The Selection

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Chapter 53 - Avarice - Blacklist

“Kai, wake up,” Marin says. I open my eyes briefly before closing them again.

“Ugh, it’s too early.”

“You’re going to miss breakfast. And don’t forget about the report.”

“It’s that time already?” I open my eyes, yawn, and stretch.

“Same time as always,” Marin answers while getting dressed.

I sit up and rub my sore eyes. Doesn’t seem like I slept well at all. I think back to that dream. For some reason, I can’t remember a lot about it.

“What’re you thinking about?” Marin asks.

“This strange, realistic dream I had last night.”

“What was it about?”

“I was in some kinda bedroom… There was a naked woman with red hair… She wanted to…” I say but cut myself off. I was just thinking out loud. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the woman.

Marin stares at me blankly. She knits her eyebrows. “You’re still thinking of her?”

“Huh?” I interject. It takes a moment for me to remember that Ruby does have red hair. I did tell Marin about that time too. While I have been thinking of her sometimes, it’s not in the way I think Marin’s implying. And definitely not the woman I was talking about, but I shouldn’t have mentioned it to her in the first place. I don’t let my eyes linger away from her face and answer, “No… I’m not.”

She smiles slightly and looks away. I know she doesn’t believe me.

“You don’t have to lie to me about this, Kai. I know you’ve had feelings for her for a long time. It doesn’t go away in this short period of time,” she says. Her eyes bounce down for a moment.

My body acted on its own again. That’s not important right now. I ignore it and ask, “When have I ever lied to you?”

I think about yesterday’s events, but it doesn’t make sense because she said she believed me…

“Nevermind. I’m going to the cafeteria. Are you coming?”

“Nah, I need to work on that report. Captain Albius said he wanted it by morning, so…”

“Want me to come with you?” Marin asks.

“No, I can handle it myself, but can you do me a favor?” I ask.

“What is it?”

“Gather everyone at one of the rooms on the second floor of the training area after breakfast. I wanna apologize to everyone and start discussing a group training exercise. I’ll meet you there after I turn in the report.”

“Okay. I’ll see you then,” Marin says with a smile and leaves out the door, closing it behind her.

I lay back down and sigh. I can’t help but think of what she was referring to about a lie. Did she really not believe me and was lying about believing me? I shake my head. I can’t be wasting time doubting her right now. I need to get up and turn in that report before Captain Albius penalizes us more. I get off the bed, get dressed, and then head to the third level.

I decide to check the mail station first. Maybe a decision was made overnight about our punishment. I check inside, but there’s nothing. I sigh and head to one of the study rooms. Same one I always go to. Other people are here, but it doesn’t matter to me. I take a clump of lined paper from the stack on a table near the entrance and a pencil before sitting down on an empty seat.

I really didn’t want to be in this situation again. Same as last week. Having to write a report on a mission gone wrong. I’ll want to just get this over with, but I don’t know where to begin. There were several requests this time, after all. I’ll start writing down all the important details from the moment we arrived at Beltan to collect further request details.

It takes a while, but I nearly finish. I ponder a bit on how I should report the last bit of it. I figure from my perspective seems to be the best option. General Nero will understand that everything was an accident and outside of my control.

I finish. Overall, couldn’t have been more than an hour or so. I return the unused paper to the stack along with the pencil. Hopefully, Marin and the others aren’t waiting for too long. I’ll drop this off and be there soon.

I reach Captain Albius’ office in no time. I frown upon seeing Captain Albius present in his office. I was hoping that he wasn’t there so that there wouldn’t be a chance that he keeps me any longer than I spent writing that report. There’s still a chance he’ll let me go, though.

“I’ve been expectin’ you, Kai,” Captain Albius says with a smile. “Is that the report?”

“Yes, sir,” I say and drop the report on his desk. I bow my head and continue, “If you’ll excuse me now…”

I turn around and take a step. Captain Albius asks, “What’s the hurry? It won’t take long for me to read through this.”

I bite my lip before facing Captain Albius again. There’s a stack of folded papers on his desk. He slowly shifts through the report without saying a word. The silence makes me nervous.

Maybe I should’ve been more descriptive. What if he takes what’s written there as the complete truth? I didn’t exactly put down all my thoughts and line of thinking on the report. He still has a smile though. Doesn’t that mean that he likes what he’s reading?

