Unjust Deserts, Part 14
Part 14: A river called denial
With thanks to Twofer and Free Radical for helping amp up the battle.
“It’d be no trouble, really.”
Drawled Shelley, standing next to a mirror she’d conjured with her Foolamancy. “Any time we’re in the same hex, I could make you whole again, and it’d last through the whole turn.”
Absently, Beck knew he was still wearing his full armor, helmet included, which only made the fact that Shelley was somehow projecting the image of his unhelmeted face emoting deep yearning over his real face, and back at him from an illusory mirror, all the more impressive. But concretely, all he could think was how angry her exploiting his personal tragedy made him.
And how tempting the offer was regardless.
“I--” Beck swallowed, touching his arm gingerly and feeling only smooth skin underneath. “I’m under contract to Madsense. I couldn’t hurt them for these next five turns even if I wanted to.”
The overlord lifted his right hand to examine his cuticles. “It matters little. Even without you leading one of our armies, Madsense will fall eventually. If not to us then to some of the other Bluzzards in this decrepit sand pit.”
The illusion of his past self melted off of Beck, and he was surprised to find himself disappointed. But something else caught Beck’s eye then. Kevin had appeared, wounded and limping, behind the Overlord and Shelley. He ignored her at first, no doubt this was another of Shelley’s artful illusions, but-- she didn’t cast them randomly. She usually cued her illusions to whatever they were talking about, and something about the way Kevin beeped joyously and limped forward once she saw him seemed too genuine.
Crack it, it was really her! Beck started running towards her and yelled “Kevin!? I’m coming!”
Shelley narrowed her eyes at the change in Beck’s appearance and followed his gaze, finding Kevin. A petit frown on her face, she snapped her fingers and Kevin vanished mid-stride towards him. He kept running towards where he last saw her, but only felt a tantalizing breeze blow past beside him.
Shelley ran a hand through her golden hair and smiled a sweet, plastic smile. “Sorry my dear. There’s only enough room for one Foolamancer on the stage right now.”
What the crack had just happened? How had… Kevin, she must have cast Foolamancy on herself and Beck, illusions of themselves over Shelley’s, so they could find each other. But Shelley must have put her own over them again.
“Indeed.” Agreed the overlord, all too amiably. “Enough talk, I will have your answer now. Kneel before me willingly, or we will get your compliance by force.”
Shelley retook her position by the Overlord’s side, hanging on his arm. “Either is fine. I met just the most interesting Turnamancer recently, a Lady Selena. I’m sure she’d be happy to work you over.”
Beck breathed out. He holstered his axe, but kept his hand on his belt as he started walking towards the overlord. Kevin had given him an idea. He didn’t know if it would work, but at least it wasn’t as stupidly risky as his window stunt. He casually pulled out the MACE canister.
Both of them laughed, and Shelley spoke through giggling fits. “Really, you think we’re anywhere near enough to be affected by that piddly Changemancy item?”
Beck removed the safety cap and put his finger on the button. “No, but I am.”
He pushed the button for only a second, half the time Riker said would knock a unit out… and breathed in the tiny, shimmering green cloud of venom suspended in the air.
Whatever Riker did to extract and refine the venom, it was good in the worst way possible, the effects were instantaneous and hit him as hard as a charging Yew-Log-E. Kevin’s projection had proven something, given him an idea. Foolamancy seemed to be telling him what to see, but the Peyote venom changed how he saw. His plan hinged on the two cancelling each other out, but what happened was much weirder.
The ground around him wobbled like a wiggly waggly tail, and he had to fight to keep his footing. Both because the venom was messing with his sense of balance, but also because the world was simultaneously turning into an abstract, runny oil painting and also staying perfectly aligned. He looked ahead towards Overlord Percy and Shelley, and saw them uncorrupted by the venom, standing worriedly ahead amid the old scene of the desert outside of Madsense-- but he also saw the deep blue pools yawning wide around him like gaping mouths, and the struts and colorful shutes of the water park danced merrily around them like Super Pac-Y-Derms. Around them, he could still see the last Ditto of Aimee fighting the defenders, only she’d become a bird woman with cannons for arms.
