Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 10
ElvenAvariel is suffering an artistic burnout. I'd like everyone who enjoys her art to let her know to try and pep her spirits back up. Either leave a message in this post, or go here to her art page. Thank you all, and please enjoy.
* * * * *
A pain like this was completely new to Sasha.
It was like a throbbing sullen queasiness, between her heart and her stomach. As she rode a Bluebird on the turf of the forest, heading up the counter-invasion column, the golden bird's head bobbing with every step it took, Sasha could hardly think for that strange pain. Every time she looked around her, she saw the faces that made up the units of Everclear, which, she had only just then realized, she knew only a fraction of the names of. Sasha was awash in a sea of anonymous units acting as their beacon for direction. And she couldn't tell a single one of them that there was a very real likelihood of their being disbanded before ever seeing battle.
It was true that both Everclear and Everglade would have to be taken for that to happen. It would be ludicrous for that to happen before her column could reinforce at Eveready and join battle with the enemy, even though Princess Sasha currently had no idea where the enemy even was at the moment...
But Sasha's father had thought it a distinct possibility. And that frightened Sasha more than she could ever admit. But the disbanding was what made her feel ill. Violence and croaking was nothing to be worried over, it was natural. It was what she and everyone else in the hex was popped to do. But disbanding felt unnatural. It was like saying the unit had been a mistake, an accident of the Titans, and everyone knew the Titans didn't make mistakes.
But leaving the capital unguarded certainly felt like a mistake, no matter how Sasha's father qualified it. And he did very little to do so. Their parting was gruff, short, and blunt. And ended with Sasha's father giving her a few sheets of sealed orders. Like the one that read, "To be opened in case of my untimely croaking."
That one sentence haunted Sasha.
Sasha was the field unit. There was no Erfly reason why she should outlive her father. But she may just end up doing so. Just like she'd outlived Grey. The thought of him sent a fresh jet of queasiness through Sasha's body.
Grey had been the first unit Sasha had really met, her introduction to her father being more ceremonial than anything else before being quickly relegated to Grey's custody. Grey had taken Sasha out into the world and taught her the most useful lessons a level 1 could learn. Grey had taught her how to think of hexes as more than terrain types, lines of sight, the importance of information, and so many other things. Grey had helped Sasha take her ingrained knowledge from being theoretic to practical. Grey was so wise and well traveled. So humble and unassuming, almost to a painful degree. But when he was fighting or performing his duty, Grey's eyes were as sharp as swords and his confidence was overwhelming.
To Sasha's level 1 self, Grey had truly seemed invincible. And now he was croaked. Who else was Sasha going to lose to this phantom menace that was haunting her home? That thought kept Sasha quietly occupied as she watched the back of Beau, the Hickson Farstrider Warlord that was acting as their guide. Beau's cloak moved with the same rhythm as the green haired John Deer he rode as he expertly guided it through the thick woods. The hypnotic rhythm of riding and the music the advance scouts played on their ocarinas to signal the safety of their route to Beau helped ease Sasha into periods of only shallow and unthinking suffering. But they never lasted long.
Finally the advance scouts appeared, or at least some of them, and Beau gave a quiet order to one of them while spitting out juice from his "quid," Sasha thought the Everglade units called them. The unit that received the order approached Sasha, the cowl of her Farstrider cloak pulled up to obscure her features in shadow, and reported the column's arrival at the designated hex, and the safety of the surrounding hexes from enemies and wildlife. Sasha reacted by giving the order to make camp.
The column, such as it was considering the non-linear formation the stacks had to take to pass through heavy forest, broke apart and began the labor of making camp, including the culling of trees for setting up tents and lighting fires for cooking. Since Sasha had no hand in any of the process, she could only sit atop her overly dramatic mount as it lamented Sasha's continued weight as other Bluebirds were dismounted.
Seriously, it's not like Sasha weighed all that much. Stupid bird.
And so Sasha sat. Trying to keep her inner turmoil from showing and affecting the morale of the expedition.
"You are well, M'lady?"
The question came from Dame Montoya, from Maple. She and Sasha had been stacked with one another for the entire day's journey. Normally Maple would have been leading the heavy fliers as they had no choice but to travel above the tree line for their sheer size and Maple hated leaving her underlings to the task of following the column's banners through the trees to keep the military forces from being separated. But Maple had to have caught Sasha's mood and decided to stay near her while on turn, leaving the navigation of the heavy fliers to Sir Chekov. Maple's own gold colored Bluebird was drawn close, and Sasha could see a slight knitting of her retainer's eyebrows. It wouldn't do to try and deceive Maple.
"Just a little tired from the journey," replied Sasha. "I should probably turn in early tonight."
Maple nodded, understanding Sasha's real desire of a place to rest in private and saw to overseeing the pitching of Sasha's tent personally, dismounting and handing off the reigns of the Bluebird to a stabber. Sasha's tent was pitched before the kindling on the first fires were beginning to take. But it was still long enough for Sasha, there on her perch, to see Lydia slink off on her own, separating herself from her Shady Elves, to disappear into the forest.
