The Selection

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Chapter 48 - Drosera Army - Return

Marin and I approach the group of three people chatting outside the residence.

“Excuse me,” I say and then hold out the request in front of me. “Does this look familiar to you?

“Yes, I put in that request yesterday,” the middle-aged woman responds.

“I’m Sergeant Kai, the leader Sigma Platoon 4. I’m gonna take your case.”

“Oh, really? You’ll be able to find him?!” the woman exclaims.

“Yeah, I pro…” I close my lips and frown. I think to last week. The consequences. I gulp before continuing, “We’ll do our best to find him. We need you to give us more on what happened before he disappeared.”

“Of course. It was last week. My husband came home saying that he joined an Adventurer’s group, even though he doesn’t have a license.”

“That’s not possible. Everyone part of an Adventurer’s team needs a license to register it at the Adventurer’s Hub.”

“That’s the part that worried me at first. He said that they didn’t have licenses either, but they had a client who would pay them directly.”

“What does your husband do? You should’ve stopped him from doing something so reckless. Someone without training wouldn’t be able to fight monsters.”

“Oh, no. I’m not worried about that. He attended the Academy, so he knows how to fight. But he dropped out to open his own restaurant. It hasn’t been doing well recently.”

“I see. Do you know the details of their mission?”

“My husband said it was a simple task. They had to gather supplies in a forest near the base of the mountain.”

“When did they leave?”

“Last week.”

“Okay. I’ll gather my team, and we’ll head out immediately.”

“Wait,” the woman says and then turns toward the young couple next to her.

“You’re headed to the base of the mountain, right?” the young man asks. “Two of my former teammates joined an Adventurer’s group last week too.”

“Former teammates? You were in an Adventurer’s group with them?”

“Yeah. Up until the Incident. They wanted to continue, but I didn’t. They’re not so weak to fall to Horned Rabbits.”

“Their mission was to hunt them?”

“Yeah. And to collect an herb that grows abundantly in a forest outside Beltan. Something must’ve happened.”

“I see. We’ll let you know if we find any clues, but we can’t put a priority on it without an official request.”

“I submitted a detailed request this morning to the Request Center. Originally, a group separate from the army offered assistance and left looking for them, but I can’t trust them. Please take it before you leave.”

I frown. He looks at me with widened eyes filled with hope. I sigh. “Okay, we’ll take it before we leave. We’ll be on our way now.”

I bow my head. Marin does the same.We head toward the Castle, eventually arriving in the Request Center. I look through the open requests. My eyes stop on one.

My son may have been deceived. He doesn’t have an Adventurer’s license, yet “Adventurers” recruited him into their group. He left to hunt Horned Rabbits near a forest near Beltan last week. Please find him.

I knit my eyebrows. I hand it to Marin and say, “Take a look at this. It’s another one.”

Marin frowns. “You want to take this one too?”

“Ye-yeah… It looks like they’re in the same area for sure this time. It won’t be like last time.”

“Captain Albius let us off the hook last time. I don’t think he’ll give us a second chance.”

“You’re right. But, we can do it this time. We…” I clench my fists. “We learned from our mistakes. It won’t happen again.”

“I’m okay with whatever you decide. You’re the leader. What’ll you say to Captain Albius and Jetia?”

“I’ll think of something,” I say while shifting through the other requests. I find the request submitted by the man from earlier. I hand it to Marin. I continue looking through the remainder. I read another one that catches my eye. It’s from the village of Beltan.

Our daughter is missing. We believe that she’s been kidnapped by the local bandits. Please send help.

“Don’t take it, Kai,” Marin cautions. “We already have too many requests.”

“But this is right outside where we’re going. We can successfully complete four requests in one go. It’ll negate our last three failures.”

“There’s no way Captain Albius would approve it.”

“I’ll try. If he doesn’t sign it, then it can’t be helped,” I say while skimming the last few requests in the stack. None of them relate to the ones I’ve picked out already. Marin hands me the two pieces of paper I gave her. I walk up to one of the receptionists and place the three requests on top along with my ID. “Sergeant Kai from Sigma 4. I need these three requests forwarded to Captain Albius immediately.”