My heart races. There are still some missing gaps that I wasn’t able to write down. I wouldn’t be able to explain to him some points that involve telling him about my Mana. Based on how many pages he flipped through, he should be reaching the end.

“I just wanna say that I know some of the stuff I have written down’s hard to believe…but everything’s true,” I say. Captain Albius doesn’t budge. “I really did see the masked man from the attack. He said only things that the masked man from back then would say. It was an accident. I didn’t wanna kill Ragnar.”

Captain Albius nods several times and flips another page but says nothing. I gulp. “I wasn’t really that close to Dano and Banni, so I wouldn’t have wanted revenge that bad. I wouldn’t kill Ragnar for a reason like that. I mean, no, I said that wrong. Dano and Banni were valuable members of our team, but I wouldn’t let misunderstandings get in the way of what’s right.”

“Maybe it’s my fault for not training them good enough, but you can’t blame everything on me. Their motivation to get stronger was lacking.”

I take the lack of nodding from him to be a sign that I need to say more. I try to think of something to say that puts us in a better light. “What happened to Ariane was outside of our control too. Maybe killing Ragnar was completely my fault, but he wasn’t part of any of the missions. We weren’t tasked to keep him alive at all. So Ariane killing herself as a result of what happened to Ragnar was something we couldn’t help but let happen. You understand, right?”

Silence follows. My palms sweat. I ask again, “You understand, right…?”

Captain Albius puts down the report and looks at me. “Well, I understand, very clearly. That this report and what you’re tellin’ me’s a load of shit.”

“Wh-what do you mean?! I told you, this is really what happened!”

“Is it? You’re not lyin’ about anythin’? No details missin’?”

“No,” I answer quickly despite that it’s not true.

“Take a look at a few of these letters,” Captain Albius says and points to the stack of folded papers I saw earlier on his desk. “I was notified earlier today that there was an influx of letters sent from Beltan.”

Beltan…? It couldn’t be…from yesterday’s events? Based on his tone it seems like these letters are for his reason for being suspicious of my report. There’s no way that so many of these could’ve in a short period of time. I thought it took a week or longer before the army sends check-up appointments to each village.

I think about the impossible. I did take a nap before we left the village. I didn’t wake up until we were already back in the Castle. Was it…Marin? Did the villagers write those letters right after everything and then asked Marin to bring it back to the Castle?

I bite my lip as I take the first piece of paper on top. It’s addressed to me.

MURDERER

That’s all it says. Doesn’t say who wrote it. Was it Ariane’s father?

“There’s more than one. Keep readin’,” Captain Albius says. I take another from the stack. This one’s addressed to the army.

I thought you were supposed to keep us safe! Sergeant Kai did the opposite! I’m going to think twice if I ever need to send a request to the army.

I don’t know what this person’s talking about. Who’s speaking? It’s not like I exposed them to any danger. There are dozens of more letters. Captain Albius gestures his head toward the stack. I take one more. Another one addressed to me.

Sergeant Kai, the village of Beltan will curse you until the day you die. I only hope my daughter and Ragnar can rest in peace. Otherwise, they’ll curse you too. Don’t you ever forget that you murdered my daughter.

This one was definitely from Ariane’s father. Stubborn as always. I haven’t done anything to his daughter. I didn’t murder her. She killed herself. It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t consider she would.

“This is very serious, Kai,” Captain Albius says. “Accordin’ to these letters, the village swears that you’re a cold-blooded murderer. Your report stated that everythin’ was an accident and that you explained it to the village. Lyin’ on a report’s another serious offense.”

“I’m not lying. It’s not my fault the village didn’t believe me.”

“Your platoon will be blacklisted, but I’m not sure for how long. I’ll have to report this to General Nero as well to get his input.”

“Bla-blacklisted?! I thought you said General Nero would be understanding!”

“That’s if you did your job and nothin’ was your fault. This report you wrote’s laughable too,” Captain Albius says and then laughs.

I don’t like how calm and easy-going he is. “This is bullshit. You don’t believe my story either, do you?”

