Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 9
Grey landed with an audible "dump" on the turf in the center of the head of the Floorin' invasion column, amidst a few stacks of basic infantry led by a red haired warlord with a rather impressive beard, minus the chin whiskers. The process of removing the capture net and stripping Grey of his weaponry was quicker than he'd expected it to be, and he'd been disturbingly helpless through the process. Even if he had not been in chains, there was nothing Grey could have done against so many alert units.
As the last of his belongings were tossed into a portable chest, Grey overheard what the red haired warlord said to the team of Archons behind him. Indeed, it would have been hard not to overhear it since the warlord spoke much, much louder than he needed too.
"PRINCE HUMPERDINK HAS REQUESTED THAT YOU LADIES ONCE AGAIN DINE IN HIS TENT TONIGHT. SHALL I LET HIM KNOW TO EXPECT YOUR... FULL SERVICE TONIGHT AS WELL?"
Emma, the lead Archon temporarily removed her hands from her ears to reply, quickly placing them back when she was done speaking.
"I'm sorry, Yellin', but if we want to support the feint like we were asked, then we're going to need to spend the night in the field. Please do give the Prince our deepest thanks."
"VERY WELL, I WILL RELAY YOUR WORDS TO THE PRINCE. HE WILL BE DISAPPOINTED, BUT YOUR GIFT WILL NO DOUBT CHEER HIM UP IMMENSELY."
The Archons turned and took to the sky as soon as possible, Anna making a screwed face and the others tittering. More inside jokes no doubt. Grey was led the other direction by Warlord Yellin' and a stack of pikers, who painfully wiggled their fingers inside their ears behind the warlord's back. Grey would have done the same if his hands had not been bound behind his own back.
The stack made it's way through a smattering of tents and cooking fires that had been set up wherever the stumps and uncut trees allowed enough space until they arrived in front of one tent in particular. It was moderately sized, circular, and had four layers of cloth instead of the typical one or two layers. Grey had heard of these kinds of tents before, with extra layers to muffle the sounds of cries to allow peace for the rest of an encampment. The tent was either the camp dwelling for Warlord Yellin', or Grey was going to be tortured. Unfortunately, torture was the more likely answer, Grey decided as he was led to a solid post holding up the tent's center and his chains were passed through it to secure him in place.
Warlord Yellin' placed a hand on Grey's shoulder, and gently uttered a "GOOD LUCK" before exiting the tent leaving two sentries behind just outside the open tent flaps. Grey spent the next minute or so wincing hard to try and work the pain out of his eardrums, wondering if the torture had already begun, but the next hour or so passed by uneventfully. About ten minutes after the horns to signal Floorin's end of turn blew, a somewhat slim white skinned and black haired warlord wearing a black coat and neck cloth over a white button up tunic entered the tent with one of the sentries, and gave the piker a non-vocalized order. The piker with short brown hair leaned her spear against the tent's wall and pulled out a small dagger. She proceeded to cut open Grey's undershirt, tearing the fabric apart to reveal the whole of his chest. After doing so, the piker stopped, somewhat stunned. Then she turned her head slightly to the side, confused, and looked up into Grey's face with her mouth open as if to ask a question. The glare from Grey's eyes dissuaded her though, and the piker stepped back, took up her spear, and returned to her post outside.
The white skinned warlord had not given Grey a second glance as he was preparing a hanging leather container, tying it to a loose cord of rope near the entrance to the tent, his back turned to Grey. He was obviously making preparations for something, but they were cut short by the sound of heavy trodding outside the tent, and shortly thereafter in walked a man flanked by four knights in full gear. That man was Prince Humperdink himself, wearing flowing light blue casual wear, and he began speaking the instant he entered the quickly filling tent.
"Salutations, Warlord Shades. I'm very glad to-"
Prince Humperdink's smile instantly changed to a pair of pursed lips as his face screwed up in confusion. It was not just the Prince's face, but the faces of all six units that were lined up facing Grey were now showing pure confusion as they stared at Grey's chest.
Oh, Titans, it was awkward.
