Crush played a war game. His opponent had teeth and a tail.
There were three holes in the cell wall, fortified bases where the rat could hide. Crush had a crust of bread, a wooden cup of smelly water, and two bare feet at the end of his legs. The rat wanted at all of those assets. They were the enemy’s three strategic aims, and of them, it prized Crush’s feet most highly. It had scored at least eight bites on the first night, six on the second, and one so far tonight. (Or “today”...the rat also had the pitch darkness on its side.)
This wasn’t a particularly stimulating game, but it focused Crush’s attention. He only had one strategic aim: to break the rat’s neck.
Unless he did, the rat could and would continue to bite him. When his meager prisoner’s rations popped, the rat might steal them before Crush could locate them in the dark. It had won all the battles so far. But Crush only had to win once, to finish their little war.
As for the larger war...that seemed well and truly lost. He had no channels of communication or information. Nothing to dwell on. Nothing to decide.
Nothing to read.
And no light, even if he’d had any books to croak time with. The rat might have even been black in color. It moved in silence. He had to guess which hole it was in, by the way it chose its targets (or he could locate it for certain inside a particular hole, at the cost of a bite on the finger). This was a miserable way to fight a war. But each bite, each theft, each loss taught him something of the enemy’s ways.
The rat had methods. It had habits. It reacted to cues. It liked one hole more than the others, and one (the low one that Crush used for a latrine) much less. It would never head for the hole that Crush was closest to, and it didn’t like to approach Crush unless he’d been lying very still for a while. He thought maybe it cued on the way he breathed when he slept, which was when he’d suffered most of his bites.
Right now, he knew the rat was at its home base. So he choked down the rest of his water and lay down beside the middle hole, clutching the empty wooden cup. He willed himself to lie still, breathing slowly and regularly.
After a count of four hundred and twenty-one breaths, the bite came, so painful he could see a flash of light in his head. In a reflex he’d rehearsed a few dozen times, he sprang up and charged at the home hole, forcing the rat to flee to the latrine. There, it would find a piece of the bread crust...bait that would keep it there for a few extra seconds, hopefully long enough to apply the one key tactic he’d devised to disrupt the enemy’s behavior.
The rat wouldn’t want to eat its prize in the crapper, but Crush now stood directly between the other two holes, shuffling his wounded feet lightly in the straw. He needed the rat to have no doubt about where he was in the cell, and what its choices were.
Then he moved a step away from the home hole, and closer to the middle one.
Maybe there was a skitter, maybe not. The rat was pretty silent. But the wooden cup it ran into was not. “Clok.”
Its rodent brain was committed to this tactic. It took too long to process the environmental surprise of a new obstacle blocking the known and trusted path to its favorite refuge. “Clop-clok. Clok-skritcheta skritch.” In the seconds it took for the rat to try to scratch and bite its way through the cup, Crush had it by the tail and one hind leg.
It crapped on his hand as he flung it side-armed across the dungeon cell, with all the force of his pent-up frustration. When it hit the stone wall, it made a pathetic squeak—the only vocalization Crush had ever heard it emit—then a plop, as its lifeless body hit the damp floor.
Then Crush was alone in the dark. He lay back on the straw, claiming the winner’s prize from the war game: he slept in peace.
Light of any kind was more jarring than noise down here. So the bootsteps and the grunts and the rattling of keys did not awaken Crush; the rectangle of light that fell across his eyelids did.
“Firstpost! Get up.”
The steel door of his cell was open, and a figure standing there held a yellow powerball that could have been the sun itself. Crush warded off the light with his hand, rising to an awkward sitting position. Who was it? What did they want?
“Stand up! On your feet!”
He did as he was ordered. As he rose, he managed to place the voice. The burly figure held out the hand which cupped the powerball, along with a wrinkled sheet of parchment pinched between thumb and forefinger.
It was Prince Axe, and he was holding Crush’s battle plan.
Crush’s plan rode on the back of the enemy’s plan.
Somewhere in Bullyclub there was another rat—Lord Maglite or someone under him—who thought they had it all figured out. Scrofula (their “sucker,” in Dunkin’s lexicon) would bust up the Union, breaking alliance and using whatever remaining good graces he possessed to convince one of the other three sides to ally or stay neutral. This would create an unwinnable conflict for the other two, but Squashcourt would have to expend a lot of their own units defeating those unlucky sides. Then, with the whole Union region weakened, Bullyclub would proceed to conquer as it saw fit.
It was a pretty good plan, and like the dungeon rat, Bullyclub enjoyed most of the obvious advantages. There wasn’t anything the Union could do to counter an army that size in the field. Lord Maglite expected his plan to work, even if no Union side broke and Bullyclub and Squashcourt had to take on all three. Indeed, even if Squashcourt came to its senses and re-joined the Union at this point, Bullyclub still had significantly superior forces overall. They’d probably still win an all-out war. Their using Scrofula this way was mainly intended to reduce their losses on the campaign.
