Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 8

Part 8: A wrench in the works

 

 

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Healomancer General's Warning: It is strongly advised against reading or writing fanfiction while hungry. Salivation, stomach grumblings, munchies, and hanger may result. In the event of these symptoms, you are encouraged to immediately go to the nearest larder and ask the Twoll there for a snack.

 

The Breakfast Club met at the library a half hour before dawn. The table was packed tight like a stack of pancakes with just about everyone they’d met sitting there. Ever the Noble, the Archduchess looked prim and poised despite it being before the start of Turn cleansing. Count Black, Major Raquel, Sky Cap’n, Venice, Lucy and DJ Larry were likewise clean and collected, though not to the fastidious level of the Arch Duchess. Marco and Zheng had washed up as best they could on such short notice, but they still looked a bit scruffy in their dented armor and ripped uniforms. Joining them were two new faces, a pair of Archery capable Warlords named Mac and Donaldson, each with a golden bow strapped to their back.

 

Bleary eyed, Zheng realized he’d have to get used to waking up and washing pre dawn for club meetings.

 

He’d gone to bed late after the party, and been woken up early in the morning by Marco to change out of last night’s dress. He ribbed his lucky bro some for making it with Venice, and after cleaning up the pair had wound down the stairs to the underground library.

 

So far the conversation had consisted mostly of the Komissars talking about logistics, strategy, and a few upcoming votes, and asking the assembled Clubbers for input or spurring debate. Marco and Lucy had cut in with questions and comments a few times, but so far he’d kept mostly mum, content to listen and get a feel for the issues before piping in.

 

A little after their meals finally popped (and their clothes and bodies were mercifully cleansed) the Count gave Cap’n Crunch a slight nod and put a question to the table.

 

«So, a bit of a new topic. How do we feel about asking Lucy to bless our expeditionary forces? And with what? Despite Bette Coin’s briefing, I’d like to hear some ideas for what Luckamancy can do for the troops leaving today.» Asked the count of the assembled Breakfast Clubbers, idly blowing on a hot cup of something he’d called Coffee that had popped with his breakfast of (appropriately enough) pancakes, eggs and bacon.

 

Without missing a beat or wasting a second, Major Raquel focused on Lucy over her plate of honey covered blueberry muffins and milk. «You can affect the chance to spot veils and stay hidden, yes?»

 

Lucy had been a bit surprised at the turn in conversation, and had quickly straightened in her seat and put down a fork loaded with sausage and mashed potatoes with butter. She nodded to the Major. «Aye, I could bless scouts or warlords to better spot veils, or improve the odds they stay hidden even under tough scrutiny. Fair warning, the rest of us would likely be a little less likely to spot them or stay hidden.»

 

«Hmm.» A bit disappointed, the Major nonetheless weighed the options.

 

«It doesn’t have to be a wash, Raquel» Piped in Venice while wiping his upper lip. It had gotten a white mustache from drinking a big gulp of a yummy looking thick milkshake looking drink. «Based off what Lucy told me, you could have her bless some scouts you need to go deep into BR lands, and curse others to get spotted easily, and use those to lead the BR’s into ambushes.»

 

Lucy nodded. «That’s right lad. It wouldn't be a direct Luck-a-Link, that’s a Master class ability, but it would help balance out the Luckamancy repayment.» And taking her chance, she ate that forkful of sausage and mashed potatoes.

 

The Major’s eyes twinkled in a way that made Zheng feel vaguely uncomfortable. «Then yes, I have a few scouts with missions important enough to merit the blessing. And a few others who are slippery enough to serve as ambush bait.» Or maybe it was the way she was clinically slicing her muffins to quarters with a knife dripping with ruby red strawberry jam?

 

Lucy put down a cup of black tea she’d been sipping. «How many d’you have in mind, Major?»

 

The Major smiled conspiratorially «Oh, let’s make it an even number, six. Three to bless and three to curse. I’ll bring them up to the Dog House for you to cast on before you fly out.»

