Unjust Deserts, part 2
Part 2: It's no cakewalk
When the Titans built Erfworld, they must have gone through a lot of emotions when they were designing Hexes. As Beck hiked over a broken boulder, he imagined the Titans feeling standoffish and craggy when they’d sculpted up the mountains. Calm and contemplative when they’d carved the forests. Short tempered and unfocused when they filled the oceans, and full of creativity and hunger as they planted the first jungles.
In this fanciful daydream, Beck liked to imagine that when they needed to cool off and think, they must have created the desert. Sure, it was disbandedly hot, and this particular one was… damaged… but it still bore much of the majesty he had fallen in love with. Still loved, he fought to remind himself, in an effort to hold something positive against the trauma of his first turn.
He could feel it, trekking across the hexes immediately around the Ruin he’d popped in. Deserts weren’t just made of sand, stone, random shrubbery and blistering heat… they were carved out of emptiness, and held together with silence.
Popping Desert-capable helped him navigate the terrain, but understanding it would come only with time. He made his way carefully though the hexes for fear of another run in with Terry or being ambushed by a feral.
As long as he kept his eyes peeled and ears open, he could spot most dangers. The empty stillness made it easy to find trails, and the silence would echo danger. And the solitude gave him the chance to process it all without distraction, and think. He’d been doing a lot of that, while mapping the hexes around the ruins.
It was a shame he wouldn’t be enjoying the solitude for much longer though. When he’d woken up that turn, he’d decided on a particular mission.
Wasteland survival guide Rule 2: It’s dangerous to go alone; tame a friend.
With fourteen move, he was fast for being an unmounted Commander, and being Desert-capable he could ignore local move penalties, along with other minor benefits like better mundane, un-Veiled sneaking and foraging.
Presently, he was sneaking behind a range of boulders, which had once been a standing rock column, and looked down at a patch of land a few dozen yards ahead. He’d spotted several Turn old tracks by a cactus, itself bearing a couple of Prickly Pears wedged up high in it’s arms.
Whatever ferals roamed this area had found the plant, and were checking on it daily to see if it had popped fruit to forage. Given the Prickly Pears were still there meant he’d found it first. This was another good chance for Beck to observe the local Ferals, learn their habits, maybe catch a meal... and hopefully see which of them might be worth taming. And importantly, how.
Though he’d popped with lots of hard knowledge, he only had the rough outline of Taming in his mind. Ferals could be tamed with his gifts of food, but some had their own special diet, and even ones that ate normal food had favorites that would work much faster towards taming them.
Right now, he had one half of that puzzle in front of him. Something liked to eat Prickly Pears, and whatever showed up would be a feral that (even if it didn’t like it best) could at least be tamed with it.
He’d saved one of the Prickly Pears from last Turn because though they were equal parts fine needles, rubbery skin, and pulpy seeds, the inside was sweet and juicy, which would do a lot to quench his thirst without his waterskins.
So, for now, he waited.
Four or so hours ticked by, judging by the sun’s slow climb. His focus wandered, and he ended up spending much of it thinking of that first turn. The croaked soldiers, the mysterious dry river, what to do if he ran into Terry again, and most often of all, what type of Feral might show up.
Eventually, Beck’s patience was rewarded.
A streak of dust was visible on the western horizon, closing in quickly. Incredibly quickly. So quickly, it took another ten seconds before the sound of the approaching unit reached his ears, a sort of reverse echoing “beeP beeP beeP!”
Beck was focusing on the dust cloud, trying to spy the unit or units causing it. He craned his head a little more over the boulder, trying to chance a peek. The trail of dust it was kicking up slammed against the Hex boundary when it entered, as if it were an invisible wall and splattered sideways and up.
He managed to catch a brief glimpse of blue as it entered, and was mildly distracted when a fly or something was hovering near his rucksack. Beck waved a hand to try and shoo it.
