8-6 Up in Smoke
Cauliflower frowned into the deep shadows of the forest. It’d been a few hours since that trio of idiots came to pick a fight, but she still felt that frustrated tension running through her arms and legs. Probably because she was held back from giving them what they wanted and breaking the head idiot’s bulbous nose.
She threw her arms through the air a few times to work out those feelings, but then immediately stopped herself. She couldn’t risk accidentally dropping the awkwardly broad can she was clutching in her left hand. The odds were low, but if it landed wrong and got set off… well, she didn’t want to be the one getting that lecture.
Carefully bringing her arms to a standstill, she lazily stretched her legs. As she felt that tantalizing sensation that wavered between pain and pleasure spread through her muscles, she turned her attention to her left. There, she found the Newbie’s little chipmunk face. Today, as most days, he was being a concerned chipmunk. First he’d look down at the cannister he clutched in both hands, then he’d turn his attention to the path that they’d already traced out four times today.
Looking at that brought a smile to her face and warmth to her heart. Something about his little worried face was so calming. It was like it reminded her of… well, nothing. She couldn’t remember being or dealing with anyone so innocent. It made her want to poke him.
“Don’t trip,” Cauliflower stopped her stretching to advise the boy who was still carefully reviewing the route they’d be fleeing down. “They might be small, but you’ll probably be a little crippled if you get trampled by all of them.”
Her words forced the Newbie’s attention over towards Cauliflower. He stared into her face for a few seconds, then he gave her a solemn nod, as if accepting what she’d given as sage advice from a senior.
She almost laughed at that attitude. Almost. Instead, she gave him a smile and asked, “Do you remember what we’re supposed to do?”
“Run,” the Newbie answered, actually meeting her gaze for the first time. “Even I can remember that much.”
“Close enough,” Cauliflower responded with a shrug. She wanted to tease him more, but, looking down at her watch, it was getting close to time.
She carefully patted her thigh to feel the second cannister that could barely fit into her pocket. Then she looked into the dark hole in the earth which was almost rendered invisible by the night’s darkness. Then she reached up to pull the pin on her smoke grenade. A task made uncomfortably difficult by the thick leather gloves she was forced to wear.
After the fourth attempt of getting the large, awkward fingers through the pin’s ring, she gave up and pit the tip of the glove, tearing it from her hand. Holding the glove in her mouth, she yanked the pin from the grenade. It immediately started to hiss, spewing out a column of grey smoke.
Before the smoke could make its way into her lungs, Cauliflower tossed the grenade down the hole and pulled the second from her pocket. Holding the grenade in her still gloved hand, she waited. For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Then, the air filled with an urgent chorus.
They sounded like chirps, or maybe barks. Each one a small cry, but together, they overwhelmed Cauliflower’s ears so she thought she may be unable to hear anything else again. Hurriedly, she put her finger in the pin of the new grenade and prepared to pull it.
As she waited for the first of the swarm to emerge, she looked across from her at the Newbie. It was an arrant glance, but what she saw caught her eye and pulled at her attention. There, in the barely visible light of the moon, the Newbie was standing, staring off into nothing.
His mind looked even farther away than hers when she was actually hurling it out into the wilderness. Seeing this, Cauliflower unconsciously cupped her free hand around her mouth as she tried to shout to him.
She didn’t pay particular attention to what she was saying. It might not have been words. Even she couldn’t hear herself over the overwhelming wave of chirps that was quickly approaching from underground.
After her third attempt to overcome the noise, Cauliflower gave up. Instead she turned her attention towards her feet. After a few seconds of searching the needle strewn ground, she reached down to grab a fallen branch. She barely even noticed its unpleasant dampness as she toon the stick in her hand and hurled it at the Newbie.
The branch swung end over end until it struck the Newbie squarely in the arm. The shock immediately recalled his attention. He spun around, searching desperately for his assailant. After half a second, he saw the stick and remembered his situation.
As the first tyiny, lizard head emerged from the earth, the Newbie put his finger through his grenade’s pin. Then, they both pulled and the Newbie’s figure vanished behind a billowing, grey cloud.
Whatever was happening over there, Cauliflower had no way of knowing, so she put it out of her mind. Instead, she focused her attention on not noticing the smell. No matter how much Lotus assured her otherwise, Cauliflower knew the smoke had to be toxic. It smelled toxic. Acrid. Chemical.
As she started to run, Cauliflower pulled the front of her shirt up over her nose and mouth. It didn’t do much, but it made her feel better. It also undercut the toxic smoke with the scent of her own sweat, which… might’ve been better?
As Cauliflower worried about how many growths she was developing in her lungs, the thundering of a hundred footsteps sounded out from her left. It kept apace with her, or more like, prepared to overtake her.
She couldn’t keep being distracted. Still trying to ration her breaths as best she could, she accelerated. At least that was easy enough. They’d rehearsed this jog too many times for her to get tripped up and run into a tree.
