7-8 Chewing the Scenery
Author’s note: sorry about the delay. I don’t really have an excuse.
ALSO, next week, I’ll be busy and I don’t know if I’ll be able to update at all, but it’ll definitely only be one chapter if I can. sorry about that.
Edge gritted his teeth in the hopes it would thwart the coming yawn. He was only mildly successful and squeaking groan that dripped out of his throat forced Cauliflower to give him a dirty look.
“I thought you were supposed to be the one that’s all about being quiet,” she whispered her complaints into his ear. “It doesn’t work if we start swapping roles.”
“Can’t help it, it’s a physiological thing,” Edge whispered back, barely able to suppress another yawn.
“Why is your body so bad at this?” Cauliflower demanded critically, pushing aside a young pine branch to keep their sight on the billowing green blur they were tracking. “Its not like I got any more sleep than you did.”
In order to distract himself from the next attack of somnolence Edge crouched down and stared at the ranger’s back. Then he frowned and complained, “I’m bad at mornings. Just make sure we keep track of him… and don’t get caught.”
“I don’t think I’m the one who has to be worrying about getting caught,” Cauliflower rebutted with a mocking smile.
As the ranger started to move again, Cauliflower moved to follow him before Edge held up a hand to stop her. Then he reached down in front of her feet and retrieved a dried, gnarled branch from the forest floor.
As Edge held the branch to her face, Cauliflower whispered. “I wasn’t going to step on that,”
“You can’t prove that I was.”
“History testifies in my favor.”
“Not enough.” Looking up from their hissed exchange, Edge saw the ranger disappear into a another clump of trees and motioned for them to pursue.
The pair did their best to creep forward without making a sound. Eventually, when the cloaked ranger was in eyeshot again, they stopped and crouched behind some foliage.
“What’s he doing?” Cauliflower asked, her voice equal parts curiosity and disdain.
Their quarry was kneeling in a bed of pine needles. As Edge watched, the ranger dug at the earth before bringing his hand up to his nose. “It looks like he’s smelling dirt,” Edge suggested, unable to keep the patina of criticism from his voice. He knew rangers had their own ways of doing things, but this was too dumb.
“Smells like dirt,” Cauliflower whispered from his side.
Edge turned to see his colleague holding a clump of brown earth to her face. He shook his head and responded, “I could’ve told you that without smearing mud on myself.”
Cauliflower dropped the clump of dirt and surreptitiously rubbed the stain from her cheek as the ranger set off again. The pair moved to stay within a couple hundred feet of him and watched as he studied, smelled, and tasted wood, dirt, and pine needles.
“Feels random,” Cauliflower complained softly as the ranger tasted some congealed sap in front of them. “The path we’re following doesn’t make any sense.”
Edge carefully studied his surroundings before cursing himself. He’d been too focused on their attempts at stealth to pay attention to their path and now he was completely lost. Not allowing his worry to show on his face, he asked, “Do you know where camp is?”
Cauliflower looked up into the tree tops for a few seconds before swinging her arm to point behind them and to the left. “That way,” she declared in a confident whisper.
Edge nodded at that. He more than trusted her sense of direction. “As long as you remember that, it should be fine.”
Cauliflower gave her own nod of agreement, then she frowned and continued, “Isn’t it weird, though? Generally, you should be following a set pattern or something, right?”
“Generally…” Edge agreed slowly. Then he wore his own frown.
He didn’t know enough about rangers and their things. He couldn’t tell if this was just how they scouted, or if he was simply putting on a show. Maybe he knew they were following him, or he never intended to really guide anyone and put on a performance in case anyone was following. Just biding time until he could contact… someone. Someone shadowy and conspiratorial.
“He’s moving again,” Cauliflower’s voice roused Edge from his worries.
The pair quickly moved from their hiding place behind the bushes and moved forward to find the ranger, once again, kneeling on the forest floor.
