Journey through the hungry jungle, part 6
By Spicymancer (Tipped by 4 people!)
Part 6: Compassion in the Jungle
After making sure that Zheng was merely incapacitated (and not in the way that would lead to croaking the following day) he’d made sure his stackie was comfortable (at least, as comfortable as he could be, given the golden metal blade stuck in his chest) and let him sleep. He took the time to go about scrummaging through the Banana Republican’s supplies for loot.
He’d found some bed rolls, rations, formal raiment for military review (trust BR’s to lug that through the steamy hot jungle), cooking equipment, and water tapping gear to draw it from trees. Against his better judgement he decided to take a couple of pairs of the raiment as trophies to show off back home. « "To show off back home", ha ha! Oh man, I am either delirious from Hit loss or a huge optimist.»
But was he, he thought? They’d actually defeated 13 enemy units, including a warlady. While unled! Sure, a lot of that had been the jungle itself and the Guewilla’s traps helping them out, but they’d actually done it. Against the odds, they’d won.
Marco scanned the canopy and ground as he made his way back to Zheng. With only 2 hits, a useless arm and a barely usable other one, any feral that got the notion to go after him or Zheng would only need a single lucky swipe to croak them. Which is why he was surprised to see Chief Viet lounging by the Warlady’s croaked body.
«Well, comrade-compadres, I must admit you certainly know how to throw a good tea party.» Chief Viet was surveying the carnage from that afternoon as he casually pulled a cigar from a pouch on one of his bandoliers. He picked up one of the warlady’s bananarang’s and used it to cut off the cigar’s tip.
«Afternoon, Chief.» Marco didn’t want his surprise to show, and though he didn’t have much of a poker face, he didhave a pretty good joke face. «If I’d have known you were coming over for tea, I’d have put more scones in the oven.»
The Chief laughed. «If that’s what they had, I’ll pass.» He tossed the bananarang casually over his shoulder, causing a tiny winged Trixie Rabbit to shriek in fright and fly off. He moved over to the smoldering body of Abercrombie and held the cigar over a small lick of flame. «That was a nice trick, by the way. Not a lotta places to get oil in the jungle, but it worked pretty good. Might have to try it out on some Navatari.» He put the cigar up to his big lips and took a slow puff.
Marco was trying to get a read on the Chief, and failing. He wasn’t sure what his plan was, but he decided that rather than stand frozen in place he should go about things as normal. He walked over to Zheng and started unloading the spoils. «I found some extra cooking oil on the BR’s, I’d be happy to trade you some.»
The Chief blew out a thick stream of smoke. «A few bottles of oil aren’t really going to get you much, uncle. What in particular are you looking to trade for?»
Marco gave it some thought, and hit upon a really nice idea. «Then you’ll like this trade, I’m basically giving it away. How about directions to one of our nearest cities?»
Chief Viet chuckled. «Well, you can’t really beat “free.” And we Guewilla’s are all about freedom. You got yourself a deal, comrade-compadre. I’ll even pinkie swear on it.»
Marco got out three bottles of cooking oil and handed them to the Chief. The chief then extended a thick, black pinkie from his right foot and hooked it around Marco’s. «Does it work if it’s a pinkie toe?» asked a genuinely curious Marco, before realizing that would probably be offensive.
Chief Viet boomed with laughter at that. «Sure, it even works if the unit isn’t pink, either!» he gestured at his glossy yellow coat at this, and gave Marco what he assumed was a friendly punch that would have knocked him flat if their pinkies hadn’t been hooked.
«I Pinkie Promise to tell you the location and fastest way for you to get you to the nearest Tar Zhay city. Follow the river downstream and you’ll eventually reach Uppenup. It’s eighteen hexes south east. As long as you stay on the river you’ll get there.»
Marco consciously avoided rubbing where the chief had punched him. Small blessings; he had enough ache birds and pain ferals in his internal jungle chorus that it was easy to let one more cry join the cacophony. «Well thanks Chief Viet, you’ve really helped. Saved our lives, even.»
The chief nodded once, and he tucked the bottles into some empty holsters on his bandolier with surprising gentleness and dexterity for such a thick fingered Ally. «You’re all right uncle. It’s easy to lose sight of the jungle for the trees, but I got a feeling any jungle you’re a part might be better off for it. When you get back to Tar Zhay, remind ‘em they could have friends up here, if they get their act together. If they start thinking about breaking chains rather than making ‘em.»
Despite the compliment, Marco felt like he was reliving that moment when the Sleeping Lion was looking at something in the distance. « "making chains"? What do you mean, Chief?»
«I’m not talking about the chains you take prisoners with, I’m talking about chains here.» and he poked his head with the hand holding the cigar, making it seem like his head was smoking. «You can get taken prisoner in a jungle entirely of the mind. Both of you, follow the river out of the jungle.»
And with that the Chief vaulted to a nearby tree and started climbing. He kept the cigar in his mouth, managing to puff out a string of little clouds on the way up.
It rained again the next day, but they didn’t care. Being alive and avenged made everything seem brighter. Marco was still sorting out his feelings over Zheng’s revelation, but that save had reinforced his trust.
