Strongman the Barbarian

Part 1 of 2 in Strongman

The following feature is rated TG-13 for gratuitous violence, adult situations,

and improbable profanity.

Titanic Guidance is suggested for units of thirteen turns or younger.

 

 

Know, oh reader,

That between the years of the fall of the 99 Royals and their gleaming cities,

And the rise of the Tools, there was an Age undreamed,

When warring Sides spread across the world like a quilt beneath the stars.

Hither came Strongman, the Shimmerian,

Black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand,

A thief, a razer, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth,

To tread the jeweled thrones of Erfworld under his sandaled feet.

These are the Tales of Strongman the Barbarian, and his days of high adventure!

 

1

 

His mind and his body crashed into existence. His senses were alive with the freshness of life, fueling his consciousness with information. His first realization was that he was cold.

 

Strongman - yes, that was his name. A good name. Strongman looked down, and saw why he was cold. He was shirtless, and there was snow around his booted feet. He was wearing pants made of thin leather, and if his ferociously reactive senses were right his boots were little better.

 

But the cold felt good. It felt like life. Yes, the cold told him he was alive.

 

And so Strongman looked around him. He saw the trees illuminated by the rising sun and knew he was in a forest. He knew he had no side, and that he needed none. He knew he was alone, but that such a situation was not bad. He would survive and thrive, or he would croak. And it would be the fate that he'd earned. For he was master of his own fate for as long as he was alive.

 

But what was he to do while he was alive? What was the purpose of life? Of his life?

 

With such thoughts weighing upon him, Strongman explored his body while exploring his meaning. His chest was completely visible, and he could see he had a muscular, a potentially massive frame. His arms were thick and strong. When he punched the tree next to him, it shuddered and clumps of snow fell from it's branches. Now his legs, what did they do?

 

Strongman took a step. It was hesitant and awkward. With this first step, he felt a shift of weight in his body that was so strange, so new, and his position moved. Strongman made a footprint in the snow and felt an accomplishment from doing so. Looking around, Strongman saw that there was no other markings in the snow piled shin high around him and that the mark where he'd landed was the proof of his life. It felt very good. His legs and feet felt good. And he knew their purpose were to carry him forward.

 

But to what? What was his purpose?

 

Then Strongman saw what was being carried at his hip. His hand wrapped around... the hilt, yes. Strongman pulled the... sword free of it's containment. The STEEL! It was bright as the sun caught it's surface and Strongman looked into it. Inside the steel, as if it were one with it, Strongman saw the reflection of himself. The Strongman of the steel had long hair, straight and hanging past his ears. He had a strong jaw and a nose that was bent at the center. He had eyes that pierced as deep as an arrow, eyes that were made to be free and live under no unit's laws. Strongman understood this steel reflection, and the Strongman in the steel smiled his satisfaction back to him. For Strongman understood the purpose of his life.

 

He was popped to make war upon others with that sword. He was popped to satisfy his desires. The purpose of his arms were to wield steel and take life to prolong his own so that he may continue to exist to take more life.

 

Strongman was satisfied with this conclusion.

 

And so he began to walk, the footprints showing the proof of his popping forgotten. He no longer needed them. He was now defined by the footprints of his moving forward.

 

2

 

Strongman discovered something during his movement on that first turn of life. He discovered that he could climb.

 

While moving forward, Strongman found himself facing a sheer cliff at the edge of a mountain. No, a part of the mountain. He was already on the mountain, that was wooded and part of a range of mountains. But this cliff led to the highest mountain in the area. And the cliff was in his way.

 

And so Strongman decided that he would climb it. His fingers found the tiny crevices that could grant purchase. His toes reached footholds that he never suspected were there. Strongman found that he could not only climb, but that he was skilled in doing so. As if he was so much a part of the mountain that he could discern it's secrets through his contact with it. The climbing felt right. It burned his forearms and his back with the strain of hours of effort, but even so it felt... familiar. Yes.

 

And so Strongman climbed. And with the last of his movement for the day, Strongman reached the top. Pulling himself over the edge of the cliff face, Strongman saw what was beyond the cliff, at the top of the mountain he's been popped on. It was an even taller mountain, with even crueler cliffs and crags rising higher than the clouds. It was a mountain that was impossible to climb, it was so mighty that it could only be a landmark mountain, the mountain that ruled the range from the heights that it's majesty granted it. And as Strongman gazed in awe at the terrain he would never even hope to conquer, the setting sun struck the side of the mountain.

 

The snow and ice of the mountain king caught the reds and yellows of the sun, and leapt to life. The surface shimmered and shone as if it was a polished mirror within a bed of jewels and crystals. The mountainside heaved with color, as if breathing a satisfied breath at being adorned in such spectacular raiment. The mountain itself seemed alive with a nobility that no Erfly king could ever command!

 

And so Strongman, breathless as he watched the diminishing light grant him this spectacular show, he knew the name of the mountain that shimmered with Titan blessed strength and dignity. It was Shim, and it was the first, and potentially last, being that Strongman would admit as being greater than himself. It was no small admission in Strongman's eyes, but he now felt honored to have been popped on the mountain's slopes. And in honor of that mountain that had given him life and temporary humility, Strongman proclaimed to the Titans and the sky and the mountain and the snows, that he accepted Shim as his father. And that he would henceforth be Strongman the Shimmerian!

 

Such was Strongman's pride of the great mountain-father he had adopted that he didn't hear the approach of the wolf stack until it was too late for him to do anything more than be surrounded by them.

 

With swiftly padding feet in the snow, the Virginia Wolves took a hunting station, pinning him against the cliff edge and leaving no room to break through their formation, growling hungrily as they eyed him. Strongman had no desire to run, even from these odds, for who was afraid of Virginia Wolves? Not Strongman.

 

But even so, he was level 1. Even though Strongman was a Lord of War, he was at a disadvantage. Which meant the best way for him to survive the night was to defeat the leader of the wolf stack. That leader was fairly obvious to find, it's shoulder height dwarfing the others in the stack and it's fangs nightmarishly long with permanent red stains.

 

Strongman looked at the stack leader, the alpha, and growled. Strongman hunched and growled, and snarled and stared. He challenged the alpha in a way that even the feral would understand, no maybe a way that Strongman understood that a feral life form would understand. At first, the alpha didn't bother, but the others in the wolf stack took notice. It was a challenge! They had no part in it. And one by one the subordinate wolves stood from their hunting posture and broke from the stack to make room for the contest they knew was coming.

 

The alpha was not happy. It was obviously more inclined to dine than to have a proper fight. But it had been challenged by the two legs that acted like a fanged four legs. And so the alpha accepted.

 

Strongman and the alpha circled one another until the cliff was to their side, the better for the alpha to pounce as the danger of falling off the cliff diminished. Strongman was only too happy to oblige. It would mean nothing to fight and defeat the alpha if he were to cheat in doing so. He needed the wolves to fear him, and cheating would only enrage them.

 

And so, after the two combatants were happily in position, the alpha advanced, snapping at Strongman's hands and face. Strongman on his hands and the balls of his feet pushed left and right to avoid the snaps, but more effectively, Strongman advanced, swinging his meaty hands to grab the alpha's forelegs in an attempt to break it's stance, drop the beast to the ground and then pounce on it. The alpha was wily though, and learned in the ways of animal dueling. The alpha hopped back, and skipped one leg or the other free of Strongman's grasping reach, even as it snapped at strongman's attacking hands.

 

And it was just Strongman's hands that he used to attack with. Strongman had forgotten he carried a sword. He forgot all about his steel in facing this dueling wolf. The two combatants faced one another with only what the Titans and Shim had blessed their bodies with. Might versus cunning. Strength against nature. Strongman may have been bested by Shim, but no simple wolf was going to bring him low!

 

Strongman charged at the alpha, enraged at the beast's continuous withdrawals from his hands reach. He bellowed as his hands seized the alpha's mane, and then with a twist of his body, Strongman hurled the alpha to the ground with it's torn up snow. Strongman's grip did not fail him, the mane and flesh was tight in his grasp as he sought the neck, to break the bones and claim victory. But the alpha was no quitter, and it's experience allowed it to sink it's teeth into Stronman's arm, weakening the grip enough to wriggle free and bite down into the meat around Strongman's collarbone. The alpha twisted and wrenched and tore. Strongman felt the damage to his hits, but little else. He was enraged that such a simple move could have turned the contest against him. Obviously the neck was not the point to target. But then what was?

 

The alpha continued to wrench and tear. It had no notion of releasing it's toothy grasp. So Strongman grabbed the alpha's maw with both hands, and began to pull.

 

The teeth were sharp and they dug into Strongman's hands - into his fingers! Strongman could feel the fangs rasping against the bones of his fingers! But the alpha's bite softened, and as Strongman put more force into his hands, he could feel the teeth leave his shoulder. He could feel the alpha yank back and forth. Strongman could see the fear in the alpha's eyes! And he kept putting more strength in. The alpha was now panicking and yelping as it's mouth was forced open wider and wider! And still Strongman pushed and pulled at the mouth, forcing it wider still. Strongman could feel that the fangs had pierced all the way through his hands, and he kept pushing!

 

And with a rending crack, the alpha's neck was severed by the savage breaking of the jaw.

 

The alpha went limp and lifeless. The wolf stack leapt backwards, startled and in awe. And they watched Strongman stand erect from the battle, and challenge them with his eyes, as if asking which was next to face him and croak. Finally, one of the wolves uttered a low, quiet howl, and dipped it's head. Then another and another wolf did the same, following their new leader's example. After the final wolf bowed it's head to Strongman, the new alpha turned, and led the wolf stack away from Strongman.

 

"That wolf stack is strong," said Strongman to no one. "It will not go hungry."

 

And speaking of hunger... Strongman decided to celebrate his victory by creating a campfire and roasting the alpha. Strongman had to make Upkeep, and a wolf of that size would feed him for a few turns at least.

 

With wolf juices trickling down his jaw, Strongman proclaimed to his father in the distance, "Today was a good day to be popped!"

 

3

 

The afternoon shadows were beginning to lengthen as Strongman strode confidently into the barbarian city of Vain. He had the right to be confident, considering he had become level 2 in the wilds, and wore the pelts of his meals for warmth. The first wolf he fought held a place of honor, the forelegs entwined about his neck to keep his back warm, but the fur was worse for wear after all the fighting. For some reason, skinned hides did not count as raiment, and did not cleanse at dawn.

 

But that didn't matter. Strongman had finally reached the city the Barbarian hunters had told him about. It was gratifying to encounter other Barbarians who did not wish to fight Strongman, and to find a community where he could possibly do some trading. Earn some Shmuckers to safeguard his upkeep. For there were always ways to earn Shmuckers in a barbarian town.

 

The Guardsmen at the front gate and it's pointed lumber walls gave Strongman an appraising stare as he passed them. They didn't seem to see anything objectionable, for they did nothing to bar Strongman's way. Which was good. Strongman was in the mood for at least a little hospitality before he broke some skulls.

 

Strongman got directions from a Hunter that was relaxing in a chair in front of what was apparently his claimed dwelling, and quickly found the tannery. In a city owned by a side, the tanneries and all other functions would apparently operate on their own. But for Barbarian cities where the resident population had little to nothing to do with those who actually owned the cities, workers were required to produce weapons and armors for the barbarian customers. And the raw resource production of a barbarian city, with no interweaving of resource types from specialized cities like Sides had, was slim. Slim enough that it was necessary for raw materials to be purchased from Barbarians like Strongman to meet the demands of the populace.

 

After all, it was cities like these where Barbarians armed up and grew their numbers before marching on established sides to try their fortunes. So there was a large demand for equipment, for a very migratory customer base.

 

Strongman entered the tannery. There were only three fabrication specialized Laborer units in there. Strongman supposed they'd be titled Courtiers if they'd been popped by a side and not by a barbarian city. The most grizzled one amongst them strode over to Strongman, clapped leather shavings from his hands, and opened the conversation with a, "So, what'cha wanting?"

 

After Strongman made clear his intentions to sell, the grizzled Laborer took him to a table to spread out the pelts. It took a while for Strongman to pull them all from the pack at his hip, but when he'd done so the Laborer nodded consideringly.

 

"With this many, and this quality... five hundred Shmuckers, even. You need to work on your skinning, son. But don't let that stop you from trying. Anything you'd like to buy while you're here?"

 

Strongman considered for a moment. He could pay upkeep for several turns on that amount, even without preparing his own meals. But there was something he wanted more at the moment.

 

"I could use some armor. I am a little under protected at the moment." Strongman lifted his arms to indicate his naked chest. Then picked up the wolf pelt, the one he'd slain with his own hands and said, "What can you make with this?"

 

The Laborer considered and said, "Not much, to be honest. It's good hide, from a strong animal, but it's torn up to the point that it'd be better off being made into leather strips instead of armor. Buuuuuut... I can swing something. It wouldn't offer much protection, but it'd be cheap. Since you provided the hide, I'd say fifty Shmuckers for production and delivery. Sound good?"

 

Strongman took the Laborer's outstretched hand, and held the grip more firmly than he needed too. "Only if the quality is satisfactory. If I find my armor wanting, you would be wise to repay me for the disappointment."

 

The Laborer swallowed hard at the eyes of Strongman, as cold and blue as a lake of ice, despite all his turns of experience with barbarians. He nodded and told Strongman, "You don't have to worry. I'll take care of your armor myself." Meaning he'd have normally pawned it off on a junior Laborer otherwise. Strongman smiled and turned to leave. But the Laborer called out to him before he could exit.

 

"If you still have any meat to go along with these pelts, you could sell them to the quartermaster. We're always in need of red meat around here."

 

Strongman didn't doubt it. Every Barbarian he'd seen in the city looked like they had a frame to keep fed. None as impressive as Strongman's, though. None that he'd seen at least. And Strongman had more meat in his pack than he could eat. He seemed to attract animal aggression in the wild, and he had yet to be beaten. It left Strongman wondering how he'd fare against an opponent that used swords instead of fangs to fight...

 

As Strongman neared the city's larder he found himself really wishing to test his steel against another human type unit...

 

As Strongman introduced himself to the quartermaster, Strongman found himself wanting to test his steel against that particular Laborer's skull.

 

"Oh!" shouted the greasy handed quartermaster at a highly unnecessary volume to be heard over the sound of the adjoined tavern kitchen. "It's good to have a seller today! What have ya brought!"

 

The man seemed to only speak in exclamation points. It grated on Strongman's nerves immediately. Laying out the wolf meat, the bear haunches, and the boar ribs, the quartermaster, of course, exclaimed aloud. "Oh! How wonderful! And these" he indicated the bear meat, "are excellent Bear Asses! I'm always in need of Bear Asses!"

