Al knew he wasn't wanted by his side and he was pretty sure the titans didn't care much about him either. A few thousand turns ago, his Overlord was at war with the Grush, ZE Grush, not directly, though. They were at war with them because of an alliance with Queen Barbara the 9th of Barbarabia.

When their army arived at the city of Barbapapa, it had already been razed by the enemy. It was a frontline city, so The Nasty Cooing rebuilt it to use it as a fortifiction for that war.

Barbapapa was rebuilt to a level one and would be sold back to Barbarabia soon enough, but the units who popped there as part of the rebuilding were kept by The Nasty Cooing. Al was one of those. No one asked for him to be popped, he just did. Barbapapa was in the middle of the desert, but next to it was an oasis hex, technically a forest hex. So amongst the few units that popped as part of the rebuilding, many of which later became well known units of great power and heroic destinies (Al-Kemi, Al-Gebra, Al-baator and Al-Obama to namedrop a few), popped Al, a forest-capable foraging unit, whom the Titans didn't even bother to give a complete name to. He was pretty sure his name ended with an hiphen, a silent reminder of just how much they didn't give a second thought about him.

He spent a few dozen turns foraging in the oasis, alone, expecting to be croaked at some point by a Grushling. But he lived until the war ended, he was still a level one but his surviving brothers and sisters of Barbapapa were now war heroes. Some of them at least.
Barbapapa was sold to Barbarabia and the troops were brought back "home".

Home was in a colder climate. He didn't like it much. He didn't like that it was a city either. Being forest capable in a city made him feel useless. Same feeling applied to his foraging special. Even when he popped he didn't feel quite at home until he reached his oasis. He was popped to be in that far away hex, he knew it, it was evident but he also knew he'd likely never see it again.

War heroes had a ceremony to congratulate them and this was where he saw his Overlord for the first time. The man had some conflicting signamancy about him, a man with a Fu Man Chu moustache, but hairy as an ape and big ears. He looked like a beast trying to be a dandy.

Foraging wasn't something The Nasty Cooing generally did. They had very efficient rice farms and didn't need Al's talents but Ming Kong was cheap and chose not to disband him. Instead, he sent him to some cursed forest to basically forage for his upkeep. About once every forth turn, he would forage for a lot more than that and that was supposed to justify his continued existence.

Not that he wasn't competent though. Foraging was his special after all. Any unit could forage for their own upkeep, but forager unit had advantages: they would know better places to look for food and anything they'd forage in excess of that would be considered harvested as if it came from a farm or an harvested unit and transported directly to a larder. If used correctly, they could be quite beneficial but his overlord instead sent him to a terrible place to forage at.

A dark looking place with mean faces on the trees, the forest of Opposite Day was literally cursed, not a place you'd normally send someone to forage if you cared for its survival or even it's efficiency. Some kind of natural Carnymancy or Croakamancy permeated the place, he guessed, maybe both. Fruits would taste like meat, rocks would taste like mushroom (and you could starve from eating too many of the wrong kind of rocks). Woolves could be killed for rations, which wasn't possible elsewhere, but if you saw a White Wabbit (which ate woolves but were inedible themselves), you'd better run if you didn't want to be decapitated by its long sharp nasty teeth! That forest was mostly marsh hexes and he hated those hexes: compared to his oasis, they were Hellabad itself, but he'd rather not get killed by fluffy fauna so he stayed in the hexes those would avoid and didn't pop in.

The food wasn't good either, most of the time he'd survive on mushroom that looked exactly like rocks, rockshrooms. He knew they were edible only because his special taught him so, otherwise his eyes would have deceived to him. This forest was full of lies and unpleasantness. Eating rocks, walking in sandals in a muddy bog ... he would bless the beginning of each turn, only for that short short moment when his tunic, turban and sandals would be clean and dry.

Rockshroom were his normal meals, but once every other turn, it would be time to harvest from one of the two orchards hexes. Those were unsafe forest hexed were feral fluffy White wabbit would pop. He almost got killed by one of those once. Those two hexes were safe most of the time though. The trees would bear Bright red apple 3 turns out of four. Ferals would avoid the hexes during those turns, the apples were poisonous and ferals didn't like to be around at that time. Every four turns, the apples would drop to the ground and become edible. They wouldn't look like it though. They would look like rotten shrunken heads. The fruits had a leathery texture and their taste was only marginally redeeming. He'd pick up those when there weren't any dangerous ferals around, sometimes he would get out of the forest and meet a cargo unit, it would boost the output of his "harvest" much the same way it boosted trade between the cities it connected. 2 turns after that the other orchard hex would be ready for harvest and without ferals, he'd start over the cycle.