The Prince and his retinue then all tilted their heads to further study Grey's chest ink. One of the knights whispered half a sentence to his comrade before his own incomprehension caused him to shut his mouth. The Prince raised a finger as he opened his own mouth to ask a question, but instead just tilted his head to the other side, completely dumbfounded. If Grey had not been chained in place, he'd have run from the tent in shame, but as it was he just stood there on the verge of croaking from embarrassment. After what felt like a full hundred turns, the Prince finally asked his question of, "What is that?"
"What does it look like?" replied Grey, realizing only after speaking that he'd done himself no good.
"It looks like... a very large picture of a Titan, relieving himself on a latrine, while eating an enormous sandwich."
"...Yeah, that's what it is." Yup, torture.
The Prince waited for a few moments before asking, with all the possible nuances possible for the word, "Why?"
"Well, I was kind'a drunk at the time..."
The Prince uttered a sound while slowly nodding his head. He then cheerfully suggested, "Shall we pretend that that isn't there?"
"Yes. Please," said Grey, nodding enthusiastically.
"Well, Warlord Grey Shades, your sense of art not withstanding," Grey groaned audibly, "I am very happy to meet you, especially like this. I was wondering if you would like to defect to my side?"
Grey's will and eyes instantly went hard as rock. His first instinct was to say "no," but he mastered it. It was in Grey's nature to acquire information after all, and instead asked, "Why?"
"Because I want Farstriders of my own, of course!" The Prince beamed happiness at the so very simple answer and continued on, quite excited. "You see, it's my hobby to take the most useful parts of whatever side I conquer for myself. Why, Wyatt Rice here was once the Chief Warlord of Carboload before I annihilated their side. He has been an invaluable addition to Floorin' ever since."
The pale man bowed slightly, his pink eyes locking with Grey's as if to verify the Prince's tale.
"And since the most outstanding, and unusual, part of Everclear are their scouts, why, I just couldn't resist taking one for myself, even if it did require an additional bounty with Charlie."
"Or more, if possible."
"What about the Farstriders that were croaked by the Archons before now? Why didn't you have any of them taken alive?"
The Prince snorted in amusement, his eyebrows lifting high, and then said, "Why would I ever settle for simple scouts when I can have the warlords?" shrugging his shoulders, palms lifted upward and fingers splayed to completely drive home how idiotic a question Grey had just asked was.
"So," exclaimed the Prince, as if he had not just turned Grey's stomach with his attitude towards Grey's carefully trained units, "Since you will soon be out of a job when I conquer Everclear, how about you sign on with me. After a few loyalty spells, I can grant you the same semi-autonomy you were given under your previous ruler. It would basically be a lateral move, but under much more capable leadership. I'd jump at the chance if I were you. What do you say?"
The Prince's smile was full of joyful expectation as he clapped his hands together and rubbed them lightly. As if his blunt charisma was all it took to have his way. Was the man always like that?
Grey Shades said nothing. He just stared at the Prince.
Finally the Prince's smile started to become forced, feeling the weight of the silence. Finally he said, "Well, we can leave that for later," and snapped his fingers twice. In walked a short bald retainer carrying an end table with the chest holding Grey's equipment resting upon it, set the table in an open spot, opened the lid, and then exited the tent. Conversationally, the Prince spoke while sifting through the chest's contents.
"I had a chance to peruse your belongings before, and there are a few things in here that I am just beside myself to ask you about. This for instance," the Prince exclaimed while plucking something out of the chest, "This is a Magic Hat, correct? How many of the Farstriders have them?"
"I mean, I can imagine it would get very expensive, very quickly, should all your scouts possess one."
The Prince smiled winningly. Grey stared blankly.
"Well, what about this one?" asked the Prince as he picked up a round flat container. Opening it, he showed the contents as being a form of disgusting black sludge. "What is this? Hmm? A form of poison perhaps? I've heard your people sometimes perform assassinations, after all."
The Prince cocked an eyebrow. Grey lifted his chin.
"Well. What about weaponry?" The Prince picked up Grey's sword, and exposed a hands breadth of the blade. "While the enchantment is not as good as my own, it is appropriate for one of your standing. And the black metal does in fact seem quite sinister. Heh, the better to hide yourself, my friend?"
The Prince chuckled. Grey sniffed.