So the Union would have to finesse this. They’d have to make Maglite think his plan was proceeding perfectly, right up until the turn when the trap was sprung and his side’s fortunes reversed.
Therefore, Firstpost would break with the Union, feign neutrality, and sign a non-engagement pact with Squashcourt. The war’s center of gravity would swing away from Firstpost in the south and toward Squashcourt’s border with Tapwater in the north.
The war would proceed, and Squashcourt would tell Bullyclub it was losing battle after battle. A city or two would be ceded to Tapwater. Squashcourt would continue to “lose” until, exasperated with the weakness of its ally, Bullyclub committed the bulk of its army directly to the northern fight.
At that point, Firstpost’s army would invade Bullyclub.
Firstpost had no border with Bullyclub. Their units would secretly be moved into Squashcourt and hidden in two minor southern cities. Unaware of any threat from that direction, Bullyclub would post minimal defensive forces along their southern border. Crush plotted out the moves for his troops to take and raze three cities, including a level 4, with a lightning strike of only two turns. And they had a shot at taking another level 3 city, depending on how things went.
With Bullyclub’s army committed deep in Squashcourt, the Union would re-form. Squashcourt would capture any Bullyclub troops and warlords quartered in its cities. With luck, they could decapitate the field leadership that way. Break the rat’s neck.
Probably not, though. And Bullyclub’s army would still be larger, just not by as much as they thought. The “losses” suffered by Squashcourt and the Union in the early turns of this war would be revealed as a deception. All three healthy armies would stand against Bullyclub in the north.
Firstpost’s treasury would be flush with new money from their raids, too. “That can be spent on casters, on mercenaries, on Marbits...we’d have the tactical advantages of home soil, and we can rent enough temporary help to even up the numbers,” said Crush.
“Or you could use it to invade Squashcourt,” snarled Axe. “F’you double cross, you can triple cross!”
Crush shook his head. “Forbidden by the Union terms. That’s why treaties exist. We can even write new language that compels us to spend our gains to fight Bullyclub within a certain number of turns, something like that. If you want. We’re not going to shaft you, Prince,” (another of Dunkin’s terms). “We have to work together to make this work.”
The Prince looked away in thought, moving his booted feet through the filthy straw Crush had gathered into a bed. The Chief Prisoner’s eyes had adjusted to the light now, and he could examine the interior of his cell for once. Slimy masonry walls, damp dirt floor, arched brick ceiling. His straw pile might be the most pathetic “bed” in the history of sleep. All in all, the room was exactly as horrible as he’d pictured, no more and no less. And yes, the rat had been black.
“I came here to say,” said Prince Axe, “that you are stupid and weak, Firstpost. And such a plan would never work.”
Crush’s face fell. While he’d been standing there explaining his map and the battle plan, he had actually gotten caught up in enthusiasm over the details of it. Now he realized that he’d been talking over Prince Axe’s head this whole time. Hadn’t Scrofula, “the bonehead King of Squashcourt” in one of the other eleven verses of Dunkin’s song, brought Crush here because he’d considered Axe too dim to hold a decent conversation?
“So that’s what...you came down here for? To laugh at me?”
Axe nodded, unsmiling. “Laugh at you and punch you. And chop off your head.”
Crush rarely spent much time dwelling on how his life might end, but now he had a very clear picture of standing in front of the Titans and explaining that he’d been taken prisoner by diplomatic treachery and executed in the darkest, crappiest cell of the enemy’s dungeon. His impression was that the Titans didn’t have a lot of sympathy for that kind of thing.
“Oh,” said Crush, absent anything profound to say.
In the blackness of recent days, he’d often thought about Dunkin’s last words, “The comedy is finished.” Poetic. So perfect for him. Had the little fool prepared to say that? Or did your brain just kind of think of something appropriate when the moment came? Maybe there were warriors walking around the City of Heroes thinking, “Drat, what I really should have said was...”
The two Chief Warlords (technically two Princes, although Crush’s study of history had left him so soured on Royalism that he affected “Lord” for a title) stood face-to-face in the dim light of the hovering powerball. If Axe intended to execute him or even to punch him, he didn’t seem to be in any hurry.
Would it be foolish to speak, and maybe prompt his own execution? “...And?”
Crush shook his head. “Not to argue with that conclusion, but why not?”
Axe looked away again, shaking his head as if having some internal argument. Then he nodded slightly and looked at Crush. “Plan’s good,” he said. “So you’re not the one I gotta punch.”
