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"Yeah," I respond.
"Have you served or graduated from the Academy before?"
"Yeah, we're Adventurers."
The man hands me a piece of paper. "Fill this out and hand it to Lieutenant Elinnore in front of the castle gates. She's the one with orange pigtails. When you're finished, wait on the right side."
I take a pencil from the other man before continuing up the trail. Ruby asks, "What's the paper fer?
I skim over it and answer, "Looks like we have to answer a few questions about us."
"Kai, look," Marin says. I look up and then widen my eyes. The castle is in view in front of us. Everything seems to be at least twice the size of the Academy. The main structure and the walls surrounding it. I have seen it before from afar, but never up close. I admire the view, forgetting about what's on the piece of paper.
The people ahead are separated into two groups; one on the left side and the other on the right. Soon enough, we arrive at the front of the castle and join the group on the right side. There are many familiar faces around here. Particularly the teams we fought in the tournament. We stop next to Hina's group.
"Y'all made it," the guy with a buckler says.
"Yeah, but what's going on here?" I ask.
"Not sure. They haven't said anything yet."
I look toward the three in armor in front of the gates. One of the men is calling out names. Lieutenant Elinnore drops a few papers on top of the table. The last one is sitting in front of a table. He's shuffling through the papers in front of him. I glance down at the paper I'm holding. I look around and say, "We still need to fill this out…but where do I—"
"I got ya," the guy with a buckler says and then squats down.
"It's fine. I can do it," Marin interrupts and crouches down. She places a hand flat on the ground. A few seconds later, a small wooden pillar rises from the dirt. I place the paper on it. I skip the irrelevant questions.
Year of Academy graduation.
Are you joining as a group?
What are the names and roles of the members in the group?
I look at the s.p.a.ce below, finding eight places to fill in. I knit my eyebrows. Eight blanks…so we can have eight members in a group? We have three and Hina has four…
I raise my head and ask, "Hey, can't we combine our groups into one?"
"It's not possible," Hina answers immediately. "I already asked earlier. They're tryin' to split the power as evenly as possible into different groups."
"I see," I reply and then fill in our names and roles. Below is a block of text. "Hey, this looks important. Ruby, Marin, come read this too."
"'Kay!" Ruby exclaims and then stands next to me. Marin stands on the other side.
You will form a special cla.s.s platoon composed of 8 individuals called the Sigma Platoon. Missing members will be filled in by new recruits or by individuals from The Reserve. Only one member can be leader and hold the military rank in-name. The rank applies to the entire platoon, and other members won't have any additional roles. Choose from the names above your leader.
I press the pencil into the paper but don't write anything.
"Kai, what're you hesitating for? Marin asks.
"Well, we should discuss—"
"There's no way I can do something like that… Ruby won't care either. Right, Ruby?"
"Yeah! Kai's our leader!" I smile and fill in my name.
"Kai?" multiple people ask around me. The familiar faces I saw earlier turn toward us.
I turn toward Ruby and then point toward the three in front of the gates. "Ruby, take this and turn this in for us."
"'Kay!" she exclaims and takes the paper and pencil from me. She skips the way there. "Elinnore~ Elinnore~!"
A group of people comes toward us.
"Yo," a girl greets. I recognize her as the dagger girl from the tournament. "You're still alive."
"Hey," I greet back. I count them from left to right; all six of them are there. "All of you are still alive."
"Yep, our teamwork's pretty good!" she exclaims and then smiles smugly. "You should learn from us."
"Excuse me?" I ask.
"Hmm… Where's the rest of your group?" she asks while glancing left and right. "Oh, that's right. They all got themselves killed like the idiot on your team!"
She laughs loudly. I grit my teeth and fists while glaring at her. Another girl puts a hand on dagger girl's shoulder and says, "Ada, that's enough. Leave them alone."
She's the girl we took hostage in the tournament. Ada asks, "Aisha, you heard it too, didn't you? Everyone did."
"Ada, your name was it? Take it back. What you said about Hiro and them," I demand. "I won't let you spit on their graves."
"Or what?" She asks and then laughs. "Are you gonna kill me like your team killed each other? That Castalia kid's better off—"
I draw my weapon and point it at her. She backs away. Chatter around us stops. Eyes around linger on us. "Shut up, or I'll make you shut up."
"Kai," Marin says quietly and puts a hand on my arm. I shrug it off.
