I’m back from that frozen hellscape and now that I can feel my fingers, I’m ready to type again. Welcome back to all of who bothered to return after the break. Seriously, it means a lot to have anyone reading what I write.
From this point, barring any interruptions by masked men with machetes, I should be back to my weekly release schedule.
I’ve been breaking up posts by what felt natural at the time story-wise, but that has kept getting longer and longer. I know a lot of people have specific preferences about post lengths they want to read. Specifically a lot of people like them shorter.
SO. If you have any opinions on how many words per post I should be aiming for, please let me know.
3-2 A Study in Discomfort
Once again looking back at the transport truck bouncing along behind them, Edge frowned to himself. They were going too fast. The rover hadn’t needed to slow down once to accommodate their charge. That was wrong.
A fully loaded convoy truck matching even a moderate pace from the rover was preposterous. They were just too heavy. It always took a little finagling to get the speeds right. Not this time, though. That meant weight wasn’t an issue here. That meant their client was making a border crossing without a full load. If that was true, he was practically burning money. Not the usual behavior of a merchant.
Everyone else said it wasn’t an issue. The man himself said he was taking on an urgent request from someone important. The kind of request that you can’t afford to waste time on. Hell, even if that was all a lie and his truck was empty, it wasn’t their business. All they had to do was get him to the city gates.
Everyone was right, but so was Edge. When you change plans is when people die. He could never unlearn that lesson… They weren’t even supposed to be in the country that day…
Edge could feel his own face souring once more when he was interrupted by a light pressure on the small of his back. Looking toward the source, Edge found Lotus in the middle of glaring at Champ over some slight. He gave her half a smile and turned his attention to the sky.
The gentle peach and lavenders which dominated the air, as always, preluded something far more sinister than their tone would suggest. It was time to make camp. Trying to drive through the night while on escort duty never ended well. Best to circle the wagons and wait it out. Well, wagon.
Edge looked towards the front and his Captain nodded at the sentiment carried in his eyes. The Captain turned to discuss their stop over the radio and Edge turned his eyes back to the sky. They’d been having weird luck with the sky in the last job. It made you wonder if god was running out of ideas for surprises.
With that thought in mind, Edge absently looked for the next deadly surprise. As he did so, he found something pulling at his mind. Something was wrong with what he was seeing. For a while he couldn’t understand what, but his eyes were seeing something his brain didn’t.
When the negotiations had finished and the rover slowed to a stop, Edge’s mind caught up to his senses. Pointing towards the North East, Edge kicked Cauliflower’s shin and asked, “What’s that?”
Cauliflower followed the gesture and stared into the distance for a while. Eventually she seemed to recognize what Edge had and put her binoculars to her face. “Smoke?” she muttered while pushing all her senses toward the disruption.
With that declaration, the atmosphere of the car grew thicker. “A fire?” Champ asked anxiously as he followed Cauliflower’s gaze.
“Generally that’s what it means,” Lotus answered, her distracted voice contrasting with her derisive words.
“You know what I’m asking,” Champ rebutted without turning away from the faint wisp of smoke that was gently curling into the atmosphere. “Is it something using fire?”
“I think it’s a camp,” Cauliflower ruled, finally pulling away from the distant landscape.
“Who or what?” The Captain asked as the rover finally came to a stop in the middle of the prairie.
“Can’t know from here,” Cauliflower answered, pursing her lips and refusing to meet the Captain’s eyes. “I’ve gotta get closer.”
“We’re not driving up to it,” Edge declared before anyone could get any ideas. “If it’s a hornet’s nest, we aren’t stepping on it.” Seeing the gazes of his companions, Edge added. “I was talking about metaphorical hornets this time.”
“It’s the wrong season for hornets,” Champ observed slowly.
“I said already!” Edge shot back, resting his hands onto his knees as he leaned forward.
“I’ll go on foot.” Cauliflower announced, cutting into the brewing argument. Standing up from her seat, she continued. “Just close enough to feel it out. Then I’ll come back.”