 

«What about Hit rates?» blurted the red headed Donaldson enthusiastically. He and Mac were eating biscuit sandwiches with egg in the middle, with sides of hash browns. «Could you make Archers Crit more often?»

 

Lucy picked up a hard boiled egg that popped with her breakfast and grinned «I could make THE FLOOR Crit more often, lad. Fall damage.» She held the egg up with her right hand and gave it a tiny zap from her left index finger, then dropped it. Falling the short distance onto her plate, instead of splattering everywhere the egg cracked open and split neatly in two, exposing it's gooey golden goodness.

 

She frowned a bit «But again, that means everyone else in yer stack or Hex will be critting less often, Warlord.»

 

«I get it.» Beamed Marco, while spreading some jam on his brioche. «So we just have Mac and Donaldson target enemy leadership. Then the rest of their troops critting less often won’t be as damaging. Without enemy leadership the infantry under them’d be hitting more often anyway.»

 

Lucy smiled at Marco and sprinkled a bit of salt on her split egg «Exactly. Every Luckamancy Blessing is useful, but to get the most out of it and minimize the drawbacks, you just have to be smart and careful with how you use it.» She dug into her hard boiled egg with a spoon.

 

That got Zheng thinking about their official mission, so he put down the steamed bun filled with vegetables and meat he was eating and asked. «Could you affect the odds we run into a Natural Ally? Like the Smackers or Guewilla Cheeses?»

 

Lucy put her empty spoon up to her lower lip, tapping it in thought. «That’s an interesting idea, lad. I used to cast to reduce run-ins with Ferals for priority Olmecca missions, but to increase the chance you run into a natural Ally? I’ve never done it, but I think I can.»

 

Sky Cap’n Crunch mixed some yogurt into the fruit bowl that had popped for him, cutting in «Just make sure it’s a boost for finding UNALLIED Natural Allies, or even more specifically Guewillas or Smackers; otherwise we might end up running into every Navatari this side of the Crimea River.»

 

Lucy lowered her spoon and arched both eyebrows in surprise at that «That... is a very sensible precaution, Cap’n. It’ll definitely be an incredibly tricky blessing though. Not sure I can do all the previous casting and cover you lot.» She looked from Zheng to Marco apologetically.

 

«Then don’t» pointed out Zheng. «We’ll both be stacked together, so you could cast it on me later. What’s more, we already know where the Smackers are so I might not even need it, but considering how easily the Guewilla Cheeses can melt into the jungle, I think Marco could definitely use it more.»

 

Zheng felt a friendly jolt from a shoulder to shoulder bump, looking over he saw Marco had leaned over on the bench and bumped him. «Thanks stackie, you’re always looking out for me.»

 

A moment later, once the Archduchess was asking Lucy about Luckamancy applications for training new Warlords and Dance Fighting, Marco wiped his mouth with a napkin and said under his breath «Even if it’s implying I can’t spot giant shiny yellow monkeys to save my life.»

 

«That was just a bonus.» Zheng whispered from behind his steaming mug of green tea.

 

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Rationally, logically, Zheng knew that their parting was temporary. That the risks, while present, were manageable. That they’d have access to hats to keep in touch. Even so, he still had to fight to be the rock while they said their goodbyes.

 

This would be, after all, the first and longest time they’d be apart.

 

With the wind from an early morning squall whipping up straw inside the Doghouse, Zheng had to speak up to be heard. «It’ll only be for a few ten turns, a hundred at the outside.»

 

Thinking about it, he wasn’t sure whether he was saying it for Marco’s benefit or his own.

 

And Marco’s knowing smirk called him on it.

 

He didn’t seem immune though; Marco’s voice broke a bit as he answered «Yeah, we’ll meet up again in no time.»

 

Forgetting the famous Tar Zhay “Tar Blasé” attitude and lack of sentimentality, Marco came in for a hug. For a brief eternity they let their tight embrace speak the words of love, brotherhood, loss and hope that mere Language couldn’t fathom.