And there was another source of Sasha's pain. Sasha had kept what happened to Grey from everyone else in the army, it was not their business how the command structure was altered, except for Lydia. Lydia and Grey were a couple, a couple that had lasted long enough to be comparable to the ones found in some of those rare flights of fancy that can sometimes be found in libraries. Those steamy ones with the warlords with long flowing hair, chiseled features, and biceps that could deflect an arrow by flexing their glistening-
Not that Sasha was a fan of them or anything! It would just be a waste for books that Art's barbarian Signamancer friends in the Magic Kingdom wrote to go unread, and Sasha was definitely not looking forward to Jane Ashhex's new work.
...But Lydia had taken the news hard, she'd all but shut down completely on hearing it. Sasha had ordered Brink to organize the Shady Elves' preparation for the march as well as the Eager Elves in order for Lydia to have some time to herself as she sat in a chamber, seemingly dead to the world, until start of turn when the Shady Elf Chief joined the column as they were about to leave Everclear. And Sasha would be willing to bet gems to rations that Lydia had not spoken more than ten words on the day's journey. Lydia was naturally quite quiet, an air of amused self-satisfaction fairly hung about her, but that had been a different kind of quiet. A painfully withdrawn quiet, hanging around a unit stoically putting on a facade of collected calm. A face that continued to hang in Sasha's mind as she entered her tent with Maple in attendance.
"What do you think of Lydia?" asked Sasha as she began the process of shedding her armor.
Maple hesitated for a long time, long enough to catch Sasha's full attention away from the side buckles of her breastplate. Finally, Maple asked in reply, "In what context?" Sasha quickly finished unfastening the last buckle and removed her armor before motioning to the wood chairs set in the tent and saying, "All contexts, Maple. And, please, this isn't a time for ceremony, so don't hold back."
Maple sat, still as ridged as she had been while standing, but looking slightly less reserved.
"Lydia suffered a severe blow today, M'lady-"
Sasha prided herself on being close with all the chiefs and captains of Everclear, except Brink who was just always kind of oddly silent and attentive with her. And Sasha was particularly close with Maple, although she had to be prodded into being unguarded enough to have a proper conversation. But there were few as straightforward as Maple, and flattery was not a concept she understood. A truly valuable friend for a Royal.
"I believe you know how much Warlord Shades meant to Lydia, M'- Sasha. But I don't believe you understand the significance of those feelings." Sasha asked what Maple meant by that, a little confused and slightly hurt by what could have been an indirect slight.
"What I mean... Sasha, is that it is impossible for me to predict how Lydia Doe-Ryder will act from today on. Lydia may attempt to abandon her duty altogether and wallow in spirits and misery. I... have seen it happen before." Maple's eyes darted to the side as she said that, giving Sasha the distinct feeling that Maple had held something back just then, but Sasha did not interrupt. "But I feel that Lydia is most likely stronger than that, that she will neither abandon her duty, nor grow slack... But I don't think we will be able to count on her judgment until after her period of mourning is over, if it ever ends... You may wish to consider having Lydia recuse herself from her position of Chief if she does not recover adequately before encountering the enemy." Maple's eyes wandered again as she said, "It is not impossible that some units would try to croak magnificently to try to be reunited by the Titan's blessing."
Sasha thought for a moment before asking, "How long do you think Lydia will need? To recover?"
"I do not know M'lady- Sasha. A broken heart is the only wound that cleansing cannot heal. ...I doubt any unit ever fully recovers."
Sasha felt a sudden stab of pain from that spot between her heart and her stomach, and ventured a guess. "Maple. You sound like you're speaking from experience. Who did you lose?"
It was not an order, Maple did not have to reply. But after a few moments, she did. With wet eyes that had not yet overflown into tears, in a whisper that was torn from her throat. "Prince Bretl."
Maple tilted her head forward, her eyes squeezed shut and sniffed lightly as Sasha gaped just before asking, "You mean my-" useless, disowned, snotty, worthless disgrace of a "-brother, Bretl? How did- I don't understand! I thought you..." Sasha corrected her volume and tone to phrase the event as politely as possible, "found him wanting as a leader."
"I did," huffed Maple, in a poor attempt at a pained laugh. "You're brother would have been a dangerous man to have holding power. His command of tactics was not... pliable enough to be trusted to oversee Everclear battles. He was fixated on the idea of using the costly tactic of superior numbers in the mock battles, and other disregards for our current military and infrastructure practices. He could not see wisdom in anyone's tactics but his own."
"All the more reason for me to be confused here, Maple," said Sasha, all pretense of hierarchy gone. "How did you end up with the Prince that failed to meet all of your standards?"
"Oh, you never met him," said Maple, brightening up for a moment. "Bretl was the handsomest, most confident and charming man I ever met. When he spoke to me, it was like I was the center of his world. And that smile... The social Bretl and the commanding Bretl were two completely different people, and he stole my heart before I even knew it. ...We almost didn't last through his demotion. But eventually we... made up, even though Bretl was thoroughly miserable in Everlast. It was hard, his not being allowed to leave his post and my not being able to travel there often... but we were able to retain something... until..."
It was at this point that Maple's tears did overflow, her voice breaking from her repressed emotions. Sasha hurriedly retrieved a handkerchief and let Maple wipe her eyes. Waiting until Maple had calmed herself, Sasha made her apology. "I never knew, I'm sorry for not having been there for you, Maple."
"Sasha, no, don't be. I'm the one that hid it. I just... I couldn't stand any kindness."