 

Strongman raised an eyebrow. The conversation had taken a strange turn.

 

"I'm always charging adventure seeking Barbarians to find me more Bear Asses! I would go myself, but I'm no adventurer! So I have to task others with doing it in my stead!"

 

Strongman found himself wishing there was a way to quickly skip this conversation and just get his payment already.

 

"You know! If you could go back out and bring me oh, say, 7 Bear Asses, I could make it worth your while!"

 

Seven? That seemed like a strange number to choose, since last time Strongman checked every bear had two haunches. Why not eight?

 

"So, will you accept my request!?"

 

"No," Strongman stated emphatically. Strongman pushed the conversation along forcefully, got his payment, and left the public larder. He immediately turned to enter the tavern for some booze and company. Strongman had seen the Harlot class Laborers in there through the window and was looking forward to Bare Asses of his own that night. Strongman was about to open the door when a voice from behind him called out, leaving Strongman's hackles standing from the poor timing.

 

"Oh, ho, so you really were a Warlord."

 

Strongman turned. He saw a white bearded and grey haired man of solidly lean muscle mass wearing the highest quality sky blue wool garments that could be produced in a level one barbarian city. There was plundered jewelry around his neck, on his fingers, and in his ears. The overall impression the man's body, slim face, clothing, and body language conveyed was that of a man of great physical capability, and greater intellect.

 

"Stranger," the unidentified man said as a bulky thug of similar size to Strongman grunted at his shoulder. "Would you do me the honor of dining at my table tonight after I've finished inspecting my city?"

 

"Your city?" asked Strongman, his hand still on the tavern door handle.

 

"Yes. My city. I am Proude, the Vainerman. Head of the tribe and owner of this city." Strongman felt a penetrating appraisal come from Proude's eyes in the split second between sentences. "And I may just have a few jobs you'd be interested in."

 

4

 

The dinner was more than acceptable, as it had turned out.

 

Strongman had been loathe to leave the entertainments of the tavern, with the songs, spirits, and women it promised. But he'd found the table spread of the Tribe-Head to be adequate. Proude did not adorn his table lavishly, which raised him in Strongman's eyes. Proud ate bread, meat, cheese, and cabbage with roles of another seasoned meat inside of them. He drank beer, not wine, and there was a single Musician Laborer with a stringed instrument the woman plucked at while singing softly for entertainment.

 

It seemed she had been taken from duty at the tavern for the meal. Both her face and voice were worthy of the compliment, in Strongman's appraisal.

 

Strongman and Proude ate at a table that would have been at home in the tavern, not too large to be impersonal, and not too small to be intimate. It was the table of a man who did not overly value appearances, but had the confidence to present himself unaided. Despite the way he dressed, Proude was a true barbarian at heart, Strongman concluded.

 

The dishes of food were brought to the table by handsome women, Servant class Laborers, not Harlots. Strongman could see the lack of the underlying wildness in their movements and their garb that he had noticed in the Harlots even through the tavern window. But despite that leaning towards a more subdued atmosphere that Proude apparently preferred at his personal dinner table, Strongman enjoyed himself based solely on his dinner companion. Strongman and Proude were telling stories about their lives. Proude obviously had more tales to tell, but when Strongman spoke of his encounters with the beasts of the wild, Proude listened in a way that showed he both understood and appreciated Strongman's experiences. The Vainer-Head even went so far as to exclaim, "Such experience in one so young is quite admirable!"

 

The tales that Proude chose to share, for Strongman was certain he had many more, and of greater quality, were able to meet up well with Strongman's experiences. Tales of eventful hunts, unexpected meetings in the wilderness, and his own early days of life and how he'd nearly been croaked by a Greater Rock Lobster, larger than himself along the shores of the Hypothermian Seas, and ended up feasting on it's body for days afterwards.

 

Aside from the silent and perfunctory presence of Gall Stone, the Vainer-Head's guard and city Warlord, it was a flawless night of low key bonding between two Barbarian Warlords.

 

Except for one event that did not escape Strongman's notice. It was when Proude had started on a story of an unexpected meeting, that he claimed as being the most disturbing of his life. Proude had only gotten out the words, "There, in the deepest part of the southern forest I met the Mad Caster who-"

 

Proude then clamped his jaw shut and stared Strongman straight in the eyes for a long hard moment before leaning back into his chair, and pushed his tankard of beer away from him.

 

"I apologize," Proud said with a sigh. "It was not a story fit for company. What do you think of this city?"

 

Strongman did not pursue the obvious change in topic. It would have been ungrateful of Strongman to interrogate his host after such satisfactory food and drink. "It seems to be a fine place. I believe I will enjoy myself here for a time."

 

"So you intend to move on? Not surprising, it is a rare Barbarian that can stand putting down roots. It took me ages to lose my own wanderlust." Proude laughed aloud in a way that caused Strongman to chuckle along with him. "But it pleases me to know you have a positive view of my city. Unfortunately, it may not be around much longer."

 

Strongman instantly felt some of the alcohol leave his system at the dour tone of voice the Vainer-Head spoke that last sentence in, and the lilting voice of the Musician almost seemed a jarring mockery on the new atmosphere around the table. Strongman did not make the mistake of asking "why" but allowed Proude to speak at his own pace. Strongman discovered at that moment he was a man who preferred fewer words over unnecessary words.

 

"There is another nearby Barbarian city, by the name of Eras, home to the Eraser Tribe. There had been a time of balance between our forces for some hundred turns, and an air of 'live and let live.' We did not interfere in each other's hunting, and only exchanged insults when our people met in the wilderness. I believe, mostly, that it was due to the fact that both our cities only had one Warlord in addition to the Tribal Heads. Neither side could risk sending their Warlord away from their city for any length of time for fear of ambitious Barbarians trying to sack our cities instead of shopping within them. I, uh, have experience with such matters, myself."

 

The sly smile and gleam in Proude's eye made Strongman smile in kind. Strongman had a certainty that Proude did have experience in such things, from the other side of governing.

 

"But the Erasermen have recently gotten their hands on a second Warlord. A Warlady, to be exact, that they have been sending out with their stacks to hunt my Vainermen. The situation is now, 'live and let croak.' Now, my Hunters are croaked, and our tribes exchange violence at every meeting. The amount of food coming into the city has dropped, but the demand has not. Whatever Barbarians that dwell here and are willing to be hired to fight this scarlet haired Warlady are croaked, or return in disgrace. And I cannot send Gall to seek her out in the wilds, because it would leave my city vulnerable.

 

"So, I hope you can see, how the presence... or lack of a single Warlord can change the balance of power of this entire region."

 

Gall seemed to be deeply annoyed, but what Proude had said seemed to be true beyond argument. Gall knew that his departure from the city could have dire consequences. And that there was no guarantee of his safely defeating the scarlet haired Warlady should he even encounter her. Which meant Proude really needed a second, and disposable, warlord to meet like against like.

 

"You cannot pop more Warlords?"

 

"No. Vain is too low a level to produce them. There never has been, and perhaps never will be, a city popped Vainer Warlord."

 

So Gall and Proude were naturally produced warlords of the wilderness, then.

 

"You cannot promote anyone from your garrison?"

 

"...No. I have the funds, but... there are complicated reasons why such a thing is impossible."

 

Proude seemed troubled over those reasons. Conflicted, but adamant. And Strongman could see he shouldn't inquire further, for he would receive no answer.

 

"What would be my payment?"

 

"Shmuckers. Equipment. Hospitality, and friendship. And a chance to test your steel against human opponents." Proude smiled broadly, and Strongman grimaced. Strongman had not noticed Proude catching that desire of his, he'd thought it to be subtle, but apparently he was wrong. But Strongman was wholly against appearing to be eager, and so asked, "What equipment would I receive?"

 

Proude stood up without a word, and motioned for Strongman to follow. He did so, and Gall unhappily took up the rear. Strongman did not like having the brute behind him, but Proude had far more to lose than Strongman by any kind of betrayal at that point, for Strongman could feel the truth of the Tribe-Head's words. And so after walking through a hall decorated in polished metal panels worked with designs to reflect the light, and works of minor art in bone and stone, Strongman was led to a single room and told, "This is my personal armory, Strongman. Agree to fight for my city until the threat of the encroaching Erasermen and their Tribal Head is over and any one piece of equipment is yours to have for good."

 

Strongman stepped past Proude and his outstretched arm, which presented the room theatrically. The armory itself was rather small, holding only what was meant for one man to be able to select a set of equipment for any occasion. Light leather armors. Medium leather. A set of chain mail with fur backing. A plate breastplate. Swords of three sizes, a set of spears, and a war axe hung on the wall. And sitting on a work bench, recently oiled, was a beat up helmet of simple design. Flat, undecorated surfaces that curved to conform to the head. The fur padding on the interior and a pair of subdued horns on either side of the helmet were the only decoration, and neither were meant for anything other than utilitarian uses. The fur to pad blows, the horns to catch weapons before they slid down to the shoulders. It was obviously the most used piece of equipment in the room, and seemed like it was older than everything else in the room combined.

 

Strongman wanted it. He wanted it so much that any trace of doubt over his being hired for the conflict between the Vainer and Eraser had been wiped out completely along with the idea of joining the Eraser-Head he'd had during negotiations. One does not simply join the losing side of a war, after all. And Strongman's respect for Proude precluded any thought of stealing the helmet.

 

"Very well, this helmet will be part of the payment. I will fight for you."

 

Proude's face lit up, like all his troubles had ended in that one moment. The Vainer-Head ushered the other two Warlords back to the room where they had dined to enjoy a celebratory drink of a much harder liquid. Proude openly happy, Strongman quietly so, and Gall openly displeased, but willing to pretend towards amiability. As the drink burned in his belly, Strongman looked through the door that the servants had used to carry food and dishes through, and saw the Musician inside, enjoying the meal that was her due after a night of melodies and song. Strongman looked at the woman's hair, as red as a gem, which was a common trait amongst the Vainermen, Strongman had noticed. But her hair seemed softer than many of the others, and it was inlaid with clasps of bone and silver to direct it into a flow down her back, clearly exposing the slender throat that produced those beautiful songs in harmony with her instrument. The neck led further down, to a bare set of shoulders and a proportionally perfect chest covered in a woolen green dress cinched tight around a waist Strongman thought he could span with his hands.

 

And as a new fire was lit inside him, Strongman knew that he wanted to try spanning that waist.

 

Strongman jerked his head and quietly called to Proude. When the man came over after having finished his instructions for the preparation of a room to a servant, Strongman spoke quietly to him. "You mentioned Hospitality earlier. I was wondering if it included... a warm bed."

 

Strongman directed his gaze, and Proude followed it. For a brief moment, Proude did not know the insinuation, but when he understood, without taking his eyes off the Musician, he gruffly said, "I am a Barbarian, not a king. And she is not a Harlot. I will not give such an order."

 

The finality of the tone was crushing, and Strongman felt a fierce aggression that immediately pointed towards Proude. It was not violent, yet, but Strongman could feel the alcohol rapidly pushing him in such a direction.

 

"However," said Proude, without turning his gaze. "If you were to ask the lady and she were to accept..." Proude turned to Strongman with a smile one only used with a partner in crime upon his face. "Then I would have no reason to interfere."

 

In other words, if a Barbarian wanted something, he had to take it himself. Strongman's aggression became embarrassment. Proude was right, and Strongman had almost lost sight of what being a Barbarian meant in that comfortable manor. Strongman smiled as a student who'd learned a valuable lesson would, and slowly, boldly, walked through the door towards the Musician.

 

The Musician noticed Strongman after having taken a bite of a pear. She quickly finished chewing and dabbed at her lips with a cloth. The traces of juice shone upon her painted lips, the same ruby color as her hair. The woman inquired into Strongman's well being and his presence in the most demure and well mannered means that any woman in that city could possess. Strongman worked hard to keep his ardor controlled, and asked the Musician her name.

 

Simone. The name pulled at Strongman's willpower even harder.

 

Strongman used the chance to introduce himself, and to share how much he had enjoyed her music, her voice especially. His eloquence and selection of words had surprised Simone. Strongman had been surprised by his own words himself, he hadn't known he was able to speak so well. And so, Strongman continued. He told Simone how much he would enjoy it if she could join him as a fellow guest for the short celebration in the other room, for he would be employed as a Warlord for a time to come. And that the night would only be more enjoyable if Simone were to be upon his arm.

 

Simone had not been popped yesterday. She knew the aims and advances of men. What they really wanted when they looked at her. She was not a Harlot, one who not only did not have the permission to reject advances, but openly enjoyed them. Simone could choose, it was a right she made liberal use of considering the normal ale sodden wretches that funneled into the tavern, and then upstairs with the Harlots.

 

But something about the Barbarian Warlord entranced her.

 

His eyes were most definitely feral. But there was a control inside them that assured her safety.

 

His bare frame was massive. But held a fluid grace instead of the uncontrolled roughness of other barbarians.

 

His outstretched hand was enormous. But it was unthreatening. It left the choice entirely up to Simone as to accept the invitation, or to deny it. And somewhere deep inside, Simone knew that if she were to deny the Barbarian, he would slowly retract that hand and leave with the same dignity he had shown when he'd offered it.

 

So Simone accepted the hand, placing her own into it's gently enfolding grasp. Strongman led her into the parlor where the dinner had been enjoyed, and Simone received a drink straight from the hands of Proude himself. The evening wore on enjoyably, and even Gall began to let some uncharacteristic happiness inside himself. And as Simone hung politely on and off Strongman's arm that night, she wondered what it would feel like to caress that arm, and the chest it was attached to.

 

Strongman, too, wondered, what it would feel like to caress Simone's back and hips.

 

And before dawn, they both satisfied their curiosity.

 

5

 

Strongman was smiling as he walked down the street to the tannery. Or perhaps smirking. He could not tell, but Strongman realized that he enjoyed having his mouth upturned instead of grimacing. He enjoyed being around other Speaking units, rather than ferals. He had enjoyed the drink, the food, and most of all, the company. Strongman could still taste Simone's lips and smell her hair if he concentrated. Strongman found that he was looking forward to another night with Simone as soon as possible, if only to improve on his understanding of her "weak points" that he'd learned late into the night.

 

Strongman found that he liked Simone. Perhaps more than he liked smiling, which he continued to do as he entered the tannery.

 

Strongman caught the head Laborer as he entered, and the man smiled when he saw how good Strongman's mood was. The Laborer opened with pleasantries, which Strongman replied to with an amiable grunt. Good mood or no, Strongman was there for only one purpose, which the Laborer caught onto. Showing Strongman to a counter, the Laborer produced his work and laid it on the countertop.

 

Strongman's smile disappeared.

