Previous Chapters:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

 

“Wait. You’re saying this hand is Crow Magnon’s hand?” Rip felt a little sick. He had been wearing his ruler as a bauble.

 

Elle clasped the Hand of Glory between her fingertips. “I can sense his presence. He’s alive, and not too far away.”

 

“You can tell all that just by touching this thing?”

 

“All that and more,” said Elle. “It’s as though a string connects the hand directly to Magnon. This string vibrates in tune with his Erf and Fate and I can glean impressions from those vibrations.”

 

“Do you know where he is?”

 

“Not exactly. Somewhere that way-ish,” she said while gesturing northwest. “But with this, I can cast a hot-or-not spell to track Magnon down. I think we could reach him in a turn or two.”

 

Rip was stunned. “How could he even be alive? Did he enter stasis like we did? And why was Lucy wearing his hand?”

 

Elle shrugged apologetically. “I wish I could tell you. A lookamancer could probably scry his location right now, but all I can give you is his vague direction.”

 

“That’s away from our cities,” said Rip. “If we went after Magnon, we’d be leaving the army without leadership and magic. They can’t hold out against Tannenball and Glover by themselves.”

 

“We don’t know if they can hold out against them even with us.” Elle pointed back at Casino Royal. “Whatever that was back there, we can’t stop it. They have the power to neutralize the dwagons. Without them, you mostly just have basic infantry.”

 

“You think we should search for him?”

 

She nodded. “You found something that had been lost for thousands of turns. Other people entered that cave, but only you noticed the secret passage. That’s no coincidence. It’s natural findamancy. You were meant to find Magnon’s hand for a reason. If not to rescue him, then what?”

 

Rip felt a strange battle within him, a fight between Loyalty and Duty. Loyalty demanded that he prioritize Magnon, and follow his ancient rescue order. However, Rip no longer had a Duty to Magnon. They were not on the same side. Now his responsibility was to protect the side of Delorean and help it thrive.

 

Even if Rip did find King Crow and rescue him, where would they go? If Delorean fell and the army was slain, then Rip would have nothing to offer but a perilous existence as a barbarian. Magnon had survived for 120,00 turns, surely he could last a few more. Perhaps it was both loyal and dutiful to secure Delorean first, so he could present Magnon with cities to rule. To rule…

 

“King Magnon was level 12,” said Rip. “Level 12. If we rescue him, he could take my place as ruler and chief warlord.”

 

Elle whistled. “Wow, with his bonus…”

 

“Yeah. We could whip Tannenball and Glover. Assuming we get back in time, before they reach Delorean and seize the treasury.”

 

“I’ll cast the tracking spell,” said Elle. “But there’s something we should do first.”

 

“What?”

 

Elle pointed at a dwagon a fair distance away. Chief warlord Griff of Tannenball wriggled in its talons. “Blindfold Griff. He’s been spying on us. They have a thinkamancer.”

 

---

 

Biff’s face had a tomato-like hue. He gripped the armrests of his throne while he stared at Lorraine.

 

“I can’t see them anymore. They’ve covered Griff’s eyes,” she said calmly. No fear. No defiance. That placid demeanor was itself meant as an insult after a betrayal this obvious.

 

Danny jogged into the throne room. “Where are the Deloreans now? Are they still in the next hex?”

 

“Yes, thanks to you,” growled Biff. “You should have croaked their ruler when you had the chance.”

 

The warlord couldn’t argue with that, but he wasn’t going to apologize to Biff.

 

“However, most of the blame falls on another,” said Biff. He stood up and walked to Lorraine, then slapped her across the face. The blow was hard enough to make the thinkamancer stumble.

 

Danny clenched his hands into fists. “Leave her alone.”

 

“Don’t worry, this traitor is safe for now,” said Biff. “Later she’ll face punishment, but less than she deserves. She’s fortunate that Tannenball needs her.” He gently lifted Lorraine’s chin with a finger. “And that I love her.”

 

“What are your orders, sire,” said Lorrain. Her words were flat and emotionless.

 

“We need a new source of intel,” said Biff. “Heal the prisoner and prepare him for interrogation.”

 

---

 

Mac Fly dreamt of falling. There was no light, no sound, just the feel of air rushing by, the lurch of inertia on his stomach. It was a dream of pain and darkness.

 

“Clooney! Laurie! Dempsey! Kelley!” The woman’s voice felt like warm sunlight, washing away his agony, mending his broken body.

 

The knight stirred in his half-sleep. “Hmm. I had a horrible dream… I had been frozen in time for thousands of turns and it was the future.”

 

“Well, you’re back in the present now,” said Lorraine. “Here in good old Casino Royal.”