 

Finally, almost painfully letting go, they stood apart.

 

«Lucy.» Marco looked down to her and actually kneeled to get in another good hug. Letting go, he got up and asked of her «I want you to take care of this guy. I know he’s gruff, but he’s the only brother I’ve got.»

 

Lucy pulled out a frilly white handkerchief from somewhere in her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes «Oh stop it lad! Ye’r going to make me cry and I’m not ashamed to!»

 

He looked up to Zheng again «And you take care of her, yeah? She may be small, but she’s the only Luckamancer I’ve got.» He finished with a valiant attempt at a smile.

 

Lucy really was crying now, and punched him in the arm not at all playfully-- and he laughed, and Zheng found himself laughing with him. «And you take care of yourself Marco, you’re not exactly replaceable either. We’ll be praying to the Titans for you.»

 

Pulling herself together, Lucy cut in forcefully «I’ll be doing somethin’ more than praying for ye right now, lad.» She captured the fugitive tears with her handkerchief and quickly putting it away.

 

A look of intense concentration came over her face. She breathed in, splayed out her fingers and spread out her arms, and started walking around Marco, moving her arms while casting as she recited:

 

«There once was a piker from Circo»

«Walked lost in the jungle so dark-o»

«Till he met a fellow»

«All covered in yellow»

«Who pointed out traps by their mark-o’s.»

 

Defying the howling wind and spattering rain, Zheng could hear each line clearly as it cut through the pattering rain and gales of wind like a scimitar. And with each lyrical line of Rhyme-o-Mancy Lucy recited magical lines flowed out of her hands into an intricate tracery, with tiny shapes becoming visible. Clovers, hearts, blue diamonds, purple horseshoes, rainbows, and even red balloons. The Luckamancy spell quickly took shape around Marco before somehow... “clicking” closed in a final flash of yellow-green sparkles.  

 

Uncharacteristically, Lucy actually wobbled a bit after finishing the spell, and with her being behind Marco, Zheng managed to move in to steady her before she slipped or fell.

 

She put a hand to her head and slowly found her balance «Oooh my, that... I think is the last of my juice and maybe the most complicated blessing I’ve ever had to cast.»

 

Marco turned his palms face up and down, looking for something. «Did it work? I don’t feel any different.»

 

Lucy wiped her brow and looked up at him critically. After a moment she finally said «Aye, it worked lad. When it comes time to find them, ye’ll be a regular Guewilla Cheese Wiz»

 

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With their goodbyes out of the way, they’d mounted up on their Red Bullseyes and assembled at the head of the runway. Cap’n Crunch formed them up and ran down the pre-flight checklist.

 

The air group would be flying as a set of three “V’s”, with one ahead of the other. There was a full stack of Red Spots ahead and behind them, and the central stack was lead by Cap’n Crunch, flanked by three Knights to his left, and Venice, Lucy, Zheng, and a fourth knight to the right.

 

The Cap’n had explained it was a defensive formation meant to give the high value units the best possible screening in case of an ambush. If they were to actually want to engage, Zheng and a knight would switch out a Red Spot from the other stacks and lead them.

 

Once satisfied he fastened the strap on his aviator bicorn hat, put on his goggles, and nodded to the deck crew. One by one they lit their hand torches and waved the flying group into position.

 

«All units, forward!» Ordered the Cap’n, with an underlying order to gain speed and go towards the open Dog House door.

 

Zheng adjusted his own goggles, made sure his red Tony bandana was on tight, and spared a glance back and saw Marco standing by the runway, next to Major Raquel. They were both saluting. With an arm holding the reins on his Bullseye, he did his best to salute back as he ordered his beast «Forward!», and it bucked while advancing down the runway.

 

 «Liftoff!» Roared the Cap’n, pulling back on his Bullseyes reins, and Zheng mirrored the action. And with that, they were aloft and flying out of the Dog House and into the sheets of rain at speeds once undreamt of.

