Lead vs Fantasy 3-6

3-6 Dashing Through the Woods, Sans Horse

 

Knot had to brace himself against the railing as the rover swerved again to avoid another collapsing tree.  When he was confident he wouldn’t fall over, he turned back to look over the Newbie.  Just like the ten other times, the kid seemed happy and they weren’t in a tree.

Not that there was much he could do if the boy wasn’t up to it.  Knot had already had to use his arte two more times since he’d abandoned driving.  It was getting to the point where he’d have to risk it and take two or three shots before he got a vial of serum.  They’d run out otherwise and then they’d be done.

A few seconds later, Knot was pulled from his anxious calculations by a metallic scraping sound coming from his right.  Looking over, he saw a thin snake, made entirely of soil, trying to sneakily coil itself around the railing he’d just been resting on.

Knot narrowed his eyes and drew his sidearm.  He held it out with one hand, carefully angling the barrel to not nick the car.  Then he pulled the trigger and the snake collapsed into dirt.  Holstering the pistol and reaffirming his grip on his shotgun, Knot returned his attention to the trees.

Seeing one start to list ahead of them, he readied his shotgun and took aim.  A few seconds later, he lowered it again and hurriedly reached for the railing beside him as the Newbie started spinning the wheel.

Even Knot couldn’t keep himself from flinching as when a ten ton tree smashed into the ground a couple feet from his head.  Once his body would allow his eyes to open again, he returned to scanning the tree line.  Then he felt something distracting.  It was like a section of rope was being coiled around the back of his hand.

Still thinking about trees, Knot turned to investigate.  When he did, he found a small, brown serpent happily wrapping itself around Knot’s hand and the steel bar he was gripping.  On reflex, he pulled his hand away, but the snake immediately tightened itself, jerking his body forward.

“Dammit,” he cursed as he felt the circulation in his fingers stop.

Without a thought, Knot released his grip on his shotgun.  The strap around his shoulders tightened and the gun struck itself against his thigh.  He paid no attention to that, however, and quickly drew his pistol again.

Pulling away with his bound hand, he couldn’t get free.  However, he was able to gain a sliver of extra space.  In hopes of expanding that, he immediately inserted his handgun’s barrel between his hand and the snake.

Before he could do anything more, the expressionless serpent seemed to take umbrage at him and tightened further.  Knot winced and gritted his teeth as his gun’s sight bit into the back of his hand.  Ignoring the pain, he put all his strength into forcing his gun’s barrel upwards.  If he could just pry the snake open a couple inches, he could be free.

All he could make was negative progress.  The snake tightened further and resisting it was like trying to tackle down a brick wall.  When he heard his own bones start to creak under the pressure, he gave up.

For a moment, a dozen images flashed through his mind all at once.  Images of comrades, fellows he’d fought with.  Men whose arms or legs had been bent into awkward angles.  Whose bones had been forced out from under their skin when they tried to block an attack they couldn’t.  Then his own image began to overlap them in his mind.

“Shit,” Knot cursed under his breath as he took a renewed grasp of his pistol’s grip.  With all his strength, he pulled it to the left.  Slowly, excruciatingly, the barrel started to turn.  The sight gave off an unpleasant grinding sensation as it passed over one bone after another.  The pain of that robbed Knot of his breath.  He could only stare with bloodshot eyes at the creeping movement of the barrel.

After what felt like an hour of torment, the gun was finally aligned with the coiling snake.  Wasting no time, he pulled the trigger.  There was a brief explosion, the slide activated, and the snake broke apart.  With relief, he looked down at his freed hand.

“Shit!”  He cursed again.  When the gun fired, he hadn’t felt the heat or the friction, but that was just because it happened too fast.  The movement of the slide had torn the back of his hand to tatters.  His blood was spilling everywhere.  Several enterprising droplets of it were already forming a small pool on the bed of the rover.

Without any care, Knot dropped his gun and reached under a seat beside him to retrieve the Captain’s secret stash.  When his useful hand closed around a large, glass bottle, he quickly retrieved it.  He didn’t bother looking over the clear liquid sloshing inside as he brought it to his face.

Once his mouth had closed around cork, he easily removed it with a resonant pop.  After he had, his nose got a full taste of the fumes.  The stuff smelled less edible than paint thinner, but it was the fastest way to get rid of the taste of monster.

Knot gave another curse as the alcohol tried to eat away his hand.  Then he retrieved a roll of bandages from the pouch at his back and quickly wrapped the wound.  Once he’d pulled the knot tight with his teeth, he tried opening and closing his hand.  Even doing his best to ignore the pain, his fingers moved too slowly.  He couldn’t afford that right now, but there was nothing he could do.

“You ok?”  Edge asked when he’d finally dealt with the problems on his side.

“Fine.”  Knot grunted.  He was sure his face contradicted his words, but he knew Edge would understand the sentiment.

Edge’s eyes glanced over the bandages which already had a spreading red-brown stain.  Then he gave a single nod and turned his eyes towards the front of the car.  “We need to go faster.  Not as many are dropping now, but the ones on the ground are catching up too fast.”

“The trees are trying to eat us,” Knot rebutted, following Edge’s gaze.  He’d been worried about trusting the Newbie at first, but the kid was a surprisingly good driver.  He couldn’t do that much better himself.  “We can’t go faster than this.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that we need to,” Edge responded, stumbling a little as the rover swayed again.  “We can’t keep this up.”

Edge terminated his statement by nodding behind Knot.  Turning towards that motion, Knot found three snakes climbing up the railing he’d just cleared.  Looking back to Edge, Knot found five more snakes on the other side.  Grinding their teeth in frustration, both men turned back to their respective targets.

