The warehouse was filled with a freezing silence. Reima had idolized the Vanguard since childhood. She had left the only home she’d ever known, taken years off her parents’ life with worry, and worst of all, put the lives of her brother and best friend on the line all for the sake of supporting their cause. To hear that the Vanguard had been secretly partaking in such disgusting acts flooded her with guilt… or was it rage? Betrayal? Confusion? Reima wasn’t sure. The only thing she knew now was that she was starting to see her heroes in a different light.
“How?” she said finally. “How have they been getting away with this?”
“Because regular humans will never be enough to defeat the ghouls,” said Jonah. “As far as the government’s concerned, this is all being done in humanity’s best interest.”
“That’s…” Reima was at a loss for words. She stood there in silence, watching as blood continued to ooze from the wounds created from the spikes coming out of Jonah’s arm. What’s the point in having special powers if they cause harm to the people that have them?
“The word they use to describe this power is Paragon,” Jonah continued. “It affects each person differently, and not all Hotbloods will inherit it. Those who do show signs of Paragon are immediately brought to the Patriarch for evaluation. I was no exception when my father realized I could manipulate my own bone matter.”
Reima examined his arm with interest. “So that’s what this is,” she mused. Suddenly, it occurred to her what he had just said. “Hold on. You’ve seen the Patriarch?” she asked in amazement.
The Patriarch’s identity was something that had always been shrouded in secrecy. It was a tradition that had been around since the death of Ambrose Gederah. After his passing, one of Ambrose’s sons had taken over the position, but his name was never released nor did he ever make any public appearances. Under his rule, it was decided that the name and face of humanity’s leadership would always belong to Ambrose. He was a symbol of freedom, one that would remain immortal until mankind ceased to walk the earth.
Jonah shifted his weight uncomfortably at Reima’s question. “I was only five years old when it happened, so my memory is hazy,” he admitted. “I just remember being taken to a large room surrounded in shadows. Although I couldn’t see him, I knew he was there... Watching… Waiting… I could feel this… presence. I don’t have the words to describe what that felt like. It paralyzed me. I could hear my father shouting angrily at me from somewhere nearby, telling me to hurry up and show off what I could do, but I just couldn’t do it. Even if I had wanted to, that overwhelming presence completely stopped me from doing what I was supposed to.”
“So what happened?” Reima pressed.
“I failed the evaluation,” Jonah said plainly. “The Patriarch saw no proof that I was a carrier of Paragon and sent us away. I thought that was the end of it. I had no idea that the real pain was yet to come.”
He retracted his bones back into his arm, leaving four decent sized puncture wounds. The injuries bled for a moment, but the flow slowed dramatically after only a few seconds. “These wounds behave differently from regular injuries,” Jonah noted upon noticing Reima’s startled expression. “They’re ugly as shit, but they close up pretty fast on their own.”
He slumped back against the wall and slid downward, taking a seat on the floor. “Hotbloods who pass the evaluation are forced to join the Elite. Their group is made up entirely of Paragon carrying Hotbloods. Prove you have that, and you’re in. Had I passed that test, they’d have taken me right then and there to start training.”
“They start training Elites when they’re that young?” Reima said in disbelief. “Regular soldiers can’t even enlist in basic training until they hit twelve!” And even then, that’s pushing it…
“There’s a whole process that comes with being a Hotblood,” Jonah explained. “Anyone who possesses Paragon is required to be branded.”
“Branded?” Reima echoed, then General Morgana’s voice rang out in her mind:
“If it’s him, he’ll wear the Brand of the Patriarch along his spine and between his shoulder blades.” As she thought this, she noticed Jonah begin absentmindedly tracing the scar running down his eye with a finger while staring at the floor.
“My father was furious after my display,” he said quietly. “He comes from what one might call an impressive pedigree. Joining the Elite was literally what he was born to do. But no amount of thought out breeding can guarantee the manifestation of Paragon in a child. He was born a dud. He’ll never achieve a rank higher than that of a mere platoon commander. He knows he’ll never be in the Elite but he won’t accept it. Having a son to achieve what he never will is his idea of redeeming his worth to the Patriarch, and I humiliated him by failing the evaluation. He became the laughing stock of the Vanguard.”
