The Last Turn

(This is a rough copy of The Last Turn, a fanfiction written for the webcomic, Erfworld. Since Erfworld has sadly been discontinued, I’ve saved it here. It’s rough, and it was written in 2017, but I still like the story and the world it inhabited.)

 

Chapter 1

Lord Turing of Osnap closed his eyes and tried to imagine that he was disbanded. It didn’t work. When he opened his eyes again Turing could still feel the same awful sensation at the back of his mind. The terrible, weighty burden of the Chief Warlord bonus that affected him and every other unit.

 

Titans be cursed, it was his.

 

Osnap wasn’t a large side, but neither was it a small one. In truth, it was a slightly-above-average side with a decent spread of warlords and a high-level Shockamancer. They were a big fish in the nearby hexes and even if there were bigger sides a thousand or more hexes away, Osnap wasn’t an easy target.

 

So why then by the Titan’s testes was Lord Turing, a permanently garrisoned Level Two Warlord now Chief Warlord for the entire side? The answer was obvious, but Turing dreaded hearing it.

 

Still, Duty was absolute. Reluctantly, Turing closed the book he had been reading and stood up. The Library of Osnap’s Capital city Brashball was well-stocked with countless writings from previous warlords, sovereigns and even the occasional caster. It was Turing’s place of refuge but it was no place for a warlord, let alone a Chief Warlord.

 

It took Turing a bit longer to climb the spiraling staircase to the war room. Longer than he would have liked; for all Turing was a warlord and fit for battle, his Signamancy told a different story. Turing was slightly overweight and pudgy to put a not-so-fine point on it. Well, after nearly four hundred turns of doing nothing but patrol a city since he had popped, Turing thought his sleight overweightness was a blessing. Some units in Osnap had even worse Signamancies than he did.

 

Case in point. Turing entered the war room, hesitated, and then bowed up at the towering figure before him.

 

“Sire,” Turing said, bowing at what he hoped was his king’s face. “At your command.”

 

“Siddown Turing.” King Gout waved at Turing to copy his example. There were several stools and chairs placed around the map in the center of the war room for this purpose.

 

Turing hesitated. There was no one else in the war room besides King Gout, which was unusual in itself. Nevertheless, the king filled half of the small room with his presence. Not just his commanding presence mind. His physical presence. Although Turing had spent countless turns reading books, he had never heard of a heavy-class King. Perhaps Gout wasn’t technically a heavy, but Turing would hate to see the poor horse that had to carry him.

 

It wasn’t that he was big. Well, it was that he was big, but Gout was fat. He was corpulent. If fat could be overweight that would be Gout’s fat. He was disgustingly huge, and what made it worse was that it wasn’t even part of his unit type.

 

Gout was human. At least, Turing was fairly sure he wasn’t a Twoll. Twolls were big, but they had lots of muscle under their fat. Gout just had more fat. He sat on a small creaking chair in the war room, a king that was even larger than king-sized. He hadn’t moved from Brashball for as long as Turing had been popped, and it seemed that he grew with every hundred turns.

 

Signamancy was a terrible thing, but a king was a king and Gout was Turing’s king. Even so, a warlord had some freedom and a Chief Warlord could ask the hard questions. Had to ask the hard questions, more like.

 

“Shouldn’t we wait for other warlords sire?” Turing ventured. “I’d like to hear their input on any strategies for the side.” And so you can make them Chief Warlord instead of me.

 

“There aint’ gonna be anymore warlords,” Gout said shortly. “You’re the only one left. Now sit down.”

 

Turing’s legs folded up more from shock than the weight of Gout’s order. There wasn’t a chair beneath him, so Turing ended up sitting on the floor but he didn’t care.

 

Gone? All gone?

 

“But how?” That was the first question that burst out of Turing’s mouth. “Osnap has –had over twelve warlords in different cities! We can’t have lost them all at once!”

 

“We did,” Gout grunted. With one fat hand he pulled over a stool and plunked it on the other side of the war map. “Take a seat. But yer not gonna like this one bit.”

 

 

—-

 

 

The war room of Brashball was a big room, meant to hold countless warlords and casters that would deliberate over the next moves to be played in the endless battle for supremacy in the mixture of plains, forests, and occasional lakes that was the surrounding hexes in their zone. With only two units, the room felt terribly empty, even if one of those units was as big as Gout.

 

“Lemme catch you up to speed.” Gout shifted uncomfortably and Turing wondered whether the creaking chair his ruler occupied would collapse now or in five minutes. “You keep up with latest events much?”

 

“Only the basics.” Turing’s mind raced back and forth, trying to pick up all the details his mind had glossed over in the last few turns. “We sent Duke Curbstomp with the First Army to deal with Amirite and Busybody’s combined armies, right?”

 

“Currect.” Gout’s face darkened. “Shoudda been an easy victory even ‘gainst two sides.”

 

Very easy. Turing remembered seeing off the side’s then Chief Warlord, Duke Curbstomp only a few turns ago. He had been there. Titans, it had been his strategy that Curbstomp had used. What had gone so terribly wrong?

 

 

—-

 

 

Five turns ago, Brashball

 

“Turing!”

 

Lord Turing nearly fell off his seat on the battlements at the loud voice calling his name. He overbalanced and felt himself sliding off the stone fortifications when a huge hand caught him and balanced him upright.

 

“Careful,” Duke Curbstomp of Osnap admonished Lord Turing. “We don’t want you going off to visit the Titans too early now, do we?”

 

Turing blushed, but accepted the hand and stood to greet Duke Curbstomp. As the Chief Warlord of Osnap and a Level 9 Warlord, Turing should have gone to visit Curbstomp rather than the other way around, but Curbstomp was not a warlord to stand on dignity.

 

The massive, ruddy-faced Chief Warlord slapped Turing on the back and nearly catapulted him off the battlements again. He was a giant of a warlord, almost twice as big as Turing with muscles the size of a Piker’s head.

 

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Curbstomp?”

 

Curbstomp grunted.

 

“Heard about the latest attack? An alliance is sending a big army right at Onaroll. The First Army is going to intercept them, and I’m leading. It’s going to be a big fight.”

 

Even as Turing shook his head his heart sank. He hadn’t heard of any army, let alone orders for a battle. Well, he wouldn’t. He spent most of his time in the castle library anyways, and besides that…

 

“No, I hadn’t heard. Are you leaving this turn, then?”

 

“Soon as we get the army assembled. I’m takin’ our best.”

 

Curbstomp looked down from the battlements at the units starting to flood into the courtyard down below.

 

“Must be nice, to keep fighting on the front lines,” Turing said. He tried to keep any hint of jealousy out of his voice.

 

It must not have worked. Curbstomp looked around and his rugged face softened for a moment.

 

“Ah. Right. Well, I asked Gout if I could bring three warlords instead of two this time, but he said not you.”

 

Turing nodded gloomily. He was surprised, actually. Not that King Gout had said he couldn’t join the army – that was almost a given. Rather, that Curbstomp had brought up the topic again.

 

It was an unspoken rule in Osnap. A few things were and were not done. Any good unit picked up the rules within a few turns of being popped. They weren’t that many.

 

Firstly, you never talked about Gout’s weight. You especially didn’t mention his past Signamancy or the smell.

Secondly, you never ran away in battle. Osnap was a side of ferocious fighters that never retreated unless the odds were really, really bad.

 

Thirdly, the warlord called Turing never went outside the city. He especially didn’t command a stack. Ever.

 

Turing looked down at the battlements. From this height they all looked tiny, except for the Gwulls that is. The big birds flew even higher than the battlements, giving out their odd battlecry every now and then.

 

“Don’t take it so hard.” Curbstomp thumped down next to Turing. “Patrollin’ the city is an important job. Saves upkeep. ‘Sides which, you’re famous in other sides, you know.”

 

Turing looked up. “Really?”

 

“Yup. The Patrollord of Osnap they call ya.” Curbstomp grinned at Turing. “Yer a legend. One of the oldest warlords around, and probably the smartest too. All them books you keep reading.”

 

Turing scowled and looked down. That didn’t sound like praise to him. More like mockery. He especially hated that nickname his fellow warlords gave him. It was accurate, true, but Titans did it sting.

 

Curbstomp must have sensed Turing’s feelings were hurt. He gave the smaller warlord another resounding buffet on the back.

 

“Cheer up. I’ve got strategy to talk with you, and I need ya thinkin’ of cunning plans. That’s an order from your Chief Warlord, alright?”

 

Reluctantly, Turing looked up. “I thought you planned it all out in the war room already. Didn’t the other warlords offer their advice? Why ask me?”

 

Curbstomp scratched the back of his head and shrugged.

 

“Right, we cooked up a plan to hit them. But I wanna run it by you. You might see somethin’ the other warlords don’t. You think differently than them, and that’s important.”

 

Turing nodded reluctantly. It wasn’t the first time Curbstomp had come to him for advice. He wasn’t sure why, but the Chief Warlord seemed to value his opinion. He squared his shoulders. If he could help, he would.

 

“Well, what do we know about the coalition army?”

 

“Can’t say how many units they’ve got, but they can’t have more than eighty land and only a few fliers,” Duke Curbstomp said as Turing sat on the battlements and looked down at the gathering army. “Even if they stack their best warlords together and engage all at once we’ll still croak the lot of them.”

 

“If you say so,” Turing said dubiously. “Seems risky to bet everything without a comprehensive scouting report though.”

 

“Nonsense.” Curbstomp unsheathed his sword and began drawing energetically on the stone rampart of the battlement. “See here, Amirite and Busybody are right next to each other in front of where the desert hexes start, right? Only side next to them is Griefen and the other side’s blocked off by a lake hex. Griefen won’t ever ally with Amirite or Busybody, so they’re the only two allies they’ve got.”

 

“What about kingdoms on our other side?” Turing pointed out. “They could ally with our enemies and flank us.”

 

Curbstomp frowned and glared at his map sketched in stone. “It’s possible,” he conceded, “but look.” Carefully he drew a few more hexes on the other side of the hex that represented Osnap.

 

“We’ve got three—maybe four sides close enough and big enough to threaten us – Lipsmack, Greenswell, Scaredcat and Snobish. None of ‘em could make it here in under six turns, and we’ve scouted most of the hexes. Even if a force is coming, it’s not gonna be a big one. Besides which, we’ve got Second Army and Third Army both stationed over there. Even an alliance wouldn’t fight six warlords in one hex if they could avoid it.”

 

“Okay,” Turing conceded. “Plan looks good if no other side’s mixed up in all this.”

 

“Good!” Curbstomp’s wide face broke into a big grin and he slapped Turing on the back. Turing caught himself before he tumbled over the edge of the battlements and rubbed his shoulder.

 

“One thing though.” Trying not to think about how close he had come to croaking Turing stood up and walked back along the battlements to another set of sketches in the stone. For whatever reason Curbstomp liked drawing on stone more than paper. “Looks like you’ve got all our knights and pikers in a circle around our caster and you here.”

 

“Yup.” Curbstomp grinned. “They screen while we blast any fliers out of the airspace. Then we’ll drop as many Gwulls as we need to on their leadership and mop up the rest.”

 

Turing said nothing as he thought. Gwulls, the main air unit of Osnap were decent fliers with more hits than most air units. They lacked high move though, and had no specials which made them a bit weak in Turing’s opinion. Still, Titans gave Osnap Gwulls for a reason rather than a different unit so they made do.

 

“I don’t know,” Turing said slowly. “The screening normally works but Amirite and Busybody know we’ve got a Shockamancer. They’ll aim for him right off and if they push through a strong stack they might croak him. That would ruin the entire battle.”

 

“Hm. You gotta point there,” Curbstomp frowned and scratched at his beard. “Don’t think they’ve got that many high-level units, but if they massed ‘em or pulled out their Chief Warlords they might do it.” He frowned and looked at Turing. “I don’t want to go into a battle with even a small chance of losing a caster. Do you have another plan or should we call off the attack for now?”

 

Turing was silent for a moment. He was thinking, his mind racing furiously. He may not have been the best warlord or the highest leveled, but the fact that Curbstomp asked him for help when it came to tactics said a lot about Turing’s value as a warlord.

 

In his mind, at least. Apart from Curbstomp, Turing was more or less ignored by the other warlords, the king and even most of the other garrison units. That suited Turing just fine, though; he liked being alone.

 

But he liked strategy even more. Although his time as a warrior might have ended already, Turing still loved the thrill of coming up with new tactics. And when he thought of strategy, his were always—

 

“Why not mount on the Gwulls?” Turing said.

 

“What?” Curbstomp looked at Turing in disbelief.

 

“Put yourself, our Shockamancer and all your highest-level Knights on Gwulls,” Turing said. “Leave one or two warlords with the land units. Then when the battle starts blast all the archer stacks and take out the air units yourself.”

 

“That’s crazy,” Curbstomp said. “We’ve only got fourteen Gwulls and they might have as many as twenty two fliers altogether. We’d be outnumbered.”

 

“But if they’re expecting a Shockamanncer they won’t have any leadership in the air,” Turning pointed out. “They’d use air units as an expendable screen to take the casts. You’re a Level 9 – even if they had twice as many air units as you it’s a winnable battle without their leadership.”

 

“And then if we get rid of the archers we get free attacks while the battle gets going,” Curbstomp muttered, crossing out units in his stone battle map. “It all depends on how many stacks of archers they’ve got though.”

 

“For a battle against a land-heavy army like we’ve got? Amirite’s probably been popping out Minotwaurs and Busybody probably just went heavy on stabbers and pikers,” Turing said. “Heavies to resist the casting and enough units to overwhelm our stacks. If you attack from the air it would be a huge surprise.”

 

“That’s crazy,” Curbstomp said again. This time though there was a tone in his voice that told Turing he’d won his Chief Warlord over. “They’d never see it coming.”

 

The two descended to the ground, still fleshing out the last of the battle plan. Turing stopped as he stared at Curbstomp’s personal command, the First Army of Osnap.

 

Rows of pikers stood at military-straight attention in front of their stabber counterparts. Not a one was below Level 2, and at their head stood the Knights.

 

Turing had never commanded a Knight. He could only imagine the protection their solid plate armor gave them, and he knew there were enough of them to form several full stacks just on their own.

 

And standing in a circle of their own were the two warlords and single Caster that made up the rest of the First Army.

 

The other two Warlords, a muscled, dark-skinned female Warlady and a serious Warlord greeted Turing briefly and then turned to Curbstomp. They ignored Turing quite completely, which he was used to.

 

The Caster on the other hand gave Turing a look but said nothing. He was clearly waiting for Turing to speak first.

 

“Shockamancer.” Turing greeted Zipzap, Osnap’s sole caster dispassionately. He had never liked the Chief Caster although he kept his feelings to himself. “I hope you manage to reach Master-class this turn.”

 

Zipzap sneered at Turing. “Thank you, Warlord. But that is a matter for the Titans, isn’t it? Or perhaps it will come down to our side’s battle plan. Assuming it is at all effective.”

 

Turing gritted his teeth. “I merely advise our Chief Warlord,” he said as neutrally as possible. “And you are of course an integral part of our latest strategy.”

 

“As always. Without my underappreciated abilities the side would be half of what it is.”

 

“Of course.” Turing felt like his jaw muscles were locking up with the effort of smiling. “And I’m sure that you will perform your Duty to perfection.”

 

“He will if he uses his juice like he’s supposed to.” Curbstomp stomped over and glared at Zipzap. “Instead of saving it in case he gets attacked.”

 

Zipzap turned and glared at Curbstomp. That gave Turing the opportunity to relax his face as the Chief Shockamancer and Chief Warlord glared at each other. It was a familiar scene and the other two Warlords kept themselves busy staring at their shoes or inspecting their weapons.

 

“My casting is an art, not another bludgeon to be wasted simply croaking any unit that comes into my hex,” Zipzap said acidly. “Once I have obtained my Mastery I shall petition our ruler for another, more suitable command. The Third Army perhaps, or even the Fourth.”

 

Curbstomp glowered. “You’ll stay wherever I say,” he growled at Zipzap. “Now mount up. We’re moving out.”

 

Zipzap sniffed but he walked away without another word. Curbstomp turned and spat, but grinned as he saw Turing’s worried expression.

 

“Don’t mind the caster. If he starts acting up I’ll have a piker poke him till he obeys. I wish another caster’d pop soon though. The Shockamancer gets more annoying each day.”

 

“We could always hire another caster, or maybe trade a unit for one.” Turing thought carefully. “I know there’s a Croakamancer in Snobish that just popped. It would take some doing but if we traded a few Knights we might—”

 

“That’s the spirit!” Curbstomp cut Turing off and slapped him on the back. “You think it out. I’ve got a battle to fight, but once we get back you can tell me what you’ve thought of, alright?”

 

Turing glanced around. The other units in the courtyard were staring at him. He realized he’d been holding up the entire First Army and turned red.

 

Curbstomp affected not to notice. With a booming voice he ordered his personal stack to mount up and called down the Gwulls from above.

 

A multitude of white and black birds twice as big as Turing swooped down and flew in large circles around Curbstomp’s army. Turing listened to their loud cries and dodged as one of them decided to empty its bowels right over his head.

 

They weren’t the most attractive flying units, but Curbstomp just laughed and signaled the First Army. They began to move out of the hex.

 

Turing watched as Curbstomp assembled his stack around him. He wanted to go with him. Every bone in the Warlord’s body was urging him to take a stack of his own and fight. But he couldn’t. He hadn’t commanded a stack in so long it hurt.

 

As he turned to go, Curbstomp looked at the forlorn Turing standing in the courtyard. He stomped over to him and clapped him on the shoulder. Turing staggered but slapped Curbstomp on the shoulder as well. He tried not to let his true feeling show.

 

Curbstomp smiled at Turing. It was a rare gesture, and made Turing smile back.

 

“If all goes well I’ll hit Amirite’s capital and conquer it within two turns,” Curbstomp promised Turing. “Raze it, make it a level one. Then we’d be able to pop another warlord and send you out with another army to take down Busybody. Get a few levels and get back to croaking units, right?”

 

It was probably false hope, but it made Turing smile.

 

“Right,” he said.

 

“And next time, maybe we might get a warlord that can be trusted to command a stack of units,” Zipzap said as he walked past.

 

Turing’s smile vanished. Curbstomp glowered and buffeted Zipzap on the back of the head. Then they too began to move out of the hex, leaving Turing behind in the city.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing sat on the battlements and watched as Curbstomp moved across hexes with the First Army behind him. With him were Osnap’s highest level knights, units who’d captured more cities than Turing had ever seen, and over a hundred mixed units of Gwulls, Catapulls, and the traditional mix of Stabbers, Pikers and Archers that Curbstomp loved to field. Somewhere in the center of the army the lone Caster for the expedition, Zipzap rode along disconsolately, surrounded by a heavy stack in case of ambushes.

 

That was the last time Turing saw Curbstomp again. Five turns later he woke up with the Chief Warlord bonus hanging in his mind.

 

That had been a bad day. It got worse when Gout told Turing who had wiped out Curbstomp and his entire army before they’d even reached their destination.

 

 

Chapter 2

“It started with Third and Second Army two turns ago.” Gout pointed to the map and tapped a set of hexes on the plains. “Lost contact with ‘em and every single warlord. Wiped out in a single turn – not even a message of what was hittin’ them. Same turn, we lost two cities.”

 

Turing stood in the vast war room of Brashball and stared down at the map of the surrounding hexes. He tried to focus on his Ruler’s words but his mind was spinning.

 

He was alone with King Gout in the war room, a giant circular room at the top of one tower that was devoted solely to the single round table and large map placed on it. It was here that Osnap’s strategy was planned, usually by at least six Warlords and Gout himself.

 

Right now the room only held two units, and even if one of them was Gout, it was cripplingly empty.

 

That was half of why Turing was so rattled. The other half came from the giant Chief Warlord bonus hanging in his mind. He couldn’t ignore it. It hung over him and even the city, a glaring reminder that he was the Chief Warlord now.

 

And he was completely unprepared for the job. If it weren’t for the scraps of his pride, Turing would have screamed or run around screaming incoherently. If he were in private he might have. He couldn’t command. He’d only led a stack of units once, and that had been hundreds of turns ago.

 

He’d never been in the war room. Ever. Gout had never summoned him as part of any strategic discussions of the side, and the only maps he was used to looking at were the ones Curbstomp drew in stone.

 

“Turing.”

 

Lord Turing’s panicked thoughts ground to a halt. He jerked his head up and saw his ruler staring at him.

 

“Over here.” Gout pointed to a hex on the map. Turing willed his feet to walk over.

 

“My apologies, Lord. What was it you were saying?”

 

Gout glanced over at Turing. His rubbery cheeks wobbled as he eyed Turing beneath his layered brows.

 

“Don’t matter,” he grunted. “We’ve got time. Ain’t like our Turn will end if we take too long. Look here.”

 

He stabbed his finger down at a hex. Turing looked. It was between two of Osnap’s cities. Well, former cities. The two little cites on the map had been knocked over to indicate they’d been razed and they were different colors now. Turing knew the colors of the other sides around Osnap. This was a completely different side’s color.

 

“Right here is where we thought the other army was hidin’,” Gout said. “Forces probly split up and hit Unprep and Offgrd before regrouping, see? So I sent a message by Thinkagram. Hadda pay a lot of Schmuckers to do it, but got in touch with both the First and Second Army and let them know ‘bout the enemy army.”

 

Turing nodded. It was a good decision. The Third and Fourth Armies weren’t nearly as strong as the First and Second. Even if they were superior, at least some survivors should have been able to retreat.

 

“Curbstomp got my message and went out to investigate,” Gout continued. “He was wary. First Army was twice as big and twice as leveled as both Second and Third army combined, but he was ready to fall back to the capital if the enemy looked too dangerous. He began marchin’ towards the site of the battle two turns ago. This turn he and the entire army croaked.”

 

Silence fell over the room. Turing felt his stomach twist itself another knot.

 

“Are there any survivors?”

 

“None,” Gout said flatly.

Turing studied the map. He couldn’t think of anything else to ask.

 

“Any—any intel on what the enemy is?”

 

“Last message I got was from our warlord in Holdout. Thinkagram. He told me the enemy’s got a lotta units. Not too clear on the details but they’re mostly low level, which ain’t bad. No heavies or siege to slow them down so they move fast, but that’s about it. Normally we’d crush them in an instant but—”

 

Gout fell silent.

 

“But?” Turing asked when the silence grew too painful.

 

“The real threat’s their main stack. They got their Chief Warlord leadin’ them, and a Caster too. She’s a

Turnamancer. Probly Master-class. And the warlord, well, the warlord’s worse.”

 

Turing knew he shouldn’t ask. But Duty compelled him, even if he thought he was running out his Luckamancy by saying it.

 

“How much worse, Lord?”

 

Gout looked up at Lord Turing. His sunken eyes held not a glimmer of hope in their green depths.

 

“The warlord’s Level 13.”

 

The ground lurched around Turing as if he’d been hit by a Dirtamancy trap. He found he was sitting and couldn’t remember doing so.

 

“’S what I thought too.” Gout turned back to the map. “No wonder Curbstomp lost. ‘S probably their Chief Warlord too, so the leadership bonus’d win half the battle by itself.”

 

Turing looked at the map of the surrounding hexes blankly for a moment. Four cities. Unknown number of turns before an overwhelming attack. Level 13 warlord. Turnamancer.

 

It was a hopeless battle. A classic, hopeless battle. Right out of the books he loved to read so much. And now that he was faced with one, he hated it.

 

It wasn’t fair. Turing was no battle-seasoned warlord who could take command of the side in a situation like this. He was a Warlord who spent most of his time in the library, for Titan’s sake! All he did was read strategy books and dream of one day leading a stack of his own.

 

He cleared his throat nervously.

 

“What—what is it you wish me to do, Lord?”

 

Gout looked at Turing and shrugged his massive shoulders.

 

“Yer the Chief Warlord now. Lead our stacks. What’s left of them, anyways. Only got a few stacks of pikers and stabbers in each city and a couple a’ Gwulls.”

 

“But Lord,” Turing pleaded. “I’ve never commanded more than a single stack since I was popped! I can’t lead a side just like that!”

 

Again, Gout shrugged. He avoided looking at Turing. “Your Duty calls. Ain’t like you’re my first choice other, to be honest. But yer my last warlord.”

 

“I’m a Patrollord!” Turing shouted at Gout. Then he slapped a hand over his mouth. But the words were spoken and there was no disengaging now. He tried to speak more calmly, but his voice still shook. “I’m only good for reducing the upkeep of the city. I’m no great warlord. You’d be better off promoting a field unit instead. They have some field experience, at least.”

 

Gout nodded heavily. He eyed Turing silently, and chewed at his lip in thought. Then he spoke.

 

“I know. I know you ain’t seen real battle before. But yer better than a field unit made warlord.  Before he left, Curbstomp was askin’ me about makin’ you a proper warlord with a field command again.”

 

Turing looked up in surprise. Gout nodded.

 

“He says all them books you like reading every turn makes you a better warlord than he is. My other warlords said you weren’t worth the upkeep I pay, but aside from the one time you ain’t been a bad unit. You’ve saved the side thousands of Schmuckers and done your Duty. ‘Swhy I’m gonna take a chance on you. I think you got something in that head a yours. Curbstomp thought you had somethin’ worth listenin’ too as well. He always asked you to help with the strategy behind my back.”

 

Turing nodded reluctantly. Curbstomp had come to him for advice many times in the past. Back when he’d first popped he’d made a point of seeking Turing out, and then as the Chief Warlord had risen in level the two had spent more time talking about strategies Turing had thought up or read about in books, implementing them, discussing their results.

 

Half the time Turing’s plans failed and Curbstomp had to fall back on the good old fashioned poke-and-croak strategy he was so good at. But he’d always come to Turing for advice. Always. It had made Turing’s confinement in the city much more livable. But Curbstomp was croaked, and all his experience went him. Titans, why was he alive and Curbstomp croaked? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? What could he do that Curbstomp couldn’t—

 

Something tickled the back of Turing’s mind. A plan. It was hazy, idiotic, but it called to him. He was no warlord. He had no idea how to win a real battle. If the Titans wanted him to fight like a warlord, they’d be sorely disappointed. But what if the Titans didn’t want a warlord for Osnap right now? What if they wanted a useless warlord who read books? What could he, Turing do for his side that a real warlord would never think of?

 

“I ain’t expectin’ you to win this,” Gout said. “’Swhat happens to all sides in the end. Not like the Signamancy wasn’t here anyways.” He gestured to his own corpulent form. “A side that doesn’t expand much is gonna fall sooner or later. All you need to do is do some hurtin’ on the enemy. Take out some units, maybe even croak a warlord or two before we fall. All I’m askin’. We lose either way, but we take some of them out with us.”

 

“It might not need to come to that,” Turing said slowly. An idea was forming in his mind, a crazy one. “There could be a way out of this situation.”

 

Gout looked at Turing in surprise. “You gotta plan? All of them books of yours tell you how to get every unit to crit? ‘Cause that’s what it’d take.”

 

Turing shook his head. “We don’t need to take them head on. No one could win an engagement like this – you’d have to be the greatest warlord ever to do it. But there’s winning, and then there’s surviving.

 

For the first time this turn Gout’s eyes focused on Turing with actual interest.

 

“’Splain that to me, Turing.”

 

Turing cleared his throat. He felt terribly nervous. This wasn’t like talking over another one of his ideas with Curbstomp. Here he was talking with his Ruler about the fate of his side. But Duty compelled him to speak.

 

“I read a book by a king called Banhammer. He founded a hidden side that existed for over two thousand turns before it fell.”

 

Gout looked impressed. “That’s a long time.”

 

“It is,” Turing nodded in agreement. “But what’s even more impressive is that his side barely had any units. They had only a few stacks of units and handful of warlords, and they managed to go hundreds of turns without ever fighting a battle within a hundred hexes of their city.”

 

Goat gaped at Turing. His fat mouth exposed gaping red gums, and unchewed food. Turing looked down at the battle map in self-defense.

 

“That ain’t possible. No way. Any side’d take their city in a heartbeat.”

 

“You’d think so. But from what I can gather between Banhammer’s long arguments of philosophy, his side was isolated in a hard-to-find hex, and protected by a Master-class Foolamancer and Predictamancer. They’d hide the cities whenever an enemy unit came near while their warlady fought as a mercenary and earned upkeep for the side.”

 

Gout stared at Turing. Then he leaned back in his chair. Turing heard the wood splinter and break, but his ruler ignored the sounds.

 

“We ain’t got a Foolamancer or a Predictamancer. But I get what yer sayin’. You want us to find another city and hide the side there?”

 

Turing nodded. His heart was beating out of his chest with anxiety.

 

Gout chewed over the thought, puffing out his cheeks and staring up at the ceiling. Finally he looked down and shook his head.

 

“I don’t like it. ‘S dishonorable. I’d rather fight and croak as many of the enemy rather than hide.”

 

Turing’s heart sank. But his lips moved before his brain could formulate a response.

 

“You may not like it, but Duty compels me to pursue this option.”

 

Turing was surprised by the words that came out of his mouth. “It may not be honorable, but the side can survive if we find a hidden capital site within a few hexes. It might take a thousand turns, but we could rebuild and pop enough units to retake our cities in time if we conceal ourselves well enough.”

 

He clamped his mouth shut. Where had that come from? Well, obviously his Duty. But he wasn’t sure that he liked that he’d said it anymore than his ruler. He eyed Gout apprehensively as his giant king’s face frowned.

 

“Hrr. So. That’s what my Chief Warlord’s tellin’ me to do, is it?”

 

Turing nodded. Gout sighed and shifted in his seat. Again the wood shrieked.

 

Lord Turing sat and waited for his ruler’s response. Gout sighed, rested his fat head on his fat hand, and closed his eyes. Eventually he opened his eyes and stared long and hard at Turing. He didn’t looked happy.

 

“Fine. I’m givin’ you permission to go ahead with yer plan. Go ahead and tell me what you need.”

 

For a moment Turing was lost for words. He stared at his ruler in amazement. His plan had been accepted. He was walking on a cloud hex.

 

Just as quickly he crashed back down to earth. Suddenly the audacity of his plan landed on Turing’s shoulders, and he felt the real weight of his duties as Chief Warlord hit him. But this was his Duty, and his only chance. He took a deep breath.

 

“For the first step we’re going to have to pop as many units as possible,” Turing explained. “From every city we’ve got until they fall. We’ll rally them all here, but we need to pop as fast as possible. And they need to all be the same type.”

 

“We’ve got the Shmuckers,” Gout said. “What kinda units do you want?”

 

Turing took a deep breath. His side’s future lay on the choices he was about to make. With such a small army at his disposal, the next few turn’s popped units would surely decide whether they survived or all croaked.

 

“Pop me Gwulls,” he said. “Make them all Gwulls.”

 

Chapter 3

Gwulls. The main and only air unit of Osnap, notable in that they weren’t that notable at all. Turing sighed as he stared at the stats of one Gwull.

 

 

Unit: Gwull

Level: 1

Class: Heavy Flyer

Move: 0/21 (garrisoned: Brashball)

Hits: 18

Combat: 5

Defense: 3

Special: Flyer

Special: Mountable – capacity: 1

 

 

And that was it. No special ability, no impressive stats. You could mount Gwulls and they fought well, but that was about it. Their move wasn’t that high – higher than any land unit, but Turing had heard of Orlies that could move nearly twice as far as Gwulls. Dwagons could fly loops around Gwulls all day.

 

Still, move was move and Turing needed all the move he could get. For the umpteenth time he poured over the maps of the surrounding areas in the library, searching for the tiniest clue to help him succeed.

 

Survive. That was what he had promised his King. It was a simple plan, but a good one: pop as many Gwulls as possible. They took two turns to pop, but as soon as they did they’d fly to the capital. Osnap had lots of cities so even if this new side captured them quickly, Turing would have an army to work with.

 

But more importantly, while units were being popped the cities would also be fulfilling a more important role. Turing winced as remembered how well the next stage of his plan had gone over with his king.

 

 

—-

 

 

Empty the garrisons?” Gout stared at Turing in disbelief. “Are you out of yer mind?”

 

“It’s the only way.” Turing said defensively, hoping his king’s creaking chair wouldn’t crash and spoil his already fragile temper. “We need to scout, and we can’t take units out of the capital.”

 

“This new side will walk all over our cities!” Gout shouted. “Amirite and Busybody will take them, Titans, a single stack of Stabbers would be able to do it!”

 

“That’s why we raze the city ourselves once the enemy gets close.” Turing pointed to the map of known forces doggedly. “Even if we don’t know exactly where the unknown army is, we can guess how far they can move in a single turn. They’ll probably hit all our cities before going to the Citadel, so we raze them before they’re captured and use all the units we took out of the garrison.”

 

“To scout.” Gout sat back and his chair screamed in wooden agony. “Just ta scout.”

 

“It’s what we need to do,” Turing patiently reminded his king. “We want to find a hidden capital, something in a deep forest hex or mountain hex none of the sides know exist. Once we’re there we can build up our units, maybe launch a counterattack. At the very least we could pop a heir…”

 

Turing broke off nervously. Maybe he had gone too far with that last remark. Osnap hadn’t ever popped a heir. He wasn’t too clear on why, but it probably wasn’t a good idea to bring up.

 

“Either way,” he went on quickly. “Once we’re in the capital we’ll have all the turns we need to rebuild. We’ll lose our cities either way, and at least this way the enemy will have to spend the Schmuckers to rebuild.”

 

Gout huffed out his cheeks again but mercifully didn’t object. He drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair.

 

“Alright. How’re we gonna find this hex? Ain’t like we got any units with high move, and yer sendin’ all the Gwulls here. We got maybe four, five stacks of pikers ‘n stabbers we can scout with, that’s all.”

 

Turing shook his head.

 

“No max stacks. One unit per each stack. Each one goes in a different direction and searches hex-by-hex.”

 

“If they run into a wild unit, they’ll die.” Gout looked at Turing. “We’ll lose a lotta units.”

 

“Yes.” Turing felt a pang in his heart, but Duty was Duty. “But it’s a necessary sacrifice.”

 

Gout looked at Turing with what almost seemed like respect for a moment. Then he stood up.

 

“Fine. I’ll send the orders. You focus on findin’ that hex, right? And keep workin’ on that plan of yours.”

 

“Yes, Lord.”

 

He said it to Gout’s back. The ruler was already thudding out of the room.

 

Turing sat in the war room, shaking with relief. He was no expert, but he suspected he’d been as close to Disbanding as any unit had in Osnap’s long history. But he’d done it. He’d talked his ruler into accepting his crazy plan. He’d made his first decision as Chief Warlord.

 

He prayed to the Titans that this wasn’t the last only decision he’d ever make.

 

Across the table Gout’s chair, which had been fulfilling its duty admirably up until Gout’s departure finally gave way to the inevitable. It collapsed into a pile of splinters, making Turing jump and come out of his reverie.

 

Turing eyed the pile of wooden fragments that had once been a chair. “You and me both,” he said.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing was still in the war room when he felt the turn end. He barely noticed it. Gout had sent out the side’s orders while Turing had been busy poring over the nearby hexes, looking for any clues as to where a hidden capital might be. He worked long into the night, making notes on the map, pinpointing likely hexes, and trying not to imagine the odds of actually finding a hidden hex.

 

That was his job as Chief Warlord and so Turing gave it his entire concentration. But he wasn’t the only unit in Brashball thinking of Duty and his side.

 

 

—-

 

 

Call. Call to Transylvito. Requestin’ permission to Thinkagram with Countess Bunny.

 

 

I’m sorry, Countess Bunny is currently unavailable. We regret to inform you that your call cannot be completed. A nominal fee will be charged for using Charlie’s Thinkagram service.

 

Can I leave a message for ‘im?

 

We regret that this is not an option provided by Charlie at the moment. He is…otherwise occupied. We sincerely regret the inconvenience. However, if you’d like to employ Charlie’s services, we offer a wide range of solutions to any problem at affordable—

 

Disband yourself.

 

 

—-

 

 

The problem with a hidden capital is that it’s hidden. And Turing had only a limited number of turns and move to find it before the enemy hit Brashball with everything they had.

 

Still, he couldn’t do anything about that. Turing put into action the plan he’d discussed with Gout. Individual stacks began combing all the deep forest hexes and mountain hexes they could, looking for the hypothetical capital.

 

He’d moved from the war room of Curbstomp. The big, empty room didn’t suit him anyways, and he needed to do research into the surrounding hexes and any previous sides that had owned them. For that he went back to his library.

 

The library. It was here among the books that Turing felt most at peace. True, there weren’t that many books – this library only held four hundred or so that Turing had read back to cover – but it was still a quiet haven for him.

 

No unit ever came here. Not warlords, not garrison units, not his ruler – not even his side’s only caster, Zipzap. That was odd, since Turing expected a caster would be interested in reading, but the caster kept to himself. Maybe it was because he didn’t like Turing that he stayed away.

 

That still didn’t explain why any of the garrison units never dropped by, but maybe their reason was the same. Turing sighed. But then again, maybe it wasn’t just their dislike of him that did it. He’d chatted with a few stabbers and pikers in desperation on one of the countless turns he’d spent patrolling. They had singular minds. Aside from some of the ones that had leveled, most of the new ones thought only about stabbing and piking. In any form.

 

Turing shook his head and closed the book he was reading. Enough about that. He glanced out the window at the clear skies and the city below him.

 

One good thing about the library was that it was high up. It was in fact in the highest tower in Brashball, a large structure situated right next to the main street. Turing wasn’t sure why the library was built like that, but he suspected it was due to whichever side had owned Brashball before his side had captured it. Perhaps it had once been an armory, but whatever the case, the tall tower gave him an unparalleled view of the city.

 

It also meant that while he was here, Gout seldom visited. His ruler disliked climbing, and Turing couldn’t see him making the long hike up the stairs without good reason. So for several turns he sat and poured over the books at his disposal, cross-checking their information with the reports his scout sent him.

 

It was the work of many turns. Turing kept meticulous notes of which scouts found empty or inhabited hexes, marking those hexes to avoid while desperately waiting for the news he hoped for. Of the stacks he sent out, nearly a third croaked each turn. Just when Turing was starting to lose hope, one of his scouts reported a way into a mountain hex he’d thought was impassible. He sent the scout to search the pass and beyond it while hope surged in his chest. Then it was crushed, but not by bad news from the scout.

 

 

—-

 

 

Three turns after Turing’s appointment to Chief Warlord he received a command to meet Gout in the war room as soon as possible. He dropped the book he was paging through and stared at the Stabber in horror.

 

The Stabber stared blankly back at him. She was one of the few garrison units in Brashball, a Level 2. She was also one of the more intelligent ones, in that he’d had a conversation with her that didn’t involve stabbing.

 

What was her name? Miya? Miya something. It didn’t matter.

 

“Where is Gout now?” he asked the Stabber.

 

“War room, Warlord.”

 

Turing nodded. He leapt up from his chair and felt light-headed. Not enough sleep. He nodded at the Stabber.

 

“Good work. Go back to um, watching the walls.”

 

He didn’t even bother to see if she obeyed. Turing left his library tower and jogged all the way to the palace. It took him a few minutes to climb up to the war room tower – the second highest point in Brashball, but while he did his mind played out any number of horrific scenarios.

 

Turing stopped at the door to the war room and hesitated. It could only be bad news if his ruler was summoning him. He tried to stand straighter and clean himself up. He realized his hair was mussed and his uniform was equally dirty. His eyes were bloodshot last he’d checked. Bad Signamancy, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

 

With one hand Turing knocked twice and opened the door.

 

“You summoned me, Lord?”

 

Gout was standing, staring grimly at the war room maps. A huge, half-eaten meal was set on another table in front of him. Turing started at the sight – was his ruler living in the war room? He cleared his throat politely.

 

“Lord?”

 

Gout looked around and nodded for Turing to come in. He didn’t beat about the bush. He collapsed into another sacrificial chair and let the wood bend and crack into place before he spoke.

 

“Highflyin’ and Onaroll have both fallen. The enemy’s split their army.”

 

“They took Highflying?” Turing scrambled for the maps. “I didn’t expect that. Highflying is—was a Level 4. I expected them to take a few turns at least to wear down the walls which is why I said to not to raze the city.”

 

“It didn’t have many fortifications, though.” Gout scowled and pulled his food towards him. He chomped down on what looked like his fourth bowl of glop. “More like a Level Three.”

 

“Yes, but they didn’t know that.” Turing started rearranging pieces in frustration. “They must have turned a few of our units. Titans, as if this wasn’t bad enough.”

 

“I don’t like the idea anymore’n you do,” Goat said. He seemed to be inhaling his provisions as he spoke and splattering the table with half of it in the process. “But spell it out for me. One’re two more units or Warlords ain’t much more of a problem is it?”

 

“Not with the odds we’re up against.” Turing glanced at the map again. “But if they captured someone high-leveled – Curbstomp for instance…”

 

Gout’s face darkened and he stopped eating for a moment. “Never happen. He wouldn’tve turned.”

 

“Another warlord, then. If they captured one, even a Level Two like Lieutenant Fubar, they’d be able to split their army. The Two could assault our position here or at least keep us under siege while the main force captures our other cities. And that means we can’t escape without being followed.”

 

“So?” Gout reached for another bowl of stew. Turing tried not to watch. Curbstomp had never mentioned it, but binge-eating seemed to be his King’s way of dealing with stress.

 

“So, we need to either evacuate our units now which we can’t do since we haven’t found a hidden side – or we have to make the army that took Highflying retreat.”

 

“Sounds good,” Gout grunted. “What’s the problem?”

 

Turing stared at him for a moment. “We don’t know what the enemy composition is. They’ve got a Turnamancer and a high level Warlord…anything else? Flying units, ground units? If they don’t have heavies and siege, how do they get over the walls? Are they massing archery stacks? Do their units have any specials?”

 

“Dunno.” Gout shrugged. “Thinkagram never said. Scout ‘em. Curbstomp would’ve done it already.”

 

It was an Order, but Turing could disobey it to make his point. “I did. A Gwull and two Stabbers went out. They got wiped out by something in a forest hex. Whatever’s out there has numbers and heavy scouting.”

 

“Okay. Don’t scout, then.”

 

Turing shook his head in frustration. “We need to scout. Without information we won’t have time to make a plan if the enemy attacks. We need to know how close they are to the capital, too.”

 

Gout tore into a piece of fish. He was having a snack with his dinner. “Curbstomp wouldn’t’ve cared. He’d just hit the army when it came to our gates.”

 

That was true, and Turing paused before he made his reply. He had a lot of respect for his former Chief Warlord and—friend. But he wasn’t Curbstomp. Moreover, for all Curbstomp had been his friend, he had a very direct approach to battle.

 

“Nevertheless, Lord. I must insist. One or two units might be worth the cost if we can find out what the enemy is doing and where they are.”

 

Gout pursed his lips.

 

“Curbstomp never wasted units on scouting.”

 

This time the reprimand hung in the air. But Turing was tired, cranky, and disband it, he knew he was right. The irony was the Curbstomp would have listened to his advice. He took the firmest tone he dared in addressing his ruler.

 

“Curbstomp never scouted, but he had four armies at his disposal and multiple units over Level 5. Our highest unit in the city is Level 2.

 

Gout paused and looked up from his meal.

 

“I’m not Level 2.”

 

Turing turned red with embarrassment. He didn’t know his ruler’s level.

 

“Nevertheless, I must insist we do things my way.”

 

Gout leaned back in his chair. His fat eyes narrowed slightly.

 

“Seems ta me yer doin’ everything your way. You ain’t been a Chief Warlord that long. I followed yer advice on retreatin’, but I’m still the ruler of this side. I don’t wanna waste units just ta know how many of the enemy is out there. There’s too many to croak; that’s all we need ta know.”

 

Turing paused. He knew he should feel rattled by his ruler’s displeasure, but he wasn’t. Instead he felt…angry.

 

Gout ignored Turing. He thought as he slurped down more soup. “Right. Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll stop popping Gwulls here for a turn or two and start poppin’ more Archers. Our other cities—city will pop them Gwulls and you can still scout with units in the field. But we need more defenses.”

 

“Why?” Turing asked bluntly.

 

This time Gout’s eyebrows nearly disappeared into the folds of fat in his forehead.

 

“To defend ‘gainst the enemy, of course. We want ta bleed them when they try to take our walls. Without siege we could croak a few stacks.”

 

Turing shook his head.

 

“What good are a few Archers and Stabbers? We know there’s a Level 13 warlord out there. He could croak our entire garrison by himself. And even if the warlord isn’t in the army that hits us, we’re up against a Turnamancer and an unknown number of enemy stacks. Either way, we still all croak. If we pop Gwulls we can use them to scout.”

 

Gout sucked in his fat cheeks. He didn’t look at Turing. Instead, he went back to slurping more soup as he thought. Turing felt anger, true anger exploding in his chest. He knew he wasn’t Gout’s first choice, but disband it, he was still the Chief Warlord!

 

“It was a good plan. There’s no good tryin’ to find a side with them so close. I think we’d best prepare for our last stand. If Curbstomp were here he’d be poppin’ as many units and getting’ ready for the fight, rather than reading books.”

 

“But I’m not Curbstomp!” Turing couldn’t contain the frustration in his voice. “And I still don’t think the side is lost! If you’d just listen to my advice—”

 

“I listen to my Chief Warlord’s advice when it’s good,” Gout snapped. He stopped eating and glared at Turing. “’Sides which, Curbstomp always knew when to talk and when to obey. He was experienced.

 

Turing went hot, and then cold. “Curbstomp trusted me. And you trusted me enough to listen to my plans. Just because things aren’t going well isn’t reason enough to abandon them. Have faith, Lord!”

 

King Gout placed an empty bowl of his greasy soup on a pile of empty bowls and looked at Turing. He shook his head at his Chief Warlord.

 

“Curbstomp would’ve—”

 

“Curbstomp is dead!

 

Turing stared at Gout in shock, but not as much as his ruler was staring at him. Slowly, Turing took his fist off the table. But he kept talking, letting out the boiling emotions in his chest.

 

“Curbstomp never scouted. He also wasn’t cautious, and he was probably three times the warlord I am. Well, I’m not Curbstomp, and I think some scouting and caution is what’s needed for the side right now. If Curbstomp had scouted, he wouldn’t have walked into that trap. But he’s croaked, and I’m the Chief Warlord, and I say we scout the enemy.”

 

Turing shut up and shut his eyes for good measure. He’d said his part. He waited for Gout to shout at him, or disband him on the spot. He waited and waited, and eventually peeked open one eye.

 

Gout was looking at him. His gigantic ruler sat in his slowly collapsing chair and eyed Turing from head to toe. And it was different. For the first time since he’d popped, Turing felt like his ruler was looking, really looking at him.

 

“Fine,” Gout said at last into the silence. “I gotta trust my Chief Warlord. So keep scoutin’. Send out yer stacks and I’ll end the turn.”

 

It was a dismissal. Turing nodded silently and turned to go.

 

When the door had shut, Gout stared at where his Chief Warlord had been. He carelessly shoved his provision of the war room table and looked around at the silent, dark room.

 

He spoke into the silence.

 

“Curbstomp never talked back.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Call. Call to Transylvito. Requestin’—

 

This time an image of Don King appeared in Gout’s mind, as clear as day. Gout sat up in his chair as the pale gray features of the ruler of Transylvito appeared in the air in front of him. The quality of the Thinkagram was blurry – was Charlie not doing his job right? But Gout could see Don looked more tired and worn-out than usual.

 

Well, that made two of them.

 

“Don,” Gout inclined his head with some difficulty at the other ruler.

 

“Gout.” Don King smiled at Osnap’s ruler. “How can I help you? I’m sorry Bunny didn’t have the juice to answer your call last time. I’ve been—busy as of late.”

 

Gout waved a pudgy hand.

 

“Think nothing of it. Yer lookin’ good,” Gout said.

 

“And you as well.” Don King inclined his head.

 

“Hah. Don’t make me laugh.” Gout rubbed at his haggard face. “I ain’t got time to niceties, Don. I just wanna let you know what’s goin’ on. Long story short—the Osnap’s gonna fall. It’s the end for my side. Just wanted to let you know.”

 

Don King paused. His cheerful expression faded away, and Gout saw his old friend look at him. They knew each other well enough that Don didn’t bother trying to hide his emotions behind his normal calculated façade.

 

“Well. That was direct.”

 

“Yer the one who likes talkin’ and making nice. ‘Sides which, I ain’t got time for a long call. Charlie’s chargin’ me Schmuckers by the minute.”

 

Don King nodded gravely. “I too must conserve Bunny’s juice. Things have been tricky on my side as well. But that’s no reason to end the call at once. Please, tell me. Why is your side about to end?”

 

Gout shrugged. “Why else? Gotta new side bustin’ down our cities left and right. Took two cities last turn, and they’re probably comin’ for our capital in a few turns. I’m about to end the turn after I send out a few stacks—this might be the last one I get.”

 

“Is there any chance you’ll rally? What about Curbstomp? Can’t you send him out to capture another city and—”

 

“Curbstomp’s dead. So’s my First, Second, Third, and Fourth armies. All I’ve got left is a coupla stacks in my garrison.”

 

Gout waited for Don King to process that. The big ruler of Transylvito put his face in his hand.

 

“I see. I guess it really is the end, then?”

 

Gout nodded. “Looks like the Alliance of Big Bosses ain’t gonna happen. Shame.”

 

Don King nodded sadly.

 

“Who was first? Heartthrob? He got croaked fighting the Energetic Elves, three hundred turns back. Then there was Tafty.”

 

“Good old Tafty,” Gout muttered. “Shame.”

 

“And then there was Morbid and Shameful. I can’t remember which of them croaked first. And then there was Queen Bulmia. Did she croak?”

 

“Worse. She got thin.”

 

Gout and Don both laughed at that. Then they sobered and went quiet.

 

“Lotta good rulers,” Gout muttered. “Always thought I’d croak on the battlefield. Then I started thinkin’ I’d croak while eatin’ my provisions.”

 

“‘The Titans call each unit to their Number so that we may be Counted’,” Don King recited. “Eddie 14:16-17.”

 

“Guess I’ll hafta ask them what my number is, then,” Gout said sourly.

 

A moment of silence stretched between the two rulers. Gout had never been a ruler for scripture and verse. Or reading, for that matter.

 

Don cleared his throat.

 

“I’m low on Shmuckers at the moment, but I’ve good deal coming in a few turns. If you can hold on—”

 

Gout shook his head.

 

“Ain’t like I’m askin’ for a handout. Wouldn’t accept one if you offered. I’m jus—just letting you know, is all. Don’t want you to waste Bunny’s juice callin’.”

 

“I appreciate that.”

 

More silence. The Thinkagram hovered in the air in front of both rulers. Time was Shmuckers and juice, but neither once cared.

 

“Might not be our complete defeat,” Gout said. “There’s a chance that we’ll survive. My Chief Warlord says we could find a hidden side, bunker up there.”

 

Don King looked up in surprise.

 

“You still have a Chief Warlord?”

 

“My last one. Level Two. Hasn’t seen combat in over four hundred turns. Smart, though. My old Chief Warlord thought so. Maybe I shoulda listened to him, but then again…”

 

Don King raised his eyebrows. “Curbstomp? I always thought he sounded like an exemplary warlord. Don’t you trust his opinion?”

 

“Normally.” Gout sighed. He shifted in his chair and the wood cracked beneath him. “But Turing—my warlord—he’s a special case.”

 

“Why is that?”

 

Gout closed his eyes. He looked back though the hazy mists of turns and remembered.

 

“I remember back when Osnap was first gettin’ on its feet. We were a small side back then, fightin’ Nobcrusher and winnin’, but just barely. We needed more warlords so I had one popped. He looked promisin’ when I first saw him. Bit scrawny, but he liked the books in our library. I thought he might make a good warlord.”

 

“Did he have any specials? Any unique traits?”

 

“None,” Gout grunted. “He’s not even Noble. He was just a decent lookin’ warlord. But that was all I wanted so I gave him a stack and told him to hit an unguarded enemy city nearby.”

 

Gout paused. He longed for a goblet of wine. But that could come after the end of the turn. He sensed Turing gathering units from the garrison, assembling them into single stacks to scout. He scowled and continued.

 

“I sent him out the turn he popped. He went out, croaked a few units—leveled. Then he made camp a few hexes away from the enemy city. I was gonna end the turn but something happened. His entire stack croaked all at once. Just like that. Hadda sent out my garrison to save him from the enemy attack. Lost a good warlord and several stacks that day.”

 

Don King frowned. “That story doesn’t add up. You mean he suddenly encountered an enemy stack—in the hex he was in? Were they camouflaged? Or was he attacked by a Turnamancer?”

 

Gout shook his head.

 

“I don’t know. But all I know is without endin’ the turn, he suddenly engaged an enemy stack without movin’ from his hex. And they weren’t camouflaged and there was no Turnamancer either. Only Turing.”

 

“Then how—”

 

“He musta drained their loyalty somehow.” Gout closed his eyes as the bitter memories returned. “He musta. ‘Cause when my warlords found Turing, he was standin’ over a stack of units that used to be on our side.”

 

Don King leaned forward in his throne, his eyes widening.

 

“You don’t mean—”

 

Gout nodded. He took a huge draft of wine.

 

“Yeah. He made his stack Turn.”

 

 

—-

 

 

The two rulers made little talk after that. There wasn’t much else to say.

 

“—If you survive the next few turns, give me a call,” Don King said. “We might be able to work out a deal to loan you some Schmuckers.”

 

Gout nodded silently. He and Don both knew the odds of that.

 

“It’s been a pleasure, Gout.”

 

Another nod. Gout seemed to be sinking into the folds of his own fat. He looked like he wanted to say something and then jerked upright. Don King saw the ruler’s eyes turn towards the window.

 

“Something’s happened. I gotta go.” He hesitated, and then turned towards the Thinkagram. “G’bye, Don.”

 

The call broke off. Gout heaved himself up from his chair. He’d felt what had happened with his ruler’s senses, but he had to look to see. It was just past dawn outside – not Osnap’s turn. But there was light enough to see by.

 

Gout took one look out of his window and swore. Then he ran.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing was dreaming. In his dream he was fighting an enemy stack of Twolls. They were huge; green, stinking giants with more hits and attack than he had. But Turing was unafraid.

 

He lifted his sword and slashed. Snick! Snack! Two Twolls fell to pieces.

 

Turing nimbly dodged a Twoll’s club and hurled his sword like a spear. The third Twoll looked down in disbelief at the sword sticking from his gut and croaked.

 

Turing felt himself level up multiple times. He basked in the feeling as he stood over the bodies of his enemies.

 

Four attractive Stabbers sidled up to him as he retrieved his sword from the Twoll’s body. They giggled and asked him if he’d like to do some stabbing with them. Turing grinned dazedly and let them lead him to a lovely bedspread that had popped out of nowhere.

 

Turing sat on the bed with the stabbers giggling and ticking him. They ran their soft hands over his body, and he groaned. They pulled off his clothes and—

 

And then…well, he wasn’t too clear on the details of what came next. The Pikers assured him that it was almost as good as piking enemies, and Curbstomp once told him once that it was like ‘leadin’ a full stack into a buncha stacks without leadership’, but Turing wasn’t sure what it was.

 

Turing frowned in his dream. He was sure something came next. He’d read a book on it. The Kamasumama? It had been written by a Lord Cablanca or something. Now, what was that section he’d written on useful poses?

 

In his dream Turing and the stabbers attempted to make a tree pose. No, surely that wasn’t right.

 

It was almost something of a relief when Turing felt a hand roughly shake him awake. He opened his eyes.

 

“Huh? Wuzzat?”

 

He looked up and into the very real sight of Gout’s face. That alone was enough to wake Turing up completely. It was practically a Thinkamancy attack in itself.

 

“Get up.” Gout practically pulled Turing out of his bed.

 

“Why? What’s happening?”

 

Turing scrambled to pull on his uniform and buckle his sword to his waist.

 

“Contact. We just lost all of the scouting stacks you sent out.”

 

That made Turing stop and turn. He stared at his ruler.

 

“What? All of them? Which hex were they at?”

 

Gout’s face was grim.

 

“The one right next to the city. They barely got through the gate before somethin’ croaked them all.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing and Gout raced to the battlements. They stopped and stared at the sight.

 

Their turn had ended. Just ended. But already, another side was moving. They came out of the forest surrounding Brashball, a medium-sized force of Stabbers, Pikers, and a Knights. Not many; not enough to take a Level 4 city even with their few defenses.

 

But they had a warlady leading them, and a caster by her side. That was enough. Brashball could fight off countless stacks of infantry, take down fliers, even defend against heavies if they had too. Their walls were strong. But they couldn’t defend against casters, and especially not this caster.

 

Leading the column was a familiar face, wearing familiar robes but in another side’s color. Turing stared down at him and felt the bile rise in his throat. The caster shoved back his hood and grinned up maliciously at Gout and Turing. Lightning sparked from his fingertips, and he pointed one finger up at the two and laughed.

 

“Here ends the reign of Gout and his side of worthless fools!”

 

The voice was familiar. The face was familiar. Gout uttered the caster’s name as a curse. Turing closed his eyes and whispered it. The traitor. The one who was Turned.

 

“Zipzap.”

 

Chapter 4

“Turing! Come out and face your end!”

 

Zipzap shouted up at the warlord and ruler on the battlements of Brashball’s thick walls. The Shockamancer wore yellow and purple robes, the colors of his new side. He laughed and shot bolts of lightning into the air as the stack of unit surrounding him cheered and jeered.

 

Turing shivered. Despite the rising sun that marked the new turn, he was deathly cold inside. It all made sense. He’d wondered if there was a traitor to the side. After all, the other side had a Turnamancer.

 

Of course she’d turned Zipzap. There was no higher value target for a Turnamancer than another caster, especially a high-level one. Normally it would take too much juice to turn a caster so quickly, but somehow he doubted Zipzap had made the process too difficult.

 

“Coward! Come and fight and be croaked as your Fate demands!”

 

Turing ignored Zipzap’s yells and the jeers of the other units. He was scanning the army in front of the gates. Counting.

 

It wasn’t a big army. But it had all the important parts. Six..no, seven stacks of assorted pikers, stabbers, and a few knights. A warlady, standing next to Zipzap. She had a large mace in her hand and a shield in the other. A warlady with high defense? Maybe.

 

Not a big army. They didn’t even have archers. But they had a caster specialized in ranged attacks. That was enough.

 

“What’s wrong, Turing?” Zipzap pointed up at him, fingers crackling with Shockamancy. “I know that’s you up there! You’re the only warlord the side has left. And unless you’ve hired a Twoll, that’s my former ruler standing next to you as well.”

 

He bowed theatrically. “All hail Gout the Obscene!”

 

That last comment struck a nerve in Turing. Being Turned was one thing, especially if you were up against a Turnamancer. That could almost be understood. Almost. But Zipzap had served Osnap for two hundred turns, and the side had sacrificed countless units to keep him alive. Still, he was determined not to satisfy the Shockamancer by answering.

 

“You always were a coward, Turing! Too afraid to ever lead a stack! That’s why you never fought in any battles!”

 

That tore the last of Turing’s self-restraint.

 

“Traitor!” He shouted down at the caster. “Titans disband your disloyalty!”

 

He unsheathed his sword and waved it at Zipzap as the units below him booed and shouted. Zipzap grinned and pointed at Turing.

 

Shockamancy flashed by Turing’s face as Gout pulled him back.

 

“If yer gonna talk to a caster, get outta range,” he said. “Come on. We’re retreatin’ to the war room.”

 

Turing turned and followed Gout as the heavy ruler set off for the castle at a quick pace—for him.

 

“Do you have plan, Lord?” He asked hopefully.

 

Gout shook his head.

 

“Nope. I was hopin’ you had one.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing paced back in forth in the war room, glancing out the window now and then. Gout stood by it, watching as distant flashes made the dark room bright as day every few moments.

 

“He’s blastin’ the walls.” Gout observed. “Musta reached Master-class with that kinda firepower.”

 

Turing looked down at the flashes of light.

 

“He’ll waste all his juice trying,” he said hopefully. “Not even a Master Shockamancer could bring down Level 4 walls.”

 

“Maybe not.” Gout scowled down at the Shockamancer. “But he don’t have to bring them down, does he? All he’s gotta do is punch a hole through and his army’ll do the rest. He might not have much juice left afterwards, but he’s more units’n us.”

 

“No wonder Curbstomp fell when he engaged the enemy warlord.” Turing muttered as he paced across the room. “It makes sense. Even if Curbstomp was outnumbered, he’d have had the chance to screen himself and retreat. The only way he’d get wiped out like that was if he lost his caster. If Zipzap turned during the battle and hit the leadership—”

 

“Turing!” Gout slapped his heavy hand on the table. The wood cracked under the force of his blow.

 

Turing looked up at Gout. “What? Um, Lord.”

 

Gout’s face was grim. “Focus. This ain’t the time to wonder when Zipzap turned. This is the time to worry about what we’re gonna do before he blasts us all to the City of Heroes.”

 

“Right.” Turing pulled himself together. “Sorry, Lord.”

 

“What’ve we got?” Gout turned to Turing, breathing heavily. “Tell me. He ain’t got the Chief Warlord with him, or the Turnamancer. This is a small army, probably ‘cause they know we ain’t got any units with us. Zipzap’s the only high-level unit in that army and they ain’t got siege. Without him they’ll have to retreat. So. How do we croak him?”

 

“There are a few ways.” Turing pulled his fingers through his hair as he thought. “Croaking for Dummies says that when fighting casters, it’s better to snipe them from far away.”

 

“We gotta stack of Archers. But if we went them on the walls he’ll blast ‘em clean off. Worth a shot?”

 

Gout eyed Turing’s face.

 

“Didn’t think so. Anything else?”

 

“Um. Heavies can take the casts and croak casters, assuming they’re not Foolamancers or Thinkamancers.”

 

“Zipzap ain’t a Thinkamancer, even if he is a fool. But we ain’t got any heavies.” Gout looked down at his body. “’Cept for maybe me. And I don’t think I wanna try attackin’ a Master Shockamancer by himself.”

 

Turing shook his head. It was the height of folly to risk the ruler of a side unless all was lost. Every warlord knew that.

 

“The only options we have left are another Caster, a mass-attack by multiple stacks, a high-leveled unit, or a trap. Or we wait until he runs out of juice.”

 

“We ain’t got any of those things. And he’ll break the walls down before he runs outta juice.”

 

A boom and cheer went up from outside the walls. Gout looked outside. “And that’s gonna be soon now. Alright, say we attack him all at once. Whadda we got in the garrison?”

 

Turing didn’t even have to think. He could sense the units.

 

“A stack of archers. A few stacks of Pikers and Stabbers.”

 

“Gwulls?”

 

“None.” Turing paused. “They’re all scouting distant hexes.”

 

“Pity,” was all Gout said. He looked back outside. More flashes of light lit up the dawn sky. The entire building trembled slightly as Zipzap hit the wall with a crit.

 

“Right. Let’s go.”

 

Turing looked at Gout, confused.

 

“Go? Go where?”

 

Gout waved a hand down at the storm of lightning.

 

“Down there, a’course. We’ll wait for him to blow down a wall try ta croak him. Beats sitting here waitin’ for him.”

 

He patted Turing heavily on the shoulder and turned. “You stack with me. We’ll try’n croak our Shockamancer before we reach the City of Heroes, eh?”

 

Turing shook his head. “That’s suicide, Lord.”

 

Gout turned. His hands were clenched. “’N what would you do?” He demanded. “Shockamancer’s down below and we’ve got a single stack of archers! We get near him and he’ll blast us to bits! Best we can hope for is the wall he’s blastin’ falls on him when he tears it down.”

 

He paused, and then said more quietly, “even if he croaks though, we’re still not gonna win against that many stacks.”

 

Turing looked up at Gout. “Then…?”

 

Gout nodded heavily. He sat down in the chair and it collapsed beneath him. He barely seemed to notice. “Yeah. This is it. The side’s gonna fall.”

 

“Fall.”

 

Turing felt lightheaded. His ruler had said it. It was the end of the side.

 

He walked slowly over to the window and stared blankly at the wall that was already crumbling under Zipzap’s assault. Yes, he’d stood on those battlements many times and wondered whether tossing himself off would mean instant croaking or just falling unconscious. Shame he hadn’t tossed Zipzap off one of those times. But something about that work was nagging at his brain.

 

“Fall.”

 

“Not your fault.” Gout was looking around the room. “Huh. Don’t have my club here. Can’t remember last time I lifted it. Gotta get it before we stack up.”

