The Last Turn - Part 19
The world shouldn’t be so hard. It really shouldn’t.
But with every breath Turing took, reality came pressing down on him. The Titans made the world to test their subjects. The endless cycle of war and temporary peace was their way of making the strong stronger.
So it was written. And so was the purpose of every unit—to strive. To strive for the ultimate level, the greatest side. To add to their Number until the day came when they would be judged.
So Turing had always believed. But he was no longer sure whether that was something he wanted. He had seen the end of his quest in the eyes of a lonely Warlord and she—
She didn’t look fulfilled or happy at all.
Turing had seen happiness. It was not in the miserable Warlady sitting in front of him in the center of the city she had captured. He had seen happiness in a low-level Stabber’s eyes as she showed him a passage in a book. He’d known happiness sitting and talking with his King on the eve of their side’s destruction, in walking outside his city for the first time.
He’d felt something akin to ecstasy and joy when he leveled. It was addictive, a rush beyond all others. But it wasn’t happiness. It couldn’t be.
Happiness was a quiet thing. If you had to move around and shout for it, it would fly away.
Turing sat up and noticed the bindings at his arms and legs. Of course. He was captured. Not croaked.
The rope bindings chafed at his hands and legs. Turing couldn’t move or escape unless he managed to untie them. It wouldn’t be hard—these weren’t exactly manacles or worse, magical spell-bindings, but what would be the point.
There was no outrunning Protheana.
So instead Turing sat up and coughed. Protheana glanced up.
“Evening, actually. Our side hasn't ended the turn yet.”
“Oh. I see.”
After that awkward exchange both Warlords fell silent. It felt incredibly awkward for Turing to be so close to Protheana. He’d only been so close once before, and even when they’d talked, it had been across hexes.
But now they were in the same city, albeit prisoner and warden. But the proximity to another living unit was intoxicating to Turing. He saw how disheveled Protheana’s Signamancy had become – how she had dark rings under her eyes and her face was no longer as impassive as before. She looked like she was on the edge of breaking. But the turn had ended.
“I see you captured the city,” Turing said at last. “Is your Ruler going to raze it?”
“Dunno. Probably. But he hasn’t called me or told me he’s gonna do it yet. I’m waiting for him to give me a call.”
“You think he will?”
“Yeah. ‘Specially when he realizes I’m not gonna croak you.”
Turing shifted and the rope strained, cutting into his wrists.
“I see. Why didn’t you croak me?”
Protheana hesitated. She shook her head.
“I couldn’t do it. I thought about it and I tried—but I couldn’t.”
Turing blinked in surprise. That was the last thing he’d ever expected Protheana to say.
“But your oath—Harbinger told you to croak me, right?”
She shrugged, almost defiantly.
“Harbinger told me to croak you, but he didn’t say when. ‘Sides, I’m his Chief Warlord. I can make field decisions if I want.”
Again, that didn’t sound like Protheana. Or rather—it didn’t sound like the Protheana he’d first met. But it did sound like the Protheana he’d read stories to. The fiery one who debated hotly and wouldn’t back down.
She pointed at Turing warningly as he tried to wriggle into a more comfortable position.
“Don’t try messin’ with those restraints or I’ll to thump ya. Yer gonna be a prisoner until you turn. Won’t take long if Harbinger springs for a Turnamancer.”
“Really? He’s going to do that?”
Turing spoke slowly.
“That seems—doubtful. Especially from what you’ve told me about him.”
“I’ll convince him, don’t worry.” Protheana shook her head. “We’ve got a huge treasury. He can hire someone through the Magic Kingdom and turn you in a few turns over here. Don’t matter if you’re low-level. The side needs Warlords like you. Anyone with a brain like that—give me a hundred turns and I’ll have you at least Level 7 and with enough experience to start plannin’ the side’s strategy.”
She smiled at Turing, or rather, tried to. It was more like a pained grimace. Turing didn’t smile back. He opened his mouth.
Protheana blinked. “What?”
Turing sat up in his bindings and glared at her.
“I said no. I won’t be a puppet for another side. Croak me. Finish this already. I won’t dance upon the strings of your Harbinger even if he brings a thousand Master-class Turnamancers and links them all up.”
Protheana scowled at him. “Don’t be stupid. I’m givin’ you a chance here. Forget what’s happened and live. It’s better than croaking now.”
Turing shook his head adamantly.
“You wouldn’t understand. This isn’t just about what I’ve lost. It’s the pride of a Ruler. I wasn’t a good one and I only kept my side intact for two turns. But I won’t betray the trust of those who served me by running from who I was. Croak me, or let me go. But I will never turn.”
He glared at Protheana, and the Warlady eyed him. Surprise was written all over her face until she pulled her impassive mask back on.
“I said that once, too. But look at me now. I was a Level 8 in one side among many. Now I’m a Level 13 – probably the highest-level Warlord in all of Erfworld.”
“I’m looking. Am I supposed to be impressed?”
This time her fist clenched in anger. “I am giving you a chance. And I’m puttin’ my neck on the line here to do it.”
“And I said I don’t want your chance. Croak me. Finish this stupid story already and let me rest.”
“You ain’t getting off that easy. The side needs you—”
“You mean you need me to read you more stories.” Turing sneered at Protheana. “Because you’re lonely. Because you’re bored. Because you didn’t realize how terrible your life is until you saw how it could be better!”
Protheana stood up. Her face was flushed.
“I’m warnin’ you. Shut it or I’ll—”
“Do what? Hit me?” Turing taunted her. He thrashed around in his bindings. “Go ahead! Hit me!”
