3-4 You See, Cause Relations Can Also Mean…
Squinting, Champ glared at the line of trees which blurrily streamed by behind him. In general he trusted Cauliflower’s judgement, but in general, she said things that made sense. He’d never heard of a monster forest. He dared the silent trees to reveal their secrets, but they remained stubbornly ordinary.
He wondered if it was all the bees. That hive was big. Maybe it was big enough to play hell with her radar or whatever. Champ had never really understood Cauliflower’s affinity anyway. Using guns real well was easy to get. Even Edge’s knife stuff made some sense, though sometimes it felt too close to magic. Anything more exotic than that was impossible for him. How was he supposed to accept some crazy ESP at face value?
Champ thought about asking Cauliflower to explain it all again. Then he looked at her and changed his mind. She was staring at nothing through her binoculars, as usual. However, she didn’t have the vacant expression she got when she was focusing. She also wasn’t quite smiling.
She always got like this when she felt like she screwed something up. It was stupid. He’d done a lot more stupid stuff over the last few years than he’d ever seen her do. He felt like he should say something to that affect. Then he looked at her again.
Before Champ could say anything, memories of the last time Knot had gotten mixed up in her issues flooded his mind. It’d taken over a month for him to heal completely and he still had the scar on his shoulder. He’d laughed it off as a love bite, but there was a lot of blood. There were some abysses that were best let undisturbed.
Closing his mouth, Champ frowned at himself. They were still on the job. He was thinking too much. It was distracting and unlike him. Then he remembered what he was trying so hard not to think of and frowned again. It was those damn pointy eared pricks. They all looked too similar. It was unnatural. Like the handmade children of gods, every one of them. The bastards.
Champ bit his cheek and reached below his seat. Before his hand could make it halfway to its destination, it was pinned to his chair by a boot. Following the boot up, Champ found two icy, magenta eyes looking down at him in disapproval.
“We’re still on the job,” Lotus reprimanded.
“I wasn’t getting it for myself,” Champ lied, trying on a smile and waving his free hand in the air. “I thought, If I plied him with liquor, I could introduce the Newbie o a whole new world.”
“…that was really forced,” Edge observed, his face stiff.
“Don’t worry, Newbie,” Champ responded, turning to give a gentle look at the Newbie. “I wasn’t planning on forcing anything.”
“What?” The Newbie asked, his face holding nothing, but pure bewilderment.
Then Edge let out a short hiss of stifled laughter and his face broke in to a smile. Turning to see Lotus’s disapproving look, Edge shrugged and said, “What? It was funny.”
“It wasn’t,” Lotus corrected, narrowing her eyes.
“It was, a bit,” Edge defended sheepishly.
“Throw enough stuff at the wall and something sticks,” Champ declared happily, freeing his hand from under Lotus’s boot and leaning back against the railing behind him. This was how he should be. Don’t think too much and say what comes to mind. Just go with the flow.
While basking in the afterglow of a successful joke, Champ felt something rubbing against his left thigh. Immediately, Champ whipped his head around towards the Newbie and shouted, “Stop Fidgeting!” In unison with Lotus and Edge.
The Newbie froze in the middle of adjusting his legs and quivered under the combined glares of the three veterans. When he’d recovered from the shock of the sudden assault, He scrunched his shoulders and whined, “My legs are starting to cramp up.”
“Bare through the pain,” Edge advised callously.
“You know you have what amounts to an armed land mine between your legs, yes?” Lotus observed with a twitch of her eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Champ cut in quickly. “And also there’s the bee’s corpse, too.”
Cauliflower, Edge, Lotus, and the Newbie turned to look at Champ, either unamused and judgmental or unamused and confused.
“Can’t win ‘em all,” Champ muttered bitterly, crossing his arms over his chest and turning away from them.
“Why does it need to be between my legs is the question!” The Newbie cried desperately.
“Good god, would you cut it off!?” Champ asked, flailing his arms in mock surprise.
“I’ll cut yours off,” Lotus growled under her breath.
“Kid,” Edge stared, ignoring the other two and staring into the Newbie’s eyes. “What Lotus said wasn’t wrong. We don’t know how damaged the thing’s pheromone sacks are already. Any sudden movements might make them rupture. Best not to do anything until we’re at least a few miles away from any legionnaire nests.”
“Plus, it’s a really tasty find,” Cauliflower added in, removing her binoculars to stare greedily at the red and black corpse laying at the Newbie’s feet. “Not often you get one that intact to fall in your lap.”
“Tasty?” The Newbie asked, eyeing the still gooey insect skeptically.
“She means we can turn it into money,” Champ explained, breaking away from his staring contest with Lotus to clasp one hand on the Newbie’s back.