 

“Fall. Books.” Turing looked out the window. His precious library was sitting in its tower, calling out to him.

 

Gout followed his gaze and grunted. “Huh. Could work. If we take out the caster and then retreat there we might hold them off. Not a lotta room there – could croak a bunch a units before we fall. You wanna make a last stand there or open the gates?”

 

“The gates?”

 

Turing stared at the gates. They were wide portcullises, designed to let as many stacks through as possible. Brashball had never been a city designed for prolonged sieges. The defenders would sally forth and croak the enemy, not hide on the walls.

 

“Yup. Zipzap’s confident. Overconfident. He’ll probably come marchin’ in if we open the gates. Here’s a thought: we let him come in and have our archers launch an attack. He’s got a big stack screenin’ him, but it might work if one of them crits.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

But that wasn’t what was on Turing’s mind. His eyes flicked to the tall gates, to the library tower, and back to Zipzap who was busy blasting the fortifications.

 

“Give me a few moments to get armed. Then we’ll stack, ‘kay?”

 

So saying, Gout lumbered to the door.

 

“No.”

 

His ruler’s hand was on the door handle, but he froze rather than twist it. Turing blinked. But he’d spoken—no, he’d ordered his ruler. Gout could no more turn the handle than he could disband himself.

 

“What’s this, Turing?”  Gout demanded. “You ain’t plannin’ on having me stay here. No way. I gotta right to go down fightin’, same as you.”

 

“My duty is to keep you alive, Lord.” Turing turned and looked at his ruler. His fat, corpulent ruler. He was incredibly fat. Gargantuan. But he wasn’t obscene. Just unsettling. “No matter what the cost.”

 

Gout’s face darkened. He raised a warning finger the size of a sausage. “If yer plannin’ on parlaying or tryin’ to surrender—”

 

“I’m not going to. They’d never accept it either. No, I have a plan.”

 

“Really?” Gout’s eyes sharpened. He released the door handle. “In that case, I’ll fight too. Count me as one of yer stacks if it means killin’ Zipzap.”

 

“No. You stay here. That’s an order as Chief Warlord. I’m going out. Get every unit in the garrison to assemble at my command.”

 

Gout eyed him skeptically. “’N what’s the first part of this plan? You gonna do something about Zipzap?”

 

Turing turned, his hand on the war room’s door.

 

“Yeah. I’m going to make him mad.”

 

Gout mulled that over for a millisecond and then nodded.

 

“Good. Do it.”

 

 

—-

 

 

The wall was already falling as Turing ran out of the castle. He saw the top part of the battlements crumbling away, and he knew it was only a matter of time before that entire section of the wall fell. So he ran faster. He couldn’t let the wall fall before starting his plan.

 

The ways to kill a caster. Without high-level units, other casters, or archers, there was only one way to kill them reliably.

 

With a trap.

 

The trouble was, Turing had no Dirtamancer, and one hadn’t ever laid any traps in the city. But even so, Turing had one trap he could use. For all Zipzap looked down his nose at Turing for being stuck in Brashball for so long, Turing had one thing on his side that Zipzap didn’t have.

 

Knowledge.

 

Turing reached the top of the battlements out of breath and wheezing. He wished his Signamancy were better. Curbstomp would have gotten here in half the time and called it a light jog. But he was in luck. The walls were holding. They were cracked in places and black with soot, but even Zipzap’s Shockamancy couldn’t bring down Level 4 walls that quickly.

 

“Here to beg for mercy, Turing?” Zipzap stopped blasting the walls long enough to jeer up at Turing. “Perhaps if you grovel, we’ll let you turn and fight for us as a common stabber!”

 

Turing took a deep breath as laughter rang out from below. This was it. All those turns ago he’d wondered if he’d ever have a chance to use half of the things he’d learned in books. Well, it was time for the test.

 

“You always were a poor caster, Zipzap!” Turing shouted down at the caster. “I once heard Curbstomp say if you were any worse he’d start casting himself!”

 

Silence followed Turing’s insult, followed by a few titters. Turing saw Zipzap turn around angrily and look for the source of the laughter, but the other units shifted and studied their weapons or the ground.

 

Turing grinned. Not all of his books taught tactics or history. Some were instructional manuals. Case in point. He’d used a variation of an insult he’d read in a book. The Elements of Why You Suck by Gorgon Rambly. Also, he’d used aspects of Rambly’s second book, Go Eat Yourself.

 

Below him Zipzap was shouting at the other units for silence. He waved his hands and shouted at the warlady furiously. Turing saw the warlady glare at the caster and then grudgingly raise a hand for silence. He rejoiced internally. Turned units weren’t that popular among other sides, especially not ones who’d been turned as recently as Zipzap.

 

“Brave, for a warlord who hasn’t a stack to lead!” Zipzap shouted at Turing. “I could croak you with one finger if you had the courage to fight!”

 

“Big words for a caster who hid behind stabbers whenever we engaged a stack!” Turing shouted back. “I’ve seen storm hexes that have better aim than you! Hippiemancer hobokens do more damage than your spells! We could build two Level 5 cities on the upkeep you cost us every turn!”

 

This time even the warlady laughed. Zipzap turned red and shouted for silence, but Turing wasn’t done. The warlord leaned over the battlements, shouting as loud as he could to drown out the fear in his heart.

 

“Did anyone tell the Turnamancer who cast on you what a pathetic caster you are? If your Chief Warlord had asked Curbstomp nicely, he probably would have traded you for a few pikers!”

 

Silence!” Zipzap screamed. He blasted the wall Turing was standing on with a bolt of lightning. Turing felt the ground rock beneath him, but steadied himself. This was it. He shot his lasts insults down at Zipzap as if they were arrows.

 

“You’re a disgrace, Zipzap! A failure of a caster! Why, Dirtamancers have better hygiene than you do! I’d trust a Croakamancer with my back before you! I’d take a Level 1 Carny before I ever hired you as a Caster!”

 

The bolt of Shockamancy that hit the wall Turing was standing on was twice as wide as Gout. It exploded with a thwoom and Turing felt himself go flying.

 

The world spun around Turing. Up was down and left was down. And Turing was falling down. He spun, and slammed into the ground, his upper back first.

 

Turing lay on the ground, stunned. His mouth was open and he gasped for air. He felt like he’d been incapacitated, but the feeling faded and pain rushed into fill its place.

 

Behind him the top of the battlements had been blown completely away by Zipzap’s spell. Turing watched as pieces of stone rained down around him. He was lying down. It was comfortable, aside from the pain. But he had—had to stand.

 

Turing managed to sit up. The world spun around him and then stopped. He checked himself. He still had his sword, and his armor was mostly intact. Good.

 

He’d lost hits points, Turing knew. But how many wasn’t an issue at the moment. Turing stood up, shaking with nerves and a wild energy. He pointed.

 

At his silent command, the gates of the city opened. In the distance, Turing saw Zipzap at the head of the small army, his yellow robes shining with the dawn’s light.

 

Turing stood up and drew his sword. Behind him he sensed units flooding out of the garrison and forming stacks behind him. He took a deep breath and bellowed as loud as he could.

 

Come in and face me like a warlord, caster!

 

For one shocked second all was silent outside. Then Turing heard a roar of rage and saw Zipzap sprint through the open gates, the entire army of stabbers and pikers behind him. They streamed into the city with the sun’s dawning light, an invading army of purple and gold.

 

Zipzap was screaming at Turing, his face red with rage. His stack struggled to keep up with their caster’s mad charge. Behind him the warlady was waving her mace, clearly shouting for Zipzap to get back. But Zipzap had never been one to respect warlords, and he was mad with fury.

 

Turing’s hand was sweaty on his sword hilt. He eyed the Shockamancer as the caster ran through the city towards him. It was a long distance to run, but the caster was moving gratifyingly fast. Was he in range already? He wasn’t casting. But how soon? Now? Now?

 

A bolt of Shockamancy crackled by Turing’s shoulder. He felt all of his hair stand up. His mouth opened and he caught himself. Wait. Wait…

 

Zipzap charged across the empty city towards Turing, casting as he ran. His aim was poor though, and he missed. The Shockamancer was nearly halfway towards Turing, but he wasn’t as fast as a regular field unit. Some of the other ones were catching up. The Shockamancer stepped into the shadow cast by the library tower and Turing knew it was time.

 

He pointed up at the tower where he’d spent hundreds of turns happily reading and dreaming of leading. Shockamancy struck him a glancing blow and his left side went numb. But it couldn’t stop him while he lived.

 

“Tower down.” Turning’s voice was steady. His heart had stopped pounding; it lay in his chest like a silent, icy thing. “Gates down.”

 

It took a second for the tower to begin collapsing. Such was the construction of the building that the masonry shifted left slowly, blocks of stone grinding as the fortification struggled to resist the law of gravity.

 

Zipzap’s forces were halfway through the gate when it began to fall. The stacks of Pikers looked up in horror as Gwull-sized blocks fell upon them.

 

Zipzap’s eagerness was what saved him. He was far past the gates when they began to collapse which Turing regretted. But ironically, it was also what helped cause the most damage to his army.

 

So caught up was the Shockamancer in advancing towards the castle that it was only when he heard the crash of masonry and screaming units that he turned around.

 

Even from his vantage point Turing could see Zipzap’s eyes widen. The gates were crumbling just as he’d hoped. The falling blocks struck the army passing beneath them and croaked or incapacitated them by the dozens.

 

It was a stupid strategy. It wouldn’t have worked if the army had been led by a warlord rather than Zipzap the caster. It wouldn’t even have worked if there were any heavies in the army who could take the damage and still survive. But this was an army of basic field units led by an impulsive caster. He’d gone charging through the gates and the lady warlord had pulled all her stacks in after him. Right into Turing’s trap.

 

Turing watched the stabbers and pikers croak and felt a cold calm fall over him. This was battle. This was what he’d longed for all these turns. It repulsed and attracted him at the same time. But even as part of him watched the slaughter in stunned silence, another was counting the units that croaked, trying to tell whether he had enough units in the garrison to croak them. It all came down to Zipzap in the end.

 

The Shockamancer was shouting at his troops, blasting larger pieces of masonry and shouting for them to follow him. At the same time the warlady was trying to pull her troops out of the trap, and the poor army was caught between the leadership.

 

The Shockamancer turned, screaming in anger and raised a finger, perhaps to cast at Turing. That was when he saw the tower.

 

The spire of masonry collapsed slowly towards earth. It wasn’t a straight collapse, but a slow lean that turned into an avalanche of falling boulders and stone. First the top of the tower crumbled, pieces falling slowly to the ground. Then the foundations shifted, and the tower leaned. Then it fell, a mass of stone and dirt and books aimed directly at Zipzap.

 

Turing didn’t know what the Shockamancer said, but he saw the blast of lightning hit the masonry. He shook his head in disappointment. A waste of juice. The crackling magic blasts exploded several of the larger pieces of falling rubble, but the rest came falling down like, well, a falling tower. Even if Zipzap had had a Dittomancer and a Predictamancer, he still probably wouldn’t have been able to destroy enough of the tower to protect himself.

 

Zipzap’s arms went up to cover his face – another stupid move – and cowered on his horse as the tower fell upon him. Turing’s fists were white on his spyglass as he prayed to the Titans. So many blocks, like a thousand arrows – surely one had to croak him, or at least incapacitate. Casters didn’t have any Hits to speak of. If just one hit him, just one—!

 

A flash of movement caught Turing’s eye. He saw the blue-uniformed Warlord charge toward Zipzap, abandoning her stack. She caught the caster and threw him to the side as the tower collapsed on top of them.

 

Turing caught his breath. In his small circle of vision he saw the warlady look up at the falling stones, smile once, and then croak as a piece smashed her flat. Meanwhile, Zipzap lay where she had thrown him, ten, twenty paces away from the crashing masonry. Turning willed the falling stones to strike him, but the tower’s collapse had been too precise. The entire bulk of the stones fell directly upon the army and completely missed the caster.

 

A storm of dust and wind blew up as the last of the tower smashed into the ground. Turing shielded his face and squinted desperately as the dust began to settle. But against his hopes, as the air cleared he saw Zipzap standing in a circle of devastation, the rest of his army decimated around him.

 

In his heart Turing felt equal parts despair at Zipzap’s survival, rage at the enemy warlady for her quick thinking and admiration for it as well. She had completed her Duty, protecting a caster far higher-leveled than her and thus most likely securing victory for her side. Surely there was a place at the Titan’s Table for her.

 

Maybe some turn he’d meet her there and shake her hand. Turing hoped it wasn’t this turn. He raised his sword.

 

“Units, to me! Archers, form a stack!”

 

The units of Brashball jerked in surprise and then ran to follow Turing’s orders. They’d been staring at the devastation along with Turing.

 

A stack of stabbers and pikers formed around Turing. He saw his stack of archers assemble. He pointed to the stunned caster in the distance.

 

Charge the caster!

 

Turing charged with a full stack around him. This was his third engagement in a warlord, and his first in nearly a thousand turns. Now he was fighting again, and it felt right. He’d loved reading his books and being alone in his library, but this called to him. It was like being home at last.

 

It was only too bad that the odds were stacked so high against him. Turing saw Zipzap ahead of him, but there was fifty odd meters of broken rubble between his stack and the Shockamancer, and to make matters worse, not every unit had croaked from the tower trap.

 

A few pikers staggered over the rubble, shocked and in disarray. But their raised their pikes as Turing’s stack approached.

 

“Archers!” Turing called to the other stack. He pointed towards Zipzap who was still gaping at the destruction. “Aim and fire!”

 

His stack of archers paused and formed a line. Half knelt and the other half fired over their shoulders at Zipzap.

 

The Shockamancer turned and cried out in terror. His fingers raised, but too slowly. He was going to croak. Turing felt it.

 

But then another group moved as the arrows flew at the Shockamancer. The pikers, who’d been running at Turing’s stack dove into the line of fire, taking the shots.

 

“No!” Turing shouted in frustration. But the enemy stack took arrow after arrow meant for Zipzap. The pikers’ croaked corpses fell to the ground, riddled with arrows. Desperately, Turing pointed at Zipzap.

 

“Shoot him!” Turing shouted at his archers. He waved his sword at the Shockamancer. “Titans disband you! Shoot him!

 

His stack of archers took aim and fired again. The arrows whistled through the air past Turing, so close he could feel their passage. They flew straight at Zipzap and shattered as a bolt of lightning blasted them out of the hex.

 

Zipzap stood in the center of a shield of crackling lightning. He was trembling, the arrow lodged in his shoulder bleeding badly. But he still had juice. Even as more arrows flew at him he pointed and blasted them out of the air. Then he pointed at the stack.

 

Turing saw the lighting gather and dove. He heard the roar and felt the explosion pelt him with debris. When he got up he saw his stack of archers torn apart.

 

Half of them were croaked. The other half were either incapacitated or on their last hits. Turing saw his stabbers and pikers around him were also slowly getting to their feet.

 

“Get up!” He shouted at them. “Stand and fight! Shield the archers and engage the caster!”

 

He suited words to action and began running straight at Zipzap. His stack streamed after him, shouting wildly as they tried to close the gap between the Shockamancer and them before he cast again.

 

To Turing, time seemed to slow down and stop as he ran. Around him he saw the shattered courtyard and countless croaked corpses flash by as he took step after step. His armor rattled as he ran; his sword caught the wind and sliced it as he rushed at the caster.

 

Zipzap was pointing over Turing’s shoulder. The caster opened his mouth and lightning flashed from his fingertips. Turing felt his archers croaking, but he kept running at the Shockamancer. Zipzap was casting Shockamancy as fast as he could.

 

Lightning stuck a piker running behind Turing. It croaked the unit instantly and bounced to three more, croaking two and knocking one off her feet. Another spell flashed by, a smaller bolt of Shockamancy that incapacitated a stabber. Close. So close.

 

Turing was only twenty feet away from Zipzap. He strained to move faster, to pump his legs harder. Another blast of shockamancy missed him and blew open a pothole near his feet. Turing stumbled, and kept running.

 

Ten feet. Two more stabbers croaked as they charged. Other units climbed over the rubble behind Zipzap. Enemy soldiers. They charged towards Turing.

 

Five feet. A blast of Shockamancy caught half of the surviving units following Turing and croaked them. The enemy units were closing, but too slowly. Turing would make it to Zipzap first.

 

And then the caster was right in front of him. Turing raised his sword as he dashed at Zipzap and brought it down. Time slowed. Zipzap was screaming at him. Turing was screaming back. Zipzap’s hands gathered at his side. Magic flowed into them, creating a glowing, crackling orb.

 

Turing’s sword fell towards Zipzap as the caster’s hands moved. They extended towards Turing, slowly, slowly. Turing’s sword was aimed at the caster’s neck. The orb of energy flew from the caster’s fingertips.

 

His sword touched Zipzap’s shoulder. Turing felt the blade lodge and then—

 

Thwoom.

 

The orb of magic touched Turing’s chest. He felt the Hoboken spell burn a hole through his armor. It blasted him off his feet and onto the ground. Miraculously Turing didn’t croak, but he felt as though his skin were melting off his body.

 

Above him his remaining stack engaged Zipzap with yells that turned just as quickly into screams and the sizzle of burning flesh. Turing tried to stand up, tried to move, but the spell had left him temporarily stunned. All he could do was gape upwards.

 

Slowly, Zipzap shuffled into Turing’s blurry line of sight. The Shockamancer was wounded. He clutched at his bleeding shoulder where Turing had struck him. But he was alive. A wounded stack of units surrounded him, fighting with what was left of Brashball’s garrison.

 

“Well,” the Shockamancer gasped for air. “See…how pathetic…you are…Turing? Two whole stacks…and you couldn’t croak me.”

 

“Disband—” Turing rasped, and then coughed.

 

Zipzap sneered down at him.

 

“You are a fool. Despite your desperate trap, I survived. I am blessed. Blessed by the Titans!”

 

He pointed down at Turing. His finger crackled with energy.

 

“Who will save you now, warlord?” He gloated. “Your stacks are croaked and you—you were never worthy of being a warlord. I always knew it. But I’ll grant you this: you never had a chance against me. For who can stand against the mighty Zipzap? What unit on Erfworld would dare stand against a Master Shockamancer’s power?”

 

“Dunno. How’s about me?”

 

Zipzap turned. King Gout of Osnap loomed over him, a giant wall of quivering flesh. In one hand he held a club nearly as big as a stabber, a massive, wooden bludgeon of death.

 

“You!”

 

Gout’s swung his club at Zipzap. But the caster was faster. He raised both hands and blasted his former ruler. Turing watched, helpless, as his ruler roared in agony, dropping the club as lightning crackling across his gigantic body.

 

“I always hated you!” Zipzap said. “Always! I was glad when I was turned! And I was doubly glad to croak that oaf, Curbstomp!”

 

Gout made no response. His sunken eyes stared at Zipzap. Slowly, despite the Shockamancy blasting him, he raised one foot and stepped towards the caster.

 

“Croak!” Zipzap shouted. He pointed his fingers at Gout, laughing as the lighting blasted his former ruler. “Croak, you hulking fool!”

 

The smoke coming off Turing’s ruler shrouded him from view. Suddenly, one of his massive hands shot out from the cloud of lighting and black smoke and seized Zipzap.

 

“Don’t feel like it. You try.”

 

Zipzap screamed and blasted Gout again with another cast. But this time he’d miscalculated. His Shockamancy hit Gout and bounced back to Zipzap himself. He screamed and began to smoke.

 

Gout lifted Zipzap up. The ruler came into view as the smoke around him cleared. He was singed and his entire body looked like it had been crisped. But he was still alive, and he grabbed Zipzap’s head with both his hands.

 

“No, wait!” The Shockamancer pleaded in desperation. “I’ll turn! I will! I’ll tell you everything you want to know! I’ll do whatever you want, I swear!”

 

Gotu paused. “Anything?”

 

“Anything,” Zipzap panted.

 

Gout nodded. “’N that case, tell the Titans I sent you.”

 

His hands twisted as Zipzap’s finger came up. Lightning crackled from the Shockamancer’s hands—

 

And faded. The sparks dissipated harmlessly against Gout’s skin. The Shockamancer’s neck broke with a snap Turing clearly heard in the silence.

 

The other side’s units stared at their fallen caster as Gout tossed him to the ground. Turing couldn’t believe it.

 

Gout straightened and for the first time seemed to feel his wounds. He grimaced and poked at one massive arm. The black burns on his arms looked extremely painful.

 

He glanced around at the battlefield and counted the units still standing. Then he looked over at Lord Turing.

 

“You all right there, Turing? Got enough hits or do I need ta screen ya?”

 

It took Turing a few tries to find his mouth.

 

“I—I can fight. Let me get you a stack and retreat to—”

 

Gout shook his head with the force of an order.

 

“Nah. Keep ‘em. Stack up and mop up.” He nodded at the stunned Lord Turing. “Meet me in the war room when yer done. We’ll have a bite to eat. Make sure you croak a few a these small fry yerself. The side’s gonna need you.”

 

He turned, and the spell holding both sides was broken. Two stabbers rushed at Gout, but the ruler swatted them aside like flies. He stared down at the dead Shockamancer as his units rushed to engage the enemy and protect him.

 

“Shame about all this, Zap,” Gout said. “You shouldn’t have turned. But then again, maybe we shoulda been nicer to you all these turns.”

 

He thought about it. A stray arrow lodged in his chest and Gout looked down in irritation. He snapped the shaft off and looked down at Zipzap again.

 

“Actually, nah. You were always a bad Caster. I wanted a Dittomancer so’s I could eat more, but I got a pathetic disloyal caster instead. I hope a buncha Twolls use you as field rations.”

 

He kicked Zipzap’s body and wandered back into his castle for a bite to eat.

 

Chapter 5

The battle wasn’t over when Zipzap croaked. It was mostly over, but there was still cleanup. And it was dangerous and deadly, but it was cleanup.

 

Turing fell back with his stacks of Pikers and Stabbers, desperately fighting to hold the enemy at bay as they rushed him and his ruler. Gout waded through the enemy stack, tossing units aside as he retreated towards the castle.

 

Meanwhile, Turing’s pikers and stabbers formed a barrier around him, croaking the enemy as they shielded their wounded Chief Warlord. It was a bloody fight. Turing’s leadership bonus wasn’t that high, and so the few stacks hit his hard.

 

Units croaked and leveled around Turing. He waited, his hands sweaty on his sword.

 

A wounded Piker made it past two of his Stabbers and rushed at him with a shout. Turing dodged the spear tip and cut the Piker’s head off with a single slash.

 

And he leveled! Turing nearly fell on his own face in amazement. He was now a Level 3 Warlord, and he felt the change in his leadership bonus affect the entire side at once.

 

He fell back behind his screen of units. He would have loved to go out and fight in the front, but he knew he had taken too many wounds. His mind told him to let his leadership bonus do the croaking, but his instincts screamed at him to fight.

 

In the end his Duty to his side won out. Turing stood impatiently behind his line of stabbers and pikers, tensed, ready to run and assist if the enemy broke through in any spot.

 

They did not.

 

The last of the enemy units croaked as one of his stabbers took a simultaneous crit to the face. Both he and the piker fell to the ground, small x’s in their eyes.

 

Turing winced. Even the loss of one unit was too much to bear. He looked around. Well, if the cost of losing one unit was too high, who would pay the Titans for this disaster?

 

Turing looked around the ruins of what had been his city. He’d won his first major engagement and defended his city.

 

He felt sick.

 

Not because of the croaking. That was what warlord did. No; it was the cost.

 

The walls of Brashball lay exploded inwards. A gaping hole let any unit walk straight into the capital, and worse yet, the tower and collapsed gate had scrambled rubble across the city. From a glorious Level 4 city, they’d become a Level 1.

 

Turing walked over to the place where Shockamancy had burned stone black. He stared down. A stack of archers lay on the ground, their bodies burned beyond recognition.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. There wasn’t much else he could say. “You deserved a better warlord.”

 

Mentally, Turing ordered the rest of his stack to disperse. They left, and he stood alone in the battlefield.

 

He didn’t know what came next after an engagement. Usually he supposed, he’d leave the hex, or get ready to end the turn. But this was his second—no, third battle won, and he’d forgotten what came next.

 

Turing looked down at the bodies that had once been the units he’d commanded. They’d depop soon. But it felt—yes, it felt wrong to leave them lying so inelegantly on the ground. They deserved more respect. The archers, the stabbers and pikers—they’d taken Zipzap’s casts, the attacks meant for Turing. He owed them something.

 

Gout’s order burned in Turing’s mind. But it wasn’t an immediate order, and there were no other enemy sides with enough move to enter Brashball’s hex. He had time. More than enough time. And so Turing bent down and tugged at half of an archer.

 

 

—-

 

 

“23…24…26.” Turing counted slowly under his breath for the fourteenth time. He looked at the pile of croaked units he’d placed in neat rows. That was every unit he’d found that had been croaked on his side during the battle. Twenty six. That was seven archers, six stabbers, and twelve pikers. Minus one archer who’d been turned to ash by Zipzap’s spell.

 

He looked at the pile of corpses. They were so—exposed out in the open like that. He wanted to do something for them. Cover them. Maybe with stones?

 

Turing walked around the ruined courtyard. There was certainly no end to the rubble he could use. Carefully, he bent and picked up one the size of his head. Then he walked back to the dead bodies.

 

“Here. Or here?”

 

Turing placed the first stone on the charred ground. It had to be just right. He thought about it.

 

“No. Here.”

 

He carefully placed it next to a female piker’s head. There. It had to be just so. And next he needed another stone.

 

Turing went back and found another stone of the same size. He placed that one next to the first. Well. He needed another stone now.

 

Slowly, the Chief Warlord of Osnap walked back and forth across the rubble. He searched through the destruction, picking up stones, casting them aside. When he found one he liked he brought it back and laboriously placed it with the others.

 

Turing didn’t really think about what he was doing. It was automatic. Instead, he thought about the battle. He thought about the mistakes he’d made as he stared into each stabber’s face, as he counted the dead again and again. If only he’d been better. If only he’d been higher level.

 

A higher level. If Turing had been Level 6 like his ruler, what would have happened? He might have been able to take the Shockamancy that had destroyed so many of his units. His leadership bonus might have allowed his archers to croak Zipzap that first time. But he wasn’t Level 6. He was Level 3, and barely that.

 

It had taken him just one kill to level. Just one. He’d been a lowly Level 2 for so many turns, and he could have leveled if they’d just let him fight. Even if it had been a minor skirmish, even if he had only gone out of the capital for a single turn…

 

But no. They’d kept him here to reduce upkeep. And that was a good decision. He’d saved the side Schmuckers, and that was part of his duty. Someone had to do it.

 

But why him? Why did he have to suffer for one mistake? It hadn’t even been his fault. It was just bad Luckamancy, but he’d suffered for it for hundreds of turns.

 

Turing was no Scorist. But if he did have a Score, was it higher or lower for so many turns he’d wasted, rather than fulfill his calling as a Warlord?

 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t. But he’d fulfilled his duty even so, patrolling a city that never changed until he thought he’d go mad of it. And then he’d been given a role he couldn’t live up to, and he’d croaked his own units with his failures.

 

It was all his fault.

 

Turing heaved the last piece of rubble up and felt his back strain with the effort. He looked at the cairn he’d been building and blinked.

 

Somehow, as Turing had been caught up in his thoughts the empty ground had been filled, stone by stone, with a huge pile of rocks. It covered the croaked corpses, and stood higher than Turing’s head. He looked at it and then down at his dirty hands and armor.

 

How long had it taken him to build that? Long. It must have been, but he didn’t remember it. He’d drifted off in his mind, like when he read his favorite books back to back after the turn had ended.

 

Turing shook his head. Well, it didn’t matter how long it took. It was done. He nodded at the stone cairn he’d constructed, and at the croaked units buried beneath. It was a small gesture, perhaps meaningless. All of this would be gone by the next turn.

 

But it had been done. That was what mattered. And if it was meaningless, well, it was fitting for a worthless warlord.

 

Head bowed, Turing began trudging towards the castle. It was time to meet his ruler, and perhaps, the Titans. He only wondered whether they would judge him for what he’d accomplished, or what he’d failed to do.

 

Behind Turing the stone cairn stood darkly against the fading sun, casting long shadows across the croaked bodies and the rubble.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing knocked on the war room’s door and entered. He was surprised that Gout hadn’t chosen to sit in the throne room, but his ruler seemed to have made the tower his new base. Gout was sitting against one wall, munching down provisions with one hand as he sipped from a goblet with the other.

 

“You wished to see me, lord?”

 

For a long time Gout didn’t look up from his meal. He chomped, swallowed, and munched. Turing kept his head bowed, waiting. He wondered for the first time how he would be Disbanded. Would Gout look up and simply tell him, or did his ruler need to do something else? Turing had never seen a unit disbanded. Well, this turn he was probably going to find out.

 

“Find everything ya needed with them croaked corpses?”

 

Turing started. Gout was looking at him. He stammered for an answer.

 

“No, lord. I—I apologize for the delay.”

 

Gout shrugged. Today he was eating thick bread pasted with butter which he dipped in a meaty sauce. He swallowed another huge mouthful and winced as his hand bumped his goblet. Gout’s skin was still blackened in places from the Shockamancy.

 

“’S fine. I gave you an order to come back. Didn’t matter how much time passed, did it? A turn ends the same way each time. When a ruler calls for it, not before. You coulda spent however long down there and it woulda felt the same to me. Unless I was watching a’course.”

 

“Were you watching, lord?”

 

Gout said nothing. But as he reached for another plate he shifted aside a massive stack of empty dishes.

 

“Siddown.”

 

Turing sat. He didn’t know whether he wanted to put his head in his hands or weep before his disbandment. He compromised by trembling slightly and stopping when he noticed he was doing it.

 

Gout drummed his fat fingers on the table. He picked up another roll of bread and then tossed it down. Then he shoved the plate towards Turing across the table. He didn’t look at his Chief Warlord.

 

“Wanna bite?”

 

“No, lord.”

 

Turing answered automatically as his heart sank. He’d never, ever witnessed Gout share his provisions, not even a scrap. This, more than anything convinced Turing of how serious the situation was.

 

“Let’s talk about the battle, Turing.”

 

“Yes, lord. What part of it?”

 

“Well, we won.” Gout nodded as he pulled the plate a back and started eating. He talked around his mouthful. “That’s good. But seems to me there were some problems.”

 

“Yes, lord.” Turing bowed his head.

 

“Warlords don’t learn how ta command.” Gout looked up at Turing at last. “When ya pop ya know all the rule and how ta lead. Anything else you can read books for.”

 

Turing didn’t know if this was a rhetorical statement, but he decided to answer it anyways. “Yes, I suppose so.”

 

“Right. Or if there’s a trick to how the side fights, the Chief Warlord might teach ‘nother warlord a few tricks. Happens a bit.”

 

“Were you…taught how to command, lord? I mean, did you—did you fight as a warlord? I thought rulers never fought.”

 

“I did.” Gout shrugged and picked up what looked like a roasted Gwull leg. “Right when the side first popped. Rulers are like any other unit. We can level – it’s just not a good idea to risk it.”

 

He tore into the meat and chewed for a moment. “Croaked a lotta units before poppin’ my first warlord. After that, too. Even hit a crit on a Dwagon, once. That was my final level before my third warlord popped. After that it was too risky.”

 

Turing stared at Gout until the sight of him devouring the Gwull leg grew too disgusting. Gout had been a warlord? Well, it made sense. Not all Rulers had the Leadership ability, but if they did, what stopped them from acting as a warlord? Well, expendability obviously, but if there were no other units that could command…

 

Level 6. That was what Gout had said he was. Three levels higher than his Chief Warlord, and he had nearly a thousand turns of experience under his massive belt.

 

He’d croaked a Dwagon. Turing hadn’t ever even seen one, just read about them in his books. Jealousy rose in the pit of his stomach, but he forced it down. Gout was still speaking, and Turing knew he was going to come to the main point soon.

 

“Anyways, I learned a few tricks. Forgot most of ‘em, but learned how to fight casters. If it was me back there, I’da split my archers down to one unit per stack and surrounded Zipzap. Wouldn’t work unless you got rid of the other units, but it woulda saved a couple of them archers. Take shots at maximum range and sent in the pikers n’ stabbers while the archers attack. Too many stacks for him to deal with, y’see?”

 

Turing did. It was a basic strategy, and a far better one than he’d used. He could feel himself flushing red with embarrassment. Moreover, he had read of similar strategies countless times in the books by other warlords. He could only stare at his hands in shame.

 

“Trouble is,” Gout said reflectively when the silence stretched on too long. “Trouble is, ya can’t figure out that kinda stuff unless you fight a few battles. You only fought in two skirmishes before this. Never saw a caster fight in yer own hex, not even Zipzap.”

 

Turing blinked. That almost sounded like one of the excuses he’d thought up. But that wasn’t what he’d expected to hear from his ruler. He cleared his throat nervously.

 

“Aren’t you—aren’t you mad at my performance, lord?”

 

Gout stopped chewing the Gwull leg and stared at Turing.

 

“What?”

 

“All the croaked units, lord,” Turing spread his hands. “I let far too many die. My tactics were terrible. You should have been the Chief Warlord, not me. I’m prepared to accept my punishment. Disbanding or—”

 

Turing jumped as Gout’s fist slammed down on the table.

 

“Are you outta yer mind?” Gout shouted. His perpetually red face turned a deeper shade of crimson. “Why inna name of the pheasant roasts would I do that?”

 

“I lost so many units. They croaked—”

 

Croaked?” Gout stood up. He towered over Turing as he waved his blackened arms about. “We lost just three stacks. Three! Against an army and a master-class Shockamancer! You call that a failure? Titans! Collapsin’ a tower and taking’ out a warlord and that many stacks without losin’ a single unit? I’ve never seen that kinda fightin’ in all the turns I’ve been popped!”

 

Turing gaped up at Gout. His ruler looked at him and plopped back into his chair. The wood cracked and then held. Barely.

 

“I get it. Yer not used to losin’ units, are you? Well let me tell you as a king who ruled a fightin’ side, this was a great battle. Sure, we lost more’n we could have, but a victory is what counts. The strategy you thought up was good. Great, even. No warlord in their right minds’d come up with that. Sacrificin’ the city to take down an invader? Brilliant. But the tactics—that’s where you failed.”

 

“So…” Turing was having trouble getting his mind around the direction the conversation had taken. “So you’re not angry at me, lord?”

 

Gout shook his head. “No. I ain’t. And I didn’t call you here to disband you or toss you in the dungeon neither. I was talkin’ as a warlord to another warlord about how you could have done better.”

 

Turing bowed his head. “I haven’t been a proper warlord in a long time, lord.”

 

“No. You haven’t. ‘N that was on purpose.”

 

Gout met Turing’s gaze evenly. He couldn’t know the surging emotions that were in his warlord’s chest—or maybe he did know. But he didn’t look away from Turing.

 

“Seems ta me…” Gout trailed off. “Seems ta me we mighta made a mistake puttin’ you in the capital for so long. Took away your edge.”

 

“I never had one to begin with.” Turing blinked at the vehemence in his words. It was too late to take them back though, and, Titans, he had wanted to say them a hundred turns ago.

 

“Maybe.” Gout didn’t seem that upset. “But it was the only solution at the time. Can’t have a warlord that lowers Loyalty.”

 

“No.” Turing bowed his head.

 

“I know it was an accident.”

 

Turing looked up at Gout’s words. “It was. I didn’t mean to—”

 

“But ya know,” Gout cut him off, “a ruler’s gotta uphold the side first. Part of my Duty is making sure the side stays healthy. I thought it’d be bad to have a warlord in command at that point that units didn’t trust – we were fightin’ the Superfluous Alliance back then, and Busybody and Amirite weren’t so weak. And we had only your word to go on.”

 

“I know.” Turing bowed his head as he remembered.

 

“Still can’t prove it wasn’t you?” Gout’s eyes were sympathetic. Turing shook his head.

 

“All I know is that they were acting odder and odder over the course of the turn. They started getting more disobedient each time we moved to another hex. And then as we camped—no. I don’t know how it happened.”

 

Turing spread his hands as he looked up at his ruler.

 

“But I swear, lord. It wasn’t me. I never insulted them, or gave them an order that would have gone against their Duty.”

 

“I believe you.” Gout sighed. “’Least, I believe you now. But I didn’t then. And since I was so busy well, I put you in the city and forgot about you, and it’s comin’ back to bite me now. Sorry.”

 

Turing looked away from his ruler bitterly. Sorry. That was all he got. But then again, what else could be said?

 

Gout cleared his throat and Turing looked up reluctantly.

 

“If I could go back and change the turns I would. But I’m no Turnamancer and I don’t even know if they can do that. Point is, we’re here. And now I’ve got a Chief Warlord who’s got great strategy, but no head for tactics.”

 

Turing agreed silently. At least, he agreed with the part about him not having a head for tactics. As far as he was concerned he was a failure as a Chief Warlord in every sense.

 

“Wish I’da sent you with Curbstomp for a few battles,” Gout grunted. “He had a knack for fightin’.”

 

“And I don’t.” Turing nodded.

 

He looked down, and then ducked as a half-eaten Gwull leg flew at his head. Gout lowered his hand and sucked at his greasy fingers.

 

“Y’know, yer startin’ to get on my nerves. More’n usual, I mean.”

 

Turing opened his mouth. Gout waved a hand.

 

“Shut it.”

 

It was an order. Turing’s mouth clamped shut.

 

“Yer a good warlord. I saw you fightin’ after Zipzap fell. Not bad. But what I meant about Curbstomp was that he loved to fight. It was his purpose. For you, it’s just part of the job, ain’t it?”

 

Turing nodded dumbly.

 

“That’s fine too. You don’t gotta love croakin’ other units to be a good warlord. If our side didn’t like croakin’ so much, maybe we would have more allies right now that would be comin’ to our aid, rather than enemies.”

 

Gout nodded as he picked up another Gwull leg.

 

“Curbstomp, he wasn’t too bright. But sometimes you don’t want a smart warlord. A good ruler likes a simple hammer, not one that comes up with weird strategies all the time. And better yet, Curbstomp knew he wasn’t that smart. ‘S why he came to you for help now and then.”

 

Turing nodded again. Gout eyed him and flicked his fingers.

 

“You can talk. Anyways, I allowed it because you two made a good team together. You had some strategies Curbstomp could use, and he could fight the battles. But now he’s croaked, we need to make you a better warlord. Yer good in one way, but bad in the other. Y’know what I’m sayin’?”

 

Turing hesitated. “Um, no lord.”

 

Gout scratched at his head with the Gwull leg. “M’kay. Lemme say it another way. See, the way I see it, you got two kinds of Commanders. You know what I’m talkin’ about?”

 

“Caster and Warlords?” Turing said, confused.

 

“No. Casters ain’t real Commanders.” Gout flicked his fingers dismissively. “They’re useless. No, I mean Warlords and Rulers.”

 

With one massive, pudgy hand Gout indicated his plate. He had a glob of mashed potatoes and a few peas left. He pointed to his mashed potatoes. “Y’see, Warlords are good at fightin’. Each one gets popped knowing how to lead his units, right? Them, they’re as common as dirt.”

 

“But Rulers, they’re different. They gotta know strategy, not just tactics. A Warlord fights thinkin’ only of his hex and maybe the next one. But Chief Warlords and Rulers? We gotta think of the entire side. If we attack this hex, maybe there’s a hidden stack in the forest hex that’ll attack us after we’re weak. Do we advance on a Level 3 city or go around it? How do ya stop an army with twice as many units as ours?”

 

Gout separated a few peas on his plate. They stood alone from the mashed potatoes. “Rulers are rare. They ain’t just popped, and some of the best ones were heirs that used to be common warlords. It’s that spark, see? Don’t matter if yer a Royal or not. If you don’t have that spark, you’ll never make a good Chief Warlord, let alone a Ruler even if yer Level 50.”

 

Turing held his breath at the audacity of Gout’s words. It sounded almost like treason – although to what side Turing had no idea. Maybe against the Titans themselves. Certainly, the Royalists would be up in arms if they’d heard his ruler’s pronouncement.

 

“Curbstomp was good, maybe the best warlord I ever had. But he was still a warlord.” Gout pointed at Turing, and the warlord felt a shock run through him. “But you. You think differently. Curbstomp always went to you for strategy – he knew you were a better Chief Warlord than he was. If you’da had the levels and the experience fightin’ I woulda promoted you to Chief Warlord a long time ago.”

 

Turing gaped at Gout. The ruler waved his hand irritably.

 

“Stop actin’ surprised. I ain’t got time for it. Right now, I need a Chief Warlord, and yer finally actin’ like one. Look Turing, we won. It was a bloody battle and we’re in bad shape still. There’s still another army out there with a Level 13 warlord and a Turnamancer. But we’re not croaked yet. So here’s my question to my Chief Warlord: what should we do next?”

 

Turing’s thoughts whirled, and then crystalized. He took a deep breath.

 

“There’s not much we can do. Scouting, well—we fought the force that was coming for us, so we don’t need scouts aside from the ones scouting for a capital. Instead, we pop as much infantry as possible. No more Gwulls. At least, not at the moment. We barely have any garrison units left. Just a Level 2 stabber and a handful of Level 1’s. If we’re going to take a barbarian side, we’ll need more stacks so we should pop as many stabbers and pikers and possible.”

 

Gout nodded. “Done. Anything else?”

 

“No, lord. All we can do is wait.”

 

Turing wished he had something else to say to justify Gout’s opinion of his Chief Warlord-ness. But his ruler seemed satisfied.

 

“Sometimes waitin’s all you can do. Fine. You keep readin’ books and scoutin’s with our units. Inna mean time, come by here every turn.”

 

“Lord?”

 

Gout scooped up a glob of mashed potatoes and peas and gulped it down.

 

“Yer strategy’s great, but a Twoll’s got better tactics. So come up here and I’ll teach ya how to lead. Someone’s gotta do it.”

 

Gout waved his hand. He expected Turing to go, but the warlord sat in his chair, looking at his lap. The ruler of Osnap eyed his Chief Warlord. The smaller man looked like he was trembling. With anger? Or…?

 

Turing stood up. Gout eyed him impassively as his Chief Warlord looked up at his ruler. He’d seen Turing many times over the hundreds of turns. He’d looked out his window at the hunched, slightly fat warlord walking dully around his city. That was what he’d seen.

 

The warlord that stood in front of Gout was no less pudgy than before. Signamancy didn’t change that quick. But he stood taller than before, and as he saluted, Gout caught a glimpse of Dwagon’s fire in his gray-green eyes. It sparked a memory of a young warlord standing in front of Gout’s throne, saluting even as he popped.

 

“I know I’m not a perfect warlord.” Turing’s voice broke through the mists of the past for Gout. The ruler looked at his warlord. Turing spoke to a point just above Gout’s head. “I’m not a great Chief Warlord. Or even a good one. But I promise that I’ll try and learn to become a warlord worthy of a ruler as good as you.”

 

Turing bowed awkwardly and half-stumbled, half-ran out the door. Gout watched him go, bemused.

 

In the silence after his strange Chief Warlord had gone, Gout looked around the echoing war room. He looked down at his corpulent body, and at the terrible burns and blackened skin that still ruined his form.

 

He flexed his hands. Once upon a time. He remembered feeling heavy muscle shift under the skin of his arms. He remembered being light and sure on his feet, not so heavy that he couldn’t stand without help.

 

Signamancy was a terrible thing. But there was one thing worse than that.

 

“A good ruler?” Gout laughed hollowly to himself in the dark silence. He put a hand over his eyes and closed them. Tears rolled down his fat cheeks as he laughed and wept at the same time.

 

“No one’s called me that in a long time.”

 

Chapter 6

The next turn Gout repaired the city. It happened before Turing woke up, so when he looked out the window the devastation of last turn was completely gone. The croaked bodies had depopped, and his library tower stood straight and beautifully tall just like before. Everything was the same.

 

But some things were different.

 

Every night, before he slept, Turing met with Gout to learn strategy from his ruler. It was always in the war room, where he fought mock battles against his ruler. He almost always lost.

 

Gout was patient with Turing, at least in that he didn’t yell at his Chief Warlord until Turing started to lose more than six consecutive battles. Occasionally, Turing felt he managed to surprise his ruler with a trick he’d learned from a book, but usually his plans fell apart before Gout’s simplistic, direct attacks. More than half the time he told Turing just to charge in, rather than come up with a plan.

 

“Yer problem is you overthink things,” he said at one point, when he’d rather thoroughly wrecked Turing in one of their simulated games. “Plannin’ is good, but when yer in an enemy’s hex, thinkin’ gets you killed.”

 

“Sorry, lord.”

 

“Sometimes you gotta stop thinkin’. Trust your instincts.”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

“Right, let’s play again. This time yer in control of the side. Try and pop enough units to stop me ‘fore I take your capital.”

 

In between those games though, Gout talked. It was a surprise to Turing—he’d never been around Gout that much before obviously, but from what other warlords said, Gout wasn’t much of a talker. But for whatever reason he’d chosen Turing to confide in.

 

“Lemme tell you a bit of history.” One night, Gout settled back on the floor and took a deep breath. “’S important for you to know, ‘specially because I never wrote a book. ‘N I guess you never talked with any warlords about our side.”

 

“Only Curbstomp.”

 

“He wouldn’t know that much. Only been around three hundred turns. ‘Sides which, you need ta understand how I saw it. A ruler’s perspective.”

 

Turing nodded obediently as he cleared the map of the figurines they’d used to play their games.  Gout settled back in his chair and selected a goblet of wine as he stared off into the distance.

 

“I remember when I popped. I appeared in a capital—not this one, an older site many, many hexes way. Didn’t think of much. I just started poppin’ units and taking over as many cities as possible. I fought, I leveled; I did everything myself back then.”

 

“You didn’t have any warlords, lord?”

 

“’Course I did. After a while. Seems stupid now, but…I was young. ‘Sides, I was a good fighter. Not too smart or fast, but I hadda lot of attack and defense and hits. There’s worse rulers out there, and it meant I didn’t need warlord protectin’ me in my city. If we got attacked, I went out and croaked the enemy warlord myself.”

 

Gout paused he stared into his goblet but didn’t drink.

 

“I’m not sure when I stopped goin’ out and started eatin’ more. Felt like one turn I was big and tough, the next, I hadda get help standin’ up. I guess it started when I hadda start namin’ my armies and dividin’ my stacks between them. Feels like that’s when the side started getting big, but ‘s also when I started losin’ my edge.”

 

“So, would it have been better if you stayed out and kept fighting on the front lines, lord?”

 

“Better?” Gout stared at Turing incredulously. “You crazy? That’s how sides fall. A ruler on the field’s a bigger target than ten casters.”

 

“But you said—”

 

“I’m just sayin’. If I hadn’t sat around maybe the side wouldn’t be fallin’ right now.”

 

“So…” Turing furrowed his brows. “So which is the right answer, lord?”

 

“The right answer?” Gout thought about it. He shrugged. “Dunno. Just don’t do what I did. I’m not sure how a good ruler’s supposed ta rule, but not followin’ my example’s a good start.”

 

“I think you’re a good ruler, lord.” Turing said staunchly.

 

Gout eyed him and smiled once. Then his smile vanished.

 

“Yer a good fellow, Turing. And yer loyal. But you don’t know nuthin’ about rulers. Go out and meet a few more ‘fore you tell me I’m good at my job.”

 

To that, Turing had nothing to say. Gout had dismissed him and the next turn he’d had Turing practicing how to manage a side’s treasury. They’d never brought up the subject again, but now and then Turing caught Gout eyeing him behind his back.

 

 

—-

 

 

Twelve full turns after his promotion to Chief Warlord, Turing was sitting in his library reading books. He was trying to figure out new strategies to surprise Gout and failing. He’d just picked up a book by one Lord Crush when he looked up and dropped his book.

 

“Stabber! To me!”

 

By Gout’s command, a unit was always stationed outside the library tower to ferry messages between himself and Turing. One charged into the room at Turing’s command, sword drawn.

 

She stopped when she saw Turing dancing about in the center of the library. The warlord was laughing and waving his hands about in excitement.

 

“Something wrong, lord?”

 

Turing looked at the female stabber and stopped dancing at once. He cleared his throat awkwardly. She looked familiar. He knew her. She wasn’t one of the new units popped. Who was she again? Miya something…? It didn’t matter.

 

“We’ve found it!” He burst out. “We’ve found one at last!”

 

“Found what, lord?”

 

“A city! A capital city!”

 

Turing grinned broadly at the stabber. The stabber shrugged.

 

“That good, lord?”

 

Turing’s smile faded slightly. Of course. The other units didn’t know how important this was.

 

“It’s very good,” he explained. “We’ve been looking for one, and I wasn’t sure if we’d find one. But this is a hidden hex, right between a few mountain hexes and forest hexes! I wasn’t even sure we’d find one there, but we were lucky.”

 

The stabbed nodded obediently.

 

“Luckamancy is good, lord.”

 

“Exactly, and it wasn’t entirely luck of course.” Turing began pawing through his collection of books. “I used Mathamancy to calculate the best spots to scout for a capital side. You see, using Tencount’s derived Theory of Sixteen and based on Killiantosh’s proposed Guide to Erfworld, I thought that the closest capital could only be within two hundred hexes. So by sending Gwulls to scout out that area, we were able to narrow our search by—”

 

Turing broke off as he saw the dazed look on the stabber’s face.

 

“Ahem. Sorry.”

 

The stabber shrugged. “You want the King, lord?”

 

“Yes, yes. Where is he?”

 

“War room, lord.”

 

“Good. Tell Gout—I mean, tell our ruler—I need to do some research, but tell him I’ve found a capital city! Possibly. It’s not confirmed and I’ll need to ascertain whether it’s a barbarian side, but tell him the probability is good!”

 

The stabber paused. “So tell him what, lord?”

 

“Tell him I’ve got good news!”

 

The stabber shrugged again and walked off. Turing feverishly went back to his books and began tearing the library apart. He was looking for history books, records of past battles, anything that could give him a clue to what that city might have been.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Aha!”

 

At last Turing found the book he was looking for. There were many written records of sides and their collapse, but the one he was looking for had been written by a Duke Dictate of Sternography. He’d kept meticulous records of countless sides, from how they’d risen to how they inevitably ended.

 

Excitedly Turing poured over the records of sides for the last ten thousand turns. It was a long shot, but if it had once been part of a larger kingdom…

 

Yes, there it was! At the precise coordinates his units had described Turing located the description of a small side. He scrolled down the details of its founding and demise.

 

Redrum had been a strong forest-based kingdom nearly eight thousand turns ago. It hadn’t been notable for much; a few engagements won, a Chief Warlord estimated Level 4 and units with some kind of concealment special, but it had been notable for how it fell.

 

Betrayal from within. A unit had turned and slew its own ruler. The side has disbanded, lacking an heir, and its cities had been conquered. All that was, except for its capital. It had lain forgotten until now.

 

Turing’s blood was aflame and he couldn’t help but do another dance in his spot in the library. Found! He rushed out of the building and up towards the war room tower with the book in hand.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Good.” Gout barely looked up from his midday meal at the open book Turing thrust towards him. Instead, he focused on his meal, a giant ham and a tiny sprig of parsley for garnish. He cut into it with fork and knife and seemed to lose focus of Turing for a few minutes.

 

At last he looked back up at his Chief Warlord, who had nearly been dancing due to impatience.

 

“Good,” Gout repeated. “Yer plan paid off. Gonna send more scouts?”

 

“No,” Turing said. “No, that we know it’s there, we’ll have to capture it and then take the side. We’ll take a few turns to bring back all the Gwulls and then we’ll set out with as many stacks as we can mount. The rest stay will stay here and garrison. But we’ve done it! So long as we avoid the enemy army, we’ll win!”

 

“Yeah. ‘Bout that.” Gout speared a slice of ham and popped it into his mouth. “Might be a problem. Lost another two cities just now.”

 

Turing’s face froze. “Two? But it’s only been one turn.”

 

“Yeah.” Gout made a face as he chewed. “Musta divided their stacks again. Figured out there’s nuthin’ in our garrisons.”

 

“We’ve got two more cities left, though.” Turing frantically reviewed the geography of the cities in his mind. “Istandbull and Groundtopia. They’re two turns away from here – we’ve got time if they take those cities first.”

 

Gout shook his head. He speared another piece of ham with his fork. “Yer thinkin’ like a warlord again and not like a Ruler. They’re comin’ here.”

 

Turing’s blood froze. But his mouth said, “then we should go at once. We can always meet the Gwulls on the road. The plan will work, lord.”

 

“Right, right.” Gout looked down at his plate. Then he shoved it aside and stood up with a sigh. “Yeah. Let’s figure it out.”

 

Turing paused as his ruler slowly lumbered after him. Gout was acting extremely odd, especially given the good news. He hadn’t expected – or wanted – to see his ruler doing a happy dance of his own, but he’d hoped for a smile, at least.

 

“Something wrong, lord?”

 

“Walk with me, Turing. Let’s just see how yer plan’ll work.”

 

Gout began walking down the stone staircase from the war room. Turing in front of him, praying his ruler didn’t trip. He sensed Gout ordering every unit in the garrison down to the courtyard and blinked in surprise. Was his ruler planning on leaving this instant?

 

When the two descended to the ground, Gout wheezed and panted for breath while Turing waited patiently. Then they looked over at Brashball’s garrison.

 

Just over two stacks of units stood to attention, pikers and stabbers only. No archers; it was a gamble, but Turing hadn’t heard of any enemy air units and he wanted at least four stacks before he started popping anti-air units.

 

The units lined up in perfect formation as Gout stomped by them.

 

“We got any Gwulls in the city?”

 

Turing nodded. “A few, lord. They were within move when I got the message so I called them back here.”

 

“Good.”

 

Gout looked up at the sky and pointed. One of the Gwulls perched on the library tower took off and flew down towards Turing and his ruler.

 

“Here’s the problem,” Gout said. “‘Least as far as I understand it.”

 

Turing glanced sideways at his ruler in trepidation. He didn’t know there was a problem with his plan.

 

“Yer goal involves takin’ the hidden capital, right? Problem is, the enemy’s gonna take our side first. No way around it.”

 

“Yes, lord. But we’ll still be Barbarians. We should have plenty of time to capture the capital before your purse runs out.” Turing smiled bitterly. “It’s not as if we have that many units to pay upkeep for.”

 

“Upkeep.” Gout snapped his chubby fingers. “That’s ‘nother good reason. But not the one I thought of.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“The other part ‘a yer plan involves outrunnin’ the enemy warlord and turnamancer. If they come after us we’re croaked. So we gotta move faster than them, right?”

 

“Yes, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”

 

“You think so? Watch this.”

 

The Gwull landed in front of Gout and Turing and gave off its distinct battlecry. Turing admired the large white and black bird, but Gout just glared at the creature.

 

“Right, time to find out. Gwull. I’m gonna mount ya.”

 

The Gwull blinked one large eye at Gout and took a step back. Turing blinked at his ruler, and then stared in horror as Gout shifted his massive body towards the Gwull. Too late, he understood.

 

It was clear as Gout put one hand on the Gwull’s neck that the flying unit did not want to be Gout’s mount. But it was commanded, and so it bent down as Gout tried to fit one stubby leg over the bird’s back.

 

“Gonna need some help,” he grunted, and instantly the stacks of pikers and stabbers broke up to assist their ruler. They pushed and pulled at him, trying to lift his enormous bulk up onto the Gwull.

 

Turing watched the scene with paralyzed fascination and pity for the Gwull. But in the pit of his stomach he was getting the same sinking sensation he’d gotten that first day when he’d become a Chief Warlord. He tried to banish it, but it wouldn’t go away.

 

But—Gout wasn’t heavy, right? He was big…very big, yes, but rulers couldn’t be heavies. Right? But no matter how Turing tried to phrase it, no matter how he looked at his ruler, there was no way he could describe Gout without using heavy or some similar word.

 

At last Gout managed to get on the Gwull’s back. The bird wheezed and groaned, but somehow Gout managed to balance on it.

 

“Right,” he told it. “Get up. Fly.”

 

The Gwull groaned and tried to stand up. Turing held his breath, praying to the Titans. It could be possible. It might be possible. It wasn’t. But he prayed anyways.

 

For about one second the Gwull seemed like it was about to stand upright. Then its legs buckled and it collapsed onto the ground.

 

Gout rolled off the Gwull’s back as the bird weakly dragged itself from under its ruler. He growled and muttered to himself as Turing and other units rushed to help him up. When he was on his feet at last, he looked at Turing. His Chief Warlord stared back, at a loss for words.

 

“It was a good plan,” Gout said. “Got another one?”

 

“What, oh this?” Turing gestured weakly at the Gwull as the bird glared at both warlord and ruler and flew off. “This—this is nothing, lord. So you can’t mount units. Well, we can just go on foot. We need to anyways since we don’t have enough Gwulls at the moment. If we leave ahead of the enemy side, they won’t catch up.”

 

Gout shook his head heavily at Turing. He was covered in sweat, and the warlord took a step back to avoid being showered.

 

“Face it Turing, it ain’t gonna work. You wanna know why? Check my stats. I got 4 Move, Turing. Four move. Ain’t nuthin’ in Erfworld that can’t catch me.”

 

“That’s—” Turing’s throat closed up. He coughed. “That’s—”

 

Gout nodded heavily. He stood up and looked more tired than Turing had ever seen him.

 

“Yup,” he said. “That’s the catch.”

 

 

—-

 

 

“It’s not over, I won’t accept it.”

 

“Face it, Turing.”

 

“We can still make this work! Somehow.”

 

Turing paced back and forth in the war room, hands clasped behind his back. He walked over to one wall, whirled, and walked over to the other one. Walk, turn, walk turn.

 

“We can amend the plan. If we set out this turn, we can lose the enemy side. We’ll—we’ll travel only through deep forest hexes and move as fast as we can from cover to cover.”

 

“There’s a lotta plains hexes where we’re goin’. Not gonna work.”

 

“In that case, we delay the enemy side. We could—we could pretend we’re travelling to another one of our cities! Or to another side!”

 

“Don’t matter if we do. This is our capital. They take it, we go Barbarian. Then they just gotta wait till we run outta Shmuckers.”

 

“In that case, I’ll head out myself. If I take the Gwulls in the city I can hit the enemy capital and seize it. That will give us time to—”

 

“It’s not gonna work, Turing.”

 

Gout cut him off. Turing looked at his ruler, who was sitting in his chair, not eating but staring at his Chief Warlord. Gout shook his head slowly.

 

“You wanna take a side? With four Gwulls and three units? No. Even if the side fell, there’s gotta be at least a few units still in there. Unless you take the whole garrison, yer not gonna have a chance of takin’ it. If you were Level 8, then maybe…but it’s still too much of a risk.”

 

Turing pounded his fist against the wall. Gout raised his eyebrows as his Chief Warlord waved his stinging hand. Turing turned back to Gout spread his hands helplessly.

 

“Then what, lord? We can’t abandon the plan. Unless—I could parley with the enemy if you think it would work. Could we become a vassal side?”

 

“No. If they wanted that, they’da sent Zipzap to negotiate, not take the capital.”

 

Turing bowed his head. He stared at the war room map and then looked up at Gout. He felt tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.

 

“Then I have nothing. I’m sorry.”

 

Turing stared at the ground. For a long minute he heard nothing, and then the chair creaked as Gout stood up.

 

“Y’know, a Chief Warlord don’t gotta have all the answers. Why not let me be the smart one for a change? I just hadda thought.”

 

Turing looked up. Gout was standing over the map. He studied it intently, and then beckoned Turing over.

 

“I gotta way to make yer plan work. It ain’t as pretty, but it’ll do.”

 

Turing couldn’t believe it. He hastened over to the map and stood by his ruler’s side.

 

“See them forest hexes?” Gout pointed to the map. “They’re close enough to reach with my move. While you take the hidden capital, I’ll stay there.”

 

“That’s—”

 

“Shut it. See that? Buncha deep forest hexes, right there in the middle. If I hide in them, odds are they’ll just go after you or forget the side after they take the capital.”

 

“You want to hide there? But it’s—it’s far too dangerous!”

 

“What’re our other options? They’re gonna hit the capital either way, but this way I can let you take the full garrison to take the capital while I wait. You take the capital, build up enough units, and then come for me. Maybe it takes a hundred turns, maybe it takes twenty. Either way, it’s our only bet. And this way’ll work.”

 

Turing stared at the map and silently agreed in his head. It might work. There was no way Gout would outrun any enemy pursuit after the capital had fallen, but if he hid—

 

“Even so, I can’t let my ruler go into a hex unguarded for who knows how many turns. Let me split my stack, give you the pikers.”

 

Gout shook his head.

 

“One unit’s got far more chances of not bein’ found. ‘sides which, you’ll need every unit to take that city if the garrison’s still full.”

 

Turing knew he was right. But his Duty told him he couldn’t just leave his ruler alone in what would soon be enemy territory.

 

“What about just one or two stabbers, then? We have a Level 2 that I could send—”

 

“I’m Level 6.” Gout cut Turing off. “Ain’t anything in those forests that can croak me, ‘specially since I’m a heavy. Got three times as many hits as a Gwull and a fifth as much move. Only thing that would be a threat is if a Dwagon popped there. What’re the odds of a Dwagon in a forest hex? Round 1%, I reckon. Good odds for a gamble.”

 

It was. Especially given the odds against them. But Turing couldn’t let his ruler go. His Duty demanded he keep protesting.

 

“Is there no other way, lord?”

 

“None. So shut it. I don’t wanna hear any backchat ‘nless it’s another idea.”

 

“I—” Turing closed his mouth. Gout stared silently at his warlord, and then, unexpectedly, grinned at him. He slapped Turing on the back.

 

“We’re gonna make yer plan work, Turing. I ain’t gonna let you fail just ‘cause ‘a me.”

 

Turing staggered, but that wasn’t what nearly knocked him to the ground. It was just that for a minute he could have sworn Curbstomp was in the room. The slap on the back certainly felt like him.

 

He stared up at his ruler. Gout was no less heavy-set than before, but he seemed animated, alive. He gestured towards the map, and Turing saw he was standing straighter than before. He looked taller, bigger, and not just in the physical sense. He looked…

 

Like a ruler.

 

“Enough talk. Get ready. Next turn yer movin’ out. Come and visit me back here tonight. Gotta talk last minute strategy with you.”

 

Gout nodded to the door, and Turing left. The Chief Warlord kept sneaking glances behind him at his ruler though, just to catch a glimpse of him.

 

He stood straight until Turing had left. Then Gout sagged, and some of his ruler-ness left with him. Not all, though. And what was left was enough. He walked around the map and studied it intently. For a second his fingers traced the hexes from the capital to the forest.

 

Then Gout ripped the map off the table, crumpled it up, and tossed it out the window. He sat back in his throne and stared at the wall.

 

“‘Not gonna let you fail,” he muttered into the silence.

 

 

—-

 

 

Later that turn, Turing knocked on the war room door.

 

“Come in, Turing.”

 

Turing entered, and stopped in surprise. He expected to see the untidy stack of maps and empty plates, but to his astonishment, when he entered this time he found himself in a room brightly lit, filled with a soft radiance shed by countless candles.

 

Instead of the customary worn-down map table, someone—and Turing was pretty sure it was a bunch of unhappy stabbers and pikers—had brought up another table into the room, and set it with cloths and added ornamental plates and silverware.

 

At the head of the table Gout sat in a different chair than the splintering wrecks he normally used. This one was a proper, regal chair, meant to hold his weight. It was in fact, the throne.

 

Turing gaped. But Gout waved him in as if nothing had changed.

 

“Thought we should make a proper meal of it,” he grunted. “’Specially since we’ve never dined together.”

 

Turing hesitantly stood before the other empty chair and hesitated. Gout motioned, and he pulled it out and sat down. Arrayed before him was an ornamental plate gilded with gold, four different forks, several varieties of spoon, and two knives. Turing had no idea what to do with any of them.

 

“Ignore those,” Gout said. He picked up a large roast chicken and tipped it onto his plate. “And help yerself. Been a long time since I wasted time usin’ the right utensils.”

 

“Should I—should I do anything in particular, lord?”

 

“What, ain’t you ever been to one ‘a the banquets?” Gout looked at Turing in surprise. He shook his head.

 

“No, lord.”

 

Turing had never been invited to one of the banquets. He’d always eaten his rations in the library, trying not to get any of the books he read dirty.

 

Gout shrugged. He looked guiltily at his plate and began ripping into the chicken with his fingers.

 

“Ain’t like you missed much. We just drank and ate and sometimes told old stories.”

 

He shrugged.

 

“Waste ‘a provisions. But fun. I miss it, though. ‘S too empty down in the banquet hall by myself.”