Bending down to retrieve his handgun, Knot found the slide covered in blood with bits of his own flesh clinging to the chamber.  Dropping the paperweight, he gripped his shotgun.  Slowly forcing his bandaged hand to close around the pump, he turned towards the snakes.  Ignoring the pain in his hand, he cleared away the three invaders.

Then he heard a shout from the back, “One of the big ones got through!”  Turning around, Knot saw Cauliflower as she gave up on the snake and moved on.  The snakes were closer to the ground than the wolves and all the harder to hit with a mounted gun.

As Knot moved passed the Captain and lotus, he looked over his new target.  It was massive.  Not the biggest snake he’d ever seen, but he wished it was.  Whether it be biting or crushing, either attack from it would be overkill on a single person.  If you took the strength from the smaller snake before and scaled it up, even the rover wouldn’t stand a chance.

While he contemplated this, Knot’s hands were busy removing the shells form his shotgun.  He carelessly let them hit the ground behind him until the gun was empty.  Then he retrieved a new shell from the pouch on his left hip and quickly chambered it.

Once he was standing beside Cauliflower, he took a deep breath.  Then he put his gun’s butt up to his shoulder, took aim, and fired.  Releasing the solid slug, the gun kicked like a ramming cannon toad, but Knot was used to it.  The thick bullet flew straight towards its target.  Then, just before it hit, the serpent reared its head and bit the slug out of the air.

Knot’s mouth hung half-open as he watched the bullet slide uselessly out of the snake about halfway down the tail.  Once the bullet had passed into the distance, the hole it left remained, but that seemed to do little to inconvenience the snake.  Its momentum hadn’t even slowed as it ingested the projectile.

Knot growled his frustrations at the construct as he loaded four more slugs into his weapon.  He thought for a second, but couldn’t come up with an actual plan of attack.  Eventually he decided it’d have trouble moving if he put enough holes in it.  That was the strategy he went with.

The next two slugs proved as effective as the first.  After the third, the tip of the snake’s tail crumbled away.  However, just like its reptilian antecedents, that didn’t concern the earthen serpent at all.

Then, before he could fire his fourth shot, a glob of white flames came flying from behind him; towards the serpent.  Again the snake tried to swallow the attack, but as its jaws closed, the flames spread to engulf the snake’s head.  As the serpent’s face was blackened by the flames, its movements became erratic and it started to fall behind the rover.

Once the snake was suitably tenderized, Knot fired the last slug and shattered its head to pieces.  Once that was finished, he turned around and nodded his gratitude to the Captain.

“He’s focusing more on the big ones,” the Captain shouted over the sound of Cauliflower’s burst fire.  “The dirt goes soft just before the bullet hits and hardens again after.  Single shots are useless if you don’t prevent that.”

Knot nodded again and turned back to look at the chasing snakes.  Surveying the area, it looked like a fierce, yet viscous river of mud was flowing behind them.  Then, he noticed that the river started flowing a lot faster.  A shock of anxiety shot through Knot as he readied his weapon.  The Elf wasn’t going all out already?

Then his peripheral vision caught sight of the trees beside them and he noticed his mistake.  The snakes weren’t moving faster.  The rover was moving a lot slower.  In the next second, the Newbie’s voice came from the front of the car.  “Ummm ummm, I didn’t do anything.  This isn’t my fault!”

Knot paid no attention to the kid’s worries as his eyes settled on the cause of their problems.  Three small snakes had wrapped themselves around the driver’s side railing of the rover’s bed.  Then more snakes had hopped on and coiled around them.  This had continued until they formed three earthen chains tying the rover to the nearby trees.

“Dammit!”  Knot shouted as he moved forward, loading a few buckshot shells into his shotgun.

Then, before Knot could reach the snake chains, a thunderous crash from in front of the rover interrupted him.  For a few seconds, Knot was held in place by the aftershocks of the impact.  Then he looked forward to see the fallen tree before them.

It probably didn’t expect us to stop so suddenly.  He thought.  Then he immediately knew what was coming next.  Ignoring the snakes, he dashed to the front of the rover, pumping his shotgun as he moved.  When he got behind the driver’s seat, he climbed on top of the steel cage that encloses it.

When he found himself balancing precariously on the thin, metal bar, he looked up and saw the tree above them had already started to list.  Ignoring whatever the Newbie was saying, Knot took a deep breath.  If he missed the timing on this, they’d all be dead.  That was true both ways, though.  If he was too late, they’d be just as screwed as too early.  No reason to hesitate then.

To build up some motivation, he glared angrily at the unreasonably thick poplar.  Then a stray thought crossed his mind:  he really wished he was taller.  He frowned at himself for a moment.  Then, as the tree started to truly fall, he put all his power into his legs and leapt.

When Knot reached the apex of his jump, the first few branches had already come down in front of him.  Holding his shotgun with his right hand, he stretched it out at arm’s length.  Then he concentrated and a warmth started to grow inside him.  For a few seconds, he felt like he could move the world. Then he fired.

The wave of light flowed from him and struck the side of the tree.  Without gravity to hold it back. The light embraced the tree and began to push it away.  As the team’s doom was moved away inch by inch, so too was Knot blown back by the recoil.  After seeing that he’d at least done something, Knot started to fall backwards and his vision was replaced by treetops with a couple of patches of clear sky.

Then his shoulders and the backs of his knees struck something hard at roughly the same time and he was no longer falling.  After a few seconds, he heard a great cacophony from the direction his feet seemed to be facing.  Once that died down, he confirmed that his body was still aching all over and he surmised he was still alive.

When he remembered the situation they were in, Knot hurriedly reached out with his left hand to grasp at something to get up.  Once he started to pull, the back of his hand started to screech and he remembered why that was a bad idea.

“Son o-“ He cried out, unconsciously turning away from the pain.  Once he did, he found the Newbie staring at him in confusion and amazement.  In hopes of distracting himself from his hand, Knot grunted out, “You’ve done well.”