He inspects my ID for a moment before replying, “Okay. I will find someone to deliver it immediately.”

I pick up my ID and say, “I want to borrow a map of Drosera too.”

“Sure thing, one moment,” he answers, picks up the three pieces of paper, and then goes into a room behind him. A minute later, he comes back and puts the map on the counter. “Please return it within a week.”

I take the map, and we leave. “Hopefully Captain Albius will respond before lunch. I’ll explain it to everyone then. I’m off to train. See ya later.”

“Okay, bye,” Marin says with a smile and waves. I wave and head to the third level. I open my locker, finding my weekly base salary inside; 15 silver coins. There is no bonus this week, but it’s not surprising considering what happened last week. I move the money over to the back corner of my locker separate from our team funds. I’ve earned 60 silver coins over the past month.

I leave the first request we accepted and the map inside before closing my locker and then head to the second floor of the training area on the first level. I go to an empty room. I stand still in one of the corners. Let’s try it again today with Scrap Mana. This time, I’ll strengthen my core too.

I move Scrap Mana into my legs, around my leg and foot muscles, instructing my Mana to strengthen them for ten seconds. I allocate it evenly around the muscles, giving larger muscles more Mana. I do the same to the core of my body. I activate my Mana and then sprint forward. I reach a quicker speed than I’m normally able to achieve with my armor on all while maintaining my balance this time.

I smile. I repeat the same process again and again. My efficiency increases a bit every time, and the time it takes to assign instructions decreases too. I sigh deeply and sit against the wall, closing my eyes.

Screams resound. I open my eyes, finding the scene from last week in front of me.

“Help!” a man yells as he is slashed from behind by a bandit. I want to run to help those still alive, but no matter how fast I run, the gap between us does not shrink.

“Kai, save me!” Hiro exclaims as he is surrounded by three men. Two of them stab him through the arms.

“Hiro!” I scream. The third man raises his sword above his head.

“It hurts!” Hiro yells while flailing his limbs. The sword swoops down. His body goes limp.

“You can’t save anyone,” a voice calls to me.

“Wake up, monkey,” Captain Albius says. I open my eyes, finding him standing in front of me. A chill runs through my body. “Your pea-sized brain still remembers what happened last week, right? Explain to me why you’re takin’ three additional requests.

I squeeze my eyes shut for a few seconds and then open them. “Yeah I remember, but this time’s different.”

“How?”

“The requests are all located around Beltan, and I’ve learned from my previous mistakes.”

“What exactly did you learn?”

“To not show any mercy to bandits.”

“I thought even a monkey would know this. I don’t have any reason to allow you to take on additional requests, but I have a reason to deny it. You failed before. Why should I risk our reputation?”

“I understand the risks, but it’s more efficient if we handle them. Other platoons can focus on different requests in separate areas. Better to address an issue sooner than later. Time’s of the essence.”

He smiles. “Very well. I’ll sign off these requests for you. You’re free to leave immediately. It’ll be in your mailbox.”

Captain Albius walks out. I lean back against the wall and sigh. Now I’ll have to explain it to everyone.

I rest briefly before heading to the cafeteria. It is almost noon. I wait in line, eventually receiving one free meal ticket. A few minutes later, I grab the tray of food and then head toward the designated meeting place. Vicki and Marin are already here.

“Hey,” I say and sit down.

“Hi,” they greet near simultaneously.

“Captain Albius approved all three.”

“I see.”

“All three what?”

“I’ll explain when everyone arrives. Where’s Ruby?”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her around much in the past week,” Marin responds. “What about you, Vicki?”

“I’m in the same boat.”

“Same here. I hope she got the letter I sent everyone yesterday.”

“I’m sure she did,” Marin says.

“Yeah,” I say and then eat my food. Later, everyone except Ruby sits down. I explain the circumstances without Ruby.

“How stupid are you?” Jetia asks. “We’re all going to pay for yer dumb decisions.”

“Think of it as an opportunity to advance. We can wipe last week off our slate if we’re successful,” I explain.”

