There are strange things done,

Under the Erf's bright sun,

By the casters that toil for Shmuckers;

Rhyme-o-mancer tales,

Tell of epic fails,

While the Carnies search for suckers,

By powerball lights,

I have seen strange sights,

But the strangest I ever did see,

Was the day I was took,

By a well veiled Spook,

And was captured by Hallowee'

 

-The Prisoner of Hallowee'

Rhyme-o-mancer Bobby Servethis




He should have seen it coming.

 

Sammy Crane was a Dirtamancer for Titan's sake. His Signamancy showed it: tall and thin with a serious disposition and carefully cleaned spectacles. He knew his craft: he was, in fact, a master of it. He could sense the shades of color on a pebble a hundred feet underground. He could upgrade a city blindfolded. He could smell shoddy construction. Yet, to Crane’s shame, he couldn't tell what was under his own feet before it was too late.

 

He had been out making a new road to his kingdom’s most recent acquisition: a Level 2 near the frontier called Spoopy Hollow. King Auggie loved roads: straight roads, clean roads, sharp roads, that ran straight from the capital city, Rum, to all the side's holdings. Chief Warlord Julie didn't care for the Signamancy of it as much as the fact they halved all terrain penalties to move. It kept him busy as Chief Dirtamancer, and he liked that just fine.

 

Most casters, particularly Chief Casters, stayed cooped up in the capital safe from harm and never got any fresh air or saw any new landscapes. Crane, on the other hand, got to see the up and down of the whole kingdom, and all the different terrains the Titans saw fit to put in it. He had seen many kinds of hexes: forests, mountains, hills, plains, lakes, rivers, even a couple of desert hexes.

 

This turn took him across plains, broken up by a nasty stretch of swamp. Crane's honor guard of knights and archers kept him safe from Wall-E Gators and Mesquite-Os (though nothing could screen against the swarms of Smidges) while he drained his juice building a high road through the muck. It was skillful work: a Novice might strip out the peat, build up a thick layer of rock on the clay, and pave the top. Within a few turns that would sink into the swamp. You needed buoyancy and displacement: the road needed to be able to rise and fall with the water, and hold itself together. Crane kept the peat intact and created rows of logs perpendicular to the road, and covered that with plenty of porous gravel. The high acidity of the peat would keep the logs from decaying for at least three hundred turns, maybe longer.

 

If you wanted a more permanent solution you would need an elevated bridge, but that would take at least fifteen turns worth of juice to cross all the swamp hexes and Crane was on a schedule. As it stood the log road itself was juice expensive, and it took three turns before he finally was able to end turn on the solid ground of a meadow hex, his juice completely exhausted.

 

They were still a couple turns out from the front lines, interior scouts hadn't spotted any enemy forces in several tenturns, and meadow hexes are generally free from the more dangerous mobs. So it was understandable that the honor guard let their guard down. Crane felt satisfied with a turn's work well done and the prospect of dinner ahead of him. He relaxed.

 

That's when he felt It: the ground shifted under his feet.

 

Two huge bony hands burst out of the dirt and grabbed him by the legs. Their skin was white as ivory, with no fat separating the hide from the bones underneath. Each finger ended in a yellow claw like nail, which dug into his skin. A head burst forth from the Erf: a strange head, shrouded completely in a thin white cloth with two black holes cut into the front where a face would be. Behind the holes, where Crane would have expected to see eyes, there was only a shiny and reflective blackness, like smoked glass lenses. From beneath the shroud came a chilling, terrible cry. Goosebumps crawled across Crane's skin, his arms trembled, and he felt himself taking a morale penalty to combat and defense as the terrible creature called out in a high, wavering voice:

 

BooooOOOOooooOOOooooo!”

 

Crane's honor guard, to their credit, wavered only for a moment before rushing to his defense. Before they could get close four more creatures burst from the soil around Crane, screening the one who had grabbed him. As they pulled themselves completely from the ground Crane could see them clearly for the first time. They were thin creatures, ten feet tall and draped from head to toe in a thin white cloth. Only their hands and arms were visible as they reached out from under their shrouds to scratch and claw at the attacking knights. The one that had grabbed Crane wormed his way out of the ground completely. Crane recognized them now, from a bestiary of feral and poppable units he had read in the capital library. They were Spooks: heavy units with morale penalty wails and two other specials: flying and veiling. Yet somehow these had popped out of the ground like Whack-A-Moles! What’s more, from the hard iron grip of the two Spooks that had him, it was apparent they had the Capture special too. As hard as Crane fought against the heavy, he couldn't escape its grasp.

 

Suddenly Crane's arms were seized from behind. Another Spook had burst out of the ground and grabbed him, completing his immobilization. As Crane looked over his shoulder he could see that one of the fighting Spooks already had a passenger. It was fending off an attacking knight with one claw hand, while the other held a figure who was green and rotting. An uncroaked warlord: it was decayed to the point where most of the flesh had fallen off of its face. It didn't seem to mind having been buried. It's skeletal jaw fell open and a raspy, hissing voice came out. “Sssssscreeen...Exssstract...”

 

Crane wasn't a warlord but he had seen a few battles when his work had taken him close to the front. He was fairly confident that his two stacks of knights and two stacks of archers could take out the six heavies in the hex, especially with two of them occupied with capturing him. It seemed like at least a fair fight, and turning in their favor: one of the Spooks fell to a knights hammer blow, a crit, while two others were pierced with arrows. Suddenly Crane felt himself rising. The Spooks were taking to the air! They let out a chorus of wails as they rose, floating into the sky. The combined offensive Signamancy of their cries and frightening image was enough that most of the knights missed their parting blows as the horrible shrouded Spooks flew out of reach.

 

Still, the archers would have time to send several volleys of arrows their way before they could leave the hex. As Crane rose higher, held between two Spooks, he began to wonder if he would survive the fall if they croaked his captors.  Crane jerked in surprise, as he suddenly realized his stomach was becoming see through, like looking through a fog. The entire stack of Spooks, and Crane with them, was fading away. In a moments time Crane realized it was Foolamancy; the Spooks were activating their veils as they fled the hex. One flight of arrows, then another, flew through the air but none connected. Before Crane could fully realize what was happening they were out of the hex, flying away.

 

As they left the hex shackles appeared on Crane's wrists. Only a few moments before he had been happy, free, and looking forward to dinner. Now he was a prisoner of an unknown side, veiled, and headed towards mountains that would be impossible for non-flyers to cross.

 

And all he could think was, I should have seen it coming.



*      *      *      *

 

It was on the sixth turn of flying that Crane realized something was desperately wrong with the ground.

 

The Spooks never landed or dropped their veils. They stuck to a lonesome and furtive route, flying along mountain ranges wherever they could and keeping a wide berth from any cities. Once, when they were off turn, Crane spotted a patrol of pikers from his home side. A clawed hand pressed against his mouth kept him from crying out, and the lone warlord leading the stack failed to break the Spooks veil.

