Journey through the hungry jungle, parts 4 & 5
Part 4: Quite possibly Erfworlds most delicious food.
While washing up the next morning Marco got the shock of his young life; he saw a stranger staring at him.
And the face was his own.
He was still groggy from only sleeping a few hours, so he'd gone to the river for some water to splash himself awake. He dipped his hands into a pool of still water, and on the third splash he saw his reflection for the very first time. He was spellbound, waiting for the image to sit still after disturbing the water. He had dark brown eyes under thick brows. A straight, prominent nose. He took off his helm and saw shortish wavy brown hair, maybe auburn? He had a fairly square jaw under the stubble.
«Wait, stubble?» Marco’s mind raced. His face had always been smooth, just like all his stackies. He ran his hands over his jaw and confirmed the grainy texture against his palms. He’d never seen his full reflection, and honestly he’d never been that curious about it. But now he wished the slightly rippling pond surface were a real mirror. He looked into the depths of his reflection for what seemed like an eternity. Then a drop disturbed the surface, then another.
He looked past his reflection at the heavy clouds beneath the surface of the water, painted crimson by the morning sun. He sighed a bit at the sight. «Heads up, we’ve got rain coming!» he called over to Zheng, who was munching on some lion jerky by the foot of the Banyan tree.
Zheng tore off a piece of jerky with his teeth, and looked up from the meal at his approaching friend. «Shou’ we» he gulped the bite down «wait ‘till it lets up? Move penalties for Rain on top of Jungle would be brutal.»
Marco started rolling up the sleeping lion pelt and thought about it. Zheng was right, of course, but... «That’s risky, Zheng, rains here may start and stop real fast, but we don’t know when the turn will end, or how often or long it’ll rain. If we wait too long we might not even leave the hex.»
His friend looked out at the rain for a moment before replying «Moving in Rain also means combat penalties. We’d be even more vulnerable if a feral attacks us.»
«You have a point…» despite himself, Marco was getting used to the debating thing, alien as it was. This was why he felt especially proud of his next thought. «It would wipe away our tracks though. If there’s any Banana Republicans or ferals looking for us, we’d give them the slip.»
Zheng nodded once. He looked like he was about to say something when they were interrupted by yelling in the distance. It was upriver, Zheng bolted to a standing position and pointed further up the bank. They had made camp south of the north hex boundary, so they could see a little ways out of the hex. The unmistakable yellow and blue of Banana Republicans was visible. There were maybe two stacks of them, in the usual assortment of scarves, bangles, short brim hats and skinny jeans.
They were led by a short, swarthy and stunningly beautiful Warlady wearing a gorgeous yellow and blue jacket with frilly, pleated sleeves and a ruffled battle skirt. He could tell she was a warlady because of the huge, bowl shaped hat she was wearing that doubled as a bananarang basket.
They were jeering and pushing against the hex boundary, some even casually leaning against it.
Impressively (and a little terrifyingly, thought Marco) the Warlady managed to yell loudly enough to be heard clearly all the way across the hex. «Ay, look boys! We found our straglers! Looks like it’s going to be time for some Tar-get practice!» Her men laughed raucously, some unsheathing their swords or pikes and waving them.
«Hey! Tar-Zidiots! Try and put up a decent fight this time! Your brothers and sisters were soooo green, like unripe fruit hanging on a tree!» She ended with a playful laugh and used a curved golden banarang to mime slicing fruit off a tree.
Marco’s blood boiled as he jumped to his feet, he inhaled to yell back some choice insults when Zheng took off running towards them. Marco only caught a glimpse of his face, but it looked like he was mad enough to croak every last one of them. And so was Marco. But he recognized the taunt for what it was: another trap, trying to lure them to danger. Marco took off to stop his friend; deciding subconsciously to drop Polo to make better speed.
He pushed himself forward until his legs burned and prayed silently to the Titans to avoid slipping in the rain slick riverbank. He jumped off of a river rock and managed to tackle Zheng a few yards shy of the hex boundary, getting him in a good hold.
«Let me go! Let me go! We have to croak them!» Zheng was struggling, trying desperately to get out of Marco’s grip.