“I’ll do it. Shut it or—”
“Hit me!” Turing shouted at Protheana. The rage and despair boiling up from his soul came out his mouth in a scream. He wanted her to be angry. He wanted to be croaked. “Hit me, you disbanded coward! Hit me! Hit me!”
Protheana raised her fist. Turing bared his teeth. And then both heard the ringing sound.
With a sigh, Protheana put one finger to the side of her temple. She glared at Turing.
“It’s Harbinger. You sit there and shut it, okay?”
Turing wasn’t sure if he should, but Protheana managed to convey with a single glare that if he didn’t shut up she’d kick his lights out. So he was quiet.
“Protheana.” Protheana said into the air. She listened for a moment.
“Yeah, put him on.”
At once, a shimmering panel with blue borders appeared in the air. It was a Thinkagram—a more advanced kind than the one Turing was used to. When they hired Charlie it was usually only a mental link, or a static display and audio. But Reapin’s Thinkamancer had sprung for a full image voice chat.
The instant Harbinger appeared, Turing could see why.
The mysterious Ruler of Reapin appeared on the screen in a flash of orange light. Turing caught sight of a dark shape and glowing yellow eyes before Protheana turned away from him. She stared grimly into the Thinkagram.
“Harbinger. Look, I told you why I didn’t want to croak Turing. You gave me yer orders, but you didn’t say when so I captured him. Listen. If you spring for a Turnamancer I can have him on our side in under four turns, no problem.”
Turing squirmed upright and opened his mouth hotly to protest. Protheana glared at him. Then a deep, hollow voice came through the Thinkagram.
Protheana’s eyes snapped back to the screen. She scowled.
“It ain’t pitiful. It’s strategy. I told you, Turing is a genius. A bit of an idiot, but he managed to croak V and all my other stacks, didn’t he?”
The shadowy shape shook his head slowly. Its eyes flashed in what Turing could only assume was anger.
“I will direct this personally. You cannot resist.”
He pointed and Turing felt a jolt as Harbinger’s finger aimed at his heart. Protheana gritted her teeth and shook her head.
“I’m not doing it. Yer wrong. I’m not the Chief Warlord you need, Loyalty or not.”
“Irrelevant. I am the Harbinger of your perfection.”
“Some perfection!” Protheana shouted at the screen. “Loyalty don’t mean a thing if you don’t ever listen to your Chief Warlord! I keep tellin’ you that we need Turing alive. Croakin’ him serves no purpose.”
The glowing eyes shifted towards Turing. The echoing voice spoke to Protheana.
“This hurts you.”
“’Course it does! And why’re you saying that? Do you think I liked livin’ ten thousand turns by myself? But I’m tellin’ you that if you don’t take my advice, we’ll all be hurtin’ a thousand turns from now.”
“Pain is an illusion.”
“Pain? Pain?” Protheana punched at the Thinkagram and the shadowy figure wavered out of focus for a moment. “What would you know about pain? You haven’t left the Capital since you popped!”
Her words had no visible effect on her ruler. The shadows shape regarded Protheana and shook his head.
“You cannot escape your destiny, Protheana.”
She stared bitterly at the screen.
“So that’s it? Yer not gonna even listen, huh?”
“You prolong the inevitable.”
“Oh yeah?” Protheana crossed her arms and scowled. “Well, I’m not doin’ it. You know I’m right. Come on. Give me this one guy. What could it hurt?”
“Will you even listen?” Protheana shouted at her ruler. “Relinquish your order! I’m begging you here! What about V, huh? Will you just ignore how valuable she was? Anyone who could croak her—”
“Ignore the fallen.”
Protheana slumped for a second. “Fine. But if that’s how it’s gonna be I’m going to get my say in too. You wanna know what I think about yer grand strategy. Here’s what I think—”
Someone spoke from outside of the Thinkagram’s range. Harbinger and Protheana both glanced sideways. The fiery eyes turned back to Protheana, flaring in what looked like irritation.
“We are not finished. This delay is pointless. I am unstoppable.”
Protheana sneered at her ruler.
“Oh yeah? Well, yer Thinkamancer could use more juice. Who is she? New caster? Benezia? Oh, right, Vina turned her. Fine, run away if yer not gonna hire another Thinkamancer. But when get back, you an’ I are gonna have words, you got that?”
Harbinger didn’t even bother to respond. He waved a shadowy appendage at Protheana.
The Thinkagram disappeared in a flash of light. Protheana slumped and hung her head.
Turing stared at her.
“Was that your Ruler?”
“In the flesh. Or—close enough.”
“He seemed so…odd. And I know odd Rulers. That conversation—”
Protheana shook her head tiredly. She leaned on her scabbard and suddenly looked exhausted.
“He always talks like that. I think it’s because he’s so old.”
She tilted her head and put her finger to his head. Then she shook her head bitterly.
“Coward. Didn’t even ‘gram me to let me say anything.”
Turing waited. He knew what had been said. Reluctantly, Protheana looked at him.
“He ordered me to croak you. This turn.”
The news didn’t even hurt. Turing shrugged.
“I guess I get my wish.”
“Yeah.” Protheana smiled bitterly. “You win. I guess it was too much to hope he’d listen to his Chief Warlord.”
“Well then.” Turing hesitated. “What happens to you?”
Protheana shrugged. She sat down on the ground, her sheathed sword across her knees.
“Soon as Charlie fixes whatever’s keepin’ the network down, Harbinger’s gonna send a flight of Archons to escort me back to the Capital. Until then, he’s ordered me to stay in the city. Under no circumstances am I to leave it.”
Turing stared at Protheana.
“That sounds like a waste of Schmuckers. And how many Archons is that? For someone of your Level it doesn’t sound necessary. It sounds like…”
“A guard?” Protheana laughed bitterly. “Yeah. I think that’s it. He’s gonna send some Casters through the Magic Kingdom the instant yer croaked as well.”
