Trench Wars by WantedHero | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

CHAPTER 21 - Too Close

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Winning isn’t everything.

But when you end up losing, it usually feels like it.

 

  

Wendell shifted in the chair again and Dax jabbed him in the arm when no one was looking.

“Sit still,” he grumbled.

Wendell frowned back at the elf, but said nothing. I can’t help it. This guy makes me nervous.

Philburt Bellows had called a press conference as soon as the Trench event had ended. The media had virtually attacked Alhannah the second she’d dropped down from her S.L.A.G.. Dozens of reporters and cameramen packed the board room like sardines in a can, trying to get a clear shot of the returning champion.

Rishima Geebler, WHRN’s most popular and nosy anchorwoman, had dominated the meeting, shoving her competitors aside. Question after question she grilled Alhannah, who remained cool and elusive in her responses. When Rishima realized she couldn’t push the prior champion emotional buttons to satisfy the viewers, she stormed out of the press conference.

Within the hour, she’d turned her talons onto the business owner, instead.

Bellows now stood with his back to Steel and Stone, head lowered. The fireplace radiated an orange glow about him, which created an uneasiness within the silence. When he finally spoke, there was no emotion in his tone.

“This is precisely what I was trying to avoid.”

Alhannah stood like a statue, arms folded. When Bellows looked over at her, she didn’t budge.

“You have no comment?”

“What do you want me to say?” she replied cooly, “I wasn’t disqualified, which means I didn’t lose—so why are we here, Bellows?”

“You’re here, because I think you need to be reminded of our agreement. I made sure you had the money required to enter the competition in exchange for your success. I told you that I was investing in people…which included more than just your ego, young lady.”

She snarled, “Now wait just a…”

“Hannah,” Dax cautioned, “Just hear him out.” She looked over to find the elf shaking his head warningly.

Bellows watched the exchange closely, then continued. “This visit would not have been necessary if you had sated Rishima’s appetite for gossip, leaving me alone. Instead, she’s hounded my steps, verbally assaulted my managers and overloaded my answering machine with call me messages!”

“Oh, the pains of being popular,” she cried mockingly, throwing her hand to her forehead as if she were about to faint.

“This isn’t funny!”

Wendell watched the gnome’s weight shift equally over both feet. Her hand lowered as her head dropped forward, hair falling over her shoulders. Her brows created shadows over her eyes while the firelight painted a red glow across her pale cheeks that still had grease smudges on them from the event. She looked almost…demonic.

“Oh, but it is, moneybags,” she said in a pointed tone. “You told me to win. According to the rules of the game, I did. You also told me to create drama. Did you watch the reactions of the crowd? Did you hear them chanting my name?” She waited for Bellows to open his mouth for a response, then cut him off. “You want this to be about the people. The underdogs…I get that. But what you haven’t noticed is that’s exactly what we’ve given you.” She strode across the room and stood inches in front of his face. Her hot breath steamed his wireframe glasses as she whispered, “So until you’re willing to provide full funding, we do this my way, not yours.” Slowly baring her teeth in a animalistic grin, “And if you don’t like it, you can stuff those S.L.A.G.s in your fat purse. I don’t care. After today’s performance, I’m sure we could find another sponsor before the week was out.”

Bellows pulled his glasses from his face nonchalant and wiped them with a white handkerchief. “Is that all, Ms. Luckyfeller?”

“Not quite.”

He replaced the glasses on his nose. “Yes?”

“Dax wants a tobacco fund included in our budget.” She continued to hold her ground and her beastly smile until the gnome finally stepped back and cleared his throat.

“I’ll…see what I can do.” 

Wendell nudged Dax, who was now grinning himself, from ear to ear. “Have I mentioned lately that she scares the crap out of me?”

 

****

 

“But you can’t guarantee us winning,” Wendell argued.

“I know that,” Alhannah countered, popping the cap off the bottle. She kicked the chair closer to the table where the whole team was having a late night snack and strategy meeting. “But do you think Bellows is gonna keep funding someone who thinks they’re already beaten?”

“You think we’re already beaten?” choked Nibbles. Tumbler patted her on the back as she coughed.

“No, of course I don’t—that’s not what I meant. I mean we have to stay positive, that’s all. There will be surprises and setbacks, but the key is to adapt. We have more than enough talent in this room to take down any of the pilots in the league.” She gave Wendell and nudge with her elbow, “Even greenie here.”

They all chuckled.

“This is going to be a battle on many fronts,” interrupted Nat, who was still fully engaged on his laptop. He clicked away, “Not only do we have to win in the Trench, we have to win within the system—which is my problem…but there’s also the media. The wrong rumors getting started can lose us favor with the people. Our whole goal here is to win the people over, remember? That was the deal with motherboard and the G.R.R..”