"Does it... is it any easier now?"
"Some turns, yes. Some turns I don't even notice the pain. Some turns, I feel crippled by it, and it takes all I can muster just to go about my duty from the morning on. But make no mistake, Sasha. Losing the man you love is a wound that will always hurt. I don't think that even croaking will heal it."
Looking at the wet, yet solid eyes of Maple that held nothing but a painful truth, Sasha felt that queasy throb yet again.
* * * * *
Lydia briefly reflected that she had never thought she would feel that kind of pain as she drew and aimed the ninth arrow in her practice session. And releasing it, she missed the tree she was using for practice for the ninth time. Every time Lydia thought she had succeeded in steadying her mind and body, and was about to release the arrow, that pain always tore through her all over again.
It was like her heart was in the jaws of a vise, being squeezed tighter and tighter, just to loosen for a few moments before being tightened again. Some moments it was hard to even breathe, the pain was so intense, and it took an act of will power to keep it from overflowing. Even now, alone in the woods, Lydia was working hard to keep her grief suppressed. Grey had hated to see her cry, which made fake crying one of Lydia's more effective ways of manipulating him. But even though Grey was no longer... Lydia couldn't bear to cry now, it felt like she'd be betraying Grey somehow. Because it wasn't time for it, not yet. Tears could come later, there was an enemy to fight-
The tenth arrow was drawn, aimed, and then released.
-The enemy that croaked Grey.
The arrow buried itself deep in the wood of a tree. Twenty or so paces behind the one Lydia was aiming at. Ten misses.
Lydia honestly never thought she'd be the one to feel that pain of loss, of vacant agony. While Grey saw far more service than Lydia had, Lydia was the one more often in the middle of battle leading her girls. Lydia had always thought that Grey would be the one to outlive her. Was that why Lydia was so carefully careless with Grey? How many times had Lydia looked at his sleeping face and thought to herself how she never wanted him to forget her, just before drawing on his eyelids.
Lydia's chest gripped hard again, and didn't let go for a while. Not until after Lydia heard the timed measure of her tribe's oral history in the form of poetic Rhyme-O-Mancy. A history that was being taught now to the hundred or so new members of the tribe, to be memorized word perfect and passed on through the hundred turns until the tribe was wiped from existence. Everclear was the fourth side that Lydia's tribe had served, the first destroyed by war. The second side's new queen exiled the tribe, for a lust for upkeep Shmuckers as dark as the heart of a Manwitch, the poem claimed. The third sold part of the pre-existing tribe to create a new tribal franchise, which brought Shady Elves to serve the crown of Everclear.
The dark turns of phrase flowed faintly past her ears, the words like ink poured out from the soul, and Lydia's mind turned back to that time, so long ago now, yet so fresh. They were her first turns, the first memories she had and they burned as bright as the fiery breath of a dwagon. Her popping, one of a dozen new girls. The poems, told and learned, and recited again and again. Her first excursion, the encompassing suffocation of trees and shadow, wrapping around her like a velvet sea. Her first fight, part of four stacks that met a force led by a warlord mounted on a tamed Hater. Lydia's first victory, had by shooting into the opened mouth of the Hater and into it's brain just as the jaws closed on her arm, tearing it from her body. When the battle was over only half a stack had survived, and she had leveled. Never after had Lydia ever felt so unaware of her mortality as she had been during that fight, as if her every action was performed unconsciously, as if she had not known before that battle the price of losing a fight.
Or the price of winning one, which she'd learned in Cleansing the next turn.
The following fights blurred together, an afterimage of violence and narrow survival. Shady sister after sister popped to be croaked, and fighting a failing battle to thrive. Soon Lydia was one of those teaching the poems to the newly popped. And Lydia had no love of life or expectation to keep living. Her desperation to keep breathing that was born after her first battle was nearly croaked when the tactics shift occurred. When seek and destroy became lure and ambush. When her stack of sisters and Eager cousins were paired with the newly popped and inaugurated Farstrider, Grey Shades.
Lydia still remembered her first impressions of Grey. Quiet, weak, uninteresting, and probably the first to be croaked in the next battle. But in that next battle, Grey had saved her life. Lydia was being charged by two stabbers in a stack, and she'd only had enough time to bullseye the eye of one of them before they could reach her. The second stabber had been stunned by a thrown rock to the back of his head just long enough for Lydia to fire an arrow through his heart. Lydia had had no idea where the rock came from, until she vaguely saw the same thing happen for an Eager elf that was about to be finished off by a piker. Lydia had no idea how many units Grey had saved that battle by interrupting attacks just before they landed, and neither had Grey when Lydia asked him about it later. He'd just shrugged and said he'd just done what any unit would have, and went back to collecting daggers from the croaked in preparation for the next battle; so he'd have something better than rocks to throw.
The second battle went much like the first, except the clandestine attacks from the darkness cut deeper. The only time in that fight Lydia had seen Grey properly was when he seemingly melted out of the shadows to stab an Everglade Woodsy elf with Leadership through the back, croaking him instantly and turning the fight into a rout.
Lydia's impression of Grey had changed after that. In her mind, Grey had become liquid darkness, shadow given form and a blade. And shadows were a Shady's best friend.