“Why? You can’t Turn—”
“But he’s still afraid I might.” Protheana shook her head and spat. “And regardless, he still doesn’t want to lose his Chief Warlord. Better to bring me back even if it takes a hundred turns marching than risk me fightin’ my way back or poppin’ enough units and letting me level them for an escort. Idiot.”
It was the first outright negative thing Protheana had said about her Ruler. But her Loyalty was still maxed out, Turing knew. She could no more disobey his orders than she was capable of flying.
For a long time Protheana sat on the ground, staring at her sword. Turing thought about interrupting her, but decided not to. He was croaked anyways. Did it really matter if he stayed alive a little while longer?
After an eternity—a heartbeat—Protheana stood up. She unsheathed her sword.
Turing’s mind went blank. He’d been trying to think of suitable last words, but the shining silver blade emptied the thoughts clean out of his head.
He stared up at Protheana from his seated position. The Warlady walked over and stood over him, blade in hand. Her face was cold and a million miles away. She raised her sword.
Nothing to say. Nothing to do. It was time. Turing bowed his head and waited.
The sword flashed down once. Twice.
“Hm. Can’t get to yer hands like that. Raise ‘em.”
Turing looked up and blinked in stupefaction. Protheana shrugged and cut the bindings at his wrists with a quick flick of her sword’s tip.
She’d cut through his bindings, not his flesh. Turing felt the ropes fall from his limbs and realized he was no longer a captive. But he didn’t get up. Instead he stared at Protheana.
“Why?” He demanded. On the back of that question was another one. “How? You can’t betray your Loyalty or your Duty. So how did you—”
“I’m not betraying anything.” Protheana scowled at Turing. “I’m still croaking you. But I’m giving you a fair chance. You’ll duel me this turn.”
Turing stared. It felt like he’d walked out of his story and into one of the legends told in his books, of battle-stopping duels and lone Warlords questing against Dwagons.
Protheana raised her sword and brought it down in the grass at her feet. She clasped her hands over the hilt and stared down at Turing. Her face was—different. It was as hard as ever, as unyielding, but there was a core of something else behind her expression as she stared at Turing.
“Harbinger may have my undying Loyalty, but he forgets that the Titans gave us free will. There is Duty that binds us, but Honor keeps my Number and my soul. I won’t croak you like a coward. You and I are Warlords. We should die as such.”
“So you want me to croak on my feet?”
“With sword in hand. I know you still have yours.”
“And how is that better—no, do you even expect me to take that offer? Why shouldn’t I just run for it?”
Protheana raised an eyebrow. “Because I’ve got a great throwing arm. And because you’re no coward.”
“This is pointless,” Turing snapped. He could feel himself getting angrier. “You and I both know the outcome if a Level 3 and a Level 13 fight. Just croak me! I’ll sit here and let you do it.”
“Or you could fight.”
“And if I refuse?”
Protheana’s left eye twitched for a second.
“Its yer choice. You can flee or wait, but lemme ask you this.”
She grabbed Turing and hauled him up onto his feet. Protheana glared at him, her gray eyes flashing with anger.
“Have you no pride? It’s one thing to be tired, but here I stand, an enemy in yer city. My side’s croaked yers, taken your city, made you Barbarian. Will you just roll over and take it or are you gonna go out fighting? What would your precious Miya say if she could see you now?”
A hot flash ran through Turing at that. He grabbed Protheana’s wrist and tried to make her let go, but that was impossible. Instead, he kicked out at her. She twisted to avoid the blow.
Protheana let go of Turing and shoved him back. He stumbled and regained his footing. She regarded him and shook her head.
“I ain’t tryin’ to make this more painful, or draw it out. But I’m givin’ you a chance because it’s the right thing to do. A mark of respect.”
Turing scowled at her. But—for all his anger he understood. He should have been humbled. But he just wanted—
He just wanted to die.
“I don’t have a sword on me. Will you give me yours and fight barehanded or what?”
“Get yours. I’ll wait. For that matter, get two swords if that castle even has an armory. You can lay traps if you want, find the best place to fight—I don’t care. Anything you can think of to even the odds.”
Now that sounded like bravado, until you thought about how strong Protheana was. Turing eyed her.
“You’ll give me time to prepare? How long?”
Protheana’s eyes were cold and hard. She walked past Turing, across the grass of his city. He followed her.
She stood in the center of the city and raised her sword. Though she stood over cobblestones, when Protheana brought her blade down the weapon embedded itself in the ground as though she’d pushed through butter.
Her eyes found Turing’s and they shone like beacons. Protheana stood straight and tall, her dark armor absorbing the light. Suddenly, she was like the Warlord he’d first glimpsed, a giant, a colossus of legends walking the Erf.
Her voice thundered out across the empty city as she pointed at Turing.
“One day. You have one day, Turing. I will wait for you here. Do you run, and I will call Charlie and have his Archons hunt you down to the ends of the Erf if necessary. I will call the Great Minds to pluck your coordinates from your brain. I will find you and destroy you with every tool in my possession. I will be your end one way or the other. This, I, Protheana promise.”
And she would keep her oath, Turing knew. The Warlady of Reapin stood like an immovable object.
“This turn will be the last—for one of us.”
Turing walked through his city, no longer a ghost. Soon to be one, or rather, a dead body. He stumbled through the streets, tripping over trash, starign at graffiti on the walls.
—Of course. The turn hadn’t ended yet. Or rather, even if Turing had ended his turn, it was now Reapin’s turn and the damages and the dead hadn’t depoped yet.