He held fast to his stackie, trying to ignore the cat calls and taunts from the Banana Republicans. «No! Not here, not now!» He managed to get his face next to Zheng’s ear and whispered «It’s a trap. Just like they did to us the first time. Don’t look at them, don’t look!» Zheng was still struggling with everything he had. «We can get them back. We will! Remember the Guewilla Cheeses. Remember: Don’t you wish we’d thought of it? Wished we'd noticed it?» He echoed his friends words, hoping they’d reach him.
Zheng’s struggling slowed, then stopped. He could feel his stackie was still tense, even seething with rage, but not fighting anymore. He chanced letting him go from the hold. The Banana Republicans mock-booed amid continued insults. Marco turned Zheng away from the enemies and walked him back to the Banyan tree, keeping a hand on his back the entire time.
It looked like they’d have to hope the rain really would erase their tracks.
The Warlady yelled behind them «Aww, are you splitting? Don’t worry, you won’t get far you yummy little Tar Zhapetizers. You are, quite possibly, erfworld's perfect food.»
Moving through the Jungle was painfully slow already; Rain penalties piled on top meant they’d be lucky to move more than a single hex today. And since the Banana Republicans seemed to still have their Jungle capable Warlady they could track and scout just about all the adjoining hexes and easily find them. Even if the rain covered a single day’s tracks. They clambered down the waterfall’s slope, then – careful to avoid the orange colored fruity pebbles – they made their way to the opposite bank.
Marco’s plan was simple, but risky. They wouldn’t actually leave the hex; they’d try to hide in the jungle on the Guewilla Cheese side of the river, avoiding the traps that got the Navatari Elves. With a lot of luck, the rain would mask their trail and the Banana Republicans would simply walk on by, assuming they’d left. With some luck, if Banana Republicans followed them then the traps would get them, including the Warlady. Then they’d try to pick off stragglers.
With no luck… well, croaking to traps was probably not the worst thing that could happen to them that day.
They both stopped at the foot of the treeline, Marco looked over to Zheng, who was halfway between sulking and furious. This was no good; Zheng was the better spotter of the two, if this plan was going to work... he need his stackie to be focused, not full of rage. He ventured a question to get him to tune in again. «What kind of tree marks did you see the Guewilla’s walk between?»
Zheng glared at the trees, and pointed to a couple of them. They all had seemingly random machete cuts in them in random places, but the ones Zheng pointed to were matched pairs. It looked like the Guewilla’s had retreated between them, like doorframes. They made their way through one of them and into the jungle beyond.
Without Elf bodies to show them where the traps might be, both spent a few minutes just looking at everything. As hard as Marco looked he couldn’t really spot anything significant. Usually only Warlords or scouts could spot traps before they were triggered, though there was a chance anyone might notice a trap if they looked carefully enough.
«Come on buddy, B.C. Focus. Remember: Just because you can’t see a pattern…» began Marco, repeating one of Sargeant Nass’ drills. He put an arm on Zheng’s shoulder.
Zheng’s shoulder’s stiffened, and he turned to look at Marco with tears in his eyes. «… doesn’t mean there isn’t one.»
«Zheng, buddy, what’s wrong?» seeing his normally calm friend pivot from intense anger to tears was more than wierd, it was unsettling.
«I left them, Marco.» as he said it, something behind Zheng's eyes seemed to be breaking.
Marco tried for his best reassuring tone. «Who, our stackies? No, we went over this, there was no way to find any of them after--»
«No, I mean I left them, Marco.» Zheng was close to sobbing now. «I left you. After we split up, I didn’t restack; I used the lieutenants orders to look for another unit to stack with before attacking... but I went looking away from where the battle was happening. I-- I ran. When I heard them leave I went back and they... Oh, Titans. They hung them all up in a tree, like a bunch of hanging fruit. Two-Canopeners and Wrench Monkeys were peeling the armor off, letting the bodies drop to the ground t-to eat them. I used my pike to try to croak the ones I could reach, but there were t-too many.» Now he really was sobbing.
Marco was in shock. He couldn’t connect the admission to the image of the calm, quiet and observant Zheng he knew and trusted. Without realizing it, he slowly tightened his grip on Zheng’s shoulder.
Zheng seemed to recover some of his earlier anger again «That’s wh-why I got so angry earlier, because that Warlady ordered it! And! And… » he finished more quietly «that’s why I was so sure no one else made it out. I counted. Hanging from th-the tree. There were 43.»
