Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 13
King Shindig was no stranger to Thinkagrams, but Charlie’s were at a whole other level. When you spoke to Charlie, there was nothing else in the world but you and him. Charlie liked having people’s undivided attention.
Charlie also liked presenting himself as nebulous ideas. Swirling colors or shifting forms of association with whatever the current subject was. It was as if Charlie wanted to be thought of as more myth than matter.
That was why Shindig forced himself to learn to keep at least something solid in the Thinkagrams he had with Charlie early on in his previous business relationship with the man. To give himself something that seemed tactile to hold himself down with, and a specific image of a person to ascribe to Charlie to not get carried into his pace. It almost never worked, of course, since it would take a rampaging dwagon to break Charlie’s pace, but it helped.
That was why, in the Thinkagram that Shindig had stepped into, he was still sitting at his work desk, in his seat of power. And the image of Charlie was that of a person, sitting comfortably in a padded chair just across the desk. The image of Charlie was wearing a tailored suit of the Charles Comm blue, and the figure was tall, slim, and long limbed. At the end of those slender arms were a pair of dexterous white gloved hands. In those hands was a deck of cards that Charlie was toying with.
Just like how Shindig always brought his surroundings with him to ground him, Charlie brought cards to distract. It was their old game during their negotiations. It was quite nostalgic, really. Shindig couldn’t remember how many hundred turns it had been since he’d cut all contact with Charlie. And the reason why he’d cut ties with Charlie? It was as fresh in his mind as the turn it’d happened.
“What do you want, Charlie?”
“Oh, come now, your Highness? Not even a hello?”
“War before civility, or did you forget after so long?”
“Heh, I suppose I might have,” claimed the figure in the chair, with a gentle shrug of the shoulders, “Or I was just so happy to see an old client that I became a bit sentimental.”
The figure spoke that and moved it’s head in what Shindig could only suppose was a gentle and heart-warming smile. Shindig couldn’t tell, of course, because the suit contained no body. It was nothing more than a set of empty clothes with no contents at all. Shindig had been able to define a set characteristic for Charlie in his mind, but the man had always been faceless to him, and it seemed he would always remain so. Shindig had forgotten how unnerving the pantomimed facial expressions were capable of being without preparing yourself beforehand, but Shindig knew what was coming, and he had his answer ready. But there was still the annoying little song and dance routine Charlie required with all his business before ever getting to the real point of any of his deals.
And speaking of deals…
Charlie began shuffling the cards in his hands like it was a Caster’s trick as he spoke.
“Ah, well, if pleasantries are out of the question, I suppose we should get down to business.”
It would be nice if you would, thought Shindig.
“I’m sure by now you’ve received a notice from your scout that I’ve been hired by the side of Floorin’ to provide Archons and certain logistical supports for their attack upon you. I was hoping you’d allow me to apologize for that. Business is business, even when it’s at the expense of such a previously valuable customer. But I had faith you would be able to cope, somehow.”
Shindig had to put violence upon himself not to shout “Deer crap” at Charlie, but instead just narrowed his eyes in anger. Shindig knew that Charlie didn’t mean a single word of it.
“In fact, I’m calling today to make you an offer that would ease your ability to fight Floorin’. I assume you’ve been made privy to the contractual obligations I am currently under towards the side of Floorin’?”
“Yes,” stated Shindig like the thrust of a knife. And Charlie knew everything Shindig knew, because Prince Humperdink had obviously called Charles Comm the instant Warlord Shades had made successful his escape. If Prince Humperdink was as Warlord Shades described him, it would have been simple for Charlie to pull all the relevant business facts from the lad.
“Excellent,” stated the suit as it split the deck, rolled one half over it’s knuckles, and shuffled the two halves with a sound reminiscent of the tearing of cloth. “Since I’m not allowed to reveal particulars, I can only say that the contract for the services of my Archons is separate from the services that Prince Humperdink hires from me personally, and those particular services are not covered by Spell Support. Which means…”
Charlie laid the deck of cards flat on the immaculate work desk in front of Shindig, and then spread the cards face down in a line from one end to the other. “I can offer you a deal.”
Shindig stared at the point Charlie’s eyes would have been before bending forward to perform his part in the show Charlie required of his taciturn partner. Shindig selected and pulled five cards from the line at random, concentrating his will into them as he said, “And what deal is that?”
Charlie selected his first card.
“Prince Humperdink has directly hired me again.”
“The job is to locate your Warlord Shades, still a fugitive.”
“Then to notify the Archons under the separate contract,”
“So they can capture him for further interrogation,”
“And finally, forced Turning.”
Charlie neatly lined the cards up on his side of the desk.
“But you have the once in a lifetime chance to hire me to not find Warlord Shades. And for only twice what Floorin’ offered for my services.”
