Lead vs Fantasy 2-3

2-3 First Blood Part 1 (of 1)


After drinking in the Mercenary Association and spending the night in a cramped hotel room with Not and Champ, it was finally morning.  As he walked back into the garage with Champ, Not, and Cauliflower, Erik felt a tickle of excitement reach into his chest.  At the same time, he was just a little abjectly terrified.  Apparently he was supposed to kill a real monster today.  That meant he would have to fight a real monster.  That thought hollowed out his insides.  Wasn’t it a bit too early for him?  Wasn’t there something else he should be doing to prepare first?

Erik grasped the shoulder strap of the rifle he was borrowing from the Captain and tried to shift his thoughts.  Mostly he was nervous, his stomach all in knots.  He just didn’t want to screw it up.  He didn’t want to ruin his one chance at his dream.

When the four arrived back at the car, they mounted it wordlessly.  While Cauliflower seemed no different than usual, Champ refused to lift his eyes from the pavement and no conversations had started.

As Erik moved to take the seat across from Champ, he was stopped when he felt a sudden pressure on his butt.  The intrusion made him unconsciously jump forward half a step.  Then he looked back to see Cauliflower’s leg extending from where she was sitting against the front railing of the truck’s bed.  “That’s Lotus’s seat,” she chided, her tone easy, but her eyes clearly serious.

“It’s bad luck to take someone else’s spot.” Champ explained as Erik moved to sit beside him.  “If someone takes your spot in the car, then someone will soon take your spot in the team.  Kind of thing.”

“Really?  Why?”  Erik asked, growing genuinely curious.

“Cause that’s how it is,” Not called from the driver’s seat as he made the car roar to life.  “Mercs could die any day.  That breeds a superstitious sort of fellow.”

Erik nodded slowly as the car pulled out and exited the garage. He felt like he could kind of understand what was being said there.

After that, silence reigned again.  Champ went back to staring at his feet and would occasionally let out a grunt of discomfort.  Cauliflower seemed to be absently looking into the sky, like always.  Then Not was Not.  Erik hadn’t known the man very long, but he seemed to be one who didn’t waste words very often.  No one had anything to say, so nothing was said.

Everyone seemed fine, but Erik languished in the silence.  Even though he knew it wasn’t true, he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were waiting for him to speak.  He felt like he was somehow failing them.

A few minutes after exiting the city, Erik couldn’t take it anymore and spoke up.  “So, where are we going for this?  What’re we hunting?”

“We’re headed to the forest that borders the farmland,” Not answered simply as he drove between the wheat fields.  “We passed through it on the way to the city.  It’s got a lot of kobolds.”

With that Erik was left nodding again and the conversation seemed to have been thoroughly terminated.  Before Erik could be distressed by the new silence, however, it was filled by an easygoing feminine voice.

“You nervous?” Cauliflower asked, turning her gaze from the skies to Erik.

“Not… really,” Erik answered, trying his best to sound calm, but failing miserably.

“It’s OK if you are,” Cauliflower responded, her tone actually becoming a little soothing.  “Champ over there was terrified during his first hunt.”

“I wasn’t that bad,” Champ grumbled, finally looking up from the truck’s bed.

“He was pretty bad,” Cauliflower informed Erik with a smile.

“I bet you were scared too during your first,” Champ rebutted, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Of course I was,” Cauliflower answered, turning her face to the skies again.  “But I was a tiny girl.  That’s to be expected.”

Champ grimaced at that response.  Then, he turned to Erik and said, “You really shouldn’t be that worried.  This place is close to a city so the knights patrol regularly.  It’d be shocking to find anything over fifty years old in the whole forest.”

“It’s not impossible,” Not called sternly from the front seat. “Don’t let your guard down.”

“I was trying to comfort the kid,” Champ rebutted irritably.  Then they both fell into sullen silence.

The quartet continued like that for a few minutes before they reached the tree line.  Once they had, Not pulled off the road and parked in front of the forest.  The four dismounted the truck and checked their equipment.  At least the others checked their equipment.

Erik didn’t have any equipment of his own and wasn’t exactly sure how to check the Captain’s rifle.  He simply hefted the rifle in his hands a few times.  Once again, he was surprised by the weight of the thing.  He felt like it should be lighter somehow.

