Unjust Deserts, part 1
Part 1: Desert Bar-barian
The desert sun spilled into the sky like a golden egg yolk out of a cracked egg, only to slowly rise and recover it’s circular shape as it mixed and reflected off of the powdery desert floor, lighting up the sandstone and shrubbery in golden tones.
Dawn changed a lot of things in the desert. Not just obvious things like start of Turn, or restoring Hits and Move, but also deeper, fundamental things. Things as different and serious as life and croaking, practically modifying the hex type.
A simple, fundamental Sign of this was the chill air Beck breathed in, and how the rising sun warmed it, and his skin. He instinctively knew that in another hour, it would be blisteringly hot.
“Wait.” Thought Beck. He had skin. He was feeling… he… he was. Blinking rapidly, he looked to himself and his surroundings. He had arms, legs, a torso, and was wearing khaki shorts, a gray shirt, boonie hat and a hardened leather vest. As he twisted to look at himself, exploring his existence, he felt wood brush up against his left leg.
A large, thigh length pick-axe dangled from a holster, and a tightness on his shoulders made him realize he was bearing a rucksack on his back. He’d need both to survive the desert.
Right, he was a Barbarian. Beck. Beck Packer.
Looking around himself, the Ruins he had popped in seemed oddly majestic. He was in a room carved out of and under the face of a cliff, with a weathered pair of glassless windows and an empty door frame looking out to the sunrise.
He walked out of the room, running a hand across the porous tuff stone. There were a dozen other half crumbled dwellings, and what might be a functional well. Looking further out, scratchy scrublands, rust colored dunes, and far off tiered mesas dotted the landscape. And he knew, instantly.
He was in love.
A quick check of the buildings showed he was the only unit to pop there today, and miraculously, the well hadn’t collapsed and still had a shallow pool of water. He took the time to fill two water skins from the well, and noted the Titans had been generous enough to pop him with three Turns worth of Provisions in his rucksack, along with various camping and cooking instruments.
He wasn’t worried, even without conning himself, he knew he was Desert-capable. He'd be able to forage and harvest much more easily than other units here, it was just a question of going out and exploring. And oh, how he ached to do that. He thanked the Titans again for popping him here and now; he was made for this land, and it for him. A deep feeling of contentment welled up from within, he really did feel blessed, and could think of no luckier unit.
Well, he could think of no other unit, actually.
He put the water skins back in his rucksack and shouldered it. Thinking about it, he was sure there must be a side or two in the area. When he found one, he might be able to hire out to them as a… surveyor, or reconnaissance unit, he guessed. He wasn’t too concerned, he was a Desert-capable Warlord, a valuable unit. He was sure he’d figure something out.
He looked out at the horizon and nodded to himself. He was optimistic about his chances.
Loaded up, he made his way toward the eastern Hex. He thought he’d seen glints of light as the sun rose. A river or lake would be a great place to find forage, food, ferals, and maybe other speaking units.
Something was wrong.
The ground crunched underneath his feet. With each step his hiking boots broke the caked mud of the riverbed into smaller chunks, along with his brittling self confidence.
The walk over had been a fast trek through four hexes. Four desolate, nearly empty hexes. He’d thought it’d be easy to find forage, but all he’d found were chopped up cacti, picked over bones of game, and smashed boulders with hollowed insides. All clear signs of destructive foraging.
He used up a Move to search the third hex, and all he’d only come up with were a paltry pair of prickly pears, growing on a well hidden cactus wedged between two boulders. As amazing as it seemed, someone... or someones... were destroying the desert to squeeze out a few more shmuckers of rations. It didn't make sense, deserts were already resource poor, razing would just make life harder in the long run for everyone.
And once he got to the river, at what he’d thought would be a sure place to spot game or forage… nothing.
Beck made his way through some skeletal brambles and low willow trees at the river’s former edge, Croaked of thirst without water. At the riverbed’s lowest point, the ground still looked bone dry.
A Desert-capable instinct kicked in. He unholstered his axe and swung it into the dirt, ignoring the strange feeling from drawing it for this, rather than croaking ferals or fighting. The axe was no shovel, but a few more chops revealed the ground was just as dry for at least a foot down. No fudgy mud like he’d been hoping.
This wasn’t new, or due to some dry spell of the weather’s.
A sense of dread started to grow in his thoughts. ‘Wrong. This is all wrong. Rivers in desert hexes don’t just dry up completely. Terrain types don’t just change by themselves.’