Captain Albius smiles and stands up from his seat. He walks toward me slowly, stopping right in front of me. He bends down until his head is level with mine. “Listen, you little shit. This isn’t just about one request you took involvin’ the girl who ended up killin’ herself and the village hatin’ you for it. You ended up killin’ whom you were supposed to save too. You failed every request that you took and damaged our reputation greatly despite my initial warnin’.”

I frown and clench my fists. What initial warning? He wasn’t hard to convince at all. Now that I think about it, he was strangely calm when he allowed me to take on all the requests. That smile. His smile now reminds me of that smile yesterday too.

I clench my teeth too. He knew this would happen. He was wishing for it. I look him in the eye and ask, “You planned all of this, didn’t you? You knew that I would end up failing everything! This is your responsibility, too!”

“You stupid monkey. What have I told you about respectin’ your superiors? I’m not lettin’ you off the hook on this one. I’ll report this to General Nero too. And that time the red one attacked me with Fire magic.”

“What?! You can’t do that!” I exclaim. Damn it. I should’ve kept my mouth shut. I can’t have Ruby be punished for something I did.

“Oh, yes I can. I’ll teach you that monkeys should never talk back to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I say with my head lowered. “Everything’s my fault. Please don’t punish Ruby or anyone else from the platoon for my mistakes.”

“I understand, Sergeant Kai. I’ll have to explain things with General Nero first to see his input.”

His change of tone and manner of speaking throws me off. I should stay calm to avoid angering him any further. “Okay.”

“Did I come at a good time?” General Nero asks. I widen my eyes and turn around. He’s standing right behind me. I didn’t hear him approaching at all.

“Yes, Sergeant Kai has finished givin’ me his report. It’s not good,” Captain Albius informs pushing the report toward the front edge of the desk. General Nero picks it up.

“Let’s see what we have here,” General Nero says as he begins reading.

I gulp. This could be my chance. Captain Albius started being more polite after General Nero walked into the room. Could it be that he doesn’t want General Nero to find out the way he’s been treating me? Captain Albius mentioned that General Nero would be really understanding of my situation, but I can’t trust that now. He doesn’t know about the previous time General Nero let me go for letting Sofiel escape. Maybe he really is understanding and forgiving. With his back toward me, I can’t see any of his expressions.

Only the flipping of paper resounds in the room occasionally. He points to the stack of letters and asks, “What’s this?”

“All letters from Beltan. They have a lot to say of Sergeant Kai as well,” Captain Albius says.

“Hmm,” General Nero interjects as he shifts through the letters. “This is not a laughing matter, Sergeant Kai.”

“Sir, I understand it looks bad, but as I stated in the report, it was out of my control,” I say.

“This Ragnar character you mentioned in the report. He was unarmed in the cell, correct?” General Nero asks.

“Yeah, but what I saw wasn’t Ragnar. It was the masked man from the attack. Wouldn’t you kill him too if you saw him kill someone close to you?”

“No, I wouldn’t. I would capture him and ask questions first, eventually giving him a slow, painful death. But after you killed Ragnar there wasn’t a mask anywhere to be found, was there?” General Nero asks.

“N-no…but like I said I saw someone else.”

“His report’s bogus. He’s hidin’ somethin’,” Captain Albius says. “It makes more sense that he killed Ragnar as revenge for Dano and Banni who were killed by him earlier that day.”

“No, that’s not true!”

General Nero turns around with a stern expression. “Lying on a report’s a serious offense. You’re aware of this, Sergeant Kai?”

“I-I’m not lying! Captain Albius’ trying to sabotage me! He has been since he allowed us to take on so many requests at once. He wasn’t against the idea at all!” I exclaim. “He shares part of the blame for my failures too.”

“What’s this about, Captain Albius?” General Nero asks.

“Well, you see, Sergeant Kai came to me, beggin’, ’Captain Albius, please let us take on several requests at once. Please let me make up for my past failures. I swear we’ll be successful this time.’ What kind of senior would I be if I didn’t give him the opportunity to prove himself? I sincerely believed that he would be successful.”

“No! I didn’t say that. Sir, he’s lying.”

“Is he?” General Nero asks. “I looked into what you’ve been up to since we last met. You haven’t been very successful recently. What part of what he said was a lie?”

