Ruler of the Rings

The Stack of the Ring


Chapter 1: The Council of Fifty Rands


     Ben sat in the morning sun in a high backed seat and contemplated the uncrossed legs he saw in front of him. They looked like they belonged to the unit in his seat, wearing black slacks with similar dress shoes placed separately. They even matched the dark suit, tie, and white shirt he saw on his torso, but he could feel his own lower limbs were still crossed. It seemed that the veil that covered his trenchcoat and polo and turned his brown boots into shiny black shoes didn't match his posture. He couldn't trust the body language of any unit to be its own in this small mountainous city with a river running through it. 


     Ben looked around at the other units seated in the semicircle with him. All were obscured by the same impassive visage, and appeared to be dressed identically, but each showed some slight variation in posture. One unit even seemed to have its legs crossed in the same way his actually were behind his own veil, but even as he watched the legs shifted to another position and another unit four seats over took upon itself to display the crossed limbs. The variations shifted as Ben continued to watch closely, and the tell-tale crossed legs were randomly displayed on each of the units in turn, though in a slow enough pattern that most units wouldn't have noticed it was part of the veil. As more time passed, a few more body positions caught the eye, probably the mirror of other units joining the council with veiled approaches, but they whirled together in an indecipherable pattern. It would take more than his caster senses to tell whether a particular slouch of the left shoulder was actually connected with the third unit from the opposite end that it seemed to linger on most, and Ben wasn't inclined to pay the penalty for casting in a secret council, especially in opposition to Lord Weaving's master-class Foolamancy. The active veil stood up to rumor; any commander unit could view the proceedings in the Riven Dell without risk of revealing themselves to the others. 


     As midday approached, one of the two units facing the semicircle of others stood to begin the meeting. His Signamancy was identical to all the rest, but he exuded an aura of command that tagged him as one of the host units. Ben had never seen a side that had so many similar units; the only different unit he had seen was the short, tired little man who had offered him the choice to continue to the council right as he’d stepped through the portal from the Magic Kingdom, and even he had worn the same dark glasses. The Side of Imlatrix showed incomparable Signs of unity.


     The presiding unit had only barely begun his first formal sentence when he was cut off abruptly by a unit standing from a seat across the semicircle from Ben. His veil dropped as he stood to enter the discussion, just as the white bearded unit in the portal room had warned, revealing a tough and confident warlord with leather armor incongruously chopped off at the sleeves to show off muscled arms. The dark glasses every unit seemed to wear hadn’t dissolved with the blown veil; they were his own.


     “I got this.” The warlord waved the disapproving first speaker back into his seat with a casually dismissive air and turned to face the semicircle of seats, horn swinging at his hip as the shield on his back blocked the slowly sitting unit from the conversation. “The first council was his show, but this one's mine. I'm the guy who's single-handedly kept Red Eye from taking over all of Middle Erf, so I'm in charge of recruiting for this thing. It's my quest, really. Yeah, these guys got the thing from their O'Baggins units," he admitted, thumbing casually at the two host units over his shoulder, "but Gone Door's claim came way before Bilb or Fro'd came by it." 


     The hulking warlord crossed his arms confidently and smiled conspiratorially at the assembled units. "Here's the deal, guys. Now that the old fogies have hashed out what the best plan is, we've got to have the best commanders get it done. I'm obviously the top pick, but we're looking for a max stack of warlords and maybe a caster or two to power through the gates of More Door and toss this trinket into the lava once and for all! Who's with me?"


     The circle stayed silent as a few birds chirped about the small city. For his part, Ben thought that the warlord hadn't set up the situation nearly well enough to begin asking for volunteers, and after a few moments the warlord realized it too, and began to explain the situation a bit. In his rambling overconfident way he didn't quite realize that he was revealing more about his side of origin than the careful host would have done before the as-yet unconvinced audience that might be from any number of sides. The warlords would all have to be from local sides, but that made them more likely to be on the lookout for actionable intelligence, and the casters could be from anywhere since they were invited to the council via the Magic Kingdom. 