He was a farmer in Hellabad and after a few thousand turns, he was good at it but he hated his job. How cheap was his king to have sent him to farm that ulcer on the face of erf? Two cursed orchards in the middle of a bog: that was the meaning given to a life that started so well in a sun soaked oasis. Many times he thought about eating poisonous apples or feeding himself to the fluffies. He resisted it.

He didn't know why he resisted it, he knew he was of no significant use to his side. He was likely their only forager and if he died they wouldn't replace him.

But one day, his liaison, the cargo unit,  handed him message from the court of Overlord Kong.

"Overlord will be there next turn, stay at your current position for rendez-vous."

He wasn't one to complain. Thanks to this order he'd stay a full turn in that plain hex. He'd be dry for the first time in forever!

When his overlord saw him he almost pitied him. What had been a tall tan man with clean white linen clothing was now a grey, lumpy, crooked, dirty mummy of a man.

-Sahib, saluted Al.

The overlord nodded in response, he liked that funny way his few units from Barbapapa addressed him, but after all that time there were precious few of them left.

-May I know what brings you here? It is very unusual to have such dignified presence in my bog.
The overlord sighted. If he was to cross that bog he might as well explain why to the unit, he'd be his only company.
-I'm moving to Pigeonhole
-On foot? By yourself, Sahib?
-Etteilla predicted a safe path. He said I wouldn't be attacked if I followed this path to Pigeonhole. So here I am. Crossing your bog. By myself. Because the predictamancer told me to.
-Why, Sahib?
-Because Pigeonhole, since I've upgraded it, is now a safer place than the former capital. So it is now our side's capital and I'm moving there.

The overlord was also taking the opportunity to leave his courtier behind in the former capital. He was sick and tired of them all and a bit paranoid too, Etteila had said a few things about his ultimate fate that made him want to flee their presence. The forager didn't need to know those things though.

The forager didn't need to know how corrupt everyone was at home. The forager didn't need to know how untrustworthy everyone was back home. Even Etteila. That dirty Predictamancer couldn't be trusted either. He had to order him to be crystal clear about what he saw in the future and even then he had the feeling that he was keeping information from him. But at least, with no heir, it kept the plotting against him to a minimum. His courtiers were idiots and opportunist but they wouldn't want the side to end. Not without a way out at least.

-Let's move, ordered the overlord.

And they did. But as the king wasn't forest capable, they didn't go far that day, due to movement penalty. They camped in the marshiest marsh hex that night. It was stormy too. The overlord was soaked and dirty like he hadn't been since his days as a warlord and he wasn't too pleased about it either but he would have loved to see some of his courtier in the same situation. Those powdered dandies would be out of their minds if they had to deal with that kind of environment. He actually considered sending people to this place as a punishment... even if it meant promoting them from garrison first, it might be worth it.

-Would you care to have some company some time, forager?
-What do you mean, Sahib?
-If I were to send people here as a punishment, would you have some use for them?
Al took it to mean that his overlord acknowledged just how crappy this place was.

-They could help me harvest I suppose. And if they could hunt the woolves and the Wabbits, It would make my life easier, Sahib. But the kind of level needed to kill those nasty monsters, I don't know if you would spare them in such an out of the way place...
-Right. I could still use this place to get rid of them then.
-Is it what you did for me, Sahib?
-Don't say that. You are useful here! Those fruits fatten the pigs like nothing else!

The overlord meant to be comforting, but Al was deeply insulted. He suffered this place so that pigs could eat? He felt like punching his overlord and he wasn't even a combat unit. Violence wasn't his go to reaction. He went silent and, then, to sleep.

The next day they continued walking in the marsh. The Overlord wasn't pleased with that.
- Isn't there any dryer hex nearby? This place is disgusting! It's been two turns and I cannot stand it anymore. I don't understand how you foragers put up with such indigent terrain.

Again, Al felt insulted. Insinuating that he was ok with this terrain when he was anything but. Like it was how he was meant to be. As if slowly morphing into a haglike creature, having his signamancy slowly corrupted by the Curse of Opposite Day was normal for his particular type of unit... He was a proud man, maybe not a warlord or even a stabber, but proud nonetheless.
This place made him into the most indigent and loathsome unit of his side and he was scared to think of what the curse of opposite day would make of him next if he stayed there.

-There are, Sahib. But there might be ferals in those. I wouldn't want them to croak you. We still haven't got an heir on the side, lord.
-Were you not listening when I told you it was predicted that I wouldn't be attacked during my journey?
-I was just concerned for your wellbeing, sahib.
-Let me do the thinking... look at yourself, you cannot concern yourself about your own wellbeing, what do you know about mine, forager? Besides, I know how I'll die. Etteila told me.

That's something Ming wasn't sure he didn't regretted. It was said in the scripture it was foolish to ask your predictamancer how you would die. He did it anyway, he just wanted to know that much. The answer was helpful too.

-And it's not killed by a fluffy Wabbit or some kind of feral. Well... maybe... are there other kind of ferals I don't know about in those woods?

