Unjust Deserts, part 7
Part 7: Easy-bake does it
It was a grave occasion.
Beck could tell it was grave, in addition to the X’s for eyes on the cactus skinned Wily Peyote, he also sprouted a lovely wreath of lilies out of his chest, which the croaked unit’s arms reflexively clasped. Even the tiny glowing white Archon flying circles around his head, strumming a little harp was playing a somber little song.
A shiver went down Beck’s spine, a combination of the macabre Signamancy springing up and as some of the Peyote’s poison started to sweat out of his system.
Still, he took off his hat and held it over his chest as a gesture of respect. Then a strange urge came over him to dig a hole and bury the corpse in it, but even under the wonky topsy turvy groove of the Peyote’s natural Flower Power, he knew it was a ridiculous notion; they’d all depop tomorrow!
Wait, no, most would depop tomorrow. He was vaguely aware that a few were merely incapacitated and might still get up this turn. He thought he should take care of them too, but the dregs of the poison was making even this croaked Peyote seem pretty lively, he might be here all day if he couldn't tell which was really alive, croaked, or just faking it only to spring and strike.
Kevin beep-beeped beside him. She’d stopped talking a few minutes ago, which both reassured him, but oddly, also made him sad. He put a hand on her back and leaned his head against her. “I’m gonna miss talking to you, Kevin.”
She chirped out a long, and somewhat sarcastic “Beep”, as if to say he was still talking to her.
He chuckled and stood straight. The tiny Archon’s song warbled and she vanished. It seemed that slowly, the world was straightening with him.
“Hello, are you still out there? I continue to require rescue!”
Beck groaned under his breath at hearing the voice. ‘Oh yeah, I stayed here and did all this fighting to rescue somebody! Titan’s, I hope the Peyote’s poison wears off enough that he doesn’t look like a giant spider or something.’
The inside of the camp’s largest tent was a bit of a horror show, to put it mildly.
Barely any light came in, but what did filter through the tent’s canvass revealed several dozen croaked bodies of men and Peyotes had been piled up neatly on the inside, still wearing armor. Though the Peyote’s poison was waning, the corpse-parade suddenly seemed to stretch up and out and around him as tall as a mountain and claustrophobic like a cramped library, all while choking him with the smell of bodies left to rot in the desert heat.
He didn’t want to, but couldn’t help looking. It was mostly men, and some had Peyote needles sticking out of their faces and arms, some were uninjured, but most looked to have croaked in combat-- with other regular infantry.
Beck shivered, these units had been ambushed too, somehow. Apparently even croaking each other in the drug induced confusion. They’d still managed to do damage to the Peyotes, but hadn’t escaped the massacre.
The stench of their defeat was overwhelming.
The only thing keeping it at bay were little green pieces of cardboard hung on strings and dangling from the tent’s ceiling, shaped like overlapping triangles pointing up. Each was releasing a powerful Flower Power scent of pines. 'So that explained the scent he’d found earlier. The Peyotes must have been using them to mask their own smell and the bodies.’
He could dimly make out a warlord laying in the middle of the tent, bound and shackled to the central pole with his arms behind him.
Beck snatched up one of the pieces of cardboard, put it over his mouth, and made his way deeper in. “You’re safe for now, most of the Peyotes have been dealt with. Who are you?... and what are you willing to offer me for your rescue?”
The fact he’d essentially been drugged into unwittingly helping the guy didn’t mean he was going to be a saint about the reward. Nothing was free in the desert. He could barely even remember why he’d thought to stay and help.
Dull black eyes glimmered in the murk. “Thank you. I am chief warlord Roe Bott of Madsense. I do not have much I can offer you at present, but my Ruler would likely reward you for my return.”
Beck inched closer into the tent, even with the pine scented cardboard in front of his nose the miasma was nearly overpowering. Closer, he could see Roe was staring at him calmly. How could this guy stand the stench? Regardless, his promise was way too vague. “That’s not very enticing, Chief. I already took a big risk, and I’m pretty sure there’s still a Peyote or two alive, else you’d be a Fugitive right now. I could just leave, or capture you and ransom you back to the Peyotes’ capital side.”
Chief Roe spoke matter of factly “If Peyotes are still alive, then we must hurry. They are remarkably resilient to incapacitation and damage. You should accept my offer, because it is unlikely that Beirutcake would honor any deal you try to make. They would likely attempt to capture you as well.”
Curiouser and curiouser. Roe was as cool and calculating as the desert nights. He didn’t seem angry, or afraid, blustery or even trying to be chummy. And disband it, he had a point.
Beck shivered as more of the Peyote’s poison worked its way out of his system. “And you’re saying your side wouldn’t try to capture me?”
“It depends on the circumstances.”