“I-I didn’t use those exact words,” I say, but realize I backed myself into a corner. I shouldn’t have tried to bring Captain Albius down with me. Now, nothing’s going to stop him from mentioning that incident I had with him on my first day.

“So, you didn’t use those exact words, but you were hoping he would give you permission to take on those requests,” General Nero says. He’s right so I don’t say anything more. “I had high hopes for you, but I’m disappointed. I let you off the hook with Sofiel escaping because you were honest and didn’t make excuses for your mistakes.”

“I’m not making any excuses. I killed Ragnar, but I’m saying it was an accident. A misunderstanding.”

“Enough. Disrespecting your superior and lying on a report’s very serious. On top of that, you’ve failed all four requests you’ve taken on. Bring the remaining members of your platoon here immediately. Captain Albius and I will discuss the severity of your punishment.”

“Wait, everything’s my fault. You don’t need to bring anyone else into this,” I say.

General Nero turns his head toward Captain Albius and asks, “Did you tell him yet?”

“Yes, sir.”

General Nero turns back toward me and says, “Disobeying orders while your platoon’s blacklisted is another serious offense.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know. What does being blacklisted mean?” I ask, unsure if I’m allowed to.

“You can’t take on any requests, you have reduced meal portions and can’t purchase additional tickets, and you must follow all given orders,” General Nero informs. “Now, bring your platoon here, immediately.”

“Yes, sir,” I say and then walk out of Captain Albius’ office. At least Captain Albius kept quiet about my disrespect toward him when we first met. And Ruby’s attempt to harm him. I wonder if it’s because he would have to admit to challenging me to a duel. He was only trying to work me up so I dig myself into a bigger hole. I run toward the second floor of the training area on the first level.

I’m not sure which room Marin and the others are in, but I hope I find them soon. Who knows what’ll happen if I take too long in bringing them back. Luckily, I discover them within the first few rooms.

“What took you so long?” Jetia asks. “Late to your own meeting. What’d you call us here for?”

I told Marin I wanted to apologize, but Jetia’s attitude always sets me off. I answer, “I promised I would start training you after the last mission. We can incorporate a group training exercise too.”

Marin, Jetia, and Ruby are present, but not Kama or Vicki. Jetia says, “It’s too late for that, you stupid monkey. Dano and Banni are gone. There’s no point in teamwork training when we’re missing two members. I’m not sure we’ll still exist after the punishment comes down.”

“That’s right…punishment! Where’re Kama and Vicki? We’ve gotta report to Captain Albius’ office immediately!”

“Kai, what’s wrong?” Marin asks.

“I turned in the report and General Nero came around the same time. He told me that we’re blacklisted and I had to gather everyone to Captain Albius’ office immediately.”

“Oh, so the day’s finally come?” Jetia asks with a smile. “I may not have to work in the same team as you after our punishment comes down.”

“What? What do you mean by that?” I ask.

“I mean… I know platoons have been disbanded before,” he says.

I didn’t think about that possibility. What would happen if we disbanded and I’m separated from Marin and Ruby? That would be the worst case scenario. Or would seeing them suffer be worse? There’s no point thinking about this now. I need to gather everyone in Captain Albius’ office as soon as possible.

“Look, we’re going to have a worse punishment the longer we take to gather in Captain Albius’ office. I’ll need your help in finding Kama since he usually hangs with you. The punishment’s for everyone. Unless you want to see him and everyone else in the platoon suffer, you’ll find him and bring him to the third level,” I say.

Jetia clicks his tongue and then responds, “Fine. I think I know where to find him. We’ll meet you there.”

“Vicki’s probably still asleep. I’ll check her room. You and Ruby go on ahead,” Marin says. The both of them leave ahead of us.

I look toward Ruby who seems spaced out. She’s been quieter recently.“Ruby, let’s go.”

“Okay.”

We arrive at the third level on top of the stairs.

“Aren’t ya hungry, Kai?” Ruby asks. “Ya didn’t come ta breakfast.”

“I’m fine for now. None of us will be able to eat well while we’re blacklisted. We have reduced meal portions and can’t buy additional tickets. It’s all my fault.”

“It’s ‘kay, Kai. I told ya I’d endure anything’ fer ya. You can have some of my portions if yer hungry.”