“People will pay to eat that?” The Newbie asked incredulously. Stiffening his body to keep Champ’s pat from forcing him to step on the bee. “Like at a restaurant?”
“I know you’re from the boonies, but you are still a human, yes?” Edge asked, exasperated. “You know words and stuff? How they work?”
“I- Oh!” The Newbie responded, his face turning crimson as he put everyone’s words together. “Right. Not literally… Sorry.”
“Go easy on the boy,” The Captain turned in his seat to reprimand Edge. Then he shifted a kind gaze towards the Newbie and said, “People pay a decent amount for legionnaire bees if you have a full one. They clean it out thoroughly, dry it, and grind the stinger and exoskeleton into powder. Then they sell that as a fertility medicine.”
“Does that actually work?” The Newbie asked, furrowing his brow. “Ground up monster medicine doesn’t sound healthy.”
“Wouldn’t know,” The Captain answered with a shrug. “Some people swear by it, though.”
“Some people swear by anything,” Edge added cynically.
The Captain nodded at that sentiment and the Newbie merely looked at the dead bee thoughtfully.
The rover traveled in silence for a while. Then Champ noticed Cauliflower stiffen strangely. She stared into her binoculars intently. After a moment, she blindly reached for Knot’s shoulder and tugged on him. “We should stop,” She declared, her voice not urgent enough for Knot to slam on the breaks. “There’s something up ahead.”
“What is it?” Knot asked, leaning onto the break.
“Not a hundred percent, but feels like the Elves from before,” Cauliflower answered quickly.
Champ frowned in displeasure.
The Captain squinted into the grass ahead of them as he reached for the radio. “Our scout felt something ahead in our path. We’re gonna stop and discuss it. Sit tight.”
Something that sounded like unwilling agreement squeaked out of the small radio speaker. Then The Captain turned to face the team. “Are they moving?” he asked when his eyes landed on Cauliflower.
“They’re on the edge of what I can sense, so it’s hard to say, but I don’t so.”
“How long will it take to skirt around them without them seeing us?” The Captain asked, scratching his chin.
Cauliflower frowned at the sky for a moment. Then she answered. “Twenty minutes, if we want to be sure.”
The Captain sighed and glared at the forest. “It’s not much time, but the client won’t be happy. It’s already taking us long enough to find a detour around this forest. Three hours without sign of its end, he’s running out of patience.”
“Would you rather keep going straight through them?” Cauliflower asked sarcastically.
“Just complaining a bit,” the Captain answered with another sigh.
“Maybe we should talk to them,” Lotus suggested, pursing her lips as she prepared for the backlash.
“Why would-!?” Champ got ready to shout, but was silenced by a wave of the Captain’s hand.
“They’re elves,” Lotus continued. Then she waved in front of her towards the trees and said, “We’re at a strange monster forest. Maybe they know something. A safe way through, hopefully.”
“And you expect them to help us?” Champ asked, trying to keep the disdain out of his voice.
“They might,” Lotus responded with an easy shrug. “Never know until we try.”
“I do know!” Champ shot back, all his muscles tensing in frustration.
“This isn’t the time,” Edge declared in an even tone.
“This is the time!” Champ shouted, standing from his seat and looking down at the two in front of him. He knew they were better mercs than he was. Even if Lotus joined after him, she’d been at the game for a lot longer. Apart from the Newbie, he had the least experience. But this was different. They didn’t know like he did. They hadn’t experienced it, so they couldn’t know. They talk about being cautious and all, but they don’t understand.
They couldn’t understand so they wouldn’t listen to him. They’d go off and be taken in by the elves’ charms and then… something… bad would happen. Champ’s body was shaking with impotent frustration as he flung his arm towards the front of the rover and said, “How is this not the time?! You’re about to order us into a lion’s den! This is exactly the time to stop you!”
“Champ, calm down and we’ll listen to you,” the Captain’s even voice came from the front seat.
“No you won’t!” Champ growled back angrily. “You’ll sit there and hear what I have to say, but then go anyway. Because you don’t understand what they’re really like. You don’t understand how dangerous they are!”
“Champ…” The Captain said slowly.
Before the Captain could come up with a response, Edge stood from his seat and stared coldly into Champ’s eyes. “You aren’t in charge here, Champ!” Edge shouted, not allowing his pupils to deviate a fraction of an inch. “If you want to be, you’ve gotta fight for it! C’mon, pick up your gun! Try and shoot me now! See how that ends!”