 

That was two turns ago. Now they had flown so far that Crane didn't recognize the terrain. They were nowhere near home, and Crane had no clue of their destination. None of the neighboring sides popped Spooks: Crane couldn't recall any side he knew about that did. Who sends a stack of heavies so far afield to capture a unit from a side you weren't at war with? Crane was troubled by this mystery, and by his grisly captors. They were silent most of the time (for which Crane was grateful) but they held him tightly in their bony grip and their white shrouded bodies were unnaturally tall and thin. The uncroaked warlord rarely spoke in his hissing voice: when he did it was one or two word commands to change direction.

 

Crane’s body ached from being held in the air, and he was freezing from the cold. The only way he could keep from going crazy was to catalog the terrain types they passed over. Mountain. Foothills. River. He would try to imagine what the Erf would feel like in each one: rich soil in the plains, cracked schist in the mountains, loamy clay along the riverbanks.

 

So he noticed right away when they came across the first hex that was wrong.

 

It had all the normal features of a prairie hex: very flat and covered in grass and the occasional Go’fer mound. But while Crane had seen green grass in Spring and Summer dominions, and dry brown or gray grass in Autumn and Winter dominions, this grass was a strange and sickly black. The hex looked like a dark sea, with waves of jet black grass blowing in the wind. And the wind! Even up here there was something off about it: a thin, miserable wind that seemed to make a quiet but constant moan across the grass. As he looked around he spotted more irregularities: the sky was a strange shade of gray, almost purple in the darker crevices of the clouds above. Where the feral mobs had dug into the ground, little holes here and there, Crane could see that the soil was white like caulk. But mobs don't burrow in chalk, nor does chalk make mounds like common dirt.

 

Now Crane truly forgot his aching body as he desperately wanted to land and feel the Erf. He could barely sense it up here, without juice. What he could feel felt right and wrong at the same time. Dirt, grass, all standard: but also all twisted, all of them not right. With a crawling dread Crane realized the very terrain was unnatural. He had wanted to touch the ground again, but this ground scared him. The feeling itself was shocking. Of all the things on Erf to be scared of, he had never been scared by Erf itself. Erf was his element, his discipline. Yet for the first time it repulsed him.

 

The next hex was the same: black grass growing in white soil. Then came a forest hex and it was wrong as well. The trees were spindly and crooked. The maple trees had sparse, worm eaten Autumn leaves, while the firs had needles that were black as ink. Crows seemed to hang on every other twisted branch: not nice plump Eating Crows that they would see from time to time back home, but sinister Poe Crows that stared him straight in the eyes whenever he passed overhead, chilling him. A lone Waven took off and harassed their stack with its shrieking caws. He had never seen such an evil forest and for the first time he was happy to be flying so far above the ground. The forest looked like it would swallow up anyone who entered it and and leave nothing behind but bones.

 

It was the same for the rest of that turn, and the next. The lakes they passed were ink black, fetid, and full of dreadful looking Battletoads. The mountains had sharp, needle like peaks and were full of caves that made shrieking sounds as the wind blew through them. And the foothills they passed: Crane swore they had eyes. Everywhere they went the terrain was wrong, twisted, dark, and frightening.

 

It came as a relief when the turn finally came where Crane saw a city in the next hex ahead of him. Surely any city that was surrounded by such dreadful hexes would be owned by the kind of side that would pop Spooks, his captors. He didn't want to see any more twisted terrains; any cold and cramped dungeon cell would be preferable to another night in the sky with Spooks.

 

When they crossed the hex boundary and he got a good look at the city, he was not so sure.

 

It was a Level 5 crouching between three mountain and three forest hexes, and it was like no Level 5 he had ever seen. The outer walls were made of black stone (not masonry but a collection of rough boulders and stones) with bright orange mortar that created a strange pattern around the rocks, like a spidew’s web or a dwagon’s scales. Each wall was topped with a spiked and twisted wrought iron fence. The walls were manned with uncroaked archers and dolls of some kind: a variety of scarecrow with a head made of a large gourd with a face carved into it. Light shined from their carved faces, casting beams across the ground around the city that swayed from side to side, looking for intruders to illuminate. As they passed over the walls a horn sounded. It was not the loud, brassy tone he was used to but instead was a thin, trembling note, more like a pipe organ than a proper horn. At the sound of it a stack of Spooks flew over to escort them towards the Garrison.

 

The sky above was dark with a patchwork of dark gray and black clouds. Beneath him Crane could see that the cobblestone streets of the city were crooked and tangled, with no broad avenues or clean grids. The street lamps were made of intricate wrought iron, and each lamp shone with a strange greenish light that made everything look pale and strange that it shone on. The buildings were all made of wood with steeply peaked roofs. Spindly towers and crooked chimneys were common. Though the streets were wild and chaotic the buildings themselves were ornamented with fine carvings, windows, porches, and wooden trim; yet all of them had a dilapidated look and run down look. Paint peeled, dust gathered, and almost every line that should have been straight sagged or was crooked. Most of the windows had spidew webs and dust obscuring any view inside. In the streets units scurried from place to place, but Crane could not get a good look at them. They were shaped like men, but their heads seemed wrong: some were hairy and rough, others were pale and bald, but no two seemed alike.

 

All of this was strange enough, but the Garrison and Tower were the strangest yet. It wasn't made of stone at all but was entirely of wood. It looked like one of the smaller city buildings made huge: an enormous house of a Garrison, and like the rest of the city it was a dusty, webby, dismal looking house. It squatted on a hill in the center of the city, towering over the rest. Rising out of the front of the house was a tall square wooden Tower. The windows were all shuttered, and the roof was covered in a patchwork of dark shingles that were falling off one by one. The Spooks rose higher, taking him to the top of the Tower. The very top was flat, surrounded by a spindly and crooked wrought iron fence. Just below it was an open space filled with an enormous bell. The bell was green with corrosion, and hung slightly crooked, but it was the size of a house.

 

The strangest thing of all was the feel of the place. All around him there were signs of decay and decline, like the capital of a failing side; yet it did not feel in decline. Indeed, it felt vigorous in its decay. Crane had upgraded and designed a few cities over the turns, and he could recognize the mark of intentionality that hung across the dismal town. It was as if someone had dressed up a city to look run down. Each building sagged and was crooked, but it seemed to Crane's Dirtamancer eyes like they had been built that way on purpose: that if he used some juice to straighten them up he would actually make them less structurally sound. This city looked croaked, but it felt alive. It was the kind of town that would make its residents proud of its decay, protective of its rot. It was confusing, and as the Spooks came for a landing just below the enormous bell near the Tower's top he realized that the city had distracted him almost entirely with its mystery. He hadn't even noticed the figures waiting below.

