Part 1  
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 7:  The Beginning and the End

Ch 30

	Ansom checked his map display as his force of Action Figures left Faq's hex. The helpful bit of Foolamancy projected onto the visor of his new Hat Magic enhanced helmet let him see all of the terrain and unit information that Em was sending him from Charlescomm.  Not only could he see Jillian's force of Figures zipping back and forth taking out Smod's Dwagon scouts on the way to the unnamed city site that was this turns target, he could see the impressive set of defensive traps and fortifications that their guest Garry had helped Sizemore array around Faq's core cities.  As his group passed the Gap Fortress, he could see the new lightning and water traps that were powered by aqueducts and shock conduits leading to the storm hexes Garry had used the Arkenorb to create (the extra water also improved food production).

	“Still with me, Jack?” Ansom asked over his shoulder.

	“I appear to be present and in one piece,” responded from the back seat.

	“Rodger that.  All flights, check in,” Ansom ordered, and the various warlords of his force started sounding off in order.  Another function of the new helmets was the ability to communicate with anyone else waring one.

	The “Zohar” device that Garry had brought with him to Faq had greatly accelerated the production of Action Figures, to the point that their upkeep was now a significant expense for the side.  Actually, the latest rule change had changed the upkeep rules around a lot – it was no longer a single set price, payed for by the capital from it's treasury.  Now, the capital would deposit some amount shmuckers into each unit's purse, and the unit would choose what part of it's upkeep to pay or not pay.  In fact, one could choose to pay nothing at all – if you didn't mind finding your own food, healing your own wounds, taking a bath, and repairing or replacing your own equipment.  Only a lack of food would cause a unit to disband (and juice replenished as long as you didn't), while the other conditions could just be allowed to persist or deteriorate.  Restoring lost hits turned out to be particularly costly, and the Archy and Sara self-revival trick was both expensive in shmuckers and cost the unit an experience level.  The upkeep of golems could be paid mostly by expenditures of juice from the capable casters, which was not a problem now, but might force Faq to stick a number of them in storage when Garry took his strange device back to Chessboard.

	On his map, Ansomm could see packs of dwagons moving to get into Jillian's path and surround her group.  Naturally, Jillian, changed her course to fly right through on of the enemy groups.  Some of the map symbols for small dwagons winked out, and Jillian's group kept going.  The separate stacks of dwagons moved regroup in a single hex.

	“Ansom, it looks like the dwagons are learning.  The little ones are throwing themselves at the thunderballs to screen the big ones, and the rest a spreading out so that the blast only hits one of them,” Jillian called out.

	“Understood.  I'll follow up here; go swing around the target to see if you can't scare more of them in.”

	“Copy.  See you on the other side.”

	“My wing, follow me in, we're going to make a pass on that hex of dwagons,” Ansom ordered.  “Jack, can you give us a cheep-ish distraction?” he asked his back-seater.  

	“Gladly,” the Foolamancer replied.  

	According to Em, the dwagons had proved very adept and spotting veiled units, but Jack was a genius of misdirection, and the dwagons didn't react to his group until they entered the hex. Ansom's Action Figure had charged all it's thunderballs, and it immediately sent them off toward the dwagons. He had the Figure pull to the left, skimming along the hex boundary on the way out, while he turned to his right to watch the result.  A veritable circus bright glowing sonic traps poured from the units following his, their sparkling trails twining around each other as they tracked their targets. The booms of detonating traps started as distinct explosions, dissolved into a tooth-rattling din, and then trailed into individual reports.  Ansom could see a number of dwagons fall from the sky.

	Leaving the hex, Ansom led his wing on a long looping path multiple hexes wide, giving the dwagons time to retreat to their lair.  On Faq's previous battles with the dwagons, cutting off such a retreat had been vital, as fighting in the dwagon lair gave up most of the Action Figures' advantages.  This turn, however, he had something else planned.  Ansom ordered his wing to follow him on a pass through the city hex.

	“This is it, Jack, just like we planned,” Ansom said to the Foolamancer.

	“I'm ready,” Jack responded.

	The first reason Ansom needed Jack along became apparent as soon as he crossed into the city hex.  A torrent of lethal Shockmancy poured from the tip of the dwagon spire, striking through the air all around his Figure.  Jack had tried to explain what he would be doing when they planned this attack out, but other than it being multiple layers of Foolamancy, Ansom didn't really understand it. However, the tower would have been able to destroy at least half of his force if he had flown in without Jack's support.  As it was, the Figures were taking hits on their shock absorbers.

	Ansom took the Figures on a partial loop around the left side of the lair, while all of their thunderballs converged on the tip of the spire.  That probably wouldn't be enough to destroy the lair's air defenses, but the hope was that it would degrade them somewhat.  The last rule change had altered how tower spells worked, reducing how much damage the tower could do all at once, but allowing them to continue attacking at a lower rate indefinitely.  Which was really too bad: Faq's Action Figures would have been able to pound the dwagon lairs to ruble with near impunity otherwise.

	“Got it.  Sending the image now,” Jack called out from the back seat.  This was the second reason Jack had come along.  “Ace confirms launch.”

	“Copy,” Ansom replied, taking the group out of the hex.  He had his figure wiggle it's wings in greeting to Jillian's group as they flew by each other, and then circled back again toward Faq.  He looked at his map to track the new unit coming in, and, over the course of several minutes, he brought his wing into formation with it.  Not that it was hard to spot: the enormous thing could be seen from hexes away.  
	
	To Ansom's eyes, Ace's newest creation looked like a comically bloated green tower flying through the air.  Sizemore had been adamant about not letting any other units in the same hex once he started filling the huge flying Dollamancy golem's cavernous interior with traps, and, from the green vapor trail it was leaving behind it, Anosm was glad of it.  The “Bug Bomb”, fitted as it was with flight enhancing accessories, was almost as fast as the Action Figures.  As they traveled toward the target, he instructed some of the figures to fly close and grab hold of those valuable pieces of equipment.

	“The baffles are in place,” Ansom heard Jack report.  

	“Copy,” Ansom responded.  “We are approaching the target.  All units, prepare to break off.”

	The last hex before the dwagon lair, the figures holding the Bug Bomb's accessories pulled them off of it, and Ansom's whole group banked to a halt.  The big green golem continued on alone into the lair hex, drawing a few shots from the spire, one of which actually hit, burning off a layer of protection.  Regardless, the Bug Bomb continued on to bury itself the large cave entrance that Jack had earlier designated as it's target.

	For a moment, nothing happened, and Ansom held his breath.  To the knowledge of everyone in Faq, this was the first time something like this had been attempted.  So far, it had gone as planned, but no one knew if it would really work.  In seconds, however, there was a rapid sequence of loud “poof” sounds coming from the lair as plumes of green gas erupted out of each cave mouth.  Ansom blew out the breath.  The lair had been packed full of red dwagons, many of them wounded, but surely none of them had survived a gas attack of that magnitude.  All they had to do was wait for the gas to clear, and the lair would be captured almost entirely intact.

	A cheer had just begun to go up from the Figure riders when the spire suddenly dissolved into a cloud of smoke and flame.  An Erf-shattering “ka-boom” was transmitted through the hex boundary as Ansom stared in disbelief.

	“My lord, look up!” Jack shouted.