“No, you need to eat too. You’ve been training hard lately. You need to be eating to replenish your energy.”

“I can take a break from trainin’ hard, so you can have some of my food.”

It’s hard to encourage her to be more selfish. Everything she’s been doing has been for the sake of me…and our goal. But that’s how Luna’s always been, but she’s not the same person…or is she? Other than the red hair, she looks the same. Same smile too. I shake my head. She’s still Ruby. She’s similar to Luna, but not the same.

“I’ll let you know when I’m really hungry. Until then, eat all of your food.” I say. I don’t want Ruby to cause a scene when we arrive in Captain Albius’ office. “Don’t talk back to General Nero or Captain Albius. Do what they say. And don’t say anything, no matter what happens to me.”

“’Kay.”

Jetia and Kama run up the stairs. I thought I would know what to say to Kama when I see him again, but I don’t. We wait in silence for Marin and Vicki. Soon, they arrive. I lead everyone to Captain Albius’ office.

“I’ve brought everyone, General Nero,” I say upon walking into the room.

“Great, we’ll give each of you your own punishments now. Sergeant Kai, follow Captain Albius,” General Nero says.

“Wait, what’re you gonna do to me? And what about everyone else? You don’t have to give everyone a punishment. Everything’s on me,” I say quickly.

“Captain Albius and I both agreed that this mess was mostly your fault, so you’ll have the worst punishment. But, everyone will be punished. Each person will have their own punishment. What a punishment is for one of you might not be for another. Now, go with Captain Albius. The punishment’s up to his discretion,” General Nero informs.

I do as he says and follow Captain Albius out of the room. I exchange glances with Marin before we’re completely out of sight.

“Where’re we going?” I ask.

“It’s a surprise.”

What’s he planning? Is he going to humiliate me in front of everyone? Is he going to put me through harsh training? If it’s as simple as that, I won’t have to worry about everyone else because I’ll have it the worst.

We end up going to the second level and then the first level. He asks, “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah…?” I answer.

“Alright, I’ll let you have a nice meal before your punishment.”

I don’t like the sound of that. Why’s Captain Albius being nice all of a sudden? After I tried to get him into trouble too. There has to be a catch. He’s going to poison it. I thought the cafeteria was closed at this hour anyway. I ask, “How? They don’t serve food at this hour.”

“True, they don’t serve food at the cafeteria, but…there’s the cookin’ station. You can make your own food there usin’ your own supplies at any time. Normally, you need to send in a request, but Lieutenants or higher can walk right in. I’m sure there’s someone in there right now. They’ll share some of their food with you.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Heh, that won’t happen.”

“Why’re you doing this? You’re gonna report me that I ate food here and I’ll get into deeper trouble.”

“Even I wouldn’t do that. Besides, they’ll note that I signed in with my name, not yours. The higher ups can check the Record Zone and see that you never checked in or took a request in. You wouldn’t get into trouble. This one’s on me. I pity you,” Captain Albius says and then laughs.

When he puts it that way, I don’t want to accept his charity even if I won’t get in trouble for it. “I don’t want it.”

“Well, then. I order you to eat until you’re full.”

I guess I can’t refuse. We go into the cafeteria and into one of the connecting rooms. Captain Albius shows his ID to a woman sitting behind a table at the front before walking further in. There are multiple hallways with several smaller rooms inside. Most of them look empty and unpopulated. Voices resound ahead. Captain Albius goes into one of the rooms. I follow him.

“Captain Albius!” a man exclaims. “Everyone, salute!”

Everyone in the room stands up and salutes him. Does everyone in the Castle know Captain Albius? There are a dozen people in here. The same man asks, “What can I do for you, sir?”

“You got any leftovers? Sergeant Kai here’s starvin’. I’d appreciate it if you can share some with him,” Captain Albius says.

“O-of course! We’ll prepare something for him immediately,” the man says. He gestures his head behind him. Three of the five women rush behind.

I look around. The facility here reminds me a lot of the Academy living quarter’s kitchen. It’s much more spacious here, though. With more than enough space to seat the dozen people here. The man walks toward me. He points to a seat nearby. “Please, have a seat, Sergeant Kai. My cooks will prepare several dishes to fill you up.”