Before he knew it he had tackled Zheng onto the ground for the second time the same day. He yelled, screamed, punched Zheng once, twice, three times. Zheng put up his arms to stop the hail of blows. He rocked and tried to push Marco off, but he was pouring down blows like a waterfall.
«How could you!? They were our friends, our family! They trusted you, they needed you!» Marco yelled as he continued punching. Zheng managed to put a knee between them and shove Marco off. Marco got back on his feet and readied to lunge at Zheng.
His friend was on his feet too, crouched but with his arms spread wide, pleadingly. «I’m sorry! Marco, I’m sorry! I was terrified! They were routing us! The Lieutenant was probably croaked! If I hadn’t run I’d have croaked just like everybody else. I’m sorry… I-I didn’t mean for it to be all … Fu Bar.»
«You don’t get to be sorry! You let our brothers and sisters croak, you worthless--! You could have saved some of them, you could have…» but behind the fury Marco was already having doubts. Could Zheng have actually done something for their stackies? Marco’d been just as terrified as Zheng had, while he was alone, when he faced the lone Banana Republican and Sleeping Lion. But he’d faced his fears, why hadn’t Zheng? The rage at Zhengs Disloyalty was fighting its own battle with love and compassion. Above all, he didn’t want to lose the last of his family.
Head pounding, heart racing, Marco let out a raw, guttural scream and let himself collapse into a kneeling position on the jungle floor.
They were both quiet for what seemed like a hundred turns, letting the roiling jungle sounds wash over them.
Cautiously, Zheng broke the silence «Marco… can you please forg--»
«--that night when I heard you over the Two-Can. Why were you shouting their names?» Marco’s throat felt raw, and his question came out like a strained, raspy Guttersnake.
Zheng didn’t hesitate in his reply «I wanted to be found. I didn’t care if it was ferals, Banana Republicans… I just didn’t want to be alone with my guilt. Even if it croaked me. And there were two others missing. I thought… maybe if I can save even one stackie… maybe the Titans would forgive me.»
«I--» Marco sucked in some spit to soothe his damaged throat. «I don’t know if the Titans will forgive you… I don’t know if I can forgive you. But we’re family, Zheng. We have to stick together.» Marco looked Zheng in the eyes. «We have to make this right, for our lost brothers and sisters.»
Zheng sucked in a deep breath, and let it out. It wasn’t what Zheng wanted to hear, but he seemed to finally be back. In a sense, they both were.
Part 5: Guewillas in the mist.
They both stood up and dusted themselves off. The rain had finally stopped.
A low, playful and accented voice wafted in «You guys havin’ a fun family feud, eh mister? I can make a bell so you can take turns punching!» before laughing at his own joke. Both of them started looking about in panic, was it the BR? Had the turn already ended?!
Zheng pointed straight up, and Marco followed his gaze. A Guewilla Cheese was hanging lazily by one arm high above them in the treetop, using the other to hold a fat cigar to his lips. He enjoyed a long drag before puffing out a pair of smokey cheery O’s.
Marco craned his neck to look up, wondering where he’d dropped Polo in the scuffle. «No thanks, I think we’re done fighting.» The Guewilla was a glossy yellow with brown toasty patches in his fur, which Marco guessed were probably due to romping too close to a fire. He was wearing a beret with a shiny red enamel pin on the front, probably where an allied side's livery would display. He guessed this Guewilla was a Chief, and decided that keeping him talking and interested would probably be best for their survival.
«You speak Language?» So much for interesting topics.
«I speak the Language of imperialistic oppressors, yes.» the Guewilla Chief took another drag of the cigar, he let the smoke out through his nostrils this time, looking disturbingly like a cross between a Red and Yellow Dwagon. «But up here, comrade-compadres, we live by our own rules. We aren’t cogs in some expansionist machine.» And here he just let go of the branch, tumbling down and leaving a streak of red and smoke behind.
Half way down the guewilla Chief caught a vine with one of his feet and started swinging in loops around the fruit trees, before landing with an earth shaking thud right in front of Marco, causing him to fall backwards in surprise. «Up here, comrade-compadres, we are the Wrench Monkeys to Empires.» he finished, looming over Marco.
