped to the ground beside his lower.
“…” Red opened his mouth, just before she skewered him, and beheaded the four still in the fight. Their projections winked out of existence, one after another.
It was the turning point between battle and rout. Where before Ethereum couldn’t inflict heavy damage on anyone behind cover, now Jess was free to move around the battlefield, and nothing still stood that could realistically stop her. Revolver called on his Turnamancers to try a desperation attack against it, in the hopes that it would berserk and croak Jess before anyone else; before he could give the order, Suss’ kusarigama stabbed through the side of his neck, and his casters ran for it. Jasmine popped out of a hole and approached one of her casters to ask why she was just standing around instead of helping; the other Dirtamancer smiled, crackled, and NV threw a knife into her heart. May ran back and forth, hunting for Healomancers trying to revive incapacitated guild casters.
The Great Minds had taken shelter behind a mass of boulders off to one side, and had been stuck debating what to do, paralysed because the situation was changing more quickly than they could reach consensus on. Mewlin broke out of the mind meld to look over the devastation.
“If we don’t cancel those veils, we’ve lost,” he said. He sent a Thinkamantic slap into his guild, snapping them out of it. “There’s no more time! Counter the veils! Three stacks; I’ll distract that Shockmancer, the rest of you, stop the Foolamancers!” They split up and ran.
Tom motioned Grim to keep his armour at full power, stood, and cast. Lances of destructive power flew from his fingers, scattering the noncombat casters, breaking up their formation, isolating them.
Green light flashed, and Mewlin fell.
“CEASE FIRE!” Lisa shouted, infusing it with suggestion.
There were a few crumps as Shockmancy blasts hit ground or barricades and a Healomancer’s body fell as May pulled her sword out of his back, but then there was silence around the battlefield. Slightly over half of the guilds’ forces and some of their allies still stood, the low casualties of the Thinkamancers and Dirtamancers balancing the slaughter of the Findamancers and Turnamancers, but they were divided, unled, wounded, out of juice, surrounded, and their strongest members were fallen. May spun her weapon and sheathed it, holstering her veil wand.
Tom shoved Lisa aside. At some point, croaking so many casters, he’d levelled to seven. “This battle is over,” he declared. “To continue would be pointless. We won. If a representative of each guild comes onto the Stage, I will spare their followers’ lives. If not, we will finish this battle without accepting surrenders.”
The guild members below exchanged looks, but it was hopeless. First one last Florist who’d disengaged himself, then a Moneymancer and a Dirtamancer walked forward.
“Our leader is fallen,” said a Turnamancer, pointing toward Revolver’s corpse.
“Then who is second in command?”
“Her,” she said, pointing to a second corpse.
“Then congratulations on your promotion,” said NV, dropping his veil and poking her from behind with his knife. She scurried forward. An unassuming Thinkamancer in a light jacket was a moment behind.
“No Findamancers?” Tom said.
“My bad!” May called, bouncing up and down with adrenaline. “They’re not really a thing any more. Maybe a straggler or two.”
“I see,” he said, not following the thought any further. “Well. This is quite a mess, don’t you think?” He waved, taking in the piles of corpses and craters and debris. “This can’t be allowed to recur. So I’m going to prevent it, permanently.” He snapped his fingers; Miles walked up, trying not to look awestruck. “From now on, the guilds do not interfere with me or any of my followers. They will not stop us from entering or leaving the Magic Kingdom as we please. They do not stop anyone we hire from doing the same, including their own members, by any means at all, including refusal of membership or work or anything else. They do not work with anyone whose territory neighbours mine or that of any of my followers, in any capacity, directly or otherwise. They stop slandering us within the Magic Kingdom. And they pay reparations.”
The Moneymancer opened his mouth; Tom raised a finger for silence. “Let me see … thirty thousand for the capture of Gus with loaned funds, a hundred thousand for loans that bought the army that conquered Ethereum City, a hundred thousand more for the casters who were lost with it, and let’s say a collection fee of ten percent. Knocks Bank must have two hundred and fifty-three thousand shmuckers, doesn’t it?”
