Unjust Deserts, Part 12
Part 12: He's alive, aliiive!
With thanks to Highjumper for inspiring two particular stabbers names.
Beck’s eyes blinked open to full daylight, and he reflexively gasped for breath like a drowning man. After several panicked gulps of air, he was surprised to find his lungs weren’t full of water or cracked ribs. In fact, he was straight up surprised to be alive. The last thing he remembered was falling through the air, and managing to twist a terrified Terry into taking the brunt of the fall.
He slowly stood up in bed, only to find himself shirtless, pantsless, and covered in-- bandages? And why did his face, hands, chest, even legs itch so much? Beside him to his left, excited beeping was the only warning before Kevin stepped onto the bed (which groaned under the weight) and bowled him over as she nuzzled him (which made him groan).
“Yes, I’m alive you crazy bird! I love you too, it’s okay!”
Kevin fluffed her wings, chirped, and eventually backed up off of him without leaving the bed. Beck could look around now, and saw they were alone in the guest room. His breakfast-- scrambled eggs, beans, bacon, whole toast and coffee-- had popped on a nearby table. Kevin’s rations consisted of a bowl full of a gardener's assortment of seeds of every size and color, sitting on the floor next to a bowl of water. He felt maybe he was still asleep, he’d only ever dreamed of being able to pop Rations from Shmuckers, and now here it was, making his mouth water.
He moved his legs off the bed and stood, certainly he felt alive, but he had to wonder if the bandages had something to do with it. He started removing the ones on his arms, and discovered why he’d been so itchy. Several dozen clumsy stitches of a thin but strong black string crisscrossed his chest, arms, legs and hands. He put a hand to his face and felt the wiry points, he had stitches there, too.
They must have been magic, probably Changemancy since the thread automagically disappeared once he touched it. And as they disappeared he could see his new scars. Long and jagged, with puckered skin that was both pale and hairless compared to the rest of his ruddy complexion. The feeling when he touched them was like being dipped in ice cold water. So… this had been the price for his survival.
Permanently scarred Signamancy.
He shuddered, not wanting to think about that right now, and found his clothes neatly hanging in a wardrobe. Free of bandages and stitches, he started dressing, but out of the corner of his eye he finally noticed another set of new, startling changes.
Firstly, his upkeep had jumped to 180 Shmuckers, partly because he had reached Level 4… and also because Kevin was now a level 2!
Happy to be distracted by the good news, Beck pulled on his shirt and padded barefoot over to Kevin, who was nestling over the depression he’d left in the bed. “Attabird! You’re level 2 now, I’m so proud!”
Instead of preening, she tucked her head under a wing. “What’s wrong Kevin? Don’t you like being level 2? Your Defense and Move just went up, and I bet your Superspeed Foolamancy got stronger.”
She beep-beeped forlornly from under the wing, and Beck was left puzzling why she might feel that way (and that she could feel that way). It was odder still that she was completely ignoring her breakfast, she’d never met a seed she didn’t like. Then the realization dawned on him. She’d gone up in level because she had rammed Terry and him out of a window, croaking Terry and nearly croaking him in the process. She might have been comfortable running around in battle, but she seemed to hate doing harm, and to have croaked someone and nearly croaked him…
He sat on the bed next to her, and put his arms around her torso and head on her back, just breathing with her for a while. “It’s okay… it’s o-kay. I’m fine, and believe it or not, you saved me. A lot of people, actually. There was no way for me to beat Terry normally. I know it was hard, and you didn't like doing it… but I promise I won’t ask you to do something like that again. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you to hurt someone you care about.”
There was an awful symmetry between them now. Beck’s scars were on the outside, and Kevin’s on the inside… but he’d been the one responsible for both sets. He wasn’t quite sure which of these was worse.
So he hugged her, not trying to understand, just feel with Kevin. It took her a while, but she poked her head out from under her wing, blinked at him twice, then wrapped her long neck around his shoulders.
He’d finished dressing and then had breakfast. It was delicious, and oddly homey cooking. Like being back at the ruins he’d popped in. He didn’t really see why Riker would call popped meals repetitive, but he guessed maybe eating the same thing for hundreds of turns on end would make anyone think that way.
About the only thing he’d been worried over was that his Pickaxe was missing.
He felt naked without it. He was trying to decide whether getting his gear back should be his first or second priority (the other being getting an update on how the battle ended) as he stepped out of the door to the guest room. He managed to make it all the way out the door and order Kevin to the stables, when he was ambushed.
