Bacheo wasn’t sure how much time had passed. His whole body ached with a dull pain and his ears were still ringing from the blast of his grenade as he slowly sat up and took in the state of his surroundings. The air was thick with dust and smoke, and the rest of the recruits were nowhere in sight.
He slowly got to his feet and coughed. Despite a few burns and scratches, there didn’t seem to be any serious injuries to his body. As his wits returned to him, Bacheo remembered Xyozara and turned his head to look back towards the clearing only to be surprised by what he saw.
The force of the explosion had caused the entire clearing to cave in, leaving a gaping hole in the ground. Xyozara was nowhere in sight, but Bacheo noticed another figure standing at the edge of the hole, staring into it as if at a loss for words. He immediately recognized Elias’ stupidly huge body, and the events leading up to the explosion suddenly came flooding back into his memory.
Jonah and Reima had attacked the beast with no hesitation while he had just stood there and it pissed him off. He had just watch as Anthony bled to death right in front of him, while his comrades had put their lives on the line to defend him, and now he had no idea where they were or if they were even alive.
“Pathetic…” he growled, his legs collapsing from beneath him as he fell to his knees once more. “Since when have I become such a useless piece of shit?” He continued to sit there trembling with guilt and rage when Rylo’s voice sounded from somewhere behind him.
“Hey! I found them! Bacheo and Elias are over here!” he shouted. A few moments later, Bacheo heard the sound of horses’ hooves approaching and Rylo appeared at his side. “Hey! Are you ok? Anything broken?” the blue-eyed soldier asked him.
“Hey, there’s something over there, too!” Jinnai’s voice said.
“It’s Jonah!” Nova shouted. “He’s still breathing!”
As she spoke, Bacheo saw Mel race past him over to where Elias stood near the hole in the ground. “Elias! What happened?” he asked.
Elias didn’t look at him. His usually small, dark eyes were wide open and held a somewhat crazed expression that stopped Mel dead in his tracks. “Elias…?” he said again, with caution this time.
The two words were barely above a whisper, but Bacheo managed to pick up on what Elias was saying and sighed. Not only had they lost their squad leader, but Reima too.
“He’s losing so much blood… I don’t know what to do!” Nova cried. Her hands shook as she struggled to wrap Jonah’s shoulder in bandages.
“Hey! Hey! Bacheo! Talk to me, man! Can you hear me!? Where does it hurt!? Do you need mouth-to-mouth!? How many dicks does a turkey have!?” Rylo continued to ramble to the point of nonsense and jumped around wildly in an attempt to get a reaction from his comrade but Bacheo just ignored him. With a deep breath, he pushed Rylo away and stood up and turning towards Jinnai, Izo, and Loca, who were all sat on their horses a few feet away.
“How many horses do we have left?” he asked, his voice unusually calm.
Jinnai blinked at him, unsure of what to think about this sudden change in demeanor. “Six,” she replied. “About half of them bolted during the chaos.”
Bacheo nodded and turned towards Nova, who had managed to make a tourniquet for Jonah using her jacket. “Obviously Scarface can’t ride on his own in that condition, so I want you to double up with him. The four smallest will also double up, so Arun, you’re with Twiggy, and Chestnut is with Holt. The mission was a failure. We’re going back to Gederah.”
“What!?” Elias, who hadn’t moved a muscle the entire time, suddenly whirled around to face Bacheo with that mad look still in his eye. He took about five steps forward and easily lifted Bacheo off the ground by the collar and slammed him into a nearby tree. “You bastard! We’re NOT leaving her!” he bellowed.
Bacheo grunted and grabbed hold of Elias’ wrist before glaring back at him. “Listen here, you damn brute,” he snarled, curling his lip in a defiant snarl. “We don’t have time for your righteous hero bullshit! We’ve lost our captain and half our horses; if we don’t get out of here we’ll all die! Is that what you want!?”
Elias’ eyes blazed furiously. “I don’t give a flying fuck what happens to you! This is YOUR fault! If you hadn’t thrown that fucking grenade, Reima would still be beside us!” he shouted.
“If I hadn’t thrown that grenade, all of us would have been slaughtered by that monstrosity! One life verses all of our lives… anyone with their head screwed on right should know which of those is more important!” Bacheo snarled.
