Unjust Deserts, part 23
Part 23, Some conditions may apply
The azure and ivory towers and domes of Flandon rose out of the desert sands like a mirage.
She was a dazzling, feminine, mysterious and elegantly understated city, basking in the sunlight by day, and shining in the reflected moonlight from desert sands and river water by night. With the fall of Beirutcake and Berliner, she was now the eldest sultana of the desert. And like all mature ladies, she might wear several flashy jewels, but kept the best ones hidden.
One such hidden jewel was the Secret Stone Garden, nestled between the palace and the wall to the outer garrison. It had once been home to a lush tropical garden, filled with plants and songbirds from a tantalizingly distant jungle. It had brought laughter, served as a secluded spot for romantic trysts, and been a source of inspiration and dreams to generations of Puddings royalty and nobility. They were rudely awakened front the dream when the Swiss Mississippi had gone dry, victim of her former ally’s madness.
Gripped in despair at the loss of a fellow ruler and friend, the queen at the time had ordered the botanical garden cut down to conserve water. Life became grim, what civility lingered in the Sugarglass Desert faded with memory of this, its original name, replaced as it was with the more sombre moniquer of ‘Capital Wasteland’.
Flandon adapted. It had to, to survive. And unbeknownst to everyone, so too had the garden.
A hundredturns later, once she had forgotten why she avoided the eastern gate, the queen chanced to leave the palace through it, and found life there yet endured. A young Palo Verde, the barest hint of a Spanish Dagger, and a tiny elephant cactus had snuck into the barren garden, found open patches of dirt to grow in, and made it their home.
Feeling an echo of that ancient inspiration, the Queen ordered the creation of this, her Secret Stone Garden.
Now as then, tumbled granite boulders brought from far off mesas stood sentry. The Palo Verde, Elephant Cactus, Spanish Dagger and a new Desert Willow, grown now to full size, stood alone in islands surrounded by an ocean of pebbles raked into waves. It was a barren, desolate, purposeful place, meant to remind her and her heirs to find beauty in the emptiness, peace from the silence, and strength from the tenacity of that which yet survived.
They would need it, thought Rosa, sitting on a bench. She had excused herself from the assembly of delegates for a moment, unable to take any more of the tense silence, broken up only by sullen comments, and barely hidden friction as they all waited for news of the success of the mission.
The soft pattering of well heeled shoes rang on the cobblestone path, and Rosa stood and curtsied to the precise correct degree for a Princess addressing her Queen.
“Your majesty.” Rosa kept her gaze down.
“Rise. Please, sit with me.”
“Tempers are short and the delegates snappish.”
Rosa sighed, crossing her leg in front of her and saying, “If only there were more Royal sides in the Capital Wasteland…”
Queen Vienna tutted, “In my experience, being too alike can be just as much a cause for conflict as being too different, with all the small differences becoming larger in comparison. Were we all Royal sides, I imagine the conflict would be over who would lead the charge or annex all their soon to be neutral cities, right up until the knives came out.”
“But still,” interjected Rosa, “think of the opportunity before us. We’ve got nearly every free side present, and we’ll be able to claim leadership in ending Madsense. If we approach the three other Royal sides we could create a coalition promoting Royal values, and rein in the kind of excesses that lead to Madsense’s creation in the first place.”
“My dear,” started the queen, in that tone that spoke of knowing better and begrudging no more frivolity. “I was only too happy to let you embark on that extravagant endeavor for exotic books because I thought you were finally coming around to liking diplomacy. The ignoble sides would never stand with, only against such a coalition for fear of their lives. The other Royal sides would dispute our claim of leadership within such a coalition. Then the Ignobles would pick at us while we were distracted, or even join one of the outer sides from beyond the desert.”
Arguing with her mother was usually the highlight of Rosa’s day. They rarely agreed, with her mother taking a more worldly and practical view than Rosa’s, which her mother scandalously critiqued as unabashedly Royalist. It was odd, she didn’t know which of the two was more idealistic, but she was quite certain they were both equally stubborn.
Rosa could have kept quiet, but she wouldn’t shy away from her own point of view. “Well, that ‘extravagant behavior’ helped bring about last night’s resolution. Whatever utopic flaws they might have, Lord Crush and King Banhammer wrote powerfully and pragmatically about the power of cooperation. I don’t know that I’d call it ‘liking’ diplomacy yet, but I do think we have a duty to show the other sides that life here can be better, that we don’t have to race towards the bottom of the ravine to survive!--”
Rosa caught herself just then, having breached protocol and raised her voice-- not out of anger at her mother, but rather out of passion. Regardless, it was a slight.