Bodies depopped at the start of every turn. Turing stopped and stared at the castle. Slowly, he began walking towards it.
He had a day. But Turing didn’t know what to do with it. Protheana had spun the hourglass and he knew even now that sand was slowly trickling from the top. But he didn’t really care.
Instead, he knelt by the bed in his room, hands clasped and head bowed. A female Stabber slept on the bed, her eyes covered, her slender frame illuminated in the evening sunlight.
He’d been here a thousand times, seen her in the same position. But it still hurt. Turing could look away from the untouched sheets and know that when he looked around Miya would be sitting up in bed, smiling at him.
But whenever he turned, she was gone. And she stayed gone, no matter how many times he checked.
The Titans were unfair. It was blasphemy to think, but it was true. They were cruel, heartless beings that cared nothing for individual Warlords or even the fate of Sides. Their eyes only followed Fate and the Erf itself.
But Turing cared nothing for Fate. He was not Fated. He was a fool who had done his best in his small way. Protheana was touched by Fate. She was important to destiny and probably Erfworld itself. But he was not.
Yet even Turing had things he’d cared about. Even he had had a reason to live. But she was gone now, and he ached to follow after.
Turing stared into Miya’s face. He yearned to tear away the folded handkerchief over her eyes. But he couldn’t bear to see the two black x’s staring back at him.
He whispered into the silence. To her, really, as if she could hear him.
“You were unique.”
But that was the cruelty of it, wasn’t it? Turing could almost hear Miya’s answer. She was unique. But she was not the only one. There were more. He’d found someone like Miya—not in body, shape, or thought, but someone who shared her spark. And if there was another, then surely in this land he called home another would pop or had been popped.
Turing’s eyes stung at the admission of it. But he repeated the words anyways to make them true.
“You were unique. And you wanted me to live. But living is such a tiresome thing. I’ve done too much of it already.”
Too much and too little. Again, Turing felt the lies turn to ash on his tongue. If you counted the turns he’d actually spent not patrolling his city or the endless last turn, how long had he really lived? Less than a hundred turns. He was still a child.
But he felt old. Old, and tired far beyond his time. All Turing wanted to do was rest.
“I would never love anyone but you.”
All lies. All untrue. But they were what you were supposed to say. And by saying it, maybe it would be true. Turing felt tears trickle down underneath his closed eyelids. He wiped at them, rather than let them touch the bed.
“Soon. If I wait, she’d croak me. I know it.”
At last, a bit of truth. But even that had a terrible untruth festering at its core. Turing tried to push it away. But Miya smiled up at him. That slight, small smile damning him and redeeming his soul.
Telling him to tell the truth.
“I want to live.”
It came out of Turing in a whisper. If pain had a voice, it was his. He said it again.
“I want to live. I want—I want to fight. I want to keep living.”
It was the hardest thing to say. But she lay there, encouraging him, denying him the comfort of lying. Of dying.
“I loved you. I love you. And you—I want to be with you. But I want to live as well. I want to win. I don’t want Protheana to croak me. I want—I want to save her. I want to keep living a long time and see all Erfworld has to offer.”
The words broke the dam and came flooding out. Turing knelt and confessed his sins.
“Even though it was her side that croaked you. Even though she croaked so many of our side—she’s not a bad person. She’s not. And I want to save her. But you—”
He was broken. Turing wept and clutched at the bed sheets, not daring to touch her.
“I can’t let you go. I can’t. But I still want to live. Titans.”
He wept and wept. But time was running out. He knew it. And he was caught on the edge of the abyss. It pulled him one way and his heart pulled him another. But either way would lead to betrayal. It wasn’t a crossroads he stood at. He was on the tip of a needle, and any way he turned he would fall.
What could he do? How could he—
Turing’s eyes opened, and words whispered into his mind. He remembered—his tears, a library, a Stabber with a book in his hands. He heard her whisper, and felt her touch.
You made me special. I want to do the same thing to you.
The words were the same, and the feeling was just as it had been. Turing’s heart stopped. And then it began to beat and his tears began to fall again like rain. But this time they were truly like the rain because in time they slowed and stopped.
At last, Turing was still. The words still seared his mind, but he knew now. He knew. When you stand upon the edge with no way to go but down, there is only one thing to do.
Turing knelt by the empty bed and spoke into the silence. He spoke to Miya, lovingly, slowly. One last time.
“I guess I can’t join you just yet. But you knew that, didn’t you? And if I did, it would have wasted all you did for me? And—I can’t even say I’ll love only you forever. But at least part of me will. I’ve got to go now. I’m nearly out of time.”
He stood up. Turing walked slowly to the door, and then he turned. He walked back to the bed and gathered Miya up in his arms. Gently, he hugged her cold body to him, warming her. He laid her back down gently.
“Protheana is a Level 13 Warlord. But she’s like you and me, really. She’s a captive to Fate, to Loyalty, and to her Ruler and her side. She didn’t know it, but she was just like us, did you know? Helpless. Alone.”
He stood up. Turing reached down and picked up the sword at Miya’s feet. Her sword. He unsheathed it and his eyes reflected the light of the fading sun.
“I will set her free.”
Turing left the room, closed the door, and locked it with a key he’d never used before. He wouldn’t come back. It was farewell.
He didn’t weep as he strode through the hallways of his castle. He’d done a lifetime of weeping, and if it wasn’t enough, it would have to do.
He had to live. And to do that, he had to defeat Protheana.
It would be quite simple.
After all, Protheana was in Turing’s city. And though he was a poor Warlord, a King dethroned, a fool and perhaps cursed, Turing knew his city. The knowledge contained within would be enough to croak even Protheana.
