Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 16
Sorry for the long absence. I have learned the hard way that I am unable to write two books at the same time, and I am back to complete the Shadows of the Evergreen story before I get back to my other project. My web site is here, the second draft of my take is on Royal Road right here, and my Patreon is here, where members will be charged only on release of full chapters, and will always have pre-access to a full chapter ahead of non-paying readers. If you enjoy SotE, you may enjoy Stop Calling Me A Demon King.
And now, without further ado...
“How long are they going to be keeping you on hold, Emm,” asked Grey Shades from his seat near the campfire he’d built in a spot under some tree cover.
He was still shirtless and without a cloak, so the heat against his bare skin was rather welcome. It also was a secondary treatment for Elle, who Grey had finished his extensive work of treating with his field patch up work. Grey had splinted broken arms, put a makeshift neck brace of dagger sheaths and tightly wrapped cloth on the archon’s neck, set her head on a bundle of harvested grass for a pillow, and bound the ribs tightly to prevent the fractures from doing any more damage. Grey had even had to set some of the bones before he could treat them. All in all, it was a lot of time consuming work to get the archon patched up and build the fire to keep her warm against the dampness of a rain hex.
But this also meant that the blindfolded Emma, who was bound and shivering in silence over in her spot away from the fire, had used up a lot of Grey Shade’s time. And he was starting to think she was just stalling. That thought had colored the tone of his question to her such that Emma flinched a little from hearing it.
“I don’t know, warlord,” she said, trying to sound testy but failing against her own nerves. “That’s what it means to be on hold.”
“Well, you’d better hope they hurry up with it. Because you won’t be getting any dinner until you get some results.”
Emma gulped audibly, as she should when a guinness fowl was roasting on an open fire. Catching it was yet another task Grey had accomplished while waiting on Charles Comm to reply to the proposed deal. And a good find it was. A guinness fowl was so juicy that it practically marinated itself. It also made a good “carrot” to dangle in front of Elle in addition to the “stick” of the promise of torture.
“I’ll try them again…” Emma said weakly. Grey felt a smile creep over his face. It was just so much fun messing with captives. Grey was completely incompetent at pranking Lydia, but with strangers under his power, he had a hard time holding back. He even convinced the archon to be afraid of goldthwait cats! The other Farstriders would laugh themselves silly when they heard that one.
Grey was leaning forward to tend the fire when a rumble came from his pack that could only have been his cap. A message had come. In light of there being no pressing concerns for the moment, Grey drew out his cap and his command of ‘Dresden” made a message appear. Drawing it out, Grey instantly noticed the seal of King Shindig. They were orders regarding the prisoner. Grey’s face tensed in seriousness as he read the command, and then put the orders into the fire and faced Emma. Striding towards the bound and desperate archon, Grey drew a dagger and said, “There’s no need for you to contact Charles Comm anymore, Emm. Orders have just arrived.”
“What kind of orders?”
Grey adjusted the grip of his dagger to be comfortable in his right hand as he laid his left on Emma’s shoulder, saying, “The kind I doubt you’ll like.”
“He-hey. What are you-?”
“I hereby release the prisoner.”
The chains binding Emma’s wrists and ankles instantly dissipated in sparkles of Titanic magic as Emma once against became an active unit in service to Charles Comm. The sudden freedom left Emma dumbfounded and confused, giving Grey enough time to cut the rope tying Emma’s legs to the tree free from her body before the woman could pull the blindfold from her eyes. As she did so, she demanded, all self-important now that the threat to her life had lessened, “What’s going on here?”
“I’m stacking,” said Grey, ignoring the core of Emma’s question while answering it. Just as Emma was about to open her mouth to demand a better answer, Grey stacked and Titanic sparkles surrounded him, reforming his armor and cloak about his body, and returning his status to that of a warlord of Everclear to him.
Emma’s mouth hung slack for a moment before saying, “You’ve been repatriated,” in a mixed question / statement voice. Then she said more steadily, “And you’re allied?”
“Yup. Seems our rulers cut a deal while you were in La La Land.”