 

But oh, once he’d flown? What dreams since then! Ever since the flight that rescued them from the sunken city of Olmecca, flying and sailing had become fascinations for Zheng.

 

If he hadn’t been ordered to fly in formation, he would have done barrel rolls, loop-de-loops, chased birds, or even pretended to be one!

 

There was such intrinsic joy in the boundless, unrestricted movement that he could barely contain it, even with the rain!

 

He received a silent order from the Cap’n, cutting through the pealing rain like firelight in a clear night. Ascend above the rain cover.

 

He focused his attention on the beast he was riding and the act of riding. So far it had responded to his own verbalized orders or yanks on the reins, but Zheng decided to try to silently order him up. No dice. Far from a simple lily pad or magic item with the flight special, this was a living, breathing being he was riding. And given how easily they could gore Navatari Elves with their horns and hooves, dangerous ones too. He tried again. «Up!» And the Bullseye grudgingly responded.

 

Was it his technique? Or did he need to get to know the Bullseye? This was the first time he’d ridden this particular beast (not surprising, since this was only his second time flying), and after his promotion, in a sense, it was also the first unit he was officially in command of. Considering what the Count had told him about personal connections and leading probably also applied to beasts, he thought it would be best to get to know his new mount.

 

 The rain began hitting them head-on as they flew directly into the cloud cover. He held fast to the reins and tightened the grip of his legs on the saddle. As they gained altitude he could feel his knuckles straining and hands starting to cramp from the freezing cold combination of water and wind. The jittering must have confused his Bullseye, because they were now listing to the side and about to leave formation!

 

He looped the reins around his forearms and pulled on them until they were back in formation, making the Bullseye (again) buck in response to the confusing commands. After what felt like an eternity, a light grew and grew up ahead until they all burst out of the rain clouds.

 

The Cap’n silently ordered them all to level off and fly eastward at a more relaxed clip. Likely to give them a chance to reorient and regroup the formation. More than a few Red Spots needed herding.

 

With them flying level now, Zheng released his death-grip on the reins and flexed his hands to restore circulation. This really wouldn’t do. He was barely communicating, much less commanding his Bullseye. Maybe… Maybe naming his new bestie of a beastie would help?

 

 Thinking it over for a moment, he finally said to the flying bison «I’m going to call you Bessie.» and patted it’s rain slicked fur.

 

The Bullseye turned it’s head back and looked at him with a glassy black eye.

 

It didn’t seem particularly enthused one way or the other.

 

«I guess it takes more than a name to make you friendly.» Zheng mused out loud.

 

 «That’s because he’s already got a name, lord!» Came a voice from behind Zheng to his right. He looked back and saw one of the Knights that was accompanying them.

 

 In the clear air above the foam white clouds, Zheng looked back and saw one of their knight escorts.

 

 The Knight behind Zheng must have had incredibly keen ears to hear him at this altitude and at these speeds. So he asked in a conversational tone «What is it? His name?»

 

«Primer IV. He was named by one of our old air corps warlords!» Came the reply.

 

 Zheng blanched at the Signamancy. Primer the fourth? Titans, there had been three before him? And when the knight said “Old air corps warlord”, did he mean?...

 

 Zheng twisted in his saddle and held the reins with one hand in order to address the knight. «So he’s the fourth Prime? And all the old ones and his warlord croaked?»

 

 The knight nodded matter-of-factly. «Yes sir. Earl Tom Stone. Unlucky arrow strike while fighting over a lake. Primer bucked, the Earl couldn’t hold on, and Stone skipped over the lake and drowned.» And he finished by waving a finger up and down in arcs across an imaginary surface.

 

Zheng merely raised an eyebrow. He knew what game this was.

 

In the time between two breaths, Zheng considered the three levels of this interaction. On one level, Zheng knew the Knight wasn’t lying; Duty would compel him not to without something at stake. On a second level, he’d been on the receiving end of enough hazing from older troops to know when someone was pulling his leg. And on a third, airborne level, Zheng decided to work on the assumption this Knight might be engaging in some kind of (mostly?) friendly “mess with the ground-pounders” inter-service rivalry.

