6-6 The Cost of Doing Business.
“What the hell was that?” Champ shouted as soon as the rover passed out of the swirling, white corridor. “I’ve never heard of a ghost being able to make earth spikes… or whatever that was.”
“It didn’t manipulate the earth, it, itself, was underneath it. Like, inside of it,” Cauliflower explained, her brow furrowing as she struggled to understand her own explanation.
“Its body is air…” Lotus responded, not bothering to raise her head from the seat she’d collapsed in as soon as they were free. “I guess it’s not that surprising that it can seep into the space between individual grains of dirt.”
“If that’s true, I think we’ve underestimated it,” the Captain remarked heavily. He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he considered the implications of that. If it could figure out their strategy and adapt to it, then the ghost had some degree of intelligence. “I don’t think we ever could’ve distracted it with only two cars.”
“Certainly not with one now,” Edge added darkly. “Where does that leave us? Make a run for it and hope the city’s defenses can deal with it?”
“No!” The Captain cut that thought away before it could gain any traction. “With it’s body as it is, the city’s walls won’t stop it. It’ll just flow over them. Then, with people living on top of each other as they do, hundreds or thousands will die before anyone can get it under control. Worst case, the entire city will burn to the ground as we attempt to deal with it.”
“So, we just die out here and let it find the city on its own?” Champ asked critically. “Even if the situation’s dire, it’s better if we can give them some warning. Get within radio distance and give a report before breaking away.”
“You think they’d listen to the report of a ghost? Take it seriously at all?” Knot asked back, his eyes facing resolutely forward and his knuckles gong white against the wheel.
“We would’ve at least tried,” Champ responded with a shrug.
“There has to be some solution,” the Captain declared vainly. Even he didn’t have hope in his own words, he just wanted them to be true. He couldn’t even consider the thought of losing his home, his… everything.
“There was something…” Cauliflower spoke up slowly, still leaning against the railing behind Knot. “I noticed, when it was eating… you know, eating the people.”
“Yes, we all remember,” Champ cut in irritably. “No need to dwell on it.”
“Normally it’s really dispersed, but then it wasn’t. Not as much,” Cauliflower continued thoughtfully, scrunching her face as she moved into the memory. “I think it condenses itself around its meals. For digestion or whatever.”
“And how does that help us?” Lotus asked, finally looking up from the floor, but still taking her breaths slowly and carefully.
“If we got a big enough meal, maybe it’d condense itself enough to for us to find the core,” Cauliflower answered with a weak shrug. “the smaller its body is, the better chance we have.”
“Yeah, just let me materialize a Wyvern out of nowhere,” Champ responded dismissively.
“Or a few hundred people…” Cauliflower said, looking equally confident as Champ. Then, she suddenly straightened her back and excitedly asked, “What about prisoners? Like criminals and stuff? You think Narabesque has a few hundred to spare?”
“Not on death row, no,” the Captain answered, narrowing his eyes strictly. “Even counting others, it’s not enough. Narabesque may be a big city, but it can’t sustain more than twenty or thirty prisoners at a time. Beyond that, they have to be exiled.”
“Then I guess our only hope is to head east in hopes of finding some kind of monster nest,” Edge declared, biting his lip in frustration. He’d never liked a blind retreat. “If we find one, with a bit of luck, we should be able to get away while it’s distracted.”
The Captain frowned at the only decent plan his subordinates had come up with. Then he turned back to stare into the white mist that still swirled forward and attempted to lick their tail. The sight irritated him more than it should, even considering how it threatened his life and the lives of everyone he cared about. Monsters, as a rule, were unfair existences. They were full of magic and didn’t have to obey the laws everyone else had to. However, this was worse than most. At least slimes had a defined volume.
As he narrowed his eyes at the cheating fog, an idea, or memory, a little bit of both, struck him. It passed through his mind like a lightning bolt, but he managed to grab hold of the important pieces. Then he licked his lips and slowly put it into words.
“We don’t actually have to give it a feast,” The Captain started slowly, shifting his gaze around the rover to gauge his audience. “We just have to make it think there’s one. That should be enough, right?”
His team looked back in confusion at his statements. Then, just when he was about to give up and continue, Knot spoke up. “Are you thinking about luring it?”
“I think we’d have a good chance,” the Captain responded quickly. As he spoke, a corner of his mind complained that he was leading his team into danger, purely for his own selfishness. However, that quickly subsided as he reminded himself that they weren’t exactly safe yet. “The flasks shouldn’t have broken during the crash. If they did, it’d be a little more distracted right now.”
“Where are we getting lures from?” Cauliflower asked skeptically, shifting her gaze around the rover.
“Assuming we do pull this off, how are we going to kill it?” Lotus slid back into the conversation, not bothering with Cauliflower’s question as she turned her attention towards the Captain. “I doubt it will be small enough to guarantee a core hit while firing blindly. If I exhaust myself shooting randomly, then we’ll have no way to retreat again.”
“I… have an idea,” Edge spoke up slowly, shifting his gaze around the car nervously as he did. “I was thinking about it last night… but our new friends aren’t going to like it.”
