Lead vs Fantasy 8-1

 

8-1    Pebble on the Road

 

Pouring over the outdated map, Supreme Commander Dalton Cunningham didn’t see anything.  Instead, he his mind churned with possibilities.  He needed this campaign to be successful.  If he could return with an adequate trophy for the king, he could earn a position that even his grandchildren could enjoy.  In aid of that, he couldn’t leave a single thread unsinged.

“The scouts have reported,” the Commander’s adjutant reported as he slid into the dim tent.  As always, the man had a stunningly mediocre build and his short, black hair was left unmanaged.  An unimpressive figure that didn’t suite Sir Cunningham’s glorious stature.  However, his work was always done diligently and he got along with the soldiers.  “Once again, the mercenaries have sent a group into the forest.”

“I imagine we will again find a bizarre corpse at our border, as well,” Sir Cunningham responded bitterly, turning his eyes away from his adjutant to again stare, unseeing, at his map.

This was the crux of his worries.  He didn’t know what to think about these monsters.  He didn’t imagine the Aurorians could’ve made such developments, but he also had no better explanation.  If it was the Aurorians’ doing, they already knew about his troop’s movements and any attempts at stealth were simply a waste of time.  If they weren’t and he rushed forward, he was giving up the element of surprise.  Too many conflicting options and too little information.

“We can at least get rid of the mercenaries,” his adjutant suggested in his characteristically subservient voice.  “It would eliminate one variable.”

Sir Cunningham frowned at his adjutant’s words.  If he had any evidence of their wrongdoing he’d throw away those mutts in a heartbeat.  Their very presence was a backhanded insult to the strength of his knight order.

However, he’d heard that cloaks and tools weren’t the only recipes the Forestry Guild guarded.  They also could make some very special poisons.  As a great knight, Sir Cunningham didn’t fear running into any battlefield.  At the same time, he wouldn’t carelessly anger the rangers.

“Until we have evidence, we’ll refrain,” Sir Cunningham gave his order resolutely.  “If we needlessly insult the Forestry Guild, they may withdraw support from your next expedition.”

“Understood,” His adjutant replied with a bow before moving to stand in the corner of the tent.

After tracing that movement with his eye, Sir Cunningham returned his gaze to the dozen futures laid out before him.  So many possibilities.  He needed to find ways to start eliminating variables.

 

*************************************************************************************

Champ had the unbearable urge to drag his feet.  However, seeing as how he wasn’t 7 and was a professional, he bit back on that.  There were no reasons to leave any more tracks than absolutely necessary.

“Do you have eyes on him?”  Lotus whispered from beside Champ.

Champ turned his eyes away from his irritable feet and squinted into the distance.  He kept squinting.  Seconds prepared to turn to minutes, then he caught a whiff of movement.  His eyes grabbed it quickly and he could barely make out the silhouette of a green man.  Probably the right one.

“Yeah,” Champ sighed out the word, not moving his gaze for fear that he’d lose his target.

“There’s a tree in the way for me,” Lotus explained quietly.  Her keen eyes were useful here, but she refused to change position until it became absolutely necessary.  She took this a little bit too seriously.

“I’ll let you know if he moves,” Champ responded.  He was tired.  Not his body, but his brain.  He didn’t have the energy to even complain at this point.

This was his third day of mindlessly following the ranger’s wanderings.  After the first time, they’d decided that Cauliflower should stay at the camp.  It was better than having her burst out of the trees seconds ahead of the ranger only to collapse onto her knees, hyperventilating.  That’d been hard to talk their way out of and Champ still wasn’t certain they’d succeeded.

On top of that, after Edge developed acute narcolepsy, everyone agreed he should take things easy for a while.  He seemed back to himself by the next morning, but they still weren’t certain what caused it.

That left only a few options.  The Newbie couldn’t do it for obvious reasons.  The Captain was out too.  If any soldiers came looking for trouble while without the Captain there to settle things, it really might turn into a brawl.  Knot was no good, either.  He was too big; wide.  Hiding that body wasn’t easy.  That meant Lotus and Champ got all the shifts all the time.  Since they didn’t have much experience with this, they had to stay half a continent away from the ranger, too.  Just keeping track of him at that distance sucked away all of Champ’s energy.

Whatever random monstrosity was going to show up out of nowhere today, Champ really hoped it did it soon.  He needed to lie down.  He couldn’t do that until he was forced to run back to camp and spend twenty minutes shooting a… thing.

As Champ’s brain slowly faded into visions of his sleeping roll, something pulled his attention back to reality.  It took him only a few seconds to identify what that was.

“He’s moving again, we’ll have to push forward,” Champ urgently hissed at Lotus just as the small, green figure shifted out of his view.  “I lost him.”

Lotus cursed under her breath and the two of them moved out from behind the small clump of trees.  They rushed forward as much as they dare rush.  Then, after about a hundred feet, they found some bushes to duck behind and stopped, as they had so many times before.