"Resorting to violence, just like them. You're working with them aren't you?"
"What the h.e.l.l are you talking about?"
"Ada, stop," a guy says. Ada pushes his arms out of her way.
"Team Aisha, come forward," A man says loudly. "Powell and John from the left side come forward."
"Everyone saw it. You were trying to claim that Sitos was innocent. That he wasn't one of them. But he was. And everyone here knows it!" Ada exclaims. Two guys pull her back. "And everyone here should know that you're a traitor! Only a traitor would defend sc.u.m like him!"
"I'm back! What's goin' on?" Ruby asks. I sheathe my sword and bite my lip.
"I'll apologize on behalf of Ada. Sorry." Aisha says with a bow before walking away with the rest of her team. I turn away from all the prying eyes around us. The chatter around us resumes.
I lower my head and ask, "Why the h.e.l.l does Ada know about Sitos…?"
"Haven't ya heard? Everyone's talkin' 'bout Castalia and their involvement in the attack. Sitos is one of the names mentioned in the report," the guy with a buckler informs.
Report… I glance over to Ruby. She's smiling as usual. Not knowing she's the cause of everything.
I glare at the buckler guy and ask, "Do you believe it too? The report."
"Stop it," Hina says abruptly. "It's the truth, isn't it? I heard parts of it from Luna yesterday."
Hina gestures her head toward Ruby. Ruby tilts her head sideways and asks, "Who's Luna?"
Hina knits her eyebrows. I answer quickly, "Well, some stuff happened… Her name's Ruby now."
"Yep, that's me!" Ruby exclaims.
"I see… In any case, you shouldn't be pickin' fights with everyone unless you have proof because the army does. You won't last."
"Team Kai, come forward. Vicki and Kama from the left side come forward."
"We're up. Let's go," I say and walk toward the front.
"Bye, Hina," Marin says behind me. A woman and a man from the other group are walking toward the front of the gate where the man in armor stands. We arrive shortly after them. They appear to be at least twice our age.
"Follow me," the man instructs as he walks inside. We follow. "I am Lieutenant Petrus. Major Gaius has decided that you five and three Soldiers from The Reserve will form Sigma 4. You will meet the other three members some time after orientation held at 4:30 PM at the Crossroads. You will find it at the center of the first floor in the Castle."
We enter the courtyard. I widen my eyes, witnessing the grand size of the Castle. It looks more amazing up close. The trail leading into the courtyard splits off into two paths on the left and right. The path on the right appears to lead into the Castle while the left leads into a smaller building and somewhere else off to the side.
Lieutenant Petrus continues, "For now, the three of you will help train Vicki and Kama until you receive new orders later. You will find various types of weapons placed in the barrels in the courtyard. The archery range is located behind the Castle. They never had any training, so it is up to you to help them choose a role. Kai."
"Yes," I respond.
"Major Gaius has granted you the rank Corporal. Ruby and Marin are granted the rank Soldier. Vicki and Kama, you two will be only granted the rank Soldier when you have completed basic training. Any questions?"
"I have one, Lieutenant Petrus," I say.
"What is it, Corporal Kai?"
I hesitate for a moment before asking, "When will we look for the ones responsible for the attack?"
"That is not up to me, however… I suspect that General Nero will not make any moves until the bulk of our elites return from their mission in Neomeris."
I clench my fists and look down. He continues, "If you manage to reach the Lieutenant rank, you may start your own investigations with upper bra.s.s permission…or reach the Captain rank and go without it."
"Yes, if you do good work, you will progress quickly. Now, carry out your task Corporal Kai."
"Yes sir!" I answer with a salute. He smiles and then walks back. I turn toward the two new additions to our group. "Well, you heard him. What're your names?"
"I'm Kama," the man answers. He has short black hair, a mustache, and a small beard. He seems completely out of shape with his belly protruding outward.
"My name's Vicki," the woman answers. She's the opposite of Kama, but not in a good way. She's on the thin side. I can't see battle ending well for either one of these two.
"Well… What kind of weapon do you want to use?"
"Hmm… I'm not sure. What kinds of weapons are there?" Kama asks.
"There are weapons like mine that favor speed and precision over pure power, weapons that are very heavy and hit hard, and weapons for combat from afar."
"I think the bow Marin has would suit me best," Vicki says.
"Marin can teach you the basics, right?"