Once the others were done with whatever strange rites of mechanics they were performing on their guns, the group set off towards the woods.  As they passed the tree line, the world changed.  Suddenly Erik wasn’t in a bright morning field.  Instead, shadow ruled the land and anywhere more than three dozen feet in front of him was obscured by trees.  It kind of reminded him of the forest surrounding his old village, but he’d rarely dared to enter there.  It was just too dangerous.

After they’d moved a few feet into the forest, Cauliflower spoke up from behind Erik.  “We should just run through until I find something.  Get this done fast and head back.”

“This is more than just the first kill,” Not chided from the front.  “We’re here to help the kid learn.  Champ, do you remember what the Captain talked about on your first hunt?”

Erik looked to his right to see Champ frowning in concentration.  Then Champ turned to look around the forest and said, “You need to learn what the forest feels like.  You see, the key to knowing when something is wrong is knowing what it feels like when nothing is wrong.  Then when something is different, you know to be worried.”

“I guess that’s good enough,” Not grunted from the front as he moved aside to dodge a thorn bush.  Then he turned his head back to look at Erik and said, “You heard the man.  There aren’t any monsters near us now.  We’re gonna take it slow.  Look around, listen.  Learn what this feels like.”

Erik diligently did what he was told.  He stared at every inch of the forest, embedding it into his memory.  The trees were… brown and tree-like.  There were some other bushes and plants, but not many.  Every once in a while, a bird would call or a squirrel would squeak.

“That’s not right at all,” Cauliflower called out, prodding Erik in the butt again to get his attention.  When Erik, still rubbing his ass, had turned around she continued.  “You can’t just look at stuff.  You’ve gotta sorta expand your mind.  Make your brain a bubble and puff it up and feel everything inside of it.”

“You aren’t going to help at all with this,” Champ observed, shaking his head at Cauliflower’s indecipherable words.  Then he turned towards Erik and said, “Don’t listen to her weird brain bubble stuff, but her basic point was right.  Don’t look at trees, look at the forest.”

“That almost sounded insightful,” Cauliflower observed, still glaring at Champ for stealing her lesson.

“I’ve learned a thing or two over the past few years,” Champ responded, turning away to look into the forest.

“I still remember when you tried to ‘puff up your brain,’” Not declared thoughtfully from the front.  “I thought you were going to have an aneurism.  Your face turned so red.”

Erik tried to ignore his senior’s conversation and focus on the forest.  He didn’t know exactly what that entailed, but he started by kind of un-focusing his eyes.  The world became a fuzzy portrait of greens and browns.  However, he felt like his vision widened.  When Champ pushed a branch out of his way on Erik’s left, Erik could see that it moved.  That was something, right?

After a while he put some effort into listening to what his ears had to say as well.  There was rustling and of course his teammates, but nothing worth mentioning.  He wondered if he was doing it right.  With such an abstract command like, “feel the forest,” he had no idea.  The forest felt like a forest.  That was the most straightforward answer, but he felt like it should be deeper than that.

“We’re here for your training,”  Not’s voice rang out clearly, interrupting Erik’s clumsy non-focusing.  “We may as well answer questions you have while we walk.”

Hearing those words, Erik hurriedly put the forest stuff to the side.  He had questions.  Filing through them quickly, he started with an easy one.  “What do you guys generally do?  For work I mean?”

“Technically, a mercenary does odd jobs.”  Not explained as he moved forward, bending branches out of his path.  “We’ll do anything if you pay us.”

“Not ANYTHING,” Champ cut in, waving his hand exaggeratedly.  “I’m not a whore.  Not unless you REALLY pay me.”

At that declaration, Erik could only knit his brows in confusion.  At the same time, Not and Cauliflower refused to meet Champ’s gaze.

Standing in silence, Champ screwed up his face and started to fidget restlessly.  Then, in one breath, he declared: “Then you are a whore, aren’t you?”  Glaring at Cauliflower and Not in turns he added.   “It’s not the same when I have to rebut myself.”

Cauliflower gave Champ a contented grin.  Erik stopped listening to Champ as he grumbled something about Lotus and turned to focus on Not once again.

