Unjust Deserts, part 18
Part 18: Re-re-reunions
With thanks to cloudbreaker for lending the creepy threads.
A cool draft blew atop the Rock Band’s mesa, rattling a wind chime hanging from one of Kala Vera’s wagons and filling the air with clean, metallic notes. The curious handmade chime had three circles supporting several dozen forks, spoons and knives dangling on strings. A clever decoration and curio, at once homey and hinting at a sort of affluence. After all, only a unit strong and wealthy enough to pop rations could afford to create such a pointless musical bauble.
‘Affluent.’ Beck grinned inwardly at his growing vocabulary. He’d picked up that word while reading The War of Art.
Reading was a new pleasure, one that hadn’t stopped after finishing Kerri’s gift. He’d discovered he enjoyed reading on the long nights camping when he wasn’t quartered in one of Madsense’s four cities; which was most nights. So far he’d gotten through The War of Art, the Ruby Yacht by Omar Kayak (a lovely book of poetry about living the moment that made his heart ache). He’d been plodding on and off into a pilfered copy of the book of Fanon, but his current read and absolute favorite was The Anarchemist’s Cookbook by Anne Nonimous, with all sorts of unorthodox recipes with rather... unique... effects.
He dismounted from Kevin and walked slowly through the camp. The Rock Band must know he was here. He’d written them through his hat, and Paula Treatise must have picked up on their arrival via her Predictamancy. But no one was there to greet him, or even walking around outside… very odd, considering it was mid day.
Wood rattled, and he was joined outside as one of Kala’s musician courtiers clambered out of the latrine. The courtier whistled as he buttoned up his trousers, only to freeze at the sight of Beck in his black crusader armor, visor glowing bright red even in the noonday sun. Beck turned to face the courtier, meaning to ask which tent she might be in, only for the musician to turn pale as a Holey Sheet and sprint towards the parked wagons.
He grumbled, and the sound became amplified and dropped in pitch as it passed through his helmet’s Marlboro filter, turning into a low growl. Beck briefly entertained the notion the courtier hadn’t recognized him since he had the helmet on, but odds were he had, just… not the “him” he wanted to be recognized as right now. ‘The Bleck Knight’ had been gaining quite the reputation these turns as an implacable, merciless mercenary that struck from the shadows. Then again, he’d learned these rumors by spying on enemy units while under Kevin’s Veil, and used the intelligence to help stage attacks.
It bugged him. That was who he was to enemy sides like Berliner, not friends and fellow barbarians. It was like the War of Art book said, ‘it’s better to be feared than laughed at.’ If you could ‘own’ your physical shortcomings, even ugly names and mocking titles like ‘Bleck Knight’, you could come out stronger for it. Still, it meant the rest of the Rock Band had probably heard about his exploits too. And honestly… he hoped they wouldn’t think less of him for it. Even after all these turns he considered them mentors, friends. They were all barbarians, they were his people.
Once Beck and Kevin were outside of the main tent, he gave her a look and silent order to stay put, and remembering their first visit, to beep and then veil herself if a T-Wex or anything else bothered her. She beeped merrily, and started to preen between her wings for dust.
He winked his left eye twice, switching the helmet’s visor from “Glare reduction” red to “Night sight” green and peered through the door; he saw four Commanders highlighted inside, seated around the fire pit of the main tent. Scars or no, he took off the helmet before widening the tent flaps, and hollered “Hello, it’s me, Beck!” for good measure before stepping inside.
Beck walked into the tent, and Lex Pode could only admire the seven significant scars crisscrossing his face.
They were hideous, of course, in the way only the best of Shocks could be. A direct jolt to the system that broke ranks with symmetry and the normal composition of a face. Looking past the scars to the face that bore them, past the casual smile, he could see faint traces of shame and pride. Oh, but where were his manners? “Good day, lad!” He greeted merrily.
Beside him, Paula nodded her head, not taking her glaring blue eyes off of him for a second. Lex mentally harrumphed. No matter how much he tried to teach her, she never cared for manners. Kala nodded as well, not stopping her strumming of the song ‘It’s a long way to tip her, Ari’, but he noted her own personal energy field rippled in sympathy at the sight of Beck. For his part, Tyr looked up from placing the coffee pot over the fire, and actually managed to swallow his shock at the state of their guest and smile too. “Please, take a seat Beck. We were about to have some coffee.”