Grey turned his back on Emma and went to the fire to sit down. That cozy feeling of wearing his cloak and armor near an open flame was not lost on him, even through his air of nonchalance. Emma, on the other hand, had no change to her wardrobe from her release from prisoner status aside from her hair being put back in order. She was still wet and had mud stains all over her clothes. Emma seemed to feel it was unfair as she stood up and, with an unsightly pout and her hands lamely curled into fists, complained, “That’s it?! Everything we went through, and we’re just allied?! Just like that?!”
“Yup,” said Grey, getting himself comfortable on the log he’d built the campfire near. “You’d better come over and dry off near the fire. The guinness fowl is nearly finished cooking, but has a bit of time to go. Dig in when it’s ready.”
“Oh, and what will you be doing,” asked Emma in a huff as she approached the fire, holding her hands up to it.
“Apparently, I’ll be in a conference call.”
Grey then pressed the “Accept” button that had appeared in his mind the moment he’d been repatriated.
It felt like Grey had closed his eyes without actually having done so, and then opened them to see what was in front of him. It was Everclear’s great hexagonal table, the larger one that had a room unto itself in the castle, and around it was nothing but darkness. Seated at four of the six sides of the green felt topped table were King Shindig, Princess Sasha, Dame Montoya, and Chief Caster Artakis. Standing with one side of the table to himself was an empty dress suit made of Charles Comm blue fabric. Each seat had what appeared to be a copy of Grey’s report sitting on the table in front of it. Grey found himself wandering towards the vacant seat, his seat, while wondering at the lack of everything around him.
“Welcome, Warlord Shades,” said the King, whose Thinkspace form was garbed in the same combination of fine clothing and military purpose armor he wore in the real world, complete with the green and silver thorned crown upon his head. “We’ve just begun. Sit.”
There was the weight of an order behind the word, and Grey found himself automatically following it. Even in Thinkspace, orders could transmit, huh? Speaking of. Thinkspace. Whoa.
“What exactly is this? I didn’t know multiple people could be in a Thinkagram at the same time,” Grey remarked. There was something of a general hum of agreement around the table, but King Shindig said, “It’s best to assume Charlie,” the King indicated the empty suit, which politely nodded it’s absent head, causing Grey to jump in his seat a little, “Can do a great many things, if only you have the inclination to ask.”
“I typically streamline my services for my core customer base. Those who require special services are rare, and as valuable as the services that I provide,” remarked the suit in a very polite and gentlemanly tone of voice.
“They also have to pay out the nose for those services,” said Dame Maple sourly, as she unconsciously fiddled with her ribbon decorated spear, the May Pole. Dame Maple was never without her weapon, but she kept it secured to her back whenever possible. But it was impossible for her to do so with the high backed chairs of the Hex Table, so she was holding her weapon in her right hand. Dame Maple also looked the same as her real life form, armor and all. Though the leaves that adorned her armor about her collar seemed a little shinier than Grey had remembered them being.
“Don’t worry, this call is included in the alliance contract. We impressed upon Charlie that we have to have all members present for our meeting, and Charlie was gracious enough to have this one session be included in the terms of alliance.”
Art displayed a smugly triumphant smile on his face, which Grey thought was well deserved if he was able to push free services out of someone like Charlie. Art was wearing a black shirt with a collared white shirt over it without any of the buttons done up, as though it was a jacket. Some of his Ink peered out from under the collar, and Grey could swear the Inked dwagon wing he could see was moving as though in flight.
“Whatever the reason, it’s simply good to see everyone safe and sound again,” remarked Princess Sasha from her side, beaming a smile towards Grey that made his chest tighten. Like the rest, she was also in her regular armor, though the feathers at her shoulders seemed like they were curling a bit more than he’d remembered them. With that thought, Grey started checking his own appearance, and found that he was in the garb he most identified with, the mail backed leathers and cloak of the Farstriders, as brown as the trunk of a tree. There were even little daggers hidden about his person where he remembered them being.
“Yes,” said the King. “And on that note, now that Charlie’s archon has repatriated you, I hereby reinstate Warlord Grey Shades to the position of Captain of the Farstriders.”