Reima could tell that Jonah was becoming more and more ill at ease as he continued talking. Hesitantly, she stepped forward and took a seat next to him up against the wall. He made no move to lunge at her, and by the way he just stared at the ground and rubbed his face, she wasn’t sure he had even realized she had moved at all from her spot next to Bloodclot’s cage.
“That night, he went out and had a customized branding iron made to replicate the look of the mark worn by the soldiers in the Elite. He had always been a strict parent, but never one for abuse. I didn’t think anything of it when he asked me to follow him down into the cellar in the middle of the night. I remember being told to remove my shirt and turn my back to him. It wasn’t until I smelled the burning metal that I realized something was wrong, but when I turned around he forced me down on my stomach and stood on my arms so I couldn’t move. ‘Between the shoulder blades and down the spine,’ was all he said as he brought the iron down. I panicked and used the bone in my arm to stab him through the foot and try to get away, but the second I rolled over…” he trailed off, and Reima didn’t press any further. She didn’t need to.
It was no wonder Jonah was so distant. No wonder he lashed out when approached from the wrong angle. He had been beaten and broken down by the person he should have trusted the most. His words made Reima reconsider every harsh complaint she had voiced about her own father.
“I don’t expect you to understand or change your mind about going through with this,” Jonah said after a while. “I’ll see it through whether you want to help me or not, but at the very least, I need you to know why I can’t let Bardo have this victory. I can’t let him have the satisfaction of thinking he’s worth a single shit.”
He stood up with a determined expression on his face and approached Bloodclot’s cage once more. Reima saw another small white protrusion emerge from his hand and she immediately realized what he was about to do. Quickly getting to her feet, she reached out and grabbed his shoulder without thinking. Jonah whirled around with a wild look in his eye and Reima took a step backwards, holding her hands up defensively. Jonah eyed her suspiciously and she gave him a kind smile.
“I understand,” she said gently. “I’ll do it, and not just for the Flaming Arrow’s sake. If doing this will bring you peace, then I want to help you, too.”
Jonah’s harsh glare softened into a look of bewilderment, like he had been expecting Reima to turn her back on him right then and there. After a few moments, his expression returned to its usual hardened look of determination and he gave a firm nod.
Thank you, Reima… he said mentally. I never imagined anyone would ever say that to me. I only wish I could have met someone like you a bit earlier. Jonah picked around the lock on the cage with the bone from his hand for a few seconds, and with a small click, it fell to the floor.
* * *
The inside of the courthouse was much larger than how it appeared from the outside. Loca stood at the entrance to the main hall observing the busy scene before her in awe. People bustled about the halls, their voices and footsteps echoing off the walls as their shoes stomped across the shiny gray tiles that made up the floor. A huge chandelier hung from the ceiling and lit the room; it’s light reflecting off the shiny floor and back onto its own golden makeup, making it sparkle. There had to have been at least five different staircases leading in all sorts of different directions and Loca felt a wave of dread wash over her.
Ahhh! This place is insane! How am I supposed to know which way leads to the basement?! I can’t give up though! My friends are counting on me!
With a deep breath, Loca puffed out her chest and strutted forward with her head held high. Everyone here is dressed so fancy and important looking, she thought. She was well aware of how out of place she looked in her training clothes that were currently covered in dirt and grass stains from sparring with Izo earlier. Maybe if I act all confident and important, nobody will suspect anything, she told herself, though she was painfully aware of the strange looks she was getting as she strutted down the hall.
A short statured figure making his way toward a staircase near the back of the room caught Loca’s attention. I know that guy, she realized. He’s the one who jumped on Commander Bardo earlier! Lieutenant Hawkes! He’s so cool! She bounded after him excitedly as he descended the staircase.
It got darker and colder the further down they went. The bottom of the courthouse had a dramatically different atmosphere than the impressive and dignified feeling of the main floor. This felt more like a dungeon. The ground was made of cold uneven stone that seemed to Loca like a twisted ankle just waiting to happen. It was dirty and unkempt, and the lights were dim. She had been so transfixed by the sudden change of environment that she failed to notice Hawkes slip out of sight. Where’d he go? Then she heard voices coming from somewhere around the corner.
“Have you got a conformation on his identity?” Hawkes was asking.
“Yes, sir. It’s him, alright,” came a man’s voice.
“He didn’t fight back at all when we searched him,” a woman added. “Seems a bit strange considering his reputation.”
