Chapter 6: The Stranger
"Does anyone want any of my special cream for their tea?" Donut beamed and held up a porcelain pitcher adorned with painted flowers.
Grif wrinkled his muzzle and rolled his eyes even as Mahihko held up his mug with a cheerful grin and one dainty finger extended. "I don’t think anyone besides him even wants the tea to begin with," the orange male groused.
"So…you weird critters are from two different worlds? You ain’t even the same kinda alien?" Sarge inquired, his features twisted in disbelief.
"Three, technically, if you include Amdusias," Riffraff replied helpfully. He shook his head briefly to Donut when the lithe chupadore skipped up to him after splashing a dollop into Mahihko’s tea.
"As you well should," the demon added, pursing his lips from where he stood in the corner of the common room, arms crossed over his massive chest while his long tail coiled self-consciously around his clawed feet. "One should never disregard the presence of such a powerful and wise creature."
Graceful Melody muttered something under his breath, still leaning back on the well-worn couch as one hand slowly massaged the new bruise on his cheek. "Still think you picked up a couple notes of Pride on your trip down below," the pony observed mildly.
Grif leaned away slightly from the other end of the couch, as he had been doing each time the short-statured equine spoke. He apparently wasn’t scared enough, however, to give up the comfort of his favorite piece of furniture. "So he was an angel…but now he’s a demon? That’s seriously a thing?"
The periwinkle stallion grunted quietly, his tone softening just a bit. "Sure as hell is. He was an angel when he found me, just a damn baby with two dead parents. He raised me with the help of a demon. Two of them were better family than I woulda had otherwise."
"Oh, is that why you turned into a demon, too? You started banging his adopted mom?" Grif jeered with a snicker.
"You are a dislikeable person," Amdusias remarked past his scowl.
Graceful snorted amusedly, however, shaking his head slowly. "Ain’t that easy, Tubs. And besides, the demon’s a fella, too."
"Two dads! That sounds like a perfect family!" Donut chimed in, glancing up from his admiring inspection of Mahihko’s pierced ears.
Amdusias sighed but Graceful gave a rare, small smile. "Wasn’t so bad, I suppose. He and Burning did a bang-up job raising me. Anyway…" He shrugged a bit. "Dusey lost his wings when a couple of stuck-up angel assholes made it their business to decide an angel and a demon had no right to work together for the sake of a single goddamned mortal. They hunted him down, chopped off his wings and he got sent down to Hell."
The reptile shifted uncomfortably but could only nod a few times to confirm the pony’s story. Grif lifted an eyebrow, the others in the room glancing toward the enormous creature curiously. Graceful broke the silence by continuing ruefully: "So yeah, he was gone for a few years, came back just in time to save my hide from a shitty, yellow-bellied traitor of a partner, we been workin’ together ever since. That’s the long’n short of it, anyhow."
"So the whole ‘fallen angel’ trope is based on reality?" Lone asked, tilting his head somewhat. "Here I thought when we first met that you were just being prissy about being called a demon."
"I am never prissy," the tall lizard huffed even as he glanced down at the claws of one hand before brushing them idly against his taut chest. "I simply happen to care that I do not carry myself like some slovenly creature of refuse."
"I think he just called you a trash goblin," Mahihko remarked to Lone before leaning toward Donut. "Hey, do you guys have piercings? Is that a thing around here?"
Lone attempted to retort, but was promptly cut off by the feminine soldier at Mahihko’s side. "Oh yeah!" the light-red chupadore gushed, reaching immediately for the lower half of his armor. "Let me show you!"
"Private! We are still in a combat-ready situation!" Sarge barked, glaring across the table. "Armor stays on until the alert level is at Code Orange! Because that’s the least-threatening of all colors!"
"But Grif has his armor off," Donut complained, gesturing at his codpiece several times as Mahihko propped his head on his chin and simply watched with a predatory grin.
The oldest chupadore scoffed. "Yeah, but he’s Grif! If he gets shot, it’s one less Grif around here that I gotta deal with!"
Grif shrugged idly, lacing his fingers behind his head and propping his paws onto the coffee table before him. "Sarge does make a point."
Riffraff was sitting awkwardly in an armchair across from the sofa, looking between Sarge and Grif hesitantly. "And I thought Grace treated me bad," he mumbled, rubbing one of his well-muscled arms slowly.
"Well, if their relationship is anything like ours, then they should be going off to pound each other raw within half an hour," Graceful retorted bluntly, immediately earning a horrified glare from the chupadore on the couch as Grif leaned even further away from him.
"Dude, what the fuck!?" Grif blurted, his face screwed up in disgust. "No one here is pounding anyone else here raw! Ever!"
Mahihko cleared his throat loudly. "Hey, never’s a long time, man, let’s not make any promises just to have ‘em broken later. You just gotta believe."
"Fuck all that noise," the pudgy chupadore grumbled before digging a hand down into the cushions of the couch to produce a worn magazine, slumping further into the upholstery and ignoring the others in favor of flipping through the publication.
Sarge glowered in Grif’s direction, but was distracted by the taller of the two wolves leaning forward and tapping the table gently while clearing his throat. The grizzled chupadore shifted his attention to Lone, who offered a polite smile. "Before we get back to yelling at each other and feeling uncomfortable about the constant innuendos…could we get some facts laid out? Like, first of all…what can we call you guys? You seem to recognize most of our species, even though so far we’ve only seen…you know. You guys. Me and Mahihko are wolves, plain and simple." He gestured toward the others. "Riffraff’s a horse, Graceful’s a…well. Smaller horse. And we all know the story behind the fallen-angel-turned-demon. But I don’t think we’ve seen anything like you guys on either of our worlds."
The veteran soldier looked confused at first, frowning somewhat and leaning forward as well. "Son, we’re chupadores. And we are here on this damn ring to spill the guts of our enemies and bring glory to our army in the name of Omega!"
"Chupadore, huh? That’s a helluva name," Mahihko replied curiously, reclining in his chair while easily balancing it on its back legs. "Judging by the earlier conversations and the fact that the orange guy is over there reading, ah…" The feminine lupine squinted in Grif’s direction before grinning amusedly. "Does that say ‘Tits & Tails’? That is beautiful. So yeah, I’m gonna guess you have two genders, same as us." He paused and let his eyes wander over Donut with a smaller, measuring smile. "Some certainly the fairer sex, if I may say so myself." He chuckled, then tapped his nose thoughtfully. "But your whole…Red versus Blue thing, that ain’t about species or races or nothin’, is it? But you do have different races, ‘cause y’all don’t all look like ya got the same body structures…I think I need an anatomy lesson." He grinned toothily up at Donut again, who clasped his hands together around his mug and nearly spilled the tea within as he tittered excitedly.