"Yeah… Um… Follow me," Marin says and then heads toward the opening on the left side of the Castle. Vicki follows her.
"Have you decided on a weapon?" I ask.
"I'm still not sure."
I sigh and then say, "Well, you can decide later. Come with me."
I walk toward the barrels far in front of us. I shuffle through one of them and then pick out a long wooden sword. I hand it to Kama. He asks, "What should I do with this?"
I lead him to an open area away from everyone else. I hold one of my swords with both hands in front of me. "Practice this motion of swinging the sword."
I swing the sword down from above in front of me twice. "Now, you try it."
He brings the blade up and then swings it down. His form is wrong. "Like this?"
"Keep your back straight. Your shoulders are too tense. Relax them," I instruct. I circle around him as he swings it down over and over again. I put away my sword. "Move your left foot a little more back. Straighten out your entire arm through the motion of the swing."
"Looking better. Just keep doing that until you can't anymore," I instruct.
"What should I do?" she asks.
"There's nothing to do right…" It's getting noisy at the front of the Castle gates. There has not been another group to go inside after us either. "Kama, I'm gonna check something out! Just keep practicing!"
I run back out toward the gates, Ruby coming along with me. There's a guard in addition to the three officials next to the table. As we get closer, I ask, "What's going on?
"That's a problem," Major Gaius says.
"Reinforcements are needed at the Academy," Lieutenant Petrus answers.
The Academy?! I think back to what Moria told me. This is my chance!
I smile before exclaiming, "If you need reinforcements, let me take part!"
"Who are you?" the guard asks.
"Sorry, but Moria instructed me to bring veterans only."
"I'll allow it," Major Gaius says.
"What?! But sir…"
"We don't have any Delta or Omega platoons to spare. Most of our forces are in Neomeris right now, and our remaining units were injured in the recent attack. These two here and the remaining recruits over there are the best we can offer right now."
"At least come with us, Major Gaius."
"I don't want to."
"I'll stay here and handle the recruitment process. If the enemy comes my way, I'll take care of them. Lieutenant Petrus and Lieutenant Elinnore go with them."
"We're comin' too," Hina declares. The four of them come forward.
"Me too!" Ruby exclaims.
"Take eight more, and you'll be fine. Can we get more volunteers?"
Some familiar faces appear; the team we fought in the second round of the tournament. There are three of them. Five other I don't recognize come along too. A few of them have ten years above us. The sixteen of us and the messenger head to the Academy, eventually meeting up with Moria.
Moria facepalms himself and shakes his head. "I thought I specifically asked for veterans, did I not? Over half of these faces are recent Academy graduates."
"Well… Major Gaius said this was all that was available for immediate deployment. Lieutenant Elinnore and Lieutenant Petrus are here as well."
"It'll be fine, Moria," I say with a smile.
"It cannot be helped. Kai, you and the other rookies will have to stay in the back," Moria says and then leads us to the entrance of the Underground. Four other instructors are waiting for us.
"What are those kids doing here?" another instructor asks.
"I asked the same thing, but we have to make do. They will stay in the back. Have there been any movements?" Moria asks. One of the other instructors shakes his head. "Let us go. Remember to stay close together and cover our flank."
We nod our heads, and then Moria opens the door to the Underground. Two of the instructors stay behind. We go down many flights of stairs in a dimly lit pa.s.sage, eventually reaching the large open area. I take out both of my swords. The other instructor provides additional light. I haven't seen anything unusual yet. Moria says, "We will check the ruins area first."
We slowly creep around every corner checking around us at every second of the way. Half of us climb onto nearby buildings to get a better view. Ruby and I remain on the ground. No one says anything. At least ten minutes pa.s.s when suddenly, someone screams. I immediately turn toward the girl who screamed. She's on the ground. There are no signs of the enemy around her, but there's something on the ground.
I move closer to check, my heart skipping a beat as I find a b.l.o.o.d.y arm on the ground. Moria and the other veterans rejoin us. The other instructor lights the view ahead of us, revealing more cutoff limbs and something more. Moria utters, "My goodness…"
I walk down the path. Several unclothed bodies of young girls and boys lay lifelessly on the ground. Gashes, punctures, and burn marks decorate their corpses. Their genitals mutilated. I discover a body in a healthier condition compared to the rest. She only has a few minor cuts and bruises. There's a metal collar around her neck. I check her pulse and then declare, "She's still alive."