	Ansom looked up, and then started shouting, “Dodge, dodge, dodge!”  He only just barely got his own Figure out of the way as the tip of the spire, a solid cone of stone as large as a building, came plummeting down through the space he had just occupied.  All around him, boulders of various sizes were raining down.

	“Ansom, what happened?” Em's voice and the image of her emblem came to him over the communication system.

	“I'm not sure,” Ansom replied.  “I think one of the dwagons must have set off the gas with its breath.  The lair blew up.  I don't think you are going to get much for razing it.”  Now that the smoke was clearing, it didn't look like there was much of anything left.  To his left, he could see a tattered fragment of dwagon wing fluttering down to the ground.

	“All things considered, that's a minor loss,” the unseen woman responded.  “I am sending in a group of Archons and a couple of casters to claim and fortify the site.  I'm not seeing any dwagons in the immediate area, but there is another group of them coming in from the south.  They have an unidentified unit with them.”

	“I'm on it,” Jillian called in.

	On the map, Ansom watched Jillian's group close in on the new enemy, even as he gave orders to search the surroundings for surviving dwagons.  “An unknown unit type?  That's the one thing this all dwagon army hasn't shown us so far.”  Ansom listened as Jillian gave her units orders and dived into the enemy's hex, weapons blazing.  Then things clearly started going wrong.

	“Crap, crap, crap,” he heard Jillian yell, nearly drowned out by a confusing set of sounds. Two of the Action Figures in Jillian's wing disappeared from the map – one of them was Jillian's own mount.  There was a rushing of wind, flapping of wings, and an unmistakable battle cry from Jillian herself, followed by sounds of battle.  “Ha, take that you cheeky little freak!”

	“Hold on, I'll be right there!”  Ansom called out.

	“Don't bother, they're already leaving.  The disbanded things are screening for her,” Jillian called back, breathing hard.  “That was some crazy powerful Shockmancy.  She took Figure Two right out from under me and took down Figure five before I could get to her.  I almost took her arm off with Three-edge, though.  That'll take a while to heal.”

	“The unknown unit looks like it is heading back to Gobwin's Knob,” Em broke in.  “Did you see what it was?”

	“About that,” Jillian began.  “I've never seen anything like it.  I'm not sure what Smod did to her – almost like she was half turned into a dwagon.  But I think I might have just found your missing Archon.  Bonnie, right?”


Ch 31

	Garry was really starting to think that there was something to that “ignorance is bliss” line. Of course, there was a certain irony to that, given that he had been oh so confident in his choice of Signamancy over Turnamancy, Date-a-mancy, and Flower Power when the third rule change had suddenly offered him the choice.  Kendra had chosen Date-a-mancy (with great glee), and she and the other Dwyads had Flower Power more than covered, while Turnamancy was something he was confident he could pick up from Nick if he really needed to.  Garry had always wanted to see the world the way Calder did, and he thought it would be helpful for diplomacy (even if he wasn't really King anymore). Chessboard had even sent its approval to him after he had confirmed the decision. 

	Things did not go as expected.  First, how Signamancy senses work was strange in a way that experiments with the Zohar didn't really prepare him for.  Looking at something of Significance was more like partially recalling a forgotten memory, rather than actually seeing a form of magic – and sometimes, it was more like a feeling that you were forgetting something important.  Heck, Weirdomancy gave him more information about actual Signamancy magic than the Signamancy senses did.  

	Second, the information it gave to you was usually dualistic in nature, and often contradictory.  Take Faq's former queen and her winged units: his new senses told him that they could be the very tools of the Titans, heralding their divine will on Erf with flaming swords, or they could be happy little mascots of all things Peace, Love, and Hippiemancy.  The truth was both somewhere in between and totally unrelated (probably).  For Faq's Action Figures, it was almost completely useless: they were war machines so ridiculously overpowering that a single one could probably solo a major side, or a frivolous piece of artwork representing the dream of such a unit. Poor Vinny Doombats, Count of Duckula, seemed like such a confusing bundle of different Signs that it was like trying to trying to make sense of conversation overheard from a crowd, while Garry got absolutely nothing from Ansom.

	Worst, though, were the times when Signamancy told him things he either didn't want to know, or were almost too dreadful to contemplate.  The very first thing that had sprung to mind when he selected Signamancy was the realization that Poly could not be his aunt, but was somehow Garth's daughter, and nearly as old as he was.  The implications of that, especially since Garth had always been adamant that he had never ruled a side, were such he had spoken of it to no one.  Ace Hardware, though not quite so personally disturbing, had the Signamancy of someone who should not exist on Erf, and who's creations could change the world.  Maybe.  However, nothing gave quite as much a feeling of doom as what he saw before him right now.

	Sitting in the enclosed saddle of an Action Figure, he was staring out over something he would once have called impossible.  A metallic structure shaped like a downward pointing cone and covering the majority of seven hexes sat floating over what had once been Core-Em.  As payment for Faq's aid against the Red Dwagon Army of Smod, Charlescomm had tracked the location of the thing as it had traveled over the surface, using some method to see past the veil it normally had in place.  For reasons unknown, the object had headed here and stopped as Faq's task force set out to find it.  The fact that it had dropped its veil and that its dimensions matched exactly the shape of the deep water below it almost seemed to boast that this was it came from.

	Everything about it seamed to Signify the unfathomable.  The curved lines of the lower surface were impossibly perfect. The flat top reflected the sky with no hint of distortion, the only break in it's mirror like surface being an arching, partial dome-like structure with triangular symmetry that sat in the very center.  Garry felt an unsettling certainty that the structure was something like a city tower (if much, much bigger), and that, even hexes away, it could reach out and swat them from the sky.

	Jillian lead the group, which included Garry, all of her own casters, an Archon from Charlescom, and a handful of Archies and Sara's, all mounted on Action Figures, around the hexes bordering the object.  When the circuit was complete, lights began glowing above the object's top surface.  Foolamancy.  Giant chevrons pointing toward the central structure began running from the outer edge inward along a single path.  Without seeming to hesitate, Jillian took them all across the adjoining hex boundary and onto the glowing path.

	Garry expected something to happen, some attack, but nothing came.  The path of glowing chevrons ended at a an enormous hatch built into the side of the central structure.  The Figures converted to their humanoid form and Jillian had hers motion everyone to follow her into the hatch. Inside was a room easily three times as tall as the Action Figures, with metal covering every surface.  Against the far wall, and standing from the floor to the ceiling, was some kind of statue of two humanoid figures, made of glass.  Garry saw that Jillian and Ansom had dismounted their Figures, so he moved to do the same.

	“What the flip is that thing?”  Vinny asked no one in particular as Garry hopped from his figure's hand to the floor.  To Garry's Weirdomancy senses, the whole place was shot through with all kinds of Stuffamancy, Eyemancy, and Spooky magic.

	“Art, I guess,” Ansom responded.  As Garry walked to join them, the two Archons, Jaclyn and Lilith (the Charlescomm contribution to this expedition) floated past.  Jacklyn was outfitted in some specialized equipment from Ace, but Lilith had come strapped with strange devices that Signamancy identified as extraordinarily dangerous weapons.  If the whole place wasn't already setting his hair on end, he might have worried more about them – particularly the scepter looking one on her back that registered as a siege weapon.  Idly, Garry patted his pockets, confirming the presence of the Zohar and the single scroll he had brought with him from Chessboard.