But when the fly went “Beepbeepbeep?” he practically jumped out of his skin and onto the ground.
Panic jolted through him, he’d fallen on his butt and he was wide open to attack. But the feral only looked down at him curiously and expectantly, she was a Baudseed.
The tall, pony sized flightless bird didn’t have feathers, but a smooth, shiny coating of what looked like hundreds of kinds of seeds, all Signamantically arranged to give her a mostly light and dark blue coat, with a yellow beak and brown legs. She stood on tall and reverse jointed legs, holding up an oval body with stubby vestigial wings, a long neck, and an equally long and impressive bushy tail.
The Baudseed blinked her big shiny black seed eyes at him, turning her head this way and that, and flip flopping a large crest of dark blue seeds on her head.
Beck swallowed to get his voice back, and also to calm his dread at having been ambushed so effortlessly. “Nice Baudseed. Nice bird.” Beck had no idea if speaking to her would help at all, but it certainly helped him calm down.
“Do you want a Prickly Pear?”
The Baudseed flicked her eyes to the cactus and back, it seemed she did.
“Well, I have one for you, I’m just going to get it out of my--”
No sooner had he moved to take off his rucksack and pull out the Prickly Pear that the bird ran off, leaving a Baudseed-shaped dust cloud and loose seeds that hung in mid air for a full three seconds before gravity caught up with them. Too late, he realized he'd moved his left hand near his axe and spooked her.
Beck scrambled up and looked over the boulder, the Baudseed was jumping up at the cactus and flapping her stumpy wings, trying to reach the Prickly Pears but failing because they were wedged uncomfortably high and between several thorns.
“Hey wait!” He yelled, with the idea to try and fetch the Prickly Pears off of the cactus for her. But just as soon as he’d clambered over the boulder, she fled the hex in a trail of dust.
He trotted over the spot the Baudseed had been. No sign of her.
Beck grit his teeth. Four. Hours. And all over in less than a minute! Ambushed and snubbed!
From somewhere deep inside, in a hardening patch of soul, came an angry, frustrated yell that echoed off the nearby rocks.
He waited another hour, but the Baudseed must have been spooked. With no other ferals showing up, he decided to cut his losses and pick the two Prickly Pears, using his pick axe to knock them loose.
Another two hexes west though, he found something.
Or rather, someones.
The terrain here was less hilly, with more smooth dirt dunes with sparser cover. At the bottom of one such dune in the next hex over, he spied several dozen units with black and yellow raiment picking up their camp. He’d immediately crouched low and scooted behind a shrub to avoid being spotted, but there must have been scouts or warlords in the battalion because a trumpet blew three rapid notes.
A warlord walked through the assembled pikers and stabbers, motioning them away as he came up to the hex boundary, alone.
He waved for Parley, then put his hands together and yelled pleasantly. “Good day, friend barbarian! Comen-zee here! Come and speak, I am a Berliner, and I mean you no harm!”
The sight of the stranger made Beck’s stomach tie itself in knots. His apprehension and caution were screaming at him to just turn and leave. But a very large part of him… a lonely, hopeful part of him… wanted to believe maybe this time, things would be different.
Slowly, he drew himself up to a standing position and walked calmly to the hex boundary. ‘It’s going to be fine. There’s a hex boundary between us, there’s no way for them to hurt me. If it ever starts to feel dicey, it’s my turn, I can just leave and hide.’
The walk was downhill, over several loose piles of rock. Beck was sure footed though; instead of looking down, he met and held the Berliner Warlord’s gaze confidently and neutrally.
For his part, the Warlord had a big, toothy smile on his face. “Hello, hello! I am Earl Stu Del, Chief Warlord in the kingdom of Berliner.” He did a short bow and clicked his boot heels together, before looking back up and asking “And you are?”
Beck coughed to clear (and moisten) his throat. “Beck, Beck Packer.”