 

There were two stacks of knights waiting there in a rough formation. Up close Crane was able to get a better look at them and was horrified by what he saw. They looked like men in stature and form, but their heads were all mixed up. One had a head like an uncroaked, with bone showing through rotten flesh. Another had a head like a wolf, with a furious snarl. Next to him was knight with a bloated head with tiny piggy eyes that was covered in scars. And so it was: each knight had a normal body but a hideous head, and no two were exactly alike. They were also all dressed in orange and black livery with a crest on each breastplate: a bright orange pumpkin with black triangle eyes and a block toothed mouth carved into it.

 

In front of the stabbers a caster stood waiting grinning for the Spooks to land. Her face, which seemed that of a mature and experienced woman, was white as chalk and her lips were a bluish purple. Her hair was a wild blue colored mess that framed her face with long tangles. She was thin and dressed in a dusty lavender petticoat. She held a leather bound notebook in her hand from which hung a quill attached to it with a string. She was writing or drawing furiously with it, looking back and forth from Crane to the notebook with an eager grin.

The Spooks dropped Crane at the feet of the strange caster. He fell in a pile, his muscles too stiff from eight turns in the air to be of much use. He groaned, and tried to lift himself to his knees as much as he was able. She scribbled in her notebook a few moments longer and then dropped it. It hung by her side, attached to her belt by a cord of leather. She grinned like a feral mob, and clasped her hands together, leaning down towards him as he struggled on the ground. “Mmmm, mmm. Welcome, welcome, welcome.” Her voice was thick like honey, but it had a girlish edge to it. “My name is Alexa Stalker, Chief Findamancer of Hallowee. And you must be Sammy Crane, Master Dirtamancer.” Her eyes lit up at that, and she had a hungry look that made Crane uneasy. “I didn't picture you with such a strong chin.”

 

“Where-” he coughed. His throat was dry and his voice unsteady from eight turns of silence. “Where exactly am I, Findamancer? And why did you capture me by trickery, without declaration of war?” He wanted to sound tough but the words came out strained, betraying his fear. Alexa's grin grew wider at the sound of his voice, as if the knowledge he was terrified thrilled her. “Oh aren't you precious! This, sweet thing, is the city of Grimgrinning: capitol of Hallowee. And it's trickery that brought you here indeed.” She leaned closer, reached out, and pinched his cheek hard. “You are here to give us a Trick...” she licked her lips, “...or a Treat.”

 

Crane pulled backwards out of her grip, scowling. “What do you mean by trick, woman? Do you expect me to cast for you kidnappers?”

 

“That's the idea, hot stuff. I'm looking forward to seeing you in action.”

 

“The very idea—I would never cast for a group of...”

 

Alexa pushed a finger across Crane's lips. “Shh shh shh honey, don't get all hot and bothered. Or maybe do: I love to see you sweat.” She giggled, then removed her finger. “We've already started negotiating with your King. Last I heard, we came to an agreement.”

 

Negotiating? Despite his dire surroundings, Crane saw a ray of hope. He may have been captured and whisked away to side he'd never heard of, but at least his comrades knew where he was. And if they really did need him to cast a spell his life was likely not in immediate danger. Unless they had a Turnamancer there was no way Crane would willingly cast for an enemy side, not even under threat of execution or torture. His Duty wouldn't allow it. He would only cast if ordered to, and he doubted King Auggie would give such an order if they wouldn't get him back.

 

Alexa gestured to a warlord with a blobby, tentacled head, and the stack of knights behind him. “You, you, and all of you: guard the prisoner as I escort him to see the King.” She turned to Crane. “You got a royal appointment honey! Can't be late.”

 

The warlord grabbed Crane by the arm and he was soon surrounded by a screen of knights, each wearing a different monstrous head. They took Crane to a set of stairs leading down from the belltower, with Alexa keeping pace right alongside him. He gave her a sideways glance. “You know, there are Dirtamancers for hire in the Magic Kingdom.”

 

“I doubt there's any as adorable.” she cooed. “Don't get angry! Besides, those rockers charge an arm and a leg to do the smallest thing. We find that the Trick or Treat is a far more efficient method of acquiring caster...services.” She looked him up and down lasciviously.

 

Crane scowled. “And if I don't perform any 'services' for you man-snatchers? If I don't do a Trick, then what's the Treat?”

 

“A ransom, honey. If we can't come to an arrangement then we'll just have to put you down in the dungeon until somebody pays.” She gave a sideways grin. “We encourage our guests to beg their rulers pay up. And by “we” I mean our team of talented torturers. They really are good at what they do down there. They can cut you open and play with your insides all night long without even incapacitating you. I kind of hope you get the chance to stay there: I'd love to hear you scream. Though that can be arranged in the torture room or the bedroom, sugar.” She gave him an obvious wink.

 

Crane's mouth felt dry. The stairs ended at a landing, and they now began to walk through a series of long hallways. The walls were covered in wooden paneling broken up by the occasional dimly lit painting. Cobwebs crowded the ceiling, and the wooden floor creaked with each step.

 

Crane swallowed. “How many casters have you taken like this?”

 

“Plen-tee honey! We've been Trick or Treating ever since our King took the throne. He was the only one who really saw my potential, you know?” She was so pleased with herself she was practically purring. “We've got Spook squads scattered all over. They stay veiled, and they're mostly in places who've never heard of us anyway. I Find casters (and the occasional strapping young warlord) that are in their range and tell them to get to work. Sometimes, when the King wants someone special, I get more specific. Like you, darling. King says he wants a Master Dirtamancer: bam! I found two in range who were out in the field instead of holed up in a garrison. Looks like I had some extra Luckamancy when I picked you.”

 

“Your King ordered this operation?” Crane asked quizzically. “Not your Chief Warlord?”

 

“Oh, our King is very hands on. Besides, this is caster stuff. Chief Vlad has his hands full leading troops at the border, like a good Chief should,” she said matter-of-factly. “The King does what he wants. Vlad knows better than to say no to the King.”

 

Crane frowned, but before he could inquire further Alexa started up again. “I've branched out into Predictamancy too. I'm pretty good at it! I couldn't get a read on the other target, but I was able to Predict exactly where you would end turn. Eventually. So I just had the Spooks bury themselves there and wait. From what I hear they were right under your feet! Only had to wait there three turns in the dirt. Fine work, if I do say so myself. I got you here in almost record time for the King's big project.”

 

“Project? What is it you expect me to do? I won't do anything that could hurt my side.”

 

Alexa's response was interrupted by a loud, high male voice, coming from a room just off the hallway. “First, Dirtamancer, we would like you to Sign.”



*      *      *      *



They entered a large ballroom. There was only a single table looking small and lonely in the center of the  room. The walls were covered in dusty black curtains, periodically broken up by huge portraits that were difficult to make out in the light of dim powerballs. They appeared to be kings, casters, and warlords of old. None of them had monstrous heads but they all had stern expressions and piercing eyes that seemed to follow Sammy as he walked towards the table. On either side, standing at attention along the walls, were metal golems that had been shaped in the forms of suits of armor. Their heads turned to follow Sammy as well.