A boom shook the ground and he turned to see a sixty foot tall glass Kevin looking for him!
“Beck! Hon, where are ya?!” Called Kevin, but she couldn't see or hear him since her head was now so high up it was surrounded by pink cotton candy clouds! "That cotton-picking minx is still messin' with mah head! Ah can't run, but Ah'm Veiled now."
“Kevin, I’m here!” He wobbled unsteadily towards her, trying to put as much force as he could into the silent Order to stack in the vain hope she might hear.
She really didn’t see or hear him, but Shelley seemed to. “Stop, or I’ll make her fall into one of the pools!”
Beck stopped in his tracks, confused that her voice was coming from two places at once. He turned to look at the picture perfect Shelley, simultaneously twenty feet away and young and beautiful, and also caught sight of a silvery and gray version of Shelley just ten feet to his right and flanked by two tinfoil knights. This one was, oddly, also inside of a copy of the picture perfect Shelley, but wearing a silver dress. The overlord beside the perfect one in gold had a sneer of contempt aimed at Beck-- but there was no Peyote hallucination of him anywhere. Only the perfect, beautiful overlord existed, drawing his sword. “Surrender now or I shall knock you senseless myself!”
He looked over to Kevin, moving ever so slowly towards one of the pools with her Titanic strides. He couldn’t get to her in time, but if he was quick quack quirky enough-- Beck smiled at the picture perfect Overlord. “Aiiii don’t think so.”
In the dreamlike logic of the Peyote venom, he realized this Shelley’s game. Only one was real, but which witch was which?
He made his bet, and lunged right towards the ugly silver spider limbed Shelley.
The spidery caster rapidly wove a strand of webbing into a bow with one set of arms and made an arrow out of her silver hair with another, then shoot at him with it! It hit clean in the shoulder but clattered off, the chainmail soaking all but three Hit of damage… but it did knock him off balance and send him tumbling down, which was a lucky break because it helped him dodge under one of the tinfoil knight’s swipes of his cardboard tube sword.
Muscle-memory be praised, he managed to draw and swing Icy-hot successfully at the attacking knight, landing a solid hit on his leg with the ice pick. The tinfoil knight came tumbling down as he managed to get up on unsteady legs. Around him, the illusions of Beirutcake soldiers gained motion and all turned to attack him. Ignoring them was tricky, like blocking out everything you saw from your left eye as false, but ironically, what made it possible was their picture perfection was at odds with the Peyote's runny trippy paint vision.
The other knight kept up his screen of the Shelley spider and yelled “He's not using foam weapons! Gee Emm! I need a Gee Emm!” He soon found out why, a mercurial sheen seemed to be forming in the distance as more tinfoil knights drew near, and Shelley loosed another arrow. She was a crack shot, this one hit cleanly in his calf and actually pierced the chain mail!
He laughed uproariously, pain feeling quite different right now, and he plowed forward. In a brief flash of lucidity, he simply sprayed the second tinfoil knight in the face with the Mace spray. He would have taken another arrow to the legs but he shoved the now giggling knight backwards towards Shelley in an impromptu screen.
Rather than stay and fight, Shelley took the opportunity to disengage and run to the nearest metallic stairs up to one of the shutes’s scaffolds, all the better to snipe him from.
Incensed, Beck shouted after her “Come back here lady!”
As a reply, she turned and shot another arrow his way once she was at the base of the stairs. Only this time it was aimed at his head. Beck only managed to dodge because his knees seemed to turn to jelly at the glint of steel and he wobbled left. He kept going with the wobble and ducked behind one of the shutes for protection. Interestingly, this one wasn’t spewing water or had huge man-eating flowers coming out of them like a few he saw in the distance.