 

"You made me a fuzzy loincloth," Strongman said with a growl.

 

The Laborer was obviously caught aback, but his pride in his work obviously kept him from being cowed by Strongman's very worthwhile anger. "No! No, no! This is a girdle!"

 

"I don't care what it is, I'm not wearing it instead of pants, you rot-popped sack of-"

 

Finally cowering, the Laborer cried out, "You wear them OVER your legging, good sir! They're there to protect your parts!"

 

Strongman held off, his anger kept in reserve, and allowed the Laborer to continue speaking. Catching the intent, the Laborer explained the armor he'd made for all his life was worth.

 

"You complained about the cold, yes? Well, hide armor is much warmer than leather armor, because it retains the fur lining. It'll help to keep you warmer in your travels. And, besides, there was not enough of the skin left for me to make anything of proper leather, it takes layers to do that. And this girdle was the largest armor I could make, sir! I never promised a vest, or even a helmet, for which I'm glad seeing as you are now adorned with such a fine steel helm. Truly, this is the finest work I could produce with the pelt you gave me, that and these-"

 

The Laborer plopped two wrist guards onto the counter. No proper armor at all, but made of actual leather with brass rivets and trims.

 

"These here wristlets were all I could produce! The area covered won't be great, but it will provide you at least a partial boost to your defenses. And you know, the girdle," the Laborer bent in closer to loudly whisper the words with a disgusting smile, "It is an armor meant to protect what many consider the most important part of the body."

 

Strongman considered the night he'd spent with Simone, a flash of her red hair and it's smell appearing in his mind. Strongman suddenly felt agreeable to such a point of view. It would be a shame to ever have to wait until cleansing to enjoy himself.

 

"Very well then. Forty-five Shmuckers for producing me equipment of... dubious taste." The Laborer quickly agreed, seeing as how he didn't feel like haggling with Strongman while he was in such a precarious mood. "So, how do I put these things on?"

 

The Laborer reached out his hands, took up the girdle, saying, "Oh, please let me just-" The Laborer stopped speaking abruptly at the look Strongman gave him, then set the girdle on the counter again. "J-just explain how you equip such items, good sir."

 

After a few minutes, Strongman walked out of the tannery, much to the occupant's relief, and walked towards the city's gates to meet with the Hunters that Strongman was to lead. During the walk, Strongman spent the time mentally observing the behavior of his new equipment.

 

The defensive boost was, as the Laborer stated before, minimal. Almost negligible. But it was there. And Strongman had to admit his snug parts were a little more comfortable. And there was a slight satisfaction to knowing his first adversary was keeping that part of his body safe.

 

A smirk, yes, a smirk this time, of satisfaction hung on his lips as Strongman met the hunters at the gate, and they proceeded to exit the city in a stack eight barbarians strong.

 

6

 

In the past few days of stacking with the Vainer Hunters, Strongman had learned many more things about himself. For instance, Strongman had learned he could use a bow fairly well upon a dare made one night around a campfire. Strongman did not have the Archery special, but he somehow knew his way around the use of a missile weapon.

 

He was unable to properly aim for a specific spot on a target, but Strongman could aim at the target, and hit it more often than not. As if Strongman had been trained in the methods of shooting. One of the Hunters had remarked that Strongman's technique lacked all finesse, but his strength and balance were making up for it. The remark had amused all at the campfire that night, Strongman included. For Strongman had also learned that he enjoyed the company of others in the wilds as much as he liked his solitude.

 

The Hunters would eagerly tell Strongman of the terrain in the area during the day, pointing in odd directions, completely sure of their bearings, and Strongman made sure to retain their teachings.

 

By night, the Hunters would tell of their own modest adventures of skirmishing with Erasermen and dangerous game, and heard of Strongman's own. The Hunters were held rapt with amazement when Strongman told them of his climb up the sheer rock face.

 

But most importantly, the Hunters told Strongman the reason why the city of Vain was free. And that reason was geographic.

 

The city of Vain was too far from any capital site to be worth conquering. Vain and Eras stood so far from any standing side that the cost of sending troops to take the city outweighed any benefit to holding it, especially considering the density of Barbarians in the region. Vain and Eras were military sinkholes. It was an uncommon situation, but by no means unique, Strongman understood.

 

"After all," stated one scraggly red bearded Hunter named Skorg, "There 'as to be some places in the world fer us Barbarians ta' call home!"

 

And the last thing Strongman discovered during those days, was that he enjoyed being employed to a job.

 

Up until then, Strongman had been traveling at random. He was directionless, and he'd felt it. There was no task or goal. But for the past few days, uneventful though they were, Strongman had a goal. And enemies.

 

Strongman could not put into words the dully throbbing satisfaction of being on guard as he crept through the terrain on the balls of his feet, as quiet or quieter than the seasoned Vainer Hunters. The constant sense of potential danger, pulling his thoughts tighter than the bowstrings the Hunters held. The single-mindedness of a task at hand. It was a joy that made his meals tastier at night.

 

Strongman's attention was unwavering for days as the hunt succeeded in collecting game and dropping the spoils off at the city regularly. And that taut attention was what saved the entire stack one day.

 

The stack was downwind of a sawbuck, hidden in some brush with most of the men on their bellies. The best shot in the group, a bushy mustached man named Varn remarked upon the sawbuck's serrated antlers being a "forty toother at the least" as he drew his arrow and aimed to put the beast down.

 

Strongman saw the sawbuck's ears flick and it's head move as Varn released his grip on the arrow shaft. The beast's lungs and heart were pierced in one shot, but not by Varn's arrow. Varn's arrow was held in Strongman's grip, the warlord having grabbed the shaft before the bow could finish it's recoiling to fire it's projectile. The Hunters were transfixed and speechless, Varn especially with a mixture of annoyance, gratitude, and bewilderment on his face as he murmured the word, "How?"

 

Strongman did not turn his head, he was intent on the sawbuck transfixed by the foreign arrow, one with red fletching, Strongman noticed. But he answered. "The 'bucks ears flicked such that it heard something. But the ears did not point towards us. Hush, they come."

 

As Varn took the arrow from Strongman's outstretched palm, some figures emerged from bushes that were away from the Vainermen's, but still downwind of the sawbuck. It was not long until the Vainermen could make out the figures and countenance of the foreign hunting group. It was a full stack of eight, seven of them with the blond hair of the Erasermen. The last was a woman with scarlet red hair with a red fletched arrow nocked into a bowstring. Strongman heard the breath of the Vainermen catch in their throats, surprised that they would actually come upon the dreaded red-haired warlady at all, let alone so quickly. Strongman was neither surprised, nor dismayed. He was excited.

 

But Strongman was not careless.

 

Strongman studied the stack and their leader as they moved towards the sawbuck. Four Stabber Guardsmen and four Hunters, including the warlady. The stabbers had no noteworthy gear, except that they were equipped for stealth and carried weapons meant to be used on human opponents. The Hunters were equipped just like the Vainer Hunters. The warlady was wearing a forest green tunic, padded and most probably armored, over the normal traveling clothes and sturdy boots. And on her head rested a pointed green cap with a single red feather stuck into a band. Her choice of weaponry was unique. She had both a bow and quiver on her back and a long sword at her hip.

 

The warlady stowed her bow and it's arrow on her back to set to the task of cleaning the sawbuck, and Strongman took that as the opening to exploit. Lifting his hand with two outstretched fingers as his order, the Vainermen set their arrows. The warlady's head lifted just a bit, as if some unnatural sense caught the whiff of danger, but it was too late. Pointing his finger forward, the Vainermen served their volley at the Erasermen.

 

Two Hunters and one Stabber were croaked in the attack, an excellent start, but Strongman was not so newly popped not to take further advantage by grunting the word, "Again."

 

As the Erasermen stacked and figured out which direction the arrows came from, the second volley reached them, just barely in time to screen the warlady at the cost of two more croaked. She still took an arrow in the shoulder, though, which Strongman had no real opinion on either way. Sure, Strongman would enjoy a one on one fight and croak her then, but if a warrior was injured on the battlefield before facing Strongman, then it's their own fault for being injured in the first place.

 

But enough of the sophism. It was time to charge.

 

Strongman and his stack broke through the foliage of the bushes and charged for the enemy with a bellow, holding their bows in the left hand as they yanked long knives free with the other. Though ranged units, they had extensive experience cutting into the bodies of the ferals they'd hunted, and they had complete trust in their stack bonus. After all, the Eraser stack had been dropped from eight to three before engaging, meaning the combined warlord and stack bonus the Vainer held dwarfed that of their enemy.

 

The Vainer Hunters could croak the Erasermen just by sneezing hard on them.

 

And the Eraser warlady knew it. So she ran. She unhesitatingly, and disgracefully ran from the fight, her two remaining units screening her from behind.

 

The ambush had suddenly become a foot chase. The warlady knew how to move, Strongman could grant her that, and he also begrudgingly admitted that her retreat was the right move to make. Begrudgingly because Strongman wished to settle their fight then and there as opposed to having a shooting and cross country fleeing biathlon beforehand. As the two stacks drew closer to the hex boundary, Strongman felt a momentary leap of hope for settling the matter quickly since it was still his stack's turn.

 

And then Strongman chastised himself as the scarlet warlady's stack passed through the boundary, soon followed by Strongman's stack crossing after them. As Strongman felt a Move tick off his status, me mentally kicked himself. The warlady's stack were also Barbarians. All barbarians shared the same movement phase, since the Titans probably couldn't be bothered to sort out micro sides like barbarian city states for turn order. So Strongman finally realized the true nature of the warlady's action. She wasn't fleeing to buy herself time. She was gambling on whether or not Strongman's stack had less Move left than her own with her survival at stake.

 

Strongman sneered at the realization, since it meant it was going to be a long chase.

 

The snow churned under Strongman's boots. His breath steamed the air that whipped into his eyes. Sweat crystallized into salty ice on Strongman's bare chest. Strongman pushed his stack to keep moving as quickly as possible, and was infuriated to feel like the Hunters were holding back his movement. And there, ever in front of him, was the scarlet stain of the warlady's hair on the white landscape as it whipped in the breeze. Like a fiery ember on a blank canvas. Never growing nearer, but never pulling further away. Agonizingly near, yet untouchable. Strongman could feel the overpowering need to put a sword through that feminine body, see the eyes scrunch up into exes, and feel the boost to his experience.

 

The stacks crossed hex after hex. The footrace was unending. The terrain was treacherous to the point that one false step could cripple a runner. But no one fell on either side. The stalemate continued as though it would last forever. Until the final hex boundary.

 

The light shimmering of the hex boundary the scarlet warlady was approaching seemed like the lights in the sky above Shim, strongly reminding Strongman of his father. And so, Strongman could feel the end of the chase coming, that Fate was going to make it's decision right then. So Strongman forced even greater power into his legs, and subconsciously pushed the gasping and straining Hunters into a final burst of speed to meet the scarlet warlady as she reached the hex's boundary, to smash into her the moment she reeled from it's immovable contact.

 

The warlady and her stack passed through. Strongman and his stack did not.

 

Bouncing slightly from the softly yielding impact, Strongman lightly stumbled until his balance recovered. Panting such that Strongman could not even hear his pounding heart, he shuffled to the hex boundary, with the scarlet haired warlady taking breath on just the other side. Strongman reflected for a moment over his excitement getting the better of his awareness of his own status, and then spoke.

 

"I am Strongman the Shimmerian, currently in the employ of Vain."

 

The scarlet haired warlady mastered her gasping for a moment, and replied. "I have no name to give the likes of you. Return to your master empty handed, and bemoan your incompetence."

 

After that, the warlady's stack picked themselves back up, literally, as they were dropping from exhaustion, and disappeared into the trees.

 

Strongman watched them go, as still as a bronze statue. Then he punched the boundary wall, his fist slowing to a stop like he was striking a mass of blubber. The punch was wholly unsatisfying.

 

Strongman did not speak again for the rest of that day. None of the Vainermen made the mistake of trying to engage Strongman in conversation.

 

7

 

Strongman was annoyed.

 

He'd had another fine meal with the Vainer-Head and three in the tavern, one of which involved a fine fist fight. But Strongman's mood was hardly lightened.

 

The nights that Strongman was able to have with Simone cheered him up while they lasted, while she was near. But as soon as she was away from him, Strongman began brooding again.

 

If Strongman had withheld the second volley, he may have been able to engage the scarlet warlady. He could have taken her head and felt what it was like to croak a Speaking unit. But it would have been wasteful to do so. He would have thrown an advantage down the latrine. It would have been stupid. But Strongman could have fought if he had. But he'd have fought stupidly, which was no way for a warrior to fight.

 

Strongman was caught in his circular self-recrimination.

 

Turns passed, and Strongman finally had a fight against Speaking units, but it was an empty victory to him. The stack was of four Hunters and four Stabber Guardsmen, without a warlord. They were hardly quiet while moving through the forest hexes and Strongman was able to organize an ambush on them, learning from the previous fight. Strongman organized the stack into an open wedge to catch the moving stack from two angles. After the initial volley, Strongman moved forward, immediately engaging as two Hunters moved in behind the Eraser stack to cut off their escape.

 

The Erasermen were one-sidedly croaked. Fast. Simple. Easy. Unsatisfying.

 

Unchallenging.

 

And thus, Strongman continued brooding. Even through the third dinner that Proude held with Strongman. It was such a deep bog of emotion that Gall took Strongman aside after the meal and spoke the only words Strongman had distinctly heard from him.

 

"You did well," the man said, in a thick voice not much used. "You will do better."

 

While the words reassured him, they did not touch the heart of Strongman's melancholy. Strongman's desire to fight an equal. A desire that seemed like it would drag out unto eternity, but was, in fact, addressed only a few turns later when Strongman picked up the footprints of a full stack in the snow. And one of the set of footprints was larger than the others.

 

A warlord.

 

At that realization, Strongman's brooding disappeared, and what was left was the contained burning of anticipation.

 

8

 

They were definitely Erasermen. All of them had the blond hair of Eras popped units, except their Warlord. Yes. Warlord. The scarlet warlady was not with them. In her place was a bulky man with messily matted black hair and a thickly tangled beard wearing a chain mail vest of excellent make. One of the Vainer Hunters whispered behind a shielding hand that he was the original warlord from Eras, a warlord centered around melee combat. Strongman only briefly wondered why the Eraser-Head would send their primary warlord out when they needed to keep order in their city as much as Vain did before working out a plan of attack.

 

The Erasermen were setting up camp, their move was obviously spent, and one was lighting a fire to cook some fresh game they'd caught, small critters already cleaned and on pointy sticks. The warlord was not doing anything but keeping a watch out, negligently so. The warlord had been a garrison unit for too long, he'd lost the feeling of the wilds. But shortly the camp would be set and the Erasermen would start keeping watch. Strongman had to act before that happened, while all the Erasermen were together and unwary.