Seeing that he had Erik’s attention, Not continued, as if nothing had happened.  “While we may technically do anything, the jobs we actually get fall into some general categories.”

Not paused for a second to make sure Erik wasn’t distracted by the circus in the background.  Then he continued.  “There’re escort jobs.  Those’re self-explanatory.  Then, several times a year, during the different spawning seasons, there are subjugation requests.  Go to where a specific monster spawns and kill a bunch of them before they get to be a problem.  Other than that there’s the more urgent missions.  This mine/town/caravan hasn’t done something it was supposed to.  Go find out why and then kill that why.  Finally there’s just plain hunting.  Kill monsters, get materials, and sell them.”

“So it’s all about killing monsters,” Erik observed thoughtfully.

“That is what we’re trained to do,” Champ declared, finally entering the conversation again.

“I guess…” Erik responded slowly.  From the way they talked about it, their lives sounded a lot less exciting than what he’d seen of them.  He couldn’t help but squint slightly at that contrast.  Then he remembered a more important issue and quickly asked, “So, about that.  The killing thing… How do you do the special stuff?  Like shooting beams?  Will I ever be able to do that?”

“Maybe…”  Champ answered, pursing his lips as if to change his word to probably not.

“If it’s artes, it’s probably best if you just experience it yourself.”  Not appended, scowling at a branch that he was just a little too short to have to duck under.

“Why do I feel like you say that a lot?” Erik mumbled under his breath.

“Because it’s true a lot!”  Cauliflower and Champ declared in jovial concert.

Not just looked back at the two and grunted before spitting out, “It is.”

Before Not could turn back and start their hike again, he seemed to freeze.  A bit perplexed by that, Erik turned to look at Champ and found him in the same condition.

“Does the forest feel any different to you?”  Cauliflower whispered from right behind him.

Having her voice in his ear so suddenly sent Erik’s heart racing for several reasons.  As he prayed that his face wasn’t as red as it felt, he deciphered her words.  Then he remembered his situation and tried the un-focusing thing again.  This time things felt… forest-ish.  He couldn’t say much was different.

Maybe things were a bit quieter, like the forest was holding its breath.  Though, Erik didn’t know if he was just imagining that so he could notice something.  As he debated this with himself, he was interrupted by a violent rustling of leaves from his right.

Mostly from animal instinct, Erik swiveled to face the noise.  Once he had, he saw one image of what looked like a hairless cat mixed with a child, holding a small club in one hand.  What happened after that was confusing.  He thought he felt a weight on his chest that knocked out all his breath.  Then he definitely felt his back fall onto the soft earth and his head bump hard into a root.

At some point Erik must’ve raised his arms to protect his face, because that’s where they were.  Then he felt his arms get hit by something small and hard again and again.  The blows weren’t bone breaking like the attacks of every monster he’d seen.  He still had to wince with pain at every attack, though.

Just as abruptly as the attack had started, it ended as the weight on his chest was flung away.  Then Erik felt some hands on his back, lifting him to a sitting position.  Seeing Champ with his foot still extended, Erik could mostly piece together what’d happened.  He tried to give Champ, in front of him, and Not, who was holding him up, an embarrassed nod of thanks.

Before Erik could do anything, however, Not’s commanding voice interrupted him.  “Shoot it.”

Looking back at the monster that had been kicked away, Erik finally got a good look at it.  It really did look like a shaved cat.  Its pink skin was all wrinkled and it clearly had too much of the stuff for its body.  It had a small pelt wrapped around its waist, but other than that it was naked.  Once it scrambled to its feet, it was probably tall enough to reach Erik’s waist.  Its head was small and its eyes and ears looked huge.

Once the monster had regained its composure, it turned to snarl at Erik and his companions, raising its primitive club in the air.  Before it could do anything, however, it looked at Champ and seemed to reassess its chances.  Then the monster turned around and started running back into the woods.

“Shoot it now!” Not repeated into Erik’s ear, knocking him out of his daze from seeing his first opponent.

Erik frantically grabbed at the rifle which still hung from his shoulder.  He tried to roughly copy what he’d seen the others do before as he placed the rifle’s butt against his shoulder.  He looked down the rifle to check that it was pointing towards the retreating monster.  Then he pulled the trigger.