Beck sat in front of them, a true vision of vile Signamancy: dressed in black, covered in scars and with the red glowing helm tucked under an arm. The only thing not really helping his image was his crest, an embossed silver profile of a running Baudseed, carrying a backpack. Honestly, despite the agreed upon role Lex was to play in this conversation, he needed to complement the lad about his absolutely lovely use of color. “My goodness lad, but your personal choice of colors and livery are spot on, you certainly do look the part.”
The lad blinked, amused. “What part would that be, Lex?”
Lex puffed a breath out of his nose. “Why, blackguard and villain, of course!”
Managing a half of a laugh, Beck looked to the others when no one else joined in. “He’s-- you’re joking, right Lex?”
Beside him, Paula’s steady bright blue gaze could have lit up a city street. “He is not, your Signamancy reflects your actions.”
For once agreeing with her assessment, Lex nodded. “Indeed my good man. I must commend you on picking a truly shockingly synergistic Signamancy. And goodness, do you have quite a list of Naughtiness to your name! Croaking Terry Tory-elle, aiding and abetting Madsense in the destruction of three sides, exploiting the ferals and Natural Allies of the desert to create disturbing combinations of Flower Power and Changemancy, and upsetting the delicate political balance of the Capital Wasteland.”
The look of betrayal, fury, and underlying confusion-- Lex could feel Beck’s inner storm growing; he’d crafted his words quite precisely to kick out the foundations of his self worth and image, to lay bare the dungeon zone of his insecurities. Lex could see the nerves inside of Beck grow brighter and more erratic: the normally neat lanes and highways of paired white and red lights moving Juice in opposite directions now swerved erratically, even Beck’s head lights were flashing.
Beck leaned forward where he sat, tense. “Croaking Terry was a mercy, not just to me but everyone in the Capital Wasteland! And ‘Delicate political balance’? It’s a free for all out there! Lex, what is this about? You can’t-- can’t believe the rumors I’m doing this out of some kind of malice!”
Lex affected a patronizing, slightly bored and disappointed tone. “That is precisely why it is delicate, you are changing it from a free for all, to a game Madsense is growing shockingly close to winning. Berliner, sides in general, have harmed you personally; so I find it hard to believe you can do what you’ve done without some truly admirable amounts of callousness, hatefulness, vindictive glee or epic levels of self Foolamancy.”
The lad was teetering now, on the edge between two great storm systems. Between outrage at Lex’s challenge of his worldview-- and his own doubts. The highways of energy going through his body picked up speed, swerved into each other as they drove angrily and lead to collisions along several intersections. Lex was tying Beck up in knots internally.
Beck’s face hardened as he pointed angrily to a corner of the tent, beyond it the Swiss Mississippi was clearly visible from their mesa. “I-- we are restoring balance in the Capital Wasteland! Or maybe you’ve been too busy profiting from the state of constant war to care? If you even want it to change. I razed the Waterworld, and Madsense didn’t hoard the river with a new dam. We’re just playing a better game than everyone else around!”
Lex tutted dismissively. This simply wouldn’t do, he hadn’t quite shocked him well enough to seeing the error of his ways. To reconsider his actions. That this only tipped him closer to boiling was, of course, intentional.
Speaking of boiling, the coffee pot started whistling, but Lex ignored it as he used what he knew was Beck's most painful memory of being harmed-- and turning it around on him. “Yes, the game of kicking down someone weaker than you, making them helpless and then taking away everything they hav--”
In a flash, Beck jumped effortlessly over the Changemancy firepit while knocking over the boiling coffee pot; all while yelling furiously and rearing back to punch Lex, camp truce forgotten.
Time slowed for Lex, all the Erf that Mattered was in Motion. It was beautiful. Pure, unbridled rage unmasking the pain at his core. There was still something in him they could reach!
Time began speeding up. Oh, right, Beck was rearing back one arm to punch him in the face, and aiming the other at his throat. Lex uttered “Tesla.” Charging his skin with a field of defensive electrical Shockmancy meant to stun an attacker. And just as Beck’s gloved hand made contact with his neck, the sparks flew.
Kala Vera wasn’t her real name. It was Mary Achi.
Yes, that Mary Achi.
The Mary Achi.