While he could probably get by on the water in his skins and the well, without forage or game he might croak before ever even meeting anyone.
He stood up straight, cleaned off the axe head on his pant leg and holstered it, and looked upriver. What he had to do was clear: if he wanted answers, he had to go to the source.
Just two hexes North East, the glinting he’d seen from the distance was now clearly identifiable. It was the shiny, dented shields and the pierced through hauberks from croaked infantry littering the hex. It wasn’t water he’d seen glinting in the distance, but a Turn-old battlefield.
He leaned down to examine one of the croaked units, technically the first he’d ever seen. She was wearing yellow and black livery. Croaked by an arrow to the neck. A short distance away was a stabber in red and blue, croaked to a stab through the chest.
Just one turn after his, and half the units present would depop. Another after that, and the hex would be as pristine… and dry, and desolate… as if nothing had happened.
Beck wasn’t really sure what he felt about this.
He wasn’t… this wasn’t what he was popped for. Sure, he knew the basics of combat, even Leadership, and he’d even felt excited at the prospect of fighting, but this felt wrong somehow.
Closing his eyes, he focused on the present. There were sides in this desert after all, possibly… well, probably fighting for the limited resources. Maybe even doing the Destructive Foraging? One of the sides was probably doing something to dry up the river, and the other wanted to stop them? Or maybe…
Opening his eyes, the scene was unchanged. Filled with more questions than answers. He had to be practical; though grisly, he should probably see if any of the units had supplies or interesting gear he could salvage.
Beck had managed to go through three corpses, when the faint sound of flapping in the distance got his attention. He got up and looked to the eastern horizon, and saw eight huge, leathery winged creatures come into view, flying straight towards him, and one being ridden by a Warlady!
A twinge of dread at the flying mounts went down his spine, but this being the first living person he saw he figured he should at least try to talk.
“Hello!” Beck waved his arms in what he somehow knew was the Sign for Parley. “Hell--”
An arrow flew inches to the left of his head, he’d dodged to the right, not completely sure whether the warlady had fired a warning shot and missed on purpose, or he’d dodged a shot meant to croak him. Regardless, the only thing he could think to say was:
A million thoughts ran through his head. ‘Stay? Try to talk with her? No, fight!’ The inner debate ended when the eight slick, horrific flyers stacked with her screeched.
And with that, Beck spun in place, and he ran.
He ran up the river’s embankment, and saw a shadow from above him growing closer. He ducked under a withered tree, forcing the swooping beasts to fly off. He pumped his legs, sweat caking all his clothes from the heat and exertion as he ran. Feeling another dive coming, he jumped onto and off a rock and dove again, just managing to avoid another attack.
‘That’s it, just another few yards, and-- !’
A force, hard as a hammer blow and sharp as a tooth hit him in the back and pierced him through his left shoulder, doing two Hits of damage and making him stumble and fall. An arrow! Panic and adrenaline was shooting through his veins as he favored his right, uninjured arm to get up on his hands and knees, just in time to see eight pairs of clawed feet landing all around, trapping him.
He looked up at the flying ferals; they were covered in a moist looking leathery hide, colored pale brown with small black spots, drawn so taut it was almost see-through on their skeletal wings. They stood a head or two taller than him, so he had to look up to see their heads. Only he couldn’t find their eyes, and in some kind of Titanic joke, they must have given them huge ears and large snouted noses to compensate.
As Beck hurried to his feet, one of the beasts swiped at his legs with a large wing and knocked him down on his stomach again, only for two of them to take the opportunity to pin his arms and legs to the ground with their wing joints.
The next pair of feet he saw wore mismatched red and yellow boots.
“These bodies are my scavenge! Mine!” And to make sure he got the point, the warlady kicked him in the ribs with her left yellow boot.
Beck coughed out, abstractly wondering how the field of croaked soldiers could be “hers” if Beck had gotten there first. He yelled hurriedly, trying to reason with the insane Warlady. “I didn’t know they were yours! I’m sorry!” The next kick didn’t hurt any less.
“Not knowing is no defense! None! No one’s gonna warn ya ‘fore they croak you! What are you, a fresh Pop?!” The warlady kicked Beck another couple of times, before Beck managed to gather enough breath to try again.
“Yes! I didn’t take anything, I promise! They didn’t have--” He wheezed in another breath between kicks “--didn’t have anything!”
