A Very Erfworld Questmas
Twas the turn before Questmas, and all throughout the field,
Two armies were stirring, and neither would yield.
For twelve days in the hex, they slashed and hacked at HP,
With patient hopes that their rival would flee.
The bitter foes were Donnerparty and Blitzenkrieg,
And by sword, pike, and bow, traded their dead.
Yet neither felt anger, though they did croak and maim,
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
“Reinforce our left flank!” ordered Bud Holly. The chief warlord of Blitzenkrieg was not too pleased with today’s battle. Donnerparty had received a reinforcement of cannibulls this turn, massive bovine monsters with needle sharp teeth. The cows had chewed through an entire formation of pikers before getting croaked.
Blitzenkrieg’s reserve force of shermen rushed to fill the hole in their front lines. The natural allies looked like bulky iron golems, but they were in fact sophisticated suits of armor, piloted by a small humanoid unit hidden inside the machine. Each sherman was only two feet tall, but animating their armor with natural dollamancy made them powerful foes.
“Duke Holly, we can’t plug that gap by ourselves,” said Tiny Stark, the tribe’s chief. His high-pitched voice was muffled from inside the armor. His concern was well-founded. Although shermen were powerful fighters, they were also expensive units to maintain, so the Blitzkrieg forces only had a single stack of eight. Shermen armor was tough, but not invulnerable, and they’d soon get wiped out on the front lines.
“You’re quite right,” said Bud as he nudged up his glasses. “That’s why I will join you.”
Bud’s gibsword vibrated as it sliced through Donnerparty infantry. The blade had been his present last Questmas, a rhyme-o-mancy weapon that amplified his own dance fighting special. Music thrummed from the sword with every hit.
“Ooo-eee-oo, look it’s Bud Holly,” he sang in harmony with the shermen as croaked Donnerparty units piled up around them. The brass B sigil of Blitzenkrieg gleamed on his red enamel chestplate as he fulfilled his duty, slash by slash.
A searing stab of pain blossomed in Bud’s shoulder as his sword arm went limp. A flaming arrow was poking through charred flesh and bone. “Ow ow, it’s Rose Merry, back for more…” he muttered.
There she was, the archery-capable chief warlord of Donnerparty. Two stacks of knights escorted Countess Rose Merry as she hefted her hotshot longbow and fitted another arrow to the string. Her flowing red hair rippled in the wind, fluttering over her green livery. The silver teeth of Donnerparty’s sigil shined on her chest.
The new arrow’s tip was engulfed in flame as the bow’s shockamancy ignited it. It was a deadly weapon, and Rose’s own present last Questmas. Bud knew that because he had helped her obtain it.
Rose was a deadly archer with a normal bow, and the hotshot made her even more lethal. If that arrow had been a crit, the combination of piercing and fire damage could have potentially croaked Bud on the spot. As it was, his sword arm was useless and he would have to fight off-hand, resulting in severe combat penalties. Perhaps it was time to call it a day.
“Want to pick this up tomorrow?” he called out to Rose.
All combat instantly stopped as both warlords silently ordered their troops to stand down.
“Sure, if there’s any fighting tomorrow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Questmas,” she replied. “This morning I found my tent wrapped in tinsel and multi-colored powerballs.”
“Our camp also has holiday signamancy,” agreed Bud. “If Questmas isn’t tomorrow, it’ll happen soon.”
“Well then, if it’s tomorrow then you know I’m yours for the quest,” said Rose.
“Woo-hoo, it’ll be fun,” said Bud with a polite bow. “Goodnight, and happy possible Questmas eve.”
The two armies turned around and walked to their camps on opposite ends of the hex.
War is the way of Erfworld, but war doesn’t have to be uncivilized. Jostling for territory, razing a city here or there, croaking an army once in a while, there’s nothing personal about it. That’s what sides do. There’s no reason to hate your enemy just because they’re your enemy, and in fact a lot of reasons to appreciate them.