He followed the green pipe up and saw it wobble like a snake and bending at right angles… up to the top of the scaffolding lady Shelley was climbing. Hmm...
He hopped inside a open manhole for the huge pipe, with the drugged up Peyote Venom making this plan seem entirely sensible.
He ran along the inside, and finally realized one of the upsides of this crazy plan was he couldn’t be sniped by Shelley. Her illusions were another matter though. She'd dropped the pretense of realistic units and filled his field of vision full of waddling toadstools and turtles, all hostile and attacking him!
He squished them underfoot, jumped over them or kicked their turtley shells as he put what willpower he could into ignoring them and ran up, down, around more bends than were probably there. Eventually, he reached an open manhole cover. He jumped out in his most heroic pose: arms flexed to show off his bi’s and with legs bent at the knee as if he were mid sprint, all with a magical ‘Garlp-garlp-garlp!’ sound playing in his head.
He wasn’t jumping, he was falling.
Oh, drat, the second manhole cover was open because it faced down. Luck was on his side (or the Peyote Venom wasn’t completely cracking up his perception) and he saw the same scaffold as Shelley was on beneath him.
She must have been waiting for him, because the spider-witch shot him as he fell, but the Myth-real was worth every Shmucker, and the helmet ricocheted the arrow off the side. Drugged up as he was, he actually managed to shout “See!? Two can play at shutes and ladders!” as he landed unceremoniously on top of her.
He tried to use the MACE canister on her, but she swatted it away. Beck let go of Icy-Hot and somehow managed to find her neck through the haze of hallucinations and Foolamancy she threw his way; kept his grip despite the flailing of her eight spider arms and squeezed. The Peyote venom and her Foolamancy hit him twice over: she turned into a snake, a statue, whole armies appeared next to him, a T-wex roared-- then they all vanished, and the only thing he was left with was a trippy vision of a sad, tired old spider woman of a caster for a prisoner.
Three figures lay in the outskirts of the Waterworld, lit by the moon, and chilled by the cold desert wind.
Beck leaned on Kevin with his left hand, trying to control the shivering… not from the cold, but from the Peyote venom working it’s way out of his system. He felt bile rise up in his throat and fought back the urge to vomit. He’d, ah, been less successful earlier, but it was all dry heaving at this point.
He didn’t trust himself to start a fire and not fall in, in fact carrying Shelley out of the Waterworld had been a Titanic feat in his current condition. So Beck and Kevin were huddling together for warmth in the moonlit night, far from the dangerous beauty of the Waterworld. In a crumpled heap ahead of them lay Shelly, the real Shelley, wearing an old, tattered dress that must have once been lovely and none of the extravagant jewelry from before. For the interminable stretches of time he was still under the effects of the venom, she’d been a silvery spider with a deformed black gangrenous sack on her shoulders that looked like a half melted man. Disarmed of her bow and quiver, she was now, blessedly, back to looking human.
Turn had ended for Beirutcake after he’d captured Shelley, though in his addled state he wasn’t sure if it was ten minutes or ten hours after.
His plan had been to hold Shelley hostage in exchange for safe passage out. The overlord had seemed incredibly attached to her, so he figured it was his best shot.
But it seemed the Overlord had never even been in the hex. As --sobriety, for lack of a better term-- returned to Beck, he thought maybe she’d been projecting him, possibly transmitting his image from far away with a Thinkagram. That’s how Roe had said they’d first contacted Madsense.
Kevin had wrapped her neck around his shoulders, resting, but not sleeping. She might have injured her leg, but as the only fully aware one of the pair she was keeping close watch of their prisoner. All the Aimees and ditto’d Kevins seemed to have croaked-- no, what was that term Kerri used for defeated Ditto’s? Depopped. All the Aimees must have either depopped each other or been defeated by the defenders. Thinking of that--
“Beep.” Kevin beeped into his right ear, alerting him of Shelley waking up.
