The top floor of the Red Saloon turned out to be in much better condition than Reima was expecting. Shergar had converted the old loft into a comfortable living space complete with a bed, couch, and even a cute little coffee table that was in surprisingly good shape. Reima immediately felt much more relaxed in the homey setup and settled down on the couch for some much needed rest.
Strange as he was, Shergar proved to be a kind and polite host, and Reima found it refreshing after the ordeal with the three guards. Shergar had even gone through the trouble of bringing Reima some food, though she had no idea what it was. Still, she ate the crunchy, spindly looking piece of meat without complaint.
As the sun began to set over the horizon, she suddenly found herself restless again. Shergar seemed to notice this, and sat up from where he was laying on the bed to look at her with concern.
“You… not tired?” he asked. His stuttering had decreased some after he’d calmed down a bit, but his speech patterns were still quite broken. Reima noticed that he would often pause in the middle of his sentences like he genuinely had to think about each word he was saying. “If couch no good… you can… have bed,” he offered.
Reima shook her head. “No, the couch is fine, I just…” she paused, trying to pinpoint exactly what the problem was. “Well, are you sure we’re safe here?” she asked finally. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but this place isn’t exactly shielded.”
Shergar gave a firm nod, seeming surprisingly confident in his answer. “It safe,” he insisted. “Ghouls not… come here,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” Reima asked, raising a brow.
“It safe,” Shergar said again, rolling over in the bed so that his back was facing her. He was apparently done with this conversation, but Reima still wasn’t convinced. Why would the ghouls avoid Felidae? The town was worn down, had zero protection surrounding it, and was laid out in the middle of the desert like an open buffet. In what universe was a place like that safe? No matter how Shergar felt about it, Reima found it difficult to get the rest her body so desperately craved. Arriving at the conclusion that Shergar was as crazy as everyone else in Felidae, she lay awake for the majority of the night; occasionally drifting into consciousness only to have her dreams interrupted with images of ghouls and dismembered corpses. But despite Reima’s concerns, the rest of the night passed by without further incident.
Falon and Kyo arrived at the saloon early the next morning as Reima’s escorts. Both of them were covered in black markings similar to what Kaito was wearing when Reima first met him, though they each had their own distinctive designs. Falon’s was an elegant bird shape down the bridge of her nose with its wings spread out over her eyes. Kyo’s look was a bit more abstract. His arms and face were littered with stripes resembling those of a tiger. Each one was clearly placed with great care, and Reima couldn’t help but wonder how long it took for him to apply it.
“I hope you’re well rested,” Falon said to Reima. “We need to move fast if you want to reach Gederah before nightfall.”
Reima suppressed a yawn that threatened to escape and nodded. Falon was obviously distrustful, but she hadn’t given Reima a reason to resent her. Kyo, however, was a different story. He’d already proven to Reima that he was about as pleasant as making out with a cactus.
Well, I guess he’s better than Omen, Reima thought as she eyed the young male warily.
As if reading her thoughts, Kyo stepped forward with blazing brown eyes. “Don’t think this puts us on good terms, woman!” he snarled. “You can rot in hell for all I care!”
Okay… maybe not…
Reima leaned away from his domineering posture and close proximity, but held his gaze with an equal amount of hostility and confidence. “Likewise,” she seethed. She couldn’t help but smirk at Kyo’s surprised expression. He clearly hadn’t expected her to challenge him, but before he could react, a familiar voice cut through the brisk morning air.
“At ease, Kyo. You won’t have to.”
All three of them turned to see Kaito making his way over to where they stood, his face adorned with the same black flames he’d worn when Reima first saw him.
“The hell do you want?” Kyo snapped.
Kaito’s expression was unreadable as he approached them. “This whole debacle resulted from my actions,” he explained. “I should be the one to see it tended to.”
“Ha! You got that right!”
“Look man, do whatever you want,” Kyo said, ignoring Falon’s scolding tone. “You always have. Hell, I actually respect that about you. But don’t start burdening the rest of us with your own damn turmoil!” With that, he turned his back on the group and pelted down the street without giving anyone a chance to respond.
“He really is a brat…” Falon said as she scowled after him. “Shouting out that kind of bullshit is just…”
“Sorry to burden you like this, Falon…” Kaito said. His voice pulled Falon’s attention back to him.
“What? You’re not actually taking him seriously, are you?” she asked. “Kyo is an idiot. You shouldn’t let him…”
“He’s impulsive and temperamental, but he’s not wrong,” Kaito interrupted.