	“I don't get it,” Jillian scowled up at the display, her face visible with her visor up.  “It looks kind of like an Archie and a Sara holding hands and flying, but naked. And why does each one only has one wing?”

	An exclamation from Ace broke up the speculation. “Woah, Sizemore, are you okay?” 

	Everyone turned to look at the Dirtamancer, who had apparently collapsed to his hands and knees after stepping down from the hand of Ace's Figure.  His eyes were unfocused and he seemed to be twitching.

	“Dear Titans,” Sizemore spoke softly. “It's full of Stuff.”
	
	Suddenly, a message window popped up in front of his face.  Ace leaned forward, looking at its face from Sizemore's perspective.  “Wait, you made Master?  Just by setting foot on this place?”

	Sizemore looked around, eyes glazed.  “You don't see what I see.”

	“What do you see?”

	“It's Dirtamancy.  All of it.”  Sizemore blinked and shook his head.  “Shock conduits, fibers and alloys I've never even heard of, and...imagine finding a gemstone that was part sapphire and part ruby.” 

	By this point, Ansom had approached, and helped Ace bring Sizemore to his feet.  “How is that possible?”

	“They are the same basic stone, just with different impurities in them that give them different colors,” Sizemore explained, his expression clearing.  “I don't know how you would do it, but it's possible in theory.  There are things like that all over this place, but made from single crystals of metal, and patterned with impurities on a scale too small to see.  And there is Shockamancy flowing through them. It's doing things.”

	“Well,” Jack said, offering him a hand.  “Welcome to mastery, Master Dirtamancer.”

	Jillian blew out a breath.  “If that's over with, lets get moving.  Gabe, I want all of the Archies and Sara's to hold this room with the Figures.  Casters and guests, your with me.”

	“But...” Gabe started.

	“I don't want to hear it,” Jillian cut him off.  “We'll have three high level warlords, two Archons, and him,” she said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder in Garry's direction.  “And we are all armed to the teeth.  If we can't deal with it, it probably can't be dealt with.  Besides,” she said more quietly, “I've got a prediction that they won't let us in with more.”

	“'They'?” Ansom asked.

	“Whatever.  Everyone onto the platform under the big naked statues.”

	Sure enough, there was some kind of circular marking on the floor under the statue.  As soon Jillian herded everyone onto it, some kind of energy barrier sprung up around them, and that section of the floor started moving downward slowly.  Did she know that was going to happen?  Was it a Prediction?  
	
	The downward motion of the floor drew his eyes upward again, bringing the glass statues back into view.  What he hadn't mentioned to the rest was that the Signamancy of the two glass figures had been very clear to him: the two one-winged individuals needed each other to fly.  Man and woman needed each other to truly live.  It had almost felt like a rebuke, an accusation directed at him alone, pointing out his weakness.

	A hatch closed over the opening that the platform conveying everyone had left in the floor, cutting off the light it let in.  For a moment, the only illumination was from the glowing lines on the platform itself, but then light began coming from rectangular panels on the walls of a large passageway that appeared to spiral downward.  The platform stopped moving strait down, and began moving along the passageway, bringing the panels into better view.  It was soon clear that the panels were moving images.

	“Hey, are these all thinkagrams?” Vinny asked.  

	“I don't think so,” Jaclyn answered, pointing.  “Look, that one looks like it's from the point of view of someone watching a conversation, not transmitting it.”

	“Ack, you're right,” Vinny conceded.  “It's more like eavesdropping with a bat.  Whoa check out that one!”  Vinny pointed to a panel in which the view was spiraling around radically, alternately showing the sky and the ground.  The view stabilized after a few moment, only to fix on a large open mouth that expanded to cover the panel with darkness.  A moment later, the panel itself winked out of existence.  “Ouch.  I've seen that before.”

	“They are each the world as some unit sees it,” Jack said definitively, his eyes darting around the dozens of panels that were visible on the walls.  “That one is from a piker rubbing his nose.” Sure enough, Jack was pointing to a panel in which there was an out-of-focus gauntlet moving at the lower edge and another clutching a spear to the right.

	As the platform continued down the the passageway, more and more panels came into view, showing images of unfamiliar units and places.  There were even some that seemed to show the world from underneath the sea.  

	“Janis!” Sizemore suddenly shouted, pointing to a panel that showed a number of casters conversing.  Garry couldn't tell which one Sizemore was referring to.  “That must be Carpool.”

	“And...Marie?” Jillian said, clearly not happy for some reason.

	“And that has to be Transylvito,” Vinny said, pointing to a panel that showed a blond haired man with a dark haired woman laying on his chest, nude other than a crimson sheet and lying in a coffin.  “No, is that Don?  What have they done to him?”

	Garry sucked in a breath.  Moving into the image (which he presumed was from a bad, given the high angle), was a lumbering unit that moved like a doll, but was unmistakably the same king of Transylvito that Garry had thinkagramed on occasion.  Or at least a shell of him.

	“Oh, dear Titans, that's Bonnie!” Lilith called out, pulling everyone's head in the other direction, to a dimly lit panel on the opposite wall.  In was a scene Garry assumed must be a view from a dwagon in Gobwin's Knob, and showed two female units.  One had short blond hair, and, at first, Garry thought she was wearing dwagon themed armor, but, on closer examination, it seemed fused to her skin.  Red dwagon wings sprouted from her back, while her hands and feet sported black claws.  From what he could tell without sound, she was screaming in pain as the other unit changed a crude bandage on her arm.

	“Who is that with her?” Jaclyn asked.

	“I think that's Duchess Vanna, Unaroyal's Turnamancer.  Or what's left of her,” Ansom commented darkly.  Like Bonnie, much of her body looked dwagon-like, but, unlike the Archon, her entire left side looked like a dwagon, while her right side remained human, with scraps of cloth covering her nakedness.  The asymmetry it gave to her face was particularly unnerving. 

	“How in the world did that happen to them?” Sizemore asked.  “I've never heard of magic that can do that.”

	“I don't know,” Ace started, “but Smod's dwagons have been doing all kinds of things they shouldn't be able to.”  Further commentary was cut off as all the panels suddenly switched to showing one particular image.

	“Um,” Jillian was first to speak.  “Isn't that us?” The view in the panels swung back and forth quickly, showing everyone on the panel standing around looking a images of themselves in the panels.

	“But, there isn't anyone there,” Jaclyn said.  Garry, who was still looking at the panels, could see her face in the image looking back toward him.  In short order, everyone was looking at the empty space on the platform that the view seem to originate from.

	Quite suddenly, a person appeared in that spot.  A very familiar person.  “Garth?” Gary asked, “What are you doing here?”

	“What does it look like I'm doing here,” the greybearded old caster grumbled.

	“Snooping?” Jack guessed.

	“Close enough, I suppose,” Garth responded, scratching his chin.  Then he lifted his head upward and shouted, “All right, you've made your point.  Why don't you come out and talk?”

	“If you insist, Ancient One,” said a woman's voice from behind Garry.  Even as he whirled toward the voice, Garry yanked his sword, Irongrip, from it's scabbard on his back and let it burst into the flame it was accustomed to doing, lighting the dark passageway with blue light.  All around him, the Faq units had drawn weapons as well.  The origin of the voice was a very tall woman (maybe taller than Garry himself) with ankle length hair wearing a floor length dress.  Disturbingly, the quick info display wasn't showing him her stats.

	“I do,” Garth answered the woman without so much as blinking.  “Who are you?”

