Reima made sure to keep a generous gap between her and Jonah as she followed him out toward the training grounds. She still had no idea what they were going to do about their current situation, but Jonah seemed focused and confident in whatever plan he had in mind. He paused upon reaching the chain-link fence that surrounded the training grounds and motioned for Reima to do the same.
She hesitated at first then cautiously stepped forward to stand alongside him. Jonah remained calm as she approached him from the left, and Reima began to relax slightly when she concluded that he wasn’t going to lunge at her. It was unusual for Jonah to allow someone to stand as close to him as she was now, and Reima’s curiosity got the better of her.
Her gaze fell on his scarred eye. Up close, Reima began to realize just how bizarre the injury truly was. It looked less like a scar and more like an intricate tribal tattoo that ran from his hairline and straight down his cheek, widening out slightly where it passed through his cloudy white eye. Had it not been for the obvious damage done to the eye itself, the mark could easily be mistaken for a tattoo.
“Alright, go in there and grab Loca for me.” The sudden command broke Reima out of her thoughts and she stared at Jonah, dumbfounded.
“Excuse you?” she scoffed. “You’re not my boss!”
Jonah turned his head slightly so that his cold blue eye glared at Reima angrily. “The idea here is that we don’t do anything that makes us stand out,” he growled. “Me walking around the training grounds looking like this is a huge red flag. Now shut up and do as I say.”
Is this kid for real? Reima thought incredulously, though she knew he had a point. In a field full of soldiers in full battle gear, Jonah would stick out like a sore thumb.
“Fine, whatever…” Reima grumbled. “But what do we need her for?” she asked.
“She was on my father’s patrol, right? He’s taking credit for the capture, but from what I’ve heard, it was Loca that caught the Flaming Arrow. That makes him her prisoner,” Jonah explained. “If I know my father, he’s not going to sit around playing guard dog for the General. He’s going to make his subordinates do it while he gloats over his bullshit achievement. If the soldiers he has doing his work for him know the truth, they might let Loca through. Now hurry up and go, we don’t have all day.”
Reima clicked her tongue in annoyance. She hated that his plan actually made sense. “Fine, but stay here until I come back. Don’t get cocky just because I happen to agree with you!” she snapped as she entered the training grounds. Arrogant brat...
It didn’t take her long to find Loca and bring her back to where Jonah was waiting by the fence. After giving her a brief rundown of the situation, she gave her comrades a questioning look.
“So you’re saying you want me to risk my entire career by tricking the Vanguard into letting me free a convicted mass murderer so that you can defy a serious military law that may or may not be punishable by death if we get caught?” she asked raising a brow.
“I mean, it sounds kind of bad when y-…”
“What the fuck, Jonah?!” Reima threw her arms up in defeat at his painfully honest reply.
“Badass!” Loca agreed excitedly. “I’m totally in!”
Reima turned to her in surprise. “Wait, are you serious?” she asked.
“Yup!” Loca chirped before casting a sullen look at the ground. “I’ve been feeling really bad about the whole thing,” she admitted. “That man didn’t even do anything wrong. He just tripped! Now he’s in big trouble and its all my fault!”
Reima felt a warm wave of affection towards the little soldier. She really was too kind for her own good.
“Jeez, what are we going to do with you?” Reima smiled.
Loca looked up at Reima with big shining brown eyes. “Give me a cookie?” she suggested.
“Pft!” Reima chuckled and ruffled her hair playfully. “Maybe later,” she laughed. Turning back to Jonah, she said, “We should get moving.”
Jonah nodded and led the way across the military base, stopping at the men’s barracks so he could change out of the hospital clothes. His injured arm prevented him from getting completely decked out in full combat gear, but throwing on a loose brown jacket and changing into cargo pants with work boots definitely stood out less than the obnoxiously white sweats from the hospital. After that, the trio made their way across the courtyard. They stopped when they reached the warehouses located near the stables.
“Loca…” Jonah said, turning around to face her. “You head over to the bottom of the courthouse and figure out where they’re holding the Flaming Arrow. Join up with the guards there; then await our cue to bust him out.”
Loca nodded enthusiastically. “You got it, Mr. Bossman!” she said, then paused and thought for a moment. “Wait, what’s the cue, exactly?” she asked, giving him a confused look.
“Hard to say for sure,” Jonah admitted. “But it won’t be subtle. When the time comes, its up to you to know how and when to take advantage of a situation.”