Those blood red eyes that stared into Champ’s didn’t belong to the usual edge. They didn’t have the usual air of disinterested irritation and instead glowed with deadly determination. Before Champ had noticed, Edge had already drawn his black knife and was holding it at his side in a reverse grip. Champ’s entire body froze under that pressure. This must be what if feels like to be hunted, he thought as chills ran down his spine.
That moment of staring into the dark abyss of Edge’s pupils lasted for an eternity. Then, all the frustrated tension that’d filled Champ’s limbs abandoned him in an instant and he collapsed back onto his seat.
“That wasn’t what I-“ Champ weakly explained as Edge returned to his own seat.
Edge said nothing and turned towards the Captain. Champ followed his gaze and saw his leader. That dignified, heroic figure was staring at him with honest concern that cut Champ to the bone. He couldn’t keep himself from remembering the night when that man had stolen him from the jaws of death.
Somehow, Champ’s heart started to hurt and he felt like he was about to cry. He couldn’t meet those eyes any longer, he dropped his head and weakly said, “I’m sorry. I was just… worried.”
“Your concerns have been noted,” The Captain responded. His gentle tone sent another tinge of awkward guilt shooting through Champ’s chest.
“Cauliflower, how good are the odds they would know anything about this situation?” The Captain asked, turning away from Champ.
“Well, I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’ve only talked to Elves like twice… so…” Cauliflower answered, her eyes wandering.
The Captain nodded at that and turned towards Edge. “How helpful do you think those Elves would be?”
Edge shrugged and said, “One of them was pretty jumpy, but their boss lady…” Edge’s voice faded out as he stared into space for a moment before finishing, “probably won’t start anything.”
“Just because she flatters you, doesn’t mean she’s trustworthy,” Champ muttered under his breath.
“She was flattering?” Lotus asked, her tone very carefully not wavering from one of idle curiosity.
“She said she didn’t want to pick a fight with us,” Edge answered, glaring at Champ with his usual lazy ire.
“Was that was she said?” Lotus asked, raising an inquisitive eyebrow at the Newbie.
Seeing himself the new center of attention, the Newbie fidgeted in his seat. Then, before his excited foot could come down on the bee’s corpse, Edge’s boot shot out to redirect it. When his foot struck metal about an inch away from the bee’s thorax, the Newbie went ridged and stared at the ground for a second. Then he slowly brought his eyes up and found himself still under Lotus’s inquisitive gaze.
“She didn’t say it exactly like that, but… I guess?” The Newbie answered with an awkward smile.
“Did she say it all cleavagey like this?” Cauliflower asked happily, bringing her arms together to emphasize her chest, but failing to get significant results under her plain black tee shirt.
Lotus looked over the display, unamused and Edge rolled his eyes and leaned back into his seat as he said, “Either way, as long as we don’t start something, I don’t think she’ll fight us. I mean, what would they get out of that?”
Champ once again readied to rebut Edge’s words, but then his eyes fell on the Captain’s face and he deflated.
“So we negotiate?” Cauliflower asked, dropping her arms to her side, much to the Newbie’s disappointment.
The Captain took a regretful look at Champ. Then he returned to his usual resolute expression and said, “Our current situation is no good. This has a chance of getting us out of it. We might as well take it.”
“Do we bring the client with us for that?” Edge asked, glancing back at the idling truck behind them. “I think if our jumpy client meets our jumpy elf friend, things could get exciting in a bad way.”
The Captain followed his gaze and frowned. “I’m inclined to agree. Besides, I feel like he’ll become unpleasant if we tell him we knew about the elves being here last night and didn’t say anything.”
The rest of the team nodded at that sentiment and the Captain picked up the radio. “We’ve decided to check out the situation ahead on our own. Stay back here and signal us if anything happens.”
Champ didn’t bother listening to the merchant’s response as the rover roared back into life and pulled forward. He had to prepare himself for what was to come. He gouged his fingers into the back of his own knee as tried to focus his mind.
Champ didn’t have long to prepare. After five minutes, Edge picked up the megaphone to announce their presence. Two minutes after that, the rover came to a stop in front of four Elves, three men, one woman. All of them beautiful in the same way. Just like-
Champ gritted his teeth and stared at the rover’s bed as he tried not to remember.
Champ’s desperate struggle with his memories was interrupted by a familiar masculine voice. “You! You said you were headed to the border! What are you doing here!?”
Hearing that furious voice forced Champ’s eyes open. He quickly turned to look over the elves once again and easily identified the speaker. The same man from the previous night. Once again, he was strange. Uncomfortably strange.
An elf shouldn’t hate humans. Almost none of them ever even got angry at any human. The best a human could hope to draw out of an elf was irritation. Elves didn’t despise humans in the same way humans didn’t grow to despise dogs. Elves would have to stoop down to hate a man.
