7-7 A Peek at You
Author’s note: Yeah, the title’s dumb, but titles are hard…
Erik put his hands on his knees, stared firmly at the nest of pine needles beneath his feet, and tried to catch his breath. He had a feeling it was a task that’d take a few hours to complete. Still raggedly gasping for air, he bent his neck to glare at what’d caused this.
A few hundred feet ahead of him lay what looked to be a large mouse, tall enough to reach Erik’s navel. Its body was the orange brown of fall leaves and its face was a terrifying compromise between rodent and human. The fur around its cheeks was burned completely off, a consequence of the lightning it loved shooting everywhere. Erik’s foot was still numb and it hadn’t even hit him directly.
He tried stomping the foot a few times to see if the extra blood flow would do anything. It didn’t. As he frowned at his own body, his mood grew increasingly sour. They’d gone through four days of this and if it continued, he was sure he’d start to share the prejudices of his seniors.
Since they arrived at the border, every morning, the ranger would leave for his scouting. Every afternoon, he’d return with some fresh monstrosity on his heels. It was their job to deal with it. To make matters worse, all these weird monsters tasted even worse than usual. He didn’t think that was even possible. It was so bad that the veterans all refused to eat it, but they kept holding Erik down and forcing him, since he still had to “grow big and strong.”
Turning his eyes a few feet away from the monster’s body, Erik found the rest of the team. They were gathered together and discussing something as they saw to their weapons and injuries. He thought about joining them, but it was too far for the him of right now and he couldn’t add to any discussion anyway.
Erik began to contemplate lying down on the prickly bed of needles when he was interrupted by the sound of soft footsteps directly behind him. Forcing himself to stand at his full, if unimpressive, height, he turned around to find a well-built man with grey hair and a large nose. His expression was imperious and commanding, in that way that made you always look a bit pissed off.
Erik had seen the man talking to the Captain a few times and it was obvious he was pretty important. Too important to make any more pissed than he already was. Looking up into the man’s cold eyes, Erik closed his mouth and tried not to look impertinent. A hard task, since, at that moment, he couldn’t figure out what that would mean.
For his part, the hawkish important man looked down on Erik with an impassive face before finally opening his mouth to speak. “Another attack?” It sounded like asking the question as almost too bothersome to do. Maybe it was who he was asking.
“Y-yes, yes sir!” Erik answered, giving several emphatic nods in the hope that earnestness would earn him some goodwill.
“What was it?” the important hawk asked, shifting his keen gaze towards the crumbled rodent form in the distance. “A lone ratman? Fairly uncommon, isn’t that?”
“No…” The very act of disagreeing with this imposing figure made Erik uncomfortable. However, he didn’t figure lying would do him much better. “It was mouse thing, but it shot lightning.” Erik thought back to his encounter with the wererats before. They were the more dangerous versions of ratmen, so he doubted the lesser form would gain extra superpowers.
“I see…” the hawk man responded curtly, shifting his gaze to glare at a point directly to the left of Erik’s head. After a few seconds, his focus returned to Erik and he put his hands together over his chest as he carefully asked, “You’re new, yes? You don’t know your people very well… have any of them been acting strangely? Leaving camp at odd times? Being unavailable for extended periods?”
As the man spoke, he looked as if he was trying to be political and reassuring. If that truly was his goal, he was a horrendous failure. He just didn’t have the face for it. No matter what he said, he had a looming, pressuring quality that a simple Newbie was powerless to ignore.
Erik took a couple steps back and tried his best to meet the man’s gaze without actually having to look into his eyes. Then he shakily answered, “I don’t think so. Everything’s been normal… except for the weird stuff. Not that anyone has been weird, but, you know, the situation…” Erik swallowed hard. He felt like every word only made things worse, so he gave up and fell silent.
As the imperious man leaned in to attempt another question, the Captain’s voice rang out from behind Erik, interrupting him. “I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t need to worry about our activities if we moved our defensive line away from your camp.”
“We agreed that I would only need after-action reports, which is what I came to receive,” the hawkish man responded, showing no disorder as he shifted back to his usual imperious air. “I wouldn’t be worthy of my title if I didn’t concern myself with battles surrounding my main source of reconnaissance.”
“If you’d called for me, I wouldn’t have had any problem giving you any reports you want,” the Captain responded. His tone was civil, but it carried with it a chilly air that made Erik’s spine tingle.