 

 He’d certainly heard enough stories from older troops they’d met about the snobbery of Tar Zhay’s air corps, and their many “pet” nicknames for the ground forces.

 

Back then his stackies and him’d had to endure the hazing because they had no seniority. What Zheng had found to be the best response had been to simply... win the game by not playing. Back then, it had meant not letting the older soldiers get satisfaction at seeing him become uncomfortable. Now, it meant not letting this knight think he was squeamish -- or could be needled into an outburst.

 

But that Signamancy attached to the Bullseye’s name had to go. He’d had a couple of talks with Lucy about Luckamancy, and while she’d admitted she couldn’t give him hard and fast rules for them, she was certain there were such things as unlucky Signs.

 

 So he looked down at the Bullseye with a serene expression and lay a hand on the back of Primer’s head, scratching the spot behind his right ear. «Well, I’d be upset too if all I got was recycled old name. You know what Primer? You’re not just a number, and I’m optimistic in us getting along. So... how about we add that to your name? You want to be Optimist Primer?»

 

The beast turned back it’s head and blinked a few times, and surprisingly, bobbed up and down. On a (sub?)conscious level he hadn’t been aware he could be aware of, he felt Optimist Primer agree.

 

Turning to look back at the knight, Zheng asked without a trace of emotion. «What’s your name, knight?»

 

Unsure of exactly what he’d just been witness to, the knight answered «Private Lin, Grem Lin, sir.»

 

Zheng nodded. «Thank you, Private Grem Lin. I feel much better about flying on Optimist Prime now. As you were.»

 

He layered the “as you were” with a silent order to continue flying in formation. Not as a rebuff or hammering of authority, but a reminder.

 

 Grem seemed more miffed than pleased.

 

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 They crossed seventeen hexes, using up about a third of the group’s total Move; past farms, roads, and over the thick expanse of deep jungle that enveloped Tar Zhay.

 

 The sun had moved up a few notches, there were still perhaps three hours before noon and turn ended, and the Banana Republic took their turn.

 

Zheng was beginning to think they might go their entire turn without an incident, when up ahead he saw Lucy, ahead and to his left, raise her hand. Her thumb tucked in and four fingers spread out, it was the hand signal for a vision from her Luckamancy senses! The air group slowed and stopped, and the Cap’n ordered all the speaking units into a circle.

 

«Okay ma’am, what have you got for us?» Inquired the Cap’n.

 

Lucy looked chipper «It’s a path leading down to that near hex to the right. The road’s very bright... » She looked from Venice to the jungle in the adjoining hex. «It goes somewhere to the right border.»

 

«How risky is it?» Asked Zheng, hovering in place on Optimist Primer.

 

Lucy looked apologetic. «It doesn’t feel very. And the colors… I don’t...» She looked up at him flustered. «There’s a risk and a reward there, but it’s meant for Venice. Anything you run into is a risk without a reward.»

 

Not often, but sometimes, Zheng wondered if casters meant to be deliberately vague, or if it was just a side effect of their differences.

 

Not exactly thrilled, the Cap’n looked squarely at Zheng. «All right Lieutenant, take seven Red Spots and scout the Hex. Engagements are at your discretion.»

 

Zheng nodded. He reminded himself that this was his idea. «Aye, Cap’n.» He left the stack and focused his attention on seven of the Red Spots flying in a literal circle below them. «Stack up and follow me!» He ordered, and silently willed Optimist forward into the neighboring Hex.

 

Finally with the ability to fly how he wanted to, his exhilaration was nonetheless tempered by the need for caution. Belatedly he realized he hadn’t specified the formation he wanted the Spots to follow him in, so they fell into a V with him in the lead.

 

They flew past the boundary into the nearby Hex, filled with an abundance of Sandalwood, Rubber and Cocoapuff trees. He flew the stack of Spots to the area Lucy had pointed out first, using a spiraling scouting pattern the Cap’n had taught him.

