Lead vs Fantasy 4-2

4-2  The Best Laid Plans of Ratmen

 

After getting the message about the job from Edge, Champ was forced to set an alarm for 5 the next morning.  As soon as the bell rang, he immediately shut it down.  Then he got dressed in the dark to not wake Knot.  Knot and Cauliflower had apparently spent the better part of the night drinking at the association bar.  He didn’t want to make that hangover worse.

As Champ realized he’d put his pants on backwards, he wondered how many fights Cauliflower had gotten Knot into.  He really would’ve liked to accept their invitation, but he had to be sure to get it in this morning.

Once Champ was fully dressed and as presentable as one could get in simple black fatigues, he headed out the door.  As Champ caught a final glimpse of himself in a polished brass pillar in the hotel lobby, Champ frowned at his own figure.

He had never been one to follow others.  Back home, he’d always been called the most independent.  Even from when he was small.  That was why it was strange that he let that-

Shaking away the bad memories, Champ returned to his train of thought.  The point was, he wasn’t one to wear a uniform.  On principle, he hated it.  It was like he was being reduced to one among many, which… well, he loved being a part of the team.  It was like he’d found a second family, only more so.  He never had that kind of silent understanding with his parents.  He would swear that sometimes Edge and the Captain would have whole conversations with just their eyes.

In spite of all that, the principle remained!  Champ was an individual and he wanted to be able to express that!  Oh well.  Somehow, after all the sidetracking, he’d lost any care for the topic.  He knew why they had the uniform.  There were two reasons.  You wore the same stuff so that you knew who not to shoot when things got bad and you made it black so the stains didn’t show.  God knows they weren’t coming out.

This was all the Newbie’s fault.  Seeing the kid made him think of his own past.  He was never like the Newbie.  Never dreamed of someday having the glorious right to spend every day fearing for his life and getting covered in blood and sludge.

                Something about sludge and sperm.

Champ shook away that non-joke as it flashed through his mind and sighed.  The thing he didn’t know was: would his past self be proud of him today?  God knows he was grateful to the team.  The Captain pulled him out of the jaws of hell and showed him hope.  The rest each took him under their wing and taught him how to be in this strange new world.

He loved them all, but that didn’t change anything.  When he’d always imagined great things for himself.  Vague, but great things.  He felt like there had to be a greater destiny for him than killing monsters.

Suh idle thoughts filled Champ’s head as he passed through the relatively empty morning streets of Narabesque.  Of course, the team liked to bunk in places where they didn’t have to worry about getting their throats cut in back alleys.  So he had a long walk to distract himself from.

Once his feet stopped, Champ found himself standing in front of the jaws of hell.  This particular hell-mouth was in the shape of a shitty iron door with only a few faded flakes of paint to hide its shameful defeat by rust.

After rolling his shoulders a couple times to relieve his tension, Champ patted his back pocket to check the reassuring bulge.  Then he swung the door’s knocker three times.  There was only a few seconds of waiting, then the door swung open with a silence that clashed horribly with its disrepair.

From the crack in the door, the head of a man popped out at around the height of Champ’s chest.  “What’dya want?”  The man demanded, squinting at Champ with an air of arrogant dismissal.

Any customer service, Champ didn’t say.  Instead, he took a deep breath and answered, “I’m here to make a payment.”

The little man looked Champ up and down suspiciously.  Then he ordered, “I.D.”

Champ glared at the man’s attitude, but obediently presented the association card he was already holding in his right hand.

The man looked over the I.D. for a few seconds with an inquisitive sneer.  Then he returned the card to Champ and closed the door.  After another minute, the door soundlessly opened again.  This time, just wide enough to allow Champ passage.

Champ followed the implied invitation and once he was in the dim room beyond, he was again accosted by the tiny doorman.  “Guns.”  The man demanded, still giving that same sneer.

Champ looked down and realized he’d been unconsciously holding the grip of his pistol with his left hand.  Frowning at that, Champ drew the pistol from its holster and presented it to the doorman.  After taking a second to appraise the weapon, the man carelessly tossed it on a small table beside the door.  Then he ushered Champ further inside.

After being taken to a small room with a table, a few chairs, and nothing else, Champ took a seat and watched the man leave.  As he waited for what came next, Champ stared at the walls. They were all covered in dark, black paint.  He couldn’t decide whether that was for intimidation or just to spare them cleaning expenses.  Either way, Champ didn’t really like sitting in a chair in the middle of an abyssal void.

After a few minutes, the door swung open again and in stepped a balding man with a chin and a half and a patchy beard.  “Mr.  Sandoval, what a treat to see you in the flesh!”  The man exclaimed with a wide, yellow and gold grin.

“I was in the neighborhood,” Champ responded, trying to look around the man’s disgusting face rather than at it.   “Thought I’d save on courier costs.”

“A little early aren’t you?”  The man asked as he took a seat across from Champ, his grin never leaving his face.  That was him in a nutshell.  A piece of congealed pond scum that relied on an ever-present grin to hide the even worse shit and filth that dwelled beneath the surface.

“I could say the same for you,” Champ grunted, turning only his eyes to stare into the corner of the room.  He’d hoped to talk to a subordinate.  He didn’t want to endure this scum’s smile.

“Market never sleeps,” The scum answered, releasing a laugh that sounded like the collective cries of a thousand chimneys.

“I thought they all did.  In this city, at least.  Closed by 9,” Champ rebutted, wincing at his own internal impulse to forward the conversation.

“Not the only one that matters,” the scum answered, his grin somehow getting worse as he tried to make it conspiratorial.

Not being able to bear it anymore, Champ didn’t wait for a segue.  He withdrew the white envelope from his pocket and threw it down on the table.  The scum’s eyes were immediately stuck to the envelope, but he tried to act nonchalant as he reached out to grab it.

As always, the scum’s face lit up when he opened the envelope and caught sight of the bills stuffed tightly inside.  Then he proceeded to count it.  When he’d finished, his expression morphed into a frown for a fraction of a second.  Then he went back to grinning as he declared.  “That’s all of it.  Another quarter’s payments.  On time to the day.”

“Give me the receipt and I’ll be on my way.”

The scum’s eyes narrowed irritably at Champ’s words.  Then he slowly withdrew a pad of paper from his own pocket.  As he slowly wrote out the details of the payment, he kept his eyes focused on Champ.  “You know, at this rate it’ll still be a long time till it’s all payed off.”

“I do.”  Champ answered simply, refusing to show any emotion on his face.

“If you wanted to, we can change that,” the scum declared, leaning forward and trying desperately to give his slimy face a friendly look.  “I know a few ways you can make money fast.  A man with your skills could go far with the right guidance.”

“The receipt,” Champ reminded when he noticed the scum’s hands had stopped moving.

The scum’s eyes grew colder, but he started writing again as he continued, “Just think it over.  There are a lot of connections in that little troupe of yours.  Could be very profitable for the right partnership.”

“I’m not interested,” Champ shot him down bluntly.

The scum gave one last frown.  Then he looked down to sign the receipt with a flourish.  When his face came back up, he was grinning again.  Handing over the receipt, he said, “Always good to keep things nice and documented.”  The scum remarked, his voice roiling his eyes burning as he said it.

