Unjust Deserts, Part 13
Part 13: Fun in the sun, pain in the rain
X +2417, Y -112 was a frumpy and nameless little desert hex.
There was hardly anything interesting about it. No resources, no strategic value, not even interesting terrain features in the vast and sun blasted hex. In the absence of ferals, the sun was the default apex predator in more ways than one. As it reached its zenith, it blasted the area with a continuous, uninterrupted stream of scorching heat and blinding light that was, nonetheless, completely ordinary in the Capital Wasteland.
Only a few lizards, bugs and birds-- not so much lived, more survived-- there. Most Of the already sparse cacti had been destroyed with destructive foraging, the few survivors agonizing through the last legs of their miserable, waterless lives.
Looking about, there was only flat, hard dirt that had long ago cracked into an abstract, fractal pattern devoid of much rhyme or reason. Still, it wasn’t all bad. A tenacious little Flipthee bird had managed to shake off the unfortunate irony of being cwapped on as it flew around the Rock Band’s mesa, and had managed to find a small nest of centipedes in one of the croaked barrel cacti, and was busily pecking at it to tease out some lunch.
On one (un)lucky peck, the Flipthee managed to catch one by the tail! Grinning smugly (well, inasmuch as beaked critters can grin) it held the squirming centipede overhead for a moment to savor its victory, when the oddest thing happened.
A gust of wind slammed into it out of nowhere, knocking the Flipthee off the croaked cactus and the centipede right out of its mouth.
It cawed indignantly, but quickly hopped over to the bug and chased it down before it could make an escape. It had to swing the centipede around a few times in its beak to confuse it, but just as it was about to bite its chewy little tail off, another gust of wind came out of nowhere and sent bird and bug flying into the air.
The Flipthee was angry as an angry bird can be. So angry, that through sheer force of will righted itself midair, spotted the bug, and launched itself with a mighty flap of its red wings at the falling centipede with a grace and determination that would make the Titans weep.
Ready for a third gust of wind (because even its puny birdbrain could suss out that Fate was messing with it) it tucked in its wings and then threw the centipede away from the draft. Managing to swoop to the spot on the ground it’d landed on, too dizzy to move.
Triumphant, it raised its beak to gobble it up, when…
The centipede exploded into a mushy green paste, splattering the ground and the Flipthee’s incredulous face.
It was then that the Flipthee, for inability to use a stronger term, flipped the crack out.
Beck glanced behind him as his stack of four ditto’d Aimee’s riding ditto’d Kevin’s ran veiled across the hex. He was almost positive Kevin (the original) had knocked a Flipthee off of a cactus, but he couldn’t be sure at the speeds they were running.
Looking forward, he was realizing it was all about synergy.
Riker had used that word to describe how his newly enchanted pickaxe and armor worked well together. Heat from the blade, and from striking targets, would bounce right off. Sure, he wasn’t exactly a Fireman, able to put out fires, or a Red Dwagon, able to frolick in the flames of an inferno, but he could whale away with his fire axe and not worry about catching fire himself.
But what Beck really found synergistic was leading his stack across the desert. Using his Desert-capable special to pick out not just a good route, but get them there faster, skirting obstacles, even avoiding leaving tracks. All while Kevin veiled them. She could be absolutely silent when she wanted, not screaming across hexes leaving a massive dust trail.
They’d need to be fast and stealthy, if they were going to catch that Foolamancer and arrive at the Waterworks undetected.
So it was that the flat desert hexes floated by beneath them, under the circular blur of Kevin’s running legs.
They ran over flat, cracked earth. Past chopped down cacti, croaked desert willows, tumbleweeds, the skeleton of a T-Wex, and once they reached the dry riverbed of the Swiss Mississippi river, even a beached Turnamancy barge. For those brief seconds, he saw the dilapidated barge, paint flaking off the hull, decayed and lying forlornly on its side. A sad, metallic moan filled the air as the paddle wheel on it’s ‘top’ tried to turn in the wind.