Stu nodded, and went on merrily. “Ah, a level 2 Barbarian, Axeman by ze looks of you. Tell me friend, have you been in ze Capital Wasteland long?”
Beck raised an eyebrow, but not because of Stu’s strange accent. “Capital Wasteland?”
The Warlord chuckled amiably. “Not long, zen. We call this desert ze Capital Wasteland. You see, every city in this sea of sand is a Capital.”
Even being popped just yesterday, Beck felt the Warlord was trying to pull one over on him. “What? Seriously? That’s… not possible. Capitals are supposed to be far apart, with lots of cities in between.”
Stu chuckled again, as though this were a joke between old friends. “Ze Titans, it seems, love to make exceptions to zeir rules. Most every city you find here will be a sovereign side, and we are all very much at war.”
Beck ventured “So that’s why your soldiers were fighting yesterday by the dry river?”
He hadn’t thought it possible, but Stu seemed to get even more chipper. “Yes! We really gave Parisserie ze what-for last turn. Those cowardly croissants hardly put up a fight!"
Stu chortled, and Beck remembered yesterday’s battlefield. He was no tactician, but the fairly even numbers of fallen on both sides didn’t really seem like a decisive rout. But what did he know? Maybe there'd been less Parissiers and they’d decimated them?
“Speaking of which, despite ze victory, we could use more leadership for today’s assault. It is a sure thing, but with you assisting us, ze result would be quite definitive.”
Beck was stunned. A contract?! This would solve so many of his problems… but he hadn’t been so stunned as to lose all his sense. He quickly quashed his surprised expression back to neutral, and tried not to emote. “That’s… very generous of you. What would be the terms?”
“Oh, ze standard for Barbarian contracts. All your upkeep met for ze duration of employment, a 100 Shmucker bonus for every enemy warlord you croak, you do not raze any captured city, and 10 Shmuckers extra per turn.”
Beck nodded. It sounded fair, but… “No, forget the Shmucker bonus for croaking warlords. I want a first claim on any items that can be scavenged after battle. Rations, armor, weapons, accessories.” He'd realized the enemy might not have that many warlords, and if they did, him personally going after them in the heat of a major battle-- his first-- might get him croaked.
Across the hex boundary, Stu paused for a moment before widening his smile. “All right, as long as it does not include anything of strategic value, like maps or reports.”
For the first time, Beck felt like he’d gotten a good deal. But that niggling anxiety at the back of his mind was still there, so he added. “One last thing, neither of us, Berliners or me, will attack the other.”
Impressed, Chief Warlord Stu nodded. “No need to be so cautious, my friend, but it is not unreasonable. However, it is a little much without time limits. Would you agree for this while the contract lasts, and for five turns after ze contract ends? Ze contract can be ended when either party deems it necessary. Do we have a deal?”
Thinking this was the best he could get, Beck nodded and held out his Pinky Finger through the Hex Boundary.
There were three hundred and fourteen units in the Berliner outfit. Over three hundred! It was so many he had trouble with the idea that even more people could exist, each with their own name and thoughts.
About a third were pikers, stabbers, and the remainder split between archers and cavalry. It seemed the only thing they were short on were warlords; Stu and Beck were it. With so little Leadership present, Beck could understand why Stu was so eager to hire him.
He’d been put in charge of a forward force of a hundred stabbers and pikers, with orders to attack the enemy left flank. They didn’t have to march far to find the Parissiers, another three hexes over, they found them camped at the base of a hill.
On Stu’s cue, he split off his hundred pikers and stabbers and moved a hex southeast, and readied to attack. “All right men. Steady, we wait to attack on Stu’s signal.”
In the distance, he saw Stu’s main force move into the hex to engage. The sounds of battle felt so near, carried in the desert’s stillness.
A stabber to his left piped up “You should address him as ‘Earl Del’, or ‘Chief Del’. Our Chief is a Noble.”
Beck spared the stabber a glance. He was level three, with curly brown hair peeking out from under his helmet. “Is that important?”
