Prologue: After a (scheduled!) leave of absence from my regular duties at the National Cemetery Management Council to go like, draw and stuff, Wardo and Sir Kyle, my two co-authors in the Game of Drones saga, began to get restless. Upon my return, I saw the following email from Wardo, which spurred the whole thing into action again. I apologize in advance for how brief this post is.
Wind sighed through the dead pines surrounding the witch’s cabin. Unlike fairy tales of yore, it was not festooned with runic symbols or decoration. No steaming cauldrons. No feral cats. A modest dwelling not unlike the one Wardstein had grown up in, it could be a remote hunting cabin or peasant distillery.
Inside however was the most notorious figure in the land — aside from the Archduke himself. Her name was Ungesicht.
He thumped up the rude stairs and knocked. A squirrel bitched remotely.
“What do you want?”
“The gift only you can provide.”
A sighing chuckle, and the door swung inside. A fire popping in the corner. Smell of bread. Ungesicht in a housedress squinted up at Wardstein. On her face was a mask of silk, concealing shapes and forms. Which shifted obscenely when she spoke.
“Why this way? Why not upon your shield?”
“I have lost heart. There is nothing for me now. It is rumoured that…with your way, one might exit to a better place.”
The witch snickered. “You wouldn’t know it from their reactions, Baron. Should this be a kindness, they express their thanks with screams.”
“Nevertheless. I am willing. Remove your mask and show me thy face of death.” Wardstein spread his arms. Free of weapons for the first time in so long, he had forgotten the feeling. He felt light. “Take my horse and make sausages to eat with your daily bread. Mayhap he shall accompany me in spirit. Swedish Meatball was a fine steed for me.” At the sound of his name, Swedish Meatball pricked his ears in confusion.
“Very well, Wardstein.” The witch reached behind her braid and began untying the mask. Wardstein stared at her lumpish face, wondering what horror lay behind the fabric. He felt a cramp in his bowels, but then realized in a moment that would be her problem, not his.
Death by Witch!?
I don’t think so!
I will respond tomorrow! J
The fabric dropped, and the witch stood exposed. “Feast your eyes, Baron, and meet your fate!”
Wardstein suddenly laughed hysterically and flicked his wrist – the backup dagger he always kept strapped to his forearm slapped his palm like an old friend after a game of hackey-sack.
Eyes closed against the horror, he lunged towards the otherwise gentle-seeming woman with his dagger, carved deeply with cool-looking runes Wardstein admired.
“Taste your death, foul hag!” he bellowed, driving the blade into her neck.
Ungesicht dropped to her knees, gargling on her own fetid blood, various rancid fluids gushing every which way, but miraculously leaving Wardstein’s supercool outfit untouched. Eyes still closed, Wardstein punted her with one tremendous kick, driving her slack carcass deep into the cabin. There was a crash, and then silence. Swedish Meatball didn’t look up this time.
Wardstein was pleased. “I have NO idea why I just did all that,” he exclaimed to nobody in particular.
“The Ungesicht Situation” (Alternate)
“What said the scroll again?” asked Archduke James from atop his horse.
Sir Kyle paused a moment and kicked his young squire in the back of the head with his spur, opening up an identical wound that had just begun to heal.
“Uh, that was your cue, Dylan!”
A scroll was placed in Sir Kyle’s hand. He lowered his spectacles and began to read.
“…I can feel one of my ‘episodes’ coming on again. As unstoppable as I am on the battlefield, this melancholy cuts me to the bone. Goodbye forever. Wardstein.”
“That’s weird,” said the Archduke. “Good on you for putting a tail on him. Amazing you can train those squirrels so well, Sir Kyle.”
“Eh, it was nothing.”
Eric, the squirrel that had led the Archduke, Sir Kyle, and the fifteen-hundred mounted troops behind them to Wardstein’s current location outside the Ungesicht’s shack, chattered cheerfully.
A crossbow bolt suddenly pinned it through the head to the turf.
Sir Kyle nodded at the twitching pelt.
“Nice shot, Phil!”