And there it was, as Shindig had been expecting. Charlie’s wheeling and dealing. Back before Shindig had understood Charlie to some degree, back when he was still on friendly terms with him, how many times had Charlie done the exact same thing behind his back? The thought made Shindig’s blood run cold with anger, but he kept it in check. He had to be logical. He had to think. He had to demonstrate his ability to maintain his Titanic Rights to Rule.
Grey Shades was a highly valuable unit. He was one of the highest leveled units in the side. He was one of the captains that defined and steered the course of the side’s strategies and policies. He had seen the composition and abilities of the enemy side firsthand and everything he’d not had the ability to write in his report was still in his head. Grey Shades needed to be repatriated to increase the likelihood of Everclear’s winning the war. In this situation, it was so easy to bow to his irrational self and to make the wrong decision, the decision that would end up costing him in the long run. And so, Shindig took a deep breath and gave the emphatic answer that would give the greatest benefit to his side.
“I see,” said Charlie, in sympathetic resignation. “I suppose one unit’s life isn’t worth topping another’s bid for you. Understandable, but I had thought you had the funds-”
“You misunderstand me, Charlie.”
Shindig turned his first card. The King of Clubs.
“Oh? Do tell?”
“I want your archons to pursue Warlord Shades.”
Second card. The Knave of Diamonds.
“You want my archons to recapture your warlord? Is that suppose to be reverse psychology?”
“No, Charlie. I want your archons to fall at the hands of my Warlord Shades.”
Third card. The Knave of Hearts.
“That seems more than a little unlikely, considering your warlord was captured by them in the first place. In my opinion you should accept my offer, far safer for your warlord in all respects.”
Fourth card. King of Diamonds.
“Charlie, my warlord knows exactly what’s coming for him. He’s not the sort of unit that would lose to the same opponent twice. When your archons attack him,”
Fifth card. King of Spades.
“Warlord Shades will take them apart, removing the archons from the playing field and severely hindering Humperdink’s abilities in my forest. So you can either refuse Humperdink’s job and preserve your archons, or take the Shmuckers and lose an entire squad of your units.” Shindig motioned over his displayed cards with an upturned palm, and said meaningfully, “Full House, Kings over Knaves.”
Charlie looked at Shindig in what he thought could be a bemused smile, a look of disbelief, or a stare of disdain. The figure was too still to get any reading off it, but finally, Charlie spoke.
“Well, I suppose we shall see, shant we. But regardless, it was so nice to see you again your Highness. I have so few old friends and acquaintances. I wish you luck in the war and wish to remind you, I am available to hire out to Everclear as your Battlespace Solution Provider.”
With a deft movement, Charlie lifted a corner of one card and flipped it, causing a chain reaction of the other four cards that were laid in formation with one another to show his hand with a single move, revealing four Aces resting atop the last King.
“Whatever your needs may be.”
The call with Charlie ended, and with one final overwhelming wave of pleasure, Emma opened her eyes to see Anna watching her with full blown jealousy, and Elle wearing a smile of goodnatured longing. Re-adopting her manner of Leadership to cover up the afterglow, Emma sternly said, “I have the location. We’ll be able to make it by end of turn.”
“And our orders?” asked Elle.
“No new orders,” stated Emma. “We’re still under contract with Floorin’. We’re operating under their best interest.”
All three archons instantly had Charlie’s Rule and the corresponding Corollary Rule for full service contracts flash through their minds, but the current situation didn’t seem to require the Corollary Rule, so Anna asked, ”And just what is their best interest? This guy didn’t even need a full turn before he escaped, croaking a warlord in the process. In my opinion, ‘duty’ requires we croak him instead of just trying a recapture. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”
“We can’t, Ann,” responded Elle with her big, bright smile, “Humperstink ordered a recapture. Full service requires we follow orders, so we need to take him alive again. Right Emm?”
Emma didn’t respond, even when Elle asked again, her voice anxious. Emma was deep in thought, recalling the chase of the warlord the previous day. It had been harder than it should have been, much harder. The warlord had been completely invisible, even to an archon’s eyes, until he chose not to be. Being the incredible guy that Charlie was, he’d somehow known the warlord was in that hex and approximately where he’d be that morning, and given the archons directions on where to try a stakeout. It should have been an easy ambush once the warlord had finished sending his dispatch. But the warlord had found them out, without a successful spot check.
Emma still had no idea how he’d done it.
The chase itself was nearly a disaster. The warlord’s attention had successfully been pulled in all directions at once, and he’d still had the time to complete a written dispatch before Elle could get into position to close the net around him. But there was one single moment in the entire chase that Emma kept replaying in her mind, over and over again whenever she thought about that warlord.
