1-7: A Backwoods Funeral
Staring through her rifle’s scope, Lotus watched Knot and Champ guide the survivors out of the wooden shacks they’d just cleared. There being survivors was a nice change of pace. Of course, the ones that had pieces chewed off gave a disturbing insight into why there were survivors. However, getting here in time was better than always too late. Watching the gathered people slowly trying to overcome their shock and horror with the joy of their salvation had a nice “triumph of human spirit” kind of feeling.
After scanning over the ragged survivors for a bit, Lotus shifted her view to the tree line surrounding the village. Once that was scanned, she moved her scope back to the large concrete block at the back of the village. As she did, a nagging part of her deep down said that Edge and the Captain were taking too long.
That wasn’t’ a huge issue, though, right? Counting bodies was always Edge’s least favorite job. Surely he was dawdling with it. That was the thing about him. The things he was good at, he was quite good at. When doing something he wasn’t however, he may as well be a child.
For a second, Lotus let herself smile at that thought. Then she recovered her poker face and renewed her focus. She couldn’t afford to lose her edge when she was on watch. Just before moving her view back to the rescued villagers, Lotus stopped her hand.
She had just heard something. It was faint and muffled. Was it an explosion? Pulling her microphone closer to her mouth, she slowly asked, “What the hell was that?”
After a couple of seconds, Knot’s voice came into her ear, “I don’t know. Sounded like something blew up in the sanctuary. We’re gonna check it out.”
Just the sound of the voice made her blood run cold. Why was it Knot? Why not the Captain? Why not…? Pushing her torso up off the ground, she left her scope and looked towards the distant village. She didn’t seriously think about running in herself. She didn’t seriously think about it…
“Sorry about that,” a low unconcerned voice sounded over the radio, cutting down Lotus’s thoughts. “Edge and I ran into some trouble, but we’re fine. We found some wounded. Champ, Knot, get the rover and bring me a proper tourniquet.” After a short pause where he seemed to think of something, the Captain added. “We’re also gonna need some fuel to burn this bastard. See what we can spare.”
Lotus could feel her heartrate slowing as she asked, “Is everyone OK? What happened?”
“We’re fine,” The Captain answered hurriedly. “I’ve gotta go, this woman’s losing blood fast.”
After that there was silence. Lotus could only watch Champ and Knot run off into the woods; then return a few minutes later, pulling the rover up to the village’s concrete sanctuary. About ten minutes later, the Captain and Edge came out of the sanctuary. They were escorting a woman with only one leg and a pair of sniffling children. At this sight the villagers either rejoiced or despaired.
As they all did that, Lotus couldn’t help but focus on the thing that Champ and Knot carried out after the children. It was most of a corpse. At least the plurality of a corpse. It was mangled badly and she had trouble making it all out well. However, she did recognize one thing about it: that she couldn’t recognize it at all. The thought of that made Lotus chew on the inside of her lip as Champ and Knot carried the carcass around the corner of the building and into a blind spot.
Then Lotus spent the next fifteen minutes watching the village perimeter and listening to the Captain’s description of events over the radio. By the time Cauliflower finally came back from her treasure hunt, Lotus was…
Since she was a girl, lotus had been taught a lot of things. One of the most important lessons was how to hold her face. Hiding your emotions is key in any negotiation or leadership role. She’d long ago thrown away the responsibilities that came with those lessons, but she kept the skills.
That was why, when she turned to face Cauliflower on her return, Lotus knew she wasn’t making any kind of face. In spite of that, as soon as their eyes met, Cauliflower smirked all the same. Lotus would swear that there was something supernatural about that girls powers of perception. Not including the actual supernatural parts, of course.
“What’s got you so furious?” Cauliflower asked as she approached, not even bothering to sound sympathetic.
“I’m not angry,” Lotus declared in a tone so level you could build a house of cards on it. Then she went back to packing up her rifle.
“Mmmhmmm,” Cauliflower hummed skeptically, not relinquishing her irritating smile.
“I’m not,” Lotus declared resolutely as she stood and shouldered her pack. “But they were incredibly stupid.”
“I heard they were the big heroes this time. Saved some babies or something,” Cauliflower responded as she followed Lotus’s brisk walk to the village.
“Yeah,” Lotus replied coldly, swatting a young tree branch out of her way. “If anything went wrong they’d have been big smears of blood on the floor.”
“Well, that’s the nature of boys, isn’t it? They take big risks, so they’re either big heroes or big losers.”
“They could have died. That doesn’t bother you?”