Champ looked the receipt over carefully and checked the signature.  Then he said, “It’s nice to have finished business with you.”  Then he left the establishment as quickly as he could, only slowing down for a moment to retrieve his gun.

After a quick jog back through the streets towards the decent part of town, Champ was back at the hotel.  He went back to his room to find Knot still snoring on his own bed.  Champ carefully grabbed the rest of his equipment and headed for the door.  Then he stopped.  Quickly turning around, he set down the black magazines he’d picked up and grabbed the white ones he’d specifically packed last night.  Edge would’ve given him so much shit if he’d forgot that.  Also, he might’ve died, but it was the first thing that held his attention.

Now ready for work, Champ headed back down to the hotel lobby and off to the small dining area on the left side.  There he found Edge, Lotus, and the Newbie calmly having breakfast.  Lotus, as always, was sitting straight with perfect posture.  However, Champ could tell from the slight loosening of her facial expression that she wasn’t ready to be awake.  Edge was more obvious, robotically shoveling food into his mouth and staring at nothing.  Then, the Newbie was the Newbie.  He squirreled away food in his cheeks and eyed his environment nervously.  Like a squirrel.  Ever since Cauliflower kept shouting it, Champ couldn’t get the image out of his head.

Champ took a seat at the table with them, causing Edge’s eyes to momentarily focus on him.  Then he looked down at the table in front of Champ and asked, “Not eating?”

“I’m not hungry,” Champ answered truthfully.  Whenever he had to deal with that slime, it always turned his stomach.

Edge stared at Champ unintelligibly for a few seconds.  Then he turned to the Newbie and said, “Get him something hearty.”

The Newbie stopped eating and looked around as if he was searching for someone else to receive that order.  Then he said, “Y-yes,” and rushed off.

“I’m not hungry,” Champ repeated obstinately.  For a second he tried to cross his arms over his chest, but then he caught himself.  It would’ve made him too much like a pouting child.

“You have to eat, because…”  Edge started.  Then he seemed to forget what he was doing in the middle of his lecture and he returned to shoveling meat and potatoes into his mouth.

Champ looked at that image and shook his head.  He wondered how late they stayed up last night.  Then he quickly stopped.  Champ was willing to say and even do a lot of things, but he didn’t like to think about their… things.  It was like imagining your brother and sister having sex, except not weird, but weird.

A few seconds after Champ frantically threw those images out of his mind, the Newbie returned and presented a plate.  On it were eggs.  Scrambled eggs.  That was it.

“I got eggs, cause they have protein and they’re easy to eat…  It’s a hearty breakfast!”  Seeing the Newbie’s painfully self-congratulatory smile made Cham’s brain hurt.  “You see, I shaped it like-“

“I know what it’s shaped like,” Champ interrupted.  His tone was more severe than he’d wanted, but he didn’t bother correcting that.

“I thought it was funny…” the Newbie declared dejectedly.

I know, that’s why it’s so painful, Champ couldn’t bring himself to say.  Instead he took another look at his plate and sighed.

“Whatever,” Edge cut in, still barely more cogent than an aging wino.  “Just eat your heart eggs.  You need energy to fight things and stuff.”

With that, Champ gave a groan and set into his plateful of heart-shaped scrambled eggs.  As Champ forced food into his protesting stomach, the table fell back into silence.  Edge stared sightlessly at his own plate of food, and the Newbie seemed to once again be worrying himself about something.

After about thirty minutes, Edge and Lotus seemed to have awoken some and everyone had finished their breakfast.  Even Champ.  Gathering around the exit of the hotel, they prepared to leave.

“Wererats can be a pain and you don’t know who you’re going with,” Lotus said slowly, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze.  “If you need me, I can…”

Edge gave a wry smile and shook his head.  “We’ll be fine.  I’ll stop by the library when we get done.”

At Edge’s words, Lotus’s face bloomed into one of her rare full-faced smiles.  “Have fun, and don’t pick fights just cause they’re strangers.”  She gave as her parting remarks.  Then she quickly fled the lobby, her gate coming as close as she ever would to skipping.

“That woman just doesn’t quite fit as a mercenary, does she?”  Champ muttered with a shake of his head.

“Speak for yourself, farm boy,” Edge responded, turning a critical gaze towards Champ.

“Didn’t like half of all mercs grow up on farms?” Champ asked, frowning at Edge.

“Yeah,” Edge admitted, lifting his head up smugly and turning to walk out the door.  “But your whole family wasn’t killed in front of you.  That makes you a freak.”

Champ couldn’t shoot down that point and silently followed after him along with the Newbie.  The trio quickly traversed the city and found themselves in front of the headquarters of the Acronym Guild.  Champ always mixed up the order the letters went in, but the people inside were good… for the most part.

Moving into the marble lobby, they found half a dozen groups of three to five people standing around sheepishly.  Meeting up with or finding new party members at the local headquarters is apparently pretty common for guildies.  Considering around half of all mercs belonged to one of the major four, the lobby was pretty empty.

Thankfully there were only two groups of three that day and the first one they asked was their partners for the day.  Two of the three were exhaustingly generic.  Both were equipped with simple assault rifles that didn’t have any particular use or love put into them and were wearing the brown fatigues that displayed the arrow and heart logo across the breast.  To still be proudly wearing the guild fatigues meant they were either new, or veteran enough to be sponsored members.  The only real reason the guilds made their special fatigues was so people could get in order when a city released an emergency request.

The man who stood resolutely between the other two, however, was something else.  An oddity.  He was covered from head to toe in hardened leather armor.  Not even his face was visible.  The armor’s dark brown surface was covered in shallow gashes and teeth marks.  An old, yet maintained, SMG hung from his shoulder and he had a mid-caliber handgun strapped to his thigh.  In addition to the two weapons, he had so many pouches strapped to him that he might as well make a belt out of them.    He certainly didn’t’ look like a rookie.

At the same time, he wasn’t a reassuring sight either.  There was a reason most mercs didn’t wear armor.  Sure, it worked amazingly against weaker monsters, but anything above lizard man would tear through leather without even noticing it.  Something on the level of a warg could crush even full plate mail in its jaws.  This guy either refused to fight anything big, or was rich and frightened enough to maintain armor he only used a third of the time.

“You lot will be joining for this?” the armored man asked obtrusively as soon as that fact had already been established.

“Yeah…” Edge answered, squinting into the thick goggles that covered the man’s eyes.

“Fine,”  the armored man responded, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Just listen to what I say and we won’t have a problem.”

Edge frowned slightly and turned to look at Champ.  Their eyes met and after a moment Champ nodded.  Then Edge turned back to the armored man, gave a half smile, and said, “Knock yourself out.”

“…” the armored man said nothing more and turned to head out the lobby.  The two rookies followed behind him after bowing their heads slightly towards the team.  Then, after waiting a few seconds, Edge, Champ, and the Newbie fell in behind them.

“That was rude, right?  Even by mercenary standards?” The Newbie leaned in to ask as soon as they’d left the building.

“Definitely,” Champ answered with a nod.  “In this situation, SOP would generally be: we argue for about twenty minutes over who’s in charge, then agree that we’ll try our best not to shoot each other.”

