Unjust Deserts, part 9
Part 9: A la Mode-ernism
Heat rose from the white desert sand like waves lapping a beach, turning the visible horizon into a runny liquid that could confuse even the most patient, observant eyes.
One after another, little mirages appeared and disappeared from view, fooling Beck into thinking the Rubber Band was coming back, or a full army was just over the horizon. Until finally, a lone blue dot blipped into view, and in no time at all…
He found himself tackled to the ground as Kevin bowled him over!
His boonie hat had fallen off, and she was busy beeping excitedly and rubbing her head against his, occasionally pecking at his hair affectionately.
Beck laughed from his prone position and patted her neck. “Ahahaha! All right, all right! I missed you too you big beautiful bird, it’s good to see you back in one piece!”
His hand accidentally patted a deep hole in her flank, making her shudder and hop off. Looking, he noticed she was actually down four hits. Titans, by the look of it Vannabe had gotten a lucky umbrella stab into Kevin’s side.
Wincing in sympathy, he shushed and looked her in the eyes. “Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay. You did good Kevin, I’m really proud that you lead them away and made it back. There’s gonna be extra seeds in it for you.”
She seemed to understand, because she tweeted happily and finally got off him.
“Beck, we must keep moving. It is possible Beirutcake has other groups of mercenaries in the field.”
He sighed and looked over to Roe, ever a mood croaker, but nodded. “Come on Kevin, I hate to do this to you but we need to get moving, can you carry me?”
Kevin Beeped affirmatively, and knelt down so he could get up on her.
The rest of the trip went by quietly. The sandy desert finally, blessedly turned into solid ground. It was now a vast, flat, featureless beige dirt desert. Scorchingly hot, as usual, and parched so dry and flat it could have been a palace floor.
There were barely any bumps in the terrain or shrubs growing, making the scrublands he’d popped in seem lush by comparison. Off in the distance, Beck could see the long wall of mountains that locked in the northern part of the Capital Wasteland. The only oddity in this part of the desert were large stones that appeared to have… slid, for lack of a better term, from the far off mountains and across the dry desert dirt in a zigzagging pattern, as if it were mud. They now stood solemnly and haphazardly as they passed between them.
They’d had to detour on the way, to avoid the one thousand strong Beirutcake army camped out just six hexes away from the capital of Madsense. They must have been spotted, but Roe didn’t dare take them closer than two hexes to scout it, much less leave Roe unprotected, they made their way past stealthily as they could given the flat terrain.
So, bone dry dirt cracking underfoot and claw, they made their way onward. Despite the detour, the walls of the city of Madsense were beginning to rise above the ground like a mirage.
Beck was feeling relieved that the job was almost done, it’d been far harder and more dangerous than he’d imagined.
But something else was on his mind.
The Rubber Band-- Selfie Roth had said Madsense would be ended as a side in less than five turns. He hadn’t given it much thought at the time, but after passing by the Beirutcake army he’d had to believe the assessment, being easily three times the one Berliner had fielded was impressive enough. But being poised to launch a capital strike that same turn gave it all the weight of a Prophecy.
His thoughts went to dark places as he remembered that his deal with Roe was for ten turns of combined upkeep for himself and Kevin. It’d been supposed to be payed daily, so if Madsense fell there was a chance all of this effort might have been in vai--
“That was a clever ruse, with the Rubber Band.”
His thoughts resurfaced as Roe’s voice broke the silence, bringing Beck back to the present.
“How did you come up with it?”
Beck gave Roe a sideways glance from atop Kevin’s back. As far as the stoic Chief’s moods went, he seemed less-- upset was the wrong word, ‘antagonistic’ seemed a better fit. He seemed less antagonistic than earlier in the turn.
Beck shifted on Kevin’s back to look at him. “A… combination of things, I guess. The way they didn’t seem to get along made me think their offer couldn’t be trusted, for a start. Then realizing the Rubber Band are all foreign, and unfamiliar with gear and tactics for the desert. To get away, I remembering the way the Peyote’s hid, it was like some other wildlife I’d seen before at an oasis, hiding from predators. And knowing what Kevin can do, I guess I combined it on the fly.”
Roe put a hand to his chin, considering. “Yes, that makes sense. A very creative application of knowledge for the tactical situation.”
Beck shifted again, this time uncomfortable at the praise and who it came from, and some of the emotional baggage it had just bumped into.
