Reima watched in horror as Bardo raised his arm and aimed the blade directly at Kaito’s heart. Without thinking, she darted forward towards the gallows.
“Halt, by the order of the General!”
The shrill voice that rang out from somewhere in the crowd stopped Reima dead in her tracks. Panicked, she looked over her shoulder just in time to see someone shoot past her. With a single powerful leap, the person flew up towards Bardo. Two stubby arms wrapped around the Vanguard commander’s neck and pulled him back.
“I said stop, Commander Bardo!”
Reima couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The man clinging to Bardo’s head was a portly little man barely standing at four feet tall. He climbed onto the raging commander’s shoulders and wrapped his legs around his neck while gripping fistfuls of bright red hair in his hands while Bardo swung around furiously.
“GET OFF OF ME, YOU GODDAMN RUNT!” Bardo roared as he reached around to dislodge his attacker from his head at throw him to the ground. The little man didn’t have a chance to recover before Bardo’s boot slammed against his chest, pinning him to the floor. “How dare you launch an assault on me!?” Bardo snarled. “I am a commander, you fucking dwarf! And I will not stand for-…!”
A sharp female voice brought Bardo’s attention back toward the crowd below, where a path had formed to make way for a gorgeous woman with dark skin and long black hair. She stood glaring up at the gallows with an intimidating catlike gaze.
“Harm him, and you will be answering to me,” she warned.
“General Morgana…” Bardo growled. He stepped away from the smaller man as the General made her way up the steps to the gallows.
“I do not recall granting you permission to conduct such a savage execution, Commander,” said Morgana.
“With all due respect, General,” Bardo growled. “This man is an extremely dangerous and merciless killer whose head is wanted by the Patriarch himself. It is important that we deal with the threat now, while we’re in a position to do so.”
Morgana stepped between Bardo and Kaito, who lay defenseless on the ground and was still bound in chains. “Yes, what a marvelous idea,” she said dryly. “Let us completely disregard the military formalities which have guided the Vanguard for centuries. The decision to hold a public execution is not yours to make. If this man truly is the Flaming Arrow, then his fate lies with the Night Beast.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Bardo snarled. “I’m the one who caught him! And what do you mean, ‘if’? He matches the description perfectly!”
“If it is that important to you, then I will leave him under your watch until I am able to contact the Elite,” Morgana said, then pointed to the dwarf. “Colonel Hawkes will assist in transferring him to a secure holding area, but you are responsible for keeping an eye on him.”
“Excuse me?” Bardo scoffed. “I’m a platoon commander, not a prison guard!”
“And if you’re smart, you’ll do as I say… lest I relieve you from your duties entirely,” Morgana challenged.
For a few tense moments it seemed as if Bardo was going to retaliate, but he ultimately thought better of it. He picked up the heavy shackles that bound Kaito’s hands behind his back and half dragged half shoved him down the gallows.
Morgana then turned to look out at the crowd beneath her. “You all are to resume your duties as usual,” she ordered. “The situation at hand will be dealt with promptly and without fuss. I expect you all not to make an issue over what you have witnessed today, and if I hear of anyone causing trouble… I can assure you there will be consequences. Now move out!”
At the General’s command, the surrounding soldiers began to disperse. Reima heard Elias scoff from behind her.
“Hmph, serves him right,” he growled as he turned to leave. “Let’s go, Reima. There’s no reason for us to get involved in this mess.”
“R-Right…” Reima said quietly, not wanting to raise any more suspicions from Elias. She knew she was lucky that he hadn’t been paying attention to her when she’d rushed forward before, and General Morgana’s intervention had provided her with a chance to try and gather her thoughts. As she followed Elias out toward the courtyard, her sensitive ears managed to pick up a hushed conversation from behind her.
“He doesn’t seem like he needs much assistance,” Hawkes grumbled. “Let alone from me.”
“I know, Hawkes…” Morgana replied. “But I need you to keep an eye on things here while I report to Central. The Flaming Arrow was a member of the Elite. If it’s him, he’ll wear the Brand of the Patriarch along his spine and between the shoulder blades. Confirm his identity and report back to me as soon as you can, but don’t get too close. He looks weak now, but Hotbloods recover quickly. It’s part of what makes them so dangerous…”
Reima jumped at the sound of Elias’ voice so close to her.
“Dammit, don’t sneak up on me like that!” she snapped.