 

“Casino Royal!” Mac awoke with a start and tried to sit up. Handcuffs on his wrists prevented him rising. He was in a torch-lit dungeon cell, strapped to a wooden cot with a thin layer of straw under his back.

 

A caster stood above him, the gray tube of a spent healing scroll in her hands. Her eyes were somber and sympathetic.

 

“I’m sorry about what’s going to happen to you,” said Lorraine. “I truly am.”

 

“Torture me all you want! I’ll never talk about Delorean our capital city in the Brown mountains…” Mac shut his mouth firmly. “What did you do to me?”

 

“A rambling enchantment, to loosen your tongue,” Lorraine said apologetically. “It’s for your own benefit, in part. The sooner you speak, the sooner it’ll be over.”

 

She moved aside. King Biff entered the cell, tapping his royal scepter against one palm. It was a golden rod ending in an immense jewel-encrusted B. The scepter was flashy and expensive, but it was also heavy and very thick.

 

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way…” said Biff with a smile.

 

The scepter swung down with a grisly thud.

 

“…The easy way.”

 

---

 

The Deloreans camped for the night in midair, hovering next to a lake hex a short distance northwest of Casino Royal. Rip had considered flying over the lake itself, to gain protection from land units, but decided against it. If Glover’s straightjackets attacked on their turn, he’d rather fall onto land again than drown.

 

It turns out that he needn’t have worried. The enemy did not pursue after the dwagons, giving them a much needed evening of peace. Instead Tannenball forces had started moving eastward, towards Strickland, Delorean’s nearest level 1 city. Delorean had a good number of scouts planted in the hexes surrounding their cities, and they were able to transmit basic intel to Rip through natural thinkamancy. The enemy would attack Strickland next turn, and certainly reconquer it.

 

The knights all slept in their saddles, but as ruler Rip enjoyed special privileges. Four dwagons had clumped together to support a bamboo mat that had been unrolled and tied to each beast. A large burgundy tent had been erected on this mobile platform, containing bedrolls for Rip and Elle. The room was cheerily lit by a powerball the findamancer had summoned with the last of her juice.

 

It illuminated a map pinned to the cloth wall, a large scroll of hex paper Rip had filled in with known battlespace data. “Strickland’s a lost cause, but we can make Tannenball pay for it,” said Rip. “We have to make each city cost them as much as possible, so it slows their march towards Delorean and buys us time.”

 

Elle sensed an unspoken “but” somewhere in Rip’s explanation. “But what?”

 

“I’ll need to sacrifice a lot of our own units, to cost them more.” He pointed at the gray hex that represented Strickland. “I could just leave a garrison of golems. Mindless units. But if I pair a few squads of golems with a couple hundred archers, then you get the synergy between heavies and ranged.”

 

“But you don’t want to order people to their deaths.”

 

Rip snorted. “Does that make me weak? A warlord who shies away from war. Who hesitates to let units fulfill their purpose.”

 

“War is the way of Erfworld, but it’s not the only way,” said Elle. “In the Magic Kingdom we have no war. No bloodshed. People can simply… be. There’s no shame in valuing life over death.”

 

“The Magic Kingdom sounds wonderful. Why did you leave?”

 

“Well…” Elle bit her lip. “Sometimes living just isn’t enough.”

 

“I wish we could just be,” said Rip. “I wish rations popped in the morning, no matter what we did. Instead, I must earn our upkeep by fulfilling my duty. No matter how hard.”

 

“You’re going to sacrifice them.”

 

Rip nodded slowly, then crawled into his sleeping bag. “Let’s get some sleep. It’ll be a long turn tomorrow.”

 

Elle extinguished the powerball.

 

---

 

Biff was packing for a trip, his first journey from the capital in hundreds of turns. Despite the danger he couldn’t help but be excited. The ruler of a side was both potentate and prisoner, with absolute power over a kingdom they rarely saw. Lorraine’s magic could let him see through his units’ eyes, get glimpses of far off cities and distant hexes, but it wasn’t the same as being there in person.

 

Back in his days of being a barbarian, Biff had enjoyed the thrill of exploration. The adventure of razing an unsuspecting city or pillaging a natural ally tribe. Life was more uncertain before he found the almanac, but perhaps a little more fun. Now his actions were planned, constrained, preordained.

 

How rare it was for the almanac to let him do anything himself. For it to advise him to lead a battle in person was unprecedented.

 

To win the war and claim their prize

Tannenball’s king must take to the skies

Divide and conquer, peace by piece

Go forth and lead until war’s cease

This dance of dwagons will not be complete

Until Biff and Delorean’s ruler meet

 

It was a ridiculous risk, and yet perfectly safe. If the Gaze Almanac told Biff to go to battle, it would be safer on the front lines than barricaded in his bedroom at Casino Royal. Fate was on his side, and fate always had its way.