     In short form, the proposed mission was to attempt a surgical regicide by taking a certain magical item into enemy territory and destroying it at the only volcanic feature available for hundreds of hexes in any direction. The warlord, who had gotten around to introducing himself as Broimeer Steward, had the unfortunately usual disregard for casters; he only wanted them included for stealth purposes out of absolute necessity, not by preference. He'd already turned down a barbarian caster who frequented the area, partly because of his connections with the O'Baggins. The warlord’s casual delivery further disclosed that his brother was a caster, but a simple negotiation with a Side not in this center of Erfworld seemed to have never crossed his mind, even though a quick jaunt through a couple portals for a relative handful of shmuckers and rands would have put the item within a turn of any number of volcanoes. And most of them wouldn't have been closely encompassed by a powerful opposing Side, either, but this unit’s blindness to the versatility of casters was clearly something he'd popped with, although it appeared from other dropped hints that his Ruler had similar ideas.


     “So, yeah,” Broimeer said, wrapping up his second attempt at invitation. “I’m looking for five or six other warlords who’ll stack with me to get the job done. It’s a pretty big commitment, going for so many turns without any side knowing where we are, but my Ruler’s authorized as big a push as we need to do this thing, so I can give you all the shmuckers you need to make it worth your time. I only want the best, and if enough of you guys with high levels join in we’ll be unbeatable, but I can throw in clauses for your sides in case you croak.” The warlord smirked. “But that ain’t gonna happen with me leading this party.”


     And with that, he was done, standing there with his thumbs still jauntily pointed at his confident face. Although a bit more informative than his first try, it was not a particularly inspiring delivery, nor likely to induce a caster to join in, but that seemed to be the best he could do. He didn’t even have the wit to conceal he only had one younger, unfavored brother, which indicated he was the Chief Warlord, showing to those who could read between the lines that this confident proposal was actually more desperate than his projected optimism implied. Perhaps he didn’t even know the seriousness of his situation; his deference to his Ruler seemed to include more than Duty or familial loyalty, showing that this jock of a warlord was being manipulated by a more cunning mind. He also seemed personally inexperienced, a relatively freshly popped unit despite his high level, who had only seen victories against an enemy biding their time.


     And yet, the first unit to rise from the unidentified ranks was a caster. As the veil of a business suit dropped to reveal flowing black robes, Ben was treated to a deliciously complicated dichotomy of Signs. Though the harsh pale skin tone, long spindly fingers and tall gaunt stature indicated imperiousness and an assumed air of command, the unit’s lipless slit of a mouth was warmly smiling and the globe-knotted wand in his spidery fingers meandered casually around in a deliberately unthreatening manner, only occasionally pointing in Broimeer’s direction as he gestured broadly while cheerfully outlining some of the ways his multi-disciplinary casting ability could be of use in the mission. Very high level and seemingly not worried about how letting others know he was powerful could make him appear dangerous, the man pleasantly introduced himself as Jerry Riddle as he wrapped up his bid to join the stack. Broimeer reluctantly agreed, though he was clearly not thrilled about including a commander unit of higher level than himself and declared that he would lead the stack whoever joined. The new recruit ignored this slight with such perfect Stagemancy presence that Ben wondered if his unrevealed beginning discipline might be in that class, and turned to his left to point at another rising unit.


     As Jerry introduced the more inexperienced caster to Broimeer, Ben mused about their relationship. Jerry had known where the newly visible unit was before the veil dropped to reveal the timid smile and touseled black hair, and the timing of the shorter unit's rise into the council seemed to imply an order. Jerry had cleverly not disclosed whether he was a barbarian or a sided caster, but even barbarian casters who knew each other weren't permitted to know if each other had attended the same council in the Riven Dell until both had joined the conversation, so it seemed clear that the smiling Jerry was from the same Side as the novice Hat Magician that he was negotiating into the mission.


