Post details: Chapter 100 - The European Civil War (1152-1157)Flip the order!
Chapter 100 - The European Civil War (1152-1157)
The war was pretty terrible. It wasn't at all like the fun wars the King had fought throughout his awesome life. The enemies in this war were not birds or foreigners or Chaotic Evil Spaniards or undead or totally out to get him – these were like real people you could otherwise hang out with or make love to or meet with a party.
It pranged even the hardest of the King's hearts most smartingly whenever he had to put their villages to the sword, whenever he had have their houses burned, their fields salted, their ladies raped, their dogs smashed and not one of their stones left standing atop each other, because every one of those people were worth knowing, all of their villages were fun places with interesting museums and nice restaurants, their fields were full of delicious food that their classy ladies could whip up for you, their dogs were cute and well-behaved and didn't leave that gross dog smell on your hands if you so much as brushed against them and even their stones were pretty and often well carved. It just didn't feel right.
And so the King – both of him – did his best to keep the warring factions of Europe from ever meeting. This was difficult, as whenever one King brought his faction anywhere near a town or city, roughly half of the population would leave their homes and join in arms against the rival faction. They would disregard all bonds of family, all oaths of duty, bringing only the clothes on their back and the most offensive weapon that lay in their path from their home to his army. His forces swelled, the King would then remove his army from the area of the town his presence had halved, being careful to avoid any confrontation. This was the cleanest way he could operate. Bloodshed was rare, but some defectors were dragged back into their forsaken homes to pay for their treachery. The King learned, after a few botched rescue attempts, that his mere presence amongst so many Europeans at once would raise the bloodshed to a bloodbath or even a bloodelephant, which is an elephant made of blood.
With half of the town added to his faction, the King would take his forces out towards the next town and the process would repeat. Presently, the town he had just left would be visited by his other self and the remaining half would fasten itself to that horde. So long as one King kept ahead of the other King, conflict could be avoided, but the logistics of constantly missing each other were difficult to maintain.
The King was, as I'm sure you know by now, the smartest guy in the world. It stands to reason that he could therefore outthink any cat or kitten who matched wits with him. The problem was that now he was matching wits with himself and both sides were aiming to be outwitted. Whenever the King had to decide where he should move his faction next, he had to appreciate that the other King running around out there would be able to figure out exactly what his choice would be, so then he'd have to resolve to go somewhere unexpected – to the last place he would possibly think of going, but then had to be mindful that his other self hadn't gone to that exact same place because he wanted to be sure he'd miss a collision. The options left to him in the middle of the bell curve were always a gamble and that meant that he had to pit his brilliant luck against an opponent who was just as lucky. Remaining where he was and trusting that his other self would reach the same conclusion was right out too, as his horde was so large that it quickly exhausted any and all food reserves in any area they passed through. All that partying had really wrecked the agriculture.
It was hard to figure out, but if the King wasn't up to it then it wouldn't make sense that he was so popular now, wouldn't it? And so he managed to successfully in-maneuver his other self well enough that they danced their factions around each other without major incident for a year. These were the good days of the war. Europe's resources and infrastructure was being systematically ground away by abandonment and the wandering strip-mine that the factions represented, but dissent within the ranks was low, the King's Euro-magic was at a high enough ebb to prevent those in his horde from being uncool to each other and the winter that year was mild. That may have been a nice thing for Winter to do, but don't think for a second that the King had forgotten all the other terrible stuff that Winter pulled just on all the other years. Both Kings celebrated Christmas and New Year with their factions, and everyone let the holiday season make them just a little bit sad that they hated the other half of the country so badly. The last of the booze got drunk and the year that followed promised nothing.
Soon the Kings found that when they came across a town or city that neither of them had visited since the war began, it was more often than not beset by a tiny civil war of its own. The luxury of being non-confrontational was over. Instead of letting one half of the town come to him and leaving the other half be, that remaining half had to be pacified from their terrible rage. They would not surrender, they would not negotiate. Sometime they could be escaped but sometimes they held siege weaponry, powerful magic items and mighty heroes and could not be ignored. The King tried to put them down gently, but the zeal of his faction was impossible to soften. After a victory – and he was always victorious – he would have a sturdy prison built for the survivors, stocked with as much food as he could spare, in the hope that his other self would shortly be along to collect those he had not slaughtered. It was a meagre hope, and many good Europeans starved or dashed themselves to pieces against the walls of the prisons. Every night the King cried tears that were so heavy that they fell right through the ground. If you had the Hearing Of The Wolf, you could hear them hiss as they vaporised against the metal of the Holy Grail at the centre of the Earth. Then would come the only thing that could stop tears like that. The phone rang. It was General Majesty but he was just holding the phone because there was someone else who would like to talk to the King.
“Hiya Dad,” said David. He'd made it. He'd had adventures, sure, but Glowfist and Rigor Mantis had seen him and his sister safe all the way to the Chillinous Plains.
No matter how dark and murderous the Civil War became, there was always something to look forward to. Every night, a phone call from the children. They didn't often have much news to report or interesting things to say, but they were everything, they were the Future. The war seemed small and inconsequential so long as they were all right.