Thoroughly intimidated, and with every one of his instincts to run going off, Marco did his best to hold his ground (which was easy considering his butt was on the ground). When, surprisingly, Zheng spoke up. «We aren’t cogs. We’re men. We make our own decisions and we… make mistakes, yeah, but we can learn from them. We can try… we can do better. We don’t mean you or your tribe any harm, we’re just passing through, trying to stay alive.»
The Guewilla Chief looked at Zheng, and stood up on his hind legs. «Really, my friend? By walking into Guewilla Cheese territory, chased by those tin-pot Banana Tyrants behind you? Seems more like a death wish if you ask me.»
Marco noticed that Polo was on the ground to his left, and started to slowly inch in that direction. «He’s telling the truth though. Yeah, we know this place is full of traps, but we’re counting on it. We chose to come here, because if the Banana Republicans follow us they’ll fall into them.»
The Guewilla Chief looked at Marco for a long second before a grin split his face and he let out a booming laugh. «You’ve got some stones, comrade-compadres, I’ll give you that much.» The Guewilla Chief sat on the ground and switched the cigar to his left foot, taking a calm drag from it. «We used to be chill with your side, you know? Your emperor was a good man. Things changed. Your side got real clammy. Now the BR’s been trying to get us to ally, but they’re more of the same klepto monarchist crap.»
«Oh, and don’t bother with the polearm, my comrades are in sniping position.» Marco abruptly stopped inching towards Polo, now conscious of just how many more hiding spots there were in the canopy than on the ground.
«So you two are a problem» went on the guewilla Chief. «I could croak you, but what’s the point? If our traps don’t the BR’s will. I could capture you and hand you over to the BR to get some Shmuckers for the cause, but why help those overripe narcissists? And helping you…» he took a slow drag of the cigar, held the smoke, and let it out as he spoke «Helping you wouldn’t be much better. Saving your lives just means sending back two pikes so the war machine stays strong. You don’t have a Warlord telling you what to do right now, but when you get back? You’ll be good little mindless cogs and turn and croak where they tell you to, your lives won’t matter any more. So tell me, uncle, should we let you live or let die?»
Marco swallowed. He didn’t really follow everything the Guewilla was saying (who’d have thought he’d be outsmarted by an ape?) but he knew it was a searing attack on his side, and on them as infantry. If he didn’t convince the chief to at least let them go, this could be their end.
He began slowly. «You think we can’t choose for ourselves. We can. It’s hard, but we’ve been doing it this far, and we’re still alive.» Marco turned to Zheng «You think we don’t care about stuff, but we do: we care about family, about our ‘tribe’, about—about doing what’s right for each other. You think we don’t matter? You don’t have to help us, but just watch, we’ll show you how much we matter when those BR get here!» By the time he finished Marco was standing, fists clenched and heart straining against the confines of his chest.
The chief considered them both, letting the jungle cacophony eat the silence between them like a wounded feral. Then he got up too, changing the cigar to his right hand and flicking some ashes onto a nearby pile of fallen leaves. «The ones with cocoa pebbles near the edges are pit traps. Floor vines with bunches of honey oats trigger swinging log traps. Oh, and those muddy patches nestled by the root of the trees? They’re quicksand traps, courtesy of the Sand Witches.»
The chief circled his cigar in the air, and a great rustling could be heard in the canopy as dozens of hidden Guewilla’s started moving away, causing a fresh rain of leaves to fall on the jungle floor. «All right comrade-compadres, lets see what you got.» The chief leapt onto a nearby tree and started climbing up, leaving two stunned pikers on the ground.
«Thank you! But we don’t even know your name!» cried Zheng.
The Chief looked down without slowing his climb. «Chief Viet, of the Kong tribe. And don’t thank me yet uncle; we’re just choosing not to hurt you. The rest is on you.»
They spent the rest of the turn scouting out the jungle layout and the traps. They picked four high outcroppings for the defense bonus and did a few trial runs moving between them, to try and maximize the odds any chasing BR’s would trip more traps. They stuck to paths on tree roots to avoid leaving tracks in the soggy ground. The baggage between them took second stage to the practiced drills for moving, striking, and covering. On the sixth run through they felt their Move drop to zero as the turn ended.