So the, why was this elf so emotional? That was strange. The strangeness itself was uncomfortable. However, there was something else that made Champ’s skin crawl. Elves thought of humans as lesser than them. As much as Champ hated to admit it, in large parts, they were right.
This was the first elf that Champ had ever seen truly enraged. Standing before such a furious font of power, the usual anger, hatred, and memories he would usually be fighting against vanished. It was all washed away by a cold fear that gnawed at his heart. Instinctually, Champ reached out for his deadly partner. When his hand closed around the smooth, wooden grip, he calmed down a bit and turned to watch things unfold.
Before the elf man could work himself into a true fury, he was silenced by a wave of the woman’s hand. With a three elegant steps she stood in front of her group. The two unfamiliar men behind her seemed disquieted by that, but didn’t have the will to obstruct her.
The woman’s eyes wandered over the rover. They paused for a moment as she looked at the Captain. Then they finally landed on Edge and she spoke. “While my companion was untactful, what he said was not wrong. You know that lying about your path is a breach of the agreement, yes? Why are you here?”
The woman lacked even the pretense at cordiality she had the previous night. Her face was blank, her tone even. She didn’t offer any declaration of hostility. However, not being hostile wasn’t the same as being friendly. Just seeing the contrast in the woman’s mood was enough to send shivers down Champ’s spine.
Admirably, Edge stood up in that atmosphere and offered his usually stiff business smile to the woman as he responded. “We were following the path we said before, but we ran into some danger. Now we’re looking for a different route.”
The Elf woman nodded and her expression softened as she gave a smile. Though, Champ couldn’t fight the feeling that she was laughing at them as she said, “So you picked a fight with the forest, did you?”
“So its re-“ Edge stopped himself in the middle of responding, gave a cough, and then continued. “So you know about that, do you?”
“Of course we do,” The elf woman answered, her expression briefly overcome with a frigid ferocity. She quickly returned to her gentle demeanor and added, “It’s hard to miss.”
“I see,” Edge answered, his business smile growing a little stiffer. Then he turned his gaze towards the Captain and the two locked eyes. The two seemed to have one of their wordless conversations.
Then the woman’s attention was drawn to the Captain as he stood from his seat. For a moment, he stood there with his mouth open. Then he clasped his hands together, gave a refreshing smile and said, “We’ve heard that elves have special relations with forests, so…”
“That is baseless slander!” the woman shouted, her eyes widening and her face contorting in fury.
As the men behind the woman took one step forward, the Captain desperately flailed his hands and stuttered nonsense. “Ah- um- no, I think. Misunderstood.” After a few seconds, he found his words and hurriedly tried to explain. “I was trying to say, you have magic that you can use, yes? To maybe help with this. Or, I mean, not help, but.”
“I see,” the Elf woman responded, calming down and waving for her subordinates to retreat again. “You want us to do work for you.”
“No not at all!” The Captain responded quickly, waving his hands again. “I merely thought that an information exchange would be helpful for both of us.”
“And what information would you exchange exactly?” The woman asked, looking down on the man who was standing over her.
“We’ll never know how we might help each other until we both know what the other wants, right?”
“You think you can help us?” the elf woman asked, narrowing her eyes skeptically.
“You never know.”
The woman stared into the Captain eyes for a while. Then she looked into the forest. Then she shrugged and said, “We’re looking for something.”
“My lady!” The excitable elf started, but a glance from the woman shut him down once again. He backed away and hung his head.
“We’re looking for something,” The woman started over when she was satisfied she wouldn’t be obstructed. “And we think it should be somewhere in this forest.”
“What is it?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“How do you know it’s in there?”
The woman pulled at her unnaturally long ear as she seemed to form her words carefully. “The transport it was on should have come here not long ago. It’s likely to be somewhere in that forest.”
“You think the courier died inside?” the Captain asked slowly.
The elf woman nodded.
“This thing, it’s a poplar tree ent?”
“It would appear so,” The woman responded.
“If the transport was attacked by something like that, then whatever you’re looking for should be powder by now, no?”
“It is quite sturdy,” The woman answered without moving a muscle on her face.
The Captain raised his eyebrows at that statement, but offered no reply. Champ could echo that sentiment. If the whole forest was on connected ent, then it’d have to be approaching a thousand years old. Something that could survive that attack wouldn’t just be sturdy. It’d have to be indestructible.
That thought triggered something in him. Indestructible and elves. A memory of a conversation from an eternity ago. He felt like he could almost remember something, but his brain had never considered it important till now and he just couldn’t find it.