	“You can call me Eve,” the woman smiled gently.  Her unlined face was unreadable, but it somehow projected a sense of calm reassurance.  Something about her name was Significant, but Garry didn't know how.

	“Well, that's a start,” the old man grumbled back.  No one seemed to object to Chessboard's Chief Caster taking the lead, but Jillian, Jack, and Ansom were huddled together and whispering to each other.  “Garry, put the sword away, it's ruining my vision.”

	“Oh, right,” Garry said, sheathing Irongrip.

	“And you,” he said, turning back to Eve, “Didn't really answer my question.”

	“I suppose I didn't,” she allowed.  In the dim, but more neutral light shed by the wall panels, her hair appeared to be purple.  “But a complete answer could take some time to give.”

	“I'm listening.”

	“Well, then let me welcome you all to Merkava, or, as your world has rendered it, Marecab.”

	“Our world?” Garth lifted an eyebrow.

	“Recognize these?” Eve asked, moving her foot so that it peeked out from under her dress.  The red, glittering shoe thus revealed was unmistakably an Arkentool.

	“Were did you find those?” the old man's eyes narrowed.

	“Elsewhere.”

	“Just 'elsewhere'?”  Garth asked, starting to loose patience.

	“Well, not just that,” Eve responded, “but it's as good a place to begin as any.”  All around, the panels on the walls started showing different images again.  “First you must understand that the reality that you know is not the only one that exists.  Every possibility is realized, and for each there is a world.”  It dawned on Garry that the images that were being displayed were of things that didn't happen – not the least of which were several instances of people he knew (including himself) croaking in battles he knew they had survived.  

	“Of particular note,” Eve continued, “are the many branches of realities that stem off of this one event.”  The panel images shifted to what at first seemed to be a single scene of a dark room with bright lines of light tracing out various shapes and two figures.

	“Wanda,” Jillian spoke aloud, “and Stanley?”

	Before anything else could be said, a magical effect flashed in the middle of the room, and a figure appeared.  In each panel image, however, the person that appeared was different.  Here, the conjured unit looked like a blond haired twoll; there it was a large man in plaid jacket.  Still elsewhere was a dark haired woman with glasses.  There was even a panel where five individuals appeared instead of one.  The only visual commonality Garry could see was that they were very tall units – except the single panel in which the caster collapsed and nothing at all seemed to appear.

	“A spell to summon the 'perfect warlord'” Eve went on, “in order to save Gobwin's Knob from destruction.  A great many possibilities dependent only on who exactly was summoned.”

	“And that one was you, wasn't it.”  Garth pointed at the panel in which no warlord appeared, his statement not a question.  “You brought the Arkenshoes with you and used them to escape.”

	“Very astute of you.”

	“So, where did you get the shoes?”

	“You understand that all of these summoned persons came from somewhere, correct?”  As Eve said this, the images on the panels changed.  Garry recognized some of the summoned 'warlords' that seemed to be going about their business in an environment that they seemed more suited for than Erf.  “The Arkenshoes, as you call them, were stranded in the space between worlds by someone who used them to return to her own world.”

	“You are from 'between worlds'?”  Garth asked.

	“Not originally, no,” she replied.  Again the images on the panels changed, showing something like a glowing whirlpool on a black background.  “Though the reality I originated may well be beyond your imagining.  It was one in which humanity had advanced so far as to travel to the stars and colonize thousands of worlds, each with thousands of times as many people on them as are in your entire world.”

	“That is a bit difficult to imagine, I must say,” Jack chimed in.

	Garth scowled at the Foolamancer before turning back to Eve.  “That doesn't really explain how you got 'between worlds'.”

	“It offers the necessary setting.  You see, I was created as an artificial human – the central biological plant and user interface for planetary weapon system known as 'Deus' that, in turn, was created to subdue and passivity entire worlds by infiltrating and controlling their infrastructure networks.”

	Garry didn't have a clue what she was talking about, but Garth apparently understood some of it.  “So, that display before:  that was you showing off that you have 'infiltrated' the G-string network.”

	Eve laughed, putting a hand to her mouth.  “Forgive me, but the names you give things in this world can be humorous at times.  In a word, yes.”

	“Except I've never heard of anyone less than a Titan being able to the senses of a unit that wasn't actively transmitting, let alone ones that aren't even Thinkamancy capable.”  Garth said sceptically.  “Are you placing yourself on that level?”

	“Well, like your Titans, I have played the demiurge, but I doesn't really matter what level you place me on.  Oh, and speaking of levels, this is our stop.”  As Eve spoke, a break appeared in the image panels along the inner wall of the long spiral tunnel that the platform had been following. The platform stopped in front of this space on the wall, and a large pair of doors slid apart, opening into a brightly lit chamber.  “If you would follow me...”

	The room was circular in floor plan and, like everything else in this place, enormous.  A number of people were walking around in various places, but what caught Garry's attention was the structure dominating the center of the room.

	“Look familiar,” Eve asked, directing her gaze at Garry.

	“You have a Zohar?” Garry asked.  The twenty-four 'mancy nodes and three elemental rings were arranged the same as the device in his pocket, but on an entirely different scale.  Each node was easily larger in diameter than he was tall, and the whole thing was bigger than most garrisons he had seen.

	“As it is manifest in your world,” Eve explained.  “It is a pseudo perpetual motion machine, which uses the fundamental physics of this world to bring in energy from outside.  The device you constructed is really just a slave generator, a conduit to this, the master generator.”

	“Oh.”

	“Don't be too disappointed.  I didn't create the original Zohar in my world, either.  This one is structured considerably differently than that one, and I'd like to think I've improved it some.  At least it hasn't accidentally captured any extra-dimensional intelligences yet.”

	Garth cleared his throat and folded his arms.  “I gather there is something important about that.”

	“Quite.  As I said, I was created as a component of a weapon system.  The Zohar of my world was another component, and it captured such a being.  There are a great many details, but it drove me a bit mad in an attempt to force my creators to destroy the Zohar and free it.”

	“Did they?” Garry asked?

	“No.  Again, the details are complicated, but I ended up damaged and marooned on an undeveloped world.  It took another three and a half million turns of building up a civilization of near-humans patterned after myself before the Zohar was finally destroyed and the extra-dimensional being left for the space in between worlds, taking me with it.”

	“Three and a half million turns?!” Garth exclaimed.  “Even I'm not that old.  What on Erf where you doing?”

	“Making mistakes and sabotaging myself, if you must know,” Eve said ruefully.  “But also living as many as two or three lives at a time.  Though I never did learn why it was that my creators never came looking for me, or why, in all that time, their civilization never tried to colonize the planet. I'm actually a little worried that they might have destroyed themselves.”

	“Excuse me,” Jillian interrupted.  “But this isn't exactly why we are here.”

	“Of course,” Eve allowed.  “You are here to retrieve the attuned.”

	“And Kendra,” Garry added.  Actually, it came out as almost a growl.  He hadn't realized he have been clenching his teeth.

	“All in due time,” Eve responded.  Then she turned, and raised her voice to one of the male units that seemed to be directing tasks around the Zohar.  “Cain, it's time to begin.”

	“As you wish, Mother,” the man responded, before turning to call out orders to the rest of the units.  “All Anima and Animus to your stations.  Bring the nexus pods into loading position, and begin the master engine ignition sequence.”