Turing walked out his castle. The hourglass was nearly empty. He had bare minutes left. But that was enough. Protheana stood in the center of the city. Turing walked towards her—but not directly. He made sure she wasn’t staring at him as he threw open a pair of double doors and walked inside. A stone Dwagon stared at him. Turing looked around him and smiled.
It was time to end this sorry turn once and for all.
Protheana saw the last grains of sand fall from the hourglass and stood up. Her heart hurt. She yanked the sword from the ground and closed her eyes.
He hadn’t come. Turing hadn’t shown up. Nor really had she expected him to. He wasn’t like her. In some ways he was, but in others—
He hadn’t left the city. Protheana could still sense there was an enemy in her hex. That was something, at least. But if he hadn’t fled where would he be?
The castle. Of course. Turing had told her once that his loved one was lying there. He was probably there now, not even realizing that the day was over.
Her sword had never felt so heavy in her hand. Protheana walked slowly towards the castle. It would be quick. She would let him die where his heart had died. And then—
And then it would be over. That brief moment would end, and she could go back to not caring. Not being. Just swinging her sword.
Except that it would never be the same. Protheana knew it in her soul. She had been changed. She had seen a different world, and she had hungered. For the first time in countless thousandturns, Protheana had awoken.
But the dream was about to end. End with a Warlord who’d barely even lived.
Protheana’s steps dragged. But Duty carried her on, and her Loyalty would never let her stop. Damned Duty and accursed Loyalty.
Protheana had reached the doors to the castle when she heard the voice. It was faint, on the edge of hearing, but it came from across the city. She turned, heart pounding.
Turing stood at the edge of the city in a familiar place. He stood at the border between hexes, and in his hand a sword gleamed in the turn’s fading light.
Protheana smiled. Suddenly she was filled with—if not joy, than relief. He hadn’t run. And his courage to face her gave her the strength she needed.
Her steps were quick as Protheana walked across the city. Her eyes stung a bit. She brushed at them and frowned. No good. She couldn’t shed tears, least of all in front of Turing. Maybe after it was over.
But her eyes stung and burned anyways. Protheana shook her head and walked faster. She was getting weak. Soft.
The city bugged her. It was such a strange place. Perhaps it had been beautiful, once. But the garrison had destroyed it over the course of the endless turn. Rubble and trash were everywhere, and there was a terrible ashy, burnt smell to the land. She supposed she should only be grateful that there weren’t Gwull droppings everywhere.
Turing stood casually against the hex boundary, his sword drawn. Protheana’s sword was already bare, and it dwarfed his long sword easily. But it wasn’t size or even magic that mattered. The hand that held the blade was important.
Strangely, the once-Ruler and Warlord seemed at ease as Protheana stopped before him. He was staring up into the red sunset behind Protheana, and didn’t even look at her as she approached.
His eyes were red with weeping, but at least he held his sword. Still, he didn’t look at Protheana. She cleared her throat and coughed. Titans, first the stinging eyes and now a raspy throat. She couldn’t sully this moment.
“You. Ah. You’re ready?”
Turing looked at Protheana. He smiled.
“Almost. Sorry to keep to waiting.”
“Think nothin’ of it. Well then. Do you have—any last words?”
Of all the things Protheana expected Turing to say, that was not it. She stared at him. But Turing only shook his head.
“No, no last words. I don’t plan to croak here after all. Sorry.”
Protheana’s heart skipped a beat and then started to beat faster. No sentence could have roused her spirits like that. She grinned, and wondered what traps he’d set. Yes, if anyone could croak her it would be him.
“Bold. Then shall we fight? Seems risky fer you to have yer back to the hex.”
“Oh, I don’t plan on fighting.”
This time all of Protheana’s thoughts stopped. She stared at Turing. He raised the sword he held and tossed it casually at her feet.
“Sorry, but I’d never win. Not once. Not even if I managed to dig a pitfall trap or if I managed to blind you or fight from high ground or—it’s impossible. So I won’t bother trying.”
Protheana felt like crying. Her eyes were certainly stinging enough. She growled and coughed.
“What? If you’re going to run—”
“Not that either. At least, not yet.”
He was so calm. And now Protheana was angry. He’d as good as said he was planning on escaping. And he’d taken up a sword, tricked her—why?
The smell of the city, the trash, and the memories—not to mention the piled books lying at the border between hexes all made Protheana angrier as well. Her eyes hurt. Her throat burned. And the burnt smell was getting worse.
“You. If this is some last-minute game—”
“Let me ask you something, Protheana.” Turing interrupted. He stared over Protheana’s shoulder, and then at the sky again.
“Let’s say you had to fight a Level 13 Warlady. How would you do it?”
Protheana paused. She growled.
“I’d use every unit I had. Lure her into traps. Use my casters. Anything.”
“Anything.” Turing nodded. He closed his eyes and then rubbed at them.
“But what if you didn’t want to croak her? What if you thought she was your friend? Innocent? What if—what if you wanted to save her?”
Oh. Protheana wanted to dig herself a pit and jump into it. Of course. She cleared her throat and looked away.
“I’d—I’d give up on her. It’s a lost cause. She’s bound by a ritual spell and her pride ‘n honor. She’d never turn. So I’d have to croak her.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s what she’d think as well.”
Turing’s voice was so calm it was beginning to be scary. He smiled sadly.
“But I could never croak her, you see? And if she could only be freed by breaking an oath, well, there are precious few she could break. Just one or two, actually.”
Now Protheana’s heart was beating faster. She had a terrible foreboding in her heart.
“There are two oaths Protheana of Reapin could break that I know of,” Turing said softly. “The first is that she would stay in the city. It is what her Ruler ordered her to do. But getting her to change hexes—that is hard. But the second?”