“You sick FUCK!” Elias spat. He turned on his heel and dragged Bacheo by the collar and held him over the gaping hole in the ground. “I’ll kill you!”
“Elias, stop!” Mel rushed forward and grabbed Elias’ outstretched arm. “Look at how irrational you’re being! Is this what Reima would have wanted?”
Elias froze, his eyes flicking toward Mel thoughtfully. Reima’s voice echoed throughout his head as he stared into the boy’s big blue eyes.
‘You have to keep to your end of the promise…’
With one swift motion, Elias roughly threw Bacheo back behind him and stormed away from the hole. “DAMMIT!” he shouted, leaving Bacheo shaking on the ground.
Brushing off the lingering terror of seeing his life flash before his eyes, Bacheo stood and mounted one of the remaining horses… more specifically, Anthony’s horse. Taking the lead, he led the group of defeated soldiers back towards Gederah. Little did they know that at the bottom of that sinkhole, about twenty feet below earth’s surface, Reima was very much alive, and in quite the predicament. She stirred slightly as she slowly regained consciousness.
“Ugh… What just happened?” she groaned painfully as she cracked her eyes open. The ground she was laying on was wet and sticky, but at the same time strangely warm and soft. Reima thought she felt it moving slightly, but when she moved to sit up, she found herself rolling off some kind of round surface and onto the cold hard ground.
Ow… That was the last thing I needed to have happen to me today, she thought as she carefully tried sitting up again, thankful that the ground seemed to be cooperating the second time around.
Right, first things first… where the heck am I?
Looking up, she could see the moon high in the sky above her. Glancing around, she realized that she had fallen into some kind of underground cave with a line of small torches jutting out of the walls.
Weird… How can there be lit torches down here?
Reima reached out to inspect one of the torches when she noticed her hand was covered in blood. Startled, she looked down to see that her entire front was coated with it. For a moment, she started to panic, but soon came to the realization that the blood wasn’t hers.
Looking back up, she saw Xyozara dangling upside-down just a few feet away. She had landed on a large stalagmite rock, and the sharp tip had pierced her back and gone straight through her chest. The deep wound on her neck from Elias’ axe had torn even more so that her head was barely attached to her neck.
Reima realized that she must have landed on the animal’s stomach, and that her fleshy body had cushioned her fall and saved her life. Reima cautiously stepped toward the corpse and inspected it curiously. Looking at the sharp fangs and pointed claws, she couldn’t believe this was the same gentle mare that had left Gederah with her. Suddenly, she heard a low gurgling noise and looked down to see Xyozara’s eye staring directly at her, blinking as her limbs twitched in a feeble attempt to move.
“Oh, hell no!” said Reima, jumping away in disgust. “Nononononononono NO! That is NOT normal! How the hell is are you still alive!?”
She scrambled backwards as Xyozara continued to snarl and struggle. Reima saw the stalagmite begin to crack under the beast’s weight and she whipped around and began sprinting down the cave.
Reima ran nonstop for almost an hour before she reached a small shallow underground pool. Dropping to her knees, she cupped the water in her hands and drank greedily. As the cool liquid slid down her throat, she noticed a difference in the cave walls from before. Unlike the earthy clay material from before, these caves were carved from pure limestone. Sarge’s voice echoed in her head.
‘That land rich with precious limestone now belongs to the ghouls.’
Reima realized that the tunnels must have led her to the mountains, and that it was likely that Uramao was nearby. If that were the case, then it was possible that the rest of her squad was there as well. If she a way to get above ground, she might be able to find them. As Reima sat in the water pondering this, a small movement on the wall caught her attention and she froze, holding her breath as she locked eyes with a ghoul resembling a strange black lizard creature with glowing red eyes.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, she thought as she reached for the knife she kept in her belt. Upon finding the sheath empty, she began to panic and turned back towards the ghoul. It didn’t appear to be aggressive, but Reima knew better than to turn her back on it. Ghouls were dangerous, no matter the size. It was one of the first things she had been taught during basic training, and after seeing how one of similar size snap a horse’s leg like a twig, she wasn’t about to take a chance on this one.
Though everything inside her screamed to slip away as quietly as she could, panic (and possible straight up hunger) overtook the young soldier and she began rambling to the ghoul like it was a human capable of reasoning.