“Dependent on if. We’re more likely to receive punishment for failing. You should’ve consulted us first before taking all of us down with you.”

“There was no time for a meeting. The longer we wait, the less chance we’ll have at resolving the requests.”

“You haven’t forgotten what happened last week, right?” Jetia asks. “What’ll we do if the same thing happens again?”

“Then we take them out with everything we’ve got.”

“So that’s your master plan? To go head-to-head with them?”

“Yeah. Things won’t end like last time if we don’t give them any room to breathe. We’ll charge at them. Does anyone have a better idea?”

Kama raises his hand and says, “I don’t have a plan…but I have a concern. Are all of us charging in?”

“Yeah, except for Marin and Vicki. Why?”

“I don’t think I can handle that level of combat…”

“What’re you talking about? You passed the exam, didn’t you? Have more confidence.”

“Passing the exam was nothing compared to real combat.” Kama turns his head toward Jetia, Banni, and Dano. “It’s the same for you guys too, right?”

I frown in response to everyone else’s frowns. Dano says, “Yeah… This is outside our scope of experience. I learned my lesson last time.”

“What’s wrong with you guys? You left The Reserve because you wanted to resolve requests, right?”

“I would like to…but I’m not strong enough,” Banni says.

“You won’t get stronger unless you fight. Don’t you improve by sparring each other? That’s how I…” I stop short and widen my eyes.

“We do spar but only see some small improvement,” Dano explains.

“I’ll start sparring and training you guys after we complete the requests,” I declare.

“You should’ve done that weeks ago. Some leader you are,” Jetia says.

I click my tongue. “Well, you never asked. How was I supposed to know you needed help?”

“I don’t need help.”

Ruby is running toward us, panting. Her run is unusual. She takes many small steps instead of longer strides. “Sorry I’m late!”

Her hair is wet. I ask, “Where were you? You missed the meeting.”

She frowns, looks away, and puts a hand on her stomach. “I was trainin’ really hard… I didn’t want ta be sweaty, so I took a shower.”

It looks like her legs might topple over any second. I sigh. “Well, we’re ready to go. We can leave as soon as you’re done eating.”

“Oh, umm… I’m not feelin’ hungry,” she says and then smiles. “I’m ready if you want ta leave now, Kai!”

“Okay, I’ll meet everyone outside the stables. I’m going to the mail station for the signed papers,” I say and then head to the third floor. I find the three pieces of paper signed by Captain Albius on top with another one signed by him on the bottom that I deposited earlier in the day. I take all four with me before closing my locker. I run down the stairs and then go to the stables. Everyone is waiting there.

I walk up to one of the guards in front of the stables entrance. I show him our signed requests and then request four horses and two wagons. Marin and I sit in the front of one wagon. Ruby and Vicki rest in the back. The others are in the wagon behind us. The clattering of wagons, chatter, and other noises erupt from the other side of the wall, steadily growing louder. We approach the front gates when suddenly they open. The two guards stationed next to the door inside step aside.

Hundreds of soldiers pass through; some on horseback while others on the back of wagons and inside convoys. There are at least two dozen of them with the symbol of Drosera engraved on the front of their armor. One of the soldiers on horseback carries a big flag with the Drosera’s symbol.

“Are they the ones who went on that mission in Neomeris everyone talks about?” Marin asks.

“Oh, yeah. That’s probably it,” I answer. They head toward the back of the Castle. It takes a few minutes for them to pass. I move my transport over to the front of the gate. I show the guards my requests, and they let us pass. I take another look at the map before handing it to Marin. “I’ll take the reins. You handle the directions.”

We head toward the only exit to the city on the south side and then proceed to the route to the village. We pass by a large group of soldiers. One of them carries another big flag with our nation’s symbol. With Marin giving directions, we arrive in about two hours. I show the guards outside the request originating from their village. One of them leads us inside.

“Kai, haven’t we been here before?” Marin asks.

I look around while knitting my eyebrows. “This place does look familiar.”

“Wait here,” the guard says. I pull back the reins. My eyes wander around the village. They stop on a farm. I remember we rested here in the past.