Unusually, the queen allowed herself a small smile, and Rosa felt her heart skip a beat. Vienna rose from her seat and nodded to Rosa, saying “No need to stop there, my dear; we shall need that kind of commitment if those wooly headed dreams are ever going to catch on. Come, Charlescomm’s turn is about to start.”
A shadow fell across the garden for a moment as one of the gigantic Desert Beagles flew past overhead.
Rosa shook her head, but rose and joined her mother. “It turns my stomach to think we hired them…”
“Now now dear, sometimes it takes an ignoble side, to deal with another.”
Jeri, Ryan and Annika floated soundlessly, veiled, through the hallways of Madsense.
This was tricky, because there were five commanders scattered around the city, counting the Overlord and two casters, as well as being densely packed with infantry and the occasional scout. They’d already had to scootch against various walls or the ceiling to avoid patrols, always careful not to actually touch anything or anyone.
Thus far their infiltration was, as usual, going off without a hitch.
The Capital Wasteland was usually flyover country for Archons. As in, they usually flew over it altogether, and if they absolutely had to end turn there, they did so high above in the airspace. The sides here were all too poor, and the unusual latent magical effects restricting anything larger than city-sides made it completely unproductive for farming potential clients, business, plots, or even cheap scams.
But that had changed recently. Chatter about a smallish-medium side actually making headway meant new business. And that meant getting prepared.
So Jeri and her sisters had been quietly building a dossier of the ‘Capital Wasteland’ as the locals called it, focusing on Madsense. They mapped cities, eavesdropped, filled profiles and unit type catalogs and mapped deployments. When the contract came in, they sent Dollamancy Crows and scouted the outer garrison of Madsense the city, and some of the inner garrison and palace. It gave them not just the city layout but a good idea of garrisoned troops, and more importantly, the patrol routes so they could avoid commanders and scouts.
It was paying off spectacularly. So far, Jeri wasn’t particularly impressed with their defenses and traps. They’d only run across three Ray-enforced doors, four pressure plates (floor mounted), and a golden cursed Pop Idol set on top of another pedestal trap triggering a rolling boulder in the first floor reception, where an undisciplined intruder would think they could easily steal something and get away with it.
She had to give them props on the inner layout though. While it was no doubt dizzying to normal units, her triad had no trouble navigating thanks to well developed maze training. The schizophrenic decor though, was another nice (and tacky) touch.
Ryan gestured for them to hold, putting a hand to her temple, then sent, ‘Charlie is in conference with their Overlord. He’s in their main office just one more story up on the east side.’
And off they flew.
Staying close to her sisters, she couldn’t help but notice the depressing little lives these units led. Oh, sure, any unit outside of Charlescomm was already doomed to a less fulfilling life, but lucky ones might live in an interesting, fun, or wealthy enough side that they could fool themselves otherwise. These units, though?
Her triad stopped and waited as another patrol marched by their intersection in perfect, silent lockstep. On the other side of the intersection were a pair of maids holding fresh linens, droning unintelligibly but not loud enough to be heard through the staccato thumping of boots.
Once the soldiers walked past, she could make out their droning, a constant mind-numbing stream of their daily duties. As they floated by, Jeri couldn’t resist playing a little trick, and swished her hand over the head of the last of the maids fast enough to knock her bonnet off with the resulting breeze, only to catch and conceal it inside her jacket, revealing the maid’s perfectly bald head.
It was a bit of a hobby of hers, collecting hats. Oh, sure, with her one level of Dollamancy she could make a hat, but the thrill was in yoinking them from the unwary without being caught. Her dream was to one turn yoink off a crown or a tiara and wear it, with Ryan or Annika taking some ‘grams of it for the old scrapbook… right before turning it in to be converted to Shmuckers, of course! She felt just a twinge of guilt for the unprofessionalism.
It took the maid ten whole steps before she even noticed it was missing, turned mechanically, and then dropped the entire stack of linens on the dusty floor as she went to look for it.
Were these units defective somehow? No matter, that would just make it easier for Charlie to play them.
