Unjust Deserts, part 19
Part 19, The way to a barbarians heart--
It was two turns, eight hexes, twelve arguments about directions, two random encounters, and innumerable repetitions of “Are we there yet?” until the S’mores reached the oasis hex Tyr had told them about.
Hershey was the first to see it, and her parched lips managed to crack open into a giddy smile. “Finally, some water!”
“Oh goody!” Chimed in Marsha, as both trotted over to the oasis.
Behind them, Graham plodded along with a goofy, self satisfied smile on his face. “I told you my navigation skills are second to none!”
Hershey was too busy splashing handfuls of water on her face to argue the point, considering he’d forgotten the sun rose in the east not too long ago.
Beside her, Marsha gushed. “Oh, look at these lovely trees! And these beautiful yellow flowers! I didn’t think we’d find anything this colorful! And--” She sniffed loudly. “They smell absolutely delicious!”
Unusually, Graham had been practical and put a canteen into the oasis to refill and drink from. He looked over to Marsha with a befuddled look. “Um, I’m pretty sure you mean ‘fragrant’, or ‘sweet’ Marsha, not ‘delicious’.”
“Well I should know what I’m smelling, and it smells delicious.” Nodded Marsha emphatically.
Curious now too, Hershey got up and sniffed and-- oh Titans, that wasn’t flowers, it was food! “There’s someone cooking in the hex!”
“Hmm.” Hmm’ed Graham. “Well, it’s the crack of dawn here, so they probably haven’t Moved. We should go over and see if they’ll share.”
Hershey just had to protest at that. “What?! No! We need to be on our guard, they could be hostile like those Rubber Band lunatics!”
“Oh dear.” Fretted Marsha beside her, not wanting to quarrel but seeming to agree. Her stomach had a different opinion though, and in lieu of a verbal argument growled plaintively.
“Yeah!” Shouted Graham in agreement with Marsha’s stomach. “They could be friendly, like Tyr the other turn! I’m sure if we ask nicely they’ll say--”
“--Sure, you can have some of my breakfast!”
Hershey paled. Marsha ‘Oh my!’d. And Graham just blinked in befuddlement, confused that what he was about to say hadn’t come from out of his mouth.
“Up here!” Came the voice again, and the trio turned to look up at the ridge shielding the oasis from the rising sun. A warlord in black armor stood at the top, framed in morning sunlight and waving down at them. “I heard you yelling, I have some extra forage I can cook if you’re interested, campfire truce rules, just come on up.”
The warlord turned and walked out of view, leaving Hershey to argue with Graham sotto voce over whose fault this all was (or that there was anything to be faulted over, in Graham’s defense. And anyway, hadn’t she been the one yelling? And--- owowowow please let go of my ear!).
At length, they made their way up the steep stone slope over the ridge to find the warlord’s camp. It was a well equipped affair with a dome tent, fire pit, and a tripod mounted stew pot. Hershey conned their “host” as a level 6, not too intimidating for the three of them. He was busy alternating stirring the pot and tossing in a few more chopped vegetables.
Hershey took point, walking slow and casual with her hand within easy grabbing distance of her warhammer’s swinging leather strap. “Good morning, and thank you for your generosity, we’re--”
The Warlord had his helmet off and was smiling as disarmingly as he could, but… it was impossible not to stare. The seven pale scars crisscrossing his face were a full fledged training wreck you couldn’t look away from. Signamancy wasn’t her strong suit, but he looked all sorts of dangerous, and somehow his carefully friendly smile made him seem even more menacing.
“--very happy to accept your offer and meet a friendly face.” Finished Marsha, breaking formation and shaking his offered pinky with hers.
The warlord’s smile turned rueful. “That’s unusually kind of you to say. But where are my manners? My name is Beck Packer; I’m a barbarian too.”