And beyond it, rising in the horizon like a rainbow specter, the thing that had bedeviled his short life. Caused all the devastation and pain they had just seen. The Waterworks.
The five riders had slowed judiciously near the hex boundary. Beck turned to the Aimee’s, hopeful they understood him better than he did them. “This is it ladies. Let's recap the mission’s objectives. We go in, stay veiled, and scout the defender’s numbers and possible traps. We do not engage anyone; croaking any units risks their Overlord finding out we’re here and warning their Foolamancer. Once our turn ends, we set up to spot the Foolamancer as he approaches the hex boundary. Capture if we can, croak if we can’t. If our scouting shows their defense is weak, we raze it.” He looked from one set of unblinking eyes to another. “Clear?”
“no leeroys or u banned”
“lfg raid waterworks”
“yaya getz loot nowzorz”
“veil total hack we ownz lol”
Beck had no idea what any of that meant, and while the barrage of underlying silent orders from all of them was too much to process, there was a generally positive and affirmative tone to them. So he nodded and put on his crusader helmet.
He led the group to the hex boundary and they crossed. The only defensive emplacements were a series of twenty foot tall thick metal cylinders, close enough together a man couldn't squeeze through, but just wide enough to allow arrows through.
They snuck in through an open guard gate, with the guards none the wiser, and split up to quicken their search and giving them an unfettered look at the monstrosity before them.
The gravelly desert dirt soon turned into a fine, polished cement walkway, intermixed with some kind of green carpet-- Beck belatedly had the word “grass” appear in his mind to describe it.
Kevin walked on it nervously, not used to the soft feel of it under her feet. Beck was preoccupied though. The sounds of cascading water were all around them. Brightly painted metallic towers rose around them like a forest. Yellow, orange, red, purple, all in the brightest shade possible. There were service ladders and walkways leading up and between them, and each had one or more shutes going from the top to another, sometimes spiraling and twisting, or in nearly straight vertical drops into--
Blue. So much--- so much impossibly bright blue, crystalline water in cement pools around them. Fed by streams of water coming out of these strange shutes. Beck’s grip tightened angrily around the pommel of Icy-Hot, and he couldn’t help but wonder when his hand had moved there.
His mind raced, boggled as he thought. ‘What is this? What’s it for? Is this some kind of giant water mill? But then where’s the wheels?’ He was puzzling this out, when Kevin jumped suddenly to the right, just in time to avoid a thin but tall jet of water rising from the cement floor into the sky, and falling back down as cool, delicious rain. A trap?
All around them, more and more jets sprang to life, revealing a pattern of holes for these fountains that formed the outline of a few long words. The spouts alternated the water pressure, going up and down to simulate ocean waves. As the fine mist fell on them, real tears escaped Beck’s eyes, but he wasn’t sure if it was in awe at the beauty of it, or rage at this cruel, criminally wasteful use of water.
He looked down at the word written in the pattern of water spouts, at the actual name of this place.
‘Welcome to Waterworld.’
Leaning forward on Kevin, he felt a little hollowed out as he spoke. “Kevin, coast near-- but don’t let more water fall on us. It could be some kind of trap.”
They explored the water park for around an hour before reconvening, finding the place criminally under defended for an improvement Beck felt must have been worth thousands-- if not tens of thousands-- of Shmuckers. But he still had no erfly idea how this made Beirutcake any profits. There were no commanders, just eight knights on Regifts, fifty infantry, and about as many heartbreakingly beautiful and wasteful ways to use water.
But then again, Beck’s own experiences with water were enough to remind him how lethal it could be. The entire place was enticing. Beckoning onlookers to dive under the sprays where to quench their thirst, jump into the pools to cool off or go down the slides where they could drown, to forget their Veils and play in the bright blue jets of water. It was all a gigantic trap.