As soon as the gun started firing, Erik’s ears seemed to stop working and the rifle’s butt buried itself insistently into his shoulder.  By the time he thought to stop pulling the trigger, the gun was pointing halfway towards the sky and the forest ahead of him was empty.

“——“ Not pushed Erik’s rifle down as he moved in front of him and seemed to say something.  Erik could only hear ringing, however, so he just stared at the man, dumbstruck.

“– — —-“  This time Champ tried talking, but with the same result.  Erik tried squinting desperately at the man’s moving lips, but that didn’t help.

Finally, Cauliflower held out her palm in front of Erik’s face and made two of her fingers on her other hands to act as legs and rung along it.  Erik thought he understood that.  It got away.  Giving an exaggerated nod to show his understanding, Erik was helped to his feet.  Then he just stood around for a while and waited for his ears to work again.

After a few minutes, he could make things out if they were shouted and asked, “What was that thing!?”

“- ——“ Not tried speaking from in front of him.

Erik could only shake his head at that.  Then Cauliflower came up beside him and cupped her hands as she shouted into his ear, “A KOBOLD!”

With his hearing starting to return, Erik could only stumble away at that sudden assault to his eardrum.  Once he had regained his balance, Cauliflower looked at him and shouted again.  “DID YOU GET THAT?!”

“Y-yes!”  Erik called back desperately as Cauliflower seemed ready to make another attack.  “Thank you!”

After that exchange, Erik saw some movement in his peripheral vision.  Hurriedly, he turned to face it.  This time, he wasn’t assaulted by a strange cat alien.  Instead, he saw Champ jogging towards them from the path that led to the car.

When Champ arrived in front of Erik, he held out his hand.  On top of it were the two yellow earplugs Erik had used before.  As Erik took them gratefully, Champ shouted.  “SORRY ABOUT ALL THAT!  OUR BODIES ARE A BIT TOUGH, SO IT’S EASY TO FORGET ABOUT THE NEWBIE.”

Erik could only nod at that.  At the same time, he wondered what kind of training he would need to take to get stronger ears.  Whatever it was, it didn’t seem pleasant or healthy.

Once Erik had his earplugs in, the four started walking through the forest again.  Since Erik couldn’t hold a conversation, he put his focus on trying to understand the forest.  Not too much effect, though.  It was all just browns and greens to him.  The musty smell of decaying leaves was only changed when they, occasionally, came across a dead animal or fresh scat.

After thirty minutes of hiking, Erik’s companions went still again.  This time, he knew basically what that meant.  He quickly spun around to scan his surroundings for movement.  When he spotted the creature running towards him through the trees, it was a few steps away.  He had time to get ready.

When the kobold came close, it once again leapt forward to slam into Erik’s chest with its club.  By that time, however, Erik had already squared his body to the monster.  Assuming it would use the same strategy as the last one, Erik was able to catch the club on his upraised rifle.

Erik was prepared to absorb the initial attack and he did.  What he wasn’t expecting was the kobold’s strength.  After the club struck, the kobold continued to press down against Erik’s rifle and he could definitely feel the weight of it.  Within a few seconds, his arms started to shake.  Slowly, he saw his arms lowering.  Being pushed down by the tiny monster’s brute strength.

Remembering what Champ had done before, Erik flailed out with his fraying, old leather shoe and managed to strike the kobold’s stomach.  The kobold was sent staggering back at the blow.  Within seconds, however, it seemed to recover and raised its club again.

Before the kobold could attack again, it looked to the right and saw Not standing with his arms crossed.  After one look at the veteran, it seemed to come to a decision.  Then it turned around and fled back into the forest.

For a second, Erik was taken aback by the sudden change.  Then he hurriedly shuffled his body into a firing position and attempted to take aim.  After he pulled the trigger, he heard a few faint pops as he sent his bullets out against the monster.

With the help of his earplugs, Erik didn’t lose his hearing.  Other than that, little else changed.  He once again found himself staring into the tree tops after the prey had escaped.  Seeing that, his heart sunk a bit.  He really thought he was prepared for the recoil this time, but after a couple shots it got away from him again.