“It’s all you today, Kyle!” came the reply.
“Anyway, we’d better get down to business,” said the Archduke, snapping his fingers.
The archers behind him took note and sparked their arrows, launching a well-aimed volley into the Witch’s thatched roof. It was ablaze in an instant.
As smoke began to billow from the small windows, The Baron emerged from the cottage in his boxer shorts, carrying Ungesicht’s familiar – a small cat named Allspice. Wardstein, in his vulnerable mental state, must have developed a soft spot for animals. He was coughing terribly, but other than that, he seemed unscathed by the inferno. The wretched Witch however, was a different story. She exited moments later, her arms full of books. Spells, no doubt. She and the load were fully engulfed. Her terrible screams echoed throughout the surrounding wood.
Another snap from the Archduke’s fingers.
“I’ve heard tell that the witch is a fan of…grapes!.”
The artillery crews took the subtle hint, quickly loaded the powder and bags of shot into their muzzles then took careful aim.
Ungesicht, who was spinning, screaming, wafting black smoke, and dropping flaming books all over the place, instantly lost all shape and disappeared when the barrage went off. Nothing was left but a smouldering trench and a few bits of goo.
Archduke James smirked, well-chuffed at the expensive overkill.
“Now that’s what I call a sticky situation!”
The troops all laughed, as they knew to do by now.
Wardstein was the only one who did not laugh. He examined the mess.
“Hey! I totally had that, you jerk!”
Sir Kyle and the Archduke James looked at one another and nodded.
“Good to have the old Wardstein back again,” said the Archduke. “Let’s ride.”
Wardstein squinted balefully up at the Archduke, who was no doubt enjoying riding around on his fancy new horse. “Okay, you trashed the cabin. Congratulations!” he barked. Allspice purred from her position in the crook of his elbow. “So where are riding? I haven’t seen you in like, many hours, and you appear out of nowhere and probably just spent $100,000 flattening this cabin. Which I was using for a NAP.” Somewhere in the woods, they all heard Ungesicht screeching in rage. Or something, they actually all mostly ignored it, because the lamentations of women were something they heard every day and it got annoying.
“Grab your meatball horse and saddle up! And put on pants! We crusade!” the Archduke yelled, punching the air for emphasis. Not liking the effect of that too much, he leaned over somewhat and booted a nearby squire in the face. “We CRUSADE!” he yelled again.
Sir Kyle gently puffed what he called his Woods Pipe. It was made from wood. “Allow me to explain, Baron.”
“Well, everybody’s waiting!” the Baron yelled.
Sir Kyle took another hearty pull from his Woods Pipe and exhaled roughly. This was the harshest of his Pipes, for which he had a number of really funny puns he couldn’t recall. His memory was getting hazy. Possibly from the Den Pipe, he thought. That poppy. He shook his head ruefully.
“Can I have the cat?” he blurted out.
“What?” Wardstein asked with a resolved air. He had travelled with Sir Kyle for many weeks, after all.
“I like cats. That is a cool one. It has like…stripes and whatnot.”
Wardstein snorted. “I think not. This is no mere cat. It must be destroyed to completely ruin that old witch’s day. Which we must do now that she’ll pretty much hate us. It is her familiar.”
Sir Kyle shrugged.
Wardstein sighed and took on his Teaching Voice, as Sir Kyle called it. “You see –“
“Give me the cat,” the Archduke called over, pausing from rehearsing various fist pumps. “I would like it for a pet.”
Wardstein stared at him incredulously.
“I haven’t had a pet since, like, forever,” the Archduke said as his loyal arthritic hound looked on from its dais upon its mule-drawn wagon.
“Did you not hear what I was just saying?! We must destroy it!”
“Nay, Wardstein, nay. Tis a fine animal and will look magnificent upon a mule-drawn dais.”
“You are serious?”
“Have you ever known me to be fickle?” the Archduke asked.