He looked at her, and she was indeed starting to stir. She rose with her back turned to him, on spindly arms with a delicate, pained moan. Though Beck was sober enough that the hard edge of hallucinations were gone, she still had that spidery air about her. She lifted up her arms to rub her face, but then pulled them back in surprise and started examining them. Something about it felt like Deja Vu.
Beck had strained to sit up straight and compose himself, trying to seem strong so she wouldn’t think he was still suffering the venom’s effect, so she didn’t get any ideas about overpowering him or escaping.
Her voice came slow, and sounded a bit more raspy than that of her youthful illusion. “What-- what have you done to me?” She turned to face him, twin rivers of tears streaked down her gaunt face and shone brightly in the moonlight.
At first he thought she might mean his choking her and taking her prisoner -- which he was perfectly ready to defend on the grounds of it having been a battle, and not wanting to be croaked, or croak her -- but the way she held her manacled hands up to see her wrinkled, ash gray skin, he suddenly doubted she meant that. In fact… it reminded him of his own experience with his scars.
He looked down at his own gloved hands, remembering the scars underneath, then tried to meet her gaze reassuringly. “Nothing. But if you mean the illusion of yourself you were projecting… I’m sorry, but it faded when I incapacitated you.”
Shelley hugged her bare shoulders, she must have been cold in the chilly desert night, but Beck didn’t think that was her reason for holding herself. She looked up again, haggard blue eyes shining urgently. “W-where’s overlord Percy?!” She tried to stand up, only to trip over herself with the manacles around her feet.
Beck leaned forward to try and help her, but he was still queasy, and the arrow to the leg really was starting to bite now, so he stayed put. Something about her struck a chord with him, so he decided to apply rule 3. He’d try to be kind to her. Maybe he could befriend her into joining Madsense?
“Easy, lady Shelley. He’s not here. You were projecting his image from somewhere else, a Thinkagram, I guess?”
Words caught in Shelley’s throat, she searched around desperately before looking fixedly at Beck. “Please, let me go... I… I need to speak with him. I need to see him again.”
Beck started to shake his head, to try and talk her down, when she rose shakily to a standing position. She seemed to have half sunk into her grief. A shattered visage whose frown and wrinkled lip threatened to once again turn to tears under the silver moonlight. It was then that he realized she had the exact same shade of ash gray skin as Riker.
Shelley pleaded in her old, worn voice, looking like some long forgotten statue. “H-he’ll give you anything you want. Please, he needs me to protect his dream! I can’t let thirty thousand turns be forgotten--”
No more gracefully than she had, Beck struggled to his feet and got up in large part thanks to Kevin being near to lean on. “Thirty thousand turns?” The number was impossibly large, like another of her illusions. “That’s-- is that how long Beirutcake has existed? Had the Waterworld?”
She opened her mouth, but only a small, broken note escaped her throat. She twisted towards the Waterworld and started shuffling towards it as quickly as she could with her feet bound.
Beck sighed, and he and Kevin started to plod behind her. It was off turn, so she couldn’t actually escape and become a fugitive, but there was an off chance she might try leading them into a trap, or there might be hidden weapons in the park she could use to try and attack, and Beck’d really like to avoid hurting her any more than he already had.
Shelley stopped suddenly at the gate to the Waterworld, just outside of the concrete foundations. She pointed with one bony finger at a gold plated stone, while the other hand hung limply nearby, attached by the manacle’s chain. “Here, he stood right here when he shared his dream with me. If you don’t set me free, all of it will be for nothing. I have to keep it alive, I have to remember!”
An odd thought crossed Beck’s mind. She was fixated, obsessed with this place and Percy, but it only seemed to be hurting her. His ‘glorious dream’ of empire hadn’t just hurt Beck, the desert, everyone living in it-- he’d hurt the woman he claimed to love with it.
Beck’s expression hardened, and he unholstered his axe. “Sometimes-- sometimes it’s better to forget.”
He’d meant it to sound comforting, not ominous, but Shelley’s eyes went wide. “What are you… no, no you mustn’t!”