“I guess that’s the only option,” Edge grumbled as he followed Cauliflower’s example, pushing himself to his feet. “We can’t afford to be surprised.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Cauliflower declared, her glare freezing Edge in place.
For a while Edge met Cauliflower’s unwavering gaze. Then he let out a slight groan and sank back into his seat. Edge was no stranger to professional pride, but what got Cauliflower’s hackles up always seemed so random to him.
Edge crossed his arms and watched Cauliflower as she dismounted the rover and trudged off through the waist-high grass. Once her figure became unintelligible, Edge sighed and closed his eyes.
That seemed to signal for the rest of the car to come to life and Champ started speaking. “Cauliflower wasn’t wrong, right? It’s not something fiery?”
As he spoke, Champ’s voice was uncharacteristically weak and wavering. A fact Lotus showed no sympathy for as she coldly dismissed him, “She wasn’t.”
“She is sometimes, though,” Champ begged to be discredited. “How can we be sure?”
“Well, I’m pretty confident I’m not on fire right now,” Edge answered, opening his eyes and turning them on Champ. “There’s your first clue.”
“Are fiery monsters really that bad?” The Newbie asked, starting to quaver slightly at the sight of Champ’s transformation.
“Depends on the kind,” Lotus responded disinterestedly.
“They’re all terrible!” Champ declared, rounding on the Newbie to stare deep into his eyes.
Edge grabbed the bridge of his nose at that sight. Then he took a deep breath and answered, “Obviously, anything old enough or of the dragon family are a bitch and a half. Other than that, it’s all about knowing what to do when. As long as you’re prepared it’s fine. By that token, they aren’t that bad. There’s a reason why assassins don’t carry flame throwers. It lacks subtlety.”
“Some of them can be sneaky,” Champ muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.
“That hell hound wasn’t sneaky, Champ,” Edge rebutted, turning back towards his incensed colleague. “The damn thing was locked in a metal box until the dumb bastard let it out.”
“You only almost died,” Lotus spoke up from beside Edge. “As a mercenary, you’ve gotta be able to let something like that go.”
“You always get on me about this,” Champ responded, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring back at Lotus. “What about Edge?”
“What about me?” Edge asked, furrowing his brow. “I have no problems playing with fire.”
“And what happened two years ago? With that yeti?” Champ asked, shifting his focus towards Edge since he could find no weaknesses in Lotus.
“That’s different,” Edge answered, shifting his gaze away from Champ and trying not to remember running halfway down that mountain.
“Because ice sucks,” Edge declared sullenly.
As the back of the truck heated up, the Captain turned to face the Newbie and said, “As you can see, the hardest monsters to face are whatever ones get under your skin.” Then he paused and looked into the air for a moment before adding. “Also the ones that get under your actual skin. Those’re awful.”
After around fifteen minutes, the argument over who had the worst Achilles heel abated and Cauliflower reappeared from the prairie. She approached the car, her tawny hair framing a grim expression. When the team called after her findings, she said nothing. She mounted the car in silence and took a few steps forward to stand in the middle of the group.
Then Cauliflower softly spoke. “It… It’s elves. Probably.”
With just those words, 71% of the car held its breath. “Are you sure?” The Captain asked, biting his lip so hard it might start bleeding at any time.
“No.” Cauliflower answered simply with a shake of her head. “As soon as I felt anything I turned around. Didn’t want to risk it.”
“Did they sense you?” Edge asked, resting his head on his bicep and scratching the back of his neck.
“I made it back, so…”
“I guess that’s a blessing,” Edge said, lifting up his head and running his fingers through his thick, black hair.
“No need to be so exuberant that I survived.” Cauliflower commented sarcastically.
“Yes, yes. You did a good job,” Edge responded absently as he turned his eyes back towards the thin line of smoke.
“I did do a good job,” Cauliflower declared, frowning obstinately at her aloof vice-captain. “Not many scouts can out-range an elf.”
“Quite impressive,” Knot said, standing from his seat and placing a wide hand on Cauliflower’s head.
Cauliflower’s body stiffened as the large man rubbed her hair, but she didn’t back away from it.
Turning from that spectacle, Edge faced the Captain and said, “Is there a settlement near here?”