I sit down and wait in silence. No one in the room says a word the whole time. Only the sizzling of the cooking ingredients resound. It isn’t long before one of the women brings a large cup filled with orange juice and a plate of assorted sliced meat. My mouth waters and stomach growls. It looks really good. A man brings me a knife, spoon, and fork. I take several gulps of the juice before picking up the fork and digging in. After the first bite, I can’t stop even if I wanted to.

Beef, chicken, rabbit, squirrel, lamb, pork, fish, and several more I’m not sure about. It’s not the best quality I’ve had, but it’s much better than the food they served in the cafeteria. Much more filling too. They bring two more plates filled with a variety of different foods, a cup of apple juice, and a large bowl of assorted fruit. I take my time to eat everything.

“How was the food, Sergeant Kai?” the man asks.

“It was great. Best meal I’ve had here since I enlisted in the army.”

“That’s good to hear. Will that be all, Captain Albius?”

Captain Albius smiles and responds, “Yes, thank you. We’ll be on our way now. Come on, Sergeant Kai.”

I stand up and follow Captain Albius out of the cafeteria, unsure of where we’re headed next. I ask, “Who was that person?”

“It’s Lieutenant Ken. I helped him get promoted to that rank not too long ago in exchange for a few favors every now and then. How’re you feelin?”

“Pretty full,” I answer.

“Good, good…”

We’re back at the crossroads. Captain Albius walks toward the stairs, but not the ones that go up. The ones that go down. The only thing down there is the prison.

“Was that my last meal before you make me live down here for a few days?” I ask.

“No, you’ll only be down here until around 6 PM,” Captain Albius informs. We reach the entrance to the prison where a guard is stationed. “It’s Captain Albius. Open the door. I’m here to escort Sergeant Kai to one of the torture chambers.”

Torture chambers? So he’s going to inflict pain on me? Figures, since I tried to shift some of the blame on him earlier. I can take a little pain. What’s the worst he can do? There’s a line he can’t cross or he’ll be no better than one of those invaders.

“I understand,” the guard says and then opens the door. I follow Captain Albius. This place is just as I remember it the last time I came to see Alios. The smell is awful. I don’t miss it at all.

We walk for several minutes straight ahead without making any turns, eventually arriving at another door. He opens it and then we go through. Inside is another long passage. Instead of the standard jail cells that I saw lined on the sides of the previous hallway, these have doors. Captain Albius opens the first door on the left.

“This is where you’ll be stayin’,” Captain Albius says. It’s a fairly small room. There’s a thin pillar at the other side of the room opposite of the door. The elevation of the floor curves downward toward the front of the pillar where there’s a steeper drop into a small ditch. This room smells bad but not as bad as the halls where the prison cells are. “Take off your clothes.”

“Excuse me?” I ask, unsure if I heard correctly.

“You heard me. Take off your clothes. All of it,” Captain Albius says with a smile. “Or are you disobeyin’?”

I frown. I have no other choice but to do it. I take off my clothes, one by one. I hesitate on the last piece covering my bottom half. “Come on. I don’t have all day. Take it off.”

I grit my teeth and remove it from my body. He snickers.

“Great. Now put all of it into that ditch over there,” Captain Albius says and points in front of the pillar.

I do as he says. I already know where this is going. There isn’t a hole here, so he’s planning to have me use the bathroom all over myself. That’s why he forced me to eat. He’s going with the humiliation route. All I have to do is hold it in until they release me. It’s only until the evening. I’ll wash my clothes later. No big deal.

“Good. Now, sit in the hole and wrap your arms around the pillar,” he says and then moves behind the pillar. I crouch down into the ditch. As I stretch my arms back, he grabs a hold of them. Something metal clanks around my hands. I try to break free, but it’s locked pretty tight. He’s doing something else behind me, but I’m not sure what it is. There are clicks here and there and rocks grinding. He comes back around and stares at me. He smirks and laughs. “This’ll be great. I can’t wait to see your expressions later.”

I smile but don’t say anything. I’ll let him have his fun. He’s only trying to bait me into lashing out at him to get me into a deeper hole.

“We’ll see how long you can keep that act up. You won’t be smilin’ for long. I’ll drop a present for you in a bit,” Captain Albius says and then cackles. He leaves, closing the door behind him.