“Better to fight the dominion you know than the dominion you don’t,” says the Book of Fanon. Scripture gives good advice. A good nemesis is like a worn-in shoe, comfortable to war against. You know they’re not going to pull some rude trick, like sneak attack your capital and croak your ruler, because they’re too fond of you. And in return for this consideration, you don’t try to exterminate their side either. After all, the last thing you want to do is wipe out a polite adversary. Whoever eventually replaces them could be far worse.
Once you’re friendly with your enemy, it makes life much easier. You can, for instance, schedule your battles in advance, picking a mutually convenient place and time. You can even camp in the same hex, and trust that you won’t be attacked while you’re sleeping. Bud didn’t even bother to post guards.
It also meant that battles no longer have to be huge massacres, where you try to kill every last enemy before they get their move back and escape the hex. You could instead bloody each other’s nose a bit, then call a break when your losses get too severe.
Neither side was interested in gutting their own armies by fighting to the last unit, even if they achieved a pyrrhic victory. Blitzenkrieg and Donnerparty both had other enemies to worry about, less polite ones, who would take advantage of any momentary weakness. By fighting their battles over several turns, and spreading out the casualties over time, they could keep their armies strong enough to protect their side. If another more pressing threat arose, they could call off the battle and send their army to go deal with it.
Blitzenkrieg and Donnerparty’s rulers were playing a slow-motion game of chicken, seeing who was willing to eat more losses before giving up. If Blitzenkrieg blinked first, they would withdraw and yield their nearby city of Goldiknox. If Donnerparty got queasy, they would retreat and surrender Smorgasburg. Until then, every turn would be a tactical boxing match, formations and feints designed to gradually chip away at the enemy until they couldn’t endure it anymore.
Today though, there would be no fighting. The battle would pause until tomorrow. For today was no ordinary day. There was a festive feeling in the air, an uplifting joy that only happened once every few hundred turns. It was Questmas.
Rose Merry extended her hand. “On behalf of Queen Aloha Snackbar of Donnerparty, I hereby offer a Questmas alliance until next turn,” said Rose.
“On behalf of King Cosmo Kaiser of Blitzenkrieg, I hereby accept your offer,” Bud Holly replied, shaking her hand. “Happy Questmas!”
Behind them, the lines of soldiers from both armies burst into cheers. They broke ranks and began mingling amongst the enemy troops. Blitzenkrieg pikers and Donnerparty kebobers set down their spears and brought out a ball to kick back and forth. The seven surviving shermen (one had croaked last turn) carried out huge wooden picnic tables and festive rations began popping. Soon it was crowded with savory pies of roasted partridge and pear, glazed hams topped with five golden pineapple rings, gingerbread garrisons, and mugs of steaming hot cocoa.
After breakfast, Bud drew his gibsword and led both armies in a demonstration dance-fight. “Rocking around the Questmas melee, Blitzenkrieg and Donnerparty hop…” they all sang together.
At noon Rose and Bud left the celebration and walked north together. As they passed through the hex boundary the sound of caroling and laughter faded. It was time for the quest.
They had entered a winter hex, eternally snowing but never piling up beyond a foot deep. Snow on the ground vanished as more landed, to maintain a scenic but not particularly grueling terrain. The two chief warlords trudged between frosted pine trees until they found the jolly elves.
They were odd creatures, fond of furry red hats, and always laughing and singing for little reason. Although they were natural allies, they never allied with any side and mostly kept to themselves, building dollamancy toys that mined and farmed for their upkeep. The one time when the jolly elves spoke with outsiders was Questmas.
Their chief was a huge fat man in a bright red coat. A yellow foolamancy exclamation point floated over his pom-pommed red hat, signaling that he was the elf to talk to.
“Ho ho ho,” laughed the chief in a deep booming voice. “Welcome questers! I am Nick Nack.”
“Hello again, Chief Nick,” replied Bud.
“We brought you rations,” said Rose, removing a wrapped plate of chocolate chip cookies and a glass bottle of milk from her travel bag.
Nick dug into the cookies without any semblance of manners, and washed it down with the milk, leaving his white beard a crumb-filled sopping wet mess. He burped loudly and smiled. “You’ve both been good warlords so we have a nice quest lined up for you…”
The two warlords leaned forward with anticipation.