     James Hatter himself stayed silent and nodded along, fidgeting at a headband covering his forehead with his left hand while keeping his right hand clenched inside a plain set of black robes not nearly as well-made as his probable Chief Caster wore. The cloth of his right-hand pocket bulged from his hand and apparently another wand, though without seeing it Ben supposed it could simply be an accessory for the Hat Magician rather than the obviously specialized globe-knotted wand that Jerry still gestured with as he successfully enumerated the advantages of constant reports to Broimeer's Ruler during the mission.


     The warlord wasn't quite happy about having such a low level unit involved, but accepted him as a package deal with Jerry and the imposing snow golem that James had apparently created that also silently stood up with the pair of casters during the negotiations. Ben had followed a lead to the Haberdashery once, so he wasn't new to the possibilities of Hat Magic golems, but he'd never heard of a snow golem with the flying and mount specials, so he wasn't surprised that Broimeer took the bait. Would have been nice if he was a bit more curious, though; casters usually came to the Riven Dell strictly through the portal from the Magic Kingdom, and Ben was intrigued by the undisclosed method by which the golem had gotten to the capital of Imlatrix. 


     After the initial agreement was worked out, pending formal terms after the whole stack was formed, the next few units who stood joined up in short order. Broimeer got his warlords, three that he seemed to recognize and expect to join in; perhaps they had met at the previous council wherein it had been decided to include casters in the local affair. Though high level, the warlord had naively disclosed that he'd never been anywhere outside his own territory or that disputed between his Side and that of More Door before this trip up to Imlatrix, so he accepted the three applicants automatically, perhaps based on information from his father and the first council. 


     The first warlord, Walker Norris, was the Chief of a tribe of Rangers that were human but somehow Natural Allies of Imlatrix; when Jerry asked about the limits of those ties, Walker said he was given unilateral freedom to engage in other pursuits while his tribe protected the few outlying cities of the Side that weren't veiled by Lord Weaving and had indeed done so in past turns. In addition to a hat that was reminiscent of a Western Giant, Ben was interested to note that he wore a trenchcoat, though Walker's was clearly travel stained in ways that daily cleansing didn't remove from his Signamancy. His connection to Imlatrix would have to be explored further, too; his brief pledge of the hand-and-a-half sword he wore at his belt didn't give Ben nearly enough time to analyze such a complex unit.


     The second applicant was named Gamdalf Greybark, but despite the long supple legs it was hard to tell whether the unit should be addressed as a warlord or a warlady. In the curious topsy-turvy way of this center of Erfworld, Gamdalf was a Woodsy Elf, but claimed to be the heir of a Side off to the north of the proposed path to More Door, rather than a Natural Ally. The unit's archery special and high level won him admittance to the quest easily, but Ben knew forest capable and foraging would be useful on the trek, too. The oddity of Gamdalf being an heir was another bit of history to unravel on the mission.


     The final warlord was a of a diminutive tunnel-capable tribe called Gegs. The ax-wielding Stubby Chip wore a version of Walker's hat with a more brittle brim, and spoke with a similar but thicker drawl. Although he had an underlying cheerfulness to rival Jerry's wide smile, he didn't appear to like being in the same stack as an Elf, apparently due to some ancient grudge that Ben was really going to have to find out about, but Broimeer had immediate confidence in Stubby's similarly wide shoulders and high level so there wasn't time to ponder further. 


     Ben hadn't had nearly as much time as he would have liked to analyze this odd stack of four warlords, two casters, and a snow golem, but he stood to complete it before another commander unit could rise. Some councils probably had volunteers who eventually backed out because the final negotiations of the contract fell through, but the speed at which the warlords had joined in gave the meeting momentum that Ben didn't trust. He needed to be in on this, and so he carefully explained the value of another versatile caster in such a way that Jerry maintained his dominance, but even Broimeer could see the danger of having all his magic users know each other before the mission. He described his rail gun as "a Dollamancy item which essentially gave the archery special" and went into detail as to how it would complement Jerry's casting and the warlords' skills if it came to fighting. And as it was to be a stealth mission, Ben finished by saying he had some tricks for avoiding conflict, too, between his master-class Signamancy and dabbling in Flower Power and Changemancy.