	A great many things started moving in the chamber, from units to enormous mechanisms.  A set of five spherical objects descended on massive mechanical arms from a large circular opening in the ceiling.  As they came to eye level, he could see three units through large windows in each sphere – a small male warlord, a dark haired female caster, and a bloated and hairless male caster.   Wanda, Stanley, and Charlie, perhaps?  He didn't know any of them by sight.  All three of them had their eyes closed as if sleeping.  

	It wasn't until he could see the Marecab units standing near the spheres that he finally had to perspective to understand that they, like Eve, were massively oversized.  In fact, Eve was probably the smallest of them: the largest had such a hulking frame that he looked like he could break a twoll over his knee.  As with Eve, he could not read their stats.

	Garry was still taking all of this in when Jillian suddenly yelled “Wanda!” and sprung into the air with a flapping of her feathery wings.  Even as Garry turned to focus on her, though, there was a flash of red flame, and she was thrown reeling to the ground.  Out of nowhere, a unit in black and red armor had appeared  in her path, as if produced by the flame.

	“Not yet, princess,” the armored unit said with a deep, reverberating voice.  “There is work yet to do.”

	“Stay back!” Vinny shouted.  “That's Grahf!”

	Garry recognized him by description: the strange skeleton-jester motif of the helmet was particularly unique.  Vinny had already warned him about this warlord that had soloed over two stacks worth of dwagons that had some pretty hefty bonuses from Stanley and his Arkenhammer, but, as with Eve and the others, the quick info display didn't show his stats.  Garry's weirdo senses, on the other hand, gave him the feeling that Grahf was very well protected against spells.  Meanwhile, Ansom had stepped between Grahf and Jillian, hand on his sword, while Vinny struck a fighting stance in the air.  Garry tensed for a fight, but didn't really like the way this looked.

	“Right, I get it,” Jillian said, picking herself up off the ground, “I forgot.  Trying to go the very easy way means getting the very hard way.”

	“What do you mean?” Ansom asked.

	“What I mean is that this whole thing has been scripted Fate.  I didn't really want to believe it, but if we try to break the script, we get punished for it.”

	“It's not quite as bad as that,” Garth put in.  “Though I don't know that I've ever seen a Fate this tightly constrained.”

	“Who's Fate?” Ansom asked.

	“All of yours,of course,” Eve interjected.

	“All of ours?” Garry asked.  He looked over at Jillian, who was frowning.

	“Maybe not down to every word we are saying,” Garth said, “but it's obnoxiously close.”

	Eve visibly shrugged.  “This is important, and it was better than giving some other Fate space to intervene.”

	“Wait,” Jillian said, “You are saying you set this Fate?  You can do that?”

	“You shouldn't be so surprised,” Eve responded.  “I imagine that, before you became a Predictamancer, you thought that Predictamancy was actually about predicting the future.”

	“Wait, it's not?” Vinny asked.

	“Not in the least,” Eve said.  “It's about reading Fate.  Of course, with how the physics of your world work, it can look a great deal like predicting the future, particularly on time scales shorter than the causality lag.”  Jillian looked a bit stricken.  “Likewise, all classes of magic have secrets that their practitioners don't speak of.  Or lie outright about.”

	“Yes, yes, I know well enough that Carnymancy isn't really about breaking rules,” Garth said dismissively. “Suffice to say that you are laying claim to an extraordinary amount of power, and we have to play this your way.”

	“Don't be too put out.  I've arranged things such that you will all leave here safe and sound with everyone you wanted to bring back with you.  I just have a task for the strapping young man over there first.”  

	Garry realized that she meant him.  “And Kendra?”

	“You are fated to return safely home with her, but you must understand that I can't have you trying to run off before we are finished.  I'm sorry it has to be this way, but my hand was forced.”  

	Garry was not quite sure what she meant by that.  “Okay, then lets get this over with.”

	Eve nodded.  “If you are ready, step into the pod.”

	A empty sphere like the ones that held Wanda, Stanley, and what he assumed to be Charlie, descended to ground level in front of Garry.  He took a breath, looking around.  Eve was moving toward the last of the “pods”, which was at least somewhat reasuring.  He also noticed that the other units in the room (excepting Grahf), had moved onto elevated platforms around the Zohar in pairs.  Male and female pairs, to be exact, and the platforms were spaced regularly.  A quick count told him that there were twelve such pairs, twenty-four units in total.  He paused just a moment before stepping into the pod, and could just make out the streams of magic connecting each unit to one of the nodes of the Zohar.  Even the Retcon node was connected – to the blond heared man Eve had called Cain.   Garry swallowed hard and stepped in.  The pod sealed up behind him, and lifted off the ground.  

	“Lord Garry,” Eve's disembodied voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, “Can you here me?”

	“I can.”  Garry had to brace himself a bit as the pod began moving sideways toward the Zohar.

	“Good.  I need you to place the orb on the pedestal in the middle of the pod.”

	Garry frowned with irritation, but braced himself and popped the Arkenorb off of Irongrip.  The huge sword, no longer made conveniently weightless by the orb, exerted it full staggering weight on his back.  Garry placed the orb on the pedestal, and then fished in his pocket for his Zohar – no, what did she call it?  Slave engine?  Fortunately, Garry had been curious enough to try this earlier.  Placing the slave engine on the pommel in place of the orb didn't quite make Irongrip weightless, but it did make the weight more manageable.

	“Are you ready?” Eve's voice asked.  Outside the pod, the energy surrounding the Zohar master unit was densifying, and started to produce an audible hum.

	“Yes.”

	“Good.  Place your hand on the orb and connect with it fully.”  The sound of the Zohar was pulsing louder and louder, while the energy surrounding it began to produce visible light.

	“What am I supposed to do?”

	“Nothing complicated.  Just focus on what you think your world should be like.”

	Garry almost didn't hear the last response.  The noise of the Zohar was so loud that he could feel the vibrations in his feet, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut against the glaring light.  Strange and alien images were pushing on his mind through the Arkenorb, and, grasping for something to keep them out, Garry focused his thoughts on Kendra.  How they met, the first time she kissed him, and … the first time she had taken her tunic off for him: the memories helped ward off the encroaching pressure.

	And then, suddenly, it was over.  The sound quieted, and the light faded.  A glowing rectangle appeared in front of him pronouncing “Welcome to Erfworld 3.0!” in bright lettering.  Garry brushed the message aside, only to see pedestal suddenly extend through the ceiling of the pod, taking the orb with it.

	“Hey, what are you doing?!”  Garry shouted to the walls of the pod, but got no response.  Instead, the pod began moving.  He pounded his fist on the window, but it was facing away from where Garth and the rest had been standing, and the Marecab units barely spared him a glance as they went about their tasks.  The pod moved around the Zohar with maddening slowness, almost to the point that Garry wanted to see if he could force the door open with Dollamancy.  

	Eventually, though, his starting point came back into view, and two new units were standing with the rest of the group he came in with.  One was a tall golden haired woman that looked a great deal like Eve.  The second was Kendra. When the pod settled to the ground and the door open, she nearly flung herself into his arms as he rushed to her.  For a long time, all he did was buy his face in the crook of her neck, the smell of her hair filling his nose.  Kendra had just pulled back a bit to give him a big kiss when he became aware of an argument going on behind him.

