Lead Vs Fantasy 7-5

7-5   Bad Blood

Author’s note:  been trying to switch to a wed-fri schedule, but next wednesday I’ve got something coming up and I doubt you’ll get anything.  So see you in a week, sorry for any inconvenience 

When he first saw the escort mercenaries, they looked familiar, but he couldn’t place from where.  Not a rare feeling for him.  Humans were mostly interchangeable in that none of them had much import.  The only thing that concerned him about any of them was whether or not they could serve his purposes.  If they couldn’t, he quickly forgot them.

Still, their faces pulled at him.  After a few days on the road, he remembered why.  He’d already killed them.  At least, he was supposed to have.  He didn’t know how they got past that golem, but now they were… a problem.  A real problem.  They’d seen him activate the golem, one of them grabbed him.

Unconsciously, he pinched at the flesh of his left forearm, as if reassuring himself that it was still attached.  It was an action he’d been doing a lot since he remembered.  When he noticed it, he stopped and gritted his teeth.

A problem.  They hadn’t put things together, not yet.  If they had, everything would be more hectic, definitely.  He’d have heard the rumors.  He was still safe… but, as things went forward, they could remember.  They could realize what he was.

The humans would realize what was coming eventually, but that couldn’t come from his side.  Whoever let it slip would have to directly face the king.  Just thinking about it made every free-floating cell in his body shiver.  He wouldn’t be the one that brought everything down.  He had to kill the mercenaries.  All of them.

He just had to do it in a way that wouldn’t point back to him.  That wouldn’t be too hard, he was quite flexible.  Though, he couldn’t underestimate them.  If they were still here, the destroyed that golem.  It wouldn’t have just let them go.  They had a certain amount of capability.  He’d have to corner them…

 

 

Feeling the breeze gently flick her hair, Cauliflower stared into the forest and tried to be both thoughtless and attentive at the same time.  It was usually something she was so good at, but she couldn’t keep her mind from being pulled away.  Soldiers, armies.  She didn’t like either of them.  Brought back bad memories.  Dark memories.

She tightened her right hand around the binoculars hanging above her chest and pinched her left thigh.  The sharp spike of pain brought her back to the present.  The forest smelled like… cold.  The cold screwed with her nose and dried out her whole body.  She hated it.

Pinching herself a second time, she closed her eyes.  She tried to, but she couldn’t let herself.  Not here.  She simply narrowed them and focused.  She expanded her mind and sent it out into the trees before her and felt… nothing.

Turning her eyes down to the soil beneath her feet, she could still make out the time-worn tracks of defunct road.  Its path took it straight into the pine trees, like it was a ghost’s trail or something.

After three days of following the army, they reached the Aurorias-San Ranto border.  This ghost’s path must’ve been a trade route from before that stopped being a thing.  It would’ve been only abandoned for twenty years at the most, but, from the state of the trees, one could be forgiven for thinking it’d been centuries.

Roads followed the ley lines, so pylons could get all their juices flowing.  That was something Lotus had told her before.  All that energy beneath the soil made it easy for them to get overgrown.  That was also hearsay, at least it had been.  Seeing it in person now, she was a little blown away.

Tentatively, she grabbed at the tip of one of the nearby pine’s branches and rubbed the bark between her fingers.  The biting roughness was reassuringly normal.  She felt like it should be somehow magic charged, just bursting with energy, but that was probably all spent on growing.

Hearing movement from behind her, Cauliflower turned around to see Knot’s broad figure lumbering towards her.  In his outstretched hand, he held a metal cup of something steaming.

“Soup, I thought you could use some,” Knot offered as explanation.

Cauliflower eyed the cup warily and asked, “What kind of soup?”

“Freeze-dried soup,” Knot answered with a shrug.

In spite of his generosity, Cauliflower couldn’t help wrinkling her nose at that.  Still, he was right, she could use something warm.  She took the cup gratefully and allowed it to mildly burn her fingers for a while before she took a tentative sip.  Then she immediately pursed her lips.  Somehow it managed to be both tasteless and vile.  She quickly swallowed and traced the heat as it flowed down her throat and into her abdomen.

“How’s it look?” Knot asked, settling in to stare into the woods beside her.

“Nothing so far,” Cauliflower shrugged before taking another sip of terrible soup.  It’d been at least three hours since the ranger had left on his first scouting expedition and the forest had been silent.  That either meant the ranger really was worth his pay, or the monsters didn’t want to be out in the cold any more than she did.  Frowning at that thought, Cauliflower drank another mouthful of soup and made another grimace.

“How long do you think he’s going to take out there?” Cauliflower asked after another minute or so of silence.

“How am I supposed to know that?” Knot asked with a frown.

“You’re old,” Cauliflower responded with a shrug.  “You know things.”

“That’s what everyone likes about you,” Knot observed, his voice taking on a deep and critical rattle.  “You really know how to pay a compliment.”

“People love me,” Cauliflower responded.  She gave him a prim smile for a second before it contorted into a frown as she took another swig from the cup.  “It’s not my fault you’re an old man.”

“Wrong,” Knot replied with a resolute shake of his head.  “You absolutely made me old.”

“Because I’ve saved your life all those times?”  Cauliflower asked, swirling the soup around in the cup in the hopes that it’d return some of he warmth to it’s metallic surface.

“Hardly,” Knot answered, staring down at her with his, ‘I’m old and stern,’ look.  “Worrying about you makes me old.”

