Blast From The Past - Part 9
“Sire, you may have forgotten me. I am Rip Encino…”
“I remember you,” said the hermit, withered hands perched on his cane. “You’re that kid I put in charge of my army. Been a while.”
Rip’s mouth hung open while he searched for the right word. Or any word. The shrunken old man in front of him was level 15. Rip hadn’t even thought it was possible to level up that high.
The old man bowed his head to Elle. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, miss. I am Crow Magnon.”
“Elle Dorado, freelance findamancer, at your service,” she said, returning the nod.
“Well, you coming in?” Crow didn’t wait for a reply, and began hobbling back into his home.
Rip and Elle followed him into the cottage, leaving the Delorean knights waiting in the garden. The weird one-eyed blue monkey scampered after Elle, clinging to her heels.
The interior of the house consisted of one room, a large rectangle with a low thatched roof supported by squared wood pillars. A hearth built of polished river rocks was set into one wall, with a small pile of unlit firewood waiting for a blaze. Near it was a humble straw pallet with an undyed wool blanket.
“Be a dear, would you?” said Crow to Elle, gesturing at the fireplace. “I have flint and steel, but it’s a pain on the hands.”
The caster nodded and walked over to the fireplace. “Zippo!” A spark leapt from her fingertip and ignited the wood. She blew on the embers until a warm fire was crackling.
Crow put a tea kettle over the flames. As he bent past Elle he noticed the Hand of Glory dangling from her neck. “Interesting, very interesting… “ said Crow, then went back to preparing the water.
Rip tried to broach conversation a few times, but Crow waved him off until the tea was ready. “No, let’s have a civilized conversation,” insisted the old man. After the leaves steeped, Crow filled sixteen clay mugs, and they took them outside for the knights to drink. Then the former king, the viceroy, and the caster sat down at Crow’s round wood table and poured out their own glasses. There was a small plate of scones for them to share, and the blue monkey leapt up onto the table to grab one of the pastries.
“What is that… thing?” said Rip as he side-eyed the cyclopean simian. The creature held the scone with both hands while nibbling at it frenetically.
“It’s a monkeyseer,” answered Crow. “Feisty little buggers, but they have natural lookamancy. He earns his upkeep showing me the outside world, when I want to see it.”
“Does he have a name?” asked Elle.
“I usually just call him ‘hey, you.’ As in ‘hey you, stop that!’ Or ‘hey you, put that down this instant!” Crow chuckled at his own joke.
Rip felt they were getting sidetracked. “Sire…”
Crow held up a hand. “Rip, call me Crow. I’m nobody’s king anymore. Haven’t been for… what 90,000 turns? A hundred? I stopped counting a while back.”
“120,000,” chimed Elle.
The not-king smiled at that. “Not bad. Wasn’t sure I’d last this long.”
Old age is a rather unusual condition in Erfworld. Most units croak in battle, sooner or later, long before their signamancy has a chance to turn gray and wrinkled. Rulers that cling to power too long grow fat or feeble, dwindling in strength and intelligence until their sides are ruined. The rulers wise enough to foresee their decline appoint an heir, and then arrange for an honorable death in battle, before living becomes a burden. Enemy sides are usually courteous enough to provide a clean and swift death to an opposing ruler with a death wish.
However, there was no hard maximum on life span. If a unit could somehow keep their mind and body from completely degrading, who knows how long they could last. Apparently, at least 120,000 turns.
Rip slammed a fist down on the table, splashing tea out of his cup. “All this time. You were fine! You weren’t frozen! You weren’t in any danger! And you just… left your army to rot, frozen and sideless, while you farmed cabbages!” Rip was surprised to discover that he was furious.
Crow said nothing. He lips pursed into a tight line.
“Why didn’t you come for us?”
The old man sighed. “Because… and I don’t mean this unkindly, I had no use for you anymore. What do you know about the end of my empire?”
“I know that Lucy Football betrayed you,” said Rip. “That she cursed you and tried to steal the Arkenhammer. She was sorry about that, by the way.”
“You ran into Lucy,” said Crow. “Or at least what’s left of her. I knew it when I saw Elle wearing my hand.”
Rip’s eyes flicked to Crow’s two hands, gently cupping his tea. He had half-expected one of them to be missing, the one used to craft the Hand of Glory, but that was ridiculous of course. Severed limbs always regenerated at dawn.