Beck raised his eyebrows at the casual honesty, that his side might betray or capture him. He was starting to consider the guy a nutbar and just leave, when Roe kept going. “But I can offer you a Pinkie Promise to counter Order any attempt to capture you, and to Order my ruler to pay you. My survival is vital to my Side’s success.”
Scoffing at the man’s chutzpah, Beck couldn’t help but wonder at the size of Roe’s ego. “Forgive my bluntness, but it doesn’t look that way. You lead all your troops into an ambush and just got captured. How can you feel entitled to give your ruler Orders? You can’t possibly be that full of yourself.”
Roe blinked a few times and seemed confused. “Why wouldn’t I be? I am made of myself, after all.”
Beck half laughed, half shook his head. ‘Is this warlord serious? Maybe the Peyote’s drugged him too.’ Regardless, if he was telling the truth...
A cold sweat started to moisten his face and arms from the tent’s heat, and as more of the remaining vertigo from the Peyote poison finally drained out. Other thoughts were coming into focus, so he asked. “How much Move do you have, and how far to get you to your side?”
“I have a move of six hexes. And our nearest city is our capital; that’s twenty four hexes away.”
Beck took a moment to solve the Mathamancy puzzle. Kevin could only carry one of them at a time, so one of the two would always have to use their own move to cross hexes… if they switched who was mounted, they could move the sum of both their Move, eighteen hexes. So a two turn journey to deliver this luckless Lord.
Then came the food issue. He had twelve rations left from the farm raids. Roe was level 5, so that’d probably really push the limit of what he could afford. He might have to send Kevin out alone to forage to make up some of the difference.
He finally looked back into Chief Roe’s unblinking stare. “Okay, I think I can take you back to your Side. You just have to make it worth my while. But let’s discuss it outdoors, the smell in here is croaking me.”
Outside, he finally got a good look at Roe, and he was even less impressive in full daylight. Pasty gray skin, bald, and fairly average features, notable only for his strong square jaw.
The pair were sitting just outside of camp, and far from the Wily Peyotes. Beck had a notion that even croaked their needles still carried their poison. Roe and Beck had been haggling, and so far Beck felt he was getting a pretty good deal. “So, in exchange for safely delivering you, you’ll pay twenty turns worth of upkeep for me and my mount, and give me access to your Changeamancer so he can buff up my equipment. Both weapon and armor.”
“Ten turns. And only contingent on getting me back to my capital safely in two turns. Any longer, and a turn of upkeep will be deducted per turn of delay.”
“Fifteen. And all your side’s guys can’t attack, capture or block me and Kevin from moving in or out of any hex for ten turns after.”
Roe hesitated a moment then finally spoke. “Agreed.” And held out his Pinky Finger.
Beck extended his own Pinky and shook. Deal struck, Roe became his prisoner, which almost doubled his stacks’ upkeep.
Frowning, he stood up and gestured to the camp. “Okay Roe, my supplies are probably not going to hold out feeding your level five butt’s upkeep, so we better see if we can forage any food from your camp.”
Roe stood up calmly, unphased at the mild insult or being called by his first name. “I advise against that.”
Beck stopped in his tracks and turned to look back at Roe, annoyed. “And why is that?”
“The Peyote’s drugged our provisions in the night. They were laying in ambush here before we entered the Hex, buried up to the snouts. You probably mistook their noses for black pebbles. When night fell they must have snuck out of the ground and treated our food with their poison. Then they attacked us in the morning, taking advantage of the confusion.”
“What a bunch of naughty tricky treaters.” Beck was annoyed but impressed at the ploy. “Okay, I saw them use some weird magical items though, we can probably use those.”
“If we can remove them from their grasp without pricking ourselves.”
“Heh, well, it’s a bit late for me on that front, Roe.”
“Also, we would be tactically safer if you release me as your prisoner, so we can formally ally and I can grant you my Leadership bonus.”
Beck’s face went stony. “Not gonna happen.”
There was a long moment of silence and stillness between the warlords, with only the wind rushing between them to mark the tension that Beck, at least, felt.
Because the only sign of feeling betrayed or even surprised coming from Roe’s was a tiny twitch of the neck. “That is not logical, why do you refuse?”
Breathing in slowly through his nose, Beck answered back with the same level of tactless honesty Roe seemed fond of. “Because I like moving first in the turn. And because if I let you free, you could break alliance and move on your own turn, make it impossible for me to take you the last leg of the journey, then run up to field units or sprint to your city at the last second and invalidate our contract on the technicality that I didn’t actually deliver you all the way there.”
Another long moment passed, and Roe only nodded. “That is a regrettable, but understandable choice. I must remind you though, that this also decreases the odds we can defend ourselves from any enemies we may encounter. Regardless, we should lose no more time and proceed to clear out the last Peyotes from camp.”