“Eeeeee! You’re alive! You’re aliiiive!” Kerri almost tackled him, actually shrieking in glee.
“I’ve got you in a Kerri Bearry hug!” Laughed the Dittomancer.
Beck chuckled awkwardly, and did his best to free himself without actually shoving the caster off. The-- well, enthusiasm for his well-being was welcome, but a bit overboard. “Thank you, yes, it’s a nice surprise to be alive.”
“ ‘A nice surprise’, he says! Oh, it’s a great big wonderful--” Kerri let go and smiled at Beck, only for the smile to sort of freeze on his lips, eyes darting as he took in the seven scars crisscrossing his face. “--sur… prise...”
Kerri looked down, and started to examine the scars on his hands with such a look of compassion and pity. It tore Beck between a shameful self consciousness of the scars and anger. He didn’t want to be pitied, rejected, not by someone who actually seemed to care. So he tried to change the subject. “I-- take it we won the battle?”
“Oh did we ever!” Beamed Kerri, taking Beck by the hands and squeezing reassuringly. “Chief Roe managed to tear them apart piecemeal with archery and more ambushes by Lancers on Upsunders and Gold Phishes! He’s really perfected the tactic now! Oh, but It was a close thing, he actually had to fight their Chief Warlord one on one, what a fight!”
Kerri started walking Beck down the hallway, done up in a brightly colored and cubist style, only letting go of his hands to gesture expansively as he recreated the fight. “Slice, tumble, punch! Their chief was fast and furious, but Roe had his Number all right, moving where he couldn’t reach and hitting in the armor’s weak spots! I helped too of course, doubling his leadership and attacks.”
They rounded a corner into a dark colored, metallic corridor with the stairs at the end. Beck nodded, glad to hear the news. “It’s good he made it out all right. And the Overlord?”
“Your diversion worked. It really worked! With the Battews going up a floor to chase you, he managed to sneak down into the basement levels. It was clever to have him call you through the Con Badge to confuse their barbarian.” Kerri’s excitement dropped as they reached the stairwell, and flipped to concern. “I know you probably didn’t have a lot of options Beck, but that was too risky! You almost croaked throwing both of you out the window!”
“I know.” Beck nodded, touching the tingly scars across his face, but feeling an odd sense of lightness, even triumph at the thought that Terry was croaked. “But we have to focus on the positive, and on our next steps.”
They reached the third floor, to find Roe waiting at the landing. “Good morning, Beck, Kerri. I overheard, and that is what Kerri is bringing you up to talk about. Please, let us discuss it in the war room.” For once, Beck was actually happy Roe seemed to be tone deaf to how other people felt, not giving his scars a second look.
Roe lead them down the hall, apparently everyone here liked to walk and talk. “Riker tended to your wounds; we were not sure you would survive to receive start of Turn healing. It is fortunate you have, but it also means you were out cold most of the morning, so you have missed our situation review and planning. Suffice it to say, we got through yesterday much better than expected.”
Chuckling at the understatement, Beck felt optimistic enough to quip about it. “Yeah. We survived, for starters.”
Roe simply nodded, then moved to open the war room’s doors. Aimee and the Overlord were already in the war room, the former now a level 3, and passing the time by playing “jacks” with a tidy pile of green figurines. Yesterday’s Beirutcake losses, no doubt.
“Aimee, your Overlorditude.” Beck nodded to the pair, and the Overlord’s manic smile took on a conspiratorial curl. “Accept no substitutes! For tough jobs, only Packer brand Barbarians will do!”
Beck smiled more at the happy tone of the overlord’s yelling than because he had any Erfly idea what the overlord had said. Through being allied, he’d caught a dense, complicated layer of Orders underneath.
Kerri nodded, apparently used to the Overlord’s style of communicating enough to interpret for him. “The Overlord thought your decoy action was inspired. He especially enjoyed yelling through the Con Badge to get the other Barbarian’s attention.”
It was weird, both in how he was being thanked, but also that he was being thanked. It felt gratifying.
“If I might have everyone’s attention.” Roe was all business, moving to stand by the table and picking up a croupier. He pointed at a piddly group of green Beirutcake units halfway out of the city’s Battlespace. “We suffered minimal casualties, 6.2% of Infantry. One Upsunder, seven Gold Phishes. Nothing critical. While we managed to decimate over half the enemy force, croaking two of their warlords. However, we believe the Foolamancer has escaped the battle and is in that group.”