Heh. He’s given me a great chance to take a nap. I’ll spend the entire time sleeping. It feels like the smell’s getting worse. There are several brown stains all over the floor. Some on the walls too. Is it poop? There has to be more to this punishment than I’m getting. It’s getting warmer too, but that’s probably just because there’s no ventilation in here. I close my eyes and relax my breathing. I slow it down to the point that I don’t have to take in this nasty smell too often.

Several minutes pass, but I feel like the smell and heat worsen. I think back to what Captain Albius was doing behind me. Did he activate some kind of device other than tying me up? I try to move my body around so that I can see what’s behind me. Whatever is tying my hands together won’t budge at all. I can’t stand up or twist my body around the pillar without dislocating my arms. I stop trying and relax.

I wonder what everyone else’s punishment. I hope it’s not humiliation. I wouldn’t be able to bear even the thought of another man forcing Marin and Ruby to strip. And what if it goes farther than that? I shake my head. I don’t know what I’m thinking anymore. There’s no way something like that would happen. That would be going too far. It’s the army, not a group of criminals.

The only thing left I can think of is harsh physical training or labor. That isn’t so bad, but Marin and Ruby have struggled with that over the years. They’ve improved, but depending on the type of training, it could be hard on their bodies. Or will they force them to spar with other soldiers in close combat?

I sigh. No point thinking about any of this. If I have to stay down here until 6 PM, that’s about nine or ten hours from now. I close my eyes and try to empty out all thoughts so I can fall asleep.

My palms sweat. There’s no doubt that there’s something going on behind me. It’s not long before the rest of my body sweats too.

What seems like forever passes. I can’t seem to fall asleep despite not having a good rest last night. My body itches too, but I can’t scratch it. It’s itchy everywhere.

Something resounds above me. A hole appears in the ceiling in one of the corners. Something yellow and brown falls. Oh god…

I close my eyes, grimace, and turn my head away as some of it splashes onto me. I open my eyes, finding that the hole in the ceiling is gone. The urine ramps down into the ditch. It soaks into my clothes. Doesn’t seem like it’s diluted at all by water. Some of the poop comes down too, but most of it is stuck onto the part of the floor it fell onto. It broke into multiple pieces with some on the walls. That explains the brown stains around the room. I would hate to be the person to clean this up.

So it doesn’t matter if I hold in my bladder. Other people’s mess will rain from above. Where is it coming from? This can’t be happening on a regular basis or some unfortunate soldier will have have to clean this up every time. There aren’t any bathrooms in the training area, so it has to be the cafeteria, request center, or clinic. Since it was a straight hallway to this room, it has to be the clinic or cafeteria. I hope it’s the former, since not as many people go there.

Some kind of mist is forming. I think it’s responsible for this humidity and heat. It’s a very faint purple. The only magic this could be is Dark. I’ve never seen it, but there’s nothing else can produce this purple color that I know other than Void magic and that’s impossible. This isn’t so bad yet. I can endure this. More waste drops from above, this time from another place on the ceiling. Only a small amount of dark-colored urine.

At least two hours pass. I haven’t got a second of sleep. I can’t even if I tried in this hot and stinky environment. Just when I thought the smell couldn’t get worse, it does. All the smells in this room have nowhere else to go. It’s like the entire sewer concentrated into one room. I think the urine has completely soaked my clothes at this point. My feet feel filthy.

I look at the ceiling. It seems like there’s a drop every twenty minutes or so. The next one should be coming soon. I have to pay attention to where it comes from so I don’t get any of the aftermath on my face. The hole appears on my left. I turn my head right. Some of it splashes on my neck and probably my hair, but better than my face. A clump of poop rolls onto my feet.

The smell is slightly less terrible when I have my head raised up. It’s putting my nose farther from the mess below me. Suddenly, resounds directly above me. What the…

By the time I realize, a brown liquid drops down and covers my entire face. I close my eyes and mouth immediately, but it’s too late. Some of it makes it in. The rest of it slides down my body and into the growing pool around my legs. I try to gather the warm goo that dropped into my mouth and spit it out without tasting it while my eyes burn tremendously. But the thought that I know liquid poop got into my mouth was too much for me. I gag and throw up.

