Odie Ose wore a smile, as he shuffled along with the crowd. Wore it. He didn't always feel like smiling, but he did feel like always smiling, you know? So he'd put a big black Arkin grin on his face as his war paint.
The paint was permanent Signamancy, cast by the Juggles who used to be Shady Elves or Scene Elves or even Navy Elves. Didn't matter what they were before. Odie had been a Superfluous Elf. Didn't matter. They were all Juggles now. They were Arkin' family. Much love.
"Ouphe-ouphe!" he called out.
All around him on the path, other Juggles answered in kind. "Ouphe-ouphe! Ouphe-OUPHE!" He was surrounded by his tribe, a bunch of Arkin' losers and outcasts who'd found each other to love. These Arkers had put the smile on his face. Thafs all that mattered.
Except it might matter a little that he couldn't do anything special for the family. That made him feel bad sometimes. Former Altruist Elves and House Elves could do Healomancy. The Woodsy Elves and Trashy Elves were good at forage. Boring Elves could mine. Hardcore and Jam Elves kept the beat going. The High Elves and Hoe Elves could grow food, and Hungry Elves and Junk Elves could cook it.
All he could do was fight, but lots of Juggles were better at fighting than him, especially the Mosh Elves. The only thing Superfluous Elves could really do was know when they weren't needed, when they'd be better off going away. He didn't feel that way here. He hadn't felt that way in a long time. Not since… that time he didn't like to Arkin' think about.
There was a murmur in the crowd. Some of the other Juggles bumped and shoved him until he stopped on the path and turned around to look where people were pointing.
Up in the sky, but coming down fast, an armored blue dwagon with a single rider was descending to the edge of the hex-wide camp. The beast was far on the other side of the crowd, away from the stage where Odie had been headed.
Its rider was too tiny to make out from here, but then he did something spectacular. A few churning power chords and a sick lick of pure Rock screamed out through the air, and then a bolt of Shockmancy shot skyward from the saddle, and Odie realized he knew exactly who this was.
Odie didn't have to fight through; he slipped his way in, using another little trick that Superfluous Elves could manage. They had a way of blending into a crowd, of just being there, unnoticed. He found gaps between shoulders, hips, arms and feet. He waited and darted and waited again.
"Quit wasting my time!" shouted a high, irritable voice from up ahead. Above the shouts and curses, there were little crackles and booms, and the tinkle of shattering glass. "Shut up!" screeched the voice. "I want your chief!"
"Ark you! Get the Ark outa here!" shouted people in the agitated crowd. "Arkin' warlord piece o' puke!"
Just ahead of Odie, the line of elves spasmed. People were ducking and lurching out of the way of something. It was the dwagon's tail, swinging powerfully and swatting some of the slower Juggles aside.
Odie took the chance and picked out a split in the crowd just behind the swing of the tail, scooting all the way forward and into the clear sunlight.
With its tail and its wings, the big dwagon was defending a space for itself, surrounded by a tight perimeter of angry elves. The little man who had to be Stanley was standing up in the dwagon's saddle, holding up his yellow 'hammer.
As bottles of fae-go and other small missiles rained down on him, the Arkentool zapped and blasted them away with little tongues of Shockmancy. Stanley stood there impatiently.
"Am I gonna have to get mean now?" he said, to nobody in particular. "I think I am." He made a move, climbing down to sit in his saddle for takeoff.
Odie threw his hands up and stepped forward, within range of the big blue tail. "Wait up! Wait!" he shouted back at the crowd. "Hold on, I know this butt-tunnel! Stop! Shut up for a second!"
The crowd didn't pay a whole lot of heed, but the nearest ones looked at him and stopped shouting. The number of flung bottles trailed off.
Stanley turned around in his saddle and looked at Odie with a discerning squint. The little man wore black and white war paint, with a star over the eye. The dwagon's tail came up threateningly, but the Overlord dearly had it under control by his will.
"Should I remember you or something?" he asked.
Odie looked up defiantly. "I was at the Battle for Gobwin Knob!"
Stanley made a face. "That's great. I wasn't," he said sourly. "Are you the Chief Clown?"
"No," said Odie, "but I was Chief of Elves for the Coalition, under Prince Ansom." That actually quieted the crowd around him a little more. Not every Juggle knew that about him. He almost never talked about it. "What do you want here?"
The Overlord rolled his eyes dramatically. "I came because somebody told me there were some elves tearing up the lands around Rightshoring, and I thought you losers might wanna work for a winner for a change. Guess not!" This last, he turned and yelled at the crowd. Booing broke out.
"You're Overlord of Arkin' '''''Gobwin''''' Knob, right?" Odie yelled, to be heard over the disgruntled crowd. "Uh, did you notice we're elves?" He tugged on both his ears exaggeratedly, to laughter.