Replacing the sword, the Prince took up another sheathed weapon. "I was most surprised by the sheer number of daggers you possess. I mean, what could you possibly use them all for? But this one in particular was striking." The Prince unsheathed the dagger and the long black metal caught the light of the powerball in the tent, reflected like obsidian along the honed double sided blade that radiated a dangerous enchanted killing edge. The brushed metal of the grip, knuckle guard, and jet black stone in the pommel took in the light, seeming to be more like solid shadow than metal. It held an intensely deadly beauty, a companion piece to Grey's sword and a reward for his work leading the last charge of the Everlong War at Everglade. Grey had tried to refuse the gifted blades, the damage to the side's treasury must have been enormous, but King Shindig had not only insisted, but ordered he accept it.
Grey had no idea just how much his weapons meant to him until they were being handled by someone else.
"I really like this one. I think I'll keep it. I can use it to open letters. But then again, my friend, should you join me, I may just gift this back to you in a few hundred turns. A reward for your hard work and loyalty?"
The Prince's voice was probing. Grey's eyes were glaring.
The Prince sighed, slipped the dagger into his belt, and gave an upward nod of his head. A silent order, as one of the knights immediately stepped forward to Grey's left side and punched him across the face with his gauntleted hand. Grey could hear the Prince utter a "Hm-hmmm!" of delight while he himself was seeing stars. When Grey's vision became less blotchy, he looked up and saw the knight standing close, glaring down at him menacingly. Grey twisted his right arm as far behind his back as he could while pivoting his hips, sending a low left hook straight into the knight's kidney with his full weight behind it. The knight immediately dropped to the ground gasping in pain. The other three knights immediately drew their swords and closed in front of the Prince to screen him as they prepared to fight.
"Stop that! Stop right now, what are you, a bunch of barbarians?"
Admonishing his own loyal bodyguards, the Prince pushed them out of his way and got them to sheath their weapons. The Prince then stepped forward towards Grey, ignoring the fourth knight picking himself off the ground and said with a radiant smile into Grey's face, a full head or more shorter, "Oh, I knew I'd like you." He snapped his fingers, and said, "You know, I just had an idea. Since you don't like to answer questions, why don't you ask them. I'll tell you the answers, and then you'll see just how great a side Floorin' is to join! Go ahead, ask me anything!"
Grey was stunned, and his previously expressionless face showed it. Grey's face may have resembled the faces of the units behind the Prince. Could Prince Humperdink be serious, allowing his captive to interrogate him? Well, that could be easily answered just by asking a question... but what would the Prince gain from this? Grey looked into the Prince's face suspiciously as he let his mind dwell on the act rather than the potential gains from it.
Asking questions and answering them. What was the significance of asking a question? The answer, is to learn something you previously didn't know. So the person asking the question would gain something, knowledge, from the answer. If it was a helpful answer. But what would the person being asked the question gain? He'd gain... knowledge. He'd know what the person asking the questions wanted to know, and as a result, what the asker did not know.
The Prince was probably trying to learn what Everclear knew about the invasion by gauging Grey's questions. It was another form of interrogation, and potentially faster to gain information from than any other method. The safest course to take would be to say nothing at all.
"What are those things you've been cutting the trees down with?" asked Grey, hoping to fill in the blanks of the current situation. After all, it's in the nature of a scout to investigate.
"Oh, those," said the Prince offhandedly, yet with some semblance of pride. "The Chief Turnamancer made those, perhaps you've heard of him? Count Ruin of Guesthouse?"
Grey shook his head no, even though he had heard of the man. Grey wanted to play dumb as much as possible so the Prince would underestimate Everclear's position. Anyway, the Count was in some of the scouting reports, but not many. Count Ruin was a recluse who worked more on inventive ways to torture units than field work, according to Art. The Count seemed to have something he called "The Machine" with many turning parts to inflict a type of wound that could not be seen, nor directly affect a unit's Hits, allowing it to be used for extended periods of time. Most of what Art knew about the Count was learned from other Signamancers, as the Count had published a book concerning the mental and emotional effect that torture had on units of various types. The book caused a rather unfavorable stir amongst the barbarian Signamancers of the Magic Kingdom who published it, and a very favorable stir amongst the barbarian Turnamancers who seemed to pass copies around to one another.