“We rested here for a few days after parting with Rocky,” Marin says.

“Yeah. I wonder how he’s doing now.”

“He’s probably made a lot of friends by now.”

“I hope so. It’s not easy being alone.”

Marin rests her hand on one of mine. I look around quickly. No one sees it. She smiles and says, ’You’re not alone Kai.”

I reciprocate her smile and answer, “Thanks, Marin. You too.”

The guard comes back with a couple in their 50’s. I hop off the wagon and ask, “Are you the ones who put in the request about your daughter being kidnapped?”

“Yes,” the man answers.

“I’m Sergeant Kai. I took your case,” I say and shake the man’s hand. I’ve seen him before but don’t remember where.

“Kai… That sounds familiar. Have we met before?”

Marin whispers in my ear, “They’re Ariane’s parents. We stayed at their house, remember?”

I raise my eyebrows and answer, “Yeah… I think we have. Ariane’s your daughter, right? We stayed at your place for a few days about one and a half years ago.”

“Oh, yes. I remember now. Thank you so much for what you did for us back then.”

“So Ariane’s been kidnapped?” I ask. “Are the culprits related to the ones we fought last time?”

“We believe so. Follow us to our home. We’ll explain more there,” Ariane’s father says. We let Ruby and Vicki rest for now. Leaving Jetia and the others behind, Marin and I follow Ariane’s parents into their home. A young boy runs up to us.

“Big sis’!” he exclaims. He looks at Marin for a moment and then frowns. In a whiny tone, he asks, “When’s big sis’ coming home?”

“Derek, I told you. We asked the army to help us,” his mother says and pats his head. “They’re going to bring her back.”

“Are you gonna bring my big sis’ home, mister?”

I smile and respond, “Yeah. We’ll try our best. We need your parents to give us the details first.”

“Right. Make yourselves comfortable,” Ariane’s father says as he points to the adjacent room. There are a couple of couches around a table. I take a seat on the one closest to us. Marin sits beside me.

Our clients sit across from us. “Hmm… Where do we begin? It was last week when—“

“Mommy, I’m hungry,” Derek complains.

“Oh dear,” Ariane’s mother interjects. “Honey, we forgot about the errand. Sorry, Derek. Can you bear it a while longer?”

“But, I’m hungry now!”

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“We’re out of wood. I can’t cook without it.”

“You don’t have a stove that uses Fire Crystals?”

She cocks an eyebrow and then shakes her head. “We don’t have that kind of equipment here.”

Marin mutters, “I can help…with my magic, I can—“

“No,” Ariane’s parents respond and shake their heads simultaneously.

“That’s not necessary,” Ariane’s father continues.

“Marin has the capability to create wood in physical form. You’ll be able to use it as you would normally,” I explain.

“That’s not it. We don’t want anything to do with magic.”

“What’s wrong with magic? It makes everything easier.”

“Because if you use too much magic, something bad happens!” Ariane’s brother exclaims.

“Something bad?” I question.

“You turn into a monster!” he exclaims.

What? That’s not true…” I say

“It is too! You’ll turn into a monster one day!” He exclaims while pointing at me.

“Derek! Don’t be rude!” Ariane’s mother exclaims and then grabs his hand. “We can eat at your favorite place now. We’ll go gather some wood after that.”

“’Kay!” Derek exclaims. The two of them walk out the front door.

“Sorry about that. It’s a village folklore. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t like magic,” Ariane’s father explains.

“I understand, but you’re not the one using magic. You won’t turn into a monster, so what’s the problem?” I ask.

“We don’t want to rely on it. Magic has only put this village through distress. This may be hard to believe, but our village embraced magic once upon a time. There were two people who became stars in our village because they learned magic on their own despite the folklore. They brought wealth to the village,” he continues. I feel like I have heard this before.

“Of course. Magic’s amazing,” I declare.

“The village sent the children eligible to join the Academy around that time too. A decade later, they were all reported dead. The two stars, who were our parents’ close friends met their demise around the same time.”

“I think he’s talking about Ragnar’s parents. Remember that story Ariane told us?” Marin asks me quietly.