-Feral Gumps happens… and there is like a chance in a million that some shady elves will pop at some point... I know there's a tribe of those roaming somewhere in these woods. Well... there used to be... The wabbits may have croaked 'em.

-I'll be fine. I don't fear those either. Bring me to a dry hex.

Al wasn't stacked with his overlord. The later didn't care to and the former was happy to indulge him.

They ended turn in one of the bright-red-appled orchard.

They each lit their own fire. The Overlord hadn't done so for so long the motion of lighting up a campfire almost seemed alien to him now. Seeing his overlord lit that fire was possibly the only respectable thing Al ever saw his overlord do.
The following turn, in the morning, the overlord was busy relaying orders off-turn to a unit through hat-magic. Some unit somewhere got attacked. Al continued resting as Ming was directing the battle, it's not like he was a combat unit. He had noting pointy to sharpen, no training to do and nothing was edible in the hex at the moment. He'd wait until the enemies turn would end and then they'd depart.

Al dozed off, it was nice to take some time off in a dry hex. He couldn't normally do that, he just wouldn't have enemies turn to rest and it would be dangerous to rest in forest hexes anyway. Last thing he saw was his overlord inspecting an apple-tree. He didn't bother to warn him, he hated his life and his overlord... and didn't care for the side much, it was not his job to care. The overlord made it very clear to him that he was just the guy harvesting for the pigs. So if the overlord wasn't intelligent enough to know better than to eat those cursed apples, so be it.

He woke up to his overlord kicking him.

-Wake up you lazy forager!
-I'm sorry sahib!
-What do you think you are doing?
-Resting, sahib!
-What do you think your job is?
-I'm a forager, sahib. I forage. That's what I do.
-You colour-blind or something, forager?
-I'm sorry?
-We are in an orchard full of ripe apples and you are sleeping! And how comes the only things you send back home are those disgusting shrunken-head-fruits when we have those apples?
-Sahib. Those apples are poisonous. Any unit eating them would auto-croak at the end of turn. I guess we could use apple juice to poison arrows though if it is something you think would consider worthy of devoting resources to. By myself though I could only-

-What was that bit about the apples being poisonous?
-They're poisonous sahib. That's all.
-Ho. He said.

All that time, Ming Kong had known he would croak from poisoning. Etteila told him so. And Etteila strongly hinted that he'd get betrayed by someone close to him. That was one of the reasons he was so distrusting of his courtiers. He assumed that one of them would eventually assassinate him. He figured that leaving them behind and moving to Pigeonhole would extend his life significantly. He was planning on never popping a courtier ever.

And now he was dying in the middle of nowhere, off turn without anyone to designate heir in his hex and without being forest capable, he wouldn't be able to reach any unit worth designating heir either before he croaked.

He looked at the forager. His only option. A disfranchised almost-foreign unit, popped without a good reason in a faraway land. A unit with disgusting signamancy. Ming would be damned if he were to designate a decrepit forager as the heir to his side.

-Is there an antidote, forager?
-An antidote, sahib?
-Yes! An antidote, he snapped, I'm croaking!
-No antidote sahib. Why did you eat those apples?
-Because they looked as delicious as they were! Why didn't you tell me about them?
-Because you haven't spoken to me since we entered the hex!

They were both yelling at each other now but Al was sort of happy. He was happy he could yell at his overlord, worst case scenario, he would get disbanded slightly sooner: as he was in the field, a typical position for a forager, he'd get disbanded anyway when his overlord croaked. Good riddance, no more bog. All he had to do was to wait. He had no idea what the titans would have for him though. He was pretty sure he wouldn't be city of heroes material... he just wondered if he'd be put back in the box or if he'd go to Hellabad.

He wondered how much worse that the bog could Hellabad be. He was bound to end there... his overlord died because he didn't keep an eye on him and didn't tell him about the danger of the local flora. But he also thought that he had lived the life expected of a forager. A good life really considering the amount of feral he had to flee from in his long lonely existence. Actually, he might have been city of heroes material. Who else spent his life foraging a cursed forest? He was ready to die, he accepted his fate. And then the overlord took that fate from him.

He would've been damned if he had let The Nasty Cooing end because of his lack of botanical knowledge.

-I hereby promote you to the rank of heir, numskull.

Al didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything.

-Yeah. That will shut you up. Now: I won't end our side's turn until I feel safe leaving the side in those foraging hands of yours. So we're going to talk and by that I mean that you'll keep shutting up and will listen to me.

That turn seemed to last for millions of hours to Al as his overlord explained in minute details the geopolitics of The Nasty Cooing and told him who did what and what was what.

But after the overlord had ended turn and croaked, his hat rumbled immediately.

A note was inside. It was from the Etteila.
"Fear not Al. Your reign has been foretold."


-Part 2-