It was a name from a lifetime ago, a life begun in another desert entirely. It had been a life of wandering, confusion and mistaken identities. Of unexpected love, only to lose that love as they were tossed around in the wake of factions fighting each other for revenge. She had survived so much, fought so hard-- and lost the only woman she’d ever loved. Her guitar stuttered, missing a note from “Miss Americium Pie” when her left hand twitched in phantom pain from the memory of the arrow that pierced it. Despite dawn healing, it’d never quite recovered--
“Hello, it’s me, Beck!” She didn’t have time to dwell on her past, as Beck came in through the entrance to the tent. “Good day, lad!” Lex greeted merrily. Beside her, Paula only nodded, unblinking. Tyr managed a smile as he put the teapot over the firepit. “Hello Beck, please, make yourself comfortable, we were about to have some hot cocoa.”
Once he was sitting under the main light of the tent, she could see his face-- and felt like she must be looking in a mirror. “Oh, Beck--”
He looked up to her from his seat, a twitch of self consciousness crossed his face before he covered it up in a smile. “Hey, any landing you can walk away from.”
Lex cut in clinically. “It’s a shame Terry didn’t.”
Kala shot him a critical look. They’d agreed she would lead the conversation, try to gently steer him to their point of view. She turned to look at him, face blank and emotionless save for a clenched jaw. Time to try and smooth things over. “We heard about it from mutual contacts in Beirutcake, before it fell.” She carefully avoided blaming him for that, but she didn’t hide her emotions for what she said next. “Beck, we were-- are-- worried for you.”
It was taking him a moment to recover from the shock of Lex’s comment, but he managed to put on something close to a cheerful tone in his voice. “Thank you, Kala, but I’m fine, really! Better than fine. I’ve-- we’ve-- been doing great things. That’s why I’m here: something big is coming up, and I wanted to invite you all to work for Madsense, and help us save the Capital Wasteland.”
She nodded, shifting the tempo of her song to something hopeful and yearning. “We saw what you did, freeing the river. It was very impressive, but the other things you’re doing…”
He was quick to cut in “I think I know why you might be worried. The whole ‘Blech Knight’ thing is just a persona to strike fear in enemies. And Madsense is offering vassalage before conquering sides. It’s just none have accepted so far. But you’ve all got connections, a reputation, you could help Madsense actually do better at diplomacy than this blabby warlady they’ve got doing it, and finally unite the C-dub. Think about it, no more fighting pointless battles, razing hexes. The desert could finally heal, be itself.”
She watched him as he spoke. There was such passion in his voice, his face had lit up, and those awful scars danced. She could see a familiar emotion behind his eyes, regret, and trying to make it mean something, justify it. She just had to help him reach past his pain-- but could she, when she had run from hers? Even changed her name to escape it?
Kala’s strumming changed to something bittersweet. “But Beck, don’t you see the contradiction there? Conquering the wasteland won’t unite it, only end so many lives and sides on a quest to impose order rather than build peace. Even with our help, I can promise you none of the existing sides will bend knee willingly. Madsense conquering the entire wasteland is a mirage, it’ll collapse from its own weight in due time. This land is cursed that way Beck, you must have seen it by now.”
He looked from one to another, searching their faces while wearing an honest, pleading look on his. “It’s not about conquest, Kala. It’s about changing our way of life! We barbarians wouldn’t be mercenary Bluzzards any more, picking at the desert’s croaked corpse. We could be its defenders, it’s champions. And-- and Madsense is different. Strange, yeah, maybe even bizarre-- but so far none of their warlords or commanders have been so power hungry or craven to split off their own side. Please, you all helped me. Let me help you, I know I don’t always live up to your standards… but I want to.”
There was only one response. The Rock Band had spent most of the morning arguing it over, but still. It broke her heart to have to say it. And not long after, Kala’s vision grew watery as Beck walked out of the tent.
Once inside, Beck thought the tent seemed much as before, but perhaps a bit smaller. Instead of the stew pot from his first visit, there was a cast iron kettle above the fire pit, slowly warming up. Tyr, Kala, Paula and Lex were all seated around it and facing the entrance… so maybe they really had been expecting him.
Lex Pode removed a pipe from his lips and greeted him “Good day old chap.” Next to him sat Paula, who only nodded, not taking her glowing blue eyes off of him for a second.
“Beck.” Nodded Kala with a mysterious smile, as she held her guitar and strummed the notes to ‘You can’t pop home again.’ Tyr smiled, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Come in, have a seat, we were about to have some Eleven Z’s tea.”