"Nonsense!" Sarge retorted, slamming a fist into the table and making Lone jump in surprise. "You’re either born a proud Red, or a dirty Blue! And that’s that, gatdammit!"
"Not entirely true," a tired voice drifted into the room as all eyes turned to see Simmons leaning against the doorway, looking pale despite his thick maroon fur. "Did someone tape a fucking gun to my arm? It’s gonna take forever to get that shit out…"
"Simmons, you’re awake! That promotion is right around the corner for you, son!" The commanding officer laughed raucously while pounding a fist proudly into the table again.
"Thank you, sir," the tall chupadore mumbled. "And to answer your question, yes, there are different breeds of chupas. A lot of the family trees on Sirca are really diluted, though, so we usually just get assigned a primary breed when we’re old enough to have distinguishing features. And there are two main body-types among us, which account for some of the structural differences out there. For example, everyone here is a shi’a, except Sarge – he’s a fi’la. And while it is common for your natural hide color to determine which army you are assigned to, most towns also let you volunteer for one side or another if you want to."
"So good to have the resident nerd back in the room," Grif remarked without looking up from the magazine.
But Mahihko smiled gratefully as Lone nodded a few times. "Gotcha, makes sense," the smaller of the two replied.
"So what, you guys are…constantly at war here?" Lone asked, disbelief tinging his voice.
"Ain’t just any war, boy! It’s the Holy War! Only comes every coupla hundred years, and we were lucky enough to be part of it!"
"So lucky," Grif commented drolly.
"And what about you guys?" Donut queried, stepping away from Mahihko to prance over to the couch and peer between Graceful Melody and Riffraff. "I saw wings, are you angels, too? Can you take me for a ride!?"
Graceful barked out a laugh despite himself as Riffraff groaned and slapped a hand against his features. Behind them, Amdusias huffed loudly before responding irritably: "Graceful Melody is certainly no angel!"
"Yeah, seriously, ditto to that," Simmons added with a scowl, self-consciously rubbing at his jaw while very purposefully walking in a wide arc to avoid the couch.
"I, uh…I have wings, too," Riffraff interjected lamely. "I suppose that for all intents and purposes, Grace and I are pegasi. But we can’t actually fly. Our wings are mostly vestigial…we can sometimes glide short distances but…that’s about all."
"Awww…" Donut’s face fell and he pouted dejectedly before turning toward Simmons to ask brightly, "Oh, Simmons! Would you like some tea?"
"Goddammit, Donut, no, I never want tea," he replied with an exasperated sigh, dropping into an empty seat at the table. "Have you guys talked about anything important since I…laid down?"
Grif snorted mirthfully and flipped another page. "Don’t be shy, Burgundy – your ass got laid down."
The lanky soldier shot Grif a sour look, then grumbled and glanced between the five aliens. "So I take that as a no?"
"Nothing terribly important, no," Lone answered, resting his muzzle on an open palm as he propped his head up and tapped his fingers slowly on the side of his jaw. "Guess we need to figure out what you guys are planning to do and…I dunno, see what the hell we should be doing, ourselves. Think we’re gonna be stuck here for a while."
"Well, as long as you fight for the Red Army, that ain’t no problem! Like Freelancers, except we ain’t gotta pay ya!" Sarge exclaimed.
"Yeah, well…I don’t know how well that last Freelancer did, since it sounds like the Blues were all still there," Simmons grumbled, looking to the wolves with a frown. "How many guys did you see over there?"
"Three, and pretty sure that was all. We had a lovely little soiree in the mess, complete with stale snack cakes," Mahihko replied cheerfully. "I can’t imagine anyone would have wanted to miss that, so I don’t think there were any more dudes hiding, if that’s what you mean."
"Don’t know if they’ll be there long, though," Lone added, pursing his lips in thought. "Pretty sure they were talking about leaving. Or, I guess, since everyone here seems to be in some kind of army or another, they plan on going AWOL."
"I knew it!" Sarge cried out, pairing the vocalization with another hearty fist-slam into the table. "Men, this is precisely what I was afraid would happen!"
"Isn’t that what we want?" Grif grumbled behind his magazine. "Drive the Blues out of this shitty canyon?"
"Grif, you’re even stupider than usual!" the veteran soldier proclaimed. "It’s obvious, isn’t it? I told Command we couldn’t trust them no-good Freelancers! She’s probably planning to use that hideous blue monster to launch an attack on our other bases, I bet they’re rallying with her as we speak! We have no choice but to chase those confangled cobalt bastards, catch ‘em by the tails and --"
"Wait, wait, wait…okay, I just remembered," Mahihko interrupted, holding up both hands. "Y’all keep talkin’ about a Freelancer, and you keep mentioning that she was a she, so uh…I’m gonna guess I have some real bad news for you fellas." He cleared his throat and leaned forward a bit. "Pretty sure your gun-for-hire is dead. Via frag grenade, if I recall correctly. The cute turquoise one was real upset about the only lady for miles around getting exploded."
Simmons frowned immensely at this. "Wait, seriously? I mean, even if Sarge is right about not trusting Freelancers, they’re still usually well-trained and way better than your average soldier. And those three idiots over there are goddamn worse at being soldiers than we are. How the hell would they manage to kill her and yet haven’t done jack-shit to us except for when the fucking werewolf guy went crazy?"
"Maybe the fucking werewolf guy went crazy again – that Church asshole might be a shitty-ass shot when he’s normal, but you saw what happened when he was all…wild and shit," Grif spat out, finally lowering his magazine and unconsciously rubbing at two thin pink scars below his eye. "That lady mighta been scary, but I doubt even she would have known what the fuck to do about that."
"That’s…ugh, a good point, Grif," Simmons admitted, earning a horrified glare from his sergeant. "Sorry, sir, I hate to say it, but…that actually could explain it."
"He really is a terrible shot," Lone remarked as he smiled despite himself. "Truth be told, the two of us probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if that big one could actually hit anything with that giant sniper rifle."