“Th-thanks,” The Newbie answered, looking away bashfully.

Knot shrugged and then Edge’s voice came from behind Knot’s feet, cutting through the strange atmosphere.  “You’re clear, get us out of here, Newbie.”

The Newbie quickly turned back to what was left of the windshield.  As the boy inched the car back and forth to get around the two fallen trees, a hand appeared in front of Knot’s face.  Grabbing hold, Knot was hoisted back into the rover’s bed and back onto his feet.

“Thanks,” Knot nodded towards Edge.

“Same to you,” Edge answered with a wave of his hand.  Then he turned to look behind them as the rover finally cleared the two trees and began to pull away.  “The snakes weren’t expecting the tree to change directions.  A lot of them got crushed.  Should buy us some time.”

“Not much, though,” Champ’s pessimistic voice cut in from behind Edge.

Knot would have said something about the value of hope, but before he could, Champ’s prophesy came true.  They hadn’t passed more than two hundred feet away from the fallen trees before more snakes started wriggling their way through them.

Edge muttered something explicit under his breath that Knot didn’t even bother listening to.

“A loss of troops doesn’t matter when you can just make more,” Champ declared, his downtrodden voice taking on a cynically self-satisfied tone.  “We won’t be able to rest until he dies or gets distracted or something.”

Edge offered another curse and turned his eyes to his feet as he prepared his weapons.  Then he stopped and muttered, “Distracted.  We may be able to do that.”

Knot followed his eyes and immediately understood what he was thinking.

“It’s a miracle the thing’s still intact, the way the Newbie kept falling all over it,” Champ observed, his face starting to show a hint of a smile.

“They’re damn tough,” Knot agreed with a nod.  Then he turned back towards the incoming snakes and said, “First we’ve got to find the elf.  Then…”

“Then, we see what happens,” Edge declared with the grin of a man who sees a path.

A few seconds later, the next wave of snakes arrived.  Champ went back to supporting Cauliflower, the Captain, and Lotus in thinning out the herd.  At the same time, Edge and Knot once again picked sides of the rover and cleared away the small ones before they could entangle anything.

Knot had retrieved one of their reserve handguns from under the seat, which made things a bit easier.  Still, it wasn’t his favorite thing.  High stakes, vertical whack-a-mole wasn’t pleasant before.  On top of that, he couldn’t keep his muscles from tensing every time a tree came down next to them.  That was true before too, but ever since the fall it made the aching worse every time.

Ignoring the protests from his muscles, Knot bent down to handle a small serpent which was trying to twine around the rover’s frame.  As soon as it was gone, he diverted a portion of his attention back to the woods.  Knot figured that the elf must be keeping up with them somewhere.  At least Knot assumed he needed too.  If he didn’t, then why was he running alongside them before?

For a while, Knot studied the treetops.  When he was a kid, he’d heard elves would do that.  Jumping from branch to branch to get through forest.  Never even touching the ground.  Even as a kid, that hadn’t sounded very efficient to him.  Even more so in a forest like this, but it was all he had to go on.

As he scanned the forest with his eyes, he focused his ears to pick out the faint scraping noise the snakes would make as they slithered along the metal of the rover’s frame.  He had to pick it out from all the other sounds around him.  It took a lot of attention.

Then, he heard something else.  Kind of a soft popping along with some brittle snapping.  It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar sound.  In his years as a mercenary, he’d faced a lot of monsters that liked to burrow and pop up under your feet.  You had to get used the sound of rapidly erupting dirt.

Taking out another intrepid serpent, Knot turned towards the noise.  He thought he should be able to see the elf conjuring up his horrible constructs.  Instead, he saw a bunch of dark browns and greens and shadow.  After half a minute of staring into the inscrutable forest, his eyes finally caught some movement.  A few more seconds and he could finally see it.

A beautifully athletic man was sprinting easily through the forest in pace with the car.  All around him, spread chaos.  The earth in his wake was fraught with holes and craters.  All around the elf were what looked like spikes.  Long, sharp eruptions that came from the ground and attempted to skewer whatever flesh they could.  The elf only remained in any place for a second before another spike came up to pierce him.

In the middle of that, the elf almost looked like he was dancing.  Constantly dodging away and cutting down the spikes using a long, thin blade of dirt.  After every fourth spike erupted behind him, the elf would make a strange gesture and another serpent would arise in front of him to join the throng chasing the rover.

As Knot watched the unearthly display, one of the spikes behind the elf suddenly bent itself.  It nimbly tried to wrap around the elf’s torso before being cut down like its brethren.  That was when he realized what they were.

“Roots,” Knot said aloud as he wondered at that revelation.

“What’s that?”  Edge called.  His voice was urgent, but he refused to turn away from watching the rover and scanning the forest.

“I found him,” Knot declared as he watched the elf create two more snakes and vault over an erupting root.

At that, Edge gave one last look over his side of the rover and then moved beside Knot.  Following Knot’s gaze, he found the elf in a few seconds and said, “Seeing him move like that kinda makes you hate them, doesn’t it?”

“Why aren’t the roots attacking us?”  Knot asked what had been bothering him for the past minute.

“Why aren’t the trunks attacking him?”  Edge asked with a shrug.  “Six of one, half dozen of the other.”

Privately, Knot thought the roots seemed a little more determined than the half-hearted flailing of an inept lumberjack.  If that kind of attention were paid to them, then the rover would’ve been overturned and crushed in less than a minute.  He didn’t voice his opinion, however, and Edge turned back towards the elf.

“How do we get his attention?”  Edge asked.  Then he thought for a second and added.  “I mean not in the just throwing snakes way.”

Before Knot could answer, Champ cut in between the two of them and declared, “I’ve got that covered!”