“Chaotic…” the Newbie judged quietly.

“It can be hard to trust other people with your life,” Champ responded with a shrug.  “Just because you trust them not to stab you in the back, doesn’t mean you can trust them to lead your way.”

“Either way,” Edge said, cutting between the two.  “That man can be in charge this time if that’s what he wants.  If he’s gonna be the leader, he can do most of the work.”

“Killing wererats is expensive,” Champ agreed with a nod.  “and we already negotiated pay spilt with the guild.”

“I can imagine it is…” the Newbie said, his eyes drawn to an ammo pouch on his left thigh.

After about thirty minutes of walking through the city streets, the six men arrived at the garage between the two city walls.  Once there, it took them little time to reach the acronym guild’s designated area.  Once there, they found a small hodge podge of vehicles tucked in one corner.  The rest of the lot was taken up by two dozen copies of the same car.  The trucks all looked the same as the merchant’s transport truck from before.  Except with the back cargo container cut in half to be open to the air.  They looked like that, because that’s what they were.

The guilds provided a few major services for their members.  Having people to evaluate mercs and tell them when they were ready to face certain monsters saved a lot of lives.  So did the classes on monster types and weaknesses.  Having somewhere to look for teammates that you could be assured were strong enough to fight with you was convenient.  Just having someone to settle arguments between mercs was huge.  However, the single biggest draw that made rookies join the guilds was the right to make cheap vehicle rentals.

For mercenaries, having a truck could mean the difference between making ten dollars in a day and making a thousand.  If you went through all the trouble to kill a basilisk, you wouldn’t be able to make a cent if you couldn’t take the teeth back with you.  However, buying and maintaining a vehicle was too expensive for rookies.  That’s where guilds came in.  Each with their own fleet of defunct merchant transports, the guilds represented one of the few was a rookie team could work up towards the big time.

As Champ was thinking over the life he may have been forced into if he’d had to figure mercenary work out on his own, the armored man and co. were talking to the parking lot attendant.  After the paper work had been finished, the team headed to one of the rookie mobiles and got on the road.

It was an hour and a half drive to the start of their job.  What a way to spend an hour and a half…  The Newbie had immediately volunteered to take the wheel.  Then Edge muttered something about responsibilities and instruction and nabbed the passenger seat.  That left Champ in the back with the other three.  It was one hell of a drive.

When the guy had been… brusque to them at the beginning, Champ had figured it was because he didn’t want to work with strangers.  After an hour and a half that assessment had changed somewhat.
Every ten minutes, one of the two kids in guild fatigues would try and ask their leader something to start a conversation.  Then, the armored man would answer them in the most bluntly, clinically, sterilely, factual way possible.  Then the kid would say, “Oh, ok…” and everything would die.  It was like he was giving a lesson in how not to make friends or influence people.  It was physically painful to watch.  Literally, by the fifth time, Champ noticed he’d been biting his cheek so hard he started to bleed.

After the ninth nonversation, the car stopped right about the time it ran out of road.  They all filed out and Champ reunited with his traitorous compatriots.  As everyone gave their equipment a final check, something on the armored man’s back caught his eye.

Leaning in towards Edge, Champ asked, “Is that a short spear?”

Edge raised his head and followed Champ’s line of sight.  “Sucks for him if it is,” Edge answered with a frown.  “I met a spear user before.  They barely have any mobility.”

Champ pursed his lips sympathetically.  He had to be grateful for his affinity.  It may be one of the most common, but assault rifles are adaptive and powerful.

“What’s going on?” the Newbie cut in curiously.

“Nothing,” Edge answered.  “Have you checked your mags?  All of them?”

“Yes.”  The Newbie tried to sound definitive, but he couldn’t quite expunge all the whiny teen from his voice.

“Do it again, I want to watch,” Edge responded, not convinced.

Seeing that, Champ had to be grateful.  No longer being a child was really convenient.  For one thing, he didn’t hate Edge anymore.  Well, most times.

After finishing the equipment check, the six gathered in a circle to discuss what came next.  Well, normally that’d be what happened.  This time, the armored man took out a map, looked at it for a few seconds, and pointed in a direction.

“That way to the attack site,” he declared bluntly.  “Let’s get moving.”

With that, he took off up the gradual slope, towards the northwest.  His two companions followed close behind and once again Champ’s group took up the rear.  Once the other party had their backs to him, Edge took his own map from his back pocket to confirm the location.  Once he had, he nodded and continued following.

As they walked, the grade slowly got steeper and the thinly brushed terrain grew rockier.  Neither of these particularly bothered Champ.  He’d been in this work for a few years now.  Any hike stopped being much of an issue after that.  That was one of the secret perks of the job, actually.  Champ’s legs developed quite well.  They looked like they were carved out of fucking marble.  It was magnificent.

As Champ was smiling to himself, half the world went white.  He impulsively blinked a few times to make his vision return.  Then it happened again.  “Could you stop that?” Champ yelled, turning towards the culprit.

“S-sorry,” the Newbie apologized, still holding the shiny bullet up to the light.  “I didn’t mean to…”

“My face is fine, but don’t let it get in my eye,” Champ muttered as he brought his hands up to rub his face.

“Was that the world’s most monotone innuendo, or just an accident?” Edge asked, raising his eyebrow curiously.

“The second one?” Champ responded hesitantly, bringing his head out of his hands.

“You aren’t sure?” Edge asked, bemused.

“I dunno, which one’ll make you think better of me?”

“Definitely not that answer,” Edge replied with a half-smile.

“Hey…” the Newbie interrupted, then immediately became hesitant for doing so.  Seeing that neither of his seniors seemed mad, he continued.  “Why silver?”

“For wererats?” Edge delayed with a contemplative frown.  “I don’t think anyone’s sure.  People used to think it was because silver had a purifying effect.  Which they thought because silver was really shiny and… pure looking, I guess?  Now researchers say it’s because the atomic properties of silver interfere with magic or something… but there are a lot of monsters with more magic in them that can be hurt by lead.  So, it’s just one of those things.  Don’t question it till it stops working.”

“I see…” the Newbie responded slowly, going back to staring at his bullet.

Staring into Edge’s face, Champ frowned.

“What?”  Edge asked, stepping back defensively.

“What was all that?” Champ asked after a few seconds.  “When I asked you that question before, you said “it works, don’t worry about it.”

“That’s what I just said.”

“Yeah, but there was a bunch of other stuff before it,” Champ pressed on.  “Where’d that come from?”

“I just remembered some stuff I read,” Edge answered quietly, turning his face away.  “Thought it was relevant.”

“Is this is what they call the civilizing effect?”  Champ asked as he kicked a rock farther along the slope.  “I don’t think I like it.”

“Shut up,” Edge commanded, increasing his pace to pull ahead of them.

After a fifteen minute hike from the truck, they reached their first destination.  The place was another spot of dirt, rocks, and dispersed bushes along the foot of the mountains.  At first it wasn’t obvious the spot was at note at all, but the signs were there.

“Definitely wererats,” Edge observed, crouching next to a boulder covered in tiny claw marks.  Seeing the Newbie’s inquisitive expression, he continued.  “Almost nothing has claws this small that are able to cut through stone.  Makes it pretty distinctive.”

