Sorry for the late/missed posts. Been a little busy and then I had to drive to oklahoma. I should return to the normal schedule next week… or so I say now…
8-5 Day Trip into the Realm of the Dead
Standing on the border of their camp, Knot looked back at his tent one last time. He liked the idea of sleeping right about now. That, or eating, or drinking. Just about anything other than what he was about to do.
“You ready?” Champ asked from beside him, standing tall and straight. Probably coming as close as he could to the adjective, ‘official.’
“Let’s go,” Knot answered, not letting the sigh seep into his voice.
The two stepped forward towards the large encampment of the army proper. As he moved, Knot instinctively hunched his back and bent his shoulders forward in a hope of making himself smaller. He was certain it didn’t work, but he felt too noticeable, otherwise.
He really wasn’t suited for this. Anyone else would be better. Anyone else who wasn’t Cauliflower. It was the curse of coming up with an idea. He said the words, so he was the first choice to execute them.
Looking over at Champ, Knot could see the same feeling of general discomfort sprawled across his face. Then didn’t know what they were doing. Their only hope was that, as long as they injected an intense purpose into every footstep, no one would dare question what they were doing. In theory, all you needed to properly steal from someone was enough confidence. That’s what con-men were all about.
As much as he told himself that, Knot’s heart clouded with a murky trepidation the second he crossed the barely organized line of tents. Taking a few, slightly mechanical, steps forward, neither Knot, nor Champ were immediately tackled to the ground.
That gave them both the microscopic dose of confidence they desperately needed. They took a few more steps and found themselves staring directly into the face of a soldier. Almost certainly a soldier. He was wearing the green uniform that signaled San Ranto’s complete lack of preparation for a winter campaign. At that moment, he was sitting in front of a sagging, olive tent and doing nothing in particular. In his hand, he held a poorly fashioned pipe that still had a small line of smoke rising from it.
The soldier’s eyes met Knot’s and a spear of anxiety shot through Knot’s core. He was certain they’d been found. Any moment the man would call for his companions and they’d be kicked out of the camp, or worse. As Knot worried over that, they both continued to stare at each other. Time passed and nothing happened. The area remained silent. Strangely silent, in fact.
That was when Knot realized how much that should bother him. Most of these soldiers were drafted from ordinary civilians. At most, they received a couple weeks of rough training. They weren’t disciplined or professional. That itself was proven by the drunken stragglers who would still occasionally wander over to harass their mercenary neighbors. Yet, there was nothing. Now sounds of revelry or brawling. The sun still hung directly above them. Maybe it was too early for anyone to be properly tanked, but still.
Breaking eye contact with the soldier, Knot moved forward. Not a sound was made as they moved through the smoky musk that surrounded the tent. Then they were free and Knot’s chest filled with a sense of freedom. That energy that comes from knowing you’re unobstructed.
Both Knot and Champ strode on with a renewed purpose and clarity as few of the soldiers they passed even bothered to acknowledge their existence.
“Pretty lax, aren’t they?” Champ leaned in to whisper, not stopping his feet.
“It’s like they don’t care about anything,” Knot agreed with a barely noticeable nod.
“I guess they have other things to worry about,” Champ responded with a shrug. “Can’t think of a single war, no matter how small, where either side made it through without casualties.”
“Getting dragged into that can give you some perspective,” Knot responded quickly.
Even as he said the words, he privately contradicted them. Not everyone responded to the same situation in the same way. If a third of people got quiet and lethargic, another third would be boisterous and obnoxious and the last third would do something completely unpredictable.
The camp as a whole was too uniform. So depressed that the excitement of success was even being leeched from Knot’s bones just by being here. It was like more than half the soldiers were dead on their feet. Too unnatural.
Well, whatever draconian punishments were being handed down to reduce morale this much, it didn’t matter. It simply made their job easier.
Trying to shake off his curiosity and uneasiness, Knot moved towards the heart of lower-class soldier’s camp. There, he found several trucks whose large beds were covered by canvas awnings. Standing in front of their open backs was a solitary guard.
A normal soldier, like the rest, the guard was only slightly more alert than the dozens of zombies the pair had passed to get here. The only major point to differentiate this guard from the rest was the assault rifle he had resting on his shoulder.
As soon as they noticed this new threat, Knot and Champ crouched down behind an unoccupied tent to observe his movements. Much to their chagrin, there were none. He wasn’t on patrol, he simply stood there. After a couple minutes, he yawned. He was the picture of inattentive, but if they walked up and stole from the trucks, even he would probably have a few questions.
