Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 9
Part 9: Friends in low places
In terms of challenges, Zheng found that Screening for someone while flying was a uniquely difficult one. On the one hand, the Red Spots were excitable and had short attention spans; on the other, having to screen for threats while flying meant he was constantly scanning the ground and treetops (never mind having scared off the Wrench Monkeys, they could always come back); and on the Backhand, it didn’t help that Lucy’s flight path was only visible to her.
«This way lad!» Lucy was practically giggling with anticipation. «That’s it! It’s just ahead and by the base of that mahogany tree.»
Venice flew his (groaning) Bullseye beside Lucy’s, and he looked to be in equal parts expectant and anxious to set foot on the ground. He pulled out out a pair of shiny chrome fingerless gloves from a pant pocket and put them on. «That one? Yeah, I see it!»
For their part, Sky Cap’n, Zheng, the Knights and Red Spots were screening the casters in what must have seemed to be Erfworld’s most bizarre bubble.
On the Capn’s silent orders Zheng and three of the Knights dismounted and formed a cordon around the base of the mahogany tree. Not long after Venice and Lucy set down (much to Venice’s bullseye’s relief). Zheng had never imagined seeing one of the huge beasts actually struggle with a rider so much.
When Venice dismounted he made a “three point landing” of it, kneeling down on one foot as if to be knighted, and laying both his hands on the forest floor. Lucy followed suit more gingerly, and looked around with a focused yet distant gaze Zheng was starting to recognize as her “Looking for Luckamancy” look. The seconds ticked by, and Zheng would occasionally steal glances at the casters.
«Well?» Asked Lucy, sounding a little more anxious than before. She had reason to be, considering how much they’d had to fight to make this happen.
Venice’s eyes were closed, and his brow was scrunched up tight in concentration «There’s... a little underground cistern with water, some Acid Rocks… Not enough to make even half an Acid Golem... and a lot of limestone. It’s like A LOT of limestone. And it goes really, really deep… at least a few hundred feet! Honestly, I’m having trouble feeling where it ends... but there is something down there.»
«Can you tunnel down?» asked Lucy, picking her way closer to Venice through the foliage.
Finally opening his eyes, Venice rolled back and sat cross legged on the ground, shaking his head despondently, «Yeah, with two or maybe three turns worth of effort. It’s crumbly, but there’s a lot of it.»
Sky Cap’n hovered down, almost but not quite landing his Bullseye. «We don’t have that kind of time. How about we just mark it on the map for later exploration?»
Looking down, all Zheng could see were ferns, bright blue flowers, and soil. He was completely out of his depth with this Erf magic business, but he felt like spitballing. «Is there a faster way you could dig down?»
Looking more deflated, Venice answered without much enthusiasm «Sorry Z, nope. Tunneling is easier when it’s soft rock like this, but it’s still solid rock. You can’t just take a shortcut; you have to go through it.»
It took Zheng a second to catch it. Venice had called him “Z.” As nicknames went, he supposed he was fine with it.
Obviously trying to salvage something from this whole detour, Lucy asked «Well, do ye have to tunnel down? Is there no other way to get down there?»
«Sorry Lucy, I mean, it’s not like I could m--» Venice just stopped talking abruptly and his eyebrows shot up. Just as abruptly he changed position and lay chest down on the ground, touching as much of his body as he could to the jungle floor. From where he was standing, Zheng could see a smile crawl across his face like a faultline. «Actually, yeah… everyone on the ground, mount up, now!»
At Venice’s order, the Knights whistled to call down their mounts, and Zheng did the same for his own and Lucy’s mounts. The small caster looked confused and a little excited. «Venice did ye find-?»
Without wasting time to talk, Zheng holstered his spear and ran to Lucy, lifted her up by the waist and hoist the surprised caster onto her mount; then he grabbed onto Optimist’s saddle, put a foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up.
As soon as the last foot to left the ground Venice began casting, doing what seemed to be a push up culminating with his head and back in a pronounced arch. «Vinegar, seltzer, baking soda, pop!» and a low, slow rumble started vibrating the mahogany tree.
Sky Cap’n Crunch flew close enough to Venice that his mount could probably bite his belt and lift him up. «Venice, what are you doing?» For the first time since they’d met, Zheng noticed the Cap’n’s voice had a tinge of confusion.... maybe even panic in it.
Venice got up, tank top covered in mud and sticks, with a grin on his face so wide it nearly split it in two. «It’s all good man. I just found a faster, cheaper way to get down there!»
The rumbling got louder, and a jet of mysterious smoky gas erupted next to Zheng and Optimist, startling them.
Venice looked over and didn’t seem too concerned. «Don’t worry guys, this'll all stop in a few minutes. Getting you airborne was just a precaution.»
The Cap’n gestured with his hand and Venice’s mount flew down. «Venice, whatever you did, mount up! Now!»
«Nah, it’s all cool, it’s just--»
Another jet erupted. But this time an entire fern disappeared as well. It took Zheng a moment to realize it had sunk underground. He reflexively silently ordered Optimist to stack with Lucy and several of the spots close as well, and start a slow ascent.