The Prince flicked his powerball to the ceiling, where it stayed, hovering. He reached into his belt, took out a folded scrap of parchment, and pressed it into Crush's hand. Then he turned in the doorway and pulled the cell door shut behind him, locking it forcefully. Crush unfolded the parchment.
It was his Sudoku's Puzzle, completely solved.
“If I’m not back here by tonight, there is no Chief Warlord of Squashcourt," came the muffled voice on the other side of the cell door. “Turn, Warlord. Maybe he’ll give you the job.”
Prince Axe did not retrieve Crush from his cell that night, but the four fussy manservants did. They were even less inclined to answer his questions this time around. “This way, please. This way,” was all they would say to him. They led the prisoner through dank, narrow corridors, past a few guards whose bored detachment served as permission to pass, and up the endless flights of stairs.
Getting washed and dressed while still clad in shackles was tricky, but the manservants knew what to do. The shackles responded to their hands differently than to Crush’s. They put him into the semiformal raiment of Firstpost’s umber-and-yellow that he’d worn to the banquet. That blue-and-lime affair with the baggy sleeves was nowhere to be seen. Neither was his sending hat, of course.
Instead of the library, they took him back down into the bowels of the palace. Corridors got rougher and lost most of their ornamentation down here. You never saw a painting or a plant, or a blushing lady-in-waiting in this section. You did see quite a large number of well-equipped soldiers.
They left him at a grand doorway flanked by wooden columns painted to look like marble. Two heavy knights stood guard there, also doing their best impressions of carved marble. One of them opened the white-painted oak slab and held it open just wide enough for Crush to squeeze into the room.
He did, and immediately earned the attention of Prince Axe and the other ten warlords standing around the mahogany map table. He was in Squashcourt’s War Room. The door clomped shut behind him.
“He’s here!” barked Axe.
“I gnow,” said a gravelly, weary voice. “I hereby releaf the priffoner.”
Someone clapped once, and Crush’s shackles vanished. He stood again as a unit of Firstpost. Not its Chief Warlord, interestingly... Yes, the Queen would have appointed someone in his place. And rightly so, he supposed. He took a couple of steps forward into the room, feeling so light without them that he could easily imagine taking a running leap over the table and making a break for it.
Instead, he peered into the cluster of warlords and tried to identify the speaker. There was a high-backed hardwood chair to one side of the map table. The physically beaten man—wrecked, really—who slumped there was mainly identifiable by his crown. Crush had seen less-serious casualties on the battlefield who hadn’t survived to see their next turn.
And perched there on the arm of the chair was his hat.
“My ffon has fhown me the...worff of your plan,” said the King, not rising. He didn’t really meet Crush’s eyes, but made a gesture with his (relatively) good arm to indicate the sending hat. “I fink it’f time to call your muhver.”
It might be overstating things to say that Crush was happy to be back in the field. He personally slew six enemy units in the initial strike against Bullyclub, including a level 2 warlord and the biggest improcerous he’d ever seen. And he did level up to 6, finally. But the actual swinging of a sword and the conquest of enemy cities didn’t spark that “warlord’s joie de vivre” in him, the way it did for Axe.
As Lord Crush looked at a stack of unread books, so Prince Axe looked at a stack of bodies. And even as they grew to trust and respect one another—they were becoming friends through the course of this campaign, amazingly enough—that was never going to change.
What he did love about this war was seeing theory put into practice. The life of the mind is a wonderful thing, but you don’t really know if a plan is any good when it’s still in your head, do you? You only have to read all of those vain treatises by long-ago rulers to know that self deception is one of the most common vices of Men. The only way to tell if your ideas are any good is to take them out and field test them.
So far, his plan was bearing out pretty well.
The one major hitch had been with Tapwater. They wanted to fight Squashcourt. They wouldn’t play along, wouldn’t hear any talk of letting a rogue side back into the Union. Axe and Crush talked it over, and decided that Squashcourt should follow the plan unilaterally. Squashcourt fell back, ceding one, then two, then three northern cities to Tapwater without a fight, while Scrofula reported grievous battlefield losses on both sides to Lord Maglite.
Queen Post urgently lobbied Tapwater on Squashcourt’s behalf, and darkly reminded them what kind of army Bullyclub had fielded. But Tapwater’s overconfident warlords kept advancing. Squashcourt might have been in danger of losing their capital before too much longer, and faith in Crush’s battle plan neared an all-time low.
To his credit, Prince Axe never wavered. He quashed a verbal revolt among his leadership, and kept his father cowed, somehow making the King stick to the script.
Whatever had happened between those two, Scrofula definitely had someone to tell him “no” again. Dunkin McClown had known his Ruler well, Crush thought. Probably even well enough to know what price he would have to pay. The comedy is finished.