“Not in guild property, not even close,” the Moneymancer protested. “And it wasn’t our fault your casters couldn’t escape! The Changemancer and one other turned and captured the others, that’s your fault for not –”
A thin line of green energy connected Tom’s finger and the Moneymancer’s face. “No, but it does have that much in guild members’ property,” he told the corpse, “and they are the ones who chose to enforce illegitimate laws, are they not? Akira, James. Take one of the surviving Moneymancers and open the vaults; empty everything belonging to any current guild member and everyone croaked in this battle. Including gems, and any magic items. Keep a quarter of a million for us. Anything left over will be evenly distributed between all unaligned barbarian casters, without favour for level or discipline.”
Lisa shook her head. He was good. Simultaneously profiteering, crippling his enemies, and buying a big chunk of goodwill from the neutrals, and nobody who enjoyed life was about to stop him.
“Now that that’s out of the way,” Tom said, “I think it’s safe to say that I was unable to recruit a Dirtamancer or Moneymancer or a replacement Turnamancer due to guild interference, so that will have to end. I’ll expect one of each by nightfall.”
“And a Predictamancer?”
Lisa started. It was Spoiler Tag, walking up to and climbing the Stage.
Tom gave him a thoughtful look. “Do you know, I forget about your discipline altogether. I suppose you’re behind that?”
“I told the others to stay away from you,” said Spoiler, walking until he was arm’s length from Tom. “There was no need for them to get croaked.”
“How noble. Why didn’t you let them join my side, though? Why not be a winner rather than live on the sidelines?”
Spoiler shook his head. “You think you’ve got it all figured out. Casters are better than warlords; how could you not win by using more of them? Well, it’s not a bad idea, but you’re not the ultimate power on Erfworld. You’re not Titanic.”
“Oh, please, like I haven’t heard that one before.” He sighed theatrically. “One more time, then, if I must. If the Titans really are opposed to my plans, even I daren’t defy them. So let them strike me down! Prove their intentions! Or are your words merely mortal?”
There was silence. Whatever powers the Titans had, they withheld.
“That’s not how the Titans work,” Spoiler said quietly. “They express their will through Fate, and through artefacts, four in particular. Do you know the Arkentools? One is the Arkendish, source of Charlescomm’s power, and enough to create a side which dwarfs yours.”
Lisa started. He’d said he was going to manipulate Tom, and that she’d let him. Her instinct was to interrupt, but on second thoughts, better to see where this was headed first.
“When I march on the world with an army of a thousand casters, we will see who dwarfs whom,” Tom said.
“We won’t. There are three more, equally powerful Arkentools. They’re lost now, but they will be found, and all four will be brought together. Not today, not for a while yet, but it is inevitable. And with those four under one banner, nothing will be able to stop them. Even a thousand casters wouldn’t stand a chance against that power.”
Tom reached out and seized Spoiler by the neck, lifting him slightly off the ground. “Fascinating,” he said. “Tell me, what side will find the next Arkentool? Where? When?”
Spoiler struggled for breath. “I don’t – it’s hazy. It isn’t Fated. But – there will be one found in ruins. I don’t know the exact location” Tom tightened his grip marginally “somewhere near the Minty Mountains, in the far south.”
“The side isn’t Fated?” Tom said. “Then that means there’s no reason it can’t be mine. We have a Findamancer and a Luckamancer and we can hire anything else we could possibly need. We’ll get to them first, and then we’ll see who your Titanic power truly serves, won’t we? What do you say to that, Predictamancer?”
“That my only regret is that I didn’t hate you more,” Tagg said, and he smiled and closed his eyes.
“Well spoken,” Tom said. “Byford dolphin.” He injected a charge of Shockmancy, and the Predictamancer blew apart, scattering body parts all over the Magic Kingdom. There was a chime as he levelled to eight.