The ground continued to erupt with the jets of the strange grey-white gas. It wasn’t mist, or smoke from a fire, and it had a nasty acrid smell to it. He couldn’t help but breathe some of it in and it made him feel light headed and a little sick. The rumbling intensified and the mahogany tree started to tilt in a way that healthy trees shouldn’t.
Realizing the practical dangers of the situation he was in, Venice relented. «Yeah, let's get some altitude.»
With all hands on deck they ascended a tree line that moved treacherously against them; trees twisted, with entire branches swinging at them like swords, and every bird and feral was crying, flying, running, jumping, and climbing away for their lives. Zheng flew close to Lucy and tried to screen for her, at one point he stabbed a startled Feather Boa to keep it from entangling her.
He heard wood breaking and then a cry from up above, and saw a flash of silver armor with streaks of teal and cyan falling towards him. Eyes wide, he yelled «Grab!» to the falling knight, and pulled Optimist’s rein with a silent order to catch the falling unit. Optimist opened his wings to put a break on their upward momentum, then bellowed as the knight fell on his left wing and held on for dear life.
«Grem Lin’s on the wing!» shouted Zheng. To his credit, Grem was holding on tight and not kicking Optimist in panic. The Bullseye was badly off balance though, Optimist wobbled and struggled to keep a coherent flight path. So he tucked in the wing, and Zheng did his best to pull Grem onto his mount. Fortunately Optimist took the initiative from then on and flew them up without too much more trouble.
Finally above the canopy, they could see the full extent of the damage. Whatever Venice did, it had toppled three trees and left six leaning dangerously close to falling, with twice as many again leaning in new directions.
Eerily, there was a resounding silence as the sounds of collapsing Erf quieted and fleeing Ferals faded into the distance.
Cap’n Crunch looked straight down at the ruin of the mahogany tree. «Venice?»
Venice, for his part, sounded like he was having too much trouble factually processing what had just happen to register any emotion. «Yeah?»
«What did you do?!»
What he’d done, Venice had explained, was use a novelty Changeamancy spell he’d learned in the MK two hundred turns ago to Change the Acid Rocks and water into straight up acid, like Sourmander spit. Just the fact that turning anything into acid was considered a novelty spell terrified Zheng beyond words.
Venice went on, saying that rocks were like units, with strengths and weaknesses, and limestone had a specific vulnerability to acid. So by pumping in just a little more juice into the spell he’d dissolved all the Acid Rocks in the water. This, in turn, had caused a chain reaction that ate away at all the limestone directly beneath the cistern, digging a hole straight down some two hundred feet.
He’d expected there to be “minor” side effects, including the tremors and jets of gas he’d called “Car bone dye ox hide” (while Zheng thought Car Bone white was a nice enough color, he didn't know dying ox hide in it would make such a gas), but Venice’d had no idea it would be so extreme, collapse the surface ground, or dissolve such a deep and wide hole.
A hole which he was now spelunking with his own juice, at apparently just a fraction of the cost.
Cap’n hadn’t been too upset, though he still chewed out Venice for not mounting up immediately. The dynamic of the Komissars having such overlapping authority, even over each other, fascinated Zheng.
The commanders were killing time waiting for Venice by playing cards, sitting over the trunk of a fallen tree. So far, Lucy had won two games already. Thinking about it, he really shouldn't have been surprised at his rotten luck at Hexas Fold’em. He WAS playing against a Luckamancer, and even if she was out of Juice, Zheng knew she had other tricks. One of them being having magicked the deck they were using out of one her sleeves, and shuffling the cards so expertly he wondered if she might have the Archery special.
«So you’ve seen Venice have dozens of these paths before, what made you pick this one?» Asked Zheng, nodding towards the hole.
Lucy picked up a card from the draw lot. «It seemed more interesting than the others, and it was closer too.»
She lay down a one pair of Florists.
Cap’n considered his cards, then looked at the pair. «Interesting how?» He built on Lucy’s class with a three pair of Signamancers.
«It’s hard to explain. The colors were earthier, and the pattern and frequency wasn’t one I’d seen before. More resonant.»
Zheng picked a card from the draw pile and mulled his options. «No offense, but that’s still rather vague.» He put down a measly one pair of Dirtamancers off of Lucy’s one pair of Florists
Lucy gave a petite shrug «Sorry lad, it’s the best I can do. It’s just such a visual thing, ‘m afraid I don’t really have the Language to describe it. Beside, it’s not like there’s a lot written down about Luckamancy senses.»
That got Zheng thinking. They were part of a side with a Signamancer. After spending several turns with Major Raquel chronicling their journey, the Major had told him they might make a limited print run of his and Marco’s Journey as a form of “case study” for the Kommissars to read in more detail, once Amicus had juice to burn. Remembering and organizing the whole experience had actually helped him learn from it, and even get past some of the shame over his earlier cowardice.