“There were at least ten of them,” the armored man’s voice cut in after Edge’s explanation.

“Oh?”  Edge asked, eying the man doubtfully.

“If you get enough of them together on a hunt, they get worked up in a frenzy,” the armored man declared with a confident nod.  “They start to nibble and claw everything around them, scenery, each other; everything.  There was at least ten in this hunting party.  That means we’ll find at least thirty back at the nest.  Their strength comes in numbers.  They won’t risk more than a third of their group on any hunt.”

Edge squinted at the man.  Then he turned to look at Champ.  How was he supposed to know something so specific?  Champ shrugged.

Then Edge clapped his hands and said, “Alirght.  We’ll go with that assumption.  At least thirty.”

The armored man nodded. Then he turned towards the North West again and said, “We have a bit of an idea what we’re up against now.  Let’s keep going.”

“Where are you going?” Champ asked, his confusion mixing with his distaste for the man.  Then he turned to face a section of brush which seemed to have been trampled by a dozen tiny feet.   “It looks like she was dragged off in the opposite direction.”

“When they get a big prey, they always drag it in the wrong direction for a while before taking it to the nest,” the man lectured without even bothering to turn toward Champ.  “It’ll be faster to follow the trail they took getting here.”

Watching the man take off up the slope, Champ narrowed his eyes.  Then he turned to look at Edge.  When their gazes met, Edge shrugged.  Then Champ let out a sigh.  The man sounded like he knew what he was saying.  No reason not to follow him… up to a point.

The team continued to follow the kids, following the armored man.  Staring at the backs of the armored man’s team, Champ considered their situation.  In a thousand little ways, everything the armored man id was either annoying or infuriating.  It was probably his “smartest person in the room” attitude.

However, Champ had to be grateful the man wanted to take the vanguard spot.  If he wanted to be the first one to encounter the enemies, and therefore the first one to fire on the enemies, that was nothing, but good.  Silver bullets were expensive.  God knows Champ couldn’t’ afford to waste any of them.

This mission’s reward would barely cover his share of the rover’s reward without any operating costs.  That thought made Champ frown at the barley uneven laces of his boots.  Everyone else had everything figured out.  Edge and the Captain could’ve retired years ago if they had anywhere else to go.  Knot budgeted like it was a tenant of faith.  Champ had no idea what Lotus had, but she had to be flush to maintain her tastes.  She wasn’t the kind to spend beyond her means.  Even Cauliflower was surprisingly thrifty.  A master at getting other people to pay for her drinks.

It was only Champ.  He was the only one forced to carry this iron weight around his neck.  What was worse, not only was he weighed down by his debt, the whole team was.  They were forced to drag Champ along chains and all.  Even with the Captain’s humanitarian ideals, Champ knew they would have a lot more rest between jobs if he didn’t have to make his payments.

“I was thinking yesterday,” Edge’s voice interupted Champ’s depressed thoughts.  “and I figured out our problem.”

“Did we have a problem?”  Champ asked, looking up from the half-dried scat he’d almost stepped in.

“The last mission,” Edge started slowly, staring into the sky as he spoke.  “Everyone was upset, then people got stressed, and then the rover got wrecked.”

Champ watched the Newbie kind of collapse into himself.  Then he said, “Yeah.  We should’ve ran as soon as we found out elves were anywhere near us.”  Champ resolutely crossed his arms over his chest.  Then a brown, desiccated bush entered his vision and he added, “And the forest… well… that was… I don’t know what we could’ve done about that.”

“The problem was we weren’t having enough fun,” Edge declared, nodding happily to himself.  “Some things are unavoidable, but we could’ve done a lot better if we were properly enjoying ourselves.”

“What?”  The Newbie asked, squinting at Edge curiously.

Champ sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Please don’t tell us again about how the little happiness we can eek out in life is actually just a callous survival strategy?”

“What do you mean?” the Newbie repeated.

“Don’t encourage him,” Champ said with a shake of his head.

“It’s important to have fun, Newbie.  If you take things too seriously, you get stiff and if you get stiff you get eaten,” Edge instructed knowingly.

“Oh…”  The Newbie breathed out, looking like he’d received some new revelation.

“Don’t listen to him, Newbie,” Champ cut in quickly.  “Sometimes you can just enjoy things because they’re enjoyable.”

“That’s why Champ and Cauliflower make fools of themselves so often,” Edge continued happily.

“Fool…?”  Champ protested weakly.

“It’s because they’re professionals.  They know what’s up,” Edge continued without care.

“That’s not why!” Champ shouted irritably.  Moving between Edge and the Newbie, he grabbed the Newbie’s shoulders and quickly said, “Don’t listen to him.  He’s always coming up with prnciples on how not to die.  Some of them are good, but some of them are awful.  You’ve gotta learn to tell the difference.”

“Champ,” Edge’s calm voice sounded from behind him.

“What?” Champ asked, turning his head.

Then, Champ’s vision was eclipsed by the looming shape of a hand approaching fast.  The sound of one hand clapping rang out as Champ stumbled back one step.  “Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he rubbed his stinging cheek.

“You know,” Edge said, leaning down to get in Champ’s eye line.  “You would’ve been able to avoid that if you’d been having more fun.”

“You want me to be having fun?”  Champ asked, straightening himself up.  “Let me slap you.”

“Be my guest,” Edge answered, stretching out his arms and giving a slight bow.

Before Edge could straighten up, Champ moved in, his hand already swinging.  Just as Champ’s palm was about to connect with Edge’s cheek, Edge took a step backwards.  As Champ’s hand flew through the air, and nothing else, he growled a bit and took a step forward to strike again.  Again he was dodged.

When Champ released a third swing with his left hand, Edge raised his wrist to block it.  Then eh smirked and said, “You know why you can’t hit me?”

“It’s not because-!”

“It’s because I’m having fun!”

“It’s because you’re a close combat type!”  Champ shouted irritably, withdrawing his hand and glowering at Edge.

“If you were in a more flexible mood, you’d be able to hit me,” Edge declared with a broad grin.

“You’re full of shit and stop dodging so I can slap you!” Champ shouted, taking another impotent swing at Edge.

“We’re getting close,” A barely familiar, dower voice interrupted Champ’s flailing.  Edge and Champ both turned to see the interloper.  There they saw a man covered from head to toe in leather armor.  It was hard to say since his face was completely obstructed, but Champ imagined he had a disapproving expression.  “It’d be best if we remained quiet from here.”

Edge furrowed his brows at the man and asked, “What makes you say we’re getting close?”

In response, the man took a few steps away from them and pointed to the ground.  Champ, Edge, and the Newbie followed him and looked down.  “It’s a stick,” Edge declared with dissatisfaction.

“It’s three sticks,” Champ corrected, looking them over.  They were just three short sticks laying parallel to each other on the ground.  They each had bare parts where the bark had worn away, but they looked completely normal.

“It’s a marker,” the armored man declared in his self-satisfied tone.  “It tells other Ratmen that the area is their territory.”

“Shouldn’t it be planted in the ground or something?”  Edge asked, still unconvinced.