 

Around the lonely table in the center of the dim room stood four figures. To Crane's left was a thin woman wearing a strange dress. It was black with white patches in the shape of bones sewn throughout to give the appearance that the wearer was a skeleton. She looked young, and had bright yet sunken eyes. She was completely bald and her skin was pale. Black battle paint had been carefully applied around her eyes and mouth to give the appearance of a skull's face, the paint forming a skeletal grin over her cold scowl.

 

To her left stood a stern man dressed in a white linen shirt whose collar and cuffs stood out sharply beneath a black doublet and cloak. Otherwise he was dressed in black breaches, leather gloves and boots, and a tall black capotain hat with a belt buckled around the bottom near the brim. His face was sharp and lean. He had long hair that framed his face and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard that came to a point.

 

To his left was a thickset man with a bushy gray mustache and wild salt-and-pepper hair that stood almost straight up from his skull. He was dressed in a white double breasted coat, and shiny black loafers. He looked Sammy over as he approached, his hands clasped behind his back, the way Sammy might look over a fortification he was about to reinforce: an appraising, calculating look.

 

The last figure was the one who had interrupted Alexa and who could only be the King of Hallowee. He was sitting on an intricately carved chair that was upholstered with orange silk. He wore a black suit coat that was emblazoned with a pattern of small carved pumpkins all over it; a black necktie, black shoes, and black and orange pinstripe pants. He was a thin man but his skin was a healthy pink, and he had a pleased expression on his face, a prideful grin. His hair was black and wild, tangled and messy. Overall he seemed very lively for a King, and lacked the Signamancy of comfort or old age that was present in most of the rulers Sammy had ever had the chance to see. On his head was a thin black crown, barely a band around his head, that was punctuated with tall, thin spikes pointing straight up. He held a contract written on parchment in his hand.

 

The contract, as it turned out, was a simple non-disclosure agreement and was preliminary to negotiations proper. Those who Signed would agree not to tell any non-Hallowee unit the details of the work they would ask Crane to do, nor any particular details about Hallowee itself including its location, units and cities owned, strategies, etc. It was a thorough document and obviously the work of a Signamancer. Crane wasn't surprised: this whole city stank of powerful Signamancy. He wondered which of the other figures at the table, all of whom had the look of casters, was the Signamancer responsible.

 

Crane Signed and the King, with a crooked smile, got to business. “I'm sure you are used to a more formal atmosphere when presented to a reigning monarch, but I find that most of our guests are eager to get to work and I care little for all things conventional. You may simply kiss my ring and we will consider that sufficient to meet the requirements of custom. I am King Albert Hallows IV, ruler of Hallowee. You have met my talented Chief Findamancer Alexa already.” She beamed, and took her place at his side, though a little behind.

 

King Hallows turned to the caster with the white coat and the bushy mustache. “This is our esteemed Master Thinkamancer, Brian Freake. You will be working quite closely with him on our project, alongside our barbarian consultant, Master Carnymancer Maidyu Hopkins.” At this he gestured towards the caster in the tall buckled hat, who bowed smoothly. “Unlike you, Hopkins is being paid generously for his services. I hope that if you have any hard feelings towards Hallowee you will not take them out on him!” He laughed at that, a high, piping laugh with a hint of mania. The laughter died as quickly as it had started. “Finally, our dearest Croakamancer, Countess Shari Skellingtons. Or, as I like to call her, Spooky Shari!” Again, the almost manic laughter while the Croakamancer scowled: an odd look, since her war paint still grinned. “Don't worry Dirtamancer, she'll just be observing.”

 

Crane bowed stiffly at each introduction. Apparently the Signamancer was not present. “And what will she be observing, exactly?”

 

“Well, that depends entirely on you! I have concluded negotiations with your dear King Auggie. You should be pleased: the man has immense trust in you. He has already Signed the following.” At this, King Hallows picked up a much larger scroll that had been resting on the table, and unrolled it to reveal a contract. “You may examine it thoroughly. The long and short of it is that we agree to release you, unharmed, into the Magic Kingdom after you perform a service for us, not to take more than five turns worth of time or juice, etc., etc., to be followed by a two hundred turn truce between our two sides, blah blah blah, on one condition. As his former Chief Caster, King Auggie trusts you to determine whether the spell we want cast would pose a threat to your side or be otherwise unacceptable. In short, he left it up to you to choose whether to accept our request.” The King handed over the contract, and leaned back in his chair, tenting his fingers above his chest. “If you accept we can begin right away, and what our dear Spooky Shari will be observing will be your fine craftsmanship. If you refuse she will be observing the fine craftsmanship of our torturers in the dungeon as they get to work on you.” At this he let out the longest and most manic bout of laughter yet.

 

Crane looked over the contract and found it to be much as the King said, though in far more words and clauses. There, at the bottom, was King Auggie's signature. “I would like to thinkagram my King directly to confirm this, if your Thinkamancer is willing,” Crane said, trying his best to sound professional. “But assuming all is as you say, what exactly is the service you want me to perform?”

 

“So very businesslike. We will get to all that soon enough. I do love to chat with our visitors.” The King grinned madly. “Tell me Dirtamancer, what do you think of my city? I always appreciate an expert opinion. Be honest!”

 

Crane hesitated. “Its...dreadful.”

 

The King burst into high, piping, manic laughter. “Excellent! Truly exquisite! Yes, indeed, it is a dreadful city, is it not? Don't you agree, my dear Shari?”

 

At this he gave a knowing glance to the Croakamancer in black. She merely looked away, annoyed. This reaction only increased King Hallows' joviality and prompted another burst of laughter. He turned to Crane again. “The greatest pleasure of the artist is when his work is appreciated as intended. And Hallowee is my great work of art. Alexa tells me that my Spooks took you from below. A Dirtamancer from below! Tell me, when they grabbed you, were you frightened? Are you frightened now? Tell me!”

 

Crane put on as calm a face as he could. “I am not afraid.”

 

“Liar! Such lies,” the King snarled, pouting. He turned to the Carnymancer. “Hopkins, be a dear and go over there and tell me if he's scared.”

 

Hopkins didn't even twitch an eyebrow. “That will be an extra 500 Shmuckers.”

 

“Oh, fah!” The king waved his hand dismissively. “No need, the Signamancy is plain on his face. You're scared all right.” He grinned again. “Trying to play tough, eh? Typical of a Master Caster: think they're so essential they can lie right to a monarch's face. Bah! Pure bosh, wouldn't you agree Shari?”

 

The Croakamancer glared at the King. He laughed again. “Oh, my dear Spooky Shari: if looks were ranged attacks that would be a crit! Hahahahaha!” He grew suddenly serious. “Now, this I really do want to know. You are a Dirtamancer: you understand these things. Do you like what I've done with the terrain here in Hallowee?”

 

Crane twitched. The memory of the dark and twisted hexes he had flown over was still fresh. “What you've done? You people are responsible for the corrupted terrain?”

