Lead vs Fantasy 9-2

9-2  Shadows Going Forward


As the rest of the team bickered over the few scraps of furniture in their temporary jail, Erik stood in the corner and stared at his feet.  He was too busy worrying about his own life to worry about sleep.

The previous night… it had been eventful.  So eventful that any single event was overshadowed by the whole.  In spite of that, one thing still weighed heavily on his mind.  Right before they started their operation, he’d been distracted and almost ruined everything.  Ruined everything even worse.

That alone was enough to drive him into a dark hole of self-loathing, but there was something deeper that dragged at him.

Erik was still young.  Old enough to be an adult by most standards, but young enough to have a life ahead of him…  And yet, he was already losing it.

He remembered, barely, the time when his mother wasn’t consumed by her ravings.  How had it started?  It was probably the dreams, but how much of a difference was there between what he felt and a dream.  Just like a dream, he couldn’t remember the remember the sensation at all, even though it’d pulled his attention so hard.

Memories of his mother shouting her insanity at the elders ran through his mind and sent shivers down his spine.  He tried not to imagine his own face transposed over hers and failed as he bit, hard, into his lip.

“Something eating at you?”  A gruff, yet strangely reassuring, voice called from Erik’s side.

Sparing a momentary glance towards the wide body of Knot, which somehow managed to sneak up on him, Erik returned his gaze to his boots and frowned.  ‘nothing’ was the only answer that came to his mind, but he knew it was the worst thing he could say right now, so he remained silent.

Knot barely bent his waist to catch sight of Erik’s hidden face.  Then he reached up with one of his broad hands and clasped it around Erik’s shoulder.

“If things really go south, we can always flee through the woods,” Knot attempted to whisper reassuring words into Erik’s ear.  “If we can stay ahead of them for two days, they’ll have to call off any pursuit in favor of their actual mission.  We should be fine.”

Knot’s attempt at comfort had the opposite effect.  Erik had completely forgotten about the real and immediate threat of death in favor of the threats to his sanity.  The sudden reminder made his heartbeat stutter into a renewed life as images of, for some reason, hunting dogs and cavalry crashed through his mind.

This only lasted a moment, however, and again the worries of today’s trouble were replaced with a general dread for the future.

Catching sight of Erik’s changing expressions, Knot shifted his weight between his two feet and removed the hand from Erik’s shoulder.  “What’s got you?”

Erik again wanted to say nothing, but he knew that repeating that would get him nothing, so he, hesitantly, asked, “What do you think it feels like to go crazy?”

Taken aback by the question, Knot glowered at it for a hwile before slowly giving an answer.  “I think it’s a lot like feeling normal, but every once in a while, you’re reminded that you aren’t.”

Erik again bit his lip.  How could he know if he wasn’t already crazy, then?  How could anyone?  Was it just based on the looks other people gave you when you spoke?

Uncomfortable going down that rabbit hole, Erik grasped at a thread that presented itself when he caught Cauliflower’s figure out the corner of his eye.  “Some people feel weird things, right?  From their abilities… or whatever.  How do they know what they’re feeling is real?”

Knot followed Erik’s gaze, then he shrugged.  “I guess because their feelings come true?”

By that standard… his bad feeling had been right.  Things did go wrong.  Though, if you applied it broadly, then every prophecy was correct.  Everything happened eventually.  You just had to wait long enough.

He tried not to dwell on his skepticism.  Instead, he turned his thoughts towards the strange abilities his comrades had all exhibited at various points.  Then, his heart was quickly clouded over once again.  It’d been a few months since he’d joined the team and still nothing.  He couldn’t even remember when they’d last cajoled him into trying a new and exotic weapon.  Was it a spear?  Glaive?  Whatever it was, it felt no different from the rest.

Not even attempting to hide the shadow from his face, he weakly asked, “Am I ever going to get one of my own?”

For a moment, Knot was surprised by the sudden change of subject.  Then he quickly asked, “An affinity?  Of course.”

“What if I don’t have one?”  Erik growled his question as his anxiety fought its way to the surface.

“Everyone has an affinity,”  Knot answered with a confident shake of his head.  “You just have to find it.”

“What if I don’t?  Weirder things have happened.”

For a moment, Knot looked as if he was about to agree with the statement.  It seemed to be a pre-programmed response for him.  In his mind, stranger things had always happened.

Knot swallowed those words at the last minute, however, and again placed his broad, reassuring hand on Erik’s shoulder.  “I’m an old man.  Trust me when I say, sometimes the only answer is patience.  It’ll happen for you eventually.”

“How can you know that?”  Erik rebutted petulantly.

“I’m old,” Knot answered with a broad grin.  “It’s one of the privileges that comes with that.  Your body starts to break down on you, but you get to know things.”

Erik frowned back into that grinning face.  In the end, the only reassurance he was given was, ‘because I know,’  But somehow, he felt better.  At least a little bit.



Watching the light of the sunrise filtering through the thinned trees around the camp, he let out a groan which sounded more like a growl.  He’d hoped the knights would meet the mercenaries and there’d be deaths on all sides.  After all the trouble he went to riling them up, it was useless.

At least the mercenaries had a distinctly un-mercenary attitude.  Thanks to that strange altruism, they were contained.  For now.  He just needed to come up with another plan to set the humans at each other’s throats.

For perhaps the first time since his spawning, a flicker of insecurity spasmed itself across his mind. He’d been at war since he was created.  Centuries.  However, there was no use for spies against the frozen bunch.  He had so little experience here.  Maybe he was bad at it?

How he wanted to take this into his own hands.  San Ranto and Aurorias were supposed to be two of the great shields that protected humanity from assault, but that was Millenia ago.  From what he saw now, all this care in taking them down was a waste.  Why should he bother using subterfuge against a bunch of rotted fools with no understanding of true war?  Who’d never once seen a battle that questioned the survival of their very species?

He could feel his right hand slowly slipping and he quickly clenched it back into a very human fist.  He felt a gentle breeze passing over his surface and let it calm his mind.  He had his orders.  It wasn’t his duty to question them.  He couldn’t expose his existence.  That was the first priority.

He would find another way.  He’d lived for centuries and he’d live for centuries more.  He wouldn’t have any trouble out thinking a collection of mayflies.


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Lead vs Fantasy 9-1

Author’s note:  Short chapter this week.  Sorry about that,  been pretty busy.  Going to be even worse next week.  Expect an even shorter chapter, or none at all next friday.  apologies in advance.  

9-1 Out of the Frying Pan


Stepping into the familiar concrete room she’d never set foot in before, Cauliflower frowned.  The stronghold of any village always looked the same.  Specifically, it was depressing.  The grey was a given, what with all the concrete.  However, they could’ve done something to spruce the place up.  Maybe a nice candle.  Fancy like the past.

Giving up on her surroundings, which absolutely refused to take on any ambiance, Cauliflower turned her frown towards her teammates.  When that failed to produce anything agreeable, she intensified her frowning.

“None of us are happy about this,” the Captain spoke up, looking into Cauliflower’s eyes and finally acknowledging her ire.  “It’s a bad situation all around.”

Hearing his words, Cauliflower tried to frown harder, but her muscles started to cramp up with the effort.  She slackened her face, but not her attitude.

“A situation some of us didn’t need to be a part of,” Cauliflower finally declared when her face could no longer speak for her.

“If we didn’t signal for you, they would’ve started threatening to kill people,” the Captain patiently explained, for not the first time.

“Threats are fine,” Cauliflower responded obstinately, folding her arms under her chest.  “At least wait until they actually start to do something.”

“So, wait until it’s too late?”  Edge asked from the corner of the stronghold’s grey, rectangular entry.  “That’s your elegant solution?”

“I don’t want to be stuck here,” Cauliflower gave her response, both logical and well-reasoned.

“Whereas the rest of us are thrilled,” Lotus cut in, her eyes sharp and poisonous.  She tapped the concrete floor with the toe of her boot to assess its softness.  Then she gave a bitter frown at the far too insubstantial sleeping bag she held in her arms.

“They better not hurt my car,” Knot grumbled to himself, as he’d been doing on the entire march back to the village.

“All we can do is make the most of it,”  Champ declared, his relaxed voice cutting through the tension of the room like a fish through water.

Cauliflower turned to look at the man, who was siting far too comfortably on an entirely wooden chair to the side of the room.  Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, she asked, “You seem to be taking this all pretty well.”

“Power of positive thinking,” Champ answered happily.  “Put yourself in the right state of mind and you will always find an oasis in your own head.”

Looking over what Champ thought to be a Zen face, but was akin to one stoned off his ass, Cauliflower furrowed her brows.

Before she could voice her confusion, Edge beat her to it.  “If I had to describe you with one word, it’d be positive and oasis… like.”  His sarcastic tone faltered towards the end, but his meaning came across all the same.

“Well,” Champ responded, allowing the stoner expression to drop from his face.  “There’s also the fact that it was my quick thinking that saved all your asses.  Just thinking about that calms me right down.”

“Oh, right!” Edge shouted with a crisp snap of his fingers.  “It’s your fault we’re in this mess.  Of course, you can’t afford to be upset.”

“Fault?”  Champ asked, his relaxed posture quavering at the word.  “It’s my fault you’re still alive, you mean.  We were outnumbered by actual trained knights.  If I hadn’t been clever and on-the-spot, we would’ve all been killed.”

“We could’ve found a better solution,” Edge dismissed the claims without any evidence to back himself up.

“I wouldn’t have been killed,” Cauliflower muttered critically.

“And I’m so glad you have such concern for our safety,” Champ shot back quickly, finally leaning forward in his chair, causing it to wobble back and forth unstably.

“You would’ve figured something out,” Cauliflower responded with a dismissive wave of her hand as Champ tried to keep himself from falling forward onto his face.

Before anyone else could add to the conversation, they were interrupted by the creak of stronghold’s sturdy, wooden doors swinging open.  As everyone’s attention was drawn in that direction, they caught sight of a familiar slender figure as he entered the room.

Barely familiar.  Everyone else seemed to know him, so she didn’t ask, but it took a while for Cauliflower to remember the idiot who stood in the middle of the village, shouting at the sky.  Once she did, she was barely able to hid her grin.

The slender man’s displeased gaze passed over Cauliflower as she covered her mouth with her hand.  Then he turned back to the Captain.  Moving forward a few strides, he curtly spoke, “While the rest of the army clears trees to let through the heavy equipment, I’ve prepared a few soldiers to help you with guarding the prisoners.  If you need to speak to the commander again, tell them, and they’ll relay that to me.”

The slender man didn’t wait for a response and motioned towards the still open door.  Following his gesture, three men in simple uniforms stepped into the room.  Unlike with the slender man, Cauliflower wasted no time in recognizing the group.  The second she saw the first face, her stomach filled with bile and her mocking grin warped into a bitter frown.

As the rest of the team showed similar reactions to the three men who’d spent the last several days trying to get themselves punched, the slender man leaned close to them and whispered something to them.  Then he turned back to the team and declared, “I have other things to see to.  I’ll take my leave.”

As the heavy door closed behind the slender man, Cauliflower gritted her teeth.  She was waiting for the placid faces the soldiers showed their bosses to morph into ridiculing smirks.  She was not in the mood for this now.  After being told she’d be stuck in here for, potentially, months, she was in the mood for a fight.

Dwelling on that, she clenched her fist until she felt her fingernails digging into the flesh of her palms.  Then something pulled at her.  She’d been waiting a long time and the men still showed nothing on their faces.  From her experience before, she was surprised they could even keep it together in front of their superior, let alone now.

Cauliflower took a probing step forward and the irritating leader of the three soldiers turned an impassive face towards her.  His eyes stuck to her, observing her, but the held nothing.  They were blank.  His cheeks didn’t twitch.  It was like he wasn’t even there.

Her instincts told her to push farther forward, get in his face, she was in the mood for a fight, but her better sense held her back.  If she was the one to start things, she wouldn’t have an excuse.  She’d have her cut reduced at the very least and they weren’t in the position to be getting in fights with the army.

Narrowing her eyes suspiciously at the uncaring men, Cauliflower took a stepped backwards until she was with her team.  Taking a sidelong glance at Edge while keeping one, wary, eye on the men, she asked, “They’re being strange, right?”

“The last time we saw them, I definitely wouldn’t have called them disciplined,” Edge observed with a nod.

“They were always drunk,” Lotus whispered helpfully.  “Maybe this is what they’re like sober.”

“That is not the face of a sober man,” Champ supplied, jumping out of his chair and into the conversation.  “I would guess they found something harder.”

“What kind of drug makes you look like a wax figure?” Lotus asked, lowering one eyebrow skeptically.

“I think it’s called a family reunion,” Edge added with a smirk.

“I’m being serious,” Lotus whispered back, pursing her lips.

“There’ve been a lot of weird drugs out there, lately,” Champ answered with a shrug.  “People have been experimenting with fermented monster blood… along with other juices.  I heard about this one guy, got so messed up that he ate another guy’s face clean off.”

“You ever try any of that stuff?”  Lotus asked, her scowl being colored in shades of concern and judgement.

“It may not seem like it sometimes, but I like being alive,”  Champ answered back with a frown.

“What kind of drug makes you eat people’s faces?”  Cauliflower asked, finally distracted from her vigilant observation of the soldiers.

“For you, I wouldn’t recommend it.”  Edge gave a hurried recommendation.

“I was just curious,” Cauliflower responded, giving Edge a scowl of her own.  She’d never been one to try any of the harder drugs.  Alcohol was all the self-medication she’d ever needed.  She just couldn’t imagine the benefit of putting yourself in the position to eat someone else.  “Who would even want to be that hungry… diet pills?”

“I don’t think they start the night expecting to eat someone,” Champ responded slowly, bringing his pinky up to scratch at his brow.

“Champ is right,” Knot spoke up, finally coming out of the stupor brought about from the loss of the rover.  “They’re being strange.  Best to assume they’re on something and not get too close.”

Cauliflower really liked Knot.  That’s why she tried to ignore that his gaze lingered over her as he said those last words.

“That was going to be my plan from the beginning,” Edge spoke up, giving Knot an approving nod.  “Their eyes give me the creeps.  Like there’s nothing behind there at all.”

Edge’s words forced Cauliflower’s attention back on the soldiers.  She stared into their leader’s dark eyes, this time without the fiery indignance she had when they first arrived.  Staring into the deep black pupils, she felt like she was looking into a sucking void.  A deep abyss where she had no idea what she would find staring back at her.  The thought forced a shudder to move across her entire body.

To distract herself and clear her pallet, Cauliflower turned her eyes towards the Newbie.  With nothing to add to the discussion, he was again hanging out on the fringes. This time, leaning against the side wall, staring at his shoes.  His down-turned eyes were thoughtful, but also kind of sad.

The sight filled her with an impulse to help the kid out, but she got the feeling she wasn’t the right person for that job.  Not with how he wouldn’t meet her gaze most of the time they talked.