Marsha let go and put a hand to her chest, smiling brightly as she made their introductions. “It’s nice to meet you Beck! I’m Marsha, this is Graham--”
“Yo!” Greeted Graham, seemingly oblivious to Hershey’s fantastic first impression failure, and moved to greet Beck with one of his confusing slide and fist bumps ‘handshakes’.
“--and that’s Hershey. We’re the S’mores Band.” Finished Marsha. Hershey thankfully didn’t require any more prodding, and managed to find the presence of mind to shake his hand without staring.
Beck nodded, and gestured to the stew pot. “I wasn’t expecting visitors so I had to adjust the portions, but the black bean chili and rice should be ready in a few minutes.”
Graham looked around the camp, especially interested in the tent. “This is a really slick tent, where’d you get it?”
Beck answered while adding some chopped dried meat, a little water, and stirring the pot “A friend of mine in a client side made it for me; worth every Shmucker.”
Hershey moved to sit on a not terribly uncomfortable looking rock. Desperate to find things to look at other than him, she eyed the spices, vegetables and meats he was cooking with. “Did they give you the cooking supplies too?”
Beck took out a spoonful of chili and blew on it a bit before tasting it. Satisfied, he turned to Hershey and answered. “Only the cookware and some of the spices. The same friend there taught me how to cook, though applying his lessons to all these exotic plants and animals here in Capital Wasteland’s been… ha ha ha, well, let's go with interesting and experimental. Don’t worry, this Chili’s pretty by the book.”
Not really having enough flatware for everyone, Beck pulled out a bowl, cup and different sized plates from his rucksack to share the chili. “Here you go, let me know if the lessons were worth it.”
He handed a plate and spoon to Marsha, who dug in and immediately gushed. “Oh this is delishus!” Hershey had to agree. It hadn’t been just randomly thrown together, the mix of textures, mild rice and hot spices really made the seemingly simple dish delectable.
Hershey swallowed and turned to Beck. “Yeah, the lessons were worth it. I gotta say, I was a bit on the fence about you, but you’re all right. I must just be on edge after we had this run in with three latex clad weirdo barbarians.”
“Let me guess.” Monotoned Beck. “A flying warlady ‘vampire’, a silver haired pretty-man and a sunburnt hairy brute?”
“So yoush ran into the Rubber Band too?” Asked Graham, from around a forkful of chili. “We had ta throw down some, didn’t think other band’s be so uptight.”
“Wait.” Thought Hershey, all the talk of other barbarians suddenly made the meeting with Tyr from a few turns ago pop up in her mind. “Did you say your name was Beck Packer?”
Beck’s affirmative “Yeah.” sounded a bit wary.
Hershey waved her spoon in the direction of their last campsite by way of explanation. “The reason we’re here is another barbarian, Tyr. He said we could find water and game here, and... ah… that we might run into other barbarians.” Oh Titan’s Tenderloins, she had just come this close to blurting out that Beck had almost drowned there, was the sun just melting her brain today or something?
Mercifully, Beck didn’t notice her hesitation and last second save. Though the smile it brought out made those frightful scars dance across his face. “Ha! Good old Tyr, he helped me out alot when I was lower level too. Actually gave me my first ‘free’ meal.”
Now herself apprehensive, Hershey looked up from her plate. “You mean this food isn’t...?”
“Oh, it is!” He looked a bit embarrassed at his misspeaking. “What I meant is, it just gets lonely on these recon missions. I consider the conversation and company payment enough.”
Marsha grinned. “That’s awfully nice of you, Beck. I’ve always felt Barbarians should have more solidarity.” The grin turned to a confused smile when she looked down to find her bowl was empty. “Oh dear.” She tutted. “Err, not to be ungrateful, but my breakfast is gone, and I’m fairly sure I didn’t eat it all.” Her stomach growled to corroborate her story.
Beck looked behind her and chuckled. “That’ll be Kevin. Come on, show yourself so our guests can see you, you greedy ol’ bird.”
A sullen Baudseed unveiled herself behind Marsha, looking put out that she’d been caught impersonating a magpie.