Loca still seemed unsure, but didn’t try to press for any further explanation. “Um, sure… Whatever you say,” she said before starting towards the courthouse.
“She’s going alone?” Reima asked.
“Yes, I need you with me,” said Jonah. He led the way around to the front of the warehouse, where two guards were stationed near the entrance.
“Why are they guarding the warehouse?” Reima asked. She didn’t think there was anything particularly important in there. The warehouses were used to store tack and feed for the horses, hardly anything worth keeping watch over.
“Follow my lead,” Jonah said quietly. “We’re sneaking in.”
Before Reima could ask why, Jonah stepped out from behind the warehouse and approached the guards straight on. “Hey, you two!” he barked. “Open the door! I got shit to do!”
What the actual fuck? Reima stared after him, baffled. The guards looked just as confused as they watched Jonah stroll up to them with an aura of confidence.
“What the hell?” one of the guards growled at him, clearly annoyed. “You’d better watch your mouth, recruit!” he warned.
“Hold on,” the second guard said. “I know this kid. He’s Commander Bardo’s son.”
The first guard clicked his tongue. “Guess I should have known from that rotten personality of his,” he said glaring at Jonah. “Even so, you aren’t authorized to enter this building, kid. We can’t let you through without the Commander’s permission.”
“I’ve come on his behalf,” Jonah bluffed. “I’m sure you’re well aware of my father’s most recent accomplishment. As you can probably imagine, he’s quite busy at the moment and is currently unable to tend to his new… pet.”
“This thing ain’t a puppy, boy,” the guard told him. “It’s a living weapon with serious anger issues. Even if you have the training to handle it, you are in no condition to be doing so at the moment.” He nodded toward Jonah’s arm.
“Perhaps not,” Jonah agreed. “But that’s why I’ve brought her along.” He gestured over his shoulder at Reima. “Reima is the daughter of Dr. Soran Steiner, the man who designed these things. I imagine she’s more than qualified to handle the zaro.”
Zaro?! Reima tried to hide the look of shock that threatened to show on her face. It had been three years since Reima had last seen her father’s zaros. Back then; the ones on the ranch were still unsuited to be used for military purposes. Even if Soran had managed to breed some that were safe enough to sell off to the Vanguard, the animals wouldn’t be full grown until they reached two years old, let alone fully trained and sold off.
“I understand if you don’t want to let us in,” Jonah continued calmly. “I’ll be sure to let my old man know that his subordinates aren’t following orders. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to hear it.” He turned around with a halfhearted wave and began to leave.
“Hey, hold up!” the second guard called after him nervously. “There’s no need for all that. If it’s an order from the Commander, we’re not going to complain!”
“Eh?” the first guard gave him a confused look.
“Trust me Larry, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of Bardo’s temper tantrums,” the second guard mumbled. “Last time I questioned one of his orders, I couldn’t piss straight for a week. It ain’t worth the formalities.”
Larry looked dissatisfied with the situation, but the two guards stepped aside and allowed Jonah and Reima to enter the warehouse. “Gratitude,” Jonah said flatly to the guards as the doors closed behind them.
Towards the back of the room was a large steel cage holding an enormous and terrifying beast roughly twice the size of a horse. It had a long muscular body with broad shoulders and a bone structure that was similar to a big cat. Its legs were long and thick with powerful claws that looked capable of ripping through just about anything. The tail was long and fluffy like a wolf’s, and the head was small and resembled that of a horse. The beast’s neck was long and well muscled, which was a necessary trait in order for it to support the two enormous sabre shaped fangs that jutted from its long powerful jaws. The zaro had a slight dark red mane running along the back of its neck and shoulders, and the powerful body was coated in long sleek fur with a mottled red and white coloration. It stood upon seeing Jonah and Reima and pulled its back its lips in a nasty snarl while glaring at them with piercing mismatched eyes; one blue and one brown. Reima recognized the zaro immediately. It was Bloodclot.
“Jonah…” Reima said slowly, not taking her eyes of the cage. “I need an explanation, and I need it now,” Reima demanded. “Why is Bardo keeping a zaro locked in here? More specifically, why is he keeping this zaro locked in here?”
“So you two have already met,” Jonah said. “No need for introductions then.”
“My father made a very generous offer to Dr. Steiner a few months ago,” Jonah explained. “And apparently without his puppet of a stable boy to risk his neck to keep these things healthy, Soran was willing to pull some strings that pushed ethical conduct under the rug if it meant he no longer had to deal with one of his most dangerous creations.”
