Journey through the hungry jungle, part 1
Part 1: Welcome to the Jungle
The jungles of Tar Zhay were among the deadliest in Erfworld; they had a reputation for eating up unwary units for breakfast. This was especially true for wounded units, doubly so for lost units, and triply so for lone units.
«Lucky I should happen to be all three.» Thought Marco, as he gingerly made his way between a formidable stack of densely growing mahogany trees, not daring to make any more sound than necessary as he carefully picked his footing between exposed roots and suspiciously packed piles of fallen leaves. Though considering the endless, rolling cacophony of jungle sounds — ferals roaring, birds calling, and trees swaying in the breeze dozens of feet above him— he wasn’t sure whether it was absurd or completely justified.
«Just because you can’t tell there’s a pattern, doesn’t mean there isn’t one» he remembered his drill instructor, Sergeant Nass Tay, constantly repeating in an effort train them to not die in the absence of Tar Zhay’s Jungle-capable warlords. And how he wished for a Warlord. Not just for the bonus (which would have been nice) but also for the comfort of having someone to tell him what to do. He would even have stomached a scout, with their smug little knowing glances and annoying habit of disappearing when fighting was about to start.
Marco stopped dead in his tracks. A Feather Boa was perched on a low branch ahead of him, seemingly asleep. If it were an enemy unit he’d have to auto-attack it, but Ferals were different. He could choose whether to engage it or not, and he’d really like to avoid engaging it. He’d seen one strangle a stackie and fly straight up and away over a cuckoo’s nest in a cocoapuff tree. He decided to go around the far side of a nearby tree and see where that got him.
He hoped, rather selfishly, that he'd get orders by Natural Thinkamancy from his Emperor directing him to go somewhere. Anywhere else. But the Emperor never gave orders by Natural Thinkamancy, even (went the rumor) to his Chief Warlord. Even if he did, odds were he wouldn’t spare a stray thought to a lost field unit. No one knew much about why their ruler was so remote, but his Komissars kept things running smoothly.
Except for this fiasco.
Not for the first time, Marco cursed his bad Luckamancy for bringing him here. Lieutenant Fu Bar was a decent sort for a level 1 Warlord, and having the Jungle-capable special meant he could lead his men through jungle and even negate some of the terrain and combat penalties for fighting inside a jungle hex. Sadly, Specials weren’t the same as experience. Lieutenant Bar had ordered his men off the main road and into the jungle to chase some retreating Banana Republicans, hoping to score a victory for back home and maybe go up a level.
That was six turns ago.
After five long, claustrophobic, sleepless days far from any road, path, or river, chasing enemy units deep into Tar Zhay’s jungles, no one but Lieutenant Bar had any idea where they were anymore. And that was when whatever Luckamancy they’d had ran out. They’d spotted a Banana Republican stabber in this hex, and once their turn started Lieutenant Bar had formed them up and ordered them across.
Jungle fighting was a lot like being backup in a Dance Fight; individuals didn’t need to be Jungle-capable (though that helped), just having a Warlord with the special meant they could lead infantry under their command in a few basic dances. Training helped a lot with both though. Infantry units drilled by Jungle-capable warlords could learn a set of maneuvers like swarming, ambushing, concealment, and disengagement into the foliage. Once they crossed the hex boundary Marco instantly fell into the intent of Lieutenant Bar’s Orders: «Disperse, then swarm in pairs on any units you find.»
The echoing, tinny call of a Two-Can startled Marco out of his memory. He looked up at the cylindrical bird. They tended to pop in pairs, a smaller bird with blue stripes and larger one with orange, each echoing what the other was hearing. The effect was uncanny. Titans knew where this one's big brother bird might be, or whom it was watching. And then the realization started to sink in. He was alone. As far as he knew, every one of his stackies, the units he had popped with, his family, was croaked as of this afternoon’s action.
Jungle fighting was close and personal, dirty and brutal. The action had been going great, Marco had even managed to croak two enemies! He was fighting in tandem with Zheng when all of a sudden their leadership vanished. But worse than the sudden feeling of vulnerability was the feeling of a curtain dropping over his eyes; he no longer knew how to move in the jungle, who to target. That’s when the enemy stabber got a good slice into his pike arm; he let out a scream so loud he felt the Titans must have heard it, he stumbled at the near incapacitation. Lucky for him Zheng saw an opening and croaked the denim wearing yellow boopstard.