“They don’t do that because they don’t want to attract attention from other predators,” the armored man explained.  Then he knelt down and used his gloved pinky to point towards the sticks as he continued, “They aren’t just laying on the ground.  They’re half buried in grooves in the earth to keep them from being blown away.  Also, see how they’re gnawed at different places.  This one at the top, then the middle, then the last one at the bottom.  It’s a sign.”

Champ didn’t find that evidence unshakable.  Edge didn’t seem completely convinced either.  However, the armored man didn’t pay attention to that.  He stood up and turned to face up the slope.  Then he pointed at a steep rock face about a hundred yards ahead of them.  “The nest should be in that cave.”

Champ looked over the unforgiving, grey stone and the abyssal hole in the center of it.  Then he shrugged and said, “It’s worth checking out at least.”

Edge nodded and the armored man said, “we’ll go in slowly.  I’ll take the front.”  Then he set off towards the mouth of the cave with his followers in toe.

Again, the team followed from a distance.  As they did, Edge gestured for the to huddle together and spoke, “Newbie.  If you ever take jobs without us, you need to remember: stay away from men like him.”

Following his gaze, the Newbie frowned.  “He seems good enough.  He got us to the nest alright.”

“Exactly.  He knows stuff no one in their right mind should,” Champ cut in quickly.  “He’s gotta be a specialist.  Only kills rats something like that.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”  The Newbie asked, his face becoming more perplexed.  “I mean for hunting rats.  Not as much other things, but if it’s wererats it’s good, right?”

“Specialists get people killed,” Edge declared, shaking his head.  “Think about it a little.  Monster populations near a city are kept in check by the local knights.  That’s half their job.  The only time mercs get a subjugation mission is when something unexpected happens.  Now, unexpected stuff happens all the time, but not with the same species all the time.  Especially not with something like wererats.  They can show up almost anywhere, but are an oddity everywhere.”

“If you want to hunt them exclusively you’d have to chase them down from country to country,” Champ finished off.  ”There’s no way that’s worth it.”

“Ok, it’s unprofitable,” the Newbie said with an understanding nod.  “I still don’t see why it’s so urgent.”

Champ shook his head at the kid and tried to give him a disapproving glare as he said, “You aren’t think about it at all.  Why do people do stuff that’s unprofitable?”

“The only reason anyone specializes in a monster is because they have a grudge,” Edge said, grabbing the Newbie’s head and turning it to stare into his eyes.  “Someone they know died and they’re taking revenge.  Don’t team up with people who are out for revenge.  They get people killed.”

The Newbie turned his gaze back to the armored man and he started pulling at his own lips as he thought things over.  Seeing that, both Edge and Champ backed off and started moving at a normal pace again.

“It’s not important right now,” Edge declared, patting the kid on the back.  “Just remember it.  Could save your life.”

The Newbie nodded once, but didn’t say anything.

After about a minute, they met up with the other three at the mouth of the cave.  The six men all stared into the darkness for a while.  Then, apparently satisfied there were no traps, the armored man crept inside, with the other five forming two columns behind him.

As they slowly progressed further into the harsh darkness, Champ was immediately able to tell something was living inside.  The scattered bones of small animals which were occasionally strewn about the floor were one hint, but the biggest clue was the smell.  Cave caves smell like must and dirt and dampness.  Nests always smelled like… well, shit mostly.  That and scum and slime and a hint of decay.

Like an orgy gone horribly wrong.  That wasn’t a great one, but there was something there.

As Champ was silently coming up with new material, the armored man suddenly held out a hand for everyone to stop.  Once they had, he hugged the wall and dropped into a crouch before heading forward a few steps alone.  After spending a moment staring into the darkness, he crept back to the team and whispered, “They have lookouts ahead.  It’s only two.  I’m going to try and take them out.  Don’t fire a gun unless it’s absolutely necessary.  I’d like to get a drop on the rest of the nest.”

Hearing the orders, Champ unconsciously looked towards Edge.  His vice-captain gave a faint nod in response.  Then, as the armored man slowly crept away, both Edge and Champ silently prepared their assault rifles.  Just in case.

Staring intently into the cave, Champ’s eyes started to adjust to the light and he started to se two figures in the darkness.  They were almost humanoid.  Almost isn’t enough, however.  Even just their silhouette would give them away as the vile monster they were.  To start with, rather than sprouting up from their shoulders, their necks jutted out horizontally from the top of their chests.  It made them look like they had the most terrible hunch imaginable.

The figures’ long, ratty faces swung back and forth in the air; twitching and sniffing for anything that could be prey.  Their bodies were covered in thick, black fur.  Unlike the wolf or cat tribes, their fur gave no hint of sleek elegance.  Instead it looked to form one giant tuft.  All ragged and unkempt.

Different from their weaker ratty cousins, the wererats were only about a head shorter than a normal man.  Their sharp rodent teeth left at around jugular height.  Their uncomfortably bony hands grasped what looked to be sharpened sticks.  An easily dismissed threat to one’s life.  There was no way the makeshift weapons were poisoned, but they were definitely smeared in the rat’s shit and whatever else they could find that was plentiful in bacteria.  A crude weapon that had made more than a few mercenaries die of sepsis.

Looking them over, Champ’s stomach lurched.  These monsters were made all the more disturbing by their passing similarity to the human form.  Even if they weren’t terribly strong, they somehow found a way to creep into his nightmares.  He’d rather face off with a fortress bear or a cockatrice any day.  Well, maybe not a cockatrice.

After moving farther down the passage, the armored man pulled something from a pouch on his waist and drew the short spear from his back. Then he threw the small object he was holding in between the two wererats.  When the small, bag looking thing hit the ground; it silently burst open.  Something was sent into the air and the armored man charged.

Noticing the assault, the two rats squeaked at each other in what sounded to be a mixture of panic and excitement.  Then, just as they drew deep breaths to raise the alarm, they began to cough.  After releasing a few soggy utterances, they tried desperately to breath in fresh air.  This only made their coughing fiercer, however.

By the time the armored man reached the rats, they could only weakly point their weapons at him between fits.  They didn’t even attempt an attack.  The armored man easily swiped the sticks out of his path with the tip of his black short spear. Then he grabbed the first rat’s head and stabbed his spear up into its throat.

After the man easily pulled his spear free, the rat attempted to gag a few times before falling to the floor.  Before the first rat had hit the ground, the man spun on his heel, ramming the spear through the rat’s ear and into its brain.  After withdrawing the spear a second time, he turned around and started walking back to the team as the second rat fell.

Watching the armored man’s return, Champ could faintly see a light shimmer in the mist that was gently floating to the floor around the dead rats.

“Silver dust?”  Champ asked himself more than anyone else.

“It weakens them,” the armored man answered with a nod as he cleaned the blood off his spear.  “If they breathe it in, then even steel can hurt them.”

Having that knowledge was certainly interesting and useful, but Champ couldn’t keep himself from one thought: wouldn’t it be cheaper to just use a silver dagger?  Then you could distract them with normal smoke.  Maybe the smoke would linger for longer?  Be more of a hassle? 

As Champ considered the home economics of a rat slayer, the armored man declared, “They aren’t very good at shouting.  If the lookouts are here, their main force should be up ahead.”

