Journey through the hungry jungle, part 9
Part 9: Moat cruise
They decided to call their new (lowercase) ally Lily. Not the most inventive name, but they didn’t want to go with the other option (Froggar, short for Freaky Round Green Gal).
Lily took a few minutes to cut the roots off a trio of lily pads, and seemed to tie them together underwater. She paddled the little fleet around the lakeshore, and when satisfied they would hold together she parked them close to the shore.
Marco turned to give Zheng one last look, to confirm he was good with this. He nodded once. They’d talked quietly about whether they could trust Lily (the “quietly” part might have been overkill given the Language barrier, but hey). The major sticking point was that once “embarked” they’d be essentially at her mercy. The other was that they might not like what was on the island.
They decided that despite the risks they’d come too far to turn back, especially given the rare opportunity before them. On the other hand, something about Lily seemed trustworthy.
Marco wadded up to his knees into the lake and fought the sudden fear of falling and drowning. He tried to get on but slipped, getting completely drenched. Lily croaked out something like «Geddup, geddup.» and managed to lift him by the arm pit, saving him the risk of drowning (even knee high water could be fatal to units without the Seafarer or Water-capable special).
She seemed to notice his discomfort and held the lily pad steady next to him and offered her arm as he got on. The moment he finally put his full weight on it, he breathed a little easier.
For his part Zheng seemed to thoroughly enjoy the water. He managed to practically hop onto the lily pad, and beam a huge grin as he sat crossed legged.
Once Lily was sure they were both sitting stably, she leapt nimbly and landed smack dab in the middle of the lead lily pad, somehow avoiding causing ripples in the lake. She dipped her spoon in the lake and started paddling, alternating left and right. It took a few strokes but soon they were moving at a decent clip across the water.
The voyage to the temple went by quietly. Literally. As they left the jungle behind they also left the jungle calls behind. It had actually made Marco feel progressively more nervous. He hadn’t realized how used to the rhythm and sound of the jungle he’d become, to the point that its absence was freaking him out.
He chanced a glance back at Zheng, who looked like a happy sight seer, peering over the lily pad’s edge at the lake beneath. Marco sucked in a breath and peeked over. The murky depths were still and silent. He could maybe see some vague shapes... then a long, thick, snake-like shadow swam by slowly beneath them, flapping what seemed like huge wings. Their pads rocked up and down as the beast’s wake rippled behind it. Lily didn’t seem to take notice; Zheng gasped in delight, and Marco studiously began examining the approaching island.
The island was made up of three stone terraces about three yards high each. The sides were adorned with weathered relief pictures. At the top of the tallest one sat the stone face. From this distance Marco could see that the headdress it was wearing was sort of a rectangular ceremonial helmet. It had discs by the ears, feathers at the top, and what looked like an inset crown or circlet with a large gold disc at the top.
The temple’s terraces were so overgrown with trees and plants it really did seem almost like a natural island. Even the stone head had a pair of trees to each side, like courtiers holding up parasols to keep a King cool in the hot sun.
Lily rowed them up to an external staircase cut into the side of the temple. She got off and stabilized the pads so Zheng and Marco could get off. At that point, Zheng had pulled out his bag of Honey Nuts and handed it to Lily with a heartfelt «Diggem.»
Marco wasn’t sure if what Lily did qualified as a smile, but the slow blink and tilted head seemed to convey gratitude. «Diggit, diggit.»
Zheng then motioned to Marco, who pulled out his own bag of Honey Nuts like they’d discussed. «Now Lily, please wait for us here, we’re going to have a look around and then come back out.» Zheng mimed walking into the temple, and then pointed back at the lake shore by the canal. «Diggit?»
Lily was confused for a moment, not sure what exactly Zheng was getting at. «Goddit» she said, pointing at Zheng and Marco then the ground beneath their feet. They kept on with the exchange for a few minutes, when Marco hit on an idea.
Marco pointed at the sun up in the sky, it was still early morning. Then he pointed at Zheng and himself and the temple. «Goddit» Then Marco pointed towards where the sun would be late afternoon, and followed by pointing at himself, Zheng and Lily at the beach by the canal. He jangled the bag of Honey nuts. «Diggit»
Lily tilted her head and looked at him like he’d said something profoundly weird. She pointed at the sun, then at where Marco had pointed it would be when the wanted to go back. She mimed paddling and moving forward, only to hit an invisible wall. «Diggit?»
«Oh!» exclaimed Zheng. «Of course, she means she can only move us out of the hex on her turn! If we don’t leave before our turn starts, we’d have to wait for tomorrow before she can ferry us back.»
Sudden understanding dawned on Marco. He tried his best to... he wasn’t sure how to describe it... will or infuse meaning and intent into his words. «Do you think you could wait for us? I don’t know how long this will take, but we’ll definitely be done tomorrow.» He mimed a full motion of the sun from its present point, then them moving across the lake.