"Well, no matter," said the Prince, waving a dismissive hand. "It's nearly impossible to pry the man away from his machine, but he's quite skilled at fulfilling my little requests. When I told him I needed a way through heavy wood tiles, he came up with those little beauties. He calls them Turnsaws. I dare say, it was the revolutionary invention that made this attack even possible."
"Are they difficult to make?" asked Grey, leadingly.
"How would I know? I'm not a caster," replied the Prince leisurely. Grey's hope of getting an approximation of those Turnsaws numbers quickly disappeared, so he tried a different approach.
'How much did you have to pay Charlie to map the Everclear? It must have been quite a sum to get him to chart the entire area for you."
There was no way those scouts could have found a safe path without half, or all, of them falling prey to the trap hexes. Only Charlie and his flying Archons could have navigated the forest in safety enough to find a clear path through.
"Oh, it was pricey, no doubt, but I was able to get Charlie to give me a discount."
"How did you swing that?" asked Grey, actually impressed.
"Well, I only had him chart a few pathways for us. Fastest path from A to B, and so on, with a Trapless guarantee."
Grey was no longer impressed. Having only one path you can travel is the same as having no choices in where you can go. But if there was a guarantee...
"If Charlie gave you a guarantee of there being no traps in the way, why scout ahead?"
"Trust, but verify," said the Prince, sounding sensible again. "Just because I have a guarantee of there not being any traps doesn't mean there are none. And besides, I wouldn't want to walk into an ambush, now would I?"
Which meant that the Prince actually didn't trust Charlie completely, which was sound. But the Archons...
"Why not have those Archons scout ahead? Their skills are... quite reliable. And I believe I overheard that yelling fellow say they were under a particular contract? The Full Service?"
Grey knew about that particular service, dating back to the days when the Farstriders began to sell their services to other sides. King Shindig had had a hand in forming the contract rights of employers, and one of the options, he mentioned, was like Charlie's Full Service, except no "canoodling." The scout's every action would act as if their Loyalty was to the hiring side, except in case that acting on behalf of said side interfered with their original loyalty, or was certain to result in the scout's being croaked.
There were other price listings for Certain-Croak missions.
Anyway, if the Prince had hired those Archons for Full Service, then he should be able to trust them at least to scout out the tiles ahead.
"Oh, no, I have them assigned to destroying your scouts."
"Yeah, about that," Grey recalled the words he heard as he was blacking out earlier that day. "How are the Archons finding my Farstriders? How did they find me?"
The Prince cheerfully said, "Oh, the Archons don't find the scouts, Charlie does."
"Yes, I made a separate deal with Charlie to pay him a bounty depending on the type and number of Everclear scouts that he can destroy during the course of the attack. He made it quite clear during negotiations that despite the Full Service contract, the Archons would only be as effective as my own orders. But for an additional fee, Charlie would be able to devote more resources to locating the scouts, and for every successful croaking, a bonus payment would be made."
...Then wouldn't that mean the Full Service contract was meaningless?
"If that's the case, then wouldn't a normal contract with the Archons be just as effective, and cheaper?"
"Ah, you see," said the Prince wistfully, "My bed gets so lonely at night, away from all my courtiers. Someone has to keep it warm. And the more the merrier, you know."
That's all? That was the entire reason? Grey knew that Floorin' was flush with funds from all their vassal sides paying tribute, but wasn't that just wasteful? No, no, there were other things to ask about.
"What about those giant orange things? The troop carriers?"
"Oh, yes, handy little siege devices. I call them Overgourds, since they look like flying pumpkins. Pretty witty, eh?"
Grey waited for a moment before asking, only slightly impatiently, "What are they? Where did they come from?"
"Oh, I had my casters make them. I told Count Ruin I wanted a floating battle platform, and he set our Casters to work."
Grey knew from the intelligence files - that Art had supplemented with Magic Kingdom rumors - that Floorin' had a Carnimancer named Earl Vince of Cecil, but nothing else, and the Wierdomancer Minmax, who was something of a disgrace to his profession. He'd been banished to the Magic Kingdom for a time because of his experiments to use Weirdomancy to alter the Croaked status of units, and was only allowed to return to his side after he'd "learned his lesson." But Grey knew nothing more.