Coming back from his frustrated attempts at memory, Champ heard the woman saying, “We’ve been searching, but it is difficult. Even we,” She looked at the forest and frowned before finishing. “Do not like to stay in that forest for long.”
That sight made Champ smile. Even the proud elves were afraid. As much as they tried to hide it, they couldn’t cover that up. Then Champ’s smile faded and his body froze in place as he realized something. Even the proud elves were afraid of that forest. Looking back at the tree line, he couldn’t keep himself from shivering.
While Champ imagined an entire forest trying to kill him, the Captain was frowning at his shoes. “Hard to imagine a way to comb the area and not…” His voice trailed off at the part he didn’t want to put to words and he fell silent. After a few seconds, he perked up and asked, “Could you persuade it to leave? If it wanders off somewhere, looking through the plains it leaves behind should be easy. With magic, surely you can-“
“No,” the woman responded with a light shake of her head. “Even with our magic there are things we can do and… things that prove quite difficult. We are not demons, we cannot commune with monsters.”
Champ nodded unconsciously at that statement. Some things pass into legends for a reason. What can’t be done can’t be done. Otherwise, it’d all be called history.
The Captain returned to ruminating over his boots and the woman looked over the team curiously. Before either could say anything more, a distorted, obtrusive voice interrupted from the rover’s dashboard. “What’s the delay? We must cross the border!”
The Captain narrowed his eyes at the radio. Then he looked towards the woman, gave her a beautifully executed bow and said, “Can you excuse me for a bit?”
Before the woman could answer, the Captain picked up the receiver and brought it to his mouth. “Sir, we’re in the middle of negotiating to see if we can pass through the woods. If you could be a bit more patient, we might be able to get over the border within the day.”
Champ furrowed his brows skeptically at that. He couldn’t think of a quid pro quo that would take them less than two days to get through. The elves wouldn’t help them in the name of charity. Then he realized that meant they’d have to be working with the elves for at least two days and a pit opened up in his stomach. They really should just give this up and find a detour.
“Negotiating?” The Radio demanded back suspiciously.
The Captain’s face froze and he slowly turned back to the rest of the team to find some help to cover his mistake. Seeing the Captain’s reaction, Edge hung his head and shrugged. Lotus pursed her lips and nodded. The Newbie and Cauliflower joined Champ in refusing to meet his eyes.
The Captain scowled at himself before turning back to the radio. “A small group of elves is here. We’d hoped we could get their assistance in the crossing, considering the circumstances.”
“ELVES?!” the speaker spat out so loudly that the Captain was forced to hurriedly turn it down. “D-deal with them! Get rid of them!”
“Sir,” the Captain responded, his smile twitching slightly and his eyes turning frantic as they drifted towards the elf woman. “That’s not in the contract. We’re just supposed to keep you from being eaten.”
“And if they want to kill me!?” The merchant called over the radio, his voice getting so high pitched that the speakers couldn’t reproduce it anymore.
“Sir, just let us deal with this and sit tight,” the Captain hissed into the radio before turning it off entirely. He grimaced at the speakers for a few seconds, then turned back to the elf woman with a warm smile and said, “Sorry about that, where were we?”
“Who was that?” The elf woman asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.
“Just our employer,” the Captain answered, waving his hand through the air. “He’s been a bit on edge for this whole trip. Apparently he’s had some bad luck lately. Lost some employees or something.”
“You weren’t alone?” the woman responded, her tone growing more stern. “Wouldn’t this be a breach of the agreement?”
“We’re the only mercenaries here,” the Captain answered helplessly. “I believe that’s what’s asked for in the agreement.”
“Semantics,” The woman declared frostily.
The Captain gritted his teeth beneath his smile and wrung his hands as he continued. “No mercenaries would attempt a border crossing without someone to pay them.” Pointedly shifting his eyes towards Edge, he said, “I’m sure my subordinate just assumed you would assume. Cultural differences and all that.”
“Who are you escorting?” The woman asked, her face remaining stony.
“A merchant carries goods, yes?” The woman pressed on, crossing her slender arms over her chest. “What is he transporting?”
“We try not to know,” the Captain answered. Seeing the woman’s face growing even sterner, he quickly added. “If we don’t get a manifest, we can’t be held responsible for things that break.”
Before the woman could continue her conversation turned interrogation, the jumpy man behind her finally snapped. This time, rather than shouting and making accusations, he disappeared entirely. Seconds later, the rover was buffeted by a sudden gust of wind. When they could remove their hands from their eyes without fearing the dust, everyone turned their attention to the rear of the rover. There they saw a human sized blur following their tire tracks, shrinking into the distance.
When he had made sense of that, the Captain turned back to the elf woman and asked, “What’s he doing?”