Beck walked gracefully under the gauze hanging from the ceiling, between the tables and cushions before finding one across from the four. He’d had some sixty turns to get used to the armor, and between that and the Dance Fighting training he could now move in it as quickly and silently as if he were only wearing a shirt and pants. Sitting across from them, he studied their reactions now that they could see his face in good lighting.
Lex blinked once or twice at the sight of the seven scars across his face, intrigued, but he didn’t seem bothered. Neither did Paula, though he suspected she’d already seen and reacted to them. Kala didn’t visibly react, but she missed a note as she strummed her guitar.
Tyr’s smile dimmed some, but didn’t leave entirely. “I can tell by the look on your face that you have a story to tell.”
Beck grinned back, hanging around Riker had given him ample opportunity to get used to all sorts of off color comments about his looks. So he had no trouble quipping back. “Only one? By this point I can tell you one for each scar.”
No one laughed.
The grin relaxed into a smile. Admittedly, he wasn’t a social butterfly, but Beck could tell there was tension in the air. “Did you get my letters? I’d hoped we could meet in the field, but honestly, coming back is nice. It brings back memories.”
“We did.” Answered Tyr neutrally, not elaborating.
Beck reined in his horses so as not to sound desperate or overeager, but he had to ask. “So, have you thought about it? The offer?”
“My dear lad” Began Lex, seeming at once apologetic and admonishing. “I believe quite heartily in the value of a good conversation. These turns, in this desert, it’s dreadfully difficult to have one, I must say. Happily, once we received your letters, we had not one, but several conversations. Unhappily, however, it is quite unfortunate that the one we are about to have will most likely not be good.”
Not waiting for Beck to ask, Paula cut in. “We… politely… refuse.” She stared at him, unblinking, lanky body relaxed, but Beck knew she was wound tight like a spring in her desert leathers.
He looked from face to face, but all wore similar somber looks of rejection. “Any particular reason?”
The song stopped as Kala’s fingers lay still, and finally, a downcast look crossed her face. “You really have to ask?”
The ride to the Rock Band’s mesa had been swift, but long. It, and the unusual silence to his letters, had given Beck an inkling that they might refuse, and plenty of time to to ask himself why they might. He'd thought Shmuckers might be the issue, or maybe they’d been hired by a rival side, even Berliner, but both could be resolved with a simple letter or a good talk... which Lex’s long winded warning seemed to be entirely right about.
Now he was curious. “Yes, I want to hear it from you.”
There was a finality in Tyr’s voice that brooked no argument. “Because Madsense is going to destroy the Capital Wasteland.”
But Beck’s voice swelled like the ocean in response. “No… Madsense is saving the C-dub! I think I know why you might be worried, but they are offering vassalage before conquering sides. It’s just none have accepted so far.”
Kala was worried, it was written all over her face as she spoke. “That doesn’t change the fact that they’re growing dangerously quickly. Four cities and three sides so far, isn’t it?”
Beck shook his head. “I can’t talk side strategy unless you Sign on, but this is why I came. They’re an amazingly cohesive side. It’s not going to peter out, break into city sides, and now is a great time for you to come work for Madsense.”
“That’s not what we’re worried about.” Sighed Tyr. “We think they’re going to take over the. Entire. Wasteland.”
Eyebrows coming together in honest confusion, Beck asked. “... and?”
They actually broke their unified questioning for a moment, and looked to each other, even Paula. Lex puffed out some smoke and answered. “And… that’s bad, lad. They’ll wipe out every side here, turn this place into one dull giant of a side and then doubtless do something silly like try and conquer the rest of Erfworld.”
Now it was Beck’s turn to be flabbergasted. “So? That’s what every side wants to do. And you certainly haven’t had any qualms profiting from it, up to now. Why is it wrong that Madsense is getting close to achieving it? They can be trusted with power, or have you not even looked outside?!” Beck pointed towards the Swiss Mississippi, clearly visible from the Mesa’s east face. “We brought back the river. We ended Beirutcake and brought the desert one huge step closer to being in balance. It wasn’t Berliner, or Parisseri, or the cracking United Queendom of Puddings. We did--”
“Terry Tory-elle.” With just those two words, Lex stopped Beck mid rant.