In the third month of the second year, one of the Kings had a critical failure of luck. It doesn't matter which King – the rocket-handed or the extendo-handed – was the one who failed, the result would have been identical either way. What happened was that the Kings were travelling through Greece towards Constantinople – one of the few great European cities that had not been visited by their hordes. On the official List of Awesome Places that had been decided by the Big Important Council Of Europe many years ago, Constantinople ranked 3rd, right under Brussels (1) and Jerusalem (2). And even though the King was Europe and the Big Important Council was supposed to enact his will and feelings across his Kingdom, the King secretly thought that the List was wrong and that Constantinople should at least be number two. He had spent a good deal of time there in his younger years – he would pass through it whenever he was to venture East on his half-year travels with Father Dominoes and he used it as his main save point during his journey across India. Constantinople, as a concept, was how the whole of Europe would be as soon as the King got his desk cleared and really got things organised. It was against the law to be hungry in Constantinople and works of art had to be above a certain threshold of beauty or they would magically crumble into piles of dust that would spell out the words 'TRY HARDER.' The beach was always perfect and no citizen would willingly litter or build a house anywhere near it even if you paid them to do so. It never got dark or spooky because the Greek Fire lit every home, alleyway and fabulous casino. The King knew why the Big Important Council had got the city figured so wrong. It was one of the few times that their love of the King had clouded their judgement and since the King lived in Brussels then Brussels had to automatically be the best place in Europe. Also, there were politics involved. There was the Mirror.
Both Kings, on their separate paths to Constantinople, had received word from their respective scouts that the other faction was marching not very far from their location. This was okay – it was a pretty regular thing to happen. The King reckoned that the best thing to do would be to cut and run - his other self could check on Constantinople and do his best to quell any conflict he would find there. Once the coast was clear, he could take his own faction over to pick over what was left and make whatever arrangements would be necessary.
The problem was that the incredibly, ridiculously improbable occurred and both Kings made a paltry Luck roll at the same time. Both of them decided to turn away from Constantinople and choose the least predictable place to hide. He changed course at Edime, marched his faction down to Enez, picking up half of the citizens along the way, then, once he'd built the customary prison to house the remnants of the other half of the citizens he's encountered along the way, set his massive faction to work to build enough ships to sail them down to Atlantis, where they narrowly avoided a terrible naval battle, over to Paphos Harbour in Cyprus, where he crammed all of his followers into the majestic tombs there. He knew that the tombs were safe because he'd cleared out all the mummies and zombies back when he'd been a boy. How difficult it was back then to kill even a single mummy! Mummies were nothing to the King these days. But the tombs were not safe, you see. Shortly before the King had piled his faction into the necropolis, the other King, unhampered by the near-miss down at Atlantis, had done exactly the same thing. Roughly a third of the population of Europe was now sealed up like sardines at the bottom of a coal mine. One half of everyone there had a deep, bestial, irrational hatred of the other half. Everyone was armed. 'Bloodelephant' doesn't even begin to describe what happened down there. Try 'bloodsuperfreighter' or 'bloodPacificTrashVortex' or, if you're feeling literal, 'bloodTombOfTheKings.' Each King escaped from that tomb with about a dozen men left in their faction. They stared at each other absolutely bewildered, their hearts rapping out a symphony of horror, not a single thought in their heads that was not as saturated in blood as they were. Jacob Hillmounter emerged – his higher-than-average hit points had protected him in the tomb – joined his favourite King and was followed soon after by Timothy Clashradish. The former comrades broke the stare and added to the bewilderment by immediately shouting at each other.
“Get him, Your Highness! End this now, crush his trusted lieutenant and you can be whole again!” said Jacob Hillmounter.
“Quickly, Your Highness – their faction will be worthless without their military mastermind! Destroy them with one strike of your mighty hand!” insisted Timothy Clashradish.
The Kings fled in opposite directions, with their trusted lieutenants and military masterminds bleating after them.
One of them ended up at the walls of Constantinople. It had been many months, but he still could not quite get all the blood out of his beard and hair. He had picked up a few hundred additions to his tiny faction along the way. He had not given his followers much heed on the journey. He said little, ate nothing and cried even as he slept. What happened there at the walls was unusual for this period in history. The gates were not opened to allow half of the population of the great city to join him, followed by the remaining half trying to kill them. Nor did he find just half of the city occupied by only those who were friendly to his cause. Instead, his motley rabble was ignored, then interrogated, then shot at a bit, before the King had to scream. The scream knocked down a portion of the wall and gained a lot of attention from the city's elders. The King was greeted, with a look of conspicuously-hidden pity, by Brother Kinetic of the Mandatory Order, who had been a close childhood friend. They hugged and the King wept even harder than ever.
His followers were put up on couches among the citizens and the King stayed in the Sancta Sophia itself, where Brother Kinetic could keep an eye on him. He was left more or less alone for a week to recover and was fed only the holy milk they kept as a relic – milk that had spontaneously lactated from the breast of the King's great great grandfather during a very tense poker game with the Shadow Puppets. But when his sobs threatened to crack the great dome of the basilica, Brother Kinetic took him for a walk through the House Of Flowers and into the city.
“It is so peaceful,” mumbled the King. It was the first bit of sense that had been heard from him in days.
“We have not had the troubles that we have heard about again and again from across the rest of the Kingdom,” croaked Brother Kinetic. His voice was all coughs and whistles. He was possibly the oldest person in Europe. He had hung out with the King's grandfather and been an on-again, off-again Adventure Friend for almost a thousand years. He wasn't much of a fighter or a particularly skilled magician, but he sure was up on his Lore and he was an expert charioteer. If you needed a driver who could outrun and outfox any pursuer in the past epoch, Kinetic was your man. Apparently he used to be able to turn into an elephant but he hadn't done that for years and years.
“There isn't any more fighting amongst us than usual,” the ancient holy man went on, “The merchant guilds are keeping what they call a peace amongst themselves and even the hooligan horse-racing gangs aren't kicking up too much of a fuss, Your Highness. We're holding steady.” The King looked at him insistently. Brother Kinetic smiled at him through a sideways glance. “And the Mirror is safe, of course. You'd be seeing a very different view right now if it wasn't, believe me.”
“It's you, isn't it, Brother. Your magic is keeping civilisation together here in the East. You were buds with my grandfather, you were my father's godfather, you've been there the whole time. You must be an endless reservoir of -” whispered the King. He was getting excited. Brother Kinetic cut him off with a raised, quavering hand.