“Can you see him?”  Champ asked, pushing the bush’s branches apart to give himself a crack of visibility.  He really hoped her answer was yes.  She was better at this anyway and he’d really like to not focus for a while.

“No,” Lotus answered quickly, sending a shiver of disappointment through Champ’s body.  “What about you?”

Champ sighed and redoubled his efforts at staring into nothing.  He hoped something would jump out at him.  For a while, nothing did.  Then, at the border of his vision, a tree’s branches started to rustle.  A few seconds later, the ranger’s figure appeared from behind them, approaching Champ quickly.  Quickly, not fast.  He wasn’t running at the insane speed he somehow managed in the forest.  It was more like he was hurrying.  Like he just realized he was late for a meeting, not early for a meeting with gooey death.

As the ranger’s figure drew closer, Lotus and Champ ducked down deeper and tried to hide in the shadows of the bushes.  After he passed them, heading straight back to camp, they both turned to look at each other, then they raised their heads and looked to where he’d come rushing from.

After half a minute, Lotus cautiously observed, “Doesn’t look like he’s being chased this time.”

“Not by something very fast, at least,” Champ half-agreed with a shrug.

“Should we go see what he found?”  Lotus asked, one eyebrow raised curiously.

Champ frowned and considered their options.  “He could’ve stumbled on a monster and got away beore he was noticed.

“And if we then startle it, we can pretend it was just really slow to chase him down,” Lotus responded with a shrug.

“As long as we have a proper excuse,” Champ replied, turning back towards the camp to see that the ranger had already vanished from their sight.

Carefully standing and brushing the needles and dirt from their pants, the pair moved towards the line of trees from which the ranger had emerged.  Trying to ignore the prickling across his palms, Champ bent some pine branches away.  Then he went blind.

It only lasted for a second, but his heart immediately accelerated to sonic speed, threatening to beat his chest apart.  His mind was filled with thoughts of blinding attacks and phosphorescence.  He’d only fought one monster like that before, a bat with strange wings.

As Champ’s hand closed around his rifle, his vision returned and he found that the only thing attacking him was the sun.  After pushing aside the obstructing branches, Champ found himself out of the darkened forest, in a wide clearing.

Champ spent a few seconds marveling at the open space and sunlight before he noticed what was in it.  A long, wired fence.  Beyond that were fields that looked clear enough to be cultivated in time that wasn’t winter.  Further in from the fields, he saw a few brown huts.  Then, he hurriedly ducked back into the forest.

“A village,” Lotus declared, mimicking Champ’s retreat.  “This isn’t good.”

“It’s not all bad,” Champ responded, glancing back through the slim cracks between the branches.  “A village is sure to have a road they use for supply runs.  Even if it’s just a dirt path, It’ll cut the time we spend on this job by over half.”

Lotus squinted at him as if she was trying to judge the caliber of his soul.  After a few seconds, she relaxed into a look of general condescension and said, “I’m more worried about how army is going to kill everyone inside and burn it to the ground.”

“What?”  Champ could only ask at the sudden change in mood.  He wasn’t at all familiar with anything military, but he was certain even the people of San Ranto wouldn’t waste their time on random slaughter.

“It’s the only way they can be sure no one will warn Aurorias of their movements,” Lotus explained with a casual wave.  “A very basic strategy.”

Champ bit his lip until the pressure barely turned into pain.  He may have stared out as a farm boy without a lot of experience, but he liked to think he’d long ago shed the moniker, ‘naïve.’  However there were still just some things he didn’t think about.

“Why exactly are you so versed in the killing everyone strategy?” Champ eventually settled on a defensive outburst.”

“Everyone knows about the kill everyone strategy,” Lotus responded, narrowing her eyes at im, critically.  “Where do you think they get the phrase, dead men tell no tales.”

“…pirates?” Champ asked.  He tried scratching at his chin thoughtfully, but the scratchy feel of the whiskers that’d started to grow made him frown at his fingers.  Then, a thought struck him and he perked up, “Is that the secret of your mysterious past?  You’re the daughter of pirates?”

“No.” Lotus responded in a voice so flat you could build a house of cards on it.

Champ rolled his eyes at her distinct lack of a sense of humor.  Then he turned his gaze back in the direction of the village and his heart sank.  He’d grown up at a village that’d been established over generations.  Long enough to exactly be considered the frontier.  However, anywhere that people lived off the land was enough to remind him of home.  The idea of watching an army rip the place to shreds made his stomach turn.

“Come on,” Lotus’s voice cut into the little hell Champ was conjuring.  “The Captain will want to hear about this.  Before the ranger has a chance to meet with the knight commander.”

Champ nodded and the two started to jog back along the path the ranger had traveled.  As they moved, Champ’s heart started to lighten.  He was certain the Captain would come up with something.  A way to save those people.  It was a very Captain sort of thing to do.

 

Previous                                                      TOC                                                             Next

2 thoughts on “Lead vs Fantasy 8-1

  1. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 7-8 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

  2. Pingback: Lead vs Fantasy 8-2 | Dakotah Sicking Web Novels

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s