Carefully stepping over the ex-wererats, the team pressed farther into the cave.  After a while spent creeping through the narrow dark, they found the faint orange glow of light at the end of the tunnel.  In contrast to that hopeful ideal, the entire group grew tense at the sight.  They slowed their pace to a snail’s crawl.  Inch by inch, they moved forward until they were at the source of the light.

When they reached the light, they found themselves staring into a large cavern.  At least large by this cave’s standards.  It was a mostly round cave which ten men could lie across comfortably.  On either sides of the room were two small torches giving light to the darkness.  In the center of the room were rats.  Human sized rat monstrosities.  Dozens of them.  All crammed together.  They piled on top of each other and nipped at each other in either competition or play.  The image of that swarming, seething mass of black fur made Champ unconsciously groan.

“Aren’t they supposed to be afraid of fire?” one of the armored man’s subordinates asked quietly.

“Depends on the beast,” Champ answered on reflex.

“They are afraid of the fire,” the armored man declared.  “But they’re more afraid of the things that love the dark.”

The Newbie shuddered slightly at that unknown specter.  Champ felt his skin crawl in turn.  He knew exactly what some of those things were.  They were damn well worth fearing.  Especially when you found yourself a hundred yards into a mountain.

“At least thirty of them,” the armored man observed.  “Should be the bulk of the nest.”

“Champ,” Edge called out, his face deadly serious.  “I think there’s a pubic hair joke to be made here.”

For a second, Champ looked over his vice-captain’s face and then he shook his head.  “You know, you can’t just order someone to be funny.  That’s not how it works.”

“I told you already,” Edge rebutted quickly.  “We’re supposed to be having more fun.  That’s your job.”

“I think we should make use of the choke point,” the armored man cut in as if their conversation had never happened.  Readying his SMG, he started, “I’ll go in and then-“

“Stop,” Edge demanded, hastily grabbing the man’s shoulder and holding him back.  “We need to check for the girl.” Edge merely turned towards Champ, then Champ nodded upon receiving his wordless order.

Champ reached behind his back and took a small, black, monocular from the pouch there.  Champ, Knot, and the Captain all carried one.  It was important to have some spares.  If Cauliflower’s binoculars broke during a mission they needed to replace them immediately.  Plus, it came in handy for situations like this.

Crouching at the entrance to the large room, Champ held the monocular to his face and scanned the area.  Mostly, he saw an intimate view of revoltingly moist, black fur.  To spite Edge, and for the benefit of his sex life, Champ very pointedly didn’t think about pubic hair.  Other than rats, all Champ found was dirt, stone, and a few animal bones.  After five minutes, he was satisfied with his search and stopped.

“No sign of her,” he declared as he put away his monocular.

“Then we can proceed,” the armored man responded, clearly happy with the results.

“Yeah, and we’re no closer to completing the job,” Edge added irritably as he stared into the room in front of them.

“The important thing is that we clear them out,” the armored man said, determinedly.  “That way we keep them from hurting anyone else.  Besides, once they’re gone we can search as much as we need.”

Champ thought of retorting to that sentiment, but he gave up before saying anything.  Edge seemed to go through the same reaction, but the armored man didn’t notice.

“This passage is about three of us wide,” the armored man observed as he looked over their surroundings.  “We should spilt up into groups of two and perform a gunning retreat back down the passage.  When the two in front need to reload, they squeeze to the walls and the two in the middle step up to keep the pressure on.  Then move to the back as we reload and continue until it’s over.”

“That works fine,” Edge responded with a nod.  “How are we going to provoke them?  You have some sort of spray or something?”

“I thought I’d just shoot at them some,” the armored man answered simply.  “That generally works.”

“Fair enough,” Edge responded with a wry smile.  Then he turned back to his half of the group.  “Champ, take the front with our armored friend.  Newbie, you’re with me.”

For a second, Champ wanted to protest that assignment, but after a look at the rookies the armored man had brought along, he couldn’t say anything.  They definitely weren’t as green as the Newbie, but they didn’t seem up to the job of provoking the horde either.  Since he had an actual firearm affinity, he got stuck with the risk.

As he and the armored man crouched at the entrance of the large room, Champ fished in his pouch until he found the small, plastic case he was looking for.  Opening it up, he withdrew the pair of soft, yellow earplugs from inside.  After putting them in, the dark world he was in became a little smaller.  That was annoying and it was hard to react to a fight with out some hearing, but there was nothing to be done.  Fighting in a cave without them was not a good time.

Once Champ had replaced the plastic case to his pouch, the armored man gave him a querying thumbs up.  Champ returned the gesture and the man nodded.  Then Champ reaffirmed his grip on his assault rifle and sighted down on the writhing, black mass.  After taking a deep breath and counting to five, Champ pulled the trigger.

The armored man and Champ fired at roughly the same time and the cave erupted in roaring thunder.  The glint of the silver bullets in the torchlight was imperceptible as they streaked towards their targets.

The first few struck almost at random.  The constantly shifting bodies of the rats were hard to distinguish and harder to take precise aim at.  A couple at were hit in the torso and one seemed to have taken a bullet in the leg.  Then the nest awoke to what was happening.  The rats all stood up and faced towards the cavern’s entry.  Seeing that, Champ was able to take aim and fire.

A wererat in front of the crowd took silver to t face and collapsed.  Then the whole mass started to move.  Champ sent three last bullets into the rushing horde.  Another rat fell backwards, but the mass didn’t slow down at all.  They merely flowed forward around their fallen comrades.

Champ remained as calm as he could be expected to as he took four hurried steps backwards.  The monster’s charge was fast and the first of them were on him before he could take another.  The slavering beast took a wild swing with its wicked claws.  Champ was barely able to catch the movement in his dynamic vision, but he did.

Champ’s body moved as if on its own.  He brought the butt of his gun up and rammed it into the palm of the slashing rat hand.  He struck hard against the twisted paw and pinned it against the rock wall to his right.  The rat looked to give off a shriek of frustration, but mercifully, Champ couldn’t hear it.

The shaggy monstrosity swung its head around to try and bite into Champ’s neck.  Before it could, Champ swiped his rifle’s barrel to the left.  The beast’s temple met with hot steel and it was sent stumbling backwards.  Then it was immediately pushed forward again by the teeming mass behind it, which compounded its confusion.  Before the rat could recover, Champ brought his rifle’s barrel against its forehead and pulled the trigger.  The beast’s contorted face was left with three new orifices and it fell to the ground.

Immediately, Champ returned his rifle to his comfortable firing position and he let off another burst on the next rat in line.  Then he leapt backwards twice to avoid the third rat’s claws.  Then he started walking backwards.  He didn’t run, he walked briskly, steadily.  Letting off at least one burst of fire every four heartbeats as he went.

From that point, the fight was basically over already.  While the wererats were the weakest of what Champ thought of as the “were-family,” they were by no means weak.  However, their primary strengths were focused on four things: speed, stealth, numerical advantage, and their immunity to almost anything that isn’t silver.  Fighting them with silver bullets in a confined area where you’ve gotten the drop on them is the ideal situation.