Beck was grinning despite himself. “She did the same thing to me when we first met. Ate all the seeds I was tossing away while staying hidden. Now.” He admonished “Say you’re sorry.”
Kevin beeped twice and did an amazing impression of sarcastically rolling her big black beady seed eyes, then pointed her neck straight up and did a weird reverse choking sort of sound, finally horking a wet hunk of chili back onto Marsha’s plate with a resounding:
*Faux pass the salt*
Ignoring the stunned silence, and evidently satisfied with her ‘apology’, Kevin padded over to Beck and lay down.
Cheeks turning beet red, Beck did his best to salvage what was left of breakfast. “Uh, okay… wow. I can’t even begin to apologize, Marsha. I didn’t even know she could do that.”
Marsha, for her part, hadn’t dimmed her smile and only lowered her bowl of ‘chili’ onto the ground. She was unflappable today. “Well, we learn something new every day.”
Hershey pointed her spoon to Kevin. “What is she?”
Beck reached over and patted the Baudseed’s flank. “This is Kevin, fastest ride in the C-Dub. And a hungry ol’ seed eater. Here Marsha, you can have the rest of my rations as her real apology. Now behave.” He ordered Kevin, who beeped dismissively and circled her head under a wing.
Graham, still only talking while his mouth was full, had an actual insightful comment. “You musht be pretty well paid if you can shpare all this food.”
Playing it cool and low key, Beck shrugged noncommittally “I’m not exactly swimming in gems, but I can’t complain. My client side pays my upkeep, and I pocket any extra from foraging and cooking.”
Swallowing for the first time in this conversation, Graham perked up and asked. “Do you think they’d hire us?”
Hershey’s eyes widened and she actually punched Graham in the shoulder, and not playfully either.
“Ow! What?!” He asked, rubbing where she’d hit.
Hershey glared. “The man is offering us a delicious cooked meal when we’re starving, and you’re asking him if his clients’d ditch him to switch out their hired muscle for us. Would it croak you to think before putting your foot in your mouth?”
“Well, actually.” Started Beck, seeming surprised the subject came up. “My client side is looking for more mercenaries for a big battle. I'd had another Band in mind, but they had other commitments. It’ll pay well, but it’s... I’ll be honest, it’d be risky at your levels.”
“Please.” smirked Graham confidently. “We’re the S’more’s, we can handle anything!”
“Okay, this (hrrrt!) maaaaay be just a little (hufff!) tougher than I thought.” Graham walked back verbally as he kicked a knight while running another through with his spear.
The trio were running in a wedge formation, fighting against waves of screaming Berliner infantry while they flanked Beck. Metal clanged underneath as they ran along the back of a huge flying Lead Zeppelin, itself coasting menacingly over the massive battle below, shooting Shockmancy Searchlights down and blasting a powerful heavy metal Rock anthem from its enormous maw. If they didn't croak this critter quick, the entire battle would be lost!
“Quit complaining and keep screening!” Yelled Hershey, swinging her warhammer only to pirouette into an arcing strike that sent three stabbers careening off the flying beast’s slick metallic back.
Ahead of them, a Berliner warlord stacked with a group of knights and pointed his sword their way, yelling venomously. “Bleck Knight! I ache to smash your face! To depop you from existence!”
“It’s that Guy again.” Beck sighed. Graham knew it was a sigh because his helmet emitted a soft reverb that seemed to rumble against the Lead Zeppelin’s skin/hull like a deep growl. “Line formation, screen the enemy warlord for me.”
The four of them ran forward, Marsha switching from a sprint into a set of somersaults that concluded with wrapping her whip around one knight's ankle and flipping him into his partner, and both off the Lead Zeppelin. Hershey started spinning, only to go high and smash her hammer into the hull, making most of the remaining Knights stumble and allowing Graham to run and jump off her back to stab one and kick off another.
