Journey through the hungry jungle, part 7
Part 7: Eye of the Tiger
A Saber-toothed Tony was in their way. The jungle cat was huge; it had orange and black stripes, a white underbelly, and a snazzy red neckerchief. It had found a shaft of sunlight that miraculously penetrated the canopy to the canal floor, and neatly curled up to sun itself.
Marco and Zheng were at least seventy feet away, hiding behind a tree and waiting for it to move. Despite their enthusiasm earlier, neither of them had any intention of going ‘round, since leaving sight of the canal risked them getting lost. And considering how badly overgrown it was, that meant they could go maybe two dozen feet away without losing sight of it.
«This is taking forever.» complained Marco. Quietly, of course.
Zheng had the annoying habit of being completely straight faced with his sarcasm, so it was sometimes hard to detect. «I’m sure it’ll move if you ask it nicely.» Now wasn’t one of those times.
Marco ignored the zinger. «So our options are: wait, fight, or scare it away. I’m not exactly thrilled to fight another big cat, I’d rather avoid engaging it altogether.»
«We could avoid it today, probably. But tonight?» Zheng let the implication hang there. Tony’s were famed for their night time stealth, able to strike and drag away the unwary even from large camps. So even if they did avoid it today, there were good odds it’d attack at night if it caught their scent.
Reluctantly, Marco said «Agreed, lets attack it this turn.»
«A straight up engagement would be risky. Those things are just wired full of energy.» Zheng’s gaze drifted to Marco’s backpack. Specifically, what he had bundled on the top. «Still, we do have surprise on our side.»
The Saber-toothed Tony was roused by a rustle in a nearby bush on the upward bank of the canal. He perked up his ears and stalked up. Even having just napped, he was completely alert and focused. He padded slowly up to the bush, not cautious from fear, but to avoid scaring away the prey.
Closer, closer... he sniffed the air and smelled Man. A rare delicacy. His pupils focused afresh. It lowered into a stalking approach. The man was inside the bush; all he had to do was rush and scare him out, then rake his claws over his prey’s retreating back.
He charged through the bush and came out of the other side, but what he saw made him freeze in his tracks: a swirling star pattern. A Sleeping Lion! It’s only competition for the title of King of the Jungle, and trespassing by day! This invasion of his territory would not stand: he roared a challenge! The Sleeping Lion roared back and stabbed him with a spear!
Then another pike came from the side! This one was from a man.
It swiped at the man who struck it second, scoring a hit on his arm with his claws.
The strange invader was growling and roaring but it wasn’t really a lion roar, more like a Man. Then the Man-In-Lion-Clothing stabbed at him again! Wounded and confused, he sprang backward to escape, but found he’d been maneuvered so his way back was blocked by a tree.
Both the man and the Not-A-Sleeping-Lion struck, and that was the last thing he felt on Erf.
«A terrain bonus on top of a flanking bonus on top of a surprise attack, courtesy of a good Shock. Zheng buddy, you outdid yourself.»
Zheng smiled and nodded, then turned the “rack” (actually a branch) of Tony meat that was being smoked over the fire. This time they used sugar cane leaves in the fire. The night was cool, and they’d lucked out and found some dry-ish wood and leaves.
«Personally, I think you only did it because you’re jealous of my Sleeping Lion bed.» Marco ribbed his stackie. «There’s easier ways to get warm bedding, you know.»
Zheng chuckled and brushed a stray lock of hair away from his eyes. Some of it was falling out of from under the Tony’s neckerchief, which Zheng had repurposed into a bandana. Huh. Marco thought his own stubble was the only change in Signamancy going on because Zheng was still smooth faced. Apparently he wasn’t the only one growing out his hair.
After a beat, Zheng said «You may want to practice your Tamed Lion act, put some more “Grr” into your growls.»
Marco grinned. «Everyone’s a critic.» He reached over and took a small piece of Tony Jerky that looked ready. It was surprisingly tough, so he cut it up into bite sized bits. The sugar cane leaves and smoking gave it a crispy, flaky consistency. He tossed a few into his mouth and munched.
«How are they?» asked Zheng.
Tasting the crispy, sugary flavor, Marco said «They’re Grrreat!»
They trudged along for another two days. They’d lucked out and avoided any other major engagements, both day and night. On the second day they found a patch of flowering Honey Nuts and picked several handfuls. They got greedy though, and ended up botching an attempt to get honey from the Cheery Bee hive that was collecting pollen from the flowers. They ran for their lives from the tiny O-shaped Cheery Bees that chased and stung them all the way to the hex boundary.