Carefully, Erik turned to the side so he could see the whole conversation. Behind where he’d been standing seconds ago, he found the Captain staring down the imperious man as politely as you can stare someone down. Behind the Captain was the rest of the team and they were far less polite. Their eyes were fierce and defensive and only Knot, Edge, and Lotus even tried to pretend they weren’t being intimidated.
Not that the imperious man paid any mind to them either way as he replied, “I saw that you were busy, I can respect that your time must be valuable. So is mine, so I thought I would receive the testimony of your young subordinate.”
“I’m not to busy to answer the questions of my client’s client. You can talk to me,” the Captain’s voice grew stony as he issued the last words. As if he were offering a threat, though Erik was sure that wasn’t the case.
“I’m confident that I understand what happened here,” the imperious man answered with a wave of his hand. “I’ll take my leave. If anyone would need to give a report, I trust you know where the command tent is. The center of camp.” As the imperious man looked over the group, it lingered on Erik for an uncomfortable amount of time. Though, any amount of time was an uncomfortable amount here.
“I’ll be sure to pass on any relevant information,” the Captain declared pointedly as the imperious man retreated towards the camp.
The team watched the man leave until he disappeared from sight. Then the Captain turned to look Erik up and down with concern. “What did he want with you?”
“Not much,” Erik answered with a shrug. “He asked about the monster and then asked if anyone did anything strange.”
“And how did you answer?” The Captain asked, raising one eyebrow curiously
“I told him it was a weird mouse and said no one was weird,” Erik answered as earnestly as he could. He couldn’t remember the exact phrasing he’d used in his answers, but he was certain it’d been a little too pathetic to repeat in front of his teammate. Then, as he remembered the imperious man’s mostly unreadable response, he added. “I don’t think he believed me, though.”
“I don’t think he is in much of a mood to believe any of us,” the Captain responded with a deep sigh.
“I’m pretty sure we figured that out when he posted sentries in the woods around our camp,” Lotus observed coolly as she readjusted her rifle’s strap on her shoulder.
“He did? When?” Erik asked in shock, shifting his questioning gaze around his gathered allies. None of them seemed surprised.
“Since yesterday morning,” Cauliflower answered with a shrug. “I think they still think we didn’t notice them. They’re wrong.”
“I didn’t…” Erik complained, mostly to himself. Then he thought of something more important and asked, “Why is he so worried about us? What does he think we’re going to do?”
“I assume he thinks we’re in league with Aurorias. Or at least one of us is,” the Captain answered with a bitter smile. “He may not be as insane as his king, but the commander is a resident of San Ranto. He’s probably worried that the strange monsters might really have a connection to Aurorias.”
“So you’re saying he isn’t super crazy, he’s just regular crazy,” Cauliflower translated with a helpful smile.
“He isn’t any kind of crazy,” the Captain corrected, narrowing his eyes. “He’s a product of his upbringing.”
“How is that any different?” Cauliflower asked, tilting her head to the side curiously.
“I’ll grant that the coincidences are pretty… coincidental…” Champ declared, scratching at his chin thoughtfully. When he looked up to find the rest of the team staring at him, he crossed his arms and defensively continued, “I mean, none of us have ever seen a giant termite before. Not even heard of it. Same goes for that weird chimera and whatever that thing we just put down was. A new species of monster isn’t born every day. Literally every day.”
“So, you’re saying that the Aurorians really gained the ability to create designer monsters?” Edge asked incredulously. “And they use it for what? Mild harassment? Sending their creations single-file after some ranger?”
“I’m not saying anything,” Champ rebutted with a fierce shake of his head. “It’s just that we can’t exactly prove him wrong? Can we? We don’t have any better explanation for it, and it is weird, right?”
The team fell into silence. Erik looked between their solemnly pondering faces and tried to figure out what they were thinking about. Monsters, probably, but from there, he had nothing.
“I’ve heard that the planet has weird cycles,” Knot broke the silence with his low, contemplative mutter. “Every thousand years or so, the magic gets disturbed and things get weird.”
“None of those reports are at all reliable,” Lotus immediately dismissed in a traditionally icy explanation. “Even if you believe them, that’d place the last disturbance at 700 years ago.”
“Maybe it came early,” Knot defended with a shrug.