“Bring me ten humbug carapaces. Ho ho ho!”
“You want us to croak humbugs?” Rose crinkled her nose in disdain. “Those things have one hp. You could croak them yourselves without any trouble.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have us hunt something a little tougher?” asked Bud. Last holiday the quest had sent them after an abominable broman, an axe-wielding giant made of frozen body spray. The jolly elves had used the pungent chemicals to enchant both Rose’s hotshot bow and Bud’s gibsword. “I’m not even sure that humbugs drop any crafting reagents.”
“Hey, I don’t pick the quests, I just predict them,” said Nick with a shrug. “Fate wants you to croak ten humbugs, so that’s what you’re going to do.”
There was no arguing with that, so the two warlords set off trudging northwest, towards a copse of blue-green fir trees. It was the type of shadowy environment that humbugs often popped in.
Rose uncorked a canteen of mulled cider and passed it to Bud after she took a swig herself. It was still lukewarm.
Bud wiped his mouth dry with a sleeve. “That was a nice shot yesterday. Right in the sword arm.”
She shrugged. “It wasn’t that good.”
“That must have been close to 100 yards.”
“Yeah, but I was aiming for your head.” She grimaced, a little bit embarrassed. During the holiday it was uncouth to talk about trying to murder each other. “For the record, I’m glad I missed. Questmas wouldn’t be as fun if I was questing with whoever replaced you as chief warlord.”
“I’m glad you missed too,” said Bud. They chuckled together.
When they reached the fir trees they found their first humbug almost immediately, perched on a branch. It was an ugly brown beetle the size of an apple, with a long mosquito proboscis extending from between its gray compound eyes. A tiny top hat sat atop its hairy head.
“Hmprh,” said the humbug.
“Want to do the honors?” asked Rose sardonically.
Bud drew his gibsword and stabbed the humbug with the tip. “Meh,” it said before its eyes turned to X’s. The corpse vanished as the humbug transformed to loot, dropping its top hat and dull brown carapace to the snow.
“That was pathetic,” said Rose as she picked up the meager rewards. “I don’t think we even got XP for that.”
“Maybe the elves can craft it into some kind of chitin armor. Is the hat magical?”
She held up the miniature hat on two fingers. “No, I can’t resize it. It’s just a piece of cloth. Man, I hate to say this, but I think our Questmas rewards are going to suck this time.”
Bud tried to find the silver lining. “Well, you know what they say about Questmas presents. The reward doesn’t really matter. It’s that we fought that counts.”
They couldn't find any more humbugs in the hex, so they decided to venture further north and search in snowy pine forest hexes. The terrain penalty would rapidly eat up their move on foot, so Bud took a wooden sled out of his rucksack.
He upsized it from his palm until it was large enough for both of them to ride. The varnished cherry wood gleamed in the sunlight.
Rose gave it an admiring look. “Turnamancy?”
“No, dollamancy,” said Bud. “Our shermen crafted it. The Skifree Sled doesn’t provide its own move, but it’ll double our combined move on snow. We’ll be able to cover a lot of ground. If you like it, maybe Blitzenkrieg can arrange to sell you one.”
The sled carried them over the snowy hills and fields, traveling uphill as easily as downhill. In the next hex they found three more humbugs, each of which croaked after uttering a disinterested “bah” or “whatevs.” Rose collected the insect shells and hats in her bag.
“At least we’ll be done with the quest soon,” said Bud. “For once, it might be nice to rejoin the party before nightfall.”
“And not like the Questmas before last,” Rose said with a bitter laugh. That holiday’s quest had been to hunt down a reigndeer and retrieve its golden crown. Rose and Bud were overeager and charged their quarry the second they spotted it. Although they successfully croaked the animal, that immediately drew the wrath of its herd of subjectdeer.
Both warlords were trampled down to single digit HP fighting them off, and the crown was crushed to the point where it no longer had enchanting value. Instead of getting magic items, Nick Nack instead converted the gold to shmuckers, and in payment sent Donnerparty and Blitzenkrieg each a shipment of coal from the jolly elves’ mines. The two warlords returned to the party early, but couldn’t enjoy it with all their broken bones.
