Lead vs Fantasy 2-2

2-2 The City of Something

 

Knot was happy for the new kid.  New blood was always good and he seemed like a decent find.  For whatever reason he wanted the life.  That was half the battle.  Somehow that thought made Knot a little depressed and he leaked out a sigh.

It was the Newbie’s fault.  Talking to him the night before had made Knot start looking back at things.  Part of the problem with that was that there was too much to look back on.  Knot was getting old.  For not the tenth time, Knot wondered if it was time for him to retire.  Shooting monsters in the face was a job for the young.  Old blood stops running, gets crusty, and flakes away.  Then again, what would he retire to?  He had nothing waiting for him.

He used to have that.  He used to have it all.  A wife and a kid.  Even a bit of a fence, though it kept falling down and he didn’t have the time to fix it proper.  It was all perfect except for one thing.

It was the job that did it all.  He left for days or weeks at a time.  Nothing else he could do.  It was the only thing he was good at and he brought in good money.  He bled and spilled blood to put food on the table and they resented him for it.

Every time he came back, he knew them a little less.  Then one day, he came home to find that his son hated him and that WHORE was FUCKING the neighbor.  After that he didn’t have a wife or a kid or a house anymore.  They made that much clear.  He didn’t have anything anymore.  Just his gun.

Reaffirming the weight of his reliable partner on his shoulder, Knot calmed down somewhat.  Then he looked over at the others.  As always, Lotus and Champ were bickering over something while Edge acted as the completely partial referee.  Cauliflower seemed to be trying to make the Newbie turn different colors using some story.  Finally, the Captain was simply leading the way.

Knot did have something here now.  This was a good team.  The Captain and Edge were two of the best mercs he’d ever worked with.  Lotus might be a bit complicated, but she was a damn fine shot.  She must have some special training.  Another thing she wouldn’t talk about.  Champ was fine too.  As green as the Newbie when he first joined, but he’d developed well.  He had the heart of a merc.

Then there was Cauliflower.  She was a good kid for the most part.  Too young for this kind of work, but she did have her circumstances.  Also, some gears in her head were broken and sometimes they would shake loose something bad.  All in all, though, a good kid.

Knot liked his team.  Maybe he didn’t need to retire.  Maybe it was best if he just kept going until one day something cut him in half.  Then the young ones would all burn his bones, drink, fight, and laugh.  A true mercenary funeral.  Maybe that was right for him.

As Knot contemplated the future, the group passed out of the garage and into the city proper.  San Ranto, the city of… something.  Knot could never remember their motto.  It was just another capitol of yet another small, but old, country.  All the human countries were small and half of them were old.  It got tough to tell them apart.

Like most of the old cities, San Ranto was created in a time where pedestrians were the only thing to exist.  The huddled brick buildings that packed the inside of the wall didn’t allow for the passage of cars.  The buildings alongside the much needed city walls didn’t really allow for the passage of light, either.  Except for around noon.  These two together meant that every old city was a city of dingy alleys and the dim glow of electric lamps.

The team pushed through one of the packed alleys ahead of them.  Thanks to their fatigues, and more importantly, rifles, most people made way and no one gave them trouble.  Knot was always impressed at the effect a loaded gun could have on someone’s manners.

As the team pressed forward, Knot could see the scrawny figure of the Newbie slowly being washed away by the crowd.  Before he could be carried too far, Knot grasped the kid by the arm and pulled him along.  It seemed that he would need a babysitter till he learned how to move through cities.

While walking, Knot habitually looked for the hatches.  About every ten minutes or so, he would spot one.  Wrought iron trap doors placed in the middle of the street.  Every time he passed one, he would study it.  All that he saw today were clearly rusting along the edges.  That showed that the knights and mercs in the area were doing their jobs.  At the same time, it showed the complacency of the people in the city.  If that illusion of security were ever shattered, a lot of people would die unable to get to safety.  Allowing himself a faint grunt of disapproval, Knot noticed the Newbie looking at him curiously out the corner of his eye.  He did nothing to explain himself, however, and the Newbie didn’t ask.

After about twenty minutes of forcing their way through crowded alleys, the team found themselves in front of their destination.  “What is this place?”  The Newbie asked, looking up at the sign that read “Hog’s Head Bar and Ministry for Dangerous Works.”

“It’s the office.  Kind of,” Knot attempted to answer, but his voice faltered as he realized he was going about it wrong.  “Anyway, it’ll all make sense eventually.”