Graceful Melody tilted his head slightly at the lupine’s particular wording and gave Riffraff a curious look, which prompted the tall equine to shrug awkwardly. "I didn’t come through the gateway with them, per se. After I got lost in the hole you and Dusey made, I…just kind of came tumbling out of theirs, after all that shooting was done with."
"It was pretty awkward and amazing," Mahihko supplied with a half-grin. "So yeah, we almost all got shot up, but luckily we were able to settle our differences, and everything turned out just peachy."
"Did you go the distance with all those boys over there? That sounds like your kind of method," Graceful grumbled.
"No, no, thank gods, he didn’t," Riffraff muttered in response.
"And thank the stars you didn’t get shot, because otherwise that lovely sweater would be all ruined!" Donut exclaimed, pointing at the turtleneck still neatly tied around the smaller wolf’s neck. "Is that knitted wool?"
Mahihko beamed and deftly undid the sleeves of the sweater before holding it up for the light-red chupadore to admire. "No, my dear, this is cashmere, and yes, you are more than welcome to try it on if you like, because I bet it would fit your svelte little frame just about perfect."
Lone scowled and rolled his eyes, dropping his cheek into his palm to look at Sarge and Simmons with a sigh. "And yet when I ask to borrow a belt that’s obviously too big for him, I just get a nasty stare. You guys see what I gotta live with?"
"That’s because the belt was black and you don’t own any black shoes," Mahihko chided, which made Lone groan and tap a finger irritably against the table.
"I don’t wear shoes! Neither do you!"
"That sounds like a you-problem," Mahihko commented as Donut held up the turtleneck at his side, gasping in delight at the feel of the fabric.
"With as often as you two bastards derail a conversation, how the hell do you ever get any treasure hunting done?" Graceful muttered. As Amdusias nodded agreeably behind him, the light-blue pony leaned forward on the couch, ignoring Grif flinching away at the other end as he instead fixed his eyes on the eldest soldier. "So if I’m followin’ all this convoluted shit correct-like, your commanding officers sent in a mercenary to aid your sorry boys with a tough nut on the other side. By the sounds of it, she ain’t accomplished anything she was paid for, but they don’t exactly seem primed to come make a move on you lot, either. Matter of fact, sounds like they’re itchin’ to leave. Why the hell would you care, then? Like the chubby one said earlier, ain’t the idea to drive the other guys out?"
"I have a name, asshole," Grif grumbled, which prompted Simmons to glower at him.
"See, it’s not so fun on the other side," the taller soldier huffed.
"Shut up, Burgundy."
"Both of you shut it!" Sarge ordered, jabbing a finger in Grif’s direction. "The little winged demon asked a stupid question, but only ‘cause he don’t know any better!" Graceful Melody glared at Sarge with enough venom that Simmons couldn’t help but shrink down in his chair, as if it would somehow protect him from the diminutive pony’s dark stare. "Listen here, boys! Even if that Freelancer is dead, those dirty, no-good Blue bastards are up to something devious! I can smell it!"
"Only thing I can smell is the pile of bullshit stackin’ up around everyone’s pie-hole," Graceful Melody growled. He rolled his head back, resting it on the back of the couch and rubbing grouchily at his temples with both hands. "Why don’t we save ourselves a caravan of trouble and mosey on over there to see how the board reads?"
"Well that sounds stupid," Grif remarked mildly, even as he automatically twitched away when the periwinkle stallion turned his head to stare daggers at him. "Look, the whole point of these bases is that if you try to just run in without a bunch of rookie meat-shields to absorb bullets, you’ll get the crap shot out of you by the assholes hiding inside."
"Sounds perfect to me!" Sarge declared enthusiastically. "You’re worth at least two meat-shields, Grif!"
"Agreed," muttered Graceful with the tiniest of smiles before he gestured idly in Riffraff’s direction. "Send the cooler, too. His lucky hide’s been shot at ten times over since I known him and he ain’t got so much as a scratch on ‘im."
"We don’t get to choose our powers, I didn’t ask for mine," Riffraff mumbled, visibly embarrassed.
Graceful rolled his eyes, shoving a cigarette into his muzzle and grumbling around it: "Don’t act like you didn’t get the goddamn pick of the litter, you whiny bastard."
"Wait a second…you telling me that not only are you two ponies…with wings…from a magical land stuck in the past…but that you have powers, too?" Simmons asked skeptically. "This sounds like a goddamn TV show."
"Oooh, do all ponies have powers?" Donut inquired, finally tearing his gaze away from Mahihko’s sweatshirt to peer at Graceful. "Do you have a power, too? Can we see it?!?"
The slender pegasus glanced up from lighting the cigarette, letting out a short, dry chuckle that evoked a death rattle more than any sort of amused sound. "Yeah, I got one too, kid." He exhaled slowly, prompting Grif to wince away once again to avoid the plume of blueish smoke. "Pray you never gotta see it."
"Speaking of things we haven’t seen…why the hell do you keep breathing in that smoke? That’s the worst incense I’ve ever smelled," observed Simmons as he wrinkled his muzzle and waved a hand in front of himself. "Do you have some kind of condition or something? Because it’s really fucking weird to inhale incense."
Graceful’s face fell, his eyes narrowing and ears flattening slightly as he leaned forward slowly. "The fuck does that mean? Don’t tell me you bastards ain’t never seen coffin nails before. Don’t you goddamn dare tell me that."
Grif and Simmons shared an awkward look, the latter clearing his throat uncomfortably. "Are you…are you gonna shoot us if we do tell you that?" Grif asked carefully. "Because I think you should keep shooting Simmons instead of me, that’s kind of been your pattern so far, which is great for me."
"Naturally. Naturally we end up on a fucking world that ain’t even invented smokes," Graceful spat out before taking a deep drag from his cigarette as his eyes gleamed furiously. "You bozos got the same kind of advanced gizmos as the two fruitcake treasure hunters, yet you ain’t got the chops to roll any goddamn cigarettes. That’s just fuckin’ dandy."
"Will he die without them?" Simmons queried, doing a poor job of masking his hopeful tone.
"No, but we might," the larger equine remarked without a hint of irony, frowning with a mix of concern and trepidation. "Grace, he, ah…he doesn’t do so good if he can’t light up…"
The periwinkle pony snorted, even as he gave a tiny smile. "Just ‘cause you know me don’t give you the right to try and be my voice, you stupid git."