 

Turing nodded awkwardly. He still hadn’t filled his plate, so he did. He awkwardly dug his spoon into a bunch of mashed potatoes and chewed nervously. Then he cleared his throat.

 

“If I may, lord—”

 

“Titans, stop callin’ me that.” Gout looked up wearily from his plate. “Just say Gout. Ain’t like there are other units to stand on ceremony with. Whaddaya want?”

 

“If I may—I wanted to bring up a few points which I felt might help the plan going forwards—”

 

“Now?” Gout frowned.

 

“Please, l—Gout? Sire?”

 

“Fine.” Gout waved a chicken leg. He bit into it as Turing hurried outside the war room and picked up a few items. “‘Hm. I like Gwull better.”

 

Turing came back in with a huge stack of books in his eyes. Gout’s eyebrows raised as the warlord carried them over to the table.

 

“I just had—a few books which I felt—you might benefit from, lord.” Turing placed the heavy stack in front of his ruler, but not so close that they’d be splattered by him eating.

 

“You read all those books?” Gout stared at the pile of books. “In one turn?”

 

“Well, I’d read some of them before—” Turing awkwardly began sorting the books on the banquet table. “But yes, I was going through them and came up with several things I felt, no, I must bring up with you.”

 

“Right. Okay. Lemme eat and you talk.”

 

“Thank you, l—Gout. Um, here.”

 

Turing held up a book. Gout eyed it.

 

“What’s that one about?”

 

“This is Living Down Under Stuff by Stev Eiring, and Buncha Painful Stings by Cayate Peerson both list survival techniques in forest hexes.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“And this—this is Hiding And Croaking by Lord 700. Quite a fascinating story too.”

 

“So you want me ta read them?”

 

“Well—I know we’re leaving next turn, but I felt it might be—that is, you don’t have to end the turn right away. If you read a few of the sections I’ve selected—”

 

Gout dropped the boned chicken leg off the side of the table and leaned back. He absently sucked at his fingers as he stared at Turing. “You like readin’, don’t you Turing? Never met another warlord who liked it as much as you.”

 

Turing ducked his head. “I do like reading,” he admitted. “It was my hobby back when I was still patrolling.”

 

“Right.” Gout closed his eyes for a second. “Must—musta been boring, with nothing else to do every turn. Nuthin’ to do but ea—read all day.”

 

“Reading? Never,” Turing said. “It’s wonderful to read all the things warlords and rulers have written over the turns. There are even some books by casters in the library.”

 

“Really. So you read a lot?”

 

“From dawn till dusk, when I wasn’t patrolling,” Turing admitted. “I’ve read nearly every book in the library—twice.”

 

“Huh. So yer sayin’ there’s a lotta good stuff in these books?”

 

Gout flicked one of the covers with his greasy fingers. Turing winced.

 

“Yes, lord. I think it would be best if you tried to read them.”

 

His ruler considered this in silence. He nodded. “‘Kay. I’ll give it a shot.”

 

“Wonderful, thank you lord!” Turing enthusiastically began selecting more books. “And I also have a few more titles I’d like to recommend. This one’s by a unit that survived for over seventy turns in a desert hex. It might not be entirely applicable to a forest hex, but—”

 

“Turing.” Gout cut his warlord off. “Put them books down. We gotta talk about something.”

 

Turing looked up and slowly put his books down. Gout motioned him over to his seat.

 

“I appreciate the thought yer puttin’ into my survival. And as a ruler, I’ll tell you that ya did a good job as my Chief Warlord. Keep doin’ it. But tonight we gotta talk about somethin’ important. You know what it is, I know what it is. We ain’t had the full discussion so far. But tonight’s the night.”

 

He leaned forwards over the table. Turing felt his heart slow, and then began to pound harder in his chest. He knew.

 

“How many turns has it been since you popped, Turing?”

 

“Four hundred and twenty three, counting this one, lord.”

 

“Right. And how many have you spent outside the city?”

 

“…Two, lord.”

 

“Don’t feel like that’s too fair to a warlord, does it? Maybe if they were old and had their share of fightin’—but you never got that chance, did you?”

 

“…No, lord.”

 

“You know why?”

 

“Yes lord.” Turing looked down at his plate. “I understood why.”

 

“Right. But it still ain’t fair.”

 

Turing looked up. Gout was staring directly at him across the table. Slowly, his ruler reached for a goblet of wine and took a deep draft. He set it down and sighed, then fixed Turing with the same gaze.

 

“What ya gotta understand is what I saw. First ya popped, and I sent you out. Everything went well, all units were at full hits ‘cept for that piker, and the next thing I know, they Turn. Jus’ like that. Outta nowhere.”

 

Turing opened his mouth, but Gout motioned with one hand and he shut up.

 

“Some a’ my Warlords wanted to disband ya right off. Others thought it was a curse. Some kinda Thinkamancy or Carnymancy targetin’ our side. Either way I hadda put you somewhere where it wouldn’t affect others.”

 

“I know—and I can’t—I can’t explain it, lord.”

 

Turing spread his hands. They were shaking.

 

“I still can’t explain it. I don’t know why it happened.”

 

“I believe you.” Gout drank again, and then tossed the goblet aside and reached for another one. “You’ve shown yer loyal over these last turns. I know it wasn’t your fault, or at least, you didn’t do it on purpose. But I gotta know. I gotta know before I place the side in yer hands. So tell me again.”

 

Turing opened his mouth. Gout cut him off.

 

“Not jus’ how you saw it. We did that last time. Back then, I talked to my warlords and asked every unit what happened. They couldn’t tell me anything and you—you told me, but this time I wanna see what we missed.”

 

He gestured to the banquet table laden with food and drink.

 

“We got time. And we got food. So I ain’t endin’ this turn until I hear it all. Tell me what you saw, and don’t worry about the time. I wanna know everything. Every single thing you did. Even if you went an’ threw rocks at trees. Even if you tripped onna stone or told a joke about the Archon with two casters. Everything. Got that? I won’t judge no matter what I hear.”

 

Turing nodded. He felt shaky, but Gout slid a goblet over to him and once Turing had had a few gulps of wine he felt steadier. So. It was finally time to tell the story again.

 

It wasn’t hard. Even if he closed his eyes, Turing could still remember. He could remember everything.

 

He opened his eyes. Gout was staring at him expectantly. Turing took a deep breath.

 

“It started after I’d gotten a few hexes away from the city…”

 

Chapter 7

Turing popped into the world and immediately threw a crisp salute. Who or what he was saluting he didn’t know. But he felt it was only the proper thing to do.

 

As the world came into focus, Turing looked up and saw he was in a massive throne room. In a castle, in fact. At once he knew he was Turing, a warlord just popped to the side of Osnap. And his ruler was King Gout, and his leadership bonus was +5 from his Chief Warlord. Said Chief Warlord wasn’t in the stack or hex, but his ruler was.

 

Across the room, a massive unit stood up from his throne and came down towards him. Turing held his salute, and felt the shock of contact as King Gout clasped him by the shoulders.

 

“Turing of Osnap. Whatta name! It’s good ta see you, warlord. How’re you feeling?”

 

“Good, lord.”

 

Turing looked up, and up into his ruler’s face. King Gout was a ruler to inspire confidence. He was a massive human unit, barrel-chested and two full heads taller than Turing. He seemed to radiate boundless energy, and as he paced back to the war room table in the center of the throne room, Turing saw his muscles shift and strain against his royal clothing.

 

“Right, well step over here Turing. Yer just popped, but I wanna catch you up to speed.”

 

Turing obediently walked towards his ruler. He felt the hard marble under his feet and marveled at the sensation. He saw Gout was standing over a large map of hexes in the center of the throne room, right in front of the throne.

 

Although he was just popped, Turing felt this wasn’t the natural layout of castles. But his eyes hardly stopped with that. He looked towards the throne, and felt a stirring in his chest as he saw his side’s colors hanging over the royal seat.

 

Against the throne sat an enormous spiked club, nearly as big as a Stabber itself. Turing could only imagine how much attack it took to wield such a weapon and how many hits of damage it could do.

 

“Right here, Turing.” Gout motioned Turing over to the table.

 

Obediently, Turing came to look at what he was pointing at. He surreptitiously looked around, but he didn’t see any other warlords in the vast chamber. Two Stabbers stood at the far doors, but presumably all the other warlords of the side (if there were any) were somewhere else.

 

“We’re at war with multiple sides, Turing. They’re all around us. Postscript, Incidentally, Morinfo – they’re part ‘a the Superfluous Alliance.”

 

Gout showed Turing the map where the three sides and their cities and stacks of units were clustered. They formed a rough semicircle around his side’s colors.

 

“We got the upper hand right now, and I wanna keep it that way. Here’s what I’m gonna have you do. My Chief Warlord, Kross Kounter’s been hammering Groundtopia for the last few turns now. Yer gonna take a stack to him and help launch the final attack on the city. Got it?”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

“Good man.” Gout clapped Turing on the shoulders. The warlord staggered and his king laughed.

 

“Yer on the scrawny side, Turing. You should level up a bit and build that muscle. I like my warlords big and bold, got it?”

 

“Yes, lord. I’ll do my best.”

 

Gout laughed again. “Good man! I can see the Titans sent me a decent warlord!”

 

—-

 

Turing marched out of the castle, full of pride in his side and excitement for his first mission ever. Well. He’d met his ruler and he hadn’t been disappointed. Turing wasn’t too clear on what a bad ruler would have been like, but the sight of his gigantic ruler full of passion and strength had been anything but a letdown. Turing could only hope he’d be half as commanding once he leveled a few times.

 

And it might just be Turing recently having been popped, but he was still dizzy from his sudden orders and mission! Gout had shown him where they were in relation to the forces he wanted Turing to link up with, told him how many units to take from the garrison, and sent him on his way before Turing could blink.

 

Honestly speaking, Turing would have loved to ask more questions, but he’d felt it wasn’t proper for a low-level warlord to bother his ruler. The war room map had fascinated Turing. Perhaps after he’d returned from his first engagement he’d be permitted to find out more about all the cities and different sides illustrated on the map.

 

He would love to know just which sides were nearest, what their rulers were like, what special units they fielded—and of course, it would also help him as warlord to know such things. But for now, Turing was ready to move out! After he’d explored the city a bit.

 

“Take a bit to check out the city if ya want,” Gout had told him. “Then get yer stack and try ta avoid any battles on the road.”

 

He’d intended to gather his stack and leave the city right away, but the strange, tall tower had caught his eye. Why was it standing out in the center of the city like that, away from the palace? It had been too tempting not to investigate, and his ruler had given him permission after all.

 

As Turing descended into the courtyard, he saw a stack of three Stabbers and four Pikers spring to attention. He waved at them, but didn’t order them to stack up with him just yet. His destination was the tower.

 

 

 

 

When Turing opened the dusty door and peered into the library, he was stunned speechless for a moment. The dark, cramped room of books had shone in his vision much like the dust motes hanging in the air.

 

Books. Turing knew what they were obviously, but he didn’t who what was in them. Entranced, he walked in the room and started sneezing violently.

 

After he’d calmed down and aired the room out a bit by opening a window, Turing grabbed one of the books and stared at the golden title.

 

Guts and Glory, but Mainly Guts by Count Hagens,” Turing read aloud. He opened the book and blinked at the sight of a strange bird-like creature. Or rather, half of one. It was a book filled with images of units, and what they looked like on the inside.

 

It was disgusting, and then fascinating. After Turing had thrown up a bit in his mouth, he flipped back to the first page and read the introduction. After all, why would any unit waste time opening up croaked corpses? But this Lord Hagen of Wartland had apparently made it his life’s goal to dissect as many units as possible.

 

Turing sat down in the dusty room and began reading. After a while, he decided to leave the tower so he’d stop sneezing every few pages. He walked out into the courtyard and eagerly turned page after page.

 

Fascinating. Apparently, and according to this Hagen, each unit had its own working set of inner parts that were quite similar to each other. At least, most units had similar body parts while constructs such as Golems lacked such intricate detail. And if Hagen’s work was to be believed, there were spots more vulnerable than others on each unit.

 

In fact, he speculated that it might be possible to increase the damage done to each unit if the proper spots were struck. For instance, on humans a decapitation was naturally a croaking blow. But on the Megalogwif, a massive flying unit, there was a weak spot right under—

 

“Lord? King said we were gonna go out and fight?”

 

Turing looked up guiltily from his book and nearly dropped it. He hastily got to his feet and faced the Stabber who’d tapped him on the shoulder.

 

“Hm? What’s that?”

 

“We gonna stack and fight, lord?”

 

“What? Yes, oh, yes.”

Turing glanced around. He was in the courtyard, and the stack of Stabbers and Pikers were staring expectantly at him. Now how had he gotten down here? He glanced down at his book and then back at the male Stabber who’d interrupted him.

 

“Yes, we’ll be heading out this turn. I was just—reading.”

 

The stabber looked blank. Turing held up the book and he shrugged at the warlord.

 

“Okay, lord. We gonna move yet?”

 

“In a bit. Wait with the stack until I call for you.”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

The stabber walked away. Turing blinked at his back for a moment, and then shrugged to himself. That was odd. Perhaps he should have asked the fellow’s name? But the book called to him. Turing sat back down and kept reading. He only looked up when Gout’s heavy hand landed on his shoulder.

 

“What’s that yer doin’, Turing?”

 

Turing looked around wildly and leapt to his feet. He tried to salute and nearly fell over. Gout laughed and steadied him.

 

“Careful now. Don’t wanna lose a warlord if ya fall over the battlements.”

 

Battlements? Turing looked around and gaped as he saw he was indeed sitting on top of the battlements of one wall. How by the Titans had he gotten up here?

 

“I’m sorry, lord. Did you want something?”

 

His heart pounded wildly. Had he made some kind of mistake? Or—Titans, he hadn’t taken his stack out of the city yet! He was about to apologize profusely when Gout shook his head.

 

“Nah. Just wonderin’ what you were doin’. I’m impressed you found the library already. I ain’t gone there since I took the capital.”

 

Turing ducked his head. “I was curious, lord.”

 

“Good fer you. Curiosity croaked the Cattyfish, right?”

 

Gout laughed and stretched his arms out as he surveyed the city. Turing looked out as well and marveled at the tall buildings, the high walls, and beyond them, the countless hexes he had yet to explore.

 

“I love walkin’ up here myself. Nice view this high up.”

 

“It is. I mean, it is, lord.”

 

Gout waved a hand at Turing. “Don’t go sayin’ lord to me all the time. It gets old.”

 

Then how was he supposed to address his ruler? Turing frowned, but decided to ask the important question.

 

“Did you…did you need me for something else, l—my king?”

 

Gout scratched at his chin and frowned.

 

“Yeah. ‘Bout that. A stabber came and asked me why you weren’t movin’ them out of the city. Weird. Never had that happen to me since I was popped.”

 

Turing’s heart sank. He lowered his head.

 

“I’m truly sorry, lord. I was reading and I guess I must have lost track of the time.”

 

He was conscious of Gout’s massive shape turning to face him, and then his ruler patted him on the shoulder. Turing looked up, startled. Gout didn’t look angry at him. In fact, he looked miffed more than anything else.

 

“I don’t see the problem. If yer doin’ a bit of readin’ before headin’ out, so what? Turn doesn’t end until I say so.”

 

Turing nodded diplomatically. He silently closed the book in his hands so Gout wouldn’t see it was nearly done. His ruler didn’t seem to notice.

 

“Mind if I see?”

 

Turing nodded and held out the book. Gout squinted at the letters.

 

“Guts ‘n glory, huh? Nice title! Does it tell you how to croak more units?”

 

“Perhaps how to croak them better, lord. It’s—well, it’s a bunch of research another warlord did. Fascinating stuff.”

 

“Fascinatin’? Well, that’s good.” Gout handed the book back to Turing. “I don’t read them books much myself—none of my warlords do. You a readin’ man, then?”

 

Turing looked down at the book in his hands. It felt right there, almost as right as a sword.

 

“I suppose I am, lord.”

 

Gout grinned and slapped Turing on the back. Turing nearly catapulted off the battlements before his ruler caught him.

 

“Oops. Sorry. Good for you! The side needs a thinkin’ warlord.”

 

Again, his ruler gave Turing a broad, guileless grin. Turing caught himself smiling back.

 

“If you like them books so much, go on and take a few with you when you go. Ain’t like anyone else is usin’ ‘em. And if them Stabbers give you more grief, tell tell ‘em to shut up. Yer the boss.”

 

“Yes, sire.”

 

Gout frowned and scratched at his side. He stared down at the courtyard, where Turing saw the his stack was still patiently waiting for him.

 

“Now, I dunno what’s wrong with that Stabber. Maybe he’s just weird inna head. But I guess you can start goin’ anyways. But like I said, if he gives you more lip, smack him one for me.”

 

Turing had his doubts about that, but he nodded anyways.

 

“I will.”

 

“Good. Now come back when yer at least Level Two!”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing of Osnap set out from the capital city of Brassball with seven units at his back. Perhaps they should have been surrounding him in case of enemy attacks, but he felt bold and daring since talking with his ruler. He wanted to be a unit as tough and seemingly unstoppable as Gout.

 

The stabbers and pikers followed Turing without a word as he marched out of the city’s hex and into the road hex. They were naturally a quiet lot, at least when it came to dealing with warlords. They followed Turing obediently, and nearly ran into his back as the warlord stopped dead in his tracks.

 

Turing stared up at the brilliant, blue sky and gaped at the scenery around him. He was amazed and entranced, and he’d barely entered this new hex. All at once, he could feel dirt underneath his sturdy books, and he smelled—something else in the air. Not the smell of stone and dust, but something earthy, something rich. It was the scent of loam and grass in the air, and he marveled at it.

 

One of the Pikers looked around blankly and then stared at Turing. The warlord didn’t seem inclined to move.

 

“We moving out of this hex, lord?”

 

“Just—just a minute.”

 

Turing quickly fished in the pack he’d used to bring several of the books from the library along. He opened another book he’d found that had seemed interesting – A Thousand and One Different Hexes­ and paged through it quickly.

 

There. Turing read the small description under the heading marked: Road Hexes.

 

 

Road hexes. Unremarkable. Provides no hindrance to movement for any unit. Units with the Engineering Special may convert other hexes to roads given enough turns. Road hexes provide increased bonuses to Schmuckers popped per turn when connected between trading cities.

 

 

Turing looked up from the book and stared around the road hex. Unremarkable. That was what the book had said. Unremarkable? How could it be so wrong?

 

See here—Turing walked over and squatted down to look at a flower. It was a bright, yellow specimen that shone in his vision like—like—well, like something bright and yellow. He’d never seen anything like it, so Turing picked the flower and carefully pressed it between the pages of his book. Then he looked around for more.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing found five more varieties of flower and had pressed them all by the time he decided to move out of the hex. He turned to his stack and found the stabbers and pikers all sitting or lying down.

 

“Come on, up!” He said. “We’ve got to get to the rendezvous point before we make camp.”

 

They instantly leapt to their feet and obediently followed Turing to the next hex, another road hex. This time Turing only lingered to make a quick check for other flowers, but in no time at all he’d moved onto the next hex. And the next. Then Turing entered a forest hex, and the real wonders began.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Fascinating. Just fascinating.”

 

Turing sat in front of a red and green flower and admired the way its petals changed color as it radiated outwards from the step. It was named Rubelluviride in the book he was reading, and it had no special qualities other than its dual coloration.

 

Once he was done with his thorough inspection, Turing picked the flower and pressed it in his book. He already had one like it, but he felt two was probably better than one.

 

Turing was having the time of his short life as he explored every inch of each forest hex he walked through. There was a lot of overlap in the details of course—how could there not be, when the hexes were adjoining? But every minute difference Turing found, however small, was fascinating to him.

 

Of course, Turing had his orders. He wasn’t moving through the hexes at random; he was supposed to be heading for the rendezvous point. And he was. Each hex Turing travelled to next was in the right direction.

 

But that was the thing. He didn’t have to move to the next hex right away. After all, his side wouldn’t end their turn until he finished getting to his destination, right? So Turing lingered in each hex. He investigated each one, looked for any interesting trees, flowers, rocks, or lichen, and then read a few pages from the books he was carrying. He’d already read through two of them, and he was hoping to read a few more before he got to his destination.

 

Something was up with the stack he was leading, though. Turing wasn’t sure whether it was just their individual natures, or whether their Rations had been bad this turn, but they were acting odder and odder the more hexes he moved away from Brashball.

 

His stack was squatting in a circle where he’d left them at the start of the hex. They did that every time Turing moved, which seemed odd to him. It would be better if they stood the entire time, especially since they weren’t camping in this hex.

 

“We’re moving,” he said. “Come on, let’s go.”

 

The Stabber and Pikers glanced at him, and then reluctantly got to their feet.

 

“Come on, let’s move!” Turing was impatient as their slow speed. “We have a mission! I want to see pep in those legs!”

 

“Sure,” one of the Pikers muttered.

 

Turing glared at him. That wasn’t the proper way to address a warlord.

 

“Yes, Lord,” he prompted them.

 

The Piker glared back. “Whatever.”

 

That was insubordinate, but Turing let it slide. He narrowed his eyes though, and set a fast pace as they moved through the hex. Any more backchat and he’d have to do something about it, though. Perhaps one of his books would have more information on how to deal with leadership. He’d read a few pages in the next hex—

 

Turing froze as he crossed the boundary into the next forest hex. He sensed almost immediately that he and his stack weren’t alone.

 

A lone Orly walked through the forest hex, seemingly oblivious to Turing and his stack. The large bird was clearly wild, and as Turing silently ordered his stack to hide behind a tree, it began pecking at one of the trees.

 

“We gonna croak it, lord?”

 

Turing looked at one of his Stabbers as he surveyed the bird. Certainly, it was the best option. Orlies weren’t tough, and his ruler hadn’t forbidden him from engaging enroute to his destination.

 

“Not yet,” he whispered back. First he wanted to look at the bird. He admired the Orly’s snowy plumage, and watched as the bird slowly circled the center of the forest hex.

 

As the bird passed closer to Turing’s hidden stack the Stabber hissed at him.

 

“Now?”

 

Turing shook his head. He was busy noting how the Orly walked with its clawed feet. It was simply fascinating. Count Hagen’s description of the unit hadn’t done justice to how it actually looked in real life.

 

The Orly had completed two more slow rounds of the forest hex when a voice hissed by Turing’s ear.

 

Now?

 

“Hush!”

 

Turing was busy analyzing the Orly. He noted how it pawed at the ground, as if rooting for something. Now, why would it do that?

 

“Now, lord?”

 

“I said hush! That’s an order!”

 

The Stabber mercifully fell silent, although Turing could sense baleful eyes on his back. He kept observing the bird until it had done six more slow circles of the forest hex and then decided the time is right.

 

“Okay, now we’ll croak it. Stack, follow my—”

 

One of the Pikers leapt up and charged the Orly with a wild cry. Turing shouted after him.

 

“Wait, don’t just charge in!”

 

Too late, the Orly’s head snapped up. The Piker lunged for it with its spear, but the bird ducked away and swiped at her.

 

The Piker took a blow to the chest and went sprawling. Turing cursed and ordered the rest of his stack to charge the bird. They shouted and swarmed the creature as it pecked and scratched at them. Turing ran forwards as one of his Stabbers stuck a blade under the Orly’s wing and slashed the bird across the chest.

 

To his great surprise, the Orly croaked. Turing stood awkwardly over the fallen unit as the other units helped the wounded Piker to her feet. He supposed the Orly really was a weak unit.

 

“Okay, that’s that.”

 

“We gonna go, then, lord?” The Pikers and Stabbers looked at Turing hopefully. He shook his head vaguely, concentrating on the dead Orly.

 

“What? No. No, I need to check this out. We might be here for a bit. You wait over there.”

 

He barely noticed as the Stabbers and Pikers groaned. He was too busy wondering how he’d dissect the bird’s corpse, and how close to the illustrations in the book it would be.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Okay, this is the last hex. We’ve making camp!”

 

Turing walked into the last forest hex and turned around. It was no different from the ones he’d walked through before at first glance. But he was keen to get to know it, and keener still to be parted from his stack for the night. His Stabbers and Pikers had gotten even surlier over the last few hexes, if that was possible.

 

He watched as his stack flopped to the ground and lay on the grassy floor. Their customarily impassive faces had been replaced by disgruntled looks, for some reason aimed exclusively at him.

 

“Get some rest,” Turing said. He felt giving a speech was a proper warlord-y thing to do. “We’ll have a lot to do next turn as well.”

 

One of the Pikers raised his head and exchanged a look with the others. He cautiously raised a hand.

 

 

“Does that mean more moving, lord?”

 

Turing frowned in vexation. “Well of course. We’ll have to move for at least two more turns before we reach the city, and that’s if we don’t need to make any more detours to avoid enemy units. Which we might.”

 

This time all the Stabbers and Pikers looked at each other silently, and then back at him. Turing didn’t really like the look in their eyes. He decided to cheer them up.

 

“We’ll be heading out of the forest hexes soon, which is good! Our path will go over a few road hexes, and then through a mountain hex. I’m looking forward to that, and I’m sure we’ll find lots of fascinating things there. Who knows? If our side takes the city and I’m promoted, we might be sent out on an even longer expedition next time!”

 

He turned to stare out and the dark forest, his heart soaring at the thought. Imagine all the new hexes and places he’d see!

 

“Now, set up camp. Tomorrow we’ll be—”

 

That was when the first blade pierced Turing in the back.

 

 

—-

 

 

Lord Turing of Osnap paused in telling his story and shuddered at the memory. He could still feel the icy blade as it struck him, and it had only been the first one.

 

“Sorry, lord. Let me continue. After I took the first hit – it was from a Piker I think – I wasn’t sure what was happened. So I turned and—”

 

“No need for that.”

 

Gout interrupted Turing for the first time since he’d started telling the story. Turing broke off and stared as his ruler sat up in his throne at the other end of the table. Gout sighed long and loudly, and then smiled bitterly and drank from his cup of wine.

 

“So. That’s why they Turned.”

 

Turing stared at him. Gout took another, longer draft and then tossed the goblet aside and reached for the other. Oblivious to his warlord, he ripped into a hunk of bread with his teeth and chewed speculatively.

 

“I’d forgotten all about the book. Figures. The answer was right in front ‘a my nose and I missed it all this time.”

 

He took another bite of bread and then used it to mop up gravy on his plate. Turing watched incredulously as Gout suddenly tore into his meal as though freshly ravenous.

 

“Lord, what…?” Turing’s voice cracked. “I haven’t finished my story yet. How could you know how the other units turned?”

 

“Figured it out. Ain’t like there’s much to tell, anyways.” Gout grunted as he stuffed his face. He paused and looked at Turing. “Unless there is?”

 

There wasn’t. Apart from the immediate life-or-death situation and Turing’s own confusion and panic. He’d croaked the renegade stack and leveled in the process. When all was said and done, the turned units were a leaderless mob, and he was still a warlord with a Chief Warlord’s bonus.

 

But how by the Titans had Gout understood how the other units turned because of what Turing had said. It made no sense. Turing had poured over the events in his head countless times and never had any sort of epiphany.

 

Yet his ruler had, and despite that, didn’t seem inclined on sharing with Turing. Gout seemed perfectly content to stuff his face with his meal, despite it being cold.

 

“’Smatter Turing? Not hungry?”

 

“In fact, I’d like to know what caused the other units to Turn, lord.”

 

Gout shrugged. “’S an easy answer. I’d tell ya, but I’m hungry. Try to figure it out yerself.”

 

He promptly went back to his meal. Turing stared at his untouched plate and felt his mind racing with confusion and not a small bit of anger. Gout knew. Turing could tell. It wasn’t an empty bluff. His ruler knew the answer to the question that had haunted Turing – ruined his life for hundreds of turns – and he wasn’t telling.

 

The sound of his ruler smacking and gulping down a large fish like it was water made Turing’s eye twitch. He struggled to think. Something. Gout had noticed something. A trap hex that lowered loyalty…? No. Or maybe a hidden Turnamancer? But no. Or—

 

The Orly. Turing’s head shot up just in time to see Gout cramming a huge spoonful of jello into an oversaturated mouth. Of course. It had to be the Orly! It had some kind of unique special that drained his unit’s loyalty. But—

 

But how could Gout know the Orly’s stats? No. It had to be something else. But what? Turing couldn’t figure it out, and the more frustrated he grew, the more Gout seemed to delight in eating as disgustingly as possible.

 

“Still don’t get it?” Gout splattered the table as he tossed down bowl after bowl of chocolate mousse. “Fer a thinkin’ warlord, yer sorta slow Turing.”

 

“I am trying, lord. If you could give me a hint…?”

 

“Nope.”

 

Gout returned to eating. Turing tried to ignore him and tackled the problem logically. Then he tried illogically. Then he just tried guessing unobvious answers.

 

His ruler had gone through the fish course and was munching on a huge side of pork when Turing’s patience finally snapped.

 

“Lord!”

 

Gout glanced up from his meal and then looked down.

 

“Lord! King Gout! Please tell me what caused my stack to turn!”

 

This time Gout didn’t bother looking up. He just kept eating. He chewed the pork and swallowed it, grunting with satisfaction. Turing heard the slobbering sounds and saw red.

 

He didn’t remember knocking over his chair. He just knew he was on his feet and striding at his ruler. He was sick of it. Sick of not knowing, of not understanding what had happened that fateful turn. He had to know. And Gout knew and wasn’t telling. Well, Turing was going to grab him and shake him until—

 

One large hand casually flicked Turing off his feet as he charged the sitting king. Turing hit the ground and leapt to his feet. And stopped, because Gout was on his feet too.

 

“That.” Gout looked at Turing. With one hand he swept the remains of his food off of his clothing and pointed down at his warlord. “That is why they Turned.”

 

“What?” Turing was breathing hard. He stared incredulously at his ruler. “Sire, what—?

 

“You want to know why yer stack turned? That’s the answer. The feeling you just felt, Turing. That is the answer. It was you all along.”

 

Turing’s legs buckled. He sat without realizing it.

 

“I don’t—what? What do you—”

 

“Shut up, Turing. Stop talkin’ for a moment. Relax”

 

Turing shut up. His mind was still reeling, but Gout’s words grounded him. He looked at his ruler. Slowly, heavily, Gout sat back down. He looked down at the mess on his side of the table and shook his head. Then he stared at Turing. In the silence, neither unit spoke for a while.

 

“Turns.” At last Gout broke the silence. “You know about them?”

 

“Yes, lord. As much as any unit knows.”

 

“And loyalty. How much do you know about loyalty?”

 

“Not much, lord.”

 

That was true and not true. Turing had done extensive research into the subject, but all he’d found had been—inconclusive. No two books really agreed on the subject, and since it was a hidden stat, no one could really tell what loyalty truly was.

 

Gout laughed. “None of them books tell you what it is?”

 

“No, lord.”

 

“Ain’t that a laugh.” For another minute Gout stared through Turing, and then focused on him once more.

 

“Loyalty? It ain’t that hard to understand. It’s dead simple. It’s all about hurtin’ the side.”

 

“What?”

 

“You heard me. When a unit turns on his side, it’s ‘cause he thinks his warlord or his ruler – or even his caster’s hurting his side.”

 

Turing furrowed his brow in confusion. “But surely—we’re all on the same side, lord?”

 

Gout nodded. “Right. But we all think we know what’s best, don’t we? Every unit’s got his own opinon of what to do. You do as Chief Warlord, an’ I got my own as the ruler. But even a Stabber thinks stabbin’ everything is the way to win.”

 

It made sense, but Turing had no idea where Gout was going with this. He stayed silent.

 

“Orderin’ a unit to croak another unit on the same side—or tellin’ a warlord to go and fight until he croaks even against impossible odds—that’s bad for the side. Even if you gotta good reason, unless they understand it—nah, even if they understand it, if they don’t like it they lose faith in the side. See? That’s how loyalty works. And once you lose faith yer leaders, it ain’t easy to get back.”

 

That made sense, especially because loyalty was supposed to be extremely hard to recover, as written in the book of Scriptures. Onerep 2:26-27 It’s too late to apologize, it’s too late.

 

“When a unit Turns, it’s ‘cause they think their side’s let them down.” Gout turned and grabbed a goblet of wine. He sipped at it. “Magic n’ Turmanancy’s just a way of changin’ their minds against their will.”

 

“I understand that, lord.” Turing put his head in his hands. “I understand that. But how did that make my stack turn? I wasn’t hurting—”

 

“You were hurtin’ them.” Gout interrupted. Turing stared at him. “You were.”

 

“I didn’t do anything like that!” He protested. “I didn’t give them any orders I just—”

 

“Turing. Lemme ask you something. How’d it feel when I had the answer to yer question, and instead ‘a answerin’, I just started eatin’?”

 

Turing stopped. He looked at his ruler and remembered the helpless anger and impatience he’d felt.

 

“Not good, lord,” he said truthfully.

 

“Right. And lemme ask you somethin’. How’d you feel if I made you Chief Warlord, but instead of havin’ you lead I told you to go patrol the city while I made all the decisions?”

 

It was what Turing had feared when he’d first became Chief Warlord. “I suppose—I suppose I’d feel bad about that too, sire.”

 

He nodded. “So tell me, Turing. All those turns ago, how’d you think them Stabbers and Pikers felt, when instead ‘a leading yer stack swiftly across them hexes, you made them wait? Every time you moved a hex, instead of movin’ to the next one, you stopped and read a book or looked for disbanded flowers. How’d you think it’d feel if you were a Stabber and you hadda wait for—Titans, how long?—before you could even move?”

 

Turing stared. He felt a hole open up in his stomach, and then underneath his feet. If he hadn’t been sitting, he would have collapsed. Since he was sitting, he just froze in place, mouth hanging open.

 

Gout nodded.

 

“‘Nstead of letting them do their Duty, you made ‘em feel like you were wastin’ their time. Stabbers and Pikers don’t think ‘bout much else than croakin’ the enemy. Take that away from ‘em and they start going loopy. And if it’s you, well, they ain’t got much respect for Level 1 warlords, ‘specially not ones who just popped.”

 

Turing’s mind flashed back to how the Stabbers and Pikers slowly grew more and more stubborn every time he moved a hex. No—not every time he moved from hex to hex, but every time he went off and stared at flowers or read a book while they waited.

 

Gout looked at Turing sympathetically. “Loyalty’s simple to understand. The more a unit believes in a side, the stronger their loyalty. ‘S why a ruler’s gotta be good. If units don’t trust their ruler or their Chief Warlord, they don’t trust their side ‘n lose loyalty. And if a warlord loses his stack’s trust while in the field…”

 

“They turn.” Turing whispered it.

 

“They turn.”

 

The two fell silent. Turing felt like he wanted to throw up, but the sickness was deeper than just his stomach. It was a wrenching, churning pain in his heart as well.

 

“Time,” Gout mused. He swirled the wine in his goblet. “It was also about time, though.”

 

Turing looked up. He felt hollow, but he had to know. “What do you mean, lord? Wasn’t it just—my failure?”

 

“Not just that.” Gout looked at Turing. “It was that they were gettin’ bored, but there’s more to it. Tell me Turing. How many books did you read on that first turn?”

 

He didn’t even know. “At least six, lord. Perhaps eight or more.”

 

“An’ how long does it take you to read a book when yer around other units? In the same hex, say?”

 

That was easier. Turing thought about it.

 

“If it’s an average book, maybe five to six turns.”

 

“Seems odd, then, that ya read so many books in one turn, right?”

 

It was odd. Turing thought about it, but Gout already had the answer.

 

“Time, Turing. The answer’s time.”

 

“How so, lord?”

 

Gout took another drink of wine before answering.

 

“Time is relative. ‘Course it is. Up here I wait ‘till the other turns end and I know how long that is. Takes a bit longer if I’m Thinkagrammin’ another ruler. But it’s always the same. No matter how long another side takes, it always feels the same for us.”

 

That was true. And it was obvious. Turing furrowed his brow, and then realized what Gout was saying.

 

“You mean—”

 

“Yup. Think about it. When a side moves, a lotta units do a lotta things. Sometimes we fight a huge siege an’ take a city. Then we gotta decided what to do with it, negotiate, figure out where ta put the captured prisoners, and so on. Takes a lot of time. But if yer not in that hex or nearby, what happens? We don’t feel a thing. It’s always the same amount ‘a time that passes by for us.”

 

It was true. Turing remembered a huge siege in the Battle of Tron, thousands of turns ago. Countless warlords and casters had fallen in a single turn, and the city had fallen to a cunning trap laid by the other side—all in the course of one turn. But though it had been a grueling battle, another side had simply recorded that turn as an uneventful one where they popped two Stabbers and a High Horse.

 

“The same thing happened to you and yer stack,” Gout said. “’Cause they were with you the entire time, see? They were in yer hex, and you kept tellin’ them to do this and do that. Didn’t affect us over here. But as long as they were in yer stack, they were stuck in your time. So I thought it was just a normal turn, while you were readin’ in front of them. I dunno how long it felt, but for them stuck in yer time, it must have felt like…”

 

“Forever.”

 

Gout nodded heavily. “An’ if yer stuck with a warlord who’s not lettin’ you do yer Duty fer that long, I guess any unit would lose loyalty.”

 

Turing closed his eyes. He felt tears sliding wetly down his cheeks. At last. At last he knew.

 

Gout watched his Chief Warlord weep in silence. At last, Turing opened his eyes.

 

“Well, lord. Do with me as you wish.”

 

“Odd way of puttin’ it. Don’t have anything else to say?”

 

Turing spread his hands.

 

“You have revealed the truth to me, lord. My folly, my failure…it was mine alone this entire time. I caused a stack to Turn. I lowered the loyalty of units on my own side. What would you have me say? What could I possibly do? I am yours to punish as you see fit.”

 

His ruler sat in silence. The fading light of the sun cast dark shadows across Gout’s face.

 

“Many rulers would disband a unit who drained others of their loyalty. Even if it were an accident, many would call such a unit cursed.”

 

Turing nodded. “I know.”

 

“Well.”

 

“Well then.”

 

The two sat in silence. Turing looked at his hands. He vowed not to say anything, regardless of what happened next. Let the Titans see that at least Turing of Osnap did not beg before his end. In the City of Heroes—only, he wouldn’t be going there.

 

A strange sound burst through the clouds of Turing’s deathly thoughts. He looked around for the source of it. It was a strange, bubbling sound. It grew louder. He looked at his ruler and gasped.

 

Gout was laughing. His ruler chuckled, and then guffawed as he shook with mirth. He slapped the table and knocked over his goblet of wine.

 

“Lord?”

 

The king of Osnap laughed and laughed as his Chief Warlord stared at him in shock. When his mirth finally subsided, Gout gasped and dabbed at his eyes with a tablecloth.

 

“What a Chief Warlord the Titans have given me,” he gasped. “And whatta side! Only fittin’ for a ruler like me. All this time. All this time of frettin’ and worryin’ about loyalty…when the thing that turned ‘em was a buncha books and flowers.”

 

Turing gaped at Gout. But that only made his ruler laugh harder. And then, as Gout roared and slapped his thighs, Turing laughed too. He began laughing – hysterically at first – and then with true and uncontrollable mirth. Sadness, regret, and the irony of it all mixed together as both men laughed and laughed until they were sore.

 

When they were done Turing looked at Gout. His ruler met his gaze and grinned.

 

“They musta been some books.”

 

“They were. And they were some flowers.”

 

“Tell me about them.”

 

“Lord?”

 

“I ain’t gonna do anything to ya. Not this turn. ‘Sides, tomorrow yer gonna do yer big plan, right? Need a Chief Warlord for that. When ya take the other capital, we’ll talk about punishment.”

 

“But I—”

 

“No talkin’ back. That’s an order.”

 

“—Yes, lord.”

 

“So tell me.” Gout sat back in his chair. “We got time. Don’t need to end the turn just yet, right? Tell me about them books.”

 

 

—-

 

 

At last, Turing left. Gout sat back in his chair and rubbed at his face as the door closed behind his Chief Warlord. His mirth from earlier had faded away, and he felt tired. Tired, and bloated.

 

Now that Turing was gone, Gout’s mask fell away. He let his cheeks sag, and he sagged himself, back into his chair like a balloon with half the air gone out of it. He mumbled to himself.

 

“So that’s it. Cursed warlord? Hah. More like too disbanded curious. A warlord for a sinkin’ side. A stinkin’ side. A fat, dyin’ side.”

 

He shifted in his throne. A troubled expression crossed his face.

 

“Can’t have a warlord who loses Loyalty. Be bad for the side. Even worse if it were a ruler, but a warlord…let alone a Chief Warlord…”

 

Gout frowned heavily. He picked up a goblet and drained half the wine within.

 

“Changes everything, don’t it? Can’t stick to the plan if that’s…maybe its better if I…”

 

He raised one huge hand. Gout took a deep breath and sat up. His voice changed, grew deeper, quieter.

 

“I, King Gout of Osnap hereby disband—”

 

Gout broke off. He stared into his goblet and shook his head.

 

“Coward.”

 

He repeated the word again. His fist tightened on the goblet, crushing the metal and slopping wine onto the floor.

 

“Coward!”

 

Gout stood up. He looked at the food on the table. On his side empty dishes lay scattered like croaked units. Turing had barely touched the food on his side. Gout’s eyes narrowed. One fist smashed into the table and cracked the wood.

 

“Disbanded coward!”

 

He threw the table against the wall. The wood snapped and splintered as the empty dishes went flying.

 

Coward!” Gout roared as he pulled down drapes. His huge voice was incredibly loud in the confined space. He smashed through the candles, scattering hot wax as he upended chairs, smashed food against the ground, and struck the walls with his huge fists.

 

Fueled by rage, Gout turned on the last intact object in the room. The throne. With both hands he seized the ornate chair and raised it over his head. There he paused as he stared upwards at the majestic chair. A ruler’s chair.

 

“Coward,” Gout said softly. He looked at his bleeding hands and slowly lowered the gilded throne to the floor. He paused, and then sat heavily in it.

 

In the darkness of the turn, Gout stared around the destroyed room. His hands trembled on the throne’s armrests.

 

“It wasn’t his fault.” He spoke into the darkness. “He did his duty. Ain’t his fault if he made a mistake. Do what’s right. Do what’s right by the side.”

 

Gout’s hand went up to his head. He wore no crown. It hadn’t really fit on his head for hundreds of turns and he’d stopped wearing it…when? Where had it gone?

 

“You know what you gotta do.”

 

He nodded as his own voice echoed back to him. Gout slumped back in his throne, suddenly unimaginable weary. His eyelids drooped, and he stared into the darkness.

 

“Do your Duty.”

 

The King of Osnap whispered into the silence as the turn ended.

 

Chapter 8

When Turing woke up he knew fear. For the first time since he’d popped, he knew he was afraid.

 

Truly afraid. Up until this point, the paltry thing Turing had called ‘fear’ was all he’d experienced. But now true terror gripped Turing’s heart. He was afraid.

 

He was afraid to be a warlord.

 

Numbly, Turing got up and dressed. It was automatic, just like how he ate his rations and croaked units. It was a natural part of him, and he didn’t have to think about it. Just like he’d assumed he didn’t have to think about leading.

 

Leading. It was something every warlord could do. It was a Special, for Titan’s sake! But for whatever reason, Turing did it badly. He did it so badly in fact, he could cause his own stack to Turn. It was some kind of invisible Special he had, but he had no control over it.

 

And in a short while he’d be called upon to lead multiple stacks on an expedition that would determine the fate of his side. Turing had heard the Titans loved a joke, but he’d never been told they loved watching other units suffer.

 

Turing stared at the sword at his side and slowly drew the blade. He could always fall upon his sword. He’d read in books that some eastern sides let their units do that rather than disband them. It would be painful, but quick. And it might be better than failing his side.

 

Failing his side. Turing closed his eyes. He’d already failed his side once. If he croaked himself now, he’d fail it twice. Without a warlord to take the capital for their ruler, the side would end. He knew it. The enemy was a few turns away at best. They might be here next turn.

 

He had Duty to his side, for that reason alone, Turing could not take the easy way out. He sheathed his sword. Later. Once he’d taken the hidden capital and Gout had popped another warlord, then Turing could accept his punishment. He could patrol that hidden city for ten thousand turns if need be. But he would do his Duty.

 

And if he Turned his stacks, the Titans would erase his Number forever.

 

With that thought in his mind, Turing reported to the war room for the last time. Gout was sitting in his throne, staring down at his hands. He held a goblet in his left and something in his right hand. Besides that, the room was empty.

 

“Lord?”

 

Gout looked up from his drink. His eyes were red and bloodshot. Had he not slept well? He nodded at Turing.

 

“Turing. Good to see ya. Anything changed in the plan?”

 

“No, lord. There are a few minor details regarding the treasury I’d like to discuss with you.”

 

Gout rubbed at his face and blinked a few times.

 

“Right. We still got some Schmuckers left, don’t we?”

 

Turing nodded. By his count, the side had more than a ‘few’.

 

“We’ve got over 160,000 Schmuckers,” Turing said hesitantly. “Couldn’t we do something with that?”

 

“Could. What do ya want?”

 

“Well—” Turing paused. His ruler was staring hard at him, and he had no idea why. “Well, I was thinking we could promote every unit in the garrison. Make all the Stabbers and Pikers into Knights.”

 

“Huh. It’d increase their upkeep.”

 

“Yes, but we’d have a far stronger force than before.”

 

“’S a good idea. But no. I gotta use for the treasury. Don’t worry. I’ll use it before the capital falls.”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

That was a blow, but not too much of one. Turing would have liked to ask what the Schmuckers were going to be used for, but Gout’s face wasn’t open to conversation. His ruler massaged his temple gently and groaned.

 

“If the problem weren’t upkeep, I could do a few of yer Knights. Or hire an Archon from Charlie for a few turns, but—”

 

Turing blinked. “Upkeep, lord? How would that affect our treasury—?”

 

Gout blinked and looked at Turing. He waved a hand. “Forget that. It don’t matter anyways. ‘Sides, we ain’t got that many units so upkeep’s not a problem.”

 

His ruler really wasn’t making much sense. Turing frowned and opened his mouth, but Gout cut him off.

 

“Right, let’s go.”

 

“Go where?”

 

The gigantic ruler lurched to his feet and waddled towards the door.

 

“The Armory, ‘a course. Gotta few items left you could use.”

 

Gout led Turing out of the war room tower, and down the stairs to another part of the castle Turing had never been in before. The large armory was nearly empty of items and dust had settled over most of the room. Turing sneezed and coughed as Gout poked around the shelves and opened chests.

 

“Curbstomp had all ‘a the good artifacts,” Gout grunted as he dug out old swords and hurled them aside. “Shame we never got anything good. Woulda killed for better armor or one that took blasts. But—here we go.”

 

Gout stood up with something in his hands. He handed it to Turing. It was a brass looking glass, dusty with disuse.

 

“You know what this is?”

 

“A Lookamancy tool, lord.” Turing held up the glass and sighted down it appreciatively. He could see three times as many hexes when he held it up to his eye.

 

“Yup. Figured you might like it.”

 

Turing nodded, clutching the item to his chest. It was the first magical item he’d ever held. “It’s wonderful, lord! But why was it left here? Wouldn’t one of the armies have needed it?”

 

“Some had it. But most of my warlords didn’t want one. Curbstomp never used them.”

 

Gout shrugged. “But you—yer a warlord that likes to think. Figured it would suit you best. Come on, let’s see if we got anything more you can use.”

 

There was nothing. Just rusted armor and swords that Turing were sure weren’t sharper than his own. That was a slight disappointment, but the looking glass more than made up for it.

 

“Almost done,” Gout grunted. He was breathing hard and sweating from his exertions. Turing was not, but he knew how hard his lord was working. It was…unlike anything he’d seen from his King in hundreds of turns.

 

“Got one last thing for ya, Turing.”

 

Gout paused by the armory door and opened his massive right hand. He placed an item in Turing’s hands. The ruler looked down at it.

 

“This is…what is this, lord?”

 

Gout had handed him some sort of miniature goblet. Or…it looked more like a hollow brazier; the more Turing looked at it. It was extremely rough and looked like it had been carved by someone completely unskilled at the job.

 

“’S an item. For measurin’ time.”

 

“What?”

 

“Look.” Gout took the wooden item from Turing and put it on a crate. He showed Turing the basin at the top.

 

“See this spot? You put in sand here. I got some from some rocks I crushed. Right. You put the sand here and…”

 

Turing watched as Gout poured a bit of sand out of a bag he’d brought into the top of the device. As he watched, the sand slowly ran down through a small hole in the bottom of the hollow basin, landing in a bowel at the bottom of the device.

 

“See? It collects yer sand. Then if you wanna measure it again, just take the sand outta the bottom and put it in the top.”

 

Turing saw. But he wasn’t sure why he needed to see it.

 

“What’s the point of this item, lord?”

 

“Measurin’ time, of course.”

 

Gout looked at Turing as if he were an idiot. He prodded Turing in the chest.

 

“You have a problem with takin’ too long, remember Turing? This thing’ll keep you on track. So long as you keep measurin’ your time, you won’t lose Loyalty by losin’ track when yer around other units.”

 

Turing stared at his ruler and then down to the time measuring device and suddenly realized what Gout was saying.

 

“Oh. Oh! Lord, that’s—thank you! That is exactly what I need!”

 

Gout nodded. He handed the device over to Turing, along with a bag of dust that looked like it came from smashed-up bits of masonry.

 

“How did you come across this device, lord?”

 

Again, Gout shrugged.

 

“Made it myself. Took the entire night, but got it done in the end. ‘Sides, aint’ like I have much ta do up here now.”

 

Turing looked at his ruler’s bleary red eyes. He’d stayed up all night working on the item, Turing was sure.

 

“I—thank you, lord.”

 

Gout stared at Turing and raised an eyebrow.

 

“Didn’t I tell you to stop callin’ me lord?”

 

“Then—thank you, Gout.”

 

It felt awkward calling his ruler by his name. But Gout nodded.

 

“Yer welcome, Turing. I gotta second one of them things, by the way.”

 

As he and Turing walked down to the courtyard Gout lectured Turing on its usage.

 

“When the sand runs out of the top part? I call it a Minute. A small bit of a turn, get it? Minute. The bigger one is about twenty minutes. Tried to make it bigger, but then it wouldn’t fit in yer pack.”

 

“Thank you. Again. But will it depop next turn?”

 

“Not if you got it with you. Important stuff don’t depop, like clothing and that. Shame I didn’t have a Dollamancer, though.”

 

“Why’s that?”

 

“I figured one of them could add glass, make it so you could keep turnin’ the thing once the sand ran out. This way’s slower, but it works.”

 

It felt silly, but Turing had to ask. “Does it…does it have a name, l—Gout?”

 

He nodded. “I call it a Turn Timer. Was gonna call it a Turing Timer but it was less funny the more I said it.”

 

Turing thought about that. “How about a Time Turner, lord?”

 

“Eh. Doesn’t sound good. Who’d want something like that?”

 

They stopped as they left the castle gates. Gout turned to Turing.

 

“It probably won’t matter if yer in a tower by yerself. But when you’re leadin’ a stack or with other units, use it. Don’t take more’n ten, fifteen minutes unless you got a really good reason. And if you do, make sure you tell yer units what yer doin’.”

 

Turing nodded solemnly. He clutched the Turn Timers in his hand. “I will. And I swear, I won’t let your down, sire. I won’t ever make the same mistake again.”

 

“I believe ya. I wouldn’t send you out if I didn’t.”

 

Gout patted Turing on the shoulder lightly. Then he sighed and looked up at the sun rising in the sky.

 

“’Bout time, huh?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Call the garrison, then. And walk with me to the gates.”

 

Turing nodded. Mentally, he called for every unit in Brashball’s garrison to form up and stack at the city gates. He saw Gwulls flying down from the castle aviary, and saw Stabbers and Pikers rushing out of the castle to obey his orders.

 

Turing and Gout proceeded slowly down the wide, empty streets of the city towards the gates. Turing walked in silence next to his ruler, feeling his heavy footfalls through the earth. They walked in silence. He didn’t know what to say.

 

The streets were plain and straight. They weren’t beautiful. In fact, they were only functional, with barely any decoration. Turing had walked them every turn for…oh, countless turns. He used to hate how the streets never changed, how the building always stayed the same. But now he wished he could walk the streets one last time.

 

They reached the gates. Turing looked at the two stacks of Stabbers and Pikers and the waiting Gwulls and gulped. But they looked at him expectantly, and so he squared his shoulders. He would not let his side down again.

 

Turing turned to Gout. “I suppose this is it, then, lord.”

 

Gout barely nodded. His ruler was already sweating from the brief walk, but he also looked like he was a million hexes away. He stared blankly over Turing’s shoulder. “Suppose so.”

 

“Well then. Will you—will you stack with us for a few hexes before splitting up?”

 

Gout refocused on Turing, and then shook his head.

 

“What? No. No, I’ll go my own way. Attract less attention. ‘S better.”

 

“Right.” Turing hesitated, but Gout didn’t seem inclined to say anything else.

 

“I’ll—I’ll be moving out, then, lord.”

 

It felt wrong to leave without some kind of speech. But his ruler hadn’t ever given one when Curbstomp left the capital. Awkwardly, Turing went to gather his stack.

 

“One thing before we go, Turing.”

 

Turing turned, expecting a last word about the best way to travel or some such. He turned, and then stopped. Gout loomed over him, tall, tall. His ruler had abandoned his customary slouch and now stood to his full and impressive height.

 

“Turing. Would ya swear to defend the side with yer life?”

 

Turing was confused. “Of course, lord.”

 

Gout shook his head.

 

“Not jus’ yer hits. I’m talkin’ about yer stats, your destiny – yer very Number itself. For the side. Would you give it all up?”

 

Turing hesitated, and then nodded seriously.

 

“Good. ‘Cause that’s what the side asks of you.” Gout met Turing’s eyes. For the first time, Turing didn’t flinch away or panic. He stared into his ruler’s eyes and saw a tired old unit looking back at him.

 

“The side asks much of its units, Turing. I know this. It will take all you have and give little back. But we serve the side no matter what. That is Duty. That is Loyalty. Fairness has little to do with it. But for those who serve, glory an’ the City of Heroes awaits.”

 

A hush fell over the courtyard. The Stabbers and Pikers stared at their ruler. Even the Gwulls stopped squawking as Gout placed a hand on Turing’s shoulder.

 

“Take a knee, Turing.”

 

Turing did. Gout grasped him by one shoulder and looked down into his Chief Warlord’s eyes.

 

“Turing of Osnap. What a name. I, King Gout the First of Osnap do charge yeh to go to the lost capital of Redrum. Take it, and crush whomever should stand in yer way. Will you accept my charge?”

 

Turing felt the heavy weight of the hand on his shoulder, and the heavier weight of the Duty on his back. He bowed his head.

 

“I do. I swear it upon my Number, lord.”

 

Gout nodded. He released Turing and pulled the warlord to his feet.

 

“Then go. Go, my Chief Warlord with my blessin’. You were never the Chief Warlord I wanted. But maybe—all this time—you were the one I always needed.”

 

Turing’s eyes filled with tears. He looked away from his ruler. Gout nodded. He pointed out of the city gates, to the open hexes beyond.

 

“Go.”

 

With his head held high and tears lingering in his eyes, Turing marched out of the city gates, his stacks following him. He did not look back.

 

 

—-

 

 

He watched for a long time before Turing and his stack completely disappeared from view. When they were finally gone, Gout turned away and sighed.

 

“So. ‘S nearly time. Can Turing do it? ‘Course he can. Gotta trust in my Chief Warlord, after all.”

 

Gout scratched at his head. He looked around the empty, echoing capital. He stretched, yawned, and then looked up at the library tower over his head. It had always seemed wrong to him, that it should be higher than the tallest tower of his castle. But he’d been too cheap to hire a Dirtamancer to fix the error.

 

“Too bad. But I kinda liked it after a while.”

 

He shrugged, and began walking back into the city. His Rations were already popped and waiting for him back in the war room. He was looking forward to his food.

 

Food were important. He counted his turns by the food he ate. He got his daily rations of course, but long ago Gout had begun eating more than once a day. He ate when he woke up, when he was about to end the turn, before he slept, and every time in between.

 

How much could he eat this turn? He was sure he wouldn’t be eating much soon. It was best to enjoy his last meals while he could. He’d eat, and the next turn…

 

Gout nodded. His legs already hurt from walking the short distance to the courtyard. Well, they’d hurt more soon enough. Climbing stairs was a task, but it was penance. Maybe it could also be salvation.

 

“Time ta do what I shoulda done a long time ago.”

 

But first, he’d have a bite to eat.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing took a deep breath as he left the hex of the city behind him. He nearly stumbled at the sensation of losing the garrison bonus, and he stared around him at the open dirt road in amazement.

 

At last. At last he was free. Turing blinked up at the sun and felt the wind on his face.

 

Instantly, he pulled himself out of his reverie and shook himself. No. He couldn’t stop to admire the scenery.

 

Turing turned to his stacks and eyed them. A full stack of Stabbers and another stack of Pikers surrounded him while his Gwulls circled overhead. More units that Turing had ever commanded. He took a few deep breaths. Okay. He could do this.

 

One of the Stabbers looked at him. It was female Stabber, the only Level Two he had. He remembered her. She was one of the few units who’d survived the battle with Zipzap.

 

“What’re we doin’, lord?”

 

“Doing? Oh, yes.”

 

Turing awkwardly cleared his throat. He’d forgotten that the units in his capital had no idea what was happening. It felt strange, having to explain.

 

“Our stacks are going to take a hidden enemy capital. It’s one that was abandoned many turns ago, so we’re not expecting much resistance but…you never know. At any rate, we’re doing this so the side won’t end. At some point we may become Barbarians, but so long as we can take the capital we’ll be fine. Is that clear?”

 

The Stabbers and Pikers exchanged looks and then nodded dutifully. Turing would have liked some more enthusiasm, but it was probably the best he’d get out of his units.

 

“We’ll try not to engage along the way, but keep to roads and forest hexes to avoid enemy units,” he told them. “Let me know if you spot an enemy in a hex.”

 

Again, they nodded. Turing hesitated, but he felt he had to say it.

 

“And let me know…” he paused. “Let me know if I act…oddly, okay?”

 

The Stabber tilted her head. “Oddly, lord?”

 

“If I’m taking too long for something,” Turing clarified. “Just…use your judgment, okay?”

 

“Yes, warlord.”

 

“Right then.” Turing nodded awkwardly. “Let’s move out, shall we?”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing moved through the next few road hexes without issue. He knew where he was going. He’d plotted the best route towards the hidden capital site, and he knew which paths he could take if there were unexpected enemy units in the way. Based on his stack’s lowest move, he expected the journey would take at least twenty turns depending on if he had to dodge certain hexes. He hoped it would be an uneventful journey.

 

As he moved from hex to hex with his units, Turing couldn’t help glancing around at the scenery and taking in the fresh air. He couldn’t help it. No matter how hard he tried, the excitement of being somewhere else, somewhere new was getting to Turing. But whenever he thought about stopping, Turing resisted the impulse. Keep moving. He didn’t stop moving until he reached the last available hex.

 

Sadly, some of Turing’s Pikers had two less move than he did, so they couldn’t move as fast as he liked. If he had more Gwulls they could have flown the entire stack and moved faster, but as it was they were stuck. But they’d moved a decent amount, and better yet, without having to risk engaging other units.

 

The first night Turing made camp in a forest hex and felt the déjà vu hitting him hard. He would have avoided camping in a forest hex if he could, but prudence dictated that he chose a forest hex so as to avoid being spotted.

 

Tensely, Turing waited and watched as his units set up camp, but they seemed completely fine. He hadn’t heard any complaints, and they were even joking – although about what Turing couldn’t tell – as they prepared to sleep.

 

Turing couldn’t sleep. Instead, he sat by the camp fire and stared into it. He felt…tired. The excitement of seeing new hexes had faded away by this point. Instead, he only felt the heavy weight of responsibility on his back. The side was depending on him. His success or failure would determine the side’s fate. If he failed, the side would fall. Gout would croak.

 

It wasn’t good to dwell on the negatives. So instead Turing focused on time. He took the smaller of the two Turn Timers out of his pack and tried them out. The sand tricked through the bottom of the wooden basin slowly as Turing watched.

 

Time.

 

It was different, having a ruler to determine when the side ended. The only time Turing could perform his ‘boring’ Special was when Gout wasn’t about to end the turn. For instance, while he was moving and Gout knew he hadn’t used up all his move, Turing could take as long as he liked in theory. That was because his ruler was experiencing Turing moving from hex to hex as one small bit of time.

 

On the other hand, if Turing was in Gout’s hex, or nearby him then they both shared the same time, and Gout would need to endure the same tedious wait as Turing if the warlord chose to read a book before the turn ended.

 

In theory, that meant…well, it just meant that if Turing wanted to do something that took a long time, he’d have to do it while Gout was waiting for him to finish. If he were garrisoned in the other city or in his own, the Turn would end after a set amount of time like normal.

 

Thinking in terms of time and Turns made Turing’s head hurt. He decided to go to sleep. But when he did, trouble dreams of units turning on him haunted him until it was all washed away by an ocean of sand.

 

 

—-

 

 

The next turn Turing awoke without any swords in his back. He took that as an unequivocally good sign and forged ahead with his stack. Unlike last turn, this turn he used the Gwull’s higher move to have them scout other hexes to make sure he wouldn’t run into enemy units.

 

As tempted as Turing was to engage other units and raise his unit’s level, he knew he probably couldn’t afford the delay. Each hex counted, especially since he rather thought the capital was about to fall. That it hadn’t already probably meant the enemy side had grouped their forces together and was coming for the capital with their full army.

 

Turing grinned to himself as he imagined their faces when they found an empty garrison. He hoped they’d have a few sleepless turns wondering how the side had wiped out an army with a warlady and a Master Shockamancer. Hopefully they’d never know.

 

At last his stack exited the forest hex and hit the open road hexes again. Turing called a brief halt as he stared around with his looking glass. It was such an amazingly convenient item, especially since it required no juice to operate.

 

No enemy units were in sight. Turing hesitated, and then turned his looking glass backwards. He sighed down the open road and saw his capital.

 

In the distance, he could see Brashball as a tiny speck surrounded by open grassland hexes. It brought a pang to Turing’s heart as he saw the tiny library tower in the distance. He wished he’d taken a few books—but no, that would have been a mistake. They’d depop when the enemy took the capital, anyways.

 

Reluctantly Turing closed his hourglass. “Form up,” he ordered, and the Stabbers and Pikers leapt to their feet. He turned to leave the road hex.

 

 

Turing.

 

 

Turing jumped. He stared around the empty hex and then at his stack.

 

“Who said that?”

 

His stack looked at him blankly. The Level Two Stabber leading the group looked confused.

 

“No one said anything, lord.”

 

“Then who—”

 

 

Turing. It’s me.

 

 

Turing froze. He knew that voice. He looked up at the blue sky hexes above him.

 

“Lord? King Gout? Is that you?”

 

The other Stabbers and Pikers stared at their Chief Warlord and edged away from him. But the voice reacted to Turing’s words.

 

 

Yeah. It’s me, Turing.

 

 

“Where are you, lord? Why can I hear you?”

 

 

I’m using a Thinkamancer to send you a message. Haven’t you ever gotten a Thinkagram, Turing? Oh, wait. You haven’t.

 

 

It was incredibly strange. Gout’s mental voice lacked all of his slurred words and shortened contractions due to his lack of breath. The voice Turing heard in his head was deeper, more confident, like the ruler who had greeted him when he first popped.

 

“Is something the matter, lord?”

 

Turing’s heart began to pound. If his ruler were sending him a Thinkagram then something must be seriously wrong.

 

 

No. I ain’t got a problem.

 

 

Turing blinked. Then why—?

 

 

This is it, Turing. I called in a favor from an old friend to send you this. Had to wait until you left the capital or you’d have stopped me.

 

 

Instinctively Turing turned and raised his looking glass to look back at the capital. He didn’t know what he was searching for, but his heart was beating even faster.

 

 

Your plans are good. But they always have one crucial flaw.

 

 

“Flaw?”

 

 

We’ve got a lot of Schmuckers in the treasury. But soon as the enemy side comes here, we’ll lose it all. Then we’re down to a purse. Usually, that’s not a problem. But upkeep is the Titan’s way of keeping score. And my score is low, Turing.

 

 

“Lord? What do you mean?”

 

 

For Rations alone I require over four hundred Schmuckers per turn. Per turn, Turing. Even if the Brashball didn’t fall next turn, my purse would empty too quickly for you to take the other capital. And the side wouldn’t be able to afford my upkeep with a single city anyways.

