• Sunsette

Day 2 | Scene 12: Welcome to the Jungle


Every single one of the Lanvan Revolutionary Aerie's Third Irregulars, Alpha Regiment, was familiar with and comfortable with — or at least able to survive — extreme heat. This probably had something to do with the fact that Lanva, the heart of the rebellion, was seated among desert plains, tropical savannahs, and volcanic prairies.


And yet none of this had prepared them to survive movement through a muggy, humid, suffocating wilderness full of life. The sun was up, but it was not particularly bright; the towering trees above created a verdant canopy through which only the tiniest shafts of light could make it. Each of those trees seemed broader than a horse and taller than the greatest towers in any city they'd been to or heard of.


Great gnarled roots crossed dark brown dirt; there was neither grass nor moss across the ground. There were only fallen leaves slowly rotting back into the soil from which they came, to feed the tree from which they had fallen. Animals of a thousand colors and shapes — seemingly all poisonous from the way Gerry spoke — watched from branches, occasionally criss-crossing their path. And the smells — the smells!


In the desert there were only a handful of smells; you learned their slightest differences when you came across them. The jungle, however, was a battlefield of aroma. Sometimes pleasant, sometimes cloying, sometimes nauseating, but always — always — overpowering.


They'd made it off the mountain, but some of them were beginning to wish they never had; the avalanche seemed friendly and familiar in the new light. Most of them had stripped off their upper uniforms and stowed them in their packs, sweat running down flesh, cotton, and muscle, which had exposed them to a new threat:


"I'll ask again, what in the hell are these things?!" Mara shouted as she punched something the size of a candy bar — but much less pleasant — into the bark of a nearby tree. Her knuckles were covered with an off-green goo as an iridescent black husk dropped to the ground. She looked at her fist in disgust and wiped it against the white apron she wore; her top was tied around her waist.


"Sergeant-Major Seule already said, Miss Mara," Bobbin mumbled through humidity-induced heat exhaustion. Too modest to shed any clothes — removing his top would have removed his dress entirely — he was practically melting. The fifer took a deep breath then shook his head side to side to clear it. "Armorskites. They're a kind of, um, what did she say?" He turned and whispered to Knickers.


"A kind of armored mosquito, Bobbin!" Stripped down to his corset, shorts, and boots, Knickers was in better spirits than a lot of the others, in particular Paddywhack, who'd been reduced to a ball of exhausted frizz on Knick's shoulder that slept a lot and whined that he missed Knicker's coat. "And I think the specialist knows, she's really asking—"


"Okay then, why are they?! What dead, forsaken god decided 'oh! Regular mosquitoes! Those aren't bad enough, have some armored death mosquitoes with knives for noses!'" Mara threw her hands in the air with helpless rage.


Gerry grunted; his pack was looking conspicuously heavy, and overstuffed with the cast-offs of the others, but he seemed to bear it surprisingly well, even if he had stripped to nothing more than boots and skivvies. Without that fur hat of his, he looked alike to a caveman. A shy, retiring one. "St-top yelling so mmuch. P-please."


"Really." Polly had followed suit with the others, although not quite to the same extremes; her red top was no more, but she still wore the high black dungarees of her uniform. "We've been dealing with this for a few hours now, you'd think—" she paused to catch an armorskite in two fingers and then briskly crunch it into two between her small fists, "—you'd have gotten used to it by now."


"Easy for you to say, when you catch the damn things like they're toys," Mara barked at Polly, then turned her glare towards Gerry, "and they don't even seem to notice you exist!"


In response, Gerry glanced off to the side and coughed nervously. His cheeks reddened a bit. "Nnn."


Camille was silent for her part, though her violet hair was looking slightly frazzled. Like Polly, she'd only discarded the red top. Among other things, it made them too visible in the jungle. She glanced back at Gerry, who carefully touched fingers to his canteen. He shook his head.


Good. No one else nearby. If they wanted to be loud, let them be loud for now. A little bellyaching now and then worked to soothe the spirit. Of course, she knew what worked even better than that.


"Fifer Socks," the sergeant suddenly spoke, startling half the group. "Think the forest is loud 'nuff here it won't be a problem. How 'bout a little whistlin' t' lift the mood?"


Bobbin perked up immediately, a light in his eyes. He started to reach for the flute stowed in his waistbag, but Knickers caught his hand. "Fife will definitely travel too far. Just a whistle." He winked over at Bobbin.


"Oh! Um. Okay!" Bobbin tapped his freckled cheek thoughtfully, his head drifting left and right as he poured all of his thought into picking a good marching tune. "Hm... hm.... hm..."


