Unjust Deserts, part 4
Part 4: Red Velvet Revolution
At night, the desert was an entirely different animal.
He’d passed out while drowning, and he’d been surprised to discover that that had Automagically ended his turn. Forced to spend the night in the Oasis, it gave him time to look around, and think.
He'd been unable to find anyone else in the hex; whoever had rescued him had made themselves scarce before Kevin’s kick to the stomach saved his life. What this probably meant was that someone else had been hidden in the Hex before he came, watched him fall into the pond, and rescued him.
He was fairly certain whoever saved him was a Sided unit, though he supposed that a Barbarian allied to a side might have been responsible. Whatever the case, his secret saint had left only one message for him, and he spent most of the turn following the arrow’s path with his eyes, and looking at the ominous red mesa in the distance.
It was just as well to wait. He was low on hits, move, and in what was a fairly secluded location already. It was a good spot to end turn in, and he’d head out to the mesa the next day.
And honestly, he was quietly thankful. He’d made good on the time hiding by watching the plants and animals around the oasis.
Water had a pull all it’s own. He’d felt it, even fallen for it to nearly fatal results. And throughout the turn, he saw just how subtle it was; snakes came out to drink, and sun themselves by the sore. It drew Flipthees from above with their annoying cawing and pooping everywhere, trying to catch the little Mocha Mousses, and even a huge Shockalot Mousse came down for a drink.
Unlike it’s tiny cousin, the Shockalot was an intimidating, horned heavy. It walked regally between the Blue Palo Verdes, and when it leaned down to drink from the oasis its huge Shockamancy generating antlers crackled and sparked, with little bolts arcing between the points and into the water.
It was a walking temptation. He felt he’d level up to four if he croaked it, and it looked like it’d make tasty rations. Then again, taming it would give him a powerful weapon. In the end, he stayed in place. He was in no condition to try it with only half his Hits, and without knowing what the Shockalot liked to eat it would be fruitless to try taming it.
When night fell, the snakes went from sunning themselves to hunting the sleeping Mocha Mousses and Flipthees. A couple of Hot Diggitys even ran out of cover, to tackle and devour a snake.
It was brutal, but it was honest. Even beautiful. So much life hiding in plain view, fighting to survive.
He’d been missing this, camping outdoors. Ending turn in the Ruins hadn’t taught him nearly as much about the desert. Beck wondered if there was a word for the feeling; missing something you never knew you wanted, and then having it.
Eventually he curled up beside Kevin on his sleeping mat, and drew close a blessedly dry and warm blanket. Tomorrow would be another interesting turn, and he wanted to be ready for it.
The last thing he saw before falling asleep was the mesa in the distance. There was no moon tonight, so he could only see it thanks to the dark shadow it cast against the starry sky.
Finally closing his eyes, he dreamed of a hand reaching down to him, and a Mewmaid with lavender, curly hair.
It was nine hexes to the red mesa, and Beck took his time walking over there.
Sure, Kevin was still carrying him across the Hex boundaries, but he alternated riding on Kevin and walking the hex on foot. The nice thing about having a mount, starting turn at dawn, and choosing when you end turn, was that he could afford to do this.
He examined interesting terrain features, and new types of plant and wildlife. He’d even found a few flowering Yuca and harvested some of their red fruits for Kevin and himself.
Knowing the desert, understanding it, was helping him be a better Warlord and Barbarian.
And all through the evenly paced hiking, the mesa towered ahead.
It had bands of smooth red velvety rock at the base, cut across with bands of white calcite midway up, then turning red again. He could see the summit was at least a good five hundred feet up, topped with a frosty icing of clouds.
When they finally made it to the Mesa’s hex, the look up was intimidating, made more so because the sun backtracked in its path to early dawn. ‘So there are units here, it must be much earlier in their day.’
He rode clockwise around the Mesa, amazed at how the desert could also combine with Mountain type of Hexes. He’d been wondering how exactly he might get to the top without being Mountain-capable, but an answer presented itself before long.
Part of the mesa looked to have somehow broken off, leaving a clean wedge shaped slice missing from the mountain. The missing wedge had somehow, improbably, fallen neatly backwards and sideways to create a sort of ramp with a criss crossing path to the top. Leading partway up the ramp was a hill of loose rock.
“Well Kevin, looks like we have a bit of a climb ahead.”
He’d had to dismount Kevin halfway up, and take the lead.
Kevin was skittish, flapping her wings and beeping nervously as they made their way. She was nervous, looking back and below them, apparently this was the highest up she'd ever been. Once they reached midway though, up past the calcite layer and onto the red rock, they found it was much easier going when it turned into a smooth path carved wide enough into the mountainside for three or four people to walk abreast.