"Those units are actually Magic Items, formed from a framework made by the craftsmen, and then given some mishmash of enchantments that... honestly, I don't really care about. The final result is useful and I don't really care about the rest. As for where they came from," said the Prince as his grin widened, "We've had them for many a hundred turn. I actually had a barbarian Foolamancer dedicated to keeping them veiled whenever they were not in use, as my own little precaution against..." the Prince haltes for a meaningful pause as he looked purposefully at Grey. "Prying eyes. You have no idea how annoying it is to always have your forces watched, counted, and have that information sold off to all the neighboring sides."
A hard knot formed in Grey's gut. "Is that why? Why you're attacking Everclear? Because you got fed up with our Farstriders?"
"One of many reasons, but not the most important," replied the Prince, tilting his head in consideration. "Charlie's projection of your side's treasury was another, but honestly..." The Prince paused to muster the full weight of the words he would speak. "I want to cause some chaos."
The Prince stood there, smirking at Grey until the unit had tried and failed to take this in. And Grey replied, wholly sincere, "...I don't understand."
"Yes, I'm sure you don't. It took even me a long time after the taking of Bruckheim, when Floorin's boarders touched those of Everclear's, to realize the fact that your side, and it's forest, were a stabilizing factor to this entire region. It's counter intuitive, I know. But having an entire expanse of terrain that is so deadly that no army is willing to march through it is almost the same as having an impregnable wall around an entire side of one's territory. None of the sides touching the forest have any real military build up to protect against the hermits of the Evergreen! Not Shortbus, Lowrider, Guilter, Stopgap, Shatnerfreude, or even Floorin'! It wasn't until after I had seen the troop deployment files I bought that I understood. No one. Is willing to attack anyone else. Through the Evergreen. And that has to stop."
Grey felt like he was drowning. It's wrong, it's all wrong. But one thing stood out in what the Prince had said, and Grey had to ask. "Bought? From Charlie?"
"Yes, actually. It was a bulk discount package, it was obliged to be, because no one else was willing to buy the darn info! But reading those files, I came to understand the role the Evergreen forest had come to occupy in this region. And the way your King had been manipulating the surrounding sides all the time. Tell me, Warlord Shades, did it never seem peculiar that the size and number of sides near your Evergreen forest is nearly identical to how it was near the end of your Everlong War?"
Grey couldn't breathe. The weight of what Prince Humperdink was saying was pressing down on his mind and soul.
"No," said the Prince in self satisfaction, "It wouldn't be apparent to one who was merely in the field. But the fact is, that in all the time that you and your Farstriders have been actively interfering in the activities of sides outside the confines of your forest, your King has been using your reports and selling your services in a game to keep the entire region around him in a perpetual stalemate. Every time one side grows too powerful, the Farstriders scout their weaknesses and sell the reports. Every time a side grows too weak, Everclear sells lists of easy targets for them to hit. Every time an outside force begins to affect the region, your Farstriders are hired out to counteract it. It really is quite impressive. But it will only continue to get in the way."
"Of what?" asked Grey breathlessly.
"Of taking over this entire region, of course. Despite my best efforts, I've only reduced Lowrider to vassalage in this particular area in the seven hundred or so turns that Floorin' has expanded to this region. True, I've been distracted with cowing that impertinent Epicphail to the north and that last war with Guilter, but really, it's because I haven't been able to employ my usual tricks in an area that is as well monitored as the Evergreen region. So, I'm just going to destroy Everclear, take her cities, sell them to the highest bidders, and let everyone fight to their heart's content. And with your King and 'Farstriders' gone, or rather, working for me, I'll be able to use my old strategies again!"
"Yes, yes, one can't possibly conquer Erf, or at least," said the Prince with a shrug and an affectation of humility, "A modest part of it, without a proper strategy. Mine is to trick two sides into fighting one another, and then swoop in after they're weakened and conquer them both. Then I have their rulers sign vassalage contracts at sword point, allowing me to have all the power and all the Shmuckers of that territory, with none of the diminishing returns of having too many cities. It's a strategy that has served me well many times over."