They flew up the stairwell and up another few twisty turny hallways, avoiding detection, then they arrived at the open doors to the Overlord’s office.
Annika peeked in quickly and 'grammed her sisters an image of the inside of the office. As luck would have it, inside the Overlord’s office was the Dittomancer, sitting casually on the desk and looking in on the conversation.
Jeri 'grammed, ‘How do you want to do this, Ryan?’
Ryan held her position by the door, keeping a lookout while ‘gramming back her answer, ‘The Juice on the Ops reports for this side is still wet, but they’ve ID’d the Chief Dittomancer as Kerri Berry, and rated him at four Wings. Overlord’s got one and half. Still, Charlie needs maximum leverage. Jeri, you and me Unveil in front of the Overlord, in view of the Dittomancer. Annika, you stay close and veiled, target the Dittomancer, but try to aim your shot to two-birds that Dittomancer and pop the head off their Overlord with the splash if things get dicey, or it looks like scenario 3 is likely.’
The trio flew in silently, just in time to hear that beautiful, sonorous baritone.
“... as you can see in these graphs, Overlord Bott, Charlescomm’s payment packages can be favorably leveraged against your future conquests to ensure key performance indicators are consistently met in your campaign. We can also offer financing against existing projected Shmucker production, and adjustable payments based on captured treasuries and city levels.”
Seated in his chair and looking up at the ceiling to contrast the blue Thinkagram, the Overlord wore a rictus of a grin better suited for a mask than a face. “Contestants can always choose to keep their winnings instead of playing a new round!”
“Ah, an Overlord after value,” complimented Charlie through the Thinkagram, his silver hair, pencil mustache and suit and tie a picture of sophistication and urbane wit. “Well, if I can’t interest you in our tactical solutions, perhaps one of our products? Charlescomm also offers needful things, everyday magical items of unique value, such as…”
Jeri, Ryan and Annika floated into position just outside of the Overlord and caster’s lines of sight, no sense risking undue spot checks. Jeri allowed herself to peek at the Thinkagram and saw Charlie pan the view of the curio shop behind him towards a silver pyramid shaped hat that seemed to sparkle, then go on to his sale’s pitch, “The Tetrahedral Interference Nullifying Foil, or T.I.N. Foil Hat as we like to call it, will save you time and help focus your attention by stopping all unwanted Thinkamancy you might receive.”
The way the Overlord’s eyes bugged out and he suddenly sat straight in his chair, it was clear Charlie had him hooked.
“And as it so happens, Charlescomm offers 30 turn trial periods on the Tinfoil Hat, with acceptance of the terms and conditions for the warranty, of course. Consider it a token of goodwill.”
Floating into position for a croaking solution near the ceiling and to the Overlord’s right, Jeri saw the Thinkagram shift into a sprawling wall of text showing the terms and conditions on the warranty and loan. Standard stuff, like waivers for health complications or non-functionality. Slightly less standard were how the ‘trial period’ debited their treasury immediately rather than at the end of the 30 turns, how returning it was only possible if it was in pristine condition, how it was technically still a Charlescomm item and was only leased, and how any damage to it, however small, voided the warranty and incurred a contract penalty worth the full cost of the Tinfoil hat.
The Overlord hit the ‘Accept’ button so fast the Dittomancer didn’t even have time to put up a fuss about reading the terms. And just like that, the magic hat on the Overlord’s desk rumbled.
The Dittomancer wrung his hands, no doubt noticing the drop of $5,000 Shmuckers from their treasury. “Lord, I really think you should let Riker get a look at that first, it’s--”
Already, Adbert was elbow deep in the magic hat and pulled out the Tinfoil hat, quickly placing it over his head. “All contestants go home with a lovely Charlescomm haaaat, ahhh--” finished the Overlord in an uncharacteristic soft sigh, even his rictus of a grin seemed to soften.
For a few moments, the Overlord looked like he was experiencing a blissful, silent calm, only for the other signal Charlie was now sending to remotely switch the hat to ‘amplify’.
“--aaaaaaaAAAAARGH!” And just like that, the Overlord doubled over in pain, clutching at his head and trying vainly to remove the trapped hat as the Chinese Finger Trap style constricting web dug into his scalp and refused to let go.