“Whatever, it smells like piss anyway. And not cat piss. Just keep it away from me,” he said handing the cat over. He looked at Sir Kyle and continued. “Do you see now why I tell you to keep focused on the task at hand. Your stupid question cost us, like, five minutes. And I just woke up from my nap. You know how I like to rampage after my naps. If I don’t I just feel groggy the rest of the day.”
“I know,” Sir Kyle said, looking down. “I am sorry.”
“Now what is this Crusade he speaks of?”
“What? Oh. We are going to attack the heathens! It will be very exciting. We can play a tournament of Peasant baseball! Archduke said there will be wine! And chicken!”
“I’m in,” Wardstein responded immediately.
“We are going West, to the lands of…some dude. He was all like ‘You aren’t an Archduke’ so that means he doesn’t believe in God…or something.”
“To be fair he is not an Archduke,” Wardstein said, “but one reason is as good as any other.”
To their right the Archduke seemed to have settled on a fist pump wherein one of his attendants would stand closely behind him, taking the windup to the groin and the backswing to the top of the head. There were four or five of them in heaps on the ground.
“Let’s go Archdunce!” Wardstein growled. “We Crusade.”
Sir Kyle smiled. That last bit was in Wardstein’s I Hate You and Everything You Stand For Voice. This was gonna be some epic Peasant Baseball.
Cooking fires crackled around in the close darkness. The mingled sounds of muted conversation and laughter swelled on occasion, but distantly, as those relaxing wanted no part of the “Terrible Trio”, as they had begun to be called.
Around their private fire, James, Sir Kyle, and Wardstein reclined in the Lay-Z-thrones that James had insisted be shipped for their journey to the heathen lands.
“James, I have decided it was a good thing I allowed you to destroy the witch’s cabin,” Wardstein grunted amiably. “The comforts of that dark solitude run counter to my wild nature. I am much more at home preparing to destroy my fellow man.” Allspice purred on his lap. Wardstein had insisted they keep the tiny animal as their mascot.
“You allowed?” James screeched. “The cannons ALONE – “
“Aye, it was time to move on, indeed. Sir Kyle has also grown much in the past day or so. He and I spent many a moment honing his craft. Entire villages felt his wrath,” Wardstein chuckled.
Sir Kyle smiled. It was true. His title may not have been granted for battlefield deeds, but he had made up for lost time. “Wardstein, as usual, is blunt in his truth-telling. But it could not have come together without that showdown in the castle. A true Battle Royale if there ever was one, in name and in deed.” He thought briefly of the priest. Would he approve of the path he was taking? Was he turning his back on his teachings?
Wardstein sat up. “The move you pulled with that ornamental vase was inspiring,” he enthused. “I would merely have smashed it on the way out. The look on that girl’s face…”
Sir Kyle slapped his thigh. “But what about that trick you did with the wine bottles? How did you make them fit backwards, may I ask?”
Wardstein roared. “Well, they WERE the personal guard of the Archduke, after all!”
James stared into the fire. “Don’t forget, ‘gentlemen’, we are on this journey together.” He raised his snapping fingers warningly, and behind them in the darkness, several guards rattled their weapons.
Sir Kyle, the diplomat, smoothed the feathers. “Archduke, we all tease those most important to us. If Wardstein didn’t care so much, he’d merely be campaigning on his own.”
“And totally PWNING those heathens, too,” Wardstein added, belching skyward. In response, a woman shrieked in fear somewhere in the darkness.
Sir Kyle hauled on a strange, tiny pipe he’d tucked into his mouth after his order of ribs and bacon. “Tell us, Archduke – the heathens. You collected Wardstein for a reason – and surely not his rapist wit. Why should we journey to their lands?”
(Context: I notice Sir Kyle’s “Out of Office” alert in Microsoft Outlook. Apparently he decided to go on an [unauthorized!] vacation!)
“Yes, Wardstein? Would you like me to snap my fingers and make something really cool happ—“
“—check it out, check it out!” said Wardstein in an excited, albeit hushed voice. “Sir Kyle’s out like an old-fashioned torch! I wouldn’t be surprised if he slept well into July!”
Sure enough, the Archduke peered around the wing of his Lay-Z-Throne and saw Sir Kyle, zonked out by the dying fire.
