7-3 Not all Firsts are Good
As the team around him grew suddenly tense, Eric looked between them, confused. He didn’t know what was happening, but he could already feel his body their unease as his limbs hummed with nervous anticipation and fear.
“You’ll be fine, Newbie,” Champ seemed to notice Eric’s discomfort, turning toward him and laying a hand on his shoulder. “Just… try to be inconspicuous,”
“Th-thanks,” Eric responded with a short nod. He didn’t know what was coming, but that advice seemed to be applicable to almost any situation he’d found himself in during his few short weeks as a mercenary.
“Everybody hates this pat of the job,” Edge offered from across the bed, bending down slightly to meet Eric’s lowered eyeline. “It is what it is, nothing we can do about it. Just don’t think about it too much and it’ll be over before you know it.”
“What’s going to be over?” Eric finally drummed up his courage to interrupt them as they prepared various weapons and tools around him. “What’s happening?”
Hearing that question, Champ stopped his hands that were reaching under his seat to retrieve a few spare magazines. Then he stared into Eric’s eyes with the most earnestly concerned look he’d ever seen the man give. “Just keep your head down. No need for you to get involved. Not this time. Stay out of anyone’s line of fire and we should be fine.”
“He’ll have to do it eventually,” Lotus declared solemnly, not looking up from where she was checking her rifle’s receiver.
“Not the first time,” Cauliflower spoke up in a soft voice. At some point, she’d moved to the back and took her position at the mounted gun. “He can remain innocent for a while longer.”
Lotus simply shrugged and everyone returned their attention to their weapons. Eric, for his part, quickly picked up his rifle and scanned it with his eyes. He knew, now, how to strip it and clean it and the like. Knot had been running him through it almost every night recently. However, there was nothing he had the confidence to do in a moving car. Instead, he laid it over his shoulder and turned his gaze outside the rover.
Ahead of them was a copse of trees, maybe half a mile in width, bisected by the roughly beaten down path they were following. The trees, the path, the landscape around them, all of it was covered in white. Frosted with snow. There were no heavy banks taller than him, or anything, but enough snow to obscure everything and turn the scenery blinding.
Enough snow to completely obscure the ground underneath it. If they left worn tracks of tires and ventured into the pristine landscape, they’d have no way of knowing if they were heading straight into a ditch or the burrow of a crocodile-sized mole. Anything of the sort. Once they hit something, and got stuck, they’d have to cancel their mission. Not only that, but they’d have to rely on their client to drive back to the city to get a group to come pick them up. Eric hadn’t been a mercenary for very long, but he could imagine that’d be something hard to live down.
After persuading himself of the dangers or running away, Eric turned his eyes back to the forest and waited. Most of all, he tried not to think about what kind of horrific monster would get everyone so worked up. He just preyed it had an actual body you could shoot. He didn’t want to face the other kind, not so soon.
As the rover drew close to the tree line, the team finished their preparations and the car went silent. That wasn’t an improvement. Silence just gave tension the room to grow. That was something he hadn’t appreciated until after his mother passed, taking her ravings with her.
Passing between the first signs of vegetation that could break through the snow, no one said a word. They merely stared into the woods. Daring the place to produce its dangers for them as Eric’s heart climbed higher in his chest.
Then, suddenly, Knot spat out a curse and slammed on the breaks. Everyone in the bed jerked forward as the car slid to a stop on the mercifully clear dirt beneath the canopy of branches. As the dust settled on the ground and everyone’s curious gazes settled on Knot, it became clear what he was cursing about. In the middle of the road, sat three, robust tree trunks, piled atop one another.
Before anyone could even think about clearing the blockage or turning around, a man stepped out from behind a tree. He was large, at least twice Eric’s size. Thick, muscular, and rough. His body and face were covered with scars that spoke of dangers Eric didn’t want to imagine. His cheeks, in particular, were blotted with puckered stars which gave the impression that a bullet had passed clean through his mouth.
The man, holding an assault rifle over his chest suggestively, craned his neck to look behind the rover. Then, seemingly satisfied with heat he saw, stepped in front of them and called out, “Leave the ranger and all his goods behind and we’ll let you go. We don’t want a big fight.” The man’s voice was deep and weathered and he seemed to be doing his best to sound calming, reasoned, and intimidating at the same time.
Hearing the man’s words, the tension in the rover took on a resolved tenor. Edge and the Captain exchanged a look. Then Edge put down his rifle on the floor of the rover’s bed and slipped over the railing, out of the car.
As soon as he landed on the soft earth, Edge quickly raised his hands to demonstrate they were empty. Then he slowly started walking towards the scarred man, gently, weakly saying, “We understand the difficulties of keeping the roads safe from ruffians and the like. Must be hard without supplies, all the way out here. We have no problems making a little donation to such civic minded men like yourselves.”
The man’s eyebrows rose in surprise at Edge’s words. Then his lips curved with a hint of delight before his entire face hardened again. “Not this time. Give up the ranger and his equipment. You know I’m not alone. Even if you can get out of here after picking a fight, don’t think it won’t cost you. Would you really risk your people for some moss-head?”
“Honestly…” Edge sighed the word, letting his hands drop to his sides in weary defeat. As Eric watched from behind, he could see Edge’s feet barely sliding apart in the loose dirt. “If your insult ends in ‘head’ then you sound like four-year old. That’s unavoidable.”
The rough man’s eyes immediately lit fire and he shouted, “You wanna say that again!?” as he lifted his heavy arms to grab Edge by the collar.