 

Strongman called his stack together and gave them instructions, and then forced one of them, Varn with the mustache, to repeat it back to him. Varn was to be the leader of the stack for a time in Strongman's absence.

 

Strongman's plan was to fight stupidly.

 

9

 

Wooly Bully hated camping outside. Camping was the reason he gave up on being a roaming Barbarian and agreed to work exclusively for the Eraser-Head. Wooly had never been impressed by the man's leadership, but he provided food, warm rooms, and Harlots. The level 4 Barbarian warlord had been comfortable in Eras, where he just had to be meaner than the trash that floated through the city gates to keep his place.

 

But now the fact that he was the strongest in the city had backfired, and Wooly had been sent to croak the sullen eyed warlord the scarlet haired warlady had run from. The spineless woman had run from a level 2, when she was a level 3 herself. It was pathetic.

 

"The woman is not worth her upkeep," Wooly had exclaimed into the disapproving atmosphere of the garrison when the woman had reported her failure. That was when she had challenged him, asking if Wooly thought he could do better. The only thing that had kept the woman's head on her shoulders was the untimely interruption of the Eraser-Head, who thought it was an excellent idea. And so Wooly had been dispatched to the cold wilderness in the scarlet warlady's place.

 

Wooly's grip tightened around the axe at his belt as he remembered the mocking smile the warlady cast at him at that decision. It was everything Wooly could do to have not split her brow down the center with his steel in that moment, and then again at her sarcastic remarks at the gates of Eras. But if Wooly had ended her, then he would have lost his place at Eras, and he didn't want that.

 

...Unless he croaked the Eraser-Head and took his place? Hmmm. That thought did put a smile on Wooly's face. He would think upon it more once he'd finished this Shimmerian off and returned to his warm bed and hot food. And speaking of meals.

 

The Stabber Guardsman bent over the fire received a swift kick to his side as Wooly Bully exclaimed, "When will my meat be done you worthless lump of hide! A sow cooks food faster than you!"

 

The unit cowered and begged forgiveness, pleading a few more minutes of patience. Wooly was not much inclined to give it, such was his nature. But if the meal tasted well enough, he may not use the unit as a punching bag to train his knuckles that evening. But the Guardsman never had the chance to finish preparing Wooly's meal, as arrows then rained upon the camp.

 

Two arrows struck the cooking stabber, another two struck a Hunter that was lashing the leather bindings of a tent to the peg in the ground, and the rest missed all others, burying themselves in the ground.

 

"Restack!" cried Wooly, his nature catching onto the situation faster than his mind, "And screen! Stabbers to the front!"

 

The three remaining archers lined up behind Wooly, and the two remaining stabbers in front as Wooly prepared a rush at where he thought the arrows had come from. It had required two arrows to croak each of his basic units with about a one in two chance of striking his stack, meaning that as long as he closed quickly, Wooly had nothing to fear. It took mere moments to rearrange the stack for a charge, quick enough that a second volley could not be loosed before he was plowing into the underbrush and meeting the filthy Vainermen head on.

 

With axe in hand, Wooly's feet tore at the ground as he relished the idea of splitting a skull that turn.

 

Then there was a flash of movement from the corner of his sight, and Wooly felt his stack size drop. The severed head of one of his Hunters flew into sight beside him as he felt the stack tick down to five units. And as Wooly wrenched his body around he saw a figure cut through the body of a second Hunter so deeply the unit was nearly split in two. Wooly paused from shock at the sight of the massive frame, baked to a bronzen shade by the sun, the dark hair crowning the wide foreheaded warlord who had just attacked his stack from behind on his own. Literally, on his own, for Wooly Bully could tell that Strongman was in a stack consisting of only one member! The shock of the sight, as well as the piercing glare of the Shimmerian caused Wooly to pause for a moment too long, as Strongman broke conflict with the stack without a reprisal attack, and Wooly felt his stack bonus drop by two points.

 

Wooly cursed inwardly, and pulled his disoriented stack closer together. Wooly had lost his momentum, and he heard the taught strings in the undergrowth reach their full tension. The volley was fiercer than before, landing immediately as the Shimmerian leapt back out of the flight of the arrows. All the arrows but one struck home, being fired by highly experienced Hunters at units that were now equal in leadership and stack bonuses to themselves. The end result was Wooly being left the only non-incapacitated Eras unit after the arrows struck.

 

Wooly thanked his own brilliance, as misguided a thankfulness as there had ever been, for forcing a screen on himself with his remaining units. For now Wooly Bully was still at his maximum ability to swiftly slay the Shimmerian, who waited just within engagement range, before taking cover and then hunting down the Hunters, for the man thought himself invincible in nearly all he did. However, that was exactly what Strongman had been hoping for as he planned the battle. Looking to isolate the Eraser warlord, and fight him in mortal combat. For the sting of the scarlet warlady's words and deeds were still fresh in Strongman's heart, and Strongman needed a true victory to cleanse that wound.

 

And thus it was that the two warlords charged each other. Wooly's axe struck against Strongman's sword, and Strongman felt the vibrations to his core. Strongman's strike was driven sideways, and instantly Strongman realized how misguided his plan was. It wasn't until Strongman had felt it with his own senses that he realized just how much of an advantage the two extra levels gave the Eraser warlord. As such, Strongman had no choice but to shift from attack to defense, leaping and sliding on the balls of his feet to stay out of the path of the axe's swing. While dodging the swings of the warlord who had a stature comparable to his own, Strongman quickly began devising stratagems to use.

 

Strongman quickly threw aside the idea of breaking combat and letting the archers attack again, for the Vainermen could not risk firing into the melee for fear of hitting their own warlord! For one thing, Strongman would be allowing the Eraserman a free attack at him with a defense penalty on Strongman's part. Such a free swing for the Eraserman would certainly mean Strongman's doom. And also, Strongman would not back down from this individual combat, for the simple reason that it was what Strongman had initiated himself. Strongman would have a heart croaked by shame the rest of his turns were he to flee, and that would be worse than if he were to croak on the edge of that axe blade.

 

The other option would be to gamble everything on a single attack, hoping to croak the Eraserman before the warlord's axe could come down on Strongman's head. That plan was also denied, as Strongman was unwilling to play a game of chance with his own life while another, better option potentially remained. Even though the thought was very tempting. Glory or demise...

 

Finally, as the air was rent by the passage of the axe above the Shimmerian as he ducked the blow, Strongman decided on his tactic.

 

The fight had carried the two close to the camp, and with a sidestep of the axe swing, Strongman combined that movement with a kick, sending the flaming sticks and logs of the campfire itself up and into the face and body of the Eraserman warlord. The brute instinctively moved a hand to protect his eyes, squinting and narrowing his field of vision as he did so, giving Strongman the opportunity to close. With a powerful stride, Strongman penetrated the attack range of the axe, for the Eraserman held the haft at the end for distance and heavier blows than in the center for proper balance and speed, and the sword blade Strongman had lifted high began it's swift descent to pierce through the thickly bearded warlord's neck. The blow did not land, alas, for the uplifted hand the Eraserman warlord had used to protect his eyes was able to catch Strongman's wrist, thus preserving his head from being separated from his body.

 

Even so, Strongman's ferocious strength brought the blade within a fraction of cutting the flesh of the Eraser warlord, but then it was the opportunity for the warlord's counterattack.

 

The butt of the Eraserman's axe struck Strongman just above the ear, and a wrench of Strongman's wrist caused Strongman to lose his weapon to the disarming attack. Strongman had no other weapon to use, so he used what he had left. His own body.

 

Still rattled by the blow to the head, Strongman pulled in even closer to the Eraserman, throwing his left arm over the weapon arm of the warlord and pinioning it against his own body, immobilizing the weapon. and then thrust even more forward, to bite down on the Eraserman's protruding nose. The Eraserman screamed in pain as Strongman caught the warlord's legs with his own to send the both of them to the ground where the Eraserman flailed uselessly to break strongman's grip on his arm, releasing Strongman's empty sword hand in the process. Strongman used his arm's freedom to reach out with it, and take firm hold around a wooden stake that had been driven into the ground with a mallet. The muscles in Strngman's arm bulged such that it seemed the flesh may rend of it's own doing, and the stake was pulled from the ground only to be plunged into the Eraserman's neck a moment later.

 

If Strongman had had a choice, he would have driven the stake through the Eraserman's heart, but the chainmail vest told Strongman it was not the place to drive home a wooden weapon and opted for the unprotected throat instead. As the stake was driven into the Eraserman's flesh, the man thrashed once in agony, and then all strength left his body.

 

Strongman stood back up, slowly, carefully, observing his enemy. The man lay incapacitated. Alive. Conscious. But would croak any minute. Strongman bent down, took the axe from the warlord's grip, and raised it above his head. The Eraserman looked at Strongman with bleary eyes, and spoke. His voice was weak, and there was a slight whistle as air escaped through the hole in his neck, but his words were unmistakable. "That's... my axe..."

 

"Then I shall return it to you," spoke Strongman, and swung down. The Eraserman gave a weak convulsion as the steel split his forehead down the center. Strongman lifted the corners of his lips at the act, for he had just leveled, and he had done so by croaking a worthy enemy, one that was truly stronger than him. If the Eraserman had not forgotten the ways of fighting in the wilderness, perhaps Strongman would have been bested. But as it was, Strongman had won, and thus the spoils of victory were his.

 

Strongman left the axe where it was, the warlord had been so possessive of it, but took the chainmail vest easily enough since it fastened in the front. Donning it as it automatically resized to his massive frame, strongman felt warmer for the fur inner lining and safer for it's defensive bonus. The warlord's pouch held a goodly amount of shmuckers, enough that the pouch alone would have been a worthy reward. The rest of the Eraserman's belongings were of no interest to Strongman, and he left the Vainermen to finish the task of stripping the croaked while Strongman set the campfire back to rights to finish cooking the carcasses that had been prepared for the Erasermen's meal. Fighting was hungry work, after all.

 

As the Vainermen finished their tasks, they sat down with Strongman, and feasted on Eraserman cheese, bread, wine, and hunted game. They laughed, and told Strongman of what they had seen of his battle with the warlord, for Strongman's memory held little of the event afterwards, his wits were so caught up in the fray. And the hunters laughed again at Strongman's own lack of memory, which Strongman joined in on. For Strongman was feeling happier than he could ever remember having felt. His mirth at that campfire was boundless, and he retained it for the next turn of travel, until he reached the gates of the city of Vain with one of the Hunters carrying the still axe split head of the warlord over a shoulder as proof for the Vainer-Head. Strongman's good humor lasted as he walked as swiftly as a prowling predator through the city streets, making for the tavern instead of the manor in which the Vainer-Head resided.

 

Strongman threw open the door of the tavern, startling all occupants within. The few barbarians who were new to the city were stunned by Strongman's appearance, strong and powerful as it appeared in a glance. The men Strongman had beaten in the brawl cowered back, barely preserving their tankards of ale. The rest beamed upon seeing Strongman's face, for it held a smile that they had missed seeing since his first days within the city, except the smile held a brilliant light that had not been there before. The one that reacted more greatly than all the others was Simone, who dropped her instrument and stood bold upright at seeing Strongman's countenance.

 

In the silence of the tavern, Strongman walked directly to Simone, his slow footsteps seeming to cover entire hexes in single strides. Wordlessly did he approach, but Simone could see something powerful in his eyes that spoke volumes. When Strongman stood before her, Simone was gasping and out of breath. Then Strongman bent down and his lips met hers. His passion overwhelmed Simone, and their tongues met one another. Strongman pulled Simone to his body, and she felt his warm arms and the cold metal of his new armor pressed against her. Simone felt Strongman's teeth nip at her earlobe and his fingers tickle her spine through the fabric of her dress. Simone shuddered in pleasure, but her partially civilized mind made her gasp out the words, "Not here, Strongman! Upstairs. Upstairs!"

 

Strongman instantly bent down further and wrapped Simone's thighs in his right arm while supporting her back with the left, holding her bolt upright as Simone's arms wrapped around Strongman's neck, fiercely continuing the kissing that Simone refused to be bested at. To the unanimous cheering of the denizens of the tavern and the envy of the Harlots, to the applause of the staff and the thumping of the tankards of the drunks, Strongman carried Simone up the stairs and to the rooms normally reserved for Harlot business.

 

Stumbling in the hallway from distraction instead of drink, Strongman's back found a door halfway down the hall and braced against it until Simone's nimble hands opened it. The two entered the room with Strongman finally setting Simone back on her feet to find the bed he knew must be there. Luckily the room was vacant, for if there had been a Barbarian at his business he would have had to depart quickly or be thrown from the window to make way for a lust maddened Strongman. Instead, the entwined two fell upon the bed and sated their thirst for each other, brought to new heights by Strongman's wild vigor. After the pair had reached ecstasy a combined total of five times between them, sweaty and exhausted, they lay still in close embrace.

 

Their breathing having returned to normal, Simone finally asked the question she'd forgotten in their wild activities. "Strongman, what happened to make you so *giggle* motivated?"

 

"I croaked a warlord yesterday," said Strongman flatly, but almost wonderingly. The effect of the words on Simone were bitter, and she very nearly recoiled from Strongman, but merely flinched as the idea that perhaps croaking and love making were one and the same to the Barbarian took purchase in her mind. Strongman did not feel her movement, did not gauge the revulsion in her eyes, and continued on. "I was very nearly croaked in doing so. It made me think."

 

"Go on," prodded Simone carefully.

 

"It made me think of how short our lives truly are. We are popped, and immediately set to survival. To war and to violence upon each other. It made me think of all the world had within it and how little any man could see before his life is claimed by violence and upkeep. And it made me think about you, Simone."

 

Strongman turned to look into Simone's hesitant and vulnerable eyes, and Simone saw that Strongman's were not their normal unflinching quality. They seemed, not lost, but wondering. As if Strongman was looking for something that was not in immediate sight. The man who owned such strong but wondering eyes continued in his intimate voice, "I wondered, how many men in the world have been sent to the Titans having never felt the embrace of such an exquisite woman such as yourself. And when I wondered that, I felt I had to see you immediately. I just curse that my move was not enough to cover the distance in one turn instead of the two it required."

 

And then Strongman's eye were filled with resolve and solidarity, like blue stone hewn from the side of a mountain, and Simone's heart melted again. She thrust forward to meet her lips with Strongman's and the two fell into one another once again.

 

10

 

The mournful cry of the horn reached through the city of Vain as the sun slipped over the horizon, a moaning bellow with deep throbs at the end. No Barbarian or Vainer tribesman was ever told what purpose the horn call held, but they all knew it's meaning through the natural Thinkamancy of the act.