That moment when Emma had successfully gotten the drop on him, flying through the tree’s foliage, with a spell ready on the tip of her finger. It should have ended with that, the warlord should have made that face of numb surprise and bewilderment that Emma had seen a dozen times when Charlie or an archon had outmaneuvered an opponent or a client. She should have seen that face right then, but she saw something different instead, something she’d never seen in a Man’s eyes. She’d gone over that image again and again, and she could only describe those eyes with a single word.
Those eyes had been Feral.
Emma would never admit it aloud, but in that one moment before she launched her attack, she had been frightened by those eyes that made her think that warlord was going to tear into her throat with his bare teeth. And it was that fear that had saved her life, since her primal instincts had forced her to open distance with the warlord, to flee to safety, even as she fired her spell. If she hadn’t opened that extra distance, Emma was sure she wouldn’t have had time to dodge that dagger the warlord had thrown.
Emma shuddered slightly once again, remembering the feeling of that blade slicing her cheek, and fingered the place the wound had been before cleansing. When Elle called her again, worry apparent in her voice, Emma came back to the present and said, “Ann is right. This guy will just cause us trouble if we don’t go all out on him. Cast to croak.”
Anna showed a bright smile to that, Elle nodded, her face showing more determined focus than it really needed too, and the three of them started their flight to hunt down the escaped warlord.
It was a troublesome hex, with dark clouds partially obscuring the sun while a light drizzle fell from the skies to moisten the ground and pool in hollows. It was a hex with a quiet, dour solemnity. The extra shade lengthened the shadows and made the greens of the forest within sight brighter for the darkness outside of one’s range of sight. The pitter patter of the falling drops were a constant white noise against a backdrop of stillness that the archons flew through, veiled and hugging the ground as much as possible.
The warlord had chosen a Rain Hex to make his stand in. While the downpour was comfortably light, there was no veil known to archons to have solid drops of water seem to pass through their body. It would appear the warlord was counting on using the rain to see the archons before they saw him, to try and ambush them, was Emma’s guess. It was an effective plan against archons who didn’t know of it, but every archon had been instructed in means of dealing with just such situations. And hugging the ground during flight, lowering their presence as much as possible, was a great means of countering that plan. When a veiled unit is that close to the ground, you can’t tell the difference when the raindrops break against their bodies instead of the soil.
And so, the archons approached the center of the hex while floating a hands length above the perpetually damp earth. Charlie had said the target was near the center of the hex. Charlie was always right, and with a rush of happiness, Emma found he was right once again. For there in the center of a small lake was a twisted tree, much like the one that the warlord had chosen to hide in before. Of course, that alone wouldn’t have been enough to prove Charlie right. But with a concentrated spot check, Emma was able to just barely see him.
There on the large bough with rain heavy leaves covering him on all sides was the warlord, wrapped about by his tattered cloak, the hood pulled over his head. Through the tears, Emma could see the warlord’s armor, and his sheathed sword influenced the folds of the cloak. The man most likely had his hand upon the hilt of his sword right then, waiting for his opportunity to strike at his pursuers. But now that Emma had seen him his status window lit him up like a powerball. With a thought, Emma clued Elle and Anna to his location and the three swung around wide to close in from the blind side of the tree directly behind the warlord. Reaching position, Elle and Emma moved to flank while Anna got ready to do what she did best.
Taking up a firing stance, Anna pointed her finger and fired her beam spell right through the trunk of the tree. The wood splintered, charred, and hissed steam as the spell tore through the tree. The warlord took the spell right through the torso, which shattered not unlike the tree. The fabric of the cloak blew apart like confetti. The armor fractured like glass. The flesh broke apart like a smashed apple. And floating there amongst the flying remains of the Everclear warlord were… feathers?
“Weird,” sent Anna through natural Thinkamancy, “I thought I’d get more experience for a-”
Anna’s Thinkamancy ended the same moment Emma felt her stack bonus drop to two.
Grey was fighting a pitched battle against boredom. It’s always harder to fight boredom in rain hexes for him than any other tile, mainly because there were no individual noises for him to listen for, to form stories of the goings on around him with. There was just the background noise of the rain falling and the leaves rustling. The occasional clap of thunder wasn’t enough to keep Grey from falling asleep, and in Grey’s current position, he really just might. And if Grey fell asleep he’d lose his chance at a pre-emptive strike when the archons arrived, which could end up costing him his life.
Grey’s battle plan required that he remain motionless in his vantage point, so he couldn’t get up and move around to relieve the creeping drowsiness nibbling at the edges of his mind. He couldn’t stretch his arms or flex the hands that held his weapons, ready for use. The only thing Grey could do as he waited was to tense his muscles, and then release, as he went exploring his memories.