Lisa’s eyes widened, as she finally remembered the letter Tagg had sent her eight turns ago. ‘Proof: Byford dolphin.’ He’d known this would happen, and he went ahead with it anyway. He knew it would be worth his life just to prove to her that he had been telling the truth. Her side was going to destroy the world, unless she destroyed it first. She sank to her knees.
“Let the word go out that we’re hiring,” Tom continued. “If we get bogged down defending the new capital, we’ll lose the race for the Arkentool. I and our strongest seven hot casters will head south the moment we have the mounts. May, you will take the rest and hold the capital at all costs.” She saluted, beaming. “The battle is won! It’s time to claim our destiny!”
The Ethereum casters cheered and began marching off. Lisa stayed where she was, numb, until Charlotte doubled back for her.
“I’m sad for Loony too, but we have to go,” she said.
A certain lonely girl you’ll regret not having got to know better. Lisa could only nod as she broke into tears.
The first chapter of this story was actually intended as a one-shot and would have remained if it hadn’t been so positively received, but I tend to the obsessive, and I worked out much of this ending regardless. There was foreshadowing that it was set in the not-too-distant past from canon, and that the side and most of its members would fall; things like how some institutions and characters were the same (the Great Minds, and AV Club and Dove Barstool briefly appeared), but most weren’t, and how nobody ever mentions anything about Arkentools or the famous Perfect Warlord, and how nobody in canon ever mentions anything about what should be a major world power. It was always going to be a tragedy eventually.
The remaining adventures, of the quest for the Arkenhammer, and Lisa’s mission to undermine it … I could write it, but I don’t plan to. Much of the value was the novelty, and I’m about tapped. The ending is foregone, and I’ve already told the story I wanted to. I’m not really happy with this as a whole, it isn’t my best work, there were too many blunders and times when I phoned it in, the most glaring being how I had far too many characters. It’s an artefact of how it was originally meant as a one-shot. I’d rather start a new story all my own and get it all right.
The enormity of it all weighed down on Lisa as she trudged back to their portal, oblivious to the world, even down to Charlotte’s hand on her elbow. Her side was going to destroy the world, and the only way to stop this would be to destroy it first, which would croak everyone still alive whom she cared about. If everyone croaked eventually anyway, why bother, what would it change? What was the point? She didn’t even notice when she walked through the portal, until one of the knights they’d left on sentry called out to her.
“Lady Thinkamancer? Lady Thinkamancer!” She turned, waving the other casters on ahead. He was holding a letter. “While you were out, a man came out and said this was for you.”
Her hand balled itself into a fist. Spoiler Tagg again. “I don’t want to read it.”
He looked uncomfortable. “He, uh, he said you’d say that, and to tell you that it was important.”
She snatched the letter out of his hand and stormed off to an empty storeroom to read it.
This is the last letter I will ever write. I wouldn’t have; Predicting its effects cost me, but the world can’t afford for you to despair now. Too much is at stake.
I briefly met Loony, a long time before you did. She was a very lonely girl who’d led an unhappy life. I could have warned her not to join Ethereum; it wouldn’t have changed the course of destiny. If I had, she would have survived a while longer. There was no reason I couldn’t. I didn’t. She never said it in so many words, but the past fifteen turns were her happiest. If you were to run back into the Magic Kingdom before she depopped, you’d see that in spite of the fear and pain of her final moments, she still has a smile on her face.
When I told Tom that I had no regrets to speak of, I wasn’t lying. I went out with a smile too. Tom thinks it was my last little show of defiance, but it was sincere. How could I be sad after the life I’ve led? Do you think I would have preferred never to exist at all?
All things come to an end. This doesn’t define futility. Meaning is not found in what is left after one is gone, because sooner or later, nothing is. Meaning is in the moments one has while one yet lives, and in the moments of those who still remain.
