King in the Machine - parts 4-6

Part 4 - Fateful Pathes

For many, the great Kogane is the embodiment of protection.
Even before he was the Defender of the Universe, he did all he could to protect friends and allies from the perils an uncaring fate put in their way.
His first confrontation with Fate, and his failure to defend his friends, seemed to reinforce this trait in him to new heights.

As soon as turn started, Kogane made his way to the war room. Most of the big room was cordoned and closed, as it was used only for formal events, with the king or chief present. There was light and activity only on the raised platform, where a sand table was erected.
Kogane could see a map of the surrounding area. The Pride's area of influence was marked, radiating from Odeon to a great area. However, most of the area to the south was empty prairie, with few cities and many ruins. There was a cluster of cities to the northwest and the northeast, where the Pride's two armies waged two separate campaigns. Odeon was the south's defense, both a strong shield and a mobile sword against any incursions.

With a mild surprise Kogane saw that Allura arrived even before him to the War Room. She had her right hand to her temple, and the other touched Warlady Sarabi, one of the Pride's veteran and trustworthy leaders, and the city's manager. Her lieutenants stood beside her, and Leon was on her right. His manner was solemn and formal, but he managed to wink and smile at Kogane when he saw him.

Allura lowered her hands, and Sarabi straightened up and spoke: "Listen up, warlords! there's a small band of Drule marauders making their way towards the city of Benin. If they hold their course, they could hit Benin in 3 turns, and from there they could go to Tsavo and Transvaal. They will not get there! Our infantry is too slow to catch up to them, but our cavalry and allies (at that she nodded towards Leon, who nodded back) shall intercept them on this turn! I shall lead this force personally. Warlady Nala will be in charge in my absence. Let the cavalry and Storm Cats prepare!"

Most of the warlords and warladies left to carry out their orders. Sarabi stayed on the platform, talking with Leon. Kogane climbed the steps to the platform, gave a 'thumbs up' for Allura, and approached Sarabi.
Sarabi acknowledged him, and asked: "Yes, prince Kogane? how can I help you?"
Kogane stood straight, and answered: "Warlady Sarabi, I would like to join the strike force!"

Sarabi was slow to answer. "I'm sorry, prince, but I can't take it you to combat on my authority. Casters are a precious resource, not to be squandered at a whim".

Though he understood and respected Sarabi's decision, Kogane was bitterly disappointed. It was one thing to go on adventure, for fun and profit, an quite another to go to battle for the protection of the side.

From across the room Kogane saw Allura lift her hand to her temple. She stood there for a few seconds, and then said: "Warlady Sarabi - Chief Isibanda says prince Kogane is more then welcome to observe the action, and join it at his own discretion."

Sarabi still looked unconvinced. Leon Saw this, and said: "I'll tell you what, Sarabi. I know I said I'll sit this one out, but I could join and keep an eye on the young prince. I'll even bring my knights - they can keep an eye on both of us!"

Sarabi threw out her hands and laughed. "OK, OK, you can go on this field trip! Just don't fall from a horse and croak yourself - Your father will never let me forget it!"
Allura, Leon and Kogane joined her laughter, but Kogane felt an amused voice in his head: "You owe me one, brother!"

Within the hour the task-force (or Pack, as it was usually called in the Pride) was assembled at the city gates. Sarabi stood in the stirrup, looking regal with chain mail and her lionshead helm, and surveyed the force of 100 light cavalrymen, 24 lancers and 32 Storm Cats.

Kogane was stacked with Leon and his guard, and rode after Sarabi's stack. He noticed something peculiar and turned to Leon, and asked: "Where are the Storm Cats' horses? The Pack is supposed to ride out any moment!"
Leon seemed puzzled. "What horses? what are you talking about?"
"Horses, man, for the Storm Cats! Are they supposed to run after on foot?"
To Kogane's surprise, all his companions laughed. Leon regained control of himself, and explained: "Yes, Kogane. They are supposed to run. We're Storm Cats! We run as fast as horses! Besides, Storm Cats don't have the Ride special."
"Then how come you're riding horses?" Kogane asked, feeling a bit upset at making such a gaff in public.
"Because we are KNIGHTS, Kogane! That's why we have any special at all!" answered Leon.

With his questions answered Kogane rejoined his sniggering friends. Soon they left the gate and rode Southwest with great haste. The Storm Cats kept pace with the horses with ease, as his friends were wont to remind him from time to time.
The day was fine, with bright blue sky and a pleasant breeze, the Prairie green and fragrant, but for some reason Kogane felt worst as the day advanced. Despite the wide open horizons he felt trapped, locked in a dark room with no place to maneuver.

"It's probably just jeeters" Said Panthro, when he confided in him. "The first real battle is always a shock."
"I don't believe so" said Kogane, "I've been to a battle, and it felt different,"
Panthro just smiled. "Don't worry, young prince. You'll feel better when the action starts!"

The sun reached midday when they finally caught up with the invading force. It looked like it was made up from infantry, mostly light infantry and crossbowman, along with some Dwarfs - Heavy infantry with tunnel capablity. At the center 1-2 stacks of unusual heavy golems stood in the middle of the formation - a very unusual makeup for a raiding party in the prairie. Even more unusually, they were fortified behind earthworks, with what appeared to be an underground shelter.

Sarabi called out: "The enemy has a Dirtmancer! look for traps as you advance!". With a hand signal, she ordered the troops to enter and engage the enemy hex.
With every step, Kogane felt as if darkness was closing on him from every direction, and he thought he smelled fire and ashes. His palms were sweaty and cold, and his heart pounded in his chest.
Kogane rode out to Sarabi, took hold of her hand, and pleaded: "Please, Sarabi, do not enter this hex! This is a hex of Doom! Something terrible awaits us there. I don't know why, but I can feel it!"
Sarabi's face seemed to twist with rage. She shouted: "Kogane, you get back in line and stop bothering me! This is no time for your cold feet!"

Kogane felt no better, but he resolved not to bother Sarabi again without cause, He restacked with leon, and with grim resolve crossed the hex boundary.