‘So, they knew about that too.’ Beck shook his head, not willing to let Lex turn his victory into something to be ashamed of. He wore its price proudly on his face. After a moment, he finally said “You can’t say she didn’t have it coming.” He hadn’t thought of this, hadn’t considered they might be upset at his croaking Terry and breaking their ‘barbarian code’, but even they’d admitted she was a dangerous and unstable recluse.
Kala’s song started up again, this time a mellow, sad affair. “But it didn’t have to be you who did it, Beck. She was a complicated, lonely woman, with a history that in some ways mirrored your own. We held out hope she could change, heal. That she could find some measure of peace and redemption-- a hope we hold for you. Working for Madsense is taking you down a dark path, your Signamancy--”
“No.” Rounded Beck, not giving the doubt a chance to take root in his heart. “Quit evading. It’s something else. Isn't it?”
“I can’t see them.” Paula’s voice, despite not ever varying much in tone or tempo, seemed to tremble. “I usually cast predictions for new sides, to see if they might have need of our services. Madsense didn’t generate any predictions. This… wasn’t too unusual. Sometimes Sides or units just aren’t strongly Fated. But I've kept scrying, especially once we heard you were working for them. There is still nothing.”
Beck breathed out through his nose in exasperation. Magic. She wanted him to take her word on blind faith. Trust and goodwill. Things they were rapidly burning away their supply of. Crack that. He looked quickly at each member of the Rock Band. They were all equally stony faced. If this was a lie, they were playing it croaked straight. So he played along. “You said it yourself, that’s not so unusual. That doesn’t seem reason enough to reject working for them.”
Kala’s blue eyes dug into him like a digger’s shovel would a city wall. “It is when the Fates of nearby people and sides start winking out, into darkness. When Fates hundreds of turns in the making are broken casually.”
Beck shook his head and puffed air out of his nose in annoyance. “So your objection is you have to trust them to do whats right, because you can’t see their future? Well not all of us are Predictamancer’s, Paula. I don’t know what any of you will do, but I still trusted you enough to come.”
Paula closed her eyes and spoke something under her breath, but when she opened them they were glowing green, not blue. “And maybe you shouldn’t have, Beck.”
Battle Predictamancy was always a rush. Even though her battle sight was rather myopic, with her level 5 Adept Predictamancy allowing her ‘only’ a few seconds window into the future, its branching paths stood in stark contrast to the vague arch full of finality of a true Prediction. It was the difference between gazing upon a mountain many hexes away, its base lost beneath the curve of the horizon, and reading a map of all the roads in your present hex leading to it.
Paula rose from her pillow, as did Tyr and Lex. Kala just sighed, remaining seated, speeding up her guitar’s tempo in preparation of her Dance Fighting… but Beck wasn’t moving.
He knew what was going on, and seemed coldly disappointed-- a sentiment Paula shared. In her multipath vision he jumped, struck, dodged, tried to talk them down-- all the possibilities for his actions, and a few seconds ahead of each, played out until the likeliest coalesced. He would remain seated to her foreseeable future.
In the present, Beck had chosen to remain seated with his hand by his belt, which she immediately called him on, seeing dozens of potential attacks from there. “Hands. Keep them away from your belt.”
She foresaw a heady number of paths where they could croak him outright, but that was not the goal. Ideally, they would have already convinced him to betray Madsense. They’d failed, so now they needed to capture him. Keep him far from Madsense until they could convince him to help them destroy it, or out of their hair until they found a way to do that themselves.
The branches of possibility trimmed themselves, but new ones grew as the five present kept making choices. Oddly, she still didn’t see any aggressive actions on his part for the next few seconds. In fact, as he pulled his hands away from his belt, he revealed he was holding something small--
It was a spindly, bright yellow flower.
Beck’s face split into a smile in more ways than one. One of the scars, a jagged bisecting line dividing his face and lips horizontally danced as he spoke. “I found this on the ride here. It was growing on a Desert Willow by the river. I’d found the tree on the turn I popped; it was all dry and cracked, I’d thought it was croaked. Now it’s.. it was in bloom. It came back to life because of what I did.” His smile turned wistful, even melancholy as held it up higher to better show them. “Are you really going to tell me that this is evi--”
In a flash, her battle sight revealed a fully fleshed out future where he finished his monologue by pulling out a frosty Rimeswidth Orange and lobbing it at Kala, the citrusy fruit’s explosion would disable her Dance Fighting.