Beck’s heart pounded. He had no idea what was up there, which set off his anxiety. But again, he went back to the simple thought: why would the person who saved his life send him off to this place? He remembered rule 3 and though it wasn’t easy, decided to trust, take a chance.
Three quarters of the way up, the pair walked into a cloud.
It wasn’t at all what Beck had expected, all cold, moist air that made it hard to breathe. It made the last part of the ascent harder, with the path becoming slick and reducing visibility.
But by and by, they made it to the top, and he was immediately surprised by what he saw.
A camp, with eight tents that were made of cherry red cloth at the top and white at the bottom set up near the edges of the mesa, all circling an enormous central tent with a swirling white and pink pattern in the middle, and all topped with a pink banner depicting a proud stone mesa.
Off to the side, he could see a pair of parked caravan wagons, with a Yew Log and a pair of Shockalot Mousses sleeping soundly beside them.
Beck was so busy taking it all in, that he failed to notice he’d drawn attention to himself.
“I say good sir, if you’re not going to use the latrine, would you mind terribly if you moved aside?”
Caught off guard, Beck turned to see a midsize bald caster in a fuzzy bathrobe, with his arms folded in front of him. He must have walked out of the nearest tent. He was giving Beck a patient, slightly annoyed stare while holding his arms in front of him, only to move his gaze behind him to the right and behind Beck.
Beck followed his gaze and found he was gesturing to a stone outhouse that hung just enough outside the mesa for a Unit’s business to fall to the mountain’s base.
Not sure what to say, Beck stood aside wordlessly and nodded an apology.
The caster smiled, patted Beck on the shoulder and spoke much more merrily “There’s a good fellow, now if you’ll excuse me a moment.”
Beck was caught in an uncomfortable kind of social trap, not knowing whether to try and stop the man from going about his… business… wait, or make himself scarce.
Oblivious to his discomfort, the caster yelled out from inside the Outhouse. “You’re a new pop, aren’t you? I can always tell; I haven’t seen you before, and I have a --hrrrrn-- distinct memory for faces, you know. Regardless, it’s always nice to meet a --ghhh-- fellow Barbarian! Oh, but where are my manners: I am Lex Pode, adept Shockamancer!”
If intense discomfort could be somehow weaponized, Lex would be well on his way to croaking Beck with it. He stood uncomfortably outside and tried to ignore the… movements... going on behind the outhouse door. Finally, he managed to swallow his awkwardly and introduced himself. “I’m Beck Packer.”
For her part, Kevin was unphased and beep-beeped merrily. Beck smiled slightly and patted her. “And this is Kevin.”
“Yes! I noticed your lovely bird. Quite a catch; it’s very rare to find and tame a Baudseed. Mmm, yes. I’m not quite as deft a hand at taming I’m afraid, though you may have seen my --rrrhnn-- Shockalots sleeping outside.”
Beck nodded, then realized Lex wouldn’t have seen it. “Yes. Very impressive.”
“Why thank you! Taming them was quite the feat, if I do say so myself. Would you --hrrn-- care to hear the tale?”
Beck hesitated, trying to decide how to refuse and turn the conversation to more important topics-- or stopping the conversation altogether, at least for the moment and leaving to give the man some privacy. Sadly, as in battle, hesitation is the root of many defeats. Lex took the silence as a “yes” and prattled on jovially amid occasional grunts. “Splendid! I do so love to tell this story, it’s a long one, but we have time, if you know --eh-hrrn-- what I mean!”
Alarmed, brow knitting together more closely than a finely woven cape, Beck took a step back.
Completely blase, Lex picked up steam weaving his story. “Well, it all began on a sunny Turn much like this. I had just finished a contract for the Raja of New Delhicious, and was making my way through the Vanilla Plains in east of the Capital Wasteland; and if I may --hrrrn-- digress for a moment, I feel the Vanilla Plains are unfairly considered boring, when really, they are just as full of beauty and flavor as--”
Moving as stealthily as he could, and silently ordering Kevin to do the same and not make a single beep, the pair retreated from the unwinnable battle.
Beck kept Kevin close by, not particularly sure what new weirdness to expect. The sound of Lex’s storytelling faded a bit in the background as he looked around the rest of the campsite.
A group of Courtiers in slightly worn but colorful raiment were exiting one of the wagons, practicing juggling, playing random ditties on musical instruments, or going about other mundane tasks. A few looked his way but, amazingly, none were particularly interested.
He was debating whether to go to one of the outer tents, or talk to the courtiers, by the wagons, when he caught a whiff of something spicy and delicious coming from the middle tent.