"Oh, for fuck sake pick something already," Polly grumbled.


"Got it!" He started whistling a jaunty tune — one from the earliest days of the war. Like all the best soldiers' marches, it was a bit heady, and a bit high-spirited; it'd fallen out of favor the last few months with how bad things had gotten. Maybe that was why no one was singing, leaving the boy weakly whistling among the cries and calls of the jungle fauna. Bobbin glanced over at Knickers nervously.


Knickers looked at the others with some mild annoyance; no one was really paying attention, so he started by elbowing Gerry in the gut, causing the taller man to stumble, and then squeaked out, "♫ We are the pioneers, and we're exactly what you feared! ♪"


His voice was fine, but it was missing something. He kept on. "♫ We are the pioneers, every one a volunteer! ♪" Midway through, Mara began to clap. It seemed to add energy and life to the song.


"Good thinking," Knickers approved, "it's a fife and drum piece. That's what we needed — some bass! Bobbin, from the top!"


"Huh?" Bobbin stopped whistling for a second. A collective groan of frustration arose from the others.

Gerry cut in. "D-do it a-again from the beg-g-ginning."


"Oh. Right!"

We are the pioneers and we're exactly what you feared We are the pioneers, every one a volunteer We come from far and wide abroad All in defense of home We are the pioneers, you'll never defeat us here


We kissed our boys goodbye, under the sweltering sky We kissed our boys goodbye, how those sweet young men did cry, But don't cry for us dear lads We'll be back real soon We kissed our boys goodbye, now break out the rum supply


We are the pioneers and we're exactly what you feared We are the pioneers, every one a volunteer We come from far and wide abroad All in defense of home We are the pioneers, you'll never defeat us here


Now keep those knees real high, under the sweltering sky

Now keep those knees real high, until we're where bullets fly Keep a lively step my gels We're making headway home Now keep those knees real high, try not to vomit or die


We are the pioneers and we're exactly what you feared We are the pioneers, every one a volunteer We come from far and wide abroad All in defense of home We are the pioneers, you'll never defeat us here


After a few rounds, everyone had noticeably perked up; Camille was the only one not singing at all, but she was still moving her big feet more in time with the tune, not to mention with a subtle-but-significant spring in her step.


But as they continued their march, an uneasy feeling crept up the witch's back — slow at first, but undeniable. It was with a second's reluctance that she raised her hand to call for a halt to the music. Knickers immediately repeated the gesture, adding a finger cross his throat for emphasis.

The whole group fell silent. Camille nodded towards Gerry, bringing her voice low. "Anythin' seem strange t'ye 'bout the last few ocks?"


He paused and raised his head, his shoulder-length — if slightly frazzled — brown hair falling off his head in waves. "Haven't seen mmuch in the way of big animals. Snakes, hogs, nnothing b-bigger than a handmmonkey. But still, nnno people here."


"It don't seem right," Camille said, shaking her head.


Knickers tugged on his chin. "Think it's related to that strange thing I fought yesterday?"


"T' be honest, no bloody clue. Keep yer eyes peeled, weapons free."


Weapons free. Smiles fell from everyone's faces; as they checked to make sure their guns were loaded, Knickers gestured Bobbin into the center of the group for his own protection. Camille point, Polly left, Gerry right, Bobbin center, Mara rear, and Knickers on rear guard. They progressed at a brisk pace, taking care to avoid a tangle of sun-starved, dirt-bleached roots on the way — all but Bobbin, who stumbled on the edge of the farthest-most one and almost fell to his knees but for a swift hand from Mara.


"Watch yourself, boyo," she warned him, her voice friendly but stern.


"Right." The pigtailed boy pulled himself back up to his feet in time for Knickers to flash him a warm smile.

It didn't take much longer for Camille's unease to be validated. Following the curve of a low slope, they came within sight of a clearing — a plantation amidst the jungle. A big one — the type that contained a small village for all of its own needs. Polly jumped behind a tree immediately and hissed for the others to come close.


They followed suit and looked at one another in an unsettled silence.


After a moment, Knickers spoke up. "Guess we were moving faster than we thought to hit another plantation already. That's good — earlier we hit the train depot, the better."


"Sure, but let's hope they didn't hear us before when we were whooping and hooting." Mara glanced behind worriedly.


"Nnn. Th-they didn't." Gerry denied as firm as he could, then bit his lip. The others were all giving him a look.


Polly rolled her eyes, first to speak. "Look, you're not bad at this shit, but there's no way — no way at all — a plantation this big doesn't have people swarming around it at all hours. You fucked up, admit it."


