Author’s note: Short chapter this week. Sorry about that, been pretty busy. Going to be even worse next week. Expect an even shorter chapter, or none at all next friday. apologies in advance.
9-1 Out of the Frying Pan
Stepping into the familiar concrete room she’d never set foot in before, Cauliflower frowned. The stronghold of any village always looked the same. Specifically, it was depressing. The grey was a given, what with all the concrete. However, they could’ve done something to spruce the place up. Maybe a nice candle. Fancy like the past.
Giving up on her surroundings, which absolutely refused to take on any ambiance, Cauliflower turned her frown towards her teammates. When that failed to produce anything agreeable, she intensified her frowning.
“None of us are happy about this,” the Captain spoke up, looking into Cauliflower’s eyes and finally acknowledging her ire. “It’s a bad situation all around.”
Hearing his words, Cauliflower tried to frown harder, but her muscles started to cramp up with the effort. She slackened her face, but not her attitude.
“A situation some of us didn’t need to be a part of,” Cauliflower finally declared when her face could no longer speak for her.
“If we didn’t signal for you, they would’ve started threatening to kill people,” the Captain patiently explained, for not the first time.
“Threats are fine,” Cauliflower responded obstinately, folding her arms under her chest. “At least wait until they actually start to do something.”
“So, wait until it’s too late?” Edge asked from the corner of the stronghold’s grey, rectangular entry. “That’s your elegant solution?”
“I don’t want to be stuck here,” Cauliflower gave her response, both logical and well-reasoned.
“Whereas the rest of us are thrilled,” Lotus cut in, her eyes sharp and poisonous. She tapped the concrete floor with the toe of her boot to assess its softness. Then she gave a bitter frown at the far too insubstantial sleeping bag she held in her arms.
“They better not hurt my car,” Knot grumbled to himself, as he’d been doing on the entire march back to the village.
“All we can do is make the most of it,” Champ declared, his relaxed voice cutting through the tension of the room like a fish through water.
Cauliflower turned to look at the man, who was siting far too comfortably on an entirely wooden chair to the side of the room. Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, she asked, “You seem to be taking this all pretty well.”
“Power of positive thinking,” Champ answered happily. “Put yourself in the right state of mind and you will always find an oasis in your own head.”
Looking over what Champ thought to be a Zen face, but was akin to one stoned off his ass, Cauliflower furrowed her brows.
Before she could voice her confusion, Edge beat her to it. “If I had to describe you with one word, it’d be positive and oasis… like.” His sarcastic tone faltered towards the end, but his meaning came across all the same.
“Well,” Champ responded, allowing the stoner expression to drop from his face. “There’s also the fact that it was my quick thinking that saved all your asses. Just thinking about that calms me right down.”
“Oh, right!” Edge shouted with a crisp snap of his fingers. “It’s your fault we’re in this mess. Of course, you can’t afford to be upset.”
“Fault?” Champ asked, his relaxed posture quavering at the word. “It’s my fault you’re still alive, you mean. We were outnumbered by actual trained knights. If I hadn’t been clever and on-the-spot, we would’ve all been killed.”
“We could’ve found a better solution,” Edge dismissed the claims without any evidence to back himself up.
“I wouldn’t have been killed,” Cauliflower muttered critically.
“And I’m so glad you have such concern for our safety,” Champ shot back quickly, finally leaning forward in his chair, causing it to wobble back and forth unstably.
“You would’ve figured something out,” Cauliflower responded with a dismissive wave of her hand as Champ tried to keep himself from falling forward onto his face.
Before anyone else could add to the conversation, they were interrupted by the creak of stronghold’s sturdy, wooden doors swinging open. As everyone’s attention was drawn in that direction, they caught sight of a familiar slender figure as he entered the room.
Barely familiar. Everyone else seemed to know him, so she didn’t ask, but it took a while for Cauliflower to remember the idiot who stood in the middle of the village, shouting at the sky. Once she did, she was barely able to hid her grin.
The slender man’s displeased gaze passed over Cauliflower as she covered her mouth with her hand. Then he turned back to the Captain. Moving forward a few strides, he curtly spoke, “While the rest of the army clears trees to let through the heavy equipment, I’ve prepared a few soldiers to help you with guarding the prisoners. If you need to speak to the commander again, tell them, and they’ll relay that to me.”
The slender man didn’t wait for a response and motioned towards the still open door. Following his gesture, three men in simple uniforms stepped into the room. Unlike with the slender man, Cauliflower wasted no time in recognizing the group. The second she saw the first face, her stomach filled with bile and her mocking grin warped into a bitter frown.
As the rest of the team showed similar reactions to the three men who’d spent the last several days trying to get themselves punched, the slender man leaned close to them and whispered something to them. Then he turned back to the team and declared, “I have other things to see to. I’ll take my leave.”
As the heavy door closed behind the slender man, Cauliflower gritted her teeth. She was waiting for the placid faces the soldiers showed their bosses to morph into ridiculing smirks. She was not in the mood for this now. After being told she’d be stuck in here for, potentially, months, she was in the mood for a fight.