“It wouldn’t be sneaking if you weren’t such an airhead,” he pointed out. “Quit spacing out.” He started off towards the courtyard and Reima quickly followed suit.
“Wait, Elias!” she barked, grabbing hold of his arm.
“What is it with you?” he asked. “You’re acting weird, and that’s saying something…”
“You were right,” Reima interrupted.
“About what? You being an airhead?”
“Yes! Wait, no! I mean… okay, yeah, maybe that too… but that’s not what I’m talking about!” She took a deep breath to regain her composure. “Listen, it’s true that I didn’t climb back out of that ditch unaided,” she admitted. “I actually didn’t climb out of it at all. There’s an entire underground tunnel system underneath the mountains. I got out using that, and the only reason I made it out is because I had help.”
Elias turned around fully to face her. “So you lied to me,” he said. “Why? Reima, we’ve never kept secrets…”
“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I wanted to tell you, I really did, but I promised to keep it a secret.”
“Then why tell me now?”
“Because the person that helped me is the guy General Morgana just sent to death row!”
“What?” Elias scowl deepened and he looked out in the direction Bardo had gone. “That Flaming Arrow guy? Nova said he’s a sworn enemy of the Vanguard, why would he help you?”
“Either they have the wrong guy or there’s more to this story than we realize. Either way, we need to get him out of here.”
“What?!” Elias snarled. “Reima, that’s a terrible idea! Did you even listen to anything Nova was saying earlier? That man is a traitor and a murderer! Have you stopped to consider that maybe you have the wrong guy?” he asked.
“I know what I saw!”
“You’re starting to sound as ridiculous as Commander Bardo,” Elias growled. “If you’re right—and by that I mean they have the wrong guy—Night Beast will realize it isn’t his brother and they will let the roamer go. If Bardo is right, then the traitor gets what he deserves and then there’s one less thing for humanity to worry about.”
Reima could feel her temper flaring. “And what if I’m right?” she challenged. “He saved my life. Even if he is the Flaming Arrow, I can’t just let him die. Not after all he’s done for me. Not without knowing the truth…”
Elias was silent as the two of them stood there, eyes locked onto the others’ in an unspoken protest. After what seemed like an eternity, he smiled ever so slightly.
“Hmph, hitting me with that look again, huh Reima?” he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle.
“Ever since we were kids, you’ve had this look in your eyes like you want to examine everything there is to know about this world. It has a burning curiosity like a fire that not even the coldest of ice can extinguish… Even I have found myself captivated by its power at times,” Elias admitted.
“Elias…” Reima stood at a loss for words. She was caught off guard when he suddenly pulled her into a surprisingly gentle embrace. She returned the hug and wrapped her arms around his torso. “You’re saying you’ll help me?” she asked, thankful for his support.
What? Reima felt her heart sink and she pulled away from the hug to meet his gaze. “Why the hell not?” she demanded.
“I’m happy you’re back, Reima. I really am. But if the Flaming Arrow was the one that saved you, he didn’t do it in good faith,” Elias said firmly. “Like you said, there’s always more to a story than you might realize.” He placed his hands on Reima’s shoulder and stared her in the face. “Please trust me on this,” he begged. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid. I don’t know what I would do if I lost you again.”
He was begging, genuinely pleading with her. Reima had never seen such an uneasy and helpless look on his face before. It almost frightened her.
“Yeah, sure… You’re probably right,” she said finally and immediately noticed Elias’ muscles relax at her cooperation. “Sorry for freaking you out,” she apologized.
“Thank you,” Elias sighed, giving her shoulders one last squeeze before turning his back on her. “Now go rejoin the others. Sarge has me unloading shipments at the armory, but I’ll meet up with you later,” he said.
Reima watched him go then sighed. She turned around and looked up at the gallows, feeling helpless.
“Never stop asking questions or thinking for yourself.”
Kaito’s words were suddenly revolving around in Reima’s head. She hadn’t understood what he meant at the time, but now it was all she could think about.
“Sorry, Elias…” she murmured quietly to herself. “I have to act on what I feel is right, even if it means I have to do it alone.” She started off in the direction Bardo had gone when she heard someone call her name from behind the gallows.
“Kidding! I was just kidding!” Reima said quickly, stopping dead in her tracks and turning toward the direction of the voice with a horrible attempt at an innocent look on her face.