Knot had just enough time to register that Champ had retrieved the megaphone and that this was a bad thing.  Then Champ placed the mechanism to lips and shouted, “Hey!  Treefucker!  Have you always been a coward, too scared to face a few humans head on?!”

For a moment, Knot thought back over the course of his life.  It hadn’t been bad.  He’d done most of the things he’d wanted.  Well, no, he hadn’t, but he’d done most of the things he’d wanted to and could do.

“No… that’s… stop,”  Edge commanded weakly, his voice returning to him far too late.

“See?  Here he comes,” Champ pointed out happily.

Knot didn’t even bother trying to capture the elf’s movements.  Turning towards the driver’s seat, he immediately shouted, “Newbie!  Stop the car now!”

“What?!”  The Newbie asked nervously, his foot reflexively slamming the break from Knot’s commanding tone.

As the rover skidded to a stop, Knot felt a gust of wind pass by his face and saw a blur cross in front of their path.  A few seconds later, there was a loud crash that came from their right side.  As soon as he heard that, Knot shouted again, “Drive fast now!”

“W-what?”  The Newbie asked again, his eyes flitting about at the conflicting directions.

Not bothering to wait for the Newbie to catch up, Knot leaned over the Driver’s seat, pulled up the Newbie’s left leg, and slammed it onto the gas pedal.  A few seconds after the Rover tore away again, a loud crash sounded from the space they’d just been occupying.

“What was that?”  The Newbie asked, recovering enough to retake control of his own body.

“Don’t worry about anything.  Just do what you’re told,” Knot ordered, turning back to the rest of the team.

When his attention returned to the rover’s bed, he found his teammates standing around, looking uncertain.  Now that the elf was determined to have a straight forward confrontation, the snakes seemed to have moved into reserve.  They were still visible on the edge of Knot’s sight, but they made no attempt to advance on the rover.  That meant the team had nothing to do, except wait for whatever unreasonable attack the elf would launch next.

“Okay,” Edge said, clapping his face once and drawing the knife.  “He’s behind us, so his next attack should come from there.  I’ll make an opening, you just get ready to take advantage of it.”

“Are you sure-“ The Captain tried to ask.

“The first attack is no problem,” Edge declared, to himself as much as anyone else.

With that, Edge moved to stand at the back of the rover, in front of Cauliflower’s gun.  As he did, Champ, the Captain, and Knot took position behind him.  Then the rover grew tense and quiet.  Edge stood waiting with his left foot to his back.  His black knife was held tight in a reverse grip at his waist.

After thirty seconds of waiting, the elf came into sight again.  He was running after them with a crazed look in his eyes and the earthen sword he held was covered in fresh sap.  Once he got close enough to see them, the elf crouched down in mid sprint.  He paid no attention as his heels skidded along the ground and kept staring at the rover.  Then, the earth under the elf’s feet erupted into a huge pillar, firing him into the air towards them.

The elf passed through the air faster than Knot could keep track of.  Faster than anyone could keep track of.  That didn’t worry him, though.  He understood what was about to happen.  It was strange, but what they said was true.  If you eat something strong, you become strong.  As long as it was the first attack, there would be no problems.

The elf reached the rover in an instant, his sword already mid-swing.  Not even Edge had enough time to show any reaction on his face.  His hand, however, reacted just fine.  The instant before the elf’s sword could cut him in half, Edge swung his knife.  As he did, its blade became a blinding, white crescent in the air in front of him.  When sword met flashing knife, the sword bounced away.  The elf’s face showed obvious surprise as his attack was deflected. Thanks to that, he couldn’t adjust his posture and was knocked back with his blade.

“Go! Now!” Edge shouted as he dropped onto the floor of the rover.

Following his declaration, the Captain and Champ hefted the legionnaire bee’s corpse to their shoulders.  Then they used all their might to toss it out towards the elf.  Once the bee was clear of the rover, they followed Edge’s example and fell to the ground.

Once his line of fire was clear, Knot hefted his shotgun.  It took him a few seconds to aim and then he fired.  Less than a second later, a metal slug was sunk directly into the bee’s thorax.  The corpse exploded like a smashed egg, covering the falling elf in orange blood and viscera.

Getting splashed with the rank liquid seemed to return the elf from his reverie.  His face contorted from shock to disgust as he summersaulted through the air.  He hit the ground and after rolling once, he was back on his feet.  He immediately started jogging to regain his speed.

Before anything could happen, however, the forest changed.  The ominous groans of the moving trees.  The uneven grind of the swaying serpents.  All of it was covered over.  Replaced by the diligent work of a thousand wings.

As the familiar the familiar buzzing filled his ears, Knot noticed the rover was visibly slowing.  The Newbie, who hadn’t been privy to any plan, was staring into the sky with an expression of confusion and horror.  “Don’t stop now!”  Knot shouted towards the kid.

The Newbie’s entire body seemed to start at those words.  Then he looked down at the steering wheel he was grasping and recovered himself.  Returning his foot to the pedal it had slipped from, the Newbie pressed hard and they took off again.

The elf spent a moment being surprised by the sudden cacophony.  After a moment, he decided to ignore it and redouble his efforts.  Just when he’d taken his third step towards the rover, the first of the bees arrived.  A red and black streak flew from the woods to the elf’s left and made an impressive effort of stabbing the elf through the neck.

Without even looking, the elf casually swung his blade mid-stride.  With just that, the bee fell into two pieces before its attack could connect.  More orange viscera sprayed out and fell onto the elf’s clothes.  The elf seemed unconcerned with that.   He refused to deviate his stare from the retreating rover.

Just as the elf started to gain on them again, two more bees arrived.  He dispatched them easily and kept running.  Then five more bees came.  Then twenty.  Once the elf’s surroundings were filled with giant, red bees, he couldn’t even try to keep up the chase anymore.