They followed the canal in its gradual twists and turns. At points the canal turned into an elevated causeway, and in some it looked mostly intact, only to almost vanish in other points.
Neither were Signamancers, but the design wasn’t anything like the beautiful columns and concentric circles of Tar Zhay’s cities. It seemed older not just because of wear, but in it’s raw and natural design. It didn’t look like the clean work of a Dirtamancer.
It was made entirely of Chexpix rocks, taking advantage of the hex and grid pattern to interlock them. The slabs were cut to be half a foot tall hexes, and stacked and locked on top of each other in a reinforcing pattern. It must have taken hundreds of Twolls or Guewillas to quarry and put them together.
Over the days, the topics of conversation had grown progressively more abstract. As Marco munched on the last piece of Lion Jerky, he mused «Not that I don’t enjoy maulings by big cats and bee stings, but why are we foraging? It’d be faster and safer if we just ate popped rations.» Marco pulled a tiny bit of meat from his slightly longer and thicker stubble.
Zheng was taking point today, and Marco could see his hair had grown longer; soon he’d have to start tying it at the back. «It’s the Loyal thing to do, I suppose. Saves on our upkeep, keeps the side strong… »
«--and it’s also good practice for ambushing and running away in terror.» Quipped Marco.
That got a chuckle out of Zheng. «Honestly? It feels good. Scary sometimes, but we learn something new about the jungle every time.»
They reached a hill that had been cut in two. Whoever built the canal had dug a huge trench to allow it to pass through the hill rather than build around it. The increased tree cover was making things get a little gloomier.
Marco had been thinking about their changing Signamancy, and how it had started once they got lost. «Yeah. All the things we’ve learned and done, all the stuff that’s happened... do you think it’s changed us much? Our Signamancy isn’t the same.»
«Yes, I’ve noticed it too.» Zheng absently reached back to run a hand through his longish hair. «Scripture says: “All of Erf is symmetry: of soul and stats, of mind and Matter, of Erf and afterlife. To change one is to change both. Those who bring great honor and glory to their side shall reap esteem and remain resplendent. But woe to those who bring shame and betray their duty, for neither King nor common soldier can hide the stain of the soul reflected in their Signamancy”.»
Was that a note of worry in his voice?, Thought Marco. Then it clicked in his head. Chains of the mind, trapping you in the jungle. He put a hand on his stackie’s shoulder, pulling him gently to a stop. «Zheng. I’ve been thinking about it. About what you told me before we fought the BR’s.»
Zheng drew in a slow breath, he seemed mostly calm, but also a little apprehensive. «Yes?»
«I want you to know that... I don’t really blame you for what happened to our stackies. It was a booped up situation. I don’t know that you could have saved anyone that day, so» here Marco took in a deep breath to steady himself «don’t feel bad for saving yourself. I know we’re trained to fight and die without fear, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this jungle, it’s that choosing your battles is what keeps you alive. It’s what makes you able to help your Side and family. If you had fought and croaked with our brothers and sisters that day, then I’d have croaked too. And we wouldn’t have been able to avenge them.»
Zheng was getting misty eyed. And now that he thought about it, so was he. He continued more unsteadily. «So what I’m trying to say is, I love you buddy, and I don’t pretend to speak for the Titans, but if you did anything that needs forgiving, then I forgive you.»
Marco was having trouble breathing, his stackie had him in the kind of death grip a Feather Boa would be proud of. They cried it out for a few minutes in the gloom inside the broken hill, until Zheng said «Thank you, my friend. I’ll keep fighting by your side in memory of our fallen.» And here he took in a deep breath. «To Roan, Oak, Amelia, Marie, Celeste, and Andrea Gail.»
They continued onwards, letting the silence fill with companionship enough to drown out the jungle calls.
As they made a final push to clear the hill, the canopy opened up like never before. They saw a sky full of clouds! And more, they saw the sky at their feet, a beautiful shimmering reflection of it; it was a lake in the middle of the jungle!
And rising out of the center of the lake like a drop suspended in time was the top of a temple. It had a huge, stone face carved into the top of what looked like a stone pyramid. Some crafty trees had somehow made their way across and started growing on it, along with moss and vines. It must only be visible from the ground, thought Marco. But it wasn’t a city... at least, not an inhabited one.
«Marco... I think we’ve found it.» whispered Zheng. «Have you ever heard the Legend of the Hidden Temple?»