Cauliflower tried to respond to that, but no words came to her mind and she shifted her gaze down to her boots.  It was embarrassing and kind of itchy.  She wondered if this was what it felt like to have a father?  Probably not.

She raised her head as another question came into her mind.  Before she could ask, she was interrupted by the gentle crunch of trampled pine needles.  Turning towards the source of the noise, she found three men wearing ill-fitting grey uniforms.  Just the sight of them made Cauliflower’s mood turn sour in an instant.

Everything about them was sloppy and their steps were unsteady.  Their slovenly, yet malicious faces had booze tattooed all over them.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for them to sneak some into their rations and the knights wouldn’t bother catching them if they didn’t cause any trouble.  These, however, looked like the trouble causing sort.

“When does your friend come back?”  the foremost of the three demanded haughtily.  He probably had a tall stature normally, but he had a terrible slouch that ruined that.  His eyes burned with fervent desire to sell a fight.

“He’s our client,” Knot corrected stonily, placing one of his heavy hands on Cauliflower’s shoulder, as if pulling her back from the interaction.  “We have no way of knowing.”

“It’d better be fast,” the man grumbled.  He attempted to look fierce even as his unsteady gaze repeatedly failed to meet Knot’s.  “My family’s waiting for me and they aren’t going to made to wait any longer because some sorry mercs were slacking off.”

“Like you’re in any state to be clearing the forest,” Cauliflower spat out irritably.

Judging by how good he was at standing straight, he’d probably find a way to cut himself in half.  She was about to say as much when she felt a large, warm hand coil powerfully around her shoulder.  She looked up to see Knot looking down on her sternly.  Remembering Edge with that wicked hole in his bicep, she held her tongue and stepped back.

“We’re ready to go now if you wanna test us,” the slovenly soldier declared puffing out his chest exaggeratedly before stumbling a couple steps closer to Knot.

“Come on, pal.  We’re just doing our job,” Knot attempted to be diplomatic as he held up his broad palms.  Coming from a man Knot’s size, it was barely a sign of peace and the man was sent stumbling back at his eclipsing figure.

The soldier spend long on the back foot.  He immediately rebounded back on Knot as his two followers cheered him on from behind.  “I’m not the pal of some mercenary.  It’s your “pal’s” fault that my family is gonna go hungry.  It’s you bastards who’re starving our people!”

“If you want to blame someone, blame your king,” Knot rebutted, his voice still even, but not quite as detached and understanding as before.

“The king?!”  The man asked, rearing up, his outrage lending a little steadiness to his stance.  “In spite of how you mercenaries try to undermine him, he does his best to protect us from the Aurorian bastards and keeps our city safe!  What do you do!?  Abandon us when we need it most!”

Knot closed his eyes in an attempt to regain his calm and prepare a reasonable response.  Before any of that could happen,  however, the soldier snorted and sent a sticky globule of spit directly into Knot’s face.  As the saliva struck Knot’s cheek and slowly slid down, Knot’s expression froze.  Then the wrinkled vain to the right of his eye started to bulge, the one that always signaled the start of a bar brawl.

Cauliflower was usually excited by the sight of that vain, and now as no exception.  A fire in the pit of her stomach declared that it was time to fight.  As she awaited her opportunity, she curled her hands into fists at her sides.

Before anyone could throw a punch, however, a cloth appeared out of nowhere and wrapped itself around Knot’s head.  The sudden sight baffled both Knot and his potential sparring partner and hey unconsciously backed away from one another.  Then, a series of quick footsteps approaching from the team’s camp signaled the arrival of the Captain.

As the Captain arrived, his silver hair moving gently with his strides, he looked over the three soldiers and calmly, but resolutely declared, “I think it’s best if you stop this here.”

“Why should I listen to you?” the soldier asked, recovering from his shock and regaining some of his indignation.

“If you start something now, the ranger might decide this job is too much trouble,” The Captain reasoned coolly.  “Then you’ll have to clear a path through the forest on your own.  Without a ranger, I doubt you’ll make it through without disturbing at least one monster’s nest.  Have you ever disturbed a monster in the middle of its hibernation?  They aren’t as groggy as you’d hope.”

“I’m not afraid of some monster!”  The soldier’s booze proudly declared something he obviously would never have said on his own.  “If you mercenaries can deal with them, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“And how many casualties will it be until you’re fine?”  The Captain asked, his calm voice taking on a sinister undertone.  “If you do anything that gets in the way, the knights will not waste time punishing you.  If you hurt the war effort too much, I doubt your friends and family back home will fare much better.  They’ll have to be dealt with publicly.  As an example.”

Hearing the Captain’s last words, made the slovenly soldier freeze.  Then he swallowed hard as he and his companions visibly sobered up.

Cauliflower was aimlessly disappointed at the lack of bloodshed, but the fire was gone and she couldn’t help but smile at the deflating soldiers.  She was just about to add some helpful jeers from behind Knot when she felt something pull at her consciousness.

It was something strange that she couldn’t recognize, but it was approaching fast.  That alone told her what she had to do next.

“What is it?” the Captain asked, following Cauliflower’s gaze into the trees.  Behind him, the soldiers sheepishly took their opportunity to retreat.

“It’s time for work,” Cauliflower answered, only sparing a second’s glance for the fleeing men before turning back to their small clump of tents and running to rouse her companions.

The ranger was returning, exactly as they always return.  With guests.

 

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2 thoughts on “Lead Vs Fantasy 7-5

  1. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 7-4 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

  2. Pingback: Lead Vs Fantasy 7-6 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

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