Cauliflower cocked her head to the side for a second in thought. Then she answered, “Not really. I mean they didn’t, so it’s not a big deal. If anything got too hairy, Edge would’ve cut and run in the end. After all, he does have something to live for.”
For just a fraction of a second, Lotus could feel her face twitch at that declaration. When she was sure she had wrestled her lips back into place, she turned to face Cauliflower. “You know, Champ tries to win every single argument by talking about sperm or some nonsense.”
“That he does,” Cauliflower remarked, nodding in agreement.
“Then, how is it that you are the worst person to talk to on this team?” Lotus asked viciously, narrowing her eyes to glare at Cauliflower.
Cauliflower looked up into the treetops and smiled before saying, “I think it’s my secret talent.”
“If you hadn’t saved my life so many times, I think I’d shoot you,” Lotus declared before turning back and resuming the hike. Cauliflower followed after Lotus, refusing to stop smiling.
From there, the pair walked in silence until they broke through the tree line and into the village clearing. Once they had approached the sanctuary close enough to find Edge and the Captain talking to some villagers, Lotus set a straight course towards them. Stepping between the pair and the elderly man they were addressing, Lotus stared into both of their eyes, alternatingly.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Lotus asked, keeping her tone even, but unforgiving.
“We had no way of knowing,” Edge tried to sound reasonable, but his refusal to meet Lotus’s gaze harpooned his point.
“And once you did?” Lotus pressed, doubling her intensity. “If you find something that can’t be hurt with conventional arms, you lure it out and let me take it. These are fundamentals.”
“I-I’ll just leave you to this,” The old villager muttered as he fled the sudden interrogation.
“There were children,” The Captain declared, even his moral resolution faltering somewhat under Lotus’s sharp gaze.
“Then I guess dying together with the kids was the best plan?”
“We didn’t die, though,” Edge’s tone started out definitive, but somehow he became a guilty child standing up to his teacher by the end of it.
“Oh, you didn’t?” Lotus asked, throwing her hands in the air. “I guess if you got lucky, then it was a great plan. When we get back to the city, we should gamble away all our earnings from this job. After all, we might get lucky.”
“It was reckless and I’m sorry…” While Edge’s response trailed off, Lotus stared ferociously into his eyes, daring him to say ‘but.’ As the word was on the tip of Edge’s tongue, he frowned and turned to look at the tree line.
“Are you done yet?” Cauliflower’s helpful voice came from behind Lotus.
Lotus turned on Cauliflower and looked as if she was going to say no. Then she seemed to think better of it and simply declared, “I was never doing anything in the first place.”
“Great,” Cauliflower answered, brushing past the obvious lie. Then she turned towards the Captain and said, “Seems like all the villagers are either dead or rescued, plus we even killed off the baddies. Are we done here?”
The Captain gave a slight frown at her blunt words. Then he pointed with his chin towards the old man who had fled and lowered his voice as he answered, “I was discussing that with the village elder before. Too much is broken and too many are dead. This village is over.”
At that heavy declaration, Edge, Lotus, and Cauliflower all nodded as if it were a matter of course. Then the Captain continued, waving his hand towards a shed near the village entrance. “The lizards ripped one of their supply trucks to pieces, but they still have another. They’ll load up the survivors and we’ll escort them back in our rover. Pro bono.”
“We saved all their lives. Least they could do is give us something in return,” Cauliflower complained under her breath, but still loud enough for her companions to hear.
“Do they look like they have anything to give us?” Edge asked, looking over the assembled villagers. There were sixteen survivors in total. Clothed in bundles of ragged cloth, each one was emaciated and half of them had missing chunks of flesh which were hurriedly bandaged over. “It’ll cost us almost nothing and improve our reputation.”
“Our reputation is fine,” Cauliflower declared, narrowing her eyes in reproach at Edge’s statement. “But I see what you’re saying. As long as they can get their shit together soon.”
“That’s where you come in,” Captain responded with a smile.
“I don’t want to pick up body parts,” Cauliflower complained, crinkling her nose in disgust.
“Go with Knot and Champ to help the villagers get ready.” The Captain declared sternly. Then he leaned in closer and lowered his voice as he continued. “Also, keep them away from us as we discuss things.”
Cauliflower pursed her lips and glared at Lotus as she declared, “You know, Eliazar was south of here. When it still existed.”
“Yeah, and how many lizards were there?” Edge asked, looking over her knowingly.
“Some…” Cauliflower answered slowly. In the face of the other three’s judgmental gazes, Cauliflower threw up her hands and walked off to supervise the cluster of refugees.