Sarafi led the Pride's forces with the classic cavalry attack against a stationary target. The cavalry rode in a circle around the target, unleashing arrows and spears, while presenting a difficult target due to their mobility. At a certain point the leader gives the signal, and the best troops charge a weak point in the defense. If done properly this was a devastating tactic. It preserved the cavalry's mobility, utilized their shock effect in a charge, while allowing the commander to find and exploit specific weaknesses in the formation.

Kogane soon found himself riding as hard as he could in the outer ring of riders. At first he could not aim effectively - it is very hard to shoot from a moving mount - but after a few false shots he expanded some juice on an enhancement to his saddle, that made it much easier to aim. Though he could still feel walls closing on him, this part was fun.

The enemy was crouched behind the erfworks, archers shooting and the infantry throwing javelins on them. Kogane could see an archer ahead crouching to reload his crossbow. Kogane pointed his wand at the place the archer's head will be when he gets up, always when his horse was in the highest point of the gallop. Time seemed to stretch, as he saw the archer's head climb into place. His face was calm, as if he was merely practicing at the range, the open helmet leaving his face in full view. He rested his elbows on the erfwork and took aim.


a powerful charge of shockmancy, much stronger then anything Kogane could do on his own, struck the archer. It wasn't a crit, but the brute force of the spell was enough to croak his target,

His wand was fully charged with powerful magic, and he let loose again and again. He still missed half of his targets, but almost every hit was enough to croak. He even leveled to level 3. The troops around him were whooping, but Kogane felt worst with every passing turn. Then he looked at the golems again, and gasped.

He could see the field, but all around him were flames and screams. With a shock he realized he was using not seeing with his normal senses, but with Predictamancy sight, enabled through his goggles, and much clearer after his extra level enabled him to understand what he was seeing. Everywhere he looked was death and defeat. Everywhere except one trail, one chance to escape annihilation - The path out of the hex. Escape was his only option,

Immediately Kogane broke stack and restacked with Sarabi. He drew close, and shouted to her: "Warlady Sarabi, as a caster of the pride I hereby formally advise you: We must retreat at once, or risk the croaking of every unit here! I so Predict!".

Sarabi turned to him with pure loathing in her eyes. "Kogane, you titans-forsaken cowardly slimeball! you don't deserve to be your father's son. If you're so afraid, by all means retreat! You don't belong on a battlefield. You're not a warrior - you're a courtier!".

Kogane restacked with Leon, too shocked and numb to really feel much of anything yet. With a silent order from Sarabi he left the encircling warriors and made his way to the hex they came from. To his relief Leon and his guard joined him.

As soon as they reached the Hex boundary Kogane turned back, and looked on the battle. Sarabi seemed to find the weak point she looked for, and the charge began against one of the flanks of the enemy units.

Kogane turned to Leon. "You know me, Leon. Do you really believe I'm a coward?"
Leon looked him in the eyes, his expression solemn. "No, Kogane. You are my friend, and my comrade in arms. When we faced the Devil underground you held firm. I don't understand magic, or how you can somehow Predict, but I'm sure you mean every word you said. I fear for our friends, and for my people out there on the field of battle, but I don't doubt you. I just really hope you're wrong."

They looked in silence as he battle unfolded. At first it seemed as if everything went well. The Pack crashed on the enemy's left flank, driving them back from their fortifications. The enemy's golems spread in a line and charged the Pack's line. The battle was intense, with the golems obviously getting healed by the Dirtamancer, but the Pack was holding the line and inflicting punishment on the enemy. Most of the enemy's regular troops retreated behind the golems.

Kogane had a feeling something is very wrong, but he couldn't see what. Then Tigra called out: "Watch! There's smoke coming from the front line!".
It was true. now everyone could see smoke rising from the battlefield. Soon flames erupted all around the field. In what appeared like mere seconds, the dry grass of the prairie was ignited. The golems were now engulfed in flames, but it seemed they were immune to fire. Sarabi could be seen, still fighting, but most of the horses bolted in terror. The call for retreat was sounded, but before anything could be done the whole hex became an inferno.

What followed was a nightmare of heat and smoke. Shrieks of units and friends croaked in one of the worst ways imaginable filled their ears. The sounds were the only things escaping that hellish hex - not one friendly unit managed to escape the fire in time.

When the flames and smoke died down, they could see that most of the enemy took shelter in the underground building, and that the area around it was unhurt - the Dirtammancer stopped the flames that could hurt them.
That same dirtamancer now walked towards the hex boundary. He seemed deranged, with bright red eyes and red hair, clad in a raiment of sable and yellow, and with a volcano as a crest. He stood near the hex boundary, greened, pointed at Kogane and his friends, and said: "Your'e next to burn."

This display of pure malevolence seemed to break Kogane and Leon of their stupor of horror. With a silent order to the rest of the guard, they made their way back to the center of the hex, and made their plans.

"Can we escape?" Leon asked. "I don't like our odds - the five of us against an army."

"We could" said Cheetara, "We still have move. But Kogane cannot escape."
"It is better that I croak alone, then be the cause of your passing" said Kogane. "Go on without me - I'll try to evade them in one of the hexes."
"So it's settled" said Panthro. "We're staying with Kogane. Anyone objects?"
The others shooshed Kogane when he tried to object.
"Did anyone see what made the hex burn?" Leon asked.
Tigra answered: "I think it was the Dirtamancer - some sort of flame trap. The prairie is prone to wild fires as it is, it must have been easy to induce an inferno."
Kogane said: "I think I can help with the flames. I know how to make an item that negates fire. I made quite a few in the Magic Kingdom last turn. If Panthro will help me we could do this."
Leon said: "This is all well and good, but we still have an army to fight. 5 people are just not enough, even without the hell-golems."
"We can still go back on foot" said Kogane, "And we'll ask the city to send us what it can. I just hope we have enough reserves."

The mounts' move was spent, so they were left in the hex. together they made their way back towards the city, while Kogane concentrated as hard as he could on his sister. It took some time, but finally he felt the touch of thinkamancy in his mind.