 

“Not 'you people', no no no!” the King glowered. “I did it. Personally. It's my greatest work, and that is saying something.”

 

“You?” Crane raised an eyebrow. “I don't understand.”

 

“Of course you don't!” the King crowed. “I'm a rare bird: practically one of a kind! You see, when my dear father King Hallows III popped a heir things were looking a bit desperate around here. He wanted a brilliant royal to lead the charge and save the day! Fortunately for Hallowee, the Titans saw fit to deny him what he wanted and instead give him what he needed. I was popped a Signamancer, and a Signamancer I remain. All of this” he gestured to either side, and looked upwards, “is my work. My vision. My masterpiece.” He leaned forward, and rested his head on both hands, an eager look on his face. “But none so much as the Creepy Hexes. They are my great insight: the rest all followed from that.”

 

This revelation brought all the other mysteries into focus for Crane. A side so thoroughly committed to frightening Signamancy? Of course the ruler was a Signamancer. It was rare for a Caster to pop as a royal heir, but it could happen. Crane knew that casters tended to be passionately, almost maniacally, focused on their own discipline. So this is what happens, he thought, when one is put in charge of an entire side.

 

His curiosity got the better of him. “How did you do it? Only the Titans can change terrain types.”

 

“The Titans gave us more power than you know, little ditch digger. The whole world is a canvas the Titans prepared for us: and they popped me to be a brush.” He leaned back in his chair. “Back when I was merely Prince Hallows IV, Chief Signamancer of Hallowee, things were looking dim. Hallowee is an old and storied kingdom, but if the war continued the way it was we would find soon ourselves an old and croaked kingdom. Our enemies were many, and fierce. My father had sensibly pushed for a defensive strategy for some time. We had a Dirtamancer in those days: Saul Sand was his name, and he kept quite busy building fortifications and traps. He loved traps: there is only one road that leads to Grimgrinning, and at one point every hex of it was bursting with hidden traps.

 

“I was already working hard to buff our units with my particular art. Fearsome battle paint gave our units a bonus and our enemies a penalty. I creeped out our heavies too, gave them terrifying Signamancy. It all helped but things were still looking grim in old Grimgrinning. Our dear Chief Warlord ordered me to find a way to boost our defensive positions and I set to work. It wasn't long before I had the thought: if I could change the Signamancy of a Sawhorse, why not the Signmancy of the Erf itself?”

 

The king gestured to the Thinkamancer in the white coat. “Brian is the only one left from those days. I couldn't have done it without him.” The Thinkamancer nodded slightly, but showed no other reaction. “He understood the risks that needed to be taken. He appreciated my genius. Our Dirtamancer didn't, so in the end I had to order him to link with me. His reservations were unwarranted: it worked like a charm. I mean, it took three turns worth of juice and dear father had to pay for a Master Thinkamancer to unravel us, but it was all worth it. Together we had accomplished what some small minds,” at this he glared at Crane, “thought impossible. We couldn't change the terrain type, but we could modify it. Add to it. Color it. Creepy Hexes: my great innovation. Foothill hexes became Horrible Hills, Forest hexes became Fearsome Forests, and Mountain hexes became Mournful Mountains! Hahaha!” He kicked his feet and waved his arms in mad joy.

 

“Every unit who steps foot in one of my lovely hexes suffers from a morale penalty to combat and defense. Unless, of course, they already have frightening Signamancy, which I could provide to our own forces. And, most importantly, morale penalties stack. With the Creepy Hex penalty on top of battle paint penalties, on top of horrific heavy penalties? Our enemies soon learned that fighting in our territory was a horror show. Oh how their units hated my wonderful hexes. It took hundreds of turns but one by one we changed every hex in the kingdom, and a few dozen outside it. Thanks to me we finally achieved my father's dream of security; our enemies switched from a strategy of aggression to containment. We are feared! Feared across three hundred hexes!”

 

The King grew more excited, rising out of his chair. “And that led to everything! We maximized our advantage by becoming as frightening as possible. We changed the Signamancy of our cities, our units, our weapons. Brian and I were given free range to find new ways to scare. Otto!” The King snapped his fingers and pointed at the Warlord with the tentacled head who guarded Crane. “Remove your face, so our guest can see my work.”

 

To Crane's horror, the warlord gripped either side of his face and began to pull. His skin stretched, and shifted, and suddenly popped free. Crane stepped back in shock before he saw that there was another face beneath: the face of an ordinary warlord. He was stern, with neat black hair and a trimmed mustache. In his hands was a sunken and deflated head. It was only a mask.

 

At Crane's reaction the King burst into another bout of laughter. Alexa joined in. “Did that scare you dearie?” she cooed. “Let me give you a kiss and I’ll make you feel all better.”

 

“Watch out Crane,” the King hooted between laughs. “She's more frightening than any mask! Hahaha!” Crane's cheeks burned, and he stood stiffly with as much dignity as he could bring to bear. The King had fallen back into his chair in laughter. When he finally composed himself he had to wipe tears from his eyes. “Oh, what a result. Those are my special Hallowee Masks. All our Warlords and Knights get them. They’re the result of my linking with a Dollamancer, and they are excellent work. They provoke a far stronger morale penalty than war paint can achieve. All Hallowee is filled with such wonders. Take, for instance, my dear Spooks.” The King smiled slyly. “I bet you jumped higher than that when they nabbed you! Did you wonder how I coaxed my flying Spooks to burrow?”

 

Crane had been wondering, and the long trip to Grimgrinning had given him plenty of time to think over the problem. “Weirdomancy.”

 

The King raised his eyebrows. “Oh, you’re a clever one, aren't you? Of course you don't get much credit. Changing a units special is a Weirdomancer's bread and butter, is it not? Yet I went further, as I always do. I pushed to the edge! Typically a Weirdomancer can change a units special, or give him a new one; but I needed units that could do anything. That could adapt to whatever conditions they found. They would be the lynchpin of my vision, the great Trick or Treat. Units that could snatch whatever casters I needed for my work and bring them in reliably. So I hired a Wierdomancer, and Hopkins over there. Such a professional, Hopkins, you really are. They linked and created a new special that breaks the rules a little, and they gave it to a few dozen Spooks. Spooks are popped with three specials: flying, veiling, and wailing. My modified Spooks can switch any one of those specials with almost any other special at will. Flying can become burrowing, and wailing can become capture. At need they can swim, they can scout, they can even breathe poison. They become whatever they need to be to abduct the next contestant for the great Trick or Treat. I call them my Change Into Anything Spooks: CIA Spooks, for the sake of brevity. They are one of my best ideas. On their first outing they struck terror into our enemies, who soon learned to be paranoid about their casters and warlords.”