“Of Elves?” The Captain asked, rubbing his chin in contemplation. “Can’t be less than 200 miles away.”
“So we have no idea of where they’re coming from or where they’re going,” Edge declared with a frown. “Guess we’ll have to meet them.”
“Or we could not.” Champ cut in hopefully from behind Edge. “We’ll pass by each other. Like ships in the night.”
“Except we’re a rowboat and they’re a dreadnaught.” Edge replied, rounding on Champ. “If we get caught up in their wake, we’ll capsize.”
“I don’t know much about boats. I want a different metaphor.” Champ responded, attempting a charming grin that didn’t reach his eyes.
“There’s an agreement,” Edge declared, standing his ground. “If we keep our side, they’ll keep theirs.”
“They won’t.” Champ insisted, his gaze growing distant.
“Champ…” Edge called out, his voice becoming mixed with an exasperated sigh.
“They lie for fun!” Champ cried out, turning to glower defiantly at Edge.
“We can’t do this right now, Champ.” Edge responded, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We’re mercenaries. What’s our only creed?”
Champ continued to glare at Edge for a while. Then he slowly spat out: “Money, pride, and memories are all useless to a dead man.”
With that somewhat resolved, Edge closed his eyes for a moment. Then he turned back towards the front seat.
“You feel up to it?” The Captain asked, a subtle grin on his face. Edge couldn’t tell whether he was being laughed at for his previous exchange or for what was to come. Either way, he ignored it.
“It’s part of my job. I can do it.” After saying that, Edge furrowed his brow and looked to his feet for a moment. Then he asked, “What month is it?”
“Seven.” The Captain answered simply. “42 years, 7 months.”
“I remember when it happened.” Edge responded defensively as he stood and moved to dig through a small crate beside the Newbie. “I didn’t remember when today is.”
“Just don’t forget on the way,” the Captain said, shaking his head at Edge’s attitude.
After retrieving the small, white megaphone from the crate, Edge shouldered it and turned around. Once he did, he was greeted by the sight of a rifle. Very pointedly not shiny, but absolutely new. Taking the weapon from Lotus’s outstretched hands, Edge tried to get used to the weight. It was a little heavier than his old one, but somehow the recoil was supposed to be more predictable.
Edge was honestly excited to test the thing out. Though, being in battle for its first use wasn’t ideal. Then there was the issue of his potential target. Trying not to let his skin crawl too much, Edge turned towards Cauliflower and asked, “Is half an hour enough time?”
“Should be,” Cauliflower answered as she retook her seat.
“Great,” Edge answered with a bitter smile. “Thirty minutes. You know the drill.”
Before Edge could turn away and head towards the column of smoke, the Captain spoke up. “Take the Newbie and Champ with you.”
With that declaration, Edge froze in place for a moment. Eventually the sound of in-taking breath from behind reanimated him. Before Champ could say anything, Edge leaned into the front compartment and furiously whispered into the Captain’s ear. “What’s that? I don’t even know which to complain about first. Are you trying to get me killed?”
“This’ll be a good learning experience for the boy,” the Captain answered, showing no response to Edge’s aggressive tone. “He’s not ready for combat, so until he is it’s good to give him jobs he can do. Plus, he has a fairly innocent atmosphere around him. Maybe it’ll offset your misanthropy.”
“I’m more concerned about what happens if it comes to combat,” Edge answered irritably. “Fighting an elf and being a babysitter at the same time. I’m not a god.”
“It won’t come to that,” The Captain answered, looking into Edge’s eyes pointedly. “There is an agreement. They have no reason to be hostile.”
“and when Champ gives them a reason?” Edge asked softly, glancing back at the man who was biting his lip as he obediently awaited his turn to speak.
“Champ is an adult. He’s grown a lot,” The Captain responded, following Edge’s gaze. “You have a tendency to expect too little of people.”
“and you expect too much,” Edge muttered irritably.
“Champ won’t willfully get you all killed,” the Captain declared. Then he narrowed his eyes conspiratorially and added, “But he won’t hesitate to take action the second it’s needed. The Newbie is innocent, Champ is eager, and you’re bad at dying. I think it’s a good balance for the job.”