	“Wait, what's going on?” Kendra asked, squirming out of his arms.  Garry turned around, spotting Jillian and Ansom loudly talking over each other in Eve's direction, while Grahf imposed himself between Eve and the two.  A rather confused looking Wanda stood nearby, and Stanley was climbing out of his pod while Charlie's descended toward the floor.

	The shouting match between Jillian and Ansom was resolved by the former stomping on the latter's foot.  “What have you done?!” Jillian shouted at Eve.

	“Merely improved your world, as I set out to do,” Eve responded.  He smile faded a bit.

	“This says that cities are going to stop popping units,” Jillian shouted back.  “You've destroyed the world!”

	Eve sighed.  “You should read further.  That doesn't mean that new units won't be produced, they just aren't going to pop in cities.”

	“Then what is going to produce them?”  Jillian asked through gritted teeth.

	“Why, your are.”

	Jillian looked uncertain.  “How are we supposed to do that.”

	“In my time here,” Eve started, “I have noticed that the mechanism that allows you to understand speech results in a rather interesting phenomena: you suddenly understand a word and it's meaning the first time you hear it.  So, tell me, have you heard the word 'pregnancy' before?”

	Garry was entirely familiar with the phenomena.  Every Erfworlder was.  But if previous occurrences had hit him like a tap on his nose, this one hit him like a warhamer.  He was literally dazed by the stream of ancillary words and definitions that followed.  Birth, children, aging.  What the flip?

	“You, you have got to be joking,” Jillian said, her face twisted into a broken looking smile.  “There is no way...”

	“I've improved upon the process, particularly for humanoids,” Eve continued.  “Humans in this world were just as inadequately evolved for childbirth as natural humans were in my world, and really, it's silly for sentient beings to not be in conscious control of-”

	Whatever Eve was going to say was cut off by an explosion, followed by rapid popping sounds that Garry instantly knew came from the weapons the Charlescomm Archon Lilith had been carrying (Signamancy again?).  Heads turned to the pod Charlie had been in, and the Archon screaming obscenities in front of it as she fired her weapon into the smoking door. A loud “clang” caused Garry to whip his head back to see Grahf literally catch Jillians great-sword in one armored hand while twisting to kick an advancing Ansom in the face.  The result of Vinny's flying kick at Grahf was, in turn, lost behind a curtain of Shockmancy as the golden-haired woman used some kind of telescoping rod to repel a bolt of lightning that Garth had hurled at Eve.

	The sudden melee would normally have caught Garry totally off guard and wondering what was even happening, let alone what to do.  But today, in this one instant, Garry simply acted without thought, moving as if directed by the Titans.  Or Fate.  He pulled Irongrip off of his back, spinning it into a thrusting position as he cast a Weirdomancy spell that triggered the magic on the scroll in his pouch.  The sword burst into white flame (which was new), and Garry channeled the magic of the scroll into the blade as he leaped toward Eve.  With everything going on, the single open path to her was right in front of him.  Powered by the slave engine, the sword pierced through a protective force field Eve had thrown up around herself, and, as the tip of the sword pierced her flesh, the scroll spell discharged into her. 

	For a moment, it was as if time stopped.  Garry's eyes tracked up to Eve's face, unexpectedly finding her smiling proudly at him.  Then her entire body seemed to implode on itself, vanishing out of existence.  Garry stumbled forward, Irongrip thrusting down into the floor just in time to intercept another burst of Shockmancy from Garth.  Fortunately, the blade grounded the spell without taking damage, but it was uncomfortably close to his hands.

	“Garry, don't do that!” Garry heard Garth yell.  

	“Um, sorry?”  Strangely, the golden-haired woman was no longer standing between Garry and his Chief Caster.
	
	“Where did they go?” Vinny asked as Ansom helped him up off the ground.  It wasn't just Grahf and the golden-haired woman that had vanished with Eve.  Looking around, all of the Marecab units were gone.  Sizemore, Ace, and Jaclyn had moved over to the general area of Charlie's pod, while Jillian had taken to the air for some reason.  Jack was wandering around the Zohar.

	“Garry,” Kendra asked from behind Garry, “what did you do?”

	Garry put Irongrip away.  “I cast the spell scroll that you got from Charlescomm.”

	“When did you get a scroll from Charlie?” Garth asked.

	“When we sent them flowers,” Kendra responded.  “And, technically, it was from Charlie's heir, not Charlie.”

	“What did it do?” Garth asked suspiciously.

	“As far as I can tell,” Garry said, “it was supposed to cancel a summoning spell, and cut the ties that hold the summoned on Erf.”

	“Why is Elly, uh, and everyone else, gone?” Kendra asked.

	Garth blew out a breath.  “That almost has to mean that they were somehow part of the same unit.  However that's possible.  If a spell like that sent them somewhere else, then they couldn't have been popped here.”

	“Well, the Zohar is still here,” Garry said.

	Suddenly, Jillian started cursing and kicking at something overhead.  “Titans disbanded son of an uncroaked sourmander!  They're gone!”

	“Well, crap,” Garth deadpanned.  “Eve must have taken them with her.”

	“Taken what?” Garry asked.

	“The Arkentools,” Garth responded.  “They all got moved up there after you performed that casting.”

	A chill ran down Garry's spine.  “You're saying the Arkentools are no longer on Erf?”

	“I doubt they are coming back, either.”

	Garry refrained from cursing.  Instead, he looked over to those clustered around Charlie's pod.  Jaclyn was trying to talk to Lilith, who was struggling with something inside the pod, while Sizemore and Ace looked on.  After a few moments, Lilith managed to haul out what she was holding a toss it to the floor.  At first, Garry didn't understand what he was seeing.

	“It's a disbanded doll!” Lilith shouted.  “Where is that bloated freak, so I can show him what it's like to be screwed with.”  Garry realized that what she had thrown to the floor was the top half of a doll that had been crafted to look like a living unit.  There were a number of holes in it, and large chunks blasted away, showing the underlying doll form.

	“That man is gone.” an unfamiliar female voice said from behind Garry.  Kendra squeaked and grabbed his arm. He turned to face the origin of the new voice, and found a normal sized female unit.  She had long green hair down to her waist, and was wearing a tattered dress with a long scarf around her neck.   There was something odd about her, though – her hair and clothing didn't drape quite right, and almost seemed to move on there own.  Something was wrong with her stats, too – they seemed to flicker in the quick info display, almost like it couldn't decide which unit to display information on.

	“Titans, Jack,” Ansom growled at the Foolamancer.  “That's four times today that a veiled unit has dropped in on us, and you haven't warned us once!”

	“I think you misunderstand, my lord,” Jack responded.  “None of them were veiled.  Garth transformed out of some form too small to see, Eve simply moved to the platform in a single step, presumably using the Arkenshoes, Grahf moved through some kind of instant portal, and this young lady rose from the floor like some kind of animated fluid.”  Everyone just kind of stared at Jack for a moment.  “What?”

	“If you are done,” the green haired woman said without emotion, “please leave.”

	“Who are you?” Garry asked.

	“I am Emerald,” she responded.  “I am the army of Marecab.  Please leave.”  As she spoke, things started coming out of the walls of the chamber, some mechanical, some more like living units.  All of it looked threatening. 

	“Where is Charlie?” Lilith demanded.

	“Mother assimilated his essence and took him with her.  You will never see him again.”

	“Flipping A,” Lilith yelled, kicking the broken Charlie doll.  “After everything he's done, he escapes into some kind of Titanhood?”