 

 

Turing’s blood froze. He opened his mouth but the voice in his head kept talking.

 

 

I’m a liability. And I’m also a danger, if I’m captured in the field. But I’ve got a solution to the problem. It ain’t pretty, and maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a better way. But I feel it in my bones, Turing. In every wobbling step I take, in the pain of moving from room to room. My time as ruler is over. The Titans call me home.

 

 

Turing’s heart was ice. He frantically searched the city with his looking glass for—what? He wasn’t sure. He stared at the war room tower but saw no light in the room.

 

 

I wish I’d been a better ruler to you. I wish I had the courage to go down fighting. But I won’t risk your life on me getting captured.

 

 

“Lord, what are you saying?”

 

 

Take the capital, Turing. Your idea will work. Start a new side. This one’s had its time.

 

 

The implication struck Turing cold. He raised his voice.

 

“Lor—Gout. As Chief Warlord, I order you to stop whatever you are doing.”

 

Only silence filled Turing’s head. Then a deep voice echoed through Turing’s mind.

 

 

I, Gout the First of Osnap do name Turing of Osnap as my Heir Designate.

 

 

Turing staggered as he felt the world change around him. But instantly he raised his looking glass. He had to see. Where was he?

 

 

Always hated this tower. But you know, it’s got its own charm. I read over a hundred books in one turn, Turing. Ate every provision in the capital. It was fun.

 

 

Turing paused. Then he raised his looking glass at the lone tower rising above city walls. He saw something there, a small speck standing against the sky.

 

 

So ends the reign of Gout the First. Go well, Turing. Forge a new age with your own hands. May your side last forever.

 

 

The units around Turing suddenly stopped relaxing on the ground and looked up. As one, every Gwull, Stabber, and Piker’s head turned in the direction of Brashball. Turing’s gaze was fixed on the highest point in the city in the distance. A lonely figure stood on the tower’s roof. It raised a single hand towards Turing.

 

 

Goodbye.

 

 

In the distance a small shape plummeted from the tower.

 

Chapter 9

The capital fell after Turing ended his turn. He didn’t care. He should have razed the city before he ended the turn for the Schmuckers and then spent that last of the pitiful treasury. But he didn’t.

 

He couldn’t.

 

Instead, Turing slept. He didn’t mean to, but he just shut down. When he woke up the sun was shining overhead and he was a Barbarian. It didn’t matter.

 

Turing moved his stacks out. The Stabbers and Pikers were mercifully silent as they moved. The Gwulls overhead made no sound. Turing moved through Erfworld in a world of silence.

 

He didn’t use his Turn Timer. He didn’t have to. He marched through forest hexes, across plains hexes, through natural storm-hexes and across open road hexes. Different landscapes and varied sights passed him by. He walked past naturally popped High Horses, avoided hexes containing Gobwin tribes, and helped his stack fight off a Bearowl. In one turn he saw more sights than he’d ever seen over the hundreds of turns since he’d been popped.

 

It mattered not at all to Turing.

 

He ordered the stack to stop and rest for a short while after the Bearowl retreated. Turing stared dully up at the sky and felt the wounds he’d taken from the giant beast’s claws. Then he forgot about them. They weren’t important.

 

An Archon circled overhead. Turing watched it dully. Doubtless, it was one of Charlie’s Archons – he’d never heard of another side fielding the rare unit.

 

The Gwulls looked up, but Turing gave them no orders to engage. In moments the Archon left the hex.

 

Turing kept moving. By the time he ended the turn they’d reached a mountain hex. There was no hiding, but they would receive defense bonuses. He didn’t care.

 

The Archon was back again. It flew through his hex and out of it. Turing wondered what it was doing. Probably scouting. He almost thought about using the Gwulls to dissuade the archon—but it probably wasn’t wise to antagonize Charlie.

 

He’d always dreamed about what it would be like to have the Flying special. Turing closed his eyes as his units made camp.

 

In his head a small shape fell to the ground.

 

Turing’s eyes shot open. He sat up, and stared into the cheery camp fire that had popped when they made camp. The crackling of the flames sounded like bones snapping.

 

 

Farewell.

 

 

Turing didn’t sleep that night. He stayed up, hitting his head with his palms, covering his ears. He didn’t sleep. Fatigue penalties could go to the Titans for all he cared.

 

When the turn started Turing moved with his stack. He moved, he fought if he needed to, and he slept. He moved, fought, slept. He slept as he moved and fought in his sleep. He fought to keep moving and never sleep. He heard voices and saw a small shape falling to the ground.

 

He never wept. All his tears had long since fallen from his heart. But Turing wished he were disbanded. He wished he were croaked.

 

But he had his Duty, and more importantly, he had a promise to make.

 

So Turing moved and fought.

 

And slept.

 

 

—-

 

 

Twenty two turns later, Turing stopped. He paused in the deep forest hex to send a Gwull up over the canopy to get his bearings.

 

“Get ready,” he told his Pikers and Stabbers as they stretched and walked idly around the hex. “We won’t be staying long.”

 

They nodded, and didn’t stray too far into the hex. Turing nodded back, and resumed calculating where they were on the map of Erfworld he carried with them.

 

It turned out Pikers and Stabbers were easy to command. So long as Turing gave them something simple to occupy themselves – like moving – they were happy to do it. They didn’t seem to mind not engaging, at least for the moment. He guessed it really had taken an act of colossal idiocy to lower the loyalty of a stack in the first place.

 

Turing sighed. Even now that memory made him think of a face, and hear a lisping voice. But he didn’t dwell on it, and the moment passed.

 

Was he better? No. But some of the numbness was gone. It just meant Turing was more awake so he could hurt more. And yet he could function, and he was determined to carry out his mission.

 

The last twenty turns hadn’t really been that eventful. Using his Gwulls, Turing had avoided every single encounter by making sometimes lengthy detours around dangerous hexes. It was slower, but he had time. His Purse would last another ten turns, and besides, Turing hadn’t seen any other side’s units.

 

Except for Charlie’s of course. Every now and then Turing spotted an Archon in the distance, or one flying over his head. They were everywhere, but that was natural. Every unit in Erfworld knew that Charlie’s Archons went to any side that would hire them.

 

Turing didn’t care. He had fliers of his own, although whether they’d remain in the new side he didn’t know. Perhaps he wouldn’t receive any special units of his own.

 

Who knew? But Turing remembered. He had to start a new side. And to do that, he had to find the capital first.

 

Turing sensed his Gwull stop suddenly, and felt his unit’s stats change. Suddenly, the Gwull wasn’t in a Deep Forest hex at all, but a city’s airspace.

 

Immediately, Turing called the Gwull back. He folded the map and sprang to his feet. His stack immediately snapped to attention.

 

“Stack up and get ready to fight,” Turing told them. They rushed to his side and he pointed.

 

“This way.”

 

Turing marched at a quick pace through the next hex, and the next. The forest seemed to grow deeper, but he knew what lay ahead. He pushed through a bush—

 

And then, just like that, he saw the capital city of Redrum.

 

As his stack entered the open clearing hex next to the city Turing immediately called a halt. He and his units stared at the city in shock and amazement.

 

“There it is,” Turing breathed. Quickly, pulled out the looking glass and began scanning the city. It was frozen, but the Gwulls hadn’t been able to give him any kind of description of how many units still remained in the garrison, if any.

 

Turing was hoping Redrum was empty, but not too hopeful. Cities without garrisons tended to attract wild monster units sooner or later. Still, he hoped that there wouldn’t be too many units in the city. He’d heard of crazy tales where a city would be found with armies of units waiting and defending their city from any side who would claim it for thousands of turns, but—

 

There. Turing’s gaze froze as he spotted a unit. Carefully, he extended the looking glass and zoomed in on the frozen units standing in the courtyard.

 

The city’s garrison was still there. Turing stared at a warlady and two full stacks – mixed Pikers and Stabbers standing frozen in the center of the city.

 

And now that Turing finally looked around, he noticed something about Redrum that was odd, but in a good way for him.

 

It was a terrible city. Turing hadn’t seen many, well, he’d only seen two, his Capital and a city he’d passed a thousand turns back while moving, but he knew this was a bad city.

 

It was Level 1. That wasn’t much of an issue; Turing understood Level 1 cities weren’t great to begin with, but this one was pathetic. It had no walls. It didn’t even have a moat or palisades. He could stare straight at the keep from his hex.

 

They were paved roads. The streets had some kind of lamps with what looked like Shockamancy enchantments to make them bright. There were fountains and a garden next to the keep, which was really an ornate manor.

 

This wasn’t a city. This was…Turing wasn’t sure what it was. A city is popped in accordance with what its ruler desires. Presumably because this city had been so isolated, its ruler hadn’t ever considered that it would be attacked. He had instead transformed it into a place of comfort, trading fortifications for useless ornamentation.

 

It was disgusting. But it was entirely advantageous for him, so Turing decided not to question to Titans on it. He eyed the female Warlady and tried to guess her level. Probably 1 or 2, just like he had been. If she had such small stacks, she must have been there just for upkeep while the main army conquered other cities. He didn’t see any other units, but there might be some in the keep.

 

Turing turned and counted his army. He had eleven Gwulls, a mix of Stabbers and Pikers, no archers, and only one unit above Level 1 besides himself.

 

“What’s your name?” Turing addressed the highest level unit, a Level 2 female Stabber. Miya? He felt awkward asking, but he’d forgotten. Again.

 

“Miya Yam, Warlord.” The Stabber stared at him expectantly. She had brown hair and was taller than the other Stabbers by half a head. She had green eyes. That was what Turing noticed; that, and that she seemed marginally more alert than the other Stabbers and Pikers under his command.

 

“You’ll stack with me,” he told her. “We’ll hit the leadership after the Gwulls soften her stacks up. Does…that sound like a decent plan?”

 

Miya Yam thought about it for a moment. Then she shrugged. “Sounds good enough to me. Gonna stab the warlady first?”

 

“That’s the plan.” Turing glanced at the warlady. She was staring ahead blankly, frozen in her garrison until he attacked. “You aim for her and I’ll do the same. If you land the killing blow you might level.”

 

At that Miya Yam cracked a smile, the first Turing had ever seen out of a Stabber. “Sounds good.”

 

 

—-

 

 

This time Turing decided to let the Gwulls attack first.

 

The instant he entered the city’s hex the warlady’s head snapped up and she saw his army approach. She may have been confused, worried, afraid, but she was the city’s commander, and he was an enemy entering her hex. She instantly stacked up with her Pikers and Stabbers and advanced.

 

For his part, Turing held back. He mentally ordered the Gwulls to engage the stack of Stabbers and held his position with the rest of his units.

 

Statistically, he was at the advantage here. Turing had a few more units than the female warlady not even counting his Gwulls, and he even had a higher-level unit in his ranks. But he was determined to fight better than he had against Zipzap. Discretion was key here; Turing was now the leader of his units and potential ruler of his side if he won here. He couldn’t take unnecessary risks.

 

The Gwulls swooped in and hit the stack of Stabbers hard. They were at a disadvantage, lacking Turing’s bonus for being in their stack, but he was still in the hex providing his leadership bonus.

 

The enemy warlady had her own leadership bonus of course, and a higher one on her units since they were in her stack. But as Turing watched them engage, he saw that he was right. She was a Level 2.

 

The Gwulls circled the Stabbers, landing to slash at them with their razor claws before disengaging to fly around once more. The Stabbers couldn’t attack except while being attacked, and that let Turing play the battle the way he wanted it.

 

A Gwull landed, bit a Stabber in two, and took two hits from adjacent Stabbers. It lost almost all of its hits, so Turing ordered it to fly higher and not to engage any more targets. Another Gwull traded hits with a Stabber and had enough health for another run, so Turing let it croak another Stabber.

 

It was simple. If a Gwull could make an attack on the Stabbers, it did. If it didn’t have enough hits, Turing called it back rather than risk losing it. The strategy worked, outside of two crits and a strike by the warlord.

 

In the end, the Gwulls disengaged from the warlady’s stack. They were nine now, but they’d croaked half of the stack of Stabbers, two Pikers, and wounded a few other units. The warlady now faced Turing’s untouched force with her injured units.

 

He saw her doing the Mathamancy. She didn’t need to; the results were obvious. But he understood. It was that hope, that the Titans wouldn’t be so cruel this turn. He understood all too well.

 

The warlady said something. Her Pikers and Stabbers merged with her into one stack. She saluted Turing with her sword. Turing hesitated, and then nodded awkwardly at her. He didn’t know if he should have said something.

 

Charge!” Her voice was surprisingly deep. That was all Turing thought of before the combat started.

 

The Stabbers crashed into Turing’s Pikers hard, despite their wounds. It had been a good choice to hit their stack with the Gwulls rather than the Pikers. They didn’t have the same bonus to charging as the Stabbers did, and they were more suited to defense.

 

But there would be no retreat or defending in this battle. The warlady knew it, just as she and Turing both knew that the only way for her to win was to croak him.

 

He wasn’t about to make it easy, though.

 

Turing stood behind a row of Pikers with Miya Yam at his side. He let the first wave of Pikers exchange strikes with the warlady’s stack, but all too soon they fell back, croaking or retreating under the assault. Then it was Turing’s turn.

 

The first Stabber that reached him was missing an arm and part of his face. He probably had only a single hit left. Turing stabbed him in the chest and he croaked. That was easy.

 

Less easy were the five Pikers that stabbed two of his Pikers with crits and opened up a hole for the rest of the stack to charge through. Miya Yam stabbed one of the Pikers that rushed through the gap, but then the entire stack was engaging. And they all seemed to be trying to hit Turing.

 

A Stabber rushed Turing from his left. He slice at her and stepped backwards behind one of his Stabbers. Another enemy Piker tried to flank him with a wounded Stabber, but two of his Stabbers rushed the Piker and let Turing deal with the Stabber.

 

His enemy, a balding Stabber who looked like he’d been popped ten thousand turns ago was no easy Level 1. He was probably a 2, or even a 3, and he pressed Turing hard. He had a wound on his face, but nowhere else. And he was quick.

 

Turing locked swords with the Stabber and cut at him repeatedly. The Stabber took the wounds and went for Turing’s face with a slash that nearly croaked Turing outright.

 

Duck, dodge, parry. Turing sliced back scored a light wound on the Stabber’s arm. That croaked him.

 

Turing blinked down in surprise, and then staggered and cried out in pain as someone ran him through from behind. He spun and saw the warlady kick Miya Yam across the hex as she raised her sword for another final cut.

 

“Gwulls!”

 

He shouted the word right in the warlady’s face, which made her hesitate. Turing dove to the ground as every Gwull in the airspace flew at the warlady.

 

“You cheater—” The warlady slashed a Gwull in half but staggered as another raked her from behind. She swiped at that one and managed to crit the bird’s head off. “This ain’t the way to fight! Stand and fight like a proper warlord!”

 

“No thank you!” Turing dodged backwards as the warlady struck at him. This wasn’t good. He was running low on hits, and she had a lot of attack. He tried to retreat, but the enemy stack was still fighting his own.

 

The warlady turned and sliced two Gwulls apart as they dove at her. It was no use. Their hits were too low for them to fight any more. Turing called them off. He raised his sword and nearly lost his hand he blocked another vicious strike.

 

“All your birds are doin’ is giving me free levels,” the warlady grunted as she and Turing locked blades. She pushed him back. “Let’s see how ya do against another Level Three, warlord!”

 

“That’s—”

 

Turing got no further, because the warlady suddenly pushed and he went flying. She strode towards him, sword in hand. Turing looked around for help, but none was available. So he saluted her with his sword and they clashed.

 

Strike. Block. Take a kick to the stomach. Riposte. Duck. Parry—

 

The warlady’s blade slid off of Turing’s and sliced him down one leg. He staggered, and tried to step back, but his leg would barely move. The warlady grinned and raised her sword.

 

“I’m sendin’ you to the City of Heroes!” Turing had to duck a vicious two-handed slash. “You can explain to the Titans how you lost a battle with twice as many units! And when you get there, tell ‘em Carly Clause sent you! Tell em—”

 

Turing’s blade exited Carly’s back. She stopped and stared down at the sword protruding from her chest. She took one step back, looked at Turing, and then fell.

 

Shakily Turing pulled his sword free. He felt rather than saw the rest of the enemy fall to his units, routed without a leadership bonus. He looked down at the dead warlady – Carly Clause. She still looked surprised even in death. He searched for something to say.

 

“Tell them yourself,” Turing said.

 

 

—-

 

 

Only in the aftermath of the battle did Turing realize that the city still hadn’t fallen. The garrison remained intact even though all the defenders in sight were croaked. That meant there were more units inside the pitifully small keep.

 

Turing had hastily assembled every unit with any hits left, keeping his wounded Gwulls in flight overhead as he approached. It didn’t make sense that there would be more than a token unit in the garrison – not when the warlady had been stationed outside, but maybe this was some devious trap.

 

It wasn’t. Turing had charged in with his stack and found a single Piker, unconscious rather than dead inside the garrison. The side had probably been waiting for the turn to end so they could see whether the Piker croaked or recovered when their Ruler fell.

 

Turing sagged in relief. He drew his sword, and then hesitated.

 

“Anyone close to leveling?”

 

Several Pikers raised their hand. So did Miya Yam. Turing nodded at her.

 

“Wanna be Level Three?”

 

“Already am, lord.” She grinned happily at him. It was the second smile he’d ever received from a female unit, or any Stabber for that matter. “Can I be Level Four?”

 

He nodded. “Go for it.”

 

Turing looked around as Miya gave a coup de grace to the fallen unit. He stared at the double doors of the fancy keep and took his breath.

 

The keep was small, but equally ostentatious. White marble floors complimented long green ferns and shag carpeting. Turing wrinkled his nose as the scents of perfume hanging in the air and coughed. But then he saw the throne.

 

It was another excess of gold and jewels, but that somehow fit the regal chair. Turing couldn’t say why, but the throne stood out in the room. It…called to him.

 

Slowly, Turing walked towards it. His stack spread out across the room behind him, but Turing took no notice. The world slowed and stopped around him. All he was conscious of was the throne, and the power he felt radiating from it.

 

His hand touched one golden arm and Turing looked up. He whispered the words into the air.

 

“I did it, l—Gout. I did it.”

 

For a while Turing caressed the arm of the throne. And then he turned. His Stabbers and Pikers looked up at him, expectantly. Turing closed his eyes, and whispered a prayer to the titans. Then he sat upon the throne.

 

It was cold. And not too comfortable, even with the cushion. Turing hoped it would change once he founded the side. He opened his mouth, and hesitated. Were there any words he should say? If there were, they were unique to each side.

 

“I claim this capital, and declare a new side,” Turing said. “The side of…of…”

 

His units stared at him. Turing turned red as he realized he hadn’t thought that part through. He’d always assumed a side named itself automatically.

 

“Well, we’ll wait on that for now,” he said lamely. “For now, I claim the capital and name it Restin!”

 

Around him, the world changed. Even as Turing stared around the room, it shifted in his vision. The marble floors became rosy hardwood, glowing in the light of the sun as it filtered in through stained-glass windows. He yelped as the throne underneath him changed as well, becoming mahogany and taller, with a comfortable cushion to sit on.

 

On the far side of the room double doors resized themselves and took on an arch, while the room became decorated with statues and the armor of Knights. Several portraits Turing vaguely recognized hung on the walls including one…

 

Turing looked away. He took one deep breath, and then another. But tears threatened to spill from his eyes as he saw Curbstomp’s image captured on another portrait on the far wall.

 

Slowly, Turing looked around the castle’s throne room. It was a castle now, a proper one. And it was just the one he’d dreamed of—or at least, would have dreamed of if he’d ever imagined becoming a ruler. The large room gave him the feeling of serenity and wisdom. The images of his favorite writers and old friends hung on the walls, and the room itself was beautiful and quiet. It was what he’d wanted.

 

“Lord?”

 

Turing jerked upright. He looked around, and saw a Stabber standing at one end of the room. Miya Yam was the only unit not exploring the newly popped capital. She waved at him.

 

“What is it?”

 

Miya Yam held open the door of the new throne room.

 

“Gotta see this, Lord.”

 

“What is it?”

 

The Stabber shrugged and just nodded outside. She clearly thought it was better to show him rather than explain.

 

Turing stood up, heard pounding. What was it? Had something gone wrong? Was—Titans, was failing to name a side some kind of terrible mistake?

 

He strode towards the double doors and flung them open. Turing took one step outside his castle—

 

And stopped. He stared out at his newly popped capital city, Restin. He stared around, open-mouthed.

 

Turing stared, rubbed his face and then put a hand over his eyes. He looked guiltily at Miya Yam, and shrugged weakly.

 

“Oops.”

 

Chapter 10

Turing stared around the capital at disbelief. This could not be happening. This was not happening. It had happened, but he couldn’t believe it.

 

The natural Thinkamancy that governed a city meant that it popped according to its rulers desires and wishes. In most cases that just meant a city followed the ruler’s sense of aesthetics. Osnap for instance, had been based off of a traditional military garrison. But Turing had read of unique cases.

 

For instance, he’d heard of a rare example where one Level 1 city had been popped with insane defenses and practically no other features because its ruler had been seconds away from a battle. The ‘city’ had been little more than a rough shell in exchange for popping actual units and defenses worthy of a Level 2 or Level 3 city including manned ballistae and even a stack of units.

 

That was—was about as crazy as the city Turing was looking at. But where Lord Forecastle of Seaworld got a city ready for a fight, Turing got—well, he got—

 

He got a paradise.

 

“Titans,” Turing breathed. He looked around the newly popped capital as amazement and chagrin fought for dominance.

 

Where could he begin? Well, Restin was not a city with any high places. That didn’t mean it was cramped—quite the opposite in fact. It felt like a garden, much like Redrum had been. But where Redrum’s city had been geared around opulence, Reestin was geared around one thing.

 

Reading.

 

Books. Turing looked at one building and saw that it was based on books. In a literal sense. Instead of boring granite or stone making up the walls of the building, it looked like the small structure had been carved out of the ground and then decorated with frescoes and landscapes. The entire small house was, in fact, a living depiction of the famous battle of the Union of So-Be-It, starting with the traitorous Bullyclub’s overtures to Squashcourt. Turing walked around the house—how many times?—just staring at the small figure of one Lord Crush as he and Prince Axe slew a host of Bullycourt units in a brilliant pincer attack.

 

It was incredible. And that was just one house. When Turing looked around he saw every building in the city was created like that. Even the buildings meant purely for decoration and to host the garrison had the same kind of wonderful stories etched onto their very structure. When he peeked inside one, he saw lovely cushions and beds for sleeping in.

 

That was the good news. The bad news came whenever Turing looked around. Because when he did, he could see straight through into another hex. Restin, like Redrum, was completely undefended.

 

It had no walls. It had no fortifications of any kind, not even palisades or a moat. In fact, even the layout of the city was so open and free that any unit could charge straight towards the castle in moments. A winding main road branched off countless times across grassy patches of open ground, so that a strolling unit could find itself in the residential district at any moment, or walk into the castle, or visit—

 

The park. Turing’s jaw dropped. Yes, there was an actual park with…with grass and flowers and even trees and a small pond right in the middle of his city! It had countless statues, again of famous warlords, casters, and rulers he’d read about.

 

“There—isn’t that King Banhammer of Faq?”

 

Miya Yam, who had followed her ruler as he walked stupefied around the park, shrugged.

 

“Dunno, lord.”

 

“It must be. And there—that can only be his daughter, Jillian of Faq! He mentions her in his book—my, she doesn’t look happy.”

 

“No, lord.”

 

“And what’s that building?”

 

Turing pointed towards the second-largest…no, maybe the largest structure in the city. It was a circular domed building that dominated the center of the city. What was it?

 

Miya Yam scratched at her head and shrugged.

 

“Got lots of books. You wanna look l—”

 

She was speaking to thin air. Turing dashed towards the library and flung open the magnificent double doors. He ran inside, screamed, and raised both hands to defend himself.

 

Dwagon!

 

Miya Yam came running at his yell, sword in her hand. She looked at the Dwagon and tapped it gently with her sword.

 

“This one’s made of stone, lord. You want I should stab it anyways?”

 

Turing stopped his panicked flight and looked behind him. It was a Dwagon. A stone Dwagon. The majestic beast reared up from its massive pedestal in the center of the library, poised to strike. It was so lifelike that aside form the lack of color, Turing could imagine it would step off the dais in an instant.

 

“Oh,” he said lamely. “No, uh, that’s fine. Thank you, Miya.”

 

She sheathed her sword and shrugged. “Okay lord. First time I ever saw a Dwagon.”

 

“Me too.”

 

Below the Dwagon golden letters had been carved into the pedestal. They read ‘lectio ludus est’. Turing had no idea what the words meant, but they spoke to him. The entire library spoke to him, at that. Because when Turing looked around the massive room, he knew he was home.

 

“Books,” Miya Yam commented after the silence wore on.

 

“Yes, what an archive!” Turing stood in the massive library and spread his arms and twirled in the center. The stacks of books and smell of dry paper in the air was intoxicating to him. Around him wall after wall of books stretched up to the ceiling, neatly partitioned off into three separate floors so that a unit could slowly walk up the spiraling walkway and reach the top floor or branch off and search through the—thousands of books? No. Tens of thousands of books.

 

It was paradise. Turing felt tears prick at his eyes. He would have stood there forever, or at least until he started reading a book, but then he felt something poke him in the side.

 

He yelped and jumped. Miya Yam was standing behind him, her usually expressionless face twisted into a frown.

 

“You okay, lord?”

 

“What? Oh, yes. Is something the matter?”

 

She shrugged. “You were standing there. Long time. You said ‘tell you if you act funny’.”

 

Turing’s euphoria vanished in an instant. Or rather, it was replaced by something else. Knowledge. Duty. He scuffed at the rich wooden floor of the library with one shoe and then bowed his head at Miya.

 

“Of course I did. Forgive me I—let’s go outside.”

 

She nodded and they walked outside to look at Restin again. It was a city unlike any other, a city built for…well, he wasn’t sure what.

 

“Did the other Stabbers and Pikers find anything else interesting?” He asked Miya Yam.

 

“Couple of things in the castle, lord.”

 

He waited. She waited too. “…Like what?”

 

“Things,” she said vaguely. “In a room.”

 

“What things? Do you mean an armory?”

 

“No, lord. Looks like games.”

 

Board games?

 

“Probably. Also found a wine cellar. No dungeon. And…a dripping thing.”

 

“A what?”

 

“Wanna see?”

 

 

—-

 

 

It was a strange Turn, where Turing felt his heart could break and be filled with wonder and nearly break again. But when he stared at the giant Turn Timer standing in a small plaza in the city, he felt his heart ache in his chest.

 

Miya Yam stared curiously at the Turn Timer. She reached out and hesitated before touching the glass walls of the device. It was the most emotion Turing had ever seen out of her. “What is it, lord?”

 

“A device. For measuring time. Gout—King Gout invented it,” Turing explained. He stared at the hourglass and saw it was mounted so that it could be easily turned by one unit after all the sand had run out of the top.

 

Miya Yam frowned.

 

“Why you gotta measure time, lord? Turns start. Turns end.”

 

“Yes, but this one measures the time within a turn,” Turing explained. He looked at Miya’s uncomprehending face and sighed. “Never mind. It’s just useful, that’s all.”

 

She looked unconvinced, but Turing went back to staring at the way sand fell from the top of the hourglass. It was useful, he had no doubt. The way the sand fell was hypnotizing and soothing, and more than that, with this device he wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting the time. It was clearly visible from the castle, but he wondered how much time the Time Turner was meant to measure. This one was so large…he couldn’t guess at the intervals it measured in.

 

“Well,” he said at last. “Well.”

 

“City popped, lord.” Miya Yam looked at him. “You’re ruler now. Congrats.”

 

“Thank you,” he said awkwardly. He waved one hand around at the city. “I uh, popped an interesting city, don’t you think?”

 

She nodded. Her eyes strayed towards the hexes bounding the city. They were all open clearing hexes, while beyond them deep forest hexes closed off the hidden capital from the rest of the world.

 

“No walls, lord.”

 

“Yes, I can see that.”

 

“No defenses either. No traps. Lotta books.”

 

“It’s um, well, it’s not as if the capital needs those things since we’re so well hidden.”

 

Miya looked at Turing reproachfully. “Walls are good, lord.”

 

“…Sorry.”

 

Miya Yam shrugged. She paused, and looked around the city again. “City doesn’t have a tower either, lord.”

 

Turing looked around. It was true. The highest point was the keep, which was barely more than four stories tall. The city had no towers. He felt a pang in his heart.

 

“No. No, it doesn’t.”

 

Miya Yam paused, and the nodded. “No towers is good.”

 

“…Yes. Yes it is good.”

 

She nodded. “What next, lord?”

 

“Next?” Turing looked down at Miya in surprise.

 

“We gonna go hunting? Or croak units?” She looked at him with what almost looked like hope in her eyes.

 

Turing shook his head reluctantly.

 

“I’d like to, but I can’t send a stack out without leadership. And I’m—well, I’m—”

 

He gestured at his royal regalia helplessly. “I can’t risk the side like that. And you’re only Level 4. If your stack ran into a Dwagon or another heavy monster in the deep forest—which is more than likely—you might all get croaked. Without a warlord to tell you not to engage I can’t just send you out.”

 

Miya Yam looked heartbroken. She stared pleadingly at Turing.

 

“No stabbing?”

 

“Sorry,” Turing said again. He shrugged helplessly, feeling like he was imitating Miya. “But it won’t be for too long. I’ll pop a warlord soon, and then maybe once we’ve popped a few more units you can go out.”

 

“’Kay.”

 

The female Stabber looked down at her shoes. Turing felt bad, but he really didn’t know what to say.

 

“Um, well…I have a question,” he blurted out to fill the silence. Miya Yam looked at him expectantly.

 

“What, lord?”

 

“Do you—do Stabbers all talk like you? I mean, the ones I’ve met do, but—do you all talk like that?”

 

“Like what, lord?”

 

“Like the way you’re talking,” Turing said. “Not that it’s bad per se, it’s just—why do you talk in such short, clipped sentences?”

 

She thought about it for a second and then shrugged. It seemed like her default response.

 

“Dunno. How should I talk?”

 

“Well, it’s not that you’re talking wrong,” Turing hastily clarified. “But it’s just—Stabbers and Pikers always seem so quiet. Don’t you have things to talk about?”

 

Miya looked blank. “Like stabbing?”

 

“Is that all you talk about?”

 

“Sometimes we talk to the Pikers. About piking. And stabbing.”

 

“And that’s it? You talk about stabbing…in what sense? About how fun it is?”

 

She nodded and gave him a slight smile. It changed her face, but only for an instant. Then she was back to her expressionless face.

 

“We talk about stabbing other units,” she explained. “Units we stabbed, units we want to stab…units who stabbed us.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Is that wrong, lord?”

 

“No, no, I was just thinking it sounded sort of bor—lonely, that’s all.”

 

Another shrug. “What else should we do, lord?”

 

He thought about that for a second. Then Turing looked around at the newly popped city and looked at Miya out of the corner of his eyes.

 

“You don’t…see anything to do?”

 

She stared around blankly. “Not really, lord.”

 

“Fine. Then come with me.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing searched through book after book and was glad that for once he wasn’t sneezing from all the dust in the air. It was an odd feeling to be sure, but not unwelcome. At last he found what he was looking for and pulled it from the shelf.

 

“Here.”

 

Turing handed Miya a book. She stared at it blankly, and read the cover aloud.

 

The Wonderful Carnymancer of el-Efbaum.

 

“You might like this. It’s an interesting story that someone wrote oh, countless turns ago. It sounds like a story, but it actually follows the real life events of a massive side. Funnily enough, I can’t tell who or which rulers the story refers to. But it’s a wonderful tale, full of casters and fighting. Why don’t you read it?”

 

She held the book awkwardly and looked at Turing.

 

“Is it an order, lord?”

 

“No order. Just a suggestion, in case you get bored. I know you lot don’t do much in the garrison, and I’m afraid to say that we might be here for quite a few turns before I can pop a warlord.”

 

“Okay, lord.”

 

Miya nodded and held the book at her side. Turing wasn’t sure whether she’d read it. He doubted it, in fact but it was—well, it was worth a shot. Besides, even if she forgot the book it was one he’d already read.

 

“Well, tell your friends that they can read books too, so long as they don’t damage them.”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

“And you can tell them they’ll have to wait for a while. I know it’s boring, but—well, I’ll pop more units as quick as I can.”

 

“Yes, lord. I’ll tell them.”

 

Turing paused.

 

“Out of curiosity, what do you do all turn long? Besides, talking, I mean.”

 

Miya thought about it.

 

“We stab each other. Except the Pikers. They pike each other.”

 

“Oh.” Turing thought about this.

 

“You don’t mean with real swords and pikes, do you?”

 

“No, lord.”

 

“Oh. Well…good. I’ll have to see that sometime.”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Miya Yam followed Turing back to his castle’s throne room where he dismissed her. She wandered off with the book in her hands and he sat on the throne. His mind was still reeling from the newly popped capital, but once he sat on the throne, Duty took over. It told him to think of the side first before he lost himself in this new world of reading. There was only one problem with that.

 

He was lost. Completely, utterly lost.

 

Turing buried his head in his hands and felt the comfortable cushion shift beneath him. That was one blessing, but what good was a cushion if the body it was holding had no idea how to rule? There was a question for the ages.

 

He stared blankly around the beautiful little room, and at the way light refracted through the colored glass windows. There were no rulers to rule him, no Chief Warlords to order him around. Turing had control of his own Fate—at least in a sense—and it was terrifying.

 

What was he supposed to do? Build up units and try to take back all the lost cities? Maybe. But that was such an incredible goal that Turing had no idea where to start.

 

He had to think. Turing frowned and stared at a painting on the wall. A fat face gazed down at him, but not with his usual heavy-lidded drowsiness. The portrait captured something more of the ruler’s face, something grand and regal that Turing had seen flashes of in the brief turns he’d truly gotten to know the man.

 

What would Curbstomp do? What would Gout do? Turing knew the answer immediately. They’d definitely build up an army, pop a few warlords – hope a caster popped too – and then immediately start sieging cities. It would probably work, too, except—

 

“Except for the Level 13 Warlord.”

 

Turing paused. That was it. There was no way around that kind of barrier. Even if Turing had a thousand turns to pop units, he wasn’t sure he knew how he’d take down a unit that insanely strong.

 

So what could he do? He knew what his ruler and friend would have done, but that wasn’t what Turing should do, he knew.

 

Gout told him that his methods hadn’t worked. Being a ruler that simply relied on brute force eventually failed, but on the other hand, a ruler couldn’t just rely on clever strategies. Gout had shown Turing as much when he’d effortlessly crushed him in their war games.

 

What had he said? As if Turing could ever forget. Strategy. Strategy and tactics. And well, Turing was complete Crap Golem at tactics, but Gout had told him he knew a bit about strategy. So what did Turing know.

 

Turing rested one hand on his throne and tried to think. It wasn’t that comfortable, to be honest. He shifted, and eventually ended up in a position where his legs dangled over one armrest while he propped himself up against the other. That was better. Now, what was he thinking about? Oh yes, strategy.

 

A side built its strategies around the units and circumstances they were given when they were founded. For example…Faq. Say what you would about Banhammer, but he’d been blessed with countless casters and he’d used them well. Well…not in the sense of using them for battle, but the trick with the Predictamancer and Foolamancer was a good one.

 

If Turing had the fortune to pop a caster, he’d definitely build his strategies around such a unit. Zipzap had carried Osnap on his shoulders with his ability to croak units effortlessly at range. Any caster would be useful, in Turing’s opinion. Well…maybe not a Carnymancer. They had a nasty reputation for causing as much bad luck as good. But Turing would take what he got.

 

Still, that was for the future. Right now, if Turing had to base his side’s strategy on the things he was sure of, he’d…well, he’d…

 

He still had no idea. Part of that problem came from the fact that his new side didn’t have any unique features. Turing had done a quick check of the units he could pop when he’d founded the side and there were absolutely no surprises, good or bad, in the units he could pop.

 

Maybe if Turing leveled up the city he’d be able to pop special units. He couldn’t tell if he could pop Gwulls yet – they were only available to Level 2 Cities or higher. Well, that would be one of Turing’s priorities, right next to popping a warlord.

 

Yes, a warlord. Turing smacked his hand into his fist. That was his first priority. Why should he have to make all the hard decisions when he could ask his Chief Warlord in a few turns what he or she thought? Besides, if they had a convenient special that would make deciding so much easier.

 

The way Turing saw it, the Titans owed him at least one special on a warlord for his un-special side. The capital was nice, but books didn’t croak units. Unless you hit a unit really hard with one, that is.

 

Having decided to decide on things later, Turing ordered the city to begin popping a warlord at once. He nodded to himself, satisfied. Well, that was that. He ended the turn.

 

Turing yawned and stretched in his chair. Well, he could sleep now.

 

Or…he could read a book and then sleep. Turing thought about that. Yes, if he kept to the library—or throne room, maybe he wouldn’t disturb the other units with his time. And obviously, you didn’t pop a massive city with practically every book ever written in Erfworld and not read a book or two on your first turn, right? Turing would just pop down to the library, look around, find ten or so books he really wanted to read and—

 

The doors slammed open. Turing felt out his chair in surprise.

 

“Lord!” A voice shouted out as Turing scrambled to his feet. He got up and saw Miya Yam running at him. Her face was pale and she waved one arm frantically at him. Her other hand was holding her bared word.

 

“What?” He shouted. “I didn’t read them! I just thought about it! You can’t turn because of that!”

 

“What?” She looked confused and then shook her head. “Lord! Come quick! We got trouble! Big trouble!”

 

Turing stared at her. As the panic and shock wore off he realized she wasn’t talking about his units Turning on him. And the look on her face—he ran after her as she turned and dashed out the double doors.

 

Turing ran towards the edge of the hex where the garrison was already waiting. They stood at the edge of the hex, weapons drawn, and grim looks on their faces. The Gwulls stood in a stack, wounded, cowering away from—

 

As Turing looked out into the hexes beyond his city his footsteps slowed. He stopped running, and walked forwards in a daze. His head was ringing, and a rushing roar filled his ears. The world seemed to shut down around him, so that he no longer smelled, no longer heard or felt or even breathed. He only saw. He saw the end.

 

An army was standing at the other end of the clearing. A massive force—well, not massive, but one large enough to occupy most of the hex. Rows of Pikers and Stabbers stood in perfect lines, each one wearing the livery of a side Turing had never seen before. But that wasn’t what caught his eye, no.

 

Three units stood in front of the Stabbers and Pikers. It was—well, it was strange. It was an unbalanced army, one without flying units or heavies or even Knights. But the three. Oh, the three made up for it.

 

They were a caster, a warlord, and an archon.

 

At the head of the army of units a female Caster wearing purple and silver robes stood next to another female unit wearing a colossal set of plate mail armor. Next to her, a blue archon with blonde hair hovered in the air, giving Turing a generic, welcoming smile. She waved, blew a kiss, and pointed to the sky.

 

Turing closed his eyes for a second. But then he opened them and stared at the caster. Her features were sharp, almost edged, and her straight red hair fell behind her in a curtain that swept and swayed as she moved. But even the archon and caster weren’t important.

 

Turing’s eyes turned to towards the armored unit. The black and grey metal was dented and scratched or even torn in places—yet despite that, the Signamancy of the warrior leading the army was enough to put fear into anyone who saw her.

 

The female warlord raised a sword, and the army advanced. They marched four hexes towards Restin, and stopped in the hex before the city. Slowly, the Turnamancer and the leader of the army advanced.

 

Turing felt his garrison fall back around him. They couldn’t help it. The pressure the two units standing at the hex’s boundary gave off was incredible. But his legs moved. He walked forwards despite the fear in his heart and icy dread running through his veins. He had his Duty, and so he walked forwards and faced the two units.

 

The Caster nodded to him but said nothing. She was waiting. And as Turing approached, the armored unit removed her helm. She revealed short, cropped black hair, a fair complexion and a face that would have been—well, Turing couldn’t say. Because the scars that crossed her face told no other story than their own.

 

She stepped forwards. Turing met her, and they regarded each other at the place where two hexes met. He felt her presence shifting the air around him, beating down on him, and saw her army. A small army. A weak army, without air support except in one case, and without heavies or high-level units. But they needed none of those things, because the unit that led them was an army unto herself.

 

Turing gazed into the green eyes of the enemy warlord that faced him and could think of nothing to say. He was out of words, out of actions…out of time. The turn had been normal, good, even. He’d thought he had time. Time to worry and fret and rule. But suddenly, in one swift moment he was out of time.

 

Because his Fate stood before him, in dented armor with a sword at her side to cut down all that stood in her way. She could not be opposed. Her presence on Erf was aberration. She was a normal sized unit, but she was gigantic, colossal, titanic. She was his death, and she smiled at him on the last turn of his life.

 

He knew without a doubt that she was a Level 13 Warlady.

 

Chapter 11

Silence. Turing stared up at the scarred Warlady and didn’t know what to say. She studied him with remote interest, but didn’t open her mouth. It was the Turnamancer who broke the silence.

 

“Ruler, at last we meet. I am Lady Vina of Reapin. I greet you, and let you know that the end of your side is at hand.”

 

Turing looked at the caster. She was icy, her features sharp and refined and beautiful, but without compassion. She nodded slightly at him and gestured at the silent warlord.

 

“This is the Chief Warlord of my side, Countess Protheana. She has a question to ask of you before your demise.”

 

Protheana nodded once.

 

Turing didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but Protheana held up one gauntleted hand.

 

“Hold it there.”

 

She had the same accent as the local units. It unnerved Turing, though he tried not to show it.

 

“I don’t need ta know yer name, ruler. Ain’t like I’m gonna remember it, or your side.”

 

She was abrupt and rude. It was so normal of her that Turing couldn’t quite believe she was the Level 13 Warlady he expected her to be. Protheana continued as he stared at her.

 

“I got one question for you. Round twenty turns back I sent a force at yer capital. Brashball. You managed to wipe it out even though I had a Level 6 Warlord and a Master-class Shockamancer in that army. Our intel said you didn’t have more than a token garrison. How’d you do it?”

 

Turing stared at her. He shifted his stare to Lady Vina who stared impatiently back.

 

“That’s it?” He demanded. “That’s all you want to say?”

 

Lady Vina and Protheana both nodded.

 

Turing struggled with his words.

 

“What makes you think I’d tell an enemy side anything?”

 

“You don’t have to say anything, but it beats us havin’ to torture you until we find out.”

 

Turing looked at Protheana. She calmly gazed back.

 

“And if I refuse to talk?”

 

Protheana shrugged. “Then we get to croakin’ you and yer units.”

 

Turing went cold at that casual pronouncement. But he had no doubt she was serious. She could croak his entire side by herself. Probably with both hands tied behind her back. Actually, the Archon could probably croak the entire side right now.

 

The Archon. Turing glanced over at her. She waved and blew a kiss from him as she hovered in the hex.

 

“You tracked us all the way here with that Archon, didn’t you? Why? Just so you could erase a tiny side? Or is knowing that important?”

 

Lady Vina made a tching sound of annoyance. “Let me be clear, ruler. You are not asking the questions here. Answer my warlord or answer her later at the tip of a sword. It matters little to me.”

 

“If—” Turing’s throat closed up. He coughed. “If I tell you, will you agree not to attack my side? We could make a deal. I’m willing to agree to any terms—”

 

“Sorry. No.” Protheana interrupted Turing. She shrugged. “Ain’t my decision at all. Side’s policy is, we don’t negotiate with anyone ‘cept Charlie. If we meet a side, we wipe it out.”

 

“Then…” Turing spread his hands. “There’s no point telling you anyways. You won’t make any deal?”

 

“None. But why not save yerself the pain later and talk?”

 

Turing barely heard her. His pulse was thundering in his ears. He couldn’t think. Numbly, he shook his head.

 

Lady Vina tsked again and whirled away. Protheana gave Turing another glance and shrugged.

 

“Too bad. Guess we gotta do this the hard way.”

 

Instantly, Turing tensed, but Protheana made no move to her sword. She glanced at Turing, and then at his Gwulls and two stacks of garrison units.

 

“Hrm. Too bad.”

 

She turned and began walking away. Turing, who’d had his hand on his sword gaped.

 

“Aren’t you going to attack?” He asked stupidly.

 

Protheana looked over her shoulder. “I’m outta move. Finding this capital was a pain in the rear. We’ll take the side tomorrow. Enjoy the night ruler. ‘S gonna be your last.”

 

She walked back among the ranks of her units, and then disappeared into a black tent. Turing stared at her back until the tent flaps closed. Eventually, he turned and stumbled back to his units.

 

His measly stacks of Pikers and Stabbers stared watchfully at him as Turing approached. They’d all drawn their weapons and were eying the enemy in the next hex.

 

“Gonna fight, lord?”

 

Turing looked at Miya. She had her sword drawn and lead the remaining stacks of Piker and Stabbers.

 

“Not this turn. Their Chief Warlord is out of move. But she’ll attack next turn.”

 

The Pikers and Stabbers shifted. They stared at the army in the next hex. Not a one looked frightened, but they had a grim resignation about them. Turing felt it in him as well.

 

“What do we do, lord?”

 

Turing looked at the Piker who’d spoken. What could they do?

 

He hesitated. They were all staring at him. Of course. He was their ruler. But he had no idea.

 

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Just—just go. Disperse. Do whatever you want tonight. Our turn starts before theirs. I’ll call you in the morning.”

 

The Stabbers and Pikers exchanged a glance, and then left. Miya Yam glanced at Turing before she walked off. He stared around blankly as the wounded Gwulls took off. Eventually, Turing wandered back to his castle as the sun set on his newly popped capital.

 

 

—-

 

 

Silence. It dominated the throne room of the castle. Turing sat in his throne. Occasionally, he got up and paced around the long room. Dusk had nearly become night, and in the faint light the colored windows cast strange shadows across the room.

 

Step. Pause. Step. Pause.

 

“Level 13. Turnamancer. Archon. Probably has dance-fighting or Shockamancy. Maybe other specials. Bunch of Stabbers and Pikers. Not too high-level, but with her bonus it doesn’t matter.”

 

Turning muttered to himself. He walked back to his throne and sat on it. His mind was racing and slow at the same time. He was trying to think and coming up with thousands of thoughts, but none of them worked.

 

“I could run.” Turing said in the silence. He flinched, but carried on. “I could. If I needed to. We’ve got a few Gwulls – I could mount as many units on them as possible and run.”

 

But Gwulls didn’t have high move. And even if he ran, Turing was sure they’d send the Archon after him. Archons had dangerous abilities like natural Shockamancy. If it came down to it, she could just croak his Gwull and that would be that. And even if she didn’t attack, with her higher move they’d never outrun her.

 

No escape. No surrender. And no way to win. Literally, no way to win.

 

Turing stared at his sword. If, by some chance he managed to engage her somehow next turn.

 

Okay, let’s assume he managed to find a way past her stack. And even better, let’s assume he somehow managed to keep the Archon and Turnamancer occupied and got a clear shot at her. Even if he stabbed her, how many Hits did a Level 13 unit have? Could he even hit her with such a gap in Attack and Defense? Even if he did a crit, Turing wasn’t sure he’d be able to croak her.

 

Even if his entire stack did crits on her, Turing still wasn’t sure if that was enough. That was the kind of monster they were up against. They were just too low-level, too few, too Titans-cursed weak.

 

In the silence, Turing looked up into the darkness and knew the truth of Erfworld. Power was everything. And it could not be so easily upstaged.

 

You could create elaborate strategies and perform miracles with casters and traps and fortifications, but when it really came down to it, Levels trumped everything. Levels were power. Units were power. Specials and casters were power. Power was power.

 

And Turing was powerless.

 

He would croak next turn. That was all there was to say about it.

 

Turing closed his eyes and breathed out. No way to win.

 

“Well, that’s it, then.”

 

Turing glanced over at the portrait of Gout. What would his ruler have said? Something like…

 

“Sometimes ya win. Sometimes the Titans kick you inna teeth. ‘Swhat happens.”

 

He laughed bitterly and stood up.

 

“I guess it’s pointless wasting time. I don’t even have a wall to drop on her.”

 

The irony of his wonderful little capital city. Turing walked to the grand double doors and kicked them open. He walked out into the city and looked around.

 

All his units were off the streets. Well. They were probably sleeping. Turing knew he should sleep to.

 

“But what would be the point?”

 

He had tonight, and next turn before he croaked. What was the point of doing the smart thing if it was useless? No, there was no point.

 

Turing’s feet carried him as his mind wrestled with the knowledge of what was to come. Unconciously, they trod the smooth roads until Turing found himself looking up at a set of double doors.

 

The library. Of course. It was where Turing went whenever something happened.

 

“A good place to be, I suppose.” Turing murmured to himself. He put his hands on the double doors and opened them. He’d read a book before the next turn. One new book, out of the countless thousands he would never read.

 

The stone Dwagon stared down at Turing as he walked into the library. Vaguely, he realized the room was still lit. Orbs powered by natural Shockamancy lit up the room even at night. How handy. Turing wondered how many fortifications and possible stacks he’d lost to build this grand, useless library.

 

Numbly, he wandered up to the second floor and walked along the soft carpet. He wasn’t really looking for anything, but then a flicker of movement on the third floor made him stop in sudden panic.

 

Movement. Something was walking about the third floor.

 

Turing was suddenly overcome by fear. He drew his sword reflexively. It was night. There shouldn’t be an enemy unit in the hex, but—Turnamancers could do scary things. Was it actually possible that Lady Vina had managed to sneak a unit into his city off-turn?

 

He crept up the stairwell, listening hard. The mystery unit was moving about the third floor. Turing peeked around a bookcase, and then quickly dashed to the cover of a second. He rounded another bookcase ready for anyt—

 

“Hi, lord.”

 

Turing screamed and whirled around, sword raised. Miya Yam reflexively stepped back and shielded herself with the book she was holding.

 

After a second Turing lowered his sword and sheathed it. He sat down and covered his face with one hand. Miya Yam looked at her ruler uncertainly.

 

“It’s me, lord.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Miya Yam, lord.”

 

“Yes, I know.”

 

Once Turing was sure his heart hadn’t stopped and he wasn’t croaking, he looked at Miya Yam. She gave him a blank look back.

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—it’s just that I didn’t expect anyone else would be up here. What are you doing here at night?”

 

She shrugged and looked guilty.

 

“Sorry, lord. But you said we could do anything. I was looking for the place to put the book back, lord.”

 

She proffered the book so Turing could see it.

 

“Oh, of course.” Turing shook his head sadly. He’d completely forgotten about the book he’d given her. Well, it wasn’t as if she’d have read it anyways.

 

“I read the book, lord.”

 

Turing looked up. “Really?”

 

“Yes, lord.”

 

“Really?”

 

Miya frowned a little. “Yes, lord.”

 

“So…soon?”

 

Miya Yam shrugged. She held the book out to Turing.

 

“It was good. I want to see the yellow brick road hexes.”

 

Turing blinked at her. Then he remembered he’d given her The Wonderful Carnymancer of el-Efbaum.

 

“Oh! Oh! Yes, I loved the Signamancy in the book, didn’t you?”

 

Miya Yam nodded.

 

“Lots of interesting units. Like Munchlings. Weird natural side.”

 

“What about the flying monkey units? Weren’t they interesting? They all turned once their ruler fell.”

 

“They had the capture special. Wouldn’t want to try fighting them.”

 

“No, I wouldn’t either.”

 

Turing grinned at Miya. She gave him a slight smile in return.

 

“Where’s the next book?”

 

Turing paused. “Excuse me?”

 

Miya Yam opened the book and pointed to the last page. “It doesn’t say ‘The End’, lord. It says ‘To Be Continued.’”

 

“What?”

 

Turing snatched the book from Miya and looked at it.

 

“I must not have noticed that. Strange—I’ve never read it. In Brashball the library wasn’t that big. But here—”

 

Turing looked around at the countless shelves of books. He turned to Miya.

 

“Do you…want to look for it?”

 

She smiled again, wider.

 

“Sure.”

 

 

—-

 

 

“Hm. It’s not here.”

 

Miya Yam looked disappointed as she peered at the spot where the sequel should have been. Turing felt disappointed too, but he tried to be positive.

 

“Well, even if we can’t find the sequel, there are plenty more good books in here.”

 

“Like what, lord?”

 

Turing hesitated. Then he picked out another story.

 

“Try this one. It’s the story about a poor Dirtamancer. It’s not too long so you should be able to finish it quickly.”

 

“Who wrote it?”

 

Again, Turing was floored by a question he’d never pondered.

 

“I don’t know. Some kind of Predictamancer wrote it about his life, I think. Or maybe it just popped. Some books do that now and then.”

 

“Huh.”

 

Miya Yam opened the book and began reading. After a second she looked up.

 

“You gonna read, lord?”

 

Turing realized he’d been staring at Miya while she read. He turned red.

 

“Uh, I was. But I’m not sure if I should. Books—books take a while to read.”

 

“Next turn still hasn’t started,” Miya Yam pointed out.

 

“True.” Turing looked out at the night sky. “There’s fatigue penalties. But I guess that won’t really matter, will it?”

 

Miya Yam paused, and then closed the book.

 

“We’re gonna croak, aren’t we, lord?”

 

“Yes.” Turing looked at the ground. “We are. I’m sorry.”

 

“We’re gonna fight, though.”

 

The edge in Miya’s tone made Turing look at her. He nodded.

 

“I’d love to croak at least one unit,” Turing said quietly. He clenched his fist. “But—I doubt we’ll be able to. Even a Level 1 Stabber would be able to croak half of us with a Chief Warlord bonus, her hex and her stack bonus.”

 

Miya thought about that for a second.

 

“Maybe if she was on a water hex, lord? If she fights at sea she doesn’t have the same bonuses.”

 

“True, but there’s no water hex we can retreat to. If there was we could try that – especially since she doesn’t have any archers…”

 

Turing trailed off. He stared at Miya.

 

“How do you know about water hexes? We’re landlocked. There’s no real water hex in a hundred hexes of here.”

 

“I read about them. I want to see an ocean hex before I croak.”

 

Turing looked incredulously at Miya Yam. He smiled.

 

“You like ocean hexes?”

 

She shrugged. “Never been to one. But I like them in the story.”

 

She looked up and gave him a slight smile. Turing couldn’t help but smile back.

 

“I’m just surprised. I didn’t think you’d—I mean, I’ve never met anyone else who likes reading.”

 

“Well I do,” Miya said. “Books are good, lord.”

 

“Yes.” Turing smiled as he selected a book from the shelves and opened it to the first page. “Yes, they are.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing opened his eyes and looked to his left. Yes, Titans, he hadn’t been dreaming. There was really a Stabber sleeping in a pile of books in his library.

 

He felt tired, but not mentally. In fact, he felt more awake than ever. The past night had been simply amazing. He couldn’t have slept if his life had depended on it, and that was in no small way due to Miya Yam.

 

She was incredible. She was a Stabber, but she read books. And what was more, she enjoyed it. Turing had sat next to her in quiet wonder through the night as she devoured book after book. And then…and then she’d talked with him about the stories, which characters she liked and then she’d picked up another book and kept on reading.

 

That had been part of the night. But at some point their post-book discussions had turned into simple talk. Turing and Miya had chatted about the side, about rulers, how things worked, and even what Stabbers and Warlords thought of each other.

 

It turned out that Stabbers and Pikers really did like warlords so long as they got a chance to properly fight. They didn’t mind garrisoning for a long time. What they hated was fighting in hexes against lots of air support or archers where they often croaked before they got a chance to engage the enemy.

 

Not only that, Turing had learned a lot from Miya that he’d never known about before. She’d explained stabbing to him, and even offered to show him. But Turing had refused. It didn’t feel right. He felt like he barely knew the—admittedly very attractive—Stabber. He didn’t want to do any stabbing. Or rather—he just wanted to read with her.

 

They’d talked through the night. Turing had shown her his favorite books and she’d read them and discussed them with him. He’d…never done that before. Ever. The most Turing ever did was talk about strategies with Curbstomp, but he’d never talked about reading and stories before.

 

At several points during the night Turing would catch himself staring in admiration at Miya, and she’d look up at him and give him that slight smile. When had it happened? Sometime in the night, he’d known what he had to do.

 

Turing stood up and left Miya sleeping with the books. She’d wake when the Turn started. By the way the sun was rising, that would only be a few more minutes.

 

He walked out of the library and shaded his eyes at the brightening sky. Then he walked over to the hex where the enemy army was camped.

 

He couldn’t cross over the boundary of course—his side’s turn hadn’t started yet. But even as Turing approached, the enemy Stabbers and Pikers roused themselves and grabbed their weapons.

 

Turing didn’t mind. He felt unnaturally calm. Was this how Gout had felt the turn he croaked? All Turing knew was that as the sun rose, he no longer worried about what would come next. He had his Duty. It was not just to keeping his side alive; it was to the units that made up the side. It was for their memory, and if it meant sacrificing the ruler to save one piece, that was all that mattered.

 

He stopped right at the edge of his city limits.

 

“Countess Protheana!” Turing shouted. “I’d like to talk to you!”

 

For a moment all was silence. Then the flaps of the black tent parted and the Warlady emerged. She wasn’t wearing her battle armor yet, but wore loose-fitting black underwear. Turing looked away reflexively in embarrassment.

 

Protheana called out across the hex. “Got nothing to say to you, ruler.”

 

“I want to negotiate!”

 

“Go away. There’s nothing to talk about.”

 

The tent flaps closed. Turing clenched his hands in frustration, but then thought. He cupped his hands and shouted again.

 

“I killed the army with a trap!”

 

For a moment the tent flaps remained closed. Then Protheana left the tent, and another silver-and-purple tent opened and Lady Vina emerged as well. Turing noticed the Archon hovering closer overhead, but said nothing.

 

Protheana approached, still in her underwear. Turing was embarrassed, and then he stared at the scars covering her body. She didn’t seem to care where he looked. Protheana crossed her arms as Lady Vina stopped by her side.

 

“A trap?” Protheana looked at him. “Zipzap said yer capital didn’t have a Dirtamancer or any traps.”

 

Turing shrugged. “I improvised. I collapsed the gates and a tower on the army once I lured them into the city. Your warlady croaked and most of the units.”

 

“How’d you kill Zipzap, then? He was still a Master-class Shockamancer.”

 

“Our ruler, King Gout croaked him. He had enough hits to take Zipzap’s attack.”

 

“Huh.” Protheana thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Too bad. I should’da gone myself and left Zipzap behind. He was a crap caster anyways, though. Even for a Master-class Shockamancer he didn’t obey orders like he should. Too bad he got Jactura and all them units killed.”

 

“You didn’t tell us this out of the goodness of your heard.” Lady Vina narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “What do you want?”

 

Turing took a deep breath.

 

“I’d like to negotiate a deal.”

 

“A deal?” Lady Vina was incredulous. However, Protheana regarded Turing with interest.

 

“Speak, then, ruler. What’s yer deal?”

 

Turing took a deep breath.

 

“I’ll send you all the Schmuckers I have—I’ll turn over units or sign a contract or a deal with a million Schmucker penalty. Or—you can croak us all and I won’t put up a fight. Just take one of my units into your army.”

 

Lady Vina and Protheana exchanged a glance. Both were visibly surprised, but Vina quickly glanced at Turing in suspicion.

 

“What unit do you want us to take, ruler?”

 

“Miya Yam. She’s a Level 4 Stabber.”

 

Protheana raised an eyebrow. “Any specials?”

 

“No. But she’s—she’s smarter than the others. More awake.”

 

Turing turned red as the two women stared at him. How could he explain it?

 

“I just want one unit to survive, that’s all. You can use her like any other unit—just don’t send her off on a suicide mission.”

 

“Why?” This time it was Protheana who asked the question. She looked at Turing. “Why do you want to save one Stabber and not yerself?”

 

Turing shrugged helplessly. “I just want to leave behind someone who remembers.”

 

Protheana had been scratching idly under one armpit. She stopped at Turing’s words and looked him in the eye. He saw something flash in her gaze before she looked away.

 

“I don’t like it.”

 

It was Lady Vina who spoke. Her cold eyes narrowed as she looked at Turing. “It reeks of a trap.”

 

“There’s no trap—”

 

Turing protested, but Lady Vina raised a hand. She looked at Protheana. “Chief Warlord, what is your advice?”

 

Protheana leaned on her sword and addressed Lady Vina. “I don’t care either way. ‘S not like we lose anything if we take the side. But a free Level 4’s not bad. Especially if you don’t have to use much juice on her.”

 

“Hm.”

 

“I can guarantee she’ll turn.” Turing clenched his hands behind his back. “She will be loyal. Just give her a chance.”

 

Lady Vina studied Turing. Her eyes narrowed as she thought. Then, suddenly, she smiled.

 

“No.”

 

Turing blinked. “What?” He said stupidly.

 

Vina gave him an icy smile. “No. I see no reason why we should agree to your demands.”

 

Turing stared at her and then grasped for words. “But—it’s a free unit.”

 

Lady Vina flicked her fingers.

 

“Perhaps, but it also could be a trap. Titans know how, but I suppose a Master-class Thinkamancer and Foolamancer linked with a Carnymancer might be able to create a trapped unit. Or even if it isn’t, I simply don’t want a unit freely offered.”

 

“What? That’s st—why?

 

Vina’s smile turned malicious.

 

“Do I need a reason? Let me make it clear for you, then, ruler. You desire to save your favorite unit. And because you do, I will see her croaked before she enters this army.”

 

Turing stared at Lady Vina. Protheana scratched at her head and looked away as the Turnamancer’s evil smile widened further.

 

“Are you angry, ruler? Are you upset? You seem to be under the delusion that we need to obey your rules. We owe you no such thing. Your Stabber will croak, and you will croak knowing you could do nothing to stop it. Indeed, perhaps if you hadn’t made the offer I would have spared the juice to turn her. I certainly have enough.”

 

Evil. That was all Turing thought. Helplessly, he appealed to Protheana.

 

“Are you going to turn away a free unit? You’re the Chief Warlord. Can’t you make an exception?”

 

Protheana shrugged.

 

“Not my call. Vina’s in command when it comes to recruitin’ units. I just croak and capture cities. Sorry.”

 

Lady Vina snapped her fingers.

 

“If that is all, please end your Turn so we can finish here.”

 

Turing’s mind felt liked it was falling apart. His dream, his plan—he stared at Lady Vina and knew for once what it felt like to hate another unit.

 

“You—you—”

 

Turing shook his finger at Vina. Then he let his arm fall and turning away. There was really nothing to say. To her credit, she didn’t do anything as clichéd as laugh, but he felt her gaze on his back as he slowly walked back into the center of his city. He knew she was smiling.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Something wrong, lord?”

 

Turing looked up into Miya Yam’s face. He was sitting on his throne, his head buried in his hands.

 

“Oh. Miya. Um, nothing’s wrong.”

 

She didn’t look convinced.

 

“Was wondering where you went, lord. You done reading? We gonna fight?”

 

“…No. No, I think we’ll…we’ll let them come to us. At least they’ll have to waste the move to take the city. And maybe then we can get a shot at that Turnamancer.”

 

“You going to try to stab her, then, lord?”

 

Turing clenched his fist. “If at all possible. I—I wish I could say we could. But we’re probably just going to croak. All of us.”

 

Miya Yam nodded. She stood next to his throne and looked down at her ruler.

 

“Too bad. I liked reading with you last night, lord.”

 

Turing closed his eyes. His eyes felt hot and his heart hurt. “So did I, Miya. But it’s over.”

 

“Our turn’s not over.”

 

“But when it does end they’ll march on us in an instant. We can’t run away from them and they’ll win a thousand battles out of a thousand.”

 

Miya nodded.

 

“Too bad.”

 

Silence. Turing stared through the cracks in his fingers. He felt a tentative touch on his shoulder and looked up.

 

Miya gave him a small smile. “At least we read books, lord.”

 

“Yes, and what good did that do us?”

 

Turing instantly regretted the venom in his tone. Miya wasn’t at fault. But she didn’t seem to take offense. The Stabber thought for a second and then answered him seriously.

 

“Didn’t help, but it was fun. If we’re all gonna croak, why not have fun?”

 

Turing stared at his hands. And then he looked up. The words were different, but he remembered.

 

 

I read over a hundred books in one turn, Turing. Ate every provision in the capital. It was fun.

 

 

Turing’s gaze went up. He looked at a portrait at the other end of the room.

