Journey through the hungry jungle, part 12

Part 12: It’s all in your head

Lily hopped down from the perch atop the headdress flowers gracefully. Zheng had to make do with rappelling down using some Sixsecond Vines. Introductions were going a bit awkwardly.

Marco tried to be diplomatic. «Zheng, Lily, this is Lucy Charms. She was a caster in this city before it fell. She’s agreed to join Tar Zhay in exchange for... getting out of that dark and musty hole.» Wow. When he said it out loud, it really didn’t seem like a difficult choice.

Lily was blasé about the whole situation and got inside of Lucy’s personal space to sniff the air around her. She finally stepped back with a «Diggem, diggem» and a quick blink. Marco wasn’t very good at reading her yet, but she seemed a bit reserved.

Zheng’s expression was impassive; he was examining Lucy the same way you’d look at an unsprung trap. He only nodded in greeting.

Lucy for her part wasn’t shrinking back. «It’s a pleasure to finally meet ye. Marco’s told me some of your adventures already.» She punctuated the thought with a deep, fulfilled breath. «Just breathe in that gorgeous fresh air! I think I’m feeling a little tipsy.»

Zheng locked gazes with Marco. Over weeks of jungle trekking they were able to pretty rapidly tell what the other was thinking just by their expression. If asked, they’d have said their four second nonverbal conversation went something like this:

Zheng: Is she serious?
Marco: Yup.
Zheng: You sure about this?
Marco: Pretty sure.
Zheng: Risk?
Marco: Not much. But be watchful.

Finally Zheng spoke «It’s getting pretty late, Turn is probably going to end soon and it’s safer if we make camp on the island.»

Marco nodded. «Yeah, it’s not like we could leave anyway. So good news Lucy, you have the luxury of not one, but two bedrolls you can sleep in.»

He’d meant it as a joke, but when Marco met her gaze she seemed on the verge of crying tears of joy.

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They decided to make camp in the lower terrace. Lily ladled some water onto one of the pads and lay on it belly up, letting her splayed limbs float in the water. With her there they weren’t really afraid of anything coming out of the water.

They opted not to start a fire or light any of the Powerballs to avoid being spotted. So after clearing some debris and laying out the bed rolls (one on top of the other for Lucy, as promised) and their pair of pelts (Zheng had become rather attached to his Tony pelt for sleeping too) they sat looking out at the lake in the thin light of a new moon.

Lucy had promised to tell a little more of her story tomorrow, but begged to go to sleep. With more or less three weeks of sleep lag behind her, Marco decided to let his curiosity wait. Amazingly she was down for the count and snoring softly minutes after laying her head down.

With another shared look between them, Marco and Zheng wordlessly decided to keep watch anyway, island safety or no. And though he doubted Lucy would try something in the night, she was still an unknown.

Marco took first watch. The jungle at night was an entirely different animal; more dangerous in a lot of ways. Being on the island, far from some of those threats, looking at them in the cool blue moonlight... he realized he wasn’t afraid anymore. Come what may, even if he was once again alone, he wasn’t afraid.

----

Two hours or so into his watch the world faded to black. It was as seamless as falling asleep and as comfortable as putting on a shirt, but Marco didn’t feel like he’d fallen asleep; he was suddenly standing up in a beam of light with nothing else visible.

Then he heard distant footsteps approaching. He turned and saw someone stopping just at the edge of the light. They’d never met, but he was unmistakable. He had the pointed ears and warm gray complexion common in Tar Zhay’s commander units, and the broad shouldered teal uniform with a black X sash clinched it. He was looking at a Kommissar.

Marco’s mind raced. «The Thinkamancer?» he thought to himself. The face before him was almost blank, but he could swear there was a hint of curiosity when he heard the man Order: «Report.»

He’d been Ordered, for the first time in weeks, and he felt the words start tumbling out of his mouth. «Piker Marco Voyager reporting. I’m stacked with Zheng Voyager, last surviving units of Lieutenant Fu Bar’s patrol force. The rest were croaked in a Banana Republican Ambush. We destroyed the ambushing force at a point North East near the river. We’re camped on an unclaimed city several dozen hexes west of Uppenup. We’ve captured a p—» Marco closed his eyes and choked the tumble of words to a stop.

When he opened his eyes the man standing before him hadn’t changed his stony expression. But the sense of impatience and... Impertinence?... radiating from him was almost palpable. «Finish.» Another order.