“Look man, I don’t want any trouble. You’re small and kinda dumb looking, and I’m lost as hell and haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours. We’re both at a disadvantage here, so how about you just chill out over there and I’ll be on my way, ok? Ok…” Reima said to the creature, which tilted its head questioningly and blinked at her while making a soft cooing sound. She was sure it was judging her, probably thinking how someone could be so stupid, and Reima mentally slapped herself.
What are you doing, dumbass? Even if it’s small and derpy looking, a ghoul is still a ghoul. Stop talking to it like a confused stoner! Reima thought to herself as she slowly waded through the water while never taking her eyes off the ghoul. Just when she felt sure the ghoul wasn’t interested in her, it hissed loudly and frilled out it’s neck before leaping from it’s spot on the wall and flying at Reima with jet-black teeth bared.
“NO! Piss off, you creepy little twat!” she shouted as the ghoul bit down on her arm. Pain shot through Reima’s body as she shook her arm violently and punched it on the head.
“GET OFF!!!” she shrieked again. She tried grabbing it by the tail and yanking as hard as she could, but the ghoul’s teeth sank deeper into her skin and refused to let go.
After several minutes of struggling, the ghoul suddenly let out an agonized screech and released its hold on Reima’s arm. Cradling her arm, Reima looked up and felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight before her.
Towering over her was a tall figure unlike anyone Reima had ever seen. He was tall and slender, appeared to be in his mid twenties, and was wearing a sleeveless black denim vest with a plain black tank underneath, tall leather boots, and black skinny jeans. He had pale, flawless looking skin with a sharp jaw and cheekbones that caused accented shadows and made his face look angular. His jet-black hair fell freely around his face and his eyes were an icy blue that pinned Reima to the spot. His arms and face were streaked with black paint, making his eyes pop and giving him an intimidating aura and adding to his roguish appearance. To put simply, the man was gorgeous, albeit terrifying.
As if his physical features weren’t already enough of a shock, his hand which now held the ghoul was engulfed in flame. The ghoul’s skull was literally on fire as it writhed around in terror, and the man quickly chucked it down the tunnel with one swift motion, leaving a trail of smoke in its path.
Dumbfounded, Reima stared at the man in awe as he inspected his hand for a moment before turning to glare at her.
“Um… Thanks for that…” she said awkwardly after a few seconds of silence before cringing at the pain that flowed through her arm. The stranger’s eyes flicked to the wound and he reached into a small sack he had been carrying and pulled out a roll of bandages and a bottle of clear liquid that he poured onto Reima’s injury before she had a chance to react.
“AAUGH! What the fuck!?” Reima cried out as the liquid burned against the punctures left by the ghoul’s fangs. The strange man then skillfully wrapped her arm in the bandages before stuffing them back into the bag along with the bottle.
Though her arm still stung, Reima could tell that whatever he’d poured on her was working away at disinfecting the wounds. “A little warning would have been nice, but… thanks, I guess,” she grumbled.
The man said nothing as he turned and started making his way through the caves without so much as a glance back at Reima. Puzzled by his behavior, she stood up and followed after him.
“I’m Reima,” she said, trying to keep up with his long stride. “Who are you?”
No answer. They walked in silence for a little while longer, and Reima noticed the tunnels slowly shrinking until finally the man pushed upward on the roof and crawled out a small hole above them. To Reima’s surprise, a beam of light shone in from above, indicating it was now daytime. She followed the stranger outside and looked around.
The tunnels had acted as an underground bypass through the mountains, and unlike the lush forest from before, exited into the start of a vast desert leading away from the mountains. Reima watched as the stranger ventured into the endless badlands, further and further away from any known human territory, be it Gederah or one of the several Guilds that inhabited the surrounding area. Puzzled, she continued to trail him.
“Where did you come from?” she tried asking him again. “You seem to really know your way around this area. Are you by yourself? Do you have a Guild nearby? I’ve never heard of anything like that around here… er, wherever here even is. To be completely honest, I have no idea where we are…”
Still nothing. Reima was starting to get agitated.
“Listen, I’m a soldier in Gederah’s Vanguard. I was travelling with a group but we got split up last night. Do you have any idea where they might be?” Reima asked, getting fed up with the silent treatment. Still, the man refused to answer or even acknowledge that she was even there. “Why won’t you say anything…?”
Without warning, the stranger whipped around with a knife in hand and held the blade against Reima’s throat threateningly.