Stanley looked annoyed. "Yeah duh, you're elves. We don't have any more gobwins. Or hobgobwins. Or anything else. Just cash money. You like Shmuckers?" He held up his palm and made a money-grubbing gesture with his thumb and fingertips.
The crowd, in the habit of booing everything Stanley said at this point, booed again. The dwagon flicked its left wing and shooed some of them back.
But Odie stood with his mouth open. "What, seriously? You want an alliance with us?"
"Well I don't know, now." said Stanley, glaring at the crowd. "This friend of mine said you were pretty bad. But he didn't tell me you were all rejects." The crowd yelled louder, but Stanley just sneered. "Well look at you. How many kinds are you?"
The dwagon made a few stomps and swishes at the surging wall of elves, and Odie dropped flat to duck the tail. Then he stood up straight again.
"One kind," he said, loud and strong. He threw up the J/E sign with his wrists crossed. "Juggle Love, that's it. Are you still at war with Jetstone?" he asked Stanley.
"We're at war with everybody!" snapped the Overlord. He didn't look too proud of it, though..
Odie turned back to gnomies behind him. "We should think about it!"
Angry shouts went up once more, but he raised his hands. "Nah, nah! Think about it. How many of y'all are here because Jetstone ditched their elves? Huh?"
The noise receded. It was a lot of them, maybe most. Not long ago the Juggle Elves' ranks had tripled. Every turn was a struggle, to manage upkeep for all these thousands. They'd taken to destructive foraging, which had already drawn one response from Rightshoring. Sooner or later, they'd be facing a serious army.
Everybody always said they didn't ever want to ally with a sovereign side. No side ever asked them, anyway. They were gonna have to do something. Maybe this was it.
"I said, how many of you were with Jetstone when they cut us off?" There were murmurs, and the crowd grew quieter still. "Yeah, they cut us off 'cause they went broke. They went broke 'cause Gobwin Knob Arkin' kicked the crap out of 'em. I was there, gnomie. I saw what was up when Prince Ansom croaked, and I just turned around and Arkin' left."
It was the first time he'd actually admitted it, but also the first time it felt like his abandoning the battle had been the right thing to do.
At the inner gates of Gobwin Knob, Chief Odie had ordered every elf under his command to withdraw. He just told 'em to walk out, and to keep on walking back down the road until they were out of move. The chief of almost every other elf tribe had disobeyed him, stayed on the scene, and been wiped out by the volcano. But his own Superfluous Elves had known when it was time to go, and they went. Only the Woodsy and Shady Elves had come with them.
"Jetstone never wanted Juggles!" Odie told the crowd. "We hate Royals, and Royals Arkin' hate us! Gnome sayin'? And they Arkin' hate this guy, too."
More murmurs. No yelling now. No bottles.
"They don't hate me that much," muttered Stanley.
Odie wheeled around. "Yeah they do, dude. I had to listen to Prince Ansom and the rest talk about you. My only question is, would workin' for you be any different from workin' for Slately?"
The Overlord stood up in the saddle again, completely turned around to face Odie. His mouth was open like a snapping turtle, and he held up the 'hammer, aimed right at Odie's head, lined up with that black-painted eye. He stared menacingly. Blue sparks crawled around the Arkentool and over the spikes and plates of his black armor.
"What do you think, dude?"
Odie didn't see Stanley until the following morning. After the crowd settled down, they'd taken him to see the co-chiefs and the inner tribe—the few Juggles who had originally popped as Juggles. Everybody was family, but those guys made the big decisions, and he was happy to be left out of it.
Rumors spread around about the deal. It sounded like the Juggles would all get guaranteed upkeep. Fifteen were getting promoted to Knights and would go to Spacerock. But the rest of them didn't have to follow direct orders from Stanley, only down through Chief J and Shaggy. They'd stay in the field, wrecking things. Stanley would just tell them what to wreck next.
Stanley himself was wrecking trees when Odie found him the next morning, blasting them one by one with the Arkenhammer, to a cheering crowd. Treasury or not, the destructive foraging in Rightshoring's lands would go on, and "the Tool" was happy to help.
It fit with the rumors he'd been hearing about the man himself. They said he loved violence, and that he could party. The Moshers said his beat was sick, and they could dance-fight to it. Odie had even seen one Juggle with a Stanley Star on his face already that morning.
But it was his hatred of Royals that had really won them over. As the elves that no Royal side had ever wanted to hire, the tribe had always had it hard. So had Stanley. And he had picked up a new favorite catchphrase from the Juggles.
"Down with the crown!" shouted the Overlord, as he blasted another tree to flaming splinters."Ouphe, ouphe!" yelled Odie.