“It’s his eagerness that worries me,” Edge replied, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. Then, without waiting for further persuasion from his leader, Edge turned around. As he walked off of the rover, he said, “You heard our fearless leader. Newbie, Champ, we’re gonna go make our presence known.”
“Don’t I have the right to refuse?” Champ asked from behind Edge, trying hard to sound jolly.
“Yeah,” Edge answered without turning around. “You coulda stayed in San Ranto.”
With that, there was no more dispute. Those who had the courage to argue, knew it wouldn’t help. Champ and the Newbie followed Edge off the rover. They turned to face the smoke, which was being rapidly swallowed by the obscuring nightfall, and set off.
“Captain,” Edge turned and called back before the trio could disappear into the grass. “I don’t think our esteemed client needs to hear about this.”
After a moment of reflection, the Captain’s face opened into a mischievous smile and he asked, “You don’t want him tagging along?”
“The man’s been jumping at the smell of his own farts since the start,” Edge answered, narrowing his eyes at his leader. “I doubt he’s in the mood to be diplomatic.”
The Captain let off a light chuckle and concluded. “I think it’s best for everyone if this is quickly resolved in a way where he doesn’t need to hear about it.”
With that, the trio were devoured by the grey-green grass. Once they were out of earshot of the rover, the Newbie seemed to have worked up the nerve to speak. “What are we going to do, exactly?” The Newbie seemed to consider something for a few seconds. Then he added, in a voice that seemed as if it wished not to be heard, “Is it dangerous?”
“We’re doing what we said we were going to do,” Edge declared simply, staring into the grass in front of him as he moved. That was the problem with grass, too many things had learned how to hide in it. “We’re going to tell the elves that we exist.”
That answer stood in the air for a few moments. Then the Newbie asked, “Why?”
“Because we don’t want them to kill us later on,” Edge answered, pushing aside a thistle with his boot. After a few seconds, Edge decided that this wouldn’t satisfy the Newbie’s curiosity, so he continued. “You know how Cauliflower does her whole brain bubble thing? Well, elves are born with something similar to that. Similar, but different.”
“How different?” The Newbie asked, slogging through the brush to take position next to Edge.
“I don’t know,” Edge answered, turning a disbelieving scowl towards the Newbie. “I don’t even understand how Cauliflower’s stuff works. How can I answer that question?”
The Newbie retreated a little at Edge’s irritated response and Edge turned his gaze back to the grass. Then he continued. “The only thing anyone needs to know about their sensing is that they have trouble telling the difference between mercenaries and monsters.”
Edge stopped, hunched his back, and pinched the bridge of his nose. Before he could say anything, the Newbie quickly answered himself, “Right, you don’t know… Sorry.”
“Anyway,” Edge continued, shaking his head as he started walking again. “If they feel our presence without knowing we’re around, they might put us in the ground before they even see that we’re human shaped.”
“They could do it after they see us, too,” Champ finally grumbled from the back. Edge sighed again and the Newbie turned a naively curious gaze back at the usually jubilant man. “It’s not like they give a shit.”
“They do give a shit about themselves though,” Edge declared, turning an impatient glare on his perineal comrade. “Do I need to give you a history lesson, Champ?”
“No…” Champ grumbled dejectedly.
“I would like one.” The Newbie chimed in, holding up his hand. Sheepishly lowering it again as Edge’s impatience turned on him, he explained. “S-sorry, but we didn’t have a lot to read in the village. We didn’t have a lot of anything, really.”
“Such a pain in the ass…” Edge’s body deflated as he breathed the words out. Once he had no more air in him, he took a deep breath said, “I don’t really feel like explaining it all, but just accept this much: it’d be more annoying for them later if they were to kill us here.”
“I don’t really feel like I learned anything…” The Newbie complained, furrowing his brow.
“I’m not your teacher,” Edge declared, rounding on the boy again. Then he reconsidered his statement and added. “Ok, I’m not your history teacher. I probably will end up stuck teaching you how to shoot.”