“Keep an eye on things while I’m out, Falon. I trust you.”
“Kaito!” Falon’s voice was a sharp snap completely different than before. Even when yelling at Kyo, she’d been calm and soft-spoken. Not even the stoic-faced Kaito could mask his surprise as he turned back to look at her. “I’m not going to stop you,” she said, her voice returning to its usual calm tone. “I know I wouldn’t be able to even if I tried. But promise me one thing, Kaito… Promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Even you aren’t invincible.”
Reima felt a twinge in her heart at Falon’s words. In her mind, those words took the form of a different voice. As she followed Kaito out towards the open desert, she found herself reflecting back to three years earlier.
“Idiot… You’re not invincible, you know.”
Reima winced as she allowed Elias to apply an antiseptic to a long cut on her cheek.
“I thought maybe we’d be cool if I offered him a snack,” she said with a shrug. “Oh well. You know what they say: ‘Live and learn’.”
“More like ‘try and die’,” Elias grumbled. “Zaros are weapons. Not pets. Soran designed them to kill anything that moves.”
Reima scoffed. “Then I guess that means he’s not the genius everyone makes him out to be,” she said. “What good is a giant saber-toothed murder machine if it attacks its own handler? Don’t soldiers have enough to worry about without their mounts trying to eat them?”
“Hell if I know,” Elias answered, tossing the medicine soaked rag he had been using to clean Reima’s wound into a nearby bucket. “Not my job to know the details.” He stood up and made his way down the isle of a large barn lined with steel cages and picked up a pole with a slab of meat hooked onto the end. Maneuvering back over towards Reima, he stood about five feet away from one of the cages and stuffed the meaty end of the pole through the bars. A few seconds later there was a loud snap and Elias quickly pulled out the bar. The end had been snapped off and was horribly mangled. “Fat fuck…” Elias grumbled.
“Don’t body shame the zaros, Eli…” Reima chuckled. “Bloodclot is just frustrated. You’d be pissed too if you had to live in a cold metal cage.” She watched Elias discard the pole and begin preparing a new one with another chunk of meat.
“He’s pissed because you offered him a granola bar when he would have rather had your face,” Elias told her. “Soran would fire me in a heartbeat if his daughter turned into zaro chow under my watch... and what kind of name is ‘Bloodclot’?”
Reima shrugged. “Mel’s idea, not mine,” she said. “And it’s better than what he wanted to name that stray cat with the hemorrhoid.”
“True. ‘Buttgut’ was completely uncalled for,” Elias agreed.
Reima chuckled at the memory and the two of them were quiet as Elias continued his work around the barn. After a few minutes, Reima asked the question she’d been wondering for a long time: “Why do you do it?”
“This…” Reima said as she gestured to the feeding pole in his hand. “You spend your days shoveling shit and impaling pig flesh on a stick. You know my father is just taking advantage of you because he’s too scared to handle his own creations, right?”
“I don’t give a damn,” Elias answered plainly.
“But you should! You have so much potential to do something admirable with your life, Elias…” Reima chose her words carefully. She knew Elias wouldn’t take kindly to where she was going with this.
“Admirable?” he scoffed. “Nobody wants to hire a thief, Reima.”
“That’s not what I meant. You didn’t have a choice back then…”
Elias paused. He took a few steps toward Reima so that they were standing less than a foot apart. “I have one now,” he said softly as he carefully pushed her hair back behind her ear so that it wouldn’t get in the cut on her cheek. “I can only say that because of you. For that reason, I’ll stay by your side as long as you’re here. My life belongs to you and your family.”
Reima was stunned by his response, and wasn’t sure how to handle this sudden turn of events.
“Elias…” she said, staring back at him in shock. “This is the most I’ve heard you speak, like… ever.”
Elias’ face hardened into its usual scowl once again and he stepped back to resume his work. “I never knew what peace was before living with you and your family. Now that I do, I don’t intend on throwing it away.”
Elias’ words made Reima dread what she was about to say, but her mind had been made up. She wasn’t going to let Elias guilt trip her out of this, even if he had no idea he was doing it.
“I’m joining the Vanguard!” she blurted out. Elias froze and Reima held her breath nervously. “Mel and I both are… All those stories GG told us growing up… the ones about a world without a plague… I want to help make that vision a reality.”