	“Irrelevant,” Emerald responded.  “Mother instructed me to let you leave after she was gone.  If you do not do so willingly, I will resort to force.”

	“Wait,” Garry requested.  “You are the Caster that took Carpool, aren't you?  Did you really solo their capital?”

	Emerald showed emotion for the first time, turning her face away from him.  “That was a mistake.  I did not know the rules.  I captured the ruler and heir with the intent to change them into allies.  I did not know that they would be judged as 'turned', or that their soldiers would die.”  Garry flinched a little at the last word.

	“Why did you build the wall?” Garry asked.  Actually he wasn't sure she had, but it was worth trying.

	“To protect them, and hide that they had been taken by Marecab.”  Emerald seemed ashamed of it, but, either way, it confirmed that he was dealing with a being of extreme power, regardless of how she looked.  “Please leave.”

	“Okay, we're going,” Garry said, holding his hands up.  “We'll just go back to the platform, return to the surface, and leave.  Right everyone?”

	“Whatever,” Lilith grumbled, but drifted toward the door.

	“We have what we came for,” Jillian said, landing near Wanda and Stanley.  “Or as much of it as we are going to get.  I'm tired of this place already.”

	“You will explain what on Erf just happened, correct?”  Wanda stated more than asked.

	“What she said,” Stanley concurred.

	“Yeah, yeah, lets move.”

	Garry held Kendra's hand as they followed Garth to the platform.  Lilith ignored the platform and flew up the spiral passageway.  Ace and Sizemore were the last to step back on the platform, which immediately started moving back the way it came.  

	Garth motioned Garry over and whispered to him, “Don't trust everything Eve said.  She was definitely lying about some of that.”

	“What do you mean?”

	“Take that little theater about pregnancy.  I could see on all of your faces that you understood what it meant.”

	“We shouldn't have?”

	“I've done the same thing hundreds of times, and never gotten that reaction.  She changed something to make you understand.”

	“Wait, you knew about it before she said it?”

	“Of course I did.  I've done it before.  I'm older than popping, don't you know.”

	“What?!” Garry raised his voice too loud, momentarily drawing the gaze of the Faq units.

	“I'll explain later.  Suffice to say that this is more of returning things to what they were than starting something new.  Mostly, anyway.  Have Poly explain it to you when you get back to Chessboard.  She's from the generation before the 'Original 99 sides', and her sister was the mother of the man that founded the royal side that Chessboard came from.  Meanwhile, I need to get a hold of some of those Charlescomm weapons.  I had no idea Charlie was hiding something like that.”  With that, Garth pulled up his menu and started reading through the new features, leaving Garry and Kendra to hold each other for a bit.

	Shortly, the platform returned to the room with the odd statue.  Kendra looked at the thing excitedly.  “Ooh, ooh! Is that supposed to be us?”

	“You think that looks like us?” Garry asked incredulously.

	“Not literally, you bruit,” she responded.  “Metaphorically.  How we depend on each other.”

	“More than you know,” Garth grumbled, looking up from his reading.  “I should have known that was a warning when I first laid eyes on it.”

	“Warning of what?” Garry asked.

	“Just between you and me,” Garth said quietly, “you two probably want to get out of here before any of them figure out just what you have done to them.  To all of us, really.”

	“I don't understand.  Do you mean something more than this new...er, old way of popping units.”

	“Quite,” the old man responded.  “According to this, all of us are like you and Kendra now.  I think I can see a few ways of getting around it, but for the most part, nobody is going to be physically capable of knocking boots together until they sign a contract like yours, and even then it will only be pairs of one male and one female unit.  Add that to the fact that that is the only way new units are going to get produced, and that it will take a good 7000 turns to get someone that can actually fight...”

	Garry felt the blood drain from his face.  Actually, he knew a great many very influential people who may well be out for his life.  This was very much not good.  “Okay, we are leaving.  Right now.”  

	“How?”  Kendra asked.

	“That,” Garry said, pointing to his Action Figure as he ordered it to move to them.  As part of his deal for helping Faq, they had let him build one of his own to be a Chessboard unit.

	“Wait a second,” Garth was mumbling, “That can't be right.  How can I still be married to Audrey?  Croaking is supposed to end the contract...”

	“Um Garth, are you okay?” Garry asked as he helped Kendra up onto the Action Figure's hand.

	“Yes, yes.  Get going you two.  I just have something to sort out.  Though you might tell Din I have a few questions for him.”

	“If you say so.”  Garry had the Figure raise Kendra and himself up to their seats, and then helped Kendra buckle herself in.

	“So, what is this?” Kendra asked as he go the Figure out of the chamber and into the air.  “Some kind of flying golem.”

	“It's something that Faq's Dollamancer thought up,” Garry said.  “Hold on, your seat is going to move when it changes configuration.”

	“Woah,” Kendra breathed as the Figure changed it's shape and her seat rotated to keep her upright.

	“I know, right?”  Garry had the Figure accelerate slowly as he gave it directions.  It looked like they were still above the Core-Em reef, so he more or less knew where Chessboard was from here.  “We should be able to make it home by turns end. ”

	“By the end of the turn?  Are you sure?”

	“Mostly sure.  Assuming we don't get lost.  These things are pretty amazing, but I think Nick and Din could improve on them a lot.  We aren't even up to speed yet.”


Ch. 32
	
	Night was falling as Gabe Real, Warlord and Archie of Faq, touched down on the platform outside of Ace Hardware's shop and walked inside. Moving past the Dollamancy assistants doing maintenance on Action Figures, he made his way toward the interior door.

	“Physically making bigger ammunition isn't really the problem,” Dirtamancer Sizemore was saying to Dollamancer Ace as he handled a strange “L” shaped metal accessory.  “It's not much more than lead ingot and nitrated cellulose inside of a brass casing.  The problem is that the burn time and chamber pressure won't work out right.  If we just try to scale one of these up to something the Action Figures can use, we could blow the gun up the first time we try to fire it.”

	“Are you sure?” Ace said, clearly crestfallen.  “I mean, it certainly punch some nasty holes in that Charlie doll.  If we could arm the Figures with a scaled version, or, better yet, something like the carbine she was carrying, they could make short work of those dwagons.”

	“Carbine?  Is that what that two-handed weapon was called?”

	“Yeah.  I didn't get a chance to hold it, but just touching it was enough to give me a fair amount of information about it, just like the handgun.”

	“Well,” Sizemore said, setting the accessory down, “It's something you and I can work on, it's just that it could be a while before we get useful results.  Oh, hello, Archie Gabe.”

	Gabe stopped to salute as approached the two.  “Good day, Lord Rockwell, Lord Hardware.”

	“Hey, Ace, are you sure about this?” Lord Stanley interrupted, walking out of an equipment room sporting a conical helmet with horns and a spear. 

	“Absolutely,” Ace responded.  “The helmet enhances your Shockmancy, now that you are a caster.  The spear is pretty much a standard magical weapon, but I thought you would feel most comfortable with it considering you were a piker.”

	Stanley looked skeptical.  “Well, okay.  But it doesn't rock.”

	“Rock?”

	“Yeah, Rock.  My hammer really rocked,” Stanley said, holding the spear close to the head in one hand while moving his other against the haft.

	“Oh,” Ace said, blinking a few times.  “I...don't know how to do that.  We might need a Rhyme-o-mancer.”