You have brought hope and joy to the lives of many, and will bring more in time yet to come. Don’t regret your past: it won’t help you. Enjoy the present with a light heart, and strive for the best future you can. That is how you will make meaning of your life.
You are a good person, Lisa Holmes. I trust you.
[NOTE: User was awarded 5,213 Shmuckers (not a typo) for this epic series. -Rob]
Thanks so much, everyone. It's been fun.
Oh yeah, no question. Tom would beat Stanley to the Arkenhammer, it wouldn't be too hard to snatch the Pliers shortly after, and after that, even Charlie is finished. The obvious idea would be stacks of dwagons ridden by Changemancied knights and flesh warlords with mass-produced Thinking Caps, all swathed in anti-Shockmancy armour, guided by remote Lookamancy, and protected by Luckamancy, hunting down Archons for decryption, fighting a relentless war of attrition. Tom would also blacklist Charlescomm from the MK and assassinate/decrypt suspected CC agents. Charlie has counterplay, but the only thing I've seen so far that might work would be an immediate full-scale MK invasion, and there are too many ways that could go wrong.
Huh, I didn't realise that. It's actually a reference to an oil rig where, for the only time ever, humans have died by explosive decompression. The associated photos are fascinating but NSFL.
I'm sorry but I found Spoiler Tagg to be the worst sort of character. He's like one of those Self Inserts who just pop in, state everything that would have happened in canon and then expects everyone to play along because he says so mixed with the worst kind of Gary Stue overpoweredness mixed with the even worse fact that he completely derailed what was a very interesting story about politics and intrigue and loads of different factions with their own goals and motivations and instead made it all revolve around him.
Every scene that Tagg wasn't in was great but every time he showed up it became horrible. I feel like this story would have worked far better if it was simply an Alternate Universe story. Tagg and this entire railroading at the end to create the events of canon just did not work well at all.
I'm not a Tool because married and in debt but I tipped 10 from my tips for this whole story.
It has been masterful. The number of perspectives and how differentiated they are from one another... astounding. I loved all the different themes your brought to Erfworld, especially the chapters in noire and the class politics. Erfworld cannon tells us that the free casters of the MK survive by having currency each turn. This currency is earned though labor. The labors of some are granted a higher worth than others by the market for magical services. There are guilds of varying degrees of power who run the affairs of the MK. These guilds happen to be made up of the caster classes whose labor has the highest market value. OF COURSE THERE IS MASSIVE CLASS CONFLICT IN THE MK. And this story shows it. It was a bit jarring to have the story end based on the words and actions of a character we had never met. But for the ways in which this story has moved the setting forward and examined it, and for the quality of the writing and plotting, I say bravo.
I'd still like to know what happened to the Healomancer from a few chapters ago, the sided one that was kidnapped. I'm pretty sure I know what happened, but Railgun never found her, and her chapter ended after the people who did the kidnapping were caught, but before they confessed who they sold her to.
Really great story twofer, you ended it beautifully. I wish you all the best in other pieces you decide to try in the future.
@Dewey, I don't think it's so bad. We all knew Fate was an actual thing. Maybe it sorta helped that I projected Griffin from Men in Black onto him. Tagg reminded me of him for some reason.
mercy->run was the single most infuriating way to win that I didn't figure out on my own because I was good enough at shmups to dodge for enough rounds to get incredibly bored with that boss fight. Ugh.
Yyeah, Tom's gotten too unhinged at this point. Even without the spoiler tag, the way he's laid out his campaign makes me think he's not going to stop after taking just enough cities to ensure upkeep for all casters then just have Etherium be a peaceful overworld extension of the MK that maintains mutual peace treaties (enforced with threat of fiery magical death) with all other kingdoms.
Thanks again, everyone!