Amdusias sighed loudly from behind the couch. "You are a terrible excuse for a romantic, little one. However, I can vouch for Graceful’s…minor dependence. If you strange creatures find him abrasive now, you will be absolutely thrilled to know he is infinitely more intolerable without those disgusting cylinders."
"Well that’s just fuckin’ great," Grif grumbled, sinking down further into the worn cushions and once more covering his scowl entirely with the dirty magazine.
"How about you pretty soldier boys go over to the enemy base and check things out, then? And I’ll go search for some goddamn tobacco leaves, or somethin’ close enough. I’ll even bring Amdusias." Graceful Melody sniffed dismissively, tapping the ash from his smoke into an empty bowl on the table. "You can take the poofs, too. And then everybody in this godforsaken hell-hole can be happy."
"Yes, searching for a supplemental smoking supply, that is surely the best use of my time," Amdusias replied dryly. "I am overrun with a sensation of personal validation and fulfillment."
"Can it, Amdusias, ya ain’t worth half a dead cat ‘til you get your powers back," the tiny equine retorted.
Sarge grumbled under his breath but eventually nodded in agreement. "Alright, men, I suppose the little bastard’s right. We can’t go hunting down our enemies if they ain’t made a break for it, yet! Grif, Simmons – get your gear in order! Donut, I want you to stay behind and make us some sandwiches, because I ain’t had a bite to eat since I set out this mornin’ and I’m hungrier than a snake with a broken jaw!" He paused to squint at Mahihko and Lone, who respectively sported expressions of amusement and confusion. "You two fuzzy things can come along, but no funny business! You already met some Blue bastards an’ your first instinct wasn’t to shoot ‘em, so I still don’t know how much I can trust ya!"
"Aye-aye, sir," Mahihko responded crisply, grinning cheerfully and popping up to his paws. "Wouldn’t mind getting some fresh air, anyway!"
"Great. We’ll all be friends in no time," Lone added sarcastically, sighing and rubbing slowly at his features. "Lead on, then. We’ll be an extra set of eyes for you, at least…and who knows, maybe those guys left some useful stuff behind if they really have cleared out…"
"For shit’s sake, Tucker, was your village too primitive to teach basic writing?" Church complained, wrinkling his muzzle at the hastily-scrawled note in his companion’s claws.
"Fuck you, dude, I was too busy gettin’ chicks’ numbers to pay attention to that nerd shit," Tucker retorted. "Besides, not like this shit is for anything important." He held up the sticky square of blue-tinted paper, upon which his sloppy handwriting spelled out:
Hey wierd alien fuckers – this dead guy came out of a green hole, too. Stop fucking up the world and don’t touch my stuff.
"You spelled ‘weird’ wrong," the larger soldier grumbled. He glanced at Caboose as the deep-blue chupadore emerged from the base with a backpack strapped to his tall frame, the bell around his neck jingling softly with each bouncy step. "Did you go to the bathroom, Caboose? I don’t want to stop five minutes after we leave…"
"Of course I went in there, I had to get my bath frog," Caboose responded matter-of-factly. "I thought you said we were going on our adventure in the morning! Why are we leaving when the sun is going down and not up?"
Church gave a tired sigh as Tucker smirked, visibly enjoying the strain caused by the childish soldier’s rambling. "No, I mean…did you…you know what, never mind. Tucker would love to show you how to take a piss in the woods, anyway."
"Whoa, not funny, dude. I will kick your ass if you try and push any of that on me," the turquoise chupa warned. "Caboose, you gotta promise to be a goddamn adult on this trip, because we sure as shit ain’t got time for babysitting."
"Babysitting is for babies, and I am no baby!" Caboose exclaimed. "Who is going to water the snack bushes while we are gone?"
"I’m sure those stupid wolf-dog-guys would be happy to," Tucker muttered. "Gay guys are supposed to be really good at gardening. Especially uphill."
Church rolled his eyes. "Real mature. And besides, it’s not like you’ve never thought of a dick at least once in your life, so don’t be a hypocrite."
"Fuck you, man! Never, not even once!" the smaller soldier immediately protested, holding both hands up. "You’re the one who’s been lookin’ at other dudes’ ruffs, not me!" He snorted and turned away, then squinted over his shoulder with one eyebrow slightly raised. "What, you…don’t think about dicks or anything, right? I mean, if anyone would between us, it would obviously be you. And I would need to know, because I’m gonna have some fuckin’ hardcore reservations on our goddamn trip if you’re gonna be trying to get in my pants."
"Fuck you too! No! Never!" Church shot back with a scowl even as he rubbed the back of his head. "Why the hell are we talking about this? Let’s go over our gear so we can get moving…sun’ll be down in a couple hours…" He grimaced while gazing toward the tree line, adding after a moment: "We need to go back to where that lady…uh…"
"Got blown the fuck up?" Tucker supplied mildly. "Why? She’s dead as shit, and her ride got totaled, too. Both from the grenade but also when you, you know, rammed it off the cliff."
The larger chupadore made a face before replying through clenched teeth: "I know that, asshole. I want my goddamn armor back, and maybe we can find some clues, too."
"That’s…well…okay, not the stupidest idea you’ve ever had," Tucker admitted.
Church had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes again, instead turning toward Caboose. "Alright…you’ve got all the rations and snacks we were able to cram in there--"
"…and Tucker, you’ve got a couple clips of ammo and whatever camping gear you could find, right?"
The slender chupadore shrugged, peering over his shoulder. "Yeah, probably. Me ‘n Caboose both have a bedroll, too. And your fat ass has…what, again, exactly?"
"Look, there were only two packs, okay? And my rifle weighs almost as much as your packs, so…"
Tucker snorted amusedly. "So what? You blow one freaky alien’s arm off – by mistake – and suddenly you’re Captain Sniper. Whatever, man, let’s just go find this dead bitch and get out of here before more bad shit happens."
"Screw you too," Church mumbled even as he shifted the rifle awkwardly on his back. "Uh…so which way was that, again?"
"I know the way! I can smell the scary hot dog lady still!" Caboose declared before dropping down on all fours and galloping toward the trees with his tiny, brown companion scampering along at his side.
Church and Tucker looked at each other for a moment before groaning and jogging after their exuberant companion. The turquoise male adjusted the straps of his pack, falling slightly behind his heftier compatriot as he glanced over his shoulder one more time with an almost forlorn expression at the sight of their base, only to shake his head briefly a moment later and half-sprint to catch up to the others.