 

The intel he’d pried out of Mac Fly was both alarming and intriguing. Delorean had a much larger army than just their dwagons, but no warlords beyond their low level ruler. Their cities were all level 1, except for their level 2 capital. Without leadership the enemy might be weak enough for Biff to croak a few himself. That would be a real treat. It had been ages since he had faced an enemy in actual combat.

 

What to bring? Servants awaited next to rows of open beckoning suitcases, lined up on the floor of his dressing room. Armor of course, both battle and ceremonial. After they conquered their capital he would need something gilded and bejeweled for the victory feast in Delorean’s castle.

 

---

 

King George liked being insane. He was mad, not foolish, and knew that his sanity was lacking. Being insane was a blessing and a choice.

 

Danny hated having a lunatic ruler, and repeatedly tried to convince George to fix his broken mind through hat magic. Many turns ago, the king and chief had struck a bargain. George would craft two hats, a thinking cap and a mad cap, that they would wear for a single turn. George would temporarily become sane, and Danny would go insane, so they could see which state of mind was superior.

 

Neither man enjoyed the experience. Danny spent his turn splashing in fountains, proudly proclaiming that he was a fish. Meanwhile George wept and grieved for Lorraine, the woman he sold to buy his side’s survival. Madness numbed his guilt, and in the harsh clarity of sanity George could only feel endless pain. What he deserved to feel.

 

After the turn was over George burned the thinking cap, and sank back into blissful lunacy. In madness he had peace. Not only that, in madness he had brilliance. There is a certain kind of insight only the insane possess, a chaotic path of illogic thoughts may travel to the truth.

 

For instance, George knew that Tannenball and Glover were doomed. He had known it since Biff told him the almanac’s prophecy.

 

If Biff stands hand in Glove

And George forgets his stolen love

Together they’ll prevail over all

Otherwise both sides shall fall

 

George had laughed when he heard that prediction, because it was an excellent joke at his expense. Forget his stolen love? Never. He couldn’t forget Lorraine if he tried, and oh how he had tried. Fate was mocking him, announcing the end of Tannenball and Glover both.

 

However, he wasn’t going to fret. All sides fall in due time, sooner or later. Perhaps Delorean would be their downfall tomorrow. Perhaps Glover still had thousands turns. No matter. The titans had promised him a gift. Tannenball would perish too. George would have his revenge on Biff, and he could gain it by helping Biff until fate destroyed them both. It made perfect sense, to a madman.

 

When Biff thinkagrammed his plan to lead the assault on Strickland in person, George had waited until the chat ended before leaping from his throne and dancing a jig. Fate was positioning the pieces, getting Biff in place for his comeuppance. If their destructions were intertwined, it wouldn’t do to be late for the show. George would join Biff and fight by his side.

 

He mentally summoned down an odd duck from the night sky. The mount smashed through one of the throne room’s ten stained glass windows, a large arch depicting a finger. Shards that were once the glass finger’s skin and nail rained onto the floor.

 

Before George climbed on the backwards bird, his duty nudged him. It wouldn’t do to enter battle without an heir to take over for him, in case he perished. Sure, fate was going to destroy Glover eventually. But George didn’t have to make fate’s job easy.

 

Who to promote to heir? Danny was the logical choice, but he would also be at the battle, also in danger. It had to be someone safe in the capital. Besides, Danny was dreadfully boring. His mind was completely intact. No, Glover needed a nut. A ruler with the erratic special. George unfortunately was not erratic, which he felt always held back his craziness from achieving its maximum potential.

 

“Hey! Anyone in the hall?” he shouted.

 

A piker rushed into the throne room, a lowly level 1 unit. Despite his weak stats he had a fearsome clown signamncy, with paper white skin and bright green hair. And he was erratic. “Yes sire?” asked the piker dutifully.

 

“What’s your name?” asked George.

 

“Jack, sire.”

 

“Good news Jack, you are hereby promoted to warlord,” said George beneficently. “And also, you are promoted from warlord to heir of Glover.”

 

Jack’s eyes widened as he upgraded to a level 1 warlord heir. “Me sire? Why? I’m nobody! I’m just some joker!”

 

“Don’t worry, you’ll do great!” said George as he hopped onto the odd duck. He soared out through the broken window, flying towards Strickland.

 

At the hex boundary he had to brake quickly. Right, it was nighttime. No move yet. He had forgotten about move in his enthusiasm. Being insane had its drawbacks sometimes.

 

----

 

When dawn arrived Elle refreshed her hot-or-not spell, and the dwagons continued flying northwest after Magnon.