So maybe there wasn’t a lot written about Luckamancy, but that didn’t meant there couldn’t be in the future. Zheng looked over his lousy cards at Lucy «Well, since we may be doing this a lot, maybe you could keep notes? Seems like you’re learning new things too, not just Venice.»
Lucy put down two cards next to one of Zheng’s Dirtamancers, a two Dittomancer and a three Changemancer, building a Stuffamancer Assembly out of the three. Skill or luck, Lucy was good at this game. She looked up from the cards at Zheng «I like readin’ as much as the next caster, lad, but I don’t think I have it in me to write it all out.»
Cap’n hmm’d in agreement. «I don’t know ma’am, I think it’s a good idea. I have plenty of paper for Hat reports I could share. I know I would appreciate a manual to know what to expect from you lot.»
Zheng cracked a smile at that. He’d appreciate one too, honestly.
«Oh, and fold’em.» The Cap’n put down all his cards, revealing a full frontal flash of Naughtymancer’s, including the blank Retconjuror card. Zheng and Lucy groaned at their defeat and folded their hands. Okay, thought Zheng, at least Lucy wasn’t rigging the game. His odds didn’t seem any better though.
A disembodied voice interrupted Zheng’s losing streak.
«Hey up there!» the voice was a chipper bass, with a distinct echo. Venice poked his head out of the hole he’d dug himself into. «This was so awesome! Lucy, I can’t thank you enough! Look what I found!»
Venice climbed out of the hole, and he was followed by a rainbow colored cloud... Zheng blinked in disbelief. As the cloud rose out of the ground, it revealed itself to be an Acid Rock Golem. The unit looked slim, Venice had designed it as a woman wearing bell bottom trousers, a “frilly” blouse, oversize round sunglasses and a large colorful Afro.
Smiling proudly at his creation, Venice took off his gloves and slapped some of the dust off of them. «Isn’t she great? There’s enough down there for a couple of stacks of ‘em, but I wanted to conserve juice in case we ran into anything else interesting today.»
The group got up and walked over to inspect the golem, who put a hand on her hip and posed casually.
«She’s lovely Venice. I like what ye did with her... hair?» Finished Lucy while standing on tiptoes and poking at the golem’s rock hard Afro (afrock?) hairdo.
Zheng nodded appreciatively. «We should consider stopping on the flight back so you can mine this deposit out.»
The Cap’n put a hand to his chin and conned the Golem, liking what he saw. «I think we can fine tune this whole discovery process, but... it definitely has potential. Our mounts can’t carry her I’m afraid, but there’s a few patrols nearby. I’ll send the coordinates by hat so they swing by and pick her up.»
Zheng walked up to the hole where Venice had climbed up, and carefully peeked down. Titans, he’d never imagined they’d made the world so deep. You could get lost in those sunless depths. «Make sure to warn them to watch their step, sir.»
They repeated this pattern five more times over the next three turns. Lucy picking out a good looking path, Zheng securing it, and then escorting Venice down.
As they fine tuned the process the Cap’n had managed to get them to start playing it “smart and safe”, he called it. He’d gotten Lucy to cast a spell to lower the odds they ran into any BR’s on their second turn out, and made sure they took advantage of their mounts and Spots to flush out surprises and end turn in the new hideaways they were discovering.
Among the treasures, sights, and danger’s they’d found were: a petrified forest surrounded by treacherous tar pits, a cave system big enough to hide three hundred units… and a nest of Doombats (THAT had been a fun fight), a waterfall with a hidden cave full of gorgeous white marble and a few feral Chocodiles and Vanillagators at the base, a vein of heavy metals, a crystal cave (which Venice had tried to explain weren’t convertible to Shmuckers or made of Powerballs, just pretty and glowy) and a crumbly cliff face hiding a deposit of jade.
Today’s find was a sunken lake, which seemed to have several connections to underground aquifers.
All in all, their Dirt Tripping adventures had yielded one acid rock golem, two hard rock golems, a heavy metal golem, a sack full of jade Lucy could use to make Luckamancy Charms, some pretty glowy rocks, a map with several new interesting terrain features useful for the war, and a Dirtamancer that was almost unbearably pumped up all the time; Venice was convinced he’d level soon from all the stuff he was learning.
Currently, they were indulging Venice’s curiosity for the underground lake. Because of how incredibly secluded it was, they’d decided it was safe to end turn beside it rather than in the air, which gave Venice plenty of time to explore it and its waterways. It seemed fortune favors the prepared, because Venice had come with two sets of Aquabat Suits to explore the watery parts of Olmecca, and now he and Crunch were using them. The latter to serve as life-guard to the burly Dirtamancer.
While all this was going on, Zheng and Lucy had decided to relax for a bit on the lip of the sinkhole by their base camp, overlooking the lake.
Lucy was sitting on the exposed root of a fallen tree, swinging her legs back and forth as she jotted down some notes on a sheaf of paper. Despite her earlier protests, she’d started keeping a journal of her experiences using the Luckamancy Sense during the flight to old Olmecca. They were still gibberish to Zheng, but Lucy said writing it all down was helping her hone some of the rougher edges of her perception.