Dwelling on that, she clenched her fist until she felt her fingernails digging into the flesh of her palms. Then something pulled at her. She’d been waiting a long time and the men still showed nothing on their faces. From her experience before, she was surprised they could even keep it together in front of their superior, let alone now.
Cauliflower took a probing step forward and the irritating leader of the three soldiers turned an impassive face towards her. His eyes stuck to her, observing her, but the held nothing. They were blank. His cheeks didn’t twitch. It was like he wasn’t even there.
Her instincts told her to push farther forward, get in his face, she was in the mood for a fight, but her better sense held her back. If she was the one to start things, she wouldn’t have an excuse. She’d have her cut reduced at the very least and they weren’t in the position to be getting in fights with the army.
Narrowing her eyes suspiciously at the uncaring men, Cauliflower took a stepped backwards until she was with her team. Taking a sidelong glance at Edge while keeping one, wary, eye on the men, she asked, “They’re being strange, right?”
“The last time we saw them, I definitely wouldn’t have called them disciplined,” Edge observed with a nod.
“They were always drunk,” Lotus whispered helpfully. “Maybe this is what they’re like sober.”
“That is not the face of a sober man,” Champ supplied, jumping out of his chair and into the conversation. “I would guess they found something harder.”
“What kind of drug makes you look like a wax figure?” Lotus asked, lowering one eyebrow skeptically.
“I think it’s called a family reunion,” Edge added with a smirk.
“I’m being serious,” Lotus whispered back, pursing her lips.
“There’ve been a lot of weird drugs out there, lately,” Champ answered with a shrug. “People have been experimenting with fermented monster blood… along with other juices. I heard about this one guy, got so messed up that he ate another guy’s face clean off.”
“You ever try any of that stuff?” Lotus asked, her scowl being colored in shades of concern and judgement.
“It may not seem like it sometimes, but I like being alive,” Champ answered back with a frown.
“What kind of drug makes you eat people’s faces?” Cauliflower asked, finally distracted from her vigilant observation of the soldiers.
“For you, I wouldn’t recommend it.” Edge gave a hurried recommendation.
“I was just curious,” Cauliflower responded, giving Edge a scowl of her own. She’d never been one to try any of the harder drugs. Alcohol was all the self-medication she’d ever needed. She just couldn’t imagine the benefit of putting yourself in the position to eat someone else. “Who would even want to be that hungry… diet pills?”
“I don’t think they start the night expecting to eat someone,” Champ responded slowly, bringing his pinky up to scratch at his brow.
“Champ is right,” Knot spoke up, finally coming out of the stupor brought about from the loss of the rover. “They’re being strange. Best to assume they’re on something and not get too close.”
Cauliflower really liked Knot. That’s why she tried to ignore that his gaze lingered over her as he said those last words.
“That was going to be my plan from the beginning,” Edge spoke up, giving Knot an approving nod. “Their eyes give me the creeps. Like there’s nothing behind there at all.”
Edge’s words forced Cauliflower’s attention back on the soldiers. She stared into their leader’s dark eyes, this time without the fiery indignance she had when they first arrived. Staring into the deep black pupils, she felt like she was looking into a sucking void. A deep abyss where she had no idea what she would find staring back at her. The thought forced a shudder to move across her entire body.
To distract herself and clear her pallet, Cauliflower turned her eyes towards the Newbie. With nothing to add to the discussion, he was again hanging out on the fringes. This time, leaning against the side wall, staring at his shoes. His down-turned eyes were thoughtful, but also kind of sad.
The sight filled her with an impulse to help the kid out, but she got the feeling she wasn’t the right person for that job. Not with how he wouldn’t meet her gaze most of the time they talked.
“What about the supposed reason we’re here,” Knot spoke up, turning his eyes towards the Captain. “How’re the villagers?”
The Captain met Knot’s gaze and his expression turned complicated before he gave a shrug. “They’re settling into the back just fine. Though, they still don’t trust us. More specifically, their leader doesn’t trust us. I doubt he’ll even let us speak to anyone else.”
“I can’t really criticize him for that,” Edge responded, running a hand through his unkempt hair.
Lotus turned to glance back at the soldiers, who still stood by the door. Then she leaned in to whisper. “It’ll make it hard to escape if we can’t win them over.”
“It’ll make it really easy to get away if we leave them behind,” Cauliflower observed nonchalantly. Meeting the Captain’s critical glare, she quickly shifted her gaze away and added, “I was just saying.”
“I think it’s best if I’m our point of contact, for the time being,” the Captain declared with a frown. Leaning in closer, he softly added, “At the very least, it’s good thing that our observers aren’t actual knights. On top of that, they don’t seem to be all there. That should give us some opportunities.”
The assembled mercenaries all nodded at that sentiment. A man who was blitzed out of his mind might be unpredictable, but he didn’t make a good watchdog. They could definitely exploit that.
As the team broke up to figure out the best way to do that, Cauliflower turned her attention to a much more pressing concern. There were only about seven of the wooden chairs dotting the perimeter of the entryway. You’d need to lay across at least three to make a halfway decent bed. That meant most of the team would be going without. She wouldn’t be one of them.