Allura sounded nervous and worried. "Kogane! are you OK? They say that most of the Pack was destroyed!"
"That's unfortunately true, however me and Leon's group survived. We have little time and not enough juice. I need you to connect me to Nala as soon as possible!"
Allura still sounded worried, but she replied "Right away, brother." and broke contact.
It took only 5 minutes for Nala to get back in touch with him. He gave her a short tactical summary of what happened, and asked what units left in the city could reach them this turn.
"I'm afraid that only the remaining Storm Cats - around 50 of them - could reach you this turn. We have no more cavalry units in the city. I'll send them to you as soon as possible."

Kogane, Leon and the guard managed to walk 3 more hexes their turn. Kogane and Panthro sat together and discussed how to create the anti-fire devices. Finally, Kogane conjured some exotic materials, which Panthro used to craft into 2 red cylinders with nozzles, filled with the anti-fire countermeasures Kogane created. Kogane then increased the pressure of the materials inside, and created a mechanism for spraying it with ease. This took some time, and half of Kogane's juice, but in the end they had a couple of devices Kogane named "Fire extinguishers".

It was almost turn's end when the small army of 50 storm cats finally arrived. Leon soon arranged them for battle. Most of the Storm Cats were arrayed on the back slope of a small hill that stood in the middle of the hex, to limit the crosbowmen's ability to target them from range. The grass on and around the hill was burned in advance by the Cats, using small controlled fires. The burning was completed without Kogane's new creations put to the test.

They barely finished their preparations when the enemy entered the hex. They faced at least 150 units, 30 of whom were crossbowmen, The great golems stood in the middle of the advancing army, 2 stacks strong, towering over the dwarfs and men. On their flanks were the dwarfs, clad with heavy chain and wielding axe and shield. The light infantry behind them was arrayed as a second line, ready to shore up any breaks in the line or to exploit any weakness.

The Pride's forces could not boast such a robust formation. Leon and Panthro each led a stack of Storm Cats, with Kogane in Leon's stack. Cheetara was given the Fire Extinguishers, and the task of preventing the inferno that consumed the first battle. the rest of the Cats, 4 more stacks of Storm Cats, stood in the first line, with one last stack in the rear, ready to replace casualties in the front stacks.

Kogane's task was to croak the dirtamancer if he can. If not, his secondary targets were the golems. With his powerfully charged wand, he was their heaviest hitter.

The dwarfs clashed their axes on their shields, the golems roared like bulls, and the enemy charged. As soon as they cleared the hill's crest Kogane started blasting at the golems, but it was clear that they were immune to shockmancy. The dirtamancer was screened by the golems, and Kogane's attempts to hit him failed. By then the charge reached them, and a fierce melee was joined.
Once the Pride's stacks were engaged, the crossbowemen advanced and commenced firing. Arrows started to fall among them, but mostly on the rear stack of Cats.
Leon cried: "NOW, Tigra!!" and Tigra apeared in the long grass on the hill's border. With a shout she charged the crossbowmen, followed by 7 Storm Cats. Her first attack was devastating, and she tore through the archers like wildfire, but soon the light infantry turned to face her. Her stack fought bravely, but was outnumbered 3 to 1.

On his right, Leon cried his battle cry: "Thunder! Lightning! Storm Cats!! Hoo!!" Kogane felt his leadership bonus double, and all the Cats in the hex cheered, and fought with renewed vigor.
The Cats on the flanks seemed to hold their own against the dwarfs, but the damn golems seemed as indestructible as before. Leon and Panthro would hit them, and cause some damage, but their always healed completely by next round. What was worst, he could feel the temperature getting higher.

From the corner of his eye he saw Leon take a hit from one of the golems. Two of the cats in his stack already croaked. In desperation, he unleashed one charge after the other. His wand was almost depleted - all that was left were the special charges he created himself when learning to alter damage type. He shot fire, lightning, acid - but the golems just shrugged them off! some fires started to erupt all around him, but were immediatly put down by Cheetara. Still, it became unbearably hot near the golems. With desperation he shot the next charge - a sonic boom - and the golem seemed to take double damage!!!

Now he knew what to do. He concentrated, feeling the weapons of the allies next to him, and especially the weapons of Leon and his guard. He spoke the trigger words - "Valkyrie, Blackbird, Seabass - Sonic Boom!"
All around him the weapons of his allies glowed purple. Panthro struck with his great mace, and a great BOOM was heard. A golem's leg shattered to smitherins, While Leon removed a golem's head with a beautiful crit. The first golem was made whole again, but the second ws beyond repair. Progress! The Storm Cats also landed hits on the golems, draining the dirtamamncer's juice and concentration.
He could feel hope start to rise inside him. His blood pounded in his ears - or was it blood? He could hear a beat! A 4/4 beat, and it was emanating from the Storm Sword!
Leon lifted the sword over his head. Guitars and bass joined in, and all the Storm Cats in the hex started dancing in unison, singing a simple, infectious rock song:

"Storm Cats are on the move,
The Storm Cats are loose!
Feel the magic, hear the ROAR,
The Storm Cats are loose!
Thunder, lightning, here comes the Storm Cats!
Thunder, lightning here come THE STORM CATS!!!"

The storm cats were all dancing and singing. The enemy seemed dumbfounded, but not for long - the dance-fighting bonuses, stacked with Leon's dittoed leadership bonus made them unstoppable fighting machines. Tigra's group, though outnumbered 3 to 1, crushed the unlead infantry. The unled Cats broke the dwarfs line, and fell on the light infantry like lions among unsuspecting sheep. Leon and Panthro destroyed golems as if they were made of Papier-mâché.
Kogane had no more sonic attacks, so he used the last of his wand's charges to snipe at the infantry on their flanks. In a few short rounds only the Dirtamancer was left alive.

Leon stepped through the wreck of of the golems, between the corpses of the croaked and hit the Dirtamancer hard with the sword's pommel. Manacles sprang and tied themselves around his hands and knees. He looked upon him in cold fury, and said: "You will pay for your crimes, Pyromaniac, and if I have my way - You will be consumed by the same flames you unleashed!"