It was another ten minutes from there, running alongside the yipping stampede of lizards. Holding out her can of smoke and trying to keep her head turned away from it as much as possible. Probably one of the least comfortable sprints in her life. Certainly, if you only included those where nothing was trying to eat her.
At the end of it, something came into her sight. Light. Lights, plural. Though, each one was faint enough that they could be aggregated into one and referred to in the singular. It was the first signs of finding a village at night. People trying to solve the complex problem of keeping watch through the darkness while remaining as inconspicuous as they could.
Catching sight of that, Cauliflower’s heart lightened and the discomfort that had accumulated in her joints fled her. She charged forward. Within the next minute, or a period of time that felt as short, she reached the tree-line. Then she stopped and released her grenade.
She stepped aside, away from the smoke, and waited. A few seconds later, they burst out of the trees and entered her view. Still thundering along with the combined force of almost two hundred, the pack of tiny lizards entered the clearing as a torrent. They were a pack, three abreast and dozens deep, that extended back into the obscuring cloud of smoke.
The lizards were wild and terrified, thinking of nothing, but escaping in a straight line. A line that led them straight into the shoddy wire fence. The first to strike was either too light or too unlucky. It ran into the metal wiring and stuck there. Its body, wrapped by the electric current, gave some small, but rapid, convulsions. Mostly, however, it burned. As a faint steam arose from the pitiful lizard’s bulging eyes, the air filled with the smell of charred flesh. It was even worse than the smoke, but it was less pungent and within seconds a faint breeze carried it away.
The next three lizards to reach the fence didn’t have the time to learn from their ally’s mistake. Their feet had already carried them beyond the point of no return. The second lizard was jolted when he hit the metal and immediately jumped back, only to be knocked down and trampled by his allies behind. The third and fourth struck a weakened section of fence together and broke through.
The little groupies may have been in a frenzy from the idea of a fire, but they were still small monsters living in a forest. That meant a lot of running and specifically, running between trees. They were good at maneuvering around obstacles. Now that one hole had been made, they all moved through it. Almost like water flowing around a stone… but, opposite.
Pulling the binoculars from off her chest, Cauliflower was barely able to follow the parade of lizards as they continued through the dim light of the village. Once past the fence, the continued forward. Rampaging and eating humans wasn’t their goal. Not tonight. It was escape. They’d continue running until something in their lizard brain told them they were safe. Whatever that would be.
Not that there would be anything to tell them that now. Rushing forward in a straight line, their path took them to the other side of the fence. This time, it wasn’t intentionally weakened for lizard accessibility.
Cauliflower watched in perverse fascination as their vanguard struck the fence once again. Several bounced off, a few were fried, and a few were trampled. Then the crowd as a whole turned, flowing to the right to find a path around the fence. In a few seconds, they’d encounter another dead end. Then, chaos would reign. Their tiny brains wouldn’t come up with the solution of returning through the hole they’d come in. Not in their panic. Instead, without direction, they’d break apart and rampage.
Seeing this all happening, Cauliflower started to worry about her own interest. It probably wasn’t normal to be this keen in her observation of the destruction of a town. However, she couldn’t look away. It was the first time she’d actually been able to impartially witness something like this.
Usually mercenaries arrived days or weeks after a monster attack. Even cases like the Newbie’s, where there are survivors left to find, are the exceptions. On the few occasions that she was in a village when it got attacked, her attention was a little more focused on her work. She really felt like there was something to learn from seeing this. She just couldn’t put her finger on what.
As Cauliflower was considering her own thoughts, the tail end of the stampede past by her. A few seconds later, a singular pair of footsteps approached her from the left. She immediately spun around to see what it was and found the Newbie waving his hands and coughing as he moved through the smoke.
Once he was a few feet out from the thick cloud, he bent over and braced his hands against his knees to force out the last traces of the smog.
“Good to see you didn’t fall and hurt yourself,” Cauliflower declared as a helpful greeting.
“I said before, even I can run,” the Newbie complained between wretches and hacks.
Cauliflower simply nodded at that and prepared to return her attention back to the village. Then something pulled at her and she stopped herself. Instead, she asked, “You can handle a lot, but you can’t handle paying attention to such an easy job?”
The Newbie looked up and met her eyes. Then his face turned sheepish and he immediately looked away. “Sorry…” He almost whispered, not offering an excuse.
“I got to throw something at you, so it’s fine,” Cauliflower forgave him dubiously, offering a shrug. “What got you so distracted all the sudden, anyway?”
The Newbie frowned. Then he gave a shrug of his own. “I don’t know. I just felt really bad for a moment.”
“Are you getting sick?” Cauliflower asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously as she took a step backwards. Catching something in the wilderness was a few degrees separated from pleasant.
“Not that,” the Newbie answered, rapidly shaking his head. “More of an ominous feeling. I can’t put my finger on it. Like I was missing something really important.”
Cauliflower frowned at him for a few moments. Then she shook her head and returned her attention to the village as the sounds of gunshots pealed through the night. It wasn’t strange for him to be having a bad feeling. He was about to help terrorize a bunch of innocent villagers out of their homes.