Grey felt a surge of something within himself, and knew his Status had been updated with his rank, once more placing him in a position of importance he didn’t deserve at all. Honestly, Grey had not missed the feeling of responsibility the title in his status gave him. But there was no use for it, as he had Duty to perform.
“First order of business,” said King Shindig, “Is to go over the facts that are pertinent to this meeting. We have Warlord Shades’ report on the numbers and make up of the Floorin’ army, which Charlie has supplemented with his own information. The reports match close enough to not require further explanation.”
“A most impressive count you made, Warlord Shades. I might just outsource some business to your side in the future should I find myself with an excess of clients,” said the blue suit.
King Shindig carried on.
“Also mentioned in Charlie’s supplements were his observations on the Overgourds. They appear to truly be a new type of siege construct, built by hand and modified by magic. They are about half as sturdy as a siege tower, and can hold half the numbers of troops. But just as in Warlord Shades’ report, they are flight capable and have siege weaponry mounted on their topsides. Our cities are not equipped to counteract such a device, and should we try a defensive siege battle, a direct infantry strike against tower and keep are very likely. Therefore, I have decided that we will be facing the Floorin’ threat out in the field, where we will hold the advantage.”
There were nods and slight mumblings around the table, a table where the corners had become somewhat more rounded than Grey had remembered them being. As the sounds of agreement ended, King Shindig kept speaking as though he’d never paused.
“Charlie has been kind enough to share the route he had supplied to Prince Humperdink to us. With this, we will know where he is going, and when he will reach there” Charlie laid out a fold up map as though he was spreading a line of playing cards on the green felt table. Sure enough, it showed only the route Humperdink was taking and no additional information about the side of Evergreen. But even with that, Grey knew the exact hexes that were involved and the fact that none of them were trapped. King Shindig looked at each of his council in turn as he said, “Copies of the map report will be sent to your individual hats.”
The war council nodded nearly in unison around what was no longer a hexagonal table, nor even a rounded table, but closer to being a half circle with Charlie isolated on one side. The suit that was apparently Charlie, as the name tag on his left breast stated, took the opportunity to speak.
“According to my estimations, Prince Humperdink will arrive at the city of Everquest on his fourth movement from now. After that, it will take only another six turns for his column to reach Everclear.”
“Are you certain of these numbers,” demanded Dame Maple, who’s armor had smoothed to the point that it seemed like fabric. Her spear had also shrunk greatly in size to the point that it could be carried between her fingers rather than needing to have an entire hand dedicated to it.
“Oh, yes, quite certain,” remarked the empty suit. “Prince Humperdink’s turnsaws are allowing him to move as though the forest were mere uneven terrain. The siege towers he intends to use against your main gates are not slowing him down nearly as much as they normally would.
Princess Sasha held a knuckle to her chin in thought. Her armor had also seemed to become smoother and softer. Her pauldrons had disappeared and her torso was covered in fabric that shimmered ever so slightly in the light of Thinkspace, as the feathers that decorated her shoulders seemed to coil into their own garment, not unlike a scarf that hung down each side of her neck. Not noticing the change to her own wardrobe, Sasha spoke only about the upcoming battle.
“So Prince Humperdink’s plan really was a simultaneous assault on the walls and on the tower? If Grey’s report had not included the information on bridge building materials, I would have said it was a fool’s errand. But he’s properly prepared to carry out his attack.”
“Obviously because someone sold him information about all our defenses,” said Art, probably because he was feeling left out of the strategy meeting so far. As Grey’s line of sight turned on the Chief Caster, Grey found that his white overshirt had grown to be an extremely fancy white suit with a cummerbund and sparkling stones about the lapels. Art’s usual glasses had also changed. The clear glass had turned dark, and the dark rims had become pure white, with sparkling stone inserts as well. The shape had changed too, to be large ovals instead of fittingly sizes squares.
“I can neither confirm nor deny such an allegation, Lord Artakis,” claimed Charlie, spreading his hands wide in a theatrical gesture of noncommittal cooperation.
“Both as expected, and unimportant,” stated King Shindig, whose clothing had changed in a striking manner. His long sleeved undershirt had become a tailored suit coat and the armored vest was now a cloth vest, with the royal cloak taking the form of a burgundy overcoat that was lightly draped over the King’s shoulders. The crown had become a hat with a wide circular brim that somehow added an air of power and menace when combined with the suit and shoulder draped coat, giving King Shindig the air of one who was The Boss of the meeting.
