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Doval cursed his rotten luck for the hundredth time that day. Of all the contracts he could have accepted, why did it have to be this one?
“Another man down, sir,” said Bertran as he ducked to enter Doval’s command tent. The stocky, dark haired man had a stony countenance, and the scratches across his face that he’d received two days ago hadn’t done him any favors, but the lieutenant still managed to project an air of sheepishness as he delivered the news. “Dr Garau is in the infirmary getting treated by his staff.”
Doval sighed. The doctor. Of course it would be the doctor. He was seated at his desk, looking through the scattered reports on it. Not reading them anymore, just looking, staring, hoping some solution would jump out at him that he hadn’t seen the first fifty times he’d gone through them. “What was it this time?”
“He was relieving himself in the bushes just outside of camp when he saw one of them, sir. He gave chase and…” Bertran hesitated.
“What did he do, lieutenant?” Doval asked tiredly.
“He wasn’t coherent enough to give all the details, sir, but somehow he ended up hugging a badger. The nurse says he should recover full use of his fingers after a few weeks of physical therapy and bed rest.”
“A badger,” Doval said flatly. “And why was our only doctor outside the perimeter in the first place, instead of using one of the latrines?”
Bertran’s expression somehow managed to grow even more sheepish without changing a tic. “Most of the men have stopped using them, sir, ever since the incident.” That had been Nico two nights ago, who’d woken up the entire camp with his screams after he took a dump in a latrine that turned out to have been housing a family of sleeping vipers.
Doval groaned and put his head in his hands. “Of course they have.” The old bastard had made it sound like it was going to be an easy assignment too. Fuck him, and fuck Doval for believing him. He should have known better than to trust a dragon. He usually never accepted contracts from subhumans to begin with, but they’d been promised nearly ten times their usual asking price, and even better, some of those infamous fox marbles. Wealth, power, and nigh immortality were hard to turn down. “So that leaves us with eight able bodied men, including you and me. We came here with thirty, Bertran, and a week later we’re down to eight.”
“Yes, sir,” Bertran said noncommittally. The unspoken question hung in the air between them: was this the breaking point? Giving up and returning home would mean drawing Karakostas’s wrath and forfeiting payment, but so would getting an entire squad taken out of commission without so much as a single animal captured.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In his five years of mercenary work, Doval had been on plenty of hunts before; all of them had. Sometimes they lasted a few hours, sometimes a few days, but they were always straightforward and simple. Find the creatures, bag them, and then have some fun with them until it was time to go home. They’d taken a private cargo plane to get here, and most of the men had spent the entire flight joking about how much sex they were going to be having. They’d all looked at this job as more of a vacation than anything else.
Some fucking vacation. A week of traipsing through the forest, getting picked off one by one by creatures they hadn’t even seen yet, let alone captured. “If we could catch just one of the damn beasts,” Doval muttered. “Just one.” If they had something to bring back home, anything, he could at least try to spin it as a success. He unconsciously scratched some of the hornet stings on his chest; waking up after the first day to discover three nests in the barracks, all filled with angry swarms, had been just the first of many unpleasant surprises waiting for them. That particular one had taken out four of of his men and nearly killed Llorens when he’d had a bad allergic reaction. Thankfully it hadn’t happened again, but everyone still performed regular sweeps of the barracks for any new nests.
“About that, sir,” Bertran said slowly, lowering his voice, “There appears to be a bit of fur where Dr Garau was… attacked, and it doesn’t look like it was from the badger. He was only a few meters from camp when it occurred, so the creatures must have fled before they noticed it. I saw it myself.”
Doval’s heart pounded. Finally! “Why the hell didn’t you lead with that?!” he hissed.
Bertran stepped closer, lowering his voice even further. “None of the other men noticed, sir, and I pretended not to either. I told them I was coming back here to report to you about Dr Garau.”
Doval nodded slowly. Right. Bertran wasn’t the first man to suspect that the beasts were spying on them somehow. It would explain why no matter what path they took through the forest, they invariably found it filled with booby traps and were forced to retreat back to their camp here. But if one of the creatures had made a mistake, and didn’t realize they’d found it… he stood from his desk. “Show me.”
“Are you certain that’s wise, sir?” Bertran asked. “Perhaps you should send one of the other men to investigate in your place, just to be safe.”
Doval shook his head. “No, I need to see this for myself, and quickly. They could be back any minute to clean it up. And if they are spying on us, telling the other men would risk them hearing about it.” Even just a piece of fur would be a godsend. They’d brought a pack of hunting dogs with them to track the beasts by scent, but the first time they’d tried it, the trail had ended at a cave housing a very surly bear. Whatever tricks the creatures were capable of, it included masking or altering their smell. But they couldn’t keep something like that up forever, and if the dogs could learn their true scent, it would only be a matter of time before he discovered their nest. “We’re going to do this with just the two of us, right now.”