 

Gather all ye who would continue to enjoy comforts in this city, or be gone within the hour.

 

And so the Barbarians, Laborers, Hunters, Guardsmen, and even Harlots gathered in the great cobbled square before the garrison. On a great stone portico above the entrance was the warlord Stone blowing hard into the hollow curling horn of a beast none could identify set into the railing at a corner. At the center of the worked grey stone stood Proude the Vainer-Head in his finest blue clothes as usual, but looking different that day for he wore hardy armor underneath his robes with a sword sheathed at his side. Behind Proude stood Strongman, who grudgingly accepted the invitation sent by Proude to be a part of the coming event when his night's rest was interrupted. Although Strongman accepted the invitation, he was obviously not happy about being there as he stood glowering at the gathering masses in the square.

 

At length, Proude finally raised his arms, and both the chattering crowds below ceased their noise and Gall ceased his blowing. A deep silence covered the area, which Proude allowed to remain for a long moment. Then, in a voice as calm as a breeze, but which projected to the furthest corner of the square and beyond, Proude spoke.

 

"My fellow Barbarians. You doubtless know of the state of war my Free Tribe has been engaged in with that of the Erasermen. You doubtlessly know of the scarlet warlady, and the toll in croaked she has left in her wake. And you doubtlessly know of the warlord, Strongman the Shimmerian, whom I employed to right the scales of combat, and act in reprisal to mine own losses. I am proud to say that Strongman has accomplished his task, and more!"

 

Proude bent low in a smooth motion, snatched up an object, and threw it into the crowds in the square. The object spun in the air, and struck the ground hard. The men who dodged the object did so out of natural horror even before their eyes caught sight of what it was. As the object slowed it's bouncing the gasps and exclamations rose.

 

"Wooly Bully?" asked one wonderingly.

 

"Wooly Bully!" affirmed another.

 

"Watch it now, watch it!" yelped another as he danced out of the head's path of travel.

 

The name Wooly Bully passed through the crowd, and men gathered to stare at the lowering, disembodied head of the Eraser warlord who had terrorized more than one of the roaming Barbarians inside Vain.

 

"Eras has now lost it's only loyal warlord," began Proude again, quieting the crowd with only his voice, "And with that loss, the balance of power has shifted once again. The Erasermen are now vulnerable, and open to wrathful reprisal. My fellow Barbarians! I hereby wish to hire all of you here for a decisive strike upon the township of Eras. For payment, you will all be given a share in the spoils gathered from the razing of the settlement, and a feast made from the seized larders of the Eraser-Head himself! I wish nothing from you all, but to live as your nature demands that you do! So let us march from this city today, my brethren, and despoil our enemy!"

 

The crowd shouted a warcry so loud, that Strongman was startled.

 

"All who wish to fight, gather at the front gate! We leave NOW!"

 

The Barbarians of the city cried again, and moved as a throng down the pathways to the city gate. Strongman watched them go, awed by the effect one man's words and charisma could have over such an uncontrollable body of men, and looked wonderingly at Proude the Vainer-Head, seeing more within the man than he had ever suspected there to be. And the thought, 'so this is a leader,' entered his mind.

 

Proude watched the barbarians turn, and as the last of their backs were shown he spoke to his tribe's warlord. "You know the plan to follow?" At Gall's grunting nod, Proude said that it was good, and then turned to Strongman as Gall hurried to reach the gates and get the Barbarians moving, Strongman surmised.

 

"I thought you could not dispatch your warlord for fear of an uprising," stated Strongman with a hint of amusement, and a hint of accusation.

 

"I can when I've convinced all the occupying Barbarians to leave the city. What will remain of the Guardsmen, and my own ability, will keep Vain safe long enough for a victorious return from the final battle."

 

"You seem fairly sure of the result," observed Strongman with a lifted brow, for he knew what was to follow.

 

"I am confident, Strongman, as long as you also march into that battle at Gall's side."

 

"My contract ended with the delivery of the Eraser warlord's head, for I have ended the threat of the Erasermen invading you. I can simply ask for the rest of my payment and be on my way should I choose. After all, your war has no meaning to me."

 

Proude did not look perturbed at this answer. Instead, his smile grew wider. "Is there anything preventing a renegotiation of the contract, to include the destruction of the Erasermen and the Eraser-Head as the clause for completion?"

 

Strongman was confused. He was young and still did not know much about contracts. His mind still only viewed them as agreements to perform a task and then gather a reward. As such, this newly possible manipulation caused Strongman's conviction to waver. And so Strongman responded as an angrily wary question. "Perhaps there isn't?"

 

Instantly Proude made his offer. "I will grant you any one boon you request of me."

 

Strongman was stunned speechless as he looked the Vainer-Head over, trying to see if it was an ill timed jest. But the only sign of mirth was a knowing smile on the man's face. So Strongman probed the offer.

 

"Would you give me your entire treasury as payment?"

 

"Instantly."

 

"Would you gift me Simone, to take away and do with as I please?"

 

"Of course."

 

"Would you turn over your position as the Vainer-Head to me, and follow me as your leader for all your turns to come?"

 

"Without hesitation. But Strongman, you would only have one boon to request of me. I suggest you think upon it long and hard before you make your demand, for only the one wish shall be fulfilled. And only should you return victorious from this final engagement to break our enemy's back once and for all. What say you, Shimmerian? Do you agree to the settlement of the renegotiation?"

 

Strongman paused, and tried to think of how Proude could possibly profit by such a destructive pledge. But Strongman's mind was overwhelmed by the possible rewards he could demand for his service, and he nodded with a grunted assent.

 

"Good," said Proude, clapping Strongman on his mailed shoulder, "In that case, please meet with Gall at the gate and lead the Barbarians to our common foe. But there is one thing you must remember, Strongman. I will need for you stay your hand from the Laborers, and bring all prisoners back to my city alive, even if it means physically restraining the other Barbarians. That is the only requirement I have of you."

 

"And why is that?" asked the Shimmerian sourly.

 

"Oh, you shall see, my friend."

 

It was at that moment that Strongman saw the savage glint of true Barbarism in Proude's eye.

 

11

 

"Restack!" shouted Strongman as Skorg dropped from an arrow to the belley, screaming and moaning aloud from pain. The unit stood up again, but Strongman's orders from Gall were absolute. Switch out the Hunters to send the wounded out of range, and cycle in fresh units for as long as possible. Proude wanted as few casualties amongst his Vainer Hunters as possible.

 

The free Barbarians were given no such consideration.

 

Strongman snapped off another arrow into the Hunters firing upon the Barbarians at the main gate of Eras, a gate and wall made of pointed timber, hacking at the wood with swords and axes while other barbarians covered the assaulters with shields. The defenders stood atop platforms built to run the length of the crude wall, and only a full stack on either side could be brought to bear at a time. But that was enough to rain devastation down on the attacking Barbarians if left unchecked.

 

Strongman's arrow struck a Hunter in the shoulder, causing the Eraserman's missile to fly wide. Varn's arrow caught a man in the eye, sending him tumbling over the wall to be trampled by the pressing horde of attackers. Varn guffawed through his thick mustache and said to Strongman, who stood right next to him, "You're four behind me, friend. You'll need to work hard to catch up."

 

Strongman smiled fearlessly despite an arrow whipping past his ear, and replied, "Just wait until the gate comes down, then we'll see who takes the lead."

 

Then Strongman felt the jarring blow to his head.

 

Strongman dropped down to one knee behind the bails of hay that were thrown down on the field of battle for the Hunters to use as cover in order to assess himself. Checking his head with his hand, Strongman felt a deep gash in the helmet that was new, and saw a red fletched arrow resting on the ground with the arrowhead broken off. Strongman looked up to see the scarlet warlady squinting disapprovingly at him. Strongman snarled back at her. He'd tried to hit her with his own arrows before, but his proficiency wasn't enough for it. Instead, Strongman aimed for the Hunters to speed the process of breaking through the gate so he could croak her with the sword he was more comfortable using. It seemed to be at least partially effective, as each stack of Eraser Hunters was now down to four or five units instead of the full eights before despite having also restacked numerous times.

 

"A close one, friend," remarked Varn who was bent next to Strongman, fingering the nearly fatal arrow.

 

"Close is not enough. I shall teach that to the warlady soon, though. But fie! How long does it take to kick down a door?! It seems we've been at this shooting game for hours already," proclaimed an exasperated Strongman, swinging his hand to indicate the gate.

 

"Shouldn't be long now, Shimmerian," replied Varn. "See how the gate shudders with each of Gall's swings? If he isn't very nearly through the draw bar that's holding the gates closed, then I'm a marbit. Look how deeply that axe of his bites with each strike. As expected of the axe that formally belonged to Wooly Bully."

 

"Ironic, no," remarked Strongman with a smirk, "For the gates of Eras to be breached by the very axe of their warlord? But enough words, we've men to croak!"

 

And saying so, Strongman stood up again, and unleashed another arrow that found a home in a man's chest.

 

"Only three down, now, Varn!"

 

Varn did not reply though, as there was a rending crack, and then a surge of motion at the gate as the barbarians threw their combined weight against the wooden defenses.

 

"She gives!" cried a voice.

 

"Again! Once more and we're through!" cried another.

 

And thus Strongman broke stack and rushed to the gates, an arrow spending it's force uselessly against the metal of his vest and falling to the ground in the moments it took Strongman's long legs to cover the distance. As Strongman joined the Barbarians at the gate and stacked, the force upon the wooden portal was redoubled and the gates fell in, hanging drunkenly from their pintles. And then the fighting was joined, as there were Eraser Guards putting their own weight against the door to try and keep it from being pushed open. For naught though, as the presence of two warlords was more than the Guards could handle.

 

Gall instantly brought his axe down upon a head, splitting it and the helmet covering it. Strongman swung his blade sideways, cutting down a foe of his own. "Go, Gall, I have the gates!" cried Strongman, who then followed with a growling, "And the warlady."

 

Gall gave a sharp nod, sweat flying from his brows and nose, and dashed forward into the defending Guardsmen with his Barbarian stack screening for arrows. Strongman and his own stack split from the main push to finish the Guards who remain behind, or were thrown to the ground. Strongman reaped four more lives before reaching the foot of the platform the warlady was occupying, and made his charge up the steps with four Barbarians screening him with their shields. One of the Barbarians was dropped by a precise arrow from the warlady. Another was brought down by the combined fire of the remaining Hunters. And then Strongman was among them, pushing past his screen and swinging left and right, sending heads flying over the city's walls to the cheers of the Hunters still outside.

 

And then Strongman felt the change to the combat. The warlady had broken stack, just before Strongman could reach her in close combat.

 

The scarlet warlady took two fast steps, and then leapt from the platform. Not down to the ground, but through the window of a nearby building and into a second story room, once more maddeningly outside Strongman's reach! With a bellow, Strongman broke stack as well to pursue her. After a moment to ready himself, Strongman made the same leap, one that no ordinary infantry unit could make, but one that skilled warlords just barely could.

 

In through the window, Strongman went, sailing through the air, and just as he landed, the scarlet warlady loosed the arrow she had prepared for the pursuit she knew was coming. An arrow perfectly aimed to strike squarely in Strongman's heart. The arrow did strike, but it did not touch Strongman's chest, nor even his armor, for in that moment of preparation before his leap Strongman had pulled a round shield from one of his screening barbarians. For Strongman had suspected just such an ambush, such was the sanguine mind they both possessed.

 

The arrow struck hard, piercing halfway through the shield before coming to a halt, but Strongman paid it no heed as he charged the warlady, intending to smash into her now that she had lost her ranged advantage. He would cleave her in half, striking through the precious bow she'd been using the entire battle. Strongman swung his mighty sword, the air thrumming from it's passing, to impact not upon flesh but upon steel. The scarlet warlady had dropped her bow and pulled the sword that was sheathed at her side. She had been able to stop Strongman's attack. Though it had been dealt one handed, Strongman had put his weight behind the swing. In that moment, Strongman re-evaluated his opponent. She was not a ranged unit carrying a sword. She was a swordswoman that was skilled with a bow.

 

The warlady gave Strongman a small sneer, and then parried the sword to strike back. Strongman caught the blade, and the two warlords fell into a contest of swords. Striking and blocking. Parrying and countering. Strongman took all the warlady's attacks head on, making liberal use of his shield. The warlady used grace and fluid movement to dodge out of Strongman's way and turn his blows aside. Both were level 3. Both were evenly matched. But Strongman felt he had a slight advantage for they were in a single room, and spacious as it was, there was only so far the warlady could travel in any direction before she was met with a wall. Feeling the time was right, Strongman advanced and swung a blow he intended to be dodged, which was, thus allowing him to strike out with the shield.

 

Strongman's shield caught the warlady in the chest as she moved. The warlady was wily, though, and grabbed the shield with her free hand before she was knocked off balance. She corrected her posture and then pulled on Strongman's shield with her entire body weight, to pull Strongman off balance in order to strike him down. Strongman quickly abandoned his grip on the round shield, allowing it to be torn from him. But even so, Strongman was forced to change his fighting stance, giving the warlady a brief chance to attack. With a lunge, the warlady pulled close. Strongman was able to deflect the stroke of her blade, but he did not see the swift knee that caught him in between the legs. Strongman's face instantly went even redder, the tanned flesh turning the color of dung as the surge of pain invaded his senses. Thankfully the pain was not crippling, possibly thanks to the hide girdle that had been forged for him. The strike was a horrible humiliation though, and thus it angered Strongman to no end. And because of Strongman's anger he instantly lashed out as if in a frenzy. Strongman's left hand caught the scarlet hair flying before him next to the scalp, and Strongman bodily threw the warlady across the room where she landed face first into the wall, her body crashing through a small table.

 

The warlady was on her hand and knees for the moment, and Strongman would not allow the opportunity to pass. He strode forward and put his strength into a downward strike, his sword high above his head. The warlady also chose to strike then, her chances of escape being nonexistent, and turned to thrust her sword through Strongman's chest.

 

Neither contestant knew who's sword would land first, but both were committed to their own acts. And so one, or possibly both, would be struck down.

 

And it was at that moment that the warlady's sword dissolved into particles of light, disappearing as shackles appeared to bind her wrists and ankles. Even in the depths of Strongman's rage, he sensed the change in his opponent from enemy to captive, and with muscle wrenching pain he was able to bring his blade to a halt just before carving the woman's head in half. Strongman and the warlady both breathed hard, staring each other in the eye, disbelieving the turn of events that had just unfolded. Until finally, Strongman bellowed with rage until he'd exhausted his breath, grabbed the warlady solidly by her hair, and pushed her before him into the street in order to gather all the prisoners of the battle.