Alhannah chugged the contents of the bottle, then let out a long, deep belch. She smacked her lips, “What’s your point, Wheels?”

He looked up and frowned, “My point, Red, is that we have to engage the media. There are hundreds of reports on the web saying you don’t care about the people, because you won’t answer the media’s questions. And I quote, ‘Alhannah Luckyfeller, once known as the Grand Champion of the Trench Wars has apparently ascended above the mere peasant bodies of our beloved community. All one has to do to confirm such reports is to take notice of how many reports there are. That’s right—they simply don’t exist. Luckyfeller aggressively shuns those seeking to bring her words to the people.’” Nat stared at her until she started to squirm in her seat. “Which isn’t that far off.”

“That’s a little harsh,” countered Dax, “don’t you think?”

“All the time,” Nat said flatly, “Which is why I’d like her to try it sometime. It’ll help our chances.”

“Why you metal-butt…”

Wendell pushed her back into her chair, “Stop it. This is helping. We already knew this first fight was a test run, right?” He glared at her, but she was too focused on Nat to notice. “Honestly Alhannah, you know the league better than anyone—so we’re forced to follow your lead. So lead.” Pushing his plate away from him, he looked over at Freak and Socket, “I think we need a way to use this to our advantage.”

The gnome mechanic fidgeting with his goggles, “What do you have in mind?”

Wendell smiled, “I think we should be quiet and sneaky. Play the roll of the beaten and downtrodden. Be the underdog and take some hits, even if we’re better.

Dax sat forward, interested, “And then?”

Wendell shrugged, “Then we pound them into the ground at the last possible moment. Jump on them when they think we’re helpless or not worth the effort.” He leaned back in the chair and rusted metal squeaked in protest, “Besides, we have the best RAT crew in the league, don’t we?” He looked around the table at the crew, “Why not prove it to the city.”

Tumbler stoked his cigar, the smoke rolling up from his face like a factory chimney. “I like how this kid thinks.”

Nat closed his laptop, “How do you propose we start?”

“Well,” Wendell pondered, “while you and Cryo figure out how to keep control of the Trench, I think Alhannah needs to pay a visit to a certain anchorwoman and give her some exclusive goodies.”

Alhannah let her head fall onto the surface of the table with a THUD! “Mahan’s pink panties.”

 

****

 

“So you didn’t watch the games?”

Chuck shook his head, “Busy.”

Wendell forced himself to smile, even though he felt disappointed and a little worried. “I understand. Don’t worry about it.” He noticed the wizard was looking more gaunt. Deloris told him Chuck had stopped eating…or at least forgot to eat while he was in the library. Whenever she came in to bring him something to snack on, even water, he wouldn’t respond. She was forced to place it on his desk…or on an end table and leave it. The problem was, she’d come back hours later to find it untouched.

The dark rings around his eyes even had Lili worried.

“Did she win?” Chuck asked weakly. His fingers kept twitching, as if he were counting something.

Wendell blinked, “What? Oh, yes, she won.”

“Good. Good,” he said softly, nodding, his attention waning. “Can’t remember,” he whispered to himself. Then rubbing his temple with a knuckle, as if trying to dig something free, “Remember you, it’s important, I just know it is…” Without a word to him, Chuck wandered away from Wendell and walked back to his crowded desk in the corner of the room.

Lili sat hunched over her desk, pouring over volumes of history books and genealogy script from the Tinker’s Guild. Packages with new books were arriving almost daily now, to the warehouse by courier, provided by Motherboard. Wendell watched her head bob up and down across the paper as she traced family lines. She didn’t look up or acknowledge Wendell’s presence.

He sighed deeply. Right. I don’t exist. Nothing new. Instead, Wendell turned and walked over to the wizards desk. He rocked back and forth on his heels, watching the old man pick through the mountain of paperwork piled high on his desk. “Having any luck?”

The wizard didn’t say anything, but his posture froze.

“Chuck?”

“What?” he said, suddenly startled. His dark eyelids blinked once, then clenched tight…as if he finally realized where he was.  He looked up and shared a warm smile that looked vaguely familiar. “Oh, I’m sorry son. Feeling a bit on the tired side tonight, I’m afraid.”

He looks so weak. So…sick and depressed. “You need some food and rest, Chuck,” Wendell said firmly. “I’m getting worried about you,” he added with conviction.

“Not now,” he retorted, followed by a serious frown, “no time right now…but soon.” He nodded, though more to  himself than Wendell, “Very soon indeed.”

It’s no use—he’s not paying attention to what I’m talking about. The frustration changed to concern. This world and adventure was more bearable because of the wizard. Wendell knew he could endure more when he had Chuck in his corner and seeing his health decaying right before him, scared Wendell in more ways than one. “So have you found anything about the seal?” he prodded again. He stood upright, smile on his face, trying to look greatly interested.