As Erik hung his head in shame, he felt a warm pressure against his shoulder.  Looking up, he saw Champ giving him an understanding nod.  This bucked Erik up a bit.  He couldn’t fault himself for not knowing things yet.  He would just need to keep learning.  From this time, he learned not to loosen his grip halfway through firing.

Feeling a little better, Erik pulled out one of his earplugs and asked a question.  “Why do they keep running away?  I thought monsters were more aggressive.”

“Most are,” Champ answered with a small nod.  “But the real weak ones tend to run as soon as they see a true merc.”

“It’s cause we have stronger auras than you plebs,” Cauliflower declared happily, holding her chin up at Erik.

Champ shrugged at Cauliflower’s statement.

Not turned away from the group and almost grunted out, “Let’s go on.”

With those words, Erik replaced his earplug and the four returned to hiking.  After another hour of moving fruitlessly through the woods, the third attack took place.  Again, Erik was able to predict the attack not through knowing the forest, but through knowing the group.  This time, however, before he could repel the first attack, the kobold stopped itself mid-charge.  Then it turned to flee.

Erik was a bit surprised that it didn’t even get one swing in, but he was prepared the third time.  He quickly readied his rifle.  He made sure he had a firm grasp.  Then he pulled the trigger.  The rifle buried itself in his shoulder again, but he was able to wrestle it into pointing where he wanted.

In spite of all Erik’s effort.  Blood refused to erupt from the retreating kobold’s body.  Instead, the trees to the right of the kobold developed splintered sores up and down their trunks.  He tried forcing his aim left.  Then it was the trees on the left that took the most damage.  All the while, the kobold seemed spurred forward by the sounds of destruction behind him and kept running faster.

Once the kobold had disappeared from sight, Erik simply looked down at the rifle in mystified confusion.  He was certain he had done it all right.  He’d pointed it and shot it.  Then nothing happened to his target.  It felt almost as if the bullets disappeared into the void before they hit home.  Could kobolds do that?

Erik was drawn out of his reflection by a large hand waving in front of his face.  Following the arm up, Erik found Not pointing at his own ear.  Erik obligingly removed his earplug and Not quickly asked, “Have you ever fired a gun before?”

“N-no…”  Erik answered, his heart sinking.  He wondered if they were expecting at least that much experience.  Would they kick him away now that they knew he was a complete novice?   “I’m sorry,” Erik continued quickly.  “The men of the village didn’t really invite me out hunting, because they thought I was strange.  I had to make do with the plot I was given.  Though I would set out traps sometimes.  For squirrels and stuff.”

“See, it’s like I said,” Cauliflower cut in energetically.  “Squirrel boy.”

“I’m not… that,” Erik shot back, his objection trailing off as he let his head sink under the weight of the coming rejection.

Not shook his head at Cauliflower.  Then he looked up at the sections of sky that filtered through the leaves and branches.  The sun was already three quarters of its way through its path.  Then he sighed and said, “The most important thing is he gets his first kill before we leave.  If we’re headed for Farantine, we won’t pass any safe spots like this for a while.  We can actually train the Newbie on the road.”

Not looked at the others for their opinions and Cauliflower and Champ both nodded their agreement.  Erik couldn’t really do anything.  He spent a few seconds to understand that they weren’t going to abandon him.  Then he was overwhelmed with relief and excitement and some other warm feeling that he couldn’t really place.

As Erik beamed, Not ignored him and said, “Cauliflower, find us something to kill fast.”

Cauliflower nodded and placed the binoculars, which had been resting on her chest, against her face.  She spent a while looking through her binoculars into the sky.  As she did so, Erik couldn’t help but stare.  He had thought she was pretty since he first saw her, but now there was something else.  It was breathtaking, ethereal.  Almost like she was glowing faintly.

Then she was done.  She suddenly removed the binoculars from her face.  Once she did, she tilted her head slightly at Erik’s gaze.  Erik quickly turned away as he felt his face heating up.  Cauliflower seemed to ignore him as she turned to the left and started jogging into the forest.

Erik was a bit baffled by her, but Champ and Not followed close behind her and Erik didn’t want to be left.  The four of them jogged through the forest for about five minutes.  Then Cauliflower stopped and returned to staring at the treetops with her binoculars.