 

He ended up circling the hex inwards four times without incident, and hadn’t noticed anything beneath. Now at the center, he decided to try something different. He marshaled the Spots around him and went under the tree cover.

 

Dipping beneath the sunlit canopy into the shady jungle, they flew with precision and as much speed as he could manage. Zheng was learning to maneuver Optimus on a path from the center of the hex to the edge, and oh it felt glorious!

 

 Dodging branches, spotting Ferals, reining in the Spots when they started to chase birds. It was a challenging flight worth the effort.

 

They made good time, and no run ins to the clearing, Feral OR Republican. Zheng decided it was time to sound the all clear, when Optimist bucked sharply to the side.

 

 «Woah Optimist! What’s… ?»

 

Monkeys. And not the kind Marco was after.

 

Wrench Monkeys.

 

The same kind that had gone at their croaked stackies after Fu Bar first betrayed them. One had thrown a cocoanut at him, and Optimist had moved to shield him. The Spots were baying now, the Wrench Monkeys were using their U shaped heads and tails to grab and twist cocoanuts off some trees, only to throw them from various perches at his stack. Zheng seethed with rage from the memory of their crime and failing to spot them; how hadn’t he seen them?

 

 With a well practiced Piker’s instinct for reflexive defense, he drew his spear and skewered a cocoanut before it impacted on Optimist. It seemed mounted, flying combat practice was on the menu today. He spurred Optimist forward and bellowed out an order «Attack! We’re washing them out, Spots!»

 

 Optimist complied with gusto, charging at a nearby Wrench Monkey. The chrome colored hairy nuisance scrambled behind the tree and out of Prime’s horns and Zheng’s spear. While he was stabbing at the retreating primate they’d had to dodge two more cocoanuts. Pivoting around he saw the Monkey’s harassing him, and where the rest of the Spots were harrying the monkeys individually, and the little beasts were succeeding all too well at distracting them.

 

Peach pits, this was turning into a mess!

 

«Regroup!» He ordered.

 

 The Spots bayed in protest so he roared it again. «Regroup!» This time with not so much a silent order, but a silent imperative to fight as a stack.

 

He charged forward with Optimist and collected the Spots along the flight, when he realized again, that he was flying… And as much as being able to climb trees might seem like it, the Monkeys were not.

 

Zheng smiled. «Optimist! Let's shake things up! Spots! Start barking up that right tree!»

 

He steered Optimist at a nearby tree and silently ordered Optimist to ram it with his hooves and run up. Shaken up, three Monkeys lost their grip and started falling, only for the spots following behind to clamp down on them before they could catch a branch. Zheng himself held on for dear life with the reins and tightening his leg’s hold on the saddle, but nonetheless managed to spear a Monkey as they ran up the trunk.

 

Leveling off again, he saw they’d taken out five Monkeys so far, and the rest were retreating into the jungle.

 

He gripped his Navatari spear and readied to pursue... a part of him certainly wanted to, as payback. But with the situation under control, he realized this diversion was costing them time, and would cost more if he pursued them into the jungle.

 

 Taking in a breath, he marshaled his composure, itself scattered like the Spots had been, and ordered. «That’s enough, stack and fly up!»

 

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 Zheng and his flyers flew out of the tree cover and towards the hex boundary. All in all this little adventure had taken some thirty minutes.

 

He lifted his hand and used the hand signal for “all clear”.

 

The Cap’n flew up with an arched eyebrow. He took off his visor and gave Zheng the once over. He had a few welts and scratches on his armor, and Optimist had some bruises. Most of the Spots all looked unbearably happy, even the ones with purple spots welling up underneath the red spots of their fur. Probably had something to do with eating their fare share of “forage.”

  

«Lieutenant, the idea is to avoid unnecessary danger. What exactly went on down there?»

 

«Just had to take care of some Monkey business.»

 

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Part 7: Partying is such sweet sorrow

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Part 9: Friends in low places

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