No. Protheana’s heart was filled with dread. But Turing kept talking. He was looking into the sky again.
“You swore to be my end, whether by croaking me yourself or by using your side or Charlie. But what if I ended my life? Wouldn’t that mean you’d failed to carry out your promise.”
Protheana’s eyes darted to the sword on the ground. He’d tossed it down, and she was sure she was faster than he was. If he grabbed it.
“The Titans curse those who end their own lives.”
“Maybe. But I think I’d be willing to give it a shot. And to free a…friend? Someone who’s been captive for so long? It would be worth it.”
Did he have…a blade on him? Protheana’s heart was beating out of her chest. Not like this. She didn’t want this. Anything but this.
Turing coughed a few times. “I—thought about it. And gave it a lot of thought. But in the end—I decided I really didn’t want to croak.”
“Really, taking my own life would have been some kind of Fate, especially since my Ruler did it to save me. But I didn’t have any high places to throw myself off. Well—except the castle, and someone already did that.”
Turing smiled, inviting Protheana to share the joke. She just stared at him, jaw gaping. Her eyes were really hurting now for some reason.
“But then how could I make her break her oath? She’d have to leave the city. And how would you do that? Well, I could either croak her or get her to leave the city. Because I’ll free her one way or the other. But how would you do either? A trap? What kind of trap…attacks an entire city…and uh, can’t be stopped no matter how high-level you are?”
Turing coughed. He wiped at his eyes.
“Excuse me. Is it hot in here?”
It was. Protheana raised a gauntleted hand to her brow and found she was sweating heavily in her armor. She’d been so engrossed by Turing’s words that she hadn’t’ even noticed.
“And it smells terrible,” Turing added. “Much worse than usual at any rate, which is still pretty difficult. What do you think it smells like, Protheana?”
She sniffed the air. There it was again, that ashy, burnt smell. No—her heart began to beat uncontrollably. Not burnt. Burning.
“This city isn’t that unique,” Turing said quietly, as Protheana turned and her eyes saw the smoke trailing up into the sky. “It doesn’t have any unique special features, really. No traps, no natural Shockamancy or Dirtamancy. Just a library. And a lot of books.”
Smoke was leaking out of a massive building Protheana recognized. Through the windows she could see red and orange light glaring out, as if the building were alive and staring at her.
“Funny thing about books. You can read them, but they’re not that useful for much else. Doorstops, paper weights…not very useful. But you can burn them.”
The entire library of Restin was aflame. Even as Protheana watched, a wall fell in and the raging firestorm within escaped. Sparks and embers spat outwards and began setting the rest of the city alight.
In the burning light, Protheana slowly turned back and looked at Turing. He was unarmed, but the shadows and firelight played across his features. He stood tall, and stared at Protheana.
“I am Turing, once a Patrollord of Osnap. Once a Ruler. Now a Barbarian. I’m a Level 3. I’m neither good at fighting or defending. I have no specials. I was a ruler for one turn.”
Protheana stared at him. The heat from the fire could be felt even from here. Fire. It wasn’t something she could croak with a sword.
Turing went on. “I have only one thing that makes me unique. I love books. I love to read. I finish stories like other units croak enemies.”
The burning orange glow lit up the library behind Turing, casting his shape into a flickering silhouette. He smiled sadly.
“Books are my second love in life. My first sits with the Titans. But I would give it all up to set you free. Whether by your death or your broken oath, I will break the chains that bind you.”
He saluted her with one hand. The Turing turned. He called over his shoulder.
“Stay in this city if you want, Protheana of Reapin. But know this: it was very foolish of you to let me go. You see, I don’t live to fight. I live to win.”
He turned, and walked across the hex boundary. A moment after he’d passed the dividing line he heard the crash of a sword breaking as Protheana hurled it desperately at his back.
And then she was alone. Turing turned back and faced Protheana. The sea of flames was at her back. He saw the Warlady turn and stare at the fire raging across the city.
It was already an uncontrolled blaze, heading quickly towards an inferno. It would be impossible to stop with one unit, or even fifty.
Protheana’s chest piece hit the ground. Turing blinked. But Protheana was already tossing off her metal gauntlets, unbuckling the rest of her armor—anything that could slow her down.
“You’re going to go into that?”
“I don’t break my oaths so easily.” Protheana looked away from Turing. “Gotta try. Never found anything I couldn’t beat.”
She threw the rest of her armor to the ground and dashed into the fire. Turing sat on the ground.
He had no prayers to offer the Titans, and doubted they were listening to him either way. But he prayed anyways. He prayed for the soul of a Warlady. But the fire raged and the shadows grew as the sun slowly faded in the sky.
Turing watched a lone figure dashing among the buildings, running to the evaporated pond, through the city. He watched and waited.
The fire had long since passed being uncontrolled. It was now an inferno, and all but the edges of the city had been engulfed. Turing stood at the edge of the hex, hands clenched so hard he could feel them cracking. At last, the stumbling figure made it to the not yet burning patch of grass and collapsed onto it.
Protheana raised herself onto her hands and knees with great effort. She was burnt all over her body, and small flames still burned at her hair and clothing – what little of it she had left.
“Hi,” Turing said dumbly. He waited, but Protheana just panted as the flames slowly covered the ground towards her.
“Betcha never saw someone walk through an inferno and survive.”
“Gotta lot of hits, that’s all. Even a fire can’t croak me so easy.”
“But you’re not going to leave the hex?”
Protheana panted at the ground. She smiled, gritted her teeth.
She interrupted Turing. “Wanna know something funny?”
Protheana grinned, sadness mixed with hilarity on her face.