“Only so much of that a man can hold, lad. Only so much a land can hold, for that matter. No. Remember the nature of this city. We're not entirely European out here, are we?” he said. The King fell silent. “No,” he continued, “We're all out of Euro-magic, Your Highness. And all I do to contribute to our stability these days is read the same two dozen romance novels again and again. But we've got more than enough of another kind of magic leaking out of our Mirror. Without it, we'd be as beasts.” The King bowed his head and nodded gently as he walked. Presently, the weeping started up again.
He took his faction and traveled back to the West. He didn't know particularly where he was going but he went there anyway.
It got worse. Most of the city-states across Italy had burned themselves to the ground before he got there. The scattered survivors in the hills would join with him if he passed by them. They would crash his encampment in the night looking for food and attention. He never had enough of either to spare.
Some cities and town were outright hostile to his faction, having slain their brothers, wives and children who would have been friendly to its approach. When he was close enough to hear their cries, he found they were unwavering calls of love and support to his Royal head, promised that the sender of the cries would soon liberate him from the unholy jailers who were holding him hostage. He screamed an explanation, he sent message after message in any number of media, but they didn't understand. They had lost the capacity to keep a society together.
Sometimes, running was not an option. His people needed food and rest and medicine. They needed fresh water and clothes and a place to shelter for the winter. There were often more people in his travelling faction than there were in the town that was antagonising it. Sometimes a King had to consider the good of the many over the good of the few.
And when the homes had been burned, the weapons wrested from the people's grasp, the good plundered and the ringleaders put to death, the King would walk through his stolen city and try not to hear the whispers and pleadings of the survivors, which almost always went like this: “There's the King, our King, I sent him a birthday card last year. I made it myself. Why doesn't he help us? Why doesn't he put a stop to this?”
The food ran out. Hardly anyone across Europe had grown anything since the party had began on the King's return. Every settlement above a certain population had torn itself apart and was at siege with itself. Trade was a distant memory. One particular trading partner had a longer memory than others.
“Hope you don't mind if I help myself to a little soup,” said the Angel Cowboy when he appeared in the King's camp one morning. He already had a steaming bowl in one hand as he walked and was carefully slurping from a spoon without getting any in his moustache. “Haven't had a bite all morning and I'd hate to get disagreeable on you at a time like this.”
“How did you find me?” asked the King flatly. He wasn't shocked but he was curious.
“Oh, that's Sidewinder's department. I didn't bother him for the details much, but I understand that there aren't a lot of people of the magical type left round here. What's left tends to light up like fireworks and once we found out where the Hell gates were, well, but let's not get into that boring old jibberjabber, let's have us a powwow, how about it?”
“We broke our trade treaty because we're fighting a Civil War,” said the King without flavour. The Angel Cowboy did not look up from his soup, though the King's eyes were set to Super-Piercing.
“So I gather, so I gather. Canoes came up to Brussels with a healthy dose of merchandise on their backs and there wasn't nobody to come and take it off our hands. That sends up a red flag. Canoes come back to the States, words get exchanged, scouting expedition gets sent over to find someone who'll be so good as to tell us what's going on, they don't come back, suddenly there are red flags further than the eye can see. That's when I get called away from our little project in the Chillinous Plains, have all sorts of words with all sorts of people, and get put on a canoe bound here so's I can sit with you right now over a bowl of this very fine soup, my compliments to the chef.” The bowl was finished now. The Angel Cowboy put it down and looked at the King, matching Pierce for Pierce. “Course, you know well as I that the contract you signed had a special clause for States of Emergency and, since Europe out there don't look exactly like it does on the brochures, I think I'm right in my assessment that this is one of those States. So relax, we're still in business, nothing broken and nothing needs fixing.” He stood up and doffed his hat. He looked like he was going to turn to go, but then looked back at the King and said, “Your children are fine, since you're asking. Princess is, well she's Princess. And David was about as good a help at the construction of Fort Majesty as you could hope a boy to be. Hell, he's practically a young man now. It's the sweetest thing, says he speaks to his daddy every day. Don't kids say the funniest things sometimes?” And then he really did leave the King's tent. The King rose and gingerly grabbed his arm before he could exit.
“If you knew about the Magic Telephone, why did you come all the way out here to see me personally?” hissed the King. The Angel Cowboy smiled and looked friendly.
“Your Highness, you know me. I'm the old fashioned type. Like to do these things face-to-face. Besides,” he said, brushing off the King's wooden hand and stepping outside. “I had something to show you.”
It was impossible. There is no way he could have brought so much -stuff- up here without any of his scouts and lookouts noticing.
“That's the four years worth of backlogged trade we owe. You can go through the records, it's all there. Now you've got fifty years to get back on your feet before we want back what you owe us. Sound reasonable to you? And don't worry about the perishables and breakages in shipping caused by this little lapse here, we'll write that off, just clean off the record.” The Angel Cowboy's slaves were stacking up mountains of boxes on the King's faction's doorstep. Food, supplies, beasts of burden, luxuries, building material – enough to keep the whole of Europe awash in foreign goods for four whole years. “And we'll keep it coming,” cheered the Angel Cowboy. “Yessir, no matter where you are, we'll make sure you're not without your delivery here. Remember, you've only got to pay us back in fifty years time, plus interest of course, and oh, here's your special shipment you ordered,” he said, walking towards one particularly pile of more carefully stacked crates of a different colour and material. He stood by them and smiled again. “You'll want to be careful with those. Might want to get a guard to watch them.”
“What special shipment?” asked the King. He smelled danger. The Angel Cowboy made a good show of looking confused. “Well, the weapons you asked for. High-premium stuff. Ain't nobody else in the world right now with weapons like these.” He produced his little finger-dirty folder from his carryall, rifled through a few leaves of paper and produced from it a document that he held up for the King to get a look at.