In the Thinkagram, the image of Charlie as a dapper white haired gentleman in a suit and tie sighed, “I had hoped you would reconsider and accept our tactical services, as there was already a rather profitable opportunity for synergy, but unfortunately-- for you-- you aren’t the only potential client in the ‘Capital Wasteland’, and we’ve already got a contract with your ‘competitors’.”
Knowing a cue, Jeri and Ryan unveiled and moved to flank the Overlord from either side, fingers drawn and glowing with just enough lag to give the Dittomancer a chance. Jeri baited the Dittomancer with a focus tested line, “Hurry, hurry, before he’s dittoed!” It was meant to railroad him into their preferred scenarios, but Annika would ‘fix him’ if she detected him casting anything else.
However, the caster didn’t need prompting, in a scant second he’d dittoed the Overlord and hat without even verbalizing a spell. This earned him a measure of silent acknowledgement from Jeri; he was definitely worth 4 wings. A rookie would have saved the juice and not dittoed the hat, making it easy to spot the fake… pity (for them) dittoing the Tinfoil hat counted as a new $5,000 ‘trial’.
Both original and dittoed Overlord ducked away from the throne in opposite directions. Annika was a pro, though, she’d been ‘gramming her view from behind the caster and they knew which was the ditto, and she and Ryan both expertly shot the copy before turning their sights back on the original.
The sight of the depopped Ditto’s Tinfoil hat hitting the ground with a metallic ringing brought a smile to Jeri’s face, as the now ‘damaged’ hat netted Charlescomm $5,000 more Shmuckers.
The mist from the depopped ditto was still fading in the air as the real Overlord stumbled for the door, in intense pain as the Tinfoil hat magnified whatever Thinkamancy curse Charlie had detected he was under.
And Charlie, ever the pro of pros, waved his arm in the now unblockable Thinkagram as if it would actually shoo away the mist and resumed his pitch, “...that contract being to ‘end the Overlord of Madsense.’ However, that contract is… rather limited in terms of repeat business. I believe there are still potential opportunities we could explore, including ones where you live!”
Beside them, the Dittomancer had a hand towards the overlord and another tapping a magic badge on his chest. “You leave overlord Bott alone, you meanies! Troops are on the way and I’ll-- I’ll just keep dittoing him so you don’t croak him!”
Charlie smiled in the little blue rectangle, suddenly forming the image of an array of boxes behind him that tumbled to blanks. “That’s entirely up to your Overlord, Kerri.”
He turned his focus in the ‘gram back to Adbert, who was leaning against his desk, unable to decide between trying to run past her and Ryan or ducking behind the desk. “I really would like to see Madsense succeed. Such an interesting side! I'm sure with a little help from Charlescomm you could turn that dour old desert around. I'm sure we could find a way to fix that Tinfoil hat, even. Just sign a two hundred turn exclusive contract, with deferred payment for a 'reasonable' percentage conquests and acquisitions, and a few other clauses... or see your side end.” Behind Charlie, the boxes now read __ A Y, waiting for the final ‘n’ or ‘y’ from the Overlord.
And there it was, the genius of the Big C. The suckers in the coalition didn’t know the proper Signamancy legalese to avoid triggering contract payments for depopping dupes rather than croaking originals. Once they had these weirdo’s under contract, they could pop off another few dittos and clean the coalition out, making conquering Madsense's now bankrupt and vastly weakened neighbors a cinch, and Charlie’d get most of the city value for each!
Through all this, the Overlord’s toothy grin didn’t waver despite the pain evident in the corners of his eyes. He leaned his hands on the floor to cowtow … and slammed his head against the desk twice to finally break the Tinfoil Hat and free himself, dinging his own treasury another hefty sum thanks to the warranty.
He looked up, one eye swollen shut and the other focused solely on Jeri through the translucent Thinkagram, making her skin crawl with his leering reply, “Is that your final offer?”
What a creep! Nonetheless, she was a pro, or trying to be one, so she smoothed out her frown and kept her business-face on and stuck to the script. On cue, she and Ryan made a show of charging up to shoot, and once again Kerri rapidly duped the overlord only for them to croak the ditto, netting Charlescomm another payment for $100,000 Shmuckers from the coalition.
The Overlord, the real one, finally had the focus to end the Thinkagram with Charlie and tried to run for the door, and they managed to croak a third dupe along the way.
‘Cash flow is out,’ sent Ryan after the fourth was depopped, no doubt relaying news from the Tower. Wow, seven side’s combined treasuries was barely more than 300K? No wonder Charlie never bothered with this dry little sandbox!