It took effort, but Marco managed to put his thoughts in order this time before answering «Yes, sir. The city is almost entirely underwater, rendered so by deliberate enemy flooding. We’ve found a survivor in the city and rescued her by capturing her. She is not an enemy; she’s a Luckamancer and has valuable information from hundreds or possibly thousands of turns ago, and she wants to join the side.»

The Komissar narrowed his gaze and frowned ever so slightly. «Unlikely.» Marco instantly felt like the walls were closing in; the Komissar didn’t believe him, not a word! He must think they were traitors or spies; he had to convince him he was telling the truth!

«W-well it was, Lieutenant Fu Bar he—» He needed to retreat, fall back and blame someone— no. This didn’t have to be a retreat. It could be a debate, like he had with Zheng. Support the argument. «Lieutenant Bar lead us into the ambush. We survived by getting lost in the jungle, and then avoided unnecessary engagements with ferals. We didn’t defeat the Banana Republicans conventionally; we lured them into an area that was heavily trapped by Guewilla Cheeses, attritioning them in a series of retreats.»

The Komissar only raised an eyebrow. «Unled?» Marco felt a screw twist in his head and the panic in the pit of his stomach deepened.

The immense implausibility of everything he said hit him like a physical blow. How could the Komissar be demolishing his story so easily, it was the truth! Wasn’t it? It... Yes. Marco knew this, he lived it; it had been a terrifying path but they had survived it by working together.

He took a risk. Counterargument. «Yes, unled. We debated each course of action to make better plans and find the best choice— while patiently awaiting guidance and oversight from warlords... or casters.» He let the accusation hang there. If he was going to be accused of lying, it was only fair he call them out for leaving them out in the rain. Literally, at times.

The Komissar’s face didn’t move a muscle, but Marco felt the pressure in his gut ease up. After a long moment, the man finally asked «City?»

Marco absently rubbed his head «We followed a canal splitting off from the Crimea River thinking it might lead to a city. We figured it would be a good claim for the side or, if occupied, important to inform about an enemy city so close. Two other canals are feeding the lake flooding the city. It’s bad. Only the top of the tower or temple is above the water. There’s an entirely new type of Aquatic Natural Ally here. We convinced one to ferry us across the lake to the temple. Oh! We’re safe for the moment, the island is uninhabited.»

The man walked closer, stepping more fully into the light. Even closer, Marco couldn’t get a good read on the guy. Meeting the Komissar’s pale green eyes he felt the same keen, alien interest as he had when faced with the Sleeping Lion. «Caster?»

Marco took in a breath. «Lucy Charms, she’s a Luckamancer. She’s been trapped in the city for what she described as 3 weeks, but since it’s neutral it was probably much, much longer outside. She knows the secrets of this side, about specialty healing items, a new type of Uncroaked, and probably what the deal is with the giant head on the tower. She was... fragile and a more than a little messed up from seeing her side fall, isolation and sleep deprivation.»

What the Komissar asked next surprised him. «Recommendation?»

Was he really being asked for guidance? By a Caster? He searched through his thoughts and feelings, trying to separate them before answering. «She’s very willful and principled. I think she does know things that could be very useful to the side as well. But she won’t Turn if she thinks we’re as bad as the side that wiped hers out, so we need to be gentle with her and show her our best.»

He took in a breath and then said «Personally? She’s been through so much pain already... I want to help her, but she also took me prisoner and tried to interrogate me. She can be dangerous, if pushed. And Fate has already pushed her around.»

For several long moments all the Komissar did was look into Marco’s eyes. He was beyond weirded out, but being in the presence of a Komissar (even a bossy, cryptic, and unnerving one) put him in mind of basic training and the chain of command, so he waited.

Finally, the Komissar broke the silence with the most beautiful word in all Language. «Rendezvous.» He was pointing at Marco’s feet, help was coming!

Marco wanted nothing more than to bear hug the Komissar, but he figured the guy probably didn’t like to be touched. So he opted for the second most beautiful word in all Language «Home». He concluded with the parade salute: a closed fist to the heart and then the arm extended at a 45 degree angle.

The Komissar remained impassive. Marco started to feel the space around him waver like a waking dream. In the last moments before it all dissolved and left him standing watch on the terrace, he saw the Thinkamancer tap his head. «Jintao.»

 

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Part 11

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Part 13

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