“That is not my signature. What's a 'chocolate?'” said the King. The Angel Cowboy brought the paper over to his own face, frowned, and squinted at it.
“Transpires that it aint. Looks like your daughter's signature to me. Princess Princess.” He handed it back over to the King, who saw then that it was exactly as the Angel Cowboy had described. The King worked up the breath to say something but the Angel Cowboy, quick as a flash, freed another paper from his folder and held it up for the King's inspection. It was a photocopy from the Book Of European Law. The King could only wonder how this man had procured it. “Happened to have this on me, and it seems to say that in the event of wartime, a King's firstborn has the power of treaty if he is away on battle. At the time, as I recall, my nation was at war with your nation and you were bravely bouncing around on people's heads while riding a demon horse.” The King didn't need to read it. He knew European Law. It had been his bedtime story for eight years when growing up. “You wouldn't break a European Law would you, Your Highness?” said the Angel Cowboy as his smile slipped and the King got a good look at the man he was inside. He put the papers back in their place and then the smile and easy manner had returned. “You're at war, Your Highness. You've got a lot of people who need protecting every day for the next who-knows-when. You're getting these weapons of ours for sweetheart rates – that's the deal. All you need to do in return is to ask your men to fill out some surveys after they've used them so we can know how well they've turned out. Trust me, you're not going to find anything like this on any battlefield in the world. You've got the edge now, no doubt about it. And there's something else you're getting in the deal, too – we're giving you a detachment of the brightest graduates from of Shaman School, fully-trained healers, the cream of the crop. You won't have any problems with the health of your boys any longer.”
The King looked up at the unseemly tower of hardware that was accumulating in his camp. He saw the contingent of United Statesian healers appear, on cue, from behind a hill of supplies. He thought he saw a glimmer of Hope.
“You haven't … spoken to anyone else about this, honoured Cowboy?” said the King to the Angel Cowboy.
“Who else would there be to speak to, Your Highness?” said the Angel Cowboy without looking up from his papers. He then closed his folder, slapped the King on the back and went to busy himself with some important part of the offloading, leaving the King to stare at his new riches.
If he could maintain a stronghold, if he could reliably expand the walls of his faction again and again, unchallenged by wonderful new weaponry, he could start Europe all over again. Once the server was reset and the Euro-magic came back, Europe could be powerful enough to finally take on the Kingdom of Sharing. They could eradicate the Ire Lords. Winter wouldn't know what had hit it – Fort Majesty was still there, all the pieces were in place... All he needed to do was to hold out just a little bit longer. To keep it together. To keep being the King.
That is what he was best at in all the world.
The two factions began to look very different in the fifth year. One was the Faction of the Rocket Hand, with Timothy Clashradish as its High Prefect. The Rockets were based in Salzburg, rooted to the spot, behind impenetrable walls and a wide network of guard towers. The King held court in the Cathedral, resplendent in llama skins and gold leaf, bearing Cutty, that legendary old fusspot of a sword. They had sowed seed in their fields and the harvest promised to be decent, and till then there were supply top-ups from the United States every six months or so. Conditions were cramped and crowded and there was serious talk of extending the walls all the way out to Grödig. Raiding parties were coming in with more and more survivors and half-feral wanderers and they needed more space and food and protection than there was to go around.
Then there was the Faction of the Extendo Hand, with Jacob Hillmounter as its Chief Hunter. They roamed the wastes of Viking Europe, assimilating all that they came across, lashing every resource they could find onto their hardened procession of fleabitten vagabonds. The King was always at the head of the march, bring down game and enemies with telescopic punches and sharing out every scrap before he would get so much as a bite. They avoided population centres and kept their numbers low. When they swelled too large, they would thin their populace out by appropriating old Viking ships and sending their strongest out towards the Chillinous Plains and the completed Fort Majesty. They would be safe there under the watchful hand of kind Colonel Glowfist, powerful General Majesty, wise Mechanicus and deadly Rigor Mantis – icons of a world that seemed to have disappeared forever. They carried messages for the King's son and daughter and salted meat for the journey.
Those Europeans who had never met either the Extendo Faction or the Rocket Faction had degenerated into tribal groups led around in circles by the remaining heroes and the matured boys-with-a-destiny. They tried to be good and honourable but they had trouble respecting and keeping to old codes like marriage, law, justice, dinner parties, economics and religion. They forgot the rule of the King's Father in Heaven, they looked for food only when they were hungry and they would only share with their closest kin. Besides from hunger and the more mundane misfortunes, they were preyed upon by indistinguishable groups led by villains, bosses and enemies who would have, in better times, provided fine sport for any enterprising adventurers hoping to get a quest or two under their belts before retirement. The exception was the proud city of Jerusalem, which stayed aloft in a sea of darkness thanks to the iron will and good charm of it's Mayor, Michael. But more on Jerusalem later. The group we should really be focusing on right now is the Forest People.
Logging had not been practised across Europe in any major capacity ever since the party ended and the tridecimation of the population had put a serious drop in the levels of hunting going on. It's amazing what a sturdy biome can do when given a gap to fill, especially if it is organised. The forests and woodlands of Europe, once regimented and ordered so carefully, leapt out like a cat on a spring and ran, ever so slowly, over the ruined and abandoned villages, the scorched farmlands, the empty abbeys, the disputed badlands. Every sort of non-human, non-magical creature and plant flourished and multiplied. By their patterns, it seemed like some sort of mind was behind it, even though the Green Gods had long since been rounded up by the Devil and put to work doing something useful in Hell. This was a different sort of power. This was not magic. This was industry.