 

“Well, why not? By the Titans, why not?”

 

Miya Yam stepped back as Turing stood up.

 

“Lord?”

 

Turing smiled at her. It hurt to do, but something in his heart leapt.

 

“You’re right. It was fun. And if we’re going to croak when our turn ends—then by the Titans, let’s make it a turn worthy of it!”

 

She blinked at him. But Turing was already striding down through his throne room, shouting.

 

“Open the pantries! Take out the provisions and let every unit eat as much as they want! Stabbers, Pikers, assemble to me!”

 

He sent out his mental command through the capital. Miya looked at him in surprise as Turing looked around.

 

“We can set up banquet tables. We can eat as much as we want. The side has provisions. It’s stocked full! Yes, let’s eat everything! We’ll feast until we drop!”

 

“Do you want to open the wine cellar too, lord?”

 

Turing hesitated.

 

“…No. No, I still want to fight after the turn ends.”

 

Miya Yam nodded approvingly. “Good.”

 

“Then let’s wait here for the rest of the garrison to assemble. I want to address them.”

 

“You gonna say something important, lord?”

 

“Yes. Maybe. I’m going to set them free.”

 

 

—-

 

 

“Friends, units, lend me your ears.”

 

Turing stared down at the Pikers and Stabbers as they stood before them. For their part, they exchanged wary glances.

 

“You want our ears, lord?”

 

Turing paused.

 

“…No. Just listen.”

 

They looked a lot happier to hear that. Turing cleared his throat and tried again.

 

“You all know there’s an enemy army right outside the city. Well, when we end the turn they’re going to attack. They’ll croak us all, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

 

The Stabbers and Pikers starred at him. Turing expected them to be upset, but they seemed…accepting. He coughed and kept going.

 

“In light of this, I’ve decided we should enjoy this last turn. If we’re all going to croak, I mean.”

 

More silence. Turing plowed on.

 

“Therefore, I, as your Ruler, give you permission to do anything you want within the capital. The only rules are that you must not leave the garrison, destroy anything, or engage in combat.”

 

He thought for a second and added, “Or impair your ability to fight. That means no drinking. Everything else is fine, though.”

 

The assembled Stabbers and Pikers stared at Turing silently. He felt silly, as not one of them cheered or broke into spontaneous applause. After a minute Turing lowered his goblet and took a sip of juice. Well, what had he expected?

 

But then one Stabber raised a hand. Turing immediately pointed to him.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Does anything mean ‘anything’, lord?”

 

Turing stared at him blankly.

 

“…I suppose so, yes.”

 

The Stabber scratched at his head. “Does that mean we can do anything? Like take our clothes off?”

 

“Be my guest.”

 

The Stabber nodded happily and began disrobing. The other Stabbers, Pikers, and Gwulls watched with interest, and so did Turing until he felt guilty and averted his eyes.

 

A female Piker raised her hand.

 

“Does that mean we can eat anything? Like grass?”

 

“Yes, go ahead. Just don’t hurt yourself.”

 

The Pikers and Stabbers looked happy.

 

“So anything means anything.”

 

“Anything?”

 

“Anything is anything.”

 

One voice rose up above the rest.

 

“It’s good. Anything is good, and we should have fun.”

 

Everyone looked at Miya. She was smiling.

 

“It’s a good order. Right?”

 

They nodded.

 

“It’s good.”

 

“Good order.”

 

“Cheering?”

 

“Yes, cheering.”

 

The Stabbers and Pikers began shouting in excitement. Some were even smiling. Caught up in the moment, Turing unsheathed his sword.

 

“A toast, then!”

 

They waited. Turing raised his sword into the air.

 

“Let this turn last forever!”

 

The Pikers and Stabbers cheered. They rushed out of the throne room. Turing was left in the silence. He stared through the window and sighed. He was very tired. In the silence, he completed his toast.

 

“And when the turn ends, may the Titans grant mercy on us all.”

 

Chapter 12

Turing read a book on cooking. It wasn’t something he’d ever done, or even heard of, really. Of course he knew that units could be harvested for provisions, but there was harvesting, and then there was the art of cooking.

 

It was no secret that Rations came in all forms, from bowls of soup to stale bread and cheese depending on your situation and location. But apparently, when provisions were plentiful it was possible to create additional meals of significantly enhanced quality. Turing read through the techniques listed. You could puree, cook, stew, stuff, pull, roast, chop, cut, flambé…even eat food raw! Actually, that last bit wasn’t surprising, but still.

 

Apparently, there was a technique to cooking food where you dipped anything you wanted in hot fat and let it fry until it was nice and crispy. It worked with almost every food, the book claimed. Turing wondered what Gout would have made of it. He’d probably have ordered Turing to construct such a device instantly and deep fried all his food from then on.

 

On reflection, perhaps it was just as well Gout hadn’t read any books. Such needless extravagances could bankrupt a side, and Turing gathered that most of the recipes listed in the book weren’t for sides low on Schmuckers.

 

This was another book by the famous and famously foul-mouthed Gorgon Rambly. Turing eagerly devoured page after page as the warlord described how to fry, bake, batter, baste, and occasionally burn units to bring out the best taste. Best of all, the book Turing was reading was part of a long series.

 

Turing flipped another page and smiled. This was bliss.

 

He heard the tread of bare feet on the library carpet before he saw the unit.

 

“Lord?”

 

Turing closed his book with a smile.

 

“Oh, Miya. Did you finish the other book I gave you?”

 

She shook her head. “Not yet, lord. Gotta problem. The Warlady in the other hex wants to speak to her.”

 

Turing frowned. “Really? That’s…unexpected. Well, I suppose I’ll see what she wants.”

 

He closed the book and stood up, stretching leisurely. Miya Yam followed him outside. Both she and Turing were dressed in lighter clothing – Turing had abandoned his armor and Miya Yam had abandoned her boots. But both still kept their swords. It was instinctive.

 

Turing blinked at the bright light as he pushed the doors open. In the library it was nice and dark. And quiet. Outside he could hear both his Pikers and Stabber shouting excitedly, even across the city. Turing went to meet with Protheana, but paused and frowned at the blue stains on Miya’s clothing.

 

“What’s that from?”

 

“Blueberry fight, lord.”

 

“Ah.”

 

 

—-

 

 

The units of Reapin were still arranged in military posture. They sat in groups, but didn’t talk amongst themselves. They watched as Turing approached the hex boundary.

 

A unit was waiting for him there. Protheana. She stood perfectly stock-still as she watched him approach. It was…it was incredibly awkward and Turing found himself checking his posture has he approached.

 

“Greetings, Countess Protheana,” he said. “You requested an audience?”

 

“You doin’ something in that city of yours, or do all yer units have the Crazy special?”

 

Turing blinked at Protheana.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

She raised an eyebrow at him.

 

“You serious? I mean yer units are out of their flippin’ minds.”

 

Protheana pointed up, and Turing looked into the air just in time to see two Pikers screaming wildly as they raced around the city on the backs of Gwulls.

 

“Huh. Seems normal to me.”

 

Turing grinned at Protheana’s reaction.

 

“I saw one of your Stabbers spin around in circles until she puked.” Protheana paused. “Then she ate what she threw up. That normal too?”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t do it. But more power to her.” Turing shrugged. “Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

 

She scowled at him. It was the first time her expression had ever noticeable altered since they’d met.

 

“Don’t play games, ruler. I want to know what’s happening. Why aren’t you ending the turn yet?”

 

“Why do you care?” Turing asked belligerently. He was getting tired of all the one-sided demands. “We’ll end it when we end it.”

 

Prothena glared again, but then shrugged. “Fair enough. But would you mind at least tellin’ me what your units are doing? My caster won’t stop bugging me about it.”

 

“We’re enjoying ourselves on our last turn.”

 

She eyed him. “That it?”

“What more do you want?” Turing frowned at Protheana. “This isn’t some grand scheme. We’re just trying to live a bit before we croak. Is your caster that paranoid?”

 

Protheana leaned on her scabbard. “I’m that paranoid. My caster’s twice as nervy as that. So forgive me if I don’t believe yer words right off.”

 

Turing threw up his hands. “Then why ask? Titans! You two are the most aggravating units I’ve ever met!”

 

Again, all Turing got in response was a noncommittal shrug. “Sorry ‘bout that, ruler. I’m just speakin’ the truth. Too bad if it hurts.”

 

Turing glared at Protheana.

 

“Fine. You to be honest? It’s my side’s last turn. So let me just say that I’ve always hated you melee-type warlords? I mean, I know I’m one myself, but what’s wrong with Archery specials? It makes much more sense for an important unit like a Warlord, and you can keep your personal stack alive longer.”

 

She blinked at him. Turing continued ranting. He pointed at her sword.

 

“All you knuckle-heads keep charging into battle and wasting units when you could stop and think for two seconds. If you lot cared about strategy more, maybe you wouldn’t have the lifespan of an Orlie fighting Dwagons!”

 

He stopped, panting. Behind Protheana he could see other Stabbers and Pikers sitting up and staring in his general direction.

 

“Sorry. I just had to say that to another warlord once.”

 

To his surprise, Protheana didn’t seem offended. Instead, she grinned at Turing.

 

“You ain’t fought many battles, have you?”

 

“So?” Turing scowled at her.

 

“Archers have range, but you ever seen one fight in melee? There’s a reason chargin’ in works. And even if they can croak at a distance, they don’t have that many arrows. Even a Level 20 Archer Warlord would fall if you sent enough Stabbers at her.”

 

Protheana patted the sword at her side. “This don’t run out of shots. And when I lead a stack, we change the entire battle. If I find a good choke-hex and get the army to rush me, we can wipe them out in one go. If I had a bow I’d run out of shots long before I croaked that many units.”

 

Turing raised a finger and opened his mouth. Then he hesitated. “Good point. I didn’t think of that.”

 

“Comes with experience.” Protheana shrugged. “But yer right in that a warlord with a good Archery special comes in handy. We’ve got a few in the capital. High-level. 8’s. They take down armies with their stacks before they even get close.”

 

“Really?” Turing was alive with curiosity. “Why didn’t you bring them with you?”

 

She paused. “Well, that’s a matter of strategy. Probably shouldn’t tell you, but yer gonna croak anyways. See, our ruler has this master plan where—”

 

“Protheana!”

 

Turing and Protheana both turned. Lady Vina stood in the center of the hex, glaring at Turing. She raised one hand palm-up and stared at Protheana.

 

Silently, the Warlady nodded. Lady Vina gestured.

 

Protheana turned back to Turing and shrugged almost regretfully. “Looks like the talk’s over. Boss’s orders.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“Got what I wanted to know. I’m not supposed to talk with enemy units. Gotta go.”

 

“What? But you’re the Chief Warlord. Why are you obeying her?”

 

Protheana shrugged. “Technically I’m in charge of fightin’, but my ruler made her the bigger boss.”

 

“Why—”

 

“Countess!”

 

Lady Vina was glaring at both of them. Protheana made a face. Turing stared at the Turnamancer. She locked eyes with him until he had to look away.

 

“She’s a jerk, isn’t she?”

 

Protheana shrugged again. That seemed to be her way of saying ‘yes’ without saying yes. She turned to go.

 

For some reason Turing felt he understood Protheana a lot more in this one moment. He remembered what it was like, too. And Lady Vina’s cold expression – as she turned around he raised his voice.

 

“Hey! Hey you!”

 

Lady Vina turned her head slightly. Turing shouted.

 

“You’re a jerk! I’ve seen units with Freezing specials that were warmer than you!”

 

She blinked. Protheana paused, and the Stabbers and Pikers looked at him. Turing kept shouting. It was like that time with Zipzap. If the end was at hand, why not yell and make a fuss before you croaked? So Turing kept shouting.

 

“You have all the empathy of an uncroaked Croakamancer! I hope the Titans give you horrible Signamancy and you accidentally trip and croak yourself! And your dress looks stupid! You also have an ugly face!”

 

Lady Vina’s cold stare make Turing shiver. He felt like he’d lost hits, but that was his only his imagination. She pierced him with her eyes for another moment, and then stalked back into her tent.

 

Protheana grinned at Turing.

 

“Nice insults.”

 

Then she turned away and walked back to the rest of her army. Turing grinned. He felt invigorated.

 

“Lord?”

 

Miya Yam poked him in the back. Turing yelped, jumped, and turned around.

 

“I thought I told you to stop doing that.”

 

“Sorry, lord.”

 

She shrugged. Turing sighed, but he was still smiling.

 

“Is there something else the matter?”

 

She shook her head.

 

“We’re playing some of the games we found in the castle. You want to play?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Turing walked away, Miya Yam leading the way. He thought he felt eyes on his back but whenever he turned around, no one was watching him. Even the Archon was busy watching the Gwulls in Turing’s hex soar around rather than focus on the ruler. No one bothered with Turing. No one. Not one unit in the entire enemy hex. Which, when you thought about it, was pretty suspicious in itself.

 

 

—-

 

 

Games. Turing hadn’t ever played them when he was in Brashball. Not once – for one thing Gout had disapproved of them, but the city just hadn’t ever popped any games. All of its unique aspects mainly went to the huge larder and provisions popped every turn for a certain units consumption.

 

But Turing had heard of other cities in Osnap that had games. Curbstomp had told him about a game he played after battles with the enemy warlord’s head. It involved running around, punting, passing, and kicking the head to get to the other side while a team tried to stop him.

 

That hadn’t sounded like too much fun to Turing at the time, so he’d declined to try it out. But the games in the city of Restin all appealed to him. For one thing, they didn’t involve anyone running into anyone else, except by accident.

 

“Let me see if I understand all the rules. So we knock all the colored balls into the holes by using the white one. But we can only hit the white one once with these sticks.”

 

The two Pikers standing on opposite sides of the table nodded. “That’s right, lord.”

 

“That sounds like fun. But why can’t you knock the eight-ball in?”

 

“Dunno, lord. Those are just the rules.”

 

That made sense. Erfworld had a lot of rules that just were. Turing nodded to himself and hefted the stick he’d been given, or as it was apparently known a ‘cue stick’.

 

“I wonder why none of the Stabber are playing?”

 

The Piker shrugged innocently.

 

“Dunno, lord.”

 

He let them break the stack of balls apart and waited until it was his turn. He’d already seen how the Pikers cleverly bounced the pool balls into the six corner pockets and was eager to give it a try himself.

 

Turing aimed his cue and tapped the white ball. It bounced across the table, missed his target, and sunk itself in one of the holes.

 

The Pikers laughed, but stopped when Turing looked at them. He gave them a rueful grin, and then they laughed harder.

 

“What am I doing wrong?”

 

The female Piker shrugged and took aim.

 

“You don’t handle the pike properly. Too low on the grip.”

 

“Too tight,” another Piker agreed critically. “The poke action should be smoother.”

 

“Like this.”

 

She demonstrated. The Piker bent low over the table, smoothly drew back her cue stick and tapped the ball. It rolled into the 7-ball and knocked it into the far corner pocket. The Piker took another shot and hit her target, but missed the hole.

 

Turing nodded. He thought he understood.

 

“Okay. You mean like this?”

 

He bent low over the table, took aim, and tapped the ball hard. It flew around the table, struck the side, and bounced over the edge. The Pikers shook their heads sadly.

 

“Bad form.”

 

“Grip too tight. Too much force.”

 

“Not good, lord.”

 

“Oh come on. I can’t see the difference!”

 

The female Piker shook her head. “Wouldn’t trust you with a pike, lord. Sorry.”

 

“I’d let him handle my pike.”

 

The female Piker and Turing turned and stared at the male Piker. Then they went back to the game.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing finally got the hang of it after 26 games. He was just about to suggest a game with a few Stabbers so he could play against someone not guaranteed to beat him every time when he sensed another of his units heading his way.

 

The Stabber was wearing no pants and he’d found some sort of cone and placed it on an angle on his head. Turing didn’t ask and the Stabber didn’t explain.

 

“Warlady’s asking for you again, lord.”

 

Turing sighted down the pool table. “Tell her I’m busy.”

 

The Stabber nodded and obediently walked off.

 

Turing lost two more games and finally won another before the Stabber returned.

 

“She won’t stop asking, lord.”

 

Turing sighed and handed his cue to a waiting Piker. The two Pikers immediately began a rapid duel as they rapidly knocked the balls into each corner.

 

“Fine. I’ll talk to her.”

 

 

—-

 

 

This time Protheana was sitting on the ground, waiting for Turing to arrive. She looked completely at ease, but stood up as Turing approached. He noticed this time that many of her Stabbers and Pikers were lying down or resting half-propped up. The Archon was hovering in the air, close-ish to Protheana, lying down in midair and not looking at Turing or Protheana.

 

“Yer really takin’ yer time, aren’t you?”

 

“I thought you weren’t supposed to talk to me,” Turing shot back. “What’s wrong this time?”

 

Protheana shrugged. “My caster’s impatient. Or bored. She wants you to end the turn.”

 

Turing stared incredulously at Protheana and then over her shoulder. Lady Vina stared at him icily from her tent.

 

“Right. Well then, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the enemy caster, would I?”

 

“Don’t croak the messenger, ruler. I’m just relayin’ orders.”

 

Turing felt frustrated, which was pretty much how he always felt when he was talking to Protheana. That was better than the boiling fury and hatred he felt whenever he locked eyes with Lady Vina, but he wished the enemy warlady was a tiny bit easier to talk to.

 

Protheana stared over Turing’s shoulder at the Stabbers and Pikers running around deliriously in the grass. “Don’t seem like you lot are doing that much important. Would it hurt that much to end things now?”

 

“Would it hurt that much to wait for a little bit?” Turing demanded. “Why are you in such a disbanded hurry?”

 

“Touchy.” Protheana wasn’t upset. “I just don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong – it don’t bother me – but it just seems pointless.”

 

“I know.”

 

“You could spare yerself the worrying is all I’m saying. Or told to say.”

 

“I know.”

 

“It’d be quick. If you just end the turn—”

 

“I know. Will you please shut up?”

 

Protheana stopped. She eyed Turing suspiciously. He shrugged.

 

“I know we’re going to croak at the end of this. I know, and all of my units know. So what? What’s wrong with enjoying living while we can? Because it annoys you? Disband yourself. We’re all doomed anyways. The least you can do is let us have this last turn in peace.”

 

She paused, and nodded.

 

“You won’t get any argument from me, ruler. Truth is, I wouldn’t bother you if I had my way. But I’m not in charge. You know what it’s like.”

 

Turing nodded bitterly. “I do.” He hesitated and looked at Protheana. Overhead the Archon floated a tiny bit closer. Protheana glanced up and the Archon immediately floated away nonchalantly.

 

“…Why aren’t you in charge? Even if that Vina person is a Chief Caster, isn’t the Chief Warlord more important?”

 

“Well, she’s been part of the side ever since she popped. I’m just a turned unit. I guess that makes me not as trustworthy as her.” Protheana gave him a crooked smile.

 

That didn’t strike Turing as fair, and he said so. Protheana shrugged again. It was practically the only thing she did.

 

“Fair’s not important to a ruler or a side. IT works out most of the time. ‘Cept when I’ve gotta talk to stubborn rulers ‘cause my caster gets antsy. That part’s annoying.”

 

Turing sighed in exasperation.

 

“Why don’t you all just look away? Time is relative. The end of the turn will come before you know it.”

 

Protheana shrugged. “I know. Funny thing though. ‘S hard to ignore a buncha screaming Pikers playing tag on Gwulls.”

 

Something in her wording made Turing pause.

 

“Hard to ignore? But you’re in another hex.”

 

Shrug. “So? We’re too close to the city. ‘S hard to look away when you see a naked Stabber wearing a pumpkin on her head. I don’t mind watchin’, but I think Lady Vina’d prefer it if we were farther away or you lot all went indoors. That way we’d be able to pass the turn in peace.

 

She paused.

 

“Hey. Something wrong, ruler?”

 

Turing wasn’t sure what expression he was making on his face.

 

“I uh—I’m going to go. You can tell your caster than we’ll be ending the turn soon.”

 

Protheana raised her eyebrows as Turing hurried off. He was halfway towards the castle when he stopped and ran back.

 

“You want something?”

 

“Yeah.” Turing panted as he stopped before Protheana. “I know you don’t care, but I do. Stop calling me ‘ruler’. I have a name. Turing. My name is Turing.”

 

Protheana stared at Turing and shook her head. “Sorry, ruler. Ain’t gonna remember it. If I remembered every unit I croaked – or even every ruler – I’d have nothing left in my head. There’s no point to tryin’ to get me to remember yer name.”

 

“You’ll remember it,” Turing promised. He called over his shoulder as he walked away. “I’ll make sure of that.”

 

 

—-

 

 

The units of the side of Reapin were lounging around in their designated positions when they sensed movement in the city. They sprang to their feet and grabbed their weapons as two hexes of Stabbers and Pikers lead by the city’s ruler emerged from the castle. Overhead, half a stack of Gwulls circled in the air, their sharp beaks and claws shining in the sun.

 

Turing stopped just before the hex ended. He raised his sword, and the Stabbers and Pikers behind him snapped to attention. He could see stacks forming in the hex ahead of him, and saw Protheana striding to the front of the hex while Lady Vina stayed in a protective stack well behind the enemy lines.

 

No matter where Turing looked, all he saw were rows of gleaming pikes and swords sharp enough to croak him in one hit. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Turing still smiled.

 

He turned and faced his stack. So meager. So few. So low-level. But they had trust in him. He called out to them in a voice that could be heard in the next hex over.

 

“All units present?”

 

Miya Yam saluted smartly. “All units here, lord.”

 

“Are you sure of that?” Turing eyed her skeptically. “I think we’re missing one.”

She looked blankly at her stack of Pikers and Stabbers. “Don’t think so.”

 

“Well, let’s make sure. Everyone, sound off. I’ll start. King Turing, ruler. Present!”

 

Miya Yam saluted again. “Miya Yam, Stabber. Present!”

 

“Pokey Henderson, Stabber. Present!”

 

“Keria Selv, Piker. Present!”

 

“Termerius Rex, Stabber. P—”

 

“You know you can sense all yer units, right?”

 

Turing turned and met Prothena’s gaze. The Warlady of Reapin had both her eyebrows raised as she stared incredulously at him.

 

“It’s a ruler special. Or didn’t you know?”

 

Some of the Stabbers and Pikers behind her sniggered, but they immediately shut up as Protheana turned her head ever so slightly. Overhead, Turing heard the Archon give a polite chuckle which she didn’t even attempt to hide, even when Protheana glared at her. But Turing wasn’t upset. He was just offended.

 

“Please keep out of this moment,” he said stiffly. “Our side has a long tradition of orderly conduct. We respect your side’s tradition of popping ugly units; do us the courtesy of respecting our traditions in turn.”

 

“Yer serious?”

 

“Quite serious. Don’t interrupt please. Now we have to begin again from the beginning.”

 

And he did, much to the incredulity of every unit around him. Turing had his back to the enemy hex of course as he addressed his troops, but thanks for a polished breastplate he could get a pretty good glimpse of their expressions.

 

Protheana looked amused. Lady Vina looked dumbfounded. The Stabbers and Pikers were clearly confused. Even the Archon gaped as Turing made the entire stack do a roll call.

 

As the last Piker, Evergreeny Fresh reported she was present and a Piker, Turing clapped his hands together.

 

“Right, everyone’s accounted for. Now, time for a weapons check! Present arms!”

 

He heard a strangled noise coming from the hex behind him and dearly hoped it was the sound of a Turnamancer imploding. But she was still there when Turing looked. A pity.

 

Turing completed the weapons check, and then the armor check, and then the safety-inspection of the Gwulls. Then, as he sensed the annoyance of every unit reaching a critical peak on the enemy side he turned and unsheathed his sword.

 

Instantly, the Pikers and Stabbers who’d been leaning on their weapons snapped to battle-readiness. Protheana waited, her hand on her sheathed sword. Among all the other units she hadn’t once abandoned her stance or looked away.

 

“On my command!” Turing shouted. He raised his sword high in to the air. “One…two…three…!”

 

Every unit tensed. Turing lowered his sword.

 

“Break!”

 

Instantly the stack behind him broke up and sheathed their weapons. The units of Reapin stared incredulously as the Pikers and Stabbers immediately kicked their boots away, took articles of clothing off, and wandered back towards the center of the city.

 

“Good work, everyone!” Turing shouted after them. He sheathed his sword. “Don’t forget to use the lake if you get too dirty!”

 

He turned, grinned at Protheana and walked away. He heard her laughing even as Lady Vina shouted something at his back. Turing smiled to himself as his Stabbers and Pikers began partying again.

 

“Gotcha.”

 

 

—-

 

 

A little while later, once he was sure the other side couldn’t see his units Turing called them all into the castle. They came in ones and twos, until they stood before the throne. Turing stood on the raised dais, and looked down at his units.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I believe I’ve just come up with a strategy to win.”

 

 

Chapter 13

It was a simple plan Turing laid out. He explained each detail carefully, and tried to make the mechanics clear and understandable to everyone present. In hindsight, he really should have considered his audience.

 

“So, does everyone understand what we’re about to do?”

 

Turing finished his fifth explanation and looked around desperately. All he got were blank stares. One of the Pikers slowly raised his hand.

 

“We’re gonna annoy them, lord?”

 

“Yes. No. Look, I explained it already. We just need to trap them in our time. Once we do that, it’s possible to lower their loyalty, but only if we can get them to focus on us.”

 

“So…we’re gonna annoy them.”

 

“…Yes. Yes, that’s the plan. We don’t have to be annoying so much as distracting, but either one works.”

 

The Piker looked satisfied with that.

 

“Okay, lord.”

 

“Right then,” Turing clapped his hands together. “In that case let me give you your orders. You can still do pretty much anything you want, but I want you to do it in sight of the enemy hex. If you want to play a game, play it in front of them. If you want to sing, sing at them. Do everything you can near their hex, even eating or sleeping.”

 

His Pikers and Stabber exchanged glances. A female Stabber raised her hand and asked a question.

 

“What about stabbing each other, lord?”

 

Turing paused. “Only if you do it in front of them.”

 

The Stabbers exchanged a glance and shrugged.

 

“Okay.”

 

Turing felt it was time for a speech.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, looking into the eyes of his garrison. “This is it. The Titans have given us a chance, in the face of overwhelming odds to turn the tables. We’ll never beat that Warlord or the Turnamancer…or even the Archon by ourselves. But if we can get them to turn—Titans! It’s our best shot. I know it might take time, and it might be hard on us all. But we’ve got a city full of wonders and relaxation and they’re camping out in a hex far from home. We can do this.”

 

The others murmured agreement and nodded their heads. Turing clapped his hands.

 

“Okay! I’ll stay away from the enemy side, but keep your weapons with you whenever you go near them so they think you’re about to attack. If they ask you any questions—ignore them. And if they want to talk to me, let me know.”

 

Turing grinned. He felt excitement and joy bubbling up beneath his breast.  The old rush was back, the feeling of something new, of pushing the envelope.

 

“This is going to be a turn they’re never going to forget.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing sat in the library and read another book. All things considered, it wasn’t a great book, or even a mediocre book in terms of enjoyment. It was an inventory log of every single transaction made by the side of Streetwall over the last three thousand turns—and boy, had they made a lot.

 

Turing stared down at an entry that detailed them trading a Level 3 Croakamancer for two Twolls and a single Dwagon and wondered if that was a great deal or a terrible one. In terms of immediate strength it was overwhelmingly advantageous for them, but a Master-class Croakamancer could do amazing things. Like dance-fight. He’d always wondered what that looked like. Maybe there was a book in here that taught dance fighting—

 

“Lord?”

 

Turing looked up into Miya Yam’s face. He smiled at her and bookmarked the page with one finger.

 

“Yes, Miya? How are things going.”

 

“The Turnamancer wants to talk to you.” Miya smiled briefly. “She’s angry. She wants to know when you’re gonna attack.”

 

Turing sat up straight on the comfortable carpet and made his voice as ponderous and regal as possible.

 

“Inform Lady Vina that I’m optimizing my Gwull flight patterns for maximal efficiency. We’ll end the turn shortly.”

 

She grinned and him and left. Turing smiled, and began hunting for that book on dance-fighting.

 

 

—-

 

 

He’d just found a promising title: Dancing With the Centwaurs when Miya Yam came back.

 

“Now the Warlord wants to talk to you.”

 

“I thought she might. Tell her that Lady Vina does not understand the meaning of patience in battle and the value of proper planning before an engagement. And I need to sharpen my sword. If she waits just a while longer, she’ll get to fight all she wants.”

 

Again, Miya left.

 

 

—-

 

 

Inside the turn, the sun was always at the same point in the sky and there were no clues as to how much time had passed. But the city of Restin had the giant hourglass it had popped with, and Turing still had Gout’s smaller Turn Timer.

 

He’d decided that once the sand ran out of the top of the hourglass and it needed to be rotated, a ‘day’ had passed. It was a rough estimate, but it certainly felt like that was how long it took before the massive glass dome was finally empty of sand.

 

Thankfully, the hourglass was easily turnable thanks to the mechanisms supporting it, because the actual device probably weighed more than two Twolls combined. Turing had his units check on it occasionally and turned the device to measure how much time had passed.

 

Over the course of that first day after beginning his plan, Turing received no less than six requests, well, demands to talk. He refused every one of them.

 

“I’m just about to attack. Give me a bit of time and tell them to stop being impatient.”

 

“Did you know we have an armory? I think there’s a few items our side could use. Until I full explore—and catalogue—it, we’ll be occupied.”

 

“I’m having indigestion. Once I’ve finished, we’ll be ready to end the turn. My word on it.”

 

Each time he sent the Stabber or Piker back and went back to his books. He had a good view of the enemy side from his window in the library and he happily watched as his replies made Lady Vina throw up her hands. Protheana never responded visibly at all, but he took what he could get.

 

The demands kept coming, but Turing kept delaying, waffling, and occasionally ‘forgetting’ to respond. He could tell the enemy side was getting annoyed, especially because at any given moment several of his units were loitering around the hex boundary, almost as if they were waiting to launch a sneak attack.

 

 

—-

 

 

Two ‘days’ later they finally caught on. The requests stopped, and Turing enjoyed a period of blissful silence where he plowed his way through a book about proper Dwagon care. Apparently, someone had tamed a rare black Dwagon with insanely high move and written a manual about how best to befriend them without losing a leg.

 

He was just reaching for the second book in the series when he heard noise. Turing looked around. The library was empty. Miya Yam had taken a stack of books out a while ago, and the doors weren’t open. So why…?

 

The enemy side was making noise. Turing heard shouting coming from outside the city limits, a dull roar that came right through the building’s walls, too loud to ignore.

 

He heard loud chanting coming from the hex the Reapin units were camped in. Turing poked his head out the window and saw rows of Stabbers and Pikers clapping their hands and stomping their feet at the edge of the hex.

 

Come out Turing, come out! Come out Turing, right now!

 

He frowned and shook his head. Well, if they wanted to get his attention, that was a good start. But he still didn’t want to have to deal with the annoying Lady Vina or Protheana. So he shut the window, retreated to the far side of the library and deliberately went back to his books. He could ignore them.

 

After a while the chanting grew louder. Turing stayed put. But then it changed.

 

Turing the coward, Turing the meek! Come out Turing, you Level 1 freak!

 

That was slightly harder to ignore. Reluctantly Turing closed his book and walked outside. He marched over to the enemy hex. The noise outside was deafening, and as he came into view, the Stabbers and Pikers shouted and jeered at him.

 

When he was finally at the hex boundary the noise died down and Lady Vina and Prothena both approached. Neither one was smiling, but Lady Vina’s face was positively thunderous.

 

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” She demanded as soon as she was in earshot. “Why aren’t you ending the t—”

 

“Excuse me, but what do you think you’re doing?”

 

Turing interrupted Lady Vina and glared at her. She blinked in surprise, but he didn’t give her time to react.

 

“I’m here to issue a complaint to your ruler. Please let him know that I consider his side’s behavior unacceptable. You lot are noisy, rude, and you’re distracting me from my vital turn-ending preparations. If you keep up this disturbance, I won’t be able to end the turn.”

 

Lady Vina gasped and spluttered in outrage, but Protheana raised an eyebrow.

 

“So yer gonna end the turn?”

 

“Eventually, yes.”

 

“Really? And yer not lyin’?”

 

“Of course not!” Turing mustered every bit of sincerity into his voice. “We all end turns. I’m just ah, preparing. I’ll end the turn when I’m ready.”

 

“And would that be after we’ve Turned to yer side or before?”

 

Turing hesitated. Protheana nodded in satisfaction.

 

“Thought so.”

 

She nodded to Lady Vina. The Turnamancer’s icy gaze flicked from Protheana’s face, and then hardened still further as they rested on Turing.

 

“So it’s true?” She shook her head. “When I heard my Chief Warlord’s suspicions I could not believe any warlord—let alone a ruler would be so foolish. Time is not something you can use as a tool.”

 

She gestured at her side as she stared contemptuously at Turing.

 

“Do you seriously believe anything will come of your folly? You will not break our Loyalty so easily, ruler.”

 

“Easily or not, I’ve got all the time in the world and you don’t.” Turing stared hard into Lady Vina’s eyes. “You can either watch all your units Turn, or you can save yourselves the effort and abandon your side right now.”

 

If her face had been frozen before, Turing’s words turned Vina’s face into a glarier of hatred.

 

“You. Are trying to turn me?

 

“You have no escape, and no juice.” Turing tried to stare down Vina, but her gaze was acid. He met Protheana’s eyes instead. “I can wait. But the only way I’ll ever end the turn is if you all agree to Turn to my side.”

 

“Never.” Protheana said it calmly, and without a shred of doubt.

 

“Never!” Vina said it like a challenge, her tone crackling with vehemence.

 

Turing shook his head.

 

“Turn now, or turn later, it doesn’t matter. But since you’re trapped here, you will Turn eventually. It’s only a matter of time.”

 

He turned his back and walked away from Promethea and Lady Vina. He heard the Turnamancer shout angrily at his back.

 

“You will suffer for this, Turing! You want to play games of Loyalty with a Turnamancer? You have no idea what you’ve unleashed!”

 

He ignored her as he walked away. After a moment he sensed her leaving. Only Protheana stood at the place where city met hex. He felt her eyes on his back for a long time before she turned away.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Well, at least they’ve stopped chanting.”

 

Turing sighed and unplugged his ears. After his ‘talk’ with the enemy side, the units of Reapin had begun chanting and shouting nonstop. The details of what they’d said didn’t matter. Turing was actively trying to forget some of the nastier insults.

 

Miya Yam pointed over Turing’s shoulder. “What are they doing now, lord?”

 

Turing turned and looked. In their hex, Lady Vina and Protheana were both touching their fingers to their temples and talking into a point in the air. Turing’s heart sank as he realized what they were doing.

 

“Thinkagrams, it must be. Either they’ve got a Thinkamancer on their side or they’re talking through Charlie.”

 

Miya looked uncertain. “Is that bad thing?”

 

That was a good question. Turing thought and replied carefully.

 

“Well—they are no units within a turn’s move of here, I’m pretty sure. But magic and casters—they might be able to do something. Maybe.”

 

He watched as Lady Vina began speaking into the air. He couldn’t tell what the Turnamancer was saying, but she seemed to be choosing her words carefully. Charlie? Or was it her ruler?

 

When she noticed he was watching, Lady Vina scowled and snapped something to Protheana. Both units retreated back into their tents and closed the flaps.

 

Turing was about to leave and go back to his books, but a flicker of movement caught his attention. He saw—on the edge of the enemy hex—a pale blue hand waving frantically at him. He looked, and saw the Archon smiling and signaling him.

 

Curious, Turing walked over with Miya. Once he was close to the hex boundary the Archon gave him a radiant smile.

 

“Greetings, Turing, formerly of Osnap. I’m so glad you had time to talk to me. My name is Lilian Grey and I’m an attaché to the Reapin side. I provide scouting, consultation, and fire support when necessary.”

 

“You’re one of Charlie’s Archons, aren’t you? What can I do for you?”

 

The Archon glanced around.

 

“I’ve come to, ah, negotiate with you on the side, King Turing. If that’s how I may address you.”

 

Turing raised his eyebrows and shared a glance with Miya. This was unexpected. But from the Archon’s tone and the way she was watching to see if Lady Vina or Protheana emerged from their tents, this Archon was clearly not following their orders.

 

“Are you speaking for Charlescomm? If Charlie wants to talk, I’d rather Thinkagram him myself.”

 

She gave him a slightly less beaming smile.

 

“Charlie is…indisposed at the moment. But I am fully authorized to negotiate on his behalf in circumstances that qualify. And lucky for you—this is a great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to make a deal!”

 

“Can you convince them not to attack if I end the turn?” Turing asked bluntly.

 

The Archon’s smile slipped.

 

“Well, no, but—”

 

“Then forget about it.”

 

Turing turned his back on the Archon.

 

“Wait!”

 

“I could—perhaps persuade them to give you a head start if you abandoned the capital and became Barbarians.”

 

Miya Yam stared at the Archon incredulously.

 

“That’s a terrible deal.”

 

The Archon’s smile dimmed as she looked at Miya, but it returned full-force as she smiled at Turing.

 

“It may seem like a terrible deal, but I do believe it’s in all our best interests if you take it, King Turing. Extending the turn won’t change Lady Vina’s mind—much less Countess Protheana’s. I grant you, it may work on a few units, but not on a Turnamancer or a Chief Warlord. If you take my offer I guarantee you a good chance of survival.”

 

“Thank you for the offer…Lilian, but I’m afraid I must refuse. But I’ll offer you a chance to Turn.”

 

Lilian’s smiled faded. She stared at Turing.

 

“No. No, I ah, don’t believe that offer is on the table.”

 

“Well then, I do believe we have nothing to discuss.”

 

“Think about my offer! This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal!”

 

Turing shook his head and left. Miya Yam glared at the Archon, and got a terrific one in return the instant Turing’s back was turned. Slowly, the two units made their way back into the city. The Archon stared at their backs for a moment, and then floated back into the sky. She put a finger to her temple and waited.

 

But no response came.

 

 

—-

 

 

And thus began the turn to end all turns. For Turing, it was the beginning of everything he’d ever dreamed of.

 

Freedom. A city full of wonders, countless books to read, games to play, and most importantly, units to share it all with. And even if there was an enemy army actively screaming insults at him every time he got near them, well, nothing was perfect, right?

 

The structure to each ‘day’ was simple. As soon as the sand ran out of the giant hourglass, the unit assigned to annoying the enemy hex immediately rotated the timer and sought out the next unit with the duty.  Then the day began, and for the entire duration the assigned Stabber or Piker had to figure out ways to attract the enemy side’s attention.

 

Usually that meant just staring at them, or being in their vicinity. Relative time was all that mattered, and so long as the unit was there, the army of Reapin was forced to endure the same time as well.

 

Sometimes, though, the Stabbers and Pikers had to get creative. Before long, the enemy units had taken to sitting on the other edge of the hex, plugging their ears and covering their eyes. When that happened the assigned unit would shout at them, or dance, or run around naked screaming warcries.

 

In any case, his strategy was working. The units of Reapin were definitely caught within Turing’s time, and even if they didn’t show any off the effects of it—besides rage and boredom—Turing was convinced it was only a matter of time. And since time was the obstacle, he decided to have fun.

 

The first thing Turing did was go back to his game of pool. The Piker had gotten bored with the game, so he got Miya and two other Stabbers and played a few hundred games. To his surprise, Turing managed to win quite a number of them, both individually and in the team games. He may not have been a natural Piker, but he found he enjoyed the slow pace of the game and conversation that arose while playing.

 

Once he and the other units had grown bored with playing pool, they moved on to other games.

 

Turing found a pair of dice and deck of cards and organized a tournament with all the units. They didn’t have Schmuckers or the Caster’s Rands, so instead they used clothing as their bets.

 

That eventually ended with Miya Yam sitting on top of a mountain of clothing and Turing and the rest of the side walking around covering their privates, or in the case of a few bold Stabbers and Pikers, letting everything breathe free.

 

Turing was ashamed, but he felt good to be treated like a normal Stabber and Piker. Bonding with the garrison was an important first step to leadership; it had said in one his books. And there was nothing more bonding than being naked together. Too bad the experience was so embarrassingly. And chilly.

 

He made the mistake of getting within eyeshot of the enemy hex. Most Stabbers and Pikers simply stared at him, but the Archon and Lady Vina shot him withering looks. When Protheana saw Turing’s state of undress she fell off the log she was sitting on as she howled with laughter.

 

Her good mood was not shared by her caster of the other units around her. In fact, Protheana was alone in that she seemed content not to boo or jeer at Turing the instant he came into view. She was the only unit who seemed unaffected by the time. But the rest of Reapin’s units were clearly suffering already.

 

It started with their military formation. At first, the units of Reapin kept to their assigned stacks, ready in a moment to form up and attack should the turn end. But as time wore on, Turing noticed their formations slipping. The same thing happened ot their clothing and their faces.

 

The immaculate clothing of each unit was a sign of their poise. But over time, the crisp, clean fabric began to develop wrinkles and grass stains. In the same way, the Stabber and Piker faces, usually blank masks of attention, began to develop frowns and glares. He could sense them growing discontented.

 

And a good leader senses their unit’s moods. So when Lady Vina requested an audience with Turing again, it was a proper request and the circumstances were different. So was her attitude. It was very different.

 

 

—-

 

 

The first time Turing had approached they shouted insults at him and hurled objects at the hex boundary. They called out obscenities, told him to go croak himself, and generally made standing around them unpleasant.

 

That had been the first time. But when Lady Vina sent a request through one of his Stabbers to talk to Turing, it was not a demand. Rather, it was a politely-worded request for an audience.

 

He ignored it. But then the request came again, a while later. Turing bluntly sent a message back saying he wasn’t accepting any requests for talk unless they turned.

 

But then the message came again, and again. Reluctantly, Turing abandoned his games and went to see what she wanted.

 

The second time Turing approached, they greeted him with smiles and flattery. None of the shouting or name-calling was happening and all of the Stabbers and Pikers had been shuffled off to the far side of the hex while Lady Vina waited by herself at the hex boundary.

 

She gave him a polite smile as he approached. That sounded good, but even Lady Vina’s politest smile made it seem like she was nursing a toothache.

 

“I am willing to come to terms, King Turing.”

 

He eyed her suspiciously.

 

“What sort of terms did you have in mind, Vina?”

 

Her left eye twitched at the lack of any proper title, but the Turnamancer didn’t lose the smile.

 

“A contract. Our side will agree not to attack you or any of your units next turn, provided that you abandon the capital. We will give you, oh, five turns before beginning pursuit.”

 

Turing blinked. That sounded suspiciously like the same offer an Archon had made a few days back. He glanced over Lady Vina’s shoulder and saw a blue figure giving him the thumbs up and nodding her head excitedly behind the Turnamancer.

 

“Do you really think I’ll take that offer?” He demanded. “Five turns to run before you croak us and we have to give you our only city? Who would take that kind of offer?”

 

Lady Vina’s smile didn’t waver, but it did…solidify on her face.

 

“These are exceedingly fair terms, Turing. Know that this generous offer only extends to the end of our conversation. What I offer once I will not offer again.”

 

Turing crossed his arms and shook his head.

 

“Even if I believed you wouldn’t hire Charlie or another side to croak us the instant our turn ended, I still wouldn’t accept. The only reason you’re trying to negotiate is because you know you’re losing. This is a battle, and we are winning.

 

“We have not yet begun to fight, Turing. Believe me, if you want to battle over Loyalty I would be happy to oblige. But if you think you can simply outwait our side—you overestimate your own capabilities. Again I offer you a chance to live. Will you take it?”

 

“No. No, I will not. I’m going to win this my way. You’re desperate if you’re bargaining already. You know there’s nothing you can do, and so I will see you Turn or croak, but I won’t give up. Turn, Lady Vina. There’s nothing you can do. So long as I wait, I will eventually win.”

 

She stared at him. There was darkness in Lady Vina’s eyes that gave Turing an uneasy feeling despite the hex separating them.

 

“No.  You are merely courting a different kind of disaster. Mark my words, Turing. You have made a terrible mistake. I swear by my Discipline and my Mastery that before this turn ends, you will suffer as much as any unit in this hex.”

 

She whirled away. Turing watched her go. He wasn’t worried. Even a Master-class caster couldn’t do anything without juice. Every warlord knew that, and so what was Vina? Just an angry unit with low Attack, Defense, and Hits. She couldn’t do anything.

 

Turing walked back to his library. He definitely wasn’t worried. So as he read his books he definitely did not keep glancing out the window to see what she was doing. And it was too bad, because if Turing had, he might have stopped her in time. But he didn’t.

 

There was an old saying Turing had heard somewhere. ‘Stare in the Abyss, and the Abyss stares back.’ He’d never understood it before, but now he did.

 

Try to Turn a Turnamancer, and she Turns you right back.

 

 

Chapter 14

Time. Turing stared at a wall. He was sitting in a library, full of books unread. Well, a lot of books unread. But they no longer spoke to him. The words printed on the lush pages no longer called his name.

 

He sat in silence, in despair, in misery. Because something was wrong. No. Everything was wrong. Outside, Turing heard no sounds through the thick glass windows. Before, even in the library he would hear the shouts of his units as they rejoiced, the chanting of the other side—but now, he heard nothing.

 

Silence.

 

Turing looked up at the ceiling. What had gone wrong? No, that wasn’t the question he should be asking. Rather, when had it all stopped being fun?

 

Somewhere, sometime over the blurring ‘days’ of the hourglass’s time, the magic had faded from the endless Turn. And with it, all the joy of living had gone out of life. It had ebbed from the hearts of Turing and his garrison until he could only sit in silence and listen to his soul eroding.

 

When had it all gone so wrong?

 

 

—-

 

 

At first, it had just been small things. After a few hundred games, Turing found he longer cared where the billiard balls bounced, and so he’d abandoned the game. That had been fine; there were other games like Ping-Pong and games of chance and board games filled with luck. Like Erf-Life for instance, the board game the advertised itself as the greatest game ever.

 

It wasn’t. And after playing ten board games for countless days on end, suddenly it wasn’t fun to play any game. Just like the sporting games. After a while, playing became meaningless. Turing lost, and then he won was he got better. But nothing was truly gained. And the only thing that was lost was time. Time and happiness.

 

Eventually, the other units noticed it as well. Slowly, Stabbers stopped running around naked in the streets. Pikers stopping stabbing…or piking each other, and they no longer even ate or drank. Instead they sat around in clusters of by themselves. Staring at nothing.

 

Turing resisted the sensation longer than most. He still had his books to read, and for a while they kept him interested. But after he’d read twenty, the words began to blur together. After fifty, he could tell when a writer was about to spout off some clichéd line – ‘our side shall last forever’, or ‘let my name be remembered by history’.

 

And then—and then the worst had happened. Turing stopped reading. Because it too, no longer became fun. And when he’d dropped the last book, unread onto the floor, he’d known what the Fate of his side was.

 

The smiles left the faces of his units. The Gwulls stopped flying through the air, and retreated to their perches, hiding their heads beneath their wings. Somehow, the world grew less vivid, less interesting.

 

Less real.

 

The city of Restin was silent. Trash—scraps of clothing, pieces of food, broken rubble, pieces of games and so on—littered the cobblestones and grass. Even some of the buildings were damaged. Windows had been accidentally knocked in, and walls had been scratched, their murals defaced. It was bad Signamancy.

 

Turing wandered through the streets, looking at bits of trash scattered about, blowing in the occasional breeze. It was a terrible sight, but it reflected the heart of his side. The party was over, and now the pain and regrets were rushing in.

 

And that would be fine. Turing knew it would come to this eventually. Well, he didn’t, but he would have guessed. But it would still be fine because this was a battle against the other side. And even if Turing’s side was now feeling the effects of the turn, they were surely already going mad from boredom.

 

But that was the thing. The units of Reapin camped outside of the city were silent now, but they were still there. And they weren’t Turning. In many ways, they seemed to be doing better than Turing’s side.

 

Oh, some of them Turned. But not to Turing, and only in one’s and two’s. Every few days Lady Vina would point to a Stabber or Piker before they turned, and in an instant Prothena would slice them into bits with her sword.

 

Somehow the Turnamancer knew when they would turn. But after the disloyal units had been croaked, none of the units would turn. It was like clockwork.

 

Or Turnamancy.

 

At first Turing hadn’t believed it. But time and observation had presented him with only one conclusion: Lady Vina was manipulating their Loyalty on her own.

 

It was impossible. Or it should have been. She had no juice. But—and Turing had thought this terrible thought more than once over the long turn—what if she didn’t need any? She couldn’t keep her side’s loyalty high forever with no juice, but what if she drained one unit at a time of Loyalty and…and shared it with the rest of her side? What then?

 

When Turing had first thought of it, the very idea had made him sick to his core. But it was the only reasonable explanation he could think of. He’d checked it over in his head again and again, and that was what it had told him was happening. He’d even asked Gout, and the ruler had confirmed it was probably true.

 

Turnamancy. With it, Lady Vina was keeping her units from experiencing the same madness Turing and his units were suffering from. And although the enemy side was slowly losing units, they had countless Stabbers and Pikers to lose. Turing had calculated how many ‘days’ it would take if they lost a unit every three days and—

 

He wandered by the hex boundary, stumbling along the trash-strewn path. He hadn’t meant to come this far, actually. But he was trying to fill the empty moments. That was when he saw Protheana.

 

The Warlady was sitting on a log at the hex boundary. Turing blinked at it stupidly. It hadn’t been there before. But from the dirt and upturned dirt, it looked like she’d dragged it across the hex. He hesitated, and then slowly walked over.

 

“Warlord.”

 

She nodded at him. “Ruler.”

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Carvin’.”

Turing looked down. Protheana had a stick in her hands and was slowly shaving bits off with a knife.

 

“So I see.”

 

She raised her eyebrows and looked down. A curl of wood fell off the stick and onto the ground.

 

“You gonna end the turn?”

 

“…Not yet.”

 

“Then we got nothing to talk about.” Protheana shrugged and looked back down at her stick. “See ya.”

 

The sudden dismissal didn’t hurt Turing. If anything, he relished the rudeness—a change from the monotony of being. Suddenly desperate to keep the conversation going, Turing cast around for something to say.

 

“I know what your Turnamancer is doing,” he blurted out. “She’s draining your unit’s loyalty.”

 

Protheana didn’t look up from her task. “So?”

 

“It feels wrong. Don’t you agree?”

 

She shrugged. “’S her call. And if it keeps the army from revoltin’, I don’t mind.”

 

“But—”

 

Protheana looked up. “I ain’t gonna debate with you, ruler. Yer bored, I can see. Things getting’ a bit hard?”

 

Turing was silent, but that told Protheana what she needed to know. She flashed him a grim smile.

 

“This is what you wanted, ain’t it? A proper battle, ‘cept it turned out it was harder to Turn us than you thought. And here’s the big problem with yer plan, ruler: I can do this forever. Not sure about the others in the hex, but they’re holdin’ up well so far. But me? I’m good.”

 

She flicked a splinted of wood off her stick. It bounced off the hex boundary.

 

“Go away, ruler. End the turn or suffer. But you’ll get nothin’ else out of me.”

 

Turing paused. He tried to think of something to say.

 

“We—won’t be defeated so easily. We can wait. We’ll outlast you, you’ll see.”

 

Protheana shrugged indifferently.

 

“Big words. If things change, come see me. But I reckon it’s only gonna be a matter of time before things end one way or the other.”

 

There was nothing Turing could say in response that wouldn’t be a lie. So he turned and slowly trudged away.

 

That was part of the misery. But the other half began when he heard the voice.

 

It echoed from where Turing walked among the empty buildings. He paused in place, and turned to see where it was coming from. Not from Protheana, but—yes, it was still coming from the enemy hex.

 

Curious, Turing wandered closer. He heard…a voice. A familiar, female voice, harsh and uncompromising, ringing out. Slowly, Turing walked along the hex until he saw a bunch of units gathered at the place where the two hexes joined. There. Lady Vina stood among a crowd of her own units, Stabbers and Piker sitting at her feet. But across the hex—

 

Turing paused in the shadow of a building. He stared at the Stabbers and Pikers dressed in his side’s colors, staring up at the Turnamancer. They stared up as the Turnamancer declaimed to the gathered crowd. Not all of his garrison, but more than half. Miya wasn’t there.

 

But they were—listening. Turing saw the faces of his units turned up as they stared at Lady Vina. Not in anger, and not in adoration either. They were just—listening. So Turing listened too.

 

Lady Vina raised her arms to the sky. Her eyes opened wide, and her face took on a look almost approaching rapture. Even her cold features changed a bit as she stared at her audience. With one hand she gestured to the ground.

 

“In the beginning, there was only the Erf. But what is the Erf without a world? So the Titans brought ground hexes into being, and then sky hexes and water hexes to separate the ground from the rest of the world. Then they made mountain hexes, forest hexes, swamp hexes, and countless more. And it was good.”

 

She pointed to the sky, the earth, and the ground in turn. Turing noticed that the caster had changed her robes. Instead of her normal garments – an elegant, silken affair which hung lightly and clung to her form, she’d donned heavy, ceremonial robes with gold worked into the fabric. It looked…official. No. Not official. Turing had no word for it, but if he had, he would have called Lady Vina’s look religious.

 

“The Titans had created hexes, but what are hexes without units to fill them? So they took earth and air and water and baked it all together with fire. What they made were units. Not the pale imitations that we know of as Golems, but the first units.”

 

She pointed to a watching Stabber on Turing’s side. He stared up at her, entranced.

 

“At first, the only units were Stabbers. They stabbed each other day and night, but the Titans saw that because all Stabbers were alike, there was no point to the fighting. So they took a Stabber and gave him Leadership, and he became a Warlord.”

 

She pointed across the hex at Protheana. The Warlady ignored the eyes that fixed on her and shaved off another curl of wood. What was she carving?

 

“So now there were battles, and the units leveled! But because all units were Warlords and Stabbers, the Stabbers rushed the Warlords and croaked them. So the Titans created Pikers to slow enemy stacks down. Next, the Warlords asked for units that could stab at range, and so the Titans created Archers, and then Heavies to prevent OP-ness. And it was good.”

 

She paused and stared around at her audience. Not a one of them moved. They were enthralled by her speaking. Even Turing felt something in his chest move. Vina was simply that good an orator, and she had a literal captive audience.

 

“Erfworld was filled with war! And units leveled and croaked, but Warlords surrounded themselves with stacks and could not be so easily croaked! Soon, they had such high levels that no unit could croak them. In time, these arrogant Warlords began proclaiming that they were second only to the Titans, and then—that they were the equals of the Titans themselves!”

 

Her audience gasped in horror. Vina shook her head in sadness.

 

“The Titans saw this imbalance and declared it OP. So they created Casters to restore the balance and to make sure Warlords never became overconfident. For however strong a Warlord is, a Caster may still take their lives. Such is balance. And for the Casters, the Titans gave them the Magic Kingdom, a place where they might stay free of the concerns of individual sides. And thus Erfworld as we knew it came into being.”

 

Turing felt something tug at his heart. And the effect on the Stabbers and Pikers was even more pronounced. They stared at Lady Vina hungrily, drinking in her words. She smiled slightly.

 

“And so, let me impart the same lesson I always share. The Titans created this world that we might live in it, fight in it, croak in it. From nothing do we pop, and it is only by the mercy of the Titans that we level. So to do the the Titans dictate: all units have their Number, and by that number shall they be judged at the City of Heroes!”

 

Now Lady Vina pointed at Turing’s units. They flinched back from her finger as if it were a Hoboken orb.

 

“To go against one’s Number is a crime. To go against the will of Erfworld is a sin! To dare to challenge the will of the Titans is heresy! The Titans denounce those who stray from the rules! Turns are meant to end! Your Ruler violates the will of the Titans and brings down Badness upon us all!”

 

She pointed at a Piker who turned white with terror. He trembled as she shouted at him.

 

“Repent! Turn to our side and your Number will be saved!”

 

The units around Lady Vina cheered and shouted. On the other hex, Turing’s group looked at each other uncertainty. This was too much. Turing stepped out of the shadows.

 

“You’re wrong!” He shouted at Lady Vina, causing a sudden hush among her units. “Don’t listen to the Turnamancer! She lies about the will of the Titans!”

 

Every eye turned to Lady Vina. She didn’t seem surprised to see Turing.

 

“I see you have come to denounce my words, ruler. But you are too late! Your garrison has heard the truth! You are a deceiver; an unbeliever who would break with the rules of Erfworld! Stabbers, Pikers, turn away from this man! He would take your Number and bar you from entering the City of Heroes!”

 

“Lies!” Turing shouted at her as the units around Lady Vina cheered and shouted. “Don’t listen to her!”

 

Vina’s voice was thunderous as she pointed at him. From somewhere she’d found a tree stump to stand on. She pointed down at Turing.

 

“O foolish ruler, you understand nothing of Loyalty and Duty. Your misguided attempt to pervert our will is futile. For why would we ever bow to the tyrant who would take our time and torture us with inaction? All you will do is lower the Loyalty of your own side. Repent! End the turn and be saved!”

 

“You’re only afraid we’ll win!” Turing shouted up at Vina furiously. “You lie, and twist the will of the Titans for your own ends!”

 

Lady Vina looked away from Turing, as if he wasn’t worth her time. She addressed his units again.

 

“Listen not to the Deceiver, for you shall be lead astray! Repent!”

 

Shut up!” Furiously Turing pointed to his Stabbers and Pikers, who flinched away from him. “Don’t listen to the Turnamancer! She just wants to lower your Loyalty! From now on, you’re forbidden to listen to her words! That’s an order!”

 

They stared at him uncertainly.

 

“Go!” Turing shouted, and they fled. Lady Vina laughed down at Turing and shouted after him as he stormed away.

 

“You may be able to command their bodies, but they have heard the truth! You will fall, and the Titans will judge your Number, Turing!”

 

 

—-

 

 

That had been a few days ago. Or was it weeks? Months? Turing had invented new terms to measure time, but it still slipped away. After that day, he’d retreated to his library. He’d made an effort to talk with his units, but they’d grown distant. They played games or ate mechanically, or sat around, but no longer with him. And he saw them looking at him from time to time.

 

“Bad Signamancy.”

 

Turing muttered it to the wall. He shivered, in the darkness. He’d left the library behind. It was too brightly lit, with the orbs of Shockamancy and light streaming in from the windows. Too bright, too…open. He’d found a room in his castle designed for meetings. Empty chairs and a large, round table dominated the small room, and the closed windows made it almost pitch black.

 

It reminded him of the war room back in Osnap. Turing sat in a chair and stared at the wall.

 

“What am I going to do? What would you do, Gout?”

 

“Dunno. I’dve ended the turn and gone an’ tried to croak that Turnamancer a while back. But that ain’t an option, is it?”

 

Turing shook his head. “No. It isn’t.”

 

“Then you gotta think of something else.”

 

“The Stabbers and Pikers don’t speak to me anymore.”

 

“Is that surprising?”

 

Across the room in the darkness, Gout sat back in his chair and eyed his former Chief Warlord.

 

“They’re goin’ crazy, Turing. You gotta keep ‘em focused. Stabbers and Pikers, well, they don’t do well when they gotta use their brain. Without somethin’ to stab, they’ll lose it sooner or later.”

 

Curbstomp spoke. He was standing next to Turing, peering between the curtained window. He addressed Turing. “Be wary of them. Some of them might turn.”

 

Gout nodded. He picked up a Gwull leg and bit into it. The sounds of his chewing, smacking, and gulping filled the small room. “Always a problem, that. They ain’t got as much Loyalty as a Warlord, so be careful.”

 

“Be vigilant.” Curbstomp patted Turing on the shoulder. “Remember? Constant vigilance and croaking the enemy head on does more than tactics. You can’t keep running forever.”

 

Turing kept staring at the wall. It helped. “Lady Vina called me a Deciever. She said I was going against the will of the Titans.”

 

“Turnamancers say a lot of things. Mind you, she could be right.” Gout patted his belly. “The Titans look down on rulers who stray from the path. Look at me. I’m living proof of that.”

 

“Protheana says she’ll never turn.”

 

“Well, she would. She’s a fiery one, that Warlady.”

 

“Really?” Turing looked at Curbstomp. “She seems…quiet, to me. She doesn’t really seem to ever get upset, even after all this time.”

 

The taller Warlord shook his head, looking amused. Curbstomp was wearing his armor, and his sheathed sword at his side. He looked exactly as Turing had last seen him before…Turing shook his head. But Curbstomp was still there.

 

“What I mean is that her core is forge metal, the metal of swords and the will made of a thousand battlefields. Don’t underestimate her determination, Turing. Of all the units, she is furthest from turning.”

 

“No. Surely not. Haven’t you seen Lady Vina screaming at me? And the thing she says—”

 

“She hates you, I don’t disagree with that.” Curbstomp interrupted Turing. “And her declaiming to the Stabbers and Pikers is good. Keeps their Loyalty up. But even if she can keep their Loyalty high, she’s got to be feeling it too. If she’s attacking you publically, it means there’s a chink in her armor.”

 

“Emotion is a two-way hex,” Gout agreed. “Like love ‘n hate. Too much of either is weakness. Look at the Archon. She loves Charlie with all her heart, but you can bet yer boots she ain’t worth as much to him as he is to her.”

 

“And so she is the most alone.”

 

Turing stared at Zipzap. The Shockamancer sat in the far chair, sneering at him across the table.

 

“Surprised, Warlord? You wouldn’t be if you used your head. Of all the units, the Archon is alone, cut off from her ruler and her side. But she will never turn.”

 

“Too much love in her heart,” Curbstomp agreed, nodding. “Not enough for anything else.”

 

“She will fall first. Of the Caster and Warlord, the Archon is weakest. She is alone.”

 

“Don’t underestimate her though,” Curbstomp warned. “She’ll flatter you, offer you what you most desire. Don’t listen to her.”

 

“Be practical,” Gout agreed. “But be wary.”

 

Zipzap smiled. “Yes, be wary, Warlord. You and I both know how dangerous traps are. Be very wary.”

 

Turing clutched at his head. The wall loomed before him, tall, taller than mountains, darker than night. “I don’t—how am I supposed to do this?”

 

“You must be wary.”

 

“You must be cautious.”

 

“Be brave. But do not listen to the words of the enemy.”

 

Gout stood up. He joined Zipzap and Curbstomp as they stood around Turing. Their forms blurred with the darkness.

 

“Beware, Turing.”

 

“Beware the words of Turnamancers.”

 

“Beware the brides of Charlie.”

 

“Beware.”

 

 

—-

 

 

It happened suddenly. Turing had left the dark room. He stumbled around his castle, searching for food. Something—something to do.

 

As he did, he passed through one of the game rooms. All the units inside of it paused and looked up at him.

 

Miya was standing at one end of the room, reading a book while playing chess with a Stabber. Two Pikers were playing pool while another group played a board game. But as they saw Turing, one of the Stabbers playing the board game stood up.

 

“Lord.”

 

Turing paused. He looked around distractedly.

 

“Oh. Something you want?”

 

“Lord,” the Stabber hesitated, and then approached. He bowed his head awkwardly. “Gotta ask something, lord.”

 

Turing blinked at him. “What is it?”

 

The Stabber paused. His face was haggard, his hair unkempt. He looked…he probably looked just as bad as Turing did.

 

“End the turn, lord.”

 

“I can’t.”

 

The Stabber thought about this.

 

“Please.”

 

“I’m—I’m sorry.” Turing looked away from him. “Just hold on. Okay?”

 

The Stabber paused. He looked down at his shoes, and then up at Turing with infinite regret in his green eyes. “Can’t.”

 

He Turned right in front of Turing. In an instant, the Stabber’s colors changed to the purple and silver of Reapin and he drew his sword. He lunged.

 

“Look out!”

 

One of the Pikers playing pool shouted and threw himself in the path of the sword meant for Turing’s heart. He took the blade but didn’t croak—the Stabber cursed and planted his boot on the Piker’s chest, trying to free his blade.

 

He’d just freed his blade when Turing and Miya’s swords both ran him through. The Stabber gasped once, jerked, and then croaked.

 

“I—” Turing staggered back. He felt shaken, nauseous. He stared down at the Stabber. The rest of the units in the room stared at the croaked body in horror.

 

The first Turned unit. Gout had been right. Turing looked down at his blade and clumsily sheathed it. He stared at Miya.

 

“Lord?” She looked at him.

 

“Uh…” Turing gestured at the croaked Stabber. “Take—take him away. He won’t depop until—take him away and…and put him somewhere quiet. I’ve got to—got to—”

 

He stumbled away.