Ragnar and Ariane… I remember now. It almost sounds like what I thought happened to my own parents. I think before speaking up, “The two stars were Ragnar’s parents, right?”

“Yes, how do you know about that?”

“Ariane told us something similar before.”

“I see,” he says and then sighs. “The common link between their deaths is magic. And so the village has outlawed magic usage for the past 25 years.”

After a brief silence, he widens his eyes and continues, “Please save Ariane! I’m certain Ragnar took her with him.”

I knit my eyebrows and take several seconds to collect my thoughts before responding, “Excuse me for asking this…but was Ariane really kidnapped?

“Of course she was. Why else would she suddenly disappear overnight?”

“So she was at home and disappeared overnight?”

“That’s right. She was gone without a trace the next day. No clues were left behind to as a clue where she is now.”

“Have you thought about the possibility that she left on her own?”

“That’s preposterous. Ariane would never do that.”

“How else would you explain that she was taken so quietly? If it were against her will, you would’ve awoken to a struggle of some sort.”

“I don’t know. Magic was probably involved.”

“How connected have you been with your daughter recently? Last time I recall she wasn’t very happy—“

He stands up. “How dare you. Are you implying that it’s our fault she was taken by Ragnar? For all we know, he could’ve used magic to charm her into going with him. That’s no different than kidnapping.”

“Sir, I’m not implying anything. We don’t know anything at this point. I’m just wondering what we should do if we find her, and she doesn’t want to return home.”

He sighs and sits back down. “Yes… This is what we’re afraid of. Those two have always been together. That girl, she’s infatuated with him. She thinks Ragnar’s the same person she knew growing up. That his intentions are good, but people change.”

His last few words echo in my head, and a chill goes down my spine. I get lost in my thoughts for several seconds until I shake my head multiple times. “…he never would’ve taken her with him onto that dangerous path if he truly cared.”

I gulp and blindly answer, “Yeah.”

“I don’t care how you do it. Just bring Ariane back alive.”

“What about Ragnar?”

“I don’t care what happens to him, but the bounty for him is still active. I have a copy of it somewhere. I’ll be right back,” he says and then walks away.

Marin whispers, “Ariane’s at least eight years older than us. Shouldn’t we tell him that she’s old enough to make decisions by herself?”

“I don’t think he’s willing to listen,” I whisper. “I think we should be compliant for now and figure it out when we meet her.

Ariane’s father returns with a worn-looking paper in his hand. He places it on the table in front of me. A rough sketch of his face is drawn on the front. Capturing him dead or alive yields a reward of a gold coin. “This is over a year old, but we’ve recently updated the bounty. The reward is now five gold coins.”

I take the piece of paper and then hand it to Marin. She puts it away in her backpack. I stand up and ask, “Before we go, do you know where his hideout is?”

“If we knew that, we would’ve taken action long ago.”

“Okay. The sooner we leave the better. We’ll do our best to recover your daughter,” I say while heading out back to the others. Marin follows.

Vicki and Ruby are still fast asleep while the others are chatting away.

“Attention!” I exclaim between our two transports. Ruby and Vicki groan a few times as they get up, rubbing their eyes.

“Kai, are we startin’?” Ruby asks.

“Yeah. I need everyone to be alert from this point forward,” I say while making a hand gesture toward Marin. She takes out the bounty on Ragnar and then hands it to me. I hold it in front of me, giving everyone a good look. “This is who they think’s responsible for the kidnapping. If you see him, alert everyone and be cautious. He’s skilled in magic.”

“I can’t see it from here,” Kama says. I hand the bounty to him. He looks closely at it for several seconds before passing it to someone else.

“So, where’re we headed to, leader?” Jetia asks. “Where’s his hideout?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to—“

“How’re we going to find him if we don’t know where that is? You should’ve asked.”

“I did ask, they don’t know.”

Jetia chuckles before answering, “Great. Now we have four requests with no leads on any of them. What’s the worst that can happen?”

I frown. “We do have a few leads. Three of our requests point to the forests outside of here.”

“And the others?” Jetia asks. I don’t answer. “So that’s it? We blindly search through all the forests around here? We’re not going to have enough time for that.”