Grey was having a hard time processing everything. In fact, it seemed almost like he was hearing too much all at once, like Prince Humperdink was intentionally unloading all this information on Grey instead of allowing Grey to question the Prince. But Grey did have an important question. "That... doesn't make any sense. A tactic like that is practically impossible to pull off."
"Ooooh? And why is that?" asked the Prince, obviously having fun with Grey's confusion.
Grey hesitated for a moment, collected his composure, and said, "Because just about every side out there is unwilling to fight a war to the point of exhausting themselves so badly that a third party, one known to be a conqueror, can step in and snatch up both sides of the conflict. If only one side is on the losing end, then yes, they're not long for the world and other sides may jump in to take a chunk of the fallout for themselves. But if both sides are losing units to the point where they're vulnerable to an outside force, they'll either make peace or join against the invading third party."
Grey spoke from experience on that last one. The only break from the Everlong War happened when a third side tried to invade the forest during the turmoil. Everclear and Everglade made a temporary ceasefire under the condition of the extermination of the third party. The outsiders were croaked to a man, and the war began again, bloodier than before for the brief pause.
Prince Humperdink smiled at that, the kind of smile that a jag that just ate a magpie might have, and said, "What if, every time there was a chance of peace, or temporarily setting hostilities aside, there was an attack by one or both of the warring sides?"
"That would be idiocy!"
"Why, pray tell?"
"Because it would keep the fighting going, leaving the sides vulnerable to the third party's attack!"
"Exactly!" cried the Prince with excitement. Grey was struck dumb, and the Prince used that opportunity to continue on another topic. "Now tell me, who attacked your city of, what was it, Whatever?"
"It was Guilter."
"You sound certain of that, why?"
"Our scout found the remains of the battle, including the croaked soldiers of Guilter that had taken the city."
The Prince had that smile again. "So it's because of a scout that just so happened to escape the Archons' attention and report back. Now, why do you trust that report?"
Grey was stunned. It was like asking why he had faith in the Titans. "Because it was one of my Farstriders that wrote it! She saw the field of battle with her own eyes and sent back a report of what happened!"
The Prince laughed to himself slightly. "Very well, you trust what your scout saw, and, likely, your King did as well. But you, Warlord Shades, have seen the true face of your aggressor. Now, ask yourself, why on Erf would Guilter agree to attack Everclear, just to act as a diversion for my personal benefit?"
Grey answered immediately. "Because you forced them to, most certainly as a clause in the peace treaty you signed with them after your war."
Prince Humperdink looked stunned and amazed, and seemed to look at something that was not really there as he said, "I could have done something like that. That would have been so much easier. Oh, I can't wait to break your will, Warlord, and then make you an advisor. Oh, that is brilliant!"
Grey was stupefied. "What? You mean, you didn't coerce Guilter into attacking? Then why did you agree to a peace treaty, you were winning the war with Guilter."
The Prince waved away the weight of Grey's question and replied offhandedly. "Oh, I started that war because I'd heard from our diplomatic courtiers that the new princess of Guilter was a woman with such looks and form, that one would never forget a glimpse in a hundred lifetimes. So of course I wanted to take her and bring her to my bed. I fought the Guilter armies until they had no choice but to field her, and the courtiers were right." The Prince started laughing even as he continued the story, the words cracking with mirth. "She was so Titans Cursed ugly that I'll never forget that hideous face, nor her dumpy body in all my life! I was so disappointed that I just sued for peace and signed the dotted line to be over and done with it!"
The Prince shrugged his shoulders in resignation and said, "All the better anyway. I've had terrible luck with women lately. My last 'pet' was taken from me by a barbarian in black before I even had the chance to enjoy her. But no, Guilter did not attack Whatever, those were Floorin' soldiers."
"But my Farstrider-" Grey cut himself off. No, Grey had complete faith in his Farstriders, and Brook was reliable. She reported what she saw, which meant her eyes had been deceived. The Foolamancer then, the one that veiled the Overgourds. ...No, Brook would have been right on top of the bodies, checking them for documents and anything else. Casting a veil on that many croaked units, all of them being checked up close by a Farstrider, at least one of the veils would have been blown. Which meant it was something else, but it would still have to have been magic. What else did Prince Humper-
"The Carnymancer," Grey said with absolute certainty. "You had him break the Rules of Raiment."