Beck leaned closer, noting they seemed to be going in the direction of the Waterworks. “They take turn after y-- us, right?” He stopped himself, still getting used to the fact he shared turn with Madsense now.
Roe nodded. “Yes, and they are close. We can reach them with a strike force before they manage to heal and regroup. Then we can croak and possibly capture their Foolamancer. From there, seizing either of their cities or Waterworks becomes tenable.”
Beck began to nod back, but then he started to put his newest rule, #6 in use. They didn’t just need to think about how best use Foolamancy, but how to defend against a master Foolamancer. “That’s probably good simply to clean up the Battlespace, but I don’t think we’ll find him there. He’s a Foolamancer, he could be in any of these hexes, more if he’s riding on a Regift, all while Veiled so we can’t find him. Probably counting on us wasting time looking for him, while he’s hidden and escapes happy as a Flipthee bird… to the Waterworks.”
To his left, Aimee caught the green pieces she was playing with in her hand and monotoned “lolwut foolers gonna fool”. It was hard to tell, but Beck thought she was agreeing with him, she was beaming the same dense pack of Orders when she spoke, albeit more clumsily than her father.
“Yes.” Seconded Roe, looking at the assorted pieces on the map. “That is logical, and quite sensible. I now believe we need a two front approach.” He used the croupier to hook several of the black Madsense pieces in the capital and pull them into the same hex as the escaping army.
“We will do what they hope we do. Attack their forces in the field before they heal, while they are weakest, then sally back home to the city.” Roe picked up four pieces from a box, showing Beck two Warlords, black and grey, and two mounts. He put them down on map, then used the croupier to move them straight to the Waterworks. “But first, we will lay an ambush. You will go on Kevin with Dittos of Aimee, veiled, and wait at the Waterworks for the Foolamancer to arrive. You are to scout the hex, and wait. Should he arrive, your priorities will be to croak the Foolamancer, capture only if possible. And probability permitting… raze the Waterworks.”
It was a lot to take in.
He looked at the newly scarred back of his hands, not recognizing them anymore. Changed.
Beck walked slowly down the palace’s main staircase on the way to Riker Island’s prison laboratory. He knew he should be thinking about the upcoming mission, but his thoughts kept going back to the painfully superficial.
It was vain, but he realized he’d only seen his face a handful of times, mostly in reflecting pools of water or curved shields, and he wouldn’t recognize it the next time he did. He reminded himself it was better than croaking, but he couldn’t help the feeling that he’d lost something. He’d been replaying the events in his mind, and he really hadn’t needed to fight Terry. But seeing her again had brought up all the old feelings of helplessness and impotent rage. He hadn’t wanted to hide, but fight, and protect some of the few allies he’d found.
The same was true about ordering Kevin to ram them out the window. He could have lied, pretended to accept her offer, then just turned around and kept protecting the escaping Overlord with reinforcements. She’d have probably escaped, but he wouldn’t have nearly croaked, or gotten these scars… but could he have really trusted her to keep her word? Wasn’t he better off knowing she’d never hurt him again?
In fact, he felt a dark swell of pride at having croaked her. There was one less thing to fear in the Capital Wasteland. He’d gotten even.
He put the self indulgent thoughts away as the open doors to Riker’s lab came into view. It was much the same: fires burning, cauldrons bubbling, and lightning arcing.
Beck made his way carefully across, mindful of the equipment strewn about. Past the two Stabbers running tandem in a cylinder, across from a device that used ropes and pulleys to pull a box up and down, and something new. A complicated system of flasks, vials and pipettes that were dissolving a handful of Wiley Peyote needles, then piping the sickly green liquid around as they were heated by small fires.
He finally found Riker, hard at work … looking at and touching various items on a large table, alternating with waving a beeping handheld device over them. It looked bizarre, but he was extremely focused.
Suddenly remembering yesterday, how angry Riker’d got when Chief Roe had just shouted and ordered him out to meet them, Beck realized that these city folk must have a thing for knocking on doors and the like. So he did the next best thing, and ‘knocked’ on the steel bars of the door for this particular cell, filling the space with a vibrating metallic ‘clang-clang-clang’.
Riker looked up, a flash of annoyance crossed his face, only to quickly cycle through various other emotions once he recognized Beck. Finally, he settled on brusque. “It took you long enough, I was starting to think you’d croaked.”
Beck managed a weak smile. “No, and I have you to thank for that. I didn’t think Changemancers could also do Healomancy.”