 

For Gall had struck down the Eraser-Head and claimed the garrison. Eras had fallen, along with all her defenders.

 

12

 

"Bring in the Harlots!"

 

The order of Proude the Vainer-Head who sat at a great table upon a granite dais in the new banquet hall resounded off the stone walls, and received a cheer from the attending Barbarians and Vainer Tribesmen. The banquet spilled out of the hall and into the renovated courtyard of the newly promoted level two Vain. It turned out that the city promotion was what Proude had been saving his Shmuckers for. The final required amount was reached with the Shmuckers from the razing of Eras, and so Proude performed the upgrade as the opening act of the celebratory feast that began late in the day.

 

The change to the city was drastic. The city walls had gone from wood to stone, with sharpened wood stakes forming jagged teeth along the walkways for the defenders. The buildings had gone from rickety log houses and rough piles of stone with openings for air to breeze through to actual constructed houses of stone and wood with metal fittings and brown paint covering all, with working doors and windows on every building. The streets had been upgraded from slabs of rock with fissures and cracks running throughout into interlocking stone bricks that allowed the drainage of liquids, wholesome and vile alike. The drink cellars were expanded. The larders increased in size. The workshops received better equipment. The entire city, as a whole, was larger, more vibrant, more comfortable, and more capable as an isolated community, without need or want of a Side.

 

Proude had made a show of the upgrade, and a grand show it had been, each and every building and structure shone with the light of the upgrade in a sweeping tide through the cityscape. And when the process had finished, the first keg of beer had opened and the roast boars had been brought to the tables. It was an hour into the festivities when the call for Harlots was made, when all attendees were well and truly jolly and there was no fear of a sudden burst of disorder. And thus the Harlots were led into the garrison's great banquet hall with Vainer guards acting as escorts. The hoots of joy and surprise hailed their coming, leaving the women frightened and confused. For they were the Eraserwoman Harlots taken captive in the raid four turns hence.

 

Not a single Eraser prisoner was slain, as per the order of the Vainerhead. And not a prisoner escaped. One Barbarian had to be croaked as he attempted to set upon the defenseless Harlots by night, but Strongman had ended his life before he could do more than tear at one of the girl's clothing. His displayed body the next morning had acted to preserve the safety of the rest until the remains of the Eraser Tribe were solidly locked in the nearly overflowing prison. And so, the Eraser Harlots entered the garrison, their gold and amber colored hair swaying wildly, as they were pushed and dragged into a line facing the Vainer-Head's table while their chains rattled against the stone.

 

Whistles and cat calls fell upon the women, and knowing jeers entered their ears as their terrified eyes looked upon all that surrounded them. Proude, with Strongman at his left and Gall Stone at his right with food piled high in front of them, looked over the captives carefully. After a few moments, Proude held up a hand and the playing of Simone's Musicians quieted as the Barbarians gave their expectant silence.

 

"You, step forward."

 

Proude's voice was quiet and respectful, yet the Harlots shivered from the commanding tone, all but the one Proude called to. The amber haired vixen struggled slightly as her shoulders and chains were seized and she was moved against her will, a snarl adorning her fair features. The woman was made to walk up the stairs to the dais and kneel before the Vainer-Head's table with her thin clothes in disarray. To that frowning figure, Proude spoke softly, but his natural authority carried in every word.

 

"I offer you a choice, young one. If you so choose, I will accept you into my Tribe, and grant you a position in my city. If not, you shall croak. What say you, girl?"

 

The Eraserwoman did not hesitate in responding. "I would rather croak than be touched by one of you filthy-"

 

The Harlot's words were cut short as the sword of a Vainer Guard passed through her neck and her head flew from her shoulders, struck the ground, rolled down the stairs leading to the dais, and came to a rest before the shrieking Harlots as the Musicians struck up a powerful song while barbarians throughout the garrison cheered.

 

Strongman's wine stuck in his throat as he swallowed, and he turned to look at the broadly smiling Vainer-Head, who caught Strongman's astonished glare and then lifted his hands to quiet the hall. Once the only sound was the terrified weeping of the Eraser Harlots, Proude stood tall and said, almost flatly for he could not keep a hint of mirth from his voice, "Well, I gave her a choice, now didn't I?"

 

The hall and the courtyard were filled with laughter as it ripped the atmosphere, and the Harlots wept anew, some falling to their knees in dread. Proude continued to stand until the merriment had died enough for his voice to once again be heard as he made an open handed gesture and called for another Harlot to be brought forward. The woman's knees nearly failed her, and she almost had to be dragged up the stone stairs to be lowered to the ground where the first Harlot's body was being dragged away from.

 

The kneeling Harlot was possibly the most beautiful of the six remaining Eraserwomen. Her hair was as gold as wheat in the sun as it flowed down her back and shoulders. Her face was delicate as a work of art, and far more precious. Her lips were full, and her teeth were like a perfect set of pearls. Her limbs were long and well formed. Her body was luscious and ripe against her travel stained garments. Her eyes were the color of the sky and expressive. But all of the Harlot's features were ruined at that moment by her sheer terror as she was forced to kneel before a possible executioner's blade. To this woman, with mascara blackened tears streaming down her face that was contorted by grief, Proude quietly spoke.

 

"I offer you the same choice, girl. If you so choose, I will welcome you into my Tribe. Your only other choice... is to croak."

 

"I- I don't want to croak," the Eraserwoman managed to squeeze out between sobs.

 

"Then you wish to join me?"

 

The Harlots gathered at the foot of the stairs became quiet, engrossed in the perils of their sister Harlot who kneeled before death's door. The kneeling woman, however, seemed to be completely overwhelmed by the situation, as she only stammered in confusion, "I- I don't- I don't-"

 

"Then you wish to croak?" asked Proude lightheartedly. The Harlot nearly screamed her automatic "No" to the question, fresh tears falling fast down her cheeks. To this, Proude spoke again. "Then stand."

 

It took a few moments for comprehension to enter the Harlot's mind. She lifted her sky blue eyes and looked at the Guards beside her as they both took a step away. Her wondering gaze fell upon Proude, who again said, "Yes, stand up," with a gesture of his hands. The Harlot did so, unaided despite her shaking knees. As if seeing a different world around her now that she had her feet under her instead of being reduced to her knees, the Harlot looked over the entire hall slowly. If one looked closely, one could see the conflicting thoughts in her mind as she considered, then discarded, the idea of escape. She had the time to take in the completely alien environment, where she was not an object of lust and attraction, but of amusement and potential violence. And she shuddered once again.

 

"Come over here, girl."

 

Proude's voice pierced through her thoughts and her desperate eyes looked towards the Vainer-Head, who gently urged, "Come over here. And sit upon my knee."

 

The Harlot took another look around, and the Guards took another step back each, signifying that she had their permission to move on her own. Almost like it had taken a Titanic will, the Harlot took a step, and another. Almost like a spell had broken, the idea of escape once again entered her mind and she looked out over the great door to the courtyard once again. The chance to try and fly free of the place very nearly took hold of her mind and sent her feet racing. Then her gaze fell once again upon the attentive Guards and the Barbarians crowding the doors and their foul, drink swollen faces, and she took a step backwards, bringing her closer towards the Vainer-Head's table, when his voice reached her once again.

 

"It's alright, girl. Come, and sit upon my knee."

 

The Harlot turned to look upon Proude once again, and swallowed hard. By force of will, the Harlot took her next step, and the rest followed more easily, though no less hesitantly. For the Harlot knew not what game she had been cast into, and feared an unseen croaking at any moment. Finally, the girl succeeded in passing by Gall, whom she gazed upon with terror, to stand before Proude, shivering such that her chains rattled lightly in the silence.

 

"Now sit. Sit here, girl."

 

With his lap bare and his arms open, Proude lightly called out to the Eraserwoman. The Harlot hesitated for a time before slowly lowering herself to sit upon the Vainer-Head's lap. Some chortles and thick guffaws from the attending barbarians nearly sent the Harlot running, thinking she had fallen into some trap, but the strong hand of Proude held the Harlot as the Vainer-Head calmed her with his voice. Proude guided the Harlot such that she was reclining across his thighs, her shoulder against his and her back resting against the padded arm of the great chair that belonged to the Vainer-Head. Proude produced a cloth in his left hand and lightly wiped away at the tears that were ruining the Harlot's face, while reassuring her.

 

"There now, there now," he said. And as his work was done and the harlot did not recoil from his touch, the Vainer-Head said softly to the harlot occupying his lap in a voice that yet carried through the garrison. "Good, good. Very good. What is your name?" The Harlot hesitantly gave her name, "Astrid."

 

"You have shown true bravery here, Astrid. As such, I cannot call you a girl again. I hereby recognize you as a full member of the Vainer Tribe, and a woman of valor."

 

Proude grinned widely as the chains disappeared from Astrid's wrists and ankles. The Harlot's blue eyes went wide as all the Vainermen and Barbarians in attendance broke into a cheer louder than what had greeted the decapitation of the first Harlot with the amber hair. With a rushing surge of relief, Astrid wept again, harder than before and hugged close to the neck of the Vainer-Head as she shuddered, wracked by her own sobs. Amidst the nearly deafening cheers, the five remaining Harlots called out to Proude, each one declaring loudly and desperately that they also wished to become Vainerwomen and join the Tribe. To this, Proude declared, "So be it! I welcome you fine women as members of the Vainer Tribe, now drink and sing, and be merry for you are welcome in your new home!"

 

Strongman's eyes nearly bulged from his head upon the disintegration of the former Eraserwomen's chains as full understanding of Proude's manipulations came upon him. It was masterful and cunning. As the converted Harlots relief surged forth and they were called out to by the feasters, Strongman became certain that he never would have had just such an idea and became even more impressed by Proude's wisdom and charisma. For the Vainer-Head had not only thought up such a plan, but had the leadership and presence to see it through to the end.

 

And so, with great merriment, the party continued on with each Harlot finding one or more men to receive them in good humor and partake fully in the banquet. One of the Harlots approached and sat down on Strongman's knee, enfolding him with her arms. Strongman smiled lasciviously for the brief moment before he realized that Simone could see him. With a turn of his head, Strongman confirmed his lover's icy gaze, and quickly urged the Harlot to move on to Gall, even though he always seemed to be in a dour mood. The Harlot was not completely put off by this, though, for she was an ambitious woman and wished to set herself up with one of the more powerful men in the festivities if possible. She hesitated initially in approaching Gall until she caught sight of a blush her attention had put on his face, then she draped herself over the warlord so that he might suffer happily in his shyness.

 

After chairs had been brought for Gall's new party mate at his right and an adamant Simone to Strongman's left, Proude called, "Bring in the Laborers!"

 

And thus was the Laborers of the Eraser Tribe brought before the dais of Proude the Vainerman, and the more obviously stubborn men brought up first to be asked to convert. And of course, they refused, losing their heads in the process. Another Laborer lost his head in a more figurative sense, and tried to make a panicked escape from the garrison. He was tackled by Guards almost immediately, stabbed repeatedly, hauled upright before he could fall to incapacitation, and beheaded. The Barbarians roared wildly at the Labor's folly and painful end, while Astrid turned her face away in anguish and relief, realizing that her previous fear very nearly led her to suffer the exact same fate.

 

Finally, one of the Laborers, sweating profusely and licking his lips, answered Proude's choice that he "would accept and become a Vainerman." Proude made a show of accepting him, the Guards on either side lifted the Laborer up to his feet as the chains disappeared, and a man passed a tankard of ale into the Laborer's hand while clapping him on the back and guiding him to a vacant seat. The show of hospitality unnerved the remaining Laborers. Surely it couldn't have been so easy? And the next Laborer hesitated in his answer. Upon finding the same welcome, he was even more joyous than the previous Laborer, and all the remaining prisoners joined the Vainer-Tribe to the merriment of all, including the previously terrified Astrid, who laughed aloud while feeding grapes into Proude the Vainer-Head's mouth, and giving him a peck on the cheek while he chewed.

 

Once the captive Laborers were all comfortably absorbed into the party, Proude called out again, but this time his voice was tinged with malice.

 

"Bring in the Guardsmen!"

 

The partiers grunted and laughed savagely. Strongman's veins went cold. Everything up to this point was an introductory act, he felt, and that the real show was just beginning.

 

There had been approximately three dozen surviving Guardsmen from the battle, with the scarlet warlady included. All in chains, they were escorted into the hall by all of the Guards set to duty to make sure none tried to escape, or worse, tried to fight. For they had a role to play in the festivities. And so, unlike with the Harlots and Laborers, the Guardsmen set up a sturdy watch boundary around the prisoners, their weapons drawn and pointed at the Erasermen in a perfect circle. And if that was not enough security, then all the feasting Barbarians were fingering their weapons as well, hoping that some, or all, of the prisoners would try and escape.

 

But there was no guarantee that the Barbarians would aim their violence only at the prisoners. They might very well attack the Vainer Guardsmen, or even each other. It would be easy for a disaster to occur that would plunge the city of Vain into a fiery inferno, croaking every unit within by setting loose the spark that is known to all as a Barbarian's lust for battle. And every unit in the hex knew it at an instinctual level, and thus was this performance the greatest of the night for it was the most dangerous.

 

"Him," said Proude, and Gall himself stood and strode forward, plucking a prisoner from within the circle to personally escort up to the dais, and then kicked him to the ground. As per the pattern Proude had established, the most defiant in the group was the first to be taken, and thus, executed. The chosen one did not disappoint, as his answer to Proude's question was to spit in the Vainer-Head's general direction. Gall separated the man from his head instantly, agitating the remaining Erasermen to a new pitch, increasing the likelihood of their attempting to stack and attack their jailers. And the Barbarians groaned aloud in excited expectancy. Proude though, did not blink even once. Instead, he calmly made his next selection, and had him brought forward to kneel.

 

"I saw what you were doing, Guardsman," said Proude solemnly, causing the man to wince. "Since you came in, you have been looking around you. Specifically, you've been looking at your fellow Tribesmen here at the festivities. It must have been eating you up, wondering what they were doing, eating, drinking, sitting with those who just conquered you. Perhaps you even began to think, mayhaps they betrayed your Tribe from within, hastening your downfall. But in truth, that is not so. Fairly have I conquered the Erasermen, Guard. And fairly do I offer you your lives in exchange for your fidelity. Not to me. But to my Tribe. My offer is for you to become a Vainerman from now until you pass from this mortal world.

 

"That is all I ask, and considering the situation, it is not much. It is just another unit for me, but for you, for all of you, it is a home and a people who will forever accept you as one of their own. So now, you, who are the most perceptive of the Guardsmen I can see, I offer you the same choice. Will you join your Tribesmen who accept my offer, join the party, and find the comfort of our hearth forevermore? Or will you refuse my offer, and join those of your Tribesmen who find themselves delivered ingloriously to the Titans, to be judged in miserable defeat?"