“Yeah, not like that,” said Bud.
They croaked their ninth humbug before running out of snowy forest hexes to search in.
“I was hoping to avoid it, but I guess we have no choice,” said Rose, staring at the blizzard forest hex to the east. Blizzard hexes weren’t scenic and pleasant like snowfall hexes. They were a miserable morass of waist deep snow, and stinging winds that could actually cause frostbite damage to units that stayed there too long.
The sled would be no use in snow that deep, so Bud shrunk it down and stowed it away. When they reached the hex boundary the snow was falling so thick on the other side it impaired visibility beyond a few feet.
“We’ll never catch a humbug if we can’t see,” said Bud. “Rose with your bow so bright, won’t you guide our way to fight?”
She grinned and fitted an arrow to the string of her hotshot bow. The arrowhead lit up bright red, shining a light that cut through the blinding whiteness.
It took them an hour and two points of cold damage before they found their last humbug, sheltering beneath an icicle-encrusted tree root.
Rose released the bowstring and shot an arrow at it, which missed from an embarrassing 20 feet away. The burning bolt thunked into the tree and was quickly extinguished by the snow.
“Disbanded wind,” Rose cursed.
“I’ll croak it,” said Bud as he drew his sword.
“No,” she snapped. “I got this.”
She fired another shot, but missed again, this time because the humbug flew away. “Nah,” said the bug as it spread its dirt-colored wings and took off.
“After it! Unless you want to search in this blizzard all over again,” shouted Bud.
They began sprinting after the insect as best they could in the deep snow. Unfortunately, the humbug itself wasn’t slowed down by the blizzard. Humbugs all have the Terrible special, which among other downsides caused them movement speed penalties in all hex types. As a result the bug was always sluggish, but the blizzard wouldn’t hinder it any more than normal.
They left the limited shelter of the trees and began sprinting across a rocky hillside. The yawning mouth of a cave loomed ahead of them, appearing like a dark oval in the blinding whiteness.
“It must have gone in there,” said Rose. They stumbled into the cave, grateful for the shelter it provided from the wind. The warlady’s arrow cast a flickering ruby light on the stone walls.
The cave wasn’t very large. After a few meters the entry tunnel opened up into a large chamber, filled with stalagmites. The humbug hadn’t bothered to hide. It was perched on a mound of flowstone in plain view, shaking off snow.
“Good riddance to this quest,” snarled Bud as he lunged towards the humbug. Before the gibsword could reach, a burning arrow whizzed inches past his leg and impaled the bug. The insect sighed in annoyance, then dissolved into a carapace and a hat.
“Finally,” said Rose.
“Hey, watch it! You almost hit me,” shouted Bud. “Again.”
“The only time you have to worry about my arrows, Duke Holly, is when I’m trying to croak you,” Rose sneered back at him.
“You’re not half the warlord you think you are, Countess Rose,” he yelled. “You think your little light up toy can beat my dance fighting?”
Ice flashed in her eyes. “I think we’ll find out tomorrow, won’t we.”
“Why wait until tomorrow? We can settle this right here, right now.”
Rose pulled her bow tight, lighting an arrow. Bud held his gibsword ready and began snapping the fingers on his other hand, laying down a combat beat. The two warlords stared each other down with fury etched on their faces.
A tense second passed, and then both of them lowered their weapons simultaneously.
“What are we doing?” asked Bud. His voice was quiet and puzzled.
Rose blinked, as if waking from a dream. “This isn’t us. Something else is doing this.”
A huge shadow moved in from the edge of the cavern, an immense darkness they had mistaken for a rock. The creature was enormous, the size of a dwagon. Even in the limited color palette of Rose’s red firelight they could make out the monster’s shaggy green fur, it’s baleful yellow eyes, the thin sinister smile.
“It’s a Gwinch! And it’s a mean one!” shouted Bud in alarm.
That explained their near confrontation. Gwinches were predatory monsters with the Cheer Stealer special. It was natural dateamancy, a powerful effect that sowed anger and hatred between unsuspecting units, even ones on the same side. After the victims fought amongst themselves, the gwinch would move in and finish off the weakened survivors for an easy meal.