Walking to the tent door he could see it was open, and flapped idly in the misty breeze. Beck wasn’t much for first impressions, but he hoped this one went more smoothly than the one with Lex. He gathered up his nerve and called out “Hello, is there anyone inside?”
An earthy, unexpectedly chipper voice answered, “Come in! We’ve been expecting you!”
He turned to Kevin and silently ordered her to stay by the entrance. He breathed in once, parted the tent flaps with both hands and walked inside. It was a lot brighter than he’d expected. Some light was coming in through the fabric, and instead of a fire, there was a strange magical fireplace providing the light from underneath a stew pot.
The tent was some kind of common area for cooking and eating, covered in several dozen of colorful mismatched rugs, cushions, and a few small tables. There were three other people in the tent, all seated around the pot and magical fire. The first to catch his eye was the woman sitting closest to the entrance, idly strumming a guitar. The warlady had long, wavy black hair, a mocha complexion, and a gauzy black dress with a red shawl.
Curious, he asked “How did you know I was coming? Did you see me ride up to the mesa?”
She met his gaze with her warm brown eyes and smiled coyly, ignoring the question. “Please, have a seat. Just pull up a cushion, we’re about to have breakfast.”
Mildly irked, but not wanting to be rude, Beck picked a cushion across from the trio, and sat down cross legged.
The warlady nodded and began with the introductions. “I’m Kala Vera, and this is Tyrian O’soar.” Nodding to the warlord stirring the pot. “Though we did spot you riding up, we had a more direct forewarning thanks to our companion here, Paula Treatise.” And here she gestured to the woman to her left.
The caster had been looking intently at Beck since he walked in, and he finally chose to meet her gaze. Paula had a desert-weathered face, tan and dry, and looked at him with impossibly bright blue eyes that actually glowed. It was kind of hard to miss.
Paula nodded lightly, with a slight creak from the hard leather desert armor she wore. “I Predicted you would come, riding up the mesa's Weird Winding Way with your speedy Baudseed. Beck Packer.”
Beck sat still on his cushion and fought the urge to fidget; her stare and magic seemed to see right through him. He thought of Rule #1, Don’t Panic, and thought it might be time for a new rule:
Wasteland survival guide Rule 4: The desert is weird; roll with it.
So he cooled his own gaze and asked: “Did your prediction show you why I came here?”
“Pardon?” Beck blinked away the afterimages from Paula’s glowing eyes and turned to the third person in the tent. It was the male warlord stirring the pot with the spicy vegetable soup. He seemed quietly unassuming, with Signamancy similar to Beck’s. Stubble, short curly brown hair, a button nose, brown eyes, and wearing a rich purple shirt with a worn leather vest and dark purple pants. And yet he was a daunting level eight.
“Would you like some? Soup, that is. I usually charge for the bowl, but first timers get their first for only a song or a story.”
Beck frowned. These people… barbarians, he guessed, were friendly enough… but that friendliness was also incredibly strange in the desert. He decided to Hellabad with it and spoke his mind. “To be honest, I’d rather just have some answers. I have so many questions since I popped.”
“No doubt you do.” Answered Paula, with a strange echo behind her words.
Kala spoke up next, turning the abstract strumming of her guitar to a mysterious bolero. “We all did, when we first popped here. But before we can really give you answers, you should take up Tyr on his offer. Tell us your story, then we’ll be able to help.”
Beck raised an eyebrow for a moment. “You… really want to help? For free?” What he didn’t say, but felt, was that a group of strangers being so naively generous seemed at odds with life in the Capital Wasteland.
Chuckling, Tyr pulled up a bowl near the pot and started ladling in some of the soup. “Nothing in the desert is free, Beck. Well, nearly nothing. We’re all Barbarians, we owe allegiance only to ourselves. But that can get lonely. And dangerous. Those of us here?” He said, gesturing around the magical fire with his ladle.
“We’re what you might call a Tribe of affinity, not popping. I set up this camp so us Barbarians could gather, trade, share stories, news of work, warnings of treacherous sides… and we all get by a little better for it.” Tyr handed a soup bowl to Paula, and pulled out another as he went on.
“You don’t have to tell us your story, or trust us, but y’know, it’s real easy to drown in trouble when you’re on your own. We can help.“
Tyr offered him a bowl and finished with a wink, and it was like a lightning bolt rushed through Beck’s mind. ‘What? That… has to be a coincidence. Why would he say “drown” unless he...’ had been the unit to pull him out of the oasis.
Mind made up, with Kala's haunting music playing softly, Beck started to confide in them. “All right. Well, I popped four turns ago in some nearby ruins…”
Halfway across the camp, just as Beck began his tale, Lex was only barely midway through his story, with it’s many bowels voiding pauses. It was just after one of Lex’s many grunts that hundreds of feet directly below him, in an act of near-Titanic retribution, a Flipthee got a taste of its own medicine.