“Turns out that Thinkamancer had a bit of juice left. Harbinger just called.”
Well, that was it. Turing waited for Protheana to step through the hex and croak him. But she didn’t. She laughed and sank to her knees at the edge of the hex.
“What? What did he say?”
“He told me to stay. Stay here ‘n wait.”
It felt like someone had punched a hole in Turing’s stomach. He stared at Protheana. The flames were mere feet away from her, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Is he mad?”
“Dunno. Maybe he just decided I wasn’t worth keepin' around anymore. Maybe he's finally flipped. Either way, you got your wish. Looks like this is it.”
Turing reached towards the boundary but Protheana’s hand flashed up. Her eyes sparked dangerously.
“Come across and I’ll croak you. I swore it. These are my orders. He told me to stay.”
She smiled, and lowered her arm. Protheana sighed and sat down in the little patch not consumed by flames.
“Looks like this is it, then. Good trap ya sprung. Would never have thought of that. But I expected nothing less.”
“I did it to free you. Not to croak you.”
“I know.” Protheana shrugged. The fire spat sparks on her back. “But I was given orders. I obey.”
“Then disobey!” Turing shouted at Protheana as the fire began to eat at her. “Cross hexes, curse you! Don’t die over this!”
Protheana sighed. She whispered something as the flames licked up her back.
“What was that?” Turing threw himself as close to the boundary as he dared.
“What else can I offer the Titans? I’ve lived long, and croaked more folk’n I can count. But I all I have is my level and my honor. Nothing else. I’ve croaked legends and heroes, but never built a city or protected anything worth keepin’. All I have is death and my promises.”
Protheana smiled at Turing. Two tears rolled down her cheeks, cutting through the soot on her face. They evaporated before they even reached her chin.
The flames engulfed her. She didn’t cry out. And she didn’t croak. She truly was a monster, a legend of her own. She stood up, brushing at her legs as if there was just a bit of dirt on them.
“This is it. You won. Keep livin’, Turing. When you see the Titans, I’d love to fight fer real. Or—if you don’t see me, know I’ll be raisin’ a cup to you wherever I end up.”
She didn’t look back. The Warlady of Reapin walked back into the blazing fire. She walked until she reached the burning ruins of the library. She would have walked on, but wall of the library cracked and fell. A flaming piece of rubble struck Protheana and she fell.
Turing stared helplessly. The flames were everywhere. The entire city was a massive inferno hex. He could still see Protheana lying on the ground. Burning. It was all burning.
Turing turned away. He paused for one second, and then sighed.
Then he turned and ran into the flaming city.
The fire ate Turing the moment he entered the inferno. The flames devoured his clothing; covered Turing. He ran on, already screaming. The fire was everywhere. It was the ground, the air—in his eyes and his very soul.
His flesh burned. His frail body became flame, and the flame ate at Turing. But he ran. He ran straight ahead, each step leaving bits of his life behind him.
It wasn’t far. Not far at all, but each step drew Turing closer to his end. He saw the rubble covering Protheana and threw himself at it. One heave of sheer desperation and it toppled away.
She was burning. But somehow Protheana was still alive. She’d been incapacitated by the rubble, but she still had hits. Turing bent down and picked her up.
She was so light. Or maybe that was because Turing couldn’t feel anything. Not even pain.
He turned and staggered. The hex seemed so far away now. And he was dying. He ran forwards a few steps, stopped, and knew he was about to die. He couldn’t move. His legs had stopped working.
Protheana was in his arms. Turing struggled to move. For her. He cursed his weakness. It was just his legs. He wasn’t croaked yet. But his body had stopped moving.
A sword lay in front of Turing, not yet melted despite the extreme heat. Useless. Miya’s sword. Not useless.
But it couldn’t fight fire. It couldn’t do anything.
In his despair, Turing looked up. Protheana fell limply next to him. He looked up. There was nothing. Nothing but fire—
And a giant hourglass.
It towered out of the smoke, wooden frame burning. But the sand in the bottom hadn’t yet turned to glass. Turing stared at it. Time.
He snatched up the sword. It burned his flesh but he didn’t care. With one hand Turing hurled Miya’s blade. It smashed against the lower bulb of glass and the sand burst out in a tidal wave. Bits of time set free at last.
The sand covered both him and Protheana, extinguishing their flaming bodies. It rolled over them, creating a zone of extinguished flames.
Turing gasped and fought his way out of the pile, pulling Protheana with him. He was—he was nearly dead. He had a handful of hits left. Not enough to brave even the few feet to the clearing hex. But he was alive.
Alive. But not for long.
The sand from the hourglass had extinguished the fire as it poured out, but even this natural Dirtamancy couldn’t stop an inferno hex. Already the fire was turning the sand to glass and the ground to ash.
Turing stared as the cobblestones began flaking away, transforming into black soot. The terrain was already slowly turning to an Ash Hex. Soon, the fire would engulf the entire city and raze it completely.
This was it. Turing hugged Protheana to him. Well, he’d tried. He really had.
“It was worth it,” he said to her and the fire. “It was worth it. All of it.”
There were better final words, but Turing couldn’t think of them. He hugged Protheana and felt the sand around him starting to melt. He began to close his eyes. And then saw it.
Movement. Through the flames.
For a moment Turing thought the fire had come to life and popped a unit. Or maybe it was the last traces of sanity fleeing before death? But no—there was something moving through the flames. And—the flames were extinguishing!
“What in the name of Erf—?”
Someone was walking through the flames, swinging something. Turing stared, his eyes burning and weeping and saw a mining helmet shining its light through the inferno.