“What about the supposed reason we’re here,” Knot spoke up, turning his eyes towards the Captain.  “How’re the villagers?”

The Captain met Knot’s gaze and his expression turned complicated before he gave a shrug.  “They’re settling into the back just fine.  Though, they still don’t trust us.  More specifically, their leader doesn’t trust us.  I doubt he’ll even let us speak to anyone else.”

“I can’t really criticize him for that,” Edge responded, running a hand through his unkempt hair.

Lotus turned to glance back at the soldiers, who still stood by the door.  Then she leaned in to whisper.  “It’ll make it hard to escape if we can’t win them over.”

“It’ll make it really easy to get away if we leave them behind,” Cauliflower observed nonchalantly.  Meeting the Captain’s critical glare, she quickly shifted her gaze away and added, “I was just saying.”

“I think it’s best if I’m our point of contact, for the time being,” the Captain declared with a frown.  Leaning in closer, he softly added, “At the very least, it’s good thing that our observers aren’t actual knights.  On top of that, they don’t seem to be all there.  That should give us some opportunities.”

The assembled mercenaries all nodded at that sentiment.  A man who was blitzed out of his mind might be unpredictable, but he didn’t make a good watchdog.  They could definitely exploit that.

As the team broke up to figure out the best way to do that, Cauliflower turned her attention to a much more pressing concern.  There were only about seven of the wooden chairs dotting the perimeter of the entryway.  You’d need to lay across at least three to make a halfway decent bed.  That meant most of the team would be going without.  She wouldn’t be one of them.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-10

8-10  The New Deal


“Come out now!”  the slim knight stood in the middle of the ramshackle village and shouted into the darkness.  “We know there’re more of you.  We already have your friends.”

The Captain watched this display and tried not to smile.  Seeing as he was being held at gunpoint, he thought anything that looked mocking wouldn’t be good for his health.  As the man shouted again, the Captain’s resolve was further tested.

The corners of his lips twitched.  He couldn’t help it.  The knight had been making a fool of himself for the past five minutes.  The Newbie was a little bit of a lamb, so he might willingly present himself to the slaughter, but there was no way Cauliflower would let him.

In general, giving yourself up at this little provocation was foolishness.  It only weakened your position.  In spite of that, plenty of people would do it, propelled by their emotions.  In Cauliflower’s case, she was completely unfettered by such restrictions.

Even now, she was probably hiding in the shadows of the forest, having a good laugh at the knight’s expense.  Laughing between thoughts of how best to affect their rescue.  The Captain was certain of that.  Fairly sure.

Turning away from the forest, the slender knight made a sour face as he seemed to give up.  Moving back towards the group that was encircling the Captain, his team, and the villagers, he called out, “We’re all heading back to camp.  The Commander will tell us if you’re lying or not.  Then he’ll decide what happens to you.”

The Captain smiled and gave an understanding nod as he said, “Of course.” Only half of that smile was fake.  He other half was entertained by how the knight was pretending he hadn’t spent several minutes screaming into the void.

The slender knight, who was clearly in charge, narrowed his eyes before turning to lead his men out of the village.

As the rifles of the other knights provided plenty motivation to follow, the Captain’s smile faded.  He couldn’t distract himself from it anymore.  He had to think about how they’d get out of this when they actually reached the knight’s commander.  Champ’s quick thinking had delayed their fight with the knights, but the lie was easily verifiable.

For a moment, he entertained the idea of trying to turn the table in transit.  Only for a moment.  They were outnumbered and had been disarmed.  Even with Cauliflower to harass the knights from outside, they wouldn’t escape easily.  If only a couple of his team died, it’d be a miracle.  Not to mention the villagers.

The best they could do was ride this out for as long as they could.  When they were brought forward for an audience with the commander, all thirty knights wouldn’t be coming with them.  the tent wasn’t large enough for that.  If they waited till the commander was passing his judgement, then moved, it’d probably be their best bet…

The Captain’s thoughts were interrupted by an ancient, creaking voice sidling into his ear, “Who are you working for, really?”

The Captain was still distracted as he turned a glance to his side and saw the gnarled village elder walking beside him.  The old man must’ve recovered while the slender knight was busy shouting at nothing.  Now, he was keeping pace with everyone else, moving his legs too smoothly for how little meat they had left.  “

“That’s complicated,” the Captain attempted to dismiss.  He had more important things to consider now.  Like how to keep this disagreeable old man from being executed.

“I’m an old man,”  the elder responded, narrowing his eyes to glare into the Captain’s.  “Old enough to know that anything too complicated to explain is something that makes someone look bad.”

I guess your face is complicated, then,’  The thought filtered through the Captain’s mind.  After it passed, he was left staring into the air in confusion.

He’d been spending too much time around the youngsters lately, he decided.  That kind of response, in a situation like this,  didn’t fit someone of his age.  No matter how truthful it was.

Taking his silence for an admission of guilt, the elder’s face folded itself into a scowl that made its wrinkles grow even deeper.  “So, you were from San Ranto.  I knew all along.  All that good will was an act.”

The Captain frowned and looked to the knights surrounding them.  The men looked equally as preoccupied with the surrounding forest as they were with their escort targets.  They weren’t attentive enough to catch a conversation.  Not a quiet one, at least.

Leaning in towards the old man, the Captain hissed, “We have bigger concerns than that right now!  Both of our people are in danger.  You get that, right?”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” the elder responded obstinately.  “I don’t know what strange strategies those from San Ranto employ for interrogation.”  Even as he said them, he didn’t seem convinced by his own words.  That was something the Captain could forgive, though, they weren’t very convincing.

“Just don’t do anything rash,” the Captain gave a low caution followed by a sigh.  “Not that you have many options now, anyway.”

“I’ll do what I always do,” the elder responded, still not dropping his stubbornly confrontational tone.  “What I think is best for my village.  As long as you haven’t proven that I can trust you, that won’t be listening to you.”

“Is there anything I could say, at this point, to make you trust me?”  The Captain asked, turning to the old man with heavy eyes, filled with exhaustion.  He hated these kinds of no-win situations.  All he could do in them was flounder.

“I don’t suppose there is,” the elder responded, folding his nobly arms over his thin chest.

The Captain let out another sigh and removed his eyes from the elder.  The ancient man was painful to look at anyway, and it was clear that pain wouldn’t do any good now.  The Captain shifted his steps to drift away from the elder.

Once he’d freed up a dozen feet without signs of pursuit, it was Champ’s turn to sidle up to him.  Though, in contrast to the elder, his attitude couldn’t be called anything, but sheepish.

“Umm…  sorry,”  Champ opened quietly, alternating his view between the Captain’s face and the earth beneath his feet.  “I didn’t mean to act out on my own, I just did what came to mind…”

“It’s fine,” the Captain gave his honest answer with a wave of his hand.  “It’s not like there was much else we could do to avoid a fight right there.”

“Even with the defensible position, that wouldn’t have turned out well for us,” Lotus observed, moving up from behind with Edge.

“We can still turn this around if we can keep the commander from ratting us out,” Edge added, his words carrying a hopeful prospect that his face didn’t reflect.

“Ratting us out?”  The Captain asked, scowling at the term that didn’t seem to quite fit.

“What?  Are we taking offense for rats now?”  Edge responded, crossing his arms.  His tone a bit too defensive to be convincing.

“As poor as his vocabulary might be,” Lotus began, forcing Edge to frown at her betrayal.  “He’s right.  Our best prospect is to prevail upon the commander’s vanity and need for achievement.  Make this a success for which he can’t pass up taking credit.”

“You know,” Edge responded as soon as she’d finished speaking.  “Ratting us out works… kind of.  You knew what I meant.”

“Everyone else is already past that,” Champ replied with a shake of his head.

“Name a better phrase, that’s all I’m saying,” Edge declared throwing his hands up.

“Reveal our lie,” Lotus whispered, but somehow still managed to retain her prim tone.

“How is that better?” Edge immediately shot back in exasperation.  “It sounds so stiff.”

As his team bickered in the background, the Captain mulled over the substance of their statements.  She was right.  The best way to avoid an unwinnable fight would be to butter up the commander.  Convince him to accept their accomplishment as his own.

Of course, as the representative of the team, it was the Captain’s job to go about actually doing that.  With the sounds of his comrade’s voices forming a pleasant white noise, he ran potential scripts through his mind until they reached the camp.

Once they crossed the border of hurriedly constructed tents, the knights visibly relaxed.  Though, their slender leader showed no such signs.  As they moved forward, they were greeted by two ordinary soldiers.  Upon meeting the knights, they held themselves straight and gave a formal salute, but their eyes betrayed their lack of motivation.

The slender knight ignored that failing and simply waved them aside as he pushed forward to the center of the camp.  When the moved into the much more ordered rows of tents that allowed the room to stand, the slender knight gave a signal.  In response, half the escorts gathered together the villagers and led them away.

As the left, the elder turned one judgmental eye towards the Captain before fading from sight.  For his part, the Captain’s heart quavered as he watched the villagers taken away.  He wanted to say something, to keep them in his sight.  Where he could at least object to any poor treatment.  He said nothing, however.  He knew he didn’t have that kind of freedom.

Once the villagers were dragged out of sight, the slender knight continued forward, moving towards the largest tent, which sat at the heart of the encampment.  The slender knight held up a hand to stop the team and their escorts and carefully straightened his uniform.  Then he stepped forward, hand poised to open the flap and let himself in.

Before he could, however, a commanding voice echoed from the tent, “What’s happening now!?”

Following the interruption of the voice, he tent’s flap moved aside and exposed the avian face of the knight’s commander.  As he looked over the assembled group, the knights all bowed their heads and raised their left fists to their right shoulders respectfully.

Acknowledging the gesture with a nod, the Commander glared at the Captain and his team suspiciously before turning a questioning gaze to the slender knight.

The slender knight gave another nod before answering, “There’s been a small incident…”

“I could tell that much by the noise of two dozen people marching on my tent in the middle of the night,” the commander responded sourly.  Again the commander’s eyes scanned the team before moving past them to take in their surroundings as a whole.  Then he seemed to come to a decision and ordered, “Come into the tent, the lot of you.”

As the commander disappeared behind the canvas flap, the escorting knights looked between one another before prodding the team to move with them into the large tent.

Large, it was.  For a tent, it was impressive.  However, now holding around twenty people, it was a cramped fit.  The severity of that problem was doubled by the expanse of space they had to leave at that back for the commander.  Of course, the man in charge couldn’t simply be shoulder to shoulder with the men he was questioning.

As  a result, he Captain was smashed between Champ, on his right, and a particularly burly knight on his left. No one was pleased with this and both the room’s temperature and humidity were rising by the second.

“Now, enlighten me,” the Commander ordered the group as the canvas enclosure slowly became a bog.

“We went out on a patrol and found an Aurorian village hidden in the forest,” the slender knight began, noticeably skimming through the beginning of his statement.

“I don’t remember ordering such an action, though?”  The Commander interrupted before the slender knight could glaze over the issue.

The commander’s questioning voice made a visible ripple run through the gathered knights and the slender knight bowed his head respectfully before continuing.  “I received some information and I thought it would be better to investigate its veracity before reporting it.”

“Is that so?”  The Commander asked with an icy tone as he raised a critical eyebrow towards his subordinate.

The Captain felt a queasy knot building in his stomach, but he had to move now.  He took a deep breath, he needed all the air he could get.  He’d had to get through it all quickly before he could be interrupted.  Then he stepped forward, as much as he could in this throng.

“He ruined everything,” the Captain declared, in as cool and natural a tone as he could manage.  He honestly impressed himself with it.  Maybe he should’ve gone into the theater, though, he probably wouldn’t look good in a wig.  “We were only able to get through half of your brilliant plan before we were interrupted by his knights.”

“Is that so?” The Commander cut in once again, turning on the Captain with narrowed, suspicious eyes.

“Yes,” the Captain continued, hurriedly bowing his head to show as much respect as he could while being confined by this crowd.  “Your idea to drum up a crowd of monsters and have the Aurorian village chased out by them to keep the Aurorian officials from growing suspicious of their disappearance impressed me from the moment I heard it.”

Letting out that beast of a sentence took all the air the Captain could gather in his lungs.  He was forced to gasp for another breath before quickly continuing.  “I’m sure the king himself would applaud your wise pursuit of your duties.  Having the foresight to know that simply destroying the village would risk giving away your invasion path.  Even ensuring that you can whittle down the strength of the capitol by forcing it to send out a series of subjugation forces that your men can easily overwhelm and destroy.”

The knight’s commander stared into the Captain’s eyes as he finished his pitch.  Those cold eyes cut through the Captain’s core and sent a shiver down his spine.  In the silence, he questioned every word he’d said, but there wasn’t anything else he could’ve done.

Around him he could feel his team tensing up, getting ready for the pronouncement.  Ready for a fight.  The odds were still stacked against them, but knights were rigid in their movements.  The chaos of this cramped tent would give them a chance.  The Captain clenched his fist until he felt his nails painfully dig into his palm.

“And how did this go?”  The Commander finally asked.  His tone was flat, reluctant, but not accusing.

“We got most of the villagers out before they realized it was anything but a monster attack,” The Captain answered swiftly, again bowing his head towards the hawkish commander.  “However, we had to rush as the knights approached.  The village’s chief and a handful of villagers didn’t make it to the evacuation.”

“And where are they now?”  The Commander asked, doing nothing to hide his sour frown.

“In our custody,” the slender knight quickly answered, his tone noticeably irritable as his commander readily listened to some mercenary.

Seeing the commander’s relieved expression, a terrible premonition overtook the Captain’s heart and he spoke up before anything more could be said, “This could be a blessing in disguise.  Having Aurorian prisoners could be for exchange.  In case any of the common soldiers fail at carrying out your orders and get captured.  Even if they don’t, taking prisoners while the other side fails at capturing any is another great achievement.”

The commander again looked deep into the Captain’s eyes.  Then he broke into a subtle smile.  It was a smile that made the Captain’s blood run cold.  Giving two excuses for sparing them was probably too much.

“You make a fine point, but I fear we may not have enough men to spare in guarding them,” the Commander answered slowly, still carefully studying the Captain’s eyes.  “Of course, if you would volunteer some of your people’s time to help in that,  we could change that.”

The Captain could feel his face contorting into a frown, but looked towards his feet before that could be revealed.  He knew what this was.  His team was the greatest source of uncertainty in this campaign.  By keeping them under observation as  “guards” that uncertainty could be dealt with.  Accepting would mean confinement for the length of the campaign, not just until the ranger finished his work.  However, refusal would mean the execution of the elder and his family.  As unpleasant as he might be…

“I’m sure we can arrange something,” the Captain answered, finally reclaiming his poker face as he raised it to look into the Commander’s eyes.

“Good, then I think this issue can be easily settled,” the Commander declared with a clap of his hands.  “We’ll call this accident the fault of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing.”

The slender knight made a bitter face, but he wasn’t in the position to question his leader.  The Captain felt the same bitterness welling inside him as he imagined spending the next few months locked away in the army’s camp.  However, he didn’t show it on his face.