Kerri yelped in frustration from consecutively dittoing his overlord so many times, thankfully none the wiser that Annika was still hidden, now actually ready to fire on Kerri, to simplify their escape and search for any potential heirs. Maybe he’d be more sensible? Eh, probably not.
Jeri stiffled a sigh at the stupidity of these weirdo’s into an exhalation through her nose, to steady her aim before firing. This wasn’t the worst outcome Charlescomm had prepped for; now they’d cut off the head of the side and pick a ‘winner’ from among the coalition or one of the more solvent outer sides to offer a contract for help taking over the now neutral cities.
With no more need for theatrics, they snapped to targeted the Overlord and fired.
Kerri’s life flashed before his eyes as he saw the Overlord croaked before he could finish casting the ditto.
No, not again, not again! He couldn't handle being Neutral again!
Glass broke, and something heavy hit the tiled floor behind him. He turned to see a croaked Archon with an arrow poking out through her forehead, and outside the building floated Aimee on her flying carpet, an improved scouting veil fluttering behind her like a prismatic cape and already nocking another arrow.
And… and she was still in Madsense matte black! They were still a side! Feeling through his commander senses, there was still a treasury (pitifully small now) and Overlord-- or overlady somewhere. Adbert must have named an heir in secret!
The last two Archons switched tactics, one fully veiling and the other using multiple image mirages.
Kerri was not letting these naughties get away just like that. He spread both arms out, and instantly two rows of archers materialized before him. Dittoing units from memorized patterns was a minor trick for a Master Dittomancer, but what he did next would be decisive.
The archers screened, stacked, and nocked their own arrows... and started dancing to his beat.
“Dub dub dub Double step Dubstep!”
The combo of a Dittomancer leading dittos in a Dubstep Dance Fight made it trivial to double, quadruple and then octuple their salvos into such a dense saturation of fire in the small office one archon fell croaked outright.
But where had the other one flown?
Short bursts of red light and sharp notes rang from the hallway outside of the Overlord’s chamber, and a moment later Riker came in, wearing his improved researching goggles and holding a gray metallic spike type thing in his right hand, his free hand dragging an unconscious Archon by the neck of her jacket. “You idiots are lucky I was nearby looking for my Carameleon. Here’s the last one, still alive. I managed to phase her.”
Noticing the body of the Overlord before him, and the croaked Archon behind Kerri, Riker stopped in his tracks, realizing this was not a cleverly foiled assassination attempt at the last minute.
He locked eyes with Kerri and dropped his prisoner unceremoniously on the ground, pushing his way through the dittoed archers. “Are you alright? Did they hurt you?” Not waiting for an answer, he put a hand on Kerri and used his Changemancy senses to give him a deep ‘look’ for any harm.
Kerri recoiled at the touch. “I’m fine, I’m fine! Aimee stopped that one from shooting me, but they got the Overlord!”
Still holding an arrow trained on the unconscious Archon, Aimee flew closer to the smashed window without actually landing and yelled, “wtf nme spy in base??? party online bt host afk?!!!”
Kerri could only share her shock and confusion. “I don’t know who, but Adbert must have named an heir without telling us, it’s the only explanation I can think of.”
A cheerful voice broke into the gathering from outside the office, announcing itself, “Hello folks, we’re back from the commercial break!”
Looking to the doorway, Chet Bott was standing there, leaning heavily on Spamela and wearing a slowly widening smile. More a grin, really…
Riker turned, head cocked to the side as he peered into Chet, who was now wearing upgraded raiment very similar to his father’s. “Chet? Are you alright?”
“Sorry for the technical difficulties folks, but the show is back on the air and going strong!”
Kerri took a step forward. The impenetrable way he was talking, the incredibly complex underlay of orders, it was unmistakeable. “Chet, are you the Overlord now?”
“Our old host Adbert Bott has gone on to pursue new career opportunities, and everyone at the Network and our [SPONSORS] wish him well! I’m your new host, Chester Bott! But I was a fan of the show first, and let me tell you…”
He took a step forward, more steady now, and spread his arms wide, grin finally reaching ear to ear into a hardening rictus. “We are all adbots!”
Then he looked down to the unconscious Archon by the door, grin taking on a sinister shade as he yelled with macabre cheer, “A new contestant!”