Lydia drew her eleventh arrow as she recalled the first time she showed Grey how much she thought of him as a "friend." Lydia's cheeks burned slightly as she recalled how she had been so careful to make sure her sisters didn't know about it, still caring what others thought of her at the time. Lydia drew the arrow as she remembered the excitement and Grey's body heat.
And missed her target when she realized she'd never feel that warmth again. The angry chittering of a cherripie sounded from where the arrow had flown, but Lydia was too stunned to hear it. It wasn't until Lydia heard the crunch of wood taking on a heavy strain that she had coherent thoughts again, the flying heavies taking roost in the trees, no doubt. Lydia had almost wished that her thoughts had stayed frozen. Grey was dead. The man that had helped bring a love of life into Lydia's heart was dead. Would Lydia's desire to live outlive Grey?
A very real part of Lydia's heart hoped it wouldn't. It felt that continuing to enjoy herself would be as much a betrayal as crying. Another part claimed that Grey would want Lydia to be able to smile and laugh even without having him there to laugh at. And it was so easy to laugh at Grey. Even with all the turns they had known one another, it was like Grey was incapable of learning when he was having his leg pulled. He was so socially awkward even at the best of times, but always good natured. No matter how many times Lydia tricked Grey, he always forgave her with a sigh and a dismissal of the act, claiming he'd not be caught again next time. But he always would be.
Lydia drew the twelfth arrow, recalling her pranks. Oiling up the soles of his boots. Cutting words into the hair on the back of his head. Cutting part way through the seams on his trousers and then yanking on them in front of others. Tricking him into getting Titans awful ink done.
Lydia fired her twelfth arrow straight into the ground as her grip slipped. Lydia recalled the latrine Titan ink she had talked an inebriated Grey into getting, and then issued a very important and apologetic prayer to the Titans to forgive Grey for the ink if he'd still had it when appearing before them. Ugh. To think that that would be the last prank she'd pulled on him. Lydia's heart hurt again. It wasn't right, it just wasn't right. Which meant that Lydia had to make it right. But what could Lydia do?
Lydia had unconsciously drawn her thirteenth arrow, and it hung there nocked on the string.
Lydia was bound to the column. She could not move from her duty to lead, and that limited her options. But duty could go hang, Lydia wanted revenge. She wanted to put an arrow into whatever had croaked Grey, and it would be nearly impossible to do just that in a giant column against column battle. If what Lydia had heard was true, then Cam would join up with the column tomorrow using some new transportation method. Lydia would talk to her at that time, suggest bringing back the pairing up of Elves and Farstriders to hunt down whatever was hunting Everclear, because if there was any unit as eager to take revenge for Grey, it would be Cam. Even if Lydia had to abandon her position as the Chief of the Shady Elves, she would take part in the scouting. In the hunting.
In one smooth motion, Lydia drew, aimed, and planted her arrow right between the eyes of her imaginary enemy on the tree's trunk. Her first hit was with her thirteenth arrow, unlucky for some, for those some will know what it meant to feel pain.
* * * * *
Scratching at the back of his heart, as though his spine was stabbing through the organ itself. It was an old wound that would occasionally reopen, that King Shindig occasionally reopened intentionally. This was one of those occasions.
Shindig sat at the seat of power inside his secluded study, and stared out the large panels of glass that granted an uninhibited view of the Everclear river, and allowed those old memories to wash over him again with a glass and bottle of wine at his command. The memories of the final turn he'd been with Meme, that final view of her face, her eyes. Her heroic sacrifice to save Shindig's life.
It was the single bravest, heroic, and self-sacrificing act he'd ever known. And that was the only comfort Shindig retained from losing the woman he'd loved. The knowledge that Meme had to have qualified for the City of Heroes.
And if Shindig found out that that was not the case when he stood before the Titans, he would denounce them for fools.
...But then again, perhaps Shindig was the fool.
He had been a conqueror when he had been popped. A warrior who commanded from the forefront. The only place he belonged, where his combat bonus truly had value. He had taken territory and humiliated sides on the field. He'd taken the heads of rival Chief Warlords... and then had Courtiers he didn't like courier them back to their parents. Shindig had made many lifelong enemies, and few long lasting friends. He had thought that such was the Titanic Mandate. That his fate was assured by the grace of the Titans, and that he was untouchable because of it.
And he'd lost his entire side within thirty turns of having ascended to the throne in place of his father through his foolishness, and by extension, lost Meme because of his foolishness as well.
It was why he'd changed his entire mindset when the Titans had granted him this second Side, to rule as he saw fit. He had become... well, "conservative" was a kind way to say it. Shindig had buried his inclination for head on battle and looked towards alternative methods of securing a Side. Art's popping as Shindig's first Caster had only been a slight surprise, since a Signamancer would never see battle, and served more as a confirmation of Shindig's new method to rule as anything else. After all, Shindig knew all too terribly well how dangerous a "good" contract could be.
Shindig's lessons had failed to succeed with Everglade, who were bloody minded brutes that had only ever shared the forest with barbarians before Shindig's arrival. But Shindig's diplomacy had allowed him to purchase start up franchises of elves to supplement his fledgling forces during the Everlong War. And Art's contracts had been the primary means of Shindig's Balance of Power and Mutual Deterrence rulership theories ever since.