Edge frowned at that thought as he turned back towards their destination. Teaching just wasn’t his thing. It always made him remember when he had to explain how side arms work to Champ. The whole process took them three months and they hated each other for another six months after that. Not the best time.
Before the Newbie could ask any other inane questions, something tickled Edge’s nose. It was a faint acridity which was barely detectable amidst the sweet scent of dry foliage. Once he placed the scent, he immediately held up his hand to stop his little team.
Then Edge took the megaphone, which hung from his shoulder, and brought it up to his mouth. He cleared his throat. He pressed the button and shouted, “42 years, 7 months.” Then he waited as the reverb filled echoes from the unfamiliar device filled the area.
“What was that?” The Newbie asked once he seemed satisfied that no other shouts were forthcoming.
“That’s how long it’s been since the elves agreed to try and not kill off mercenaries so much,” Edge answered, not bothering to look at the Newbie. “It’s the signal that we can think.”
“Why is that the signal?” The Newbie asked in a rare, critical tone. “Seems stupid and easy to forget.”
“It’s both of those things,” Edge answered with a frown. Then he finally turned to regard the young mercenary and explained. “But there’s not much we can do. If the signal stayed the same, a wendigo or a skin walker might use it.”
“And now they won’t?” The Newbie asked, furrowing his brow skeptically.
“Monsters may be able to copy words, but they can’t count,” Edge answered with a shrug. “Not for the most part, anyway.”
Before anyone could say anything else, the area was dominated by a frantic rustling sound. It was as if a tiny army were running through the grass around them. Edge immediately prepared for a fight and put his hand behind his back to grasp his new rifle. As whatever it was tore its way through the prairie, Edge could feel his whole body tense. He stopped breathing and his fingers traced the cold metal of his gun.
Then, their enemy reached them and Edge’s heartrate immediately slowed. He released his muscles and took a few deep breaths. Then he turned his gaze back to what had intruded on his team. It was a clearing. A thin line of space from which the grass had politely sidled away.
Edge turned to watch the phenomenon continue a few feet behind them. Even as he studied it, his eyes couldn’t quite make sense of what was happening. Every single plant in the way of the clearing simply moved a few feet to the right or left. They didn’t get up and walk and the earth didn’t shake them off. They simply flowed out of the way, like they were floating gently down a stream.
When it’d finished, Edge was left standing in a small dirt path just wide enough for one person. In front of him, it led to a barely visible orange glow. Behind him, it terminated in a dead end.
“What is this?” The Newbie asked, tentatively prodding one of the leaves bordering the path.
“Closest we’ll get to a warm welcome,” Edge answered with a shrug. “Guess they don’t want us to forget who’s in charge.”
“They don’t care about that,” Champ declared, prompting Edge and the Newbie to look back at him. He spent a while glaring at the now stationary flora. Then he continued. “They wouldn’t bother coming to us for a meeting. That’s why they did all this.”
“Whatever it is, we’re going to play nice with the scary people,” Edge said jovially as he remembered that team morale was technically his responsibility. Seeing that neither of his companions were moved by his attitude, he shrugged again and continued. “Let’s just get this over with.”
At that declaration, Edge turned and followed the path towards the orange light. A few seconds later, he heard the soft footsteps of his companions following behind. As they approached, the light grew clearer. It slowly showed itself to be a flame, barely visible from the narrow path through the grass. When Edge finally reached the end of the small road, he stopped a few feet from its exit. There, he took a few deep breaths and felt his face to make sure he wasn’t scowling.
As presentable as he could be, he passed through the opening and into a clearing. Once Edge’s eyes adjusted to the sudden influx of light, he took in his new surroundings. The only word that came to his mind was pristine.
The second thing he thought was that pristine wasn’t a very mercenary word. It didn’t fit his image as a rough adventurer. That must’ve been Lotus’s influence. He was never posh enough to know pretty words that end in “ine.” Except for latrine.
As much as Edge might complain over his lost barbarism, the word was right. The area he entered was so immaculate that the Newbie could only release strange sighs of surprise and discomfort. It was like passing into a new world entirely.