"That is good to hear," the other instructor says.
"Lieutenant Petrus, be a gentleman and escort her out of here," Lieutenant Elinnore says.
Lieutenant Petrus puts away his weapon, picks up the naked girl, and then answers, "Right. I will drop her off with the two other instructors and be back."
Lieutenant Petrus leaves with the girl. Someone else exclaims, "There are more survivors over here!"
We discover three other confirmed survivors grouped in one spot, though their injuries are serious. One of them is missing both of their legs while the other two lack an arm. The girl who screamed earlier casts Healing magic on them to stop the bleeding. There's another body a bit farther in front of us. Moria's running toward her, so I search around us.
"The enemy!" Moria exclaims suddenly. There's a masked man standing between Moria and the body in the distance. I gulp.
This is my chance… I tightly grip my swords and charge toward him.
"You finally—" Our blades meet. He's using two short swords, one in each hand.
"Kai, what are you doing?!" Moria exclaims. "Get back!"
The masked man laughs and then says, "Oh, it's you again."
He pushes me back with brute force and launches me back. I slide several feet on the ground. He knows me?
"How dare ya do that ta Kai!" Ruby exclaims and then runs forward. Moria stops her.
"Stop. He has a hostage," Moria says. Lieutenant Elinnore and the other veterans make a line at the front. I stand up. Hina and the others stand vigilant around me.
"Hostage? You mean her?" the masked man asks as points to the girl behind him. He puts away his weapons and then walks toward her. He kneels down and then smacks her across the face multiple times. "Hey, wake up."
The girl screams while flailing her limbs around. The masked man picks her up and then chucks her in our direction. He laughs and then says, "I don't wanna hold you back. Take her."
Moria and the others don't move. Moria says, "Stand up, quickly. You will be safe soon."
The girl smiles as she looks up. Her legs are shaky as she tries to stand up. She's about to take a step forward when suddenly, a large explosion erupts around her. I close my eyes as a gust of air pushes me back. What happened to Moria?!
I open my eyes, finding the eight who were in the front on the ground. There's a wall of water in front of them. The masked man runs off and yells, "See ya suckers!"
I bite my lip, stand up, and then chase after him. I won't let him get away!
"Kai, no!" Moria exclaims behind me.
"Kai, wait fer me!" Ruby exclaims as she follows me. I chase closely after the masked man in several twists and turns. Suddenly, he jumps from wall to wall and climbs onto the top of a tall structure. I raise my eyebrows. Those movements!
I recall the same movements from that day. A masked man dragged a woman to an alleyway and then jumped up the walls to get away. I grit my teeth. I turn toward the direction he ran to as soon as I can, but I don't see him anymore. It's still not too late!
I run in the most likely direction he would run in: toward the entrance of the Underground. I have no idea where he is while running senselessly. I stop running as I discern something odd near me. There's a big rock next to a wall. There shouldn't be any rocks in the Underground. I sheathe my weapons and then move closer to the rock. It's blocking something.
I grab both ends of the rock and pull. A small pa.s.sage is revealed. I release a small amount of fire from a finger on my left hand to illuminate the tunnel. It's slanted about 45 degrees downward and can barely fit one person. The surface inside is made of dirt. This must be where he fled to… Should I tell everyone else about this...? No... If I do, Moria won't let me go down there, and the enemy would be long gone. It's now or never.
I gulp and then squeeze into the crawls.p.a.ce. The end isn't in sight. About five minutes pa.s.s when a thought enters my mind. Wait, what if this is a trap…?
I stop moving forward and attempt to move backward, but it's impossible at this angle. I reluctantly continue moving forward. There's a faint sound in the distance. A steady, constant sound. It becomes clear when I get closer; it's the sound of a water current. The exit is in sight.
I climb out of the hole, finding myself in the sewers. There's no sign of the enemy. I sigh. Continuing to pursue him would be pointless. There are too many places he could have gone. I climb back into the hole in the wall and make my way back up without a light aid. My pace is slower compared to going down.
How long has it been? I just wanna get out of this place… The air around me is murky, and my entire body feels damp. It feels like I should be able to see the exit by now, but there is only darkness. Eventually, I reach a dead end. Huh?
I reach the end with my hand and push. The rock I moved is in the way again. I push it out of the way. I gasp for air while climbing out of the pa.s.sage.
