Journey through the hungry jungle, part 10

Part 10:Conversations with crazy people


For the second time that day, Marco woke up in pain. Unlike last time, he wasn’t in pitch darkness... also unlike the last time he wasn't a free Unit; he was a prisoner. Marco focused his gaze: both his bare arms were bound in manacles anchored to a chair’s armrests. «Bare arms?» he thought, then he noticed he wasn’t wearing any clothes. He looked around and noticed his neatly folded uniform and armor laying on a bench. He’d never imagined nakedness being used as a weapon against someone, and he hated to admit how very effective it was proving on him: he was struggling to avoid freaking out.

In an effort to keep his focus, Marco turned his gaze to the rest of the room. A trio of honey yellow Powerballs hung precariously on the ceiling on a rickety chandelier, illuminating what looked like a workshop. A wooden table full of strange tools, bags full of raw materials like bones, cloth, sand, and metal. The walls, roof and floor were all made of stone blocks, with a smooth polished floor (it must have shone when clean, right now it was covered in sawdust and trash). The walls were full of the same style of carved relief pictures as the outside of the temple. He didn’t bother to examine them closely.

He sniffed the air; a fruity scent was wafting in from behind him. He turned and standing guard on either side behind him were two of the bandaged units—uncroaked?— each giving him a baleful glare. A flash of fear and anger at their attack earlier made him reflexively try to grapple one of them, only for the manacles to hold him down. He spent another moment calming down and getting a better look at the things.

The one on the left wore the tattered remnants of a slinky black dress made of Cockatail bird feathers and adorned with a taxidermy Feather Boa over her bandages. The one on the right had a tattered pale blue jacket on over the orange, pink and purple bandages.

He heard a shuffling coming from the right, then a door opened. A diminutive woman stepped through; she hid her face in the shadow of an oversized slate grey hat, with some kind of plant adorning the brim. She wore a thick scarf, and all he could see of her ash-gray face were a pair of thin and beautiful lips, downcast in a frown that looked as weathered and immutable as the stone head’s.

The rest of her raiment was the same strange slate grey. She wore a big-buttoned jacket with coattails, a vest, striped dress pants, and what must have once been a lovely pair of buckled dress shoes, all of which were dirty, muddied and scuffed. This was all wrong. How could a unit’s personal raiment get so mistreated despite refreshing at the start of turn? Even in their worst days of jungle trecking Marco and Zheng's gear never got anywhere near this dirty and abused.

She made no sign of noticing Marco, and headed straight for the worktable. Behind her followed the unit whose stomach he’d slashed open, the one wearing a ruined military uniform. It stifly got up on the table then lay down on it.

The anger at his capture and fear from his captivity was giving way to curiosity and a basic need for information. He ventured «Hello? Ma’am?»

She continued ignoring him and got a pair of scissors, sawdust, and some linen bandages from a drawer, along with a small case. She chanted something under he breath while holding a hand to her heart. Then she stuffed the unit with sawdust, sighing softly. Then she got to work rebandaging it, and sewing it shut. The whole operation couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, at the end of which she began to cast something, and the haphazard array of bandages and stitches neatened and the unit seemed good as... new?— well, undamaged at least.

«There now General Mills, all patched up. Back to your duties.» The “General” got up off the table and shuffled away. Not even sparing Marco a glance.

Marco was surprised to find himself more annoyed than terrified at being consistently ignored. And naked. «Ma’am? Are you the... Chief Caster here?» That got her attention.

The small woman looked at him now. He thought he saw a tuft of short red curly hair and a flash of green eyes. «Why don’t you ask her?» And she moved her gaze to the unit on his left, the one in the black Cockatail dress. He turned, on a closer look it did had a vaguely feminine frame. As if in response to the attention it leaned in closer to Marco, exhaling a dry and musty breath.

This was beyond bizarre, was the caster being serious or mocking? These Uncroaked didn’t seem able to speak. But still, what did Marco know about magic? «Uh... ma’am? Are you the chief caster here? »

The unit began rasping out that same, horrifying mumbled cry. «Mmmuuummm--»

«That’s all right Frankie, I can handle the interrogation.» The small woman stopped the unit, the “Mummy”, from belting out it’s moaning incapacitation attack, or whatever it was, and despite himself Marco was grateful; with both hands bound he thought his ears might have burst if he heard it again so close.

The woman pulled up a chair and sat across from Marco «What’s your name and side, piker?»

Marco was scared and confused, but not yet intimidated. He didn’t know how there could still be live units in the temple, or what this caster’s goals were. So he decided to joke for time until he did. «Terribly sorry, I seem to have forgotten. But! I think I had it written down on the inside of my briefs just in case.»

She was not amused. «Name. And. Side.»

A difficult audience was one of Marco’s favorite challenges. «Oh dear! It seems I’m in formal dress. Well then it seems I have you at a disadvantage, what with I can only assume are your work clothes on. How terribly rude of me. Why don’t we put off introductions until we’re both dressed appropriately?»

The caster never moved, but the Mummy on the left struck him across the cheek with a backhand. Marco's head spun from the thunderous strike, he felt he'd hurt his neck but managed to bite down a yelp. The caster gasped in surprise and cried out in a tone Marco recognized as “pleading with the boss” «Chief, I can handle this!»