The clearing in the midst of the prairie formed a perfect circle. Though, maybe clearing wasn’t the right word. All the grass was still there. It had simply bent down and obediently weaved itself into a clean carpet over the whole area.
In the center of the clearing was the campfire. A perfect orange flame that gently flicked and danced with the movements of the wind. It would be the perfect example of a campfire; except that there were no logs beneath it. No fuel of any kind was visible. The flame hovered in the air a few inches above the grass, yet it showed no signs of spreading. It was the perfect flame which refused to behave like fire.
Surrounding the campfire were three earthen huts. They were simple, little more than boxes made of hardened clay. Still, the structures looked like they could’ve stood there for years. Edge knew they would be gone by the coming afternoon.
Edge did his best not to frown at the bourgeois display before him. When he was sure he had complete control over his facial muscles, Edge turned to their host.
The man, who had just emerged from one of the huts, was startlingly beautiful. He was a little taller than the average man and was abnormally thin. Like he had no muscles at all. His elegant, yet dashing, face was framed by a crop of thoroughly groomed gold which sprouted from his head. This hair was held back from his eyes by the long, sharp ears which proudly declared themselves from either side of his head. His emerald eyes glanced around the clearing as he emerged into it. When they landed on Edge’s trio, they stuck fast and hardened faster.
For an uncomfortable eternity, no one said anything and the elf merely glowered. The first one to break that atmosphere was the one to make it. The Elvish man abruptly started stomping forward and as he did so, he growled. “What do you know, human?”
The assuming tone of command in the Elf’s voice almost made Edge bend knee right there. Knowing that, he had to force a friendly smile on his face to cover up his irritated sneer. “We’re presenting ourselves in accordance with the Elwine agreement,” Edge declared, attempting to sound upbeat and political.
“Don’t play around!” the Elf spat as he came to a stop a few feet away from Edge. His statuesque face contracted in frustration and he held out his right palm towards Edge as he continued. “Tell me!”
As the force of the Elf’s will washed over him, Edge could feel the Newbie quivering behind him. At the same time, Champ stepped up to Edge’s right and put his hands on his rifle.
Feeling the situation growing in a dangerous direction, Edge hurriedly reached out with his right arm to grasp Champ’s shoulder and reign him in. At the same time, Edge’s left hand naturally moved to the black hilt hanging on his hip and his feet slowly shuffled into a stance.
As Edge continued to look steadily into the frothing elf’s eyes, he considered the coming minutes. For a few seconds, some of his neurons tried desperately to posit questions, such as why this man was so pissed. He immediately shut that down, however. That didn’t matter in the moment.
If it were just the one man, then Champ and Edge could probably manage an escape somehow, but there were three huts. Looking at the elf, he was probably ready to use some kind of magic. Edge had no idea what would happen with that, but he was confident he could survive the first attack. After that, it all depended on luck. By the third move at latest, this would become a battle of at least three on three. Three on two and a quarter. Whatever happened there, no amount of luck could save them.
Then they needed to run. Edge would probably have to stay behind to give anyone any hope of escape. The Newbie was still a newbie. All weak and virginal. He’d find some way to screw up and get put down. If everything went right and he could be persuaded to leave, Champ could probably make it back alive. That was at least something.
The only question was if Champ could make it to the rover enough ahead of the elves for the team to escape. If his flight got the whole team killed, then Edge might as well knee cap him right here. It all came down to how much time Edge could buy.
Alone vs. three elves. As he imagined the battle, he tried desperately to keep the image of a taciturn, feminine face from conjuring itself in his mind.
It was no use. Edge couldn’t do it. That was his objective decision. He was certain it was an objective decision as a leader. It was all about saving the most lives.
When he returned all his brain power to his senses, Edge found the elvish man still glaring into his eyes. His best option would be to diffuse whatever this was. Though, it didn’t seem like denying anything would get through.
Edge slowly relaxed his muscles. He let the smile fall from his face and replaced it with a blank expression tinted with a bit of fear. Like he was barely able to keep his poker face under pressure. That wasn’t a hard thing to do under the circumstances.