Before he fingers could touch cloth, however, Edge turned into a white blur and disappeared. It took a few seconds for Eric to even think of looking for him several feet behind the rough man, one arm extended. In his hand, he grasped something that reflected the dull light filtering through the trees.
The rugged man, for his part, looked even more bewildered than Eric. He stared at his upraised arms and the empty space ahead of him in confusion, not even moving as he tried to process the situation. It was then that Eric noticed the stream of red flowing from the man’s throat. The man seemed to notice it too as he grabbed at his neck in fruitless confusion before collapsing onto the ground.
By the time anyone could process what’d just occurred, Edge had disappeared into the trees to their right. Then, everything erupted into sound and motion. Cauliflower tore into the forest on their left side with the mounted turret as Knot and the ranger both reversed furiously. At the same time, Champ pulled Eric onto the bed and moved to carefully shoot into the right side of the forest as it seemed that the trees themselves were firing back.
All this happened around Eric as he was somewhere else entirely. In the past. He could vividly remember Mr. Lin. One of the villagers before… he was eaten. He was always a man of great passion and violent rages. One day he caught one of the other boys getting to know his daughter a little too well and didn’t stop beating him until half the village gathered to pry him away. That was the closest he’d come to seeing a human kill another human. Until today.
He’d seen humans disassembled for food by monsters. He’d killed monsters. He’d even helped kill an elf. A sapient creature. Somehow, this was different. Worse. His heart hurt, like he’d lost something important. He wanted to cry, but he wouldn’t let himself.
That was when he saw it. Him. A boy, no a man. A man no older than Eric, standing between two trees. Their eyes met and locked together. The young man looked nervous and excited. Inexperienced. They stared at each other for an eternity. Then the young man raised his rifle.
Eric, half-heartedly, groped for his own. He knew he was supposed to fire back. That his life may be in danger, but that felt like it was happening to someone else, very far away.
Then, the young man’s head jerked backwards and emitted a fountain of red before he fell to the ground. “Keep your head down!” Lotus’s voice shouted as she took one hand off her, still smoking, rifle to force him to the floor. “Don’t make yourself a target.”
As if lifting a spell, the pressure forcing his nose into the cold metal made time start moving again. Eric’s ears started reporting the continuous explosions of gunfire all around him and everything became a terrifying blur as he stared at nothing and waited for it to end. Before long, it did.
When the gunshots stopped sounding, a crushing silence rushed back in to fill the voice. The tension of all that nothing remained as everyone stared into the trees, waiting for the enemy to make a second assault.
Then, Edge’s voice called out from the trees to their right. “Any left seemed to have retreated!” A few seconds later, he moved into the open. His right hand and blade were smeared with blood and his pistol’s slide was held back, empty. Other than that, and a sour expression pained across his face, he seemed fine. “I counted six on my side,” he declared walking back to the rover.
“Four on mine,” Cauliflower responded, stepping away from the machine gun and picking up the equipment she’d laid to the side.
“We need to deal with the roadblock, too,” Edge observed, accepting the towel from Lotus and wiping himself clean. “It’d be great if our esteemed client could keep watch in case they come back.”
“Burn the bodies first, if there’s an undead outbreak around here, it’s not gonna be our fault,” the Captain ordered decisively. “I’ll talk to the ranger.”
Edge nodded at that and Champ, Lotus, Knot, and Cauliflower all dismounted the rover and moved towards the woods. Eric spent a few seconds watching them, before he quickly dismounted and followed after them.
He’d helped with this before, at the village. That time, it was people he knew and the monsters that killed them, but this time, it somehow felt heavier. He tried to ignore that as he dragged the… well, he tried to ignore what he dragged, too.
Instead, he turned his attention to Lotus, doing the same grisly work a few feet away from him. Somehow, she managed to look a little elegant and refined, even now.
“Why did they want the ranger so bad?” Eric asked, trying to distract himself from what he was doing. As distractions go, it wasn’t the best, but he felt it was something he needed to know.
“They were bandits, ranger gear can be pretty useful to them,” Lotus answered, seeming a little more disinterested than usual as she gave her brief reply. It looked like she caught the slight dissatisfaction on Eric’s face, because she nodded to herself and continued. “Did you notice something about the ranger’s ATV? How it sounded.”
Eric tried to think back, but nothing came to mind, “I don’t remember a sound at all…”
“Exactly,” Lotus responded with a satisfied nod. “They house the engine and most of the moving parts in… something that keeps the noise from leaking. It’s a combination of monster materials that only a few artisans in the forestry guild knows. There’re a lot of things like that. Special tools made for stealth that only rangers get to have. That stuff can be quite useful if you make your living ambushing caravans. That’s the last reason why mercenaries hate working for rangers. Bandits would usually let us pass, too dangerous, but a ranger makes it worth it.”
“I see…” Eric nodded at the explanation. He tried to think of something else to talk about, but nothing he could come up with helped as a distraction. Most if it involved death.
Like that, they spent a few hours assembling the bonfire in small area out of the woods that they cleared of snow. They chopped up parts of the roadblock to finish it out and, in spite of how wet everything was, they gave it enough fuel to burn as long as was needed.
By the time they were done with everything, the sun was already threatening to set, but they couldn’t afford to make camp, not when the retreated bandits might return. Privately, Eric was thankful for that. If he stayed here, he was afraid that young man might never stop haunting his dreams.