     Broimeer shrugged as if to say he'd accept if there were no better options like any warlord at all, but the rest of the warlords thought including Ben was a good idea and peer pressure seemed to have a large influence on the man. Jerry had looked skeptical and said nothing in Ben's favor throughout his presentation, but also decided against speaking against him. Ben's subtle jabs at the caster's intentions had helped the warlords accept him out of caution but hadn't made Jerry an enemy. Yet; Ben knew Jerry would be watching him carefully over the turns this journey would take.


     With the full stack assembled according to the purpose of the council, the eight units turned toward the host units, but they waited a minute before responding. According to the terms that at least the casters had agreed to before taking the red pill and joining the council in Imlatrix, those who had not discarded their veils to participate would leave to sign the non-disclosure agreements required to maintain the secrecy of councils in the Riven Dell. Those who had participated needed to stay to work out more complicated contracts for their inclusion on the quest and the necessary informing of Sides of as little about the mission as possible while still informing them as to the status of their units. 


     When all the black-suited men who had been seated in the semicircle had left, theoretically with the units they veiled, the presiding unit stood, and dropped his veil. Ben started, but the others apparently weren't familiar enough with other councils in the Riven Dell to recognize that their personal penalty fee for disclosing information about this council had just skyrocketed. To even imply that Lord Smith Weaving himself had been a part of the council would automagically cost a caster fifty rands and a warlord an equivalent amount of shmuckers. For unsided units, such a penalty usually exceeded the most wealthy purse, threatening disbandment. Ben had heard the tales in accented whispers from a Roamin' Moneymancer who had used his own words to describe the numbers involved, but had warned stringently against attending a council "of L ronds!"


     The Ruler and Chief Caster of Imlatrix stood before them, his schizophrenic Signamancy displayed in grandeur. Half of his body kept the face and attire of the veils common throughout Imlatrix, but his other half was reminiscent of a High Elf, although uncharacteristically attentive. With formal demeanor, he spoke gravely about the risks involved with this mission, as he likely would have done at the beginning if he hadn't been cut off. He stressed the importance of its success, and indicated that the impact of its failure would be irrevocably felt on all the sides in Middle Erf. He looked often at Walker as he made these points, apparently conveying some hidden meaning to the Chief of his Natural Allies, but kept his remarks short in anticipation of the impatience of Broimeer. His final declaration, couched in impressive tone, formally joined them together for their quest: "You shall be the Stack of the Ring!"


Author's Note:

Ben's being a little secretive, so I'll let the reader know they should read A Miracle of Science and leave it at that. I think I've given enough clues for the other characters I've introduced so far, though I have plenty of other ideas that just don't fit in yet.


    • DunkelMentat

      This is wonderfully written. It flows in a way that a lot of fan fic authors don't get right when they start writing in someone else's world.

      I like Ben's voice. I like the way he thinks about his discipline and how it plays out. Will the whole story be told from his perspective? The bits about signamancy seem to be right on cannon to me, and the way they work into his inner monologue is great. I totally buy him as a signamancer.

      The reveal at the end was cool, and I love how you've set up Riven Dell to work. Totally believable for Erf and cool in it's own way.

      I'm excited to see where this stack goes, I think Erf and LoTR fit in with each other really well. Good job!

      • HighJumper

        Thank you! I like detail and that seems to be a key in the Erfworld universe.

        Yeah, Ben's fun; detectives usually are. :) As far as I've thought it through, Ben will be a major player but we will only rarely get to see his detailed thought process as we do here. He thinks around dialogue in a way that minimizes other characters too much.