Paula sprinted forward with her two knives ready, Beck tossed the flower into the air and sprang up, managing to block one with his bracer while her other knife punched between gaps in his chainmail she’d detected in her battle predictamancy. Next he jumped impossibly far out of Paula’s reach thanks to some mechanism in his boots, already halfway to the exit. She’d foreseen as much, and Tyr had already expected it with his natural intuition. He’d moved while Beck was speaking to block the exit and now met Beck’s escape with a deep thrust of his sword, only for Beck to block the blade with his other bracer, sending the strike skittering off.
“Tyr, you told me when we first met--” Beck managed to sound conversational as he blocked another strike from Tyr and ducked under Lex’s Stun Blast, all while throwing the Rimeswidth orange into Lex’s face and knocking him over with the frosty burst of citrus “--that you enforce a truce in your camp. Is this what you are now? Hypocrites and liars?”
Despite not lobbing the orange at her, Kala’s disabler-dance never quite picked up steam. Paula saw five futures where if Beck kept speaking, Lex and Kala stopped fighting effectively enough to capture or croak him. Gol darn it, this was the latent threat of 68% of these scenarios, that he broke their resolve with his rhetoric. So Paula moved to engage, both verbally and physically, crushing the spindly yellow flower underfoot. “You have no idea of the future you’ll bring, there is only darkness on the path you walk--”
“I wanted to give you a chance to be more than Bluzzards!” He roared over her, equal parts angry and betrayed, finally drawing his pickaxe and lunging to slice at her. Duly angering him, she dodged easily and left him slicing a pillow into smoldering halves. Clumsy. Her future sight let her keep dodging and home in on the point in his attack sequence she could stab through another chink in his defense and armor.
Tyr kicked Beck’s right side hard enough to go over the damage soak. “Titan’s chariots of fire Beck, we’re doing this to help you!”
Beck took the brunt of the kick and avoided falling, maneuvering behind one of the tent’s wooden poles and letting it take another of the prone Lex’s Stun Blasts. He followed by striking the pole with his own fiery pickaxe strike and snapping it into two smoldering halves. The maneuver impressed but didn’t surprise Paula. Beck, sadly, was also unimpressed with Tyr’s retort. “No, you’re just too afraid to face change!”
She saw his future attack and ducked left as he swiped his axe her way, managing another stab into his side as his fire axe smashed apart a table in a burst of cinders. This battle could have ended dozens of times over if their goal were Croaking him. It was too easy for Predictamancers to end lives, even without such things as high critting weapons and fully spelled up towers. It made valuing life difficult for her and her peers. Ironic, considering theirs was the magic with the Life element alone. She rarely emoted, but tried to put that feeling into her words, make him see the futility of fighting on. “I can see your every move before you make it, stop resisting and we won’t croak you.”
Beck grunted, taking another hit from behind from Tyr, knocking him down and sending his fireaxe flying clumsily out of his grip, tearing a hole into the tent’s low hanging canvass roof and into a pile of cushions. This time, Beck stayed down, but he looked up at them bitterly. Beaten. “You know-- there’s things bigger than us. Maybe you’ve never realized it, fighting only for yourselves. But sided units know it. The Titans said so. 12. For even Barbarians have Duty. 13. To be true to themselves, to test the rulers of the land, honor it, and honor the blessing of their popping.”
Book of Fanon, book of Conan.
Kala shot Beck a wounded look as she helped Lex up. “We do! We’re-- we’re doing this to help you, everyone!”
Lex agreed, face covered in small orange icicles. “S-surrender, lad, I’d rather not have to s-stun you ins-sens-sate.”
A nebulous force entered the future paths in Paula’s vision, what…?
Beck’s face split into a jigsaw of a wide smile “You won’t have to, Lex, I’m sure the smoke from the fire will knock all of you out.” And with that, his body faded out of view under a Veil, momentarily leaving his mocking Cheshire smile floating upwards in the air as he stood.
And just like that, the future caught up with Paula. His mount must have heard the commotion and entered the tent, Veiled from her vision. All the missed strikes-- he’d never meant to croak them either, he was setting items inside the tent aflame! Dropping the roof low to trap the smoke and make the fabric of the ceiling catch fire!