“Yeah, about that…” said Rip. “Why was Lucy wearing your hand?”
“So we could always be together,” said Crow wistfully. “At least a little piece of us.” He reached into his brown wool robe and pulled out a second Hand of Glory, attached to a leather cord around his neck. This hand was also pickled greenish gray like the other, but it was noticeably sleeker and feminine. The burning fingernails were still painted red. “We exchanged our hands, along with our vows of love. I know it might seem a bit morbid, but when you’re dating a croakamancer you gain a tolerance for the bizarre.”
“She uncroaked herself to deliver a messsage,” explained Rip. “She wanted to tell you that she meant you no harm. That she only wanted to take the Arkenhammer to fulfill a prophecy about bringing peace to Erfworld. She never stopped loving you.”
“I already knew that,” said Crow sadly. “I knew it the moment my sword finished swinging through her belly, and I saw the look in Lucy’s eyes.”
“Why did Magnon fall?” interjected Rip. “You survived the curse, so why abandon your throne?”
The old man sighed. This conversation was weighing on his initially calm demeanor. “I have a story to tell, but it’s plain that you have one also. Why don’t you fill me in on how you got here?”
Rip told the story of the past few turns. How Elle had sought the mythical treasure of Delorean and freed them from stasis. Their campaign against Tannenball, and defeat at the hands of Glover. His encounter with Lucy in the hidden cavern. Rip’s description of her uncroaked garden put a smile on Crow’s face, stirring ancient memories.
Eventually it was Crow’s turn to speak. He drained his tea cup before starting the tale. “I survived Lucy’s curse, but just barely. After I incapacitated her I fell into a fever dream without awakening. My thinkamancer, Ape Sapien, was my salvation. For three turns straight he casted over me, reaching into my mind, trying to rouse me from slumber. Finally I awoke, but it was too late for Magnon. Three turns might not seem like a long time, but it’s far too long for an empire to be leaderless. In my absence, the fragile network of alliances I had cobbled together crumbled. My enemies seized the opportunity to retake their territory, and my vassal colonies warred amongst themselves. Whatever loyal troops I had left were scattered across Erfworld, or frozen in stasis.”
“Why didn’t you come back to Delorean for your army?” asked Rip. “It sounds like you needed us then more than ever.”
“I had the same problem that you’re having now. I couldn’t afford the upkeep, not without going on a rampage of razing,” said Crow. “I’d have to retake all of my lost cities, then destroy them for shmuckers. I’d be left with an empire of ashes. Maybe I could have done that, defeated all my foes, destroyed everything and then rebuilt from scratch. But after losing the woman I loved, croaking her with my own hand, I didn’t have the will anymore.” He looked around the cottage fondly. “When my enemies closed in on the capital, I sent Ape Sapien into the Magic Kingdom and fled here.”
“This house, you built it yourself?” asked Elle.
Crow shook his head. “No, I don’t think anybody built this cottage. It’s part of the terrain. This caldera is a hermitage hex. The land houses and pays the upkeep of one humanoid unit, as long as they spend time each turn meditating. It’s a quiet existence, but pleasant in its own way. And somehow, I managed to level three times while living here. It pleased me to learn that the titans value experience outside of warfare.”
“Si- uh, Crow,” began Rip. “You don’t have to stay here anymore. Your army is unfrozen, and they need your leadership. We already have seven cities. A level 15 warlord is… unprecedented. Your bonus would sweep Tannenball and Glover aside, and all opponents after them. Magnon could be a power in Erfworld once again. Please, rule us.” Rip briefly considered drawing his sword and kneeling, but dismissed it as too dramatic a gesture.
Crow gave a faint wry smile. “I didn’t tell you how I knew that this hermitage was here, hidden on the volcano. When I first conquered these lands, I wanted to plant my empire’s flag on the mountain’s peak, as a monument to my own glory. Instead of a peak I found a lush valley, with an old man living here in this cottage.” Crow glanced at the monkeyseer, which was busy scarfing down its third scone. “The hermit who lives here receives a pet, an animal assistant with natural magic to aid their wisdom. My pet has lookamancy, but the last hermit had a propherret, a weasely creature with predictamancy powers. The hermit invited me in for tea, and told me my future. He predicted that my empire would crumble, that my reign was doomed, that I would lose everything I loved.” Crow sighed and looked at a spot on the floor, an unremarkable slate tile. “I croaked the man right there, for his impertinence.”
