“I apologize for the delay, Lady Sonja.”
“I am well aware of the spoliation that has affected your district, General. There is no need for an apology.”
General Morgana stood gazing out the window of her third-floor office as the sun continued to creep higher and higher into the morning sky. The signature orange glow of dawn had long since passed, and she was growing antsier by the minute. Where the hell was Hawkes? It was unlike him to be late with anything.
Sighing, Morgana turned around to face her guest seated in the red Victorian style leather chair that sat at the opposite end of her desk; a woman with shoulder length blonde hair sporting a gothic red and black laced corset held together by four large silver buckles down the front. Secured around her waist was a large leather belt equipped with various pockets, knives, keys, watches, and basically any kind of gadget one could imagine. Hanging around her neck was a thin rope with three amethyst crystals that rested across her chest.
Leaning against the wall nearby was a shorter man with short light brown hair and a lightly trimmed mustache. He wore a simple brown tunic shirt and baggy green pants. Like the woman sitting before him, he also possessed an amethyst necklace, though he only bore one crystal as opposed to three. His belt contained several rolled up scrolls and writing utensils.
“Lady Sonja,” Morgana addressed the woman in the chair. “If I may be frank, I think it would be unwise for you and your party to venture east. Many of my soldiers were injured during the zaro fiasco, three of which were assigned to be your escort team. Finding replacements with the proper qualifications for this kind of expedition takes time. If word of what’s happened here has reached those residing outside the walled territory, you will be facing trouble. Some of these guilds will look for any excuse not to cooperate, and you damn well know that those cannibals lurking in the marshes will take advantage of such disarray.”
Sonja furrowed her brow and lifted her chin up slightly at this suggestion. “With all due respect, General…” she stated firmly. “You and I both know that it is the job of the Accordance League to ensure a peaceful and successful partnership between Gederah and its surrounding guilds. By delaying our routes, we are openly admitting that Gederah has been weakened. That is what will trigger any acts of insurgence. If word of what’s happened here has reached the guilds, we must convey that it has not shaken us. Our presence is needed now more than ever. Now, I suggest you focus more on doing your job rather than worry about how I choose to do mine.”
“Unless of course, you don’t believe your soldiers to be competent enough to do their jobs?” the mustached man added with a raised brow.
Morgana leaned back in her chair as the two stared her down. “My apologies. It wasn’t my intention to overstep.”
It was at that moment that the doors to Morgana’s office swung open and Hawkes slid into the room before deftly closing and locking the door behind him. He appeared slightly disheveled, with his glasses skewed awkwardly across his face and clothes a bit ruffled. He promptly dusted himself off and approached the desk.
“Colonel Hawkes, there you are! Is the escort squad ready for departure?” Morgana asked.
“Affirmative, General, but there is a slight problem…” Hawkes began just as a heavy pounding began on the other side of the door behind him.
“What is that?” Morgana questioned.
“That…” Hawkes panted, pointing back towards the door, “…may just be the most tenacious recruit I’ve ever encountered. He approached me as I was readying the soldiers, demanding to speak with you.” BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! The aggressive pounding continued as he spoke.
“I don’t have time to be entertaining the rookies, Colonel. Get him out of here.”
“I’m afraid he insists,” Hawkes grumbled just as the door began to crack from the repeated blows.
“You might as well hear what he has to say,” Sonja advised. “The sooner you deal with him, the sooner we get out of here.”
“What was it you said earlier about worrying about your own job?” Morgana growled with a sideways glare at Sonja. She contemplated her options for a moment before motioning for Hawkes to open the door. “Very well, Colonel. Let him in before he brings the whole building down.”
The door slammed open the moment Hawkes undid the lock and in stormed Elias, fully decked in his dark green expedition gear and signature oversized hatchet strapped to his hip along with various other blades and materials.
“Make this quick, Recruit. I’m on a tight schedule,” Morgana said firmly.
“I want on the Accordance League’s escort team,” Elias told her.
“Denied,” Morgana immediately rejected. “The journey of the Accordance League isn’t fit for a rookie such as yourself.”
“Now hold on a minute, General,” Sonja interrupted. She stood up from her chair and eyed Elias curiously as she approached him. She took note of his enormous size, bulging muscles, the long twisted scar that wrapped around his arm, and devilish black eyes. “You’re a recruit?” she asked in disbelief. “Could have fooled me. You’re the epitome of domineering!”
Elias’ eyes shifted to the three amethysts dangling around her neck. “You’re the one in charge of the Accordance League?” he guessed.
“Correct. My name is Lady Sonja Ragasuci. What do they call you?”
“Elias Rubigo from squad C-408.”
“You posses a surname. Are you not a Hotblood?”
“Interesting…” Sonja muttered to herself as she continued to circle around him with interest. “Tell me, Mr. Rubigo… Why are you so eager to come along on this journey?” Sonja questioned.
“The Flaming Arrow has taken my comrade hostage…” Elias began.
“An Elite team has already been dispatched in pursuit of the Flaming Arrow,” Morgana interjected, cutting him off. “What’s more, it is not the responsibility of the Accordance League to account for missing soldiers.”
“Perhaps not,” Sonja added. “However, I wouldn’t be opposed to having someone like him to escort my party. The Accordance League strives for peaceful interactions with the guilds, but we still must make a point of showing that discordance will not be tolerated. The Vanguard not only protects us against the ghouls; they serve as a warning to those who may consider retaliation upon our arrival. Wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened to Ravenvale, would we? Those Hotblood brutes you usually assign to us were all on the frontlines during the zaro attack and are being treated for their injuries. If the guilds notice a decline in the quality of soldiers being sent with the Accordance League, it could spell trouble for all of us.”