The Captain followed Edge’s nod back towards the armored car behind them. Then he looked back at Edge and heard him out. It was definitely a plan, and the flamethrower group definitely wouldn’t be thrilled. As he picked up the radio’s receiver he thought about how to pitch this plan. To start with, he wouldn’t be mentioning its conclusion.
After a note entirely quick discussion with the leader of the other car, they prepared to turn on their pursuer. Slowly prepared. First, they had to let the other car catch up so they could be in the front again, then they had to wait until they were over relatively packed soil to avoid flipping in their sudden reversal.
Once they’d found somewhere suitable, Knot jerked the wheel, causing the rover to skid in a roughly 180 degree arc. The crew in the back were thrown violently from one side to another as they used their bodies in an attempt to steady Lotus’s stance. For her part, Lotus’s expression remained completely unfazed as her body swayed like a willow in a hurricane.
When the rover’s track was shifted to charge their misty opponent, Lotus wasted no time in righting herself and preparing. Her body was covered in a familiar white glow and she almost gave off a smile as it washed over her. Then, just before the rover made contact with the reaching tendrils of the ghostly mist, a familiar beam of light raged forward from the tip of her gun and parted the slavering fog. The way forward clear, Knot redoubled his pressure on the gas pedal and sped down the opened corridor, their colleagues following close behind.
From there, things were not as smooth as the first time. The rover was filled with a tense silence, punctuated only by Cauliflower’s persistent shouting.
“Left 60 degrees!” Cauliflower bellowed, her words quickly followed by a roar and new path opening at a moderate angle to the left of them.
“Now straight!” Cauliflower called out as the path before them began to narrow.
As another shot opened their path further, Cauliflower was already thoughtfully searching their surroundings for the next move. “Right, 90 degrees!” she declared a few moments later.
“It can’t be 90 degrees!” Knot shouted desperately. “90 degrees is unreasonable!”
Before he could finish speaking, another roar from behind signaled the opening of another passage, directly to their right. Knot desperately spun the wheel and the whole car shook as they barely avoided driving directly into the closing wall of fog.
“No more right angles!” Knot cried irritably once he confirmed that the car behind them had managed to follow the sudden turn.
“Just make it work… Straight!” Cauliflower yelled back, learning no lessons from their close call.
As things continued like this, the Captain found himself unconsciously counting under his breath. When this inaccurate clock passed roughly three minutes, the Captain smiled. As hectic as it was, this strategy seemed to be working.
The basic idea was that burying portions of itself underground probably took time and energy. Not something it could do over its entire breadth. So, as long as their path remained unpredictable, it would have trouble laying traps for them. Even through the thick fog with the convoluted path, Cauliflower could plot the course to their destination. That was a good thing about Cauliflower. She was like some migratory bird. Once she’d been to a place, she had an almost instinctual impulse that could lead her back to it.
“We should be about on top of it,” Cauliflower finally declared after her dozenth directional order. “Give the others the signal.”
The Captain nodded picked up the radio receiver. Pressing the switch, he called out, “Set up the perimeter, we’ll do our part once you have.”
He didn’t wait for a response before replacing the receiver and turning back to his team in the rover’s bed. What he saw wasn’t encouraging. Lotus, as could be expected was in bad shape. Her breathing was fast and ragged and she barely seemed aware of her surroundings as she collapsed into her seat. The three men that surrounded her looked almost as worn out. The duty of keeping her steading through the twists and turns seemed to be tougher than they’d thought. Already, the Captain could make out a deep bruise forming under Champ’s eye where something, probably a knee, had found a temporary home.
Hearing a roar from their left, the Captain briefly looked over to see the other car driving in a rough circle around them, shooting flames to keep the hungry fog at bay. That impromptu wall of fire was effective for now, but it wouldn’t last forever. In fact, if their plan was to work, they needed it to last as little time as possible.
Turning back to his ragged crew, the Captain clapped his hands and shouted, “Edge, Champ, Newbie, Cauliflower, get off your asses. We’re headed out.”
As the team groaned to life and pushed themselves to their feet, the Captain leapt from the passenger seat and hurried to the center of the small enclosure they’d made for themselves. There, he found a familiar truck, toppled over on its side and its frame half bent. Just like with the watch post before, it didn’t have any corpses or bloodstains. All that remained was the wreckage of the vehicle and a collection of inedible materials scattered around in the dirt. Privately, he prayed that whatever the process was to get to that point, it was relatively painless. A dark voice from the depths of his mind spat out that it couldn’t be, but he tried to ignore that.
Quickly, he knelt down amongst the scattered bullet cartridges and camping supplies, searching for anything sturdy enough to hold what they wanted. As he searched his team filed in behind him and set upon the mess, one by one.
“This looks like something,” Champ called out from the wreckage himself after a couple minutes of rummaging. In the next moment, he pulled a small, black box free from thick harpoon cabling which was now coiled haphazardly around the crash site.
As the Captain approached, he carefully opened the box, revealing a collection of eight, well-sealed metallic tubes that shone in the light of the fires behind them. The Captain retrieved one of the tubes and carefully inspected, but he dared not attempt to open it, not yet.