This time, rather than being taken away by the otherworldly sight, Erik began to wonder if they were playing a prank on him. Was there really any meaning in staring at trees?  Erik doubted it.

Of course, Erik couldn’t bring himself to voice his questions and once again, Cauliflower released her binoculars and started jogging through the forest.  This pattern continued for two more stops.  Then, on the fifth, when Cauliflower released her binoculars, she declared, “a quarter of a mile that way.”

Not looked to his right, where she was pointing, and nodded.  Then it was his turn to take off, running.  Erik hurriedly followed with the other two.  Shortly, he found himself approaching a small clearing which contained a single kobold.  As they ran up to it, the kobold was sitting on the ground and seemed to be gently nibbling its own leg.

When the kobold heard their footsteps, its head shot up and its ears pointed resolutely to the sky.  Its huge eyes focused on Not as he barreled towards it.  After meeting Not’s eyes, the kobold scrambled to its feet and tried to flee, but Not was too close when it started.

Not overtook the kobold before it could leave the clearing.  Then he slammed the butt of his shotgun into the back of the kobold’s head.  The bash sent the kobold spilling forward onto the ground.  When the little, agile body finally skidded to a stop, it tried to scramble back up.  Before it could, however, Not’s boot came down, covering half of the kobold’s thin abdomen.

The kobold hissed and desperately tried to claw at Not’s boot and pants, but Not paid no mind to it.  Instead, he turned to Erik and called out, “Come on.”

Erik could only follow that expectant voice.  Erik quickly walked up to Not and stopped beside him.  After he had, he shifted his gaze back to the kobold.  It was the first time he could get a really good look at one up close.  It truly was awful looking.  There was something a little bit wrong with every single part of its body.  Every time it moved, it shifted within its own skin in a way that made Erik a bit nauseous.

Erik’s engrossed study of the horrible creature was only ended when his vision was suddenly eclipsed by a black handgun.  Looking up, Erik saw that Not was proffering it to him.  Erik took it obediently.  Not guided both of Erik’s hands onto the grip.  Then he forcibly pushed Erik’s arms down until the barrel of the gun was placed against the kobold’s head.

Erik knew what was supposed to come next, but he hesitated.  Something felt bad there.  It was just unsporting.  He was all for killing monsters.  After all, they would kill humans if they had the chance.  It was only fair to reciprocate.

Even these young kobolds would absolutely eat a child alive if it was dumb enough to wander into the woods.  There weren’t any children here now, though.  It’s hard to feel like a hero when you’re saving someone hypothetical.  Plus, the kobold just looked so pathetic as it scrambled fruitlessly against Not’s thick calf.

“Do it,” Not’s impatient voice cut through Erik’s hesitation.

He couldn’t afford inaction here.  Erik closed his eyes and his fingers moved themselves.  Then there was a bang which once again assaulted Erik’s eardrums.  The gun kicked violently against his hands.  Though to little effect, at this range, even he wouldn’t miss.

After a few seconds, he opened his eyes.  Not had already pulled his foot from the unresisting corpse.  The kobold was undeniably a corpse.  Its tiny head was in a sorry state after the .45 caliber bullet passed through.

Looking down at the body, Erik was surprised.  He thought he would feel something.  Guilty, maybe?  Bad?  Dirty?  Weird?  He felt none of those things.  He felt very little.  He didn’t even feel accomplished at his first monster slain.  It wasn’t much of an accomplishment, after all.  Maybe all that distaste he felt before wasn’t really his conscience.  It could be that he just felt bad for being pathetic and convinced himself it was a moral thing.

As Erik wrestled with his own feelings, a pair of light, thin hands wrapped themselves around his biceps.  “Congratulations!” Cauliflower’s exuberant voice came from behind him.  As seemed to be becoming a theme with her, Erik didn’t know if she was being earnest or mocking.  Maybe it was both.

Erik muttered, “Thanks,” in response either way.  He turned around to find Champ building a small pile of fallen branches.  Then Not moved next to Champ, dragging the kobold behind him.

“What’re you doing?” Erik asked the two, genuinely curious.