He started marching, methodically, towards the nearest garishly colored pillar. Shelley managed to hobble and hop desperately towards him, faster than he’d though possible, probably meaning to get between him and it, but there was no way for her to reach him in time.
Beck swung the fiery part of Icy-Hot slowly against one of the struts supporting a water shute, leaving a trail of cinders in its path as he went through the necessary motion to raze an improvement in an uncontested hex. The edge of the strut started to smolder like it was catching fire, then a soft tinkling sound filled his ears, like a crystal cup falling and shattering -- but the explosive rush of water that followed quickly drowned it out.
Plumes of water rose into the night sky, briefly creating a moonbow. Hundreds, thousands, no, tens of thousands of gallons of water rushed past the dry riverbed as the improvement vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving nothing beside but the smoldering decay of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare. The water coursed downstream, actually spreading well past where the shore of the riverbank used to be in its eagerness to run its antique course.
And through it all, lady Shelley sank to her knees, sobbing, even as water lapped around her knees and ankles.
Beck walked up beside her, braving the water that threatened to drown both and put a hand to her shoulder. “You’re free now, we all are. The desert… we… can start healing. You don’t have to protect anything of his any more.”
Behind him, Kevin beeped rapidly in terror. He turned, only to find her standing flamingo style, wounded leg tucked under her. She was slightly startled, but not panicked like her tone had suggested. She cocked her head. “Beep?”
In the distraction, he felt Shelley slip from under his hand. By the time he looked back at her she was crawling into the river on hands and knees, the water was receding slightly, but she was making good headway into the onrushing river. Eyes wide, he called out to her “Lady Shelley, no!”
Beck took three determined steps after her into the deepening river, water lapping around his wounded leg, before fear took over, and he took a step back. Kevin didn’t much care for his heroism either, biting his half cape and pulling him back.
Shelley kept wading deeper into the water, until she finally reached the point the riverbank turned into full on river, the kind only the Water-capable or Seafaring could escape. She sputtered, but managed to get her head above water long enough to look at Beck.
There was a world of heartbreak, loss, and pain in that one look, and no shortage of blame aimed his way. He saw her lips move, but amazingly, he heard her voice clear as day beside his ear. “Remember-- remember that I loved him.”
And just like that, she was gone beneath the waves.
Beck tried to follow the light spot of her body as it sped underwater. But eventually she was carried away by the waters into the lone and level sands, stretching far away.
He sent a note by hat later that night, once he could hold a pen steady. To let Roe know he was still alive. Then he fell croaked asleep from every kind of exhaustion, emotional, physical, mental. It wasn’t hard at all to ignore the rumble of the hat as letters came in reply.
Much of the next morning was spent slowly writing back and forth, sharing intel and coordinating their actions. He spent it with Kevin, both sitting under the shade of one of the broken shutes, watching the water saunter by, much more calmly and gracefully than last night.
He’d been resigned when he shared the bad news about Shelley. It weighed on him something fierce for a lot of reasons. He’d been expecting Roe to order him back to the city, so they could regroup, but he’d been told to stay put. They were moving all the units they could spare towards the capital of Beirutcake. Beck couldn't imagine that was smart, but Roe said they’d discuss it in person.
And think of the Mailer Daemon, Chief Roe walked up to Beck, still sitting in the shade of one of the shutes. Roe nodded cordially. “It is agreeable to see you again, Beck.”
“Same. I could use a friendly face.” He looked up at Roe’s calm, emotionless face. Yeah, it definitely counted. “So why’d you move the army up here? It can’t be good to leave the capital under defended.”
Roe’s gaze drifted about the ruined hex as he spoke. “It is hardly under defended. With the funds from your razing this improvement, father upgraded the capital to level 4. This has freed us to pursue an opportunity we can not ignore. The side of Beirutcake is no more, we move to capture their now neutral city and colonies.”