Without mounts it took them 2 turns to return to Odeon. It was a slow march, and while they were victorious against all odds, their mood was not jubilant. They have lost much on this sortie - Their friend, Saribi, a valiant warlady that served the Pride for thousands of turns. They lost more then a hundred comrades to the Dirtamnancer's fires, and a large number of them were Storm Cats. The capital was now weaker then ever,

Leon talked much of the time with Kogane. "Once again, we owe each other our lives. It must be fated that we shall fight side by side. You have shown your worth, both before and after the battle. The unlocking of the Storm Sword's powers alone is a great service to our clan. But how come you knew not to attack?"

Kogane thought about that same question himself, many times. If only he better understood his Prediction, perhaps the first disastrous battle could have been avoided!

"I do not rightly know, my friend." he answered. "Though I am a changamancer, it seemed I have a small affinity to Fate. Changamancy is, after all, Fate magic. I am not a Predictamamncer, not by a long shot, by in time I might pick some of their skills. This time the results were so dramatic, I could feel them even without understanding them. Perhaps. next time, I will recognize the feeling for what it is - Fate's doors closing all around me."

From afar he could see Odeon, his home. He was bone-weary, and wanted nothing more then getting to his room and going to bed. Then he felt/saw Allura, both with his mind and his eyes, and the relief and happiness he felt healed his heart more then anything sleep could ever do. With a light step, and rising spirits, he made his way home

Part 5 - Team Work

When one talks of the great Kogane, he is talking about his team - all of the Defenders. Kogane was the first to assert he was the First among Equals.
Not everyone knows that the Defenders would never have met if nor for a chance meeting in the Magic Kingdom - Though nothing is really left to chance when Predictamancy is part of the mix.

Kogane saw the Disaplacer Beast vicious claw attack, sharp claws dripping with blood, 3 feet to his side. He tried to judge his distance and dodge, but the searing pain in his flank meant he failed. The force of the blow tossed him aside like an unwanted rag doll. He looked blearily to the side, and saw the great beast pounce.

In the aftermath of the "battle of the pyre", as his last battle came to be known, Kogane remained in Odeon for a few turns. He split his juice between bolstering the city's defenses, mostly by enhancing the siege engines, and improving the warlords gear. He took great care to "spell up" Warlady's Nala's equipment. In the meantime, the city popped new cavalry and the Storm Cats replenished their numbers. The city was safe once more.

From the corner of his eyes he could see Lu Zijian swinging his long warstaff, striking the apparently empty air above him. He heard a dull "Thump", and the Beast's image on his side was suddenly knocked sideways. Lu smiled at him and gave him a hand, lifting him to his feet. "You were not Fated to croak today, my friend." he said.

With his Duty satisfied, Kogane returned to the Magic Kingdom. He spent a few turns there, observing and learning. The Thunderdome and the Shockmancers still had work to do, and he spent his juice there for a couple of turns, and finished repairing the fire countermeasures for them. The shockmancers recharged his wand, and Kogane finally learned to cast a few shockmancy spells himself. The evenings he spent with his new friend, Lu Zijian the warrior Predictamancer, and Lu's small circle of friends - Felix the Fighting Florist, and Hitta the Findmancer.

Felix put his hands together, letting juice flow between them into the cavern's ground. With a grunt and tremendous force he raised them up. Green leaves shot up from the ground all around the stunned Beast. They grew bigger and stronger, and strong tendrils shot out and covered the entire Beast before it could resist. It started to thrash and struggle, tried to bite and scratch at the living net that formed around it, but to no avail. It was trapped.
The Beast's mate screamed with rage. It's tentacles shot out, striking Leon and Panthro with great force, and knocking them down. The casters now had no one to screen for them. The Beast charged forward.

All three of the friends were united by two things - a love for melee, and the contempt of their fellow casters.
Lu zijian was a Predictamancer that didn't believe in Predictions and tried to avoid them as much a s possible. Felix was a florist, but he didn't buy into the "hippimancer mindset". He believed life was a bitter struggle for survival, and that plantlife was more than able to hold it's own. His Shambling Mounds, a kind of swamp golem, were especially horrifying.
Much to his disgust, no employer seemed to take the idea of a Fighting Florist seriously, so he had to survive on poisons and growing rations.
Hitta was a Findmancer, adept in the magics of conjuring and divining. She was unique among the findamancers. While most of them would enter a trance and "possess" the creature they summoned up to exclusion of other senses, she remained awake during conjuring. This allowed her to remain active after summoning, but she could only summon and control creatures within her line of sight.

The Displacer Beast charged the casters, snarling and showing large, yellow teeth. From the back a voice could be heard mumbling: "Skip, Tweet, Cook, WOTC!"
A large, imposing creature materialized from nothing. It was twice as tall as Panthro, with large, strong arms, even bigger and stronger legs, monstrous mandibles and two large eyes, each one glittering like living jewels. It's skin was covered with umber exoskeleton, as strong as any mail. With a terrible scritch the great hulk charged into the seemingly empty space in front of it. In a split second a disturbing sight could be seen - The summoned creature was fighting with great ferocity, but against no visible opponent. A few feet away, the Displacer Beast was fighting for it's life against a unseen foe. The spectacle was mesmerizing, and Kogane had a hard time tearing his eyes away from it, which was probably the reason he hasn't seen the Gnome until it was too late.

He spent a few more days in the MK. It appeared like everyone had a piece of machinery they needed fixed, and were more then happyto repay by teaching instead of cold hard cash. He spent most of his time with the Turnamancers, acting as an apprentice, and attempted to learn the difficult art of Crafting self propelled objects. At the end of 5 days he managed to craft some weak magical engines.

An explosion of lights of every color flashed all around him, and his ears were assaulted with all kinds of terrible, random sounds. He was dazed by the cruel overload his senses were attacked with. With a tremendous act of will and concentration, Kogane
let his juice flow into the his goggles, imbuing it with true sight and hearing.
To his horror, he could now see the Gnome approaching Leon with a dark, serrated dagger, and a look of glee and triumph on his face. Before the insidious gnome had a chance to cut Leon's throat, Kogane let lose a vicious strike from his wand. He struck the gnome squarely in his chest, and sent him sprawling to the other side of the room.

