2-1 Fisherman’s Profit
Erik Rudolph Ian Carlson Hayworth was in a complicated mood. Technically he’d just lost everything. It didn’t hit him that hard, though. He didn’t have much to lose in the first place.
Before Erik was old enough to remember, his mom had taken him from… somewhere to live in this small village at least a day’s drive from anywhere. At first the villagers were probably welcoming, but his mother was always strange. She fancied herself a prophetess. The villagers didn’t have time for a fool human who claimed to be touched by magic. When he was young, Erik made the mistake of standing up for his mother and he became “strange” too. Over time, the rest of the village distanced itself from the sad, little Hayworth family.
As Erik grew up, he grew to understand his mother’s strangeness. He understood that most mothers didn’t spend all their time talking about doom and gloom and “Slayers of Ice.” Whatever any of that meant. He understood that his mother was wrong and that humans can’t use magic. So he distanced himself from her too. Then he was alone.
After spending most of his life doing his best to provide for her, four years ago, his mother finally stopped waking up. Every day since then, Erik had told himself he’d leave the village and make his fortune, but he had nowhere to go so he didn’t.
That was when they came. It started as a faint disturbance in the middle of the night. Erik very nearly went back to bed, assuming it was some village drama. Then there was a terrible crash as the fence came down. After that, chaos reigned. Most of the villagers couldn’t even make it to the sanctuary before they were forced to close the doors to keep the lizards out.
Of course, living on the outskirts of the village, Erik never had any hope of making it into the sanctuary. Standing at the door to his house, he felt like he should run into the woods. Better to risk being found by a warg than to absolutely be killed by a lizard. That was the right call, but he just couldn’t move.
Men, women, children. They were all running in random directions, trying desperately to escape. They had no plan, however, and the lizards ran them down easily. Some were stabbed to death on the spot, while others were dragged off screaming. The tang of blood and the acrid smell of smoke filled the air. Somehow something always catches ablaze in chaos. After all, hell needs fire.
Standing frozen in his doorway, Erik had odd, dreamy thoughts of his mother. He wondered if her strangeness had finally gotten to him through her blood. Was this tableau merely a cruel dream he would be cursed with for the rest of his life? Then a lizard came up to him, slapped him in the face with the flat of its sword, and everything went black.
From there, Erik and all the village spent their days waiting for death. Every day, one or two of them would be chosen and split amongst the lizards for food. Erik could never bear to watch the splitting. Just the crunching of bones and squelching of flesh was enough to turn Erik’s stomach. Though, he couldn’t let himself gag. He didn’t dare draw their attention to him. That was to be his life till the end.
Then, suddenly, it was all over. There was another night of chaos, but this time it was the lizards who went through hell. After it was all done and Erik was pulled out of the shack he had been stored in, he saw his saviors. When they all gathered, there were two women and four men. They wore matching black fatigues and had at least one gun strapped to their backs and one on their thighs. They were mercenaries. Real ones. People who would face monsters in single combat and win. They were like real life heroes.
As the surviving villagers started to make preparations, Erik couldn’t help staring at the men and women who’d saved them all. They were who he was supposed to be. Not some villager alone looking after a grave plot. No, he was designed to stand beside his brothers and sisters in arms and fight for people and fortune and things. He just didn’t know how to approach them with that proposal.
Once they had finished the funeral and packed the old transport truck, the captain of the mercenaries noticed how cramped the villagers all were, huddling in the back. That was when he said they had room for one more in their rover. Of course, Erik jumped at that opportunity before anyone else could say anything.
That was where Erik was now. Sitting on a simple bench seat in the back of the mercenary rover. Overall, he didn’t know how he should feel. Of course he was sad at what’d happened. He didn’t have a great relationship with the rest of the village, but seeing them broken was a tragedy. Especially poor Mrs. Brown. He didn’t know if he had the strength to keep going had he lost his leg like that.
In spite of all that tragedy, however, he just couldn’t contain the excitement that kept welling up from his chest. At the same time, the feeling he had that was probably the strongest was discomfort. The atmosphere in the car was quite uncomfortable. He felt like he was a wrench in a well-oiled machine; and the machine knew it.