The elf stood his ground with a fiercely infuriated expression.  Any bees that tried to strike at him were struck down themselves.  He seemed to be making short work of them, but more kept coming.  Then the trees seemed to take this as an opportunity and roots started shooting from the earth to entangle him.

“Symbiosis is a bitch, isn’t it?”  Lotus said, her face covered in a smile that looked almost proud.  When she caught the eyes of the team on her, she gave a bashful cough and averted her eyes.  After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, everyone returned their attention to the elf.

Watching that scene, Knot held his breath.  It was an amazing display.  Caught in the middle of that storm of stingers and arboreal wrath, the elf kept his life.  He danced from place to place, cutting what he could and dodging what he couldn’t.  An impressive display of wit and prowess, but it didn’t seem to be enough.

He was making no progress.  The earth serpents attempted to assist, but they did little.  They couldn’t jump high enough to menace the bees and when they tried to wrestle with the roots, they ended in pieces.

Seeing that image disappearing behind the trees, Knot’s heart was filled with a strange heaviness.  He’d seen to many men die in that situation.  Caught in the midst of a fight they couldn’t win.  Unable to give up fighting, but unable to break through.  Forced to keep moving until they finally ran out of energy and were consumed.  Even he’d been caught in that a couple times.  He was lucky enough for salvation to come in time, but the despair was hard to forget.

“A bad way to go, even for him,” Knot muttered to himself.

“He might still make it out,” Lotus observed, having regained her usual distant tone.

“I hope he doesn’t,” Cauliflower declared bluntly.

Cutting through the somber atmosphere, the Captain clapped his hand on Edge’s shoulder and declared, “It was a good plan.”  Then he followed up with an immediate contradiction.  “Though, I am surprised it went that well.  Based on those moves, he should’ve been able to avoid it.”

“It worked,” Edge responded with a shrug.

“Not surprising at all,” Champ declared, refilling some of his spent magazines.  As the rest of the car hurriedly moved to follow his example, he continued.  “If they aren’t undead and don’t cause petrification or something, the elves don’t study monster’s traits.  They’re strong enough that they don’t have to.”

“That’s dumb,” Lotus declared, turning judgmental eyes to the south-east.

“They seem to be doing fine for themselves,” Edge answered with a shrug.   Seeing Lotus’s eyes turn towards him, he added, “Even if they are dumb.”

Knot could agree with both sentiments, but didn’t feel the need to put voice to those feelings.  Instead, he kept his focus on the 9mm rounds in front of him.  He’d always hated this part.  His fingers were short and thick.  Sa- his ex had always said he had sausage hands.  He’d always tried to tell her that phrase was sausage fingers, but she refused to listen.

Anyway, the point was that he wasn’t suited for this kind of thing.  Putting small things in specific places was like surgery for him.  Doing all the driving just to avoid it was a good trade in his book.

Just as Knot was about to fit another infuriating bullet in the stupid magazine, the rover gave a sudden jerk to the right.  Watching the bullet pop out of the magazine and bounce on the floor in front of him, Knot almost cursed.  He only caught himself at the last minute cause he didn’t want to worry the Newbie.

Recovering the stray cartridge, Knot waited for the ungodly crash behind them before he started again.  After almost a minute, he frowned and turned to look at the driver.  “What’s up, Newbie?”

“Nothing much,” the Newbie answered without turning around.  “There was a turn in the path that I didn’t see coming.”

Hearing that, Knot bit his cheek and looked into the forest.  They had no guarantee this path actually led through the forest.  Trying it was just a better bet than confronting the elf on open ground.  If it didn’t actually lead anywhere, however, that changed the calculation entirely.

“Crap!”  The Newbie’s voice cut through Knot’s reflection.

Seconds later, the entire rover jerked to the right again, sending more bullets spilling from Knot’s lap.  This time, Knot paid no attention to them, however.  Instead, he studied the forest around them uncomfortably.

“Are we going backwards now?”  Lotus asked, looking around uncertainly.

The rest of the team looked up from their work and mimicked Knot’s wariness, but no one said anything.  Then, there was another jerk to the right as the car turned once again.  As soon as they recovered, the team diligently stared into the woods on their left side.

About a minute later, they came upon another shift in the path.  Another bend where the only option was to turn right.  The Newbie followed it.  As soon as he had, everyone in the bed turned to look out the back of the rover.  As Knot had expected, they found themselves staring into a solid wall of trees.

Once they were all satisfied of that, they turned to look at each other.  In the midst of that atmosphere, Edge was the first one to speak.  “This is the path we were on before?”  Edge asked, pointing to the ground.  “Before we ever turned?”

“It should be,” The Captain answered slowly.

“But the part we came from is gone,” Champ observed, looking at his teammates faces for some reassurance.

“It looks like the forest has moved,” Knot declared solemnly.  “We’re caught in a square.”

“Sh-should I stop, then?”  The Newbie asked nervously from the front.

“No!”  Lotus answered quickly.  “That could be what it’s aiming for.  We get fed up and stop, then it crushes us as soon as we can’t run away.”

“So we continue going around forever?”  Champ asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

“We go around until we come up with a plan,” Lotus answered as the rover jerked to the right again.

“I think it’s just holding us,” Cauliflower cut in between them, her voice lacking its usual sing-song clamber.  “It’s keeping us here so it can focus its attention on the elf.”

“Is that true?” The Captain asked seriously.

“It’s my best guess,” Cauliflower answered as the rover shook again.

“Even granting that,” Edge spoke up before the Captain could ask anything else.  “If we stop the car and get out, you think we’ll be out of this forest before the elf dies?  Even if we manage that, we’ll be a hundred miles from civilization with no transportation and only the supplies we can carry on our back.  If we don’t get eaten, we’ll die of thirst.”

“Leaving the car isn’t an option,” The Captain declared with a nod.

“Then what is?” Champ asked skeptically.