With a look of pure hatred, the gnome sent a ray of searing light at Kogane. Kogane jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding the beam, but when he turned back the gnome vanished again.

It was a wonderful week, and Kogane finished it with more funds than he started - There really was enough work for a changamancer to live comfortably in the MK. This might be the reason the Changemancers he saw were all so self absorbed - They didn't really need to worry about upkeep.
He took Lu Zijian and his new friends to a small goodbye dinner at a fancy Florist's restaurant. It was during the evening's merriment, and the realization that these casters have become his friends in such a short while, that Kogane had a great idea - why don't they all go treasure-hunting together? There were more then enough ruins near Odeon to keep them busy, and the spoils could support his friends upkeep. The idea met with unanimous assent, and they made plans to go in 5 turns time explore one of the ruins.

Kogane scanned the room quickly. His companions were incapacitated by the Gnome's spell. The great umber beast returned to whatever world it came from, but both Displacer Beasts were as incapacitated as his friends were. The Gnome was nowhere to be seen.
Kogane walked swiftly towards Chitara, and conjured a few small goggles, granting a small defensive bonus, and imbued them too with the power of True Sight. He gave one of them to Chitara. In seconds she got up, turned her head towards him, and without a word held up her hand. Kogane gave her the rest of the goggles. Chitara became a blur, and the rest of his friends status changed suddenly from "Incapacitated" to normal.
With much groaning and shaking of heads everyone got up and took bearing on their surroundings again. Kogane took the time to put his sword into the helpless Displacer Beasts and croak them. It took 3 tried each.

Kogane convinced Leon and his guards to go on a little "outing", though there was need for very little convincing. within 5 turns they met with the three barbarian casters, and the eight of them made their way to the ruins of Smolany. A tribe of High Elves has colonized it for some time, but has now taken to raiding supply wagons while screaming about "Facist Imperrialist pigs".
The adventuring stack attacked the tribe while most of them were still "under the influence", and destroyed them easily. They found a nice collection of gems and shmuckers in the tribe's campfire, and were searching the ruins, when Hitta found a veiled entrance to an unknown tunnel system.

The corridor led to a small cull-de-sac. It was a room richly furnished, with tapestries, art and jewels, and several crates filled with gold. In it was the gnome, holding an axe. When he saw them he charged immediately, his axe held high. The sudden charge took them by surprise, but Panthro was able to deflect the wild axe swing with his shield, and Leon struck with the Sword of Storms, and croaked him with a crit.
The friends unstacked to examine the room and it's treaseures, but Tigra didn't join them.
"Hold! everyone restack now!" Tigra commanded. The casters seemed irritated to be commanded like common pikers, especially by a non-commander, but complied when they saw everyone else leaving everything and restacking.
Tigra added: "Findamancer! Find the gnome!"
Hitta looked confused, and pointed at the corpse near the entrance. "Here he is! you don't need a findamancer for that."
Tigra looked at her with scorn. "I never knew a caster that willingly uses a weapon when there's any other way to fight. Find that gnome!"
Hitta looked unconvinced, but complied any. Her look of annoyance quickly changed to shock, and she pointed at a seemingly normal wall. "Behind there! but how...?!"
With a crash the hidden door was opened. Behind it were 3 heavy monsters made of dense shadow, screening the Gnome caster, that screamed: "Charge, my pretties!!" as he shot a searing attack against them.

The veiled door led them to a small tunnel system under the ruins. It was evident that it was much in use. There were many tracks there, both in and out, and even the occasional coins. There was also graffiti, in the High Elves shaky script: Down with Rulers, and Death to the Bourgeois! There were also many repeats of 'The Gnome Knows!" and "Chomsky for Erf!".
After what seemed like a long walk they entered a large, well lit cavern. at the back, and for some reason to the side, there were two large creatures. They seemed feline, with sleek bodies, sharp teeth and claws, but with two large tentacles sprouting from their back. With a snarl they charged forward, though not at their stack.
They entered the room warily, while watching the two monsters run and pounce on a spot 10 feet to their side, when suddenly Panthro and Leon were struck by invisible foes, fell down with their enemies on them, and suffered a massive damage in hits. Tigra shouted: "Displacer Beasts!!! Ignore the illusion - they are on Leon! Charge them!!!"
Chitara and Tigra rushed towards Leon, when invisible tentacles swept them aside. Kogane aimed his wand to the spot above Leon and fired a shot. The Beast howeled in pain, jumped off Leon and charged towards him.

Tigra's awareness bought only seconds, but those seconds were precious - They were stacked, the casters screened, and unsurprised. The great shadow beings attacked with ferocity, but were met with skill.

On the left, Panthro held his shield, and deflected the shadow being's attack. On the right Lu Zijian was fighting with fluid quickness. No matter how savage the blow, Lu wasn't there when the blow landed. with a small twist of his head, or an artful hit with the staff, the attacker was foiled. In the center, Leon And tigra parried every blow with skill and speed.

Kogane cried: "Leon! Give us light!!!" Leon smiled, and gave his war cry: "Thunder! Lightning! Storm cats - HOOO!!"

The sword of storms doubled in length, and a great light shot out from its Rain-guard, Illuminating the small room with bright light. The shadow being gave a great cry of dismay, and took a step backwards. Kogane looked around him, and enhanced the weapons of all his allies with brilliant light, causing radiant damage on every strike. Panthro, Leon and Lu Zijian advanced, and each struck a mighty blow with their now glowing weapons. The shadow-things dissolved into nothingness with muted screams,

The Gnome turned to flee, but found his feet held fast with a strong vine, and a great cave bear behind him, blocking his escape.
"Do you have any last words, creature?" asked Leon as he advanced on the Gnome.
"Spare me! I'm not a monster! I Used to be PC!!! I'm a PC!!! Please!!!"
Leon's strike was quick and true, and the creature's head was loped off. "Consider me the PC police, then!" he said.
Kogane turned to Lu Zijian. "PC? What was it talking about?"
Lu Zijian answered: "Preferred Companion, a kind of Natural Ally. Legend says a great Wizard erased them from existence using a Retconjuration-Signamancy artifact long ago. Probably a myth."