He’d been sleeping poorly lately. The pleasant dreams of the lavender haired mewmaid long gone, replaced with Peyote caliber nightmares of the things he’d done to survive he wasn’t so proud of. Thinking about it, he was feeling more and more certain he wouldn’t be seeing Roe ever again after this turn. So… he was going to try something different, to try and lighten his g-- ... his sleep.
“Thanks. And, uh, I just wanted to say… well...”
At that, Beck breathed out through his nose in disbelief. “Seriously, Roe? For knocking you out and recapturing you. For making Kevin throw you off her back, for putting a boot to you! For accusing you of stealing and lying!”
“Your trust deficit, yes. Those actions concerned me in as much as they demonstrated you were paranoid and unreliable, and could harm Madsense by getting me croaked through incompetence. Thankfully, you have shown sufficient cunning to deliver me safely, and most importantly, on time and with only minor bruising... as contract violations to ‘getting me back safely’ go, it is only a minor, technical, offense.”
“Well, maybe you should.”
Beck could barely wrap his head around this strange… and oddly expected turn of conversation. Titans, he must be feeling angrier on the man’s behalf (and at himself) than he did.
“Get offended, I mean. I mistreated you. Hurt your… I don’t know, honor, dignity, nobility, something you Sided types usually get hung up on. You should feel insulted, demand I apologize, or threaten that you’ll hunt me down after the five turns truce from delivering you is up!”
Roe looked down for a few moments before meeting his gaze again. “Would that accomplish something useful?”
Exasperated, Beck was about to answer with something glib, when he stopped to actually consider the question. He was silent for long moments, with Roe patiently waiting and walking along. Finally, he conceded. “No, I guess not. It wouldn’t help you or your side. Probably only distract you from defending it, really. Maybe show other barbarians you mean business, if I were well known. At best it’d help soothe your ego, or get revenge.”
“There are one thousand greater concerns marching to my doorstep. Ego is the least of my concerns, and revenge does not interest me.”
A chuckle escaped Beck’s lips, surprising him. “No, I suppose it doesn’t.”
“Regardless, I accept your apology. Thank you.”
Beck breathed out and nodded. Slightly put out but also oddly relieved. It also made what he wanted to do next easier.
All at once, Roe stopped in his tracks. “You’ve released me as your prisoner. Why?”
“I don’t feel the need for it, anymore.”
“You are not afraid I will break alliance, refuse to let you deliver me to invalidate the contract?”
Beck chuckled again. “No. … but if you did, it’d be cracking hilarious to see you try and outrun Kevin and avoid getting recaptured.”
Roe nodded, a small twinkle in his eyes. “Yes, and truthfully, that was the main reason I never thought it worthwhile to try.” And that got a full laugh out of Beck.
Finally at the end of their journey, the three of them crossed the final hex boundary into the city of Madsense. Immediately, Beck felt the big red Zero marking the total lack of Shmuckers in his Purse turn black, Signaling the completion of the contract as Madsense now began paying their upkeep.
Beck sighed, relieved, and patted Kevin’s back. “Well, we’re already in the city hex, so the contract is fulfilled. It’s been… interesting, Roe. For what it’s worth, I hope you survive against Beirutcake.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I guess next stop is your Changemancer, and then its ‘Goodbye’--”
“Actually,” cut in Roe “I would like to introduce you to my Overlord and our Chief Dittomancer.”
Beck blinked rapidly in surprise. “What, really? Why?”
Roe looked him in the eye with the same calm, determined seriousness as when they’d first met. “Because I would like to discuss further work contracts.”
The city of Madsense was like nothing Beck had seen before.
True, the only other city he’d seen was Brussels Sprouts (or whatever its new Overlord was calling it now), with its sandstone walls and fluted towers with round dark green domes. But this city was different. The outer walls were a mess of murals with stylized pictures of food, mounts, weapons, mad graffiti, peppy slogans, Shmucker prices, even passages of scripture, all plastered over and under each other in a messy jumble that made it impossible to fully read or appreciate any one thing.
The outer gate had perhaps the only clear message in the whole mess of images and words. The wooden gates were painted a solid and bright red, framed with black and yellow slanted bands all along the edges, as if to caution about sharp and dangerous, heavy moving objects. Near the center at waist height there was a framed chalkboard with a piece of white chalk hanging from it on a string. Most strikingly, it had two huge words painted in some kind of silvery paint that flickered black and white in the sunlight.