With that lackluster declaration, Knot pushed his way through the slightly cracked, wooden door; dragging the Newbie behind him.  Inside was what could best be described as a tavern.  On the right wall there were a few counters staffed by clerical looking men who gave off an inappropriately industrious vibe.  Outside that island of diligence were tables and chairs and mostly just a jolly kind of human chaos.

When the team passed through the door, the room’s boisterous cacophony died down to an almost bearable hum as half the tavern turned to study them like a lion would study its prey.  Knot felt the Newbie duck behind his back and tried to recall when he first felt those gazes.  It was a long time ago now and he couldn’t remember.  The entire team was used to this pressure by now.  After a few seconds, the assembled vagabonds seemed to conclude that Knot and his fellows wouldn’t be submitting a job and turned away in disappointment.

As the room once again filled with the sounds of men boasting and arguing, the team stepped inside.  The Captain took the sacks of feathers and fangs from Knot and Champ.  Then he and Edge separated and headed towards the two counters of clerks.  At the same time, Lotus, Cauliflower, and Champ went to the bar in the back.  As everyone else handled the business, Knot led the Newbie to an empty, circular table against the left wall.

The rough-hewn, wooden chair gave an ominous groan as Knot dropped onto it violently.  He paid no mind to that, however, and nodded his head in satisfaction.  The table he’d found was half-way submerged in the alcove beneath a set of stairs.  A good find.  Knot had a broader body than most.  If he was too central, then drunkards tended to pick fights.

While Knot was considering that, the Newbie hesitantly took a seat beside him.  As the two sat there in silence, the Newbie seemed to want to say something, but didn’t.  Knot didn’t care to coax anything out of the boy.  He liked sitting and not speaking.  It was calming.

Knot leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. The Newbie fidgeted beside him.  The two stayed like that for a while until Lotus, Champ, and Cauliflower arrived with trays full of pewter tankards.  Knot and the Newbie both gratefully received their drinks.  Then the three took a seat and Lotus and Champ started bickering while Cauliflower egged them on.

As the other three carried on in the background, the Newbie looked at the muddy liquid that filled his tankard.  For a moment he frowned at the mysterious substance.  Then he steeled his face and took a sip.  A second later, a bright grin spread across his lips and he said, “this is pretty good,” to no one in particular.

Knot nodded at the boy’s reaction.  He could imagine what the kid had been drinking before.  Those remote villages could only ever produce trashcan beer from the worst of their harvest.  Taking a sip of his own tankard, Knot allowed the sour acridity to fill his mouth.  Then he let off his own smile.  There was something about cheap ale that just went straight to his heart.

Time flowed like that for a while.  Knot sipped his ale and watched Lotus and Champ slowly become more animated.  Beside him, the Newbie diligently drained his own mug.  Then, when he was out of ale, the Newbie finally seemed ready to speak.

“What is this place, exactly?” The Newbie tried again, seeming to have given up on figuring it out himself.

“It’s the office,” Cauliflower answered, turning her attention to the newbie as she echoed Knot’s previous answer.

“Mercenary Association Headquarters for the city,” Lotus supplemented, quickly regaining whatever composure she’d lost during her argument.  “It’s where you go if you want to find mercenaries.”

“Really?” The Newbie asked, his face colored in a combination of confusion and disbelief.  “I thought that would be more… official.  Why does it feel more like a bar than anything else?”

“That’s because it is,” Edge’s voice cut in as he pulled up a seat next to Lotus.  “The way the story goes is that every city would have a merc bar.  A place mercenaries would go to so they could get drunk and bitch to other mercs about whoever died last.  Then, when someone wanted something done, they’d go there to find someone to do it.”

Leaning back in his chair, Edge nodded his gratitude as he took the tankard Lotus proffered.  Then he continued.  “Eventually things became official when the Mercenary Association was formed from the big four.  After that, all new offices had bars built in, because… well, mercs like to get drunk and bitch at each other before going to work.”

“I guess that makes sense…” The Newbie responded slowly, his eyes clearly contradicting his words.  “So this is where all the important stuff happens, then?  Like where you get work and stuff?”

Edge nodded and said, “When you find yourself the sole survivor of the team, you should head to the association bar.  You can find a new team, pick up a job, sell materials, and then get drunk and tell everyone how great we were.”

“You shouldn’t joke about things like that,” the Newbie admonished weakly, turning his gaze down into his empty tankard.

“I wasn’t joking,” Edge declared, not moving a muscle on his face.  “We are great, and you should absolutely tell everyone that once we’re dead.”

