Journey through the hungry jungle, part 3
Part 3: Blue Cheese
Seeing Zheng jog breathlessly into view, trying to keep up with his merrily flying Two-Can lifted a weight off of Marco's shoulders. Not long after, he got a huge weight off his chest too, to the tune of a 420 pound croaked cat.
While they were at work the Two-Cans frolicked in midair by the pale starlight breaking through the canopy. They chased each other and flew complicated aerial maneuvers. They played like this a while, mirroring each other's moves, before eventually settling on a high branch and sleeping side by side.
Once freed, Marco and Zheng leaned against the Butress tree to catch their breath. Marco took the opportunity to get a good look at Zheng. His stackie's hands and arms were badly scratched, it looked like he'd been attacked by a small feral of some kind. He noticed a fairly serious wound in one of his legs from a sword slice, chasing the Two-Can must have been extremely painful. He looked up at his friend's broad face, he had a couple of bruises on his tan complexion and a black eye, the swelling was forcibly shutting one of his brown eyes.
«You know, Sergeant Tay would have said to let the feral pass by.» said Zheng, turning to Marco with a calm smile, but Marco noticed his friend was using it to cover up the pain he must be feeling.
Marco gave a ruefull chuckle «You know me, I just can't let Sleeping Lions lie.» They both laughed until Zheng started coughing.
Zheng gave the beast a calculating look. «I think we may be able to use it for provisions.» He turned his head to Marco «I know we're tired, but if we don't prepare it before dawn it'll just de-pop or go rancid.» Marco grimmaced, but nodded.
On the long march through the jungle Lieutenant Fu Bar had managed to track and croak a feral, he'd been so excited he'd insisted on cooking the beast himself, even Ordering the company cook away despite his strenous objections. He put half the beast in a stewpot with some wine and let it boil over a fire, and «generously» gave the men the other half.
The company cook, a Stabber named Emeril, had been trying to warn lieutenant Bar that Lounge Lizards stewed in their own juices were liable to make anyone eating it get sick. «Bam! If you're not careful, it'll kick the crap out of you. Probably literally.» During the next day's march the lieutenant had ended up calling frequent rest stops.
Marco got the pike head out of his backpack and Zheng got a boning knife from the spare cooking kit he was carrying. By the time dawn was coloring the jungle canopy they'd managed to skin the lion and cut up its meat in thin strips. They'd even revived the fire enough to smoke the meat over it using some spindly branches. Using cocoapuff tree leaves for the smoking turned it into a surprisingly edible jerky. Hearty, rich and smoky. Marco figured they probably had about four or five day's worth.
When dawn finally came they didn't feel any less tired, but their healed wounds along with restored cyan and teal armor made them feel full of Life. The jerky had apparently also been good enough that their regular rations didn't pop!
«Marco, look.» Zheng motioned to where the Sleeping Lion had been. The lion's body had de-popped, but its pelt was still there.
«Oh wow, is that a Drop?» Marco got up and picked up the pelt. The swirling star pattern over a night sky was still shining vibrantly. He'd expected the fur to de-pop along with the rest, but some ferals would occasionally leave behind special harvestable «drops». He didn't know if the fur was Magical or anything, but it was definitely pretty and seemed warm. The underside had even become dry treated leather. «What do you think Zheng? It might make a good bedroll until we get home.»
«Home.» Nodded Zheng, filling that one word with a world of longing. He stood up and looked around at the jungle in the early morning light. «How do we get home?»
They had talked it over for a half an hour. They had no way of knowing if anyone else made it out of the engagement and survived the night. Zheng's night-long search and Marco's lit fire drawing no other survivors wasn't a good sign. The new day also meant any bodies would have either de-popped or been... eaten... by the ferals. (Zheng had looked away when he suggested this, and it hurt Marco to admit it was probable). It would take hours for two units to search an entire hex to try and confirm if anyone else in the 45 strong force under lieutenant Bar made it out, and the turn could be ended at any time, trapping them in the hex if the Banana Republicans were in the battlespace. While it was hard, they'd agreed their Duty to the side was to return to post and give the Komissars the sad news of the broken off engagement.