“Calm down, I just want to talk,” the voice said. Reima was surprised to see a familiar red-haired figure emerge from the shadows.
His movements were stiff, and he wasn’t wearing his usual Vanguard attire. In fact, he looked like he’d just broken out of the hospital, sporting a loose fitting pale blue shirt and sweatpants. She could tell that under his shirt his chest and shoulder were heavily bandaged and his left arm was held close to his body in a secure sling to keep him from moving it around too much.
“How are your wounds?” Reima asked as she approached him. “You probably shouldn’t be back out here so soon.”
“It’s getting better,” he replied. “Just needs a little more time. Hotbloods heal faster than other soldiers.”
“So I’ve heard,” Reima said, eyeing his injured arm a bit skeptically. Those injuries were bad no matter whom you were, and she thought that Jonah was pushing his luck. “So what do you want? I’m a little pressed for time at the moment, so if you could make it quick I’d really appreciate it.”
“You’re planning on sneaking past Bardo, right?” Jonah asked. “You want to free the Flaming Arrow?”
Reima felt her mouth go dry at this accusation. “No…” she replied lamely.
Jonah gave her a deadpanned look. “I got ears, Reima,” he said accusingly. “I heard you talking to Elias just now. You’re not going to accomplish anything on your own.”
Reima glared at him. “Oh, listen to you…” she growled. “Last I checked you aren’t much of a team player yourself.” She gestured toward his bandaged shoulder as she spoke. “Listen, I’m glad you survived the night of the attack, but I don’t have time for distractions and right now you are in my way.”
“I will help you,” Jonah said casually.
“You?” Reima raised a brow in disbelief. “Why would you want to help me?”
“I’ve been waiting to watch Bardo crash and burn for ages,” Jonah explained. “You may not know this, but he’s my father. To put it simply, we’re not on the best of terms.”
Jonah was the Commander’s kid? That was news to Reima, although they did look alike. She also didn’t suspect Jonah had any reason to lie about it. He’d never mentioned it before, but then again Reima had never even heard him speak up until this point. She decided not to pry him for information. Whatever family feud the younger soldier had with his father wasn’t any of her business, and as far as Reima was concerned, Jonah was the only one willing to help her rescue Kaito.
“Alright then,” she said. “You’ve got my attention.”
Jonah smirked. “Excellent. Now follow me. There’s one more person we’ll need on our side if we want to pull this off.”
Reima hesitated before following him out toward the training grounds. He was walking along the fence with his left side—his blind side—facing toward the inside. He left no room between his body and the fence for Reima to walk along his right side, and she made a point of keeping a considerable distance as she trailed behind him.
To say she was wary of the teenager was a bit of an understatement. Though Jonah was quiet and preferred to be left alone, Reima was fully aware that he had one very odd quirk to his personality. Under no circumstances would he allow another person to approach him on his blind side. Reima remembered when she had first witnessed Jonah’s peculiarity.
The Vanguard recruits had originally consisted of twelve soldiers. Before Anthony was declared captain of their squad, the leader had been a young man named Jason Frost. Jason was a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy. He was strong, courageous, intelligent, attractive, and easy to get along with. Even Bacheo and Elias took a liking to him. He was like the glue that kept the ragtag group of soldiers together, but it was this trait that would prove to be his downfall.
Jason wouldn’t take no for an answer. He insisted that his team be exactly that: A team. Under his leadership, everyone was going to cooperate whether they wanted to or not. Most of the recruits had no issue with this mentality, and after a while Jason had manage to earn the respect he needed from Elias and Bacheo as well.
Jonah, however, proved to be a bit more of a challenge for him. Nothing Jason did could convince the teenager to mingle with the rest of the group, and it frustrated him.
One day when the recruits had gathered for lunch, Jonah had sat down at his usual secluded table away from everyone else. Jason, being the persistent and friendly person he was, approached Jonah from the left, not knowing about his oddity. When he reached out to greet his comrade, Jonah whirled on him without warning. In a flash, Jason was left with his face ripped open from eye to jaw. The attack was over before anyone even knew what happened, and it had been so vicious that Jason Frost ended up dropping out of the Vanguard entirely.
Now this silent but deadly force of nature with a history of violence toward other soldiers was Reima’s best chance of rescuing a convicted mass murderer from and equally vicious and temperamental commanding officer.
What could possibly go wrong?