Kaito didn’t know what he expected to find upon entering the forest. He didn’t even understand why he was so interested in this ghoul to begin with. There was no reason for him to believe that it posed a threat to him or his community in the desert, and the name Reima had uttered didn’t strike him as familiar. In fact, he had already forgotten the name entirely. So why? Why was he pursuing this beast he knew had the potential to kill him? No matter what reason Kaito attempted to pin to his behavior, he knew in his heart that it all boiled down to one simple attribute: Blatant curiosity.
As Kaito trekked cautiously through the trees, he took note of the position of the sun. Rays from the golden hour still managed to shine through the dense woods, creating an even mixture of light and shadow. As long as I continue to move in synch with the sunlight, Kaito thought, there shouldn’t be an issue.
He passed by what looked like a small boulder just as a slight breeze pushed a cloud into the path of one of the rays of light, shrouding it in shadow. The instant the light was off of it, the boulder suddenly morphed and took on a somewhat humanoid form. It reached out a misshapen limb and gripped Kaito’s arm.
He reacted quickly by whirling around and grabbing the limb, pulling it closer to his body and thrusting out his free hand to grab its face. The ghoul shrieked as Kaito engulfed his hand in flames, releasing its hold on his arm and scampering into the shadows while clawing at its burnt face with a bony black hand. Kaito stood panting as adrenaline coursed through his veins. Got to pay attention, he told himself.
“Ey, you hear something?”
“Course I heard it, yeh ol’ bat! Now quit yer gripin’ an’ keep up!”
Kaito’s attention was drawn to a cluster of thickets ahead of him. He knew those voices well, though he never imagined they’d risk coming so close. Treading carefully towards the thicket, he peered through the leaves and felt the hair on his neck stand up.
Two women could be seen dragging the horribly burned and mutilated corpse of a Vanguard soldier through the dirt. One of the women was quite short and had an underdeveloped arm that curled inward towards her chest. The other was older and taller with long gray hair and pale blue eyes. She was quite thin and appeared to be struggling to drag the body behind her.
Bonecrushers… They must be getting pretty desperate if they’re willing to hunt in these parts. Kaito’s eyes lingered on the dead soldier dragging behind them. The skin was charred and one arm had been completely torn from the body. The only reason Kaito knew the man had once been a soldier was by the recognizable Vanguard insignia embroidered onto the jacket that clung stubbornly to his back. The sight made him want to vomit. No one, not even a detestable dog of the Vanguard, deserved such a gruesome fate.
Kaito turned around to head back toward the tunnels, having acquired more than he’d bargained for. To his surprise, he found himself at the pointed end of a long spear, the tip of which was only an inch away from his nose. The man at the other end was of short stature and had blindingly pale skin and hair, his face covered in light stubble that barely qualified as a goatee. He glared up the staff at Kaito with a menacing smirk and pale red eyes.
“Been a while, huh Kaito?” he taunted.
Lurking behind the albino was a massive bulldog of a man with a twisted jaw and eyes that drooped heavily. He didn’t have a single hair on his head and stared at Kaito lazily with his mouth slightly agape, two large pointed lower canines protruding over his upper lip.
Before Kaito realized what was happening, this brute shot forward and rammed his skull into Kaito’s stomach, sending him crashing through the thicket where he landed with a thud at the feet of the two women on the other side. He lay stunned for a moment as the two men emerged from the bushes.
“Oi, Venom! The hell you been?” asked the woman with the deformed arm. “We gotta bail outta here before those damn sol-…” She then noticed Kaito on the ground in front of her. “The fuck…?”
Kaito was quick to take advantage of her confusion and used his legs to swipe her feet out from under her. He rolled onto his side and managed to regain his own footing before squaring off against the other three.
“You tread a dangerous tide by coming here, Venom…” Kaito said quietly to the albino man. “Have you a taste for Gedarians these days?”