Idk. Charlie's not all that proactive; he didn't do anything about the Tool-users before two of them were gathered with the PWL, and even then he waited 66 turns for an opening. Ethereum's come this far in 16 turns; with two tools and four times that period, they'd be close to invincible. Between Lisa being more on guard than ever, Akira blocking most assassination attempts, and the option of murder/decrypting anyone who acts too suspicious, he'd want some very good agents.
Fair. Powerful precogs and anything to do with Fate are hard to do well, I think, and I have no experience writing them. I was trying to make him kind of pathetic, "I'm ridiculously old and powerful and yet this is all I can do," but results may vary.
That was supposed to be a 'day in the life' chapter, nothing really important to the overall plot. The Fool- and Shockmancer are still in jail; negotiations with their side for their safe release in return for the captives are ongoing. Tom's probably right when he says that the MK casters let sides push them around too much, but it's a hard problem to solve; Ethereum notwithstanding, they aren't coordinated enough to throw their weight around, and might makes right.
Tom's not wrong on a factual level, but he's still a megalomaniacal magical supremacist bent on world domination. His initial plans were to establish an empire, splitting off colonies as needed, and steadily annexing the overworld, exterminating royalty until there was nothing left to oppose his global empire. In theory, this would allow the build up of a maximal world population of casters; there are a few hundred, but there could be a few ten thousand.
Thank you VERY much for a wonderful story with an awesome ending.
My ONLY problem is that I am still morning Loony =( (Why do the good always die young?)
I do VERY much like that you used Hero-Killer in the final battle though.
Anyways, keep up the awesome work, and I am looking forward to your next works, be it Erfworld Fanfic or your own world. Just remember though that the Worm creator went through hundreds of stories prior to having a fully fleshed out world...
Thank you again,
"Croak the spare." What you did there, I saw it. ;-)
Good work, nice exercise and sound auto-critic, you know how to improve from here. Flaws and all, you managed to keep a good update rate and wrap up a long, complex, coherent and engaging story. Thanks for sharing, and looking forward to the next one!
There's nothing wrong in living a bright life, and dying with one's friends.
Really love your characters. Riley, Loony and Lisa in particular.
A good story, and not a sad ending (but I have to agree with Dewey that Spoiler Tagg and the whole 'whoops, nope, remember canon' definitely damaged the ending... personally I would've preferred to see the end of the world where Riley and Tom starve to death together, reminiscing, or Lisa's betrayal, or something). It's sad that Lisa must choose to either betray her friends or destroy the world, I'm not sure what I would chose myself; but it is for her to do whatever she will and I wish her the best. And Loony goes to the City of Heroes.
A fantastic story, Twofer! I suspect you've made a lot of long-term fans.
"Take care, Riley. You know people love you and that's really all you need."
Maaaan I'm going to miss this fanfic, definitely the best ever on this site.
Very well writting, and just as importantly, so many characters that still managed to be individually interesting, with some particularly great ones like Lisa or -in her own nightmarish way- Riley, not clearly good or bad sides, lots of powerful sides in play, and doing so as dirty as they could, lots of powerful disciplines working together, yet not easily roflstomping the opposition. Other fanfics, when reaching that level of power, they would either have them walk over their enemies and walk towards a swift end, or get faced with a deus ex machina godlike opponent.
I'm going to miss Riley answering in the comments section, that must be one of the best things I've seen in the entire site lol
A really great story. Has the problem of all well written baddies - you root too hard for them, or at least their more sympathetic henchmen.
I loved seeing magic effectively used, The munchkin in me kept saying "Yes! finally! why don't everyone do that, all of the time?!"
The problems with magic is that it is by definition OP, and once someone starts really using it, the power creep is quick and destructive. You can't keep a long story going like that, and I understand why most Erfworlders are so unimaginative. It was a relief, however, to see it utilized well at last.
On another note, I'm showing absolutely no originality when I say that Riley and Looney were great characters. I would have happily read a whole series of stories about their epic adventures. Sadly, it is not to be.
Thank you for a great story, and I really hope for your eventual triumphant return, in a completely new story.