“70% early?” Lotus asked, cocking an eyebrow at him.
“I’m willing to believe in a convoluted conspiracy theory before I’m willing to believe that the Aurorians are smart enough to develop their own monsters, but still use them this stupidly,” Edge flatly threw his hat into the ring.
“So, some shadowy organization with the ability to mutate monsters at will is using it to enflame relations between San Ranto and Aurorias?” Lotus asked with a faint smile.
“A lot of money and time spent on something that could be accomplished with a harshly worded letter,” Champ observed critically.
“I never said it was the most reasonable answer,” Edge responded with a frown. “I just think it’s more reasonable than the crazy Aurorias idea.”
“Whether its natural or unnatural,” the Captain cut in, drawing everyone’s attention to his sternly commanding face. “Every day we’ve encountered something I haven’t heard of before. Either this forest is full of aberrant monsters or…” As the Captain’s voice died off, he furtively searched his surroundings.
The rest of the team followed suit and, not finding anything, Edge finished the statement for the Captain, “Our client is somehow able to find only the monsters that are… strange.”
“To what end?” Lotus asked, scowling down the path of broken trees that led to camp.
Erik, privately, echoed that question. He’d seen the ranger fleeing this afternoon. He’d looked… well, the same as normal. He never really put on any expressions at all. However, it had to be terrifying. Running through the woods, bolts of loud, angry light echoing after you. No one could possibly choose to go through that. Right?
“Maybe it’s a field test?” Cauliflower posited in an airy, disconnected voice as she stared into the tree tops. “They used to do that. At the end of training, they’d take us to a village they didn’t like and… anyway…” As she spoke, her eyes wandered down to her feet, then her voice stopped entirely.
“So, someone’s paying to have their creations led to us so they can test how well they kill us?” Champ asked, bringing a hand up to scratch the back of his head. “Can’t say I love that idea.”
“Us and the army,” Cauliflower added, recovering some of her buoyancy. “That’s at least something.”
“That doesn’t make it better at all,” The Captain growled, crossing his arms over his chest.
“What do we do if that’s true?” Knot asked, his even, gritty voice showing a tinge of concern at the edges.
In response to Knot’s question, no answers came and the group fell quiet. Erik, stewing in the silence, felt a growing urge to say anything overtake him. He had nothing he could add. The new monsters didn’t bother him like the others. All monsters were new to him, so he couldn’t feel any of the urgency over it. However, he could tell that it made the others uncomfortable and that made him uncomfortable.
“I’d like to say we cut and run, but we’re working for the forestry guild. I’d rather not get on their bad side…” Edge finally interjected with a sour face.
“Our options depend entirely on the situation,” The Captain declared firmly as a follow up. “If these attacks are part of the plans of the forestry guild, there’s not a lot we can do. We should just do our best until we encounter something too dangerous. Then we retreat. If our ranger is acting on his own, then we need to gather evidence and deliver it to the guild.”
“And what if our knight commander comes to the same conclusion we have?” Lotus asked warily. “Our ranger may be his only source of reconnaissance, but that won’t save him from quick execution.”
“If we have evidence, we throw him to the wolves,” the Captain answered solemnly. “If we don’t, we do our best.”
“Our best without getting shot,” Edge added quickly.
“I think that was implied,” Cauliflower responded with a smile.
“I think that’s always implied,” Champ declared, a resigned smile spreading across his face.
“First thing’s first. If we want to know what’s going on, we need to keep an eye on the ranger. See what he does,” the Captain concluded the topic with a clap of his hands.
“How early will I have to wake up?” Edge asked with a sigh as the team started moving to deal with the monster’s corpse.
As the rest of the team walked away, Erik turned his gaze down the broken path left by the giant insect. At the end of it was their camp. There, inside of his small tent, lay the ranger. Erik wondered if he really was doing something suspicious and dangerous. If he was, why?
“Newbie, come here!” Knot’s gruff voice interrupted Erik’s dazed reflection. “You need to learn this stuff!”
“Y-yes, coming!” Erik hurriedly responded, turning to join the team.
He spent the next few hours learning how to dismantle an electric mouse. The first thing he learned, much to the team’s amusement, was to always use a knife with a rubber handle. Now his foot and his arm were numb. He really hoped feeling would return before he went to sleep. He didn’t want to have weird amputation dreams.