∼ Purposed Ambition ∼
Chapter - 088
Edging himself towards the end of the wagon, Eric grunted at the vehement protest of his body. "-Sir," One of his subordinates hastily said, holding out a hand with deference. But Eric ignored the proffered help, teeth clenched as he made to stand on his own. The subordinate, one with a bandage strung over an eye, quickly stepped back and made way, though he still kept just close enough to step in if his captain needed it. However, even as injured, fatigued, and battered as he was, Eric stood straight and tall. His arm was in a splint, and he had bandages covering him from top to bottom, ailed with burns and the like.
Almost every single bone in his body had suffered minor fractures, sustaining the damage from both the battle leading up and the blast that had taken him out of commission for the remainder of the fight. Luckily, it had only been his arm that had been broken, probably on collision with some flying debris or some such. But with superior healing consumables, ointments, and field treatment provided by one of the few remaining medics in the caravan, most of his superficial injuries had been taken care of. Though Eric was still in agonizing pain whenever moving about, his body not quite having healed any of it fully. Not that he'd show it openly to his men of course.
After scattering to the mountain range to avoid the authorities that so often patrolled them, most of all the unneighborly and distrustful dwarves who'd be lopping heads left and right if they saw how their craftsmanship had not just smuggled through their lands but also gone to waste in such a blasphemous manner, they had reached an outpost where they gathered provisions and transport. Medical attention was an afterthought as they had to be on the move, so many ended up dying on the trip back. Only half of the caravan was left now, a crippling blow to The Stained Tooth - especially alongside the loss of the weapons.
They had recovered some of the cargo, but barely anything compared to what had been. Only just what those still fit enough to run could carry. Now, they stood in front of the Merchant's Hightower, also commonly known as The Stained Tooth's headquarters. But you'd be asking for your throat slit and worse if you ever were to say that out loud in public. The kind of knowledge everyone knew - but never openly acknowledged.
The Hightower was one of the tallest buildings in the Merchant's Quarters, towering over the city sprawl alongside other landmark highrises that made Boreas stand out against the backdrop of the Spine. But although the Hightower was the hideout for the biggest gang in all of Boreas, a lot of mercantile business actually took place here. Victor Crowley, first and foremost - was a gang boss. Secondly, however - almost as much as the first - he was a businessman.
Moving into the cargo area of the tower, a massive warehouse shut off from the outside world, Eric lead his men. The workers that worked in here ignored the wounded and bloodied men as if they weren't even there. Though, they made sure to steer well clear of them as they went about their work. It was their job after all. Vetted to never ask questions or even bat an eye at some of the more extracurricular ventures taking place here.
The men all lined up as the officers and captains, including Eric, stepped forward to take front. Soon, another procession of men came out into the warehouse to meet them. Amongst the powerful people, was one of the elite from the caravan; an overseer but had taken off ahead of the group to report back to headquarters. The rest were all bigshots within the criminal organization - everyone strong, influential, and intimidating.
But most prominently of them, all was Victor Crowley himself. His round but hard face regarded Eric and the men with narrowed eyes as he approached, a lit cigar in his mouth as his hands were folded behind his back. Everyone tensed, including Eric, as they felt a palpable presence descend. It wasn't the force of his power, but merely the unfiltered menace of his aura. One that had been honed through what Eric couldn't begin to imagine. Those too weak or injured fell to their knees as others shivered uncontrollably. Even he felt a cold sweat set in who usually was well-off in the man's presence compared to others.
The procession stopped in front of them, Crowley taking in the state of what remained of the caravan without saying a word - allowing them to sweat for a drawn-out moment. He dragged on his cigar, the tobacco burning hot before he finally made a gesture of looking around. "So - where are my weapons? Hmm?"
Nobody spoke, everyone well-aware that he already knew the answer.
Crowly tsked. Walking up close, he stared directly into the eyes of a pale young man, one barely able to stand as the menacing boss was only inches away. "I asked you a question, lad."
The young man blinked, taking a moment to answer shakily in fear of a trick question. "I-it was an a-ambush, sir..." He managed, a trail of nervousness trickling down his forehead.
"Aye, I ken it was an ambush. But what I be askin' is; why are you here, pissin' yer pants and my weapons not?" The young man gulped, terror-stricken. Unable to find any words. Crowley lifted his hand and snapped his thick and rough fingers in front of the young man's face as if trying to snap him out of it. "Hey-hey - what good are ye for other than vapid stares and running away?" His gray, coal-like eyes narrowed. "-Answer me this. Why is it - that my weapons are at the bottom of a gorge and you in front of me with nothing to show but yer sorry arse, still wasting the air I breathe?"
The young man's eyes darted around like a scared mouse, looking ready to bolt. But dared not in Crowley's presence, which had practically nailed him in place. "B-b-because, we-" The young man managed, on the edge of sobbing as he looked to the other men for some semblance of help. But he saw none... Only pity and fear. "Because... I-I was too weak..." He said defeatedly, not meeting his eyes.