But once again, the problem of where home was and how to get there reared its ugly head. Neither knew how to read maps, Titans, they'd never even seen a map, much less had one (for all the good that'd do them, Marco had joked). They had popped in Circo, and remembered marching east to Uppenup for basic training with Sergeant Nass, where they'd spent a few dozen turns. There they'd been assigned to Lieutenant Bar. He'd been taking them on a «milk run» to patrol the road between Archer (a farming city) and Mossimoco (where a big supply company was based) when they'd spotted the Banana Republicans. The road ran mostly west to north east, and Zheng was pretty sure Lieutenant Bar had been leading them north west through the jungle.
«So, I guess we walk south west?» ventured Marco. He felt a pang of guilt. To be honest, he hadn't really remembered much of the directions they'd been taking. And to be brutally honest it was because he hadn't been paying much attention. He was coming to realize how much he'd taken Lieutenant Bar's navigation for granted. Zheng at least remembered that when they marched in the morning the sun usually rose on their right and behind.
«Maybe better to try south by south west. I suppose.» said Zheng dubiously. Neither of them were used to deciding important things. Just a few turns ago, the most serious decision Marco had to make was whether to chance a fifth shot of Dis Ale, and whether he was drunk enough to flirt back with a handsome stabber. The lack of not just Leadership but leadership was making them feel unsure and exposed.
Marco put on a brave face for what he was about to say; he felt his heart beat quicken and a pressure in his head that reverberated his pounding heart. «Okay then, lets stack up and leave the hex.» He lifted up and put on the backpack, with the neatly rolled up lion pelt tied above it, picked up Polo with his right arm and started walking. He felt a hand clasp his elbow.
«South by south west should be this way, Marco.» He could tell Zheng must be feeling nervous too, there wasn't a trace of humor in his face.
He felt his cheeks flush, and was about to try and play it off as a joke by saying «I knew that!» when he remembered Lieutenant Bar used to say that, too. Kind of a lot, he realized. Instead he settled on a sincere «You should probably lead the way.»
They made their way slowly through the jungle. Weaving cautiously around loose piles of fallen leaves, checking not just the ground but the branches above for threats. Movement in deep jungle hexes was a forbidding 4, but units lead by a Jungle-capable warlord could travel through as though it were a 3. With a stack or two of Macheteers clearing a path, it could even go down to 2. Without either of those advantages, their individual Move of 12 was getting whittled down to a measly 3 hexes a turn.
Walking back, Marco couldn't help looking at the jungle in a completely different light. It was terrifying and alien, but also kind of beautiful. Picking his own path meant he was noticing lots more plants (like some gorgeous white orchids growing right in a tree crevasse, happy as you please) and ferals (there was a colorful cockatail bird that drunkenly did loops around fruit trees, which was managing to avoid getting eaten precisely because of how erratically it flew).
Their caution seemed to have paid off, they managed to avoid getting attacked and they'd crossed three hex boundaries (it was difficult to tell if they'd crossed the right ones) and decided to spend the rest of their turn by a Banyan tree near the top of a waterfall. It had good visibility and the overflowing roots gave plenty of cover. Then they started debating whether or not to try and climb the tree and spend the night there. Marco was none too keen on spending another night on the ground, but Zheng wasn't sure sleeping on a branch was safe enough to risk Fall damage.
Debating was another weird new thing they'd never really done before. Sure, he and his stackies loved to argue and discuss things, but it was always over trivial topics with no real stakes involved. It didn't help that with only two units they didn't have a tie breaker.
Zheng heard it first.
A sound rose up above the rush of the waterfall, and somewhere below they could hear howling and yelling. They crouched down and neared the edge, going into a prone position to try and avoid being seen. Marco put a hand on Zheng's shoulder and whispered «If those are Banana Republicans we'll have to attack, there's nothing for it. But listen, this doesn't... sound like them, y'know? The yelling, I wanna go stab what's making it, but it's not like... enemy-stabby. You know what I'm saying?» Zheng's answer was a blank look. «Listen, what I'm trying to say is we don't have to attack if it's not them, okay? Lets find out what it is first and then decide.» Zheng searched his face for a moment, then nodded once.