“We’re going to need a distraction,” Knot whispered to Champ out of the corner of his mouth. “Any ideas?”
Champ squinted at the guard for a moment. Then he nodded to himself confidently and said, “I’ll do it.”
As Champ stood up and started towards the guard, Knot harshly whispered after him, “Do what? What are you-?” Then, as Champ grew too far away to hear, he gave up and warily watched what was to come.
When Champ stepped into the open section of grass before the supply trucks, the Guard looked over him lazily and asked, “What are you doing here?” He didn’t even bother bringing the gun down from his shoulder to offer any kind of implied threat. Apparently, even that small movement was too much effort.
Sauntering towards the guard, Champ didn’t show any concern towards the armed man’s question and simply smiled. When he was within a few paces of the guard, he smoothly answered with a question, “Are you looking to have a good time tonight? Not a lot of options for entertainment around here.”
The guard looked Champ up and down again, his eyes finally settling on Champ’s smile. “With you, no thanks. Head for greener pastures. I’m on duty.”
While the guard took that duty about as seriously as he would take the homophone of the word, he seemed to find it a suitable excuse to get out of something he liked even less.
In spite of the guard’s brush off, Champ didn’t stop smiling and continued. “Well, maybe you could point me towards those greener pastures? Give me some names that might be more interested?”
The guard’s eyes visibly wavered. He wasn’t in the mood to be propositioned by another man, but gossiping would pass the time. He looked Champ over for a third time. Then he frowned and asked, “I haven’t seen you around, and those clothes. You one of those mercenaries?” As he awaited Champ’s response, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously and took a step back.
“That I am,” Champ answered, turning his palms up helplessly. “But you know, despite that, I think we can become friends. When mercenaries meet up with friends, we reminisce over wine and ale. Something of a tradition.”
Upon hearing Champ’s last words, the man’s eyes immediately lit up and he quickly asked, “You have wine?”
Champ put on a more innocent smile than a man of his stature should be able to wear and asked, “You don’t?”
In response to the question, the tip of the guard’s boot started gouging a hole in the grassy carpet. Looking down at the dirt he started kicking up, his face turned sour, like he’d just swallowed a bug. “Only the knights. All we get is watered down grain alcohol some of the guys smuggled in. Tastes like a demon’s ass and they charge for that pleasure.”
“I see. I think I can help a close friend out, there,” Champ responded, his smile broadening until it took up his whole face. “Now, about those pastures you mentioned.”
As the guard put on a smile of his own, Champ moved to stand beside the man. As the guard’s head naturally turned to follow his new friend, he was left completely oblivious of what was happening on his right side.
Using that opportunity, Knot crept out from behind the tent and slipped into one of the open trucks. The inside was dark and filled with the rankly sweet smell of dirt. Probably coming from the pile of foldable shovels thrown in the corner. They hadn’t even bothered wiping the brown clods from the blades before tossing them in.
As Knot shook his head at that, he pawed through the boxes and crates that were piled up and strapped down on either side of him. Mostly, he found packages of terrible, dehydrated food. Bad by design, so soldiers wouldn’t get too greedy over it. After a few crates, he found several boxes of shotgun shells. As matter of course, he retrieved a few of the waxy tubes and forced them into his pockets.
Then, he heard Champ’s voice calling from outside, “That can’t be all! You’ve got to give me something to go on. An entry point.”
“There’s only so much I can know about any give soldier here,” the guard’s voice filtered in through the canvas of the truck.
Hearing that, Knot’s heart accelerated in his chest and his mind was set on fire. He closed the crate of ammo and desperately searched for anything else that might look useful a tool box, anything, but all he found were non-descript crates.
Desperately, he tore through them, tossing aside rations and ammunition until his hand finally closed on what looked to be a blow torch. Holding it up to his face, he tried to decide on whether it could be considered good enough. Probably too conspicuous for their needs, but in a pinch…
As Knot debated with himself, he heard the guard outside declare, “I’ve given you all I can. If my commander comes by and sees us talking, I’ll have hell to pay.”
“I guess so,” Champ answered loudly, clearly ensuring his voice would make it into the truck’s interior. “Just let me tell you how to find me. After what you’ve given me, I can’t give you nothing in return.”