 

The King sighed contentedly. “I have developed trick after trick, wonder after wonder, but the Creepy Hexes are still my masterpiece. Even after I am gone the land will still bear the mark of my genius. If Hallowee falls, they will still whisper our name in fear for a thousand turns.” He frowned. “Indeed, we succeeded too well. Saul was croaked in an enemy raid; they were willing to lose dozens of stacks to stop us from spreading my art. Now we can only make more Creepy Hexes when the Trick or Treat happens to bring me a new Dirtamancer to play with.”

 

Crane scowled. “Is that why you brought me here? To taint even more hexes with your madness?”

 

“No no no no, not today.” The King, staring straight into Crane's eyes and grinning his crooked grin, replied casually. “We merely require your help in subverting the natural order of the Erf itself.”

 

*      *      *      *

 

Crane had been given quarters for the night. They were as to be expected: a dim, dusty room with four poster bed with faded black curtains and and orange silk sheets. Though musty the bed was a major improvement to sleeping in the claws of a Spook at high altitude. They'd given him a meal too: squash soup, hard candies, and a strange milky coffee drink that tasted strongly of cinnamon and nutmeg. His shackles were gone too: he was a free caster now. He needed to be to have juice in the morning. Despite all this, Crane could hardly sleep with all the information that was bouncing through his head. He had learned a lot and didn't know whether to be more frightened or impressed.

 

After his audience with the King, Crane had tried to get as much information about Hallowee out of Alexa as possible. She seemed to have no problem answering his questions, confident that the non-disclosure contract would keep him from telling anyone anything of value. Of course just because it was easy didn't mean it was pleasant. “Keep on asking questions, darling,” she had crooned while eyeing him up and down. “We need to get to know each other better.” Crane shuddered at the memory. Her answers had consistently alternated with innuendo.

 

But it was worth it. The main thing he had discovered was that Hallowee was stagnating.

 

Though it may have started as a way to acquire the services of a wide variety of casters, it seemed obvious now that the Trick or Treat had become essential to Hallowee's continued survival. Hallowee had succeeded at becoming a very difficult side to attack, its true; but outside of their Creepy Hexes they lacked their primary defensive advantage. Though they took cities from time to time, they typically lost them before they could turn the terrain around them Creepy, especially since the spell took several turns of juice per hex. The task had become even harder when they lost their Dirtamancer. So, they traded a few cities back and forth on their border but could not properly expand. Originally meant as a way to coerce casters into providing Tricks to keep their enemies at bay, now the Trick or Treat was a vital source of revenue that kept them above upkeep despite their inability to expand aggressively. Neighboring sides had learned to be careful with their warlords and casters so the CIA Spooks had to fly farther and farther afield to find victims.

 

No side, Crane knew, could last as a bubble for long. Though Hallowee had maintained a stalemate with their neighbors for hundreds of turns, it couldn't last forever. Without acquiring new cities or mines or farms (Crane tried not to think what a Creepy Farm might grow) Hallowee's army had dwindled in size. They were trying to mitigate that with Shari's uncroaked units: apparently she had been abducted specifically to solve this problem, and Turned with the help of a captured Turnamancer. Even so, Shari could only make up so much of the gap. Uncroaked decayed over time and you needed fresh corpses to replace them with; hard to acquire when you're in a perpetual stalemate.

 

So Crane had some comfort in knowing that this mad, horrible side would likely not last much longer. Stealing casters, inventing terrors, and corrupting the terrain would not pay, in the end. It was obvious to Crane that all this scheming, this twisting of what is natural and good had turned the Titans against Hallowee. When the side inevitably fell it would be justice for creating the abomination that is a Creepy Hex.

 

Despite himself, Crane was fascinated by the implications of the Signamancer's discovery. Hallowee had found a way to modify, though not drastically change, entire hexes! What could he do with the same technique? Could he create Happy Hexes, full of sunshine and friendly mobs? Or Ordered Hexes, where the trees grew in orchard rows and the mountains were sorted by height? His side had no Signamancers or Thinkamancers so the point was moot. But perhaps he could convince King Auggie to hire some from the magic kingdom. It was an intriguing possibility. It opened up new areas of Dirtamancy that he had never considered before. Build a road or raise a tower, these are things he knew well. But change the terrain itself? It was a temptation to play a Titan.

 

He could turn that thought over in his head all night, if it wasn't for the specter of the work expected of him in the morning. He had been trying to avoid thinking about it. It wasn't a threat to the side. It would get him back home, where they needed him. His Duty demanded that he sign the contract, so he had. But he wished he hadn't. The Creepy Hex trick may have twisted the art of Dirtamancy, but this project would taint it altogether.

 

The King had asked him directly. “As a Master Dirtamancer, you are aware of the natural Dirtamancy reset that occurs at the start of each turn?”

 

Crane hadn't expected this line of inquiry. “Of course.” The reset was responsible for a lot of things: refreshing clothing, cleaning dust and debris, depopping feces, and a wide variety of esoteric tasks that would only make sense to another Dirtamancer.

 

The King nodded, his head bobbing up and down with his eyes closed. “I want you to link with Carnymancer Hopkins: don't worry, Brian has done this many times, you'll be perfectly safe! Then I want you erect a building with a very large room. Several large rooms, if possible. And I want you to make it so that, in this building, the Dirtamancy reset never occurs.”

 

Crane was stunned To subvert the natural order of things in such a blatant fashion would be like spitting in the face of the Titans. The turns ordered everything, turning day into night, night into day. He protested at length about the impossibility of subverting such a foundational aspect of reality, and the blasphemous nature of such a creation even if it could exist. The king only nodded along quietly to Crane’s rant. In the end his only replied “Really, it's Hopkins who will be doing all the subverting and blaspheming. I just need you to make the room and help him understand the Dirtamancy behind it so he can get to work subverting the Titan’s natural order. If you aren't interested you need not sign: our dungeons always have room, and I'm sure your dear King Auggie will make do without you. Hahaha!”

 

Well that was that. Blasphemy or no, his Duty demanded that he return home as quickly as possible. He was needed there: they were still at war. And, horrible as it was to contemplate, he could not think of a way that such a room could pose a threat to the kingdom. So in the end, he Signed.

 

His only solace was the thought that he may be pulling a trick on the crazed King of Hallowee. When he asked why they wanted such a room the King said that it would aid in putting pressure on their captives. They would be locked in the room and would suffer the torment of their surroundings and clothes never being reset or refreshed, and their wounds never healing. More frighteningly they could wound a captive to incapacitation and without the Dirtamancy reset they would never croak. They would existing forever in a limbo between life and death.

 

The thought was repulsive, but Crane didn't protest. He was fairly sure it wouldn't work. The Dirtamancy reset did a lot of things, yes, but healing was Healomancy. The Dirtamancy reset may or may not be responsible for incapacitated units dying at the start of turn, but it was a matter that was hotly debated in the Magic Kingdom. In all likelihood it wouldn't work.

 

*      *      *      *

 

“J-Green. Eye-gore. Angel. Mindbender.”

 

Everything slowed. Crane felt himself drawn up, out of his body, up and out and way. Or was it in, deeper and closer to his own mind? Wherever he was it was more. More than he had thought possible.