Somehow, Grey was aware of these changes in everyone around him, but not mindful of them at all. Was that an effect of Thinkspace? Or a side effect of being in contact with Charlie?
Boss Shindig continued on, not minding the vastly altered Thinkspace in the slightest.
“As I said before, we will be meeting Floorin’ in the field. But we are at something of a dilemma. Our Dirtamancer is afield, and while he has been recalled, he is a Heavy unit and can’t ride a Bluebird. It will take about eleven turns for him to get into a position for him to join our defending forces.”
The Dirtamancer and his traps were one of the major parts of Everclear’s military strategy. Destroying Humperdink without him would be a lot more difficult. But not impossible. But it still forced Grey to think about the additional losses his side would incur in the coming war, and that caused Grey to lower his head in thought. In doing so, Grey saw that the report in front of him had turned into a pair of playing cards. The Knave and Two of Hearts. In fact, everyone at the table now had two cards in front of them instead of reports…
“It will certainly be more difficult to destroy the invaders without Paul,” said Princess Sasha, “But not impossible. We should have the time to join with the forces at Neverever and intercept the Floorin’ column a couple of turns out from Everclear.”
King Shindig slowly shook his head in refusal. Grey noticed he had the Seven of Diamonds and the King of Spades in front of him as the ruler of Everclear said, “We are fighting not to croak the invaders, but to capture them. We will be ransoming the army back to the side of Floorin’. That was the condition of alliance with Charlie.” Everyone but Art and Charlie gasped at the revelation.
“Isn’t that completely unreasonable, your Highness,” shouted Dame Maple, her hand slapping onto the table, partially covering the Four of Diamonds and the Seven of Spades. “It is like asking us all to fight with one hand tied behind our back! With the number of invaders, if we tried to fight even a tenth of them with the intention to capture, our army will be wiped out. We must be free to use appropriate force!”
“We have that freedom,” said Art, as he played with the edges of the Nine of Clubs and the Seven of Hearts. “Our contract stipulates that the only one we must capture is Prince Humperdink himself. Specifically, we need to force him to agree to a contract, using his power as the Chief Warlord of Floorin’, to have all his army surrender and be ransomed upon their escorted return to Floorin’ territory. Charlie will get a percentage of the ransom.”
“In exchange for what,” demanded Princess Sasha, who had yet to even look at her Three and Six of Hearts.
Art looked a little hesitant to speak, so Boss Shindig spoke in his stead.
“In exchange for Charlie doing nothing.”
Princess Sasha, Dame Maple, and Grey all protested loudly. Princess Sasha slapped her hands on the table to stand partway up, showing that the lower part of her armor had become a long ballroom skirt. Dame Maple dexterously moved her spear, which by this time had the pole become pencil thin and lacquered black, with the spear tip becoming a thin white object that Grey instinctively knew as a “cigarette.” Grey’s arms folded and his right hand caressed the weapon he had hidden in the left arm pit of his armor. For some reason, his throwing dagger was now a rectangular object with a handle attached at about a ninety degree angle. But Grey instinctively knew it was still able to be used at long range so his panic from the change was less than it could have been. But it still caused Grey to look down at his own self, and he realized that his clothes had changed at some point as well.
Grey’s cloak had become a long coat of the same tanish brown it had been before, with an open front that could be buttoned closed if weather required it. His armor was now a rumpled suit that was obviously much cheaper than the one that Boss Shindig wore. And perhaps it was the influence of having recently worn Mr. Wyatt’s clothing, but Grey saw himself garbed in a dress shirt and long neckcloth. His boots had also become a pair of leather soled shoes with well polished tops. It was… a bizarre feeling, having been changed so much without his knowledge. But Grey didn’t have the time to dwell on the matter, as his attention was returned to the table when Dame Maple stated, loudly, “That is completely unacceptable! First Charles Comm aids these plunderers in attacking us, and then forces such disgusting requirements upon us!? Cancel the contract now, my Lord, and let us destroy these Titan Cursed fools without his interference in our side!”