Cursing under his breath, Knot held fast onto the blow torch and ran out of the truck. After he made it into the light of day, he quickly ducked behind the truck away from the guard. As he heard Champ and the guard give their final farewells, he crept around the outside of the truck to avoid getting spotted.
As his hands guided him along the cold metal of the truck’s body, they bumped into something hard and rubbery. It jutted out from the truck strangely and that forced Knot’s attention down to it. What he found, hanging off a series of metal brackets, was what looked to be a massive pair of metal sheers.
Looking down at the bolt cutters, Knot closed his eyes for a few seconds. He couldn’t exactly place what he was feeling at that moment, but it was somewhere near the intersection of exasperation and relief. Quickly resting the bolt cutters from their hiding place, Knot circumnavigated the trucks and moved to meet up with Champ.
Before Champ could ask about them, Knot held up the bolt cutters in triumph and Champ’s look of mild worry departed in favor of a grin.
“Thanks for the help back there,” Knot whispered with a bow of his head.
“I was pretty handy, wasn’t I,” Champ bragged with a smile as they started walking back towards camp. “Not that I can complain. I got some good information out of that.”
Knot looked into Champ’s excited face. Then he closed his eyes and asked, “So you’re planning on sleeping with the enemy?”
“Not exactly our enemies,” Champ corrected with an expression fit for sophistry. “More like, enemy adjacent.”
“Don’t make things more complicated,” Knot cautioned, though he didn’t have much faith in his own words. It didn’t matter what he said at this point, nothing would change.
“Things are always simple with me,” Champ responded with a grin that confirmed Knot’s worries.
Knot shook his head at that and pressed forward. Their return trip through the camp of living corpses was as easy as their first. In the beginning, Knot was nervous about the huge cutter in his hands. It stood out too well. He considered hiding it under his shirt or something, but the shape was too awkward for that. It was better to simply act like nothing was wrong.
Again, that worked too well. No one asked questions. Most of the soldiers didn’t even recognize his presence. Moving between the tents, they seemed to reek of despair, though it was probably the smell of rehydrated meal packs.
With the border of the army’s territory in sight, they sped up into what was coming dangerously close to a jog. As Knot rounded a corner behind one of the tents, he felt something crash into his chest, followed by a soft thud in the dirt ahead of him.
Rubbing what wouldn’t quite become a bruise on his left breast, Knot looked down at whatever had struck him. There, he saw a scrawny man, wrapped in soldier’s fatigues, scrambling to get on his feet. When he finally pushed himself to his full height, he stared into Knot’s face with a look of sour wrath. The total effect gave him the feeling of a infuriated teen. Just inexperienced enough to feel comedic, but just immature enough to be dangerous.
One glimpse of that expression and Knot recognized the man. He hadn’t been keeping track of their encounters, but this wasn’t less than the fourth. Looking past the man, Knot found the two partners in crime not far behind.
The three soldiers who so loved to pick fights with Cauliflower glared at Knot and Champ together. As they did, Knot surreptitiously hid the bolt cutters behind his back.
“Watch where you’re going,” the leading man spat angrily as he looked over Knot’s non-standard uniform. “Or did you want to come pick a fight? When I’m surrounded by my allies!?”
As the man shouted the last line, he searched his surroundings for support, but only received it from the two behind him. His other ‘allies’ barely bothered looking up from their rehydrated slop.
Seeing this, the man’s haughty attitude faltered somewhat and Champ stepped forward to press him further. “I wouldn’t mind rolling around for a bit, but only if you’re ready to take responsibility.”
“For what?” The man asked, trying to remain confident, but he couldn’t hide the tinge of worry in his eyes. They were in the army camp. If they were moving at the request of any of the officers and he delayed them, it’d be his head.
“You look like strapping lads,” Champ responded with an easy smile. “If we got hurt, we’d need some people to stand in for us. You know, during the next monster attack. I’m sure you’d be fine at that, though.”
Hearing that, the man’s eyes went wide. He looked at Champ, then at Knot, then back towards the mercenary’s camp he’d been retreating from. Then he narrowed his eyes into a glare before declaring, “We don’t have time for this!”
Following his shout, the three soldiers stomped off, trying desperately to look undefeated.
After watching them go, Knot and Champ turned to look at each other. Then Champ shook his head and said, “Looks like Cauliflower’s going to be in a mood again.”
“Either way, we should hurry back,” Knot replied.