The idea of being paid to keep any one nation from outgrowing their territories was one he'd never have thought up on his own. Shindig begrudgingly admitted to having had a good teacher. Well, "good" was not the right word for one so amoral as he.
Shindig had thought he'd been doing well, though. He'd thought he'd closed all potential loopholes in his governing practice, with an unassailable defensive position. That he'd become that which all Sides longed to be. An unconquerable kingdom.
But his foolishness, his hubris, had caught up to him again. If there was anything he'd learned from Art, it's that there were always loopholes. And the master at finding them was aiding the invasion that aimed for Shindig's head.
Shindig took a long drink from the wine glass to momentarily distract his thought, emptying the glass of the third of it's volume in dark red liquid that had remained.
How much involvement Charlie had in the plan, Shindig had no idea. But he had to prepare himself for the possibility that it was all set in motion by the man of mystery himself, and that whichever nation was attacking was a mere puppet. Shindig had done pretty well in the clandestine operations business for the surrounding territories, and had a few customers from further afield that counted on him for special tasks. Shindig had originally thought that Erf was large enough for two men to do mercenary work without interfering with one another... but there was no guarantee that Charlie felt the same way.
Shindig may have once again brought about the downfall of his Side through his reckless ambition.
King Shindig picked up the wine bottle with the intention to pour himself another moderate drink when he felt that gentle ringing in his head. Setting the bottle back down, Shindig allowed the proposed channel to open. In his mind, in front of his eyes, a face appeared. If not for the blue tones, her visage would have had the color of a deep mocha. As it was, the most prominent features she had were her deep smile lines showing her unusually cheerful demeanor which combined with her frame to show a beautifully plump and joyful woman. It was not her position as a Queen that gave weight to her Signamancy, but rather that she would have been less impressive and appealing as a person if she had not possessed a little extra meat on her bones.
She was one of his few and precious friends, made during his nomadic journeys as a mercenary. She had been a princess, two seats removed from the throne at the time, but now she was the Queen of Gengland after succeeding her father, King Roach.
"Queen LaTeef, it's very good to see you again. How's the Prince?"
LaTeef flashed a smile, literally. As her lips parted the Crown Jewels that had been crafted by the side's Moneymancer, Fabra-Shady, caught the light and gave her smile an extra gleam.
"Oh, Will's doing just fine. He's settled in B'Lair for the time being to keep the neighbors from gettin' rowdy. Thank you for asking. And how is your family doing?"
It was a pointed statement to get to the point, hidden inside of a diplomatic pleasantry.
"Straight to business, then?"
"Yeah. I had my Thinkamancer save some juice for this, but he doesn't have much."
Shindig nodded. Her side's Thinkamancer, the Notorious A.T.T. Queen LaTeef continued on, saying, "Are you sure the situation is bad enough to warrant asylum in Gengland for Princess Sasha?"
"I don't know yet," stated King Shindig emphatically. "But the enemy I face is one that cannot be underestimated. I just want to know if the proposed contract I sent you is acceptable... or if I need to increase the payment you would require."
LaTeef waved away Shindig's concern with a hand and a wordless sound from her mouth. "Psssh, what you're suggesting is more than enough. Taking in Sasha, Art, and any other survivors proper would be you doing me a favor, let alone paying me for it! Your proposed payment would be more than enough to buy them passage through the right Sides' territory, so let's hear no more of that."
"Then what's left to talk about?"
"Whether or not your daughter will do as you say, and travel aaaaaaall the way to Gengland after becoming Queen," said LaTeef with an arched eyebrow. She'd heard enough about Sasha to know she's at least partly her father's daughter.
"She won't have a choice," said Shindig, with an arched smile.
"An' why's that?"
"I sent my daughter sealed orders, written on Signamancy treated paper, dealing with a few potential outcomes should I croak. Once she reads her King's posthumous instructions on that stationary, they will hold the weight of an Order, and she will carry out the said instructions. She'll take sanctuary with you and fight in cooperation with Gengland, until a new Side can be founded."
Shindig said that last with a bit of a conspiratorial air, one that LaTeef picked up on.
"Don't you worry too much about that. I got a few rat-like sides within' kickin' distance of me. It may take a while, but I can help your girl get her new life started. Anything after that, though, an' that's her business."
Shindig nodded approvingly at that. He wouldn't want it any other way. But LaTeef wasn't happy with just that, as she asked, "So, why coronate Sasha, when you still have time to get the Ark' outta there and start things over yourself? I don't doubt you love your daughter, but fatherly pride has limits."
Shindig took a long moment, as all his memories and old emotions washed over him like a tidal wave. Finally he said, "The Titans gave me a second chance. I don't deserve a third if things fall apart here. It would just mean I am unworthy of Rule. Sasha on the other hand... she deserves to have at least one chance."
Queen LaTeef took a deep breath in, and let it out in a sigh. She knew she wouldn't be able to dissuade a fully convicted Shindig, so she didn't try. Probably didn't have the time anyway since A.T.T. had limited juice. Instead she said, "Alright. I'll start plotting some routes and sounding some sides. The territory lines have changed quite a bit since the Great War, but I should be able to flesh something out. Regardless, the instant your daughter passes the Cypress Hills, she'll be solidly in Allied territory, and I can have Sir Micks Lott meet up with her as an escort. But, hey-"
What made Shindig and LaTeef such good friends was Rhyme-o-mancy. It was in the fabric of their souls and their families. It was part of the nobilities, as well. So much so that some units in Gengland were promoted to Warlord based on their Rhyme-o-mancy alone. No units outside of a true Rhyme-o-mancer could wield the power that real Rhyme-o-mancy possessed, but it was still there in their souls. And so Queen LaTeef threw down a parting freestyle Rhyme.