“Mmrnno! No, priest!” he mumbled as his eyes darted about beneath his lids. “Leave me be! Father needs help sorting the manu—ahhhh!!”
Sir Kyle had fallen asleep with his small pipe between his lips, and it had lodged itself in his beard. As he stirred, the pipe broke loose and clattered down the front of his breastplate. The knight staggered to his feet at the sound, not quite awake, and clumsily drew his dagger.
“I’ll kill you, priest!” he screamed, plunging the blade deep into the neck of his horse.
The beast’s scream was eerily human-like. Wardstein and the Archduke wondered why that was as they fell out of their chairs laughing, causing Allspice to hiss at the commotion. The large mount reared to its hind legs, giving the arcing blood spurting from its arterial wound a little more trajectory. The spray even made its way to the orange embers of the fire, and like Allspice, it too hissed back.
Sir Kyle spun in a tight circle, on his guard for more ‘priests.’ His squire woke from his own bed and sprinted to aid his master.
“M’Lord, what is the matter?!” he asked.
“Don’t play dumb, priest!” Sir Kyle bellowed, raising the dagger once more. “You know very well what—-“
In its panic, the horse sent the squire airborne with a terrible kick, landing him in a nearby bog. There was an enormous black splash followed by a two low gurgles. His eyes wide and panicked, the horse screamed yet again and splashed into the bog behind him, almost as though he was trying to help the squire. But he was hurt and damn-near retarded.
Sir Kyle, who was somewhat more alert now, witnessed this and saw the bog begin to slowly suck down every inch of his enormous black horse.
“ARTAX!” he yelled, rushed to go after him in his full suit of plate armour. Wardstein and Archduke James each grabbed a shoulder and held him back, still laughing. “They’re dead, man!” said James, wiping away tears. “I mean, not yet, but….in a minute or so. You don’t want to get sucked down too, man!”
“AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!” went the horse.
Kyle then joined in the laughter.
“So yeah, Wardstein?” began the Archduke. “To tell you the truth, I’m not up to date on these forsaken heathens we’re after. You know I’m bad with memos. All I know is that we’ve got to stop them, whatever they’re up to….whoever they are. And that’s good enough for me. But please, enlighten me. Enlighten us.”
“Jesus fuckin’ Kuh-riste!
The Archduke snapped his fingers and a volley of arrows turned Artax into a quiet porcupine-lookin’ thing.
All they could hear now was the crackle of the fire, a few snores and farts from the scattered men, and Wardstein clearing his throat, about to speak.
Wardstein grunted bemusedly. “As usual, I will take the lead around here. I’m on like, every committee in this army. And why?” he asked nobody in particular. “Because Wardstein gets stuff DONE. Now – “
“Enough pontificating Wardstein, we don’t have time for you to go through your shopping list of heroic deeds. We are all well aware of your incredible qualities as a warrior extraordinaire, seducer of women, musician, cat-whisperer, and numerous other outstanding accolades. In fact – “
Wardstein waggled his finger. “Like I was about to SAY, before I was so rudely interrupted, is that Sir Kyle fell asleep. Again!” The massive warrior flexed suddenly, like a wrester about to leap on his prey. And why? Nobody knows. Wardstein enjoyed punctuating his works with various physical gestures, like James did, only Wardstein’s accenting was way cooler when he did it.
“I will crush his silly pipes!” James screamed, casting about for Sir Kyle’s Magic Bag of Hippie Pipes, as he called it. It was not to be seen. Meanwhile, Sir Kyle slumbered beside the bog, covered in mud. “How can we campaign as this man sleeps the days away!”
Wardstein shrugged, not caring. Now that he’d eaten, the only thing left to do in this day was to find a maiden. “Anyway, you were saying about those heathens. They’re like, bad and junk.”
“Maybe I should draw a moustache on his face while he sleeps! Would Mr. Poopy Pants like that, do you think?” James continued. He just couldn’t let it go. Nobody sleeps while James talked – nobody. Also, for as long as he distracted Wardstein, he wouldn’t have to talk about the heathens. Or as he knew them to be – his family.