Beck shot up, staring Roe straight in the eyes, half expecting him to be pulling his leg despite knowing better. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am. Our advance scouts have reported Beirutcake units depopping in the field last turn. An advance scout has even managed to confirm their capital is flying a neutral gray flag.”
Beck looked away to the retreating river. “But that would mean… Shelley was really the Overlady.”
Roe didn’t seem to be reading the undertone of regret in Beck’s voice as he answered nonchalantly. “The Beirutcake Foolamancer who croaked herself yesterday? It would seem so.”
“But… that doesn’t make any sense. She projected an image of overlord Percy, she talked like he was alive and missing her yesterday. Why was she creating this elaborate illusion?”
Roe stopped admiring the river and turned his full attention to Beck. “I can only offer theories for her motivation, but they will all be speculation. If anyone can answer that question, it is you, considering you were the only one to interact with her meaningfully.”
Beck looked downstream. “Did I? I couldn’t save her. Crack it, I think I-- I think I made her jump in. And she croaked like I would have, if someone hadn’t pulled me out of the oasis I fell in, but I didn’t... I thought I’d read her passions well, knew what needed to be done to help, but I was clueless. In fact, looking at this river… I finally got it. Everything I’ve wanted since popping. Terry is gone, I helped heal the desert. I should feel great, but it feels hollow somehow. I mean, what’s left for me to do? Nothing beside remains.”
Something approaching a curious (compassionate?) look came over Roe. “The release of the river is a double edged sword, Beck. All the sides downstream will grow richer, stronger. The fighting for this new resource will only intensify. One of them damming it to Hellabad again is still a possibility.”
He put a hand on Beck’s shoulder, snapping him out of his melancholy. “You have ended part of your journey, the one you started alone. But healing this land will require strength. To unify, to stop the constant razing, the pointless warring. Perhaps… you could spend the next stretch of your journey, finding a new purpose… with us.”
Beside him, Kevin beeped a happy note, and Beck smiled, returning the shoulder clasp. “I’d be honored.”
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.
That was a really great and unexpected (and sad!) way to end things. 30,000 turns trying to keep her departed love's dream going...
I wonder if Shelley actually survived that though. I mean, if she was Overlady, the side ended when she was captured anyway, not because of croaking. And... she's a Foolamancer. They've got tricks, as Jack would say. She's an archer too, so she already has one unexpected special. Maybe she's a seafarer in the desert too...
You are one talented writter. I was on the endge of my seat and tears came to my eyes.
Are you happy "just" writting fanfics? Have you considered tackling bigger projects? How does your finances look like :D?
Pirateaba just quit her job as she managed to get to 1000$ on Patreon writting her Wandering Inn (after she wrote "The Last Turn" here)
All the love! ^_^ I'd pitch in on your Patreon account if you had one
@Free Radical: The archery is all you. It just meshed so well with what I imagined her regular strategy for protecting the Waterworld was.
As to if she survived... the story is in most important ways yours once you read it. Which is my way of saying, if you want to imagine she got away, then she very well could have. She lived most turns surrounded by liquid death, keeping a water breathing talisman with her in case of emergencies would have been entirely within the realm of possibility. But, you know, surviving might be crueler considering what she's just lost.
@WurmD: Thank you! For once, I'm not sorry to make someone cry. ;D
I've considered it, and I do have a few ideas for a novel I've been meaning to try. Writing here has been a great exercise and confidence builder. Buuuut I'm not going to be quitting my day job just yet. I'll keep you posted. c:
Just to avoid confusion though, this is only the end of the first arc of the story. It's a bit of a "soft" ending like with Hungry Jungle and Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, where one directly follows the other. Only this time you won't have to wait a year for the conclusion. ;D A lot of the month I stopped updating went into creating the buffer I'm currently using, there's some 5-ish parts already written, and maybe 2 or 3 more will conclude it (but I'm horrible at guessing how much I'll actually write, so grain of salt).
As much as I like Dark Souls style unanswered questions and hints from a hidden past, I do actually want to answer a lot of the open questions left from previous parts.