Lady Maple’s eyes flashed with anger the same way the leaf shaped jewel necklace about her throat caught and threw the light. She twisted her body to glare at Charlie with her last words, causing the brown silk dress that was nearly the same color as her skin to bunch in all the right places to highlight her figure. For a brief moment, Grey had the illusion that the garment would fall off as the only visible securement was a set of thin strings holding the dress up by looping around the back of the neck and over the shoulders, revealing a hazardous amount of the Lady’s skin.
The Boss said, stone faced, “Charlie did not propose those conditions, Lady Maple. I did.” Boss Shindig stabbed a finger onto the green felt tabletop as he punctuated those words. All the eyes turned to him as Charlie flipped a card onto the table in front of The Boss. Grey noticed out of the corner of his eye that it was the Three of Clubs. Boss Shindig spoke above the air of anxiety.
“Floorin’ is an exceedingly good customer of Charles Comm, meaning he’s a large source of income for Charlie. So convincing Charlie to abandon the side in this conflict was bound to be costly. Through the establishing of this contract, there is no down payment to Charlie, and I remove Charlie from the war. If it is reduced to a battle between the sides of Floorin’ and Everclear, I am confident in our victory.”
“But these victory conditions, capturing the Chief Warlord and forcing a surrender of his entire army, isn’t it a bit much,” asked Sasha.
“Perhaps,” admitted The Boss, “But if we pull it off, then we will obtain an enormous payout of Shmuckers along side Charles Comm.”
“And if we do not succeed? If we accidentally croak Prince Humperdink and are forced to annihilate his column? What is the financial penalty for failure?”
Boss Shindig hesitated to answer Lady Maple’s question for a moment. In that moment, Maple’s eyes narrowed as she took a breath from her transformed spear. Boss Shindig said, “That is not important.” Lady Maple detected the dodge and demanded of Art, the one who made the contract, “How much,” in a husky breath made visible by the smoke expelled from her lungs.
Art waffled for a moment before bowing to the demand, probably because he himself was bothered by the figure from the look on his face. “Too much,” was all he said though. But it was enough to convey it was an amount that Everclear simply could not afford to pay. Art tried to smooth things over with the words, “Don’t worry, it’s a good contract. We just have to deliver on our end and everything is fine.” Art patted a hand on the table as he said it, and a card was flipped from a deck Charlie was holding to in front of the Signamancer. It was a Nine of Diamonds.
“Father, I really must protest against this contract. Please renegotiate.”
“Father, I can lead our forces to victory, but not under these conditions.”
“You can win if our Dirtamancer arrives in time to prepare the combat grounds. If you have the time to fight the Everclear way, Sasha.”
“I don’t have that time. You yourself said our Dirtamancer would arrive too late to help.”
Princess Sasha punctuated her observation with a finger stabbing into the tabletop in a gesture that was exactly like her father’s. The Queen of Hearts landed atop her two previous cards.
“That’s where Captain Shades comes in," said Boss Shindig. “He’s a problem solver. Shades, what would you need to slow our enemy, sap their combat strength, and leave them vulnerable to us.”
Grey was caught unaware for a moment, as all the attention at the table shifted to him. He looked around with a few nervous glances. Art was still a little green around the gills, but seemed fine. Princess Sasha had a face of anxiety grasping for some ray of hope. Boss Shindig’s face was stony expectation. Lady Maple’s face seemed to have a touch of indignant fear on it for some reason. And Charlie was just watching, faceless as always, but his lapel pin had shifted to say “Charlie’s Palace” as if he felt he owned the joint command and a facedown card partially obscuring a Knave of Diamonds. The unsettled nerves passed quickly, Grey hoped, and he fell into thought. Several plans and the natural Mathamancy of a Scout came into play in his mind, solidifying into a concrete resolution of action. But the idea Grey had would require The Boss to agree to some conditions for the job.
Grey nervously tapped his finger on the tabletop three times before speaking. “I’d need the rest of my Farstrider Warlords, in hex with me tomorrow, with Bluebirds that can catch us up to Humperdink’s army.”