Roe turned and and started walking down to the camp. Beck looked after him as he walked, half relieved and half shocked that Roe hadn’t put up more of a stink over it. Shaking his head, he moved to follow Roe, and they made their way back into camp. They examined each of the Peyotes, with Roe spotting the ones faking being incapacitated and Beck dispatching with run-by strikes from Kevin.
Afterwards they gingerly, delicately, patiently disarmed them and removed their equipment. Perhaps the biggest prize of all was on the lead Wily Peyote, a Magic Hat. That’d been tricky, since the needles on that Peyote’s head were snagged deep into the inner band. By the time Beck got it off, he could see it still had maybe a couple dozen visible needles stuck to it and thick to the brim.
“Great, my first accessory and it’s liable to make me try and walk off a cliff.”
Roe walked up, wearing scavenged armor and a sword, and a map cylinder slung over his back. He was carrying a set of three nested duffel bags with the other items inside, to avoid the needles poking through. “Likewise, the spring shoes are completely studded with their needles. It will take significant time to de-thorn them.”
Beck looked inside his own rucksack at the net throwing canon and the anvil throwing device. “Yeah, the weapons didn’t get stuck with needles and seem fine, but we have very little ammunition for them.”
“Then there is nothing more for us here. I suggest we head out of the hex.”
Unable to think of anything else they could take, Beck nodded and started to make his way towards Kevin. For some unfathomable reason she was kicking dirt onto one of the croaked Wily Peyote’s and wearing a darn good impression of a grin on her beak.
The rest of the turn went by blessedly peacefully. Kevin had been fussy though, being forced into what to her must have felt an ant’s stride so Roe, and later Beck, could keep up.
They found a nice, secluded cave near the top of a hill, overlooking a flat wide expanse of russet colored sand dunes and a nearby capital city. This was one of the four deserts he’d seen on Tyr’s map. A Saharan type nearly completely devoid of plants, animals and water. Beck loved the desert, but he did not feel enthusiastic about traveling through this one.
The most interesting thing to happen was that they were privy to seeing a full on capitol assault of the nearby city.
Sitting down by the edge of the cave, Beck asked. “Do you know who those sides are, Roe?”
“I believe the side being sieged, the one in dark green and black, is Brussels Sprouts. What little intelligence we have on them is that they are widely disliked, possibly hated by everyone in the Battlespace. If I am not mistaken the attackers in pink and yellow are Havana Split.”
Beck leaned back against the cavern’s inner wall next to a softly dozing Kevin and asked idly. “Who do you think is gonna win?”
Roe considered. He was also standing nearby and observing, with a far more clinical eye. “Havana Split. They seem to have brought a greater force to bear, including flyers and heavies. Brussels Sprouts’ tower does not seem charged; Havana Split will likely attempt a decapitation strike from the air.”
He turned his cool, clinical gaze down to Beck until he looked up. Then, for what Beck was sure was the first time... Roe asked him a question purely out of curiosity. “Several times this turn, you have addressed me by my first name. Why is this?”
“Have I?” Beck shifted where he was sitting, to try and lean more comfortably on the cavern wall.
“Yes, twelve times so far.”
Beck half smiled. Looking at Roe, it was impossible to tell if he was annoyed, insulted, or bored. Finally, he just said what was on his mind. “I may work for you, but I’m not a unit under your command, or belong to your Side. It all just seems unnecessary.”
Roe didn’t speak, apparently waiting for Beck to go on.
Only a bit uncomfortable at the steady stare, Beck finally said. “Past experiences I’ve had with a Chief Warlord didn’t exactly inspire a lot of trust or respect. I don’t much care for ‘em.”
This time Beck waited for Roe to keep talking... and waited. He was about to turn back to the siege when he finally finished thinking and spoke up. “You shouldn’t believe something is normal after only one exposure. It can take many experiences to fully understand something. That is how I have learned, taking my experiences and thinking logically about them.”
And just like that, Beck felt slightly less put off by the strange chief warlord. Roe’d blundered, but so had he, and both were trying to learn from the experience.
He nodded his agreement and turned back to the siege, just in time to see the city banners change from dark green and black to a peppy pink and yellow.
The night was bitterly cold. What little wood they’d been able to scavenge had made for a pitifully small fire that was beginning to fade.
At least the cave they were in was shielding them from the wind, a small blessing.
Beck was having an uneasy dream, when Kevin shifting beside him and poking him twice with her beak woke him.
He focused through the darkness to see the pale blue seeds of Kevin’s body, shimmering back in the flickering orange firelight. She was looking deeper into the cave, worried.
“What is it Kevin? Is it a feral? Maybe more Wiley Peyotes?”
She didn’t answer, but moved herself a little higher off the cavern floor, readying to jump or run.
Anxious, Beck looked deeper into the cavern, past the reach of the firelight.