It wasn’t an idle whimsy that four copies of Aimee Bott had been sent with Beck. They faced a Foolamancer, and every pair of Warlord eyes they could spare would be critical to find and capture him.
The minutes ticked by. His magic hat rumbled, delivering a handwritten note from Chief Roe to inform them they had mopped up the escaping Beirutcake army, but hadn’t encountered the Foolamancer. They all got into position, hiding around the outer edge of the hex to spot the Foolamancer. Not long after that he felt Turn end … and the minutes dragged on. Then hours.
Beck found his attention wandering. He’d taken off his helmet for a moment while waiting. He looked up from the dry riverbed and up at the sun, and despite being Veiled and see-through, he found its rays stung just as hotly.
When he looked down to the horizon though, he found himself in a very different Hex.
They were in some kind of lush wetlands, a wide river meandered slowly past them. Reeds swayed in a sweetly scented breeze. Palm trees dotted the side of the riverbanks and cast a delicious shade over them. To either side he could see rich plantations irrigated with river water, for cotton, wheat and more. He could spot Chocodiles and Vanillagators in the water, or sunning themselves by the silty shores.
And… oh, Titans.
It was the dilapidated Turnamancy barge they’d passed. Colors restored to a royal blue and white. A crew of sailors walked about the deck, he could even spot courtiers, nobles and warlords on the top deck. Some waved to him merrily as it chugged along, sailing upstream. He could even make out the name on the side. It was the ‘P.S.A. Memory Lane.’
If ever there was a time to remember rule 1, to not panic, it was now.
“Does it please you, Barbarian?”
Beck spun his head around at the sound of the deep, commanding man’s voice. Kevin beep beeped rapidly and moved her head in every direction, both looking for the speaker and finding no one. Instead, the voice seemed to always be coming from some place just out of sight and reach. “It’s how this quaint little river looked before I popped, and began enacting my grand vision.”
Crack it, the Foolamancer must have come in while he was distracted! It was then that he realized something. He tapped his Con Badge. “Aimees! Stack and spot!”
A light, feminine voice laughed delicately-- from the Con Badge. “Oh, I wouldn’t bother, they can’t hear you. And I’ve got them a bit-- preoccupied at the moment.”
Grip tightening on his pickaxe, he realized this had become an unwinnable engagement. As long as the Foolamancer kept distorting his view it meant any of the defenders could come by and simply stab them to croaking. So he silently ordered Kevin to run in the direction he remembered the hex boundary was, and then around the hex’s edge. They might not be able to leave, but maybe if they got far enough away the Foolamancer would lose her grip on their senses.
Kevin beeped affirmatively, and ran full tilt into the river ahead of them. The water splashed up around her feet, the Chocodiles and Vanillagators snapped as if to eat them, but he kept reassuring her this was all a trick… and then she ran on the river!
It was surreal, like being under the effects of Peyote venom; they ran across the river’s surface and through the steamboat as if it were a misty cloud. As they reached the other side of the river the illusion started to waver, shimmer… only for Kevin to trip and fall face first into the cement, sending Beck flying and tumbling off her back into the ground.
Beck coughed, trying to stand and find Kevin to try again. He briefly caught a glimpse of the Aimees riding their own Kevin’s, engaged in a fierce battle-- against each other! The river shimmered back into view ahead of him, and his heart started sinking metaphorically in its waters.
The disembodied man’s voice had an aristocratic, offhand air to it. “Not a bad gambit, I must say. But my dear Shelley Game is much too good for that.” This time though, the voice had a direction. Beck sprang to his feet and swung Icy-Hot left towards the voice, leaving a trail of cinders in its path, only to find a fantastically beautiful warlord standing several yards away. His long auburn hair fluttered prettily in the breeze, but most stunning about him was the disdainful sneer and cold, commanding gaze he had perfected.
His arms were wrapped around an equally statuesque blond woman. She hung on his arms like a jewel, which was fitting, as she wore a King’s ransom worth of silks, gold and gems.