“Now, everyone can be dismissed,” the Commander declared, moving his sharp gaze over his gathered knights.  “I wish to discuss the fine details with this man.”

As the commander waved his hand towards the Captain, the assembled knights turned gazes mixed with jealously and distrust towards the Captain and his team.  They didn’t say anything, however, and left the room, freeing up enough space for everyone to comfortably breathe again.

“Your men can leave as well,” the Commander added, looking over the Captain’s team members with disdain.  “I wish for some privacy.

Knot and Lotus both kept their faces stonily unexpressive as they turned to leave.  Edge and Champ, however, carried a weight of frustrated defeat in their eyes.  Seeing that, the Captain’s heart was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt.  He’d betrayed his team, but he couldn’t make any other choice.

After the Captains teammates had left the tent, the hawkish commander took a few steps forward to stand face-to-face with the Captain.

The Captain met the man’s gaze and gave a humble bow, saying, “I’m glad we could be of service.”

“Cut the act,” the Commander responded with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “If it didn’t risk souring my relationship with the rangers, I may have had you executed tonight.  Regardless of how many pretty words you offered me.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” the Captain answered honestly, giving another bow of his head.  As unpleasant as the prospect was, he knew the commander was well within his rights to give that order.

“Can you truly assure me that none of the escaping villagers knew of our presence?”  The commander asked with a raised eyebrow.  In the depths of his eyes, he might have been concealing a dim grain of insecurity.

“I can,” the Captain gave an immediate answer, filled with confidence.  “My team took the utmost care in making sure that was the case.  We knew the consequences if it wasn’t.  On all fronts.”

“I don’t know why you were so focused on protecting those Aurorians,” the commander declared, spitting out the last word as if it were poisonous and its presence on his tongue could be fatal.  “However, from now on, if something goes wrong on this campaign, it’s going to be your fault.  Do you understand that?”

“I do…” the Captain responded with a nod made all too deep by the weight of his answer.  He felt like he was selling, not only his soul, but those of his team as well.  He couldn’t say anything else at this point, however.

“Then you can be dismissed,”  the commander declared grandiosely, with a wave of his hand.  “Gather your team, all of your team, and prepare to take on your guard duties tomorrow.  Of course, I expect you to explain the details to your other client.”

The Captain gave another nod and finally turned to leave.  He hoped he could get some good sleep with what little night remained, but he knew that was forlorn.  The only thing he could do to subdue the rising tension in his gut was to pray that the nothing went south with the rest of this invasion.  At least not till they had the chance to escape.  He didn’t think his odds were good on that, either.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-9

Happy good friday!  I hope you all enjoyed your day off, if you got it, and have a great Easter.  Eggs and all that.  

8-9  Some Knights to Remember


Sitting in the dark woods, Champ was once again regretful that he didn’t smoke.  He was decent at flaming, but no good at smoking.  He knew the habit would be terrible for a profession that was about 60% cardio, that’s a lot of why he never picked it up.  The one thing he did admire was how it always gave you something to do.  Something to focus on when you had to hurry up and wait.  Plus, he imagined that breathing in smoke would do a certain amount to warm you up on cold winter nights.

Running those thoughts through his head again, he nodded at himself.  He was impressed by how roundabout he could be in complaining that he was bored and cold.

Growing bored of complaining about his boredom to himself, Champ turned towards Knot.  Ever the stoic, the man was comfortable in silence.  Too comfortable.  Even now, he was simply staring into the flickering lights of the village, saying and doing nothing.

Champ frowned at his comrade in displeasure.  Their only role here, after sneaking between patrols and cutting up the fence, was to move if something went wrong.  Well, by this point, nothing could go wrong.  The evacuation had already started and any more hands there would only be in the way.  They had literally nothing to do here.  They were even too far away from the main action to marvel at the chaos.  It all looked like blobs screaming at or jumping on other blobs.  Hardly titillating.

Filled with that unique exasperation of doing nothing, Champ pursed his lips and cast out for any random topic of interest.  Noticing the greying fringes of Knot’s hair, he caught one.  “You’re old, have you ever thought of retiring?”

Turning a sidelong glance towards Champ, Knot narrowed his eyes and asked, “Retiring to what?”

“I was more focusing on what you’d be retiring from,” Champ answered without much thought.  “Like, not having to freeze your ass off in a dark forest all night.”

“And what would I do?”  Knot repeated with a frown.  “Not much point in living for the sake of living.”

“Isn’t that for you to figure out?”  Champ asked back, screwing up his face as he tried to find things that sounded retirement-esque.  “You could… eat dinner at 4:30 every day and… crochet.”

“I think I’ll stick with the forest, if it’s all the same to you,” Knot responded, summarily executing the conversation.  At least that was how it seemed, until he gave Champ a contemplative look and asked his own question.  “What about you?  If your situation was dealt with, what would you do?”

Champ tried not to visibly wince at the words and almost succeeded.  As the wave of remembered frustration and bitterness passed, he turned his eyes towards the village and tried to imagine that future.  After a few seconds, he concluded that he couldn’t.

“It’s not like I could do much else at this point,” Champ shot back a safe answer with a shrug.  “Even if I was free from everything, I’d still have to eat.”

“We both know that’s not true,” Knot immediately shut down his excuse.  “You’re not like me, or Cauliflower, or Edge.  You weren’t born into this, you’re not broken, and you aren’t locked into this life.  I’ve seen you networking and you have your connections.  If you didn’t need to get rich quick, you could make a living some other way.”

Hearing that, Champ turned his view to his own feet.  He couldn’t think about being done.  Out of debt.  He just couldn’t imagine being anywhere but the malaise he was in now.  However, even if he did get out, he didn’t think he could just leave.  ‘Thanks for saving me, now that you have, bye.’  It wasn’t exactly the peak of gratitude.

“It doesn’t matter.  That future is too far away,” Champ finally dismissed with a shake of his head.

“It’ll come someday,” Knot declared, his words carrying the obnoxiously heavy weight of one who had been through everything at least once.  “Better not to wait until that day before you consider it.”

Champ frowned and turned his attention into the woods.  He didn’t want to think about the future.  He couldn’t imagine there’d be much good waiting for him there.  As he brooded about that by himself, he noticed something.  Some movement in the darkness.

He craned his neck and took a few steps forward as he tried to get a better view.  Finally, he caught that movement again.  A flash of reflected moonlight and a flutter in the darkness.  Recognizing only that sent a shiver down Champ’s spine.

Grabbing hold of Knot’s shirt, he rushed behind some nearby trees as he hissed, “Hide!”

“What is it?” Knot asked, shaking free from Champ’s grip, but still obediently slipping behind a tree.

“I don’t know, but it looks like people,” Champ answered, trying to see more of whatever that was.

After a few fruitless seconds, his eyes naturally wandered over to Knot.  Then they stopped.  For a few seconds, he didn’t blink.  He simply stared at the broad man’s shoulders, each of which obstinately stood out from the tree he was hiding behind.  If you were looking from the front, it would probably look like the tree had grown two, muscular arms.

“Get- get on the ground,” Champ hissed, reaching out to push his comrade down.

Knot gave a grunt of protest, but he still obediently lowered himself until he was laying, face down, in the dirt.  Looking down at that, Champ figured it was the best they could do.  Knot’s body wasn’t made for hiding.  Quite the opposite, actually.

Turning away from Knot, Champ again looked into the darkened forest.  In the time that he’d spent punishing his comrade for being born with such an absurd body, the unknown men must’ve been moving closer.  He could make out a few of their figures now, intermittently visible between the trees.

It was only silhouettes, but it was much clearer than before.  As he watched them move, he could tell that it was more than a couple.  At least twenty, maybe thirty men.  They were moving in concert and Champ could tell they were trained.

As the men drew ever closer, the options of their identity narrowed down to one.  Their methodical movements, the crisp, grey uniforms.  Champ could recognize that even from yards away in a shadowy forest.

Champ looked over at Knot to consult with him.  Then he looked down as he remembered their previous ‘conversation.’  Champ hesitated for a second, then he found a suitably placed bush and knelt behind it to come closer to Knot’s head.

As he did, he found a pair of, understandably sour, dirt covered cheeks looking back at him.  Ignoring the look of smoldering distaste, Champ bent forward and whispered, “It’s the knights.  They have to be from the camp.  What do we do?”

“How do they look?”  Knot asked back, his face losing its residual frustration and immediately growing sharp.  “What are they here for?”

“I can’t tell, but they’re coming closer.  Marching slow and steady, probably be at the village before long,” Champ reported things as he’d seen it.  He wasn’t all that familiar with any specifics of any knight order, so he couldn’t give more than that, however.

As he tossed over the information in his mind, Knot frowned.  “If they wanted to subjugate the village, they should do it during the day.  They have the numbers for it and it’d decrease the chance of anyone escaping to report back to Aurorias.”

“We’re not going to be able to figure it out,” Champ observed silently.  “We should try to regroup with the others.”

Knot gave him a small nod and added, “Cauliflower’s with the kid.  She’ll keep him out of trouble.  We need to head into the village and warn the Captain’s group.”

Champ gave his own nod, then turned his attention to the village in question.  More specifically, to the shoddy fence that marked its border.  They still had the bolt cutters, but making a hole big enough for them to pass would take too long.  They’d be out in the open while they made it, too.

Looking back at the knight’s group, Champ saw that they were circling around, probably towards the village gate.  That gave them a little cover.  If they were lucky, they could make it over without being noticed.  He looked down at Knot, who returned his gaze.

Simply looking into each other’s eyes, they had a whole conversation in the span of seconds.  Then, Knot bend his limbs to move into a crouched position, ready to spring forward.  Champ gave one last look towards the knights and found no eyes glancing back at him.  Then he nodded and they both took off in a sprint.

They immediately left the tree line and in seconds, they’d crossed the open field to the village’s fence.  Arriving at the web of wiring, Champ came to a full stop and hesitated.  The electricity had probably been turned off when the Captain entered, but it wasn’t certain it was left off.

“I can check it,” Knot declared with a gruff and resolute voice as he took a step forward.

Champ instinctually held out an hand to stop the man.  “I’m younger.  I should be the one to check.”

“I’m not that fragile,” Knot complained with a deep frown.  “My heart won’t give out from just a little shock.”

“You call a deterrence made to stop three hundred pound beasts a little shock?”  Champ asked raising his eyebrows critically.  “Just promise you’ll tackle me if I start to sizzle.”

“And here I thought you’d relish the chance to get a little hotter,” Knot responded with a wry smile as he stepped back and lowered his center of gravity, ready to smash Champ into the ground.

For a second, Champ was taken aback by the rare joke, then he gave his own smile and responded, “If I was out of everyone’s league, what would I do on a Friday night?”

Turning back to face the wire fence, Champ gritted his teeth and failed to keep every muscle in his body from tensing up.  He’d never grabbed a live wire before, but he could imagine that it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Taking a deep breath, he reached out one hand and let his fingers brush against the gnarled surface of the aged wire.  The second he made contact, he retracted his fingers and waited for the pain.  None came and he tried again, for a little onger this time.  Once again free from the feeling of his heart being exploded from the inside, he confidently grabbed the fence with both hands and started to climb.

In a few seconds, both Knot and Champ and hurled themselves over the fence and landed safely on the other side… mostly safely.  After realizing that he wasn’t going to have his eyeballs boiled, Champ might’ve gotten a bit over-eager.  He was still trying to claw the taste of dirt from his mouth as the pair moved towards the village.

They ignored most of the lizards they saw as they rushed onward.  The lizards, for the most part, returned the favor.  They were obviously starting to calm down now.  They’d weren’t stampeding anymore so much as they were mulling about aimlessly and they were starting to remember their place on the food chain.  The bottom.

Pushing into the center of the village, they found a broad road, or more aptly put, the only road, and followed it.  At its end, they found an open air garage with a large truck a few people looking anxious outside it.  As the pair of unfamiliar men drew near, the villagers grew visibly defensive, but Edge and Lotus stepped forward from behind the truck and stopped the hostility.

Jogging forward, Edge narrowed his eyes in mild criticism as he asked, “What’s going on?  I thought you were supposed to wait outside.”

“Except for emergencies, right?” Champ asked, exasperated.  “Well, there’s an emergency.”

“If that’s the case, then just answer his first question,” Lotus responded coldly.  As always, she kept herself expressionless, but she couldn’t keep her hand from moving to the rifle on her back at he word, ‘emergency.’

“The knights are coming,” Knot declared flatly, cutting through the mild tension.

“Knights?”  Edge asked, turning a dumbfounded look towards Knot.  “Like, San Ranto Knights.”

“We couldn’t confirm, but I would assume,” Champ responded with a shrug.

“Damn,” Edge hissed under his breath.  “The ranger must’ve sold us out.”

“How long do we have?”  Lotus asked, ignoring Edge’s indignant fury.

“Like, no time at all,” Champ answered, looking over his shoulder to confirm that the enemy wasn’t already upon them.  “They’ll be here anytime.”

“We need to get the people out, then,”  Edge declared, already turning around to head back towards the anxious villagers surrounding the truck.

“What about the Captain, where is he?”  Champ asked as he moved to follow.

“He went to check for stragglers,” Lotus answered quickly, keeping pace.  “We can find him after.  First we have to get the villagers out of here.  Then we can figure something out.”

As Edge drew close to the truck, he called out, “Get in, you have to leave now!”

“What about your leader?” one of the anxious men around the truck asked back immediately.  “He was doing the last check, right?  We can’t leave anyone behind.”

“He’s already done,” Edge lied easily.  “He just sent message that it was clear.  More monsers have been attracted by the sounds of fighting.  You need to get out before they arrive.”

The last pseudo-truth sent a shudder of renewed worry through the gathered people and after a few hurried whispers amongst themselves, they boarded the truck.  After the engine roared to life, they tore out of the village.

After watching the last of the villagers leave, Edge turned to his companions and ordered, “Let’s find the Captain and get out of here.  As long as they don’t see us, we should be fine.”

“Depends on your definition of fine,” Champ observed bitterly.  If the ranger really did sell them out, they’d have a damn time getting anywhere.

“It’s the best we’ve got,” Edge declared, already turning away from them and moving towards the center of the village.

Champ and the others naturally followed him and soon found themselves standing between a series of homes that could barely escape the word ‘shacks.’  Looking between them, they scanned for signs of a human silhouette and found none.  Without enough time to waver, they split up and searched through the available huts.

Champ, for his part, ran in and out of the small houses, barely taking the time to be disappointed in their destitute interior before moving on.  In his brief inspections, he found a few small raptors hiding in corners.  One almost have him a heart attack by hiding in a cabinet.  Thankfully, it only hissed and flailed its claws through the air and didn’t seem keen on jumping down to pick a fight.  Champ wasn’t keen on going in after it, so they left each other alone.

After the fifth hut of nothing, Champ exited to the open air and regrouped with the rest of his comrades.  Their expressions didn’t leave him any room for optimism about their results.