Riker straightened and came over to Beck’s side of the table, peering down at the scars on his face. “Can I see your arms?” Beck lifted them, more curious about the politeness than the request. Riker looked at his arms, turned them palm in and out with a surprisingly strong grip for a caster. “Yeah, it’s kind of a joke for you to say that, given how badly I fracked up on the side effects.”
He let go of Beck’s left arm and waved the beeping device over his right. “I tried all sorts of things, but none of it seemed to work. So I… cheated, I think. Used Changemancy to create a micro-system and try to teach your body to heal itself, guided by the stitches and bandages. But it looks like Signamancy had the last laugh. I’m-- sorry about what I did to you.”
Beck breathed out, most of that had gone completely over his head, but he thought he got the gist. But as he lived and breathed… an apology from Riker? He actually felt responsible for the scars, like they were his failure and not a result of Beck’s carelessness. He figured the least he could do as thanks for the man who saved his life was try and ease that burden, even if he had to lie a little. “No, no need to apologize, I’d be croaked without your help. I can live with-- no, I can live because of the scars.”
Breaking eye contact and moving back to the table, Riker seemed to mumble with his head down, examining the lights on the beeping device. “Right, the scars…” He coughed, then gestured to the table. Beck walked over, finally seeing all the items on it clearly. A mismatched set of armor and tricked out bow, Terry’s no doubt. A full set of green and yellow armor, a message hat, various weapons, and his axe.
Tone carefully neutral, Riker explained. “This is the highest value loot from yesterday’s battle. Nothing terribly noteworthy, weapon wise. Except for that Archery auto-specialed bow. But the armor may interest you… I originally made it for Chief Roe Bott.”
Walking over to the armor, it was a handsome set of desert knight armor still in Beirutcake green and gold. The inner layer was made up of a gold chain mail shirt, neck, gloves and pants. Over that would go a green tabard, belt and half cape. Neatly arranged next to the chain mail was a crusader helmet, pauldrons, greaves and vambraces, also in green. The design on the solid pieces was curved, meant to block and slide strikes away. The greaves even looked as comfortable as his hiking boots.
He picked up the chain mail shirt, expecting it to weigh several dozen pounds, and found it to be light like a regular shirt. The helmet, pauldrons, and rest were the same, all amazingly light and cool to the touch. He looked over to Riker, awe just seeping into his tone “What’s this made of? I’ve never felt armor this light!”
Smiling slightly, Riker put one of the chain mail gloves on and picked up one of the pillaged swords off the table. “I call it ‘myth made real’, or Myth-real for short. One of my first real breakthroughs in Changemancy. See, it’s not just light.” He sliced the blade across the palm of the gloved hand, and pulled back a dulled blade. “I built in damage soak into the chain mail. It’s also polarized to reflect away heat from one direction but not the other, to let your body heat-- never mind. In layman's terms, it’ll keep you about as cool as you would be in a plain cotton traveling raiment while protecting you from fire attacks.”
“Crack it, sold! I’ll figure out a way to apologize to Roe about it later.” He claimed the set for himself, changing the color from the vibrant green and gold into a stark black, white and silver.
Riker ‘hmph’ed, almost laughing. “Well, you’re bound to take better care of it than that hump Roe did, losing it in the first place. But then again, you did go dumping your dumb old self out of a tower, so don’t do that again. I’ve only got so much patience for putting hump-ty dumb-ty warlords back together again.”
And just like that, Beck burst out laughing. He hadn’t realized how much being treated normally by Riker-- insults and all-- was something he’d needed.
Riker smiled before he remembered to frown, rolling his eyes as he gestured to Beck’s pick axe on the table. “Anyway, that brings me to the final two bits you’ll need before heading out. Enchanting your pickaxe. I didn’t have enough juice to do it properly last turn, what with all the poison I had to prepare, but now that we’re not a turn away from being wiped out I can actually do something interesting with it.”
Beck had actually been giving it some thought. While Terry was out of picture, he might end up facing Kooky Battews again, or other exotic creatures who would take more damage from fire. And given this armor was fire resistant. “How about… making it deal fire damage?”
Riker smirked and said “I’ll do you one better” picking up Beck’s pickaxe and balancing it easily so the axe blade faced down. He put a finger at the pick’s point, and slowly dragged it down towards the blade. As he went, a deep blue shimmer enveloped the pick, like light twisting inside curved glass--- or ice. By the time his finger reached the axe head it crackled once into a smoldering burn, like the pages burning in a book.