Apart from the hum of the truck’s motor and the rhythmic collision of grass against metal, silence reigned. Erik desperately wanted to find something to break up the awkwardness. Honestly, he desperately wanted to find a way to say “please take me with you.” However, he didn’t think that’d go over well and he’d settle for anything to break the silence.
Again Erik turned to studying the heroes before him. Directly in front of him sat a dark haired man of average height. His muscles didn’t stand out as much as the driver or the man to Erik’s right. However, he certainly carried himself as a veteran and the eyes that were now shut as he rested were deep red, just like the captain’s. Erik had heard before that mercenary’s eyes were dyed with the blood of their fallen prey. If that was true, then this man was a terrifying hunter.
Beside the man with the blood eyes sat a tall woman who was pretty, but hard. Like a statue. An ice statue. Just looking at her gave Erik chills and he quickly averted his gaze. Beside him was a lanky, muscular man who never seemed to stop grinning. He was one of the two who’d pulled Erik from the shack. Just looking at him somehow filled Erik’s heart with awe and gratitude all over again.
Finally, diagonally to his front, left there was a girl who didn’t look any older than him. She was leaning with her butt against the truck’s frame and she had her binoculars pointed vaguely towards the sky. She truly was a beauty. Like she’d stepped out of someone’s dreams. After looking for a few seconds, Erik had to turn away for fear that he might start staring.
Then he realized something he should’ve noticed earlier. Mustering his voice he shakily started, “U-um, If you wanted the seat… I’m just a tag along…”
“This is my spot,” The girl answered with a cool firmness that made Erik retract into himself. Then she seemed to consider something and said. “But that was sweet.” As she spoke, she reached out and patted Erik’s head like he was a dog.
Erik didn’t know if he should be more reassured or offended by that gesture. Before he could decide, the girl jerked her hand away. Then she jerked her entire body towards the right of the truck as she hissed, “Coming in fast,” and turned her attention back to the sky.
Before Erik or anyone else could ask what she was talking about, everything was interrupted by a titanic crash that made Erik almost jump out of the car. After Erik recovered from the shock, he looked up to find everyone turning their gaze to the same spot in the field in front of them. Erik followed suit and saw nothing but a huge cloud of dust that seemed to cover a quarter of his vision.
As Erik stared into the indiscernible cloud, he felt the truck shutter to a stop. Then the captain asked from the front seat, “What the hell was that, Cauliflower?”
“I don’t know,” The girl responded hurriedly, still holding the binoculars to her face as she stared into the dust. “It was too fast. It came into my detection range and hit the ground before I could get a look.”
The rest of the car started devolving into hurried bickering. Before any points could be made, however, everyone was interrupted by a sharp cry from inside the dust cloud. The shout sounded like that of an eagle, except much, much louder and just deep enough to be booming. Once the haunting sound ended, the dust cloud started billowing out and dissipating. From the center a silhouette slowly became visible.
The best way to describe the image was a falcon standing proud over the plains with its wings outstretched. Though, with one caveat. By Erik’s knowledge, most falcons weren’t large enough to consider him barely a mouthful. Just looking at the monster’s size made Erik shudder as he imagined that massive taloned foot carelessly coming down on him.
“Son of a bitch,” the man to Erik’s right cursed, breaking him out of his reverie.
“A roc’s too fast,” The man in front of Erik supplemented, looking towards the captain of the group. “The other truck’s dead. If it decides to take it, we can’t protect them.”
“Not only a roc,” the girl, apparently named Cauliflower for some reason, cut in before the captain could respond.
With Cauliflower’s interjection, everyone turned their attention back to the still dissipating dust cloud. As things became clearer, another figure came into view. It was harder to see because it was closer to the ground, but a lizard no smaller than the falcon was facing off against the bird. At least Erik felt like lizard was the right word. The huge monster was certainly scaly and fit the lizard aesthetic, but it was also wrong. The beast’s massive body was long and coiling like a giant snake, but at the same time it had eight burly legs resolutely holding its belly from the ground.
“Basilisk vs. roc. Who’s gonna win?” The driver asked gruffly.
“Tough to say,” Cauliflower answered, still staring at the two monsters. “It looks like, after picking the basilisk up, the roc pecked out the lizard’s eyes, but not before it was almost half petrified. Then, without two wings, they both fell out of the sky.”