Marco’s stomach lurched. He looked over to Zheng, who held his gaze. They shared an entire lifetime of trust and regret in that moment. Then they got into position.
«They came this way, this is where that scream came from!» came a cry from the river outside the jungle. There was some faint splashing as the BR's started crossing the river. The screams that followed had become common enough in this neck of the jungle that the bird song and feral calls hardly registered the addition.
Marco and Zheng had no way of knowing how close the BR’s were, but any second now…
They heard the wails of wounded units and lots of talking units enter the jungle. It was too faint to make out from this distance. What they did make out was the sound of a vine snapping and something very heavy falling. Two more screams, then a lot more talking.
The tension was eating them up. Marco felt that deep, abiding desire to go out in the open and run them all through with his spear. He felt the Order to engage propelling him forward, but he focused his mind on the thought that every moment he waited, more of them would croak to traps. In a paradox, every moment he waited and disobeyed the Order, he obeyed the Order. Every moment he waited and didn't egnage, he was engaging them with the jungle itself. To his right, Zheng was going through something similar. He hated losing the absolute certainty that his stackie would stand by him, but he had to trust him.
«Titans trousers, ma’am, Tommy and Hilfiger can’t walk with those holes in their feet. And Zara is incapacitated.» came the voice of a female BR.
The light, lyrical laugh that lolled out chilled Marco. «They slipped up, yes, but that’s hardly a concern. They’ve done their Duty beautifully, discovering those clever monkey traps for us. Now, Abercrombie, Fitch, be dears and take point, hm?»
The pair must have been lucky or cautious, because they didn’t trigger or fall into any more traps. Marco heard them approaching their tree. Then he saw it, a fashionable yellow boot.
Marco felt his mind gain a crystal clarity. He swung Polo down on the unwary Abercrombie’s head, pick first. It was an instant crit. He felt Zheng lay his pike on his shoulder and thrust it clean into Fitch’s chest, like a pool cue. Then using his shoulder as a brace he shoved the enemy stabber onto one of the muddy quicksand pits by the tree.
Then they ran. And without anyone actively engaging them they could run to the next high point without attacks of opportunity.
«Ah ah! You won’t escape our grip, darlings!» Marco spared a backward glance. The diminutive warlady was a dancer in a ballroom, gliding towards them without glancing at the ground. She was sending her infantry after them with the precision of expertly choreographed dance fighters.
And avoiding the traps.
«Guess we’ll have to trip them up.» Marco waited for Zheng to get a little farther ahead before jumping onto a honey oat vine and then ducking onto a parallel root. He didn’t look back, but the overhead «swoosh», scream, and «thunks!» made him smile.
He caught up to Zheng at the top of a fallen cinnamon tree and readied Polo.
«Swarm. Ralph and Lauren, left flank. Calvin, Klein, take the right. Giorgio and Armani, with me.» The Warlady’s voice had the purr of a cat playing with a mouse.
Crap. Too many, and from too many angles. They were going to be crunched between them… unless things got toasty.
It was all his stackies’ idea.
Zheng put his pike down and picked up two small jugs of cooking oil from a recess in the wood. Marco lowered Polo and got out his fire kit. This was going to be tricky. One strike. Out of the corner of his eye Marco saw movement. Two strikes, he could hear yelling Banana Republicans. Lucky strike, the cloth in the tops of the bottles caught fire.
He never hesitated. Zheng threw the first bottle and missed, hitting the ground in front of Ralph and Lauren, causing Lauren to slip and fall into a pile of cinnamon leaves next to cocoa pebbles. Ralph skidded to a halt, allowing Marco to hack him with Polo. It didn’t croak him, but the pull out unbalanced him enough that he followed after Lauren.
In a Mathamancy miracle, the second throw actually managed to hit Abercrombie. Fitch stopped to try and put out the fire on his partner, but quickly found out all the BR accessories he was wearing weren’t fire retardant.
Marco and Zheng didn’t stay to enjoy the show. They ran through to the next high point, a steep little hill. Marco’s heart was pounding and his breath was coming in rapid bursts. He was terrified and exhilarated, thinking about how to defend the hill. That’s when Marco slipped on a wet root.
Footing lost, he tumbled forward onto the muddy space between some trees into a quicksand trap.