The two words? ‘Log In.’
Roe puffed up his chest and yelled up to the top of the gate. “Wall guards! Allow us entry! I so order it!”
“Negative-a!” Came the cold, clinical voice of one of the outer garrison’s wall archers. “First, prove-a you are-a Roe-a-Bott!”
Not missing a beat, Roe shouted up. “Chief Warlord’s password: One-two-three-four-five!” And walked over to the chalkboard, drawing a checkmark onto it.
It must have been magic of some type, because as one the gate split open and pivoted outwards, revealing several stacks of Madmen infantry and heavies in neat formation. Beck had only seen them under the effects of Wily Peyote poison, croaked and decaying in a dark tent where he’d wanted to do anything but look at them. Now, he could actually appreciate that their Signamancy wasn’t so bad. Kind of scary, actually.
They were all bald and pale grey skinned, like Roe, with either deep black eyes or vacant white. Their armor wasn’t the usual smooth steel chest and hip pieces with the riveted conical helmet. Rather, it was matte black with tubes connecting all the pieces together, and very bumpy, with bits and pieces that looked welded on. Their skullcap type helmets alternated covering either the left or right eye with a single green visor, probably to keep sand out and help aiming weapons.
As the three made their way in, Beck couldn’t hold his curiosity in any longer. “Was all that necessary? Couldn’t you just order them to open to the doors?”
“Our Chief Caster has given the Order not to. Beirutcake has a Foolamancer that has once already impersonated me. The extra precautions are necessary.”
Beck’s eyebrows shot up at the implications: impersonating a chief Warlord to sow confusion in the enemy ranks. Then he looked at Kevin. “Can you do that, Kevin? Change your or my image by Foolamancy?”
Kevin twisted her head 180 degrees and then cocked it quizzically at him. Hmm. He’d probably have to try and train her to see if maybe she could; so far all her illusions had been identical to real people or units.
As they walked between the stacks and into the inner garrison, Beck glanced back and couldn’t help but be a little creeped out by all the silent, stoic and altogether unblinking staring, all while the outer gate closed behind them with the grave slamming of wood.
The inner city was just as much of a confusing jumble of words, pictures and colors as the outer wall. Each of the garrison houses and city management buildings, the slaughterhouse, bakery, and smith shop, were a combination of two or more building styles and material seemingly melted together. Wood, brick, stone, cement, glass and steel. Some, angular and modern looking, others round and humble, and some ornate and Royal. Honestly, it looked awful, but Beck guessed invaders would be too disoriented by the thrumming lights and colors to attack as well.
The castle itself wasn’t too impressive, being perhaps four stories high, which was to be expected for a level two city. But it made up for it with the confusing mishmash of seemingly slapped together improvements, towers, and parapets, each a different color and type of stone than the last. The main tower though seemed to be made of flat glass panes in a steel scaffolding.
At the inner gate, a pair of pikers crossed their spears and barred them entry. “Please-a leave-a the Mount in one-af the stables.”
Beck glared down at the piker. “I’m not leaving Kevin alone.”
Roe looked up at Beck with a somewhat tired expression. “The contract holds, no one will capture her. And she will be groomed, given water, and fed.”
At this, Kevin, who had been just as wary and weary as Beck, perked up and Beep-beep-beeped happily, almost shedding him off her back until he took the hint and dismounted.
One of the Pikers put a hand to Kevin’s flank and tonelessly instructed. “This way, please-a.”
Beck muttered under his breath that Kevin was more loyal to her stomach than him, before crying out after the pair. “… Hey! Make sure she gets Prickly Pear seeds! She likes those best!”
Roe led Beck thought the “palace”, and its confusing jumble of hallways, rooms, and lounges in as many different styles as he’d seen outside.
He felt tempted to ask if this really was some kind of defensive Signamancy meant to confuse attackers, because it was certainly disorienting and distracting him. But it didn’t really seem so to Beck, it seemed more ‘natural’ than intentional. Still, he wondered: 'Could the Overlord have done it on purpose on some level, though? Trying to pick out a personal style, or choosing ‘all styles’ for his side?'
There was no way to tell, and he had more pressing things to think about. Like what Roe had said about future contracts. It was tempting, but he hadn’t forgotten their tactical situation, either. Any enemy side with that many soldiers in the field, and the Treasury to pay for mercenary yutzes on top was not to be trifled with.