	“Actually,” Sizemore said.  “I can probably help with that.”

	“Wait, you rock?” Stanley asked, surprised.

	“I've been known to pick a song or two,” Sizemore said somewhat bashfully.

	“Well, okay then,” Stanley said.  “By the way, do you guys know were I could hunt up a wabbit?  I've got a sudden craving for hasenpfeffer.”

	Moving out of the shop and into the hall, Gave nearly ran into Chief Warlord Ansom.  

	“Oh, Gabe, just who I was looking for,” Ansome said, “I don't suppose you could tell me where Jillian is, could you?”

	“Sorry, my lord,” Gabe responded tersely.  “I really couldn't say.”

	“I feel like she has been avoiding me since Marecab.”

	“I'm afraid the Queen has taken the issue of contracts personally, my lord.  I'm sure she will find you when she is ready to talk about it.”

	Ansom frowned.  “I was hoping that we could talk it out together.”

	“Give it time, sir.”

	“If you say so,” Ansom sighed.  “At any rate, as you were, Archie.”  

	As Ansom marched off down the hall, Gabe moved to the stairs and glided down it, stopping at the landing on the floor below.  He paused there to allow Lady Firebaugh and Lord Doombats to pass in front of him.

	“You are saying that the decrypted were not effected by the last rule change?” Wanda asked Vinny.

	“Yeah.  We can't enter into one of those contracts, but we can still fool around with each other all we want.  The Skanks have been kind of enthusiastic about checking.  We just can't pop new units,” Vinny responded.

	“Interesting.  Particularly considering that the non-speaking units don't need a contract to 'reproduce'”

	“I guess so.  You know, I never even knew that non-speaking units could be 'hes' and 'shes'...”  Gabe lost the rest of the conversation as the two turned a corner.

	Gabe moved down the hall in the other direction, through the tower and to his private quarters.  Inside, Sara Sophia was waiting for him, sitting on his austere cot with her wings resting behind her.  Gabe locked the door behind him and sat down next to her, carefully laying is right wing over hers.

	“So,” Sophia began, “how is the Queen?”

	Gabe considered.  “I'd say she is down to just being 'miffed', but she is still pouting on the roof of the tower.  She has taken this whole thing as an insult against her personally, and doesn't know what to do without someone to avenge the insult on.”

	Sophia sighed. “I suppose that's the best we could expect, considering her nature.  Did you tell her about us?”

	Gabe nodded.  “You know, she was actually surprised when I told her that we Archies and Saras had not been capable of such activities until this last change.  She seemed to think we were all just stand-offish prudes.”

	“To be fair, how often did any of us survive until nightfall before Jitterati fell?”

	“Point.  Before the fourth rule change, an Archie or Sara that saw a sunset was an underutilized resource.  At any rate, I'm sure it gave her something to think about.  Maybe enough to bring her out of this funk.  She sends her congratulations, by the way.”

	“Did she really?”

	“Actually, no, she didn't.  She assumed that you and I had contracted each other as an example for the rest of the Archies and Saras.”

	“How self sacrificing of us.  I suppose that would make sense,  though,” Sophia allowed.  “After all, you are the eldest Archie, and mine was the first stack of Saras.  But it was more than that, right?” She asked, looking up at him.

	“Of course!” Gabe responded automatically, covering her hand with his own.  “You alone have been with me since the day after I popped.  There is no one I trust more.”  He was gratified to see her blush.

	“Even so,” Sofia said, bringing up a menu window with her free hand, “some of this process of producing new units is fairly daunting.  You and I are barely a hundred-turn old, and, from the time we invoke that clause, it will be 280 turns until he or she is … what was the word?  Oh, yes, 'born'.  That's over four times as long as popping a royal heir.”

	“As hard as that is to imagine, keep in mind that it is supposed to be another 6000 turns at least before a unit is as 'mature' as we were when popped,” Gabe said, shaking his head.  “The implications for the pace of war on Erf are staggering to say the least.”

	“For some reason,” Sofia said, leaning into him, “I'd rather not think about that.”

	Gabe rested his cheek on the top of her head and simply enjoyed the sensation for a long moment.  Everything about being contracted to Sophia had been new, amazing, and so far quite pleasant.  Eventually, though, he noticed that she was still viewing something on her window.  “What are you looking at?” he asked.

	Sophia chuckled quietly.  “I'm actually not sure.  How familiar are you with scripture?”

	“Scripture?  I don't think I've so much as laid eyes on any.”  Gave was not a particularly religious man.  “My fist loyalty has always been to the Queen, and, through her, Faq itself.”

	“Yes, yes,” Sophia said fairly dismissively, “but this is a bit different.  Early on, I read through Cannon, Fannon, and Retcon just to get an idea of what might motivate the leadership of other sides.  Did you know that the menu system stores the text of any book you touch?”

	“Really?”  

	“Yes, really.  Go run your hand along the library bookshelf and see what I mean.”

	“Sounds handy, if you are into that kind of thing.”

	Sophia elbowed Gabe in the ribs.  “Anyway, I've also been looking through the various descriptions and explanations that came with the menu, and I noticed that there are a number of ways that it seems to reference or mimic passages from Scripture.”

	“That seems kind of odd.  That text should probably have been written by that Eve woman that the Queen encountered in Marecab.  If she was an outsider, why would she bother doing that?”

	“I don't know.  The passages on both ends tend to relate to how units should behave toward each other, and why. I'm beginning to suspect that it is some kind of code.”

	Gabe frowned.  “If there is a hidden meaning to it, then being the first to discover it might give us an advantage in this new Erf.”

	Sophia nodded.  “That was just what I was thinking.”

	“We should probably organize a concerted effort among the troops first thing tomorrow.”

	Sophia made an affirmative sound, still flipping though pages on her window.  Gabe caught her hand and manipulated it to close the window.  “I've got a better idea for how we should spend the night, though.”


Epilogue 

Omega->Alpha: [initiating connection]
Alpha->Omega: [connection received] 
Alpha->Omega: [awaiting confirmation]
Omega->Alpha: [sending confirmation] 
Omega->Alpha: [...] 
Alpha->Omega: [confirmation accepted]  
Alpha->Omega: [report status]
Omega->Alpha: [Scenario completed successfully]
Omega->Alpha: [Indigenous population adapting within predicted parameters to paradigm shift]
Omega->Alpha: [No evidence of OOP artifacts]
Omega->Alpha: [advise]
Alpha->Omega: [OOP artifacts secured]
Alpha->Omega: [Expat assimilated and contained]
Alpha->Omega: [maintain surveillance]
Alpha->Omega: [maintain channel]
Alpha->Omega: [continue report in detail]
Omega->Alpha: [acknowledged]





	

 

Comments

    • falcore51

      I think that was a great way to end it, I enjoyed it.

      • Lerianis

        Liked the story until that insane "Sign an agreement before knocking boots!" nonsense. No, just no. That is an infringement on the rights of people to have sex with who they want, when they want, as long as the other person is willing.

        One man one woman is NOT the best nor only way to raise a family in the real world and never should be considering that life is so changeable and chaotic that hieing yourself to one person for life is.... well, stupid to the point of moronic being the right word for it.

        • Count_to_10

          Thank you for reading.

          • Malvaro

            Wonderfull story!! Mixing Erfworld with the Begariad and Xenogears was great. I enjoyed the story very much.

             

            Thank you for writing it.