In the narrow passage, only two rats could charge through at a time.  Once the first few waves of them were dealt with, the rest had to climb over the corpses to advance.  Like that, they couldn’t really charge at all.  They barely made it within clawing distance before being burrowed into by their ferocious storm of silver.

The only real worry came when the rookie pair took over firing duty.  Seeing the maelstrom of claws and teeth bearing down on them, they couldn’t focus and their shots went wild.  Thankfully, the armored man produced another bag of silver dust, seemingly from nowhere, and tossed it.  That bought the kids enough time to recover their composure.

After that, it was Edge and the Newbie’s turn.  Champ was pleasantly surprised by the Newbie’s performance.  He at least seemed to understand that you’re supposed to point the gun at what you want to shoot.  Quite the improvement.  Of course, the kid was hardly a pro.  Edge had to kick him out of the way a few times to keep the boy from being eviscerated.

Like that, the fight passed fairly uneventfully.  Though, Champ couldn’t help but be a little bitter that he and the armor man were the only pair to go twice.  Every round of that second magazine hurt his soul.  Reminded him of what the Captain had told him the first time they faced werepanthers.  “Silver bullets make you better, because you regret every miss.”  Champ still didn’t know if he agreed with the first half of that statement, but he was on board with the second.

Once the last rat had fallen, they stopped their retreat and stood their ground in the tunnel.  For about a minute, they waited to see if any stragglers were attempting a last-minute ambush.  When nothing seemed forthcoming, they removed their earplugs and started retracing their path over the bodies they’d just made.

As they stepped over the corpses, the team each considered dealing with that mess.  Then, they wordlessly came to the agreement to leave the after-care to another party.  Champ didn’t want to spend all night dragging rats out of a cave and constructing a pyre.  Bitch work is best left to kids who can’t handle actual jobs.  They need the paycheck anyway.

After passing through the corridor which now reeked of gunpowder and blood, they returned to the large cavern.  Inside, they found nothing of note, just as Champ had found before.  It was now mostly empty, aside from a couple corpses.  However, on the left wall, where the torchlight could barely reach, there was a particularly deep shadow.

Champ was confident that there shouldn’t be any more wererats around after they racket they made.  That made him comfortable to finally pull out his sidearm with his left hand and flip on the under-barrel flashlight.  Shining it over, he found that the shadow was indeed deep.  About five feet deep.

“Something over here,” Champ called out.

Once he made sure the others were headed towards him, Champ pushed forward into the man-sized hole in the wall.  This new path was narrow and shallow.  When he’d passed a few feet into it, he saw that what he thought was a dead end was actually a right turn.

Once Champ had actually made the turn, he immediately found a dim light emanating for a dozen feet down the passage.  Hurriedly, he flicked off his flashlight and holstered his sidearm.

“Looks like another room,” Champ whispered back to Edge, who’d entered behind him.

“Shouldn’t have anything, but be careful,” Edge whispered back.

Champ nodded before creeping forward.  Once he’d reached the end of the small passage, he found himself looking into a small, oblong room illuminated by one torch.  He quickly scanned what he could see of the room for any bestial silhouettes.  Then, he stuck his head and rifle into the room, looing towards the blind corner on his right side.  He saw nothing and immediately withdrew.   After repeating that process with the left side, he said, “It’s clear.”

Then Champ strode forward into the room.  Edge called to the other four to enter the passage before following behind.  The small area was unfurnished, aside from the torch.  On the far side from where they entered, it seemed to lead to another narrow passage, though this one had a steep grade down.

Champ made a cursory examination of all these things, however, none of them stuck in his mind.  They were immediately replaced by the image of a young, human woman.  She looked exactly like a person who’d taken great care of themselves until quite recently.  Her long, blond hair had the hallmarks of good style now ruined.  Her face was still blurred with runny makeup.  Though, that had no ability to hide her unnatural pallor.  Nor the sickening glisten of cold sweat which coated her skin.   Her blank eyes were staring into the ceiling and she seemed to notice nothing as her body occasionally twitched.  The scene made Champ’s heart sink in sympathy, but it pointed to one joyous revelation.

“She’s alive,” Edge observed from behind Champ, his voice breathless with surprise.

“Is she the right one?” Champ asked, his words unintentionally callous.  She had to be who they were looking for, but the simple white shirt and black pants didn’t give the feeling of nobility, even before they were tattered.

“Two women couldn’t have been taken, right?” Edge asked with a frown.  “We would’ve heard.”

“Maybe she’s some farmer’s daughter or something,” Champ posited with a shrug.  “Someone unimportant.”

“A farmer’s daughter, we would’ve heard about.” Edge denied immediately.  “The only people who can disappear like that are slum rats.  The only people in makeup in the slums are the prostitutes.  Why would one of them come out here?”

“Why would a baron’s daughter come out here?”  Champ asked as he knelt down to get a closer look.

“A baron’s daughter doesn’t need a reason to do anything,” Edge rebutted, mimicking Champ’s movements.

Whoever she was, the girl was in bad shape.  She needed some kind of help, the only question was whether any help could be given before taking her back to the city.  Looking over her half-torn shirt, Champ found a strange, green leaf sitting very intentionally on the left side of her belly.

Champ tentatively grasped a corner of the leaf and lifted it.  The leaf slowly came away, leaving strings of clear, viscous liquid attaching it to the girl.  Underneath it, he found a dark, raging wound.  The uneven gash stretched from around her navel to the small protrusion of her hip bone.  Champ didn’t even want to think about how deep it was, or what it was made with.

“You have anti-septic?” Champ asked, wincing at the sour odor emanating from the foul tear.

“Don’t know if it’ll help much at this point,” Edge responded as he handed over a small bottle he dug out of the pouch on his back.

“It’s the best I can think of,” Champ replied with a shrug.  Taking the bottle, he quickly pulled off the cap and liberally poured it over the certainly infected gash.

“Did they try and treat her wounds?”  The Newbie asked, appearing out of Champ’s blind spot unannounced.

Champ had to put everything he had into maintaining his dignity as a senior and not jumping out of his skin.  Ignoring Champ’s near heart attack, the Newbie stepped forward.  He pinched the discarded leaf between two fingers and carefully lifted it into the air, studying it curiously.  “Looks medicinal to me.  Why would they do that?”

“I don’t care about the best laid plans of mice men,”  Champ declared, carefully lifting the girl’s ass into the air so Edge cold wrap her abdomen in bandages.  “Not right now, anyway.”

As the Newbie let out a both disappointed and apologetic whimper, a flash of movement in his peripherals caught Champ’s attention.  Fliting his eyes towards it, he saw what looked to be a black berry covered in red speckling, slowly rolling to a stop beside him.    Following the trajectory of the berry, Champ found the armored man.  He was pointing towards a waist high pile of something.  When he picked up the torch and drew it closer, he revealed the pile to be all the same berry.

Something about that sight pulled at Champ. After a few seconds of dim recollection, a dark memory from the depth of his mind marched forward.  “Damn…” Champ let out slowly.

Champ’s statement was mostly for himself, but the armored man gave a solemn nod in response.

“What is it?” the Newbie let out desperately.  The two rookies beside the armored man seemed to ape that sentiment, but refused to voice it.

