IPTSF Text 1

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Life is all Numbers.

Ask any Mathamancer; they know. To live is to stand on one side of an equation, which must equal zero in the end. There is a price, a cost in Numbers, to be paid for staying alive.

Zero is a balance, an equilibrium. Zero is a flat country, neither far away nor near. You can travel there any time, at the cost of your life. And perhaps, if someone were to pay the price to the exact number, you could even return again.

That Mathamancers often say such things, and nod to one another soberly, is thought to be why they tend to keep to their own company. No-one knows what to say to them. Each discipline of magic has its own special insight into cosmic truths. Few casters doubted what was said of the Numbers Axis, but even fewer understood.

Not consciously, anyway.

One day in the country of zero, someone paid a price. Somewhere in the great, infinite sheet of balance, a peak rose up.

Peaceful zeros became ones. Fives. Forty-eights. Agitated hundred-and-twelves. Angry sixty-three-seventy-nines.

The thousands piled up, far above the plane of equilibrium. The numbers rose as a column, into the millions and billions and more, a silver thread stretching up and away from the peace below.

This thread was being drawn up by the system of the world. Thinkamancers knew it as a "Grandiocosmic string." Its numbers were being shaped and guided by the firmament, by what magic theorists called the Erf Axis.

For when the price was paid, it was Erfworld which processed the transaction. The world would produce the unit that was called for...more or less. There was the matter of the Fate Axis as well, and this unit was turning out to be very special. This unit would be worth far more than the buyer had paid for.

That was no violation of Numbers, though. It simply meant that this unit carried a balance due. And though it was an astronomically high figure, someone would pay.

Zero always called, and someone would have to pay.

---

Units belonging to a side always pop in cities. Within those cities, units tend to pop where they are needed: archers to the outer walls, heavies to the stables and courtyards, etc. This particular unit popped in the war room of Minnow Tower, in the capital city of Goodminton.

Her mind was overcome by first sensations. She suddenly wore matte black leather boots, with buckles. She just as suddenly had feet within them. Those feet took her weight. She needed to inhale, and did: her first living breath. A little damp and chilly, she thought. She blinked her first blink, and continued breathing through her nostrils. She smelled damp timbers and brick dust. Parchment and ink. Hardwood smoke. She touched the cloth of her robe with...these fingers, on this hand that was hers.

The garment was soft, thick, woolen, heavy. Also ugly. Slate blue with brass buttons. Goodminton’s livery. Her side was a winter dominion. She knew these things. She recognized without remembering.

The unit began to unfasten the buttons. She wanted to take off the robe and look at her body, touch it. She felt she must be beautiful, that her Signamancy would teach her much about herself.

Then she heard her first distinct sound: the clearing of a human throat.

Her Chief Warlord had been standing in her field of view the entire time. Not every shape in the room had meaning yet. The room was large, and contained many things. But yes, there he was, beside the cluttered...table? Map table. He was wearing a wool cloak in the same shade of blue, lined with starfox fur. His face was hairy, but friendly. A white smile nested in a patch of coal-black beard.

“I was expecting a brother,” he said. His voice had the husky weight of a hunter’s horn.

She refastened one of the three buttons she had undone and tilted her head, meeting his blue eyes. She should try speaking words now.

“I’ve never expected...a thing,” she said, wondering at the sound coming from her mouth.

“You’re a caster!” said the Chief, losing the reins of his smile as it broadened into a wide grin. He stepped closer to her, hands upon hips, elbows tenting his cloak. He was built like a siege tower. “My sister, the caster. How bizarre! I mean I should be furious. I bet Father will be. What’s your name? What kind of caster are you?”

“I’m Wanda.” She said it definitively, although she didn’t really know her own name until she stated it aloud. “Lady Wanda Firebaugh. I am a Croakamancer.” This, too, she knew only as she said it, but it felt abidingly true. She could animate the husks of the once-living. Yes, she could.

The Chief’s smile dimmed like a lantern and died.

“Oh that’ll be interesting,” he said thoughtfully. He licked his lips, looking away at the map table. “Croakamancer. Father will be interested in that, I can tell you. Titans...” He seemed to ponder the implications against the busy strategic situation represented on the table.

Wanda followed his gaze there. It looked messy, but it was a meticulous sort of mess. At least five colors of unit markers were in play. No, six. Slate blue was among the most meager in number. The arrangement of hexes and pieces was actually a neat representation of a mess in reality.

“Well!” he said suddenly, clapping his hands, “welcome home to Goodminton, Wanda! I’m Tommy Firebaugh, short for ‘Atomic.’ Father is simply Overlord Firebaugh, of course.” He looked as if he couldn’t decide whether or not to embrace her. His hands stayed on his hips.

“That’s the whole family any more, I’m afraid.” His face darkened. “We’ll need to get you in front of Father right away. But I wonder if it couldn’t wait until you’ve met the other casters. I’m surprised you popped here and not with Lady Temple, actually..."

Wanda had been glancing around the room, identifying objects as he spoke. When Tommy fell silent, she returned her gaze to him apologetically. Yes, Chief Warlord as well as brother. Respect and attention due.

He heaved a great breath and smiled once more. “Anyway. That’s the good news, though. We have two casters, besides you. And a number of good warlords, although we were sort of hoping you’d be more of an axe-wielding berserker type, you know. We could use it about now.” He indicated the battle map. “As you can see. Just the two cities left. Still have allies, but they’re sort of looking at us like the last slice of cake, you know?”

Wanda wasn’t sure she fully understood the implications of the map, but her brother’s chipper tone kept falling off to awkward silence. It dawned on her that the grace and the burden of being a living person might not be hers for very long. Zero was already calling her back.

“Croakamancer,” said Tommy again, looking her up and down. He shook his head as he turned for the grand doors. “Titans...”

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