“We’re gonna brainstorm and come up with something,” Lotus answered with an icy glare.

“I brainstormed that we should leave,” Champ responded obstinately.

“We’re gonna come up with an idea that isn’t stupid,” Lotus shot back.

“Fire,” Knot interrupted the heated debate.

The whole team fell silent and stared at Knot in confusion for a few seconds.  The rover jerked right again. Then Edge recovered and happily declared, “See, Knot agrees with me now.  We should’ve bought the flame throwers.”

“No,” Knot answered critically, standing from his seat.  He moved to behind the driver’s seat and knelt down to dig through the small chest between the front cage and the bed.  A few seconds later, he returned holding three bottles.  With a little self-satisfaction, he presented them to the team.

“Three molotovs?”  Edge asked dubiously.  “Hardly a revolution.”

“No revolution is complete without one, though,” Champ responded with a smug smile.

“I made them during the short break after the last time we came in here,” Knot declared, paying no attention to the peanut gallery.  “I thought they could come in useful.”

After that, the team spent two cycles around their square path to iron out an actual plan.  Then they waited until they were back on the first path they’d been on before they had to turn and nearing its end.  Just before reaching where he’d normally turn right, the Newbie slowed the car to a crawl.

Then Knot and Edge stood at the front of the rover’s bed, each holding one, lit Molotov cocktail.  Once they were within range, they both threw their bombs at the space in between the two trees directly ahead of the rover.  When the bottles struck the rough ground, they shattered and spread flaming fuel over the earth.

For a moment, nothing changed.  A small pool of orange fire danced in the dark forest and no one card.  Then the flame began to lick the trunks of the trees on either side of it.  As the bark started to blacken, things started to change.

At first, the trees seemed to only shake, as if blown by a strong breeze.  Then the forest filled with wooden groans and the earth shifted as the trees scooted away to escape the fire.  Seeing that, Knot couldn’t help, but wonder how that worked.  He imagined it be like swimming ducks.  The trees calmly move up top, while the roots work furiously underground.

Seeing the open space revealed behind the two fleeing trees, Knot snapped out from his reverie and shouted, “Newbie, drive!”

Not needing to be told twice, the Newbie slammed on the gas and they sped away.  In seconds they’d passed over the pool of flames they’d left behind and the team basked in the thrilling sensation of freedom.

“A couple Molotov’s go a long way,” Knot declared happily, giving Edge a pointed look.

“Still would’ve been better with a flamethrower,” Edge muttered stubbornly.

“You’ve got to let that go,” Lotus said in a painfully caring voice.

For a few minutes the team was wrapped in a celebratory atmosphere.  Then Knot caught sight of Cauliflower’s face.  She was looking behind them with a deathly pale face.  Turning to check in confusion, Knot saw it happening.  The flames they’d made had just barely caught onto the trunks of the nearby trees.  For a moment, they danced as a simple, yellow glow on the tree’s surface.  Then they started to spread.

The trees were still living, but they weren’t trees at all.  They were all part of an ancient monster.  Chocked full of magical energy, the flames took to them easily. In less than a minute, the two trees were engulfed up to their branches.  Two minutes more, and all Knot could see behind them were flames.

In all his experience, Knot had never been in a forest fire before.  The first thing that struck him was the noise.  He hadn’t known how loud fire was until it was all around him.  Even as his skin grew crisp and sore from the heat, and his lungs went on strike from the smoke, it was the roar that he would remember most.

“Maybe fire wasn’t a good idea!”  Champ yelled, quavering slightly at the vision of hell behind them.  “In hindsight.”

“We’ll be fine as long as the Newbie actually drives fast!”  Edge shouted over the overwhelming crackle of the flames.

“The car goes as fast as it goes,” Knot responded with what he felt was becoming his catchphrase.  He turned to look reassuringly towards the Newbie.  However, the smoke in his eyes was making them tear up and he could barely see.  Even without the smoke, his vision was entirely green when he turned away from the blinding orange of the roaring flames.  “We’ll be fine as long as the Newbie stays calm,” He finished, squinting at the hard working, green blur ahead of him.

“Soo much pressure,” the Newbie called mournfully from the driver’s seat, trying desperately to keep himself form looking behind.

After a few seconds, the Newbie spoke up again, “Ummm… What’s that?”

The boy’s voice wasn’t stressed and had instead become terrified.  A subtle difference that forced Knot to rub his eyes and look for himself.  Once his vision was clear of the blurring tears and he’d adjusted to the lighting, Knot saw something ominous.

Stretched across the path in front of them, stood a brown wall.  It was as if the earth itself pulled together to form a wall to block their path.  For a moment, a cold spike ran through Knot in spite of the surrounding heat.  “The elf!”  Knot cried out in his mind.  Then he noticed something else.

The wall wasn’t just dirt.  The entire thing was covered in thousands of intertwined vines, no, roots.  The roots diligently lifted the dirt higher and higher.  When the wall grew taller than the trees, Knot could make out a fraction of its true size.  It seemed to stretch across half the forest and continued to grow taller.

When the wall towered over a hundred feet over the tree tops, it started to bend over at the top.  Like a cresting wave.  That was when Knot realized, it was never supposed to be a wall.

“It’s going to use the dirt to smother the flames,” Cauliflower declared urgently from the back.   

“And us with it,” Edge added.

“I don’t think it cares about us right now,” Cauliflower responded earnestly.

“Doesn’t change what’s going to happen,” Champ shouted back.  “We get out of here.  Drive faster!”

“So we can explode into the wall earlier!?”  The Newbie asked, his desperation finally beating out his insecurity.

“No,” Knot answered as the boy’s words gave him an idea.  “Explode through the wall.”

“I don’t think the rover’s that sturdy!”  The Newbie shot back, sounding on the verge of tears.