In the end, the Tapwater problem solved itself. Bullyclub grew impatient and apparently still saw some use for Squashcourt as an ally, so they advanced nearly everything they had. Bullyclub’s vast army met Tapwater in the field and delivered a beating that made Axe’s discussion with his father look polite.
That was Firstpost’s cue to rush the border, and a turn later for Squashcourt to capture a big chunk of Bullyclub’s forces quartered in its own cities.
From there on, theory met practice, and reality proved Crush’s plan to be pretty robust. Tapwater, with their main force wiped out and Scrofula now looking halfway heroic, suddenly softened its stance on re-forming the Union. Terms were still being negotiated, but the Queen would wear them down. Bullyclub’s southern cities fell to Crush’s competent fighters, and they even captured the level 3 they’d been eying.
Crush now stood overlooking the razed ruins of that city, standing atop a grassy hillside. All around him quivered the lumpy yellow hulks of roosting gwiffons. A blonde barbarian mercenary was giving him a hard time about the spoils clause in her contract.
“No, I want everything reported. Cataloged,” he told her. “Direct intelligence is hard currency out here. You should know that.”
“Hard currency is hard currency. Everywhere,” she shot back. Her silver plate armor shifted distractingly. “If you want me to report every unit we croak, and everything we take as spoils, then it’s going to cost you nine-hundred more a turn. Or you can just trust me.” She scowled at him, her hands on her hips. “You look like a clerk, warlord. I’m not one. I don’t do paperwork.”
He sighed. “One hundred. For something we shouldn’t even be paying you for.”
“I don’t think you understand how much I hate it. Seven-fifty.”
Crush turned to his captain. “I told you we should’ve hired casters.”
“Not for field work,” said the barbarian. “You’re looking for impact. Now. Immediately. Right? That’s me,” she said, “just don’t make me write it down. It wrecks my rhythm.”
“We’re looking to create a problem for Bullyclub at home that’s too serious to ignore.”
The barbarian trained keen blue eyes on the city ruins below. “Yeah. Good start,” she said, nodding. She’d flown in to Squashcourt several turns back, attracted to the major war and looking to hire out to whoever. As it happened, the plan called for hiring some help, to snowball their early gains, so they’d covered her upkeep and had her wait around for the invasion. “I can do that. You should take my bargain package.”
Her “bargain package” was basically, “pay my units’ upkeep and let me keep whatever I can grab,” and Crush didn’t like it. He wanted intelligence as much as he wanted a strategic strike. Besides, if she found even one more pushover city she could raze, then they’d be overpaying her by three times over. Or more. He had no doubt she knew it.
“Three hundred and a new set of stationery,” he said. “For writing the reports.”
“And a hat for sending them. I lost mine.”
He shook his head. “Only on loan.”
“Psh,” said the woman sourly. “Why’s it so hard to get a new hat? Fine. Can I go this turn?”
“You can go right now, if you sign,” said Crush. “Just let me amend the contract.”
Minutes later, the barbarian was mounted and hovering, her gwiffons bobbing around in the sky. “Listen, you want this strike as deep into their territory as we can go, right?”
“Capital, if we can?”
“Well, sure. But you’ll never reach it. It’s a hundred and ten hexes in.”
She looked into the distance. “Yeah. We’ll see.”
Crush scoffed. “How would you infiltrate that far?”
The barbarian—her name on the contract was Jillian Zamussels—gave him a toothy smile as she kicked her mount skyward. “Cameoflage!” she yelled.
Home was a big brown leather chair by a fireplace. Home had hot cider and soft carpets, and lots of books.
And before too long, there would be another book in Second City’s library. With the treasury comfortably full, Chief Crush had decided that since he did not perish, then he should publish.
He considered writing a memoir, or just the story of the one significant campaign he’d marshaled. That would make a fine book, certainly: the single-hundredturn tale of his imprisonment, of Dunkin McClown, of Prince Axe, of the barbarian, and of the eventual total rout of Bullyclub. And how, at the behest of King Scrofula, Bullyclub was shown mercy and admitted into the Union.
Dunkin alone deserved a book, along with some philosophical exploration of the role of Duty in non-command units. The little man had saved his side, all the Union sides. He was a hero in every sense of the word. Crush hoped the Titans knew that.
But, no. What Crush wanted to write about was multi-side alliances. That awful book by King Banhammer had “eternal peace” as its stated aim. Crush didn’t know whether or not eternal peace was possible, but peace itself was preferable to war as a general state of affairs. Something like the So-be-it Union might turn out to be a means to eternal peace, if it extended all over the world. But who could manage such an arrangement? Certainly not Crush, or anyone he knew.
Still, there were likely other such arrangements in the world. He would write down all that he had learned about forming an alliance and keeping it together. Then he would cast it randomly into the sea of knowledge that was the world’s libraries.
May the Titans guide it to where it would be needed most.