Morgana was still uneasy as her gaze flicked back and forth from Sonja to Elias. “I do not share your confidence in this recruit, Lady Sonja. But as the leader of the Accordance League, you have the right to request whichever soldiers you see fit to get the job done during your travels. And as for you…” she said, shifting her attention to Elias. “Do not think this brazen approach of yours has gone unnoticed. Do not forget that I am your general. I won’t tolerate this behavior a second time.”
“Understood,” Elias growled quietly.
“Then let us not delay this process any longer,” Sonja concluded. “Colonel Hawkes, if you would please ready a horse for Mr. Rubigo and meet us by the gate...”
“Do not overstep your boundaries, Lady Sonja,” Morgana warned. “You may have the right to choose who joins your party, but you do not have the authority to give orders to my soldiers.”
“My apologies, General.” Sonja replied politely as she exited the office with Elias and the other League member.
Once alone in the office, Hawkes flashed a questioning look in Morgana’s direction. “So what are your orders, General?” he asked.
“Just ready the damn horse,” Morgana grumbled.
* * *
As Elias followed Sonja and her subordinate out of the building, he noticed Izo and Mel making their way across the courtyard after Bacheo, who appeared to be making a conscious effort in taking larger strides to avoid them.
“Why should I give a shit where the damn brute ran off to?” Bacheo snarled without so much as a glance back over his shoulder.
“You were Captain Anthony’s second, thus you assume his duties in the event of his death!” Mel shouted after him. “That includes knowing the whereabouts of your teammates! You have to-…”
“I don’t have to do anything, you fucking rat child!” Bacheo snapped, whirling around suddenly to face them. Mel flinched under his murderous approach while Izo completely fell over backwards and cowered away from him. “You want me to be your damn captain? Fine! Here’s my first command: Get out of my sight! I’m fucking done with this conversation!”
“Lay off!” Elias cut in suddenly, stepping between the arguing soldiers to tower threateningly over Bacheo, who seemed to contemplate meeting his challenger before thinking better of it and stepping away. Though he hated Elias, he knew better than to pick a fight with him after the much larger soldier had nearly snapped his neck with one hand just days earlier. Bacheo gave an irritated snort before sauntering off.
“Thanks for that!” Izo squeaked while smiling sheepishly up at Elias.
“Where did you go?” Mel inquired his friend with a curious tilt of the head.
“I’m leaving,” Elias said, turning his attention toward the two teenagers now standing in front of him. “I’m leaving with the Accordance League.”
Izo cast a concerned glance toward Mel, who just stared at Elias blankly as if he were struggling to process his friend’s words.
“I have to find Reima and following the League is my only chance to do so,” Elias explained.
“Elias, please…” Mel said, his eyes pleading. “We shouldn’t split up. I want my sister back just as much as you do, but we have to be smart about this. Let’s wait until we’re given our next assignment. We can look for her together.”
“We don’t have time to wait around!” Elias argued. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bacheo had paused and looked back over his shoulder to listen in on their conversation, but Elias ignored him. ‘Captain’ or not, it was clear who would be getting the final say in this situation should the foul-mouthed soldier try to stop him.
“Rubigo!” Sonja called out from across the courtyard. Elias glanced up to see her and the other three League members already mounted on their horses with a small group of Vanguard soldiers surrounding them. One of them held the reins of a massive black stallion equipped with an empty saddle and strong but lightweight armor. “Time to go!”
“You were the ones who decided to live as soldiers, not me,” Elias told Mel. “My purpose in this world is to ensure the safety of the family who saved my life. You don’t have the hardiness required of a soldier, but you’re smart enough not to get yourself killed. The same can’t be said about your sister.”
“And what does that say about you, huh?” Mel countered. “Do you even have a plan once you get out there?”
“Survival is all I’ve ever known. My strength is all I need. Don’t worry, I’ll find your sister and when I do I’ll bring her home as soon as I can.”
Without saying another word, Elias turned his back and marched back toward where Sonja and the others were waiting by the gate that led to the outside world. He could hear Izo talking gently to Mel in an attempt to comfort him.
“Hey, don’t worry! I’m sure he’ll be fine. Elias is the strongest guy I know!”
“Physically, yes…” Mel agreed. “But he lacks any sort of practicality. He thinks with his heart instead of his head. That kind of logic will get you killed no matter how strong you are.”
That may be true, Elias thought, but it didn’t matter. With every fiber of his being, Elias believed his sole purpose in life was to ensure Reima’s safety, something he’d failed at twice now. Whatever fate the gods had in store for him, he would gladly accept it as punishment for his own gross incompetence.
As he made his way across the courtyard, he briefly made eye contact with Bacheo and for a moment it seemed as if the silver-haired soldier was going to challenge him, but it never happened. There was an intense gleam in those amber eyes as they followed him across the courtyard that Elias couldn’t quite place. Hatred? Envy? Anguish? Again, it didn’t matter. The only thing he cared about was getting Reima back.
Taking the reins from his fellow Vanguard soldier, he mounted his horse and waited for the gate to rise before digging his heels into his horse’s side and bursting forth into the wilderness. Including him, there were five soldiers positioned in a protective ring around the four members of the Accordance League. Lady Sonja galloped towards the front of the group, leading the way as the sound of thundering hooves on dirt roared through the morning air. As the group ventured further and further into ghoul-infested territory, only one thought crossed Elias’ mind.
I’m sorry, Reima. I couldn’t keep to my end of the promise.