“The Newbie can learn things later,” Lotus jumped in.  As she looked at Edge her face was as deadpan as ever.  However, her voice seemed a little more strained than usual.  “Did you find a job?”

Edge frowned slightly and shook his head.  “No escorts going to Farantine.  We can check again before we leave, but if there’s nothing, we can go on our own.  Just those fangs should get us enough to cover our expenses twice over.”

“What’s up with that?” Champ asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.  “We can wait more than a day if it means actually making money.”

Knot had to echo Champ’s sentiment.  Crossing borders without taking up a job first was amateur.  The borderlands are all too dangerous to cross without being paid.

As Knot was weighing costs and benefits, Edge searched their surroundings conspiratorially.  When he was satisfied that the dim corner they’d occupied was cover enough, he waved for the others to huddle in.  Then he started speaking softly.  “I didn’t say anything in the car because Newbie wasn’t the Newbie yet, but… Lizardmen north of… that stupid clockwork mountain.”

“Calis Tha’Um,” Cauliflower interjected, her voice a little too helpful to be genuine.  “You’ve gotta dip your throat down.  That’s how you give it that extra umph.”

“It’s too strange,” Edge continued, putting all his effort into ignoring Cauliflower.  “The Captain and I think something big is gonna happen.  Best we leave before it does.”

“Edge thinks there’s going to be a war,” Lotus declared, her voice caught somewhere between prim and derisive.

“I just said that there was the possibility.”  Edge clarified carefully.  “If there’s even the possibility of war, best we get out before it starts.”

Knot closed his eyes as he considered that.  Then he added.  “This is San Ranto.”

With that declaration, Champ and Cauliflower nodded deeply while Lotus just turned to study the wall.  Seeing their reactions, the Newbie flitted his eyes between the three for a while.  Then he spoke up.  “What’s that mean?”

“We’ll explain when we’ve crossed the border,” Champ answered quickly.

“Why?”

“Because then it won’t be illegal,” Edge leaned in and whispered before the Newbie could make more of a fuss.

The gathered team, excluding the Newbie, all nodded at that statement.  Then the Captain emerged from the crowd around the materials exchange desk and walked over to their table.  When he arrived, he circumnavigated the group and dropped an envelope in front of everyone except the Newbie.  Then he sat down between Edge and Knot and took his drink from the center of the table.

Knot picked up the plump envelop next to his own tankard and thumbed through the bills inside.  He couldn’t stop the grin from spreading itself across his face.  Killing Basilisks was really good money.  If only their gaze wasn’t deadly, he’d specialize in them.

Around Knot, the rest of the team expressed similar sentiments.  Once they’d gotten it out of their systems, the Captain put down his mug and spoke up.  “I trust that Edge has explained things.”  After looking around at the nodding team members, he continued.  “Good.  Then, this’ll be fast.  First, since we got a new member and our last Newbie’s equipment got a little… damaged, I’ve divided our pay seven ways.  Lotus, I’ve already given you a double share.  Tomorrow you’re to spend half of that on the essentials for the new Newbie.”

The Captain waited for Lotus’s nod of ascent.  Then, ignoring the Newbie’s desperately questioning gaze, he continued.  “Since the nature of the last job was a little special, Edge and I are to report directly to the Prime Minister’s office tomorrow to give our firsthand accounts.  While we do that and Lotus goes shopping, everyone else is to go to the woods with the Newbie.  Get him his first kill before we head for the border.”

At the end of the Captain’s orders, both Champ and Cauliflower offered their token complaints.  When the Captain turned his cold gaze towards them, they quieted down.  Knot didn’t really pay attention to any of that.  Instead, he was considering his own first hunt.  How many men had died that day?  He honestly couldn’t remember.

All that stuck around after the years was the smell of blood and the sight of a human body dissolving into paste before his eyes.  He’d spent years trying to drink away that image to no avail.  Now he was grateful for it.  As long as he could still see his old man’s death, he would never forget the most important lesson he’d ever learned.  The day you start feeling safe is the day you die.

The night carried on around Knot as he sipped his ale and slowly recalled his old glories and defeats.  Looking through his memories, Knot couldn’t help but smile at the team that was arguing and laughing around him.  They really were good kids.

 

Previous                                                                TOC                                                                       Next

2 thoughts on “Lead vs Fantasy 2-2

  1. Pingback: Lead Vs Fantasy 2-1 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

  2. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 2-3 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s