 

Hopkins was there too, his body stretched and warped. It seemed to burn with flames unreal. Crane did not fear the fire. They were one, and one, and one. Brian Freake held the cord together: he was the medium, and they were the message. He spoke without speaking, and brought them to focus.

 

We must begin. But where, and when? At start of turn, strange engines churn. Dirtamancer, find the answer.

 

Crane reached without arms, and looked without eyes. The Dirtamancy reset at start of turn was a sudden thing. It happened in a blink, and if you lacked the Sense of Stuff you'd never see it pass. Even then it took a masters eye. But now he saw in more dimensions. He shared his in-sight.

 

See here: it happens fast, but shakes the hex entire. I feel its ripples still: follow them back to the beginning, and see beyond. At start of turn things must be set right. Let me show you: feel its embrace, its loving touch.

 

Hopkins flew, and sighed, and saw. Yes, I see! The Dirtament sings, and each hex joins the chorus. First it sees what is...

 

...then it shows the Erf what must be, and it responds in kind. Crane finished the thought. It sees what must be removed, refreshed, discarded, and the Erf makes real the ideal.

 

Let me blind its eye. Then there can be no reply.

 

It's eye is Eyemancy: Titanic Lookamancy. Freake interjected. But beyond my ken: I'm no master Lookamancer.

 

Beyond me too. Only Erf I knew. Crane replied. Erf seemed so limited now: he could see with Brian's eyes, and traced the color of Eyemancy. It was impenetrable.

 

But Hopkins laughed, and the world laughed with him. Then I'll play a Carny game, and tell the Erf a story. The Eye sees what is, then tells what should be. I will stop the Erfs ears and teach it a new song: whatever the Eye sees, that is what should be. What is here will stay: nothing will go away. I will give the Dirtament a show, to tell it all that is right, and to refresh the Erf by leaving it as it was. He grinned a grin that stretched from tower to dungeon. But I need a stage to play it on. Build me a home for a lie, and I'll tell it dry. Show me the Erfs ears, and I'll be all it hears.

 

Crane drafted the plans, and set the lines. A vault, a dungeon, a deep place. Contained, and made to resonate with the Dirtament. We will make it here. It will be stage enough for your Stagemancy. I can teach you the words that the Erf will hear.

 

Freake bound them tight. Then make it so. It's time for the show.

 

*      *      *      *

 

It took four turns of juice. Tricking the Erf itself is no mean feat.

 

The final product was a building, one story tall with basements three stories deep. It was long as two dwagons and as wide as one. The walls were made of marble, with a peaked slate roof. At the front there were three shallow steps leading up to two doors made of intricate wrought iron bars. On either side of the doors stood marble pillars, and on either side of those pillars stood large marble urns. It was a solid, serious building. Inside, beyond the iron bars, was a wide and open area, with steps leading to the rooms below.. It was all stone, and all cold.

 

Inscribed above the door was the building's name. The Rotten Vault.

 

It was rotten. Though he had made it, Crane could not stand to be inside it. It felt wrong in there. Even the others sensed it, he could tell. A sense of unease, of decay, where the air itself seemed to be choking you bit by bit. It was worse for him with his Dirtamancer senses. Inside he could faintly hear, deep down in the bedrock, the unending song of stillness that the Carnymancer had placed upon the vault. It never stopped; it was like molasses dripping into your ears, or tar sliding down your throat. He dared not enter there again.

 

The King was pleased. “Some said it couldn't be done, but here we are! How spooktacular! You've certainly earned your release, doubting Dirtamancer. It needs only the master's touch.”

 

At this King Hallows IV placed his hands on the Vault's pillars and spoke aloud. “Price. EC. Stein. King. Lugosi.”

 

Waves of magic spread across the Rotten Vault's exterior. The bright white marble grayed and blackened, darkened with soot and lichen. The iron gates corroded and warped.. Cobwebs formed in the doorway, and around the pillars. The building aged drastically in mere moments. The already imposing edifice now radiated a sense of dread.

 

“Now it's mine. Thank you again, Master Dirtamancer. Alexa will see you to the portal room. Dear Shari, please come in, I want to make sure you have no bones to pick with my work!” And so, as the King let out one more manic piping bout of laughter, Crane was led away into the bowels of the garrison. The fearsome Croakamancer, Shari, give him a parting glare before disappearing behind the bars of the Rotten Vault.

 

Hopkins had already left, and apparently was paid well for his services. After breaking the link the Carny had resumed his typical stern expression, and had merely nodded to Crane before leaving. On the way to the portal Crane asked Alexa why they hadn't just kidnapped a Carnymancer too.

 

“Oh honey, do you think master Carnies are easy to come by? I can't Find any in the wild: none in range of our Spooks, anyway. Besides, they work cheap. There isn't much demand for their services. And they don't mind breaking conventions either: can you think of any free Dirtamancer who would have built the Rotten Vault if we asked?” She gave him a sideways wink. “Maybe if I asked you nicely, darling.”

 

Crane had to admit he couldn't think of anyone: at least not at any price that wasn't astronomical. He was glad that Hopkins was also under an agreement of non-disclosure. Crane would croak of shame if any other Dirtamancer found out what horror he had helped create.

 

Soon they arrived at Hallowee's bright orange portal. Alexa began to pout as they parted ways. “Well, I guess this is goodbye. We won't be picking you up again for at least two hundred turns thanks to the truce, but...” to Crane's schock, she actually started to tear up. “You know, you're always welcome to come visit. Just for a little while now and then.” She wiped her eyes and smiled weakly. “Besides, I'm sure we'll see each other all the time in the Magic Kingdom.” As Crane started to protest, she waved him off. “Don't worry, you don't need to do nothing. I'll Find you, sweet cheeks! Ha!” With that she gave Crane a shove. He stumbled through the orange portal and suddenly found himself in the Magic Kingdom.

 

For the first time in twelve turns he was standing in bright yellow sunlight. A pleasant breeze was blowing and he could feel untainted dirt under his feet. As casters walked to and fro he could hardly believe it. He was a free man and only a few steps from home. In the bright light, with all these friendly faces around him, Hallowee seemed like a bad dream. A nightmare he had finally awakened from. He thanked the Titans and headed home. He was looking forward to his bed, his King, and his side. He was especially looking forward to finishing that road.

 

Despite all the horrors he had endured, he was pleased with himself. Yes, he had helped build a monstrous edifice where the dust never swept itself. So what? He had a secret of his own. While in the link he had seen farther and further then he ever could before. He couldn't remember everything: and he couldn't replicate the things he could do there. But he did remember one thing: he was right.