He grabbed for the nearest root, not daring to struggle and sink. He could hear running boots and laughing approaching. He missed the root, just barely brushing it with his fingers, but feeling himself start to sink up to his chest. Every action taken in a quicksand trap that didn’t result in release would just sink you further in. He was starting to panic, he made another grab, and missed. He could feel the sand reach his neck.
«If I can save even one stackie.» the head of a pike appeared just within reach in front of him. Zheng! Heart swelling, Marco grabbed it and started pulling himself out.
He climbed out of the trap, and felt ready to hug Zheng when he saw a flash of yellow lodge itself in Zheng’s chest, making him twist and fall backwards. A bananarang from the Warlady’s hat.
The clarity in Marco’s mind from being stacked faded. In its place came a terrible red haze. He swung Polo sideways hard while ducking into a crouch. Not even looking if there was anyone behind him, but he’d guessed right. The impact knocked Armani off the root he was approaching on and into the quicksand trap. Giorgio managed to use the opening to rush in and stab at Marco.
The Piker defensive bonus was good, Marco managed to pivot Polo up and redirect the thrust. But the bonus wasn’t good enough to offset the Warlady's Leadership and fully deflect the thrust. Giorgio scored a stab on Marco’s arm and costing him 2 hits. Marco didn’t scream in pain this time, but rage.
Marco managed to vault backwards and use the axe head to cleave into Giorgio’s shoulder and take his sword arm clean off. To Giorgio’s credit he was still standing, and could have picked up the sword from his detached arm to keep fighting... had his Warlady not kicked him off the tree root.
The next thing Marco saw was a curved yellow bananarang sticking out of his left shoulderblade, fully crippling the limb and causing him to drop Polo. He felt his hits go down by a whopping 5.
A full, happy laugh wafted up through the jungle amid the agonized moaning and cries of injured units. «Ay, my deary, you have my most sincere admiration.»
Marco had been trying to pull the banarang out when he was kicked onto his back. The diminutive Warlady dug a heel into his chest and towered above him. She seemed to glow in the sparse noonday sun that filtered through the canopy.
«This has been truly fun. Truly! Almost» she added with a mock sad sigh «fun enough for me to consider letting you go, just to play again. But alas, like all ripe fruit, you need to be served up or you’ll go rotten.» At this she pulled out another bananarang and gently, playfully lowered it to his throat. «The best way to serve up Tar Zhapetizers is to pop the top off and squeeze.»
The Warlady blinked in confusion and stepped back. She looked down at her stomach and saw a broken-off pike head sticking out.
«I’m making a point out of you, lady.» He lunged forward and headbutted her as hard as he could, sending her tumbling down the side of the high point and spilling bananarangs from her hat like falling fruit. Marco was down to 4 hits. He didn’t bother to pick up Polo, he couldn’t risk her managing to hang onto one of the ‘rangs and throw it.
He leapt down at her with an elbow slam, driving the pike head all the way through her sternum. He saw her bright brown eyes look into his in disbelief and rage for a brief moment, then turn to X’s. He felt himself Level then. He was a 3. But instead of joy or satisfaction, all he felt was numbness and pain.
Marco got up slowly, panting. That move had dropped him to 2 hits. The wood from the shaft had actually managed to make a wicked gouge in his right arm. He reached up and pulled out the bananarang with his right arm, feeling as much pain removing it as he did in his arm.
He looked around. The moaning from the Banana Republicans had stopped. The burned body of Abercrombie was petering out. Smoke was coming from a hole nearby. Probably Fitch. He made his way back and picked up Polo. A gasp from the left made him turn. Giorgio was burbling, trying to stay afloat in the quicksand. He took Polo, aimed carefully, and slammed the pick into Giorgio’s head.
And so he went: slowly, methodically, mechanically making sure they were all croaked.
Until finally, he got to Zheng.
Marco put Polo down and kneeled by his friend. He didn’t have any words. He hadn’t even had a chance to sort out how he felt after that morning’s revelation. Now here he was, his last stackie, friend, family… croaked. And all he could feel was numb.
He decided to recite the old drill Sargeant Nass had taught them. «This is my pike. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My pike is my best friend. It is my Life. I must master it, as I must master--»
«my life.» came a faint, breathy voice. Zheng coughed once.