That’s when things got hazy in his memory. Without leadership they all kept on with Lieutenant Bar’s last order, but they started targeting enemies randomly. Zheng went after another stabber and he tried to follow, but he tripped on a root and lost sight of him. The Banana Republicans must have had their own leadership, because they retreated once again into the jungle. At least they had numbers on their side, but were they enough to win without leadership?
Now the sounds of battle were gone, replaced by the indifferent din of the jungle. He’d been wandering inside the hex for what felt like hours, just looking for someone, anyone, friend or foe, to keep him from feeling so absolutely… terrifyingly… alone.
… except for the faint rustle of something just around the tree, and maybe a bit lower than ground level.
As an unlead infantry unit, Marco instinctively felt the urge to engage. To pick up his pike and thrust it into whatever enemy might be around the tree. Intellectually he knew he should wait to find out if it was a friendly or a feral, but some level of Intuition and Natural Predictamancy was telling him this was not a friendly or a skippable feral.
He readied his pike in his off hand, and was about to charge when a thought slowly blossomed in his mind. He didn’t have to engage, not yet anyway. He didn’t concretely know it was an enemy. It could be Zheng, or another one of his stackies. He slowly realized that until he actively knew who or what it was, he could still choose not to auto engage. And if it was an enemy, with only 3 hits and a useless arm surprise was probably going to be a better weapon than his pike.
The rustle got closer, and he heard a dragging sound by the bark of the tree. So whatever it was was about his height. If it wasn’t a man, it could be a Natural Ally that roamed these jungles, like a Guewilla Cheese, or a Sand Witch!
Before his imagination could distract him, Marco raised his pike for a downward jab. He’d only have one shot at this, so he was going to make it count. Then he saw a hint of yellow and a fashionable boot. The curtain dropped in front of his eyes again… or maybe parted? He automatically charged forward and thrust down and left, scoring a solid hit in the Banana Republican’s shoulder and managing to ram the pike clear into the bone with a satisfying «Thunk!» They both shouted: Marco in triumph, the enemy in pain and disbelief.
The enemy infantryman managed to rebound fairly quickly though, glaring at him with fierce white eyes behind sepia colored glasses. He caught Marco’s pike and pivoted it out of his one armed grasp, using the combination of torque and height to easily disarm him. It flew into the jungle nearby, and he heard a gut wrenching snap. «Titan’s save me» he thought, as he dived forward unarmed and tried to wrestle the enemy. He got lucky, he was higher on the tree roots, and along with the momentum of his lunge knocked the other unit over. He leaned into the enemy's throat with his good arm and kicked away his weapon, then he managed a decent choke hold on the guy. For several long, tense minutes he felt the Banana Republican struggle desperately, kneeing him in the chest several times. Then he just… stopped.
Marco didn’t let go until he saw the whites of his eyes go to X’s. By then, he had 2 hits left.
«Close and personal, dirty and brutal.» He thought out loud.
He walked over to where his pike landed, only to find it broken in two.
«Disband it!» He wailed. «Oh Marco, Marco, Marco… what are you going to do now?»
As he held the broken shaft, an idea struck him. He went over to the enemy and looked around for his weapon. «Come on Marco, Marco, Marco… you can find it…» There. He picked it up and hefted it, liking the balance as he wielded it with his good arm. It was shorter than his pike, but actually looked deadlier.
He noticed some notches halfway up the shaft. Few infantry units popped able to read or write, though they could learn with time and effort. On the march there'd been this one knight, School, who'd teach at turn's end. She usually had a dozen or so units studying with her in a mix of genuine interest and desire to croak the boring off-turn hours. Marco had gone with the rest of his stackies out of curioisty, but had to fight to stay awake. Zheng had joked with him once about his snoring in class by comparing him to a Slum Bear, ribbing him with an offer to find a Twoll to fabricate him a little nightgown, sleeping cap and tea pot.
So he struggled deciphering the four crudely etched letters: «P. O. L. O.»
«Well, I could do a lot worse.» he thought to himself. Out loud, teasingly, he introduced himself to his new best friend. «Hello, my name is Marco. Nice to meet you Polo.»