“Just keep driving and leave the rest to us,” Knot replied confidently as the earthen wave grew ever closer.

“Please stop surprising me!”  The Newbie cried out helplessly.

Ignoring the Newbie, Knot turned to the rest of the team and said, “Champ, Edge, grab whatever concussion grenades we have left.”

“I can’t hold five grenades at once,” Edge volunteered.

“We have four,” Lotus suppled.  “Total.”  Seeing that he team was unsatisfied with just that, she added.  “They were out of stock at San Ranto.  Nothing I could do in a day.”

“That’ll work,” Knot replied, shaking away the disappointment of that revelation.  “Just grab a couple each and get ready to throw them when we get close to the wall.”

“So, basically the same plan as before, but with grenades,” Champ observed.

“Y-yes… I guess,” Knot answered, faltering.

Since no one else had a better idea, the plan was set.  In less than a minute they’d reach the wall.  In that time, Champ and Edge recovered the grenades and stood where Edge and Knot had been positioned before.  Once they were in place, Knot stepped over to take his place behind them.

A few seconds after they’d finished preparing, the wall had already eclipsed their vision entirely.  Champ and Edge wasted no time in throwing their grenades at the imposing structure.  A moment later the bombs exploded, releasing a boom that barely beat out the raging flames behind them.

Just before the grenades had burst, Knot released what he’d been preparing.  Once again, the bright energy flowed out of his gun and expanded in the air head of him.  This time, it caught the impending shockwaves which were headed for the rover and took them with it.  A few seconds after the grenades had gone off, the white shockwave hit the wall along with the second half of the grenade’s explosions.  With the force of eight grenades and Knot’s arte, the tangled roots and compacted dirt gave way.

A hole just big enough for the rover opened in the crashing wave and they drove through it eagerly.  As Knot watched his success, he slowly started to collapse, himself.  It felt like everything he had was drawn out of him.  Like he’d been caught in a battle for four days straight, or tried to have sex a thousand times in a day.  He was just empty.  He couldn’t move a muscle.  Two times was really his limit.

Knot laid on the hard metal floor and stared dazedly at the treetops.  A few seconds later, the entire forest roared with a terrible crash that went on for almost a minute as the earth shook violently. Once the noise had subsided and Knot didn’t feel like his bones were about to be thrown out of his skin, a face eclipsed his vision.

“Good work,” The Captain commended as he bent down and put the thin vial to Knot’s lips.

Knot obediently opened his mouth and let the revoltingly viscous liquid flow in.  He tried not to feel his tongue as the unpleasant substance passed over it, but some things just weren’t possible.  The taste clawed at his mind.  The flavor was like biting into a monster’s flesh, except intensified a thousand times.  It made sense, because that was basically what the stuff was.  Though, that didn’t make the experience any more bearable.

About a minute after swallowing the serum, Knot felt like he could move again and sat up.  Once he did, he found the rest of the team had returned to reloading magazines.  At least they attempted to reload.  They spent so much time eyeing the forest suspiciously that they didn’t make much progress.

Knot forced himself to his feet and turned to watch behind the rover.  Not that he could see anything.  The entire forest to their rear was obscured by a thick cloud of smoke and dust.  The wind blew the fog towards them slowly, but the air was slow today and they weren’t going to be caught.

After a couple minutes of watching the fog without event, Knot started to feel like they might be out of it.  Could be that the forest was so worried by the fire that it forgot to take revenge for it.  Maybe it didn’t even know where they were anymore, whether they were crushed by the tsunami or not.  He didn’t know how the forest sensed things, but he didn’t think it could keep track of every inch of a body measured in square miles.

Then, something caught his attention.  A movement on the edge of the cloud.  An unnatural billow.  Then he saw him.  He should have been a beautiful man.  A god among humans.  Though, now his face, clothes and hair were all covered in dried blood and dirt.  His left ear, once long and pointed, now ended in a ragged, bloody mess.  His left arm and right thigh were both marred by black, broken stingers which refused to come free.

The bee’s paralyzing poison seemed to have some effect on him.  Every step he took was half stumble, but he was still managing.  To catch up to the rover.  At this rate, they had less than a minute before he arrived.

Hurriedly, Knot shouted, “Elf!”  Hardly a descriptive explanation, but with just that, the entire team turned startled gazes towards Knot’s focus.

“Shit,” Champ shouted, biting his lip ferociously.

“I think it’s time for you to give up, sir!”  Captain yelled behind them in a vain attempt at negotiation.  “Your injuries-“

“Violating my wife’s grave!”  The Elf shouted over the Captain’s reasonable words.  “I’ll never forgive you!”

“I don’t care about that,” Edge called back unhelpfully.   “I just want you to get tired!”

“We had nothing to do with that,” the Captain responded, ignoring Edge’s words.  “Surely your leader believes that, otherwise-“

“I don’t!”  The elf shouted as he lunged towards the car.

The elf’s blade was aimed towards the Captain, but with a couple quick back-steps, he was able to avoid the slash.  Then Edge moved forward to intercept the sword.  Edge had to put his entire weight in resisting the elf’s movements, but the poisoned elf was unable to overwhelm Edge.

As the elf was distracted, Knot stepped up to the elf’s left side and fired a shell from his shotgun.  Before any of the pellets could strike, however, the earth around the rover leapt up and formed a shield on the elf’s left arm.  The elf’s new shield blocked all the pellets.  Knot fired three more shots to the same effect.

When Knot’s gun clicked empty, he cursed.  Then he slammed his guns butt into the elf’s shield.  He put all his muscles into pushing the elf backwards.  Before anything else they had to get him off the rover.  Just a few inches.  Knot summed up all his strength and pushed.  As his muscles light aflame, he tried to ignore their complete lack of progress.