Rather than look down into the wonder of the sunken lake beneath them, with its dazzling sky-blue and emerald green water, Zheng looked out over lip of the sinkhole. It was a fifty foot around tree-free sinkhole, something almost unthinkably open in the claustrophobic jungle. Yet even so it was almost completely hidden; the trees around it were competing for the sunlight and shooting their branches inwards. At least two over-greedy trees had fallen into the lake, and a tenacious Kapok tree was growing almost horizontally over it and clinging on for dear life with its roots.
Oblivious (or defiant?) of its predicament, the Kapok was in bloom. And every so often one of its pink and white flowers would fall off, twirling gently down into the lake.
Titan’s toenails. There was so much the Titans had hidden in the jungle. Metals, lakes, crystals, even cities. All swallowed and swaddled by a blanket of gorgeous, deadly Life.
He turned to Lucy and saw she had finished writing, and was putting away her paper, pen and inkwell inside her knapsack. So he asked «Did you know about places like this, back when you were in Olmecca?»
Lucy smiled «Not many, I’m afraid. I heard talk about small wonders like this around the dinner table, but rarely saw any me’self. Queen Yucca and General Mills didn’t like the thought of me explor--»
Her hands had clenched into fists in her lap, turning them a whiter shade of pale. Zheng’s brown knit in worry. Her old side, and fallen friends and ruler. They were heading straight for it. She rarely talked about them while they’d stayed in the city of Dis. Aside from still being fresh wounds, he’d worried the trip back would stir painful memories. Unsure what to say, he settled for putting a hand on hers.
She glanced at him and offered a weak smile. Lucy took a deep breath, and after a moment she consciously opened up her fists.
She cleared her throat a bit and went on, voice a bit strained «They didn’t like the thought of me exploring on my own, even with an escort. Most of the times I went out was when Frankie, Boo and I were deployed to “harvest fresh troops”, that’s how Frankie liked to put it.»
Zheng nodded «I can understand their concerns. I’ve --we’ve-- lost so many people we care about to the jungle. You just want to hold them close. But it also gives us places like this. Treasures. I think it tries to give something back, in its own way.»
Lucy patted his shoulder and hopped off the tree root. «That’s a nice way of looking at it lad. I was actually dreading this trip, but with all these beautiful things and places Venice’s found, it really does seem that way. It’s such a shame Marco couldn’t be here to see them. Have you been writing him?»
Zheng managed a rueful smile. «Yes. He said he’s being subjected to “torture veiled as Dance Fighting training.” Apparently Capo Ira is a worse, or better, trainer than the Archduchess. Depending on how you look at it.» Odd. He was frowning. Somewhere in the middle the smile had been replaced without him noticing.
It was Lucy’s turn to put a hand on his arm. «It’s ok lad, I miss him too.»
He didn’t trust himself to speak, so he only nodded.
After a moment Lucy piped up «Lad, be a dear and get Ms. Snuffles, yer mount, and some Spots, won’t ye?»
He raised an eyebrow. She had that faraway, focused look. Ah. «Are you seeing another one of Venice’s Luckamancy path’s, Lucy?»
«Yes and no. It’s a Luckamancy path... but it’s for ye.»
The path was inside the same hex, fortunately, but also worryingly.
«This path feels... risky in a different way than Venice’s paths. And the reward’s unique too.»
Zheng had reluctantly assembled the knights and Spots. Daylight was fading, and Lucy was feeling the path vanishing along with it. Whatever was down there in the lake would be gone before next turn.
Reluctantly but expectantly, Zheng lead the flyers into the lake’s depression in a search pattern. It was a lot wider underneath, like a half submerged pear with a tiny stone beach. Shafts of orange light streamed in and hit vines dangling from the lip of the sinkhole.
«You can’t see where it goes?» asked Zheng.
Lucy squinted in frustration. «Nay, it’s... like it turned to mist, suddenly. Confound it, I know it’s here and not underground with Venice and the Cap’n, but I can’t tell ye where!»
Zheng nodded. For it to be so diffuse implied whatever it was was hidden. Maybe a Jungle Capable feral, or one that could Veil? Or considering the lake underneath, it could be a Water Capable feral.
He ordered the group to search the lake for ferals, and even tossed some cut up meat rations to look for telltale ripples.
After two sweeps turned up nothing, he parked the group at the center of the lake. There was no more direct light getting in. They had at best a few minutes before it became too dark to search. What to do?
He thought back to when he’d spotted the Guewilla’s traps in the river. He’d only been a Piker, and without a Commander’s sense to spot veils or traps, but had noticed them because they were marked. So far he’d been looking for signs of something unusual, a pattern... but if it were a veil, maybe he should be looking for things that were outside the pattern.
For example, the Kapok tree that was leaning in to the lake.
He flew the group near it. The roots were digging into the cave wall as well as the ground on the surface, and several ropes of vines were obscuring the rock face.