Axe Axewound had seen his calling in the wild and, as soon as his legs and spine had fused themselves into a modicum of usage, had hobbled towards it at maximum speed. Gone now were his responsibilities to the world of men. Gone were his complicated issues with his family, the pressure of being worthy to the King, the complexities of a werewolf / lady romance. At nights, he would have visions of the future. He was a prophet, one of fur and claw and blood. He would take up his rightful place as King of the Beasts and provide a future for the wilderness in the dark times that were approaching. His visions had stopped as soon as he had left Father Dominoes' mission and this had taken the wind out of his sails a little bit, but by that time he was up to his neck in jubilant animal friends and obedient wildlife so it would have been awkward to have gone back right there and then.
The main problem with the wild, really, he thought as he sat on his mossy throne in the heart of the woods outside Brussels, was that it was just too wild. It was messy and unpredictable. Squirrels would bury acorns and then sometimes forget about them and sometimes oak trees would grow. How about if the squirrels were fed a set quota every day and were trained to bury acorns – in a specific area - but never dig them up? If you did that with a hundred squirrels you could plant a hundred trees a day. Didn't have to be acorns, either. And all those creatures that eat squirrels, well they'd have to be fed every day so that they didn't muck up the plantations. Or you could keep them in a different area. It was quite fun when you started to think about it. He came up with hundreds of simple plans and mechanisms that all fit into each other to create a forest-growing machine. The creatures of the forest liked being told what to do by a formidable predator, the trees appreciated any sort of attention and everyone got to benefit from the expansion of the habitat.
This kept Axe Axewound cheerfully employed for the best part of four years. He missed the King, sure, and he felt bad for running out on Astrid Gimmerleck, and he really wished sometimes that he'd spent a few weeks longer under the healing of Father Dominoes, for his mobility and movement was very badly restricted by his injuries. But he could indulge any other lust or hunger that stirred and still have plenty of time for his dayjob of expanding the forests. He created corridors of growth that linked previously isolated outcrops, enforced strict quotas on predation, instituted an excellent distribution programme to ensure that population growth of one species did not swamp another, bred some remarkable new kinds of creeper, moss and mushroom, fathered about a gazillion werekids and ate a whole deer and change every day. Things were going really smoothly until, one day, a flock of goats appeared in the forest near his ever-moving headquarters. A day later, the prophecies came back to him.
They started off small, just like they had been before. He dreamt that a voice told him he'd find a rare sort of beetle in his leftover deer carcass. The next night, he was told he'd narrowly avoid being crushed by a falling tree. It turned out that the tree, when it did fall, missed him by a mile, but still! There were discoveries of strange chunks of metal embedded in moss banks, the return of a cub of his who had been lost weeks ago, a partial solar eclipse he dreamt of a full week before it happened, a snake that appeared in his favourite log and so on and so forth. It was hard to get his animal friends to appreciate the magnitude of these things. They couldn't quite get a grasp on the idea of the future or why it would necessarily be different from today. He tried to explain it to them in terms of weather.
“It's terrible being caught out in the rain, isn't it?” he said to an assembly of beasts at breakfast.
“I hate it, I like being dry,” said one wolf.
“I like it when there's sun,” said a cricket.
“The rain can flood our burrows and drown up to eighty percent of the eggs,” said an ant colony. “This is unacceptable.”
“So imagine if you knew the rain was coming and you could stop it from happening, or go somewhere that was dry instead,” he said.
“But the rain is not here,” said the wolf carefully.
“It does not sound like rain is going to be here today,” said the cricket.
“Atmospheric conditions are not optimal,” said the ant colony.
“Yes, that much is given, it's not raining now, but what if you knew for sure that it will rain tomorrow?” Axe tried. His audience took this in.
“It is not raining,” said the wolf. That was as far as he could get them. It didn't matter much, really, since they did exactly what he asked of them without even wanting to know why it was he was asking them to do so. This was frustrating, as the human side of him, very much still active, wanted to be understood and sympathised with, but it also made the execution of big, complicated projects somewhat easier. And that was fortunate, because one heck of a big prophecy rattled into Axe's skullpan one night and you can bet that it demanded a lot of complicated action.
In his dream, he was told of rampant raiders – villains and feral slaves, who would beset the southern arm of his forest kingdom and destroy every green and living thing to be found there. They were filthy and treacherous and would not even make anything useful or cool with the resources that the forest represented, they would just smash it all into splinters, grind it into paste, trample it underfoot and move on. This was why the future-sight had returned to him. This was the point of his gift. This was why the King's Father had spared him from death back during his solo adventure. To fail to act would be to spit in the face of Destiny. Everything was building up to this point, life was no longer an inconceivable puzzle where the pieces are constantly shifting from invisible to graspable to simply absent. He, the nameless King of the Greenwood, who in a former life had been Axe Axewound, would stop this from happening. With a word, his magnificent flaming axe was once again in his hand. He wouldn't actually use it for another few days but it helped him to focus.
The dream had offered him hints at a solution and he had taken the advice under the most serious consideration. There was a settlement of dark magicians and demons in the former city of Salzburg. If he could force the raiders' attentions to the city rather than his forest, he could wait for them to dash themselves against the walls and then tear the survivors apart with his fanged legions. The same strategy could work even if they succeeded in taking the city. He had some time and he set his forest-subjects to work accordingly.
The march of the Faction of the Extendo Hand halted as soon as the King's expert senses detected that there was a present for him somewhere nearby. The King could tell if you had a gift for him even if you had it hidden behind your back or way at the bottom of your cupboard. This made him very difficult to deal with at Christmastime because he would get overexcited and wouldn't sit still. He told Jacob that they would be altering their course away from the forest to investigate the present. Jacob was sure that it was a trap. The King wasn't bothered. There wasn't a trap that could be set that could do him a significant amount of damage these days and his saving rolls were so luxurious that it wasn't likely that he would suffer any damage in the first place. He would unwrap the present personally. He was the King, after all.