 

Something, some kind of Titanic Lookamancy, investigated the state of each hex at start of turn. It informed another function, the Dirtamancy refresh, telling it what should stay and what should go: what trash to remove, what clothes to clean, and what chamber pots to empty.  But! It also spoke to dozens of other functions. It told a Healomancy function what units to heal, and Stuffamancy clock what units to pop, and who knows how many other wheels to turn and keep the Erf going. King Hallow had wanted a dungeon where wounds never healed, and he would be bitterly disappointed. He would never get his dream of a prisoner trapped in limbo, incapacitated but never croaking. Croaking wasn't Dirtamancy's job: as far as he could remember, it seemed that there was some kind of Naughtymancy function responsible for that. All the Dirtamancy refresh would do is depop the corpse on the next turn, the same as all the other trash.

 

So Crane returned to his work, happy to have the strange episode behind him. Over the next few turns he told the story to his friends and coworkers as best he could, given the non-disclosure. Soon he caught up in the normal hustle and bustle of the side. There were roads to build, traps to set, and cities to upgrade. While he was gone they had lost Spoopy Hollow, and soon after he returned they took it back again. After a few turns he hardly thought of his dreadful trip through the skies. After a few tenturns he stopped dreaming of monsters crawling out of the ground.

 

So it came as a surprise when one night, many turns later, he awoke in fright with a terrible question on his mind.

 

Why had the Croakamancer been watching?

 

Why hadn't she been at the front, where a Croakamancer typically would be? Why did she stay and observe the construction over four entire turns instead of uncroaking corpses? Why did King Hallows ask her whether she would have any problems with the Rotten Vault?

 

In the dark cool midnight air the horrible answer came to him clearly, as stark and terrible as a protruding bone. In the Rotten Vault nothing would change. Dust would accumulate, food would rot, trash would accumulate.

 

Trash like croaked bodies.

 

Corpses depopped at the start of the next turn, unless they were claimed. Even if they were claimed they would decay each turn, following a set timer until they depopped. It was the exact same mechanism that made uncroaked rot. Each turn the Dirtamancy refresh would decay their animated bodies one more step. How many steps it took to depop depended on how much juice the Croakamancer had put into the animation, but it was inevitable. Eventually all corpses disappear.

 

But not in the Rotten Vault.

 

They could pile up corpses like firewood in there, and they would never depop. They could house stacks of uncroaked units in there, and they would never decay. As long as they were in the Vault at the start of turn, they would stay as fresh as they day they were uncroaked.

 

Without having to worry about decay Shari Skellington could take her time. She wouldn’t have to worry about corpses going bad before she had the chance to uncroak them. No matter how many corpses they got a hold of, as long as there was room in the Rotten Vault she could afford to spend all her juice on single uncroaked each turn. Given enough time they could fill the entire Vault with elite uncroaked, just waiting to burst forth against their enemies.

 

It was even worse than that. They already had a network of CIA Spooks spread far and wide. Alexa could easily use her Findmancy to locate fresh battlefields full of corpses. With the Spooks grabbing them up, the slain men of a hundred different sides, the only limit would be how high they could stack the corpses.

 

Given enough time Hallowee could have a legion of preserved uncroaked, all without upkeep. They could triple the size of their army with no cost to themselves.

 

Crane had made a dire mistake. The Rotten Vault was no novelty. It was an existential threat to the side: to every side that Hallowee could reach. He could see it now: the whole kingdom conquered from Spoopy Hollow to Rum, and every hex between twisted and blighted into King Hallows horror show. Maybe the entire Erf.

 

A vision to haunt his dreams for the next thousand turns.

Comments

    • HighJumper

      Masterfully done! I thoroughly enjoyed the whole story, and the ending capped it all nicely.

      • MrH

        Thank you very much! I'm glad you liked it. I've had some of these ideas floating around in my head for years now, so I'm glad I finally was able to get them out there, and I'm even more pleased that people seem to like it. 

        • sensate

          Got an early front-runner here! Great story!

          • Bandaid

            Okay, I am not a jugde but I think we have a really strong contender for first place in prose. Really nice use of spooky elements with good integration into Erfworld mechanics. And the sides rationale is strong too. Makes a lot of sense from their point. Also good references to certain characters from other franchises.

            • Twofer

              Nice. Your characterisation is particularly strong, especially for Alexa and Hallows.

              • Twobeard

                Very well done indeed. This is i believe the strongest most coherent piece of Erf fic that has been published in a long time. What fun! Thanky you

                • Brother Mirtillo

                  That was spectacular! Every scene vividly detailed, every spell and rhyme sparking and shining, every obstacle looming and leering.

                  ...well, except for the obstacles that were surprises. On one hand, I was able to spot the Signamancer and the very last surprise before they happened -- but only a moment before. In either case, it was King Hallow's swaggering bragging that suggested a card up the sleeve, though he did that so often that it could (and mostly did) just get shrugged off as part of his character. His swagger in the face of a dead end -- that's what suggested an ambush.

                  And such ambushes. It's the type of scary story where one thinks that one knows exactly what's goingon , and then the notion turns out that it's both right and wrong... but just enough wrong to ruin everything. Even the Creepy Hexes were a preview of how to cut the ground out from under someone's feet, after a fashion. I wouldn't have imagined the precedent of war paint iterated to such a depth. The only spell more glaring than that were those crazy-powerful Spooks... but a word joke in the right place helped that.

                  Good show, and congratulations!

                  • Spicymancer

                    Now that the contest is done (and I’ve had some time to breathe XD ) I wanted to to thank and congratulate you for an excellent story.

                     

                    The only technical advice I can give is it’s a little longer than it needs to be. A lot of the traveling hex descriptions and some of the wind down once Sammy was back could have probably been clipped or condensed without negatively affecting anything. Since this is a horror story, and this is me basically back-seat-writing, is I’d suggest that Sammy suddenly get growing existential dread throughout his realization (or at the end of it) that even knowing the threat, he’s powerless to warn anyone directly because of the confidentiality agreement. Yeah, it’s stated earlier he signed it, but more than a reminder for the reader it could really hammer home the ending.

                     

                    As others have side, loved the characterization, the tone was wonderfully Erfworld and Halloween, and it had a good mix of punny, funny, and scary. The alternate side strategy aspect to it was cool, but what I absolutely loved  ishow something negative from our worlds POV, like no auto cleaning, could be so evilly and cleverly abused. Thanks again for sharing this MrH. =)

                    • MrH

                      I want to thank everyone for their kind comments! I hope to participate in future fan-fiction contests, since people seem to like my work and playing around with Erfworld systems is just so much fun. I would like to give some credit to my wife: the first draft of this was very dry and straightforward, just the bare ideas and the twist. I knew when I wrote it that it wasn't up to snuff. I complained to her about it and she was of immense help in giving me feedback, specifically on how I needed to flesh out the characters. Before that walk I had Alexa talking in a monotone (you know, because she's named Alexa), King Hallows IV was imperious and above it all, and the other casters were just kind of there. Thanks to my wife the second draft included real characters, and I'm glad people enjoyed them. It was certainly more fun to write for them. Maybe next year I might write another Hallowee story: these characters seem like they could support a few more. Thanks again!