"Yes," hissed the Prince in complete satisfaction. "Oh. You have no idea how long I've been waiting for someone to catch that before I explain it. Oh, you're a fine catch. Yes. I've been having my units attack sides in the guise of other kingdoms. The 'attackers' deny it of course, but the bodies of the croaked are always more reliable than a king's word of honor. I've been using this strategy ever since I took power, and it has never failed me once. Vince has become very reliable with raiment rules, so whenever I need someone deceived, I always count on my Cecilian. And when I need a city sacked to keep a war going, well, Charlie's fee is roughly twice what I make back on the razing, but he developed a method to keep the rulers from realizing it was my side doing the sacking, thus, it is Shmuckers very well spent."
Grey might have asked "How" if his mind had been less unsettled by what he'd heard, but common sense answered the question for him. Charlie could do anything as long as you paid him enough. And this Prince had very obviously been doing just that, using enormous amounts of funds to have Chalie supplement his deceitful tactics and exploitative plans. If it was just that, it may not have left Grey so shaken, but it was more that just that.
"Well! Now that you have run out of questions, it's my turn to ask," said the Prince, no, said Humperdink as he turned back to the chest and fished out a musical instrument of green glazed clay Grey had received from an Eager Elf Chief many turns ago. "What is this strange contraption?"
Grey did not answer Humperdink as he just stared at the mockery of a royal that stood before him. Grey had been alive for a long time, he'd met a great many nobles and royals. Those who were not popped by Everclear had been of sides that were paying for Farstrider assistance. Those he had seen and not met were of enemy sides. But none of the nobles that Grey had encountered had left him feeling sickened like Humperdink had. Not even Prince Bretl had instilled these feelings, and he'd looked down his nose at everything the Farstriders worked for.
Humperdink was a crude mockery of everything that Grey had come to think of as a Royal. He was completely self-interested, and willing to plunge his side into a war to satisfy his cod. Deceitful on a personal and national scale, with all his great military victories delivered through his dependence on a mercenary side. And Grey may be wrong, but there seemed to be a great deal of completely off-hand cruelty in the man, and no desire to treat anything around him as being more serious than a dried fig. He probably considered what wine he took with his meals to be more important than troop deployments and battle strategies, as he seemed overly fond of delegating anything and everything to others. Probably the only reason Humperdink was there in the tent right that moment was because he was happy with the idea of getting himself a new plaything, a new piece of property to delegate more matters of his side to. And had Humperdink really thought that being a braggart over all his worst qualities would be so endearing to Grey that it would win him over? The man could only be considered a masterful buffoon! A man with so many gifts from the Titans that he could only think of himself as an untouchable entity, and pissed away his sense of obligation to actually put any work towards anything.
"My king was right," said Grey with determination, flat against his better judgment. "The Mandate of the Titans does not apply to all the royalty, but just those fit to rule. And you are not fit to rule a soiled latrine."
Humperdink's face took on the look of indignant disappointment, then solidified into one of extreme annoyance. Humperdink then looked at one of his knights and jerked his chin upwards. The knight stepped forward and backhanded Grey with his mailed hand. Then smacked Grey again with his open palm, and then backhanded him again. Grey took at least a half dozen of these strikes, he couldn't count them because his head rung from the blows. Finally, Humperdink ordered an end to the battering, and Grey could just barely hear and see the not-so-royal prince say to the pale skinned warlord, "Yes, you're right. T'would be a pity to croak him here. Make him compliant."
The warlord bowed, and Humperdink stepped out of the tent. There Humperdink stopped for a second and told the short haired stabber that she was to follow him to his own tent, and the stack left for good. The only ones left inside were Grey and the Warlord Rice. The warlord did not speak, and merely set about his business. The warlord picked the chest off the table and set it on the ground, far away from Grey. Rice then pulled something out of the leather satchel, resized it, and put it on the table. It looked like a cooking stove top, but with many notches on it's surface instead of being flat, and it's box like side had a knob that seemed to control the temperature of the top plate. The warlord turned that knob and then proceeded to remove something else from that satchel that any field unit would recognize, as they were indispensable for cooking foraged foodstuffs. Skewers.