“Checking on your merchant, I would assume,” the woman answered with a nonchalant shrug.
The Captain stared at her incredulously for a second. Then he turned to Knot and shouted, “Get after him, then!”
Knot looked between the Captain and the elf woman. Then he shifted the rover into reverse, swung the car around, and took off after the disappearing elven figure. Seconds later, they were rattling through the grasslands at what was approaching their max speed.
As they slowly gained on the elf, Edge shouted over the roaring wind and churning grass, “What’re we gonna do if we catch up?!”
“I don’t know,” the Captain responded, his eyes focused on the target before them. “Can we reason with him.”
“Oh, definitely not,” Edge responded with an exaggerated shake of his head.
The Captain gritted his teeth. Then he called out, “Everyone ready your weapons, but don’t take the first shot. Cauliflower get on the machine gun, but look like you don’t intend to use it.”
“How do I do that?!” Cauliflower asked desperately as she moved to the back of the car.
“I don’t know, but figure it out fast,” the Captain replied, placing a vial of serum in the small pouch under his collar.
As everyone prepared for battle, a clear female voice dominated over the chaos. “Are you sure your merchant isn’t the one we’re after?”
Looking up from his gun, Champ almost jumped out of his chair when he saw Adonis a few inches away from him, running comfortably beside the car. When he’d collected himself and recovered his balance, he noticed it was one of the elves that stood behind the woman during their conversation. He was running with a perfect athlete’s form, but his legs were moving too slowly to be carrying him as fast as they were. Turning away from that spectacle, Champ saw a similar man running on the other side of the rover. Then, seated lightly on the hood, he found the speaker. The refined elven lady.
The Captain seemed to have gone through a similar circuit of surprise. When he finally came back to meet the woman’s eyes he slowly answered. “I thought your transport already came through here.”
“It could have been delayed,” the woman answered with an easy shrug.
“So this transport you’re looking for isn’t one you hired?” the Captain asked, narrowing his eyes.
“I never said it was,” the woman replied with a smile. “Either way, all you’d need to do to end this peacefully is let us inspect your merchant’s cargo.”
“Not like we can make him do that,” the Captain grumbled bitterly. Then he looked towards the running elf ahead of them and asked, “What happens if this is the one you’re searching for.”
The elf woman didn’t respond and turned her gaze ahead of the rover as well. Then she lightly said, “It appears we’ll have our answer fairly soon.”
Following her gaze, Champ saw that the merchant’s truck had finally entered eyeshot. At around the same time, the merchant seemed to notice the approaching chaos. The truck roared to life, hurriedly spun around, and took off in the opposite direction from them.
“He’s running,” the elf woman observed judgmentally.
“Your guy’s chasing him,” the Captain shot back.
The elf woman narrowed her eyes. Then she said, “A small corps with two heroes, quite odd. I do hope we won’t have to become enemies.”
Before the Captain could respond to those dumbfounding words, the Elf easily slipped off the rover and started running abreast the car. A few seconds later, she’d moved a dozen feet to the right of them and made it clear she was done talking.
“Dammit!” The Captain roared at no one in particular.
I said we shouldn’t meet them! Champ declared in his heart.
He couldn’t dwell on his vindication for long, however. A few seconds later, the ground a few feet ahead of the jumpy elf undulated strangely. Then, it bulged up and foo the shape of an elongated head, followed by a thick neck and two, long legs. Within seconds, a wolf, made of earth and about the size of a truck, erupted from the ground and started running after the merchant.
“What is that?” Knot asked, scratching at the steering wheel anxiously.
“A dirt… wolf?” Cauliflower answered uncertainly from the mounted gun.
For a moment the team watched the apparition tearing up the plains as it ran. Within a few seconds, it’d caught up with the merchant’s truck. It turned its uneven brown head to the side and opened its earthen jaws wide. Before it could snap at the truck, the driver seemed to notice the attack and swerved out of the way. As the truck barely avoided rolling, the wolf’s jaws closed on nothing and it redoubled its efforts.
“Shoot it,” the Captain started breathlessly. Then he swallowed and began to shout. “Shoot it!”
With that order, everyone started firing. The rover filled with the smell of gunpowder and lit up with the flashes and pops of gunfire. Within a few seconds, dozens of and burrowed into the dirt of the wolf’s body, but to little effect.
Every bullet that struck the beast sent a puff of dust into the and occasionally let loose a clump of dirt. However, the construct didn’t bleed and it didn’t feel pain or fear. The wolf paid no attention to the concentrated rain of bullets. It kept running forward and once again attempted to close its jaws on the truck.
As the truck swerved once again, Edge shouted, “Concentrate on the legs! The joints! Just like a skeleton!”