“We’re not taking this crappy thing back in the rover,” Not declared, giving Erik a stern look that he didn’t understand.

“it’s not like it’ll be better with a stove,” Champ chipped in, not looking up from arranging the branches.  “Besides, it’s best just to get it over with.  Trust me.”

“Get what over with?” Erik asked, growing increasingly uncomfortable with their open statements.

“Just let them worry about the hard parts,” Cauliflower said gently as she led Erik to a spot in front of Champ.  She pushed him down until he took a seat and finished.  “This is just a part of the life.  No reason to be afraid.”

“I wasn’t until you said that,” Erik responded.  He tried to push himself away from the fire Champ was slowly coaxing bigger, but somehow Cauliflower’s grasp was inescapable.

As Cauliflower pushed Erik into the ground and whispered that things would be “OK,” Not was turning over the kobold.  With the corpse now lying on its face, Not flipped aside the animal skins it had around its waist; exposing the monster’s unshapely buttocks.  Without any ceremony, Not retrieved a small knife from his pocket and started slicing at the wrinkly skin around one of those tiny mounds.

“What’re you doing?”  Erik stopped resisting Cauliflower to ask again.

“Anything humanoid, you generally want to start with the ass,” Not answered instructionally as he started cutting chunks out of the kobold’s muscle.  “It’s the choicest part.”

“Wait…” Erik demanded as things came together in his mind.  “Do you expect me to eat that?”

“It’s completely natural.” Champ responded with a grin as the fire grew stable.

“That doesn’t look natural!”  Erik shouted in protest, renewing his struggle against Cauliflower’s herculean grasp.  “Why is it purple and green?!  That meat is definitely bad!”

“It’s what we do,” Cauliflower whispered in Erik’s ear.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“Can it not be?”  Erik pleaded, his eyes transfixed on the globules of meat which Not was skewering on a nearby stick.

“It’s best not to freak out like that,” Champ responded, taking the stick from Not and beginning to roast it.  “It’s kinda like taking something up the ass.  It all goes a lot smoother if you just relax.  Go with the flow.”

“I don’t… what?”  Erik asked, completely blindsided.  He tried to make sense of that statement as he watched the flames lick at the slowly blackening meat chunks.  Then the fumes reached him.  Reflexively he brought his hands up to cover his nose and mouth, but that didn’t help much.  The scent had already buried itself in his nostrils.  It was like the smell of a putrid body mixed with a tire fire.

“Good god!” Erik shouted from between his fingers.  “It smells like death.”

“Well, it is dead,” Cauliflower informed Erik helpfully.  “You killed it, remember?”

“Meat is not supposed to smell like that!” Erik rebutted firmly, still refusing to remove his hands from his face.

“Some meat smells like it,” Champ observed, retrieving a small pouch from behind his back.  He withdrew a white substance from inside and sprinkled it over the meat as he continued.  “For example, this meat does.”

“What is that?  What’re you putting on it?” Erik asked, growing slightly paranoid from their conspiratorial behavior.  He just couldn’t stand the strange joy Champ and Cauliflower seemed to be getting out of this situation.

“It’s salt,” Champ answered plainly as he finished the seasoning.  Then he turned to look Erik in the eye and said, “Trust me, you want the salt.”

With that statement, Champ presented the horrible dish to Erik.  Erik adamantly shook his head and reaffirmed his grasp on his own mouth.  That didn’t do much, however, as Cauliflower immediately tore his hands away, once again exposing Erik to the smell.

Erik thrashed his head back and forth, trying to avoid the noxious odor, until Not’s stern voice cut through the pantomime.  “Kid, if you want to be the Newbie: stop messing around.  Eat it.”

At that commanding declaration, Erik had no recourse.  He moved his hand as slowly as it would possibly go and eventually grabbed the proffered stick.  He stopped breathing through his nose as he moved the meat chunks closer to his mouth.  Carefully, he sunk his teeth into the first piece and pulled it from the stick without letting it touch his tongue.  Then he turned up his head, opened his mouth, and allowed the meat chunk to fall inside.

When the meat first landed, Erik’s tongue was tickled by a nice salty flavor.  He was filled with relief.  He’d really been overreacting.  Maybe that was why Champ and Cauliflower found it so funny.