He didn’t see anything, but a familiar earthy, sweet smell put the hairs on the back of his neck on end. He reached for his axe, and started quietly but firmly kicking Roe.
Just as Roe began to rouse himself awake from his mumbles about Electric Sheep, a pick-pick-pick sound started echoing from the cavern’s ceiling.
Beck had just gotten his axe in hand when the telltale shriek of a Kooky Battew assaulted his ears, echoing off the cavern walls to a nearly incapacitating level! He bent down to one knee and put both his hands to his ears. He weathered the worst of it without letting go of his axe and stood up in a guard pose, and was about to mount Kevin when he noticed she hadn’t gotten up off the ground.
In fact, she wasn’t moving.
The dazed spiraling circles she now had for eyes showed her Incapacitation. Without hands of her own to shield her ears she must’ve been more vulnerable.
He turned to look at the approaching Battew, fear gave way to anger as he assumed a low crouching defensive stance. “You cracking screw bat! Come over here and I’ll cut your head off!”
The Kooky Battew obliged, dropping from the ceiling and flying straight at his head!
Beck rolled forward on the stony cave floor and held up his axe on the second tumble of his roll, avoiding it’s jaws and claws and scoring a hit across its belly.
He stood and looked to the mouth of the cave, and saw the Battew silhouetted against the starry sky, lit tenuously by the firelight as it struggled to get away from it. If anything, this wild Battew looked uglier than Terry’s tamed ones, perhaps even a bit emaciated.
‘Titans, it’s about to depop! That’s why it was being so aggressive, taking the risk of going after a stack of three!’ Perhaps most shockingly, the slice along its belly seemed to be closing.
Beck didn’t have long to think about the implications when it scrambled on the roof over the fire and then launched itself straight at him for the second time.
He ran towards it again and tried the same tumble and attack tactic, but this time the Battew managed to rake him across the back with a lucky claw strike.
He stood at the edge of the campfire, in front of Kevin and Roe, who now stacked with him. “Free me and Ally, so I can give you my Warlord Bonus.”
“What?! No! How can I trust you?”
“If you do not, we will both croak.”
Fuming and desperate, Beck relented. Roe automagically recovered his black and white uniform and warlord armor, and with it more of his bossiness. “Now Screen for me.”
“Are you nuts? We need dodge and attack it, not stand and take hits! We need to do enough damage to get through that regeneration or soak!”
The Battew screeched from deeper in the cave, slowly moving closer as it clung to the cave ceiling.
Roe stood behind him, resolute. “We will, but you need to trust me. I have thought through its attack pattern. Please, Screen.”
Beck looked forward at the vague shape threatening them. It leapt into the air and flew rapidly towards them. He was about to jump out of the way, when some instinct told him to plant his feet and screen. And trust.
The Battew flapped its wings and then twisted it’s clawed feet forward, Beck grabbed his axe two handed and did his best to block, but got another two Hits worth of damage as slices across his arms.
He was about to break his block and swing at it when Roe sprung out from his right, swinging the last, flaming branch from the campfire at it like a club!
The Battew wailed like the damned of Hellabad, and rapidly tried to disengage. This gave both Beck and Roe attacks of opportunity, which they savagely applied against it.
It was hectic, with the light from Roe’s flaming branch coming and going, but Beck finally saw. Everywhere the branch struck made the Battew dry, brittle, and an easy target for his axe, which finally did normal damage!
They each got clawed for their troubles, but a lucky strike to its left wing left it ground bound, and then it was all over in another two combat rounds.
Beck panted, sore, bruised and with cuts across the arms and face. Finally he laughed the ragged, desperate laugh of the impossibly alive. Roe breathed hard, but didn’t seem as badly injured.
“How--” Beck swallowed, moistening his throat and slowly walking up to Roe. “How did you know that would work?”
Roe briefly looked up from examining the fallen feral, before looking down and poking its burnt, cracked, and sliced flesh with his finger. “I saw it didn’t take damage from your attacks, but it scampered away from the fire whenever it was near. I thought it might hurt, or at least distract and frighten it. Luckily, it also made it very britt--”
Was the sound the shaft of Beck’s pickaxe made as it slammed into the back of Roe’s head, knocking him out cold onto the floor.
Beck leaned down and touched Roe where he lay crumpled and unconscious, recapturing him. “Desert Survival Rule #5, That’s the way the Kooky crumbles.”
I just realized this has the Finding Sanctuary tag. Interesting.
Lipkin was kind enough to let me reference Acme in Finding Sanctuary, so the previous, present, and next part will get the tag. The way it's happening is that the Wily Peyote's parent side, Beirutcake, will buy ditto'd magic items from Acme for special missions. The tag system is neat that way, it lets us build a kind of connective link when we make references.