She straightened and took a breath. Then she turned to Marco again, this time with a chilling smile. «Frankie is upset you’ve hurt General Mills, they’re quite in love you see. The general wanted your head, but I promised him it’d be more valuable to us on your shoulders. But still...» she gestured at his uniform on the bench, then his naked body. «The other half of my promise to the general is if you decide to take your time with answers, we’ll have to cut our losses and just Uncroak you. Bodies without clothes are much easier to Uncroak, and yield better quality units you see.»

Marco glanced at the Mummy on the left and his heart raced. «Was that what she did to these people? Uncroak her own allies and pretend they’re still alive? She is crazy.» He thought.

The caster (Croakamancer?) went on «I know infantry. All you want to do is stab and shoot and slice. Well. Maybe you’ll be more motivated if what you love is on the line.» She motioned for the Mummy on the right, the one wearing the sullied pale blue jacket, to come forward. It was carrying something... Polo!

«Thank you, Boo. A little odd for a piker to carry a spear, isn’t it? Almost as odd as a piker... without a spear at all, wouldn’t you say?» The Mummy, Boo, held the spear out before him in both hands and started to bend it. Hard. He started to hear Polo creak under the strain. «Name. And. Side.»

For an agonizingly long moment the only sound in the workshop was straining wood. It was stupid, it was illogical... but he caved. «Marco! Tar Zhay! Now stop, please! Don’t break Polo!»

The Mummy stopped. «There now, was that so hard?» The caster’s empathetic tone made Marco’s blood boil. The Mummy took a few shuffling steps and handed the caster his spear. «Polo? You named your spear? You really are an odd one, aren’t you?»

Marco was about to acidly note that continuing to call these creatures by the names of her former friends and allies— after Uncroaking them— was also pretty flipping odd. Pretty insane really; but then he got a glimpse of the big picture.

She was sitting directly under the Powerball chandelier, casting a small shadow in the middle of a very big room. With Polo in her hands she looked absolutely tiny compares to the spear, almost engulfed by her chair. The Mummy beside her was cold, unmoving, unfeeling. It might as well have been a table, and she might as well have been alone in the room except for him. Marco felt some strange empathy or intuition. She was alone: fundamentally and absolutely alone. Just like he had been alone that first night in the jungle. Except... it was still night for her. No one had come to rescue her. No one had come to help her find her way out of the jungle.

Marco gambled. «It’s not odd to want to have a friend, even if he never talks back. Polo has saved my life lots of times. I know I can count on him if I need him. He’s not just for croaking, he’s been supporting me every step on my trip back home.»

She seemed to let the words wash over her as she turned Polo over in her hands, examining him in ways only a caster could. «I can see that. He’s got quite a history of Luck, both good and bad. But he does... seem to belong in your hands.» Here she looked at him «But he didn’t always, did he? You took him from someone else.»

If he hadn’t been sitting down, Marco would have taken a step back. «How could she possibly know that?» he thought.

The Croakamancer tipped her face up, revealing the face hiding under the brim of her hat. She had intense green eyes that were severely bloodshot and set in dark circles. «This spear wasn’t named “Polo” by its last owner either. That was the owner’s name. That friend who’s helped you every step of the way? It’s your prisoner, and you’ve betrayed your old pike for a newer, prettier weapon to get that help.»

Emotionally off balance, Marco’s heart sank. He hadn’t thought about that first encounter in days. He had choked that unit 'til his eyes had gone X’ed. He’d been calling Polo by that other units name this entire time, and it was all because he’d lost his first pike. He felt a strange mix of betrayal, shame and disgust. But Polo hadn’t betrayed him! Why couldn’t he just see Polo was still his spear! Polo was just a... spear.

«You don’t have any friends. Not like us. You croaked someone just so you could pretend you weren’t alone. Didn’t you? Didn’t you?!» her voice was raw with the accusation.

Marco’s answered «Yeah» came out raspy. «I took it from “Polo” after he broke my pike. And that’s just it: it was just a pike. That’s just a spear. It’s not a real person. But I would still dust each of these bandaged bone bags to get him back.» He punctuated this by nodding at the two Mummies.

She hadn’t been expecting that. She blinked a few times in confusion and looked to “Boo” for reassurance. It didn’t move.

He softened his tone and motioned at the Uncroaked unit beside her with his head «Like your “friend” there, my spear is a tool. And each of these tools is precious to us; we depend on them to survive and thank them when we do. But we replace them when they break.» Marco could hear Sargeant Nass in the back of his mind, as he tried to hold together the conflicting drills on how precious each pike was, and how replaceable each infantryman was.

«But they’re still just tools, and units aren’t like that. We aren’t like that.» He held her nervous gaze and fought intently to keep her attention, to make a connection. He pressed on, filling his words with sincerity and conviction. «Units live, make friends, fall in love, and yes, fight and croak. Our rulers may replace us when we’re gone, but we’re no less valuable as people. We’re no less deserving of being with friends. Family. Of having a Life in the Sun.»

The Croakamancer bit back a sob.

Marco asked in as gentle a tone as he could «What’s your name?»

«Lucy. Lucy Charms.» She didn’t hold back the sob this time.

He breathed in, and thought of Zheng, and their lost stackies. «Lucy, you don’t have to be alone in the dark any more. I don’t know what you’ve been through, but however bad things were, however isolated and alone you are, it gets better.»

He heard a clang on the floor, Lucy had dropped Polo and sprung out of her seat, rushing at him! ... and into his open arms. He felt the manacles shackling him to the chair vanish. Fifteen minutes ago he would have probably choked her. Now, he put his arms around her and let her soak his bare chest with her tears.




Part 9

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Part 11