Kestyn jumped backwards, stumbling over a log behind him, as a tail struck down at him.
“What are you doing?” Xev shouted, somewhere next to him. “Get out of there!”
He looked up, finding his body frozen in place and eyes wide in shock as he caught sight of the other man holding back a snake-like creature.
“Move!” Xev shouted, startling him back into reality.
“What is that?” He stammered, stumbling backward and out of the creature’s immediate attack range.
“Pull back!” Xev ordered, as the other men rushed to flank him. “I’ll explain later.”
Before he could ask further, Xev and the other men charged at the creature. A soft glow radiated off Xev’s weapon as the man approached the creature, which under closer inspection, looked nothing like a snake. Though it was long and lacked any obvious appendages, its segmented body also lacked any obvious scales. Its brown body was a thing of nightmares, especially considering that it had no obvious face.
Thunk. He felt his back hit a hard surface. Turning back, he realized that he had been subconsciously walking backward. Returning his attention to the scene of combat, he caught himself staring not at the creature, but at Xev. Suddenly, he understood why the superiors valued the other man so much. Xev didn’t so much as waver in face of the surprise attack. Beyond that, it became clear that the man was somehow still leading and directing the assault. How could someone be so unfazed in combat? How could someone think so clearly while sustaining constant attack?
Then he noticed something about the entire group. Something that he lacked. Experience. Real combat experience. Besides collaboration, each of the men fought with adaptability that he couldn’t dream of. His goals of becoming someone as capable as Xev had never felt further away. The smoothness of their collaboration easily made up for whatever each of them lacked in personal skill. From the ingenuity of their tactics to the way each of them could continue threatening the strange creature’s control with the simplest movements, each aspect of their fight only highlighted how much of a novice that he was in these matters.
Perhaps he was wrong about Xev. Perhaps the other man wasn’t openly disregarding lives, as he had assumed. Perhaps, Xev hadn’t been trying to lead the other soldiers to their deaths. He’d significantly underestimated the abilities of each of the soldiers. Xev’s personal skill was no exception. Silently, he watched as the other man expertly wielded his still glowing blade against the decidedly slimy creature, making quick slashes at each opening. Soon, the forest ground was covered in slimy liquid that he’d describe as blood if it weren’t from the strange color and smell, and the previously threatening creature fell to a series of gashes that covered its elongated body.
“Good work!” He heard Xev say to the other men as he carefully flung the gunk left on his blade off at the ground, an action that he noted others imitating, before sheathing their own weapons.
Snapping out of his daze, he started to turn to leave, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“I won’t stop you from leaving as long as I’m sure of one thing.” Xev said from behind him. “Answer me honestly, did it touch you?”
“What?” He asked. Why would he be paying any attention to that? Then he thought back toward the creature. His eyes flicked toward the carcass behind Xev that the other men made a point at avoiding. There was no doubting it. That was a worm. “Is that…?” .
“Yes.” Xev answered. “Now answer the question.”
“It didn’t bite me, sir.” He replied. Everyone knew that when It came to petrification worms, it was critical to avoid being bitten. A petrification infection was fatal, even if it started minor. At least they were, until Xev had somehow miraculously survived from one.
“That’s not what I asked.” Xev responded. “Did it touch you or not?”
“I …” He started. He hadn’t been paying attention to that sort of thing. He shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“Yes or no?” Xev insisted, without letting go.
“I don’t think so.” He said after a brief pause.
Why did it matter anyway?
“I can understand your reluctance to participate in this mission and won’t force you to stay.” Xev answered in a softer tone, visibly relaxing. The man took his hand, and pressed an amulet into it. “With this at hand, the others in the camp will know that you left with my permission. You can also take whatever else you might need from my pack, before you leave. But, after that last encounter, I’d suggest that you go directly back to the camp and avoid any unnecessary stops.”
Hesitating, he took the amulet. Quickly studying it, he pocketed it and turned to leave. A nagging feeling had him turning around and watching Xev, as the man ran to join the others.
“I’ll stay.” He suddenly declared, voicing his decision aloud.
There was something about Xev’s attitude and the way the creature failed to surprise the other men that had him feeling like he’d somehow missed an important memo. His gut told him that, whatever it was, it was important enough that it would be wiser to stay.