“Where the hell is he?” Champ asked no one in particular as he reached them.

“Only one place left to check,” Knot observed turning towards the large stronghold at the center of the village.

It was barely visible in the darkness of the night, but now that Champ looked closely, the door seemed to be standing open.

Noticing that, they hurried towards the stronghold.  Before they made it half the distance, gunshots began sounding from the front of the village.  The knights had arrived and made contact with the grupisanths.  Without a word passing between them, all four broke into a run.

Passing through the open door, they didn’t slow their pace at all as they moved into the cramped hallways that formed the stronghold’s choke points.  As he ran a tingling spread across Champ’s spine.  He couldn’t shake off the knowledge that he was willingly rushing into a dead end.

Drawing close to the end of the series of halls, they could hear a faint conversation. More aptly put, they could hear the traces of a conversation.  The muffled echoes of two men’s voices.  Recognizing the cadence of their Captain mixed in there, they put in another burst of speed and came to the end of the last hallway.

There, they found an unexpected tableau.  Their Captain was being held at the end of an ancient gun by an old man whose wrinkles could almost make one mistake him for a dying tree.

The elder and the Captain both ceased staring at each other and turned to face the team that came barreling down the hallway.  Once they arrived, the Captain wasted no time in asking, “What’s happening outside?  What about the other villagers?”

“We don’t know why, but the knights are here,”   Edge answered hurriedly. “The villagers have already left and we need to do the same.”  As he finished, the turned his eyes to the elder and the few people huddling in the room beyond, then he frowned.

Cham could echo that sentiment.  Sneaking through the woods away from the knights was dubious enough a strategy without carrying the extra baggage with them.  There was no way the Captain would accept leaving them behind, though.  Even if they ignored his orders and carried him off, the elder would give them up in a heartbeat.  Then they’d lose all their plausible deniability in the villages evacuation.  Either way, it wasn’t looking good.

“Knights?”  the creaking voice of the elder broke into the conversation before the Captain could respond.  “What knights?  Who are you working for, really?”

“We don’t have the time for this,” Champ complained looking back at the gunshots that were growing ever closer.  “We need to move.”

“You’ll tell me what’s going on,” the elder declared shifting the aim of his old, but clearly maintained, rifle towards Champ.  “Until then, no one is leaving.”

As the old man’s words sunk in, the atmosphere grew tense in an instant.  As the barrel of the gun crossed his path, Champ could feel a line of painful queasiness pass through his core.  That only lasted a second, however and his attention was quickly recaptured by the sounds of the knights growing closer.

Knot must’ve felt the same.  He took one step forward in front of Champ.  Then his hands moved like the flash of lightning.  His left palm grabbed the rifle and pushed its aim towards the wall, while his right thrust forward and clocked the old man right in the face.

Seeing the elder collapse like a broken doll, Champ couldn’t help wincing. In spite of the fact that the man was in the process of threatening his death, watching an old man get assaulted was hard to stomach.

Knot, for his part, showed only a stoic expression.  Holding fast to the rifle with his left hand,he reached out his free arm to catch the elder before he could hit the ground.  Then he turned to the cowering villagers further in the compound and declared, “You will be coming with us.”

They gave a collected shudder to Knot’s heavy words, but they showed no signs of resistance.  The increasingly anxious team turned to leave through the path they’d followed and the Captain hung back to gently usher the frightened villagers along.

They rushed to the compound’s exit, but they didn’t run.  They couldn’t and have any confidence that the civilians would keep up.  Especially with children amongst their number.

As they moved, Champ tried to picture their options.  Once they exited the stronghold, they could loop around to the back.  Use the building as cover as they pushed the villagers over the fence.  Once they were in the forest, they would at least have freedom of movement, but he had no idea what they’d do with the villagers.  It wasn’t like they could hide them in their tents.  Things were cramped enough as they were after that damn insect destroyed his.

Dozens of thoughts swirling through his head, Champ pushed open the door that led to the stronghold’s entry.  Then he stopped, frozen, in his tracks.  For a second, he couldn’t process what his eyes were seeing, then a cold chill ran down his spine as he recognized what was standing before him.

It was a young man, with short black hair.  Overall, he was relatively non-descript  In fact, the only thing that stood out about him was how little his body differed from the average man.  The reason why that was something worthy of note, was the crisp, grey uniform.  That of a knight.

Looking over Champ, the slender knight’s eyes narrowed and he took a step back, reaffirming his grip on his rifle as he asked, “Mercenaries?  What would you be doing here?  In an Aurorian village.”

Looking behind the unimpressive youth, Champ found over a dozen men who left much more of an impression.  Not mentioning their increasingly sour expressions, their astounding physiques would make it hard to blend in anywhere.

As the whole world seemed to freeze over and the knights didn’t hide the preparation of their weapons, a thought shot through Champ’s mind.  It was stupid and crazy, but his body moved before his mind could tell it that.

Taking a bold step forward, Champ stared down the slender youth and demanded, “What are you doing here!?  Didn’t you receive the commander’s orders?  About the special request.  You’re going to ruin the whole operation!”

In the face of Champ’s outburst, the eyes of the slender knight narrowed further and a wave of uncertainty ran through the knights behind him.

Champ, realizing the path he’d just started down, felt a cold sweat develop over his whole body.  At least they seemed to be taking the bait.  For now.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-8

Author’s note:  

For the time being, I’m planning on going back to a once per week release schedule.  I feel like moving to a quicker release schedule has had a marked impact on the quality of chapters.  Sorry for anyone who’s disappointed, but I feel like I need more time to accomplish what I want.  

8-8  Flight Night


Pushing into the dim village night, the Captain tried to ignore his responsibility in all this.  It was all for the best.  They needed to chase these people out of their homes, lest they all be slaughtered.  He knew all that, but whenever he told it to himself, it felt like excuses.

As they moved deeper into the village, the scene became increasingly clear.  If he were to describe it by single word, it would be a storm.  Hundreds of small raptors were running, always running, back and forth, around, wherever.  They weren’t hunting, but if they saw something that wasn’t one of their own, they’d attack.  They were scared.  That was exactly what made them dangerous.

Even as he desperately pushed away his own guilt, the Captain could feel the young boy beside him tensing up at the state of his home.  The Captain extended  a heavy hand and rested it on the boy’s shoulders before attempting a reassuring smile.  “It’s going to be fine.”

The boy’s body stiffened further at the unexpected stimulation, then, as he heard the petty condolences, he relaxed slightly.  As the Captain released his shoulder, the boy looked back to the chaos and asked, “What do we do?”

“We get organized and get the people out,” the Captain answered with a definitive nod.  Then he gave the youth a sidelong glance and asked, “Now, where would I find people?”

“We’re supposed to gather at the stronghold during an attack,” the boy answered immediately.  Then his eyes wavered and he looked to the clumps of houses to his right and left as he added, “Though, I don’t know if anyone would be there now.  It happened so fast, I can’t see people going out into this.”

The Captain again nodded his consent.  As a fresh staccato of gunshots sounded out from his right, where the lizards had first broken in, he stopped.  He considered moving towards the village watchmen.  If he could get them all together, things would go quickly and they could reduce casualties.  He immediately dismissed that idea, however.  They’d probably just started their attempt to clear out the village.  He doubted they would entertain the idea of retreat at this point.  Especially from a stranger.

Shaking his head, the Captain turned towards the nearest house on his left.  House would probably be a generous term.  Hut would be more accurate.  A rough assemblage of lumber that formed the minimum to be considered walls and a roof.

That wasn’t uncommon.  Just to have a village, some kind of stronghold, a generator, and a fence were all necessary.  Once those were paid for, there was little left over for anything else.  Most homes were built by their residents and neighbors.  Inexpertly and from whatever materials could be gathered.

Moving towards the humble home, the Captain tried to consider how he might persuade its inhabitants to leave it behind.  None of the ideas that came to mind stood out.  Not positively, at least.

Before the Captain could come to a conclusion, a loud thud rang out from his right.  Turning towards it, found another similar, but unique, hut.  As he watched, one of the small, raptorial lizards bounced off its simple, wooden door and kept running in the direction of its ricochet.

He was about to turn away from that distraction when three more lizards turned their flexible necks towards the house.  Whatever caught their attention, they immediately started to run.  One impacted with the door and again bounced off, shaking its head as it ran away.  Then, the next two tackled the wooden planks at the same time and the whole door gave way.

As the door shattered into splinters, it gave a thunderous crack attracting the attention of more lizards.  Within seconds, over a dozen lizards rushed into now open house like a rivulet flowing off a stream.

Without a thought to the young boy beside him, the Captain ran forward.  Thankfully, the lizards running into the house left a void in the crowd.  A space he moved through before anything else could fill it.  As the Captain ran, a couple nearby lizards turned their attention towards him and raised their scaly lips to show their small, razor sharp fangs.

With the pair running towards him, the Captain didn’t stop his feet.  As the first drew near, he brought his knee up and struck directly under its narrow chin.  Then he swung his rifle by the barrel, striking the second in the neck, knocking it to the ground.  The lizards tumbled over and spent a few seconds scrambling in the dirt before returning to their feet.  They gave out low hisses of protest before disappearing into the storm.

Ignoring the retreating monsters, the Captain pushed forward and into the house.  As soon as he was inside, his nose was overwhelmed with the stench of blood and his heart sank.  He desperately searched for the the injured person in hopes of offering help.

Then his eyes fell on a lump near his feet.  It looked to have once been a Grupisanth. Now, the small lizard was leaking sack of flesh.  Dozens of wooden splinters and stabbed into its body and those wounds only seemed to be worsened by the myriad feet that trampled over it.

Covering his nose and turning away from that sight, his urgency was reborn by the sound of a shrill scream.  He immediately turned and ran towards its origin point.  Considering the size of the house, it couldn’t be a long run.

Moving through the door immediately to his left, he found himself in what had to be a kitchen.  In the corner of the room stood a stove and at its center sat a table.  Behind that table stood an intermittently screaming woman, surrounded by waist-high raptors.  As the Captain entered, the woman was being pushed up against the wall by five lizards.  She  was desperately trying to beat away her attackers with what looked to be a meat tenderizer.  After one swing, however, a lizard bit hard into her wrist.  Immediately, streams of blood dripped onto the floor and she dropped her weapon.

As the woman’s screams grew increasingly desperate, the Captain tried shouting to her, “Get down!”

The woman simply kept screaming and showed no signs of hearing him.  Even if she could, it was unlikely that she had the strength to follow the request.

Quickly moving around the table, the Captain held his rifle and looked for a good angle.  As another lizard managed to bite through her thick pants, into her thigh, the woman’s screams grew more desperate.  So did the Captain.

Taking the first clear line he could, he pulled his trigger in four quick bursts.  Rat-tat-tat, Rat-tat-tat.  It was a pattern that’d been drilled into him decades ago and he’d been following for decades since.  At this point, the memories of it had long ago seeped into his bones.

As the volley of bullets struck home, three of the lizards fell limply to the floor, covered in mixture of blood, both theirs and hers.  Seeing this, the remaining two leapt free from the woman and fled the room.

The Captain watched the lizards until they were gone, then he rushed to the woman’s side.  She was most likely young, no older than twenty.  She was probably cute, in that quaint way that could only apply to village girls.  The Captain didn’t pay attention to either of those things, however.

His eyes immediately focused on the blood.  Apart from the specks that freckled her clothes and were a noticeably more purple shade than the rest, most of it clung to her left arm and right leg.  It wasn’t enough to shock the Captain.  Not after everything he’d been through. However, it was too much to ignore.  Especially considering the bacteria filled mouths that led to it.

Bending down to look into the young woman’s eyes, the Captain asked, “Do you have any liquor?”

For her part, the woman said nothing, merely staring down at the three corpses at her feet.  She was out of it.  It’d take a while for her mind to catch up to all that’d happened.

Not in the mood to wait for that, the Captain started rummaging through the cabinets around her.  For the most part, they were filled with sacks of grain, ceramic ware, and utensils.  The fourth cabinet door he opened yielded him a promising looking brown bottle.  When he uncorked it and took a sniff, the fumes threatened to burn the hairs from his nostrils.

Quickly moving the bottle away from his face, he decided this would work.  As he poured the amber liquid over the wound, the woman came back to life.  Wincing and shying away from he burning sensation, she turned a momentary glare at the Captain.  Then she settled down into a sheepish hiss of pain.

Once the wounds were clean, the Captain took some towels from the table behind him and used them as improvised bandages to tie up the wound.  He gave one last look over the girl, who was still making a bitter expression from the stinging in her wounds.  As he did, he saw a fresh stream of bright red flowing down her arm once again.

Moving in to take a closer look, he found a shallow, but nasty looking gash on her left shoulder.  Looking over the torn flesh, the Captain prayed it was made by a lizard’s claw, but it was just as likely to have been made by his own bullet.

He tried to ignore that thought as he moved to treat her last wound.  Once that was done, he tried to help the woman to her feet.  Somewhat unsuccessfully.  The injury in her thigh made it hard to take weight on her right foot and he had to support her.

Lending her his shoulder, he asked, “Is there anyone else in the house?”

“My husband is on patrol,” the woman answered with a shake of her head. Her face was still pale and her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, but she was cogent now.  “Thank you… for saving me…”

As the woman looked to the floor, the Captain turned his attention to the exit.  He was already worrying about how to help her all the way to the trucks.  Fending off attacks while shouldering her wouldn’t be easy.

As the pair hobbled out of the kitchen from the door the Captain had used to enter, they were greeted with a hastily pointed gun barrel.  The Captain batted away the ancient firearm by reflex before looking into the face of his new attacker.  The scared, hyper vigilant, young face of a teenage boy.  The suddenly very surprised and apologetic face.

“I’m sorry,  ummm…” the familiar young watchman attempted to apologize for almost killing them both, but the words seemed to stick in his throat.

The Captain didn’t worry about that and simply strode forward, depositing the woman on the boy’s shoulder.  The kid stumbled slightly before catching himself and nodding at his new duty.  The pair started discussing something between themselves, but the Captain didn’t focus on that as he led them out of the house.

The village proper was still loud and smelled of gunpowder, blood, and beast.  Not a good mixture, but a familiar one.  As they moved towards the garage the boy had pointed out before, they were attacked a few times, but it was nothing the Captain couldn’t handle.  It seemed like the bulk of the lizard pack’s attention was focused on the chaotic battle of the remaining watchmen.  Whether that meant fleeing from it or participating in it.

Once the three of them moved out of the last line of huts and entered Lotus’s line of sight the Captain felt comfortable leaving the two civilians.  The boy seemed concerned, but the Captain explained they’d be fine.  Then he headed back towards the still occupied houses.  One had already been broken into, the rest would be a matter of time.  The pack was only getting more restless.

The Captain went to a few of the houses in hopes of persuading them to evacuate.  They wouldn’t even respond to his calls, however.  Not a single word.  They could’ve been uninhabited, but it was just as likely that it was his unfamiliar voice that dissuaded them.