The weather had made them start thinking about how long it might take to get home. Zheng was trying to do the Mathamancy behind it. «Without rain, with only 3 move we’re looking at... six turns to Uppenup. If we’re lucky we’ll get spotted by scouts or a flight of Red Spots.»
Marco marched along, using Polo to keep his footing on the wet ground when he said «I just feel lucky to be alive. But y’know, if we’re really lucky… maybe that Thinkamancer will come back, then we can get him to send help.»
Zheng was taking point, nudging a spot of ground with his own pike before going forward. «True. How do we get his attention?»
«Well…» Marco sighed. He had no idea. He’d only really heard about the Thinkamancer from gossip, and had only a vague idea of what he could do. Zheng either didn’t notice Marco trail off without answering, or decided not to pursue the topic to avoid embarrassing him.
«This entire journey has been like a big puzzle.» Zheng finally said.
This caught Marco’s attention. «What do you mean?»
«Well, we had no standing orders. So we had to puzzle out what to do. We had no map, so we had to figure out where to go. There is little around us that’s familiar, so we have to turn what we don’t know into a pattern. We have no leadership… and we have to find a way to fill the missing space.» Zheng paused, peering around a tree and up into the canopy. «We have to, if we want to stay alive.»
Marco thought this over, and remembered what it felt like to look at the fighting Navatari and Guewilla’s from the waterfall. «If this is all a big puzzle, then it’s… part of a big picture. If we can figure out what the big picture looks like, maybe we can solve it.»
Zheng only nodded, and they made their way in silence for a while.
The rain intensified, and both decided to stop for a while at the foot of huge viny tree growing over some stained rocks.
Marco was scanning the interior of the jungle for threats or game. He was eyeing a Macashew bird eating a piece of fruit it knocked off a branch onto the ground. Either would make for a nice snack.
He approached as stealthily as possible. Man, what he wouldn’t give to have the Archery special and just toss Polo or a rock at it. He hid behind a bush and aimed Polo at it through a branch, hoping to skewer the bird. He steadied. He aimed. He thrust! And it flew off.
He walked over to the lesser prize. The half-eaten papaya. It didn’t look particularly appetizing all smashed up, but a few pieces looked edible. When he turned to go back to the tree he noticed that there was a sort of rising path, with a definite and steady inclination. The rain was even forming a haphazard stream down the path. He looked at the ground and noticed it wasn’t all ground. There were way too many stones, and they were all smooth from wear and neatlycarved.
«What do you think it is? It’s not really a path, the sides actually rise upward.» Marco was burning with curiosity, he’d called Zheng over and they were considering some of the more intact stones.
Zheng tested the seams between three slabs of the hexagonal rock. In one it was airtight, in the other tree roots had wedged them apart. «It leads straight to the river, but there’s no dock. Maybe it was a canal or waterway?»
Marco’s imagination raced. He paced from one end of the presumptive canal to the other. Ten paces. «If it was a canal, which I think it was, it’s huge. I’m no Dirtamancer, but it looks like it could carry enough water to quench a city!»
Zheng raised his eyebrows but didn’t say any more. He was seriously considering the possibility. «I’m sure the Kommisars will want to hear of this. A lost city in the jungle would be a great new asset... or a terrible stronghold for our enemies.»
Marco was excited now. This was something new. «Ooooor... we could do reconnaissance ourselves to give them a more precise location.»
Zheng put on his serious face. «Marco, we’re just two Pikers. It’s still hugely dangerous for us to go into the jungle unled. What’s more, it’d be risky leaving the only known trail we have.» Here he pointed at the river.
Hmm. Debate time again. So far, point: Zheng.
«We aren’t really losing the path though; this canal may be damaged and overgrown, but it’s clear. In fact, it’s almost roadlike.» Roads in jungles negated move penalties, even a damaged one like this might net them an extra hex or two a turn. Marco went on «If it ever gets too faint, we can just turn back without getting lost.»
Zheng considered it and nodded. Score! Point: Marco.
Zheng raised a hand up to his chin. «We don’t actually know that the city is unclaimed though. They might have let the canal decay because they got a different source of water, or a new side has recently claimed it. If we were found, they’d get intelligence on Tar Zhay.»
Cocoapuffs, hadn’t thought of that. Point: Zheng.
A thought had been tickling the back of Marco’s mind since talking with Chief Viet, and it finally solidified. «Zheng, when we get back to Tar Zhay we’ll probably get debriefed and put right back into a stack, and that’ll be the end of it. If they believe us about the canal, and if we’re really lucky, we’ll be part of the expedition to find this city.»
He could tell he had hit on something Zheng had been thinking as well. Marco pressed on. «I know you’re curious about it too Zheng. If we go back we’ll never find out what it is. This could be our last chance to have an adventure on our own, without a Lieutenant Fu Bar to jerk us around and mess things up. Heck, if it’s an unclaimed city we’d actuallybe home!»
His stackie’s eyes moved quickly from one side of the canal to the other, then he turned to look back to the river. When he turned back to Marco, the smile on Zheng’s face said it all.