Despite his frequent pausing to eat the soup as he told his tale, the three barbarians asked only a few questions here and there. It was… nice. Talking to people, sharing his troubles and experiences. By the time he’d finished his life's story he’d finished his soup, and the three exchanged glances before Kala spoke.
“That’s Terry, all right. Always the charmer. She’s staked out a patch of hexes in the mid part of the river; considers anything growing, living, or croaking there to be hers.”
Beck had an uncomfortable thought. “Does she come here? To this camp?”
Tyr shook his head “No, not usually. It’s been several hundred turns since she last came to trade. I’ve had the notion that Terry stays away because she’s worried of other units croaking her for her belongings, even here.”
Beck slammed a hand to the carpeted tent floor. “‘Worried’? She’s a paranoid attack dog!” He hadn’t expected that level of understatement from Tyr, or that it’d make him upset enough to shout.
Paula spoke, but was looking far away in the direction of the river. “She has reason to be, so have we all.”
In response to his raised eyebrow, Kala answered. “She means that there are a lot of hungry sides out there, like you’ve encountered. Barbarians too. The Capital Wasteland is a hotspot for us; there are a lot of foreign Barbarians barging in. It can’t be helped, this is perhaps the best place on Erfworld for a Barbarian to find work… and that means we sometimes fight each other over it.”
That made a surprising amount of sense. Thirteen sides fighting all the time, even if poor, would have a lot of need for hired Barbarian muscle. But that would mean… “Wait, have you three fought each other?”
Kala and Tyr shared a look and laughed, and even Paula seemed to smile faintly. He hadn’t been expecting that reaction.
Kala turned to look at Beck. “Once or twice, yes. We’ve had the misfortune of being hired by rival sides. But it’s easy enough to put on a show and then retreat. More often though, you’ll find yourself hunted or even attacked by other Barbarians in the field, to cut down on competition and take your supplies.”
A dangerous thought bloomed in Beck’s mind “So, what’s stopping that from happening here?”
Tyr opened his mouth to answer, but a roar from outside the tent drew everyone’s attention.
In one fluid motion Tyr got up and rushed to the door shouting, “What is Theo up to?!” The rest of them got off the floor and ran after him, Beck suddenly worried they might be under attack.
The desert sun blinded him for a moment, but what he saw left him awestruck.
An enormous, bipedal beast at least three stories high was stomping on the ground. Huge, cream colored bird-like legs pounded on the ground. It was covered in shiny cinnamon, chocolate and vanilla colored scales in alternating bands, starting with its huge, raptor-shaped toothy head, and going down to the meaty tail, which it swung on the ground whipping up a cloud of dust that went everywhere.
And in that dust cloud, Beck managed to see a familiar shaped hole of clean air. Kevin. She was dodging around the Tiramisurus Wex, sidestepping the stomps, running and leaping to avoid the tail swipes, and ducking and weaving to avoid the vicious chomps. And all without using her Superspeed Foolamancy.
‘Wow. So that’s what a Defense of twelve looks like.’ He washed down his amazement with worry, and put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly, coding it with an Order to run over and restack.
Tyr hadn’t stopped running towards the fray, and shouted up towards the beast sounding more embarrassed than terrified. “Theo! Heel! No eating the guest’s mount! Bad lizard! Bad!”
The Tiramisurus angrily swung his massive head level with Tyr’s, looking half ready to eat him, when Tyr bopped it on the nose with the ladle, which Beck just now realized he had apparently never let go of. “Don’t you sass me Theo! Heel!”
And amazingly… he did, with an oddly hurt look and a little whine. (Well, it was still closer to roar given the size of the thing, but comparatively, it was a whine).
Beck gaped for a moment. Tyr… had tamed this Feral?
For her part, Kevin had zipped up to Beck and restacked, none the worse for wear. Beck put a hand on her affectionately; worried, but proud she had handled herself so well while unled.
With the Tiramisurus under control, Tyr looked back to Beck with a rueful smile. “Anyone breaking rules in my camp, they better pray for a Tira-miss-you!"
@Despree: It's great to be writing again, and thanks for that!
@Free Radical: I was toying with naming her Moe Adeeb, but felt that might be harder for casual Dune fans. Paula Treatise just sounds nicer imo, but the gender flip did require a couple of extra visual clues. A bit of backstory, in this universe the Turnamancer Lady Jessica, working for Duke Treatise did Pop a girl as asked by her shadowy sisterhood.
@Tad and falcore51: Thanks guys!