 

 

—-

 

 

That was the first unit. The second was different. Turing was sitting in a his personal chambers, listlessly reading through a book when he heard a knock at the door.

 

“Enter.”

 

A Piker entered through the door, the one who’d been injured when Turing was attacked. Turing hesitated, and then sheathed the blade at his side.

 

“How can I help you?”

 

“Lord.”

 

The Piker smiled at him, but winced. Turing noticed a red bandage on his chest.

 

“Oh. Your wound. How—how is it?”

 

The Piker made a face.

 

“Still hurts, lord. Hurts a lot, actually.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Can you heal it, lord?”

 

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

 

The Piker nodded. “Didn’t think so. But it hurts.”

 

Turing didn’t know what to say.

 

“I’m sorry. You—you saved my life. I’m grateful.”

 

The Piker nodded. His face was sweaty. “Did my Duty, lord. But it hurts.”

 

“I know. But it’ll heal when…” Turing broke off. He suddenly understood.

 

“It’ll heal next turn. But if the turn won’t end…”

 

Turing looked down at his feet. He’d felt small before, sometimes. When he’d been dressed down by other warlords while he was still a Level Two, or when Zipzap had picked on him before Curbstomp came to his rescue. He’d felt small and worthless then, but never so much as now.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said.

 

The Piker nodded again.

 

“Can’t end the turn?”

 

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

 

“Not your fault, lord.” The Piker shook his head. “Gotta go.”

 

“Wait.” Turing stood up desperately. “Is there—is there anything I can do? To help? I could—I—”

 

The Piker turned his head. “Can you end the turn, lord?”

 

Turing froze. The Piker smiled once, and then walked away. The door shut, leaving Turing in the silence.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing saw the Piker one more time. All the units did. He remembered the moment. He remembered as he saw it—

 

 

Standing outside with the rest of the garrison, shouting at the Piker. Looking to the top of the castle, seeing the small shape standing on the battlements. He saw the Piker shake his head even as he ordered the Gwulls to fly at him. He heard the words.

 

 

“Always wanted to fly.”

 

The Piker leapt. The Gwulls Turing had summoned reached the castle battlements too late. They circled helplessly as Turing and the rest of the side slowly gathered around the body lying on the ground.

 

Turing walked towards the Piker. He was so small. And the x’s in his eyes seemed so wrong. He picked up the small body, and heard the voice.

 

“Does it hurt, ruler?” Lady Vina mocked Turing from the other hex. “Do you feel the pain yet, or is the cost not high enough?”

 

Turing made no reply. He gathered the small Piker up in his arms. That was the second. But the third was what broke him.

 

 

—-

 

 

Another unit Turned the next ‘day’. She was another Piker, the one who’d played pool with Turing and the Piker who’d…croaked himself.

 

She ran at Turing as he was leaving the library, sword drawn. Two Stabbers ran her through before she got close. Turing watched as she croaked.

 

Of course. His leadership bonus still applied to the entire garrison. When she turned, she lost that bonus. He stared down at the x’s in the Stabber’s eyes and felt something painful in his stomach. It didn’t disappear even when he ate an entire ham to get rid of it with a different pain, and then threw up behind the library.

 

Miya Yam found Turing there, kneeling in the puddle of his own vomit and chunks of chewed ham.

 

“Lord?”

 

Turing looked up. Miya Yam stood in the light, staring uncertainly down at her ruler. Silently, she helped him up and offered him a rag to wipe his mouth. Turing stumbled into the library, and she sat him at one of the chairs. He didn’t bother with it. Instead, he sat on the ground and stared blankly at a wall.

 

After a while, he heard her footsteps come back. Miya approached, but Turing didn’t bother turning his head.

 

“I brought a book, lord.”

 

He didn’t move. After a moment, sat down next to him.

 

“Everything okay, lord?”

 

Turing shook his head. “No.”

 

“The other units Turned. But it wasn’t your fault, lord. They were just—the Piker wasn’t your fault.”

 

“He was hurting, Miya. And the Turn wasn’t going to end anytime soon.”

 

“Yeah.” She said it softly. “Yeah. But it’s a battle, like you said.”

 

“Is it?” Turing laughed hoarsely. He felt like throwing up again, but there wasn’t anything left to throw up. “I never thought I’d grow tired of reading, Miya. This turn—it’s wearing us all down. She was right, after all.”

 

“Who is?”

 

Turing shuddered. “Lady Vina. She was right. In the end—we’re all bound by our natures. I don’t want to stay in this hex. I don’t want to keep this turn going. I want to end it. I want to travel, to fight and croak—I want to live.

 

“I wanna live too, lord. But I gotta Duty. If you say to wait, I’ll wait.”

 

“But for how long? How—” Turing broke off. “How can we do this for much longer? We’re all going crazy. And the enemy—they’re disappearing, but by ones and twos. We’ll never outlast them.”

 

“We can try, lord. Better than all croaking without hurting them.”

 

“I can’t do it.” Turing said it out loud. “I know I should but—I’m not strong enough. Nothing is fun anymore, Miya. Nothing is right. Everything’s…everything’s so hard. Even existing is hard.”

 

“Life is hard, lord. Can’t go crazy because of that.”

 

Turing looked at Miya, genuinely angry. “How can you say that? Can’t you feel it? The time—it’s too hard! It hurts! How can you stand struggling to get by each day without going insane?”

 

She didn’t flinch back from him. Miya just looked into Turing’s eyes and shrugged.

 

“That’s what it means to be a Stabber or a Piker, lord. We struggle.”

 

He paused. “What?”

 

Miya shrugged again. She traced the book she held in her hands.

 

“Don’t see how this is worse than fighting, lord. For Stabbers and Pikers? We’re used to unfairness and losing. Everything in Erfworld is stronger than us. There’s no unit with worse stats besides things like Marbits and Gobwins, and they pop in groups. We’re the lowest of the low. Dwagons use us as breakfast, Warlords hack through stacks of us in each battle, and we’re just shields for Casters.”

 

She shook her head.

 

“All I wanted to do was stab it all. Stab the unfairness; stab the higher levels and the better stats. Stab, and stab, and stab until the Titans took me. Because that’s all I could do.” She looked at him, sadly. “That’s all I was. Until I meet you.”

 

Miya stood up. She put the book down next to Turing and walked away from him. She spread her arms and twirled around in the library.

 

“But here—here’s something that even a low-level Stabber like me can use! Books! Knowledge! I have no specials, but these…”

 

She ran her hands over the bindings of one book and smiled her small smile.

 

“These make me special. And you showed me that.”

 

Turing looked blankly at her.

 

“You’re still reading? Why?”

 

“Why not, lord? I can read, so I do.”

 

“You don’t get…bored?”

 

Miya shook her head. “Not me. I like reading. And I like being in the city with you. Even if its boring sometimes, we’re croaking the enemy just by being bored. That’s not bad.”

 

“But the time—” Turing put a hand over his face. “How can you stand that? I feel like I’m being ground away into dust. I feel like—like a speck. Worthless.”

 

“You’re not worthless.”

 

Suddenly Miya was in front of Turing. He jerked back, but she grabbed his hand. Miya stared into Turing’s eyes.

 

“I remember what it was like to feel bad. Like nothing mattered. But that was because I was in a garrison and never moved. I was Level 2, and I was going to sit in the capital forever. Maybe I’d fight once before I croaked, but that was it. That was worthless. But this—this isn’t.”

 

She was so close to him that he could feel her body heat. Turing shifted awkwardly, but Miya didn’t move back.

 

“I just—I’m just so tired, Miya.”

 

“Maybe you need to have someone help you, lord. Make you feel like you matter.”

 

“How? Do you—do you have someone who does that for you?”

 

“Yes,” Miya smiled at Turing. He felt his heart jump. “I have you, lord.”

 

“What?” Turing said it stupidly, and then said it again. “What?”

 

“When I am with you, lord, I don’t feel so unimportant. You made me special. I want to do the same thing to you.”

 

Turing looked down. His uniform was covered with vomit, dried food, and splatters of blood. He felt like he looked: terrible.

 

“I—I don’t know what to say. Miya—”

 

“How about not say anything, lord? You’re so full of ideas, why not let me give you one?”

 

He didn’t know how, but suddenly Turing was missing his shirt. And then his belt was gone. Miya was all around him, drawing him in. He could smell her, feel her gentle touch.

 

“Let me show you the things you’ve never dreamed of, Turing.”

 

With a smile, she pulled him close. He felt the brush of lips on his own and then—

 

He felt it. In every movement, in every moment and second that followed. In small ways, in each glorious aspect of his being as he gazed at her, held her…he felt it. It seeped into his soul, a small voice whispering one word:

 

Salvation.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing lay in the library, on the soft carpet, and marveled. He felt tired, exhilarated—and gloriously, at peace. He stared in amazement at the unit who had done all that and more. Miya Yam.

 

“I’ve never knew—and you do that all the time in the garrison?”

 

Miya smiled coyly up at Turing. “Only sometimes, lord. Not with every unit. Just the ones we like.”

 

Turing paused in buttoning up his uniform at the implications. He turned red and cleared his throat.

 

“Um, well. It was—it was certainly fascinating. I had no idea that’s what those parts were—I mean, I knew about other functions of course, but—um, does it work the same way with every unit?”

 

Again, Miya gave Turing a smile that made him wobble inside. “All the ones I’ve seen, lord. Never seen a caster naked, though.”

 

“So it’s only a male and a female that can do that? What about a male and a…male? Would that work?”

 

She looked blank. “I’ve never seen it, but I wasn’t in a big garrison, lord. Why? Are you thinking of trying?”

 

Turing hesitated. “…No. No, I don’t particularly—I mean, you were the first—it wouldn’t be right, would it?”

 

She shrugged. “If you really wanted to lord…I could watch. Or join in.”

 

Turing gaped at her and mouthed like fish for a while. But—he felt he had to say something.

 

“I rather like you,” he blurted out. “And I hope that you like me too. I would hate to think this was just part of your—your Duty or anything. Because I respect you as a unit and you must know, I’d never order—”

 

Miya put a finger on his lips and smiled at Turing. It made his heart stop and start randomly, but Turing didn’t mind.

 

“I consider it part of my Duty for you to be happy. Because that’s what I want.”

 

Turing turned pure crimson and babbled something. He didn’t know what he said, but maybe it wasn’t important. Miya smiled, put a finger on his lips, and then—

 

Titans, Turing thought. It really is a great way to pass the time.

 

After that he didn’t think much of anything for a good while. And Turing’s soul rang with joy and happiness for every moment he knew, really got to know the Stabber known as Miya Yam.

 

 

—-

 

 

When Turing found Protheana again, she was still on the log, but the pile of splinters and wood shavings had grown quite considerably. She nodded at him as he approached.

 

“Ruler.”

 

“Protheana. How are you doing?”

 

She shrugged. “Hadda croak a few Stabbers and Pikers since you left. So I guess there’s that.”

 

Turing nodded. “I…had a similar problem. Turned units.”

 

She nodded. “’S been hard on both sides. Something you want?”

 

“I’m just—curious,” Turing confessed. “How are you not bothered by the time?”

 

Protheana paused. “I’m just different. Got somethin’ to keep me grounded, ‘s all.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yep.” She didn’t elaborate. “Don’t gotta tell you, but my Loyalty’s rock solid. No point in waitin’ me out, so you might as well end the turn.”

 

“I won’t do that.”

 

“Suit yerself.” Protheana looked up and stared into Turing’s eyes. “But you should know this: I will never turn.”

 

“We’ll see.” Turing took a deep breath. He exhaled, and felt better. Everything was better, in fact.

 

“Was there something you wanted?”

 

“Yes. No. I just wanted to tell you that I’ve got something to keep me grounded as well. And that—that’s enough. You might not turn, but I will never end the turn.”

 

This time Protheana stopped carving. She looked up at him, and Turing felt her attention focus fully on him for a moment. He’d nearly forgotten the force of her presence, but it stunned him like a Shockamancy blast.

 

“I see. That’s a problem.”

 

“You might not turn, but is the rest of your side so strong?”

 

“Why not ask her?” Protheana jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

 

Turing followed her finger and saw a figure standing in the center of the hex. Lady Vina. The Turnamancer still wore the fancy religious robes. She stared at Turing across the hex, and he felt the force of her malice even from here. But this time something was different. Turing was different.

 

Turing met her eyes. And for once, he didn’t feel the need to look away. It was as if he could feel Miya’s hands on his back, holding him up, pushing him forward.

 

Vina and Turing stared for several long minutes before she finally whirled away. He lowered his gaze as she stormed into her tent, feeling a sense of victory well up in his chest. He turned to go.

 

“Turing.”

 

He turned. Protheana sat on her log, carving at the bit of wood. It still had no shape. And it occurred to Turing that she wasn’t really carving anything. She was just slowly slicing the branch to bits, creating a pile of shavings at her feet.

 

Protheana looked up at him. “You’ve found something to care for,” she said. “And you think it makes you strong. But it’s a weakness. A hole in yer armor. And believe me, the Titans will stab you in the heart with it.”

 

Turing paused. He stared down at Protheana, and asked the question he’d been mulling over a while.

 

“Tell me—what happened to make you so cynical?”

 

Protheana stopped carving. She didn’t look up at him, but kept her gaze on her knife. For a long time she sat there. Then she looked up and said one word.

 

“Life.”

 

Turing stared at her and then turned his back and walked away.

 

 

—-

 

 

They walked together through the library. It was only here and in the castle that Turing could pretend it was night. He’d closed every curtain, and ordered the natural Shockamancy to dim until the room as in near complete darkness.

 

Miya Yam smiled at Turing, and he smiled back. He held her hand, and she held his. They didn’t speak, but they didn’t need to. Sometimes they did, but they could be perfectly happy being together in silence as well as noise.  Because they were together, and that was all that mattered.

 

How much time had passed? Turing no longer knew, and he no longer cared. Time had lost meaning, because something more important had eclipsed it. Love.

 

Miya. Miya Yam. Ever since that moment—ever since those moments, Turing had found something else that took time and ended it for him. It was the feeling, the glorious feeling of being with her. Not just when they were rolling around on the floor, but when they read together, when they played games, talked, or just sat together in silence.

 

It wasn’t the doing of these things that mattered. Individually, they were all boring things Turing had done countless times before. But it was the doing of it again with Miya that was important. She was important.

 

And today was important. This moment was important. And for it, Turing had spent an unprecedented amount of time by himself to make it so. He’d scrounged the best of the provisions left in the castle together, dragged a table down from the castle, put plates and silverware on it, and even uncorked a flask of wine. He’d forbidden it, but this was important.

 

This was special.

 

Miya looked at the spread of food lit by a single Shockamancy orb in the library and expressed her delight with it. Turing led her to the far end of the table, where he had put two places. He could have done the traditional thing of setting them at the far ends of the table, but he hadn’t’ seen the point. He wanted to be as close to Miya as possible.

 

“This is lovely, lord.” Miya smiled up at Turing. She still called him lord, even though he’d asked her to call him Turing. Well, it was a sign of affection too.

 

“I wanted it to be special,” he blurted out. “And I wanted to say something.”

 

She smiled at him. Surprisingly, Miya did that a lot, even though Turing was sure he had nothing to give her that was worthy of her smile. “What is it?”

 

Awkwardly, Turing cleared his throat. He’d prepared for this. He’d practiced countless times, in front of mirrors, but mainly in his head. He knew what to say. Just a few words. But saying them was so hard.

 

Miya looked up at him. Turing awkwardly got to one knee. He felt it was only right. He opened his mouth, blushed, and tried again. It was so hard. But the words were right. They echoed in his soul.

 

 

Would you—be my Queen?

 

 

He opened his mouth to say it. And then he froze. The color drained from his face.

 

“Lord?”

 

Miya looked up at him, worried. Turing turned slowly, and stared towards the door. He thought the ghosts that had plagued him were gone. But now a voice whispered in his ear. Gout.

 

 

“Your plans are good. But they always have one crucial flaw.”

 

 

Turing slowly pulled his sword out of it’s sheathe. He took a deep breath and locked the doors of the library. Even as he did, he heard the shouting.

 

“Lord?” Miya was on her feet. She too drew her sword, and then she and Turing both saw it. Flashes of color racing past the curtains. Stabbers and Pikers, armed and running at the doors, crashing into it, shouting, stabbing holes through the wood.

 

They were no longer dressed in his side’s colors. They were no longer his units. No. The Stabbers and Pikers that battered on the doors were dressed the colors of Reapin.

 

And they’d all turned at once.

 

 

Chapter 15

Turing had never cursed the Titans. Not for the countless turns of patrolling a city by himself, not for the death of his King, not for the unfair odds stacked against him – not even on the brink of madness. But he cursed them now. Because they gave him hope only to take it away.

 

Screaming. He heard screaming, wild shouts of incoherent rage as over a dozen Stabbers and Pikers swarmed towards the library. They’d turned. He couldn’t feel their stats.

 

All at once. How? Lady Vina, most likely. She’d—well, Turing hadn’t talked to them since he and Miya—

 

There was no time for thought, let alone recriminations. Turing leapt back from the library doors as he heard the first unit slam into it. Just in time too; a sword punched through the wood where his chest had just been.

 

The blade lodged in the thick wood, and then pulled out. Turing saw a hazel eye, narrowed with rage pull back and heard the Stabber begin to strike at the door.

 

It would hold. But not for long when the rest of them got there.

 

“Lord.”

 

Miya was behind Turing, her sword unsheathed. She stared at the door. Even if she didn’t have his ruler’s senses, she knew what had happened.

 

“How many—?”

 

“All. All of them.”

Turing backed away as more weapons began to batter the door. He turned.

 

“Upstairs. We have to—let’s go!”

 

She hesitated, and then turned and ran. Turing followed her, racing past the grand banquet he’d laid out as he ran up the stairs.

 

The third floor of the library was an open-ended area with a balcony section for looking down on the lower floors. There was no cover here—no doors or anywhere to make a stand.

 

Turing looked around desperately. They had to fortify, but with what? They could knock over bookshelves, but he could already hear the doors failing. They didn’t have time.

 

“Lord—”

 

Miya was beside him. She raised her sword and looked down at the ground floor.

 

“Miya, I…” Turing didn’t know what to say. He wanted to hug her, or say—say goodbye. But—

 

“How many, lord?” She asked again. Her eyes were steady as she met his.

 

“All of them.” Turing closed his eyes. The entire tiny garrison. Not many—in fact, barely a scouting party in full. But more than enough to croak two units.

 

“All?”

 

“Yes. The Pikers, the Stabbers—” Turing couldn’t bear to say it. His failure. He’d done it again. This was his fault he—

 

Turing!

 

Miya slapped him, and not gently. That broke Turing out of his thoughts. He looked at her.

 

“Wh—”

 

“All of them?” Her eyes were urgent. “All? Or is it just the Stabbers and Pikers?”

 

Turing’s eyes widened as he suddenly realized what she was saying. And…yes, he still sensed more units in the city besides himself. He’d nearly forgotten, but Miya was right. There was one group of units left in the capital that had not Turned to the enemy side.

 

Turing heard a crash as the double doors finally splintered inwards. He looked down to the ground floor and saw Pikers and Stabbers flood into the building. They looked around wildly for him and then spotted him on the third floor. With a wordless roar they began swarming up the stairs.

 

No time for thought. He issued a frantic silent order and turned, searching desperately. He pointed.

 

“There! Open the window!”

 

Miya didn’t bother fumbling with the latch. She just bashed the window with her sword and kicked the shards of glass out. Turing looked at the ground, three stories down. Too far to jump without risking incapacitation or death. But maybe—

 

“Lord!”

 

He turned. The first units were two thirds of the way up the stairs and closing fast. He saw their tiny open mouths, frothing with fury. They were completely mad with it.

 

“What do we do, lord?” Miya asked. Her sword was set defensively, but she was eying the window. “If we mount up—”

 

“We can’t enter the airspace,” Turing shouted. “If we do they’ll take the garrison!”

 

“Then what do we do?”

 

“Wait—”

 

Turing eyed the approaching enemy units. They were on the third floor now, and they charged him and Miya without even taking a pause to breathe. Close. They charged down the carpeted aisles of books, kicking aside the precious tomes. He tried to listen for wing beats, but couldn’t hear any. But they were closing, both friend and foe.

 

“Lord?”

 

Miya’s voice was a backdrop to the drumming of Turing’s heart.

 

“Wait—”

 

The first Piker was ten feet away. He ran at Turing and Miya, howling, his spear aimed at Turing’s heart.

 

Now.

 

Jump!

 

Turing put action to words. He leapt and sensed Miya jump with him.

 

For one breathless moment the two of them fell through the air. He looked sideways and saw her staring at him. Miya wasn’t smiling, but she wasn’t screaming either. She was—like him—caught in that breathless moment between life and death where joy and terror became one. There was no fear in her eyes as they hurtled to the ground.

 

Turing saw the grassy floor of the city hurtle closer. He’d timed it wrong. They were too late. But then he felt something grasp him from behind. A huge, winged presence slowed his uncontrolled descent and mighty wings strained against gravity. He looked up into two black, round eyes and gave thanks to the Titans for flying units.

 

Beside him, another Gwull had caught Miya and was breaking her fall as well. Turing and Miya both landed on the ground, and felt the shock of impact, but lessened greatly by the Gwull’s assistance. It wasn’t being in the airspace, but neither did the fall do any damage to either Turing or Miya.

 

They staggered upright, and looked around. Above them the Stabbers and Pikers crowded at the broken window, shouting down at the two units. Turing and Miya exchanged glances.

 

“Run?”

 

“Run!”

 

Miya Yam lead the way. Turing struggled to keep up, head swiveling desperately as he looked for—something. Some way to even the impossible odds.

 

He had seven Gwulls, all Level 1. One Stabber – Miya Yam, Level 4, and himself. Against them were—how many? Sixteen—thirteen Stabbers and Pikers, some Level 2 and some Level 1’s. It might be a fair fight, even winnable because they were unlead. But that was only a Carny’s trick, Turing knew. The odds were equal, or even weighted against his side. Because of her.

 

As Turing ran, he saw her. Well of course she would be there; she was Chief Warlord and this was a battle . He saw Protheana standing at the edge of the hex. She was shouting orders and pointing to Turing and Miya as they fled.

 

The garrison of units poured out of the library, shouting and looking for Turing. Protheana pointed, and they immediately moved to intercept them. At her command the mass of Stabbers and Pikers split up into two groups, one racing ahead while the other bunched up and cut off the retreat.

 

The air was filled with the howling and screams of Reapin’s units and the frantic beating of Turing’s heart. He ran on, Miya following him as the enemy grew steadily closer.

 

“Where are you going?” He shouted at Miya. She pointed with her sword.

 

“The castle! It’s the only place with any kind of fortifications.”

 

She was right. But as the two of them approached the castle with the Gwulls soaring overhead, they saw a group of units moving towards them. A reserve group, one that hadn’t been part of the mob attacking the library.

 

Turing counted. There were four Pikers in the way, and a Stabber as well. They were braced, ready to charge if he and Miya tried to slip around them. And their comrades were hot on Turing and Miya’s heels. No time to evade. So he pointed.

 

Engage!

 

The seven Gwulls screamed and dove, throwing the Pikers into disarray. Turing leapt forward, sword raised. The Stabber blocked his thrust, but Miya slashed him across the stomach and he cried out in pain.

 

“Don’t stop! Keep moving!”

 

Turing blocked a pike aimed at his heart and ran on. After a second he saw Miya break out of the scrum. She’d taken a hit of damage, but no more.

 

The Gwulls screeched as they dove at the Pikers and Stabber, but instead of fighting the other units retreated. They met the rest of the Turned garrison and bunched up, Pikers aiming their weapons high while the Stabbers guarded their backs. They advanced quickly on Turing and Miya.

 

They had to buy time. Turing pointed at the sky and ordered his Gwulls.

 

“Go! Croak as many as you can. Don’t stop until they’re all dead!

 

The Gwulls blinked, possibly at his invective, but they obeyed. The seven swooped down out of the airspace, screaming as they hit the enemy.

 

Turing turned his back and ran. He wanted to watch. He wanted to stay and even the odds. But he couldn’t.

 

Yet—he could still feel them.

 

The odds were fair. Good, even. With Turing’s hex bonus against a normal group of low-level infantry? Even two-to-one odds would have been good. But she changed the odds.

 

The Chief Warlord bonus. The damn +13 bonus. Even at the 30% side bonus, it was more than Turing’s hex bonus. It was an equalizer for everything, even with Protheana not actively fighting.

 

The Gwulls had Turing’s garrison and hex bonus. And they were tougher than the Stabbers and Pikers, even if they weren’t as numerous. It might have been a fair fight. But as the first two Gwulls soared down at the Pikers and Stabbers, the Titans rolled the dice. And two Stabber swords flashed up.

 

Crits.

 

Turing felt both Gwulls croak in an instant. And, as surely as he knew his own stats, he knew the two Stabbers had leveled as well. The rest of his Gwulls landed and struck out, hurting the enemy, croaking them. But they began to fall as the odds changed ever against them.

 

But they fought on, screaming their peculiar screams. Turing had loved the sound when he’d first popped, and then hated it, a reminder of his confinement in the city. Now – now he wept as he ran, hearing the last of his side croak one by one.

 

The castle was just ahead. There Turing and Miya would make a stand. There, Turing knew, it would end one way or the other.

 

He ran on, hearing his fliers scream and croak.

 

 

—-

 

 

The doors to the throne room were wide and massive. But Turing and Miya ran past them. Even if the doors were sturdy, the enemy could easily break through the delicate stained glass windows if they climbed.

 

“We—have to find—a choke point.”

 

Turing gasped as he ran. His side was tearing up with pain and he could barely breathe. But already he could hear the shouting in the distance grew louder. So he ran on. This time it was Miya who lead.

 

They’d raced up a side stairwell when Miya cried out. She dodged left and Turing raised his sword just in time to block a sudden cut at his head. A Stabber had somehow raced ahead. He shoved Miya down the stairs and swiped at Turing.

 

Turing leaned back in the narrow stairwell and found his back was against the wall. The Stabber cut wildly at him, but Turing blocked ever strike.

 

“Traitor!”

 

Turing locked blades with the Stabber on the stairs. He shoved the other man back and sliced downwards. The Stabber screamed as Turing cut his sword arm off. He lunged, flailing wildly with his bare hand and Turing ran him through.

 

Shakily, Turing shoved the man off his blade and looked around.

 

“Miya?”

 

“Here.” She staggered to her feet, looking bruised but not hurt. Her hits hadn’t changed. She leapt over the body and took off up the stairs.

 

Turing shouted at her back as he ran up the stairs and into another corridor of the castle. “Where are you going?”

 

“Here—”

 

She threw open a door and Turing recognized the small room where he’d spoken to the ghosts of his past. He looked up and down the corridor. It was narrow—enough so that only two units could fight abreast. They’d still be surrounded if the enemy came from both sides, but maybe—

 

“Inside,” he said. “We’ll stand more of a chance if they have to come through the door one at a time.”

 

Miya nodded. She and Turing dashed inside and shut the door. They didn’t have the key, so they immediately blocked the doorway with a table. For the first time they stopped and gasped for air.

 

After a few gulps Turing looked around. The room was dark and small, not a good place for fighting. But with it they could choke the enemy, hurt them—perhaps win.

 

Miya was staring at the door and her sword. She glanced out the single window of the room and Turing saw her lips move. She was counting something.

 

“How many—?” Turing panted. He tried again. “How many do you think—?”

 

“Termerius is croaked. I can see Candy and Pearia down there too. You got Pokey so…ten?”

 

Turing shook his head.

 

“Eight. The Gwulls got two more, I think.”

 

“Eight.” Miya sighed. She looked at Turing. He knew what she was thinking.

 

Numbers. It was all about numbers. Even if he and Miya croaked a unit with each hit—and it might be possible if the enemy were wounded enough—there was no way they could dodge that many attacks.

 

Turing closed his eyes. He wished that he could see Gout and Curbstomp one last time in this room, but no visions came. He was alone.

 

Except that he wasn’t. Miya was beside him, realer and more important than anything he’d ever known. He would give up his life for her, except of course that his death would mean hers as well. Or capture, but he knew what Vina would do. So he had to live for her.

 

Still—

 

“Stand behind me,” he ordered. “We can do this. If—if the Titans will it. I’ve got more hits than you.”

 

She stared at him. There was something her eyes, something sad and resigned.

 

“Lotta units, lord.”

 

“We can do it. You’re a four—I’m a three. We can do it.”

 

She stared at him. She was so beautiful that it hurt. But if she was the last sight Turing saw before he stood before the Titans—

 

“I want you to live.”

 

“Lord?”

 

Turing lowered his sword. He hesitated, and then embraced Miya with one arm. He hugged her tightly, breathing her scent in, trying to memorize how she felt.

 

“Live. I want us both to live.”

 

She was still against him. Then Miya hugged him back, tight, with all the force in her small body. He felt her shaking.

 

“I want you to live, too lord.”

 

He let her go and stared into her eyes. They were shimmering with—tears? He wanted to wipe them away, but now he heard it.

 

Shouting. The enemy was going to be there any minute.

 

Miya moved to the door and pulled the table away. Turing was confused—but then he realized. If they let in a few units and then blockaded the entrance they could fight fewer numbers at once.

 

He stood next to Miya, his sword’s hilt grasped in one sweaty palm. He felt his heart nearly bursting. He had to say it. If not now, then never.

 

“I love you.”

 

She paused with her back to him. Miya lowered her sword, and turned to look at him. A tear fell from her eyes.

 

“I know. And I love you too. Always.”

 

Then her eyes widened. She pointed behind Turing and gasped.

 

“Is that a dancing Archon?”

 

“Wh—”

 

Turing turned, and then realized it was a trick too late. Miya kicked low, and Turing felt his legs go out from under him. He hit the ground hard and saw her wrench open the door.

 

Miya!

 

He moved too slowly, and his body wasn’t fast enough. Even as Turing scrambled to his feet Miya drew her sword. Flashes of movement from the corridor. They were there.

 

She turned her head, just once. Turing saw the tears in Miya’s eyes. She smiled her tiny smile.

 

“It was an honor, lord.”

 

Turing got up and lunged. But the door closed in his face even as he slammed into it. He scrabbled at the doorknob, but something was in the way. He couldn’t open the door no matter how hard he pushed.

 

He could see nothing. But he could hear, and he could sense Miya’s stats. He heard the clash of metal, and a Piker scream as he croaked.

 

Eternity. That was what the moment was. Turing wrenched at the door, screamed at Miya, at the Titans, and hammered at it. But it was too late. Too late. Turing felt Miya in his head.

 

She leveled. Once. And then she was gone.

 

When Turing finally managed to shove the door open he saw her. She was lying on the ground. Two units stood over Miya. A Stabber and Piker, their blades coated with blood.

 

Turing’s mind went black. The Stabber and Piker turned towards him and raised their weapons. Turing—

 

He—he didn’t remember what happened next. He only vaguely felt himself tossing aside the bloody sword that wasn’t his own and gathering up Miya in her arms. She was still breathing.

 

Somehow. She was at zero hits but she was still alive. Not alive though—not really.

 

Dying.

 

“Miya!” Turing lifted her up. He tried not to stare at the wounds that covered her body. He tried to remember—there was a book—a book on basic Healomancy. But he couldn’t remember anything. His mind was blank. All he could do was hold her, desperately.

 

“Lord…?”

 

Miya stared up into Turing’s face dazedly. Her eyes were wandering. But they focused on him.

 

“Hold on!” Turing shouted at her. “Hold on! That’s an order, do you hear me?”

 

“Sorry, lord.”

 

Miya tried to move her hand. She could barely flex it. She was – he knew her stats. But he denied them. He denied the Titans and the rules of Erfworld. He wanted her to live.

 

“Sorry,” Miya repeated. “I tried not to let them stab me.”

 

“You don’t—” Turing choked. He held her hand, squeezing it tight. “You did amazing! Perfect! You croaked eight units by yourself!”

 

“Six. I’m sorry. But you—you’re unharmed.”

 

“I am.” Turing didn’t know why, but that was important to Miya. He clutched at her. “I am. You did it. So—so stay with me. Please.

 

“Sorry. Sorry…”

 

She blinked away a tear. It ran down her face and mixed with the blood.

 

“I’m going home.”

 

“Don’t. Please.” Turing’s voice was a whisper. “I can’t do this without you. I love you.”

 

Miya’s gaze wasn’t focused at all anymore. She closed her eyes. But her voice continued. She spoke to Turing.

 

“I did it for you. I wanted you to live. You made me special. So—no matter what—”

 

Her voice was fading. Turing had to bend down to let her breathe into his ear.

 

“Don’t croak, okay lord? Promise? Win, for me and the side.”

 

“I—I promise.”

 

Miya’s eyes opened one last time. She looked into his.

 

“Keep reading stories, Turing.” She smiled at Turing. He felt her squeezing hard on his hand. “I liked the stories.”

 

Turing waited for more. He waited and waited, and eventually he realized she was croaked. Slowly, he covered the x’s on her eyes with his hand.

 

For a long time Turing sat there, among the croaked bodies, holding Miya’s hand. He stared down at her. She was gone. Croaked. Dead.

 

He felt wrong. He felt so incredibly wrong that he wished the castle would collapse on top of him and end it all now. She was gone. But he was alive.

 

Not just alive—unharmed. And that was what hurt the most. Turing hadn’t taken a single point of damage.

 

Not a scratch. Not a single injury on his body. A blessing, Miya had called it. Of course. The wounds wouldn’t disappear until his turn ended.

 

Her gift to him. That was what she’d said. That was why—why she’d gone out alone. To make sure he continued the turn.

 

Turing bowed his head. But he didn’t weep. He couldn’t. Her words—Miya’s last words echoed in his mind. They consumed his soul.

 

So he stood up. He lifted Miya’s body in his arms but didn’t feel a thing. He carried her away, and then walked out of the castle.

 

Numbness. That was all Turing felt. But he had to—he staggered towards the edge of the city.

 

They were standing there, all of them. All of Reapin’s units, watching as he walked towards them.

 

They jeered and shouted at Turing as he approached. He ignored them. He had to—had to make them feel the time. But they were shouting. The noise was meaningless.

 

They shouted until their voices ran out. Turing paid no heed. He stood numbly, feeling nothing.  But then Lady Vina’s voice rose above the insults of the Stabbers and Pikers, mocking, calling out.

 

“You live, ruler! But the rest of your units do not! What happened to the Stabber who refused to Turn? Is she incapacitated or croaked?”

 

Turing jerked and looked up. Lady Vina stood at the head of the army. She smiled and laughed at him. And suddenly all the units were shouting at him, calling out insults, laughing at her death. Miya’s death.

 

“Did you weep as your Stabber croaked, Turing? Did you see her suffer or did you hide behind locked doors while real warriors did all the fighting?”

 

A red haze dropped in front of Turing’s eyes. He tried to ignore them, covered their ears. But they kept shouting.

 

“I hope she hurt as she croaked!” Lady Vina’s voice screamed through the howling in Turing’s head. “I hope her end was painful! She suffered because of you!

 

It was too much. Turing felt the sword at his side. The enemy was shouting, hurling insults. He felt it rain down on him and something dark rose in his chest. He looked up.

 

Lady Vina was standing at the edge of the hex, laughing, mocking him. All the Stabbers and Pikers were around him, throwing things, shouting. Even the Archon was jeering from the sky. All of them were doing the same.

 

Except one.

 

Protheana was sitting on her log, holding the stick she was whittling down. But as the insults intensified she looked up.

 

Protheana snapped the stick in her hands. She said one word.

 

“Enough.”

 

Silence fell over the enemy side in an instant. Even Lady Vina stopped, although she glared furiously at Protheana.

 

Slowly, the Warlady stood up. The units at the edge of the hex fell back as she walked towards it. She faced Turing, and he stared at her. Numbly. Empty.

 

“She’s dead?”

 

He nodded, once. Protheana shook her head. Then she drew her sword.

 

“She gave her life for yours. Against the odds. The Titans blessed her blade. But she is dead, and you live.”

 

She pointed at Turing and he felt as if he’d been struck by Shockamancy.

 

“Her death on you, Turing. So fight! Fight, Turing. For yer honor and hers. Fight, or hide and know that her death lies forever on your hands.”

 

Of all the words, hers were the only ones that truly struck Turing. He stood up and slowly drew his sword.

 

The enemy side was silent as Turing advanced towards the hex boundary. Protheana waited, her sword braced in her hands. Despite the difference in levels she treated Turing like a threat. He advanced towards her, knowing he walked towards his end. He welcomed it.

 

Turing’s mind was full of crimson fury and darkness. But as he reached the edge of the hex something held him back. He felt a warm hand in his and heard a whisper.

 

 

Promise?

 

 

He sheathed his sword and turned away. Protheana sighed and sheathed her sword. Lady Vina hissed and shouted more words that stuck knives into Turing’s broken heart. The words resumed, but Turing ignored them.

 

He walked away. He couldn’t do it. But as Turing walked through his shattered, empty city, he saw it. So he walked towards a place where few of his units had gone. He stared up at the massive structure, the last creation of Gout. It would do.

 

The Turn timer sat in the city, slowly trickling sand away, counting time. Turing put his hands on the cool glass. It would do.

 

The massive hourglass probably weighed more than two Twolls combined. Turing threw his weight against it and the massive glass and wood construction budged not an inch. He tried again, and bruised his shoulder.

 

It didn’t matter. Turing dug into the ground with his feet, pressing his back against the hourglass and pushed. It moved less than an inch across the ground.

 

Good enough. Turing redoubled his efforts and the hourglass moved a centimeter. Less. He pushed again with all his might and it shifted. Barely.

 

Half a day later, Turing had moved the massive Turn Timer a few scant feet. Sweat had stained all of his clothing dark and he could barely move. But he pushed anyways. He pushed and pushed until he collapsed of sheer exhaustion.

 

But he didn’t sleep. He couldn’t. So Turing lay on the grass and watched time slowly trickle away. And when he had enough energy to think and he heard the whisper and felt her in his arms again, Turing stood up and pushed. He threw his entire being into the effort, to forget the past and present.

 

He pushed and pushed and pushed, even as the sand trickled away. Time passed. Turing didn’t care. He was still numb. So he pushed even when he was exhausted, pushing it towards the edge of the city. Pushing and pushing until he could no longer move.

 

And then it was done. The hourglass stood at the boundary between hexes, pouring sand inexorably downwards, a permanent marker of time in this timeless place. The units of Reapin stared at it, perplexed.

 

Turing slowly stood up. His entire body was covered with sweat. Slowly, he flipped the hourglass on its axis. The oiled gears shifted, and the filled bottom half swung up. Sand began to trickle down.

 

And then they knew. Turing heard the screaming, but he turned away.

 

It was done.

 

Time. So long as Turing refused to end the side he was caught in it. But the enemy side wasn’t. Not unless Turing or another unit stood at the hex, attracting attention. Pulling them into the same time. But all along there had been something that could do the same.

 

The hourglass. It trickled time down in grains of sand. It turned moments into hours, and seconds into days. It broke down time and made it real. And while the other units could try to ignore it, it would haunt them.

 

It was a type of Thinkamancy Turing had read about. A way of attacking or invading the mind that even a non-caster could do. Even if they tried to ignore the hourglass, it would still be there. And even when they tried not to think about it, they would think about it.

 

They knew they shouldn’t look at it. They tried their best to ignore it. But the hourglass was there, slowly trickling time away. And so their eyes would stray, and sooner or later they would look, and be caught again.

 

The screaming rose as Turing staggered away. They knew. So long as he turned the Time Turner every day they were caught. Forever.

 

There. Now it was done. Turing slowly walked back to the castle, emptiness haunting his every step. He wandered through the hallways until he came to a spot where the stones were stained red. He stared down at it, and walked on.

 

Turing had his own quarters. Only naturally, since he was a ruler. But he’d never made use of his room except for privacy. There was no sleep here.

 

But his room was occupied. Turing hesitated as he put his hand on the door and then slowly opened it.

 

A queen-sized bed sat in the corner of a lovely room. It was large, but not so much that Turing would have felt uncomfortable. Two windows afforded Turing a view of his city, and in the bright daylight the room was picturesque. Beautiful, even.

 

What made the scene complete was the person lying on the bed. Miya Yam lay tucked into the sheets, her hands folded upon her chest. Her uniform was still on, but Turing had cleaned off the blood and laid her sword at her feet on the covers.

 

She still wore the same, small smile on her face. Turing expected at any moment for her to open her eyes, blink, and ask him if he had a book to read.

 

He knelt by the bed and bowed his head. There were no words, so he just gripped at the sheets. He didn’t dare touch Miya, didn’t dare wake her from her rest.

 

She lay there, her eyes covered by a simple handkerchief to mask her eyes. And she was perfect, whole, untouched even in death. Turing would have never stood to see her in the states of rot and decay that uncroaked corpses suffered through. Never. Miya would remain as she had lived and died, until the turn ended and she depopped.

 

Turing knelt there as long as he was able. He did not cry or weep, but his heart—

 

When he could bear it no longer, he staggered away. He couldn’t be in the castle. Not like this. Not with her there.

 

There was only one other place to go. And despite the memories that the building held, at least in the library Turing wasn’t near her. At least here the only memories were of her living.

 

The stout wooden double-doors had been smashed apart by the Stabbers and Pikers. Turing numbly picked his way through the debris and looked up at the Dwagon. He wanted to ask why it hadn’t done anything to protect its home. But it was a statue, so such questions were pointless in any case.

 

Slowly, Turing ascended the steps until he was on the third floor of the library. He walked to the center, a spot where two chairs and several pillows had been comfortably organized. He stared down at the mess and collapsed onto it.

 

It was soft. Turing felt the softness of the pillows enfold him, and smelled a familiar scent.

 

He stared up at the ceiling, quietly. He had done it. He had kept his promise to Miya. The Time Turners was set up, and he had not croaked. He—he was alive.

 

He had done it. So now Turing could stop. He could finally stop.

 

Turing sat up. He raised his hand and wiped at the tear that fell from his eyes. Then he screamed and screamed until his throat bled. When Turing was done, he wept and curled up into a ball of misery and pain. And the pain lasted—

 

Forever.

 

 

—-

 

 

He never slept. He just sat in the darkness of the library and waited. When the sand ran out, he walked out and turned the Turn Timer. Each day, without fail.

 

They screamed at him. They cursed his name as he approached. Some begged; others wept. They railed against him, against the Titans, against Fate itself.

 

He spoke to none of them. He answered no questions, listened to no demands. Turing’s eyes were hollow, his face gaunt. All was meaningless.

 

They screamed he walked. The hourglass turned and time went on. They fell to their knees and tried to flee. But they were trapped.

 

Turing walked and moved and sat. All was nothing. All was wrong and meaningless. He looked into their faces and felt nothing. Each day, as the endless days stretched on into infinity.

 

He said only one word. Each day. He spoke it with thunder and damnation, with regret and infinite suffering. It was the word of his life, his destiny and greatest failure. It defined him.

 

One word.

 

 

“Turn.”

 

 

Chapter 16

Protheana sat on a log and whittled at a stick. Or maybe she was carving something with the stick. She hadn’t decided on which it was yet.

 

Carving wasn’t hard. She didn’t have any Specials in crafting like a Twoll, but when your goal was to just carve without any end in mind, it was easy.

 

At her feet was a pile of wood shavings. She’d nearly had enough to cover her legs at once point, but then a Stabber’d kicked the entire pile over by accident. Too bad, but that was how life went. Protheana had learned long ago not to get annoyed by the small stuff. No one was listening, and no one cared. Life was. She did her Duty and that was all. Croak the enemy. And if that were all, maybe she’d be happy.

 

But she was Chief Warlord, and one of the things a Chief Warlord did was listen to her Chief Caster. And that—

 

Protheana sighed. That was a problem.

 

“Protheana! Are you even listening to me?”

 

Lady Vina of Reapin did not have a voice that was easy to listen to at the best of times. When she was in good form her tone was haughty, imperious, the sort of voice that lent itself to command. Protheana didn’t like that anymore than she liked the half-screech Vina made when she was upset.

 

Like now. And in fact, for the last few days. Protheana called them days, at least. One revolution of the massive hourglass certainly felt like it, and it was a good a word as any. She was no Rhyme-o-mancer.

 

But words were her Duty, so Protheana looked up.

 

“I’m listenin’, but I don’t have any answers for you, V.”

 

Lady Vina scowled at her Chief Warlord. She hated Protheana’s nickname for her, which was partly why Protheana used it. She gestured at the empty city in front of their hex.

 

“Turing. The ruler.”

 

“That’s his name. What about him?”

 

“He’s done nothing but turn that Titans-cursed hourglass for countless days now! He doesn’t respond or talk or—”

Protheana shrugged.

 

“He lost his love, and all his units. He’s depressed.”

 

“But he’s still alive!”

 

Protheana raised one eyebrow as she deliberated where to cut next.

 

“And what do you want me to do about that?”

 

“Something! Anything! The turn must end. More of our Stabbers and Pikers lose their minds with each passing day – and their Loyalty is dropping faster than I can restore it!”

 

“I know.”

 

“He’s trying to croak us all! Or—or Turn us to his side!”

 

“I know.”

 

Vina glared at Protheana until the warlady reluctantly looked up.

 

“We must do something.”

 

Protheana shrugged. She was good at shrugging. It was a nice, universal gesture for all occasions.

 

“Got any ideas? ‘Cause I’m fresh out.”

 

Vina glared at her.

 

“You’re the Chief Warlord—think of something! Anything! You’ve talked to him before—convince him to…”

 

“Do what? Surrender? Croak himself?”

 

 

“Yes.”

 

Protheana shook her head.

 

“Before I might have had a chance. He was breakin’. Even after he fell in love we mighta done it if we signed a contract. Gave him and his Stabber the city or let them go free as Barbarians maybe. But it ain’t like that now. We croaked his heart and now he wants to croak us all before he goes.”

 

She chopped at the stick with her dagger. Too hard. The wood sliced in two. Protheana looked at the severed half in her hand and tossed it over her shoulder. Then she looked at her Turnamancer.

 

“We made a mistake, V. Sure, turnin’ all his units was a good gamble, but him losin’ the girl just got him mad.”

 

Lady Vina was pale, paler than normal that was. Her Signamancy had deteriorated slowly over the long turn. She looked—haggard. Her clothes were ripped and stained in places, and she had rings under her eyes. The first signs.

 

“What can we do?”

 

“Wait.” Protheana said it and shrugged at Vina’s reaction. “I can’t croak him across hexes, and he’s not listenin’ to us anymore. Nothing I can do. You got any more tricks without juice?”

 

Lady Vina hesitated. She probably did, but none that she could use against Turing. Reluctantly, she shook her head.

 

“The Loyalty of our units is dropping fast.”

 

Protheana shifted and pointed to the sword at her hip.

 

“Tell me where to chop and I’ll take care of it.”

 

“Some of our units—some of us might worry about your Loyalty.”

 

Protheana glanced up at Lady Vina.

 

“You know I’m fine.”

 

“Even now?” Vina pressed Protheana. Her fingers twitched at her side and Protheana felt the hair on the back of her neck rising. Some kind of caster trick? She ignored it.

 

“The spell don’t break with time. You know that.”

 

Vina studied Protheana silently for a minute and then reluctantly nodded.

 

“Just so you’re sure. If you feel any changes I order you to—”

 

“Yeah, I got it.”

 

Protheana’s face didn’t change but she stripped the next stick with a bit more force than necessary.

 

“Worry about the others. Right now all we can do is wait for Turing to snap outta it.”

 

Vina tossed her hair and shook her head darkly. “I refuse to wait. There must be something we can do.”

 

Protheana shrugged again. She hoped something would distract Vina again so she could get back to carving in peace. And lo and behold, the Titans or random chance delivered.

 

Overhead in their hex, a glowing blue figure floated by overhead. Both Protheana and Lady Vina glanced up to see the Archon, the one whose name Protheana had never bothered to learn, floating through the sky.

 

Her expression was caught between blank mindlessness and acute boredom as she slowly drifted overhead. Her finger was at her head, but Protheana couldn’t tell if she was Thinkagramming. Her lips moved occasionally, but was there anyone on the other line?

 

Protheana looked down at her marginally more interesting stick, but Lady Vina shouted and pointed up at the Archon.

 

“You there!”

 

The Archon flinched and looked around. She saw Lady Vina and immediately accelerated in the other direction, but she was caught. Lady Vina shouted up at her and the Archon extremely reluctantly floated down to face the caster.

 

“Tell Charlie I want a link-up now! I know he can do it! King’s World—”

 

The Archon gave Lady Vina a winning smile skewed only slightly by desperation.

 

“Charlie is—Charlie is indisposed at the moment, Chief Caster Vina. But as I’ve said before, the numerous messages you’ve left will be attended to in due t—”

 

Indisposed? What do you mean he’s indisposed!?

 

Vina grabbed the Archon and shook her. Hard.

 

That was a violation of the contract, and normally Protheana would have stopped her caster to avoid Charlie dinging them with one of his incredibly expensive fines. But in this case Vina clearly needed to let off steam. Besides, Protheana was sure the Archon wasn’t going to last much longer.

 

“I don’t want any more delays! Charlie has the Arkendish and we pay for his Thinkamancy service! Contact him now! I want to hear for myself why he can’t assist us. There have to be Archons within range. Let me talk to him! I want—”

 

It was the same argument, replayed for the hundredth time. Protheana carefully tuned out Vina’s words as the Archon fought to reply and wrench herself free. The same moments, the same issues. But the pressure was building. Things were getting worse. But what could she do?

 

Nothing. But she could carve. So she would do that.

 

Protheana went back to her stick. She slowly and carefully shaved off another fine curl of wood. It had taken a while, but she’d slowly reduced one of the trees in the hex to nothing but dust. There were quite a few trees in the clearing hex. Once she was done with them, she’d probably count rocks or start digging holes.

 

She was so flippin’ bored it hurt.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing wandered through his city, a small ghost in an empty world. He felt like a ghost—no, that wasn’t right. A ghost had no heart. He felt like a living unit, then, but one who wished he were croaked.

 

The world was too hard to live in. That was what Turing had learned, to his cost. The Erf gave, but the Titans took away. Such was the nature of Erfworld, the bitter truth of this land: suffering in life, and even after it.

 

The world was filled with ghosts. Turing walked through them, seeing faces of friends and enemies past. They whispered, until he didn’t know what was real and what was false.

 

Gout walked by Turing’s side, sweating even in death. Curbstomp drew pictures of croaked bodies in the earth. Zipzap pointed and laughed, and units fell from his fingers like dead flies.

 

They weren’t the only ghosts. Turing saw the faces of his croaked units, some reproaching, others sad. A few were furious, while others smiled even as the x’s in their eyes followed Turing’s every movement. And these were only the spirits haunting him within the city. In the other hex more ghosts walked and watched Turing as well.

 

They spoke to him, the other ghosts. Some screamed at him. Others offered…things. A blue angel tempted him, floating in the bright sky. She offered him pleasure, power, crude visions of ecstasy and terrible deeds for freedom. He ignored her.

 

A demon wearing a Caster’s face haunted his visions. He saw death in her, and ignored her words. All was lies.

 

And a silent watcher sat on a log and shaved time down into infinity. She watched him. But he no longer cared. Once he had seen in her a colossus, the closest thing to perfection and his ideals he had known. But now she was dust.

 

All was dust and ash. All was death and despair. Meaning was gone, except that meaning was all. Because Turing cared. He was the exact opposite of uncaring. He cared so much that when he’d lost her, everything else had ceased to matter. That was the nature of pain. Love was pain.

 

And love was all.

 

 

—-

 

 

He didn’t know what he was looking for. Something. Anything. Perhaps a bit of magic to take the pain away. But he didn’t find it.

 

Perhaps he was waiting for one of the ghosts to come to life and croak him. He wished for it, some days. Other days he just wished that the time of the Titans would be at hand and that they would uncreate Erfworld as some books suggested they might. That too, would be a blessing.

 

And sometimes, in his empty heart Turing just wished for one ghost to come back and speak with him. Even if it was just her cursing his name. Even if she hated him for all his failures. But among the living and the dead, her ghost never appeared before Turing.

 

She was gone.

 

So Turing walked on. Through despair and the blackness of life. Listening. Seeing. Smelling occasionally. But never feeling.

 

How many days had passed? How many aeons had gone by? Turing tried to count. Strange. The endless days he’d suffered through turned out to be only two days. And then the brief moment he’d spent wandering around the city in between turning the hourglass had been nearly a month. Time no longer made sense.

 

Only a few things were constant. The city was constant. The Capital of Restin remained, a tomb with one living soul still residing within it. The bodies remained. She remained, lying on a bed in the ever-present sun.

 

And the watcher remained. She sat on a log and carved endlessly, even as the ghosts of her side slowly dwindled in number day by day. She was eternal, in Turing’s mind. Ancient of days. Primordial. A being of myth and legend given flesh. Once he had feared and admired her. But now she was just another backdrop to his unending misery.

 

She talked to him, occasionally. And because she was different, one day he talked back.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing had just turned the massive Time Turner to start another ‘day’. It had become such a part of him that he no longer needed to think to do it. In the same way, he’d already tuned out the noises from the other side.

 

It was noisy. But the Warlady still sat on her log, ignoring everything else. She flicked off a bit of wood and opened her mouth as Turing silently walked by.

 

“Archons are a pain in the keister, y’know?”

 

It was an offhand comment that Protheana made as Turing walked slowly by her to turn the empty hourglass once more. She was staring off to one side, watching – and listening to – a screaming argument between the Archon and Lady Vina.

 

“I wouldn’t know,” Turing said, his voice cracked and rusted with disuse. “I’ve never worked with them.”

 

The words came out of his mouth involuntarily. He hadn’t meant to say them, but perhaps he’d been longing to say something. Anything.

 

Protheana looked surprised, but only for a moment. She hesitated, and then looked at Vina who was fully distracted as she hurled insults at the Archon. Perhaps she was starved of conversation too, since she replied.

 

“Seems like we have an Archon mosta the time, ‘specially when we’re fightin’ sides with fliers.”

 

“Really? Only one? I’d assume you’d need lots of archers to fight against them.”

 

The warlady shrugged, summing up her take on flying units in one motion.

 

“They aren’t much of a threat, honestly. If the enemy’s got archers I just keep Vina back and hit them with a single stack. Fliers are the only thing that I can’t hit, so the Archon’s around to keep them suppressed.”

 

“All by herself?”

 

“Well, the fliers are mostly dumb enough and try to croak me. If any engages in melee I don’t have a problem. The Archon’s just there to take care of the ones with annoying specials. Like Dwagons.”

 

“She’s tough, then?”

 

“A 7, I think. Specials in Shockamancy and Foolamancy. Between her spells and Vina’s hobokens we can usually keep the skies clear. Worst engagement we had in the last hundred turns was with your Chief Warlord, actually.”

 

Turing looked up. Something sparked within his chest. Curiosity? It traveled up and opened his mouth and gave him words.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yup. Yer Chief Warlord took to the skies the instant we ambushed his army. Took out all our archers while his other units screened the Archon and kept Vina busy. Woulda croaked a mess of our army, maybe even won.”

 

Turing couldn’t fathom it. But he had never known Protheana to lie. So he could only ask.

 

“How? Curbstomp—he wasn’t that high level. Not compared to you.”

 

“High enough.” Protheana nodded to herself. “Level 8? 9?”

 

“9.”

 

“He fought like a 10. And smart, too. He kept dive bombin’ far stack and pullin’ out when I got close. Unled infantry versus a mounted warlord with a full stack a’ Knights ain’t a good matchup.”

 

“If he was so good, how did it end?”

 

Turing didn’t want to know. But he did as well. His heart ached for the first time in ages. That had been his strategy, the one Curbstomp had repurposed. And it had worked. But then how had it failed?

 

Protheana stopped carving her stick and looked up at the sky for a moment. Then her eyes found Turing’s.

 

“I got him. Vina winged his mount and he dismounted rather than risk fallin’. He challenged me and we fought in single combat.”

 

“And?”

 

Protheana shrugged. She didn’t need to say more, not really.

 

“If it helps, he got me once. If he’d done a crit maybe—but he fought well. ‘S all anyone can ask for, right?”

 

“Right.” Turing lied and looked at his feet. Protheana eyed him silently.

 

“Gonna end the turn?”

 

“No.”

 

“Right then.”

 

She went back to whittling at her stick. The conversation finished. Turing hesitated and then walked away. He sensed Protheana staring at his back for a while. And then the world changed once more.

 

Turing walked through his city, passing time. All was the same. But now he was different. He’d talked. He hadn’t meant to, but the short conversation had stirred something in his heart.

 

He was awake again, and so time changed once more for Turing. Accordingly, so too did his interactions with Lady Vina and the Archon. Once they noticed he was reacting to things they said they made a point of seeking him out on his daily rounds to the hourglass.

 

He ignored them at first, but some of the things they said bothered him.

 

 

—-

 

 

Lilian the Archon smiled as she floated along the hex boundary, chatting seemingly innocuously to Turing, but quickly before he finished turning the hourglass.

 

“I’m a neutral party here. I understand you’ve been wronged—as an agent of Charlescomm I could act as a third party to a mutually beneficial settlement. Let’s say Reapin agrees not to attack your side for fifty turns and offers you a 40,000 Schmucker reimbursement package. How does that offer sound?”

 

Turing glanced up at Lilian and thought of Miya. The Archon’s bright smile flickered in the face of his stare.

 

“I could negotiate of course—I would be happy to advocate on your behalf if you’d give me some parameters. We could even do a unit exchange! How does fifty new Stabbers for your garrison sound? A hundred? I’m willing to negotiate here, Regent Turing.”

 

He turned away.

 

“Or perhaps – King Turing?” Lilian desperately floated after Turing, speaking faster and louder. “I could increase the settlement! I’m sure I could get you – peace treaty for five hundred turns? 200,000 Schmuckers?”

 

Turing didn’t listen. Lilian called out desperately to him as he walked away.

 

“It was nice talking with you! Let’s talk again soon, okay?”

 

 

—-

 

 

They understood nothing. Turing walked around his city for five days straight, trying not to scream at the wrongness of Lilian’s offer. It was wrong, because it was also right. If he hadn’t lost—if she’d been alive—

 

The offer was excellent. And even if she could only deliver on the first part of it, Turing knew it was a better deal than he deserved. Far better than any deal Charlie would have brokered. He should take it.

 

But he would not. Would never take it. So Turing walked for five more days. Time was easy to let slip away. It was his only currency, and he spent it with each step.

 

 

—-

 

 

Vina approached him one day, smiling in a way that made her look like she’d been stabbed.

 

“Rule—Turing, if I might have a word?”

 

He kept turning the hourglass. It was heavy, but he had long since gotten used to the weight. Lady Vina paused, but continued on after a moment.

 

“Let me just say that the death of your garrison—and the Turning of your units—was merely a part of the engagement. I bear you no ill will myself; I am just following my ruler’s orders, which I see are misguided now.”

 

Turing glanced at her. If looks could croak and attack across hexes…

 

“I am willing to put this…meaningless conflict aside and pursue peace.”

 

He finished turning the hourglass and began to walk away. Vina raised her voice.

 

“Think on it. We are in a stalemate, and neither of us can endure forever. How better to honor the memory of the fallen than by continuing on?”

 

No response. Turing stepped harder than strictly necessary, walking as quickly as he could to be rid of her voice. Vina’s voice rose and colored with rage.

 

Answer me!

 

He walked away.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing talked to Protheana about it the next day. She was willing to talk, at least while Lilian and Vina were busy arguing over some technicality of their binding agreement. This time the Stabbers and Pikers were chiming in as well. Not helpfully—and unusually, they seemed to be just as willing to shout at Vina as Lilian.

 

“Honorin’ units?” She thought about it for a while. “DOn’t think we really do it. Some of us, the older warlords, we remember some. Sometimes we toast the good ones. But that’s all.”

 

“So you don’t have…statues? Portraits of past rulers?”

 

“Don’t need any. We’ve only had one ruler since I joined the side. I never heard of another, and I would. I’ve been around for…a long time.”

 

“Really? You were popped when the side started?”

 

Protheana hesitated. She stopped carving.

 

“…No. I was captured and Turned.”

 

The world stopped for a moment. Turing stared at Protheana.

 

“Why are you the most Loyal of all the units? Why—why are you not even affected by time?”

 

Protheana closed her eyes. When she opened them her eyes were calm and hard.

 

“I pledged to fight for my new ruler until the day I croaked. I keep my oaths. I have broken none. And I am bound by more than mere words.”

 

Turing stared at Protheana. The bitter words came out of his mouth before he could stop them.

 

“Don’t you remember those you’ve lost? Don’t you remember your side?”

 

“I do.” She didn’t meet his eyes, though.

 

“But you Turned. You abandoned your side to the ones who slew them. They ended your side, didn’t they? They took you and then croaked your ruler.”

 

“It was war.”

 

“But it’s okay to serve them either way? Have you no shame?”

 

Something flashed in Protheana’s expression. Her voice deepened.

 

“Do not talk to me about shame, ruler. I do my Duty as the Titans will.”

 

“And that means your Duty to your side and those who fought with you means nothing? Does it? Does it?

 

Turing found he was shouting.

 

“What about all those who gave their lives for you? What about the countless units who fought by your side? Did Turning honor them? Do you even remember their faces?”

 

Protheana didn’t respond. Turing realized all the units in the other hex were looking at him. Vina looked hopeful. Lilian immediately began floating over. Turing turned and stormed away.

 

The warlady sat on the log, her carving abandoned for the moment. She ignored Lilian calling after Turing as the warlord stormed back into his city. She murmured to herself, hours after he had gone.

 

“…Every one.”

 

Then she went back to carving.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing didn’t talk to Protheana, or respond to anyone for a long while after that outburst. Instead, he labored to create something. Anything.

 

He wanted to create something to remember Miya by. To remember all the units, but her especially. He didn’t have much to work with, honestly.

 

There was wood from broken chairs, and Turing could pry up paving stones, but he was no artist. He had all the time in the world though, and after many days he was able to carve crude sculptures with his blade. Eventually the faces he created started looking vaguely like the ones in his mind.

 

But it wasn’t enough. Even so.

 

For eighty seven days he labored, but each time he completed a statue he found it lacking. Stone could not capture what was Miya, any more than it could bring her back. So Turing abandoned his work.

 

On the eigthty-eighth day he nodded at Protheana. She was sitting on her log, staring down at the ground.

 

“’S been a while.”

 

“It has.”

 

Turing eyed the warlady. She was staring hard at the earth beneath her feet. She wasn’t carving, and her expression was—strained.

 

“You seem to be having trouble.”

 

She nodded abruptly.

 

“Yeah, it’s hard for me. But I ain’t gonna Turn either way. So if yer gonna ask—”

 

“I don’t have to. There’s only one way to end this.”

 

“That’s true.” Protheana looked down at her hands. She laughed humorously. “True.”

 

More silence. After a few moments Protheana interrupted it, her voice rough.

 

“You gonna keep staring or what?”

 

Turing shook his head. As Turing walked away he heard the log crash against the hex boundary.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Hey.”

 

The Archon floated by Turing’s head as he slowly turned the hourglass. She bobbed and moved around in the air above him like an annoying blue firefly.

 

“Heeeeey. Listen! Listen to me!”

 

He ignored her. She sighed in exasperation, and then flipped over on her back. Lilian stared down at Turing. She had pleaded with him every day for the last ten days. She’d wept, begged, beseeched, flattered, threatened. But now something approaching resignation entered her tone.

 

She asked only one question.

 

“…Will you ever end the Turn?”

 

“No.”

 

Lilian paused and her shoulders slumped. She lay on the air, arm dangling, staring at the ground.

 

“That’s what I thought.”

 

Turing left. After a moment Lilian put her fingers to her temple. She tried again.

 

“Charlie? Hello? Are you still there?”

 

But no one answered. And Lilian’s tears fell to the ground like rain.

 

 

—-

 

 

Fifty two days of cleaning. Turing swept up splintered furniture, cleaned vomit and food particles from his city, put books back on shelves. He left the bodies where they had fallen, though.

 

He walked to the hourglass and heard Lady Vina screaming at him. She screamed and hurled obscenities, striking the hex boundary with her bare hands. She didn’t stop until he was long out of sight. Then she sank to the ground, weeping.

 

Protheana sat on her log. Waiting.

 

And the days rolled on. Until the moment when the angel fell from the sky.

 

 

—-

 

 

It was two thousand eight hundred and sixty seven days after the start of the endless turn that Lilian Grey felt herself snap. It was such a gentle thing, too. But one moment she was allied with the side of Reapin, and the next—

 

She had Turned.