Jeri came to on the glass strewn floor of the office.
The Overlord-- the new one, she guessed-- was sitting at the desk several feet in front of her, in conference with Charlie.
“Would the contestant like to use one of his Lifelines?”
“The going rate for captured Archons is over $9,000 Shmuckers. But honestly Overlord Bott, there’s still a chance for you to come out of this ahead! I can offer you a discount on our services to compensate your recent loss.”
“Only contestants who put $29,000 in the pot can compete in the next round!”
“Well, that’s simply eye gouging. Hmm, I’m starting to see the family resemblance now.”
“As a consolation prize, how about a slightly used Archon for the low low price of $12,000 Shmuckers?!”
In the Thinkagram, Charlie was facing the Overlord, but the way he repositioned his head, it looked like he was staring straight at her. “My deep regrets, but that offer simply won’t fly.”
Jeri… Jeri knew her cue. Noticing her guards were mildly distracted, she rolled onto her back and kicked one in the knees, knocking him over and grabbed the other as a human shield, the dittoed archer struggled, but being a ranged unit had no real training with hand to hand combat.
She used her manacles to choke the archer, backing up to the hole in the window as the assembled infantry and warlords reacted to her attempt at escape.
That offer simply wouldn’t fly, and neither would she.
Thinkagram over, Riker sighed, “Fine, you win the bet, I’ll conjure you up a strawberry shortcake for dinner.”
Spamela clapped her hands together in glee, finally winning one of the many bets and lotteries she sent out in her letters.
Aimee walked over to a stack of dittoed Archers and waded through them, only to pull away the Mark II Improved Scouting Veil over the real Archon. Jeri struggled against her bonds, sputtered muted screams into her gag, horrified at what her ditto had just done-- or more accurately, what she’d been unable to.
The Overlord turned to Aimee. “Would you care to enroll our new contestant?!”
Shrugging, Aimee flatly sympathized with “gg sry sis”. Then took out and equipped the alpha model for the Flood gauntlet, flexing her fist and extruding the injector.
“Wait,” interrupted Riker, putting a hand to Aimee’s shoulder. “Archons are rare, valuable, we should test it out on her dittos, experiment to perfect a custom formula so it won’t croak her alpha.”
“Oh. Like when you interrogated and depopped Beck’s ditto? Or tortured and croaked the very real prisoners in Canberry?” asked Kerri, with an unusually acid undertone.
“Yes,” glowered back Riker, “under orders, to keep you safe!” Whatever surprise he might have felt over being attacked by his brother quickly changed into a cynical response, “Tell me, have you developed feelings for this one too?”
“No!” Kerri hadn’t expected to be bit back, fumed, but then kept quiet.
Clearing his throat, Riker addressed his new ruler, “So, ‘Overlord Bott’...” he gestured towards Jeri. “Just a little time, and we really will have an Archon as a consolation prize.”
Inwardly, Jeri screamed. She would croak a dozen, a hundred times for Charlie, but… she’d never expected to be quite so literally put to the test.
Wasteland survival guide
Rule #1: don’t panic! Panic makes you do stupid crack.
Rule #2: It’s dangerous to go alone; tame a friend.
Rule #3: Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.
Rule #4: The desert is weird; roll with it.
Rule #5: That’s the way the Kooky crumbles.
Rule #6: Foolamancy isn’t just a special, but a state of mind.
Rule #7: Every once in awhile, remember to have some fun and enjoy what you’re doing.
Jeri, Ryan and Annika
Wow, there's some bad Signamancy in those names for archons invading the Borg...
Looks like Seven of Nine is joining Madsense (named after succeeding on the seventh of nine dittos, maybe?), and Charlie's just emptied the treasury of everyone else in the desert, so he's probably going to lose interest in the area again.
- For a while, at least.Way, way back when I was making the first drafts I did a few rounds of "is Charlie a factor?", and Jeri said basically all of the reasons he hadn't been one for most of the story so far. This part was a challenge and fun, but his active interest and presence from the start would have radically altered the plot. Honestly, my respect to Rob for having Charlie as the main antagonist in book 3.
Lost the first comment I typed up, lets try this again. :P
Good to have you back! I missed your updates almost as much as the main story. You do a masterful job of capturing the feel of Erfworld, the balance of depth and humor, the fascinating mechanics exploration, the cooky Kooky but believable characters. Kudos, and keep it up!