“Not while we’re wasting time now talking about it. It won’t be blind once we go look and find evidence of recent battle. We’re moving out,” I say and hop on the front of the wagon. I pull on the reins toward my left to turn back toward the entrance we came from. The guards raise the gates for us, and we leave.

The forests on our left and right are a couple of minutes away. We ride until we are a few hundred meters in from the beginning of the right forest. I park the transport off to the side of the trail. Jetia and the others leave their wagon a few meters behind ours.

“Everyone line up like last time. We’re going to gradually move back into our formation for searching,” I order. “Ruby, Marin, and Vicki are in the center with the five of us spread out around them.”

Kama trembles. He stands in the initial positions and asks, “So, ar-are we do-doing the same thing as last time?”

“Yeah, it’s the best way we have,” I answer.

“I’m still a bit skeptical…”

“What’s wrong with it? You’ll cover one of the back edges like last time. We move as a group and if you see something send a signal.”

“N-no… I mean what’s going to happen if I run into someone…or if a monster attacks?”

I sigh. “Monsters around here don’t attack unless they’re provoked. You’ll be fine. Nothing will happen, and we’re all close enough to regroup if you sense danger. If it makes you feel safer, we can pivot our formation every time we change directions, so I’m always at the front.”

“Wh-what’s going to happen whe-when we find someone looking for trouble? Do you want me to fight back?”

“Of course. That’s what you’re here for. If someone attacks, fight back. If we have a hostage situation like last time, we’ll charge in immediately. You’re thinking too much about it. Live combat isn’t that big of a deal. You get used to it.”

“I can’t see that happening.”

“It comes with experience.”

“I understand…but we’re going to have to…ki-kill people this time, right? Will I get used to that too?”

“Well…ideally, we don’t—“

“Oh, stop it already, leader. Kama’s right. That’s what yer telling us when you told us the plan was to charge in. Kill them before they can make any moves, right?” Jetia asks.

I frown. “Yeah. If that’s what we have to do to get the job done, we will. It’s either you or them.”

Kama looks down and mutters, “I can’t…”

I sigh deeply and then ask, “What made you decide to join the army?”

“I’m not sure anymore.”

“You were there with us in front of the Castle a month ago. You know completely why you joined.”

Kama pauses for several seconds before answering, “It’s not much, really. A good friend of mine served in the army for over two decades. We were training together to join the army back then, but I didn’t make it and gave up. He went on to pursue his dream, but that ended during the attack.”

“Exactly. Don’t you want revenge?”

“I did, but not anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I understand completely your motivations and everyone who lost someone in the attack, but I don’t feel that way. I knew the risks of joining the army. It’s a part of the job.”

I knit my eyebrows. I can’t comprehend his words. If it weren’t for them, his friend would still be alive. Part of his job or not, it was completely out of his control…

He continues, “I just felt a need to pursue his dream in place of him.”

I shake my head and stop trying to figure out why he doesn’t want revenge, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

“Wh-what was your friend like?” Marin asks.

Kama lifts his head and smiles. “He was everything I wish I was. Confident, talented, righteous.”

“I see,” Marin says and smiles.

I smile too. Thanks, Marin.

“What would your friend do right now if he were in your shoes?” I ask and then pause for several seconds. “Do you have your answer?”

“Yes, thank you Kai. I’m ready.”

“Anyone else have any concerns before we move in?” I ask. Jetia snickers. “What is it, Jetia?”

“It’s nothing. I’m ready whenever you are, leader.

I grind my teeth as a few puffs of hot air escape me. I try to ignore Jetia and his remark. “Right, then we’ll move out immediately. Kama, you can switch sides with Dano since the right side is probably safer here. I’ll head in first. Remember to stay in formation.”

I head into the forest about a minute in before stopping. I check my surroundings to verify our formation is correct. Banni is diagonal to my left behind me about the same distance as Jetia is diagonal to my right. Marin, Ruby, and Vicki are grouped up behind me a bit farther than those two. The remaining two are out of my sight as they should be. I face forward again and continue straight ahead.

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