"Shouldn’t we, um…bury her?" Caboose’s voice was tinged with curiosity more than awkwardness. The dark blue chupadore seemed less distraught by the distorted body in the ravine below as much as he was simply unsure of what should be done with it.
"You like digging holes, Caboose. Have fun with that," Tucker offered, which earned a displeased frown from the other soldier.
"I do not like that game anymore. The hot dog went too far."
The two observing soldiers turned their attention back to Church when he grunted and held up a waterlogged communicator between his claws. "Tch, dead," he muttered, shaking it a few times and then tossing it over his shoulder.
"So much for that lead," Tucker commented before raising a finger to add mildly: "And can I say that this is about a seven-point-oh on the creep-o-meter?"
"That’s my lucky number," Caboose noted, mimicking the gesture by the smaller chupadore at his side.
"Shut up, Caboose," the light-blue soldier grumbled, still bent over the stiff corpse as he quickly rustled through her pockets and various side packs. His eyes narrowed somewhat when his claws traced over a logo on her outer jacket and he slowly lifted the fabric with a grimace. "Tucker, look at this."
The lithe chupa leaned over the edge of the destroyed jeep, squinting at the blue symbol dyed into the soaked cloth. "What is that?"
"Freelancer. I knew I didn’t like her for a reason."
"Also because she was punching and shooting you," Caboose added helpfully.
Tucker made a face. "You think the Reds hired her?"
Church shook his head slowly. "No, I overheard her talking on the phone. I think she was working for someone…" He paused as he slowly held up the jacket, voice trailing off for a moment. "Something else…"
The turquoise soldier frowned at the much-larger red symbol on the inside of the clothing – it looked almost like a tribal-style depiction of a strange creature. "And what’s that supposed to be?"
"Don’t know…I’ve never seen it before."
"Why’s it on the inside?"
The husky soldier wrinkled his muzzle, glaring up at his companion. "What part of ‘I don’t know’ is beyond your grasp, Tucker?"
"The knowing part," Caboose supplied.
This time it was Tucker’s turn: "Shut up, Caboose." He shot a glower in the bell-wearing chupadore’s direction before tilting his head back to Church in confusion when their de facto leader began tearing apart the jacket. "NOW what the hell are you doing?"
"Keeping this," Church muttered, shaking the patch of cloth lightly to show off the strange crimson inking. "It might be our only clue." He tucked it into a utility space in his reacquired armor and then straightened his back and glanced at the ridge of the riverbed. "Sun’s gonna be down soon. Let’s get moving, find somewhere quiet to set up camp. Hopefully we’re far enough away that we don’t attract any attention from those assholes back at the Red Base."
Tucker snorted and shifted idly out of the way as Church pulled himself up to the side of the overturned jeep with a grunt. "Those dumbasses didn’t notice when this Freelancer bitch got her shit blown up. Doubt we have to worry about that. And besides, the gay aliens are probably gonna get them all drunk and then have a gay alien orgy."
Church rolled his eyes as the three Blue soldiers clambered up to the top of the ravine, each grabbing their respective gear as Tucker automatically helped Caboose cinch his pack around his torso. "You keep bringing up the fact they’re gay – I think you’re secretly happy that someone around here finally took an interest in your scrawny ass." He smirked as the turquoise chupadore offered him a dark glare. "You can always head back if you want, I think that one wolf-thing with all the piercings would happily make you his bitch for the night."
"Fuck right off, dude! You can go eat a fat dick! Besides, if I left your werewolf ass alone with Caboose, you’d go crazy after ten minutes of trying to take care of him yourself, so you better beg my straight-as-hell ass not to leave," Tucker threatened as Caboose looked between them with widened eyes.
"Are you guys going to have a divorce? Because I do not want to be cut in half for custard."
Church slapped a hand over his features. "It’s called ‘split custody’, Caboose. And no, we’re not getting a divorce…"
"You should probably start by saying we aren’t married, retard," Tucker interrupted before shoving past the other two and scowling toward the forest. "C’mon. Let’s find a campsite before I have to kick both your stupid asses."
Caboose happily scampered forward after the slender chupadore, leaving Church behind to grumble under his breath for a moment. He shook his head slowly before wordlessly securing the massive rifle on his back and lumbering after his two compatriots. He had zero clue of what he was getting his team into, but at this point it seemed silly to turn back. And now, more than ever, he wanted answers. He felt almost guilty for getting Tucker and Caboose caught up in this sudden quest of his…but at the same time, he would have felt guiltier still leaving them behind. This stupid war feels so pointless most of the time, now more than ever…even if this is punishable by death, better than wasting our lives in that stupid canyon forever…
"Looks like the sun’s on its way down," Lone remarked as the group of five exited the main entrance of the base. He shaded his eyes with one hand, peering up at the sky to note the odd sight of the sinking sun despite the visible curvature of the ring-shaped world. "How the hell does that work?"
"Oh great job, asshole, make way for the nerd-talk," Grif grumbled, holding his rifle lazily against one shoulder.
Simmons frowned at his paunchy companion but seemed eager to answer all the same. "Well, that’s actually an interesting question…see, there’s a ‘working day’, and then a ‘solar day’. Due to the fact that Sirca itself is actually a satellite of that big planet you see out there…" He paused and gestured at the red mass that took up much of the eastern sky – the wolves hadn’t really noticed before, but the distant sun was actually falling not behind the shadow of the ring-world itself, but behind the rim of the nearby planet. "…which we call ‘Nerom’, and the fact that our orbit around it isn’t lined up with the position of the sun…well, we have about 120 hours of sunlight, followed by 50 hours of darkness."
"That sounds ridiculous," Mahihko replied, tilting his head slightly. "Goddamn, have you dudes like…mastered the art of micro-comas? Because that’d be a long-ass sleep every day."
"Well, that’s why we have two ‘day’ definitions, so to speak," Simmons responded. "Even though the solar day is something around 170 hours long, we use a 28-hour cycle for our ‘working day’. The average chupadore spends about ten hours being active, followed by a sleeping period."
"Wow, sleeping twice a day? That’s gotta be…well…pretty damn relaxing, I imagine," Lone commented.
"It really should be three or four times a day, that would probably be healthiest," Grif supplied, which was met by a shaken fist from his commander.