A Five of Hearts landed in front of Grey.
“The right to use as much of Alfred’s ‘special stock’ as I need.”
Followed by the Three of Spades.
“And permission to use whatever means I deem fit.”
Topped off by the Ace of Spades.
“Give me that, and Princess Sasha will be meeting a mere shadow of the host that first entered our forest, with time to prepare the field.”
“You can thank me by delivering the goods, Grey. Our business partner will be having some of his own shadowing you while you’re doing the job. Make sure you leave a good impression.”
Boss Shindig arched an eyebrow that, even without the subliminal order, Grey would have taken to mean “Don’t show off too many of our secrets to Charlie’s archons while they spy on you, because I couldn’t keep Charlie from including them in the bargain.”
“You got it, Boss.”
“We’re still going to need a plan for the day of the battle though,” huffed Princess Sasha. Lady Maple said, “True,” and took a dignified breath from her spear as she held it between two fingers. When Grey said, “I suggest the same strategy we used when Lowrider attacked Neverland.”
Lady Maple choked on her own smoke as Grey spoke, her breath releasing in a cloud through both mouth and nostrils. Before Lady Maple could regain her breath, Boss Shindig asked, “You really think you can handle that role?”
“It would be a pleasure,” said Grey with a smile appearing on his lips that didn’t touch his eyes.
Princess Sasha nodded and said, “We’ll need to adjust the tactic some for the foe and the setting, but it could work. Should no other plan be required, I approve Captain Shades’ proposal.”
“Very well, it is so dec-”
“My Lord,” said Lady Maple having readjusted her breathing. “We may not want to hand that role over to a- to Warlord Shades. I feel he may not be the best suited to the role-”
“He is the highest leveled Warlord in our side, Maple,” said the Boss, transfixing the Lady with a glare. “Or did you not notice that he’d surpassed you during his absence from the side. If Shades can’t do the job, the plan’s a bust. Or do you have any complaints about my judgement?”
Lady Maple pulled back a little, her transformed spear drew a figure in smoke as she moved it artfully around and she brought it upwards as though in a signal of loyalty. The Lady said the words, “No, sir,” in resignation as the Queen of Spades landed in front of her.
“Then our planning session is over. Fine adjustments will be performed and I will need you to hat me over a list of anything you require, Captain Shades. Other than that, we are ready to prepare for our stand.”
“Well then,” said the Charlie suit as it used his Knave of Diamons to flip over the face down card, revealing an Ace of Diamonds. “I wish you and yours the best of luck. I will be watching the situation with a great deal of anticipation. Farewell, and I do hope we will speak again.
Grey’s eyes opened, or at least felt like they did. And the moment his vision returned so did his hearing, sense of smell, and the awareness of the fire’s warmth and the firmness of the log serving as his seat. Grey looked around himself as though he needed to reaffirm that he was exactly where he had been before the Thinkagram had started, and had to resolve the knowledge that he’d never actually left against the experience he’d just had in that otherworldly place.
“Are you back,’ asked the voice of Emma beside him. Like, right beside him since the log wasn’t long enough for her to sit further away. With Grey’s returned senses, he immediately smelled the guinness fowl on her breath. Seemed like it’d finished cooking while he was “away.”
“Yup. Where’s the roast?”
Emma held up the nearly stripped carcass of the bird on a spit that her body nearly hid from sight. Both legs, both wings, and most of the breasts were gone.
“Did you really just eat the entire bird?”
“I was hungry,” came Emma’s defensive whine.
Grey looked at her closer; her mouth and fingers.
“With your hands?”
“You- you didn’t provide any silverware. I didn’t have a choice.”
Grey took the spit, pulled a dagger, and despite being half a mind to thrust it into the archon, he merely used it to peel a slice of meat off the carcass and plop it into his mouth. In the time it took to chew and swallow, Grey thought of a way to get back at the archon, who was still pretending to be completely dignified in the current situation.
“You’re gonna want to wash off all that juice you got on you. Neither of us have any move so we’ll be sleeping in the hex with the Goldthwait Cats this night.”