Several ropes of vines hiding a rather deep darkness behind them, in fact.
He ordered Lucy to the back of the formation with a silent order, and the rest of the units into ready positions.
Unholstering his spear, he moved the vines apart only to see a fairly normal cavern wall. Breathing a bit easier, he was about to order everyone to resume the search when he noticed how very regular the rock pattern was. Too regular. Like a rug. With his full focus on it, several veils were blown simultaneously, revealing eight scouts and two stabbers, all in jerry green leather and clinging to the rock face with ropes and grappling hooks, like so many grapenuts hanging on a vine.
The Red Spots started baying and the knights readied their swords and shields. Lucy must have been looking closer now too, because suddenly four more scouts and another stabber lost their veils. This was very, very not good.
Heart pounding a hex a minute, he rapidly took stock of the situation. These units were seasoned, none of the scouts was lower than a level two, the stabbers were level 5 & 6, and there was even an 8! That Lucy and he had exposed 15 units so far meant this wasn’t an idle reconnaissance force, and likely more were still hiding. And while the exposed units were startled, the fact that the Stabbers hadn’t auto attacked when he was in reach meant a commander was present among them, veil intact. While it was good that they weren’t Banana Republicans, it also complicated matters.
Narrowing his eyes, he silently ordered his units not to engage while flying back into a more defensible screen of Red Spots. A lack of (visible) archers didn’t make them harmless. The fact that they were hiding their side’s colors would have been problematic... if Zheng had thought to ask for the color’s of their neighboring sides. Ugh. Careless.
Presently he summoned up his deep reserves of calm, ordered the Red Spots to stop barking, and sat up straight on Optimist Primer. He yelled at the foreign units in a tone similar to one their old drill instructor Sgt. Nass Tay used when he caught truant units outside their barracks at night.
«You are trespassing in Tar Zhay’s territory. I know a Warlord or lady is among you. Drop your veil’s --all of them-- to discuss Terms, or you will be subject to immediate reprisal.» Well, Zheng had been more polite with his language and tone, but he still felt proud of himself.
Two rapid breaths later, it happened. It was like watching the stars appear in the night sky. One, two, then dozens of units dropped their veils. All in all Zheng counted four stacks of scouts and one stack of Stabbers. After a moment a section of the vine ropes was cut down, revealing a tall, lanky level 5 Warlady with green eyes and shoulder length brown hair. She sheathed her veil-friendly Shmotsword and, frustratingly, she only seemed mildly bored at having been discovered. «So talk.»
Thinking fast, Zheng remembered a tidbit from their briefing after being promoted. The only neighboring side that was allowed across Tar Zhay was... Twister. Yes. But only with escorts. Of all their neighbors they’d be the likeliest to know enough about their territory to find a place like this to hide.
He sorely wished Cap’n came by soon, he didn’t want to start a war on their eastern front, but remembering the briefing, he couldn’t let them go if they’d stumbled across sensitive information. And their mission WAS sensitive information. Depending on how much they’d seen or overheard, they might have to...
Right now the best strategy was to keep them in one place. Cap’n would know how to deal with them, and with his extra leadership bonus, and Venice doing his Dirtamancy, this chancy encounter could be a real easy mop up if it went south.
And keeping her talking would do that, so he asked. «Actually, I’m more interested in hearing you talk. You’re from Twister. Where... is your escort?»
The warlady shrugged in her harness. «Musta got lost?»
Clammy and snarky. Great. «That is most unfortunate. It is, after all, for your own safety. You hardly see units without the Jungle Capable special go through a jungle without a guide.»
«Don’t need one.» She shrugged dismissively.
He noticed a couple of things then.
Looking at their set up, the fact that they would have probably spent the night sleeping clinging to a rock face struck Zheng as a brilliant move. But not one you could pull off normally. The other was she was being purposely terse. Probably to keep from revealing details about her mission.
«That’s a very interesting strategy for ending turn, Warlady. I don’t imagine any ferals would bother you, clinging to the sinkhole wall like that. Hmm. Unless there were Ptiranhadon’s in the lake. Though they can’t fly too far... the lake is fairly close.» He finished with a casual look at the lake beneath.
She scoffed derisively. «’Course, we’re not ending turn without scouting the base hex. ’s a rookie mistake.» She surprised Zheng by asking in a pointedly indifferent tone «What are these Ptiranhadon’s?»
So there were cracks in her rock face after all. «Ptiranhadon are Water Capable little pests. Individually. However, they can fly for short distances from rivers and lakes and travel in swarms. I’ve heard of whole stacks getting stripped to the bone when a school of Ptiranhadon sneak attacks at night.»
Out of the corner of his eye Zheng saw several of the foreign scouts fidget or look at each other nervously. The Warlady managed to at least appear to keep her cool. «Wouldn't-a been a problem. We have veils.» She said the last word with emphasis, and one Zheng suspected carried a silent order to her suddenly quiet units.
«Indeed.» Veils they could use to hide somewhere else in the hex if they broke ranks and fled, and anywhere else in the jungle if they got out of the hex.