She had expected him to lash out or react with anger. She wouldn’t have blamed him. But Elias’ response, though it lingered in silence for a while, was short and simple.
“Then I’m with you.”
Reima couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“But… What about wanting a life of peace?” she asked.
“Weren’t you listening?” Elias shot back. “My life belongs to you. If I let you go alone, you’ll die before even stepping outside those walls. I’m not going to let that happen.”
“Elias, please…” Reima pleaded. “Don’t do this for my sake.”
“Is this not ‘admirable’ enough for you?”
Reima was silent. That wasn’t what she had meant but she had no idea how to respond to his inquiry.
“This is my choice, Reima. Don’t try to take it from me,” Elias said.
Reima sighed. She knew his mind was made up.
“Alright,” she agreed finally. “If protecting me is what you want to do, I’ll roll with it. But in return, I want you to promise me something.”
Elias turned back to meet her gaze, saying nothing as he waited for her to continue.
“Look out for my brother as well. If anyone here needs a bodyguard, it’s him. If shit hits the fan, I need to know that you will help Melchierre first.”
Elias gave her a single nod in response. “Alright. It’s a promise, then.”
Reima jumped at the sudden shout and looked up to see Kaito staring back at her with a suspicious glint in his eye.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he remarked.
Reima challenged him with a glare of her own. “Funny, I was under the impression you preferred it that way,” she said with a snarky tone to her voice.
“I find it unsettling,” said Kaito.
“Well shit, it’s not my fault you’re never happy with anything I do!”
“All I’m saying is you shouldn’t space out like that.”
“I wasn’t spacing out!”
“I called your name three times.”
“You sure about that? Because last time I checked you were referring to me as a cluster of eyeball nerves.”
She wasn’t sure how long they’d been travelling, though she vaguely remembered Kaito guiding her into the underground tunnels and following him through a series of paths. In all honesty, she really hadn’t been paying attention to her surroundings, but she wasn’t about to admit that out loud. Looking around at the neatly cut limestone walls, she decided to ask the question that had been in the back of her mind for a while now.
“So what are these tunnels, anyway? Did you make them?”
At this point, Reima wouldn’t have been surprised if Kaito told her that Omen was some kind of mutant earthworm who ate through the ground to make a secret passageway or something. As it turns out, the real answer was much less exciting.
“No. The people of Uramao created these tunnels years ago,” Kaito explained. “I just try and keep the torches lit down here whenever I get the chance, since there’s no one around to maintain them anymore.”
“So it was Uramao…” Reima said quietly to herself. Just then, a thought crossed her mind. “Kaito, are you one of them?” she asked.
“What?” Kaito glanced back over his shoulder and gave her a strange look.
“They said the ghouls killed them all off, but… I don’t know. Maybe someone survived the massacre?”
“The ghouls…?” Kaito looked perplexed for a moment, but caught on quickly and muttered quietly to himself, “Is that what they’re saying happened?”
“Nothing,” Kaito said quickly. “And no, I was never affiliated with Uramao.”
“But you knew them, didn’t you?” Reima pressed.
“Do you know why they built this?”
“Safer paths of travel, I guess. I don’t really know.” Kaito stopped walking and peered up at the tunnel ceiling. “Anyhow, this is where we part ways.”
He pushed upward against the rock and heaved himself out of the tunnels before turning back around to extend a hand out to help Reima, who was too short to climb out on her own. When she grabbed hold of his hand, she was startled by how warm his skin was. In fact, in almost hurt to touch him. As she opened her mouth to say something, she heard a small snap coming from the bushes and she instinctively reached for her knife. She realized they were on the edge of the dark forest where her squad had been attacked, and that the sound had come from somewhere in the trees. It was early evening, and it wouldn’t be long until the ghouls began to emerge from the dark with the downing of the sun.
“What is it?” Kaito asked, looking over his shoulder to where Reima was staring intensely at the darkness.
“There’s something moving around over there,” she growled, not lowering her knife.
“Of course there is,” Kaito said calmly. “Those woods are crawling with ghouls.”
“That’s where my team was attacked,” Reima continued. “If it’s Xyo-… uh, I mean the same ghoul that ambushed us, we’re in serious trouble.”
“Then you should hurry up and get out of here,” Kaito told her. “Gederah is directly to the west.”
“What about you?” Reima asked. Her voice was laced with genuine worry. “This ghoul is huge, you don’t want to be by yourself when you cross paths with it.”