The kicks stopped, and it got quiet for a moment. Before long he felt the warlady unbutton and start rummaging through his rucksack. For some reason, that got under his skin, made him really angry. That was his rucksack! His! And he struggled.
That earned him a kick to the head. Dazed, he couldn’t stop the warlady from rummaging through his things, and saw the water skins plop onto the ground in front of him, along with one, two… three. His three Provisions!
As the warlady got off him, he realized what was going on. He was being robbed by the first person he’d ever met.
“You’re lucky, poppin-fresh. Lucky you stink at stealing what’s not yours! I should croak you, but you’re lucky. Lucky it’s been a dozen turns since I had fresh water. Lucky you’re just a level one, and not worth two arrows. Lucky I’m leaving you with that piddly axe.”
The warlady grabbed his supplies and loaded them onto one of the beasts, and from the angle he finally got a good look at the warlady that was robbing him blind. Lean, head swaddled in cloth, cloaked in a robe or cape, and equipped with leather armor… from what must have been five different sets. None of it matched.
She… she was like him. A Barbarian.
Turning, the warlady fixed her dark, paranoid eyes on his. “You’re lucky you’re a poppin-fresh Barbarian, too. Means maybe you can learn.”
She mounted up, and looked down at him. “Now get out of this hex! Go! I’m Terry Torrie-Elle, and if I ever catch you picking after my scavenge again, I won’t just eat your food, I’ll let my Kooky Battews eat you!”
With a silent order, the Kooky Battews let go of his limbs and allowed him to stand up. He put a hand to his ribs. He felt furious, invaded, even… even betrayed, he’d had hope, expected his first meeting to be so much better. There was so much he wanted to say, to ask, to plead, threaten… but looking into those intense eyes, he swallowed, and started running for the hex boundary.
He ran straight, two hexes east. Finally feeling far enough away to stop, he found a shaded patch under a dome shaped boulder.
He leaned against it, shuddering despite the heat from fear, trying to slow his breath until it was regular. Dust clung to his sweaty face, legs and arms, his thighs ached, but Titans, his shoulder… looking at the arrow sticking out of his back, he winced at what he needed to do. He reached over with his right hand, and snapped the tail off with clenched teeth, letting out a short grunt.
‘Titans, what is wrong with this desert and everyone in it?!’
He felt powerless, afraid, angry, desperate. He wanted to cleave Terry’s insane head in two with his axe, but what if he was being followed, Titans, what if...
‘No, no I have to get a grip. Have to stop panicking.’
He had to learn. Crack that warlady like dry mud, but she was right. He might be Desert-capable, but he hadn’t popped capable of treating this... this cracking desert like it was a cake walk. So he had to adapt he… needed rules.
So that had to be it.
Wasteland survival guide Rule 1: don’t panic! Panic makes you do stupid crack.
First thing first. He had to look to his survival. He’d lost his rations and water. The water wasn’t as large of a concern, he could go back to the Ruins and the well, but without the water skins his range was now severely limited. Without Shmuckers in his Purse, meals wouldn’t pop, meaning no Rations with water. Adding to that, too many turns without water in the hot desert sun meant he’d suffer cumulative penalties, until the Dehydration subtype of Incapacitation hit him.
Worse, without his Provisions, he’d depop next turn! Think, think… he still had four Move. He could get back to the Ruins and expend one Move to forage. But… these hexes were empty, depleted. He doubted he’d be lucky enough to...
Beck’s eyes widened with a thought. He took off his rucksack, and opened it, hoping maybe… yes!
Swaddled in one of the side compartments so the tiny thorns wouldn’t get everywhere, the two Prickly Pears! Terry must have missed them when she was ransacking his stuff! Yes, they weren’t enough for full upkeep, but it was a start.
Taking in a long, slow breath, Beck put them back in his rucksack and gingerly shouldered it again, mindful of the protruding broken arrow shaft.
He stood up and looked skyward. The sun was nearing mid morning. But he knew, just two hexes south west and one due west, and he’d be back in the ruins. He had to find enough forage between here and there to survive.
He felt something hardened inside him.
He’d lucked out. Or at least, the Titans had provided.
Two hexes over, he’d found a long and sinuous animal trail in the dirt. He followed as quietly and stealthily as he could. Even without a Scouting Veil, he knew how to be sneaky in the desert. When the trail went into a ravine, he opted to climb up the right, rocky bank, to try and spy on the feral from above.