With that in mind, he shifted his focus.  Instead, he moved to the homes which had doors or walls at their breaking point.  He could at least keep the casualties down until people were in the mood to listen.

While the Captain was standing in front of a particularly ramshackle cabin, shooting at any lizards that looked ready to smash into it, the young watchman returned.  He was still pale, and a bit uncertain in his gate.  However, he held his rifle with the determination to use it.  Not a bad kid by the Captain’s estimation.

With the boy here, they could actually make some progress.  The men and women hiding in their homes answered to the familiar, if quavering, voice of the youngster.  Like that, they were able to set up a consistent flow of people from the village square to the trucks.

There was a bit of a hiccup when the other watchmen gave up on fighting the lizard horde.  Limping back to their homes in search of shelter or supplies, they found an armed stranger.  Of course the wouldn’t take that well.  Thankfully, those who could fight were busy supporting the ones that couldn’t and the boy managed to step forward before anyone could change that.

Without firing a shot, the men, if a bit warily, joined the evacuation effort.  From there, things progressed quickly.  The Captain, the boy, and the four watchmen that could still walk on their own protected the villagers as they moved themselves and their belongings onto the trucks.

After less than an hour, the first truck had already been loaded and left.  The second was close to half full and the village looked almost entirely empty.  Even the villagers, who were intimately familiar with all their fellow residents, found it hard to keep a head count in the chaos.  However, they’d gone through every house and it was all empty.

The Captain returned to the village square for one last check before sending off the last truck.  As he moved through the village that was home only to confused lizards, the Captain maintained his vigilance and didn’t move his hand from his rifle’s grip.

At least half of the flock had been killed by now and they were beginning to disperse and take shelter in the shadows of the houses.  However, he knew these were the times when people died.  After everything was over and they let their guards down.  He’d seen too many good people, both knights and mercenaries, go down to enemies that were supposed to be dead.

Moving between the houses that were growing increasingly silent, something pulled at him from the corner of his eye.  Turning towards the brief flash of movement, the Captain found nothing.  Nothing, except for the large, concrete structure that sat in the middle of the village.  As with all its similar brethren, it looked less like a town hall and more like a military emplacement.  A crudely constructed bunker, made with no consideration towards form.

The doors were closed and he was sure someone had already checked it for survivors, but he hadn’t.  stepping up to the doors, he put his hands on the handle and pulled.  Nothing happened, but he didn’t get the ratting of a door bar of a barricade.  He put a little more force and slowly, it began to move.

As the large, wooden door creaked open, the Captain stepped through it.  The grey, concrete interior was with its long, thin hallways was familiar.  Not just because he’d been there a few days before, but because they were all familiar.  As a general rule, frontier villages couldn’t afford to be creative.

Creeping through the narrow choke points of the stronghold, the Captain illuminated every dark corner and crease with his flashlight, but he didn’t see any signs of lizards making it inside.  That was to be expected.  The grupisanths couldn’t make it through the fence without help, they had no chance of crashing their way through feet of reinforced concrete.

The Captain reached the back of the compound without any resistance and found a closed door.  He put his hand on the know without care and started swinging it open.  Then, when he caught the faint light filtering through the crack of the door, he stopped himself.  Releasing the knob, he called out, “Anyone inside!?”

He wasn’t given an immediate answer, but he could barely make out a buzz of whispering from the room in front of him.  Filled with a renewed urgency, he called out again, “They’ve already started the evacuation.  You need to get there quickly, before you’re left behind!”

As the Captain finished his words, the door swung open violently, forcing him to take a step back.  When he found sure footing, he was again greeted with a sight that  was becoming far too familiar as of late.  A small hole with several grooves spiraling into the darkness.  Looking beyond the gun’s well aimed barrel, he found a gnarled index finger, decidedly not resting on the trigger.  At least that was something.

Looking further, past the less-threatening finger, he found a more threatening face that gave the impression of a cranky, suspicious, old tree.  Looking into the village elder’s eyes, the Captain didn’t see any recognition as the elder called out, “Who are you, then?”  Before the Captain could answer, he squinted and frowned before continuing. “That mercenary, then?  What are you here about?”

“Exactly as I said,” the Captain answered, letting his rifle dangle from the strap around his shoulder and holding up his hands. “There’s an evacuation.”

“I can see why,” the old man answered with bitter sarcasm.  “That’s quite the dire bear you have out there.”

“Yes, well…” the Captain faltered for a second as he remembered to come up with an excuse.  “We didn’t think you’d believe a flock of grupisanths could be a threat.”

“You were right about that,” the elder responded slowly, not lowering his weapon.  “I still don’t.”

“You can’t still be saying that,” the Captain said, taking a step forward by instinct as he tried to appeal to the elder.  Then, upon almost colliding with the unwavering gun, he took another step backwards.  “Most of the villagers have already left and your fence is broken.  It’s best to retreat for now.  You can come back later.”

“Unnecessary,” the elder responded shaking his head.  The Captain couldn’t help feeling that the movement should’ve generated a wooded creak.  “Even with these numbers, the lizards have to sleep eventually.  When they do, we can use guerilla attacks to chase them out.  Once that’s done we can repair the fence.  If our people really have headed out, they can return with the supplies for that.”

“And how many people will you lose in the process?”  the Captain asked, staring deep into the old man’s unyielding eyes.

“We won’t lose the village.  Our way of life,” the elder responded firmly.

The Captain gave a bitter frown at that answer.  He tired to come up with a rebuttal, but was interrupted by the sound of gunshots.

They weren’t loud.  All the concrete made it hard for them to be more than sharp whispers.  However, they were audible.  Audible and persistent.  They didn’t stop.  That wasn’t the sound of a couple people chasing off groupies.  It was at least a dozen shooters.  More.  Something was going wrong.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-7

8-7 Diplomacy by Saurian


Standing behind a tree, Edge was staring at the village’s gate.  His vantage point wasn’t great, but he could see the movement of flashlights that signaled the passage of sentries.  There were a lot of them.  They’d passed by his position at least seven times in the last twenty minutes.

“They weren’t lying about reinforcing their patrols,” Lotus observed quietly from beside him.

“All the better for us,” The Captain whispered back with the strong confidence of one encouraging troops.  “We needed the cover of darkness, but making sure everyone woke up and got out was going to be a problem.  We wanted them to be alert.”

“As long as they don’t shoot us at the door,” Lotus responded cynically.

“Aiming a bit high, there,” Edge cut in with a shake of his head. “I think the best we can hope for is that they miss.”

“They aren’t unreasonable,” the Captain rebutted, his face invisible from his hiding place.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about,” Edge rebutted coolly.  It wasn’t unreasonable to assume they were bandits.  Actually, considering their employer’s employer, they were worse than bandits.

“It’s almost time for us to start,” Lotus called out.  Looking up from her watch, she turned her face towards the Grupisanth nest further into the forest.

Edge unconsciously followed her gaze.  However, if there were any columns of smoke rising in the distance, they were completely obscured by trees.  Turning away from there, he looked to the opposite side of the village where Knot and Champ waited in case the lizard herding didn’t go as well as planned.  Finally, he turned his view back to the gate in time to see the glow of another patrol.

As the gently bobbing flashlights drew closer, the Captain let out a deep breath.  Then he said, “Let’s go.”

On that order, all three of them stepped into the open and broke into a run.  This would be their second time trying this same tactic on the same village.  As they neared the chain link gate, Edge just hoped they wouldn’t be talking to the same villagers.

When they first reached the gate, the answer to his prayers was delayed by a blinding light beamed directly into his eye.  As he reflexively threw up his hands to protect his face, the light was followed up by a bellowing shout, “Stop right there!”

Edge did as he was told and presumed his companions did the same.  Then the searing glare died down and Edge lowered his hands to find himself greeted by the barrel of a gun.  As he studied the spirals of the rifling, his body and mind froze up.

He always had this same feeling with staring into the unpleasant side of a gun.  It was like the sensation of someone holding a finger between his eyes, directly above his forehead; except extended all the way through his brain.

As Edge cringed at the brain itch he couldn’t scratch, the Captain spoke up.  “They’re coming.  You need to prepare for evacuation!”

“We’ve already heard about you people,” the gruff voice responded.  “Leave us now, before things have to get bad.”

Forcing himself to look past the gun, Edge found a middle-aged man with greying hair and a sturdy build.  Beside him was what looked like teenage boy.  He had a wiry body made up entirely of joints and was clutching a rifle of his own.  Definitely not the men from before.  His prayer had been answered, though not necessarily in the way he’d wanted.

“Please,” the Captain started.

He was immediately interrupted by the watchman who, in lieu of saying actual words, pointed his gun more intensely.

The group stood in painful silence for a few seconds.  Slowly, a persistent thunder started to grow to fill the void of sound.  As it grew, it started to be undercut by a persistent chirping.  Eventually, the racket couldn’t be ignored and the two watchmen turned back to look towards it.

After another few seconds and another few decibels, the older of the two turned to his young ally and said, “You watch them, don’t let them do anything.  I’ll check it out.”

With that, the middle aged man ran off, leaving the trio with only a teen boy as their guard.  In theory, this was an improvement.  However, the way the boy’s rifle shook ever so slightly made it hard to say that.  Edge felt that he was more likely to be shot by this kid on accident than the angry old man on purpose.

“You can hear it approaching, right?  Your whole village is in danger,” the Captain tried again now that the more composed of the watchmen was gone.

The boy, for his part, said nothing and didn’t move.  He was told to watch them and he wasn’t going to do anything else.  Assuming, at least, that his finger didn’t slip and accidentally kill someone.

In face of his non-response, the Captain made further attempts, but gained just as much ground.  That is, none at all.

After a couple minutes of this past, a crash, that was barely audible over the insistent rumbling and squawking, sounded from their right.  After that, the thunder reached its zenith and the boy started splitting his attention equally between the trio and whatever was happening behind him.

Less than a minute later, the boy peeked nervously over his shoulder to find four lizards, reaching up to his waist, charging towards him. Fast.  The lad’s mouth flapped open a few times in confusion and surprise, but his body moved alright.  He spun around on his heel and his arms did a pantomime of aiming even as his eyes seemed barely present.

Less than a second after moving into a rough firing position, the boy took a shot.  Whether from dumb luck or age-old training, it hit splendidly.  The forerunner of the small lizard squad bent backwards and crumbled to the ground; only to have its body mercilessly trampled by its frantic comrades.

After his first success, the boy took a few more shots.  Whether from bad luck or inexperience, they all missed spectacularly.  Not even a single gash formed in the remaining lizards’ scaly skin.

Then, the boy was overtaken.  The three lizards leapt towards the threat, tackling him to the ground before he could try to run.  As the lizards bent down to try and peck at the boy’s flesh, he desperately tried to fend them off with the body of his rifle.  As he flailed around both stock and barrel, the lizards jumped around in hopes of finding soft skin.

Neither effort mattered much, however.  Once the boy was on the ground, Edge, Lotus, and the Captain all had clear lines of fire.  As soon as the boy had turned away, they’d readied their weapons.  Now they each squeezed their triggers a few times.  A small maelstrom of bullets crashed into the lizards, ripping apart their fragile flesh and breaking their thin bones.

Even after his attackers collapsed dead on top of him, the boy continued flailing wildly with is eyes shut tight.  After a few seconds, he seemed to recognize that the oppressive weight covering him wasn’t moving like before.  Then he hesitantly opened his eyes and forced himself to his feet.

After carefully studying the dead lizards on the ground, the boy slowly turned back towards the team.  Upon finding three gun barrels pointed at him, he froze.  For a moment, his arms wavered, as he clearly considered putting them at gun point again like he was supposed to. He seemed to take that as a bad idea, however, and instead raised his hands to the sky.

In response, Edge gave a relieved smile and lowered his gun.  It was the obvious choice for the kid to make, but in tight spots, people had a way of being dumb.

Lowering his own weapon, the Captain said, “I think it’s obvious you’re in a crisis.  Maybe you should open the gate so we can help?”

The boy hesitated for a moment.  Then he looked at the guns that were now safely pointed to the earth.  Then he looked back at the small pile of dead lizards.  Finally, he gave a small nod and moved to deactivate the electricity.

As soon as the gate was rattled open, the Edge, Lotus, and the Captain all rushed through and past the young, overwhelmed watchman.  As they moved, the Captain looked back to the frozen boy and called out, “You have trucks for moving goods, right?  Where are they?”

“Y-yeah, two,” the boy answered, looking about as shock as if the Captain had actually tried to shoot at him.  “They’re at an open garage on the north side of the village.

Edge tried to ignore the fearful quaver in the boy’s voice and turned his attention northward.  The directions weren’t complicated.  There was a straight path from the gate, wide enough for a truck to pass.  The garage itself was rendered invisible by the darkness, but he could assume it’d be there.

“Good,” the Captain responded with an excessively reassuring smile towards the boy.  Then he turned his attention to his own people.  “Edge, Lotus.  You go prep the trucks for evacuation.  Make sure everything is in place and the people we bring there get organized.   Kid, you’re going to help me find people to take there.”

The boy’s lips pursed in uncertainty, but, after a few seconds, he gave a nod and broke away to lead the Captain further into the village.

After watching the two depart, Edge and Lotus turned down the village’s only proper road.  Edge intended to move quickly and decisively, but he immediately found that to be impossible.  As they approached the first few huts of the village, they encountered nothing, but chaos.

Things had just started and most of the villagers seemed to be locking themselves inside their homes.  At the moment, this was working for them as the rampaging grupisanths had yet to break down many doors.  With few people present, it was yet to become a scene of hell, but navigation was impossible.  Hundreds of waist high lizards milled about the center of town, forming a large, scaly carpet over the whole area.

Pushing forward, Edge and Lotus did their best to kill as few as possible.  The lizards were inside the village, but there still needed to be enough to convince its inhabitants to run.  They only fired their guns when absolutely necessary.  Mostly, kicking aside the arrant lizards that got too close.

Grupisanths were only slightly higher on the food chain than kobolds and goblins.  They weren’t the kind to willingly attack veteran mercenaries.  That being said, they weren’t in their normal state of mind.  Even upon seeing Edge and Lotus, several decided to charge rather than flee.

By the time they arrived at the open garage, they’d been forced to kill half a dozen of the tiny raptors.  The garage itself amounted to nothing but a roof held up by several vertical poles, but they didn’t have time to be disappointed.  They immediately shifted their focus to readying the trucks for departure.

As could be expected from somewhere like this, the trucks were left unlocked with the keys in the ignition.  A place like this, theft is the absolute last of your worries.  Bringing one of the trucks roaring into life, Edge checked that the fuel tank was full before shutting it off again.

Stepping out of the truck’s cab, Edge met up with Lotus and headed for a small shed attached to the garage and rummaged around for supplies.  Neither of them having lived in a village or prepared one for evacuation, they grabbed whatever looked useful.  Tools, extra fuel cans, most of the contents of the small shed.  After laying their selections on the ground in front of the shed, they started dividing them between the two trucks.