"These punks dun' kicked a hive,
cause pickin' a fight with you's more fatal than a stonewall nose dive.
Croak their fifties for all your fives,
break their armies wit' one fell drive, their Fates delivered on the edge of knives.
End your war, struggle an' thrive,
an' when I see you again someday, you'd better be alive."
Queen LaTeef waited for a beat, and then gave her verbal blessing to Shindig. A wish for the one thing that was in short supply to be granted to her old friend.
"And peace to you. Break."
The call ended. The sensation in King Shindig's mind disappeared and with it a void made itself known. The gap in his mind where Thinkamancy had once been opened the hole in his heart still further.
King Shindig reached for the wine bottle, and began to drink directly from it. Several long gulps. Coming up for air, Shindig sent the order to Jeans to bring another bottle.
King Shindig had gone from wallowing in his old pain to wishing to drown it.
* * * * *
Grey had never imagined that pain like that existed. After it was all over, Grey had decided that losing his eyes and ears had been the easiest part of the process.
Yes. It had been a process.
Mr. Wyatt had done it to remove Grey's sense of direction. Unlike the eyes, cutting the flesh from one's ear doesn't rob them of their hearing, but of their ability to place where a sound had come from. And that was a part of the process, as much a part as the song and dance routine. The rope tightening around Grey's neck had been a part as well, not to bind him, it wasn't for that, but for another form of torture later on. The heating plate was yet another part of the process.
The first step in the process were those skewers.
Mr. Wyatt sank those skewers deep into Grey's body, right through his torso. They were somewhat sharp, but thick, which made them blunt as well. It was a piercing pain followed by the forceful tearing of flesh, all of it super heated and cooking the tissues of the body as the skewers pierced through Grey. The shock and agony from the first one blew all of Grey's thoughts away so completely that he couldn't grasp what was happening until after the fifth skewer. All of them stuck in his body, entered through the chest, points sticking out his back.
Then the process changed.
Mr. Wyatt must have run out of skewers, or deemed those ones had been stuck in Grey long enough, because then the albino Warlord pulled them out one at a time. He pulled them out violently. He'd had to, because the heat had bonded Grey's flesh to the metal of the skewers. Each jarring yank was horrifying. It felt like a little piece of Grey had been lost with each tearing pull, and most likely little pieces of Grey had been lost to the skewers.
Grey had been left sagging, sapped of strength just from that first round. The chains on his wrists wrapped around the pole were helping to keep him up, as well as the tension of the rope around his neck. Grey was left wondering how much treatment of that kind he had to look forward to, and began to resign and resolve himself in equal measure. He'd tasted what was waiting for him, so Grey had an idea of what was in store. Grey began to speak aloud, as if it were a mantra. His name and rank. His level. His experience total.
Then the process changed.
Mr. Wyatt started up his dance around Grey again, singing little bits of music to himself, mixing it up with little lectures and bits of trivia. Grey could try to tune it out, but at some points Mr. Wyatt forced Grey's attention to what he was saying, dictating some of the basic rules of torture he'd learned under the attention of Count Ruin himself. The grey areas of the rules, how intent was the key, intent to injure for the sake of pain, not of croaking. How far such a technique could go, the key points to avoid to prevent accidentally croaking a subject. This continued as Mr. Wyatt worked his process.
It continued as Mr. Wyatt shoved those heated skewers through Grey from unpredictable angles. In from the back, through the side, angled down, angled up. Every path a spike of metal could take to enter a unit's torso, Mr. Wyatt used. He used those paths as he danced around Grey, shoving the skewers in at random. Sometimes Mr. Wyatt would just poke Grey with a finger, jabbing it into his side or the like, laughing as Grey flinched, even as Grey spoke his mantra, trying to drown out the process he was being forced to undergo.
Then the process changed again.
After Titans knew how long, Grey's torso must have had more holes in it than a sieve. Grey was sure he'd have leaked water if he'd have drunk from a glass. He had no strength, no will power even, in his upper body. He was being kept upright by the chains, and the rope. So Mr. Wyatt started putting the skewers through Grey's legs. Grey quickly stumbled from the pain, his legs buckling from pent up strain. The rope kept Grey from going down. It tightened around his neck, letting the weight of his body cut the flow of air to his lungs. It took some time to get his legs back under him, but Grey was able to stand under his own power before he grew more than just a little light headed. Just long enough for Grey to realize that what he had around his neck was a noose.
"Good," said Mr. Wyatt. "Let's see how much longer you can stay on your feet. Just to let you know, if I think you're just pretending you can't go on, I will let you croak."
Grey believed him. And the process continued.