Then, Edge tried his best, “Look, we’re just trying to cross the border. Whatever you’re doing here or whatever. We won’t tell anybody. All right?”
Hearing Edge’s statements, the Elf’s face finally lost some of its hostility and crumpled in light confusion. “What…?”
Seeing his progress, Edge waved his hands in front of him and bowed his head as he continued, “We know this isn’t your territory, but we don’t really care about that stuff.” As Edge continued he couldn’t spend any of his attention on Champ. He just prayed the man was still behaving himself. “We’re not from around here. Just passing through. We won’t talk to anybody about you. Like we never even met.”
For a while the Elf’s face remained painted in confusion as he squinted at Edge. Then he abruptly shook his head and shouted, “No! Stop pretending!”
“I’m not lying,” Edge desperately tried to recover as he took a step backwards. “We really won’t tell-“
“Don’t fuck around with me!” The elf interrupted, small specs of spittle flying from his rosy lips. As he spoke, he raised his palm once again. Though, this time it as clad in an oppressive darkness as if it devoured the light around it.
Before the dangerous hand was fully pointed at him, Edge already had his hand back on the hilt of his dagger. With the elf ready to attack at any moment, Edge shuffled his feet back into place and slightly lowered his center of gravity.
As he stared into the abyss, Edge counted the seconds that flowed by. With every moment that passed, he stopped being himself. He gave up everything to void. He felt nothing, he thought nothing, he controlled nothing. He relinquished his body to unending march of time.
Then that eternity of seconds was all blown away by one word, “Stop.” The gentle, feminine voice had no urgency to it and refused to take on a volume greater than what could be found in normal conversation. However, there was something in that calm, soft voice that demanded compliance.
As soon as that one word was spoken, both Edge and the Elf stopped. Finding himself in such a situation, Edge frowned at his own body for being so obedient. He hadn’t remembered turning into a dog who listens to commands.
When Edge had grown tired of deriding himself, he remembered to be thankful for his own life. When that thought crossed his mind, he turned his eyes towards the source of the voice. Standing at the doorway of the farthest earthen hut was a lone woman. From her looks, only barely a woman. Eighteen at the oldest. Her deep auburn hair was tied into a loose ponytail that extended to the small of her back and her porcelain skin was, of course, spotless.
While everything about her appearance screamed youth, her emerald eyes held a piercing wisdom which outstripped what could be gathered in the lifetime of a human. Taken as a whole, Edge found her look disquieting. That was the problem with elves. One of the problems. They were all beautiful, but their beauty always had something wrong about it.
Maybe that was because of their strength and age. Those two together made their appearance feel like a harsh lie. Like an aluraune. A beautiful flower just waiting to eat you.
Paying no attention to Edge’s discomfort, the elf woman stepped forward to the center of the camp. “What’re you doing?” The woman asked, turning cold, reprimanding eyes on the man in front of Edge. “I heard they were here to announce themselves. Shouldn’t you be asking about their route before sending them along?”
“My lady they-“
Before the man could continue, he was silenced as the woman interrupted. “This and that are two different things.” Though the woman’s voice remained soft and measured, the man couldn’t seem to bring himself to speak over her.
Once the elf man had been properly cowed, the woman finally turned her attention to Edge’s little trio. Edge took this as an opportunity to start again and quickly stepped forward. Then he placed his left hand against his right shoulder and bowed at the waist. It’d been a while, but he was fairly sure that was the elf thing.
When Edge straightened up, the woman didn’t seem any more disapproving that she had before. He took that as a sign of acceptance and spoke. “As you’ve said, we’re here to announce our presence. We’re just seven mercenaries total. Our camp’s not far from here and as soon as the sun rises, we’ll be headed east for the border crossing.”
“Seven?” the woman asked lightly as she scanned over them with her disquieting eyes. “Half your company came to do one man’s work? That’s a little strange, isn’t it?”
“That wasn’t my idea,” Edge DIDN’T say. Instead, he smiled to hide his internal grumbling and lied as hard as he could.