Then The Taste hit him.  As soon as the salt dissolved away, Erik’s mouth was filled with the foulest flavor he had ever conceived.  It was like he’d been cleaning a swamp full of industrial run off with his tongue.  It was sour and bitter and just… chemical.  Without wasting a second, his body took over for him.  He naturally leaned forward and started to gag.

Cauliflower was again too fast for him.  She wrapped her arms around him and firmly clamped both hands over his mouth.  On instinct, he kept trying to spit the poison out, but to no avail.  Eventually Erik caught on to that and took back control of himself.  He once again threw back his head and swallowed as quickly as he could.  With the meat gone, the torture subsided, but like the smell, the taste lingered.  Erik couldn’t keep himself from gagging.  In spite of that, somehow, his body couldn’t quite force out the meat he had just forced into it.

As Erik stared into space and contemplated the sweetness of death, Not spoke again.  “Eat as much as you can.”

Hearing the deep, coaxing voice, Erik turned his eyes back to the skewer in his hand.  He didn’t have the mental strength to resist any kind of pressure at that moment.  Even if it meant stomaching more of that meat.  He brought the skewer to his face and quickly pulled off the second piece.  He dropped it into his mouth and swallowed in one motion.

The speed certainly helped, but he couldn’t avoid an instant of that substance touching his tongue.  A second after he swallowed the piece, his neurons caught up with his taste buds and he was sent into a renewed fit of heaving.

After a few minutes, the convulsions subsided and Erik turned his gaze to the last two chunks. After mustering his resolve, he bit into the third piece and tore it from the skewer.  He threw it into his mouth, swallowed and had another fit.

When Erik turned his view to the final piece of meat, he was strangely exhausted.  The muscles of his abdomen hurt from so desperately attempting to empty his stomach.  The corners of his vision were blurred and his cheeks felt wet.  It was hard to focus his vision on the final piece, but he tried to push himself forward.  It was the final piece.  Just one more and it’d be over.

Just before Erik could shakily grab the final meat chunk, the skewer was snatched away from him.  Then his vision was eclipsed by Champ’s face.  Erik felt something warm and soft patting the top of his head and Champ said, “Good job.  You’ve done well, but it seems you’re done.”

Erik tried to say that he could handle the last one.  It just tasted really bad, it wasn’t like he was dying.  Before he could voice any of that, however, he noticed that the pain in his abdomen was getting strange.  It was going deeper than his muscles and it burned.  Like he had drank more of that moonshine the village chief had let him try.

At some point, Erik had laid down.  He didn’t remember that, but now his view was of soft light peeking through leaves.  As he dealt with that riddle, he felt people all around him.  Then, Not’s face filled his view.  He seemed to be holding something.  Erik looked it over and was barely able to make it out as some kind of leather strap.

“Bite down on this,” Not commanded, placing the leather strip between Erik’s teeth.    “It’ll make things easier and you won’t chip a tooth.”

Erik didn’t understand what that was about, but he obediently pressed his teeth into the leather.  Then he noticed a strange rhythmic noise.  It was like the rushing of water, but it came and went.  Every time it came again it was louder.  At the same time, the fire in his gut got hotter by the second.  Before he knew it, Erik was bending forward.  His already exhausted muscles screamed in pain, but he could do nothing about it.  He wasn’t in control of his body anymore.  Besides, the fire was worse than soreness.

Erik felt like he was burning alive.  At any moment he would see his skin flake off and scatter in the air.  To take his mind off that, he tried to look at the sunlight again, but his vision started to grow hazy.  A red mist covered his sight and made it hard to do anything, but feel the burning.  Then there was the noise.  It just kept getting louder and the rhythm kept growing faster.  If the others were trying to help him, he couldn’t hear them anymore.

Erik desperately dug into whatever flesh was between his teeth.  He needed something to distract himself.  Once the fire in his gut had grown the hottest it could possibly be, it started to spread.  His limbs and his head were set alight as he was left alone in the red with the constant sound of rushing water.

Then, somewhere amidst the water and the flames, Erik faded away.


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2 thoughts on “Lead vs Fantasy 2-3

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

  2. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 2-4 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

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