Satisfied, he handed the pickaxe back over to Beck. “I think you’ll find these enhancements will synergize well with your armor. The axe head is now a fire axe, doing fire damage. It get’s its heat from the back, now an ice pick, which will add cold damage any time you hit.”
Turning it over in his hands, Beck couldn’t help but wonder as the red-blue weapon glowed in the lab’s darkness. Riker leaned back onto the table. “I suggest you give it a name, most magical weapons have better Signamancy that way.”
Beck nodded absently. “Well, one end is hot, and the other icy… I’ll call it Icy-Hot.”
Riker sighed and rolled his eyes. “I make poetry out of magic and metal, and he names it ‘Icy-Hot.’ I should’ve known the warlord who named a female bird ‘Kevin’ wouldn’t go for conventional names. One last thing. Chief Roe told me about your mission, you may find this helpful in pacifying the Foolamancer.” Riker pulled a small device from a pocket in his lab overalls. It was a cylinder half the length of a fork and a bit thicker, with a strap and black cap on the top that could be pulled off, revealing a button with a tiny circle on the side.
“I call this a Miniaturized Air Conveyed Enervant spray. Or M.A.C.E. spray, for short. The canister is full of refined Wiley Peyote venom. You need to take off the cap, like so, and spray it at close range into the Foolamancer’s face, preferably. It has three uses, each for a two second burst. One dose should be enough to fully incapacitate him without croaking him. Got it?”
Beck nodded. “It seems simple enough. I didn’t think we had so much Wiley Peyote venom left over though.”
Riker grinned darkly. “We didn’t.” And walked out of the cell, beckoning for Beck to follow, and leading them into a cell further down.
They passed the two stabbers jogging in a cylinder, and Riker absently snarked. “Ger, Bill! Don’t let me catch you slacking!”
“Ye-as sir.” They echoed.
He took them to a cell paneled in a white enameled metal, hiding the interior. The inside was frosty cold thanks to a mysterious draft of frigid air being piped in, probably something to do with Ger and Bill’s running. Aside from that, it was like taking a trip down memory lane. The cell had a pile of Peyote corpses on the floor reaching hallfway to the ceiling. There was even a Yew-Log-E tucked into the back.
Riker’s smile was chilling, to the point Beck wondered if that was the source of the cold. He walked up to a table in the middle of the horror show, with a de-thorned Peyote laying on it.
Oddly, there was barely any smell of decomposing plant or animal matter, the cool air seemed to be slowing their decay. Riker casually picked up a pair of gloves and pliers, explaining. “We were almost completely out of the venom, but the other ‘spoils’ of yesterday’s battle included enough Peyote carcasses to harvest quite a bit of needles and venom.”
Part of Beck was repulsed, but the sight of the Yew-Log-E stirred one of his first memories. One of a bitter promise he’d made himself long ago.
Beck kept his face neutral and tone even as he asked. “Do you have any plans for that Yew-Log-E, Riker?”
The caster cocked his head. “I’d been meaning to examine it, Ferals that can grow with time, Change… it intrigued me. Why do you ask?”
Beck tried to keep his face neutral, but a satisfied smile crept across it as he spoke. “I made myself a promise a long time ago. That when that barbarian -- Terry Tory-elle, the one who threatened your ruler -- croaked, I would toast her over a roasty Yew-Log-E.”
“Well.” Considered Riker, giving the massive Yew-Log-E a discerning look. “I don’t need all of it. It’ll stay frosty in here for some time, then we can use it in a cooking lesson when you get back. I think it’ll go well with some white wine...”
He looked over to Riker with a smile. “Cheers.”
Wasteland survival guide
Rule #1: don’t panic! Panic makes you do stupid crack.
Rule #2: It’s dangerous to go alone; tame a friend.
Rule #3: Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.
Rule #4: The desert is weird; roll with it.
Rule #5: That’s the way the Kooky crumbles.
Rule #6: Foolamancy isn’t just a special, but a state of mind.
@Highjumper: Not to sound corny, but reading you guys' comments makes this worth it. I can't include everything, but I do actually try to incorporate ideas, gags and even arcs. Also, yeah, the Myth-real is a pretty high magic/tech thingamabob, light and sturdy with fun fire soak for the discerning adventurer.
@falcore51: And I enjoy reading your comments! Hopefully I don't poke my eye out on one of these puns.