Bertran nodded. “Yes sir.” He stepped back outside the tent, and waited for Doval to follow.
The camp had seen better days. He was used to seeing men talking and laughing with each other, playing games and getting drunk. But everyone that was left sat alone, hunched over and nervous. Dark bags under the eyes told Doval that several of them hadn’t slept for at least twenty four hours, constantly on guard for another attack. These creatures’ vicious little pranks hadn’t killed anyone, or even hurt them too severely, but they’d proven quite effective at breaking his men’s morale. If he could find a genuine trail back to them, though, if they could catch one, that would change in a heartbeat.
Bertran led Doval through a winding route that circled around several times while keeping them a good distance from any of the men, and walked at a casual pace, as if they weren’t headed anywhere in particular. Doval matched his attitude, trying to give the impression that he was simply surveying the camp like usual.
After several minutes, the lieutenant gradually strayed from the perimeter, bringing them to a small copse about ten meters from the boundary. None of the men were anywhere near this side of the camp, which was no surprise; they must have all heard about Garau by now, and no one would be in any hurry to meet a similar fate. “It’s over here,” he said quietly, doing his best not to move his lips. “Between those three trees.” Doval nodded minutely.
As they drew closer, he caught sight of it himself: a small patch of white fur, hanging from a small branch protruding from a knee high bush. The beast it belonged to must have brushed it without realizing and scratched itself. His anticipation grew as Bertran glanced around surreptitiously before kneeling and retrieving it. The lieutenant sniffed it, then held it up for Doval to see. “I think it’s genuine,” he said. “Come here and look.”
Doval stepped towards him eagerly. Finally, a single bit of luck in this damned rotten- his right foot came down on an ordinary patch of grass and went straight through it, as though there was no ground at all. He tried to pull back and right himself, but his balance was already off, and he pitched forward, hitting the ground and passing through it. He landed with a heavy thud a moment later on something not particularly soft. He looked around, confused and disoriented. What was… he was in a pit. A narrow dirt pit about ten feet deep.
He looked up and saw Bertran standing by the lip of it. “Another damn trap,” Doval hissed. Of course his lieutenant had managed to avoid it and he hadn’t. At least he didn’t feel like anything was broken, though the fall had loosened a few teeth. “Help me out of this fucking thing.”
“I would, sir,” Bertran told him, “but I’m afraid I’m a bit busy with Dr Garau in the infirmary right now. I tried to make friends with a badger, you see.”
“What? What are you…” Doval trailed off as Bertran gave him an uncharacteristically wide grin.
“Poor Mr Badger went back to taking a nap,” Bertran said. That is, he opened his mouth and words came out. But the voice they belonged to was utterly unlike the stocky man’s. It was a young and cheerful feminine voice that sounded like its owner was trying very hard not to burst out laughing. “But I found some new friends for you too, sir. Have fuuuuuuuuun!” Bertran stuck out his tongue playfully, and then the image of him melted away like smoke, leaving faint peals of laughter in its wake.
He… that… Doval screamed in rage and tried to claw his way up the pit, but the sides of it were slick with something wet, and he slid back down. “Help!” he shouted instead, feeling like an idiot. “There’s a… a fucking pit over here! Someone help me get out!” He had little faith that anyone would actually show up anytime soon. Venturing outside of camp to address a call for help was exactly how both Malik and Faro had gotten themselves injured on separate occasions. Eventually someone would work up the courage to check his tent and see if he was in there, but not for a while. Doing something like that three days ago was why Rodrigo had a broken arm now, after all.
He sat down in a huff, still absolutely furious. With himself for falling for the ruse, with Bertran for getting incapacitated and giving the creature an opening to get to him, with Karakostas for putting them on this fool’s errand in the first place. And most of all- he felt a sharp pain on his right ankle, and looked down to see a black centipede nearly a foot long wrapped around his leg. He yelped and batted the disgusting thing away, but the damage was already done. Giant centipede bites weren’t lethal, but the creatures were sure as hell venomous. He imagined he could already feel his ankle starting to swell up, and he definitely wasn’t imagining the lingering pain.
There was another sharp pain on his back as a second centipede bit him, and he felt a third one slithering up his pant leg. He stood up and whirled around, trying to knock them all away, but he could see now that there were at least a dozen of them in the pit with him. “God dammit!” he screamed in a panic, stomping the ground to try and smash them, feeling a third and a fourth and a fifth bite. “Someone get the fuck over here right now!!”
He was furious with himself, with Bertran, with Karakostas, and most of all, most of all, most of all, with these fucking kitsune.