Either the miming paid off, or she was a sight smarter than they were, because she mimed Marco’s directions back perfectly (A little unerring how exact her imitation was). Then she nodded and croaked «Diggit.» She then plopped down onto the lowest temple terrace, tied the lead lily pad’s root to a nearby tree, and started deftly peeling the Honey Nuts.
«Well» said Zheng. «You have a talent for communicating.»
«I just couldn't bear to see you keep floundering about.» quipped Marco.
Zheng sighed. «And with that pun goes another shred of respect I had for you.» He straightened and looked up at the stone face. «Well Marco, are you ready?»
At this distance, Marco could see the most of the face was grey, with parts blackened from rain or green from moss. But traces of paint (was that red around the mouth?) were visible. The stone head had two huge rubies for eyes, which glinted in a thousand different shades of red. He remembered his first and only night alone in the jungle, with the dozens of shining eyes in the darkness, and suppressed a shudder. «Yeah, let’s do this.»
The approach up the stairs was steep, only about half a foot would fit on the steps. So they couldn’t actually spare a glance up without risking losing their balance on the mossy steps.
At the top, when they could look up at the face... Marco didn’t know how much of the legend was true, but it looked Titanic. In a dark, distorted sort of way. Unblinking ruby eyes, a huge (thankfully) closed mouth with thick wide lips. Despite the growth of new Life all around it (ironically) decaying some of its appearance and the temple's as a whole, the face held its stern and commanding expression from ages past. It was defying the elements simply by ignoring them.
Zheng tugged Marco’s arm and motioned with his head. «I don’t think we’ll run into any ferals out here, but it’s better to stick together.»
Marco nodded, and they walked around the perimeter of the top, ducking around trees and bushes. Other than birds, they and Lily were the only Units on the island. They found no doors, no rooms, and no hidden entrances (or they were earning their namesake by staying hidden, joked Marco). They decided to try the next terrace down. Though they had no luck on the door front, they did find a few nearly intact murals which depicted part of the Titans crafting Erfworld in an angular, fierce style.
The “ground floor” terrace where they’d landed was almost too overgrown to explore properly, so they merely looked down at it from the middle terrace.
As noon approached, Marco thought out loud «I don’t think we’ll find a door. It probably takes a commander’s eye’s to do that. Like a trap.»
Zheng only nodded, and then looked up at the imposing stone head. «I’ll be honest with you, I’m kind of curious what the view from up there is like.»
Marco raised his gaze. Thinking about it, he hadn’t actually taken in the view from the top of the temple. Before he could answer, he felt their turn start, filling them with Move... and leaving them with nowhere to go. «Well we can’t very well leave the island now. Why don’t we go check in with Lily and then do a little face time with Mr. Statue?»
«I swear by the Emperor’s righteous hammer and frying pan that I am never going climbing with you ever again.» Marco was sweating just beneath Zheng, and not because of the jungle heat. They were using Sixsecond Vines as harnesses and to help with the climb. If you tied them just right end to end, every six seconds they would loop and carry you up. But they had to reach the top the normal way first. Right now he was hanging on to what might have been an ear.
«Climbing gets a lot easier the more you concentrate, instead of talk.» Zheng’s mastery of the invisible sarcasm technique was truly profound.
With a lot less snark and a lot more concentration, they managed to make it to the top. And the view was pretty spectacular.
The jungle spread out before them like a blanket. From the height and distance, they could see rolling hills, trees of every type and size, and even the faint outline of some of the canals. They’d been right, there were three canals coming in from different hexes.
When they looked down at the lake, they could see the faint contours of what might have been a city. The water was murky but Marco could swear he saw the lines of outer walls, and at one point Zheng thought he saw a garrison.
Zheng was holding onto one of the stone feathers, leaning over to try and get a better look at the outline of the garrison and Marco leaned back on the disc atop the statue’s helmet-crown... when he felt the world swallow him up.
Marco woke up in pitch darkness to a hot piercing pain in his left leg. He panicked, disoriented and with no idea where he was. He was on a cold stone floor; he immediately felt around for Polo. He groped blindly in the dark for a few minutes before finding him. He tried standing only to fall back down, letting out an involuntary yell.
«Crap golems. If I’m not alone any unit could have heard that.» he thought to himself. Over weeks of trecking in the jungle, he had gradually developed a sort of sense for when to be quiet, and what sounds ferals would ignore. But here? This place was croaking quiet. Every sound he made seemed to echo back.
He had hoped maybe there was some light, and his eyes would adjust, but no luck.
In the absolute silence, all he could hear was his own ragged breathing and frenzied heart.
He stopped his breathing, and took a single long, controlled breath, and went into his memory. «Control is an illusion! When you’re out there, the jungle will turn the world upside down on you right before it bites your dizzy little head off! If there is only one thing I teach you, it is that the only thing you can ever hope to control is yourself! And precious few of you sorry Honey Buttses of Oats ever will!»