“Pfft! You think I’d make a kill this sloppy?” he scoffed. “No. We plucked this poor bastard out of whatever mess he got himself into back that way.” He gestured toward the east. “One hell of an explosion, from the looks of it. Blew a big ass hole in the ground and lit the surrounding area on fire…” he eyed Kaito curiously. “Wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, pretty boy?” he asked. “Wouldn’t be the first time you went ape-shit on a Vanguard platoon…”
“You shut your damn mouth, man-eater!” Kaito snapped.
Venom grinned sadistically. “My, what a temper you have! Such a short fuse left unlit. Quite a shame, really…”
The gray-haired woman shot him a warning glare. “Venom, don’t provoke him…”
“Relax, Havoc. He’s a coward who wouldn’t even think to use that flashy power of his on a person!” Venom replied, clearly trying to egg Kaito on.
“Bold of you to assume I consider you cannibals as people,” Kaito retorted. “Scum like you simply isn’t worth my time and effort.”
“How very noble…” Venom watched as Kaito turned to leave, and the corner of his mouth curled slightly upward in a smirk. “That’s exactly why I hate you, Kaito. You act like a damn god, but you’re no better than anything else that’s crawling around on this fucked up world!” He turned back toward the trio that now stood glaring at Kaito from behind his back. “Do it, you lot!”
At Venom’s command, the other three Bonecrushers launched themselves at Kaito in a fury. He dodged Havoc easily, and she stumbled into the thicket while Kaito turned on his heel and shot between the brute and Venom before they had time to process what was happening. Having nowhere else to turn, he bolted to the east, straying farther and farther away from the tunnels as the Bonecrushers trailed him.
He’s not wrong, Kaito thought. And it would be easy to just blaze through them and be done with this, but… He weaved through the trees, looking over his shoulder to see the sun sink lower and lower to the ground. There wasn’t much time left. Still, he continued to charge forward. No. That’s exactly what he would have done.
At that moment, Kaito noticed a change in the air around him. Smoke…? Slamming through the bushes, he skidded to a halt. A huge gap in the ground blocked his path, and on each side of it, the surrounding brush was alight with flames. Kaito heard the Bonecrushers trampling through the thicket not far behind him.
“Ha! What are you gonna do now, pretty boy!?” Venom shouted triumphantly as the four of them closed in on Kaito.
“Hn!” Kaito gave a half-assed chuckle before catapulting himself over the hole in the ground, concentrating the heat in his palms to form a makeshift flame thruster to help propel him through the air. His knees buckled slightly as he landed on the other side, but he managed to stay crouched on his feet.
“Fine!” he heard Venom shout angrily from the opposite end of the hole. “Have it your way, you flamey fuck! A dead end is still a dead end, no matter which side of the gap you’re on!”
Kaito let out a breath of relief as he watched the Bonecrushers retreat in the opposite direction. He started into the trees, unsure of how to get back to the tunnels from his current location, when he heard a loud snap. Less than a second later, he felt a rope tighten around his ankle and yank upward, knocking his head hard into the ground.
Kaito wasn’t sure how much time had passed after that. All he knew was that a gentle prodding on his cheek accompanied with a whispered voice saying, “Hey, you alive in there?” brought him back into a hazy stream of consciousness. His head ached profusely and there was a sharp pain in his right hip that felt as though the joint had been torn right out of its socket.
“Psst! Helloooo? Please don’t be dead… I’d feel awful bad if that happened…”
Kaito forced his eyes open as the chipper female voice continued to talk to him, and his vision was suddenly filled with Loca’s big brown eyes as she stared curiously into his face. She beamed excitedly when she caught sight of his bright blue orbs.
“Well, hi there!” she exclaimed happily.
Kaito was instantly awake and found himself in a panic when he realized he was dangling upside-down from a tree limb, having stepped directly into one of the tiny Vanguard soldier’s hand-crafted ghoul traps.
“Wowzer! I never expected to catch a person!” Loca chirped. “I mean, I wasn’t going for humans, but still! This is totally rad! What do you think of my design? Pretty nifty, right?”
Kaito struggled to lift himself upward to get to the knot around his ankle, but a the sharp pain in his hip wouldn’t allow him to put any more strain on it and he flopped back down. “Take it off me…” he ordered furiously. The blood that continued to rush to his head fogged his senses and only caused him to panic further. “Get me down RIGHT NOW before I-…!”