Seeing ahead, the now invisible Beck would easily leave and mount his Baudseed, who was likely preparing further Foolamancy distractions. Capture had now dropped to 18%, the other Rock Band members becoming too distracted with either battling the fire or chasing to stop him.
The battle was lost--
-- before ever being fought.
Paula opened her eyes, glowing purple from casting Mathamancy, and met Tyr’s expectant gaze. “Similar result. We did not convince him, this scenario does not lead to his capture, and will result in Kala and Lex eventually splitting from the Rock Band out of feelings of betrayal of our principles and his trust, with a 63% likelihood.”
Tyr sighed. Rubbing his own weary eyes in the gloom of the Rock Band’s war room. It was late at night, three turns before any of Paula’s ‘tomorrow’ happened. They’d been discussing Beck’s first letter, debating what to tell Lex and Kala. “Is there-- I don't know, are you sure there’s not something I can write him via hat? Soften him up for what we say?”
She tightened her frown. “No. Confronting him directly, in writing, will make him refuse to come. Pretending to be receptive will make him feel even more betrayed when he does.”
Tyr covered his mouth with a hand, lost in thought. The two had an understanding of the deep cruelty of Predictamancy predicaments, having been victims to its tender mercies. They knew there were things that needed to be done to avoid greater tragedy, things Kala and Lex wouldn’t necessarily understand or agree with.
She knew the cold equations all too well, thanks to tutoring in Mathamancy by Tex Instrument at her father’s court. Among other tricks, he’d taught her how to avoid being locked into a prediction. She could run the numbers-- and if they happened to involve a prediction, it would be confined to the world of that simulation without costing the juice from casting that prediction. What she had just experienced were not so much vivid firsthand experiences, as her own mind filling in the blanks of the story via painting by the Numbers.
The point of the exercise was not to croak Beck, nor even to capture him. The point was to help him see the light, get his help to destroy Madsense from within. And while these scenarios had revealed several Croak Points and Capture Points (and even a Choke Point in Lex’s), no matter how many times she altered what few variables were in their control, there was no Save Point they could use to save their friend.
Tyr scratched at his stubbly chin, before coming up with another scenario. “Okay, lets try… a hookah with peace weed, Kala playing something about forgiveness on her guitar. This time you and Kala do most of the talking, focusing on redemption and Predictamancy.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and she ran the simulation again, to similar results. “Odd. In this one, he leaves upon learning we have recreational Flower Power, becoming instantly distrustful.”
Uncharacteristically for her, she grimaced and looked into space. The metaphorical black stain of Madsense clouded her Predictamancy vision. A thing both terrifying and-- oddly thrilling. Contaminating all around it with uncertainty. Making previously solid Prophecies distort like a drop of crude oil on rippling water. “I-- am sorry, Tyr. But there are times no Prediction or Mathamancy will get us the desired result. We may have to consider taking him prisoner for his own good.”
“No.” Challenged Tyr. “We played a part in this mess, helped set him on his course because it’d help fulfill a prophecy and was convenient for us. He shouldn’t have to pay for it alone. Besides, what you said earlier is still true. As long as that Dittomancer is still with Madsense--”
Paula narrowed her eyes. “The other dark star protecting that yawning black hole of Madsense. They alone in that side have enough Fate to predict. Madsense needs both to grow at its fullest. Even without Beck its expansion will still continue, only at a slower rate as they grow cautious. They are already close to the tipping point.”
Tyr got up, the war room tent was not much different than when Beck had been there. Only now, both sets of maps had lost a colorful quartet of cities and now showed a solid, black outline had been spreading around Madsense, as it grew tactically over much of the river’s path. They’d gobbled up Beirutcake and its colony, and another two city sides.
Like a chief warlord would, Tyr picked up a silver piece of a ridden mount. “We can’t use your Mathamancy to solve this problem with brute force calculations for this scenario, and Predictamancy isn’t working. So. If we can’t convince him, maybe there’s someone else who can?”
Paula cast her mind out. It was time to think of the profane-- of how to defy Fate. This, among other heresies, were the reason why she was no longer welcome among the other practitioners of Hocus Pocus in the Magic Kingdom; why she had been branded Out of Focus. It wasn’t a hard ban or censure, more of a-- condescending label that the ‘wise’ master class Crystal Ballers applied to foolish novices too naïve to know better. Too-- too free of tragedy.