After watching Cauliflower leave, the Captain tilted his head towards the left side of the sanctuary building and started walking to it. As Lotus and Edge followed, he asked, “Lotus, you have experience dealing with lizard men, yes?”
“Where I come from, they’re kind of a nuisance.” Lotus answered, narrowing her eyes as she remembered long past battlefields. “In a good month, they’ll only kill a few hundred humans.”
“And where is that, exactly?” Edge asked, flashing her his cheeky smile.
When in the best of moods, Lotus wasn’t fond of talking about her past. She was still not in the best of moods. With one glare, Edge dropped the subject and then the trio turned the corner of the building. A few feet in front of them, they found what Lotus had been expecting. The few remaining pieces of a dead lizard.
Probably. Even up close, it was hard to make out what the thing was originally. However, she could make out that the thing was wide and all around huge. By her best imagination, it should’ve looked less like a lizard man and more like a brick wall with legs.
“Can you help us make sense of anything that happened here?” The Captain finally asked when they stood before the pieces of corpse.
The answer to that question was incredibly easy for Lotus. “Not at all.”
Both Edge and the Captain seemed taken aback at the quick declaration, but Lotus paid no mind to that. She stepped past the pair and crouched in front of the corpse to get a better look. “I have no idea what this thing’s supposed to be. I can at least tell you what Cauliflower found in the woods. From her description they should have been typical assassins. Shadow scales, whatever you want to call them. They’re not common, but a big village with an old shaman should have at least one or two.”
Lotus stood up and redirected her gaze to the tree line before continuing. “Having three assassins in a group like this is bazar, but at least they exist.” Kicking a scaly leg with her foot, she added. “This thing shouldn’t.”
The Captain frowned at her words and stared down at the slain beast. Then he sighed and redirected his gaze to Lotus. “Do you have any idea why they’d come up to a place where they would freeze in the winter?”
Lotus chewed on her lip and dug the heel of her boot into the dirt as she considered the question. Then she shrugged and said, “I’ve thought about it. The only answer I can come up with is that a talented shaman split off to found his own village, then died before he could find a place to settle. Then, without a leader, his group just kept walking in a straight line north.”
“How likely is that?” The Captain asked, furrowing his brow skeptically.
“Not at all, but…” Lotus just shrugged again and the three dissolved into silent thought.
After the silence had run on just a bit too long, Edge opened his mouth to speak. “Maybe it’s a prelude to war.” Seeing the other two giving him a blank expression, he explained. “Maybe a southern country is transporting monsters here to harass San Ranto. Divide their attention, then attack. It’s happened before.”
“If they were going to do that, wouldn’t they pick a monster that’s less obviously out of place,” Lotus rebutted critically. “We have wargs in the south too, you know?”
“Then maybe it’s someone who isn’t to the south, but wants San Ranto to think they are. Trying to get them protecting the wrong front,” Edge expanded thoughtfully.
“That’s incredibly convoluted,” Lotus observed.
“Sometimes people are convoluted,” Edge defended.
“Either way,” The Captain’s voice interrupted, forcing the two to redirect their attention towards him. “This all seems to be a bad omen. Whether war or whatever else, I think it’s best if we leave the country after this job.”
“Farantine is nice this time of year,” Edge observed helpfully.
“I prefer steak to fish anyway,” Lotus agreed.
With that, their future had been decided and the trio turned back towards the busy villagers. The rest was mostly grim work. Sorting bodies, piling them up. With numbers like this, Champ, Knot, and Edge had to be entrusted with removing heads in case some bodies weren’t caught in the coming flames. Preparing for a backwoods funeral was always rough and so was packing to leave your home forever. Villagers cried and comforted one another. For the most part, the mercenaries did their best to stay out of the way. They’d been doing the job long enough to only cling to very specific concessions to sentimentality.
When everything was said and done, the survivors all gathered around the pile of bodies at the center of the village. Some complained that there weren’t separate piles for the lizards and the people, but there wasn’t enough fuel and nothing could be done.
Lotus and Edge stood side by side, away from the crowd and awaited the end of the ceremony. They watched the village head and some others give speeches and then, when the time came for the lighting, the aging leader of the village stepped forward with a torch. Then, the man stopped and just stared at the pile. For what felt like minutes, silence reigned and nothing happened.
Eventually, the Captain stepped forward. He gently wrested the torch from the old man’s hand and did what the man could not. After a few seconds, the bodies took the flame and a lot of things ended.
As the clearing filled with the smell of charred flesh and the wails of the mourning, Lotus rested her head on Edge’s shoulder. At times like these it was good to remind yourself that you aren’t alone. In some ways it was almost instinct.