The small tube reminded him of the item he’d used once lifetime ago, before he’d ever become a mercenary. Satisfied with his inspection, he nodded and replaced the tube in the box before wresting the whole box from Champ’s arms. Then he called out, “We got it, everyone back to the rover, Edge, come with me!”
With the Captain clutching the painfully rectangular object to his chest, the pair jogged towards the perimeter of their fiery circle near where the other team’s car would pass by. As it did, Edge waved stepped up and waved his hands to signal for them to stop.
As the car skidded to a stop at their side, the tall woman, Nes stood up and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Get out, you need to move to our car,” The Captain declared as Edge retrieved metal tubes from the box he was holding.
“Why? I need to stay with my team,” Nes responded, the few visible portions of her face contorting in suspicion.
“Your whole team needs to move,” The Captain declared, looking over the people in question. There were four, counting Nes. Three men and their leader. Thankfully, none of them were particularly massive. They’d fit in the rover, if only just.
“What?” Nes asked again, her eye narrowing further.
“I’m sorry about this,” Edge added, his voice dripping with remorse as he carefully screwed the cap off one of the metallic tubes and emptied its contents onto the hood of the woman’s car.
Nes’s eye was immediately caught by the phosphorescent, vicious liquid which slowly painted itself across her vehicle. Then it widened in shock and horror. “You can’t be serious!”
Before she could start her tirade, the man operating the flame thrower cried out, “Boss, this thing’s getting really rowdy!”
Nes turned her attention back to the fog that surrounded them. In spite of the persistent flames keeping it at bay, the fog had started closing in. As if it didn’t care about the damage it took, it pressed forward.
As she was staring, in horror, at this sight, Edge was doing his best to empty the rest of the tubes onto the car. After the fifth, Nes cried out, “Drive, run!”
In response to her order, the car lurched forward as Edge stumbled out of the way. It didn’t get far, however, skidding to a stop a few feet away as a wall of white moved to block its path.
“There’s no way to get away from it now, you have to leave the car behind!” the Captain shouted out as the flamethrower vainly worked to keep them free from the ghost.
Nes gritted her teeth and glared at the Captain, then she shouted, “Get out, run to the other car!”
The men were eager to abandon the sinking ship and jumped down onto what little clear ground remained. With Nes bringing up the rear, Edge and the Captain moved with her as they all made a dead sprint to the rover.
“If something happens to my car, I’m going to kill you!” Nes growled fiercely as she was pulling herself into the bed of the rover.
The Captain, tactfully, said nothing in response to that.
With the last person on board, the cry of Lotus’s gun opened another path through the fog and Knot Quickly took off down it. Not very far, however. Once they’d passed a couple hundred feet, they noticed that the ghost showed no interest in closing the path they’d opened. In fact, it showed almost no interest in them at all. It was so preoccupied by the scent on the other car that it didn’t have time for them.
After the rover stopped, they watched the fog, which once seemed to cover an entire mountain, pull itself into a sphere a few dozen feet in diameter. It was a queer sight. The mass of condensed air was so thick that you could mistake it as a physical object, some kind of snow globe.
They didn’t dare waste their time mistaking anything, however. Once the fog seemed to pull itself in as much as it would, the Captain shouted out, “Throw them!”
Then, a bit sheepishly. His team stood up and lobbed the grenades they’d been holding into the mist.
“You aren’t going to blow up my car!” Nes shouted desperately, her wide eye flitting between the people around her, stuck in mid throw. “You’re not going to blow up my car!”
As the woman almost growled at the team, a loud pop could be heard from within the fog. Then another and another. Finally, with the fourth grenade, the flamethrower’s fuel tank was ruptured and mountainside shook with a fiery explosion. Then, a few moments later, the car’s fuel went up too and a second explosion soon followed.
As the thick, white ball in front of them transformed into a hellish inferno, Nes collapsed to her knees and, in a weak voice, she decried, “You blew up my car!”
“We’ll give you the harpooner’s share as compensation,” the Captain declared, his voice almost as weak as hers. He didn’t love this plan, but he couldn’t allow everyone he loved to die either. “It won’t be a small sum.”
“My car…” Nes almost sobbed, not even hearing the Captain’s words.
After collecting the charred, crystalline fragments of the ghost’s core, the long drive back to the city was quiet and tense. They didn’t have enough room, for one. Even the front was cramped as Cauliflower was forced to take the non-existent middle seat between the Captain and Knot. That was the worst of their problems, however. Given the recent… events, well, event, their guests weren’t feeling particularly charitable towards them. All around, it was long and uncomfortable.
Not nearly as uncomfortable as the following day, however. Since it’d take too long for the guild to decide on the compensation for subjugating a ghost, it was, at some point, decided that the Captain and Edge would help cover the costs of a new car in the meantime. It took them six hours before the woman found a vehicle that satisfied her. When she had, the Captain couldn’t bring himself to look at the price tag. Not after destroying her previous one. Plus, after seeing Edge’s face go pale in an instant, he didn’t know if his heart could bear seeing a number with so many digits.