It was fortunate that Rose and Bud were both high level chief warlords, or they would have had little chance of making their saving throw. However, even though the Cheer Stealer had failed, the gwinch was too hungry to let its prey escape. A green hand the size of a wagon wheel reached its long floppy fingers towards Rose.
Donnerparty’s chief warlord fired several burning arrows into the gwinch’s chest, doing decent damage, but not enough. It grabbed Rose around the waist and yanked her off the ground. Her bow clattered to the floor.
“Help!” she screamed. Bud quickly tapped his foot to get a rhythm going. In that brief moment before he attacked, for a fraction of a second, a foul thought crossed his mind. Rose Merry was Donnerparty’s best warlord, and her replacement would be far less capable. If Bud did nothing, if he just walked away from the cave, Rose would croak without it being a violation of their alliance. The gwinch wouldn’t chase after him when it already had a snack. Blitzenkrieg would be all but assured of victory in their current battle, and perhaps for many battles to come. He could even grab her bag off the floor, with all the humbug remains, and still turn it in for the quest reward.
It was a truly vile idea. The three best words to describe it were stink, stank, and stunk. Perhaps the ignoble thought arose from Bud’s mind on its own, or maybe it was a residual effect of the Cheer Stealer. He hoped it was the latter.
“Every swing, I’m a-getting closer
Goin’ faster than a master fencer,
The fight will surely go our way
A-hey, a-hey, a-hey”
He sliced off the gwinch’s hand, dropping Rose to the floor. She swept up her fallen longbow and shot an arrow into the creature’s neck. The gwinch gave a mournful groan and slumped over to the floor, and its yellow eyes narrowed to X’s. Then it dissolved into loot, dropping a shaggy green pelt and an icy black heart the size of a turkey. A thin sheen of frost covered the frozen organ.
Despite her bruises and scrapes, Rose smiled. “Just croak ten humbugs, they said.”
The two chief warlords laughed.
The jolly elves made them wait in the snow outside their workshop, but kept them warm with mugs of hot toddys. When the quest rewards were ready they guided Bud and Rose to a huge spruce tree, covered in shining powerballs of every color. A glowing yellow hexagon shone from atop the highest bough.
Beneath the branches were two wrapped and ribboned boxes, with the warlords’ names written on tags. The jolly elves watched in satisfaction as the questers retrieved their rewards and opened them.
For Rose they had made a pair of earmuffs, crafted from green gwinch fur with a strap woven from humbug hat wool. The headgear was more than warm, it was also a powerful protection against sonic attacks and enemy rhyme-a-mancy. It wouldn’t entirely remove an enemy’s musical bonus, but it would greatly reduce their damage and accuracy multiplier against her.
For Bud they hammered the frozen gwinch heart flat to form a black kite shield, with handles carved from humbug exoskeletons. The shield glistened with ice crystals, signaling powerful cold magic that would minimize damage rolls for any fire damage that bypassed the shield. A multi-damage type of attack, such as burning arrow, could still deal full piercing damage but the fire would now barely singe.
“Hm, it’ll be a lot harder for us to croak each other from now on,” said Bud. He threw a curious glance at Nick Nack, who grinned impishly in reply.
Rose nodded. “Yeah, I think I’m happy about that.”
Nick coughed loudly, and pointedly glanced upwards. A plant was tied with a red ribbon to one of the Questmas tree’s branches. The shrub looked like a small cylinder with a rounded tip and four navigation fins.
“Oh look,” Rose said dryly. “Someone hung up missiletomahawk.”
“Well golly, my spot check didn’t notice it,” replied Bud with a nonchalant shrug. “I suppose we’d better kiss.”
“It is Questmas after all,” agreed Rose.
The two enemies locked lips and kissed. Above them the missiletomahawk sputtered to life and rocketed off into the sky, then exploded, filling the air with white, red, and green fireworks. They were still kissing when the fireworks faded.
Although one turn is quite brief, and peace does not stay,
The joy in every unit’s heart does not go away.
That spirit never croaks, forever shining bright,
Happy Questmas to all, for tomorrow you fight!