By this time, Grey had succeeded in hunting down all the loose teeth that were floating around in his mouth, three he thought, and spat them out. It was at this time that the warlord had begun to place the skewers into the grooves in the top plate. He seemed to be humming to himself. The warlord was a conquered unit, Grey may be able to bargain with him.
"Hey," said Grey, "Warlord Rice."
The Warlord Rice looked up at Grey, and started to speak in a gratingly hoarse voice. "Call me-" That's where Rice broke down into a coughing fit, cleared his throat noisily, and then spat something out. Even Grey was disgusted, and he wasn't that big on manners outside of noble company. Then Rice spoke again, his voice low and dignified. "Call me Mr. Wyatt."
Rice pulled out a strange dagger that unfolded from it's grip, had a flat end, and only one cutting edge to it. Grey was getting a strange vibe from the man, but decided to press on. "Alright. Mr. Wyatt. You lost your side to that man, Humperdink. I can offer you a chance-"
"No," said Mr. Wyatt. Caught off guard by the swift response, Grey echoed the word back as a question. Mr. Wyatt slowly strode toward Grey while he continued to speak. "Whatever else, the Prince is my Chief Warlord now, and Duty demands my service."
"What about Loyalty?"
"Loyalty?" asked the pale warlord, amusement in his pink eyes. "I've only ever really been loyal to myself, so it doesn't matter who I serve, as long as I serve well. And on that note-"
Mr. Wyatt swiftly slashed through Grey's eyes with a single swing of the dagger. After the pain ebbed and Grey's cry of astonished agony diminished, Mr. Wyatt finished his sentence.
"I didn't much like how you were looking at my Chief Warlord."
Grey had never really thought about how scary it would be to not see. His eyes were an integral part of his purpose, and now he was plunged into darkness and only able to use his sharp hearing to make out what was happening around him. Mr. Wyatt seemed to be humming a tune as he went about his business. Grey heard a rustling and felt a rope tighten around his neck. The smell of heated metal filled his nostrils. Grey found himself saying and asking things he was not even thinking before they left his mouth, the strange musical humming unnerving him as it seemed like his torturer was dancing around him. All of Grey's utterances basically fell under one category, requests for mercy.
Mr. Wyatt was no longer humming, but softly singing some lyrics. Grey was able to hear a snippet as Mr. Wyatt took hold of one of his ears.
"Carnies to the left of me, Jesters to the right, and here I am..."
Then Grey's ear was cut from his body.
"Stuck in the middle with you..."
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.
Have you ever thought about the kind of creative, sadistic, and monstrous ways a person could be physically tortured in a world where people don't bleed and intact organs are not really required for continued life, and all wounds are healed at the crack of dawn allowing a torturer to act without ever holding back but for accidentally croaking the victim?
I have. My mind is unsettleingly creative. And there was only one person I could think of who would happily carry out such acts.
The readers were right. Grey was unlucky to have not been croaked by the Archons.
In other news, yup, our antagonist is a horn dog. But what did you expect from a Humper-Dink?
This is pure gold, just amazing.
Also, Humper-Dink is quite the villain. A total sociopath, with enough skills and resources to afford him virtual demi-godhood as far as he is concerned. His blatant disregard for the well-being of his units or anyone else makes him an excellent opposite to Grey Shades, who values the lives of his comrades, especially his Farstriders.
Good to see you on the ComStream Seasalt, and just as good to see more of your SWAG comments. But man, I can barely hold a candle to the REAL Humperdinck. The guy had a 5-level sub basement for torture and hunting exotic animals, one of which being a gorilla that he killed by bear hugging it to death (while having a conversation), and chose to marry a common birth woman instead of the princess of Guilder because she was homely and any sufficiently beautiful woman would do for him regardless of birth. THAT is the original SWAG I am trying to compete with.
But yeah. Some rule through fear. Some through kindness and popularity. Humperdink rules through SWAG. And I'm so glad you posted because it reminded me to edit Yellin's lines into CapsLocks according to the suggestion I got with the original posting of this chapter... so long ago now. But everything from here on is BRAND NEW! Yee-HAW!