Turns out that they didn't even need the King's super-senses because the delicious smell of delicately roasted meat caught the wind perfectly before they got anywhere near the package. I say 'package,' but it was more of a hut, with walls of hide and horn, packed full of meat. Pork, stuffed quail, venison, wild berries, crunchy crackling, flame-roasted tubers – not to mention all the useful leathers and crafted bones that made up the box it came in. The King took a bite out of everything and found no traps at all. Everyone in the faction got a small portion of meat and their spirits were greatly lifted. Perhaps there were allies out there. Perhaps the rest of the country wasn't an enemy after all? The hope in their hearts was a more substantial thing than the meat in their bellies.
“Everything is going to be okay,” said Jacob Hillmounter to the King after dinner. He was always happiest after meals.
The next day, the King's senses once again predicted a wonderful odour that led them to another present, this one even bigger than the last.
“Ho! At this rate we'll all be jolly fatties!” yelled the King and he wolfed down a suckling pig. Everyone could have new clothes thanks to the leather they'd accumulated. Shoes were especially welcome. The life of the Extendo Faction was one of endless walking, walking, walking. They all had calves like tractor wheels!
For two weeks, the King and his faction followed the trail of scrumptious packages across the rough German country, down south towards the lost city of Salzburg. They could tell, even at a distance, that the city was occupied and hardly lost at all. There was a truly massive present waiting for them not so far from the city walls.
“These are our benefactors?” mused the King to his Chief Hunter. “They may join us or they may be possessed of up to 90% cunning and malice. Wait here and I shall inspect this latest gift,” he said and then he did. Great, bounding steps he took. Distance was stupid to steps like that. He pulled enormously at the big bow that the present was wrapped in and the wrappings crashed away all about him. Inside were more wasps and snakes than had ever been seen in one place. They immediately attacked the King, having no respect for rightful authority nor sympathy for one who has been sorely punk'd. Their cruel stings and envenomed bites took off scores of the King's hitpoints and though the King had scores more, he was soon under real threat from the hail of artillery that soon after came forth from the city walls. He ran back to Jacob Hillmounter, waiting by his faction's militia. He trailed wasps and serpents all the way back over that distance his massive bounds had carried him.
“Bring out the special weapons! Wasps! Wasps! They have made a fool of their King!” he managed before screaming for fifteen consecutive minutes. This killed the majority of the wasps and snakes but the shame remained.
It was in this manner that the two Kings learned that they had both been sold incredibly powerful and dangerous weapons by the Smith Dynasty and that it only took a few discharges of an Anthrax Cannon or a Mustard Howitzer to all but wipe out an opposing force. Fortunately, they both had healers on hand who were very quick to treat the simply horrific wounds and conditions that these weapons brought about, and who were very keen on asking a lot of questions and filling out a lot of paperwork while they worked with their patients. They never did find out who had left the presents for the Extendo Faction but they did resolve that they had to meet and coordinate the next plan of action amongst themselves before they continued in this war.
In the ruins of Salzburg, with their remaining few dozen men (not including the Smith-supplied healers, who had escaped harm) standing about them, coughing piteously, the Kings hashed out the final stage of the Civil War. The Extendo Hand King would retreat to the very east of Europe and stay there with as many people as he could rally to him. The Rocket Hand King would do the same to the very West. Neither one was to open any presents and, if they saw the Angel Cowboy, they were to kill him immediately. Though they would accept the Smith Dynasty trade offerings because, if they didn't, then they and everyone else would starve to death. Also, it turned out that they were both getting these shipments from the United States which meant they had to double the debt they reckoned the nation was in. Great. They'd deal with that later. The Rocket King brought the Extendo King up to speed with the conversations he'd had with David and Princess and the Extendo King was much gladdened by the news.
The Kings followed to the letter these instructions they had agreed upon. They gathered up yet another avalanche of followers to their factions and went to opposite sides of the country, passing acre of acre of levelled and despoiled forest on their way. The Kings realised that those ruined miles must have been where the savage trickster had turned the forest inside out to procure the riches of the presents he had left. The Kings swore that they would find whoever had struck Europe this further blow. It was probably Terrorthaw, they decided independently. That guy is always up to something.
Almost as soon as the new Faction of the Rocket Hand had reached the edge of Portugal – rather too close to Dark Spain or the predations of Ireland for the King's comfort, but rules were rules, did the King fall ill. At first it was kind of funny. He sneezed and sniffled through the construction of the rudimentary system of forts that encompassed the faction, spluttered through the strategy meetings and moaned through the troop assemblies. It was cute because the King had never been ill before (unless there was poison or dark magic involved) but also worrying for the same reason. In the third day of the malaise the King entered into a sneezing fit that was so severe that you couldn't get anywhere near him without getting soaked. That was what Timothy Clashradish feared when he had to go in to the King's tent to present to him the options for fortifying the seaboard wall. He had heard that if the King's spit ever got on you then it would not dry, not in a million. He did not like the sound of it but, then again, it did sound like something he had made up himself. While he racked his memory for the answer to this, the King let out a sneeze so violent that Timothy's jaw collided with his maxilla and his body was seized by the instinct to protect his sovereign. He pulled the tent-flap aside, sword drawn in case he was to find some hateful bacterium inside, he found not one King, but two. They both looked a little embarrassed.
“Your Highnesses,” said Timothy quickly, sheathing his sword. “I did not realise that the Extendo Hand Faction -” his eyes darted towards the King's many sleeves. He saw that the Kings only had one hand between them and his words were left stranded in the air.