"Your lumpy butt doesn’t need any more naps!" Sarge uttered. "If I had my way, we’d all sleep for just an hour or two every day – in shifts! – so there’s no chance of those doggone Blues sneaking up on us."
"That also sounds ridiculous," repeated the smaller lupine with an amused smile. "Where we come from, our solar cycle is twenty-four hours. The amount of sunlight and nighttime changes by season and your location on the planet…but I guess that would make sense, considering that we come from an actual spherical planet, whereas you guys live here on this…well. This ring. So I guess there would be differences ‘cause…you know…that’s just physics."
"Livin’ on a got-damn planet…now that sounds like some real hooey," Sarge grumbled as he led the group toward the middle of the canyon, his eyes narrowed cautiously. "How do you stop yourselves from flyin’ off the edges, standin’ on the outside like a buncha weirdos?"
"Well, sir, that’s actually not how centripetal force wor--" Simmons began, though he was cut off by Mahihko’s interjection.
"Magic! We use magic! Because we’re freakin’ awesome!" the feminine wolf insisted as he waved his arms wildly, flashing a toothy grin while his companion groaned and rubbed slowly at his muzzle.
Sarge squinted suspiciously, then grunted and shrugged. "Ah well, I suppose that’s why I ain’t no silly scientist; Omega put me on this beautiful ring to lead the Red Army to a glorious, bloody victory over them dirty Blue bastards, ain’t no magic or science needed to get THAT done."
Lone frowned somewhat, only half-listening to the sergeant’s rambling as the gears in his brain whirred in thought. "So…if the sun’s setting, but nighttime lasts so long…I’m guessing that doesn’t mean much in terms of whether or not you guys decide to get something done, or – assuming these Blue guys have really left – start chasing after them, right?"
"Yer darn tootin’!" Sarge exclaimed, even as he wrinkled his muzzle. "But…well, gotta say – it is about time to have a quick snooze. There’s no point gettin’ wheels on the dirt if we got tired eyes. And you can bet your sassafras those good-fer-nothin’ Blues ain’t gonna skip sleepin’, neither…those bastards might be crafty, but they ain’t got half the steel us Red boys do!"
"Naturally," Mahihko said in a reassuring voice that wasn’t altogether convincing, a small smile tugging at his lips. Their cautious trek across the box canyon had so far not sparked any response from the opposing base, which admittedly made the two wolves somewhat relieved. They were still trying to wrap their heads around the concept of a world that was defined to its very core by a recurring, decades-old holy war that pitted an entire species against one another. And while he knew it would be a terrible idea to bring it up aloud, Mahihko couldn’t help but marvel that – so far – the so-called ‘chupadores’ on either side bore plenty of resemblance to each other. With the exception of Sarge’s virulent military fanaticism, there were no real earth-shattering differences between the soldiers they’d met. Their brief time on either side had already shown that most of them seemed indifferent to the fighting as it was.
Mahihko knew enough to avoid having some wild belief that they could magically put an end to the fighting thanks to the similar spirits these creatures all shared – this was no fairy tale, after all. But all the same, it was becoming more and more clear to him that the idea of banding together against a common enemy, well…that might be possible. And for all we know, it might be necessary…
"Hey, you grimy Blue bastards!" Sarge suddenly shouted as they approached the front of the base, his shotgun hefted to a ready position. Simmons grimaced and lifted his own battle rifle in response, while Grif sighed and shifted his weight from paw to paw, half-heartedly gripping the front of his weapon to at least hold it in both hands. "You ain’t tried to fire on us yet, so either you’re hidin’ in there like some scared little rabbits, or you tucked yer low-down, cheatin’ tails between yer legs and ran off to meet up with more of yer cobalt kind!"
Only silence met the sergeant’s brash tone as he and Simmons remained tense with weapons ready, while Grif continued to look bored. The two wolves glanced at each other before Lone nodded once and cleared his throat softly. "Uh, if you guys want…I can go take a look inside. Maybe they won’t shoot if they’re still there, since…you know. They already met us and stuff. And I guess decided we weren’t Red, or whatever."
Sarge grunted, his expression wary as he looked over the taller lupine for a moment. "Suppose you may have a point, son. But I’d rather send in Grif; you might still be useful to us, after all."
The orange chupadore rolled his eyes, but was cut off by Mahihko before he could drawl a response. "Oh boy – guys, looks like a body over on this side," the slender wolf announced as he gestured toward a dark lump in the shadow of the concrete structure. "Doesn’t look like…one of you, though."
"Could be a booby trap!" Sarge called out immediately as he glared in the direction of the unmoving mass. "Grif, go check it out! Poke it with a regulation stick and see what happens."
"You can regulation stick that right up your ass," the chubby soldier grumbled under his breath, even as he nervously approached the shape. Mahihko gamely moved closer as well, his well-concealed pistol materializing in one hand. Grif shot him a cagey look, but the smaller male’s eyes remained locked onto the limp form before them.
"I ain’t gonna shoot ya," Mahihko murmured, barely loud enough for the chupadore to hear. "Just keepin’ you covered. But I’m pretty sure this guy’s dead, and I’m also pretty sure he ain’t no booby trap."
Grif’s eyes traced over the strange creature when he was close enough to examine it in more detail. Unlike the wolves, the horses or even the demon, this odd being bore almost no resemblance to any sort of known animal. The lack of a muzzle and tail alone was enough to make the confused chupadore frown immensely as a thousand unexpected questions began to drift through his mind.
"Well?!" Sarge barked from behind them, making Grif jump and snap out of his daze. "Is it one of them Blues?"
"No, it’s…something else," Grif replied slowly before the orange-hued soldier twitched backward with a disgusted scowl. "Oh, what the fuck, its arm got blown right the fuck off, it’s over there on the ground next to it!" He pointed at the severed limb with a shake of his head, taking a step back. "What the hell is going on here?"
"My guess is someone managed to follow the tail-end of our dimensional rift," Lone offered, carefully stepping past Grif to join his companion, who had dropped down to one knee to examine the body more carefully. "Is that…a Post-It note on its face?"
"Well that’s helpful," Mahihko replied amusedly, gingerly plucking the sky-blue square of paper from the strange creature’s face and holding it up for Lone to see as his own eyes traced over it quickly.
"He spelled ‘weird’ wrong," the larger wolf muttered, pursing his lips and then prodding lightly at the corpse with a paw. "Yeah, so looks like this thing came out of a tunnel like the one we came through. Looks like the Blue guys got him before he could do anything, though."