The conversation ground to a halt for a few long seconds, before Zheng decided to try changing tactics. He holstered his spear and tried a more casual tone. «I apologize, warlady. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Lieutenant Zheng Voyager.»
He wasn’t sure she would answer, but eventually the warlady stated flatly. «Gina Cryseas.»
Zheng nodded. «I must admit, I haven’t met very many foreign units. And never Mountain Capable ones.»
This got her attention. He’d hoped it would.
Zheng put a hand to his chin «I wasn’t sure you were Mountain Capable, but the wall of this sinkhole really is a cliff face, if you stop and think about it. And looking at your gear...» and he leaned forward on Optimist to get a better look at it. It was all expertly crafted and looked like it cost a pretty Shmucker. Ropes, grappling hooks, leather harnesses, hiking boots. All the things you’d need for Mountain travel, and maybe...
«...why, I’m sure you could even climb up trees with it, and end turn there too! I would have croaked to be able to do that safely back when I was infantry.»
Gina nodded, and seemed to relax a bit. «You have that promoted look. And trees are... not my favorite place to end turn.»
Zheng chuckled at that «Or the safest, truth be told. Fair warning, Saber Tooth Tonys will climb up trees if they catch your scent.»
Gina surprised him with how interested she suddenly got. «’s not a problem if you use the right herbs to mask your smell, you just need--»
The bearded and powerfully built level 8 Stabber coughed twice, and Gina stopped talking abruptly, only to start up again with the same reserved, standoffish tone. «--to know what you’re doing.»
He focused on the Stabber. That was odd. And familiar. Much more self motivated than normal for regular infantry, even at high levels. And he should know. Looking back to Gina, he started to put the pieces together. They were both supposed to be here covertly. What’s more, he and his units were here right now because of Lucy’s Luckamancy Sense. There was a treasure here somewhere… and he doubted he’d find it at the tip of his spear. So he gambled.
«Warlady, may I call you Gina?» She blinked indifferently. «I think we can both agree, Gina… that we have bigger Ptiranhadon’s to fry.»
She nodded slowly, her studied indifference was hard to read, but somehow more tense.
He put one of his cards on the table «Unfortunately, I’m under orders not to let intruder’s enter Tar Zhay or spy on us.»
Gina kept one hand on her harness and the other resting ever so close to her Shmotsword.
Zheng gambled at what one of her own cards might be «While I’m guessing you’re under orders not to speak about your mission, especially if you should happen to be spotted or even captured?»
She blinked and nodded again, with a look of uncomfortable sympathy.
Zheng’s heart started to pound hard, but he did his best to match and exceed her level of cool. He lay his hand on the table. «Then let's not.»
She frowned in disbelief. «What?»
«Frankly, I meant it when I said we have more important matters. Neither of our forces will survive combat intact, jeopardizing our Orders. So I’ll cut you a deal. You may be under orders not to say why you’re here, or where you’re going... but I’m guessing you are under no orders to say why you AREN’T here. Pinkie Promise me that you are NOT on a mission to directly or indirectly harm my side, that you and your units will not speak to anyone of seeing us here today, and that you will leave Tar Zhay’s territory as quickly as you can.»
She narrowed her eyes. «And what do we get out of that promise?»
Zheng exhaled evenly, to keep his composure. He really hoped he wouldn't be expelled from the Breakfast Club for this. «The only promise I’m able to make. That I won’t report or pursue you, and will Order the forces under my authority not to either.» He could hear the wingbeats of the Red Bullseyes behind him quicken. It seemed he’d startled the Knights. He guessed diplomacy wasn’t what they’d been expecting.
She gave him a long, hard look.
He held her gaze, and matched the intensity, imagining himself as a Saber Toothed Tony. He didn’t know if this gambit would work.
If it didn’t, he’d already sent silent orders to all his units. The Red Spots were to preferentially target the Scouts and their ropes. Lucy would cast a curse to increase the odds that they all fell to the lake beneath; then heal, shock, or boost as she saw fit, and retreat if things went badly. Hopefully that would even the odds of 16 Spots against twice as many Scouts, even if they were squishy, equipped as they were they might as well be Stabbers. He and the Knights would stack and hit the Warlady and her Stabbers. He prayed the Titans he’d delivered the orders clearly. These were the most complex silent order’s, to the most units, he’d ever given.
It would still be hard fought.
Just as he felt turn end, something else ended. The tension.
Gina put her arm out, fist closed and pinkie extended.
Venice and Cap’n had surfaced from exploring the underwater caverns several minutes after. Apparently the glowing rocks had made navigating underwater a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. However, once they broke the surface and pulled themselves onto the rocky shore of the underground lake in their Aquabat suits, a very curious meeting and an even curiouser conversation took place.
Zheng and Gina had been standing there, waiting and chatting avidly about ferals, leading, and capital “L” Leadership. Once they were fully out of the water, Zheng put his hands behind his back and looked at them solemnly. «Cap’n Crunch, Venice. I would like you to meet Gina Cryseas, Warlady for Twister. I have made a Pinky Swear to her to order all units under my authority not to speak of meeting her or the Twister Units with her today, or pursue them.»