 

The Eraser Guard was sweating profusely, gritting his teeth. Struggling between some inner demons only he knew, before speaking with eyes screwed shut by his turmoil.

 

"I accept your offer. I shall become a Vainerman."

 

Proude accepted the offer, and the man was delivered into the hands of friendly Barbarians and other newly converted Vainermen to be comforted. But the Guard's head remained hanging in utter misery. Whether the man would destroy himself or adapt, Strongman couldn't say, but that was his business and Strongman found he cared little for it. Strongman was more interested in the performance. The various human tragedies that played out before him were remarkable to see, and wrenching to his heart. It was hypnotic, and diabolically savage in the kindest way. After all, the only ones who were tormenting the prisoners were themselves.

 

As Strongman was waiting breathlessly, the third Guard was brought up to the dais, and when asked if he would turn, he smiled winningly, and happily accepted. Proud gently nudged Astrid from his knee and stood to proclaim with a savage grin, "You are lying."

 

As one, the Barbarians of the Garrison released a sound of expectant tension. The kneeling Guardsman proclaimed his innocence and sincerity, perhaps a little too profusely Strongman thought, but did not know for sure. Proude on the other hand only seemed more convinced of his own declaration. "Eraserman, do not think to try and deceive me. I can see it on your face, in your movements, and in your words. You plan to feign loyalty and then abscond into the wilds the first chance you get. I am an old man, and I have seen hundreds of men like yourself, who have had the same ideas and intentions. You would be a fool to think I can be so easily misled. ...But you are a fool anyway. You would not survive as a Barbarian, roaming the world. Tell me, Eraserman. What is the greatest reward the Titans can give the deceased Barbarians?"

 

The Eraserman licked his lips and searched his mind wildly before answering, in a near hesitant voice that only had that small piece of surety from the holy scriptures all units know upon popping, saying, "E-everyone knows that the City of Heroes is the greatest-"

 

"WRONG!"

 

For the first time, Strongman heard Proude shout. The man hunched over the table, his hands flat on the wood and his face coloring with emotion and exertion. The entire Garrison was stunned to silence, and with a look of true displeasure on Proude's dignified face, he said, "The City of Heroes is the worst sentence a true Barbarian could ever receive. An eternal resting place of plenty, with no need for struggle? More like eternal stagnation, to deny a Barbarian the joy of combat! NO! When I am sent before the Titans I will only ask for one thing, to be put back in the Box, so that I may one day return to this world and enjoy the food! The wine! The women! And the vicious carnage of conquest! You think you can survive in the wilds with such a civilized mind?" Proude spat the sentence out like a venomous insult, drawing mocking laughter from the Barbarians assembled. "You are lucky then to have encountered me, so that you may be sent to the Titans before you suffer from the pain of enlightenment."

 

And thus, the Barbarians of the hall began to cheer, loud and hard, the stones of the wall vibrating from the cacophony. The noise caused the kneeling Eraserman to look about wildly, as he found his voice to shout, "You're all mad! This is MADNESS!"

 

"Madness?!" replied Proude at the top of his lungs, "This. IS. BARBARISM!"

 

The cheers redoubled, the tables shuddered with the pounding of fists and steins. The ground quaked from the stamping of feet. And the Eraserman's eyes bulged from maddened panic. With a cry, the Eraserman struggled up from his knees and charged Proude, screaming a desperate warcry that sounded more like a wail of panic. Gall did not move to stop him, and Proude stood still as Astrid hid behind his back, letting the Guard charge him. Strongman's blood was boiling, thus did he stride over the top of the banquet table, and push his fist into the face of the Eraserman Guard, flattening the Guard's nose and driving the teeth from his mouth. After Strongman's one punch drove the Guard to the ground, only then did Gall move and secure the Guard while lifting his axe to deliver the final blow. A blow that was halted by Proude the Vainer-Head.

 

"Hold, Gall! I will not be done out of my fun."

 

Saying thus, Proude approached from around the table, unsheathing a sword at his waste. Gall used a foot to pin the half senseless Eraserman to the ground at Proude's advance. Strongman saw the cold blooded gleam in Proude's eye once again as the man lifted his blade above the Eraserman, and then drop it straight and true through the man's leg just above the ankle. As the Eraserman howled in pain, Proude severed the man's other foot. Then he severed the hands above the wrists. Then cut through both knees and both elbows. Thus did Proude the Vainer-Head cut away at his attacker's body, one cut at a time, each strike taking off an entire segment of the body, until all that remained was the head and torso, which he then finally severed from one another. To the raucous crowd, Proude said aloud, "No man who sees fit to attack me gets off lightly."

 

Proude sheathed his sword to a round of applause, calmly walked back to his chair, set a once again nervous Astrid back upon his lap, and calmly called out, "Next!"

 

And so the show continued, with about one in every three Erasermen choosing to become a Vainerman, which also kept the Eraser Guards from mounting a resistance. After all, who would risk starting combat when they didn't know if their fellow prisoner would fight at their side or betray them to preserve their own skin.

 

And so the number of remaining captives dwindled, and as they did Strongman began to grow tense. There was something nagging at the back of his mind, scratching at the primordial instincts that made him who he was. A beast of violence and savagery. And thus was it his pure savagery that cause him to notice it. The attitude of the warlady.

 

Each of the Eraser Guards was looking about. At the Barbarians, their countrymen, Proud, Gall, their captors. They looked all about at the people around them. The warlady was looking at the weapons being held, her head down and her countenance collected and severe. Strongman knew, instinctively, that the woman was going to make a play for a weapon. She was going to count on starting a riot to cover her attack, and then her escape. She would risk being able to hold out until first light to get her move back and run from the city. Strongman knew these thoughts were what were swirling in her mind, because it was what Strongman would have done in her place.

 

But so what, thought Strongman to himself during another decapitation. His contract was over. He owed the Vainer-Head no loyalty. If the scarlet warlady somehow managed to croak Gall or Proude, or both, it would merely be an inconvenience to him, would make collecting his final payment a little more difficult. Strongman wouldn't be able to collect his boon if Proude croaked, but it would be just one disappointment in a life he intended to be long. Strongman could accept such an outcome. And realistically speaking, the warlady would not even break free of the confining circle, or struggle loose of Gall's supervision. She'd be croaked before she could bring a stolen weapon to bear. By someone else.

 

"Shim," Strongman cursed while glowering into his drink. Then he stared pointedly at the warlady for a good time. And having made a decision, Strongman bent over to speak the words, "I have decided on my boon," into Proude's ear. The old man listened to the request intently, laughed aloud, and told Strongman that his request would be granted. Proude then spoke to his Vainer Guards, and ordered the scarlet warlady returned to the prison to be kept under heavy guard.

 

The warlady gave some token resistance, but the escorting stack was too strong and too diligent. She had no choice but to be thrown back into her cage, away from the celebrations, which continued long after the last Eraser Guard brought forward also lost his head.

 

To the cheering crowd, Proude proclaimed his admiration to his fellows, and declared, "For as long as there will be Sides, Royalty, or even civility, so too will there be Barbarity! Here, I toast to we Barbarians, who are caged by no rules but those we choose for ourselves. I toast to the Titans who created us for the sake of living our lives to the fullest, in a way no Lord or Princeling could ever match! I toast to The Box, that I will return to, so that I may one day be popped anew, to return to raiding, razing, and croaking with renewed youth! And when I am repopped, I hope to once again be reunited with all you ugly sons of witches, so I might toast you once again!"

 

All the occupants of the garrison cheered; including Astrid on Proude's knee, Simone, and Strongman himself. The party was renewed in earnest to last for the rest of the night and past cleansing of the new day only to finally end at the darkest hours of the following night with many an ale sodden Barbarian sprawled upon the newly renovated streets in deep, well fed, drunken slumber.

 

13

 

The scarlet warlady was reclining on the blanket thrown over the pile of straw in the cell. The prison had once been crowded with nearly sixty units shoved into it, but then it had expanded, and then emptied. After that, she'd made full use of the legroom to stretch herself out languidly. Her gear had been taken from her, leaving her wearing little more than an over shirt and a pair of short green trousers that showed a lot of leg. As Strongman entered the prison, he found himself admiring the visible part of the warlady's legs as the warlady slowly uncrossed them before standing up to meet her gruff captor.

 

"Hello, Strongman. Did you come to gloat? Or perhaps you're just bored now that your party is over."

 

Her voice was clear, but it was the complete opposite of gentle. It held a promise of violence and the will of one who only looked out for oneself. There was no nicety in the scarlet warlady, and every part of her conveyed that. But Strongman smiled. Her demeanor was only making the situation more amusing to him.

 

"Neither, woman. I am here for something else."

 

"And that would be?"

 

"By the authority granted to me by Proude the Vainer-Head, I hearby release the prisoner."

 

The chains on the warlady's wrists and ankles disappeared, to the warlady's evident surprise. When a Vainer Guardsman unlocked the cell immediately after, the quick changes in the situation caused the warlady to retreat a step and take a ready stance, her head lowered and her hands stretched to be able to grab and claw in a half second. Strongman, however, did not give her a reason to defend herself. Instead, he tossed a bag into the room. Seconds passed in silence, as Strongman was not about to break it. Finally, the warlady asked, "That is?"

 

"Your gear," said Strongman, with a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. The warlady hesitated still longer, then made her decision to look into the bag while trying not to look away from Strongman. Eventually, the bag took her full attention as she looked through it, removing item after item. Her satisfaction and dissatisfaction warred, and she voiced out a complaint. "This is not my gear, Strongman."

 

"Your previous equipment were part of the spoils of conquest, warlady. As such, most was given to the Barbarians who took part in the attack on Eras. What you have there is all you will get for free, given on my request by the Vainer-Headsman." The warlady squinted at Strongman hard, until he finally said, smugly, "You're welcome."

 

"You are the reason I lost my equipment in the first place," was the acerbic reply.

 

"You lost your equipment because you picked the wrong side in a war, woman."

 

The warlady couldn't think of a rebuttal for Strongman's last comment, and merely diverted herself by equipping her new weapons and armor. When she had finished adorning herself, the warlady looked down and complained. Again. "The colors are mismatched. I look ridiculous."

 

"They were all that had not been purchased by Barbarians who had suddenly come into Shmuckers, woman. If you want different colors, then buy them yourself. More importantly, I can't keep calling you 'woman,' every time I speak to you, now can I? Who are you?"

 

The scarlet warlady gave Strongman a disagreeable look out of the corner of her eye before picking up her original slim green hat with the red feather adorning it that was miraculously not plucked by greedy Barbarian hands. With evident pleasure, she placed it on her head, righted it, and gave her name. "My name is Robin. The men of Eras had taken to calling me Red Robin, should it please you."

 

Strongman looked at the re-equipped warlady. A short sword hung on her utilitarian belt that was of such a pale brown leather that it was almost yellow, a belt that cinched the waste of her soft leather armor that was colored a bright red. Her hat, gloves, boots, and very short cut pants were of the same color green. While the name was necessary, the sight was what was pleasing to Strongman. "You're right, you look ridiculous."

 

Robin frowned, snatched up a short bow and tiny quiver, equipped them, and flatly asked, "Where is my purse. I do not see it here."

 

"You will not be receiving your purse, Robin, as I will be in control of our funds."

 

Robin snarled, asking, "What do you mean?"

 

"I have taken a liking to the mercenary business, Robin. And thus, as a reward for the fighting I have been given ownership of you from the Vainer-Head. You are the first member of my mercenary group. And since I am the reason you did not croak in an ill planned escape attempt last night, I expect you to be a valuable employee until you have repaid me what you believe your own life to be worth."

 

Strongman was leisurely leaning against the bars by that point, relishing the disgruntled demeanor of his new subordinate. With a sidelong glare, Robin said, "You really think I wouldn't have been able to escape under my own, power?" To which Strongman asked, "Can you truthfully claim that you would have been able to survive your escape?"

 

When Robin deflected with, "I would have croaked any who tried to stop me," Strongman was certain Robin was sure she would not have survived. And so, even while she denied the claim, Robin was aware of her own debt to Strongman. After regaining her countenance, Robin asked, "So, what is this new mercenary company of ours called?"

 

'Ours.' Not 'yours.'

 

Strongman let it pass, and merely said, "I have not yet considered a name, since the current member count amounts to two. I would rather reach a more war torn region before increasing the amount of upkeep we must deal with."

 

"So we travel the world, fighting as Strongman and Robin, alone? Ha! A very dynamic duo we will make. Very well, Strongman, for the time being, I will follow you as a mercenary, until such time as I deem fit. But prepare yourself, for when the time comes for our parting I may just claim your life as payment." Saying thus, Robin extended her hand. "Are we agreed?"

 

Strongman stood up straight again, and clasped the warlady's hand in his own, nearly engulfing it entire. "Agreed."

 

14

 

It had taken hours of preparation for departure, for gathering food and essential camping supplies was something both Strongman and Robin wished to do, considering they would be forced to traverse great white wastes of snowy plains and mountainous terrain. After Strongman collected his final payment from Proude, nearly topping off Strongman's wallet, he asked Red Robin to meet him at the front gates as he had one last order of business to attend to.

 

Strongman's knocking at the door was a full handed thudding, three slow and loud strikes. There was no vocal reply to the pounding, just the sound of feet on the hard wooden floor. After a few moments, Simone opened the door and stood by it. The small home was Selene's personal dwelling, and one of the better in the city, for Proude was a man who appreciated her vocal ability. It had been of good quality before Vain was upgraded, and now it was a comfortable place to live. It suited Simone.

 

Strongman, on the other hand, didn't. And he knew it.

 

There was silence as the two who had been sharing a few beds looked into each others eyes. Strongman would dash headlong into battle, but somehow he hesitated now. Finally, Simone spoke first. "You're here to say goodbye."

 

Strongman could only grunt.

 

"I knew you would be leaving. Even before I met you, I knew you were a man who never stayed overlong in any one place."  Strongman continued his silence. "When you returned after croaking Wooly Bully, you said it yourself. There is an entire world to be seen, and how terrible it is for one to croak without having experienced it."

 

Strongman's countenance was stone, but stone that had a crack in it. Everything Simone was saying was true, and Strongman could not think of a better way to say any of it. So Strongman continued to let Simone speak for the both of them.

 

"If you stayed in Vain, Strongman, it would be a living death for your soul. That is why I will not ask you too, just as I will not ask you to take me with you. I am not combat capable, and would not only slow you down but force you to protect me against any foe you meet. In the end... my presence would result in both our demise."