 

Not to Turing, formerly of Osnap. Never to him, or any other side for that matter. No matter what happened, Lilian would never betray Charlie. Could not. Would not. Her Loyalty to him was unshakeable.

 

But she could break her alliance with the side. She could attack the miserable filth that dared occupy His time and free herself from the monster Turing’s shackles. So she did.

 

Her first bolt of Shockamancy caught a Stabber and outlined his skeleton for a brief moment before he turned to dust and ash. Lilian Grey smiled as she flew high over the hex. Tears fell from her eyes even as she took aim again.

 

She had failed Charlie. She had a job, one he had given her, and she had failed it. Her life wasn’t enough to offer in repentance. But she couldn’t stay strong, even for him—

 

So Lilian screamed in despair even as she Turned.

 

Charlie!

 

She wanted to feel his reassuring presence in her mind, know that he was with her. But the ‘Dish had gone down. The Thinkamancy web of Charlescomm was silent. Lilian was alone.

 

But she would not be for much longer. Either way, Lilian Grey would be free. Even if she had to croak an entire army to win her freedom.

 

Lilian pointed downwards and a Piker disappeared as a ray of Shockamancy struck his head. Ants. That was what they all were. Ants and puppets that Charlie directed as He willed. He was a King of Archons, who flew above them all. And she would cut the wings off of any ant that dared to fly in his skies.

 

Something flickered in Lilian’s vision as she exalted in the memory of Charlie. She immediately turned and dove, and the Hoboken orb missed her by inches.

 

Lilian glared down and saw the hated Turnamancer of Reapin staring up at her. She had juice. Not much, and not enough, but she had stolen her power from the units on her side. Draining them, like the disgusting units of Transylvito. She would croak her first.

 

The Archon pointed, and the Turnamancer threw herself to the ground. The beam that sprang from Lilian’s finger missed her by inches.

 

And then suddenly, Stabbers and Pikers were surrounding the Turnamancer, covering her body with a shield made of their own. Lilian hissed with rage. But she had another target. One she hated nearly as much. That unchanging, unmoved boulder of a warlord.

 

Far below the Archon, Protheana was still carving at her stick. She’d put the log back in place and she had created another pile of wood shavings. Shame they wouldn’t last.

 

A flick of the dagger, and a chip of wood flew off her stick to land at her feet. Then Protheana glanced up and calmly leaned left on her log. The Shockamancy ray missed her head by inches and blasted a hole in the earth.

 

Lilian screamed in fury and began unloading all of her spells at the warlady. But her defense was too high. Lilian could only miss, so she attacked the other units instead. Stabbers and Pikers croaked as she rained down fire from above.

 

But Lilian was only one Archon. She was no Fox Force commander, able to take down Dwagons with ease. She was barely Rank A.

 

Lilian pointed down at a running Stabber and felt the magic in her body fizzle instead of spark into deadly light. No more juice. And the squirming maggots below her were still numerous.

 

Perhaps she could wait up in the air space forever. Only the Turmamancer could attack her up here, and she wouldn’t want to waste her juice. Perhaps. But Lilian’s very core revolted at the thought. She could not stand to be here, caught in this hell of a never-ending turn. One way or another it ended now. She would be free.

 

She was out of spells. So Lilian Grey dove. She plunged down through the sky, the wind on her face. She was aiming for one target. Vina, the Turnamancer who brought them all to ruin. The stack of units screening her had already been torn apart by Lilian’s spells. Now she would croak the Turnamancer with her hands.

 

Lady Vina was staring up at Lilian, perhaps waiting to attack. But she realized what was happening too late. The caster turned to flee as Lilian dove. Too slowly. Lilian’s teeth parted in a vicious grin.

 

But something moved in her way. A giant in armor blocked the way, and in her hands was a sword that had slain Giants, Dwagons, Twolls, Kings and Queens, and countless Archons. Lilian knew who she was.

 

Monster. Army killer. Side ender. Titans-touched. Colossus. Warlord.

 

Protheana.

 

The Warlady raised her sword. Lilian was moving too fast to dodge. So she smiled—

 

And wished she’d heard Charlie’s voice one last time.

 

 

—-

 

 

The last echoes of the scream still rang through the hex as Protheana sheathed her sword. She stood over the body of Lilian the Archon. Or rather, what had been her body. The pieces of Lilian would be a more apt descriptor at this point.

 

Protheana sighed and did a quick check of the units in the hex. Well, flip. They’d lost more than a few good Stabbers and Pikers before the Archon had run out of juice. That wasn’t good.

 

But hey, at least Vina was unharmed. That was probably a negative, the more Protheana thought about it.

 

She glanced over at the Turnamancer, who was shaking slightly as she stepped out of her protective stack of Pikers.

 

“You alright, V?”

 

Vina stumbled towards the pieces of the Archon. She stared down at the x’s in Lilian’s face and fell to her knees. Odd. Protheana had always assumed her Turnamancer hated the Archon. But V’s cold indifferent mask had been replaced by true grief.

 

“I cannot do this anymore.”

 

Lady Vina mumbled the words out loud as she stared down at Lilian’s corpse.

 

“It is too much. Too long, and too much for me. I cannot endure this any longer, and I do not know how you still remain sane. Spell or no spell.”

 

Protheana shrugged. It wasn’t her best shrug. She understood Vina, more than the caster knew.

 

“I know. But Duty demands we endure. So.”

 

She shook her head.

 

“I cannot. I’m not like you—I was part of the link up, but you were the target of the spell! I cannot rely on it.”

 

“I don’t rely on the spell,” Protheana said, mildly insulted. “If I hadda do that, I’d have croaked myself long ago.”

 

Lady Vina looked up at Protheana, desperation in her eyes.

 

“Then how do you do it? How?

 

“’S not hard. All you gotta do is understand what forever feels like.”

 

“I cannot. I am not like you, unchanging and unchanged.”

 

Protheana went to sit back on her log. She unsheathed her sword and began cleaning it. Not of blood or anything; obviously corpses didn’t bleed or make a mess. But she still did it automatically; wanting to make sure her weapon was sharp.

 

“Okay, you can’t keep doin’ this. What then? Either you croak yourself, or you’ll Turn. But I don’t think you’ll croak yourself. You’re too proud. Turning, then. If not to him, then you’ll go Barbarian.”

 

Lady Vina was silent. But both she and Protheana knew she was correct.

 

Protheana blew a bit of dust off the edge of her sword. It wasn’t magical, but she’d croaked Dwagons with it. It was a good blade. She spoke to it, rather than to Vina.

 

“Of all the units here, you’n me could get out. We abandon our side, and then we can leave the hex. Even if the turn don’t end.”

 

Protheana shifted on her seat. She grabbed a branch and flipped it into the air. With one smooth cut she slashed it in two with her sword.

 

“Trouble is, I won’t Turn. If I did everything’d be simpler. And trouble is, I can’t let anyone on my side turn.”

 

The Turnamancer was lost for words for a moment. She tried indignation.

 

“What are you saying? If you’re threatening me—

 

“I’m not threatenin’ anyone. Just talking out loud about hypothetical stuff.”

 

That was what Protheana said. But as she sliced apart branches, grass, and even rocks her expression told Vina a different story. Her face had taken on the far-away cast the Turnamancer had seen a thousand times when Protheana was about to go into battle.

 

For the first time Lady Vina wondered why Protheana had chosen to sit at the boundary of the hex the entire time. It surely couldn’t have been enjoyable, listening to her and the other units shouting at Turing, hearing their one-sided arguments, entreaties and pleas to him. Vina was sure Protheana would have preferred to be by herself in the quietest part of the hex.

 

But Protheana always obeyed her Duty. Always. So maybe she had another reason to sit in that spot. Maybe there was a tactical reason for her to sit there. Perhaps—just perhaps it was to guard against Turing if he moved into the hex suddenly. That could be one reason.  But maybe it was to guard against the opposite. Maybe it was to stop a Caster from running into the city if she turned.

 

Vina had learned long ago not to betray emotion. Her eyes barely flickered as she thought rapidly. She was only a few feet away from the boundary into the city. But Protheana was holding her sword. And even as she thought it, the warlady looked up and met her eyes.

 

“Try to leave the hex and I’ll cut you down.”

 

A cold chill. Vina searched for words, something to persuade a unit she knew was unpersuadable.

 

“I don’t have to turn over to that…that man. If I became a Barbarian and escaped into the Magic Kingdom, wouldn’t that be fine?”

 

Protheana scratched the back of her ear with a twig.

 

“Hypothetically, if one of our casters were to turn – even if they didn’t join any other side – nah. Too dangerous. Our casters know too much. ‘Sides, Turing’s in the city and he’s good enough to croak a Turnamancer, even a Master-class one. That’s if this hypothetical Turnamancer don’t Turn just to save herself from bein’ croaked. So…no.”

 

“But you know I cannot endure. Do you expect me to croak myself?”

 

“I expect you to try and croak me, to be honest.”

 

“—And you call that fair?”

 

“Fairer than stabbin’ you in the back if you run?” Protheana shrugged and shook her head. “Nah. Not gonna be fair either way. But at least you’d go down fightin’. ‘Swhat I would want, but I’m a Warlord. If yer gonna run, give it yer best shot.”

 

Vina stared at Protheana.

 

“So that’s it? After all this time, that’s it?”

 

“Do you expect me to say I’d betray my side for friendship? First off, we ain’t friends. Secondly—if I was that kinda unit, I’d have Turned long ago.”

 

That was true. And Protheana wouldn’t Turn. Couldn’t Turn. She would never Turn so long as she kept her oaths, and she would keep those. Vina knew that.

 

“So.”

 

Protheana didn’t look at her. “So.”

 

“That it has come to this—I wish I had never Turned you all those ages ago.”

 

“Yeah. Me too. But we’re here now. Time to finish what we started a long time ago, V. Good luck to ya. But I won’t lose.”

 

Vina stared down at Protheana for a minute longer. Then she turned and slowly walked back into the hex.

 

Protheana on her log and thought about things. Not grand things, like strategy for the side. She wasn’t actually in charge of that, despite being Chief Warlord. She lived in the now and the now was always the same. Protect the side. Even if it means croaking the world.

 

Protheana picked up a stick and laid her sword at her feet while she pulled out a dagger. She slowly sliced a strip of bark away. But her mind wasn’t on her carving at the moment. She was listening, sensing the units in the hex at her command. Protheana was aware of the sword at her side. She wasn’t killing time anymore, no. She was waiting. There was a huge difference.

 

Protheana looked up at the unchanging sky. She smiled bleakly, and wondered what Harbinger would make of this one. Her bones hummed with life after so long. She murmured as she slowly cut the wood into pieces.

 

“Soon.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing knelt by Miya, praying. Or maybe he was just clasping his hands together and closing his eyes. He didn’t know which.

 

A cup of wine sat on the ground next to him. It wasn’t a large cup; not enough to get him intoxicated. But it was important. He’d nearly forgotten about it, but the cup and the wine were very important.

 

He’d meant to toast Miya, if she’d accepted his proposal. If she’d shot him down, well, then at least he’d have the wine to take away the pain.

 

He had forgotten all of that, until he’d found the banquet table in the library, the cup of wine still standing upright despite the devastation. So he’d brought it back here.

 

It felt wrong to drink it, though. Turing felt the moment he did drink should be special, but every moment felt the same now. So for the last twenty days he’d been kneeling here, waiting for a sign.

 

When he had it, it wasn’t what he expected. Turing felt the sensation, the new information flowing into his mind in a sudden burst of feeling.

 

He looked up.

 

Twenty three Stabbers, eighteen Pikers, and one Turnamancer had just Turned to his side. The Turnamancer was Master-class, Level 10. The Stabbers and Pikers were a mix, some as high as Level 5, most Level 1. They Turned, and began croaking even as he felt them.

 

The window in the castle muffled noise, and Turing was far away from the city limits. But he could still hear the screaming and clash of metal. He sensed Stabbers and Pikers croaking left and right, but the Turnamancer remained.

 

An uneven battle. But not an impossible one. In his head, Turing thought about the stats a Level 13 Warlady was like to have, and weighed that against the units in his head. Adding in the odd critical, it wasn’t a good matchup for his units. But it wasn’t impossible either.

 

He stared towards the window. Leadership. If they had Leadership it might be a winnable fight. He had move. He had full move, still.

 

There were still many units left. But they were croaking. If he was to act, it would be now.

 

Turing stared towards the window and then bowed his head. He sat by Miya and picked up the goblet of wine. Slowly, Turing drank the small cup of wine down to the last dregs.

 

The numbers in his head dwindled and vanished. First all the Pikers were gone, then the Stabbers. Then the Turnamancer was left. She had one hit.

 

Turing waited. The single unit in his head didn’t change for a long time. He stared out the window. Two shapes stood in the hex among a sea of corpses. One raised her sword and brought it down.

 

And then there were two.

 

 

Chapter 17

Turing saw Protheana standing in the center of her hex amidst the croaked bodies. She was still staring down at the single female caster that lay motionless on the ground. She turned her head ever so slightly as Turing approached.

 

She was wounded. Turing saw cuts crisscrossing her arms and broken pike heads embedded in her flesh. A lucky critical had scored a deep gash down one leg and her cheek sizzled, the flesh burned from a spell. But that was all.

 

None of the wounds were deep, but they were numerous. Protheana staggered slightly as she sheathed her sword and walked over to Turing.

 

For a long time both stared at each other in silence. Turing didn’t know what to say. Protheana looked—tired. Yes, tired was the word for it. Not in pain so much as just exhausted.

 

At last Protheana seemed to want to say something. She opened her mouth—and froze. Then she grimaced.

 

“Hold on. Gotta take this call.”

 

She wandered away from him, speaking into the air. Turing blinked, confused. Was it Charlie? But no—he remembered. Reapin had its own Thinkamancers, and judging by the way Protheana was talking—well arguing with someone invisible, she was most likely talking to her ruler.

 

At last, the call ended. Protheana shook her head as she disconnected and walked back over to Turing.

 

“Sorry ‘bout that. Hadda explain what just happened to the boss.”

 

“Oh.” Turing didn’t know what to say. “Um, I take it he wasn’t happy?”

 

She gave him a flat look.

 

“What do you think?”

 

“Ah.” Suddenly, Turing felt hopeful. “Did he…order you to retreat?”

 

“Not our turn. And I told him what I told you. You ain’t gonna Turn me. Once the turn ends, I croak you and everything’s solved.”

 

Protheana kicked a Stabber’s corpse off her log and sat back down with a sigh. She picked up a stick and began chopping at it listlessly. Turing stared.

 

“You can’t be serious.”

 

“Sure am.” Protheana shrugged at Turing. “What’s changed? Lost the army and V, but I’m still a 13 and you’re a 3. Just gotta wait until you break.”

 

Turing could only stare. Something about Protheana’s simple—or was it just resigned?—thought process disturbed him greatly. He changed tact.

 

“Does your ruler know what’s happened?”

 

“Sorta. It’s hard to explain if you ain’t here, but he understands we’re in a kinda trap. More’n that he doesn’t really care. He gave me my orders: croak you. ‘S all we needed to discuss.”

 

“Let me talk to him. I want to negotiate—”

 

Protheana shook her head.

 

“Ain’t gonna happen. Harbinger won’t talk to you, Turing.”

 

“Why not? Doesn’t his Thinkamancer have enough juice?”

 

“Nah. Even if he didn’t want to waste juice, Harbinger don’t acknowledge other sides, even their rulers. He talks through proxies if he’s gotta, but even that’s rare.”

 

Turing blinked. That sounded odd, even for a ruler. But Protheana’s jaw was set and she was wincing a bit as she roughly sliced the branch apart. He had the definite feeling he wasn’t going to get anywhere by trying to persuade her.

 

Instead, Turing stared around the hex which had become a battlefield. He was—or had been—a Warlord, even if it was a bad one. He could see how the battle had gone, how Protheana had led the enemy across the hex, croaking them, forcing them to follow her as she cut down their numbers.

 

Lady Vina had been the last, and she had croaked in the center of the hex. Her headless corpse was propped up against a rock, facing Turing. He looked away.

 

“I can’t say I’m sorry to see Lady Vina go. I suppose it’s a blow for your side, though.”

 

Protheana shrugged again. She crushed the branch into pieces in one hand and picked up another, not looking at Turing.

 

“She was a good caster.”

 

“I beg to differ.”

 

The Warlady glanced up at Turing and shook her head.

 

“You might not think so, but she was. Sure, V was prickly and annoyin’. But she fought well. Better’n any other caster I’ve served with. She fought by my side for more turns than I remember, even when the odds were terrible. That she was wasn’t the nicest don’t take away from what she was. I hope the Titans judge her well.”

 

She paused, and sighed. Protheana turned her head and stared back at the headless Turnamancer’s body. She hesitated, and seemed to grapple with herself for a while. Then she looked at Turing.

 

“I’ve got a favor to ask, Turing.”

 

He blinked at her. “What? I mean, yes, what is it?”

 

Protheana laid the stick aside and bowed her head for a moment. Then she spoke.

 

“You got any alcohol in yer provisions, still? Any wine, beer, ale, or spirits? I don’t need strong stuff. Wine’s best.”

 

Turing blinked a few times, but his ears hadn’t failed him.

 

“We do have quite a few barrels of wine,” he said cautiously. “I haven’t tapped any yet but—why?”

 

“I need a cup. Of wine.”

 

More silence.

 

“You mean you want me to enter your hex? Are you serious?

 

Protheana unsheathed her sword, but not to attack. She placed her hand on the blade and stared at Turing.

 

“I swear by my Number, my side, and by the Titans themselves that you will come to no harm by my blade when you enter this hex, unless you should attack or seek to flee.”

 

Gently, she cut open her palm and dripped blood on the blade and ground.

 

“This is my promise, my oath to you. If I break it I am forsworn. Will you do this for me?”

 

Turing stared.

 

“I—I have to think about this.”

 

Protheana nodded. She sat back on the log, waiting. Turing stared at her, but she kept her eyes on him. He had to look away.

 

And what was he going to do? All of Turing’s instincts as a Warlord told him that this was probably, no definitely a trap. No unit in their right minds would ever pass up this opportunity. But all of Turing’s other instincts, his senses as a Ruler and just as person—they told him Protheana was being honest.

 

Slowly, Turing wandered away from Protheana, to get away from her expectant stare more than anything. He left, and the sand in the Turn Timer ran out. It was a long time before he returned—for Turing, not Protheana. But when he did, he had a goblet in his hands.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing stood in the hex and felt completely naked and defenseless. He wore his sword, but it would do little good against the enemy Warlady standing right next to him. It was impossible. But she was right there, inches away from Turing instead of separated by a hex. He could reach out and touch her if he wanted.

 

Gently, Turing poked Protheana in the back. She turned and glared at him.

 

“Sorry,” he said meekly.

 

“Quiet.”

 

Turing immediately edged back and assumed a more formal stance. Protheana was still standing over Lady Vina’s body, the goblet of wine in her hands. She stared up at the sky, not saying anything. Her gray eyes were far away as she slowly took a sip of wine.

 

One sip. Then she looked down at the body and slowly poured the rest of the red wine out onto the bloodless stump of the Turnamancer’s head. The goblet slowly crushed in Protheana’s fist as she cast it to the ground.

 

When she turned back to Turing, Protheana’s face was as impassive as ever.

 

“Thanks, Turing. I appreciate it.”

 

“No problem. Um—”

 

“I’m done.” Protheana shook her head. “Now get outta my hex. Yer still my enemy.”

 

She didn’t unsheathe her sword, but suddenly she seemed to loom over Turing, despite their relatively equal heights. He immediately backed up and walked back into the comfortable sameness of his city.

 

Protheana settled back down on her log with a sigh. Turing sat down too, on the grass.

 

“What was that, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 

“Rememberin’. That’s all.”

 

Turing waited, but Protheana said nothing more. Awkwardly, he scratched at the back of his head.

 

“I almost expected you to croak me when I crossed the hex. I know you said but—”

 

Protheana shook her head. “I keep my promises.”

 

“Still, you have your Duty as a Chief Warlord to your side.”

 

“Even then, if I say something I mean it. I don’t go back on my word.”

 

“What if V—I mean, Vina ordered you to?”

 

Protheana shook her head again, firmly. “I wouldn’t do it.”

 

“Harbinger, then? If your ruler gave you a direct command?”

 

“He wouldn’t make that mistake.”

 

“But if he did?” Turing pressed.

 

Protheana turned her head and looked at Turing. Her deep green eyes were immovable dark oceans of will. Turing was forced to look away.

 

“I do not break my oaths.”

 

And that was the end of that. Turing sat awkwardly on the grass. He wondered if he should go. Protheana wasn’t even carving at the moment, just staring at her cut hands and the ground. But then she spoke.

 

“I’m gonna tell you a story, Turing. I ain’t ever told it before. Few people on Erf know it—only a handful. One less now that V’s gone. But it’s important, so listen.”

 

Turing was incredibly intrigued, so he sat cross-legged on the grass.

 

“Okay. What’s it—”

 

“And don’t interrupt.”

 

Protheana waited until Turing was completely silent before she continued. She opened her hands and stared down at them. Turing saw callused hands, more scar than flesh. But what Protheana saw—she stared into the past and began to speak.

 

“Once upon a—nah. Here’s how it went, right? There was a side, long ago. And there was a Warlady, long ago. That’s all you need to know. Back when the Titans had just left the Erf and everyone was figurin’ out how sides worked, there was a Warlady. That’s how it started.”

 

Turing blinked. Protheana nodded.

 

“She was a Level 9, a Warlord of a side that…well, a good side. You wouldn’t know the name of it. But it was an old side, even then. And she’d been fightin’ for a long time. That Level 9 don’t come by itself. She was good at her job, liked her ruler, and all was well. Sure, there were them wars, but she never met any unit she couldn’t croak with her sword.”

 

Protheana clenched one fist.

 

“And then Reapin attacked. Back then they were a big side. Big—bigger than ours. A real huge cheese from far off that was wipin’ out alliances. But my Queen sent the Warlady out to lead an army made from units from every side in a thousand hexes. She told her Chief Warlord to hold them back. And she did.”

 

Protheana’s eyes flashed. Her hand moved down to her sword hilt and gripped it in her lap.

 

“Trouble was, the enemy was numberless. No matter how many the Warlady croaked, more kept on comin’. She wiped out their enemy Chief Warlord – a tough guy named Sovereign who was Level 8 – but they had more than just Warlords. There was a caster. A Turnamancer.”

 

Without speaking it aloud, Turing knew the caster’s name. His eyes drifted over to the headless corpse.

 

“She hid behind the enemy, sheltered in their stacks. She cast on the Warlady and all the high-level units in the alliance army, sappin’ their will. Many turned. The Warlady didn’t. For ten turns the Turnamancer cast on the Warlady. Each turn she used up all her juice as she hid behind stacks and fled.”

 

Protheana’s hand whitened on the sword hilt.

 

“On the eleventh turn, the Warlady turned. She tried not to but—one moment she was with her side, and then she was the Chief Warlord of Reapin. It happened right on the battlefield. Without her bonus, the alliance army crumbled. And the Warlady—she did her duty.”

 

Protheana fell silent. Turing stared at her. All the pieces fell into place—well, most of them. Protheana stared at the ground, and then suddenly looked right at Turing.

 

“Once it was over, I went back and met Harbinger. I was Level 11 by that point. And that’s when it happened.”

 

Turing leaned forward. He couldn’t help himself.

 

“What?”

 

Protheana’s eyes were still looking into the past.

 

“The Perfect Warlord. That’s what my ruler wanted. He was obsessed with it. He wanted the greatest warlord to lead an army that could wipe out every side in existence. But he didn’t have a perfect warlord, just me. An’ I wasn’t Loyal. Not enough.”

 

She glanced up at Turing.

 

“So here’s a question fer you, Turing who thinks too much. What makes a perfect warlord?”

 

Turing blinked and stammered as he tried to answer the question.

 

“Um. Well—if I had to guess, would it be—a perfect mind I suppose? Or—or being unbeatable in combat? The highest leadership bonus? Is that—that right?”

 

Protheana shrugged.

 

“I dunno. But I know what my ruler thinks. For him, it ain’t about the mind or the cunning of the warlord – or even their level. It’s one thing: Loyalty.”

 

“Loyalty?”

 

She nodded. “Loyalty. Harbinger was obsessed with findin’ a Chief Warlord who’d never turn, no matter what. He feared rebellion so much he never popped a Heir or named a Heir Designate. And he wanted to be sure of me. So he decided to make me into the perfect warlord.”

 

Turing asked one word.

 

“How?”

 

Protheana was silent for a long while.

 

“Back then, back then the Magic Kingdom wasn’t what it was. It was smaller—had less rules. Them Thinkamancers weren’t around in numbers yet. So Harbinger put out a call. He asked for three Master-class casters to come. Paid a million Shmuckers all told for a single spell.”

 

She grinned, mirthlessly.

 

“Most money he ever spent. But Harbinger wanted it that badly. He ordered a Turnamancer, a Thinkamancer, and a Carnymancer to create a Warlord who’s Loyalty would never drop or decay.”

 

Protheana laughed, once. It was a hollow sound, dead and mirthless.

 

“They failed.”

 

Turing shifted. She nodded at him.

 

“Yeah. It wasn’t possible. They told him as much, the casters. Ain’t no way to go around the Titan’s will and create a unit that don’t lose Loyalty. Only Golems an’ nonliving units can do that. But Harbinger was clever. He knew me, and knew I kept my oaths. So if he couldn’t have the Perfect Warlord, he’d have the next best thing.”

 

Turing stared. He felt he could almost see the Protheana long ago. Her voice took a far-off cast.

 

“The Turnamancer, the Thinkamancer and the Carnymancer linked. They cast only one spell and when the link broke the Carny croaked. One spell. To bind me by my honor and word to never abandon my King or my side.”

 

The sword shone in Protheana’s hands as she unsheathed it. She held the great sword up to the sky and spoke. Her words rang in the silence of the clearing.

 

 

“By honor and Duty am I bound.

By word and action are my chains

Kept whole. So long as my word

Is true, my faith shall never waver.

I am Protheana, and my Loyalty

Shall never fade by time or deed.”

 

 

Silence followed her words. Protheana smiled, and sheathed her blade. The spell broke, and Turing remembered to breathe again. She nodded at him and shrugged.

 

“So that’s it. I got a spell on me. So long as I keep my oaths I will never Turn. Never. I can’t. So you can keep the Turn from endin’ as long as you want. But until the Titans return and break all bonds I will never turn.”

 

It was Turing’s turn to speak, but he had no words that fit. He tried to say something several times. In the end, he just gave up.

 

“Oh.”

 

She nodded at him.

 

“Jus’ thought you should know. Might make things easier.”

 

“So it’s a spell that uses your promises, right? I guess I’d never have expected something like that. What if you break your oath?”

 

“Then I guess I’d be free to Turn. But I won’t. I’ve lived for more turns than you could imagine, Turing. And all this time, through it all, I’ve never broken a single promise.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Yup. ‘S the way it is.”

 

“Right.”

 

More silence. But this time Turing was thinking. Protheana’s story – it was something right out of legends, right out of his books. But one thing was nagging at him. He glanced up at her and frowned.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me this story earlier?”

 

She shrugged at him.

 

“Would it have helped? You wanted to croak V, and you wouldn’t have ended the turn while there was still a chance of them croakin’ me.”

 

Turing shook his head.

 

“But you could have told me. And if you had maybe – maybe I would have given up. Negotiated. But you didn’t. You wanted Lady Vina to Turn. Why?”

 

Protheana hesitated. Then she laughed softly.

 

“Got me. Guess I ain’t good at lying, either. Right, well since you’ve heard the rest of it—there’s one part of the story I left out. Remember that Warlady—me? Back when V turned me, I helped wipe out the alliance army. Croaked every one of them, even the ones that ran. But it wasn’t over.”

 

Protheana closed her eyes for a second.

 

“We marched on my side. My old side. V had orders to take me straight back to Harbinger, but she wanted to be sure I wouldn’t turn. So she brought me to the capital and had me wipe my side out.”

 

Turing stared. Protheana’s eyes were empty and far away. Her hands opened and closed silently.

 

“She ordered me to croak my Queen, my friends ‘n every unit I served with. And I did it.”

 

“And you didn’t Turn? Not then?”

 

Protheana didn’t meet Turing’s gaze.

 

“She was keepin’ my Loyalty high with her juice. I hated her, but I was still a Chief Warlord of Reapin. One can serve a side and hate the units.”

 

“So—that’s why.”

 

“That’s why.”

 

Protheana nodded and looked back at the corpse. It say, headless, wine still staining the Turnamancer’s dress.

 

“She was a good caster. But I swore to croak her with my own two hands on that turn. So Harbinger made me swear an oath never to croak a unit on my side unless ordered to by V or himself.”

 

“And the only way to croak her would be if she turned. I understand.”

 

Turing exhaled. Protheana nodded again.

 

“Shame. For you, I mean. That was the last oath I made that I mighta broken. Some turns I was tempted but—it’s over now.”

 

She stared up at Turing.

 

“Get it? It’s over. And now it’s just you and me. Nothin’ in this hex to croak me, and no way of Turnin’ me. So the way I see it, you’ve got a choice. You can wait forever until we both go mad—or you can end the turn. Fight or run. It makes no difference to me.”

 

“If I run, you’ll croak me.”

 

“Yeah. Or more likely I’ll get Charlie to do it. But make no mistake—yer the biggest threat to my side right now. Either way, you’ll be croaked.”

 

“I see.”

 

Turing sat on the grass and heard the Titans speaking his name. He felt light-headed. Protheana looked at him with something approaching sympathy.

 

“It was a good battle. It was a good try. Nearly worked, too. You cost my side more’n any other side has for the last two thousand turns. If it were any other Warlord—but I’m here.”

 

She picked up the stick she’d laid aside and slowly began cutting it again. Flecks of wood slowly drifted to the ground. She didn’t look up at Turing. Her voice was far away again.

 

“When yer ready to end the turn, let me know.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Afterwards, Turing walked for many days, thinking. Protheana’s story had moved him, in ways he couldn’t describe. He had no doubt for a second that what she’d told him was true. She didn’t lie. And now he knew the spell that bound her, Turing knew there was no way he would win.

 

So long as Protheana kept her oaths, she couldn’t lose Loyalty. And she would keep her oaths. It was impossible to trick her, and her braking a promise—she wasn’t that kind of unit. She was honorable. Yes, that was it. She was honorable, and her ruler had used that honor to keep her chained to him.

 

That was wrong. But there was nothing Turing could to about it. Now he knew. He knew his end was upon him at last, without even a shadow of a doubt.

 

That made things so much easier. It felt as though Turing was freed from his fate. Except that he wasn’t. It was just that he couldn’t evade it, so there was no point struggling. When the Megalogwiffon had you, there was no point in struggling.

 

Turing had never seen a Megalogwiffon, but he understood the saying. So he did the last thing he wanted to do. The last—and the first thing he’d wanted to do really. The only thing.

 

He talked.

 

 

—-

 

 

“Here’s an idea I was tossing around.” Turing felt a bit self-conscious, but he didn’t see any reason for it. Protheana was still sitting on the log, still carving away. She didn’t seem bothered by his presence, and he sensed she was probably just as bored as he was.

 

“Okay, so we’re all trying to achieve the Level Infinity, right? At least in theory.” Turing stared hopefully at Protheana. She shrugged noncommittally.

 

“The problem is, leveling is extremely difficult at higher levels. I’m not sure how many units you had to croak to hit Level 13—”

 

“Lost count a long time ago.”

 

“—Right. But sides, especially new ones like mine really need high-level units. They can carry other units and add leadership bonuses and so on. So I was thinking of a way to level units faster.”

 

Protheana glanced up at Turing.

 

“This story going anywhere anytime soon?”

 

He blushed.

 

“I’m getting there. My point is: if the problem is that croaking other units is so dangerous, why not take out the risk factor?”

 

Protheana frowned as she sliced bark off a fresh stick.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well…What if we croaked out own units?”

 

Protheana’s hands stopped carving. She looked up at him.

 

“What?”

 

Turing raised his hands. “Just hear me out! It sounds crazy, I know, but think about it. Everyone gains levels by croaking the enemy, right? Well, except for Casters. They can gain levels by just casting I guess. But Warlords, Stabbers, Pikers, Knights…we all need to croak the enemy to level. Most of us don’t get past Level 3 before we croak on average.”

 

Protheana jerked her thumb at her chest as she kept staring at Turing.

 

“Yes, well, you’re an exception. But what if you didn’t have to be? What if there was a way to level up to say, Level 6 without needing to be in any real danger?”

 

“By croakin’ your own side.”

 

“Yes. Um, yes. I know it sounds crazy, but—what do you think? It could be helpful, right? If you could create as many Level 6 Stabbers and Pikers as you needed, let alone Warlords—

 

Protheana was shaking her head. Turing broke off. She sighed and raised three fingers.

 

“Three problems with yer idea. First, even if we could gain levels by croakin’ units on our own side, it takes a lotta units to level. But let’s say yer right and you could build an army of Level 3’s that way. The time it takes to pop all them units is way longer than it’d take just goin’ out and hunting in the wilderness. But more’n that, the biggest problem is Loyalty. You start croakin’ your own side and every unit’s Loyalty will drop to zero in a matter of turns. That’s two good reasons.”

 

“And the last one is?”

 

Protheana gave Turing a flat stare. “It’s wrong. The Titans didn’t give us sides to start betrayin’ our own units like that. Any ruler I found out was doing that—I’d croak him or her in a heartbeat.”

 

Her disapproval was like a physical thing, but Turing stuck to his point. It probably was a stupid idea, but he had nothing left to lose.

 

“Okay, what if it wasn’t your own side? What if you had two sides that sent armies at each other?”

 

Protheana frowned.

 

“Like a war. How is that different from normal?”

 

“Well, these two sides would agree not to send casters or Warlords I guess. Or—only one side would get a Warlord and they’d let him or her level up by themselves.”

 

“So sendin’ their own units to a slaughter? Just as bad.”

 

Turing spread his hands. “I know. I know, but—is it at least worth a shot?”

 

Protheana sighed. “I guess? If you were tryin’ to keep yer upkeep low and you had some spare cities and no sides to fight against at the moment—maybe. It’s still a crazy idea.”

 

“But it’s not entirely bad?” Turing looked at Protheana hopefully.

 

She shook her head.

 

“Sounds like exactly the kind of thing a Level 2 Warlord garrisoned in a city would come up with.”

 

“I had a lot of time on my hands.”

 

“I know. And yer ideas ain’t entirely bad. That trick with yer Chief Warlord and them Gwulls was good. It really only worked ‘cause of our unique army, though.”

 

“It’s not the one you would have taken, right?”

 

She snorted. “’Course not. I didn’t survive this long by fieldin’ all low-level infantry. Nah, this was a raidin’ army.”

 

“Is that different from your main army?”

 

“Yup. For one thing, it’s just me and V. Oh, sure, we hire an Archon or two, but it’s all just her turnin’ low level units and me leveling them as I go through each city and raze it to the ground. That way we don’t spend much upkeep on our units and we earn a lot from all the cities. We do it in every direction. This is maybe the fourth time I’ve swept through here.”

 

Turing frowned.

 

“None of our histories record that.”

 

“Well, it was a long time ago,” Protheana conceded. “Point is, we weren’t expecting any real resistance around here. Your Curbstomp guy—he was the highest-level Warlord I’d met in a hundred turns.”

 

“So your main army, does it stay in Reapin?”

 

“Usually. Sometimes it goes out on a side-destroyin’ spree when Harbinger thinks they’re gotten too big. I lead it then, and when that happens we’re unstoppable.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Oh yeah. We’ve got more Warlords ‘n any other side we’ve met. And all our garrisoned units are really high level. Not a one below Level 5.”

 

“Any specials?” Turing leaned forward with interest.

 

“A few. We got a unique set of infantry. And our own kind of heavies as well. But fliers is where we’re really strong. I wanted to take some with us, but our Ruler wouldn’t let me. Said we had to keep them back to defend the cities. Shame. If I’d had them I would have conquered your cities four times as fast.”

 

“Why doesn’t he let you?”

 

Protheana made a face.

 

“Upkeep, I guess. Plus, he don’t want word to spread about how strong we are in case a hundred sides unite. As far as most sides know, I’m the only danger.”

 

Turing was fascinated.

 

“So what you’re saying is that there have been times in the past where multiple sides have allied to try and take your side out?”

 

“Ever few thousand turns or so. It gets predictable, really. But we don’t ever underestimate them.”

 

“What was the worst time?”

 

Protheana hesitated. But Turing was eagerly listening, and she was bored. So she put down her knife and rested her hands on her knees.

 

“Guess I can share a few stories with a croaked ruler. Right, well, there was this time our entire side nearly got wiped. We were goin’ through our old stomping grounds when we ran into a multi-side alliance lead by some weird unit with a Shepardin’ special.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Think it makes it easier for other sides to work together. The Warlord—or was it Warlady? I forget. Anyways, they were leading a huge army and they had their own personal stack filled with unique units. Most badass group of Casters and Warlords I ever saw. Nearly croaked me, but their war potential was a tiny bit too low compared to ours, y’know? Anyways, we got ‘em in the end.”

 

“Really? What was the final battle like?”

 

“A right mess. But I managed to croak their Chief Warlord. He—or she was a great fighter, but their dance fightin’ was awful. Anyways, that ain’t the interesting bit. You see, it all started a while ago when an idiot Warlord from our side named Sovereign decided to take a buncha our units out and raze a few sides…”

 

 

—-

 

 

Protheana told Turing the entire story, from beginning to end. It was so long he felt he could have written three books on the subject—and there was apparently even more after that. But the conversation had shifted at that point, and Turing and Protheana had talked about the best way to use Knights next.

 

She was quite willing to talk tactics with him, and even listen to his far-fetched ideas. The mood between them had changed. Turing knew Protheana would never, could never turn. And she knew he wouldn’t end the turn. So long as both knew that, the relationship they had was different. They were alike, two units suffering until the day Turing decided to end it all.

 

And it was suffering. Each moment the unending turn pulsed against their consciousness, reminding them of a life not lived. Turing felt it, and he knew Protheana did. Both Warlord and Ruler wanted to end the turn, but so long as Turing refused to, all they could do was talk.

 

At least Turing knew it would all be over when he ended the Turn. That gave him some peace. And Protheana? All she could do was suffer while she waited for him.

 

So they talked.

 

Those were the good times, when Turing and Protheana talked for hours, days even. They debated, argued, even laughed. But when the conversation stopped, the endless moments of silence took hold.

 

Those were the worst of times, by far.

 

When the conversation ground to a halt and Turing left, he found himself dying on the inside. He would wander around his city, listlessly walking into buildings, staring at the same sights over and over again.

 

Empty. It was the worst thing to be. Turing knew it in his bones.

 

Even Miya—even that had been better, in a way. Because as terrible as it had felt to lose her, as bad as each agonizing moment had been that tore Turing’s soul apart—

 

At least he’d felt something, then.

 

The rules of Erfworld were never meant to be broken like this. Turing knew it. He was damned. But he was still waiting for—for something. For a sign. He knew he should end the turn. He longed for it.

 

Entire days would pass where Turing would silently wrestle to keep himself from ending the turn. It would be at the tip of his mind, an unspoken action he could take at any time. But he did nothing. The words still echoed in his soul.

 

 

Don’t croak, okay lord?

 

 

And those words burned far brighter than even the darkest shadows of Turing’s madness. So in the moments when he curled into a ball or screamed in the center of his dead city, he clung to them. He remembered.

 

 

Promise?

 

 

But there was no way to win. No way to defeat a spell, no way to change Protheana’s fate. So long as she kept her oaths she would never Turn. And she made few promises. That she had sworn to croak Vina herself had been her last weakness. Now she was a perfect warlord; un-Turnable.

 

So Turing waited, caught between the knowledge of his own end and a battle he could never win. He waited for the moment when he broke his promise and forsook his vows and his Number was lost forever.

 

And until that moment arrived, he talked and read books.

 

Books. Turing read them and their pages fluttered by like dust in the wind. They had lost all meaning. What good is a story when the world no longer moves? What good is a story when there is no one to share it with?

 

Miya, the one who had treasured stories even more than Turing, was gone. And all that remained were painful memories.

 

 

—-

 

 

One day Turing was moving about the library, not really reading but trying to pass time. He couldn’t talk to Protheana, at least not for a while longer. He and Protheana had been arguing about—something. It hadn’t really been an argument, more that both of them had been suffering more than usual. In any case, he’d left rather than continue to fight.

 

He almost wished he were still shouting at Protheana. All the silent books around him helped Turing not at all. He couldn’t focus enough to read the stories. They held no more meaning for him.

 

He stumbled through the shelves. This might be the day. Protheana had seized her sword and chopped down all the trees in her hex. She and Turing hadn’t talked for—at least a month after the fight. The madness was getting worse.

 

Turing looked at a neat shelf of books that he hadn’t read. He glanced at one title, ripped it out of the shelf and hurled it to the ground. Turing ground his foot against the pages and reached for another one.

 

His hand fall across the spine of a book. Turing pulled it, pulled his arm back to hurl it away—

 

And froze.

 

The title’s simple gold lettering stood out on the soft brown leather. It was a simple title, a small book. It shouldn’t have mattered. It was one book among many. But this one—this one—

 

Turing stared at the title.

 

The Agony of Bein’ by King Gout. He held it in his hands and sunk to his knees. With shaking hands, Turing slowly opened the cover.

 

Yes, there it was. The author—King Gout of Osnap. Slowly, in the silence of the library, Turing stood up and walked unconsciously over to a chair he hadn’t yet destroyed. He sat down, still staring at the tome in his hand.

 

The book was slimmer than most stories, but still long enough. When had Gout written it? In the last turn of his life, it must have been. Turing’s hand shook uncontrollably, but he managed to open it to the first page. Even the lettering was written in Gout’s accent.

 

 

Fer all the hundreds of turns I’ve lived, my greatest failin’ is never noticin’ the value of those who serve me. I sit here inna last turn of my life, knowin’ that I’ll croak myself at the end. ‘S the only way. But before I explain all that, lemme tell you about how it all started. I was popped as an Heir to the side of Bellyjig six hundred ‘n forty three turns ago…

 

 

Turing’s eyes filled with tears. He swiped at his eyes, trying to keep the water from ruining the pages. But the tears kept falling. And he kept reading, on and on. He couldn’t stop.

 

He couldn’t stop.

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing read. He read like a drowning unit breathed, desperately, urgently, turning each page and devouring the words in order to survive. Each sentence was bittersweet pain. It was glorious.

 

In the small book, Gout had poured out the tale of his side. It was a story like many Turing had read before, a tale of a small side rising and then falling. It was like every story. But it was unique. And it mattered to Turing. He couldn’t look away from the pages as he saw the Gout he’d never seen before.

 

He read of a man, a great man, a prideful man who had learned humility the hard way—struggling to keep his side intact as he himself became more slothful with each passing turn. He read of battles won, costly mistakes made, and then an enemy that could not be defeated. A terrible choice, and of redemption and hope from an unlikely source.

 

Turing read of Gout’s despair and eventual peace. And of himself, as well. It was so strange for Turing to see his own name and what Gout had thought of him written down so openly like this. He disagreed with much of what his ruler wrote—he was not half as smart or worthy as Gout made him out to be. But the words still touched Turing’s heart. He felt, and the feeling was good.

 

Even if it was pain. Even if it was joy and sorrow and happiness and regret. Even then.

 

The book ended, but Turing’s thoughts did not. When he looked down at the book Gout had written he remembered his side. He remembered all the countless turns he’d spent in monotony yes, but also his triumphs, his sorrows. He remembered Curbstomp, Zipzap, all the units he’d served with. The book was living proof they had existed.

 

It was important. Turing felt it. Gout had left something behind. Something small and hidden away in the countless libraries of Erfworld, true. But he had left something that mattered. Turing understood Gout in that.

 

He’d wanted to do the same thing. Back before everything had gone wrong, Turing had dreamed of a way to keep the side alive, through Miya. If she had lived not all would be lost.

 

For one moment Turing contemplated writing a book as well. He certainly had the materials and the time. But he was no writer. And his story wasn’t worth telling. And yet Turing still wanted to leave some part of his side behind. Something that wouldn’t go when Protheana razed the city. Something real.

 

He held Gout’s book in his hands and stared around the library. Suddenly, Turing knew exactly what to do.

 

 

—-

 

 

Protheana sat on her log, not carving, not doing anything. Her fingers dug into the cuts on her arms, her bloodless wounds gaping redly in the bright, clear day.

 

“Go away, ruler.”

 

She didn’t look up as Turing approached.

 

“I have a name,” Turing said.

 

“Does it matter?” Protheana shook her head. “I don’t think it does. Names, faces, people and sides—I forget them all. Even my Queen and my friends from long ago—I barely remembered their faces when I croaked V. It all fades the good and the bad.”

 

“So you’ll forget me?” Turing pressed Protheana, holding something in his hands. He stared at her. “Do you think you’ll really forget this turn of all turns?”

 

She shrugged. Nodded. Shook her head.

 

“I will remember you for a thousand turns, perhaps. Ten thousand turns. But I’ll forget in the end. Even this will fade in time.”

 

Slowly, Turing sat in front of Protheana. She didn’t look at him. She rocked back and forth on her log, staring blankly at the ground.

 

“How do you keep on going? If it all doesn’t matter, then why continue at all?”

 

“Duty. Honor. What does it matter? I can’t be croaked.” Protheana tapped her chest. “I have nothing in here. ‘S what makes me strong. The Titans cannot take away what don’t exist.”

 

“It sounds terribly lonely,” Turing said quietly.

 

“It is.”

 

For a second Protheana looked neither like the battle-scarred veteran of countless battles, nor the unchanging statue that could weather even infinity without breaking. She just looked…old. Old, and sad.

 

Then the moment was over. Her face hardened, and took on the eternal look, the mask she wore at all times. Protheana’s voice was bitter as she looked at Turing.

 

“We talked. We distracted ourselves for a few moments. But I can barely remember what we said. So what’s the point of sayin’ it at all?”

 

“I suppose—because it was fun.”

 

“I don’t remember what fun is.” Protheana shook her head, despairingly. “It don’t matter. This don’t matter. I just gotta wait and it’ll all be over soon.”

 

“It does,” Turing insisted. “It does. Some things are worth doing.”

 

“Really?” Protheana laughed in Turing’s face. “Well then, give me something that I’ll take away from here and remember a million turns later. Can you?”

 

Turing was silent. The object he held in his hands was hard and soft. Protheana mocked him from her log.

 

“Tell me, ruler. What lasts forever? What can be build that don’t crumble away within a thousand turns? I have seen all sides rise and fall, the hexes of the Erf shift by time and Titanic will. Naught is immortal. Even the Magic Kingdom is a construct that ain’t gonna exist forever; and there’s at least one person on Erf who remembers Charlie’s face.”

 

She stood up. For once, Protheana’s voice was raised. She shouted at the skies, at the Titans, raging against the unchanging world.

 

“So what lasts? What lasts beyond it all? What could possibly endure forever?”

 

Nothing answered. Protheana sat back down, her head in her hands. And in the silence Turing moved. He opened the book in his hands and slowly turned to the first page. Protheana looked up, and Turing smiled.

 

“Stories,” he said.

 

 

Chapter 18

The first story Turing read to Protheana was Digdoug’s story. He didn’t know why. There were other stories with more action, epic battles, and devious plots. But Dirtamancer’s sad tale called to Turing. When he’d first read it all those turns ago, he’d identified with the isolated caster. And later, as he’d become Chief Warlord he’d found himself understanding Digdoug’s new responsibilities and fears.

 

So Turing chose that book, and read to Protheana as she sat silently on her log. Her face didn’t change as Turing slowly read page after page aloud. He was no Rhyme-a-mancer, and he wasn’t particularly good at telling stories, but Turing did his best.

 

He read to her until his voice was hoarse and his throat was dry. Protheana’s expression never changed. Turing glanced up as he read the last line aloud.

 

“…but I suppose it’s worth a fortune.”

 

And that was it. Turing closed the book and looked at Protheana, heart pounding slightly in his chest. Her face still hadn’t changed.

 

Oh. Turing felt something pull at his gut. Well, that was that. Slowly, he closed the book and stood up, feeling foolish and stupid now. He turned to go, and Protheana spoke.

 

“What happened after that?”

 

Turing turned, and his heart began to beat a bit faster.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

Protheana didn’t look up at him. She was still staring at the ground. She spoke to it.

 

“The Dirtamancer. Digdoug. What happened to him? Did he croak or is he still kickin’ around the Magic Kingdom?”

 

“I don’t know,” Turing admitted. “The book just says ‘end of part one’. But if there’s a part two, I’ve never found it.”

 

“Shame.”

 

“Why? Did you…like the story?”

 

Turing waited. Protheana shrugged slightly.

 

“Ain’t the greatest story. I’ve heard it before. Betrayal, attempting to defy Fate, Charlie…it ain’t that original. But…”

 

“But…?”

 

Another shrug.

 

“’F that Dirtamancer really did exist, I’d hire him. I’d hire an army of Dirtamancers if that King’s trick with them cities really works.”

 

“It’s a good strategy, isn’t it? But it does require several sides to attack constantly in order to make the trick viable.”

 

“Still, that Dirtamancer.” Protheana shook her head. “He ain’t bad. Never knew how many improvemants one of ‘em could make to a city. Shame.”

 

Turing was curious. “You’ve never worked with a Dirtamancer? I’d have thought you knew quite a few, being as uh—”

 

“Old as I am?” Protheana didn’t seem offended. She shook her head. “Nah, never worked with a Dirtamancer. Croaked plenty, a’course. But our side doesn’t use ‘em. If they get popped we send them into the Magic Kingdom right away.”

 

Why?

 

“Harbinger hates Dirtamancers. Come to that, he hates a lotta Caster types. Carnies a’course, but even Hippiemancers and useful ones like Dirtamancers are on his bad list. Funny thing though—he really likes Croakamancers.”

 

“What you don’t even temporarily hire them, not even for improving your capital?” Turing was surprised. If Osnap had had enough spare Shmuckers, they would have upgraded every city they held.

 

“Nah. Like I said; Harbinger hates them. Won’t let us have anything to do with ‘em. In fact, most of the other Warlords back in the Capital think Dirtamancers ain’t useful for more’n producing Crap Golems and minin’.”

 

Protheana shook her head.

 

“Arrogance. When I hit Level 12 I fought a Dirtamancer leadin’ an army of golems in a swampy hex. He was a Master-class and he’d dropped me into a pit trap. I had low hits, and his leadership bonus on them Golems was nearly as high as mine. If it hadn’t been for a lucky shot from one of my archers I’dve croaked then and there.”

 

The memory of the battle seemed to make her come alive a bit. Protheana squeezed her hand into a fist.

 

“’S what those other idiots don’t get. I keep tellin’ em: strength is about levels, but it ain’t just about levels.”

 

That was an odd thing for a Level 13 Warlord to say, or maybe it wasn’t. Turing wasn’t sure if he should reply, but Protheana stretched out on her log.

 

“Good book,” she commented to the sky. “Ain’t sure it’ll last forever, though.”

 

“I’ve got more. Would you—like to hear them?”

 

She shrugged.

 

“Don’t really care either way. If you ain’t gonna end the turn, might as well kill some time.”

 

Turing hesitated. That sounded like a ‘yes’, albeit and unenthusiastic one. He walked back towards the library.

 

Protheana kept looking at the sky. When she was quite sure Turing was gone, she sighed.

 

“Woulda liked to know how it ended, ‘s all.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing didn’t stop there, of course. Turing brought out some of his favorite novels and tried them out on Protheana. The first book he read, The Things They Croaked was a huge success. Protheana seemed to enjoy the war story; although she pointed out several times that the war itself was terribly fought.

 

“Anyone who tries fightin’ an enemy side in their own terrain type’s askin’ for trouble. I don’t care how many fliers they had, they shoulda just burned down every hex they came across.”

 

That wasn’t the point and Turing had said so, but it had made for a good discussion. Protheana seemed willing, even happy to talk about the books once he read them. And so he kept reading to her.

 

 

—-

 

 

One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty Four was another of Turing’s favorites, and it had made Protheana grumble about Thinkamancers for quite some time.

 

“Although are you sure it wasn’t written about Charlie? He’s about as paranoid as that side was.”

 

She wasn’t a fan of Thinkamancers either. Apparently, Protheana still remembered a time before the Great Minds – some sort of alliance of Master-class Thinkamancers – had settled in the Magic Kingdom. Turing wasn’t sure about the details, but he gathered Protheana distrusted them. Deeply.

 

“They’ve got a lotta clout, even if they don’t have any side,” was all she’d say on the matter. “And there’s a portal in every city. ‘S all I’m saying. I didn’t live this long without bein’ suspicious.”

 

Turing wasn’t sure whether to call that story a success or not, but at least it got Protheana talking. So he chalked it up to part success, part failure.

 

 

—-

 

 

And as for Halflight—Turing really had no excuse for that one. He really hadn’t thought Protheana would like a love story about a female Piker caught in a love triangle between a Heir with a shape-changing special and another Ruler with a blood-drinking special, but…

 

She’d made him burn the book. Turing had obliged her, mainly because it didn’t matter what happened to the library anyways, and because Halflight really hadn’t been that well-written to begin with.

 

“Still, it wasn’t that bad,” he’d said after the last flames had died down and he’d stamped the small fire out on the grass. “It’s a love story. It doesn’t have to make sense. Or be accurate.”

 

“You ever met them jerks down in Transyvito?” Protheana demanded. “Soulless blood-suckers, the lot of them. You’ll never find true love in the entire side, just a mouth full a’ teeth. Next book.”

 

 

—-

 

 

How to Tame Your Dwagon was met with a mixed response, though. Protheana was quite interested in the black Dwagon’s superior move and breath attack, but she was quite disparaging of Dwagons in general.

 

“Everyone says Dwagons are the best.” Protheana snorted. “They ain’t that good.”

 

Turing stared incredulously at her. “But they’re one of the heaviest fliers in Erfworld. They have incredible move, a breath attack and they can be mounted. If a side ever managed to tame one—”

 

“Oh, I’ve seen that.” Protheana shrugged. “Some sides manage to tame a feral by feedin’ it corpses. Then they sit a Warlord on it or a good archer and think they’re unbeatable. Sometimes I croak the Dwagon first, other times the warlord. I like watchin’ the faces of the others when they realize they just lost their best unit.”

 

“But Dwagons are the some of the most powerful fliers, apart from maybe Megalogwiffons,” Turing pointed out.

 

“Fliers, peh.” Protheana snorted. She pointed to the pond in Turing’s capital. “You want strong units? Go to sea. That’s where the real action’s at.”

 

Turing had never been to sea. Protheana hadn’t either, at least not in the sense of crossing a sea hex. She’d seen plenty of oceans though, and she knew quite a lot about the ferals that lived underwater.

 

“Ever hear of a Gorgo? Or a Harryhausen? They’re sea units that can level cities by themselves.”

 

The thought of such a colossal being dismayed Turing, but Protheana seemed delighted at the idea of a monster bigger than a capital. Her face took on a dreamy cast as she recounted the tale of a unit that had been swallowed alive by a sea monster and eventually escaped four hundred turns later.

 

“Gorgos could eat a flight of Dwagons for breakfast and still have room for an army or two. Always wanted to fight one.”

 

“Then why haven’t you?” Turing was curious. “I’d assume you’d have run into one given how long you’ve been alive—”

 

“Can’t.” Protheana’s face closed off and her happy expression disappeared in a heartbeat. “Harbinger’s orders. I’m not allowed on a boat or on an ocean hex ‘less there’s no other option. If there’s a bunch of water hexes in the way, I’ve gotta go around.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Too dangerous. I might get croaked. No seafarin’ bonuses, see?”

 

The sounded paranoid to Turing, and he said so.

 

“It makes sense, I guess. Even a small chance of losin’ yer Chief Warlord, let alone a Level 13 ain’t a chance you want to take. Harbinger never let me even get on a boat in case it got sunk. I barely fly even, and that’s only if the enemy can’t be assailed from the ground.”

 

She looked annoyed. Turing searched awkwardly for a counterargument.

 

“Well…he’s right. Tactically, it makes sense not to risk the Chief Warlord—”

 

“I know it makes sense. And I agree. I just wish—”

 

She broke off, shaking her head.

 

“Next book? Come on, give me something with more action in it. That book was just about keepin’ Dwagons happy.”

 

“Fine, fine.” Turing searched in the pile of books he’d brought over and pulled one out.

 

“How about this one? It’s called Saving Stabber Ryan.

 

“Why’d anyone want to go and save a Stabber? Is he Level 10 or something?”

 

 

—-

 

 

And sometimes, in between books, they talked again. But this time it was just because they wanted to, not to fight the crushing emptiness.

 

Turing loved talking to Protheana, but afterwards, when he was searching for new books or just resting his voice, he hated having done so. It felt—well, if he was honest, it felt almost like betrayal.

 

She was the enemy. But she wasn’t a bad person. Turing knew that. But he felt he shouldn’t like talking to her as much as he did. It was too intimate, the way they argued and he read books to her. It reminded Turing too much of another Stabber, and when it did, his heart would try to tear itself out of his chest.

 

But Protheana was different. She was. For one thing, she and Turing did argue, and quite frequently. They had different opinions, and she had a different way of talking and thinking.

 

She wasn’t like Miya. Not at all.

 

Miya had known a world Turing had seen many times as well; the view of the garrisoned unit, the lowest rung on an endless ladder upwards.

 

But Protheana—she was different. When she and Turing talked, he felt like he was seeing Erfworld from above, from a completely separate point of view. And that was because Protheana was no mere Stabber, or even a mere Warlord. She was a legend, or would have been if she left anyone alive to tell her stories. Yes, she was different.

 

Protheana saw the world from the eyes of a colossus.

 

One day she explained why Reapin, for all it was a powerhouse side, wasn’t ruling all of Erfworld, or at least a considerable chunk of it. She sat on her log and talked about bonuses as Turing sat among his books, hugging his knees and listening.

 

“See, when you get down to it yer Warlord bonus only carries you so far. Even a Chief Warlord like me don’t get that many leadership bonuses over a Level 9, and they’re common enough.”

 

Turing made a polite sound of disbelief. Protheana grinned and waved a hand.

 

“Well, ya see them every thirty sides or so. They’re usually pretty good. Obviously it ain’t easy to get past a four level difference, but I’ve had some good fights with them. Your Curbstomp is a good example of that. Warlords can still fight, but if it were just a matter of leadership I’d always win, see?”

 

She paused and then nodded to the headless body behind her.

 

“Casters are different. It’s one thing to fight a Warlord. Mathamancy tells you the outcome nine times outta ten. And I can croak any number of Warlords in a fight, fair or not. But a dance fightin’ group with a few Dittomancy enchants, a Healomancer to support and a decent leadership bonus? That ain’t fun.”

 

Protheana thought about that and amended her opinion.

 

“Well, it’s really fun, actually. Dance fightin’ is a blast, ‘specially when the enemy’s a threat. But it’s a lot more dangerous, even to me. With the right combination of dance fightin’, leadership and some casters, any side can put together an army with bonuses that match mine.”

 

“So how do you win?” Turing was intensely curious. “If the bonuses match—”

 

“Well, the stats don’t.” Protheana shrugged. “My Attack and Defense, not to mention my Hits are way higher even without any other bonuses. I can take quite a few hits and so I usually charge the Caster or the enemy Warlord. Once they’re down the rest of the army crumbles quickly.”

 

She smiled in recollection of some battle fought long ago.

 

“That’s what I really got. Stayin’ power. My leadership bonus don’t end unless I do, and croakin’ me’s harder than croaking a Giant. Two Giants.”

 

Turing glanced at Protheana’s face. When she was talking about battle, her eyes lit up with joy. He understood what she felt, a bit.

 

“You love to fight.”

 

She shrugged.

 

“’Course. It’s what I was popped for. ‘S what I do best. The only thing I can do, actually.”

 

“Really? What about being Chief Warlord? You seem to be pretty good at that.”

 

Protheana made a face.

 

“Not really. I don’t decide the big strategy much. Really, it’s just a matter of decidin’ which side to croak first, which army to hit, and so on. But yeah, I guess I’m a decent Chief Warlord.”

 

She didn’t look happy about it, though. Turing waited. Protheana sighed and raked a hand through her hair.

 

“Thing is—thing is, if I could, I’d like not to be a Chief Warlord.”

 

“Really? But you’re the highest level—”

 

“Oh, I get the bonus is important. But even if I was Chief for the bonus—no, it’d be better to make some Level 8 the Chief Warlord instead. Let them organize the size and armies. They can keep the Stack bonus and the Hex bonus in the capital for extra defense. I’ll take my own stack and carve up the enemy on the front lines.”

 

“Don’t you do that anyways?”

 

“It’s not the same.” Protheana shook her head angrily. “You think I like fighting puny sides with only a few warlords over and over? I don’t want to fight in safe battles every time. I want to fight on sea hexes, on mounts—it ain’t like I’m gonna risk my life recklessly. But what kinda strategy has no risk to it?”

 

“It seems risky enough to leave the Chief Warlord without support so far from the capital.”

 

“Hah. A Level 13? Please. That ain’t risk and you and I know it. Real risk would be sendin’ out our main army to keep fighting’ rather than eliminate sides that get too big. But instead we only send out small groups or everyone.”

 

She sighed.

 

“Reapin’ is probably one of the most powerful sides in all of Erfworld. I don’t know about the West or North—never travelled that far up before, but where we are, we’re the greatest. Not ‘cause we have many cities, but our armies are unstoppable. But we got one weakness.”

 

She paused. Turing saw her eye him, and then Protheana must have decided she was allowed to tell him. She went on.

 

“Stagnation. Without any risk-takin’ we just do the same thing for thousands of turns. I go on endless campaigns razin’ smallfry sides while the rest of the army defends our capital. The only time our Warlords and Casters ever level is when they go out on our annihilation campaign. ‘N then, the enemy is strong enough that we lose enough guys so we never get that much stronger.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yup. That’s the problem. What good is a side that don’t keep getting stronger? But Harbinger is content to wait until I level, even if it takes ten thousand turns. Slow and steady? Hah. At the rate we’re growin, the land hexes will turn into sea hexes before we get any stronger.”

 

“But how is that weakness?” Turing wanted to know. “If you don’t get any stronger, that’s one thing, but your side isn’t getting any weaker. So how—”

 

“Other sides. That’s the thing. Our weakness is that if we stay the same, other sides will catch up. Now, we crush them as fast as we can if they start growin’, but it’s only a matter of time.”

 

Protheana shook her head. She unsheathed her sword and began to sharpen it restlessly, not that it needed any sharpening.

 

“It might not happen this turn, or even in a thousand turns. Titans, it might not happen in ten thousand turns. But someday there’s gonna be a side stronger than us, and when it pops, we ain’t gonna do much about it. We’ll be doin’ the same thing over and over again, and they’ll  be taking risks and levelin’ faster than we can.”

 

Turing watched her run the blade along the whetstone.

 

“Then what would you do? If you could order your ruler, I mean.”

 

Protheana shrugged.

 

“’F it was me, I’d have taken V and captured as many Casters and Warlords as possible. I’dve taken them, regardless of the upkeep and kept poppin’ Heirs from my capital. Spin off a few loyal sides, expand ours to at least twenty or thirty cities. Form a decent wall around our side with trustworthy sides and then go out conquerin’. We could bring along Heirs and start sides far away after we rampage through.”

 

“Risky. If they turn—”

 

“If they turn, that’s that. But we can deal with a few rogue sides if it means havin’ a lot more at our back. We’d have an army of sides and more forces at our disposal. We’d sweep across Erfworld like a storm. And after that? If I had enough Casters I’d focus on makin’ them all Master-class. Then I’d see about Charlie, or the Magic Kingdom. They’re the two big cheeses, see. The end goal.”

 

“Wait a second. You can’t bring non-Casters into the Magic Kingdom,” Turing protested.

 

“Sure you can’t. But I hadda idea. If we could croak enough casters in the Magic Kingdom, a few Master-class Croakamancers could build an army. It’d be squishy and weak since they’d be uncroaked Casters, but it might work, ‘specially with Croakamancer’s dance fightin’.”

 

“Against all the Casters there?”

 

“If we had about a hundred Master-class Casters from all our sides? Yeah, it’d be more’n a fair fight.” Protheana grinned. “Worth a shot at least, just to get away with attackin’ the Magic Kingdom. I’d just be sad I couldn’t join in.”