“What’s he doing now?” Edge asked impatiently. He didn’t know what was going on and what he should expect. That always filled him with this boundless irritation and impatience.
“Probably eating dirt again…” Cauliflower answered bitterly. Since she’d given up on mimicking the ranger’s bizarre actions, she’d grown increasingly negative towards the whole thing.
Edge turned his attention away from Cauliflower and watched as the ranger studied the earth. It seemed different from what he’d done previously. He seemed incredibly intent on one section of ground for some reason. Edge attempted to make his eyes keener through force of will. To span the distance and catch whatever minuscule sign ranger had picked up.
His efforts proved ineffective, however, and stopped entirely when he felt something wrap tightly around his shoulder. The small, but sharp pain almost forced Edge to cry out as he turned to see Cauliflower’s pale face staring towards the Ranger. Seeing her state forced any thoughts of pain out of Edge’s head and he immediately asked, “What is it?”
“Something’s… coming,” Cauliflower breathed out the words as if she was trying to make sense of it herself. “It feels like it’s getting closer, but it’s not moving.”
“What does that mean?!” Edge demanded, barely able to keep his voice at an urgent whisper.
“It’s here,” Cauliflower finished, staring at the ground under the ranger’s feet.
Before Edge could inquire any further, a sopping whine rang out through their surroundings. It sounded like the strained complaints of decades of wood and compacted soil at its breaking point. Then, the ranger leapt backwards from where he was crouching and the soil that’d been under him erupted with a roar.
The shower of dirt and broken roots covered Edge’s vision, obstructing the ranger and whatever had just emerged from the earth. When the clods of soil fell to the ground they revealed what looked to be a pulsating tube of flesh. Its pink surface was constantly moving and glistened in the dim light of the forest. As if it were covered in some kind of slime.
As Edge watched, it writhed and undulated more of itself out from the ground. As it moved further onto the surface, Edge noticed the other thing that was conspicuously absent from his sight. There was no sign of an inconspicuous man wearing a conspicuous green cloak. The ranger was gone. Edge turned to find the ranger’s back already disappearing into the forest, presumably in the direction of camp.
Hurriedly, Edge pushed himself to his feet and tore his attention away from the strange monster. He reached out to grab Cauliflower, only to find she was already doing the same. Then the two of them took off.
Edge was generally confident in his fitness. He was a close combat specialist, in so much as that was possible for a person who spent half his time killing things twenty times his size. That meant a lot of running. At this moment, however, he learned that he was truly nothing but an amateur in this. Rangers were the true professional runners. That was half of their job, to run from something until other people killed it for them.
As he watched the ranger’s back growing smaller by the second, Edge’s lungs started to offer some complaints. He was really more of a sprinter than a marathon runner. Add in constantly weaving between the trees and Edge had no idea how the hell the ranger was doing it. His speed, he almost looked like he was running on completely even ground without any obstruction. Edge tried to push himself to catch up to the retreating figure. However, his brief boost of speed was more than made up for by his leg’s immediate refusal to move at all.
As Edge dropped to what could barely be called a jog, Cauliflower called out from beside him, “You okay?” For her part, she looked completely fine. Full of energy and ready to move.
At that sight, Edge immediately gave up. He didn’t need to rush after the ranger anyway. He knew where camp was at this point, anyway. When running from a monster, you generally took the shortest straight line possible. In that case, he just had to keep going forward to make it back.
Nodding at his own decision, Edge raised his head and ordered, “You run ahead. You have to beat the ranger to camp. For a dozen reasons.”
“What about you?” Cauliflower asked, narrowing her eyes hesitantly.
“I’ll be fine, but you’re always lookout. If you’re not in camp when he returns, it’ll be too strange.” Edge answered, his words punctuated by his heavy breathing. “Plus, one of us needs to make it back to ready the team.”
“They should be fine,” Cauliflower responded casually, turning back to look a the massive, fleshy worm that flexibly spasmed itself through the trees. “They’re keeping a lookout in my place.”