"Kai, it is just you…" Moria says with a sigh. I look up, finding Moria, Ruby, Lieutenant Elinnore, and several others I don't recognize gathered around me. Over half of the others aren't present. They have their weapons out and appear tense. They sigh and then put away their weapons. "We have been looking for you. What have you been doing?"
"Well… I found this suspicious looking rock and moved it. I thought the masked man might have used this as his escape route, so I went in to check it out. It led to the sewers. There was no sense in trying to find him there, so I came back."
"How reckless." Moria shakes his head. "It is good that nothing happened to you."
"What were you guys doing here?"
"We were looking for you until she found this suspicious rock blocking the hole," Moria says as he points to Ruby I knit my eyebrows. "I suspected the masked men entered the Academy through here and decided to keep watch after moving the rock back."
"What do you mean she found a suspicious rock blocking the hole? I didn't move it back after I went in. Ruby, you're sure that you found it that way?"
"That is troubling to hear. The others could be in danger. Let us hurry," Moria suggests. Footsteps approach us.
"Moria, there's trouble!" Hina exclaims as she and her group run over to us. "Lieutenant Petrus' missin'!"
"What do you mean?" Moria asks.
"We brought a batch of survivors to the entrance, but the two instructors stationed there didn't expect us. I asked about Lieutenant Petrus, and they told me he hasn't pa.s.sed through there."
"That is not good. We learned that the enemy might still be in here with us. Where is everyone else?"
"They're split up lookin' for more survivors."
"Let us meet up with them quickly. But we cannot leave this place unguarded."
"I'll be fine here by myself. You should hurry and meet up with the others," Lieutenant Elinnore says.
"Alright. We will be back," Moria says and then runs in the direction Hina came from. The rest of us follow. We go toward the area where the tournament game 'Watch Your Step' took place. Along the way, the axe guy from the team we fought in the second round of the tournament calls out to us from behind.
"Oh s.h.i.t, Moria, you're here!" he exclaims with his hands wrapped around the sides of his head. We turn back to where he is at the entrance of a structure. "We-we found Lieutenant Petrus… He-he's…!"
"Calm down Balan. I am glad you are okay. Where are the others?" Moria asks.
"I'm only with Zeke and Ain. I dunno about the rest. I was too scared to move from this building."
"Take us to Lieutenant Petrus." Balan leads us into a room where the other two members of his team are. The two are sitting against the wall. Lieutenant Petrus is lying on the ground face up with a pool of blood around his neck. His throat has been slit. A familiar scene. "What happened to the girl?"
"We don't know. She wasn't around when we arrived."
"I see. Let us hurry and find the others." We resume our course toward the 'Watch Your Step' area. The other instructor and the last two members of our team are standing outside the entrance. "Thank G.o.d, you are all okay."
"Yes, we are. What is wrong?" the other instructor asks.
"The enemy might still be in the Underground area. Lieutenant Petrus is no longer with us," Moria informs.
"Did you find any more survivors?"
"No, we did not. There was nothing in this entire area."
Moria closes his eyes for several seconds with a hand around his chin. "Let us rejoin with Lieutenant Elinnore and leave this place."
"What about the masked men?"
"We have higher priorities right now: the survivors. We will seal the hole we found earlier and pick up the bodies as a group. We will scout the area again another day." With that, we head back to that area. Lieutenant Elinnore reports that nothing happened. Moria kneels down and puts one of his hands into the tunnel. Several seconds later, dirt from the top of the tunnel falls.
Afterward, we make our way to Lieutenant Petrus' body. Two people carry his body, and then we make our way to the first place we discovered bodies. Ruby picks up several severed limbs to carry back. I take two bodies with me. Eventually, everyone's is carrying something. We return to the entrance of the Underground where the other two instructors are waiting. We drop the bodies and limbs on the ground.
Moria asks, "Where are the survivors?"
One of the instructors answers, "They're in one of the training rooms. The medics sent from the Castle are attending to them now. What happened to Lieutenant Petrus?"
"We do not know. He was found dead. Our next priority should be finding out who these survivors are."
"Can you take care of things here on your own now?" Lieutenant Elinnore asks.
"Yes, we will be fine for now. Good work," Moria says.
"Well then, we'll be on our way. Orientation has started already," Lieutenant Elinnore says as she heads out. We follow behind.
"See ya, Moria."
"Take care, Kai."
We make our way back to the Castle.