Rip and Elle stayed silent while the old man nursed his regrets.
“In my turns as a conqueror, I did many evil things,” Crow said matter-of-factly. “At the time I believed I was achieving glory in the eyes of the titans, but every unit I croaked, every city I razed, was a sin. Erfworld may seem designed to pit sides against each other, to foster endless strife, but I’ve come to believe that this world is a test.”
“A test for what?” asked Elle.
“To see if we can find a better path,” answered Crow. “So no, I’m sorry, but I will not lead you to war. Nor will I croak a unit ever again.”
Rip was incensed. “What would you have me do? Abandon my units and let them disband? My only choice is to croak others or croak my own soldiers through inaction. That’s no choice at all.”
Crow nodded. “No, that’s no choice. But sometimes, when you haven’t found a good option, you just haven’t looked in the right place yet.”
Rip and Crow sat cross-legged in shade of a moss-covered oak tree, near the stream bank. The monkeyseer stood in front of them, coming up only to Rip’s chest.
Elle and the Delorean knights sat on the lawn watching from a few meters away, giving the two warlords space to meditate and enter their lookamancy trance.
“So, what do we do?” asked Rip. In response the monkeyseer held out a blue palm to each man.
“Just hold on, and it’ll show you what you need to see.”
They held hands with the creature, their six arms forming a triangle. The monkeysee’s eye glowed white.
And Rip saw…
The walls of Strickland were made of brick and no more than ten feet high. As a level 1 city its defenses were more symbolic than anything else. Delorean archers and classic rock golems stood atop the stubby wall, staring defiantly at the superior army camped just out of arrow range.
King Biff and King George stood together, each accompanied by a retinue of their troops. Danny hung close to George’s side, and Lorraine close to Biff, to defend them if necessary from their new allies. Trust but verify.
A platoon of mousekeeters exchanged suspicious glances with a formation of Tannenball pikers. Sid Vicious performed minor dollamancy tweaks on his spider-baby golem, sharpening its claws and patching up damage, while a cluster of Tannenball knights gave it dirty looks.
Rip realized was he was seeing. These two sides, his enemies, were enemies themselves. They shared a mutual hatred. They had set aside their differences to deal with Delorean, but would much rather croak each other. The two rulers were conversing calmly enough, but their eyes were flinging daggers.
Sound was hard to make out. Rip tried to focus on what they were saying.
“…no sign of dwagons in the city…” said Biff, “We should be able to take it easily.”
“Don’t be overconfident, Biffy Boy,” cackled George. “The Deloreans have been full of surprises so far. Their weak appearance could be a ruse to lure us in, or lower our guard.”
“…that…doubtful…your concern…” Biff’s words grew indistinct. The image in Rip’s mind shimmered and faded, as though seen through fog on a bright day.
He was back in the caldera hex, under the mossy oak tree. The monkeyseer let go of his hand as the magic dispelled.
“Well kid, what did you see?”
Rip blinked a few times as he got used to seeing out of his own eyes again. “I saw their kings. Both of my enemies. I think… I think I know how to stop them.”
Cool beans! Like already said, happy to see another installment!
Odd thought about Sid's Spidew Baby golem. I was about to write that "Baby" is just like the word "child", and that they'd probably call it a "Spider Bloated Head Doll" or something, but a search through the archives shows the word "baby" used twice. Once in a "Aww, poor baby" internal monologue of Jillian's, and another as "Ride it up, baby!" Comment by Albert. So in this kind of context baby exists as a word in Erfworld, but kind of as a derisive / casual way to call on other units.
So, now I'm imagining the Toy Story spider baby as on using a ginormous Barbie doll head instead of the usual baby doll head.
Minor spelling "An Propherret" should probably be "a Propherret".
And good lord, a level 15 Chief Warlord? Even divided by 3 for units in other hexes, it'd be like every unit in Delorean was stacked with a good Warlord!
On another note, while I don't want harm to fall on Cro, if he gets croaked by a unit they'd probably jump 3 to 5 levels.