This wasn’t as easy a task as it might sound.  A village like this didn’t have the luxury of extra supplies, so most resources came in units of one.  How were you supposed to know which truck would need the jack and which would need the tire iron?

Leaving such questions more to chance than reason, they were almost done with the task when they were called to a halt by a voice. “Who are you?  What are you doing?”

Almost entirely by instinct, Edge reacted by drawing the rifle from his back and turning towards the voice.  Out the corner of his eye he could see Lotus doing the same.

Standing in the way of their, not entirely intentional, hostility, was a tall, vaguely muscular, man.  In his hands he held an old rifle that looked to be a hand-me-down from some grandfather’s military service.  On his face, he held fast to an expression of indignant rage.

Looking him over, Edge immediately remembered where they were and why they might be called out.  He lowered his rifle by a few inches and tried to give a calm response, “We’re mercenaries.  We’re here to help.”

“You think I’m going to take you at your word?”  The man gave an easy rebuttal.

“If we were bandits or something, wouldn’t we have just shot you already?”  Edge responded with a shrug.  “We have you outnumbered and our equipment is more than a little better.”

The man pursed his lips, but he didn’t shout Edge down.  A good sign.

“We don’t have time to shout at or shoot at each other,” Edge continued, riding the feeling of progress.  “Gather whatever you can take with you.  You need to prepare for evacuation.”

“Evacuation?!”  The man called back, seeming to forget his other suspicions for a moment.  “Who’s going to evacuate?  We can kill a few lizards!”

“Putting aside what you’re listening to right now,” Edge shouted over the continual sounds of two hundred monsters screeching in fear and excitement.  “Your fence has already been broken.  This place isn’t safe anymore.  You need to evacuate.  For at least a month until you can gather the resources to rebuild.”

The man bit his lip in bitter frustration.  Then he frowned and narrowed his eyes suspiciously.  “How can I know you aren’t just trying to get us to load our valuables into the trucks to make them easier to steal.”

Having assumed that not shooting the guy immediately was proof enough of their benevolence, Edge simply blinked at the question in surprise.  After a few seconds, he slowly stammered, “I-I guess you can’t…”

Edge and the man stared into one another’s eyes for a while before their standoff was interrupted by two overwhelming gunshots which echoed out from behind them.  Turning around, Edge found Lotus standing with her rifle firmly pressed to her shoulder.  Following the line of its barrel, he found the corpses of two grupisanths.  One of them still had its foot caught in a truck’s wheel well and was dangling over the tire.

Seeing that sight, Edge was filled with the confidence of one reminded his place in life.  Turning back to the man, Edge declared, “If you’re that concerned about it, then you be in charge here. We’re just going to kill the lizards that get too close.”

The man looked at Edge and Lotus, then back towards the chaos of the village that was growing louder by the minute.  Finally, he lowered his gun and moved to the pile of mismanaged resources.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-6

8-6  Up in Smoke


Cauliflower frowned into the deep shadows of the forest.  It’d been a few hours since that trio of idiots came to pick a fight, but she still felt that frustrated tension running through her arms and legs.  Probably because she was held back from giving them what they wanted and breaking the head idiot’s bulbous nose.

She threw her arms through the air a few times to work out those feelings, but then immediately stopped herself.  She couldn’t risk accidentally dropping the awkwardly broad can she was clutching in her left hand.  The odds were low, but if it landed wrong and got set off… well, she didn’t want to be the one getting that lecture.

Carefully bringing her arms to a standstill, she lazily stretched her legs.  As she felt that tantalizing sensation that wavered between pain and pleasure spread through her muscles, she turned her attention to her left.  There, she found the Newbie’s little chipmunk face.  Today, as most days, he was being a concerned chipmunk.  First he’d look down at the cannister he clutched in both hands, then he’d turn his attention to the path that they’d already traced out four times today.

Looking at that brought a smile to her face and warmth to her heart.  Something about his little worried face was so calming.  It was like it reminded her of… well, nothing.  She couldn’t remember being or dealing with anyone so innocent.  It made her want to poke him.

“Don’t trip,” Cauliflower stopped her stretching to advise the boy who was still carefully reviewing the route they’d be fleeing down.  “They might be small, but you’ll probably be a little crippled if you get trampled by all of them.”

Her words forced the Newbie’s attention over towards Cauliflower.  He stared into her face for a few seconds, then he gave her a solemn nod, as if accepting what she’d given as sage advice from a senior.

She almost laughed at that attitude.  Almost.  Instead, she gave him a smile and asked, “Do you remember what we’re supposed to do?”

“Run,” the Newbie answered, actually meeting her gaze for the first time.  “Even I can remember that much.”

“Close enough,” Cauliflower responded with a shrug.  She wanted to tease him more, but, looking down at her watch, it was getting close to time.

She carefully patted her thigh to feel the second cannister that could barely fit into her pocket. Then she looked into the dark hole in the earth which was almost rendered invisible by the night’s darkness.  Then she reached up to pull the pin on her smoke grenade.  A task made uncomfortably difficult by the thick leather gloves she was forced to wear.

After the fourth attempt of getting the large, awkward fingers through the pin’s ring, she gave up and pit the tip of the glove, tearing it from her hand.  Holding the glove in her mouth, she yanked the pin from the grenade.  It immediately started to hiss, spewing out a column of grey smoke.

Before the smoke could make its way into her lungs, Cauliflower tossed the grenade down the hole and pulled the second from her pocket.  Holding the grenade in her still gloved hand, she waited.  For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Then, the air filled with an urgent chorus.

They sounded like chirps, or maybe barks.  Each one a small cry, but together, they overwhelmed Cauliflower’s ears so she thought she may be unable to hear anything else again.  Hurriedly, she put her finger in the pin of the new grenade and prepared to pull it.

As she waited for the first of the swarm to emerge, she looked across from her at the Newbie.  It was an arrant glance, but what she saw caught her eye and pulled at her attention.  There, in the barely visible light of the moon, the Newbie was standing, staring off into nothing.

His mind looked even farther away than hers when she was actually hurling it out into the wilderness. Seeing this, Cauliflower unconsciously cupped her free hand around her mouth as she tried to shout to him.

She didn’t pay particular attention to what she was saying.  It might not have been words.  Even she couldn’t hear herself over the overwhelming wave of chirps that was quickly approaching from underground.

After her third attempt to overcome the noise, Cauliflower gave up.  Instead she turned her attention towards her feet.  After a few seconds of searching the needle strewn ground, she reached down to grab a fallen branch.  She barely even noticed its unpleasant dampness as she toon the stick in her hand and hurled it at the Newbie.

The branch swung end over end until it struck the Newbie squarely in the arm.  The shock immediately recalled his attention.  He spun around, searching desperately for his assailant.  After half a second, he saw the stick and remembered his situation.

As the first tyiny, lizard head emerged from the earth, the Newbie put his finger through his grenade’s pin.  Then, they both pulled and the Newbie’s figure vanished behind a billowing, grey cloud.

Whatever was happening over there, Cauliflower had no way of knowing, so she put it out of her mind.  Instead, she focused her attention on not noticing the smell.  No matter how much Lotus assured her otherwise, Cauliflower knew the smoke had to be toxic.  It smelled toxic.  Acrid.  Chemical.

As she started to run, Cauliflower pulled the front of her shirt up over her nose and mouth.  It didn’t do much, but it made her feel better.  It also undercut the toxic smoke with the scent of her own sweat, which… might’ve been better?

As Cauliflower worried about how many growths she was developing in her lungs, the thundering of a hundred footsteps sounded out from her left.  It kept apace with her, or more like, prepared to overtake her.

She couldn’t keep being distracted.  Still trying to ration her breaths as best she could, she accelerated.  At least that was easy enough.  They’d rehearsed this jog too many times for her to get tripped up and run into a tree.

It was another ten minutes from there, running alongside the yipping stampede of lizards.  Holding out her can of smoke and trying to keep her head turned away from it as much as possible.  Probably one of the least comfortable sprints in her life.  Certainly, if you only included those where nothing was trying to eat her.

At the end of it, something came into her sight.  Light.  Lights, plural. Though, each one was faint enough that they could be aggregated into one and referred to in the singular.  It was the first signs of finding a village at night.  People trying to solve the complex problem of keeping watch through the darkness while remaining as inconspicuous as they could.

Catching sight of that, Cauliflower’s heart lightened and the discomfort that had accumulated in her joints fled her.  She charged forward.  Within the next minute, or a period of time that felt as short, she reached the tree-line.  Then she stopped and released her grenade.

She stepped aside, away from the smoke, and waited.  A few seconds later, they burst out of the trees and entered her view.  Still thundering along with the combined force of almost two hundred, the pack of tiny lizards entered the clearing as a torrent.  They were a pack, three abreast and dozens deep, that extended back into the obscuring cloud of smoke.

The lizards were wild and terrified, thinking of nothing, but escaping in a straight line.  A line that led them straight into the shoddy wire fence.  The first to strike was either too light or too unlucky.  It ran into the metal wiring and stuck there.  Its body, wrapped by the electric current, gave some small, but rapid, convulsions.  Mostly, however, it burned.  As a faint steam arose from the pitiful lizard’s bulging eyes, the air filled with the smell of charred flesh.  It was even worse than the smoke, but it was less pungent and within seconds a faint breeze carried it away.

The next three lizards to reach the fence didn’t have the time to learn from their ally’s mistake.  Their feet had already carried them beyond the point of no return.  The second lizard was jolted when he hit the metal and immediately jumped back, only to be knocked down and trampled by his allies behind.  The third and fourth struck a weakened section of fence together and broke through.

The little groupies may have been in a frenzy from the idea of a fire, but they were still small monsters living in a forest.  That meant a lot of running and specifically, running between trees.  They were good at maneuvering around obstacles.  Now that one hole had been made, they all moved through it.  Almost like water flowing around a stone… but, opposite.

Pulling the binoculars from off her chest, Cauliflower was barely able to follow the parade of lizards as they continued through the dim light of the village.  Once past the fence, the continued forward.  Rampaging and eating humans wasn’t their goal.  Not tonight.  It was escape.  They’d continue running until something in their lizard brain told them they were safe.  Whatever that would be.

Not that there would be anything to tell them that now.  Rushing forward in a straight line, their path took them to the other side of the fence.  This time, it wasn’t intentionally weakened for lizard accessibility.

Cauliflower watched in perverse fascination as their vanguard struck the fence once again.  Several bounced off, a few were fried, and a few were trampled.  Then the crowd as a whole turned, flowing to the right to find a path around the fence.  In a few seconds, they’d encounter another dead end.  Then, chaos would reign.  Their tiny brains wouldn’t come up with the solution of returning through the hole they’d come in.  Not in their panic.  Instead, without direction, they’d break apart and rampage.

Seeing this all happening, Cauliflower started to worry about her own interest.  It probably wasn’t normal to be this keen in her observation of the destruction of a town.  However, she couldn’t look away.  It was the first time she’d actually been able to impartially witness something like this.

Usually mercenaries arrived days or weeks after a monster attack.  Even cases like the Newbie’s, where there are survivors left to find, are the exceptions.  On the few occasions that she was in a village when it got attacked, her attention was a little more focused on her work.   She really felt like there was something to learn from seeing this.  She just couldn’t put her finger on what.

As Cauliflower was considering her own thoughts, the tail end of the stampede past by her.  A few seconds later, a singular pair of footsteps approached her from the left.  She immediately spun around to see what it was and found the Newbie waving his hands and coughing as he moved through the smoke.

Once he was a few feet out from the thick cloud, he bent over and braced his hands against his knees to force out the last traces of the smog.

“Good to see you didn’t fall and hurt yourself,” Cauliflower declared as a helpful greeting.

“I said before, even I can run,” the Newbie complained between wretches and hacks.

Cauliflower simply nodded at that and prepared to return her attention back to the village.  Then something pulled at her and she stopped herself.  Instead, she asked, “You can handle a lot, but you can’t handle paying attention to such an easy job?”

The Newbie looked up and met her eyes.  Then his face turned sheepish and he immediately looked away.  “Sorry…”  He almost whispered, not offering an excuse.

“I got to throw something at you, so it’s fine,” Cauliflower forgave him dubiously, offering a shrug.  “What got you so distracted all the sudden, anyway?”

The Newbie frowned.  Then he gave a shrug of his own.  “I don’t know.  I just felt really bad for a moment.”

“Are you getting sick?”  Cauliflower asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously as she took a step backwards.  Catching something in the wilderness was a few degrees separated from pleasant.

“Not that,” the Newbie answered, rapidly shaking his head.  “More of an ominous feeling.  I can’t put my finger on it.  Like I was missing something really important.”

Cauliflower frowned at him for a few moments.  Then she shook her head and returned her attention to the village as the sounds of gunshots pealed through the night.  It wasn’t strange for him to be having a bad feeling.  He was about to help terrorize a bunch of innocent villagers out of their homes.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-5

Sorry for the late/missed posts.  Been a little busy and then I had to drive to oklahoma.  I should return to the normal schedule next week… or so I say now…

8-5  Day Trip into the Realm of the Dead


Standing on the border of their camp, Knot looked back at his tent one last time.  He liked the idea of sleeping right about now.  That, or eating, or drinking.  Just about anything other than what he was about to do.

“You ready?” Champ asked from beside him, standing tall and straight.  Probably coming as close as he could to the adjective, ‘official.’

“Let’s go,” Knot answered, not letting the sigh seep into his voice.

The two stepped forward towards the large encampment of the army proper.  As he moved, Knot instinctively hunched his back and bent his shoulders forward in a hope of making himself smaller.  He was certain it didn’t work, but he felt too noticeable, otherwise.

He really wasn’t suited for this.  Anyone else would be better.  Anyone else who wasn’t Cauliflower.  It was the curse of coming up with an idea.  He said the words, so he was the first choice to execute them.

Looking over at Champ, Knot could see the same feeling of general discomfort sprawled across his face.  Then didn’t know what they were doing.  Their only hope was that, as long as they injected an intense purpose into every footstep, no one would dare question what they were doing.  In theory, all you needed to properly steal from someone was enough confidence.  That’s what con-men were all about.

As much as he told himself that, Knot’s heart clouded with a murky trepidation the second he crossed the barely organized line of tents.  Taking a few, slightly mechanical, steps forward, neither Knot, nor Champ were immediately tackled to the ground.

That gave them both the microscopic dose of confidence they desperately needed.  They took a few more steps and found themselves staring directly into the face of a soldier.  Almost certainly a soldier.  He was wearing the green uniform that signaled San Ranto’s complete lack of preparation for a winter campaign.  At that moment, he was sitting in front of a sagging, olive tent and doing nothing in particular.  In his hand, he held a poorly fashioned pipe that still had a small line of smoke rising from it.