"That sounds unlikely! Considerin’ how long this useless sack of orange laziness has survived around these Blues, I highly doubt they have the chops to kill anything at all!" Sarge declared as he finally stomped over with Simmons at his side. The veteran soldier nonetheless gave a low whistle at the sight of the corpse, glancing around for a moment after noting the angle of its neck.
"Looks like it probably fell off the roof, maybe after they…you know, shot its arm off," Simmons offered with a frown. "Broke its neck coming down. But what the hell IS it? It’s…it’s another alien, but…where is its mouth? How come it doesn’t have any fur or a tail, or..."
"For once, the space-dogs do not have an answer," Mahihko interrupted, though his tone was unexpectedly low. "We been chased by all manner of cops, soldiers, mercs and plain ol’ thugs, from all corners of the globe…and a couple that weren’t even from our world. And this thing is definitely wearing armor, and that’s definitely military-grade gear. But we ain’t never seen a species like this. It’s…smooth, but not like a reptile at all." He paused and then added with a finger raised: "Honestly, it’s pretty fuckin’ ugly. I’ve slept with some questionable dudes, but woof. This thing just looks…weird."
"Oh, and is that your professional opinion?" Grif replied mildly. "What the fuck is it doing here?"
"Dunno," Mahihko replied honestly, shrugging slowly as he let his fingers deftly run along the creature’s lightweight armor, automatically checking each pouch and pocket and setting aside anything he found. "Like Lone said, this…thing either managed to hop in after us – I got no idea how long the gateway stays open, or…y’know, how it even works."
"But you’ve never seen something like this?" Simmons inquired worriedly. "How did you not see it if it followed you?"
This time Lone offered a slow shrug, bending over to pick up the pistol that didn’t look all that unfamiliar to his eyes. "Let’s be honest…we had a lot of guys on us when we used the crystals to follow Graceful and his crew. It’s possible we missed seein’ this weird…dude. I think it’s a dude. The body armor is somewhat masculine…it looks honestly pretty similar to other modern bulletproof tactical get-ups I’ve seen." He examined the handgun, finding it surprisingly akin to any number of other firearms he’d used himself. "His gun ain’t anythin’ special, either…so wherever he’s from, they got some of the same shit we do." The muscular lupine ran his thumb along the slide of the pistol before depressing a small button, which ejected the clip as he’d half-expected it to do. A quick glance at the ammunition and he was even more convinced that the origin of this strange creature and its gear was yet another dimension with remarkable similarities to their own. "Bullets aren’t all that strange, either…look like blue-tips to me."
"Armor-piercing rounds," Mahihko supplemented politely with a small smile. "Forty-fives, if my gorgeous eyes don’t deceive me."
Simmons looked torn between a looming sense of dread and a peculiar fascination. "So…so what if they didn’t follow you in? Is it possible they…made their own tear, or whatever?"
"Sure, anything’s possible," the smaller lupine reasoned, snagging the headset and attached radio device from the corpse and tucking them into a slim pouch strapped to his thigh. "I mean, they must be exploring some means of traveling between dimensions, because either they somehow got to ours – and it’s possible they followed Graceful, Riffraff and Amdusias when they first appeared in our world – or they got a temporary portal of their own open long enough to end up…well. Here."
"This gobbledegook is startin’ to hurt my head," Sarge grumbled, finally lowering his shotgun with a deep frown. "We ain’t here to look at dismembered aliens, we’re here to take down some got-dang Blues and stop ‘em from attempting a comeback against our brothers in Red!" He scowled as he glared toward the entrance of the base. "I ain’t smelled a single Blue hair since we got here, which means they really did turn tail and run!"
"Can’t we just go in there, grab the flag, and take over this stupid canyon?" Grif asked drolly. "Aren’t those the stupid rules of this dumb war?"
"Well sure you could! But there’s no dang honor in that, now, is there?" the sergeant shot back. "Get in there, make sure them Blue boys are really gone…and if they are, then we’ll get some quick shut-eye, pack up, find a trail and hunt those cowards down!"
"I got like…five percent of that," Grif drawled even as he slouched toward the entranceway. "I liked the part about sleeping, anyway," he muttered while warily wandering forward, glancing from side to side with his rifle held in front of him.
"Sir, shouldn’t I…go with him, just in case there’s still someone inside?" Simmons asked nervously.
"Nope. We’ll know someone’s there if he gets shot," the eldest soldier replied calmly before grunting and gesturing to the side of the base with his weapon. "Simmons, go check the perimeter. Look for any signs of trickery and worminess, it’s how you can always spot a Blue! And I’ll take these fuzzy boys up to the roof, see if we can spot anything there."
Simmons almost began to ask how, precisely, he was supposed to search for that, but he decided against it and instead sighed. "Yes, sir…"
Sarge grunted and nodded approvingly as he jerked his head toward the ramp to the roof. "C’mon, you two. Ain’t ready to let you strangers outta my sights yet."
Lone and Mahihko shared a quick look but nodded amicably, the larger wolf shoving his hands into his pockets and sauntering forward to take the lead. Mahihko trotted after him, fairly certain at this point that Sarge wouldn’t shoot them in the back. Not unless we do somethin’…Blue-like. He gave a small smile as he let his paws lead him to the edge of the roof, shading his eyes in the slowly fading light of the setting sun. "So, Sarge…why do you do it?"
"Why do I do what, ya dang confusing alien?" Sarge retorted, though the expression on his features showed clearly that he understood exactly what the feminine male was asking. "We were put on this Omega-given ring to fight for the honor of our army! Whoever wins the Holy War gets all the glory, boys…ain’t nothin’ a proud chupa should want more than the distinction of bein’ named Omega’s favored team!"
Lone smiled despite himself, gazing over the quiet canyon floor and examining what he could see of the surrounding forest. "For all your bluster, Sarge…I can’t imagine you’re actually that…er, don’t take this the wrong way, but…colorblind?"
The grizzled soldier snorted, glowering at the taller of the two wolves for a moment before growling softly: "Red Army’s my life, son. This is what I know. And this is what I do. You ain’t gonna come ‘round here from your fancy world tryin’ to tell us how to do things."
"We don’t intend to," Mahihko interjected gently as he idly tossed one of the bullets from the dead creature’s gun between his hands. "We ain’t here to be crusaders. Hell, we didn’t even plan on being here in the first place, this was all an accident, to say the least. But…like it or not, sir, things around here might…be taking a bit of a turn away from the way you’re used to."