“It’s not anything that I was expecting,” Chuck said faintly. Then looking up, “I think this might be beyond me.”

It was difficult not to laugh, so Wendell bit his lip. Though the wizard had his moments of, well, lunacy, Wendell was convinced that Chucks actual intelligence and wisdom was without equal. The thought suddenly struck him. If Chuck’s worried about finding the seal, I should probably be worried too. We don’t know what it looks like, who has it or where it’s hidden…in a confined society of at least a billion people? His head slumped forward. Oh crap…this is serious.

But at the same time, Wendell was also curious. “What’s…got you stuck, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Chuck took a labored breath and sank back in his seat. Letting his tired legs stretch out across the rug, he flipped his beard back over the chair. Kicking his sandals off, he jutted his feet out from under the other side of the desk and wiggled his toes. “It’s these blasted gnomes!”

“I thought you loved the gnomes?”

“Oh I do, son, I do. They’ve been shown to me in a new light, that’s all.”

“How so?”

“Ego, my boy. Pure, unadulterated, sickening egos. The kind that makes you want to put your own head through a wall.”

Wendell chuckled, “I really don’t follow.”

Chuck yawned and stretched his arms over his head. “I was told to give the bag, with the seal in it, to the greatest tinkerer in Clockworks, right?”

“That’s what you told us, yes.”

Wiggling and stretching his fingers, “So I pop on over to Pävärious and ask the mayor who the best of the best is and I hand it over. Alright, I see the error in not getting a name, but Mahan’s Pink Panties, you’d think it’d be somewhat simple to find out who was the top brass back then.” He looked at Wendell pleadingly, “Wouldn’t you think so?”

Wendell wasn’t actually sure, but he shrugged and then nodded. “I guess so.”

“Right! So Lili and I start looking back in the books they kept. First we try the standard works of the Fishes Archive Foundation. Then we took the entries we thought might be viable and cross referenced them with the histories of the factions. There were twenty four factions at the time.”

“Factions?”

“Primary divisions of the people: Government, Religious or Civilian.” Chuck waved a finger at Wendell, his brows drooping in open irritation, “THEN we boil it down to the original guilds! But you know what?”

“What’s that?”

“Every single, stinkin’ little tinkerer claims to be the very best! The greatest. The most creative. The ultimate maker of doodads and doohickies!!”

“How can that…”

The wizard threw up his palm, “WAIT! That isn’t the worst of it. The history books actually support the claims!” Chuck’s breathing intensified and he sat upright, irritated, “Every…stinking…one of them.” Throwing himself forward, his brows bobbed up and down, “Crazy, huh? But it’s all about definitions. That’s what we’re finding out. One might be the ‘greatest’ tinkerer of clockmaking. Another was the ‘greatest’ tinkerer of sewer systems. Another could be the ‘greatest’ of single cylinder engines. Water purification, printing presses, microscopes, child-adjusters….and the list goes on!”

Wendell chuckled, “Child-adjusters?”

“Brenda Omberdonkey, a famous nanny of wealthy families invented an oversized wooden spoon to swat with,” he blurted, “but she claimed it! She was put down in history as the brilliant inventor who helped changed the lives of gnomes everywhere.”

“Sounds like gnomes really like to extend their appreciation for these things.”

Chuck rolled his eyes, “Suffer from self-esteem issues is more like it!” Slapping the arm of the chair, “It’s throwing us off, because we don’t know how to narrow this down. It’s like the word ‘guarantee’—everyone claims to have guaranteed low prices, but it’s a rotten lie. Everyone can’t have the lowest price, so you have to search through the ads like you used to, just to sift out the liars! We don’t have a starting point. I certainly can’t trace any lineage of tinker from then until now. I don’t know where to sift. Heck—I don’t know where to START!” He started rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, yawning, “…and that’s without taking into account that the seal might be lost or been passed onto someone else along the way…”

Slumping back into his chair, Chuck ran his fingers through the thin hair on his scalp. “Frustrating.”

Reaching into his back pocket, Wendell pulled out the letter. He stood there, just holding it in his hands. Both he and Chuck stared at the folded paper for a few moments.

“Has it changed?”

Wendell shook his head. “Still blank with WIN written in the center of it.”

The wizard sighed, “Well, at least we know Trench Wars is an important event then and not just a distraction, right?” He offered a weak smile, “So you have some direction.” He took a deep breath and let it out in a heavy sigh, “I, on the other hand, need a miracle.”

“Not a miracle, Chuck. You just need help.”

“I need a professional.”

“A detective.”

“No, I need a genealogist.”

They both stared at each other and smiled as the answer dawned on them.

“We need Höbin,” they said together.

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