“I agree that I should clean up, but how do the two-”
“I’m just saying, if you bed down with the smell of guinness fowl on you, the cats’ll attack you in your sleep. Probably rip out the throat first. Like I said, they’re not much for fair fights.”
Emma’s back went straighter than it was before, and asked, “I don’t suppose you have a towel I could-”
“You can wash up at the lake.”
“...Of course. Please excuse me.”
The archon started floating and went a little higher into the air than she really needed to. Probably to make it harder to be jumped by a Goldthwait. Grey was expecting her to depart immediately but she hesitated, and turned a few directions before asking, “Which way was the lake again?”
The complete helplessness of one of Charlie’s elite archons tickled Grey’s maliciousness again, so he pointed out the right direction while saying, “That way. And be careful. Goldthwaits have been known to jump at people without warning, even out of the trees. Flight alone won’t keep you from them. And you’ll need to make absolutely sure you have all the scent of the guinness fowl off you. They have very good noses.”
Emma tried hard to keep the look of sheer terror off her features. She was a good actress, but no one was that good. Just looking through the forest that was dimmed by the cloud cover, she seemed like she was testing her courage even before setting out.
“...Want me to go with you,” Grey asked at length.
“No! No, I’m fine. I don’t need- Besides, someone needs to keep an eye on Elle. Make sure nothing jumps out at- jumps her while I’m away. You just wait here. I’ll be… right back.”
After a little while longer, enough time that Grey was tempted to give a sarcastic farewell to the frightened archon, Emma floated through the trees, desperately making Spot checks all around her as she went. Grey enjoyed his leisurely dinner of a quarter of a guinness fowl and some fruit from the provisions he’d recovered along with the rest of his gear, and had even more time to kill waiting for Emma to return. About the time Grey was starting to worry if the archon had gotten lost (or worse) the archon showed up again. She left the campfire looking like a near drowned rodent, and returned looking fully drowned. Her clothes had fewer mud stains on them, but they were drenched through and through. Even the white undershirt beneath the blue Charles Comm jacket was soaked and see through-ish, showing the hint of the archon’s undergarments.
“What happened to you,” asked Grey in blunt bewilderment.
“I had to make sure I washed off all traces of the guinness fowl, just like you said!”
The archon’s reply was filled with equal parts annoyance, humiliation, and teeth chattering cold. Had she bathed in the lake and washed her clothes in it? And then wore those wet clothes again? Titan’s Tolerance, but archons really were useless in a survival situation.
“Come over here and sit by the fire, as close as you can stand without burning yourself.”
Grey got up and resigned himself to the work of pulling items out of his pack as Emma did as she was told. She was rubbing her arms through her raiment as she asked through her shivvers, “What are you doing?”
“Making sure I don’t have to deal with two Incapacitated archons in the same night. You keep wet for much longer and I wouldn’t be surprised if you pass out.”
Grey set down the bedroll, laid out a pillow and some blankets close to the fire, but not so close that they would catch any spare embers. Then he grabbed some forked branches, staked them into the ground and set up some more balanced between them. Finally, Grey removed his Farstrider cloak and wrapped it around Emma’s shoulders. Before Emma could recover from her confusion, Grey ordered her to “Disrobe.”
Grey’s head remained in the bent back position for a few seconds as he tried to process Emma’s surprising action.
“Just because Humperstink had a full service contract,” hissed Emma through nearly clenched teeth that slightly chattered even now, “Does not mean I’m easy to bed!”
“Titan’s Tolerance,” muttered Grey before laying out his reasoning. “The spit is for drying your clothes so you don’t freeze and get an ailment. The cloak is for you to maintain your dignity while you disrobe. The bed roll is for you to sleep comfortably tonight, while your clothing dries. I will not be sharing it with you. Just what kind of ‘allies’ are you use to having, lady?”
Emma straightened up her posture, attempting to show some dignity as she stiffly stated, “That is information one needs to pay for. ...Where will you be sleeping?”
Grey lightly jabbed a thumb out over his shoulder. “Out there. I’ve got first watch.”
“So you have a second bedroll?”
“Then take yours. Archons travel with-”
“Don’t need it.”
“You-? Then where are you going to sleep?”