Cap’n and Venice turned to each other with looks of utter disbelief.
Gina raised an eyebrow «He’s a captain? How do you outrank him?»
«We’re inland. Naval ranks don’t apply. Cap’n Crunch was helping Venice navigate underwater.» Zheng was rather proud of coming up with that bit of misdirection. Tar Zhay did have something of a navy, so it was plausible.
Gina nodded curtly. «A Seafarer captain to lead a Caster in the water. Smart. Nice aquatic gear, by the way.»
Venice answered with a confused «Thanks?» It must have been that Gina had reverted to her flat, terse tone in the presence of units she didn’t know.
Crunch turned to look at Zheng. His tone was polite, careful to be as neutral as possible «Lieutenant, what’s going on?» but there was a razor sharp order hidden inside of it. “Explain this deception clearly and covertly enough to follow along.”
«Diplomacy, Cap’n, is why I am here. You should not be surprised to see me practice it. I have negotiated a... Truce... to avoid a conflict that would compromise our mission. You heard my orders. Do you disagree with them?» Zheng underlaid his officious bravado with a very plaintive, sincere, almost desperate order of his own, the duality of which was almost too much to handle. “Trust. Comply. I have a plan.”
Cap’n Crunch really made him sweat it out, before finally saying. «No, I do not.»
His relief hidden, Zheng nodded. «Thank you, Cap’n. I appreciate your cooperation.»
Gina gave Zheng a final nod. «Nice to see you rain forest recluses can keep a deal. My men and I won't breathe a word of this run in. You have my word.»
«Thank you, Gina. It’s a shame we can’t be more welcoming of visitors, I’m afraid. Perhaps another time.»
«Perhaps.» She shrugged noncommittally. She turned abruptly, and made for the cave wall. Just as she was about to climb it, she looked back.
«We’ll be taking a light after turn meal. Sing a few songs. Maybe drink some mead. You’re welcome to join us.»
He felt the offer was genuine, so Zheng smiled back genuinely. «Thank you. I have to debrief the Captain and Venice, but... it sounds nice. We'll be with you shortly.»
«Once we’re dry and dressed.» Clarified Venice.
She smirked at that, pulled out some hooks, and climbed up the cave wall like she was popped a Spidew.
Zheng finally chanced to look at the Cap’n, and if looks could croak, he’d have depopped thrice over.
At their camp on the other side of the lake, safe from overhearing scouts, Cap’n was dressing down Zheng with brutal honesty.
«So let me get this straight.» Cap’n Crunch didn’t so much ask as accuse. «You negotiated safe passage for foreign units, on who knows what kind of mission, on the promise they’d play nice, leave, and wouldn’t talk about us?»
Zheng found it hard to answer because of the Pinkie Promise, finally settling on «I can’t speak of that, sir.»
Cap’n Crunch’s neck was taut with tension, so much so it looked like his collar might pop. «This is our jungle, lieutenant. We have no reason to ask trespassers to keep our secrets. Much less condone their trespassing!»
Zheng did his best not to wince at the verbal slap across the face. He wanted desperately to explain himself, but Cap’n’s tirade and the Pinkie Promise censoring him were like prisoner’s manacles to his mind and tongue.
«Furthermore, lieutenant.» He said this last with an undertone of “let's see how long that rank lasts” «You gave an order not to report them? That is practically Disloyalty. Right. There.»
Venice tried to intervene. «Crunch, I really don’t think he--»
«All due respect Venice, discipline for the troops under my command is very much in my sphere.» The unstated “Butt out” might as well have been a silent order.
«If I may, sir.» Zheng made sure to keep his voice level, and fought to think of something he could say to go around the Pinkie Promise «As your Lieutenant, Lucy, Venice, and the Knights are under my authority when it comes to military matters. If I were to order them not to speak of something to keep a Pinky Swear, I can and must Order them not to speak. But you, sir… well. Aren’t. Under my authority, I mean.»
That stopped the conversation cold. Cap’n Crunch’s taut red neck seemed to relax by a fraction. «But then… You shouldn't have told me anything at the lake, or ordered me, either.»
Zheng shook his head, fighting a pounding headache getting worse by the word. «Count Black ordered me to establish an Alliance with the Smackers. In that diplomatic matter, my authority exceeds your own, sir. And it is in that capacity that I-- mmm ---!!!» Titan’s teeth, think AROUND the Promise! Zheng told himself. «-- MIGHT!-- Might... feel justified in ordering you to take or not take a particular action, if I felt it jeopardized my mission.»
The Cap’n’s neck finally began to relax. He chuckled a bit before addressing Zheng «Disband you, you clever little Screw Monkey.»
Lucy cut in here. «I’m not sure I get it, lad. You either are or you aren’t Cap’n’s superior. You can’t be both at once!»