"No, I trust 'im. Look agin," Camille said, quietly, before Knickers or Mara could pile on. "Fields're big, but there ain't no one there 'tall."


Polly held her hands up as if to stop Camille and then threw them down. "Bullshit, a place like this is expensive to run. They don't stop for anything. Probably just somewhere you can't see it."


"You're really gonna call bull on a harvest witch knowing something about a farm?" Mara asked dryly. She took out her canteen and took a long draught. "The hell would you know about a plantation, anyway?"


Polly's eyes shook with irritation. "Bullshit, and I'm gonna prove it," she muttered — in a flash she was scrambling up the branchless trunk of the tree, using her bag's strap as a rope for her upper body while her boots dug into the wood.


Knickers leapt after her to catch her, but Camille shook her head silently and gestured to Gerry.


"Mmme?"


"In case we're both wrong, give 'er cover fire. 'ear yer pretty good wi' a rifle. Get climbin'."


"Alright..." Gerry nodded, and slid his backpack off of his broad shoulders with a thud; the heavy container sent a very small swirl of dust into the air from the sheer force. Then he strode up to the base of the tree and pressed his limber body up against it. Knickers and Mara both eyed the way he filled out his shorts as he hugged and squeezed his way up the wood — more slowly than Polly, but they appreciated something of the deliberateness. It had its own... virtues.

"...Stop starin', ye two," Camille said with a cough. "It's indecent."


Meanwhile, Polly had made her way to the upper boughs, near the canopy where there was actual sunlight; she swung around a branch as if she'd been doing it since she was born, then sprinted from branch to branch, tree to tree. There were no trees in the clearing, but she didn't need to get all that close when the height gave her a good view of the plantation. But what she saw wasn't pleasant; it wasn't pleasant at all. By all appearances, Camille and Gerry were right, and she was wrong. There was no one on a plantation that was at least a few thousand acres. How the fuck? What was this shit? And suddenly, Polly had a really sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Atop the first branch she had scaled, Gerry leaned back against the tree's trunk and lifted his rifle, sighting down the top of it. It looked just as empty to him up here as it had felt with his canteen down there. He wasn't sure what to make of that.


"Can't see far as I used t'. She comin' back, Rose?" Camille asked Knickers.


Knick tossed one last look at Gerry's form above him before he stepped forward to check as asked, leaning forward and squinting. "Looks like she's crawling down the trees and heading in, actually."


"Honest, probably the right idea," Camille admitted, raising her voice. "Might be able t' get some supplies. Rose, fly o'er the area, if all's well —"


"Just a sec," Knickers said. "Dressed like this, there's no safe place for a bunny to be while I'm flying." He lifted Paddywhack off of his exposed shoulder and turned to his slightly-taller friend.


"Hey, Bobbin, hold him for me?"


The fifer blinked and held his hands out, receiving a sleepy brown frizzball a second later.

"Thanks. Back in a sec." Knickers broke into a dead run; he wasn't clear to fly with so many trees around, but once he was to the edge of the plantation, he could just launch and hover over the clearing.


"Bloom," Camille said with a grunt.


"Yes, ma'am?" One of Mara's lazy salutes again.


The muscular woman ignored it, walking at a solid pace forward as she gave instructions. "You, Socks, Lonz, stay 'ere. Yer in charge. Don't think this should take too-"


Mara cleared her throat, taking a few steps to follow. "Um, actually, I don't think that's a real good idea."


Camille turned back around to look at the portly woman, stopping for a second. "An' why, praytell, is 'at?"


"If we run into more alchemical supplies and they're not explosives, Sergeant Rose may not be great at identifying them. The sticky and tricky stuff isn't really his wheelhouse." Mara shrugged. "We do need more explosives, but we also need other chemicals. You requisitioned a lot of knockout gas for the train job — we lost that, but the ingredients for more are common."


"Makes sense." The Sergeant-Major showed her approval with a brisk nod, then called up to the canopy. "A'right, Lonz! Yer in charge back here, give us cover fire as we need!"


"Yes, ma'am!" he shouted back down to her, then resumed looking through the rifle's sights.


Gerry gave a brief salute downwards as Camille rushed forward. And there, standing alone in his uniform among the dirt and soil, was Bobbin Socks. Everyone else was gone or busy. He clasped his hands behind his back and kicked his boot heel first into the ground.


"So um, what do I do?" He wondered aloud, his hands full of rabbit.


If anyone heard him, they were not forthcoming with advice... And something did hear him.

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