Beck locked weapons with the enemy warlord guy. Graham was busy with the knights so he couldn’t catch all of it, but he distinctly remembered sparks flying, frost bursting, and Beck using his spring shoes to literally knee him in the chin and send him flying off the side of the Lead Zeppelin.
Momentarily free of defenders, the quartet started running towards the fore of the beast.
“Hold, here!” Yelled Beck from behind Graham, visor glowing blue. He must have found the spot where the Lead Zeppelin’s brain was supposed to be, and started smashing the magical icepick on his pickaxe into it, slowly creating a spiderweb of cracks as he froze its steely hide. “I’m getting through!” Beck’s voice was different, gravely and menacing when he had his helmet on.
Marsha spun around the left flank, not even bothering to croak any of the stabbers rushing them and instead using her twin whips to trip them, making them either slide off or easy pickings for Graham or Hershey. “I don’t know guys, this is kind of fun!”
Suddenly the Lead Zeppelin shuddered, and started banking to the left hard as it tried to shake them off.
“Hang on!” Beck smashed his icepick in deep without pulling it out and extended a hand to Hershey, who stopped screening long enough to grab hold. Realizing this was way uncool of the commander flying the Lead Zeppelin, Graham twirled his spear and dug it in deep into one of the cracks in the creature's back, then grabbed on tight to avoid falling off. “Hey Marsha!” He called over.
Their plump companion turned back with a look of surprise. “Oh, right!” And quickly whip-cracked a whip onto his spear and swung over. What infantry were still trying to engage them quickly fell off the side, one screaming “Wilheeeeeelm!” as he fell.
Instead of righting itself though, the Lead Zeppelin kept banking in a circle, and changed the Rock anthem into a rising Rock opera full of electric violins and trumpets when a vigorous warcry came over the horizon.
“Yo-ho-ho Oh! Yo-ho-ho Oh!”
Beck yelled over to them “Ready for flying knights!”
And careening around the Lead Zeppelin came a warlord leading a trio of Valkyrie class Knights and maneuvering for a head on strike, all riding Val Hallens; horrid four pawed giant eagles with talons the size of daggers.
“I’m coming for you, you rancid Bleck Knight! You and your nauseating quirky mini-boss squad!” Cried the same warlord guy with a singular bloodlust. “Geez, what a mudslinger.”, thought Graham out loud, “Someone needs a chill pill. No need to start calling people names.”
Marsha pulled herself up to a graceful standing position on Graham’s spear, somehow making balancing on it seem trivial. Oh, wait, she was Mountain-capable, this was a trivial feat of balance for her. She coiled her whips to prepare a strike and asked idly. “So, should I engage?”
“Yes!” Cried the rest of the party.
Marsha jumped once, twice, three times on Graham’s spear as though it were a diving board, only to unfurl her whips around both necks of the two lead Val Hallens and pulled them into a two headed bonk!... and got pulled down as they flew off course. “Wheeeee!”
Meanwhile, Beck had started swinging Hershey back and forth, until she was swinging almost a full circle and allowing her to smash her hammer against the warlord’s mount before he could engage them. Leaving the fourth to Graham.
‘Man, everyone else is getting to do all this cool stuff but me.’ Graham thought with a pout, hanging helplessly from his spear as the fourth knight flew his way.
Then again… he did still remember all those aerial combat maneuvers from when he’d been shanghaied from his old side and conscripted by the United Airlanes flying circus. “Alley oop!” He pulled up his legs so he could put both his feet against the Lead Zeppelin, braced himself and waited for the absolute last second before jumping off and twirling his spear overhead and then plunging it into a head on lunge at the Valkyrie!
The knight hadn’t been expecting to get stabbed through the chest with a spear, and couldn't maneuver his own into melee range, forcing him to drop it in favor of a combat knife. For that matter, the Val Hallen probably hadn’t been expecting it either, since it crashed against the Lead Zeppelin’s hull and skittered off it with its claws.
Unable to pull out his spear and attack with it, Graham resorted to punching the knight. “I’m. Really. Sorry. About. This.” With the knight punch drunk, he grabbed the knife hand by the wrist and stabbed him with it before dumping him overboard.