Then the elf released an angry roar and forced open his arms, sending Knot and Edge flying backwards.  Edge was caught by the Captain and Knot was caught by Champ and Lotus.  Then, while the elf’s arms where still held open, Cauliflower stepped forward.

“There!”  She shouted happily, throwing the last Molotov into the elf’s unguarded face.

The elf tried to summon another shield, but the glass shattered against it and flames poured over him.  He gave off an anguished cry and flailed his arms to put himself out, falling backwards off the rover.  Rolling along the ground, the earth jumped up to smother the flames.  Then the elf stood up and glared death at the team.  Holding out his hand, he didn’t attempt to give chase any more.

As Knot regained his feet, he stared at the sight in confusion.  Then he heard the Newbie’s voice calling, “uh… Guys?  The car… again…”

Noticing the trees around them weren’t flowing, Knot hurriedly searched for any snakes that might be tying them back.  Then he caught some movement out of the corner of his eye and looked down.  There he saw the earth below them flowing backwards as fast as they could drive.  I can’t shoot that, Knot thought absently.

“He’s getting ready for something big!”  Champ shouted, forcing Knot’s attention back to the elf.

The tattered elf was still standing with bloodshot eyes and one arm extended towards the rover.  However, now his extended hand had taken on a bright, yellow glow.  For a few seconds, the team watched the glow continue to grow brighter.

Then the Captain shouted, “Get out of the car and run.”

Before anyone could follow that order, the air resonated with the nauseating sound of pierced flesh.  Looking over, Knot saw a flexible root piercing itself through the Elf’s glowing palm.  The elf gave a furious grunt and attempted to slash at the offending root.  However, a second root came from behind him and ran through his sword arm, holding it in place.  Then two more roots came up and pierced through the elf’s feet, lifting him into the air.

The elf struggled violently and the earth around him took vague, offensive shapes to batter the roots down.  The roots were both strong and flexible, however, and they ignored the attacks.  Then the root in the elf’s palm extended itself and pierced into the elf’s ribcage.  The elf grunted.  Then he began to cough as blood leaked from between his lips.  Then, a thick, wicked root emerged from the elf’s open mouth and the elf finally died.

When the elf gagged his last breath, his magic faded and the earth beneath the rover returned to normal.  In an instant, the rover leapt towards its top speed, causing the whole team to back into the bed.  Knot quickly regained his footing and was able to watch that horrific sculpture as it disappeared into the distance.

The rest of the drive out of the forest was uneventful.  Probably because of the elf’s unwilling sacrifice.  He was just a bundle of magic, enough for the trees to be satisfied with for at least a few days.  That was at least something.

Champ spent the rest of the drive to Narabesque trying to convince everyone this was the proof that he was right about elves.  As always, the rest of the team refused to either agree or disagree on the subject.  Privately, Knot learned something entirely different.

Watching a man be eaten alive from the inside by hungry roots, Knot forever swore off of any requests about plant monsters.

 

Elesia Marahova Samylyn was furious.  Her husband had asked her to help retrieve the body by saying she was the strong enough to make sure it went well.  However, she knew his main goal was to bring her closer to her brother in law.  Now she would have to tell him his older brother was dead.

It wasn’t her fault.  She’d told him not to go after them.  Ungodly things can happen when fighting against men with eyes like theirs.  A hero is a different kind of monster that can overturn the entire world when its back is to the wall.  She couldn’t risk the lives of soldiers for that man’s foolishness.  She knew that.  Her husband would know that… but knowing and feeling were two different things.

As she contemplated what could be done, Elesia kept half her attention on the block of everlasting ice beneath her.  Calling the wind to make it precisely levitate through the forest took an annoying level of concentration.  It would be more efficient to have her little birds carry it, but a certain degree of posturing was a part of being the matriarch.

For a moment, she spared her attention to the two guards that accompanied her.  Both skilled soldiers in their own right, if a bit immature.  On top of that, they were wise enough to be a little scared of these woods.  They had quite the potential.  Though, that also meant they were in no condition to offer her anything to distract her from her ire.

Turning away from her guards, she tried to consider her future plans.  Their norther border was becoming a problem.  Unusually powerful monsters were wondering into their territory lately.  They’d increased the guard’s patrols twice, but that was only a symbolic measure.  Someone still had to go and deal with the root of the problem.  That meant she and her husband would need to personal lead three more subjugation missions at least.

Then there was hat madwoman and her pox.  They were just starting to feel the aftershocks of that.  They’d have to actually trade with the humans for grain for the first time in seven centuries.  Realistically, for the first time ever.  What they’d done in the past wasn’t quite trading.  They’d need to make sure and properly buy it this time.  It was all just a tedious headache!

It was all that incompetent fool’s fault.  Everything was.  If he hadn’t chosen to marry a barren old maid, she and her husband wouldn’t have to waste every second on useless political strife.  She missed the old days.  When they could both focus on their studies.  Spending every day injecting themselves into the world and bending it to their whims.  They’d both shined back then.

“The forest is quiet,” the loyal guard beside her commented, pulling her out of her reverie.

“That’s because it’s fed,” Elesia answered solemnly.

“The mercenaries from before-“ The guard started hopefully.

“They wouldn’t be enough to satisfy it,” Elesia interrupted bluntly.  “Unfortunately, we must conclude that the patriarch’s brother is dead.  We will spend another fifteen minutes searching for what remains we can find.  After that, we risk the forest sensing our presence.  If we can’t find him, we’ll mount three more expeditions before the end of the day.  If we still haven’t recovered anything by then, we never will.”

As her guards looked up at her with respect and fear, Elesia stared into the trees around her.   She needed to find something to take back.  Otherwise it’d haunt him forever and she didn’t want that.  After passing through the charred section, she was sure they were drawing close.  She had to pay attention.

 

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2 thoughts on “Lead vs Fantasy 3-6

  1. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 3-5 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

  2. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 4-1 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

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