“They were going to feed her Fecossa berries,” the armored man obliged stoically, returning the torch to its original position.  “She would’ve been a valuable food supply; if they could keep her alive long enough.”

“I don’t…” the Newbie replied slowly.

“Monsters aren’t like normal animals,” Edge picked up the explanation.  Having bandaged the girl as best he could, he stood and turned towards the horde of Fecossa berries.  Giving a sour expression, he continued.  “They’re more connected to magic than even the elves.  While they need oxygen and carbon and calories and everything, they also don’t.  Anything they’re lacking, their bodies make up for with raw magical energy.”

The Newbie almost gave a deep nod on reflex, then he frowned and asked, “What does that have to do with it?”

“I’m getting to that,” Edge shot back irritably.  He gave the Newbie a harsh scowl for interrupting.  Then he cleared his throat and went on.  “Monsters seek out magic however they can get it.  After all, it gives the food, water, and power.  People even speculate it has something to do with their reproduction, but we don’t know that.”

Bending forward, Edge picked up the small berry the armored man had thrown before.  “However, not all sources of magic are the same, apparently.  Some have different wavelengths or whatever and are harder to control.  Just like the Fecossa berry.  It’s packed full of magical energy, but it’s so wild that even monsters can’t take it.  They suffer random mutations and ultimately die.”

Edge held the berry in the gentle torch light for a moment.  The red flecks stood out on the berry’s dark surface beautifully.  It was as if they were glowing.  Then, Edge suddenly tossed the berry at the torch.  As soon as the berry touched the flame, it erupted into a small fireball.  As the three rookies unconsciously leapt backwards, the fireball crashed into the ceiling.  Then, nothing remained of the berry.

“That’s where the girl comes in,” the armored man’s slightly muffled voice took over.  Edge scowled at the outsider for interrupting, but the armored man didn’t notice.   “Smarter monster groups will kidnap weak animals and humans and force feed them the Fecossa berries.  Then the sacrifice will develop tumors all over their bodies.  These tumors will be rich with a more subdued form of magic and the monsters will cut them out to feed.”

“That’s horrible…” the Newbie shuddered as he imagined it.

Edge looked over the Newbie and the two rookies, painted in the various shades of horrified.  Then he turned to Champ and said, “The mood is getting bad.  Tell a joke.”

“I don- what?”  Champ asked, blindsided.  Then his mind made a random connection and he shot it out there.  “It’s like being tumor impregnated with berries…”  When Champ noticed the strange expressions on the other’s faces, he sheepishly added, “Berry rape.”

“Champ, that’s really in poor taste,” Edge observed, giving Champ a look of both sympathy and judgement.

“I-“ Champ started, glaring at his superior.  “I hate you so much sometimes.”

Behind them, the sound of a muffled chuckle rang out forcing them both to turn.  There, they saw the Newbie, holding his mouth and looking sheepish.  “S-sorry.  It’s just… together…”

Edge gave a satisfied nod, then he looked thoughtful for a moment and added,   “Well, Champ is right about one thing.  Apparently the Fecossa berries are where the rumor that goblins and orcs kidnap human women for reproduction started.  Someone saw a woman with a belly full of tumors and came to a conclusion.”

“When did you become a “fun facts” guy?” Champ asked in protest.

Edge very deliberately ignored Champ’s comment and said, “The important part of all this is that you remember what the Fecossa berry looks like.  Sometimes people confuse it with the Palier berry with terrible results.”

“I think I just won’t eat any red and black berries,” The Newbie responded, turning towards the berry pile and giving another shudder.

“Oh you definitely should,” Edge responded urgently with a nod.  “The Palier berry is deathly poisonous.”

“Then why would it matter if I confuse them!?” the Newbie asked, throwing his hands up as he exchanged his fear for exasperation.

“Well, if you poison someone with concentrated Palier juice, they’ll die,”  Edge answered slowly, looking towards the ceiling.   “If you poison someone with concentrated Fecossa juice, they’ll die filled with wild magic.  If you don’t act fast, they’ll soon be coming back.”

“Really?”

Edge gave a self-satisfied nod and said, “That’s why you should always remember: black on red, you’re better off dead.  Red on black, you’ll be coming back.  It’s easy to remember because it rhymes.

“Isn’t it also confusing?” Champ asked, furrowing his brows.  “It sounds like if you eat the Fecossa berry you’ll be coming back from your mission.”

“Well, that’s not what it means, and that way it rhymes,” Edge responded, folding his arms obstinately.  “You come up with something better.”

“We’re lucky,” the armored man’s voice interrupted the melodrama without care.  “From the amount that’s left, it doesn’t look like they’ve fed her many yet.  Probably waiting for her condition to stabilize after capturing her.”

As the armored man stepped forward to look over the woman’s condition, a faint, yet definite sound of rustling came from below them.  The armored man immediately turned his head to the passageway on the opposite side of the room from where they entered.  “There’re more of them?”  he asked, shocked.

Champ and Edge didn’t bother responding as they hurriedly loaded the girl onto Edge’s back and prepared to leave.  As they did so, the armored man’s voice called out to stop them, “What’re you doing?  The nest wasn’t cleared.  We have to finish them.”

Champ turned to see the armored man already standing at the mouth of the passage leading further into the nest.  “That’s not the job,” he answered quickly.  “The job was to find the girl or take revenge.  We found the girl, we have to get her back.  That was our contract.”

“If we don’t clear out these rats, they’ll just attack someone else.  Take more captives,” the armored man rebutted, his voice growing impassioned.

“That’s not the job,” Edge shot back emphatically. “The city will release a commission to deal with the rest in a couple days.  Our job is to get the girl out.”

“By the time the next commission comes, the rest of the nest might have already moved!” the armored man responded frantically.  “If they set up next to some village on the outskirts, they could destroy the whole place!”

“That’s not the job,” Champ and Edge replied in unison.

The Newbie stood between the two groups and frantically looked back and forth between them.  With one look from Champ, however, he immediately came trotting to their side.

Apparently giving up on them, the armored man turned away.  As he disappeared into the darkness, he declared, “We can’t let them live.  Not one.”

Champ, Edge, and the Newbie turned towards the exit.  Champ took point all the way back to the truck, but nothing notable appeared.  After a much less leisurely drive back to the city, they were able to drop the baron’s daughter off at a hospital.  With that, their job was finished.  They arranged for another car to head out and pick up the armored man’s group.  Then they went to pick up the payment.

When they were divvying out their payment, the Newbie tried to say something, but Edge shut him up.  Champ didn’t care enough to worry about that.  Now, both Champ and the Newbie had the cash to pay off their share of the repairs.  Champ was a little surprised at how reassuring that felt.

A few days later, Champ would come to hear of how the other party never returned to the car sent to pick them up.  After that, a second team was sent to clear out the nest and burn the bodies, but Champ didn’t bother listening to what they found.

That night, he had a drink for the poor, deceased rat slayer.  Though, he would never claim to be surprised by what happened.  If you wanted to survive as a mercenary, there was only one thing you needed to do: your job.  Nothing more, nothing less.

 

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2 thoughts on “Lead vs Fantasy 4-2

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

  2. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 4-3 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

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