“Timothy, you must open the gates and allow a clear passage. They will all start fighting again. The Faction is broken. There are three sides to this accursed war now,” said the King with the rocket hand, looking sourly at his new double, whose face then wrinkled and opened into a sneeze. There was an impossible flip of the world and then there were three Kings in the tent. The copies of the rocket-handed King looked dishevelled and hungry – they were a tiny bit shorter with less voluminous beards and dress of an inferior quality.
“Four sides,” said the King sadly.
The two new factions left in the night, taking their fair share of the accumulated supplies with them. There were some casualties in the scuffle, but thankfully no fatalities. The rocket-handed King glumly went back to the plan of the West Coast stronghold, but his mind was somewhere else. Most of him was waiting while the rest of him was working as usual. Every week thereafter, another sneezing fit split him afresh and the Faction of the Rocket Hand became a progressively less important player in a war that was dizzyingly careening out of any sort of hand. In far too short a time, the creatures that split off from the rocket-handed King were tiny, hunched things, almost hairless, in cheap supermarket clothes and plastic shoes, with only a certain brightness of eye and firmness of voice that betrayed their royal heritage. The divisions took their toll on the rocket-handed King too and it was not a month before he was indistinguishable from the latest spawn that had fallen out of him in the night. As the summer came to an end, what the Rocket-Handed Faction had once called a King was a head with tiny arms and legs, splitting further every day. Then the King was without nose, without mouth, without eyes, then without all else - just a disembodied voice that told his people what to do. There were hundreds of factions out there and hundreds of conflicts going on every day. Weapons were spread thinly across the emerging factions and so much of the fighting was by fist and nail, or rock or mud or simply cross words from a safe distance.
It looked to Timothy as though there would not be anything that could reasonably be called Europe left by the end of the year. He prepared to leave the husk of the Rocket Hand stronghold. Perhaps he would become a solider of fortune, he thought. It would be a life of adventuring and possibly the only thing left in this new world that resembled at all the high fun of the King's Adventure Team. Though to do so would mean allying himself to one of Europe's enemies. Perhaps the Smith Dynasty was hiring... or perhaps the Ire Lords would find him useful... The very fact he was even able to think those thoughts should be evidence enough that Europe was over with, dear reader. That beautiful nation that we loved so well had drifted from our world to the phantom globe of memory and regret that haunts old books and inaccurate maps. Timothy could no longer even summon the coolness to feel bad about this as he marched with some NPCs to the shores facing Angleland with the intent to scour a logboat or a sack of potatoes that he could use to step over to Europe's misbegotten son, the dreadest of all isles, the land of Ire. When his raft had been prepared and some rations scraped together for the trip, he stopped for just one moment, one brief distracted slice of time, and felt many things all at once. It was like he had remembered something back at the house, something important, like his car keys, which he'd left on the table. But the house where he remembered leaving them at was the house he grew up in, which he'd moved away from when he was a young man and had subsequently burned down. Mixed up in that strange thought was a joy and an anxiety and a feeling that he really had to go and check something. He'd left the hair-dryer on and he owed Jacob money and he hadn't fed the dog all day and he really should call his mother and and and
He had to get home. Home to Europe.
He gathered up his NPCs and ran back towards the mainland, laughing so hard that he could hear nothing outside of his own chest.
Jacob Hillmounter looked out East to the mountains that guarded Europe from the Kingdom Of Sharing. The Sharingists had not messed with Europe directly since the King's Father had wrestled their Czar to the ground and pinned him there for two whole weeks, but the relationship between the two nations was frosty and only occasionally polite. As he thought about Europe's troubled history with the Kingdom of Sharing, an entirely new thought occurred to Jacob. He thought that maybe the Sharingists had a better way of doing things that the Europeans. Maybe they had a point, with the sharing. Maybe their dancing wasn't just crazy and weird and was actually enjoyable. Maybe they weren't all violent, sour drunks. He allowed this sudden burst of cultural empathy to fill him up until his brain was drowned in the desire to actually become a Sharingist himself. It all made sense to him then. He would cross the mountains, become a citizen of the Kingdom beyond, be granted his fair share and live in their transparent towers. He would shed his petty, private desires and be subsumed into the strength of the State. It wasn't all that different from serving the King, only it would mean more star-jumps in the morning and bigger women. He could handle large women. It wouldn't be so bad.
But he realised that they wouldn't take him just like that. The memory of that fateful wrestle was still lodged like an electrode in the Sharingist's shame centre. Their schoolchildren were made to swear that they would work their entire lives to, one day, redeem the Kingdom of Sharing from that humiliation suffered under the King's Father's sweaty, leotarded body. Jacob would need to give them an offering, some token of his new loyalty to the Sharingist way of life. He looked back towards the Extendo Faction camp – though, these days, the Extendo Faction was just him, a banner, the jar and ten dudes - not counting the Smith healer people. They had managed to hang on to a few of the experimental Smith Dynasty weapons throughout all the dissolutions of the King. But they wouldn't be enough as an offering, not even if he threw in the healers as hostages. The Kingdom of Sharing was lousy with weapons and military might – most of Europe's army, of late, had been loaned from them. But then there was the jar. It contained the King's wooden extendo hand and, clinging to its splinters, the King's voice. He would uncork it when he thought he needed orders or guidance for the Faction. It was the smallest remaining fraction of the King that could still be thought of as the King. Now that he thought about it, Jacob realised it was kind of humiliating for the King to have been brought so low as to be a voice in a jar. Almost as humiliating as the defeat the Sharingists had suffered under the King's Father. He descended from the small outcrop that had been his perch and peeked inside the King's tent. The jar was still there. There was nothing to stop him. The others in the camp would not even question him if he were to up and leave with it. He'd be on the outskirts of the Kingdom of Sharing in under a week if he took a horse, so long as he wasn't travelling too heavy. He walked gently towards the jar on its cushion. He just wanted to see how much it weighed, he thought as he put his hands on the vessel. Why, it hardly weighed much at all, he'd be across the border in no time. Maybe he should check to see if it stowed nicely in his pack.