The soldier’s eyes met Knot’s and a spear of anxiety shot through Knot’s core.  He was certain they’d been found.  Any moment the man would call for his companions and they’d be kicked out of the camp, or worse.  As Knot worried over that, they both continued to stare at each other.  Time passed and nothing happened.  The area remained silent.  Strangely silent, in fact.

That was when Knot realized how much that should bother him.  Most of these soldiers were drafted from ordinary civilians.  At most, they received a couple weeks of rough training.  They weren’t disciplined or professional.  That itself was proven by the drunken stragglers who would still occasionally  wander over to harass their mercenary neighbors.  Yet, there was nothing.  Now sounds of revelry or brawling.  The sun still hung directly above them.  Maybe it was too early for anyone to be properly tanked, but still.

Breaking eye contact with the soldier, Knot moved forward.  Not a sound was made as they moved through the smoky musk that surrounded the tent.  Then they were free and Knot’s chest filled with a sense of freedom.  That energy that comes from knowing you’re unobstructed.

Both Knot and Champ strode on with a renewed purpose and clarity as few of the soldiers they passed even bothered to acknowledge their existence.

“Pretty lax, aren’t they?”  Champ leaned in to whisper, not stopping his feet.

“It’s like they don’t care about anything,” Knot agreed with a barely noticeable nod.

“I guess they have other things to worry about,” Champ responded with a shrug.  “Can’t think of a single war, no matter how small, where either side made it through without casualties.”

“Getting dragged into that can give you some perspective,” Knot responded quickly.

Even as he said the words, he privately contradicted them.  Not everyone responded to the same situation in the same way.  If a third of people got quiet and lethargic, another third would be boisterous and obnoxious and the last third would do something completely unpredictable.

The camp as a whole was too uniform.  So depressed that the excitement of success was even being leeched from Knot’s bones just by being here.  It was like more than half the soldiers were dead on their feet.  Too unnatural.

Well, whatever draconian punishments were being handed down to reduce morale this much, it didn’t matter.  It simply made their job easier.

Trying to shake off his curiosity and uneasiness, Knot moved towards the heart of lower-class soldier’s camp.  There, he found several trucks whose large beds were covered by canvas awnings.  Standing in front of their open backs was a solitary guard.

A normal soldier, like the rest, the guard was only slightly more alert than the dozens of zombies the pair had passed to get here.  The only major point to differentiate this guard from the rest was the assault rifle he had resting on his shoulder.

As soon as they noticed this new threat, Knot and Champ crouched down behind an unoccupied tent to observe his movements.  Much to their chagrin, there were none.  He wasn’t on patrol, he simply stood there.  After a couple minutes, he yawned.  He was the picture of inattentive, but if they walked up and stole from the trucks, even he would probably have a few questions.

“We’re going to need a distraction,” Knot whispered to Champ out of the corner of his mouth.  “Any ideas?”

Champ squinted at the guard for a moment.  Then he nodded to himself confidently and said, “I’ll do it.”

As Champ stood up and started towards the guard, Knot harshly whispered after him, “Do what?  What are you-?”  Then, as Champ grew too far away to hear, he gave up and warily watched what was to come.

When Champ stepped into the open section of grass before the supply trucks, the Guard looked over him lazily and asked, “What are you doing here?”  He didn’t even bother bringing the gun down from his shoulder to offer any kind of implied threat.  Apparently, even that small movement was too much effort.

Sauntering towards the guard, Champ didn’t show any concern towards the armed man’s question and simply smiled.  When he was within a few paces of the guard, he smoothly answered with a question, “Are you looking to have a good time tonight?  Not a lot of options for entertainment around here.”

The guard looked Champ up and down again, his eyes finally settling on Champ’s smile.  “With you, no thanks.  Head for greener pastures.  I’m on duty.”

While the guard took that duty about as seriously as he would take the homophone of the word, he seemed to find it a suitable excuse to get out of something he liked even less.

In spite of the guard’s brush off, Champ didn’t stop smiling and continued.  “Well, maybe you could point me towards those greener pastures?  Give me some names that might be more interested?”

The guard’s eyes visibly wavered.  He wasn’t in the mood to be propositioned by another man, but gossiping would pass the time.  He looked Champ over for a third time.  Then he frowned and asked, “I haven’t seen you around, and those clothes.  You one of those mercenaries?”  As he awaited Champ’s response, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously and took a step back.

“That I am,” Champ answered, turning his palms up helplessly.  “But you know, despite that, I think we can become friends.  When mercenaries meet up with friends, we reminisce over wine and ale.  Something of a tradition.”

Upon hearing Champ’s last words, the man’s eyes immediately lit up and he quickly asked, “You have wine?”

Champ put on a more innocent smile than a man of his stature should be able to wear and asked, “You don’t?”

In response to the question, the tip of the guard’s boot started gouging a hole in the grassy carpet.  Looking down at the dirt he started kicking up, his face turned sour, like he’d just swallowed a bug.  “Only the knights.  All we get is watered down grain alcohol some of the guys smuggled in.  Tastes like a demon’s ass and they charge for that pleasure.”

“I see.  I think I can help a close friend out, there,” Champ responded, his smile broadening until it took up his whole face.  “Now, about those pastures you mentioned.”

As the guard put on a smile of his own, Champ moved to stand beside the man.  As the guard’s head naturally turned to follow his new friend, he was left completely oblivious of what was happening on his right side.

Using that opportunity, Knot crept out from behind the tent and slipped into one of the open trucks.  The inside was dark and filled with the rankly sweet smell of dirt.  Probably coming from the pile of foldable shovels thrown in the corner.  They hadn’t even bothered wiping the brown clods from the blades before tossing them in.

As Knot shook his head at that, he pawed through the boxes and crates that were piled up and strapped down on either side of him.  Mostly, he found packages of terrible, dehydrated food.  Bad by design, so soldiers wouldn’t get too greedy over it.  After a few crates, he found several boxes of shotgun shells.  As  matter of course, he retrieved a few of the waxy tubes and forced them into his pockets.

Then, he heard Champ’s voice calling from outside, “That can’t be all!  You’ve got to give me something to go on.  An entry point.”

“There’s only so much I can know about any give soldier here,” the guard’s voice filtered in through the canvas of the truck.

Hearing that, Knot’s heart accelerated in his chest and his mind was set on fire.  He closed the crate of ammo and desperately searched for anything else that might look useful a tool box, anything, but all he found were non-descript crates.

Desperately, he tore through them, tossing aside rations and ammunition until his hand finally closed on what looked to be a blow torch.  Holding it up to his face, he tried to decide on whether it could be considered good enough.  Probably too conspicuous for their needs, but in a pinch…

As Knot debated with himself, he heard the guard outside declare, “I’ve given you all I can.  If my commander comes by and sees us talking, I’ll have hell to pay.”

“I guess so,” Champ answered loudly, clearly ensuring his voice would make it into the truck’s interior.  “Just let me tell you how to find me.  After what you’ve given me, I can’t give you nothing in return.”

Cursing under his breath, Knot held fast onto the blow torch and ran out of the truck. After he made it into the light of day, he quickly ducked behind the truck away from the guard.  As he heard Champ and the guard give their final farewells, he crept around the outside of the truck to avoid getting spotted.

As his hands guided him along the cold metal of the truck’s body, they bumped into something hard and rubbery.  It jutted out from the truck strangely and that forced Knot’s attention down to it.  What he found, hanging off a series of metal brackets, was what looked to be a massive pair of metal sheers.

Looking down at the bolt cutters, Knot closed his eyes for a few seconds.  He couldn’t exactly place what he was feeling at that moment, but it was somewhere near the intersection of exasperation and relief.  Quickly resting the bolt cutters from their hiding place, Knot circumnavigated the trucks and moved to meet up with Champ.

Before Champ could ask about them, Knot held up the bolt cutters in triumph and Champ’s look of mild worry departed in favor of a grin.

“Thanks for the help back there,” Knot whispered with a bow of his head.

“I was pretty handy, wasn’t I,” Champ bragged with a smile as they started walking back towards camp.  “Not that I can complain.  I got some good information out of that.”

Knot looked into Champ’s excited face.  Then he closed his eyes and asked, “So you’re planning on sleeping with the enemy?”

“Not exactly our enemies,” Champ corrected with an expression fit for sophistry.  “More like, enemy adjacent.”

“Don’t make things more complicated,” Knot cautioned, though he didn’t have much faith in his own words.  It didn’t matter what he said at this point, nothing would change.

“Things are always simple with me,” Champ responded with a grin that confirmed Knot’s worries.

Knot shook his head at that and pressed forward.  Their return trip through the camp of living corpses was as easy as their first.  In the beginning, Knot was nervous about the huge cutter in his hands.  It stood out too well.  He considered hiding it under his shirt or something, but the shape was too awkward for that.  It was better to simply act like nothing was wrong.

Again, that worked too well.  No one asked questions.  Most of the soldiers didn’t even recognize his presence.  Moving between the tents, they seemed to reek of despair, though it was probably the smell of rehydrated meal packs.

With the border of the army’s territory in sight, they sped up into what was coming dangerously close to a jog.  As Knot rounded a corner behind one of the tents, he felt something crash into his chest, followed by a soft thud in the dirt ahead of him.

Rubbing what wouldn’t quite become a bruise on his left breast, Knot looked down at whatever had struck him. There, he saw a scrawny man, wrapped in soldier’s fatigues, scrambling to get on his feet.  When he finally pushed himself to his full height, he stared into Knot’s face with a look of sour wrath.  The total effect gave him the feeling of a infuriated teen.  Just inexperienced enough to feel comedic, but just immature enough to be dangerous.

One glimpse of that expression and Knot recognized the man.  He hadn’t been keeping track of their encounters, but this wasn’t less than the fourth.  Looking past the man, Knot found the two partners in crime not far behind.

The three soldiers who so loved to pick fights with Cauliflower glared at Knot and Champ together.  As they did, Knot surreptitiously hid the bolt cutters behind his back.

“Watch where you’re going,” the leading man spat angrily as he looked over Knot’s non-standard uniform.  “Or did you want to come pick a fight?  When I’m surrounded by my allies!?”

As the man shouted the last line, he searched his surroundings for support, but only received it from the two behind him.  His other ‘allies’ barely bothered looking up from their rehydrated slop.

Seeing this, the man’s haughty attitude faltered somewhat and Champ stepped forward to press him further.  “I wouldn’t mind rolling around for a bit, but only if you’re ready to take responsibility.”

“For what?”  The man asked, trying to remain confident, but he couldn’t hide the tinge of worry in his eyes. They were in the army camp.  If they were moving at the request of any of the officers and he delayed them, it’d be his head.

“You look like strapping lads,”  Champ responded with an easy smile.  “If we got hurt, we’d need some people to stand in for us.  You know, during the next monster attack.  I’m sure you’d be fine at that, though.”

Hearing that, the man’s eyes went wide. He looked at Champ, then at Knot, then back towards the mercenary’s camp he’d been retreating from.  Then he narrowed his eyes into a glare before declaring, “We don’t have time for this!”

Following his shout, the three soldiers stomped off, trying desperately to look undefeated.

After watching them go, Knot and Champ turned to look at each other.  Then Champ shook his head and said, “Looks like Cauliflower’s going to be in a mood again.”

“Either way, we should hurry back,” Knot replied.


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Lead vs Fantasy 8-4

8-4  Sounds like Something.


After leading the team through the forest, Cauliflower stopped in front of a small hole in the ground.  It descended at a slight angle into the earth and was about large enough for her to slide into.  Though, once she was inside the small cavern below, she’d probably have to crawl on her belly.  Plus, she’d come out covered in those hairy kind of roots that liked to cover themselves in roots before clinging to you.

“What is it?”  The Captain asked, looking into the immediate darkness of the hole’s opening.

“It’s what we found,” Champ answered, staring into the hole and decisively not looking into anyone else’s eyes.

“What is it,” Edge stated, then he sighed, shook his head and asked, “How bad is it?”

“This place is terrible for this,” Cauliflower complained, pursing her lips in frustration at the world.  “I understand that a lot of monsters hibernate around here, but even considering that, we don’t have a lot of options.”

She couldn’t definitively say why the forest had so few monster nests in it, but she suspected it was tied to all the strange things they’d been finding lately.  If her neighbor was a bizarre electric mouse, she’d move too.

“How bad is it, then?”  The Captain asked, looking up from the hole and running his fingers through his snowy hair.  “A snake?  That diameter, it’d be hard to pretend that a mercenary band couldn’t deal with it.”

“They’re groupies,” Cauliflower answered, kicking a few clods of dirt into the darkness of the burrow.

“Grupisanths,” Knot explained, brushing aside a small pile of leaves to reveal the corpse of a lizard.

It was small by monster standards, maybe a third the height of a person, and had a thin neck leading to a small head.  It was bipedal, but in no way humanoid.  Its body more resembled the large raptors one might find on the wide plains at the center of the continent.  Though it lacked any of the terrifying ferocity of its larger cousin.  It could almost be called cute, saving the viscious wound that’d been dug into its neck.  Though, the better word for it was probably ‘weak.’  It was small, weak, and pathetic.

“Grupisanths…” Lotus echoed the word, looking down at the lizard, her cool, composed eyes dripping with disappointment and derision.

“This is what we have?” Edge asked, nudging the lizard’s small, clawed foot with the toe of his boot.  “How is it that our ranger friend can keep us on our toes with new monstrosities ever day, but all we can scrounge up are a bunch of rat lizards?”

“This isn’t all we have, it’s the best of what we have,” Cauliflower answered defensively.  “We went through a lot of worse stuff to get here.”

“Show me the options,” Edge responded, rounding on Cauliflower with an incredulous stare.  “What is worse than this?”

“Well, there’s a family of those swoopy squirrels that breathe tiny fire,” Champ shouted, his frustration pointed more at the situation than anyone in particular.  “You know, the ones that people used to keep in cages to light their stoves.  You want to go with that?”

“Other than that there’s a dryad further in,” Knot declared his characteristically dry tone undercut by the deep exhaustion worn into his face. “If we lead everyone to her, she could be dangerous.  Also, a juvenile rocket porcupine that will probably starve to death before spring without its pack.”

“At least the gliding squirrels would make it over the fence,” Edge muttered, followed by a bitter sigh.

“How many are there?” The Captain asked, looking back down into the burrow with a contemplative frown.

“Over one hundred, probably closer to two,” Cauliflower answered dutifully, following his gaze.

“So many…” Lotus whispered in shock.

“How the hell…”  Edge started, then he shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter, it’s not enough.”

“Two hundred is more than enough to tear a village to hell, no matter how well armed the villagers are,” Champ argued, taking a step forward.  Then he looked down at the small, lizard corpse and hesitated before adding, “They’re just a bunch of farmers, after all.”

“It doesn’t matter how much damage they can do if they can’t get through the fence,” Edge responded, not backing down.  “It may be weak, but it’s still electric.  Even if two hundred are attacking, it’ll be about twenty at the front that hit the fence first.  Probably around four or five will die from that and the other fifteen will learn not to touch the fence.  Then the whole pack avoids it.  They’re bottom feeders.  If they encounter something dangerous, they run away.”