Grey lightly jabbed his thumb again, repeating the words, “Out there. You’ll see me again when it’s your turn to stand watch. Get some sleep.” Grey turned on his heel and started walking for the quickly increasing darkness of trees and underbrush, muttering an exasperated, “Garrison units” under his breath. Just before he disappeared into the shadows, Grey turned and said, “Be mindful of the Goldthwait Cats,” with a light smirk on his features. And with barely a whisper of foliage, he was gone.
Emma shivered for a moment, certain it was from the cold, and started removing her clothing in the manner the warlord had suggested. Emma was unsure if the warlord as watching her from the shadows or not, and that somehow made the process of undressing more stressful than if he were present. At least then she could demand that he turn his back…
It took little time for Emma to hang her clothes to dry, and a bit more to secure Elle inside a proper Archon’s sleeping bag. Soon, Emma was wrapping the warlord’s sleeping bag around herself and laying his cloak down as a second blanket. The sleeping bag smelled strongly of fresh earth and crushed grass… and not at all of a person. There was no trace of a man’s smell on the fabric at all.
“Has that warlord ever actually slept in this,” Emma wondered aloud to herself, before checking her voice again. Because even with concentrated spot checks all around her Emma still couldn’t catch sight of the warlord, meaning he could be close enough to overhear anything she said. And in such cases it was safest not to say anything at all. Charlie’s Rule for potential eavesdroppers flashed through Emma’s mind, followed shortly by the Corollary for misinforming confirmed eavesdroppers. And then Emma laid her head down to sleep…
When the call of a Goldthwait in the distance disturbed her attempt at slumber.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here. Please make sure you lavish her with praise for the excellent art she has provided for this story.
I was wondering who won the card game. Since the game seemed to play a little like Blackjack (with tapping the table to get another card):
King Shindig: 7D, KS, 3C = 20.
Dame Maple: 4D, 7S, QS = 21!
Artaxis: 9C, 7H, 9D = 25 and bust :(
Sasha: 3H, 6H, QH = 19.
GS: 5H, 3S, AS = 20.
Charlie: kH, 2H, AD = 13. Charlie loses?
Dame Maple wins!
If they were playing a poker variant where Grey's report Kh, 2H, were the "common cards" then things were different.
The King was leading through much of play, ending with 1 pair King high, Dame Maple ended up with nothing in her hand, King high , Artaxis ended up with a one pair, 9s. Good, but not beating the King, Gray Shades ended up with Ace High. Almost as bad as Dame Maple, Sasha was the big winner, with a Flush of Hearts, King High. Charlie had two mysterious cards we didn't see, but it looks like he lost with that Ace of Diamonds. The only thing that could have beat Sasha's hand was a straight flush (impossible because of the King and the 2 and Sasha has the 3 and the Queen) or a flush with the Ace of Hearts. Of course, he can Carny his way around that...
If the Ace of Diamonds was the River, the last of the 3 common cards, then Charlie might have a hand good enough to beat Sasha, since we never saw any of his cards. If he had three hearts including the Ace, he will win!
It's interesting that in all cases, Gray Shades loses the hand.
Sorry, I had to go back in and quickly edit Charlie's cards. It was the ONE detail I had overlooked. Charlie, as the dealer, has a face down card and a face up card. I added the value of Charlie's face up card, the Knave of Diamonds.
The final values are:
King Shindig - 7D + KS + 3C = 20
Princess Sasha - 3H + 6H + QH = 19
Dame Maple - 4D + 7S + QS = 21
Artakis - 7H + 9C + 9D = His deal is a bust
Grey Shades - KnH + 2H + 5H + 3S + AS = 21 as a high risk high return
Charlie - KnD + AD = Blackjack. Charlie was the winner even before the game ever began.
"Grey Shades - KnH + 2H + 5H + 3S + AS = 21 as a high risk high return
Charlie - KnD + AD = Blackjack. Charlie was the winner even before the game ever began."
Really? I thought that Shades won, and had to look a few things up to see that it's based on an optional rule that I've never played without. Under that rule, if you hit enough times that you get five cards total without going bust, you automatically win, even if the dealer had 21. That would make Shades the only winner.
.... this rule is called "Five-Card Charlie".