“Aha!” the Archduke exclaimed, holding a satchel aloft. “I’ve found Sir Kyle’s ‘Bag o’ Pipes!’”
Wardstein examined the canvas sack.
It read, SIR KYLE’S BAG O’ PIPES! DO NOT TOUCH!
“Sir Kyle, always the moral compass and voice of reason: it goes to show that we all have our vices. As everyone knows, I’m addicted to young maidens, and you to listing your embellishments — that is, your accomplishments! Ha ha! Oh, by the way, you did just eat, Wardstein! Where are my manners?”
The Archduke snapped his fingers once, clapped twice, then fist pumped the air rapidly.
In an instant, armed guards ushered an assortment of maids to the fireside, ranging from young to very young.
“Yes-yes – we have the whole night. What are we going to do with his pipes? The guy’s clearly been visiting the many chests of the Archduchess’s stash and developed a bit of a taste for it, hmmm?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. Sir Kyle has no shortage of memories to suppress. Oh, that reminds me – whatever happened to that Yeti sister of his? EVOO or something?”
“I uh…forget how that turned out myself.”
“Anyway, I think I’ll summon the blacksmith. Hey CARL!”
The blacksmith, his face blackened with soot and his whiskers singed into tight little curls, stumbled drunk to his master’s side wearing a heavy black leather apron.
“You—hick!—summoned me, m’Lord?”
“Yes, Carl. God, you stink. I need you to melt down this sack of pipes for Sir Kyle and make him a Five Minute Sobriety Medallion. It’ll be funny.”
“What about the wooden ones, m’lord?”
“I command you to shove them up the butt of that mule over there. That too will be really funny!”
Carl took the sack and after falling on his face, slowly picked himself up and headed off on his strange mission.
“And now! As to the Heathens! In the wastelands beyond the mountain pass on the horizon live a people who worship a strange building where a lunatic who fancies himself to be a god resides. As you know, those who not believe as we believe must be laid to waste. Now, if you want to leave this campaign Wardstein, I won’t stop you. I’ll even personally fill out the paperwork. All I can tell you is that if saving these lands from these crazies gets me home to my drug-addicted wife, well – that’s my mission.”
An eagle, cruising high in the updrafts above the plains, spotted the caravan below. From this height, it appeared a long column of ants, but it knew better. It was an army of men, travelling for unknown reasons. But what the eagle did know was that these strange collections of men left all kinds of food behind. It shuddered in gleeful anticipation, loosing a stream of excrement as it did so.
“That was a long, boring story about the heathens, James,” Baron Von Wardstein declared. He was seated atop a pile of furs in his convertible wagon, drawn by 6 black stallions. Across the way, the duke perched on his own heap of comforters – servants. “I prefer the human touch,” he’d declared earlier as he swung aboard.
“Yeah, I guess my story would have put Sir Kyle to sleep regardless,” James chuckled. “That guy is still sleeping it off, can you believe it?” He thumbed behind him, where a small cart was being towed by a donkey. Sir Kyle rattled around inside the modest cargo area of the cart, which had begun life as a potato wagon. He was still wearing his suit of armor, though the bog mud had now dried into unsightly splotches, looking not unlike streaks of diarrhea. He was snoring gustily, mumbling periodically about priests and Eva. The duke was deriving great enjoyment from his trusty companion’s current state, and earlier had to be restrained by Wardstein from urinating on him while he slept.
“ANYway,” Wardstein said. “We’re on our way. Finally. These heathens better be everything you said. You said you’re related, right? That means they should be easy pickings.”
“A beastly, yet impressive people!” James cried, shaking his fist. He looked at his fingernails as he did so, admiring the colour he’d chosen earlier.
Wardstein found a piece of food in his beard and set about to munching it. Bonus, he thought. Right when I needed it – something to eat. Everything’s coming up Wardstein.
James shrieked as a clot of bird dropping landed on his pantleg. Wardstein ignored him, wondering if there was anything else yet caught in his beard.