The treasure in the treasure room was indeed rewarding. The barbarian casters filled their purses, guaranteeing their upkeep for many a turn in the future. There were some small magical items, distributed among the Storm Cats, and a great many books - The gnome's library, most of it self writ. With the Elves' treasure it was indeed a substantial gain to the treasury and the Cat's tribe, with enough left over for individual units. They made their way home to Odeon with a heavy purse and a light heart.

That night They celebrated in the great hall of odeon until the small hours of the night. There was a definite bonus of celebrating with a Florist - the spirits were as fortified as their mood. The city's commanders were there, and some knights, and a goodly contingent of Storm Cats including Leon and his guard. There was music, drink, and not nearly enough food.

Kogane awoke next morning, feeling like a small imp was hammering his head with immense strength, and his tongue was turned into a sea slug. He stumbled his way to the hall, and to his relief saw Lu Zijian there, sitting in the shade with an expression as painful as he himself felt. He motioned Kogane to sit next to him, put his hand on Kogane's head, and cast.

Some say that pleasure is the cessation of pain. Kogane was not sure if this was true, but the feeling of the Hangover dissipating and leaving his body was certainly wonderful. Kogane took a big breath of fresh air, and cried: "Thank you, Lu! You are a life savior!" Lu Zijian cringed in pain, and pushed a scroll into Kogane's hand. Kogane looked at it, and saw it was the same spell that was cast on him just now.
"The spell only workes on others, right?" asked Kogane. Lu nodded, looking green and nauseated. "No problem, friend" said Kogane, and cast the scroll on Lu Zijian. Apparently he cast it successfully, because Lu sat up straight, and said: "My, that feels better!"

Kogane went to bring them a drink of water, but when he was back he found Lu Zijian staring at him. "Here's your water, Lu. But what are you looking at?"
"What's your level, Kogane?" Lu asked slowly.
"I'm level three - you know that" answered Kogane.
"Go look in the mirror for a minute" Lu advised him.
Kogane concentrated on his stats. There - he was a level - What? Level four? And apperantly he was an adept now - Level four Adept Changamancer Kogane Odeon.
He looked with puzzlement on Lu Zjian. "I was close to leveling, but last time remember I was still level three!"
Lu said with knotted eyebrows: "I can believe you leveled in the feast - maybe you fought one of the other casters and won. Stranger things have happened, especially when one of us is a florist. But an adept? It must have been some party!"
"You don't remember either?" asked Kogane.
"Nothing after a certain time" said Lu Zijian.
"We'd better ask the others. One of them must remember what happened" said Kogane.

One by one the partiers made their way to the hall, hung over and completely amnesic about last night's adventures. Lu managed to cure the first condition, but not the second. There was another mystery - Allura was now a level 3 Thinkamancer.
Finally Leon strode to the hall, holding a cocktail glass with a strange dog tail attached to it, and seemingly unaffected by last night merriment.

Kogane called him over. "Leon, you seem indifferent to last night endeavors. Did you abstain from the drink, or are you immune to alchohol? What's your secret?!"
Leon laughed. "No, No! I have been affected all right - in fact, I can't remember anything from last night! Your little creation helped me, though! I feel much better."
"What creation?!" asked Kogane.
"Why, this little ditty! It relieves hangover, though it seems to cause a light intoxication - I'm quite buzzed!"
"Who gave this to you?" asked Kogane. "Why. Panthro gave it to me, and said you made - all three of you!"

Pantho was quickly summoned. He arrived with a small smile on his lips. "So, feeling better?" he asked.
"Panthro, this is important. Did I create this item, this glass, last night?" asked Kogane.
"In a manner of speaking sir, yes you did - this and a few others."
"Why just "In a manner of speaking", Panthro"?
"Why, becuase you weren'r exactly yourself, sir!"
"What do you mean, panthro"?
"You were linked!"

"WHAT?!?! who was linked? everyone seemed to ask at once.
"Well, at first it was yourself and the lady Allura. Something about a bet, I believe".
Allura let out a whimper, and Kogane put his face in his hands.
"At first, Panthro? what happened later?"
"Why, everyone linked with each other! You, Allura, and Mr. Zijian at first, but later there was a lot of different combinations. I believe you wanted to "Experiment"". smirked Panthro."With the Cats we do this sometimes, but usually the mess is much greater. You people just seemed to sit quietly, and create stuff. some of it was pretty useful, actualy!"
"What are you talking about?" asked Kogane,
"Well, Mr Zijian here had a difference of opinion with Ms. Hitta about the usefulness of Predictamamncy vs. Findamancy in a game of cards, so both linked with you and the princess, and created an item. Ms Hitta's was a pair of gloves that let you conjure any card you want from thin air. Then Mr ZIjian created a pair of gloves that grow warm if you're going to win, and cold if you lose. Me and Tigra took the gloves, and I'm happy to say that Tigra now has quite a substantial debt."

Allura seemed panicked. "Linking is so dangerous! I would never even would have tried a two-way link, not to mention a three-way! What have I done?"
Kogane soothed her. "No harm was done, sis. and now we know we can do it - perhaps we will try again!"

Part 6 - Linking and Falling Apart

Casters only rarely become rulers. Most command low Loyalty from their warlords, and besides are usualy uninterested in the great burden and thankless job that is rulling. If it was not for the disfunction of Kogane's house, it is very unlikely he would have had Greatness thrust on him.
The last 50 turns were to Kogane a mixed blessing. On the one hand, his personal growth, and that of his friends, was amazing. On the other hand, his family was like a megallowgwiff without hits – It was great, majestic, and impressive, but soon it would crash down and everything that stood on it would croak.

He could not complain about his own situation. First of all, with all the adventuring and spelling he did lately, he made level five already. He was also Adept class, gaining better insight into magic – in his case it was insight into how to create other disipline's magics using his mechanisms.

The greatest development by far was the linking. It was strange to think that neither he nor Allura ever linked before the great party after defeating the Gnome. Once it was clear that they linked many times with no adverse effects, Kogane convinced Allura to link with him again. Their rapport was excellent, and there seemed no risk to the link. Together they crafted a few items that allowed a limited form of thinkagrams between units using the items – Allura called them phony-mancers, as in phony Thinkamancers, but most everyone else just called them Phones.