The reassuring insults of Sargeant Nass Tay helped calm him down. Marco got up on his right knee and used Polo to slowly clamber up to a standing position. He used Polo to support his left side, it felt like he broke the leg in the fall. Since sight was useless, he focused on his other senses.
He focused his hearing... there was a faint dripping sound in the distance. Somewhere to his left and beneath him. Either there were stairs or a hole in the floor, best be extra careful.
He focused his smell. The air was musty and humid, with the faint tang of burnt incense? It felt like the air hadn’t moved in several hundredturns. Except... yes. A very, very faint breeze was blowing on the back of his neck. He turned and tried to follow it, careful to test the ground ahead of him every step of the way.
«Clack-clack» went Polo against a stone wall. He started feeling the texture with his right hand. He could smell faint, fresh air... then his hand brushed against something metal. He leaned Polo on the wall and balanced on his right leg, wincing in pain as he accidentally put some weight on his left. It was ovoid and wide. He finally found a sort of latch at the top, heavily rusted. It took a few tries but he forced it open and the metal thing pivoted down hard.
A resounding metal «Thoom!» echoed in the chamber, and the world was flooded in a million shades of red as it shattered into infinite fragments: A lake of blood, a forest on fire, a sky beaten half to croaking with livid bruises.
He fell back from the shock, but to his own satisfaction managed to bite down another cry. He blinked a few times, then the scene before him resolved itself. His eyes were open... and so was one of the statue’s.
He’d managed to pry open a sort of window shade or porthole behind the ruby eye. The room, now filled with a ruby light, showed two chandeliers behind each eye full of mostly spent Powerballs. The space wasn’t too cavernous, but it was tall. Looking up he could see a broken spiral staircase leading up to a sort of circular door. The drip earlier was from a second stairwell leading down.
«Huh, I must have leaned in and fallen through.» Marco thought.
He crawled over to the open eye, leaned against the wall and slid his way up using Polo and the wall for balance. «Zheng must be worried sick» he thought as he considered making his way up that crumbling staircase. It didn’t seem too safe; but yelling for help probably wouldn’t get him anywhere.
He turned to look out the eye. The scene earlier showed a much less bloody, but no less fragmented view of the temple, lake, and jungle. The view was kaleidoscopic and dizzying, he couldn’t see Zheng or Lily out of it. He turned back and looked at the Powerball chandelier. It held some 14 Powerballs, most of which seemed cracked. With all of them turned on the glowing red eyes shining out of the stone head must have been an imposing sight, though it was hardly the thing from legend that could lay waste to armies. Myth status: busted.
Marco sniffed. There was a sweet, fruity scent in the air. He wasn’t sure if it was coming from the tiny crevice in the eye letting the weak breeze in. There were a few fruit trees on the island but...
There, a shuffling sound. It was coming from the stairwell leading down the neck of the statue. «Darn it darn it darn it!» He thought to himself as he started plodding over to upwards stairs. He could feel the urge to engage rising inside of him, but he was also keenly aware that with the busted leg he’d be a sitting duck. His only chance was to avoid the engagement altogether by going up and out.
As he hobbled over to the foot of the spiral staircase, of course the sky picked that moment to park a cloud overhead, pitching the room into near complete darkness. Marco kept going and tried his best not to trip.
The cloud moved out of the way for a few seconds, and he saw a bandaged head peek out of the top of the stairs before darkness fell again. Distracted, he fell onto the bottom steps of the staircase heading up.
The ruby light started coming in waves as the unseen clouds rolled across the sky. Marco saw the pink, purple and orange-bandaged head had risen up to the shoulders, then the chest. It was wearing some kind of tattered military uniform over the bandages. Marco pushed himself off the stairs and got upright. The need to thrust Polo and stab into it was intense. Something about the Unit seemed hostile and dangerous. He forced himself up a step.
The clouds kept rolling by, it was on the same floor now, and it had turned its linen covered face his way. Two eyes glared back at him in the dim red light like coals smoldering in an empty night sky. Behind it he could see another bandaged head shambling up the stairs.
Marco pushed himself physically and mentally up two more steps. The stairwell ahead of him was an upward spiral that was missing several segments. Rushing up like this was liable to get him to fall a second time. Turning to fight would probably croak him. All he had were losing options.
When the clouds sank the room into pitch black again, this time he fell hard. The bandaged units were both mumbling incoherently, the chorus rose in volume until it became a horrible wailing cry. The sheer Shockamancy of the cry was causing Marco physical pain that was worse than the broken leg. As the nightmare ruby light came back, he could see the units closing on him, extending their arms. Where the mouth would be on a man they had “opened” their bandages into a horrible toothy void.
«Not like this... not like thiiiis!» Marco screamed, and for a brief moment his own scream overwhelmed theirs. As the units paused, perhaps to gather breath, Marco grabbed Polo and used the bladed head to slice open the belly of the lead unit.
Bones. Inside of it were bones and sawdust.
As the red light betrayed him and left the room, the last thing he heard was the Uncroaked abomination before him taking in a deep breath. «Yuuummmyyyy...»