Everyone followed that command and shifted their aim. Half as many rounds hit, but those that did, had an effect. The beast’s back left leg steadily grew thinner and more raged. Before long, fell apart under the beast’s weight and the wolf collapsed onto the ground. Within seconds, it stood again and attempted to continue the chase. However, on three legs it had no hope of catching the fleeing truck. A few seconds later, the wolf fell apart entirely; reverting to a pile of dirt and spreading across the grassland.
Seeing that, Champ grinned and let loose a wordless shout of exhilaration. Then his hot blood froze over when he met the eyes of the elf they’d been chasing. He wasn’t impressed with how they’d broken his sculpture.
After the elf started glaring towards the rover. Three bulges formed in the earth ahead of them. A few seconds later, the dirt wolf was reborn along-side two brothers. Without wasting a moment, one of the wolves ran ahead after the transport while the other two circled back to attack the rover.
“Lotus, try and keep the truck clear,” Captain commanded without turning away from the enemy. “Champ and the Newbie, take the one on the left, Edge take the right. Cauliflower, go where you’re needed.”
The veterans nodded and set to work. The Newbie spent a few seconds panicking silently. Then he started impotently shooting into void. Champ shook his head at the kid, but it couldn’t be helped that they hadn’t trained him yet.
Champ redoubled his focus and landed at least half a dozen shots into the earthen monster’s right knee. That was all he could do, however. The rover was ploughing full speed forward, the wolves were running at full speed back at them. It took the wolves seconds to reach them. It just wasn’t enough time to deal any damage. As the two masses of hardened dirt came crashing from either side, Champ could only grit his teeth and brace himself.
Then, the world got strange, all at once. It was like Champ’s body had been robbed of his weight. He slowly felt himself floating away from the rover’s seat. The sensation sent a prickle of fear through his mind. What strange curse was put on him? Was such a thing possible?
He hurriedly tried to grab something to steady himself, but for some reason his hands barely moving at any speed at all. He could only watch himself being abducted into the air. Then, the rescue line attached to the rover’s frame finally went taught. The harness wrapped around his waist and legs dug into his skin and all the air was robbed from his lungs.
That dull pain sent a reassuring feeling of security through his mind and he turned his senses outward. In front of him, he saw Edge and Lotus being smashed awkwardly into the rover’s railing. Beyond them, he saw two great, earthen wolves running at full speed into each other.
The two monsters of soil had strangely lifelike instincts. As their collision approached, they both bent their heads away from each other to protect themselves. Instead, they rammed their shoulders together with a loud, yet dull, crash. With their back ends still full of momentum, the front of their bodies were lifted into the air. Then they came down into a mess of eight flailing limbs. When the wolves struck the ground, they sent up a huge cloud of dust that turned the entire world into a fog of brown and grey.
Then, time started to move faster again. As Champ shut his eyes tight to avoid the dust, he suddenly felt a sharp pain shoot through his back. It felt like he was cut in half. Then the back of his head hit something hard and everything went away.
When Champ recovered some of his faculties, the sharp ache in the small of his back reminded him of whatever impact he’d just had. It seemed like something tried to break his spine. That thought sent an icy dread pouring through his brain.
Does it still work? Frantically, Champ reached for the seat of his pants and started groping around ineptly. When his important organ finally felt the rough attack of his fingers, he laid back in relief. Then, his slowly rebooting brain came up with something more urgent.
“Toes…” He said to no one as he tried to remember which neurons went where. After a few false starts, his extremities reported the hard sensation of his leather boots and he calmed down again.
“Everyone okay?” Knot called out from the front.
Champ took a deep breath to respond, but could only cough as he felt the dust attempt to bury itself in his lungs. If he listened closely between his own expulsions, he could hear similar coughing fits all around him. That, at least, was a good sign. Knot seemed to agree as the rover gave a renewed roar and Champ felt himself accelerating again.
After a few seconds, the rover had cleared the dust cloud. Seeing things again, Champ found himself laying with his back jammed against the corner of the rover’s bench. Around him was his team reduced to a pile of groaning human bodies.
Slowly, champ hoisted himself back into his seat as the rest did the same. Back on firm ground, he recovered the rifle which was hanging at his side and checked its condition. It was still fine, but could stand to be reloaded. So he did that as the rest of his team took stock of their own arms.
This miraculous reprieve didn’t last long, however. A few seconds after replacing the magazine in his rifle, Champ heard a rumbling from behind them. Turning, he saw the cloud of dust surrounding the collapsed beasts had started to undulate. Then, both wolves shot out of the cloud and sprinted after the retreating rover.