After Allura gained confidence in her abilities, they tried a few tri-caster links. Again, the rapport between them and their friends was excellent - in fact amazingly so.  In the first link, between Kogane, Lu Zijian, and Allura, they created an "Escape-goat" – a goat-like statue that would take the un-linking backlash and spare the casters. It could not absorb a lot, but as long as their links were short, they could un-link at will with almost no backlash.

While linked, they created wonderful items. With Lu Zijian, they created the Automagical Express De-incapacitator, a curios small items that could be worn or applied, and would automatically heal incapacitated units. These sold like hot-cakes in the MK.

When linked with Hitta, they created a whole range of items – from key holders that you could always find, through a stick that could always find water in the hex and a small dog figurine that could find game and provisions, and finally the cream of the crop – small glass figurines that when shattered summoned the creature they represented, as a unit under whoever use the item.

When working with Felix they learned to create Bark Boots, boots that when worn covered the body with tough bark, adding armor with minor penalty to agility, and Thorn Gloves, gloved that delivered a lethal poison attack. When worn together in a sunny Hex they could reduce upkeep to almost nothing.
Their main accomplishment was not with crafting. When linked with Allura Felix gained new appreciation for the importance of the Life axis in his magic. In fact, the reason he could only create golems from swamps was because it was alive in a way other vegetation wasn't. When linked, he managed to create a few more golems, as the Oak golems and the giant Baobab golem could attest to. He also became Adept, being the last of the group to gain it.

Kogane's focus was not on the links and the items he created. Every spare moment and every spare bit of juice he spent with Panthro and the turnamancer's engine he acquired. Panthro had a vision – the "Storm Tank", a kind of self propelling, armored and armed carriage. He got the largest carriage he could get and started modifying it.

First of all it made it look like a great lion, roaring, at which point it was stuck and couldn't move. The engine they got was not strong enough for Panthro's dream, so he enlisted Kogane's help.

Since he first laid eyes on Panthro's plans, Kogane was captivated. First he crafted a few new Turnamancy engines. Then he added more wheels to each side. Using different size gears that could be linked to the engines, each side of the carriage's wheels could be turned with different speeds. Then it was time to add armor. Panthro wanted to craft masterwork level steel, but Kogane had other idea. He linked was Hitta and Allura, and together they conjured and crafted armor plates of some unknown materials, incredibly strong and flexible.

Unfortunately, with the armor on, the wheels just weren't up to task of moving their new vehicle on anything except the hard flagstones of the courtyard. Then Kogane remembered something he glimpsed when linked. He and Panthro crafted many metal and rubber plates, linked together to create a continuous loop, and stretched those over the wheels, so the wheels will always be resting on the plates, and the carriage's weight would be distributed better. The carriage now seemed to be crawling on the ground, but deceptively fast. Panthro claimed it reminded him of a racing snail, and the name stuck - from then on it was Panthro's Storm Snail.

After a few test runs, Kogane started the serious task of buffing the Snail into an ultimate fighting machine. First of all, he linked with Allura, and they added a communications system to the Snail - it enabled them to talk with anyone with a phone, and any known speaking unit in the hex. Kogane then installed a Shockmancy weapon, armed with one of the strongest shockmancy spells he learned, and connected to a reservoir of juice that would be replenished each turn. Next day he installed another Shockmancy weapon on the roof, with deadly anti-air spells, and a separate reservoir.

After spending a few days in the MK with the Dittomancers and Dirtmancers, Kogane returned and linked with Allura, He Dittoed the passenger space in the Snail, allowing a whole stack and even more to sit there comfortably. Then Kogane cast on the Snail as a whole, and managed to make it a Borrowing unit.

Finally, Kogane brought all his friends to link with him and Allura. With Hitta they crafted a magical eye, able to see ahead in any condition (including underground) for up to 300 feet, and to discover friends and foes within line of sight inside the hex. Allura then discovered an unsuspected gift at foolamancy, and they crafted a beautiful foolamancy display, showing the road ahead, the maps of the area, known friendly and enemy units, and points of interest.

After linking with Felix they crafted a beautiful cover, made of leaved and vines, that combined Flower Power with Signmancy to camouflage the Snail almost completely when stationary and covered.

The best part was when they linked with Lu Zijian. They allowed the driver of the snail glimpses into his personal fate. Not enough to actually see the future, but enough to have a hunch a second before something happened. It did not make the Snail impervious, but the driver had a small but real chance to avoid calamity or have a lucky brake.

Kogane looked at the Storm Snail and smiled. It was beautiful, lethal, and unique, He was prouder of it's creation than any other thing he made.

Unfortunately, while his personal life were marked with excitement, friendship and growth, his family life consisted of suspicions, intrigue and rifts. It was clear that king Mofasa hated chief Isibanda with a fiery passion, and that the chief despised the king with ice-cold loathing. Unfortunately, these emotions swept the ranks of the Pride's units, and warlords and soldiers alike were loyal either to the chief or the king, but not both.

Lately the Pride's two armies started clashing with small skirmishes. At first it was just the natural allies - the Storm Cats and the Jokers hated each other for millenia, and would fight given the smallest excuse. Later some of the regular units joined in. The armies were eyeing each other, waiting for the other to make a wrong move and provide a Casus Bell. The neighboring nations were eyeing them too - their allies with apprehension, and their enemies with barely contained glee.

The city of Odeon was faithful to king Mofasa, but since they had almost no mobile army they were not an important factor in this strife. Kogane was just happy to be out of the messy conflict up north.

After 50 turns of casting and crafting, Kogane felt bored. He was just about to try and stir Leon up to some exploring, when he felt the touch of a thinkagram. It was chief Isibanda!
Surprised and pleased, Kogane answered. "Hello, Chief! it is good to hear from you! how goes the war?"
He could see Isibanda direct his heavy lidded eyes towards him. "All is well, prince Kogane. At the moment there is not much action, though this could change any moment. You have fared well, it seemed - level 5 in such a short time! congratulations are in order."