Loca slapped her hand over his mouth to silence him. “Shh! You have to be quiet!” she whispered. “If the commander finds out about this we’ll both be-…”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” a deep gruff voice said from the shadows. A huge burly man with bright red hair complete with a beard and mustache emerged from the trees on horseback along with a small platoon of Vanguard soldiers flanking each of his sides. “That’s the renegade the Elite’s been looking for!”
He nudged his horse forward and inspected the rope around Kaito’s ankle with a thoughtful look in his pale blue eyes. “So, this is one of your little contraptions?” he asked Loca.
The little soldier shrank back in the dominating presence of the commander, eyes darting back and forth from him to Kaito. “Well… yes, but…” she started.
“Huh. Not bad, kid!” the commander praised.
“Well, you see…” Loca said nervously. “I wasn’t really supposed to-…”
“Commander Bardo!” one of the soldiers interrupted. “This appears to be the location that Bacheo kid talked about. What are your orders, sir?”
Bardo ignored the question. Instead, he dismounted his horse and walked right up to Kaito. Grabbing him by the hair and bending him backwards to look him in the eyes. Kaito felt the pain in his hip intensify as his muscles stretched, and he winced in agony at the sensation.
“Blue eyes, black hair, scorching to the touch… I don’t need to see a Brand to know this is the Flaming Arrow!” Bardo said triumphantly. “You’re a bit weak for all the hype that surrounds you… Are you really Rumion’s brother?”
“Hey!” the soldier from before snapped suddenly. He glared at Bardo disapprovingly. “A puny platoon commander like you has no business using the Night Beast’s birth name! Show some respect, you damn reject!”
Bardo slowly turned and glared dangerously at the soldier. “Know your place, bastard. I will always be capable of ripping you apart if you step out of line!”
The soldier cowered back and Bardo turned his attention back to Kaito. “Power is not synonymous with success,” he growled. “If the Patriarch was smart, he’d have realized that by now.”
He roughly yanked at the rope and Kaito’s hip seared with pain. The rope snapped and Kaito dropped to the ground. The force of the landing was enough to pop the joint back into the socket, but the sensation was excruciating and Kaito found that he was paralyzed from the pain. Loca looked down at him with wide and terrified eyes, not knowing what was going on or what to do as Kaito’s pleading gaze met hers.
“Chestnut!” Bardo snapped at her. “Use your ropes to secure his hands and ankles! Humanity will sleep peacefully tonight now that this deviant has finally been brought to justice!”
Loca hesitated before giving Kaito an apologetic look as she carried out Bardo’s orders. Another soldier gave Bardo a questioning look as he remounted his horse. “Sir, are you going to abandon your mission?” she asked him.
“Huh?” Bardo looked over his shoulder at her with an annoyed expression.
“The beast in question – the one that attacked your boy – is still out here. It will only become more difficult to track down the longer we wait. It may be unwise to leave a ghoul of that size unaccounted for,” she said cautiously, fully aware of Bardo’s infamous temper. The threat against her comrade hadn’t gone unnoticed, but for the squad to abandon their current mission of locating Xyozara was a decision that could prove fatal in the long run. There was no way that any of them could know that Xyozara was impaled on a rock over twenty feet below them, completely immobilized.
“To hell with that shit!” Bardo snarled. “We have enough evidence to verify the recruit squad’s claims of what happened here! I don’t need that damn horse!” He smirked as Kaito was hoisted onto one of the spare horses and secured with more rope than appeared to be necessary. “Not when I’ve singlehandedly captured the man wanted by the Patriarch himself!”
I captured, actually… Loca said to herself, annoyed by the fact that Bardo was clearly intent on taking the credit for what seemed to be a career-changing feat. However, her understandable fear for Bardo was more than enough to keep her from voicing her frustrations. She glanced over at Kaito again, injured and slumped over the back of a horse like a sack of potatoes. Who was this man who had accidentally stumbled into her trap? What had he done to be sought out by the Patriarch? Looking at his face, Loca felt an uneasy pang of guilt pass through her stomach. This doesn’t feel right…