The warlord lowered his eyelids a fraction. “But where are my manners? I am Overlord Percy Bishy-onen. Shelley Game here is my chief Foolamancer. And you are?”
Beck sprinted towards them, but somehow, they were always exactly seven yards ahead of him, seeming to glide over the sands. The warlord chuckled, lifting a hand daintily over his mouth. “Oh, that simply won’t do. I suggest you behave, or you might find yourself falling into one of the pools without knowing it... or your pet will.”
At that, the blond caster by the Overlord, Shelley, artfully swept her hand, revealing a distraught Kevin, limping with a broken leg around the edge of a deep, deep pool of water. What?! When had they gotten so deep into the park-- oh, Titan’s toenails, the Foolamancer must have skewed their perception of space.
Thinking of whom, she tittered. “She’s a fine bird you’ve caught. It’s taking most of my attention to keep her distracted enough not to find you, or fall into the water. I’d hate to-- teeheehee-- slip up.”
That. That made Beck stop cold in his tracks. “Don’t-- all right. I’ll play your game. What do you want?”
The overlord’s air of amusement evaporated as he let go of Shelley, spreading his arms wide. “This is no game, barbarian. What I want-- is for you to look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
The river shimmered, turning into something quite similar to the Waterworld he’d seen when he first arrived. Only this time, the shutes weren’t coiled around their towers, curling and sliding down, but exactingly straight and level. They gurgled and vibrated from carrying vast streams of water to far away hexes. It was amazing, he could see thousand of gallons of water being piped through the tubes.
Walking casually under the violet metal struts supporting one such tube, the Overlord explained. “I had these built, the hub for an aqueduct system. All to irrigate this swamp of sand. Deliver water to nearby cities to boost production, allow farms to be built all along each and every pipeline. All for a simple price: that of the vassalage of the city-sides that received this gift. Adding them to my empire.”
Beck was shaking with rage. “You mean, extort every side in the Capital Wasteland to get back the water you stole.”
The ground gave out from under Beck, zooming far away beneath him and leaving him astride entire hexes as he became the size of a Titan! He could see the Rock Band’s mesa, the city of Madsense, even the Waterworld! And from it spread a network of colorful canals that stretched far and wide to cities he’d only seen on paper, and suddenly the desert bloomed into a spiderweb of rich, deep green.
The Overlord stomped confidently, carelessly across the map, crushing tiny armies underfoot. “As well they should! They lack the strength to topple me, the vision to build, the imagination to dream, and the ambition to grasp it all!” The overlord was in full rant now, and Beck realized this man was every bit as larger than life-- and dangerous-- as if he were the size of a Titan.
And just like that, he put a foot over the mouth of the Swiss Mississippi River, stopping the flow of water and turning the desert a dull, cracked grey again. The Foolamancer giggled, and played hopscotch jumping over the dry canals and across entire hexes.
The overlord toned down the drama for a moment and fixed Beck with a smug, appraising gaze. “But you-- you actually managed to stand in my way-- briefly. But even so, I have you now in my grasp. At my leisure, I can destroy you.”
Shoulders tense, Beck shot back incredulously “So is this it? You want to-- gloat before you croak me?”
Shelley skipped over to the overlord’s side, putting her arm in his. He turned and confided with her as if Beck wasn’t even there. “My, but he can be dense. Are you sure?”
“Of course, my liege, my love.” Shelley leaned in and stole a kiss. She turned to Beck with an amused smirk. “He means to offer you a job.”
“You’re serious.” The urge to argue was straining the bounds of his self control, but the exact depth of his predicament had finally dawned on him. She controlled everything he saw and heard. He had to play it cool until he found a way to actually attack the Overlord, not least because Kevin’s life was on the line. Though it was an obvious ploy, he had to play along and pretend to be interested. So he swallowed and played the part. “Alright… you have good taste, at least. Any particular reason I’m being so honored?”