 

Strongman's jaw clenched. But he could not refute Simone's words.

 

"I am happy you came, though, Strongman. Even though we will not see one another again, I am glad to have known you, to have been with you. And with this, I am glad to be able to say goodbye."

 

Simone stood on the tips of her toes and kissed Strongman. Strongman's stony features finally softened and he indulged in her kiss. Simone ended up indulging herself as well, and found her arms thrown around Strongman's chest. Then Strongman's arms enfolded Simone as the two were moved by a will greater than their own inside the dwelling, closing the front door firmly with the booted heel of a foot.

 

15

 

"Where have you been, Shimmerian?" demanded Robin. "If you had been any slower I'd have grown the roots of a Gump and been trapped in this spot forevermore."

 

"My apologies, there was something that required my full attention," said Strongman in a manner that was halfway happy, and half melancholy.

 

"Whatever, boss," said the warlady thornily, "As long as we can be on our way at last. It feels as if I've spent an entire chapter of my life in this region and I would be quit of it."

 

And so the duo walked out the front gate, bickering lightly as they left the Vain city of Barbarians behind. Watching them go was the figure of one man from atop the Garrison's portico, enrobed in the finest stout blue clothes that the city was capable of producing. And as the Barbarian warlords disappeared from view in crossing hex boundaries, Proude the Vainer-Head let out a relieved breath.

 

"Finally," he said into the air, "Finally I am free of Fate's machinations."

 

"I don't understand," said a voice from behind him. Turning to look, Proude saw Astrid adorned in a far finer gown than she had ever worn before in her life while bearing a pair of mugs for Proude and herself, for Proude had taken a liking to the woman and accepted her for his personal consort. Proude had been so deep in his own relief that he had spoken aloud, but he no longer needed to be wary, and spoke his mind.

 

"Come, my dear," said Proude the Vainer-Head as he took a mug and walked his companion to sit at a bench under the sunlight, "And I will tell you a tale. A tale that is not meant for polite company and told only to those with the courage to hear of the stranger things in this world. So listen well, to my encounter with The Mad Caster."

 

16

 

The snow was very nearly knee deep on the ground, and the trees did nothing to abate the groundcover. Everyone knew that even in hexes where snow was actively falling from the skies the stuff on the ground would refresh with every dawn. That particular hex's snow was deep enough to cause Proude to have to struggle, pulling his Bearstein skins closer around his body to keep stray snowflakes caught by the wind from entering his garb. Proude the Wanderer, as he was known, had chosen the hex specifically because it was unsuited to travel, and reduced the likelihood of running into another stack of the Robber Baron Gredo's flunkies. They were not difficult to defeat, but if even a one escaped from a fight without being croaked then Gredo may learn of Proude's presence. And there was currently a price on Proude's head in the region that the Robber Baron would not ignore. It was less annoying to move on before complications arose than to croak a Baron unworthy of Proude's steel.

 

It was reasonable to not expect to meet anyone in his travels. That was why Proude was surprised when he did encounter a man. What he believed, could have been, a man.

 

The figure was dressed in light linen robes, the sort a monk dedicated to the Titans in the southern regions would wear. Except it was uncolored, unornamented in precious metals or Gems, and lousy with stains and travel damage. The man was bald, thin, sun-baked, aged, or perhaps weathered would be the better term. He looked like a man that had taken hardship to the face and been forever marked by it. Proud stroked the pure black stubble of his jaw as he approached the monk-like figure, that was sitting cross-legged in the snow at the base of a tree, mumbling to himself while rattling a necklace of wood and bone beads the size of twoll knuckles in his hands that had a touch of blue to them from the cold.

 

"Hail, friend, if friend you be," called Proude the Wanderer. "How come you to be in such an out of the way location?"

 

Proude stepped closer to the monk, making his presence known and studied the man further. His Signamancy suggested the monk to be no combat class he'd ever known, and thus should be safe enough to approach. And should the being be something else, Proude would want him within reach of his sword for self assurance, and thus loosened his sword in its sheathe as he drew even closer. But the figure, sitting in crushed snow up to his waist kept mumbling and producing noise, not just the beads, but from wristlets that clattered and necklaces of various manufacture that struck one another.

 

Suddenly, the figure stopped moving, as if he too had become a frozen part of the landscape. Proude hesitated a moment, but considered that the monk mayhaps had frozen solid, and might have something worth taking upon his body. So he drew cautiously closer to the monk, and peered down to see if the light of life was in the monk's eyes. Proude could not see, for they turned out to be closed, for a brief moment at least. For when Proude searched the monk's slightly bowed head, the eyes flew open and locked onto Proude's gaze like a sprung snare.

 

"The Proud Man approaches! The Vain Man he shall be!"

 

The monk's voice bellowed out of the tiny body, deep and throaty, as if the words tore the throat as they left the monk's body. Proude whipped out his sword in his surprise, ready to thrust or run at a moment's notice. But the man himself had made no threatening gesture, so Proude did neither and only asked, "What gibberish do you spout! Speak plainly!"

 

"As one of two Heads, you shall be, until the Red One appears to cut two into one! Hither shall come the Shimmerian, black-haired and sullen eyed, destined to tread the jeweled thrones of the Erf under his sandaled feet! With this, shall his services engage-!"

 

The monk grabbed and threw something at Proude, who instinctively caught it in his left hand while taking a few paces back. It was an old helm, battered and worn with two horns adorning it's steel dome. Proude held onto the helm, uncomprehending as he turned his attention back to the man in the linen robe as the figure rose to his feet.

 

"Hiring the Sullen One shall preserve the true Head, and remove the first, but not before given the boon to finish the task! A boon both promised and honored!"

 

The monk took steps forward, if such wildly gestured movement could be called footsteps.

 

"Tis the Fate of the Proud One I have spoken, and only when fulfilled shall he know peace, unshackled from foreknowledge to find his own way! Rejoice that day! For thereafter will you know victory, plenty, and satisfaction to last until and after the time of service comes! For you shall know only greatness if you bend your knee!"

 

Proude found himself stepping back to keep his distance from the lurching entity he had found. "You! You are no Monk! What are you? A Caster? Is this Predictamancy you speak?"

 

"What I speak is what has been done, what will be done, and what will be done is what has been spoke!"

 

"Who are you. Why did you approach me?"

 

"You are a piece of a game, as am I. Fellow game pieces we are and forever shall be!  Hya-ha-ha-ha!"

 

"What nonsense are you saying, man! Why do you tell me these things?!"

 

The monk, nay, the Caster came to a jerking halt, as if stunned by an electrical current, before a wild look entered his eyes and he charged at Proude the Wanderer shouting, "Because I'm MAD!"

 

Though fearful sweat was beading on Proude's brow he didn't hesitate to strike. The blade of Proude's sword entered under the Caster's rib cage, and cut clean through to the other side. The body fell into two parts, as the face of the slain Caster, to Proude's horror, began to expand a sadistic grin. The two halves of the man burst into flame that rose up, disturbingly hot against the exposed parts of Proude's flesh and made his eyes water. The fire turned into a swirl of burning wind, and the face of the Mad Caster reformed itself, laughing in mockery, inside the blaze before deforming into that of a monster of burning scales with a mouth of molten teeth. The fiery being gave a great laughing cry as it rose, reared, and then rushed past Proude's head, searing his ear in it's passing, to take flight with it's wingless form and grow small in the distance.

 

Proude had fallen to the ground in his terror, unsure if the entity he'd encountered had been a man, a messenger of the Titans, or a beast of more infernal origin. All he knew was that he had no wish to ever encounter the thing again. Thus, he snatched up the helm that had fallen into the snow and dashed as quickly as his legs could carry him, not stopping until he'd run out of move. When he made camp that night, Proude worked at memorizing the words the Mad Caster had spoken to him, which was not hard since fear had burned the meeting into his memory forever.

 

 

 

Afterword by the writer:


It is rare to find a world that breeds more imagination in the readers than the author himself could ever have expected in his wildest dreams or darkest nightmares. These worlds find homes in our hearts and minds, creating legacies that outlive their makers to continue on in our societies. Conan the Barbarian is one of these. Time will tell if Erfworld is another, but I'm hopeful. And so, against my will, one day I thought to combine the settings of the two, and I have been suffering from my own imagination ever since.

 

If there are people here who have not read the Conan tales before, I highly suggest you do. Some of the tales are public domain now, and freely found on the internet. There is a book that is available on Amazon for less than 30 dollars that contains all of Robert E. Howards tales in their original forms in a 900 page bound hardcover. The writing of the Age of Hyborea is so epic it would feel like one enormous joke coming from a lesser writer, but it isn't. The tales entrap you, leave you dangling on the characters every word and deed with such varied characters in every story, ensnared by the dangers of their mystical magic drenched world.

 

In other words, it's a good read. And I tried my hardest to capture the same style in my own adaptation of Conan to a more ridiculous setting. And since I am a lesser author than Howard, I sincerely hope my writing seems all the more ridiculous because of it.

 

In the writing of this story, that I have proofread about a dozen times to get the feel I was looking for while hunting typos, it occurred to me that the party scene was perhaps a little longwinded. I could easily have shortened it, like I did for some parts of the tale, or remove entire segments, as I did for more expository insertions to opt for more jarring transitions thinking the audience didn't need me to hold their hands.

 

In the end, I decided to leave the banquet unaltered for my own vainglory, because I felt the events of the party, all of them, were necessary to convey my view of what true Barbarism is for those who are popped in the wilderness of the world of Erf. How their ethics are skewed and their desires are all they exist for. How even the lowest units were motivated by a selfishness and greed that is unknown in most other units across the land, because they need to be motivated by the basic human needs of survival to go into the world and fight to the death to survive. Barbarism is savage survival of the fittest as it moves from one battleground to the next without the comfort of being able to stand in one place every day and still have your upkeep paid. As such, individuality in every Barbarian is required for survival, which is something I hope to share with you all in the future once my Muse gets too annoying to ignore once more.

 

And for those of you who were wondering, yes, there is more afoot than I have shown, and I hope to reveal more in later installments, as I have decided to organize the Tales of Strongman in a similar manner to those of Conan. Individual stories that stand alone, yet make up a larger whole, published completely separate from one another, which is the opposite of Shadows of the Evergreen, my other long term project on Erfworld.com.

 

I hope I have engaged your interest, and that you will look forward to more tales of high adventure.

 

~BakaGrappler

 

(Note: User was awarded 100 Shmuckers for this story.)

Part 1 of 2 in Strongman

Comments

  • Guus

    Wow. Really. Love the story.

    That being said though... I can't recall. Do barbarians cannonically have cities? I thought they basically popped in the ruins of razed cities (among other places). Not that they actually established cities...
    Does anyone know what's cannon for barbarians in the field? I think it would make a good story. So far the only barbarians whose lives the canon stories have really explored are the casters aren't they? (I mean the little info we got from Jillians perspective didn't exactly paint the whole picture in my opinion.)

  • KronzeRourke

    Amazing story, I was avidly reading the forum posts back in june, but then when everything went silent I assumed you became busy with other work. Got on today, saw this and figured I'd just re-read it, but BAM the first completed story of Strongman. It was amazing and very good imo.

  • tdn001

     I thought you needed the archery special to stand much a chance to hit anything with a thrown or ranged weapon.  That aside, I liked the story, and loved the Conan stories I read as kid.  

  • ShaneTheBrain

    I was indeed entertained.

  • WurmD

    "And before dawn, they both satisfied their curiosity."

    ... -_-.. bastard.. XD
     
     
    Hahahaha, Fantastic read! Just great Baka, just great ^_^
     
     
    Here are my meager contributions to it:
     
    "And there was a slight satisfaction to knowing his first adversary was keeping that part of his body safe."
    huh? I didn't undertand this sentence, is it 
    to his first adversary knowing that he was keeping that part of his body safe?
    "It mere moments to rearrange the stack for a charge,"
    it took
     
     
    "for the man thought himself invincible is nearly all he did." 
    uuh, what man? Strongman or Wholy Bully? Could you clarify this in the text?
     
     
     
     
     

     

  • cleverwings

    Excellent! I think you really nailed the feel of the Conan novels changed just enough for the setting.

  • BakaGrappler

    I would like to thank everyone who has commented, thank you for the kind words.  As a writer, words mean a lot to me, so I feel uplifted by your kindness.

    I would like to thank everyone who has donated by putting action behind their admiration.  I would especially like to thank Salvage, Cleverwings, invaderrizz, and, most conspicuously of all the extra generous madmed.  I have been humbled by your donations, and I want you to rest assured that they will go to good use.  I'll be buying a stuffed dwagon for my sister in law for her birthday.  It feels... really GOOD to be able to buy something for a person from the efforts of my writing.

    For all other readers, thank you for reading. Your silence is also an affirmation of your pleasure with my story, since you didn't tell me "you stink."  For all readers, vocal, silent, and action oriented, I wish to let you know I have decided on the next tale to be told in the saga of Strongman the Barbarian, and a major pillar of the continuing epic to come. Please look forward to Strongman and the Ice Queens, which I admit will be a shorter adventure than this one, but as it is Strongman's origin story, it required the added length.

    I look forward to my next submission, hopefully as much as all the rest of you.  Thank you for your kindness.

  • Veryfuzzylogic

    I immediately recognized this as an epic tale inspired by Conan and I feel that you were artful in your use of the epic writing style in conjunction with the Erf setting and humor.  I particularly enjoyed your theories for what barbarism means culturally in a world with Erf's mechanics and look forward to your further expansion on them.

  • roninpanda

    This is simply amazing, and I have read the tales of Conan, as well as those written by Robert Jordan. I sincerely hope to read more, and also hope that this be made canon.

  • mortissimus

    Cool. I think you nailed the Erfication of Conan - The Shimmerian!

    In the constructive criticism department, I think this bit:

    The unit cowered and begged forgiveness, pleading a few more minutes of patience. Wooly was not much inclined to give it, such was his nature. But if the meal tasted well enough, he may not use the unit as a punching bag to train his knuckles that evening. But the Guardsman never had the chance to finish preparing Wooly's meal, as arrows then rained upon the camp.

    Two arrows struck the cooking stabber...

    Would be stronger if we could keep following Bully's mind as the arrows strike. After all, we the readers already know that the arrows will strike, so it is not a surprise as such. Ah well, easy to offer critique, harder to write.

    In my impression of canon, if barbarians (for example Jillian) conquers a city they become a side. But then again, I could be wrong. It could be a difference between proto-sides, in effect ruler-led gangs without cities. It could also be an effect of having no capital city, we don't know how that works. But nevermind that, it is a good story and that comes first.

    Btw, where do I find the chapters of the evergreen story? I read some of them and want to find the rest.