Once again, her words made Erik study the monsters more carefully. With her declaration, Erik could finally see a faint greyish tan in part of the falcon’s body. He felt a little stupid for not noticing the left wing didn’t even twitch.
As Erik took a more scholarly look at the horrific beasts, the driver spoke up. “Like this, it’d be easy to take a wide path around them, but…”
“We don’t turn down a fisherman’s profit.” The man in front of Erik chimed in, with a sly smile.
“A blind snake and a dying bird,” the ice woman observed, only allowing the slight twitch of her eyebrows to show her feelings. “I like those odds.”
With the seemingly unanimous declaration of his team, the captain picked up the radio receiver in front of him and called to the transport truck behind them. “We’re going ahead to clear the path. Back up at least half a mile to stay out of the thick of things.”
As Erik watched the boxy transport truck pull away, he felt himself getting a little excited. He’d be able to see mercenaries take on what had to be century class beasts. It was amazing.
While Erik’s excitement mounted, something in what the captain had said started to nibble at him. Then he realized something. If the other truck was moving OUT of the thick of things, then he was…
“Umm” Erik tried to start as everyone in the car around him finished readying their weapons and Cauliflower moved towards the mounted turret in the back.
“Lotus, take the first shot,” The captain ordered over Erik’s feeble question. “The roc’s already dead. Put it out of its misery before any more feathers get damaged.”
“Roger,” The ice woman answered. Then she stood up and started aiming down the scope of her rifle.
As white lights started gathering around the ice woman’s body, Erik couldn’t even rejoice at witnessing his first arte ever. While he still tried to bring up the subject of safety, his voice was eaten by a shattering boom that came from beside him. Then a white line shot from the ice woman’s rifle and plowed straight through the center of the roc’s stone portions. With just that impact, half of the roc’s body instantly shattered into pieces and fell to the ground with a rumbling crash.
The roc couldn’t even let out a scream as it lost balance and fell over. With half of its body disappearing, the bird leaked blood like it was… well, something cut in half. The massive bird was only able to thrash impotently against the earth twice. Then it stopped moving forever.
Before the roc had finished dying, the truck had already started lurching forward to circle around the remaining monster. As it moved, the ice woman returned to her seat and steadied her rifle against the truck’s railing.
While she did that, the man beside her was rummaging through a box under his feet. From it, he produced two hand-sized metal pears and called out, “Captain!” as he held them both up.
The captain turned to look. Then he declared, “The golden wing people took that mine clearing job last month and haven’t come back yet. Frags are gonna start getting expensive soon.”
Hearing this, the man nodded and put one of the two pears back. Then he drew another from inside the box and tossed it across the moving vehicle. Without missing a beat, the man beside Erik caught the object with one hand. Then he turned to look out the opposite side of the car.
The rest kept preparing and Erik simply watched until he realized that the man across from him was holding out his hand. When Erik took a closer look, he saw that the man was offering him something. Somethings. When Erik took the objects, he couldn’t help but pinch them between his fingers. They were yellow, oblong, and enjoyably squishy. Kind of like a really stiff clay. Erik kept playing with the objects until he noticed the man was pointing at his own ears. Seeing this, Erik was confused for a moment. When he understood, he pursed his lips sheepishly. Then he put the earplugs in and the world went almost entirely silent.
After the captain saw that everyone was ready, he raised his hand and dramatically waved it towards the Basilisk. The lizard still seemed to be tasting the air, looking for the roc. Then, there was a dull pop from behind Erik and a cluster of scales on the lizard’s cheek were pulverized. That was followed by a continuous rumbling from rear of the truck and the lizard’s nose and face started to be slowly eroded. It was as if watching a statue caught in a very precise sandstorm.
Of course, the king of serpents didn’t take this lying down. As soon as the first shot was fired, it turned towards the truck and charged. Seeing a charging basilisk was a strange sight. The monster’s serpentine body still wriggled in the air, as if it were writhing on the ground. However, the eight legs did all the work. Despite how awkward this looked, the basilisk could move. They were probably about half a mile away when the fight started, but the basilisk covered that distance in half a minute.