“Then we just need to help them through it,” Cauliflower declared with a shrug as she tried to think of what that might entail.  Maybe a ramp?  Or explosives.  Most problems could be solved by explosives.  One way or another.

“We could try equipping them with something…” The Newbie threw out his idea as he scratched at the underside of his lip.  “Like armor or something?”

“And where would we get that?” Knot asked, raising one questioning eyebrow.

“We could make it…?”  The Newbie answered, seeming unconfident in his own response.  “We’re surrounded with wood… so we could… carve it…”  As the Newbie spoke, he started to lose steam and eventually he was left staring at his own shoes in silence.

“First of all, wood isn’t an insulator,” Champ replied with a tone that was a little too well informed on the matter.  “You send electricity through wood, it catches on fire.”

“Might not be bad,” Cauliflower responded, envisioning the scene of hundreds of flaming lizards running through a village square.  “It’d be pretty intimidating.  Plus, if they were on fire, I bet they’d be more energetic.”

“Frantic is the word you’re looking for,” Edge corrected with a shake of his head.  “Also the first problem with that plan is how we’d even equip them with anything.  They might be hibernating, but I doubt they’ll sleep through that.”

“If you want to find the first problem, it’d be time,” Lotus declared with a wave of her hand.  “We only have one more day.  That isn’t even close to enough to make tiny helmets for two hundred lizards.”

“Obviously we can’t do that,” the Captain declared with as charitable a tone as could be offered for the idea.  “However, something like that could work.  Maybe with an actual insulator.”

“So now we’re going to make them rubber hats?”  Lotus asked, her eyes straining themselves to remain respectfully disrespectful.  He was their captain, after all.

“Like, tiny lizard condoms?”  Champ asked, seeming to stare into the universe where such a thing existed.

“I was thinking we could borrow some of the army’s rain gear,” the Captain answered with a wry smile.  “It should be insulated for just these kinds of situations.  If you want to assault or retake a village without damaging one of its greatest assets, you need something to throw over the fence so you can climb it.”

“So, we give them little rubber gloves?” Edge asked, stooping down to grab one of the lizard’s small, three-fingered hands.  The body had already gone rigid, however, as he attempted to raise the hand for inspection, he picked up half the body with it.

“It’s not a full thought, but I was focusing on their ponchos,” the Captain clarified as he watched Edge drop the corpse and wipe his hands on his dark pants.  “If we time it right, we can throw the rubber cloaks over the lizards as they run by.  Then, they’ll be protected enough to thrash a hole in the fence.”

“Relies a lot on luck,” Edge criticized, picking at the corner of his ear thoughtfully.

“A bunch of monsters running around, draped in military equipment,” Lotus added coolly.  “It isn’t exactly subtle.”

“I like the idea of stealing form the army, though,” Cauliflower replied slowly.

A voice in the back of her mind tried to make her consider what she would’ve done if her equipment went missing back then.  In the next instant, however, she imagined what he would’ve looked like if he was caught in a storm without his rain gear.  That brought a smile to her face.  Only for a moment, though.  He was already dead.  Not many more indignities he could face at this point.

“Helpful as always,” Champ declared sarcastically.

“There might be something there,” Knot spoke up, causing everyone to turn towards him.  After meeting their collective gaze, he continued, “They must have ways to get through fences that are more destructive.  Like bolt cutters, with insulated grips.”

“Cutting a hole in the fence also lacks in subtlety,” The Captain asked, studying Knot’s face with that look that said he wanted to be persuaded.  “What do we do if they find the hole before our lizards do?”

“We don’t need to make a complete hole, do we?”  Knot asked in response.  “We can just weaken it enough for the Grupisanths to break through before they get too shocked.  In a few places, too.  Improve the chances one of them will be hit.”

“How are we going to be waking and directing them, then?”  the Captain asked, turning his eyes away from Knot and addressing the group.  “It’s not that far to the village, but it’s too far to hope they’ll find it on their own.”

“I assumed we’d use smoke,” Cauliflower responded quickly.  That was the one part of the plan she’d actually been considering.  “Throw a smoke grenade down there and they’ll wake up fast, assuming the forest is on fire.  Then we just line their path with smoke to guide them where we want.”

“That’ll get them excited enough,” Edge responded with an accepting nod.  “It’ll be chaos once they’re inside.”

“It sounds like we have a plan,” the Captain declared with a smile.

“Sounds like we have something,” Lotus followed up coolly.

The rest of the team could easily agree with that sentiment.  They were about to do… something.


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Lead Vs Fantasy 8-3


8-3  All According to Failure


Bending a prickly pine branch up and ducking underneath it, Lotus had to stop herself from gritting her teeth.  It wasn’t the almost negligible pain of the bark’s rough surface biting into her that she was bothered by.  Instead, it was their entire purpose here.  What they were doing was incredibly stupid.  Incredibly.  Stupid.

At the same time, she couldn’t blame the Captain for his concerns.  She didn’t want to see a bunch of innocent farmers slaughtered either.  She just… knew this was dumb.  If they were caught even talking to the villagers, then the army’s commander could only assume they were Aurorian spies.  Even if he knew for a  fact that they weren’t, he’d have to treat them as if they were.  How else would he maintain the trust of his soldiers?

This was a huge risk.  Worst case scenario, they wouldn’t even be able to abandon the job before they were captured.  Still, she couldn’t make that argument.  Their job was to take huge risks and this was the right thing to do… probably.  She just hoped it wouldn’t destroy them.

Feeling that it’d been at least fifteen minutes since they left the camp, Lotus stopped and again scanned the forest.  She slowly spun around, examining every tree, every branch, every bush.  She studied it all, searching for anything out of place.  When she reached the mid-point of her circle, she caught sight of Edge and the Captain doing the same.

Returning to her original position while having found nothing, Lotus nodded to herself and declared, “Looks to be clear.  I don’t think the scouts were told to do anything more than keep track of our comings and goings.”

“I’m sure they contract most reconnaissance to the Forestry Guild,” Edge observed with a nod.  “I doubt many of their scouts can be trusted to move through the forest without being caught by something.”

“We should still make a loop back and check for tracks before we move on,” The Captain cautioned quietly.

Lotus and Edge both nodded and the three set off.  Their steps drew a broad half-circle, or as much of a circle as they could while weaving through the trees.  They stopped again when they intersected the path they’d been following before.  Then they spread out to search for signs of humans passing by.  Humans other than them.

Thanks to her special education, Lotus had received lessons in any task that may be useful in this field.  A few lessons.  In everything.  That hardly made her an expert in anything beyond sharpshooting.  She couldn’t look at a broken twig and tell you the exact size, shape and gender of whatever had trod on it.

She was confident, however, that whomever may be trailing them would be Just as inexpert at hiding as she was a seeking.  After searching the ground for conspicuous boot prints or other signals, she was satisfied.  They weren’t being followed.

Lotus moved to meet with the other two and they set off again.  This time, at an accelerated pace.  They’d wasted at least an hour ensuring they weren’t followed.  If hey wanted to make a proper attempt at persuading the villagers and make it back before nightfall, they’d need to hurry.

Dwelling on the problem of nighttime in an unfamiliar border forest, Lotus quickened her pace again.  Then, a needle of anxiety wormed its way into her heart and she turned to look behind her.  As she did, her eyes met with Edge’s and he gave her a pointedly deadpan look.

That was an, ‘I’m fine and I’m mad that you’re worried look,’ she was sure.  Turning away from him, she frowned and glared into the trees.  He was worried about his own body, but she couldn’t be.  No small amount of irritation burned in her chest.

She wanted to stomp, but that unprofessional, even if she wasn’t in forest filled with previously unseen monsters.  She dealt with that inner conflict until she finally pushed aside the tangled branches to reveal the broad clearing and the wire fence.

“What are the odds it’s electrified?” Edge asked, being very careful not to make contact as he examined the interwoven strands of metal.

“It’s flimsy enough as it is,” the Captain responded, kicking at the dirt to reveal some of the fence’s buried section.  “If it wasn’t electric, there wouldn’t be a village.”

As Lotus got a better look at the wire fence, she frowned.

As a rule, slipshod or jerry-rigged were words that couldn’t be used in frontier villages.  Any adjective that could be applied to everyone and everything immediately lost all meaning.  That was what it mean to be on the frontier.  To live on farthest border of survivability.

Even considering that standard, however, the fence was shoddy.  The gauge of its constituent wires were at most half that of the stuff used in the Newbie’s village.  It was only twice as tall as Lotus herself.  She’d seen monsters less than a decade old jump that without worry, depending on the species. Based on the height, she doubted the fence continued more than five feet underground.  It certainly wasn’t one of those that came together into a buried cage that can keep out burrowing monsters.

Overall, it was unimpressive.  Then again, in the current Aurorias, unimpressive was probably a high praise.

As Lotus considered that, Edge and the Captain finished their own inspections of the village’s only line of defense.

“I doubt it would take anything special to chase them out,” the Captain observed with a bitter smile.

“The question is: what would be most believable,” Edge asked, scratching the area under his eyebrow as he considered.  “Most things can take them out, but do they know that?  We need something they’ll scare them.”

The three studied the thin metal of the electric fence, as if it would somehow give them the answer they sought.

Eventually, something flashed into Lotus’s mind and she lifted her head. “What about a dire bear?”

Both the Captain and Edge’s eyes lit up at that suggestion.

“If one of them was disturbed mid-hibernation, they’d tear through half the countryside before falling back asleep,” Edge agreed with an enthusiastic nod.

“Even frontier villagers should know that much,” the Captain mimicked Edge’s sentiments.  “Let’s go with that and head in.  Start running and look tired.”

At the Captain’s orders, the three took off at a brisk jog towards the gate on the East side of the village.  When they arrived, Lotus and Edge did their best to breathe as hard as they could while the Captain slammed his fist against the red button to the right of the gate.

By the time Lotus was starting to feel light headed from all the extra air, two strapping young lads stomped out of one of the village’s huts and stomped over to them.  They were both cultivating crops of unmanaged brown hair and they had the same stench of bumkin as Champ did when he was still new.  In their hands, they each clutched a hand-me-down of a hand-me-down of a hunting rifle.  Old guns, but they looked to be well, if intermittently, cared for.

“What do you want?” one of the young men asked, eyeing the trio suspiciously.

“We need to talk to your chief,” the Captain demanded desperately between gasps for air.  As much as he always strove to do the right thing, the man was unnervingly good at acting.  “We have urgent news!”

The man who’d asked the question narrowed his eyes as he again looked them over.  Then the two men stepped back and whispered to each other for a while.  When they again moved in front of the Captain, the man demanded, “Put your rifles on the ground.  Otherwise we won’t open the gate.”

The three immediately acquiesced to this demand, slinging the long guns off of their backs.  It was always a coin toss as o whether you’d be disarmed before entering a small village.  When they were greeted by armed men, however, that chance changed to a near certainty.

As Lotus laid her sleek and beautiful partner in the dirt, she felt a pang of regret stab through her.  She swallowed that down, however, and took a few steps away from her discarded rifle.

When the young men seemed satisfied, they flipped a switch on their side before pulling the gate open just enough for the three to slide through.  Once the they were inside, the gate was closed and the switch was flipped again.  Then the young men directed them from behind towards the concrete building at the center of the village.  On their entire walk there, the two men kept their rifles firmly trained on them.

After entering the building, they were directed down a series of narrow hallways until they reached a small office in the back.  There, they found an impressively old man sitting behind a desk.  His skin was so wrinkled and warped that he looked like his body had grown out of a wretched swamp tree.

His eyes, however, defied his aged appearance.  They looked over the mercenaries with a keen glint before he asked, “Who are you?  What brings you to our home?”

“We are mercenaries, here for a request,” the Captain explained, easily slipping into the earnestly distraught tone he’d used at the gate.  “While going about our work, he encountered a hibernating dire bear and it woke up.  It’s rampaging around the forest now.  It’ll reach here any time, by the end of tomorrow, certainly.  You need to evacuate.”

Hearing the Captain’s words, the old chief’s eyes widened in surprise.  This only lasted a second, however, before his face settled into a skeptical stare.  “Is that right?” were the only words the elder uttered.  His critical voice reminded Lotus of an old branch slowly being torn from a tree.  Painful and creaking.

“I’m sure you know of the danger of this,” the Captain continued, unfazed.  “If you don’t prepare now, your entire village, everyone in it, everything could be destroyed.”

“And what proof do you have?”  the elder asked, resting his gnarled elbows on his desk and supporting his head with one hand.

“What kind of proof could we have?”  the Captain asked, furrowing his brow slightly.

“Fur, claws. Any pieces?”  The elder asked, still glaring at the Captain across the desk.

“If we tried to take any of that, we’d be dead already,” Edge finally cut in, clearly flabbergasted by the ridiculous request.  “They may be as big as a house, but they still have insane reflexes.  That’s why they’re called dire.  Because them being alive is a dire situation.”

“So, you have no proof,” the elder asked, completely ignoring Edge’s outburst.

“It’s as my subordinate says, collecting materials from a live dire bear would be suicide,” the Captain attempted to smooth things over as he slipped into his patronizingly reasonable tone.

“You didn’t pass through here before,” the elder spoke up before the Captain could continue.  “Where are you folks from?”

The Captain faltered for a  moment before slowly answering, “Narabesque.”

The elder narrowed his eyes further, until you could barely see the glassy sheen between his cracked eyelids.  Then he amended, “So, you came from the San Ranto side?”

“We passed through on the way here, yes,” the Captain answered slowly, failing to come up with a suitable lie.

The elder took a deep breath and raised his head out of his hand.  Then he took a deep breath before speaking, “We won’t be leaving our home.”

“Sir, you have to know the kind of danger-“ the Captain tried to continue but the elder cut him off again.

“Whatever you may have planned, we won’t be opening our gates and we will have sentries posted,” the elder’s eyes scanned over Lotus and Edge before returning to the Captain.  “We’ll take our chances on our own.  If we didn’t have confidence to protect ourselves from any threat, we wouldn’t be out here.”

As the finality in the elder’s words declared the end of their meeting, their armed escorts started stirring behind them.

“A half century old dire bear will crash through these walls without even stumbling,” the Captain gave his final warning, his voice taking on a grave tone.  “We’ll try to hold it off for as long as possible, but I hope you can come to the right decision before it arrives.”

“This village will bet on itself,” the elder definitively gave his final reply.  “Good day.”

After that, the trio was escorted back out of the village.  They retrieved their weapons before fleeing into the trees.  As they made their way back to camp, Lotus could only give a nod of acceptance to this failure.  Few people would flee their homes on the words of strangers.  However she couldn’t shake the feeling that that went worse that it should have.  They were quite the aggressive peaceful villagers.

She just hoped Cauliflower’s team was having better luck.  That they found something bear-shaped, at least.


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