Kogane was pleased at the compliment, but something was amiss. Since he spent so much of his time lately linked with Allura he started picking some Thinkamancy insight. While the Chief seemed genuinely pleased, there was an undercurrent of resentment he seemed to sense.

"You are too kind, Chief. I was just glad I could help the side".

"Nonsense, Nonsense! No one could have believed that a caster could be so instrumental in so many battles, or claim such praise by the king, as you have!"

Again, the chief seemed genuinely pleased, and there's no denying these were the simple facts. Kogane felt an even stronger undercurrent of emotions, with frustration joining resentment.

Thinking back on his first night, Kogane remembered his uncle's complete lack of surprise, and even satisfaction at his appearance. He wandered - Did Jaffar Carnie the odds and made the heir pop as a caster, preserving his master's status as heir designate? It seemed far fetched, but somehow also extremely likely.

Isibanda continued: "Since you've proven so efficient at clearing troublesome ruins, I'd like you to visit the ruins of Nasiphambeko, to the north-west of Odeon, and destroy a tribe of Hobgoblins that popped there. They're raiding our supply lines, and the regular armies are too far away to tackle them."
Kogane answered: "Will do, chief. Anything else?"
Isibanda finished: "No. Good luck on your quest!"

Kogane was worried. That last thinkagram had a faint undercurrent of anticipation and glee, and there was a definite possibility the his uncle had a foul play in mind. Never the less, Isibanda was still his chief warlord, and his word was law. He had to complete his mission, or die trying.

Kogane picked up his phone and called Leon. "Hey, brother. Could I meet with you in the war-room today? whenever you're ready."
Leon answered: "Sure thing, prince. I'll see you there in an hour."
Next Kogane phoned Lu Zijian, Hitta and felix, and sounded them on joining him on another ruins-run. They were happy to join, and agreed to join him tomorrow, ready to travel.

Kogane made his way to the war-room. In the room he saw Nala, who was now the city's administrator, talking to Allura. These two were very friendly, and Nala would often consult with Allura, or just chat with her. Since the phones started entering service, everyone could see how useful a good communication network was, and Allura's services were much required by the city's scouts and warlords - whenever Kogane left her with enough juice, that is. Her signamancy no longer showed neglect. She was radiant and happy.

Kogane took a good look at Nala's gear, and was happy with what he saw. Nala was most and foremost a commander, and knew it. Her gear was not a warrior's gear. She had no +10 sword of pwnage. She used a Shield of Command, a bright and big round shield that marked her as a leader, and was embroidered with an animated coat of arms of the Pride, effectively Dittoing her command bonus. Her light helmet could communicate with any unit in the hex, allowing her to stack with units within line of sight. She also had one of the tri-links best products - "The altruist's reward". It was a necklace that would automagically heal any unit that took damage while screening her. This was a combo for a leader who's best weapon were her men.

Presently Leon entered the room, and met with kogane at the maps.
"Hi Leon, thanks for coming"
"No problem, prince. What can I do for you?"
Kogane smiled. "Orders, but some I think you'll like. Chief Isibanda ordered me to explore a ruin!"
Leon laughed. "Really? Mister "I'm so cunning" suddenly discovered how good we are at this? about time!"
This outburst drew some sidelong glances from some of the commanders in the room. Kogane raised his hands defensively. "Look, I know you don't like him, but he's the chief warlord, and my uncle! Try toning it down a little."
Leon laughed again, and promised to behave if Kogane will finally tell him where they are going to explore.
"Kogane pointed on the western border of the map, to a small ruin not near any important town. "There! At the Nasiphambeko ruins. My mission is to destroy a tribe of hobgoblins there, and then I can explore the ruins at my leisure."

Leon stopped laughing immediately. "Kogane - Don't go there. It's part of the Dark Zone!"
"What?!" asked Kogane. "What are you talking about?!"
Leon pointed at the map. Kogane could see a dark sphere of influence, centered just south of chief's Isibanda's army, and covering about a third of the Pride's territory, including Nasiphambeko.

Leon's voice was low and angry. "When the thrice-cursed Jokers joined the Pride, by that Carnimancer's dark magic, this area was to be their area of influence. No Storm Cat is allowed in the dark area, and I personally will agree to enter it only as part of a conquering army. I am truly sorry, my brother, but on this adventure I may not help you.

Kogane's spirits fell. Just as he was about to speak, Allura thought-asked him: "Do you mind if we joined the discussion?" Looking to his left he saw that both she and Nala were looking towards him. Kogane shrugged, and beckoned them to him.

"What's that I hear about an expedition to the dark area?" Asked Nala. "I've been ordered by thinkagram to explore a ruin there, and destroy a threat to the side." answered Kogane.
"That was the thinkagram I relayed from uncle, right?" Allura thought-asked him. "Yep" Kogane thought back. "I tried something there - I increased your insights for the call. Did you get anything?" Surprised, Kogane could only nod. "Can you grant me access to those memories, brother? It would greatly simplify things."

Kogane again noded, and gave his hand to Allura. She took it, and their minds merged. This was a new trick - some kind of limited Link, sharing thoughts and memories, but not skills and personalities. "Your'e improving, sister!" Kogane thought with a smile. Allura seemed too preoccupied to notice, and when she thought to him: "We must do something!", her mind felt scared.

Allura let go of his hand, and said: "We have reason to fear for Kogane's life if he goes on this mission. More than that we are not at liberty to say. Leon looked grim, and Nala surprised, and then determined.
"You are too great an asset to leave unguarded. I will accompany you on this journey, with a guard of my choosing. My second in command, Pimba, will be more then enough to look after the city without me."
"We may not be able to accompany you, brother" said Leon, "But you may take something of us when you leave - You will travel in style, in the Storm Snail!"
"What?! That contraption?! My offer to help is withdrawn!" laughed Nala.

And so it was, that on the 70th turn of his life, Crown prince Kogane left the capital of Odeon, with friends and guardians, to one of the most fateful adventures of his long and perilous life.
Previous chapters: Parts 1-3
Next chapter: Part 7