Titans, her ruler had actually hired one. Turing stared through teary eyes as the Dirtamancer swept through the burning landscape, erasing the flames with a sweep of his pickaxe. It was so laughably easy for the caster that it seemed quite unfair to Turing.
But it was magic. And with every sweep of his pickaxe, Dirtamancer took away the deadly flames. Just in time, Turing sat back into the sand and let it cover him. The Dirtamancer passed right by him, sweeping all the flames away and then doubled back into the city.
When he was sure the caster was gone, Turing sat up. He coughed and gasped and spat sand and pulled Protheana out with him. Slowly, he carried her over to the clearing hex. He crossed the boundary, laid Protheana in the lush grass, and staggered upright.
Sword. Sword? He didn’t have one. But Protheana’s sword was…there. It was lying at the edge of the hex. The top half of the blade had broken when she’d thrown it, but the rest was intact.
Turing picked it up, yelped, and then wrapped his hand in what remained of his tunic. He staggered back into his city.
The fire was under control now and nearly gone. Only a few flames were slowly extinguishing themselves. The Dirtamancer stood in the center of the city, panting and dealing with the few fires that remained.
He was a Barbarian – not even in a temporary alliance with Reapin by the looks of it. Turing shook his head. Sloppy. He probably couldn’t even tell if the enemy unit in his hex was Protheana or not. But then, this Harbinger had probably hired the Dirtamancer as fast as possible without giving any explanations.
Turing staggered towards him. He felt—it was wrong. By all rights he should have gotten down on his knees and praised the Dirtamancer. But this was Erfworld. And he had a job to do. So Turing prayed for forgiveness as he walked behind the caster.
His footsteps crunched on a bit of ash. The Dirtamancer turned. His eyes widened and he brought his pickaxe up defensively—
Protheana’s blade cleaved his head straight off. The corpse stood for a moment, and then toppled forwards. Turing sheathed the blade and rubbed at his face.
He was now Level 4.
Protheana’s blade clattered to the ground and Turing stared down at the man he’d killed. For a second his heart stopped as he looked to find the head. He found it, removed the helmet, and held his breath as his stomach lurched.
He didn’t have pale skin. And he wasn’t bald. This Dirtamancer had had a full head of hair and even a beard.
It wasn’t Digdoug. Turing smiled.
The castle was a blackened ruin, but somehow a substantial part of it had remained. Turing made his way to it, avoiding collapsed walls and stepping over glowing embers.
Ash and dust were all that remained of the throne room. Scorch marks and blackened stone had replaced fine carpets and even the stained glass had melted into puddles of black glass.
Yet the throne still stood. It was cracked and broken in places, and the wood was charred until it was surely more charcoal than chair. But it still remained. The city still stood.
For a long time Turing stared up at the throne. It was a terrible thing, he knew. Thrones changed people. It had changed him. It was a terrible burden to bear.
But someone had to do it. It was like being Chief Warlord. Sometimes, the only person who could do it was you.
And so you did your Duty. That was what it was all about. Not Duty towards a single Ruler, or even a side. It was Duty to yourself, and to everyone you cared about.
Or maybe Turing had just inhaled too many fumes. But it was good enough, he decided. A good enough idea to base a side around.
Turing’s feet crunched on ash and gravel as he walked forwards. He was nearly croaked. But not quite. He’d been nearly a lot of things. But one thing he had been and would be again.
A Ruler. Only this time, he’d do it right.
Slowly, Turing sat down in the chair. He felt the city of Restin, and sighed as a crown appeared on his head. He took it off.
“Useless thing,” Turing murmured. “It’s just for show.”
Like names. Turing felt the same urgency building in him, the need to name the side he’d founded. Last time he hadn’t known what to say. It hadn’t’ seemed right. But now everything seemed so clear.
This time he had a name. It came out of his soul, his heart. It began with a simple Patrollord, sitting by himself and walking through an empty city turn after turn. It was born of endless days reading books and dreaming of war. And then, being thrust into all of it unprepared, carrying a side on his back.
The word was a King who Turing hated and then had grown to respect. It was a group of Stabbers and Pikers – two groups, really – who had changed Turing’s life. And though both stories had ended in betrayal, it was their sacrifice which he remembered.
The world was born of Turing’s greatest love and loss, a small Stabber who had seen the same world he had. It was his bitter triumph as he took the life of a Master-class Turnamancer, and the terrible tragedy of the lonely Warlady who had remained. It was a tragedy, an epic, a tale of victories one and bitter regret.
It was one word, and since it sounded better, Turing conjugated it.
Lord Turing of Turning sat on his throne and stared out into a nearly-destroyed city. It was definitely Level 0. But it was his and his alone. He hadn’t the Shmuckers to repair it, nor anyone to protect it. But it was his, and he had paid for it.
In tears. In death. In endless time. He had paid for it. The price had been almost too heavy to bear.
But perhaps he wouldn’t have to bear it alone.
Turing smiled. He could feel his own stats of course. He had a few hits left, and his attack and defense were nothing to brag about. They weren’t bad – just not special. Average move, average everything, really. He was an average Warlord, but perhaps an above-average ruler since most of them were Level 1.
Still, nothing special. But the other unit—
Ah. She was special indeed.
But incapacitated. And currently shouting obscenities and telling Turing to ‘get on with it’. So he did.
Turing stared out across the burnt city, across the place that had been his home, his triumph, and once, he’d thought, his grave.
No longer. And it was time to see something new. Time for all to change. Time long past.
So Turing paused once, listened to Protheana cursing, and smiled.
He took a deep breath.
And then he ended the turn.
The Last Turn will update (at least) once a week if all goes well. I also write a bi-weekly fantasy web serial. If you liked this story, check out my web serial, The Wandering Inn!