 

As they flew, Rip mentally sent out orders to his distant golems and archers, ordering them to fortify Strickland and prepare for assault this turn. It was a judicious application of force, sacrificing just enough units to hurt the enemy without throwing away more lives than necessary. Natural ruler thinkamancy didn’t allow true communication like a thinkagram, but Rip tried to impart his gratitude and regret into the orders.

 

After about two dozen hexes of flight the landscaped changed, turning into tundra and then into glaciers. The land sloped upwards towards a massive snowcapped mountain that spanned over multiple hexes. Those mountain hexes were also blizzard storm hexes, perpetually wreathed in howling winds and stinging ice.

 

Elle gripped the Hand of Glory tightly, sensing the trail. “He’s on the mountain.”

 

The dwagons couldn’t fly there. Not unless Rip wanted to have his remaining air force frozen and blown out of the sky.

 

Rip stared at the forbidding peak, barely visible through the billowing snow. “We’ll go on foot.”

 

---

 

The mountain path was hard to find. Fortunately, they had a findamancer.

 

It was a narrow trail, steep and rocky, covered with a treacherous sheen of ice. It coiled up the side of the mountain, weaving between boulders, sidling past cliffs and chasms. It would take forever for an army to ascend, so Rip had limited himself to two stacks of bodyguards, leaving the rest of the air force behind. Eight knights walked in front of Rip and Elle, eights knights behind. They climbed the mountain single file, careful not to slip and plummet to an icy doom.

 

Rip had never been cold before this turn. They weren’t equipped with cold weather gear, nothing beyond jackets and cloaks. Simply walking in the blizzard was slowly draining their hp.

 

At dawn Rip’s raggedly cut stubble had healed into a neatly trimmed beard. That hair was now encrusted with frost and dripping icicles. He was pretty sure he had frostbite in several toes and fingers. The armored knights were coated with snow and looked like a troop of sluggish snow golems. Elle was faring a little better, thanks to a yellow poncho and pair of red rubber boots she had scrounged out of her backpack. However, those were waterproof, not warm, and she shivered in her rain gear. Ahead of the climbers floated a small powerball, showing them the path whenever it was covered by snow. The tiny yellow orb flickered with Elle’s faltering concentration.

 

Finally, when Rip thought they could go no further, they reached the top of the mountain, but it wasn’t a peak. It was a rim. They had been climbing a dormant volcano, and the mountain’s central hex was a huge caldera, a deep bowl sloping downward.

 

They stumbled through the hex boundary, and instantly became warm. The caldera hex had a clear blue sky and a balmy climate. Ahead of them, the rocky slope leveled out into a large and verdant forest. Grass and trees thrived in the rich volcanic soil, and had filled the center of the volcano with life.

 

Snow quickly melted off their bodies as the Deloreans wandered down into the forest. They passed by bubbling geothermal pools, surrounded by beds of tiny blue wildflowers. Steam wafted through the old growth woods, nourishing a thick layer of moss. In the underbrush, Rip spotted skulking deer and rabbits.

 

The trail from the volcano rim wove through the trees and fields, and eventually led to a thatched cottage by a stream. It was a small building, one story high, made of spliced wood, with square windows and green shutters. A small vegetable garden was planted outside, with cabbages and other leafy plants in neat rows. Rip glanced at Elle, and she pointed at the cottage’s thick oak door.

 

Wordlessly, Rip willed a stack of his knights to surround the house, and stealthily try to peek inside. Before they had taken more than a step, something jumped onto Rip’s helmet, knocking it over his eyes. Rip flailed blindly at his head, trying to grab whatever it was. The creature screeched as its sharp little fingers and toes dug into Rip’s neck and shoulders.

 

His knights were panicking. “Croak it!” “We can’t, we’ll hit the viceroy!” “Grab it then!”

 

Four knights collided into Rip simultaneously, and they all tumbled down in a heap. As he fell, he felt the creature leap off to safety. Rip stood up while removing his helmet, and saw a circle of knights with their swords aimed at Elle. No, not at Elle. At the small blue monkey that was clutching onto her ankle protectively. It was a weird little animal, with a single large cyclopean eye in the center of its forehead.

 

“I think it’s all right,” said Elle. “It seems friendly.”

 

The cottage door creaked open. “He likes your boots.” A wizened old man hobbled out on a cane, a tiny shrunken figure that stood shorter than Rip’s shoulder. The cottage dweller’s face was a maze of wrinkles, and his flowing hair was brittle and gray.

 

He was only wearing two pieces of clothing. A brown wool robe tied with a rope belt, and a cloak of black feathers.

 

Rip stared at the elderly hermit. “Sire?”

 

Crow Magnon eyed the bedraggled half-frozen visitors. “How about some tea?”

 

Blast From The Past - Part 9

 

 

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