From beginning to end, it must have been hours, though Grey thought that days would not have been an exaggeration. Grey would be impaled by the hot skewers through the body and the legs at random. It would keep going as Grey spoke his mantra, interrupted by screams of pain. Eventually there was nothing else in the entire world to Grey. Just his mantra, his screams, his pain, and the deep voice of his torturer as he enjoyed himself, singing lightly in that smooth voice of his. Occasionally there would be the interruption of Grey's falling over, and he'd start to suffocate. Somehow, Grey began to think of this time, choking as the rope bore into his throat, as his safe time. The time he needed without Mr. Wyatt's interruption to recollect his resolve and force himself to accept being tortured again. And that was all Grey could do. Just... accept the torture.
Eventually Grey found himself limp in the choking noose and was surprised to find he didn't have the strength to straighten himself back up, to continue the process. Grey had waited, of course he had waited, to try in order to resolve his will again. But there was no strength in his legs to do it. Grey found he was grinding his teeth, exerting all his will for his legs to move, to push against the ground even as white dots appeared in his black vision. The dots turned into stars and Grey would have howled out in exertion if he'd had any air to do it with, and still he sagged in that noose. Grey thrashed, hoping maybe some movement, any movement would put some strength into his mangled legs, or maybe he'd just stumble into having his joints lock into a miracle position, propping him up like a lean to. But it didn't happen. And Grey's blind vision turned shimmering white.
And then the process was completed.
Grey gasped, gulping down air like it was his salvation. And it was. The rope making up the noose had been cut, Mr. Wyatts sword chopping into the cord that was hanging near the tent pole had bit into the wood in the process. Grey lay on the ground as a collapsed heap of meat, shuddering in his ignorance of what had just happened. Grey could feel his eyes beginning to screw into X's just before the tension around his throat was removed. Grey could feel the noose hanging limply around his neck, inverted and hanging like the neck cloth Mr. Wyatt wore.
"Good work," said Mr. Wyatt as he patted Grey on the shoulder. "Sleep well. I'll prepare you for march in the morning."
Grey had no illusion about what kind of "preparation" Mr. Wyatt would see done to Grey. It wouldn't be torture, that would slow the breaking of the camp. But it would be mutilation, to make sure Grey was incapable of taking any action on his own for the rest of the day. He'd seen it before while he was scouting. Some of the more sadistic warlords would cripple their high value prisoners daily, "just in case." And Mr. Wyatt was definitely sadistic.
Which meant that Grey would only have avenues for escapes immediately after dawn, after cleansing. Grey repositioned his center of gravity and fell backwards, his back impacting and then resting on the wooden pole. It was taking longer for the pain to ebb than it normally would, perhaps because of the sheer amount of damage Grey had suffered. A good hard jab to the jaw might have been enough to croak him, he felt that low on hits. But the pain did fade, and with it any strength to move, to think, to feel. Grey was just numb, the memory of the pain was enough to still his thoughts, and the knowledge that he'd feel all of it again come cleansing was terrifying.
Grey didn't make any plans, because he couldn't. He just knew, he was going to try something in the morning. He would either escape, or be croaked trying. Grey refused to suffer that kind of torment again, he had too much pride for that, and he'd rather be croaked than serve Humperdink.
And with those thoughts, Grey fell asleep. He had dreadful, flashing dreams. Flashbacks of his torture intermingled with the smell of Everclear on fire. Images of the knighthood falling from the sky to a field of Floorin' blue troops dragging King Shindig's body before Humperdink and throwing the corpse at his feet. And there was Humperdink, holding the battered bodies of Lydia and Sasha up by their hair, crowing over having new pets from atop a mountain of Farstrider cloaked bodies, faces he knew visible from beneath the cowls, with the giggling of Archons falling from the sky like flakes of ash. Mr. Wyatt danced and sang as he trotted around the mountain of corpses. Grey struggled to charge the Humperdink-monster on that mountain, a Humperdink that was no longer shaped like a man, but Grey was chained to the ground, misshapen and broken inside and out as he tore at his own body to get free, mangling it further and further, a Woof collar around his neck, closing tighter and tight-
Grey startled awake from his nightmare at the call of the jailbird. It was nearly dawn. It was nearly cleansing. Grey's window of opportunity was short, but large enough. He had a plan, his mind had worked it out in his dream, even as Grey was a prisoner in his own mind. Grey just hoped the rules had enough leeway for it, just like the rules for a controlled fall and torture damage. Grey hoped he had enough hits for it, though if he didn't, that would be fine. Croaking was better than surrender.
Grey shuffled his position a little. It was hard, as he still didn't have any strength in his body, or his legs. Sleep had returned some strength, some willpower, but only cleansing or a Healomancer would fix those parts of him, and only one of the two were on the way. But Grey's arms were still undamaged. Mr. Wyatt had not touched them. They had not been a part of the process, piercing them would serve no purpose in the skewering noose torture of the night, and were ignored. So there was more than enough strength left in them.
Grey had finished adjusting his position, getting his hands in the right place. With almost ludicrous care, Grey searched with his sense of touch to find where his hands ended and where the shackles binding them to the pole began. With incredible concentration, Grey lined up his hands, and swiftly pounded the shackle on his right wrist into the meat of his left hand.