Grey dove inside his mind, using his flexing body to keep himself grounded. In his mind, Grey relived the fall of Everglade and the battle plan that had been formed by himself, King Shindig, and Art. A feint operation with siege hitting the main gate while ladders and John Deer breached the walls on the other side of the Hickson’s capital. The ladders were not used to scale the walls, but as stepping stones to cross the Dirtamancy traps that infested every approach other than the front gate. The Hicksons had been so confident in their traps that they’d moved all of their forces to the gatehouse to meet the siege engines, and Grey’s detached force tore through the walls using the John Deer antlers before any units worth mentioning could rally. Grey relived those moments when the walls came down and arrows poured around him. When he kicked the flank of his mount, vaulting over the rubble, to charge the stacks of garrisoned pikers alongside stacks of roaring Eager Elves.
Grey recalled parts of his training as one of the first generation of Farstriders. The training had been somewhat different for the first class than now. The first class had few lessons on the forest and stealth, and had focused more on combat and survival. The recruits were taught by King Shindig himself, and the King used pain as a motivator. Every day would have combat lessons with training swords of wood covered by leather, except the last test for graduation, where the training swords had been left unpadded. The final examiner was the King himself, and the test was to survive. King Shindig had beaten the first two examinees until they’d croaked, and Grey was the third to be tested. Grey wasn’t able to remember much of the test, having taken a serious blow to the head partway through, but he remembered that he’d been seriously trying to croak his own King in that practice match, he was so desperate to survive. That savage desperation was apparently what King Shindig had been looking for in his graduates, though, since the King praised Grey’s actions instead of disbanding him for attempted regicide as he should have. That praise was why Grey didn’t believe the other graduating Farstriders when they told him he’d bitten the fingers off King Shindig’s left hand during the final exam.
Grey let his mind wander further as he felt the chill of the hex’s rainwater, and how he’d met Cam, his lieutenant. It was when Grey had been leading the Farstriders hired out to Gengland as part of their Sixth Coalition against the self-proclaimed Emperor who’d overthrown the Royal family of Frances, near the fjord Coppola. Grey had received the order to eliminate the dreadful assassin of Frances that left all the Leadership of the Coalition in fear of their lives. Grey couldn’t track her, so he staked out her most promising target for nearly twenty turns before she showed, sneaking under the skirt of her target’s tent, a young prince who’d made excellent headway against Frances’ southeastern front. Cam was moments away from breaking the prince’s neck from behind before Grey could intercept her, but he did, and there was an immediate battle, with Cam fighting alone against two high level warlords. Even then, Cam nearly escaped.
Cam was narrowly captured alive that turn, and Grey was escorting her to be interrogated by a Turnamancer when, six turns into the escort, Cam-
Grey’s recollections were shattered by a blast of light and a din of sound. The tree ahead of him was pulverized by a single spell, and the Woody Pecker he’d dressed in his own raiment was annihilated along with it. The trap with the Woody Pecker wearing the Infiltrators Cap showing Grey’s Signamancy as an Everclear warlord had worked.
In that first second after the blast, Grey twisted his neck to turn his head that had been laying on the ground he was prone upon to look forward. There, the veil blown, was the archon Anna with smoke rising from her outstretched fingertip.
In the second second, Grey put power into his arms and hands. Not into his fingers though, as they held the blade of a throwing dagger on each side. Grey’s palms pushed against the bare dirt where he’d cut away the grass to prepare his ambush point.
In the third second, Grey felt the patches of sod he’d decorated his back with as extra camouflage over the Signamancy prepared black makeup that Art had given him. The same pitch black ooze that Humperdink had thought was poison was smeared over all of Grey’s exposed flesh, making him as dark as a shadow except for the small patches where contact with the ground had smeared mud atop it.
At the beginning of the fourth second, Grey’s left leg had swung under him with all of Grey’s body weight being shifted to it. The height from standing upright again was added to the altitude of the outcropping Grey had chosen for his nest, as it allowed an excellent view of the tree he’d chosen for the Woody Pecker on the tree’s opposite side, the side the archons would be most likely to attack from when considering their firepower.
In the fifth second, Grey had finished affirming his target in his mind, and transferred that surety into his body and hands. As his right foot stepped forward, Grey transitioned the power of that step back up through his body, down his arms, and into his fingers.
In the sixth second, the daggers left Grey’s hands, drawing a flashing, curving arc in the air before burying themselves in Anna’s back in the seventh second.
Step one of Grey’s plan had been completed. He’d reduced the archons to a team of two. Grey had no way of beating three archons, but he could manage two.
The remaining two archons had already dropped their veils, no doubt thinking the fight decided even before it began. Grey could see their faces as they turned towards him, faces of numb surprise and bewilderment. Seeing that, a smile crossed Grey’s face in that faintly lit forest. One that was halfway between a grin and a snarl.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here. Seriously, go tip her for this epic work of art! And if EA and I are the only ones who know the reference for that suit, then shame on you all.