Every step the monster took launched it forward and poured an increasing measure of dread into Erik’s heart. It was coming way too fast. They wouldn’t kill it before it reached them. He was still destined to be lizard food.
Looking around the truck, the rest of the passengers didn’t seem to share his anxiety. They stared at the basilisk with the relaxed ease of ones doing their job. Then Erik noticed that the rumbling of the mounted gun had already ceased.
Before Erik could make sense of that, he saw some movement in the corner of his eye. Turning to face it, he saw the man opposite him was preparing to throw something. Following that action with his eyes, Erik saw the metal pear flying out the back left of the car. The object bounced off the ground twice. Then there was a flash of white that filled Erik’s entire vision and a massive boom that rattled his rib cage.
After a few seconds, Erik noticed something concerning. The white wasn’t going away. He couldn’t see. Understanding that sent a whole new type of fear rushing through Erik’s body. He wasn’t a strong man and he could do nothing against monsters, but now he was completely defenseless. He needed to escape. He knew that much.
As he tried to flee, he felt a sudden, suffocating pressure force itself on his chest. It took him only a second to understand what that was. The monster had found him. It was crushing him into paste beneath its massive foot. He desperately flailed his arms and legs in hopes of freeing himself, but it was hopeless. What could he do against such a horrendous beast?
As Erik accepted his death, his sight slowly started returning. When he could finally make out shapes again, Erik saw a foot. Not a monster foot, but a human foot, covered in a black boot. It was resting on his chest, pushing him down into his seat. Following that foot to its owner, he found a slightly bemused man staring at him with blood red eyes.
When the man saw that Erik wouldn’t try to jump out of the car anymore, he removed his foot. Then he turned towards the back of the truck. Erik followed his gaze and noticed that the basilisk was now about half a mile behind them, attacking nothing.
Erik didn’t know how to feel about that sight. The basilisk, clawing and biting at the air, was indeed ferocious. However, the sight was… just… ridiculous. Watching a giant monster so passionately destroying nothing made Erik almost feel bad for the blinded beast.
He could only observe the sight for a dozen seconds before the fight resumed. Once again, a sniper round embedded itself in about the same spot of the basilisk’s cranium. Then the turret lit up and the basilisk gave chase.
This pattern repeated itself around four times. They would attack with the sniper rifle and turret until the monster got close. Then they would stop and distract it with what was probably a grenade. Then, once they had distance, they would attack again. After the fifteenth sniper round hit the same place, something finally changed. It was like watching a dam rupture. The cranium broke and blood and a few bits of brain poured out into the dry grass. As the turret started laying in to the opened skull, Erik could only reflect on how surreal it was to see a column of blood fall to the ground like a small waterfall. If he were a more wordy person, he might have written a poem.
Once the basilisk finally fell, they stopped the car and waited for twenty minutes to make sure it was dead. Then they pulled up to it and the mercenaries set to work collecting materials. Erik wanted to offer his help, but then the captain helpfully informed him of how venomous a basilisk’s teeth were. Then he decided it was best to leave the work to the professionals.
It took them about an hour before they were satisfied with their haul. Once they were, they called over the village’s transport truck and took off again. This time a small trailer which had been stored under the truck was bouncing along behind them. On top of it was secured a bundle of feathers and teeth which sounded to be worth a fortune based on their conversation.
They continued driving until night had thoroughly fallen. Then they stopped to set up camp in the grasslands. During the drive, the mercenaries had a few conversations. At least Erik thought they were conversations. Half the time they felt more like fights, but everything was resolved peaceably in the end. Either way, Erik couldn’t find the chance to cut in at all. At this rate, he had no hope of ingratiating himself to them before they parted ways.
This made his heart sink. At the same time, something more immediate weighed on his chest as well. To find some rest through the night, the two trucks had pulled a few hundred feet off the dirt path to make camp. The mercenaries set up four tents around their parked car and made a small fire for cooking and warmth. Just far enough away from that to be a distinct camp, the villagers had prepared their own simple sleeping arrangements with their own fire.
In between these two circles of light in the darkness stood Erik. He didn’t know where to go. He didn’t know where he belonged. No. He knew he didn’t belong anywhere. As those thoughts ate away at him, he looked for an innocuous corner he could hide away in.