To everyone's surprise, Crowley just stood there for a moment - then - suddenly smiled, setting a comforting hand on the young man's shoulder. "Exactly. Because all of yous were—weak." He looked to the rest of the caravan's remnants. "See? So, what are all yer excuses?"
Everyone hung their heads, even the elite as they all felt genuine embarrassment despite working for Crowley out of fear and greed. Like children that had disappointed their father. "Picked y'off the streets. Lowlives, every one of you. I expect you to be weak! Ye're not born strong - ye become strong! Ye eejits."
The men flexed their fists, some even daring to meet Crowley's gaze. "So what are you going to do about it? Eh?" He grabbed the crying young man at the back of his neck, giving him a few light rousing slaps on his cheek to catch his attention. "Ye hear me? What are you. going to do about it?"
"I-I..." He looked to the rest of the men, finding strength as they finally looked back at him with fierce determination. "-I-I'm going to do better! I'll become stronger!"
"Damn right you are! You little shit!" Crowley laughed with some danger in his voice. "Didna hire you so you could just waste yer potential dallying around, costing me both gold and men." He put his forehead to the youngster, staring right into his eyes. "Don't ye want to be boss one day? To have yer own men. Yer own people. Yer own strength. Strong enough to be the one giving out punishments, not the one receiving them?"
The youngster blinked at that, but the enthusiasm on the previously terrifying man's face somehow ignited a sense of ambition within the young man. He nodded, toothily. "I do."
"Attaboy," Crowley smiled, giving a few more light slaps on the young man's face before letting him go. "That's all I ask of ye. So that when the next time I give you an assignment - you don't fuck it up so spectacularly! Okay, y'worthless dullards?!" He bellowed.
"Yes - sir!" Everyone chorused - Eric looking a little dumbfounded as he watched the display from the side, never having seen this uncanny charm in the older gang boss before. Before now, Eric had been sure Crowley would be making a... example out of those who had survived.
Looking at the remnants of the caravan, each man's spirit seemingly reignited, Crowley just nodded to himself satisfied.
"Ye're all on gutter duty for the next month, get yer shit together by then."
"Yes - sir!" They all echoed once more, though some a little more reserved than before as gutter duty was definitely not one of the prettier jobs within the gang.
But before Crowley turned to leave, he approached Eric and slung a thick arm around his shoulder, pulling the young man away. "Ignore all of that boy, wasnae for yer ears. I heard ye did good in the battle. Great in fact." The older man said with a genuine smile.
Still, Eric couldn't rid his face of the perplexity born from the display he had just witnessed. Seeing it, Crowley seemed to almost immediately understand before pausing to ponder. "Son. Do ye ken why I promote such ambition in my men? I mean - surely, in my line of work, I'm simply setting myself up for a coup. Right? A knife in the back- ah y'get it."
Eric was surprised that Crowley had seen right through him as that had definitely been one of the things on his mind. This whole organization was built on the fear of Crowley's reputation and strength and the considerable depths of his pockets and influence. One prone to the wiles of the ambitious and greedy. However, here he was, promoting such exact behavior. Seeding almost certain betrayal rather than simply punishing his men for their failure and getting them back in line.
But Crowley explained. "Well, you see - in my time as but a cretin scrounging about on the streets, surviving only in the grace of those too slothful to bother, I've learned that all men have a so-called expiration date. Whether you like it or not, they'll all go bad sooner or later. An undeniable fact in men, dwarves, gnomes, and monsters alike."
He lifted a finger with a devious smile. "But... it's all about how you use them before they go bad - that makes all the difference." As they walked, he gestured to the working men of the warehouse and silent guards, his smoking cigar held in between his fingers.
"Make them want to work hard. Make them confident, and they'll do things that you would've otherwise thought them incapable of. The human mind is a strong thing y'see."
"So squeeze out all of that potential, every ounce of it - making the whole appear stronger. For the exact reason that it simply is."
Eric's eyes narrowed whilst Crowley's turned ever more shrewd. "However, as I told you before, all men do eventually go bad. That's when you inevitably break them - their fidelity, their loyalty burning out - that is what I call the expiration date."
"When men are broken, they will be loyal out of pure fear only. Reckless and oftentimes unpredictable. Better to be off with them once the opportunity arises. However, men broken who once had been ambitious are a bit more dangerous. There are only a few days of unwavering loyalty before they do something... very stupid." Crowley's tone turned dark. "And that is when they go bad."
Eric felt a chill down his spine.
"So what use are men who have gone over, past the expiration date? Not quite bad yet. A few days of unwavering loyalty untapped? What good is that - half-bad meat? Of which has turned a little sour and might not be good but it'd probably still be edible, though it might come back to kick you in the arse later? What do you do with that? What singular good use of it remains?"
Crowley leaned in close, a tight grip on his shoulder as Eric probably hadn't felt more uncomfortable in his life, standing in front of a monster.
"Ye give 'em to the dogs of course,"