Peeking over they saw the river, with its fruity colored pebbles leading away from the frothing milk white water from the falls. On one of the river’s grassy banks there was a swarm of blue elves, and on the other yellow apes. It took them a moment to realize it was Navatari elves, with their tall bodies and stylized azure cube tattoos which made them look like living, breathing statues made of blue glass tiles. They were yelling, aiming bows and waving hatchets around.
The Guewilla Cheeses were tearing up the grass on their side of the river, just pulling it straight out and greedily stuffing their faces with it. They were hooting and thumping the bandoleers on their chests, brandishing machetes, and spinning up some slings. Elves and Guewillas were hostile to each other as natural allies. Tar Zhay wasn't allied with either, and except for minor skirmishes they mostly kept out of each other's way. Right now though? This was serious.
It was a turf war.
Guewilla Cheeses were vegetarians, and they loved soft green river grass. They were pretty wild and inventive, they had the Fabricate special and regularly used raw materials harvested from plants to make weapons, bullets for their slings, and traps. Navatari elves on the other hand were kind of stuck up. They combined a High elves' love of nature with the martial ability of Woodsy elves. They held all plantlife to be sacred, would only eat fallen fruits, and normally had an all meat diet. It didn't take a genius to realize why they didn't get along.
Marco didn't see who cast the first bullet (or arrow), but it got really ugly, really fast. There were more Navatari than Guewilla's, and after the first two volleys of arrows and thrown bullets the Guewilla's lost two, while the Navatari seemed relatively unscathed. The Guewillas retreated into the treeline, dragging their wounded to safety.
The Navatari started shouting victory cries and charging across the shallow river.
Zheng covered his mouth to stifle a gasp. One of the elves started screaming mid run and tripped. Then another fell backwards into the stream, clutching at a foot with a hole in it. Another one fell over, and pulled back a hand with a caltrop stuck in it. «The Guewilla's, they trapped the river!» whispered Zheng, with mixed admiration and sympathy. The elves that had managed to cross the bank were furious now, charging headlong into the jungle. Then the screaming started.
Marco hadn't been able to tear his eyes away from the battle, but he found it much easier to do so now.
«Close and personal. Dirty and brutal.» He thought.
They decided to sleep on the ground, on the off chance they might be more visible in a branch. They also did without a fire for much the same reason.
Marco took first shift since he'd actually managed to get some sleep the night before. As Zheng drifted off, he'd gotten talkative. Exhaustion was an underrated liquor.
«I was thinking, the elves who fell in the river...» he heard Zheng stifle a yawn. «there were lots more orange pebbles near those spots.»
This was a bit unusual since he was usually the quiet one among the stackies.
«And on the 'rillas' side of the river. I noticed that... that the trees they fled through had marks on 'em.» This time he did yawn.
Maybe it was because Marco was feeling more quiet. It was different, when you were watching a battle from on high. At first he had felt a big rush, and he'd just wanted to jump off the falls and start swinging Polo around, cleaving whoever came near. Seeing the Guewilla's get routed, and then the elves get a nasty comeuppance, it was exhilarating seeing it all unfold. Then he'd imagined it was like being a Warlord, seeing and understanding everything going on, or maybe even a Titan.
Zheng went on. «Guewillas musssta been marking it. Guewilla's Mark-It-ing. Lllleeaving signs... so they wouldn't fall f'r their own traps.»
Marco turned to Zheng. His eyes were closed now, and he was rolled up in the Sleeping Lion's pelt at the foot of the Banyan. Without the tree cover, there was a clear view to the starry night sky, and in that pelt, Zheng was literally sleeping under the stars.
«'S clever... wish we'd thought 'f it. Wish we’d noticed it.»
What wasn't that different, was watching a trap spring on someone else. He was finding out that that felt very familiar.