In the middle of Erik’s concentrated search, something big and heavy landed on his shoulder and forced him to jump forward, almost falling on his face in the grass. Desperately turning to see his attacker, Erik found a short man who seemed to be chiseled from stone. Even in this dim light the driver, who seemed to be called Not, couldn’t keep his muscles from proudly asserting their existence.
While Erik put his hand over his heart in relief, Not grinned broadly and said, “Sorry about that, didn’t mean to scare you.” His voice was deep and gritty, like he spent his free time chewing on bricks. In spite of that and his generally stoic attitude, he seemed to have a warm demeanor.
Erik didn’t feel as intimidated by the man as he thought he should. He waved his hand and said, “i-it’s no problem. I’m just not used to a lot of things.”
Not nodded and declared, “You can head on over. The Captain is a soft sort, he won’t let us leave without you in the morning.”
For a second the man’s words confused Erik, but when he grasped the sentiment he shook his head and said, “Thanks.”
This time it was Not’s turn to be confused and he knitted his brows and stepped forward to get a better look at Erik. “What’s wrong?” Not asked simply.
“It’s nothing big…” Erik attempted to deflect. He was unsuccessful, however. Somehow, Not’s eyes drew more out of him. “I don’t know what to do.” Choking out those words, Erik’s heart sunk further. Acting like a worried child was no way to get accepted by them. He needed to be tougher.
“Everyone feels like that when they lose people,” Not screwed up his face slightly as he put all his effort into giving sage advice. “That means it’s time to drink and shout and fight and laugh. After that, everything should fall into place.”
“That’s not it,” Erik answered helplessly. “Mom’s been dead for a while. I don’t have anyone else. It’s just… They never… I didn’t… I don’t have anywhere to go.” Somehow, the irritation, loneliness, despair, and fear that he’d been suppressing for the past four years all welled up at once and formed that one forlorn wail.
While Erik’s words were vague, a light of understanding shown in Not’s eyes. Not took another step forward and clasped his broad hand across Erik’s shoulder once again. Then he nodded and said, “I’ve been there.”
Those three words blew away Erik’s tormented emotions and replaced them with shock. “You have?” He could barely utter out. The man before him was so strong and tough; it was hard imagining him feeling any kind of emotion at all.
“Yep,” Not nodded again, pursing his lips in slight chagrin. “I lost my place once before. It was like everything was torn away from me in an instant and I was left with nothing.” With that declaration, Not closed his eyes and turned his head towards the rising moon.
Erik waited for what came next. When nothing did, he slowly asked, “What’d you do then?”
“I ran away. Like a child,” Not declared softly. “I left the country and went to another where I never had anything to begin with. Then I met two men who’d also lost a lot and joined their group.” Looking back towards his own camp, a clear, genuine smile spread across Not’s face. Then he said, “Even now, I don’t know what was best for me to do back then. This hasn’t been bad, though.”
Turning his face back towards Erik, Not continued. “I guess all I can give you is this advice: If you feel like you have nothing, then you have nothing holding you back. Go and make something of yourself. No one can do that for you.”
At the conclusions of Not’s attempt at sagely words, Erik felt an increased pressure from the hand on his shoulder. Before long he found himself slowly scooting through the grass against his will. “Come on,” Not commanded jovially. “We’ve got some extra room. You can sleep in my tent.”
With just those words from Not, Erik was welcomed into the mercenary camp. He was given warm food and a place to sleep. More than he’d gotten from anyone in a long time. With that, he understood that with as harsh and hard as they could be, these were truly good people. He understood what he needed to do. If only he could pull it off.
The next morning, packing up camp went very smoothly. The mercenaries were well practiced and the villagers didn’t have much to pack. After about half an hour they were on the road again. The rest of the drive was comparatively uneventful. They left the grasslands into another forest. When they left that, they found civilization.
Passing through the trees was like moving into another world. About half a mile away from the tree line, the fields started. Almost soldierly columns of wheat stretched to the limit of Erik’s vision. Between these fields, which seemed only a month from harvesting, passed the road they were taking. In front of them stood the city. The view was as imposing as Erik had imagined it. The monolithic concrete wall stood to the limit of human construction and obscured everything of the city behind it. Of course the looming grey structure was drab and utilitarian. Erik, however, like most country people, could only see safety in the massive testament to human ingenuity.
