Author’s note: Sorry for the late update. I got a new kitten last weekend and I’ve been a bit distracted.
6-3 Inclement Weather
It was a scream. Unmistakable. The noise passed through his ears while Champ was still asleep and roused him. He couldn’t even remember hearing it, but he definitely knew what it was. In an instant, he was awake and reaching for his weapon.
Privately, a voice in the back of his mind marveled at that. How far he’d come from some know-nothing farmer to this. All it took was an unpayable debt and a lot of suffering. Who knew?
He didn’t have time for such thoughts, though. He dismissed them and focused his attention on the closed tent flap. Beside him, he could feel both Cauliflower and Knot doing the same. Quickly, but cautiously, Knot slid his impressively bulky body forward flipped the tent open with the barrel of his shotgun. The sliver they could see of the camp showed nothing more dangerous than half a dozen other mercenaries taking similar precautions.
Confirming that, Champ, Knot, and Cauliflower left the comfortably stuffy, canvas room and entered the biting cold of the northern mountain’s night. It certainly was still night. The broad moon above them was giving its all to provide them with visibility. The trying didn’t count for much. Everything was black, except for the muddied snow under their feet and the red glow of the low-frequency lamps next to some of the tents.
As the campsite slowly filled up with cautious people clutching guns, someone turned on the floodlamps from the large, harpoon truck, flooding their campsite with light. Champ immediately flinched away from the assault on his eyes. Then, when he’d adjusted enough to open them fully, he turned his attention to where the floodlights were pointing. It led out of the camp, presumably the direction the scream had come from.
“What’s going on?” Champ heard a husky female voice demand. She was unfamiliar, but sounded like she’d get along with Lotus. The voice had the same kind of rigidity to it.
“That cry, it was one of my men,” answered a tanned man with a body that was too well sculpted to be properly attractive. It looked like you’d sprain a shoulder just trying to wrap both arms around him.
“We were on watch and he left to take a leak,” an insecure male voice supplemented from outside the reach of the lamps.
“None of my people are going out there to find him,” the Captain spoke up, striding confidently into the conversation. “Not in the dark with a century class about.”
“He’s right,” the tall, commanding woman agreed immediately. “We should set up a defensive line around the camp. Prepare to fight or retreat, depending on what shows itself.”
The uncomfortably muscular man gritted his teeth and turned to face the darkness. He stared into it bitterly for a while. Then he gave a begrudging nod and said, “You’re right. I can’t risk my own men either…”
Watching that scene, Champ bit into the inside of his cheek. That was exactly why he could never fill the Captain’s shoes. Even if experience told him that the only thing awaiting them in the darkness was a corpse and an enemy, Champ didn’t have the resolution to abandon anyone. Not one of his own, at least. He could never be a leader.
As Champ was dwelling over that bitter thought, the Captain strode up to join the rest of the team which had naturally gathered at the center of their camp. “Everyone get in the rover,” he ordered as he approached. “It’ll put everyone two or three feet above the rest of the firing line, reduce friendly fire.”
“And we can run away if things get bad,” Edge added in a voice that wasn’t quite loud enough for the other teams to hear as they took position on the edge of campsite.
“We’ll buy them time to get away,” the Captain declared definitively. “If we can.”
With that declaration, everyone took their usual place in the rover and Knot pulled them around to be positioned behind the rough defensive line. Edge and Lotus were, as ever, resolute and focused in staring down he darkness beyond the floodlights. Cauliflower was only a little hunched over as she manned the machine gun to the rear. The heat of the potential battle seemed to be enough to overcome the bitter cold of the darkened mountainside.
Finally, beside Champ, sat the Newbie. He was neither heated, nor focused. He looked tired, a bit confused, and more than anything, nervous. Champ tried to remember when he’d been in a similar position. It hadn’t been that long ago. What words would he have wanted to hear to make things better?
Not coming up with anything, Champ moved to his default. “Don’t be nervous,” he declared jovially, securing one of his hands on the Newbie’s slim shoulder.
Even as he said the words, they sent a bitter trace through Champ’s heart that disrupted his smile. He liked this Newbie. He seemed like a sweet kid. Earnest. Plus, he didn’t snore. He didn’t want the kid to die.
“What was that?” The Newbie asked, turning to face Champ as if he’d only just realized the other man’s existence.
Champ shook his head lightly before reestablishing his broad grin and declaring, “If you hold your face like that you’ll never impress the guys… or ladies, if you’re into that sort of thing…”
The Newbie turned and looked Champ over skeptically. Then, apparently, he decided to play along. He contorted his face, pursing his lips and peeling them back to show his teeth. All the while, his eyes still had that look of confused nerves.
Champ had to grasp his face to avoid letting his laughter leak out. After a few seconds of the sight of the Newbie’s attempt at… ferocity? Champ finally reclaimed control of his face and carefully declared, “Yeah… looks great… I’m sure there’s someone…”
As his voice trailed off, Champ assured himself that this was a wide world. In it, there are people who marry clowns. Also, there’re rapists. Obviously, if you’re raping someone, you can’t find fear unattractive. All the Newbie needed to find was a rapist who was into clowns. That’d be his soulmate.