Cap’n got up from his seat and started pacing. «He can, ma’am. Tar Zhay’s command structure may have hierarchies, but it’s not totally vertical. There’s no way that would work for us, and it’s against our principles. Some officers, even non-Komissars, can override us in specific circumstances.»
Venice guffawed, getting it too.
Zheng exhaled to clear some of the pain in his head. «Right now, Cap’n Crunch is acting in his capacity as my ranking officer and a Komissar. Someone I report to. At this moment, with no active danger to my diplomatic mission, I have no real authority over him.»
Cap’n’s smile was slight, but there. «And it was in that capacity that Zheng could “report” meeting the Twister scouts to me, a Komissar, and order me to keep it secret. However, I can refuse Zheng’s Orders if my Duty compels me to, for the good of the side. I’m guessing you could too, Venice.»
«Wi--» Lucy bit her tongue. «Would you? Refuse his orders, I mean?» It was weird to see his orders affect Lucy this way, thought Zheng. He didn’t like it.
Finally back to his usual calm self, Cap’n hmm’d. «I’ll say this for you Zheng. Your orders carried conviction down there. I could feel weight behind them. I’m… not going to report them immediately. But I’ll keep a close eye on all our intelligence reports on Twister. If they try anything else, Duty will compel me to disobey.»
Putting a hand to his temple, Zheng massaged it clockwise. He hadn’t imagined being clever would hurt so much. He had a different worry now though. «You won’t get in trouble, sir?»
Crunch sat down again. «No, especially since Venice and I don’t have to report this encounter to lobby for increased vigilance, which would reveal any more of these shenanigans. It’s a self-solving problem.»
There was another long moment when no one spoke, this one far less tense. Until Cap’n Crunch finally said «You did well under the circumstances, Lieutenant. It’s a pity your own cleverness means I can’t commend you for it. Hmm.»
He scratched his chin «And how on Erf am I going to pretend to be a sea captain for a full evening? No “Sky”, just Cap’n Crunch, a sea-real seafarer. How utterly preposterous!»
They made good on their promise and joined their “guests” from Twister for an evening meal. It was a bit tense at first, in that way when people aren’t sure what they can or can’t talk about, until they found the things they had in common.
Namely, love of good food, good drink, and hair raising stories about their travels.
They swapped rations, booze (Twister had a mean apple mead with a punch) and bawdy Rhyme-o-mancy. The level 8 Stabber, Frey Donut, regaled them with a never ending song, “Through the twisted streets of Booklane”. When he reached the fifteen minute mark, Zheng suspected he must be improvising verses.
Lucy did a lot towards helping smooth relations. Between having the most experience with foreign units, her card tricks, and stealing the figurative pants off of anyone who played a hand with her, the evening actually turned out to be a lot of fun for everyone involved.
Her own takeaway was that Twister had the biggest and best library of all nearby sides, and might even have books or knowledge of what happened after Olmecca fell. She’d have to find something worth trading to get access, though.
They were an odd bunch. Half of them flying on bison, the other hanging from a cliff face. But eventually that became part of the evening’s appeal.
By moonrise Zheng and Gina called an end to the evening so they could rest for the next turn. She even revealed she could be pithy. «It’s been fun, Zheng. This might be the most interesting night we never get to tell anyone about.»
On the flight back Zheng turned to Lucy (who looked to be trusting Ms. Snuffles with her flying). «Earlier, when you saw a Luckamancy path for me?»
«Aye lad?» Her voice was much more musical, it sounded like Lucy might have drunk a little more of her winnings than she should have.
«So far they all lead to some kind of treasure or discovery. But after tonight… I don’t know. What did we, or I get out of this? We can’t breathe a word of this to anyone else. I don’t really know that we’re any better off than if we hadn’t followed it.»
Lucy smiled languidly. «Did ye have a fun night, Laddie?»
Zheng raised an eyebrow. «Yes.»
«Did ye learn anythin’ interestin’ about dealin’ wi’ units from o’er sides?»
«I suppose so.»
She leaned precariously on Ms. Snuffles side, holding on lightly to the reins with only her right hand. «Would ye say ye made a friend?»
That caught him by surprise. He wasn’t entirely sure what to call Gina Cryseas… but friend wasn’t out of the question. «I… yes. Yes, I think I did.»
Lucy grinned and lay down on Ms. Snuffles back, closing her eyes. «Then there’s yer treasure, lad! Rainbows don’t all havetae ‘ave pots’a gold at th’ end, ye know?»
@Crisis21 - Indeed. Any commander could have spotted those veils, but it would take someone with a particular personality or mindset to turn a potentially pointless conflict into something more productive. Also, the Luckamancy Sense can't quite spot veils. If no one present would have benefited from spotting them scouts, Lucy wouldn't have seen a path show up.
@Jatopian - You won't see it if you came in from the forum link, but if you look at the Submissions page on the top bar, you'll see all my newer stories have the tiny thumbnail images of a technicolor jungle. That's what the bottom caption is for. It's to make them stand out a bit more on the Blog.