Shelley smiled brightly and the Titanic hexboard beneath them zoomed into one specific hex, revealing a ground view of the outside of the city of Madsense mid battle, but suspended in time. Beirutcake soldiers frozen mid swing of the sword, siege towers forever trapped in the moment they toppled, and the Aimees loosing their arrows atop Upsunders as they broke out of the ground.
Despite the loss unfolding around them, she seemed chipper as she spoke. “Those Admen dolts didn’t have a prayer, they were croaked to rights. Our Allies captured their chief warlord, we brought twice their number of units. Siege. And yours truly. Then you came along, and what you did there... you think like a Foolamancer. Do you know how hard it is to find a Chief Warlord with half your imagination?”
Beck turned to the Overlord, tempering his reaction. “And why should I join you? You’re the one responsible for all of the misery in this desert.”
Beck had expected a few reactions. Vehement anger. Threats. More boasting. Insulted indignation. Bald faced denials. But the overlord just laughed.
“You honor me, to think I am the architect of this Hellabadscaping. No. That honor goes to another, or perhaps the Titans themselves for weaving their tragic Fate. For generations before my popping and since, the Capital Wasteland has been a hotbed of strife. I have, in fact, throttled back the violence by crippling the ability of sides to create farms, orchards, and plantations.” The overlord walked about the frozen battle scene, admiring the pounce of one of the Upsunders as it burst out of the ground.
He turned to Beck, at once regal and disdainful. “This accursed, figurative sea of treachery has drowned with the ambition of disloyal heirs and the jealousy of feckless commanders. You ask why you should join me, Percy Bishy-onen? For the simple reason that I am the only man alive who has found a way to unite this land: by forcing the sides here into Vassalage to my greatness, and take it to new heights!”
Shelley walked closer to Beck, standing tantalizingly close, but he suspected it was just another illusion while she stood safely out of range. “If being on the winning side isn’t enough, I can always sweeten the pot.” She put a hand to one of the frozen soldiers, and the shape changed to someone-- Beck’s breath caught in his throat. Shelley pulled her hand away, and the soldier straightened and turned to face him, smile on his face. It was him. Beck. From-- from before he was scarred.
“I managed to get a good Look at you before your ‘accident.’ While you can’t compare to my lord Bishy-onen, you could be--”
His smiling mirror image walked towards him, and he was ashamed to involuntary take a step back. But it was unnecessary, the phantom vanished as it stepped into and through him… but looking at himself, he now realized he wasn’t wearing his new armor, but his original raiment. And his arms and legs-- he put a hand to his face. Smooth. The tingly sensation from the scars was gone.
“--well.” Concluded Shelley. “You could be you again.”
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.
"What I want-- is for you to look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair."
Ha! I guessed those words were coming as soon as the really clever combination of names of the overlord and caster came up (seriously, how do you come up with these?), but that was brilliant.
I'm fully expecting now for the story to eventually finish up with another Ozymandias quote during the climax... :)
Wow, a lot of strong reactions for this part, thanks y'all!
@Free Radical: Good eye! And yes, the next part is kinda peppered with the rest of the poem.
As to the how: drafting, brainstorming, arching around and towards the references and puns, and big old heaps of google-fu. I think my time being a DM helped, my style there was "no, no need to retcon. Build around the details you're including, extrapolate. Luckily the big month long buffer before I started posting (and the latest one I just took) has helped iron out a lot of details.
@Jatopian: It wouldn't be a good dilemma if it was easy. I'm not going to spoil what he chooses, but sometimes I wish I were a Dittomancer, so I could write this in the style of a "choose your own adventure" with all the branching paths.
@Falcore51: I always enjoy writing bombastic 'villain' types. It's hard not to get carried away sometimes, but since this guy is the Ozymandias from the poem, crossed with an anime Bishonen pretty boy he's all that stuff dialed up to 11... though I should restate he's anime Bishonen levels of pretty, he'd probably have lots of fan girls just because.