“It is to them. Nobles and Royals. But I don’t think it’ll matter for very much longer.”
Beck turned again, and gave the stabber a questioning look. It was strange to hear a unit show so much pessimism. So he asked “Something on your mind, stabber?”
The stabber broke eye contact and looked ahead with a resigned expression, not answering. Frustrated at the dismissal, Beck suddenly remembered: he was a commander. “I order you to tell me your name, and answer my question.”
Shooting him a dirty look, the stabber nonetheless answered. “Poe Key. And what’s on my mind is a lot of us are going to croak this turn, probably for nothing.”
It suddenly dawned on Beck, these units each carried their own thoughts, motivations and feelings. ‘Cripes, Poe and the others must be nervous about being led by an inexperienced Barbarian.’ He could understand bad morale, so Beck decided to try and reassure them, and answered back with a yell loud enough for the nearby stacks to hear. “Listen up! We’ve got a fight today, and we’re going to go in there, and win it!”
He finished by raising up his axe in the air, and waving it. “For Berliner!”
A weak cheer went up in the company, so he rallied again. “For Berliner!” And a more respectable cheer went up.
The improvised rallying was cut short when the sound of a bugle rose up from the battle, signaling their time to attack. “All right men, form up and charge!”
They charged forward, stomping up a storm of dust as they crossed into the battle hex.
It was orderly at first, he could see the neat rows of stacks ahead of him. They ran down the hill towards the enemy flank, but their own charge kicked up a small dust storm, creating a fog of battle (well, dust of battle) turning the sun into an diffuse glob in the sky.
He heard the front line of stabbers impact the enemy defenses with the clash of steel against steel. Titans, this much noise in the desert felt profane. He kept his head about him, and saw they were now fully pressing into the enemy flank. “Forward! We need to break their lines!”
His own stack moved ahead, nearing the front lines. Parissiers were putting up a good fight, but the flanking action seemed to have caught them by surprise.
Finally at the front, he used his own stack to screen for him and start making a wedge into the enemy force. Poe stabbed into a red and blue Parissier, and he finished her off with swing of his pickaxe, feeling adrenaline course through him. With the full stack bonus and his own leadership, he felt unstoppable!
Still, an enemy stabber just outside his field of vision managed a sword thrust to his stomach, and Poe swiftly moved to stab her on his silent order. Judging by their bonuses, their own Chief Warlord was probably in the hex too, but they hadn’t run into enemy leadership so far.
Leading was tricky though, he hadn’t even realized he could give silent orders. He also realized that as a Desert-capable warlord, he was somehow negating the move penalties of his stack; he’d actually had to slow their advance twice now for fear of leaving his attack force behind.
He was mid swing against an enemy piker and slowing his charge for a third time, when the ground shook beneath them. Really shook, and not from the hundreds of boots marching on it. Something burst from the ground behind him; a huge, furless mole-looking creature covered in stone-like skin. It's eruption out of the ground tossed a full stack of his pikers into the air and croaked at least two units outright.
It was a Heavy with the Digging special, and he suddenly realized it had meant to target him, and would have got him if he hadn’t been spearheading too far ahead.
Poe Key yelled, having screened a piker’s hit for him. Ahead of them, the Parissiers yelled triumphantly “Hooray, it eez the Rocky Rodents of unusual size!"
Rapidly reassessing the situation, Beck was aware enough of the threat on his life that he did a backswing with his axe’s pick, and croaked the piker that had had hit Poe.
Two more chocolate colored Rocky Rodents burst from the ground, and Beck’s composure was being put to the test. The press forward had cost them twenty or so units, leaving only eighty. The dust of war didn’t let him see how many enemy units were still ahead of him, but the Rocky Rodents meant he couldn’t risk advancing without them destroying his unled rear.