Reima was fuming. She had known her father for a cowardly man, but this was taking things to a whole new level.
“That’s pathetic!” she seethed. “He knows damn well that sending Bloodclot here will put the entire Eastern Base at risk!”
“Yes,” Jonah agreed. “And we’re going to use that to our advantage.”
Reima felt the hairs on her neck stand up at the malice in the younger soldier’s tone. “What the hell are you talking about?” she asked, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.
“Not much is going to be able to pull those guards away from the Flaming Arrow’s cell,” said Jonah. “But a rampaging zaro running loose in the courtyard… I’d say that’s an all hands on deck situation, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Not fucking happening,” Reima said firmly. “You have no idea how crazy this animal is, even for this species. People could die, Jonah!”
“Do you want to save the Flaming Arrow or not?” Jonah snapped.
“I do, but not at the risk of others being hurt in the process!” she protested. “There has to be a better way to do this!”
“If you’ve got something, I’m all ears,” Jonah said. “But every second you spend contemplating, the Night Beast draws nearer and nearer, and I doubt that he’ll deliver a quick and painless execution.”
Reima stared into Jonah’s face. The expression he wore was something she couldn’t quite place, but there was one thing she was absolutely sure of.
“This isn’t just a case of petty teenage rebellion against your dad, is it?” she said finally. “Setting loose both Bloodclot and the Flaming Arrow… You’re trying to destroy his entire career. Why? What has Bardo done to you that warrants such an extreme ploy in the name of revenge?”
Jonah was silent. He lifted his uninjured arm and stared at his hand with a thoughtful expression.
“Oh, don’t you shut down on me now, mummy boy!” Reima barked. “I’m open to what you have to say, but there’s no way in hell I’m helping you any further if you don’t-…!” Reima paused mid-sentence when she saw blood starting to trickle down his arm and hard white spikes emerging from the skin on his forearm, encasing his hand in some kind of protective claw. Reima took a step back, startled. “What in the hell is that?!” she demanded.
Jonah was panting slightly, and he appeared to be in pain from whatever was happening to him, but he held his composure the best he could while the blood continued to drip down his elbow. Then, he looked up at Reima and asked, “Have you ever wondered what makes a Hotblood different from other soldiers, Reima?”
“It’s a phenomena,” Reima replied, not knowing where he was going with this. “One that no one truly understands, like the ghouls. You’re born stronger than most people. You heal faster, and they say you have no concept of fear. My brother used to obsess over it. He sought out books and research papers for years, but hardly anything exists on the topic.”
“Do you know why?”
“Get to the point, Jonah!” Reima snapped. “You’re freaking me out here!”
“You are correct that Hotbloods are a subject of uncertainty, but more is known than the public realizes,” Jonah began. “For one thing, our body temperature is much higher than a normal person’s. It has to do with our bloodline. Research has confirmed that all Hotbloods are the direct descendants of Lord Ambrose Gederah. Our kind makes up about a third of the human population.”
“That many?” Reima was in shock.
“Yeah, I guess the guy was one hell of a slut.”
“Jonah!” Reima exclaimed. She was beginning to realize that her comrade had two sides and two sides only to his personality when he decided to talk. He could either be extremely articulate and well spoken for his age, or was incredibly crude and disrespectful in his choice of words. There was no in between.
“Anyway, there’s an old legend that says when Lord Gederah returned from his expedition beyond the walls over four centuries ago, he brought something back with him. That something was then passed onto his children, giving them abilities no one had ever seen before, though these abilities are much more uncommon than the stereotypical enhanced strength and healing. When the Vanguard figured out that these powers existed, they did everything they could to harness it in their favor, but it wasn’t long before a problem emerged. In order for a Hotblood to inherit these abilities, at least fifty percent of our genetic makeup has to come directly from Lord Gederah himself, and even then, nothing was ever guaranteed.” He paused and watched Reima carefully.
“Fifty percent…” she repeated, trying to figure out how any of this pieced together. “If that’s the case, then the power should have died out over time. It wouldn’t have been able to survive after Lord Gederah died, unless…” Then it clicked. Reima stared at Jonah wide-eyed, feeling sick to her stomach.
“Yeah,” Jonah confirmed her thoughts with a grim nod. “In order to keep that power alive, the Vanguard resorted to inbreeding.”