Sarge stared stonily at the distant tree line, gripping his shotgun tightly but silently. The two wolves turned their gazes to him but kept quiet, giving the chupadore a moment to respond. "You boys brought a real mess with you, didn’t ya?" he finally rumbled, shifting his weight almost uncomfortably and displaying an uncharacteristic lack of confidence for a few seconds. "We in for a fight?" he asked gruffly, glancing between the lupines.
"That’s very likely," Lone admitted, somewhat surprised when Sarge grinned slowly. "What?"
"You confangled aliens might have done nothin’ but cause trouble so far…but one thing I know how to do is handle a tussle," the deep-red chupadore replied with a low chuckle. "But just so you two know…’til somethin’ else presents its ugly face for me to shoot, me and my boys are gonna keep goin’ after the Blues. You come along if you want, but you get in our way, and it don’t matter how friendly you and yours’ve been…I’m gonna go through you, and I’m gonna tell my soldiers to do the same."
"Understood," Mahihko responded softly. Lone opened his muzzle to try and make some argument, but the smaller male cut him off: "Lone, c’mon. You’re the one talkin’ about your Prime Detective nonsense. We ain’t here to change hearts and minds." He met his companion’s eyes, giving one, slow nod that conveyed enough of a message to Lone that the tall wolf finally nodded back with a grumble.
"Good," Sarge grunted before glancing over the edge of the roof when Grif emerged from the base, visibly unscathed. "Grif! I don’t see no blood, much to my disappointment…what’d you find in there?"
"The pantries were all empty," Grif replied moodily, holding up an empty cardboard box labeled for some generic type of snack cake. "There was some weird green stuff in the kitchen, it didn’t look edible."
"Are you…are you talking about vegetables?" Simmons asked incredulously. The blank look on the orange chupa’s face made Simmons groan and shake his head before he looked up at the sergeant as well. "Well, the only thing I found out here was, er…we..…it…looks like a garden plot. Except someone buried snack wrappers instead of…you know. Seeds or anything. I’m not sure what idiot was--"
Sarge’s eyes widened slightly. "Great green ghosts! It can’t be! Were these sneaky bastards trying to grow…snack bushes?! I thought that sorta rubbish was just a myth!"
Simmons barely restrained his groan as the two wolves looked between one another amusedly, Mahihko covering his muzzle to try and hide his giggling. "Sir, no…sir, I don’t…I don’t think that’s how it works--"
"Son, just think how dangerous these cerulean cowards would be if they made sustainable food? They wouldn’t need to wait for supply drops! They could fill those drops with more guns, and more bullets! Gat-dangit, Simmons, this is just the sort of thing those dirty Blues would come up with! Usin’ that unholy science to cheat their way to victory!" Sarge spun around and stormed down the ramp with the entertained wolves at his rear. "We’re gonna have to chase down those bastards more now than ever! Back to the base – no time to waste! We gotta eat and catch a quick nap so we can start trackin’ these azure animals, cut ‘em off before they can spread their tree-huggin’ secrets!"
"Wow, sir," Grif replied sarcastically, dropping the empty box carelessly and wandering after the sergeant as Simmons sighed and fell in after him. "You know, I never realized just how dangerous our enemies were now that they can grow food out of plastic wrappers."
"That’s why you’re soft, Grif!" Sarge barked over a shoulder without looking back, his eyes locked forward as he marched toward their base with determination in every step. "You always underestimate the enemy!"
"Please stop encouraging him," Simmons mumbled under his breath, receiving a smirk from his companion.
"Actually, Simmons, I think Sarge is onto something," he replied coolly. "After all, he did just give us an order to eat and sleep. I plan on doing exactly what our commanding officer says."
"Sometimes I almost envy how stupid and simple your goals in life are," the taller soldier muttered before frowning as Mahihko strolled up to his side. "Did you guys see any sign of them up there?"
"Nah, not really. My guess is they headed for the woods nearest their base, though. It’s what I woulda done, anyway," reasoned the slender lupine as he held up the smooth-skinned creature’s bullet to one eye, examining it through a squint while adding quietly: "For all his bravado, your Sarge is a solid motherfucker. He and Grif might forever be at odds, and you might forever look like the teacher’s pet…but I gotta say all the same, I think you guys are lucky to have him. He’s…maybe a little radical, but I’m startin’ to feel like that’s just how things are here. And if nothing else, he’s gonna have your backs no matter what comes your way."
Simmons grimaced uncomfortably – Mahihko’s words rang true, as awkward as it was to hear them from a strange alien creature he’d met just a few hours prior. "Yeah, I suppose. Are…you guys gonna…come with us, or…what about the horse guys?"
Mahihko gave a small smile once more. "I think at least one of us will. If we can find a good way to stay in touch, it might be best to split up for now, anyway. We don’t know how long we’re stuck here, and maybe you guys could use an extra pair of eyes, too. Promise I won’t send the scary little detective pony with you, though. Even I’m not that mean." He paused, then rubbed the back of his neck slowly with a glance over his shoulder at the still-visible form of the odd alien corpse. "Besides…might be a good idea to keep a little extra firepower around here while your little hunting party is out. If we ain’t got a destination ourselves, it’s probably better we stick close to the place we all showed up."
Simmons was sensible enough to draw on the feminine male’s hidden meaning as he scowled and flexed his claws against the battle rifle still gripped to his chest. "You’re also wanting to know if any other…weird things show up, aren’t you?" He sighed again and idly shifted his gaze toward Grif and Lone in time to see the all-white lupine snatch a magazine that had been folded into the back of the orange chupadore’s armor.
"Dude, did you steal this from their base? That Tucker guy’s gonna be so pissed, he very specifically said not to touch his stuff. And I’m one-hundred percent positive this is his, based on the small amount of time I spent around him."
"Yeah, well…he wussed out and ran away, which makes us the winners." Grif grabbed the porno mag back and shoved it once more into his waistband with a disdainful sniff. "Like they always say, to the victors goes another man’s trash. Or something like that."
Simmons muttered a few choice words under his breath before looking at Mahihko dourly. "You fuckers are really starting to make me wish we were back to the boring old routine around here…"
Red vs Blue © Rooster Teeth. Halo © 343 Industries. Concept by Myshu, assisted by The Department of Chupapology.
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