Memories of her own Predictions heralding the croaking of her father, the Duke Treatise -- and her helplessness to stop it-- gave Paula an entirely different opinion. She hated her discipline. What cruel beings were the Titans, to torment them with visions they could never avoid? Whose tragedy and pain they could only hope to minimize?
Which was why, in all honesty, she was intrigued by Madsense and its obfuscation of Fate. She suspected that they were not immune to it, or unaffected by it, but nonetheless somehow opaque to it. If they weren’t poised to blot out every side and life in the Capital Wasteland, she might even be tempted to ally, if only to study them more closely.
So she found it supremely ironic that, despite herself, she was now serving Fate once again, fighting to preserve it against an outside, hostile force. Still. Paula had long ago realized that Fate was not the sole master of Erfworld. There were also Erf and Numbers. And perhaps, like even especially truculent Mathamancy problems… this Fate equation might have more than one solution.
She came back to the present situation. If nothing they said would sway Beck, then perhaps Tyr was right. Maybe it was not they who needed to say it. Yes, create an entirely new scenario. There was one voice above all others they could call upon, and three that were new to the wasteland that could carry their message without bias. She looked up to Tyr, eyes wide. “Yes. And perhaps… the voices we need to recruit to our side, are ones Beck has never heard before.”
Beck walked out of the main tent, brow knit not because of the bright sun, but frustration.
He hadn’t expected that, at all. The Rock Band had been happy to see him, but disappointed in him croaking Terry. Kala had been sympathetic of his plight and injuries, but her words threatened to uncroak the second guessing he’d done right after waking from his window jumping stunt.
The rest had been more or less apologetic about not allying due to being under contract to other (undisclosed) sides. Beck was disappointed, but it was understandable, and he silently dreaded having to fight them. It had gotten tense for a minute there, but the truce had held, and no one tried anything in the tent.
He shook his head at that. Of all the people he’d run across so far, the Rock Band had to be the least likely to try that kind of base treachery. Still, it was hard for him to stop living by rule #6, to think like a Foolamancer. He’d even brought a Rimeswidth Orange from the greenhouse garden in the conquered Coppenhaagendazs just in case.
His mood lifted when he saw Kevin was right where he left her, and she looked up at him expectantly. He patted her, put on his helmet and saddled up.
Walking through the camp, a cold draft blew again, and the the wind chime sounded its clean metallic music. As they neared the downward path of the Weird Winding Way, Beck pretended not to see several of Kala’s courtiers peek furtively at him from behind the wagons or through their windows.
Yeah… his reputation. Lex had been simultaneously courteous and deeply unsettling with his questions about Madsense-- and his-- behavior, noting his activities and Signamancy were fearsome and potent on the battlefield, but unlikely to do him any favors off it. He’d even cautioned him to beware truly becoming the persona he’d crafted.
As they rode away, Beck couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe… no. Madsense were good guys. He was a good guy.
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.
I love the Predictamancy/Mathamancy stuff. Even beyond being the framing device for the multiple takes on their talks, it makes for a really interesting method of fighting in itself.
"They are already close to the tipping point."
Is there a city called Spice Something-or-other? Cinnamon Spice, maybe? Or Natural Allies or anything else, really.
Because then you could have Rule #7: "He who controls the Spice controls the desert." (Or the dessert.)
Of course, with a Dance-Fighter and a Rhyme-o-mancer involved too, maybe they'll also need Rule 8: "If you walk without rhythm, you won't attract the worm."
@Free Radical: Yeah, this was equal parts fun and a headache. It was fun to conceptualize Save Scumming as a magical ability and how they'd experience it, as well as how to write a character able to see and control most outcomes (and how they might still technically lose).
On rules 7 and 8: no spoilers, but that is just beautiful. Though it shouldn't be too spoiler-y to say I imagined most of the Rock Band and various side characters have parallel adventures and side quests that would happen and conclude before/after the current story, and Paula's would be a parallel to the novel Dune's.
@Sensate and Falcore51: Glad you liked it! Hopefully it wasn't too much of a head trip and the fight was fun. :D I may complain about writing sometimes, but it's always rewarding.
Enjoyed seeing several ways this could go, with solid story justification. Puns also on point as usual.
Personally I kinda feel Madsense just needs a new ruler.
Lines that need the 's replaced with merely s:
We could be it’s defenders, it’s champions.
it’s base lost beneath the curve of the horizon
Even without Beck it’s expansion will still continue