“This one’s a newbie, you see,” Edge declared, putting a hand on the Newbie’s back and pushing him forward. “It’s good to let him experience different things. Just in case.” Seeing the woman’s eyes turning curiously towards Champ, Edge hurriedly added. “If I’m gonna be babysitting, it’s best to have backup.”
The old young woman nodded slowly at that and turned her attention back towards the Newbie. “Your first time meeting elves, is it?”
For a moment, the Newbie stared into the woman’s face silently. Then he slowly turned to look back at Edge, his wide stare screaming for guidance.
Edge returned the Newbie’s gaze with cold eyes, never letting the smile fade from his face. It’s not like he could give the kid a script at this point.
“You don’t have to be scared,” the elf woman declared, a bemused smile blossoming elegantly across her face. “We never liked the taste of humans. Too gamey.”
Hearing the woman’s joke, the Newbie seemed to accept that he would have to talk to the nice lady himself. He turned to face the woman and then started fidgeting. Edge couldn’t see well from behind, but it looked like the Newbie was playing with his fingers as he spoke: “I-I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” the elf replied, her eyes becoming warmer, yet somehow feeling like those of a cat eyeing a mouse. “Tell me, what do you think of your first meeting with my kind?”
“I’ve never met such a ho- bea- pretty girl before.” The Newbie declared unevenly, drooping his head and staring at the dirt, he added, “I was surprised.”
“You go too far, flattering an old woman,” the elf brought her slender hand to her silken cheek and gave a soft laugh as she responded.
Seeing that exchange, Edge could feel his smile becoming more genuine. Acting the fool to diffuse the situation, the Newbie had some unexpected talents there.
Craning his neck, Edge caught a glimpse of the Newbie’s reddened cheeks and his smile froze. He was acting the fool, right? If that kid was being genuine, then Edge would need to give him a good thrashing later.
As Edge thought of ways to break the fool out of the kid, he was stopped by a tug on his sleeve. Edge didn’t need to turn back to Champ to figure out what the man wanted. Edge looked down at his watch and found they were running out of time to make the hike back to the rover. Not that this matter much now that things seemed to calm down. They could radio ahead and they wouldn’t be left. Still, no need to stick around.
Edge gave an almost imperceptible nod at Champ’s sentiment. Then he tried to shape his mouth to make words, but stopped himself before they came out. He repeated this a couple times, but couldn’t commit to anything. None of the excuses to leave he could come up with seemed right to him. All too direct and easy to get offended over.
Turning her eyes away from the Newbie, the elf woman seemed to catch what Edge was trying. She gave an elegant smile and said, “Night has fallen and your purpose has been fulfilled. We should each get back to our own beds.”
“I thank you for your consideration,” Edge responded with another light bow.
“My lady!” An outburst interrupted Edge as he turned to leave the too-perfect clearing. “We need to-“
“That is enough,” the elf woman’s stern voice interrupted as Edge reflexively reached for his gun. When Edge looked back at the woman, she pursed her lips and scowled at the hotheaded man. “Honestly, that is the epitome of foolishness: trying to pick a fight with a hero.”
Edge, confident that the woman would deal with the hothead, was waiting for right timing to flee. Then, her last word froze him in place. For the first time in the meeting, Edge’s smile inverted itself into a frown. For a moment, he considered merely leaving, but he didn’t.
“What was that?” Edge asked softly, almost under his breath.
Turning back towards Edge, the woman offered a light smile and asked, “Is there anything else you could call a slayer of a great beast?”
“That wasn’t… it was just… luck,” As he spoke, Edge could feel his hand moving unconsciously towards his eyes. Before it could reach, he balled it into a fist and forced it back to his side.
“Luck, too, is an important part of heroism,” the elf woman countered, her smile deepening into that of a grand-motherly advisor. An expression which clashed terribly with her youthful features and gave her a sense of condescension.
For a second, Edge’s body shook as he tried to come up with some kind of response. Then he decided the best response was none at all. Like that, he turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Apart from all the other things, like them accidentally killing people and stuff, that was why Edge hated elves. They were all old people, but they had the energy of the young. That wasn’t right. It made it too easy for them to play around with everyone.