Still, he’d resolved to at least hear them out. Ask for a look at their tactical maps. Maybe their strategic situation wasn’t so bleak… and working to keep them alive was, in a way, protecting and growing his investment.
Before too long, they were three floors down into the dungeon zone, and Beck’s worry started growing. “I thought we were going to meet your Changemancer.”
“We are.” Monotoned Roe unenthusiastically, leading him around a bend and into a long corridor with jail cells on either side.
The thought that their Changemancer could be a prisoner surprised Beck, but when they got there, he realized the situation wasn’t that straightforward.
They stopped at the entrance for a cell block made up of a battery of eight cells, with three on each side. But instead of prisoners, each cell was full to the brim and packed with half built apparatuses, bubbling cauldrons, tables full of gears and springs, bookcases loaded down with glowing liquids in beakers and arching Shockamancy lightning bolts made the cell block both wondrous and utterly terrifying. There was more magic and madness on display here than he’d seen everywhere else in his travels. … but there was no caster in sight.
Roe put his hands to his mouth and yelled to be heard over the rumble of sounds in the cell block. “Commander Riker, this is Chief Bot! I have returned and I have Orders for you!”
The sound of glass smashing against the floor came from deep in the jail, and a pale figure soon appeared, striding angrily towards them.
The flickering bolts of Shokamancy and glowing liquids gave his ash gray skin a kind of chameleon-like quality, but the sneer on his thickly bearded face was unmistakable.
The caster was a half a foot taller than Roe, and a full foot taller than Beck, made more intimidating in his black suit and jacket with a red, stylized arrow with black bars over it. He also wore a smaller gold arrow set in an oval over his heart.
Riker growled out in a tone just a notch below insubordinate and a hairsbreadth short of furious. “Chief. You know I don’t like-- to be disturbed while I work in my laboratory.” Looking Roe over, his scowl deepened just as a red glow filled the room. “And you’ve gone and lost all the items I made for you.”
When he answered, Roe’s usually neutral voice had a note of stiff formality in it. “I know, Changemancer Riker Island. But I have made a contract with this mercenary, Beck Packer, for two enchantments in exchange for rescuing me. I Order you to fulfill our treaty obligations.”
Riker actually craned his neck down to see him and sniffed loudly. “Hmpf. Amazing. I suppose you did do us a service. His father, Overlord Bot, was about to name his daughter Aimee the new Chief Warlord.”
Roe’s silence at the news was telling, and since he wasn’t offering his own opinion, Beck asked. “Your sister… Aimee Bot? She can’t be that bad, can she?”
Riker’s dark laugh echoed off the jail walls. “No, not at all. She’s a crack shot with the bow I enchanted for her. Her battlefield tactics however… I imagine most warlords, even barbarians, would consider sending waves of unled infantry to their doom as ‘bad’.”
Beck winced, remembering his own experience doing just that.
Reading the mood, Riker, surprisingly, let up on the insults. “Then again, it looks like you do.”
Tactically picking that as a good time to leave, Roe spoke up. "I must report to my father. Beck, I will send word to you after reviewing our current situation.” Roe nodded to both, then turned around smartly and left the way they’d come.
Leaving Beck all alone with the creepy, choleric, chancy Changemancer...
Overlord Adbert Bot’s office was just below the top of the precariously built steel and glass tower. It took up the entire floor, with the only walls being those around the stairs leading up and down the tower, normally locked behind reinforced doors.
Other than his desk and chair, there was no furniture, decorations, or other amenities to distract from the vastness of the empty space. Though the morning sun made a valiant attempt to fill the space, shining in through the glass windows and bisecting the room into neat squares leading up to the Overlords desk by the east window wall.
Roe walked an impossibly straight path on one such bisecting line, only to stop and fall to one knee before the Overlord’s desk.
“Father, it is agreeable to see you again.”
Despite the morning sun framing him as a black shadow sitting at his desk, the man’s smile was somehow even brighter. “My son! You’ve returned for the low low price of one Barbarian Upkeep of 110 Shmuckers!”
Bowing his head down further, Duty compelled Roe to add “And two enchantments from Riker.”
The Overlord’s smile didn’t falter as he slammed his fists into the desk. “Come on down to the lot! We must be crazy to offer these unbelievable deals!”