He was just getting situated when suddenly… the music stopped.
He hadn’t really been paying attention to the rest of the battle, but looking over at the Lead Zeppelin he saw Beck and Hershey were still dangling from the ice pick. It must have been stuck in the Lead Zeppelin’s braincase for a while, because it seemed he’d given the beast a nasty case of brain-freeze. Meaning that when Beck swung Hershey so she could smash her warhammer into the beast’s hull, she broke the Lead Zeppelin’s metallic skin like a fine china bowl. Huge chunks of metallic bone-armor and gray matter started crumbling off, and the beast’s large eyes turned into iron crosses.
Realizing Beck and Hershey were now falling to their likely doom, Graham ordered the Val Hallen to fly over and rescue them-- before he remembered the winged beast and him weren’t actually allied. “Err, pretty please?” He asked as sweetly as he could.
The Val Hallen turned its head and glared, unable to twist it enough to actually bite him. It started bucking, which left Graham very precariously holding on for dear life on the back of a now completely wild Val Hallen. Finally having enough of him, it had the presence of mind to claw it’s pilot harness off and let him slide off.
Now in a free fall, Graham looked down and mused. “Well, this could have gone better.”
Midway to the battle below, he closed his eyes and prepared to meet the Titans. He found that croaking wasn’t unpleasant; a sharp, painless recoil, then a warm, tight embrace. He opened his eyes to find himself floating serenely above the battlefield. It looked like Madsense was finally managing to rout Berliner on the ground. Just a little to his left, he could see the Lead Zeppelin crash nose first into the desert floor, scattering dust and bits of metal in every direction. “Oh, the humanity…”
He felt a familiar hand grip his shoulder and pull him so he faced up at the sky, and the sun framed Marsha’s head like a beautiful golden halo. “Oh, hi Marsha! It’s a shame you croaked too. Are we going to the City of Heroes now?”
She smiled sweetly. “Not just yet, I think.” And pulled him up to a wobbly standing position not atop a fluffy cloud like he’d imagined, but one of Madsense’s flying Botnets. Which, he now realized, must have caught him mid fall. The view of the battle below was probably because his face got wedged into one of the many gaps along its body.
Another Botnet flew up beside them, carrying Hershey and Beck in its large inky octagonal body, both seeming none the worse for wear. Man, Madsense’s units were lifesavers, but weird.
Beck called over “Good job, S’mores! Chief Bott just conned in, they’re mopping up nicely down below now with unopposed Dance Fighting. The other Lead Zeppelin and the rest of their Air Force just left the hex; we’re to go over to the wreckage to search for enemy Commanders.”
As the two Botnets sped towards the crash site, Graham got a great idea for a cool one liner. “Well.” He smiled, flicking down the visor on his helmet. “It looks like their plan went over like... a lead balloon.”
Hershey glared from where she knelt on her Botnet, wearing that look that usually meant she wanted to smack him upside the head. Beck just sort of stared, it was hard to tell what he was thinking with the helmet’s glowing red light where his eyes should be. Marsha smiled lopsidedly and patted him on the shoulder. “Graham sweety, I know you’re proud of it, but there’s no battle Rhyme-o-Mancy bonus for bad puns.”
As the Botnet picked up speed, Graham sat cross legged on the sticky black webbing to avoid his legs falling through the holes. He pouted over to Marsha. “Well, there should. Coming up with these is hard!”
Marsha put her arm around his shoulder. “I know, I know. Hey, if it cheers you up, I’m pretty sure no one will mind if you tell the enemy commander all of your puns once we capture him.”
Graham looked at her with wide eyes and then over to Hershey and Beck. Hershey looked to the side and shouted to be heard over the wind. “Sure, go for it!” Beck tipped his helmet a bit to the side and nodded. For the rest of the short flight, Graham could barely contain his glee.