“After having you as a crutch all this time, you think they’ll be any good at that?” Edge asked, narrowing his eyes critically.
“…you have a point,” Cauliflower turned her eyes to the sky as she tried to envision the team without her. Then she nodded and said, “Then I’m going…. Try not to get crushed or whatever.” With that parting call, Cauliflower sped off, quickly disappearing into the trees.
As he watched her leave, Edge slowed and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. He really needed to go running more. As soon as they were done with this job, he should start taking the Newbie out jogging. It’d be good training for both of them.
Edge nodded at his own idea and stood up to his full height. Just when he was about to take off running towards camp, he heard a something that sounded like a heavy, wet slap behind him. He turned around just in time to see a pink, fleshy tube heading straight for him. The dark, pulsating maw at the front drew within a foot of him before he jumped out of the way, sending the worm to slither past.
As the head continued forward, the body kept coming, writhing and whipping, clearly trying to strike out. Edge dodged two strikes from the worm that was twice as wide as he was and turned to look back at the thing’s length. When he did, he realized that he couldn’t see the end of it as it continued on into the trees.
That sight. The never-ending worm, pulsating, oozing, swerving, slapping. Edge couldn’t keep his body from shivering. His stomach threatened to upend itself, but he put that down and took control of himself. If he was here, he might as well do whatever he could to slow it down.
Grasping that resolve, Edge took hold of his knife and leapt forward. As he landed atop the writhing worm, he slammed down his knife’s blade with all his weight behind it. With an unpleasantly moist sound, Edge’s knife sunk deep into the worm’s flesh. A mix between a hiss and a squeal sounded out through the forest as Edge tried to pull his knife free for another strike. It wouldn’t come, however. The contracting muscles and gripped it tight.
He tried to reposition himself to gain more leverage, but he slipped on the slimy surface of the worm’s skin and almost fell away entirely. Only his hand, gripping tight to his knife’s hilt, kept him hanging on. Then, the worm overcame it’s shock and started to move.
The worm rushed forward, much faster now, and as it did, it flailed its body wildly. Edge’s body crashed through the forest, completely out of his own control. All he could do was hold on and hope he didn’t fall beneath this massive tube of rampaging chaos.
As he was thinking that, his back smashed into something hard and gnarled, robbing him of his breath. Then he was wrenched the opposite way and his knife was jerked from his grip. He was in the air, weightless for a few seconds, before finally slamming to a stop on the prickly floor of the forest.
Relying entirely on adrenaline to see him through, Edge leapt to his feet and searched his surroundings. A few dozen feet ahead of him, he saw the worm, still smashing itself into trees and flopping onto the earth. There, on its back, he could barely make out the handle of his knife, still deeply embedded in the flesh.
Forcing his aching body forward, Edge focused his attention on his weapon. He needed it back. It was his other half. Without it, without any knife, he felt completely defenseless. He had to retake it. Slowly, his body started to grow hot. Then, he felt the knife pulling at him, as if it was going to tear him apart. He felt like his very consciousness was being ripped away. Then, his head began to ache. A pain so strong that it overtook his entire body and he collapsed onto the ground.
A few seconds later the pain vanished and with it, all his vitality. He must’ve finally run out of adrenaline, because he was completely overtaken by a sudden wave of exhaustion. He couldn’t even move anymore. It almost felt like he’d overused his artes without any serum, but he hadn’t done anything in days. As he thought over that, his consciousness faded to black.
When Edge finally woke up, he was being dragged by both his feet while his was carelessly bounced off of the roots and small rocks that were scattered along the forest floor. He immediately protested, but he couldn’t stand on his own, so Champ simply dropped Edge’s knife, still wet with monster blood, onto his chest and kept dragging. It took another six hours before Edge could move around freely again. It’d be several more days before the bruises on the back of his head faded enough for him to sleep facing up.