Roe’s neutral expression didn’t falter at his father’s chipper outrage, or the strange way he spoke. Many units in his side spoke oddly, like himself and the rank and file soldiers, but his father suffered from a type of speech impediment that rendered most of his speech… odd. He had fortunately learned to compensate by issuing silent orders with his intent whenever he spoke.
“I know, father. But the situation out there is grave. You are aware of the Beirut army camped six hexes South by Southwest? I could hear them rocking out, led by chief Austin. There were at least one thousand.”
Sliding back into his chair, the Overlord turned to beam his smile out one of the large glass walls, only to shout with excited resignation. “Competing brands can’t hope to match our weakness!”
Rising from his kneel, Roe nodded to his father. “Yes, and that is because our efforts so far have been lacking. Lacking an understanding of our enemies. Our environment. The Capital Wasteland. The Desert. We need an intuitive, tactical mind to aid us.”
“Aww… that is soooo adorable!”
The syrupy sweet voice came from stairwell behind Roe, he turned to see it was followed by a hooded caster in a brown onesie with a red and pink heart at the front, set inside a white circle. “You actually like this barbarian, don’t you Chief? You made a friend!”
Roe’s taciturn response didn’t carry a hint of surprise at the new presence. “I do not have feelings on the matter. He has merely demonstrated himself to be tactically capable.”
“No need to be a grumpy pants! I was only teasing.” Smiled the Chief Caster while waving his hand dismissively.
The overlord leaned forward in his desk. “Some conditions may apply, offers not valid in extremis.”
The caster walked past Roe, only to sit on the Overlord’s desk and swing his feet idly. “That’s true, your Overlordship, and I think Roe may be a big old forgetful Francis. You were a prisoner when you made that deal, Chief. And your father told me you were free for a little bit before being recaptured. Now, I know you like this new friend, but be honest, was he the same barbarian who recaptured you?”
Roe looked from the caster to his father, searching for an emotion other than exuberant joy on his face, and not finding it. Finally, he looked back to the caster and answered. “Yes, he is.”
The caster nodded glumly, a bit put out at the answer. “Well, that’s too bad. Some new friends aren’t really friend-friends; like the overlord of Beirutcake turned out, only pretending to ally.”
His father agreed, “Overlords Hate Him!”
The caster followed up encouragingly. “But don’t feel sad Chief, you still have lots of friends here! Friends you can depend on!”
The room was silent for a moment, no one sure how to proceed, until the Overlord offered his booming opinion. “Operators are standing by, call now to learn more!”
Roe shook his head almost imperceptibly, coming as close as he could to regretting his decision to lead Beck into the city. “Is that really necessary father?”
The caster hopped off the desk and fidgeted “I, hum, well, couldn’t I just have a nice conversation with him? Not a, well, ‘nice conversation’, just a regular nice conversation? And does it have to be Riker? You know how he can get...”
“All sales are final!”
The caster turned to the overlord with a pleading look, begging him to reconsider. Roe had seen it before, and knew enough not to expect a change of heart from even the most intense of Kerri Barry’s stares.
Wasteland survival guide
Rule #1: don’t panic! Panic makes you do stupid crack.
Rule #2: It’s dangerous to go alone; tame a friend.
Rule #3: Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.
Rule #4: The desert is weird; roll with it.
Rule #5: That’s the way the Kooky crumbles.
Hmm, maybe I should have named her Aimee Bot, it's more obvious phonetically that way.
Yeah, I think I will.
About the regular infantry, I'll add a little bit to make it more obvious. Like they're all bald, they have weird tubes on their armor, and there's a bunch with inbuilt claw gauntlets.
Much like these folks....
I'm also not really sure what's happening here. Madsense's overlord and chief caster are trying to get out of the contract by claiming the contract was made before the 'release and recapture' tactic and thus nul and void, because not completed (in one go). But what are they planning to do with our protagonists, I don't get, are they gonna croak him, assimilate him?
@DeanXeL: The ambiguity about what they're going to do to Beck is part of the cliffhanger, so I can't really elaborate there. What I can say is that the conversation isn't so much about welshing on the deal, as it is whether they can trust Beck. When the Overlord talks about deals not being valid in extremis, it can't be taken exactly literally because of his speech impediment. It's more a comment on the past deal with Roe and Beck being unfair to Roe because he was a prisoner, and had the lower hand, and on them as a side now, being a turn away from being wiped out. It makes their bargaining position weak. And as the Chief caster points out, Beck has given them reason not to implicitly trust him, even accusing Roe Bott of being emotionally biased.