“Dammit,” Someone said as adrenaline began filtering through the team’s veins once more. Making all the aches they would’ve complained about vanish for the moment.
With renewed vigor, everyone began firing again at the same targets as before. At least now that the wolves were chasing from behind, they should have the time to take them down. Champ focused his vision and put all he had into landing every shot. Then, after emptying about half his magazine, he stopped.
Small arms fire wasn’t doing much. Just like most of the big bastards, it was up to Cauliflower and Lotus. Everything else was a waste of ammo. For a moment, he watched Cauliflower steadily whittling down one of their pursuers legs. Then he turned his attention to the rest of the battlefield.
The wolf going after the transport truck was still chasing it. Lotus was steadily putting lead in its joints and that kept the thing harried. It couldn’t focus enough to bite a hole in the trailer. However, a semi-auto rifle just didn’t have enough rate of fire to cut through the dirt and Lotus didn’t make much progress in taking the thing down.
Champ was thinking about whether it’d be a waste to try chucking grenades when he caught some movement out the corner of his eyes. Turning to look, Champ saw what he thought was a cloud of leaves being blown through the wind. Upon closer inspection, however, he realized that wasn’t right. It wasn’t leaves. Not exactly.
It was blades of grass, somehow woven together into the shape of tiny birds. Each one wasn’t intimidating. They looked delicately beautiful and he could probably fit three in one of his saucer-hands. However, there were hundreds of them. Watching them fly together like a swarm of green insects, Champ knew that whatever they were, it wasn’t a good thing.
Hurriedly, Champ leveled his rifle at the cloud and pulled the trigger. The stream of bullets struck home in the green swarm and a few of the tiny birds were sent floating depressingly onto the ground. Only a few of them fell, however. Seconds after the first died, the swarm dispersed itself. Once again, he stopped firing. There was no way he could hit them if he had to aim at them individually.
Champ could only watch impotently as the grass birds flew past the rover and eventually congregated on the borders of his employer’s transport trailer. When the metallic double doors had been lined in green, the little birds started to peck.
Seeing that, Champ again leveled his rifle and started to fire. The lines of birds were too thin, however, and his rifle’s spread was too broad. Every single bullet he missed merely punctured a hole through the transport container and did the bird’s jobs for them.
Champ cursed under his breath as he switched his gun to semi-automatic in the vain hope of doing something. Before he could take aim again, however, there was a great metallic shriek ahead of them and the entire back door of the cargo trailer fell away and tumbled to a stop in the dirt.
Champ watched in awe as the cloud of grass birds flitted into the dark cargo container. Then, seconds later, a clear box started to slowly bob out of the depths of the cargo container. Focusing on it, Champ could just make out a film of green at the bottom of the box. Looking at the tiny birds flapping with all their might to keep the box balanced on their heads was honestly adorable.
Champ didn’t have long to indulge in that sentiment, however. Once the box had been completely extracted from the transport truck, Champ finally realized what it was. It wasn’t a box it was a block. A thick, heavy, block of ice. Inside that pristine block laid a beautiful, blonde woman with her hands crossed over her chest. The sounds of gunshots died away as the entire team watched that spectacle.
The state of the body reflects the state of the soul. As that memory passed through Champ’s mind, he couldn’t help, but frown.
“Is that… a dead elf?” Lotus asked perplexedly from beside Champ. “They do that, don’t they? Preserve them?”
“They aren’t going to let that go,” Edge declared grimly. “They take that shit seriously.”
“What do we do now?” Cauliflower asked from behind.
The Captain bit his lip and shifted his gaze back and forth between the block of ice and the merchant’s truck.
Seeing Edge stepped forward and began to shout, “This is beyond any contract we could be held to. We aren’t his escorts anymore and we’ll focus on getting away alive.” Edge stopped for a moment to look back at the merchant’s transport then he returned his eyes to the team and continued. “Knot, gives us all the speed you can to break past this. To help with that, our merchant friend will delay them for us. Champ, you and I will take out the truck’s tires. Lotus, when we finally pull past that bastard, I want you to put a bullet through his engine block. All clear?”
The team turned to look at the Captain’s response. Standing in the front seat, the Captain closed his eyes and slowly gave one nod. Then, Champ and Edge started shooting. After a few seconds, all the rear tires and exploded and the truck was barely able to keep itself under control. With the truck riding on rims, the rover passed by it in less than a minute. Then, with one shot from Lotus, the truck as dead and the grave robbing merchant was left a sitting duck.
As the team drove away, Champ watched the four elves descending on the stalled truck. For a moment, he felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. That only lasted for a moment, however. Elves are all bastards and only an idiot would go out of his way to provoke them.