As Champ was having his internal discussion, the Newbie turned back to face the darkness. For a moment, he held his expression. Then it faded back to what it’d been before.
Seeing that, Champ frowned and tried again. “Did you ever hear how Lotus got her nickname?”
“He’s trying to make you forget your fear,” Lotus interrupted suddenly, briefly turning to direct a cold glare at Champ. “So, do that now. Otherwise he’ll never shut up.”
“What? I’m fine…” the Newbie declared, his face contradicting his words.
“And I’m sure you’re even more fine now that we’ve told you to be… that way,” Champ started a bitter rebuke, but then frowned at himself. That was the problem with starting a sentence without knowing how it ended, sometimes the answer was, it didn’t.
“And you being distracting was so helpful,” Lotus replied, not bothering to turn away from the firing line.
“I-I’m fine,” The Newbie asserted again, this time attempting a resolute expression. Attempting.
Champ shook his head that the Newbie’s desperate failure to mask his emotions. Then he opened his mouth to attempt another comeback.
“What’s that?” The Captain’s urgent call shut down their conversation.
Following the Captain’s line of sight, Champ saw a thick, white fog begin to coil and pool itself into the light of the floodlamps. Something about the mist felt unsettling. Maybe it was how delineated it was? It had a distinct border between fog and air, as if they weren’t, as much, mixing as that the fog was displacing the normal atmosphere.
As that thought sent bad premonitions into Champ’s mind, Cauliflower voiced them in a whisper, “A ghost?”
Champ didn’t know who it was, but someone cursed. Maybe it was himself.
As everyone in the rover debated the unlikely possibility, the fog continued to insinuate itself closer. Eventually, the fringe reached seeped into the firing line. Slowly, it coiled around the boot of a merc who was clutching his assault rifle, waiting for an enemy to show itself.
Then, in an instant, the fog contracted. The merc slipped forward and then he was being dragged. On impulse, he squeezed his trigger, sending a staccato of bullets up into the air. The line looked on in shock as the screaming man was dragged beyond their vision, into the imposing white. Then, abruptly, the screaming stopped and was replaced with an uncomfortably wet, organic noise.
At that moment, as a patch of the deep fog took on a pink tint, everyone started to move. The defensive line broke down. Both teams separated and fled to their respective vehicles. The assembled groups were veterans, people hired to hunt down a century class. Their retreat had some aspect of organization. Though, an untrained eye wouldn’t notice it. The mercenaries scattered with almost as much fear and desperation as a collection of farmers in the face of the rare threat.
With no other recourse, Champ, along with the rest of the team, attempted some suppressing fire. Of course, it was almost completely useless. As the rover lit up with the sound of gunshot, a chorus of bullets were sent out. They visibly pierced the fog, leaving tiny dimples in its surface. However, no damage was done and the fog kept creeping forward, now accelerating towards the sounds of life and movement.
As the fog sped forward, reaching out with flailing, ethereal tendrils, the three cars roared to life and fled in the opposite direction with no concession to planning or ceremony.
“What is that thing?” the Newbie desperately shouted over the whipping of the frigid mountain wind.
“It’s a ghost,” Edge answered, biting his lip as he stared into the white fog which still pursued the cars that were lagging behind them.
“L-like a dead person?” The Newbie asked, his quavering voice being injected with a fresh infusion of fear as he eyed the imposing fog. “How do we fight the dead?”
“Not like a dead person,” Champ responded as quickly as he could force the words out. Some things had to be dealt with immediately. You didn’t want to feed a dumb superstition. “It’s not an undead or a wayward soul or anything like that. We just used to think that cause they were rare and we didn’t know a lot.”
“What is it then?” The Newbie asked, his anxious look taking on a tinge of curiosity.
“Ghosts are a lot like slimes,” Lotus answered in her professorial tone. As she spat out the last word, her face crusted over with bitter frustration. Champ knew exactly what she was thinking about. He, too, could remember trudging through that shit-smelling swamp with a heavy flamethrower on his back. “When enough magic power comes together into one place, eventually it crystalizes into a magic stone. When said stone accumulates enough magic, it nearby moisture into it. Slowly, it surrounds itself in water until it can form a whole, gelatinous body out of it. Then it goes around digesting things to grow bigger. That’s a slime. A ghost is a lot like that, except with air.”
“I still don’t think I understand,” the Newbie complained fearfully.
“All you need to know is that bullets do nothing to it unless we can find its core and its entire body is one big foot, arm, and mouth, all at the same time,” Champ explained, pointing his, mostly useless, gun towards the encroaching mass of white. “This isn’t good. Nothing about this is good.”
“Have you fought one before? Killed one?” the Newbie asked hopefully.
“No,” Edge answered resolutely, gritting his teeth at that uncomfortable declaration. “I’ve never met anyone who has.”
Champ bit his lip. Information about ghosts was the sort of thing you tell to Newbies to scare them when they’re about to get cocky. All old stories from generations passed. Countries swallowed whole. Damned elves being scared enough to get off their tight asses for a change. Old stories. At most a quarter of it could be true. A quarter. Champ swallowed as his throat became uncomfortably dry. He hoped it was less than a quarter.