After being swallowed by the aging steel gate, the car had to drive through a short, dimly lit tunnel to pass through the wall’s thickness. When they broke out of the tunnel and into the light, Erik wasn’t greeted by his first view of the city proper. Instead he was granted the slightly disappointing sight of three lines of parked cars which slightly curved as they stretched to the left and the right.
No one else in the truck seemed bothered by the sight and they turned down one of the lines of cars. As they moved past the vehicles, Erik once again found himself dumbfounded by the exotic sight. Of course, there were dozens of boxy transport trucks like the one his fellow villagers were driving. However, surrounding that fleet of mundanity was a collection of everything a man could imagine to use when killing something. There were armored personnel carriers, trucks with blades welded haphazardly on the sides, even a tank was taking up a few stalls in the back.
After about ten minutes, the truck parked between an armored car and a set of motorcycles with machine guns bolted on the front. When the engine died, the Captain, who only seemed to be called by his rank, declared, “Report our success, resupply, get a new job. We’re only gonna be here for a few days before we head out again. Get whatever rocks you want off while you can.”
The man who seemed to be called Champ and Cauliflower both grumbled under their breath, but no serious complaints were raised. The team gathered their gear, packed the monster materials into a few sacks, and dismounted the truck. Erik followed suit and soon found himself standing at the rear of the car, staring at the retreating backs of the mercenaries.
As the group left him behind, Erik desperately searched for anything to say. Anything that could get them to consider him. In a few seconds he needed to solve the riddle he couldn’t unravel in a day and a half. As he floundered, he thought he could wait a little longer. They said they’d be there for three days. If he came back to their truck then, he’d see them again. He could come up with something to say if he had more time.
No. Putting things off doesn’t help anything. Before they could leave earshot, Erik drummed up his courage and said anything. “U-um… Wait! Please!”
It turns out anything isn’t something particularly eloquent, but the group stopped and turned back. That was something. With no game plan at all, Erik jogged up to the mercenaries and just started speaking. “Please take me with you! I want to join. I’ll do anything. I’ll carry the luggage, I’ll clean… things. I’ll do whatever!” After running out of breath, Erik turned to stare into the Captain’s crimson eyes and softly continued. “Please… I have nowhere else to go…”
Once he was satisfied Erik had finished, the Captain turned a questioning gaze to the rest of his team.
“I like him,” Cauliflower interjected quickly. “He’s cute. Like a squirrel.”
As Erik self-consciously felt for the puffiness of his cheeks, the ice woman, who was named Lotus, spoke up. “New blood is always good and we have the space.”
“You just don’t want to be the newbie anymore,” Champ observed critically.
“Shut up!” Lotus shot back like a striking cobra.
As Lotus and champ devolved into glaring at each other, Erik once again turned his gaze towards the Captain and the man who seemed to be the second in command, Edge. Exchanging glances with the Captain, Edge simply shrugged. Then the Captain nodded and gave Erik a warm smile as he declared, “Welcome to the Sable Stallion Mercenary Group.”
“The benefits are terrible,” Cauliflower spoke up to undercut the Captain’s induction. “But you do get to meet and then kill interesting non-people.”
Erik could only give a strained smile to her joke. It felt like all the neurons in his brain had been shorted out at once. He was too happy. The thing he’d been dreaming of since his mother died had finally come true. He would be a mercenary. The job may not be glamourous, but there was something amazing about it. Modern day heroes.
As the pink, puffy thoughts slowly drained from his head, Erik realized he’d been so nervous he’d forgotten something important. “I’m sorry to do it so late, but I should introduce myself,” He declared, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. “My name is Erik-“
“No you’re not, you’re the Newbie,” Champ interrupted jovially, clasping an arm around Erik’s shoulders and leading him towards the city proper.
Erik could only ask, “What?” in dumbfounded amazement at losing his name.
“Let’s just hope he survives longer than the last one,” Edge sighed from beside the Newbie.
“Wait… What?!” The Newbie cried as he was pulled forcibly into his new life. “What does that mean? What happened to the last one?!”