Grey tensed and grunted in pain. The angle was bad, he could only use the strength of his bicep and the weight of his upper torso to strike, but he struck. Again and again and again. Each blow was a small crack in the bones of the left hand and stress placed on the delicate parts of the right wrist. Individually, they were painful. Cumulatively they were a new agony. But not nearly as bad as the skewers, Grey told himself. And worth a chance, with the Titans' blessing, of an opportunity to escape. With each blow, pounding out like wet meat, Grey prayed to the Titans as he carried out his plan to escape by self-mutilation. Just a chance was all he wanted, the opportunity to try, and he'd take it from there.
When the tears from the pain, clamped silently down behind grit teeth to keep from alerting the guard, overflowed onto his ruined chest, Grey tried the shackles. The pain from the hand and wrist were gone, as quickly as it should be, and with some wriggling, the deformed lump of flesh that had once been a hand slipped free. Grey was free. Of one shackle. The ones on his right hand and his legs were still there. Grey was neither wholly a prisoner, nor a fugitive, but something in between. And that was the gamble. When cleansing came, would the shackle reappear on his wrist, would it bind him to the pole effectively killing any chance of escape? Would start of turn be for him, as a fugitive, or for Floorin', his captors? If it was for Floorin' he would never outpace pursuit enough to get organized, the Archons could be called back to hunt him down all over again with dozens of infantry to help out. A situation that could only be considered hopeless. Worst case, Grey wouldn't be allowed to leave the hex. He didn't know. Grey was just an over-promoted scout. But it was worth the gamble. And if Grey was going to suffer cleansing, he might as well go all in.
He just had to wait for it to come.
Grey was waiting patiently for cleansing. Breathing slowly, teeth clenched, tense and prepared. Or at least Grey thought he was prepared. As always, cleansing happened in the blink of an eye. In that fraction of a second, Grey's teeth were repaired. The holes in his body closed and the charred flesh crackled back together. His hand reformed and the bones all jerked back into place. His eyes mended and flesh flashed into existence for new ears. Grey felt every ounce of it. And yes, Grey measured the pain in weight, in the force of a blow like taking a warhammer to the face. Grey bent backwards on the ground, arching in pain. For the first second or two, Grey was able to bear the agony, shock was working with him, but the full weighty realization of the cleansing struck home and he screamed. He screamed so loud and so long that he couldn't believe it was his own voice, his mind was so overwhelmed that Grey could only think it was someone else crying out so horribly. Grey's body thrashed on the ground, his limbs constrained by the chains. And then it was over.
In the time it took to expel all the air in his lungs once over in a cry that could be heard across the hex, the edge of Grey's agony had ended. In it's place was the dull throbbing of residual pain, the knowledge of what had been rather than what pain there currently was. And Grey shivered from it, and from the certainty that he could not in fact handle such pain again. Life wasn't worth it.
But maybe he wouldn't have to.
With a soft whispered prayer consisting of just the word "Titans," Grey checked his hands for the shackles. Grey found his right hand bound, and his left hand free. The empty end of the shackle was hanging from a length of chain from his one bound wrist. Grey was still in that in between area. Not quit a fugitive, not quite a prisoner. His status had not been reset with cleansing.
A smile cut across Grey's face like it had been carved with one of his daggers. A smile he found hard to suppress as he heard the camp begin to come alive, and the tromping of a small stack's boots stepping in succession. Probably Mr. Wyatt, moving to prepare his prisoner for transit. If they secured Grey, it was over for him, their spotting the free hanging shackle would ensure he never got enough liberty to try escaping again. The Titans had gifted Grey with this one chance, though, and he was going to make the most of it. Grey was going to escape.
But there was a little bit of business Grey had to take care of first. He owed Mr. Wyatt a debt of pain, after all.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.
I've also updated all my Fiction to include my name, BakaGrappler, as a keyword, making it easier to navigate and find my fiction. I hope other authors will undertake the same user friendly measure.
Oh, I have something in the wings, waiting and raring to go (EA has already read it). That's why I want everyone to encourage ElvenAvariel, tell her how much you love her art because she is currently in high demand by the Fan-Fiction community (which is my fault) to produce art for them, on top of Real Life, which is getting to her. Which means her current state is all my fault, so I'm feeling a bit guilty about that.
Come on guys! Cheer for ElvenAvariel! Hazzah, hazzah, hazzah!
But honestly, I had this chapter planned out before I ever published to the front page. I've been waiting a year to unleash Gengland on you guys (I was cracking up at work constantly just from thinking of Fabra-Shady). And here's a little peek into my mind. I LOVED writing this chapter. I HATED writing the previous chapter, because the previous one was nothing but exposition. ALL OF IT! Do you have any idea how hard it is to make exposition enjoyable? Well I do, and it is torture! I still hate reading that chapter, because I know what it use to be. But this chapter, it was all exploratory. It was all just about the characters, and no info dumps.
That's why I love the serial release set up, because it allows me to do experimental writing like this sometimes. For instance, I had no idea Erfworld has romance novels until Sasha told me she enjoyed them. No idea at all! Things like that happen when you're just squatting in people's heads this in this chapter.
Maybe I'll write some of the Shady Elves' Goth-Erf poetry someday... but probably not. Anyone who want to take a wack at it, go ahead.
I really like this story and this was a great update. I think you have some character traits of Mr. Blonde as that was a pretty intense situation there between Wyatt & Grey.
The artwork really does enhance the story. It helps paint the mental image of the story and it obviously well done.
Well done on all parts. I'm impatiently eager and greedy for more.