 

“It would be a first,” Turing admitted. “But that plan sounds like a long shot. Are you sure spinning off countless sides would work?”

 

Protheana shrugged again. She eyed the blade of her sword and sheathed it.

 

“Who knows? ‘S all just theory and speculation. It’ll never happen, anyways. Harbinger don’t listen to my advice, ‘cept in the field, and he ain’t gonna croak anytime soon.”

 

“But until then, you’re stuck, is that it?”

 

“Stuck in more ways than one.” Protheana nodded at Turing.

 

“…Sorry.”

 

Protheana shrugged impassively.

 

“You do what you gotta do. We’re enemies, in the end.”

 

“I know. But you’re not my enemy—I mean, you—I’m fighting to survive, not against you in particular. I don’t care much for your side but you—I’m sorry you have to deal with this.”

 

Protheana stared pensively at Turing, and then away. She stretched her legs out and rested her head against the back of the mossy log.

 

“It ain’t so bad, I guess. ‘S all I’m saying. At first, it was just a pain, y’know? You were just another annoyin’ ruler, trying to fight against the inevitable. Then I started takin’ you seriously, and getting’ worried. And then it became torture, agony.”

 

She paused.

 

“But then we talked. After it all, we talked and you brought them books. That was—better. It really was. I never read anything before. Never had time, really. But this—reading. It’s nice. It really is.”

 

She smiled briefly at Turing, and then leaned back against the log. It was a small, slight smile, only there for a moment. Turing saw it and his heart whispered something that made his soul shake.

 

“Hey. You gonna open that book, or what?”

 

He blinked at her for a few seconds stupidly. Then Turing slowly reached for a book with hands that shook. His heart was still whispering. He knew. But for a while longer? Yes, for a short while longer.

 

Slowly, Turing pulled out a fat book that he’d brought out. It was part of a stack of fourteen. Carefully, he flipped to the prologue and cleared his throat.

 

“The Wheel of Titans turns, and Sides come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Side that gave it birth comes again…”

 

 

—-

 

 

And then the day came when Turing appeared with no book in his hands. Protheana was sitting by her log as always, hands behind her head as she stared up into the sky. She looked dreamy, and for once it seemed as though her mind was in a different place.

 

When that happened, her features smoothed out. She looked less like steel, less like a statue carved of war and more like a person. She looked happy, or at least content.

 

Turing paused, watching Protheana. She hadn’t noticed him approaching, another sign her mind was truly elsewhere. It hurt him, inside, to see it. Not because he begrudged her – on the contrary, it was because he was happy that she was happy. And it hurt him all the more because of what would come next.

 

Turing’s boots whispered through the grass as he walked towards Protheana. She looked up to smile at him, and the smile froze and melted on her face. Turing didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

 

She knew.

 

“Morning,” Turing said.

 

“…Mornin’.”

 

Protheana glanced at the massive hourglass. It had run out of sand, but Turing didn’t seem in any rush to turn it. Slowly, he sat down in the grass in front of the hex boundary.

 

“Shall we talk about books today?”

 

“Sure.”

 

Protheana stared at Turing, but he just looked up into the sky. He had a slight smile on his face. It wasn’t a happy smile. More—bittersweet. He spoke to Protheana, still not looking at her.

 

“I read a book about the stages of grief, once. It was interesting. The writer talked about how people deal with friends being croaked. There are apparently five stages, or so she claims. Do you want to guess what they are?”

 

“No. Tell me.”

 

Turing nodded.

 

“First comes Denial. After you lose a…friend, you don’t want to believe it’s true. Straightforward, right?”

 

Protheana said nothing. She was staring at Turing. The happiness had left her face. It hurt, but Turing kept talking. Pleasantly, he tried to be pleasant.

 

“Then we get Anger. We rage against Fate and the Titans for what’s happened. But after that we Bargain. We turn to Croakamancy or we believe if we pray hard enough, they’ll be Retconjured. But of course it never comes.”

 

Protheana glanced towards her sword, and then at Turing’s hip. But he wasn’t wearing a sword. Even during the periods of his madness, even when Turing had read to her, he’d never gone without his sword. It was inbuilt in his nature, as was hers. They never left their weapons. But his was gone.

 

“Second to last is Depression. We feel everything was our fault. If we’d been higher level, if we’d fought better, used a different strategy—even if we weren’t there, we feel guilty. Sometimes we live in depression for a long time.”

 

Protheana’s gaze was fixed on Turing. But he still wasn’t staring at her. He was still staring at the sky, the grass, anywhere but at her.

 

“’N what comes last?”

 

Finally Turing met Protheana’s eyes. There wasn’t anything angry in the depths of his gaze. She’d expected anger perhaps, or grief if not that. But there wasn’t even grief. Just a hint of sadness. And behind it, exhaustion. And…relief?

 

“Acceptance and Croaking. That’s the last bit. Once we’ve made our peace with what happens, we accept our loved ones are lost. And then we go back out there and croak the enemy that hurt us. If it’s already dead, we croak the entire side.”

 

Slowly, Turing stood up. Protheana reached for her sword, but he made no move towards her. Turing sighed. He smiled wryly, as if he was telling a bad joke.

 

“After Miya died, I hated you. I hated you, Vina, and your entire side. I hated the Titans, even. But after a while, the pain—didn’t fade. But it changed. I stopped hating you as much and hated myself more. And when you croaked your own Caster, I guess I forgave you a bit. A little bit. It’d been a long time.”

 

He slowly walked to the hex boundary. Turing placed his hand on the wall that was all that separated him and Protheana and smiled down at her.

 

“Even so, you were the enemy. Even if Miya hadn’t asked me, I would’ve tried to croak you. And I tried. I really did. I thought of a hundred ways to win, to defeat you—none of them would work.”

 

Turing paused. Honesty made him amend his sentence.

 

“Well, a few might. But I don’t want to try.”

 

Protheana looked up at Turing, silent. He smiled at her.

 

“Tell me, do you know how many books I’ve read to you so far?”

 

She shook her head.

 

“Dunno. Lots?”

 

Turing smiled.

 

“A hundred books. A hundred stories. And I think you liked most—well, some of them. I liked reading them to you. And I would read more. But. But I think I’m done. Protheana, I’m just a bit tired.”

 

She met his eyes.

 

“You don’t have to do this now. You could wait. Read more stories. Wait another day. Wait for a better moment?”

 

“And how many days should I wait? What moment is better than ‘now’?” Turing shook his head. “No, no. If I kept reading, eventually you and I would get bored. But you still love the stories, don’t you?”

 

“Yes.” She said it softly.

 

“Yes. I liked reading them to you. I liked talking. That’s why this is the best moment?”

 

“Why?” A flash of anger flickered in Protheana’s eyes. “Why now when I’m enjoying myself for the first time in—”

 

“Because then you’ll remember.”

 

She was silent. Turing went on.

 

“Because I want you to remember. I want you to keep reading stories. If I read them all to you, what would you have to do for the next hundred thousand turns? What would you fill forever with?”

 

She blinked. Turing bent down and scooped a book up. He held it open to her and flipped through the pages.

 

“Stories. Most cities have a library, and you can bring books with you wherever you go. You can keep reading without me.”

 

“You still don’t…have to do this.”

 

“I do. We are enemies. So long as your side endures, your ruler will order you to croak me. And you will never turn.”

 

He was right. Protheana’s head lowered.

 

“So, what? Yer just gonna give up? Without even fighting?”

 

Turing sighed. He closed the book and ran his hand over the soft cover for a while before he spoke.

 

“I’m tired. I don’t want to croak you. And I don’t want to live alone. It’s been a long time. I’ve lived in one turn longer than most sides exist. I’ve fallen in love, broken my heart, made a friend, and watched my enemies die. I’ve lived, Protheana. I’ve waited for a long time, but I’m tired. I don’t want to keep going on like this. I want to start living. Either that, or I’ll be content to rest for a while.”

 

“And what am I supposed to do? After all this—I guess it’s just back to my job, right?”

 

Turing’s gaze was sympathetic.

 

“The Titans are cruel. Or maybe they’re just. I’ll ask them, if I see them. But I hope one thing will be different.”

 

Protheana stared at the ground.

 

“’N what’s that?”

 

“I hope you will remember my name.”

 

She felt him enter the hex. Protheana looked up, but instead of the sword that swung down to her unprotected neck, a book tapped her lightly on the head. She looked up.

 

Turing smiled at Protheana. He’d changed since the day she first spotted him. Gone was the slight paunch and his balding head from his days as a Patrollord. Instead, Turing’s hair had grown, and then grayed with age. He had the body of a warlord in his prime, but his face bore lines carved out by memory. He smiled at Protheana.

 

“Here. This is for you.”

 

She took the book numbly from him. Turing watched as she slowly ran her hands along it, memorizing the feel of the cover, hearing the way the pages rustled in the faint breeze.

 

“This is my curse. This is my gift. You, who might live forever, remember. Whenever you read a story, remember my name. Remember Vina, remember Miya. Remember all those who fought and died on this turn.”

 

She didn’t look up at him. Protheana’s head bowed.

 

“’S hard. If I remember, ‘s hard to keep going.”

 

“I know. But please remember.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I guess because someone has to. And because some things are worth remembering. Despite the sadness, despite the pain. Remember.”

 

“I will.”

 

“Good.”

 

Turing smiled, and stared up at the sky.

 

“Once more thing. Remember this.”

 

“Wh—”

 

He threw his arms around her. For a moment Protheana stiffened and began to struggle, but Turing hugged her tightly. Just for a moment he smelled the echoes of sweat, blood, dirt and flowers. Then it was over. Turing stepped back as Protheana gaped at him.

 

“Thanks for everything.”

 

Then Turing looked up into the sky and let go. He felt the world begin to turn around him, and the wind blew fiercely for a second. Then, at long last, the sun began to move. He felt himself lose his move, and sighed.

 

At last.

 

He was free.

 

 

—-

 

 

The turn ended.

 

Protheana stared around blankly as countless things happened. She felt her turn begin, felt herself gain move and knew an enemy unit was in her hex. But she still sat on her log, staring up at Turing.

 

The ruler of a side he’d never bothered to name stared down at Protheana. She could still feel his arms around her, hugging her gently.

 

Turing made no move to flee, not that he could. He stared into Protheana’s gray eyes and smiled. She stared at him, blinked a few times, and stared at Turing, bewildered.

 

Slowly, agonizingly, Protheana stood up. Duty ran in her bones, and Honor bound her movements. She knew what she had to do. But a hundred stories whispered in her ears, a thousand conversations murmured around her. She stared at Turing. He spread his arms wide and nodded.

 

There was no fear in his eyes. Just silent expectation and acceptance. And perhaps even a bit of hope. Protheana stared at him, and knew what she had to do. What she must do. It was the only thing she could do.

 

She sighed and pointed up at the sky. Turing looked up, puzzled, and then realized his mistake. He glanced down too late.

 

The last thing Turing saw was Protheana’s fist approaching his head at high speed. Then the world went black.

 

When he awoke again, he was a prisoner of the side of Reapin.

 

 

Chapter 19

The world shouldn’t be so hard. It really shouldn’t.

 

But with every breath Turing took, reality came pressing down on him. The Titans made the world to test their subjects. The endless cycle of war and temporary peace was their way of making the strong stronger.

 

So it was written. And so was the purpose of every unit—to strive. To strive for the ultimate level, the greatest side. To add to their Number until the day came when they would be judged.

 

So Turing had always believed. But he was no longer sure whether that was something he wanted. He had seen the end of his quest in the eyes of a lonely Warlord and she—

 

She didn’t look fulfilled or happy at all.

 

Turing had seen happiness. It was not in the miserable Warlady sitting in front of him in the center of the city she had captured. He had seen happiness in a low-level Stabber’s eyes as she showed him a passage in a book. He’d known happiness sitting and talking with his King on the eve of their side’s destruction, in walking outside his city for the first time.

 

He’d felt something akin to ecstasy and joy when he leveled. It was addictive, a rush beyond all others. But it wasn’t happiness. It couldn’t be.

 

Happiness was a quiet thing. If you had to move around and shout for it, it would fly away.

 

Turing sat up and noticed the bindings at his arms and legs. Of course. He was captured. Not croaked.

 

The rope bindings chafed at his hands and legs. Turing couldn’t move or escape unless he managed to untie them. It wouldn’t be hard—these weren’t exactly manacles or worse, magical spell-bindings, but what would be the point.

 

There was no outrunning Protheana.

So instead Turing sat up and coughed. Protheana glanced up.

 

“Hey.”

 

“Hey yerself.”

 

“Morning.”

 

“Evening, actually. Our side hasn’t ended the turn yet.”

 

“Oh. I see.”

 

After that awkward exchange both Warlords fell silent. It felt incredibly awkward for Turing to be so close to Protheana. He’d only been so close once before, and even when they’d talked, it had been across hexes.

 

But now they were in the same city, albeit prisoner and warden. But the proximity to another living unit was intoxicating to Turing. He saw how disheveled Protheana’s Signamancy had become – how she had dark rings under her eyes and her face was no longer as impassive as before. She looked like she was on the edge of breaking. But the turn had ended.

 

“I see you captured the city,” Turing said at last. “Is your Ruler going to raze it?”

 

“Dunno. Probably. But he hasn’t called me or told me he’s gonna do it yet. I’m waiting for him to give me a call.”

 

“You think he will?”

 

“Yeah. ‘Specially when he realizes I’m not gonna croak you.”

 

Turing shifted and the rope strained, cutting into his wrists.

 

“I see. Why didn’t you croak me?”

 

Protheana hesitated. She shook her head.

 

“I couldn’t do it. I thought about it and I tried—but I couldn’t.”

 

“What?”

 

Turing blinked in surprise. That was the last thing he’d ever expected Protheana to say.

 

“But your oath—Harbinger told you to croak me, right?”

 

She shrugged, almost defiantly.

 

“Harbinger told me to croak you, but he didn’t say when. ‘Sides, I’m his Chief Warlord. I can make field decisions if I want.”

 

Again, that didn’t sound like Protheana. Or rather—it didn’t sound like the Protheana he’d first met. But it did sound like the Protheana he’d read stories to. The fiery one who debated hotly and wouldn’t back down.

 

She pointed at Turing warningly as he tried to wriggle into a more comfortable position.

 

“Don’t try messin’ with those restraints or I’ll to thump ya. Yer gonna be a prisoner until you turn. Won’t take long if Harbinger springs for a Turnamancer.”

 

“Really? He’s going to do that?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Turing spoke slowly.

 

“That seems—doubtful. Especially from what you’ve told me about him.”

 

“I’ll convince him, don’t worry.” Protheana shook her head. “We’ve got a huge treasury. He can hire someone through the Magic Kingdom and turn you in a few turns over here. Don’t matter if you’re low-level. The side needs Warlords like you. Anyone with a brain like that—give me a hundred turns and I’ll have you at least Level 7 and with enough experience to start plannin’ the side’s strategy.”

 

She smiled at Turing, or rather, tried to. It was more like a pained grimace. Turing didn’t smile back. He opened his mouth.

 

“No.”

 

Protheana blinked. “What?”

 

Turing sat up in his bindings and glared at her.

 

“I said no. I won’t be a puppet for another side. Croak me. Finish this already. I won’t dance upon the strings of your Harbinger even if he brings a thousand Master-class Turnamancers and links them all up.”

 

Protheana scowled at him. “Don’t be stupid. I’m givin’ you a chance here. Forget what’s happened and live. It’s better than croaking now.”

 

Turing shook his head adamantly.

 

“You wouldn’t understand. This isn’t just about what I’ve lost. It’s the pride of a Ruler. I wasn’t a good one and I only kept my side intact for two turns. But I won’t betray the trust of those who served me by running from who I was. Croak me, or let me go. But I will never turn.”

 

He glared at Protheana, and the Warlady eyed him. Surprise was written all over her face until she pulled her impassive mask back on.

 

“I said that once, too. But look at me now. I was a Level 8 in one side among many. Now I’m a Level 13 – probably the highest-level Warlord in all of Erfworld.”

 

“I’m looking. Am I supposed to be impressed?”

 

This time her fist clenched in anger. “I am giving you a chance. And I’m puttin’ my neck on the line here to do it.”

 

“And I said I don’t want your chance. Croak me. Finish this stupid story already and let me rest.

 

“You ain’t getting off that easy. The side needs you—”

 

“You mean you need me to read you more stories.” Turing sneered at Protheana. “Because you’re lonely. Because you’re bored. Because you didn’t realize how terrible your life is until you saw how it could be better!”

 

Protheana stood up. Her face was flushed.

 

“I’m warnin’ you. Shut it or I’ll—”

 

“Do what? Hit me?” Turing taunted her. He thrashed around in his bindings. “Go ahead! Hit me!”

 

“I’ll do it. Shut it or—”

 

“Hit me!” Turing shouted at Protheana. The rage and despair boiling up from his soul came out his mouth in a scream. He wanted her to be angry. He wanted to be croaked. “Hit me, you disbanded coward! Hit me! Hit me!

 

Protheana raised her fist. Turing bared his teeth. And then both heard the ringing sound.

 

With a sigh, Protheana put one finger to the side of her temple. She glared at Turing.

 

“It’s Harbinger. You sit there and shut it, okay?”

 

Turing wasn’t sure if he should, but Protheana managed to convey with a single glare that if he didn’t shut up she’d kick his lights out. So he was quiet.

 

“Protheana.” Protheana said into the air. She listened for a moment.

 

“Yeah, put him on.”

 

At once, a shimmering panel with blue borders appeared in the air. It was a Thinkagram—a more advanced kind than the one Turing was used to. When they hired Charlie it was usually only a mental link, or a static display and audio. But Reapin’s Thinkamancer had sprung for a full image voice chat.

 

The instant Harbinger appeared, Turing could see why.

 

The mysterious Ruler of Reapin appeared on the screen in a flash of orange light. Turing caught sight of a dark shape and glowing yellow eyes before Protheana turned away from him. She stared grimly into the Thinkagram.

 

“Harbinger. Look, I told you why I didn’t want to croak Turing. You gave me yer orders, but you didn’t say when so I captured him. Listen. If you spring for a Turnamancer I can have him on our side in under four turns, no problem.”

 

Turing squirmed upright and opened his mouth hotly to protest. Protheana glared at him. Then a deep, hollow voice came through the Thinkagram.

 

Pitiful.

 

Protheana’s eyes snapped back to the screen. She scowled.

 

“It ain’t pitiful. It’s strategy. I told you, Turing is a genius. A bit of an idiot, but he managed to croak V and all my other stacks, didn’t he?”

 

Irrelevant.

 

The shadowy shape shook his head slowly. Its eyes flashed in what Turing could only assume was anger.

 

I will direct this personally. You cannot resist.

 

He pointed and Turing felt a jolt as Harbinger’s finger aimed at his heart. Protheana gritted her teeth and shook her head.

 

“I’m not doing it. Yer wrong. I’m not the Chief Warlord you need, Loyalty or not.”

 

Irrelevant. I am the Harbinger of your perfection.

 

“Some perfection!” Protheana shouted at the screen. “Loyalty don’t mean a thing if you don’t ever listen to your Chief Warlord! I keep tellin’ you that we need Turing alive. Croakin’ him serves no purpose.”

 

The glowing eyes shifted towards Turing. The echoing voice spoke to Protheana.

 

This hurts you.

 

“’Course it does! And why’re you saying that? Do you think I liked livin’ ten thousand turns by myself? But I’m tellin’ you that if you don’t take my advice, we’ll all be hurtin’ a thousand turns from now.”

 

Pain is an illusion.

 

“Pain? Pain?” Protheana punched at the Thinkagram and the shadowy figure wavered out of focus for a moment. “What would you know about pain? You haven’t left the Capital since you popped!”

 

Her words had no visible effect on her ruler. The shadows shape regarded Protheana and shook his head.

 

You cannot escape your destiny, Protheana.

 

She stared bitterly at the screen.

 

“So that’s it? Yer not gonna even listen, huh?”

 

You prolong the inevitable.

 

“Oh yeah?” Protheana crossed her arms and scowled. “Well, I’m not doin’ it. You know I’m right. Come on. Give me this one guy. What could it hurt?”

 

Continue.

 

“Will you even listen?” Protheana shouted at her ruler. “Relinquish your order! I’m begging you here! What about V, huh? Will you just ignore how valuable she was? Anyone who could croak her—”

 

Ignore the fallen.

 

Protheana slumped for a second. “Fine. But if that’s how it’s gonna be I’m going to get my say in too. You wanna know what I think about yer grand strategy. Here’s what I think—”

 

Someone spoke from outside of the Thinkagram’s range.  Harbinger and Protheana both glanced sideways. The fiery eyes turned back to Protheana, flaring in what looked like irritation.

 

We are not finished. This delay is pointless. I am unstoppable.

 

Protheana sneered at her ruler.

 

“Oh yeah? Well, yer Thinkamancer could use more juice. Who is she? New caster? Benezia? Oh, right, Vina turned her. Fine, run away if yer not gonna hire another Thinkamancer. But when get back, you an’ I are gonna have words, you got that?”

 

Harbinger didn’t even bother to respond. He waved a shadowy appendage at Protheana.

 

Releasing control.

 

The Thinkagram disappeared in a flash of light. Protheana slumped and hung her head.

 

Turing stared at her.

 

“Was that your Ruler?”

 

“In the flesh. Or—close enough.”

 

“He seemed so…odd. And I know odd Rulers. That conversation—”

 

Protheana shook her head tiredly. She leaned on her scabbard and suddenly looked exhausted.

 

“He always talks like that. I think it’s because he’s so old.”

 

She tilted her head and put her finger to his head. Then she shook her head bitterly.

 

“Coward. Didn’t even ‘gram me to let me say anything.”

 

Turing waited. He knew what had been said. Reluctantly, Protheana looked at him.

 

“He ordered me to croak you. This turn.”

 

The news didn’t even hurt. Turing shrugged.

 

“I guess I get my wish.”

 

“Yeah.” Protheana smiled bitterly. “You win. I guess it was too much to hope he’d listen to his Chief Warlord.”

 

“Well then.” Turing hesitated. “What happens to you?”

 

Protheana shrugged. She sat down on the ground, her sheathed sword across her knees.

 

“Soon as Charlie fixes whatever’s keepin’ the network down, Harbinger’s gonna send a flight of Archons to escort me back to the Capital. Until then, he’s ordered me to stay in the city. Under no circumstances am I to leave it.”

 

Turing stared at Protheana.

 

“That sounds like a waste of Schmuckers. And how many Archons is that? For someone of your Level it doesn’t sound necessary. It sounds like…”

 

“A guard?” Protheana laughed bitterly. “Yeah. I think that’s it. He’s gonna send some Casters through the Magic Kingdom the instant yer croaked as well.”

 

“Why? You can’t Turn—”

 

“But he’s still afraid I might.” Protheana shook her head and spat. “And regardless, he still doesn’t want to lose his Chief Warlord. Better to bring me back even if it takes a hundred turns marching than risk me fightin’ my way back or poppin’ enough units and letting me level them for an escort. Idiot.”

 

It was the first outright negative thing Protheana had said about her Ruler. But her Loyalty was still maxed out, Turing knew. She could no more disobey his orders than she was capable of flying.

 

For a long time Protheana sat on the ground, staring at her sword. Turing thought about interrupting her, but decided not to. He was croaked anyways. Did it really matter if he stayed alive a little while longer?

 

After an eternity—a heartbeat—Protheana stood up. She unsheathed her sword.

 

Turing’s mind went blank. He’d been trying to think of suitable last words, but the shining silver blade emptied the thoughts clean out of his head.

 

He stared up at Protheana from his seated position. The Warlady walked over and stood over him, blade in hand. Her face was cold and a million miles away. She raised her sword.

 

Nothing to say. Nothing to do. It was time. Turing bowed his head and waited.

 

The sword flashed down once. Twice.

 

“Hm. Can’t get to yer hands like that. Raise ‘em.”

 

Turing looked up and blinked in stupefaction. Protheana shrugged and cut the bindings at his wrists with a quick flick of her sword’s tip.

 

“There.”

 

She’d cut through his bindings, not his flesh. Turing felt the ropes fall from his limbs and realized he was no longer a captive. But he didn’t get up. Instead he stared at Protheana.

 

“Why?” He demanded. On the back of that question was another one. “How? You can’t betray your Loyalty or your Duty. So how did you—”

 

“I’m not betraying anything.” Protheana scowled at Turing. “I’m still croaking you. But I’m giving you a fair chance. You’ll duel me this turn.”

 

Turing stared. It felt like he’d walked out of his story and into one of the legends told in his books, of battle-stopping duels and lone Warlords questing against Dwagons.

 

What?

 

Protheana raised her sword and brought it down in the grass at her feet. She clasped her hands over the hilt and stared down at Turing. Her face was—different. It was as hard as ever, as unyielding, but there was a core of something else behind her expression as she stared at Turing.

 

“Harbinger may have my undying Loyalty, but he forgets that the Titans gave us free will. There is Duty that binds us, but Honor keeps my Number and my soul. I won’t croak you like a coward. You and I are Warlords. We should die as such.”

 

“So you want me to croak on my feet?”

 

“With sword in hand. I know you still have yours.”

 

“And how is that better—no, do you even expect me to take that offer? Why shouldn’t I just run for it?”

 

Protheana raised an eyebrow. “Because I’ve got a great throwing arm. And because you’re no coward.”

 

“This is pointless,” Turing snapped. He could feel himself getting angrier. “You and I both know the outcome if a Level 3 and a Level 13 fight. Just croak me! I’ll sit here and let you do it.”

 

“Or you could fight.”

 

“And if I refuse?”

 

Protheana’s left eye twitched for a second.

 

“Its yer choice. You can flee or wait, but lemme ask you this.”

 

She grabbed Turing and hauled him up onto his feet. Protheana glared at him, her gray eyes flashing with anger.

 

“Have you no pride? It’s one thing to be tired, but here I stand, an enemy in yer city. My side’s croaked yers, taken your city, made you Barbarian. Will you just roll over and take it or are you gonna go out fighting? What would your precious Miya say if she could see you now?”

 

A hot flash ran through Turing at that. He grabbed Protheana’s wrist and tried to make her let go, but that was impossible. Instead, he kicked out at her. She twisted to avoid the blow.

 

“Better.”

 

Protheana let go of Turing and shoved him back. He stumbled and regained his footing. She regarded him and shook her head.

 

“I ain’t tryin’ to make this more painful, or draw it out. But I’m givin’ you a chance because it’s the right thing to do. A mark of respect.”

 

Turing scowled at her. But—for all his anger he understood. He should have been humbled. But he just wanted—

 

He just wanted to die.

 

“I don’t have a sword on me. Will you give me yours and fight barehanded or what?”

 

“Get yours. I’ll wait. For that matter, get two swords if that castle even has an armory. You can lay traps if you want, find the best place to fight—I don’t care. Anything you can think of to even the odds.”

 

Now that sounded like bravado, until you thought about how strong Protheana was. Turing eyed her.

 

“You’ll give me time to prepare? How long?”

 

“One day.”

 

Protheana’s eyes were cold and hard. She walked past Turing, across the grass of his city. He followed her.

 

She stood in the center of the city and raised her sword. Though she stood over cobblestones, when Protheana brought her blade down the weapon embedded itself in the ground as though she’d pushed through butter.

 

Her eyes found Turing’s and they shone like beacons. Protheana stood straight and tall, her dark armor absorbing the light. Suddenly, she was like the Warlord he’d first glimpsed, a giant, a colossus of legends walking the Erf.

 

Her voice thundered out across the empty city as she pointed at Turing.

 

“One day. You have one day, Turing. I will wait for you here. Do you run, and I will call Charlie and have his Archons hunt you down to the ends of the Erf if necessary. I will call the Great Minds to pluck your coordinates from your brain. I will find you and destroy you with every tool in my possession. I will be your end one way or the other. This, I, Protheana promise.”

 

And she would keep her oath, Turing knew. The Warlady of Reapin stood like an immovable object.

 

“This turn will be the last—for one of us.”

 

 

—-

 

 

Turing walked through his city, no longer a ghost. Soon to be one, or rather, a dead body. He stumbled through the streets, tripping over trash, starign at graffiti on the walls.

 

—Of course. The turn hadn’t ended yet. Or rather, even if Turing had ended his turn, it was now Reapin’s turn and the damages and the dead hadn’t depoped yet.

 

Bodies depopped at the start of every turn. Turing stopped and stared at the castle. Slowly, he began walking towards it.

 

 

—-

 

 

He had a day. But Turing didn’t know what to do with it. Protheana had spun the hourglass and he knew even now that sand was slowly trickling from the top. But he didn’t really care.

 

Instead, he knelt by the bed in his room, hands clasped and head bowed. A female Stabber slept on the bed, her eyes covered, her slender frame illuminated in the evening sunlight.

 

He’d been here a thousand times, seen her in the same position. But it still hurt. Turing could look away from the untouched sheets and know that when he looked around Miya would be sitting up in bed, smiling at him.

 

But whenever he turned, she was gone. And she stayed gone, no matter how many times he checked.

 

The Titans were unfair. It was blasphemy to think, but it was true. They were cruel, heartless beings that cared nothing for individual Warlords or even the fate of Sides. Their eyes only followed Fate and the Erf itself.

 

But Turing cared nothing for Fate. He was not Fated. He was a fool who had done his best in his small way. Protheana was touched by Fate. She was important to destiny and probably Erfworld itself. But he was not.

 

Yet even Turing had things he’d cared about. Even he had had a reason to live. But she was gone now, and he ached to follow after.

 

Turing stared into Miya’s face. He yearned to tear away the folded handkerchief over her eyes. But he couldn’t bear to see the two black x’s staring back at him.

 

He whispered into the silence. To her, really, as if she could hear him.

 

“You were unique.”

 

But that was the cruelty of it, wasn’t it? Turing could almost hear Miya’s answer. She was unique. But she was not the only one. There were more. He’d found someone like Miya—not in body, shape, or thought, but someone who shared her spark. And if there was another, then surely in this land he called home another would pop or had been popped.

 

Turing’s eyes stung at the admission of it. But he repeated the words anyways to make them true.

 

“You were unique. And you wanted me to live. But living is such a tiresome thing. I’ve done too much of it already.”

 

Too much and too little. Again, Turing felt the lies turn to ash on his tongue. If you counted the turns he’d actually spent not patrolling his city or the endless last turn, how long had he really lived? Less than a hundred turns. He was still a child.

 

But he felt old. Old, and tired far beyond his time. All Turing wanted to do was rest.

 

“I would never love anyone but you.”

 

All lies. All untrue. But they were what you were supposed to say. And by saying it, maybe it would be true. Turing felt tears trickle down underneath his closed eyelids. He wiped at them, rather than let them touch the bed.

 

“Soon. If I wait, she’d croak me. I know it.”

 

At last, a bit of truth. But even that had a terrible untruth festering at its core. Turing tried to push it away. But Miya smiled up at him. That slight, small smile damning him and redeeming his soul.

 

Telling him to tell the truth.

 

“I want to live.”

 

It came out of Turing in a whisper. If pain had a voice, it was his. He said it again.

 

“I want to live. I want—I want to fight. I want to keep living.”

 

It was the hardest thing to say. But she lay there, encouraging him, denying him the comfort of lying. Of dying.

 

“I loved you. I love you. And you—I want to be with you. But I want to live as well. I want to win. I don’t want Protheana to croak me. I want—I want to save her. I want to keep living a long time and see all Erfworld has to offer.”

 

The words broke the dam and came flooding out. Turing knelt and confessed his sins.

 

“Even though it was her side that croaked you. Even though she croaked so many of our side—she’s not a bad person. She’s not. And I want to save her. But you—”

 

He was broken. Turing wept and clutched at the bed sheets, not daring to touch her.

 

“I can’t let you go. I can’t. But I still want to live. Titans.

 

He wept and wept. But time was running out. He knew it. And he was caught on the edge of the abyss. It pulled him one way and his heart pulled him another. But either way would lead to betrayal. It wasn’t a crossroads he stood at. He was on the tip of a needle, and any way he turned he would fall.

 

What could he do? How could he—

 

Turing’s eyes opened, and words whispered into his mind. He remembered—his tears, a library, a Stabber with a book in his hands. He heard her whisper, and felt her touch.

 

 

You made me special. I want to do the same thing to you.

 

 

The words were the same, and the feeling was just as it had been. Turing’s heart stopped. And then it began to beat and his tears began to fall again like rain. But this time they were truly like the rain because in time they slowed and stopped.

 

At last, Turing was still. The words still seared his mind, but he knew now. He knew. When you stand upon the edge with no way to go but down, there is only one thing to do.

 

Fly.

 

Turing knelt by the empty bed and spoke into the silence. He spoke to Miya, lovingly, slowly. One last time.

 

“I guess I can’t join you just yet. But you knew that, didn’t you? And if I did, it would have wasted all you did for me? And—I can’t even say I’ll love only you forever. But at least part of me will. I’ve got to go now. I’m nearly out of time.”

 

He stood up. Turing walked slowly to the door, and then he turned. He walked back to the bed and gathered Miya up in his arms. Gently, he hugged her cold body to him, warming her. He laid her back down gently.

 

“Protheana is a Level 13 Warlord. But she’s like you and me, really. She’s a captive to Fate, to Loyalty, and to her Ruler and her side. She didn’t know it, but she was just like us, did you know? Helpless. Alone.”

 

He stood up. Turing reached down and picked up the sword at Miya’s feet. Her sword. He unsheathed it and his eyes reflected the light of the fading sun.

 

“I will set her free.”

 

Turing left the room, closed the door, and locked it with a key he’d never used before. He wouldn’t come back. It was farewell.

 

He didn’t weep as he strode through the hallways of his castle. He’d done a lifetime of weeping, and if it wasn’t enough, it would have to do.

 

He had to live. And to do that, he had to defeat Protheana.

 

It would be quite simple.

 

After all, Protheana was in Turing’s city. And though he was a poor Warlord, a King dethroned, a fool and perhaps cursed, Turing knew his city. The knowledge contained within would be enough to croak even Protheana.

 

Turing walked out his castle. The hourglass was nearly empty. He had bare minutes left. But that was enough. Protheana stood in the center of the city. Turing walked towards her—but not directly. He made sure she wasn’t staring at him as he threw open a pair of double doors and walked inside. A stone Dwagon stared at him. Turing looked around him and smiled.

 

It was time to end this sorry turn once and for all.

 

 

—-

 

 

Protheana saw the last grains of sand fall from the hourglass and stood up. Her heart hurt. She yanked the sword from the ground and closed her eyes.

 

He hadn’t come. Turing hadn’t shown up. Nor really had she expected him to. He wasn’t like her. In some ways he was, but in others—

 

He hadn’t left the city. Protheana could still sense there was an enemy in her hex. That was something, at least. But if he hadn’t fled where would he be?

 

The castle. Of course. Turing had told her once that his loved one was lying there. He was probably there now, not even realizing that the day was over.

 

Her sword had never felt so heavy in her hand. Protheana walked slowly towards the castle. It would be quick. She would let him die where his heart had died. And then—

 

And then it would be over. That brief moment would end, and she could go back to not caring. Not being. Just swinging her sword.

 

Except that it would never be the same. Protheana knew it in her soul. She had been changed. She had seen a different world, and she had hungered. For the first time in countless thousandturns, Protheana had awoken.

 

But the dream was about to end. End with a Warlord who’d barely even lived.

 

Protheana’s steps dragged. But Duty carried her on, and her Loyalty would never let her stop. Damned Duty and accursed Loyalty.

 

Protheana had reached the doors to the castle when she heard the voice. It was faint, on the edge of hearing, but it came from across the city. She turned, heart pounding.

 

Turing stood at the edge of the city in a familiar place. He stood at the border between hexes, and in his hand a sword gleamed in the turn’s fading light.

 

Protheana smiled. Suddenly she was filled with—if not joy, than relief. He hadn’t run. And his courage to face her gave her the strength she needed.

 

Her steps were quick as Protheana walked across the city. Her eyes stung a bit. She brushed at them and frowned. No good. She couldn’t shed tears, least of all in front of Turing. Maybe after it was over.

 

But her eyes stung and burned anyways. Protheana shook her head and walked faster. She was getting weak. Soft.

 

The city bugged her. It was such a strange place. Perhaps it had been beautiful, once. But the garrison had destroyed it over the course of the endless turn. Rubble and trash were everywhere, and there was a terrible ashy, burnt smell to the land. She supposed she should only be grateful that there weren’t Gwull droppings everywhere.

 

Turing stood casually against the hex boundary, his sword drawn. Protheana’s sword was already bare, and it dwarfed his long sword easily. But it wasn’t size or even magic that mattered. The hand that held the blade was important.

 

Strangely, the once-Ruler and Warlord seemed at ease as Protheana stopped before him. He was staring up into the red sunset behind Protheana, and didn’t even look at her as she approached.

 

His eyes were red with weeping, but at least he held his sword. Still, he didn’t look at Protheana. She cleared her throat and coughed. Titans, first the stinging eyes and now a raspy throat. She couldn’t sully this moment.

 

“You. Ah. You’re ready?”

 

Turing looked at Protheana. He smiled.

 

“Almost. Sorry to keep to waiting.”

 

“Think nothin’ of it. Well then. Do you have—any last words?”

 

“No.”

 

“No?”

 

Of all the things Protheana expected Turing to say, that was not it. She stared at him. But Turing only shook his head.

 

“No, no last words. I don’t plan to croak here after all. Sorry.”

 

Protheana’s heart skipped a beat and then started to beat faster. No sentence could have roused her spirits like that. She grinned, and wondered what traps he’d set. Yes, if anyone could croak her it would be him.

 

“Bold. Then shall we fight? Seems risky fer you to have yer back to the hex.”

 

“Oh, I don’t plan on fighting.”

 

This time all of Protheana’s thoughts stopped. She stared at Turing. He raised the sword he held and tossed it casually at her feet.

 

“Sorry, but I’d never win. Not once. Not even if I managed to dig a pitfall trap or if I managed to blind you or fight from high ground or—it’s impossible. So I won’t bother trying.”

 

Protheana felt like crying. Her eyes were certainly stinging enough. She growled and coughed.

 

“What? If you’re going to run—

 

“Not that either. At least, not yet.”

 

He was so calm. And now Protheana was angry. He’d as good as said he was planning on escaping. And he’d taken up a sword, tricked her—why?

 

The smell of the city, the trash, and the memories—not to mention the piled books lying at the border between hexes all made Protheana angrier as well. Her eyes hurt. Her throat burned. And the burnt smell was getting worse.

 

“You. If this is some last-minute game—”

 

“Let me ask you something, Protheana.” Turing interrupted. He stared over Protheana’s shoulder, and then at the sky again.

 

“Let’s say you had to fight a Level 13 Warlady. How would you do it?”

 

Protheana paused. She growled.

 

“I’d use every unit I had. Lure her into traps. Use my casters. Anything.”

 

“Anything.” Turing nodded. He closed his eyes and then rubbed at them.

 

“But what if you didn’t want to croak her? What if you thought she was your friend? Innocent? What if—what if you wanted to save her?”

 

Oh. Protheana wanted to dig herself a pit and jump into it. Of course. She cleared her throat and looked away.

 

“I’d—I’d give up on her. It’s a lost cause. She’s bound by a ritual spell and her pride ‘n honor. She’d never turn. So I’d have to croak her.”

 

“Yes, I suppose that’s what she’d think as well.”

 

Turing’s voice was so calm it was beginning to be scary. He smiled sadly.

 

“But I could never croak her, you see? And if she could only be freed by breaking an oath, well, there are precious few she could break. Just one or two, actually.”

 

Now Protheana’s heart was beating faster. She had a terrible foreboding in her heart.

 

“There are two oaths Protheana of Reapin could break that I know of,” Turing said softly. “The first is that she would stay in the city. It is what her Ruler ordered her to do. But getting her to change hexes—that is hard. But the second?”

 

No. Protheana’s heart was filled with dread. But Turing kept talking. He was looking into the sky again.

 

“You swore to be my end, whether by croaking me yourself or by using your side or Charlie. But what if I ended my life? Wouldn’t that mean you’d failed to carry out your promise.”

 

Protheana’s eyes darted to the sword on the ground. He’d tossed it down, and she was sure she was faster than he was. If he grabbed it.

 

“The Titans curse those who end their own lives.”

 

“Maybe. But I think I’d be willing to give it a shot. And to free a…friend? Someone who’s been captive for so long? It would be worth it.”

 

Did he have…a blade on him? Protheana’s heart was beating out of her chest. Not like this. She didn’t want this. Anything but this.

 

Turing coughed a few times. “I—thought about it. And gave it a lot of thought. But in the end—I decided I really didn’t want to croak.”

 

Protheana blinked.

 

“Wh—”

 

“Really, taking my own life would have been some kind of Fate, especially since my Ruler did it to save me. But I didn’t have any high places to throw myself off. Well—except the castle, and someone already did that.”

 

Turing smiled, inviting Protheana to share the joke. She just stared at him, jaw gaping. Her eyes were really hurting now for some reason.

 

“But then how could I make her break her oath? She’d have to leave the city. And how would you do that? Well, I could either croak her or get her to leave the city. Because I’ll free her one way or the other. But how would you do either? A trap? What kind of trap…attacks an entire city…and uh, can’t be stopped no matter how high-level you are?”

 

Turing coughed. He wiped at his eyes.

 

“Excuse me. Is it hot in here?”

 

It was. Protheana raised a gauntleted hand to her brow and found she was sweating heavily in her armor. She’d been so engrossed by Turing’s words that she hadn’t’ even noticed.

 

And it smells terrible,” Turing added. “Much worse than usual at any rate, which is still pretty difficult. What do you think it smells like, Protheana?”

 

She sniffed the air. There it was again, that ashy, burnt smell. No—her heart began to beat uncontrollably. Not burnt. Burning.

 

“This city isn’t that unique,” Turing said quietly, as Protheana turned and her eyes saw the smoke trailing up into the sky. “It doesn’t have any unique special features, really. No traps, no natural Shockamancy or Dirtamancy. Just a library. And a lot of books.”

 

Smoke was leaking out of a massive building Protheana recognized. Through the windows she could see red and orange light glaring out, as if the building were alive and staring at her.

 

“Funny thing about books. You can read them, but they’re not that useful for much else. Doorstops, paper weights…not very useful. But you can burn them.”

 

The entire library of Restin was aflame. Even as Protheana watched, a wall fell in and the raging firestorm within escaped. Sparks and embers spat outwards and began setting the rest of the city alight.

 

In the burning light, Protheana slowly turned back and looked at Turing. He was unarmed, but the shadows and firelight played across his features. He stood tall, and stared at Protheana.

 

“I am Turing, once a Patrollord of Osnap. Once a Ruler. Now a Barbarian. I’m a Level 3. I’m neither good at fighting or defending. I have no specials. I was a ruler for one turn.”

 

Protheana stared at him. The heat from the fire could be felt even from here. Fire. It wasn’t something she could croak with a sword.

 

Turing went on. “I have only one thing that makes me unique. I love books. I love to read. I finish stories like other units croak enemies.”

 

The burning orange glow lit up the library behind Turing, casting his shape into a flickering silhouette. He smiled sadly.

 

“Books are my second love in life. My first sits with the Titans. But I would give it all up to set you free. Whether by your death or your broken oath, I will break the chains that bind you.”

 

He saluted her with one hand. The Turing turned. He called over his shoulder.

 

“Stay in this city if you want, Protheana of Reapin. But know this: it was very foolish of you to let me go. You see, I don’t live to fight. I live to win.”

 

He turned, and walked across the hex boundary. A moment after he’d passed the dividing line he heard the crash of a sword breaking as Protheana hurled it desperately at his back.

 

And then she was alone. Turing turned back and faced Protheana. The sea of flames was at her back. He saw the Warlady turn and stare at the fire raging across the city.

 

It was already an uncontrolled blaze, heading quickly towards an inferno. It would be impossible to stop with one unit, or even fifty.

 

Protheana’s chest piece hit the ground. Turing blinked. But Protheana was already tossing off her metal gauntlets, unbuckling the rest of her armor—anything that could slow her down.

 

“You’re going to go into that?”

 

“I don’t break my oaths so easily.” Protheana looked away from Turing. “Gotta try. Never found anything I couldn’t beat.”

 

She threw the rest of her armor to the ground and dashed into the fire. Turing sat on the ground.

 

He had no prayers to offer the Titans, and doubted they were listening to him either way. But he prayed anyways. He prayed for the soul of a Warlady. But the fire raged and the shadows grew as the sun slowly faded in the sky.

 

Turing watched a lone figure dashing among the buildings, running to the evaporated pond, through the city. He watched and waited.

 

Praying.

 

 

—-

 

 

The fire had long since passed being uncontrolled. It was now an inferno, and all but the edges of the city had been engulfed. Turing stood at the edge of the hex, hands clenched so hard he could feel them cracking. At last, the stumbling figure made it to the not yet burning patch of grass and collapsed onto it.

 

Protheana raised herself onto her hands and knees with great effort. She was burnt all over her body, and small flames still burned at her hair and clothing – what little of it she had left.

 

“Hey.”

 

“Hi,” Turing said dumbly. He waited, but Protheana just panted as the flames slowly covered the ground towards her.

 

“Betcha never saw someone walk through an inferno and survive.”

 

“No.”

 

“Gotta lot of hits, that’s all. Even a fire can’t croak me so easy.”

 

“But you’re not going to leave the hex?”

 

Protheana panted at the ground. She smiled, gritted her teeth.

 

“No.”

 

“But—”

 

She interrupted Turing. “Wanna know something funny?”

 

“What?”

 

Protheana grinned, sadness mixed with hilarity on her face.

 

“Turns out that Thinkamancer had a bit of juice left. Harbinger just called.”

 

“Ah.”

 

Well, that was it. Turing waited for Protheana to step through the hex and croak him. But she didn’t. She laughed and sank to her knees at the edge of the hex.

 

“What? What did he say?”

 

“He told me to stay. Stay here ‘n wait.”

 

It felt like someone had punched a hole in Turing’s stomach. He stared at Protheana. The flames were mere feet away from her, but she didn’t seem to care.

 

“Is he mad?”

 

“Dunno. Maybe he just decided I wasn’t worth keepin’ around anymore. Maybe he’s finally flipped. Either way, you got your wish. Looks like this is it.”

 

“Don’t—”

 

Turing reached towards the boundary but Protheana’s hand flashed up. Her eyes sparked dangerously.

 

“Come across and I’ll croak you. I swore it. These are my orders. He told me to stay.”

 

“You’ll croak.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She smiled, and lowered her arm. Protheana sighed and sat down in the little patch not consumed by flames.

 

“Looks like this is it, then. Good trap ya sprung. Would never have thought of that. But I expected nothing less.”

 

“I did it to free you. Not to croak you.”

 

“I know.” Protheana shrugged. The fire spat sparks on her back. “But I was given orders. I obey.”

 

“Then disobey!” Turing shouted at Protheana as the fire began to eat at her. “Cross hexes, curse you! Don’t die over this!”

 

Protheana sighed. She whispered something as the flames licked up her back.

 

“…what else…?”

 

“What was that?” Turing threw himself as close to the boundary as he dared.

 

“What else can I offer the Titans? I’ve lived long, and croaked more folk’n I can count. But I all I have is my level and my honor. Nothing else. I’ve croaked legends and heroes, but never built a city or protected anything worth keepin’. All I have is death and my promises.”

 

Protheana smiled at Turing. Two tears rolled down her cheeks, cutting through the soot on her face. They evaporated before they even reached her chin.

 

“Well done.”

 

The flames engulfed her. She didn’t cry out. And she didn’t croak. She truly was a monster, a legend of her own. She stood up, brushing at her legs as if there was just a bit of dirt on them.

 

“This is it. You won. Keep livin’, Turing. When you see the Titans, I’d love to fight fer real. Or—if you don’t see me, know I’ll be raisin’ a cup to you wherever I end up.”

 

Protheana!

 

She didn’t look back. The Warlady of Reapin walked back into the blazing fire. She walked until she reached the burning ruins of the library. She would have walked on, but wall of the library cracked and fell. A flaming piece of rubble struck Protheana and she fell.

 

Turing stared helplessly. The flames were everywhere. The entire city was a massive inferno hex. He could still see Protheana lying on the ground. Burning. It was all burning.

 

Turing turned away. He paused for one second, and then sighed.

 

“Disband it.”

 

Then he turned and ran into the flaming city.

 

 

—-

 

 

The fire ate Turing the moment he entered the inferno. The flames devoured his clothing; covered Turing. He ran on, already screaming. The fire was everywhere. It was the ground, the air—in his eyes and his very soul.

 

His flesh burned. His frail body became flame, and the flame ate at Turing. But he ran. He ran straight ahead, each step leaving bits of his life behind him.

 

It wasn’t far. Not far at all, but each step drew Turing closer to his end. He saw the rubble covering Protheana and threw himself at it. One heave of sheer desperation and it toppled away.

 

She was burning. But somehow Protheana was still alive. She’d been incapacitated by the rubble, but she still had hits. Turing bent down and picked her up.

 

She was so light. Or maybe that was because Turing couldn’t feel anything. Not even pain.

 

He turned and staggered. The hex seemed so far away now. And he was dying. He ran forwards a few steps, stopped, and knew he was about to die. He couldn’t move. His legs had stopped working.

 

Protheana was in his arms. Turing struggled to move. For her. He cursed his weakness. It was just his legs. He wasn’t croaked yet. But his body had stopped moving.

 

A sword lay in front of Turing, not yet melted despite the extreme heat. Useless. Miya’s sword. Not useless.

 

But it couldn’t fight fire. It couldn’t do anything.

 

In his despair, Turing looked up. Protheana fell limply next to him. He looked up. There was nothing. Nothing but fire—

 

And a giant hourglass.

 

It towered out of the smoke, wooden frame burning. But the sand in the bottom hadn’t yet turned to glass. Turing stared at it. Time.

 

He snatched up the sword. It burned his flesh but he didn’t care. With one hand Turing hurled Miya’s blade. It smashed against the lower bulb of glass and the sand burst out in a tidal wave. Bits of time set free at last.

 

The sand covered both him and Protheana, extinguishing their flaming bodies. It rolled over them, creating a zone of extinguished flames.

 

Turing gasped and fought his way out of the pile, pulling Protheana with him. He was—he was nearly dead. He had a handful of hits left. Not enough to brave even the few feet to the clearing hex. But he was alive.

 

Alive. But not for long.

 

The sand from the hourglass had extinguished the fire as it poured out, but even this natural Dirtamancy couldn’t stop an inferno hex. Already the fire was turning the sand to glass and the ground to ash.

 

Turing stared as the cobblestones began flaking away, transforming into black soot. The terrain was already slowly turning to an Ash Hex. Soon, the fire would engulf the entire city and raze it completely.

 

This was it. Turing hugged Protheana to him. Well, he’d tried. He really had.

 

“It was worth it,” he said to her and the fire. “It was worth it. All of it.”

 

There were better final words, but Turing couldn’t think of them. He hugged Protheana and felt the sand around him starting to melt. He began to close his eyes. And then saw it.

 

Movement. Through the flames.

 

For a moment Turing thought the fire had come to life and popped a unit. Or maybe it was the last traces of sanity fleeing before death? But no—there was something moving through the flames. And—the flames were extinguishing!

 

“What in the name of Erf—?”

 

Someone was walking through the flames, swinging something. Turing stared, his eyes burning and weeping and saw a mining helmet shining its light through the inferno.

 

Titans, her ruler had actually hired one. Turing stared through teary eyes as the Dirtamancer swept through the burning landscape, erasing the flames with a sweep of his pickaxe. It was so laughably easy for the caster that it seemed quite unfair to Turing.

 

But it was magic. And with every sweep of his pickaxe, Dirtamancer took away the deadly flames. Just in time, Turing sat back into the sand and let it cover him. The Dirtamancer passed right by him, sweeping all the flames away and then doubled back into the city.

 

When he was sure the caster was gone, Turing sat up. He coughed and gasped and spat sand and pulled Protheana out with him. Slowly, he carried her over to the clearing hex. He crossed the boundary, laid Protheana in the lush grass, and staggered upright.

 

Sword. Sword? He didn’t have one. But Protheana’s sword was…there. It was lying at the edge of the hex. The top half of the blade had broken when she’d thrown it, but the rest was intact.

 

Turing picked it up, yelped, and then wrapped his hand in what remained of his tunic. He staggered back into his city.

 

The fire was under control now and nearly gone. Only a few flames were slowly extinguishing themselves. The Dirtamancer stood in the center of the city, panting and dealing with the few fires that remained.

 

He was a Barbarian – not even in a temporary alliance with Reapin by the looks of it. Turing shook his head. Sloppy. He probably couldn’t even tell if the enemy unit in his hex was Protheana or not. But then, this Harbinger had probably hired the Dirtamancer as fast as possible without giving any explanations.

 

Turing staggered towards him. He felt—it was wrong. By all rights he should have gotten down on his knees and praised the Dirtamancer. But this was Erfworld. And he had a job to do. So Turing prayed for forgiveness as he walked behind the caster.

 

His footsteps crunched on a bit of ash. The Dirtamancer turned. His eyes widened and he brought his pickaxe up defensively—

 

Protheana’s blade cleaved his head straight off. The corpse stood for a moment, and then toppled forwards. Turing sheathed the blade and rubbed at his face.

 

He was now Level 4.

 

Protheana’s blade clattered to the ground and Turing stared down at the man he’d killed. For a second his heart stopped as he looked to find the head. He found it, removed the helmet, and held his breath as his stomach lurched.

 

He didn’t have pale skin. And he wasn’t bald. This Dirtamancer had had a full head of hair and even a beard.

 

It wasn’t Digdoug. Turing smiled.

 

 

—-

 

 

The castle was a blackened ruin, but somehow a substantial part of it had remained. Turing made his way to it, avoiding collapsed walls and stepping over glowing embers.

 

Ash and dust were all that remained of the throne room. Scorch marks and blackened stone had replaced fine carpets and even the stained glass had melted into puddles of black glass.

 

Yet the throne still stood. It was cracked and broken in places, and the wood was charred until it was surely more charcoal than chair. But it still remained. The city still stood.

 

For a long time Turing stared up at the throne. It was a terrible thing, he knew. Thrones changed people. It had changed him. It was a terrible burden to bear.

 

But someone had to do it. It was like being Chief Warlord. Sometimes, the only person who could do it was you.

 

And so you did your Duty. That was what it was all about. Not Duty towards a single Ruler, or even a side. It was Duty to yourself, and to everyone you cared about.

 

Or maybe Turing had just inhaled too many fumes. But it was good enough, he decided. A good enough idea to base a side around.

 

Turing’s feet crunched on ash and gravel as he walked forwards. He was nearly croaked. But not quite. He’d been nearly a lot of things. But one thing he had been and would be again.

 

A Ruler. Only this time, he’d do it right.

 

Slowly, Turing sat down in the chair. He felt the city of Restin, and sighed as a crown appeared on his head. He took it off.

 

“Useless thing,” Turing murmured. “It’s just for show.”

 

Like names. Turing felt the same urgency building in him, the need to name the side he’d founded. Last time he hadn’t known what to say. It hadn’t’ seemed right. But now everything seemed so clear.

 

This time he had a name. It came out of his soul, his heart. It began with a simple Patrollord, sitting by himself and walking through an empty city turn after turn. It was born of endless days reading books and dreaming of war. And then, being thrust into all of it unprepared, carrying a side on his back.

 

The word was a King who Turing hated and then had grown to respect. It was a group of Stabbers and Pikers – two groups, really – who had changed Turing’s life. And though both stories had ended in betrayal, it was their sacrifice which he remembered.

 

The world was born of Turing’s greatest love and loss, a small Stabber who had seen the same world he had. It was his bitter triumph as he took the life of a Master-class Turnamancer, and the terrible tragedy of the lonely Warlady who had remained. It was a tragedy, an epic, a tale of victories one and bitter regret.

 

It was one word, and since it sounded better, Turing conjugated it.

 

 

—-

 

 

Lord Turing of Turning sat on his throne and stared out into a nearly-destroyed city. It was definitely Level 0. But it was his and his alone. He hadn’t the Shmuckers to repair it, nor anyone to protect it. But it was his, and he had paid for it.

 

In tears. In death. In endless time. He had paid for it. The price had been almost too heavy to bear.

 

But perhaps he wouldn’t have to bear it alone.

 

Turing smiled. He could feel his own stats of course. He had a few hits left, and his attack and defense were nothing to brag about. They weren’t bad – just not special. Average move, average everything, really. He was an average Warlord, but perhaps an above-average ruler since most of them were Level 1.

 

Still, nothing special. But the other unit—

 

Ah. She was special indeed.

 

But incapacitated. And currently shouting obscenities and telling Turing to ‘get on with it’. So he did.

 

Turing stared out across the burnt city, across the place that had been his home, his triumph, and once, he’d thought, his grave.

 

No longer. And it was time to see something new. Time for all to change. Time long past.

 

So Turing paused once, listened to Protheana cursing, and smiled.

 

He took a deep breath.

 

And then he ended the turn.

 

 

Epilogue and Afterword

Turing of Turning sat in his throne room and tried to look regal. It was harder than it seemed, especially because the book he’d found wasn’t helping much. The King Slately might have been a great ruler for all Turing knew, but he was a bit pompous when it came to things like ceremony.

 

Not that there were many units to see him in all of his regalness of course. Counting Turing himself, there were only eight units in the city – three stabbers, two pikers, and two archers.

 

It seemed like a waste to make them stand guard duty in the throne room, so Turing had let them all play games in the lounge section of the castle. He hadn’t wanted any of them in the city at all, but Protheana had insisted. As Chief Warlord, she couldn’t go out on expeditions without the barest protection for Turing and eight was the lowest number he’d been able to get her to settle on.

 

Still, Turing worried that she would be understaffed with three archers and a single Stabber and Piker each. But she’d been chomping at the bit waiting for them to pop and so against his better judgment he’d let her go off.

 

It was still incredible to Turing even twenty turns after the fire that he had a Level 13 Warlord in his service. Occasionally he had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. And if he didn’t, Protheana would and her pinches hurt.

 

That turn, Turing had walked across an inferno hex to rescue her. Protheana had seen the entire thing, including the trick with the hourglass. It turned out that though she’d been incapacitated, Protheana had been awake the entire time, just unable to move. And when he’d carried her out of the city she had been freed.

 

Perhaps it wasn’t breaking her oath in the strictest sense. After all, Protheana hadn’t left the city of her own volition—more incapacitated and carried by Turing. But it was enough for Fate and the spell cast upon her. The magic had left Protheana’s body the instant Turing crossed hexes. It had stolen away, taking Protheana’s chains of endless turns with them. And her Loyalty too, as it turned out.

 

She’d Turned to Turing’s side the instant he’d become Ruler. She couldn’t bear to stay with Reapin after what they’d done to her first side and the way they’d treated her, she claimed. And as to why she hadn’t become a Barbarian—well, she’d just elbowed Turing hard enough for him to lose a hit.

 

Now that she was his Chief Warlord, a lot of the strategy he left in her hands. Of course he still had his own unique ideas – most of which she shot down over breakfast. But they were working together, the two of them. It was still a rocky relationship at times, but they were talking every turn and unlike Gout and Turing, there was no bridge of respect or uncertainty to be crossed.

 

Protheana’s strategy for the newly formed and impoverished side of Turning was simple. She’d ordered Turing to get the city up to a Level 2 as soon as possible and she was going on short expeditions to harvest provisions every day now, letting the units she brought along level as much as possible.

 

Her grand strategy for the side was to get an army put together and start conquering the cities she’d swept through as fast as possible. They’d all been razed, so according to Protheana if they got to them first, they stood a good chance of occupying at least twenty cities before they ran up against another side.

 

Protheana had a different viewpoint than Turing did as Chief Warlord. It was all about Levels, but Protheana appreciated good tactics and specials too. To that end she’d decided to pop as many Warlords as it took until she got a few Casters.

 

She also wanted to explore as many deep forest hexes as possible around the capital. She told Turing that if she found a Dwagon she was fairly confident she could tame it. And even if she couldn’t, she claimed she could just incapacitate it and try again another turn.

 

She wanted a lot of things, and she was full of ideas. Apparently, Reapin had had a longstanding contract with their Natural Allies – a bunch of bug-like creatures Protheana absolutely hated. Now that she could choose, Protheana had decided she wanted either a side with huge numbers like Gobwins or Marbits, or a bunch of heavy hitters and unique specials like Witches or Daemons.

 

Turing had suggested one of the Elf tribes only to have his idea stomped on. Protheana wasn’t a fan of any Elf tribe, and she knew them all.

 

“’F I want a buncha archers or second-rate infantry I’d pop them instead. The only ones with intrestin’ specials and some decent fightin’ moves are the Juggle Elves and they’re disgusting.”

 

He’d argued a bit, but mostly Turing was happy to let Protheana take charge. And she was happy. She’d begun to smile a lot more, and whenever she returned to the city Turing made sure to have a feast set out for her.

 

…She’d ordered him to stop wasting provisions. But this time Turing had set up a small table for two in the library with a cask of wine and a pile of books. He still hadn’t stopped reading stories for her. But now, instead of him reading stories just to Protheana, he ended up reading stories to his entire small side every night.

 

It was a bit of joy. And though Turing’s heart still hurt at times and he still slept the guest quarters rather than in his room, he was happy. Not deliriously happy, but contentedly happy, enough so that he thought it was worth living for the moment.

 

That was all. Turing smiled as he sensed Protheana and his small band of newly Level 3 units returning to the city.

 

Maybe Protheana would join him, or maybe Turing would eat alone. It didn’t really matter. She was surprisingly shy about anything not related to croaking people. But Turing could wait. He could wait for as many turns as it took.

 

He had time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterword:

 

Hey there, this is pirateaba. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! I really don’t know what to say. Uh, sorry about all the spelling errors and grammatical mistakes? I’ve  got some people who proofread what I write, but I’m well aware that it’s impossible to catch everything, especially with how I write and then post without much editing time.

 

But hey, if you got this far maybe you can put up with that? I’ll work on it, I promise. But for now, let’s talk about Erfword and The Last Turn.

 

I’m a big fan of Erfworld, and I’ve had this story in my heart for the last year. But I never wrote it. Ironically, the reason I did write it was to attract some attention to my other ongoing web serial The Wandering Inn. But I truly did want to write this story.

 

I know it’s not the most canonical and it definitely got long (although not as long as some of the other stories on this site!), which wore me down near the end. That’s why this last chapter could have been a two-parter but I wanted to finish it up. Ideally it would have been done around Christmas, but I was never good with deadlines like that.

 

Sorry as well if you thought this was going to be a tragedy. It definitely could have been. Turing could have ended the turn and been cut down, or ended his own life to set Protheana free. But I had a happy ending in mind when I wrote the story, and although drama would dictate Turing dies, I like happy endings.

 

…Whew. Tired. I’ve been writing the last chapter and epilogue for around 6 hours straight now. So forgive me if I miss a few points I wanted to bring up. But let’s just say this: I think Erfworld is great. I think stories are great. Regardless of how people like it, I think fanfiction is great if done well. It’s not on par with the actual story, but it’s like a sundae. You can eat it and you might feel sick and puke it up, but sometimes sundaes are good. Just eat actual food as well.

 

If you’ve liked reading my story so far, I’d hope that you checked out The Wandering Inn which is entirely my creation. I’m hoping to become a self-employed author someday with the money I earn from Patreon, and stories like this are the first step to improving and letting people know I exist. If I might ask a favor from all of you, if you tell a friend or know of a group of people who might like either this story or The Wandering Inn, please, tactfully, let them know about it.

 

Again, sorry for the self-promotional stuff, but feel free to ignore that part if you want. Honestly, I’m just grateful anyone reads what I write and hope you all enjoyed it. For Turing and his overpowered Warlady, I hope they live a long life.

 

But this is Erfworld. Who knows what’ll happen? I’m not planning on writing a sequel to this anytime soon by the way.

 

Thanks for reading,

 

–pirateaba

2 thoughts on “The Last Turn

  1. This story is really good and I really enjoyed it. I am relatively new to your works having started them around a year ago. You have created a good story here and an amazing world in The Wandering Inn. I look forward to whatever you come up with next and would like you to know that you are a great inspiration to me.

  2. plus 1 to all this person said. My effusive thanks for all your efforts. I joined as a patron recently during your birthday extravaganza, and enjoyed it immensely. My class would indubitably be [Reader], I have read TWI completely thru 3 times and enjoyed it immensely.

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