The jar sprang up, rebounded off his chin then flew through the fabric of the tent wall, screaming all the way. Jacob would have been stunned by the blow for three rounds but he rolled to save and was able to get out of the tent in time to see where the jar flew off to. It was heading off in the direction of the last King-thing to have split off from their faction and on its separate way. He grabbed the nearest horse, which was actually a goat, and rode on after it. The other Europeans in the once-great Faction Of The Extendo Hand realised pretty quickly that something cool was happening and followed on whatever livestock they could muster. In the event that a quadroped could not be mustered, they rode piggy-back on each other. It was a very exciting moment. You just had to be there.
When they came upon the camp of the latest faction, they found the people they had come to regard as traitors and turncoats in a similar state of excitement to themselves. Jacob asked the head NPC what was going on and once he had stopped jigging and dancing around, the head NPC told him that a jar screaming in the King's voice had struck the set of teeth that was their King. The jar had broken and – this was the confused bit – the teeth now had a hand and it had scurried off over the hills and they had to follow it, quick! Jacob shouted that exact same sentiment at the top of his voice and both factions – united again as they had been just a few days before – ran in the general direction they thought the King had gone.
They found more camps, more splinter groups, more famished gangs, all of which had a similar story and a similar joy that they could barely contain in their breasts, so wonderful it was to behold. When they weren't dashing off to the next King-sighting, Jacob was moved to find that these other folk from other factions that they were gathering up like some hay into a bale – these were cool guys and he would like to get to know them better. His mind raced with ideas for a get-together they could have when things settled down. A poker night or a Scrabble evening or just drinks down the local, you know? He thought of all the people he had enjoyed hanging out with and then he realised that they had been killed in the past five years of insanely bloody and senseless war and then he thought maybe it was better to think more of the poker nights and less of the murder.
Timothy stood proudly by his King – his whole King. Well, approximately one half of the whole of the King – the Rocket Handed half. The Extendo-Handed King was still in the far East of the country and they would have to go out and meet him later. Right now they had more immediate concerns. 'More immediate than restoring the King to tip-top condition?' you should ask, and rightly so. The King was receiving guests.
The King had ordered Brussels to be cleaned up before the guests arrived. This was quite difficult as it had been largely abandoned for five years, during which it had been raided by bandits, scavenged by some faction or another, torn down for supplies, burnt by careless cows, rained on from the sky, of all places, and squatted in by birds and demons. The King had cleared out the bandits, beasts and demons with force and charmed the birds with kind words but it was up to one half of the survivors of the European Civil War to get the place looking nice. Timothy was instrumental in the preparations. Once hospital camps had been erected on the outskirts of the city for the sick, wounded and women and hunting parties had been organised and charged with the task of running out and finding enough to feed everyone in style, whomever remained was put to work with tidying, dusting, defoliating, mending, rebuilding and decorating. It was a month before the city was in any condition at all, and six weeks before the King was satisfied that any of his friends could come round and visit. There was a boss-level demon hanging out in the upper levels of Laeken Palace that he needed to go off and deal with and he made Europe promise that they'd have everything absolutely spic-and-span by the time he came back. They agreed and they kept to the promise, because they were Europeans and they were good people.
This may all sound like a major hassle but the people of Europe were more glad than anything you've seen to be doing something that wasn't marching from place to place, slowly starving between bouts of killing each other. They couldn't quite believe that they'd been doing stuff like that for so long. The world, they realised, was full of love and light and great new things to do. All the while they were cleaning up Brussels, people were seeing the possibilities that lay before them. Their minds were abuzz with all the stuff they would do, all the recipes to cook and books to read and contraptions to build and paintings to paint and friends to make and blogs to write and places to see. It was a pity that the nation's infrastructure was utterly demolished, yeah, but they could make a new one. They'd done it before, some of them. They had the ground below them, the sky above them and their King smiling upon them. They tidied up as best as they could and their best was brilliant. The King returned from his boss battle with a backpack full of gold, some ancient thingimajig that would probably be important later and the most delighted look of surprise on his face when he saw what the people of Europe had done to make Brussels a cool place again.
“Roxy is going to love it!” he laughed. They all laughed!
The Adventure Friends rode in to the city escorted by the very finest donkeys that had survived the awful conflict. Roxy Tripfoot, Bernadetta Leathervest, Cajun, Commander Flightfeather, Astrid Gimmerleck and a strange, handsome young Islamalandic-looking gentlemen who claimed to be Ba'al Hadad walked into a Brussels that looked better than they had ever seen it. It was like all that stuff with the fighting and war never happened! They looked so splendid in their exotic Irish clothes and flushings of victory, there wasn't a single person in Europe who wouldn't have married any one of them at a moment's notice, and no parent who wouldn't be thrilled at the news. There was so much hugging – it was just about possible for Roxy to hug everyone present in under a day – and you can bet they had a party. A small one, sure, but that made it all more intimate and personal. And everyone respected each other at the party, no one macked on each other's girls or anything and everyone helped with the cleaning up afterwards.
A great deal happened later, as the King and his partially-restored Adventure Team sped across the badlands of Central Europe, bringing justice and peace to the criminal gangs and foreign loiterers they found there, but the hope and jubilation that their passage brought was felt in the hearts and dreams of Europeans everywhere. When the King met his counterpart in the East, Europe would again be whole, the land would heal and everything would be pretty awesome once again.
Which is why it came as an unpleasant surprise to everyone when the King arrived in Eastern Europe to find it invaded by Islamaland, his brother dead and his counterpart ears-deep in another one of those horrible wars.
End Of Chapter 100