Hugging the scorching red rock, and looking over it to the ravine floor below, he spotted a squat, tube like feral covered in shiny leathery black skin. Somehow, he knew it was called a Yew-Log. They went from A to E, with A’s being the shortest, and E’s the longest. This one looked like an “A”.
It wasn’t moving, it was apparently sunning itself.
He resisted the urge to just jump down screaming with his axe. He’d conned the Yew-Log as a Desert-capable Heavy, little short of a crit would croak it in one blow.
A forked tongue slithered out of the squat front, flickering as it smelled the air. The Yew-Log stirred, and slithered across the ravine floor. Beck followed cautiously from above, and saw as it found an interesting patch of dirt at the foot of a mesquite tree.
It rammed the small young tree a few times, slowly digging up the roots. And out of that knotted tangle a small puffy tail appeared. It suddenly dawned on him. This is how it fed, how it paid its own upkeep! The Yew-Log opened a huge white gooey maw and snapped at the frantically jumping little Mocha Mousse when it fled back. The Yew-Log was trying to climb clumsily up the tree, chasing after the Mousse as it climbed to try to get to safety.
‘Now.’ With the Yew-Log distracted, he unholstered his axe and leapt down onto it, netting a solid four Hits straight into the top of its back. It bucked and reared, but was wedged under the mesquite and couldn’t maneuver well.
Beck yelled a war cry, the Signamancy of an axe wielding Barbarian was hard to resist. He got two more strikes in before it got loose, at which point it tried to roll onto him. He managed to disengage and jump out of the way behind the tail end. The Yew-Log was clever though, it jump backwards and pinned him against the cliff wall, doing a whopping five hits of damage!
It could have probably smothered him, and was making pain from the arrow wound flare up, but he must have really made it mad because it moved off of him and swiveled to face him. It’s head was a white spiral, with the bottom half widening to reveal fangs and a forked tongue as it reared to lunge and bite him.
He crouched low, and raised his axe as it sprang at him!
... for one breathless moment, it flew through the air at him and he stood firm...
Only to jump out of the way, letting the Yew-Log smash its head against the cliff face behind him and bring a rain of pebbles onto itself, doing three damage to itself in the process. As it lay dazed, Beck swung, slicing clean through the head and revealing it’s gooey interior, croaking it.
The now level two Barbarian panted.
He pulled out the axe, and wiped a trail through the creamy residue of the Yew Log. He sniffed it, and finally tasted it. So, so sweet. Yes, this alone could probably feed him for three turns.
A hopeful squeak to his right made him turn. Right, the Mocha Mousse. Make that four turns.
A light shone in the topmost building in the Ruins, casting the occasional shadow as its lone resident cooked his meal.
Beck huddled by the fire. He’d learned a lot that turn.
That cracking Terry. She took a lot from him, but she’d also given him something she’d regret. Knowledge.
She might be cruel, but she was alive. And as far as this desert went, that made her a success. So he’d do what she did. Do it better. Not for revenge, exactly. To out-compete her. That would be his revenge.
He pulled the Mousse out of the fire. He’d skewered it on a stick to cook it, and had been patiently tossing in the chunks of Yew Log he’d managed to lug over. As they burned, they compacted into cooked rations he could eat over the Turns.
He blew a bit on the Mousse to cool it, then took a bite. It was bitter sweet.
Terry hadn’t popped with those Kooky Battews, she’d found them… tamed them up somehow. He’d do that, too. She’d preyed on the weak, him. But she’d made a mistake. She’d thought he was insignificant; let him live.
Well, he wouldn’t make that mistake. And when she croaked, he’d toast her over a roasty Yew-Log-E.
Beck looked out through the ruins, into the moonlit dunes.
He’d fallen in love with the desert, at a distance. But up close? He could see the desert had been hurt as badly as he had. Maybe worse. It didn’t give any breaks.
And now, neither would he.
<< O >> Part 2
Thanks everyone! I'll try to keep the updates coming on Mondays.
@Xellos: Indeed. In an alt-universe where the desert hasn't been put through destructive foraging and Terry is nice (or they never meet), Beck would maybe let the little ball of fur and caffeine go.
@Knavigator: There's some of this in parts 2 and 3, actually. But at this point in time, taming is out because he only has two measly prickly pears to offer it, and the Yew-log is shown to be carnivorous. It's very unlikely that one cute little mousse (snatched out of its jaws at considerable risk, at that) would be enough to tame it, and now you have an angry feral to deal with. The Harvesting bit would probably have worked great, though.