More pressingly, they were after him. He needed to make himself scarce, at least get away from the front so he could deal with them. “All right, pikers hold the line! Keep the front covered, all nearby stacks, screen me, we’re going after--”
And just like that, he saw the Chief Warlord bonus on all the units around him disappear, and coincide with the first Rocky Rodent charging at him. A jolt of panic rushed through him, and four units jumped ahead of him, slowing the Rocky Rodent in its charge long enough to let him dodge out of the way. Absently, he realized he’d silently ordered them to do that.
Titan’s he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t throw these men’s lives away… He remembered rule #1, don’t panic. He would lead them away, an orderly retreat! Maybe save enough that the Parissiers wouldn’t counter attack later. He breathed in and yelled louder than he’d ever thought he could, hopefully loud enough for his order to be heard all across the hex “All units, retreat! Eastern Hex! Now!”
Beside him, Poe looked over his shoulder to him, dejected. “Can’t, Chief Warlord’s orders.”
Beck gawked, and moved himself and his stack back to the East in a fighting retreat. “He’s croaked! Whatever standing order he left--!”
“No!” Poe yelled over Beck. “He’s not croaked! Look at our bonus again!” And sure enough, he was right. Beck had only seen it go down, but it wasn’t completely absent. Titans, Stu had--
The trio of Rocky Rodents charged at them, and in a burst of anger he’d only felt when Terry had stolen his few possessions, he roared! Beck and his men charged right back, and he ordered the nearby stacks to screen for him. The lead Rocky Rodent bit into the stabber to his right, and Beck leapt, managing a clean strike -- not with the axe head, but the pick, which wedged deep into the mole’s head and crit it.
Beck put a boot against the croaked Rocky Rodent’s head and pulled out the pickaxe, then turned to Poe. “Come on, just follow me out! I’ll carry you across the hex boundary if I have to!”
Poe kept screening for him, and yelled without turning to look back. “Can’t! He also gave orders to stop you from leaving the hex! I--I’m sorry.”
Suddenly aware that there were now barely fifty units around him, screening as the Rocky Rodents and emboldened Parissiers charged, Beck also noticed two stacks of pikers behind him take ready positions, no doubt to stop him from making a break for it.
And then it all clicked for him. This, this whole “croaker of a deal” from that cracking Stu… he’d never meant for Beck to live long enough to collect on it, and he’d walked right into it, even dug himself in deeper! The clause to not attack each other, he wouldn’t be able to walk or fight his way through a screen meant to hold him. He wouldn’t be able to engage!
The hot rage inside him went so, so very cold; like the hot desert day changing into a frigid night at end of turn.
“I’m sorry too, Poe. All stacks, attack flanks! Let the Rocky Rodents engage me!”
He could hear gasps, muted by the cries of the croaking as he ditched his stack. One of the two Rocky Rodents took the bait, and acted on what must have been it’s orders to attack him. He walked backwards and silently ordered the pikers ‘guarding’ him to stack and screen.
The Heavy charged, and instead of attacking it he waited for the last second to dodge and roll out of the way, letting it barrel into the pikers cutting off his escape.
If Stu was willing to use his men like sacrificial lambs, to act without mercy… then so would he. Another lesson from the desert.
In only three combat rounds, the Rocky Rodent had croaked ten of the pikers and taken about two thirds of its own hits in damage. Waiting one last moment for it to show it’s rear after biting another piker’s arm off, he engaged it. One good, heavy swing to the rear left leg’s hamstring crippled its ability to turn. Another heavy hit to the flank finally croaked it, earning him a bitter Level three.
And with that, he noticed there were only three, heavily wounded pikers left in his stack. And without enough units to stop him from leaving… he unstacked.
And he ran.
They undoubtedly gave chase, but he was faster. Behind him, Beck heard the last, croaking screams of the Berliners under his command. He might have heard Poe cry out, but he didn’t look back. He’d need all his speed to leave the hex before the Parissiers could see him leave through the fading dust of war.