Dragged out of wreckage, and then dragged in chains, Beck lead the captured prisoner into Chief Roe’s tent and sat him on the floor.
He pulled off the bag over the prisoner’s head, revealing his bruised face to the harsh white light of the powerball.
“I believe you’ve already met Earl Del.” Intoned Beck ominously through his helmet’s Marlboro filter.
Inside of Chief Roe Bott’s tent, the single Powerballs light seemed to shine upwards onto Roe’s face, casting reverse shadows and making his already sickly pale Signamancy absolutely sinister. He looked from the Earl to Beck. “Yes, we were acquainted at the diplomatic conference. Do you not recall? You were there Beck.”
Under Beck’s helmet, a bead of sweat formed on his temple and streaked down. Crack it. Sometime, he and Roe needed to have a good sit and talk about interrogation techniques. Maybe Riker knew something that could help?
The Earl sneered. “Do you expect me to talk? My will is iron! You had best to eizher croak me, or offer to trade me back for Shmuckers.” Beck rolled his eyes inside his helmet, despite the bravado, it was clear which the Earl preferred.
Beck stepped in front of the Earl, started cracking his knuckles. Yeah, finally, it would be payback time.
Roe put a hand on his shoulders, and shook his head minutely. “That will not be necessary. He will tell us what we want to know willingly.”
Before he could ask, a single Drone came into the tent carrying a sturdy metallic case with the word “F.L.O.O.D.” on the side. Something about the drone seemed a bit off to Beck. Was that a tuft of hair under the helmet? Roe flipped open the locking mechanism with an order, and pulled out a strange, matte black vambrace type accessory.
“What is zhat?” Asked the Earl, curiosity (and dread) getting the better of him.
Roe rolled up a sleeve, equipped it and inserted a thin transparent tube with a metallic needle on the end into a vein on his arm and… Beck was happy to be wearing a helmet, because his face went pale when a greenish, sickly liquid came out of Roe and into the accessory at the speed of his heartbeat.
Not even a trace of pain or discomfort on his face, Roe walked over to Earl Del. “Beck, please hold him steady and expose his neck.” Not sure what exactly was going on, Beck did as he was told and grabbed Del by the hair and shoulder, twisting his head to the right.
Eyes widening, the Earl’s defiant tone started to descend to babbling. “Zhat is against zhe Titanic conventions of honorable warfare, you can not do… whatever it is zhat you are thinking on doing, I--”
It was quick.
Roe put his hand near the Earl’s neck, squeezed it into a fist, and a thin silver wire came out and punched its way into his carotid artery. Earl Del shuddered once, and Roe pulled out the little wire by opening his fist.
Beck felt the earl go limp, but didn’t let him fall to the ground. He looked over to Roe. “What was that?”
Roe was busy looking down at Del, who spasmed once, twice… and then his head fell away from his grip. Beck turned over his gauntlet to reveal thick wads of the Earl’s hair in it-- but he hadn’t pulled it out. The Earl got his balance again and started to rise. It was slow, clumsy and mechanical, but by the time he was fully standing, the manacles had vanished, he was a unit of Madsense.
Beck walked around to stand by Roe and look at Del’s face. He'd grown pale, and the veins on his face had a dark, green tinge to them now. He couldn’t find a trace of the deceitful, arrogant man he’d met all those turns ago. Looking into his eyes, they were a deep, empty black. “Unit ST00 D3L reporting. Ready to deliver intelligence-a.”
For once, Roe’s monotone sent a shiver down his spine when he answered his question. “That, is the future.”
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.
@andowero: Sarcasm detector is on the fritz, so I'll just say they aren't evil... in the sense that they don't see what they're doing is wrong, and wouldn't hurt anyone without cause. That, and falcore 51 is spot on, they have a big personality deficiency on purpose.
@falcore51: Well, yes, they do have a lot of boring units that can dig. (sorry, couldn't resist) =)
@Free Radical: And if you took off its armor, it'd be an Unleaded Zeppelin. =D