That sounds like Numen and Cobalt… Loca remembered the two soldiers who had spoken out against Bardo when the Flaming Arrow had first walked into her trap. She realized the commander must have stationed them here as punishment for talking back to him earlier. They know what really went down out there, and they’re probably not too happy with their current position, Loca thought. I might be able to use that to get close.
She peeked around the corner to find Hawkes standing before Bardo’s two subordinates, who were guarding a small cell. It was too dark for her to see beyond the bars, but she figured that must be where they were keeping her target. Hawkes stepped up to the cell and peered inside. “Indeed, he does have a brand on him,” he confirmed with a nod of his head. “What’s wrong with him? Is he unconscious?”
“No sir, but he refuses to speak,” Cobalt reply. “Lieutenant, you shouldn’t get so close. We have no idea what he might do.”
“He cannot do anything, shackled as he is,” Hawkes said confidently. “Keep up the good work, you two. I must report this to General Morgana.” He turned and headed back toward the staircase. Loca hid behind a nearby pillar as he scurried past her, and she waited until he disappeared up the stairs before making her next move.
“You! Behind the pillar!” Numen’s voice barked suddenly. “Why are you sneaking around here? Come out!”
Shoot! Did he see me come in? Loca wondered in panic. Taking a breath to calm her nerves, she stepped out from behind the pillar sheepishly. “Um… Hi!” she chirped. “Please don’t be angry! I did not mean to scare you! I was just delivering some papers and got lost on my way back! I’m sorry!”
Numen’s face relaxed a bit when he saw who it was. “Oh, it’s you…” he growled.
“You’re the kid who designs those trap things, right?” Cobalt added. “This whole situation must be very frustrating for you.”
“Well, it was at first…” Loca admitted. “But I’m over it! I’m sure the commander has his reasons!”
Numen scoffed. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked. “Trust me, Recruit, there’s always a selfish reason behind everything that bastard does.”
“Quiet!” Cobalt snapped. “That mouth of yours has caused us enough trouble lately!”
“You’re one to talk! You told him off, too!”
“All I did was offer a suggestion! What were you thinking, calling him a reject?”
As they continued to bicker, Loca stepped around Numen and peered into the cell. The Flaming Arrow was kneeling on his knees with his back facing the door. He had a shackle around his neck that was attached to the floor by two thick chains, and his arms were outstretched out and upward by two more chains that attached to the ceiling. He’d been stripped of his clothes and items that he had been carrying when Loca first saw him, and was now wearing only a loose pair of brown shaggy pants that were obviously too large for his thin figure. He was covered in bruises and dried blood, but Loca could just make out a tattoo sitting right between his shoulder blades and running down the middle of his back. It looked to be some kind of tribal design resembling a blade that widened out in the center and had wisps coming from it. Loca realized that must have been what Hawkes was referring to when he said the man was branded.
“Hey!” Numen barked again, causing Loca to jump. “Get away from there this instant!” he ordered. “Why are you even still here? Get lost!”
“I’m sorry!” Loca squeaked, backing away from him. “Its just that I’m kinda bummed that the commander didn’t put me in charge of watching him. It was my trap that got him!”
“I thought you said you were over that?” Cobalt said with a raised brow.
“I just meant I wasn’t mad at the commander,” Loca clarified. “I don’t like holding grudges, but I do think it’s unfair the way things turned out. Can’t I hang out here for a while? You guys don’t seem very happy about being here, anyway.”
“We’re soldiers, kid. We’re never happy,” Numen grumbled. “Besides, this isn’t a job for recruits. This guy is on a whole other level.”
“But you’re just standing here?” Loca pointed out with a confused tilt of her head. “And I’m not a kid, I’m twenty-one!”
“Really? You look like you’re fucking twelve…”
“Numen!” Cobalt slapped Numen upside the head before turning back to Loca. “Listen, Recruit… As harsh as it sounds, he’s right. You really don’t have enough experience for-…”
“Vanguard! At my side right this instant!” an urgent voice echoed through the dungeon, cutting her off. The three of them turned to see a familiar scarred and rugged looking soldier charging toward them.
“Sarge?” Loca cocked her head in confusion.
“What’s going on, sir?” Numen asked.
Sarge looked panicked as he responded, “The zaro has escaped into the courtyard!”