I end up tasting the warm goo mixed with my vomit in my mouth. I can’t stop myself from throwing up again and again. My eyes burn, itch, and throb with pain. My body itches. I’m sweaty. It tastes bad. It smells bad. My throat burns. I feel sick. Now my head’s spinning too. On top of everything, it feels like my bladder’s going to explode. Maybe I should just let it out. I’m already covered in poop and urine and I’m practically sitting inside a toilet.

How many more hours do I have to go through this? I can’t help but cry with my burning eyes. This isn’t a joke at all. I’m such an idiot. I should’ve taken things more seriously. Not do something stupid like taking on four requests at once.

It doesn’t matter anymore. I let everything out. Both number one and two. Footsteps resound nearby. I try to force myself to stop. The door opens, but I don’t know who it is. I try to open my eyes, but my vision’s blurry. It’s less painful to keep them closed. A laugh resounds. It’s a girl. I grimace as more tears drip out of my eyes. I don’t know who she is or what she’s doing here, but this is the worst.

She laughs uncontrollably. I’m glad someone came. With the door open, some of this bad smell can leave the room. This purple mist too. She says, “This is great.”

I try opening my eyes again. Still a bit blurry, but I recognize her. It’s Ada, that girl who thinks I’m in league with those invaders.

“It’s so refreshing to see you cry and suffer. Do you feel miserable?” she asks and then laughs. “I take it my shit made you feel pretty miserable.”

I grit my teeth but don’t say anything. This is a trap. I shouldn’t say anything. I can’t let myself get into a worse situation. I lower my head so she can’t see my face. She continues, “General Nero told me what you did. Killed a bunch of innocents and screwed up your mission.”

What? General Nero told her of all people? Why would he do that?

“He remembered that I didn’t like you and gave me an opportunity to make you suffer. To make sure you understand the weight of your actions. The medicine he gave wasn’t very pleasant, but seeing you here made it all worth it.”

She walks closer. “Say something. Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

She kicks me on the side of my face. It hurts, but it kind of feels good because it relieves some of the itching. I look up, begrudgingly. She pushes the bottom of her boots onto my mouth. It tastes like shit. I remember the taste of this just a few minutes ago. I gag but I can’t vomit with her pushing me back. I can’t control my bladder either and let it out. She removes her foot from me. I immediately vomit, adding onto the nasty below me. She only gloats at my misfortune.

This stupid girl. I grit my fists. Her laugh fills me with so much rage. I think back to those words that masked man said. No, I can’t be like them. I won’t. I empty out my thoughts of wanting to kill her. I’m not a murderer. Maybe humiliate her too like she is doing to me. An eye for an eye. I can’t do that now, but I won’t forget this. The best I can do now is spill some of this filth onto her somehow.

I ask, “Hey, can you kick me on the other side of my face? My arms and legs too. It feels good.”

Ada frowns and says, “You’re sick and disgusting. Literally. You want me to kick you? I’ll kick you.”

She takes a few steps closer. She’s practically standing over me. She can’t be thinking of that, is she? I squeeze my legs together and bring my knees close to my body as she pulls her leg back. Her kicks are aimed toward my groin. I block with both legs initially but switch to one. I dig into the filth below me with my other foot. I force it upward, spewing pieces of shit all over Ada. She stops kicking me and looks at herself.

“Shit!” she exclaims.

I giggle and then say, “Yeah, that’s shit.”

“You think this is funny?!” she exclaims and kicks the side of my body several times. She stops, though. She smiles. “I’ll tell General Nero about this. That you attacked me. Who do you think he’ll believe? Me or you?

I grimace. This stupid bitch. One day, I’ll make her regret this. She walks toward the door and stops. “Oh, and expect to have more presents dropping by later. I’ll tell everyone to use that special toilet on the first floor of the clinic. Bye!”

With that, she closes the door. I just want this to end.

I spend several more hours with my head lowered to avoid the incoming waste. It feels like it’s been more than the original nine or ten hours. No one else has come down other than Ada so long ago. The level of urine and feces has almost reached my knees and chest. I’ve grown so accustomed to the smell that it doesn’t make me gag anymore.

When finally, more footsteps resound. The door opens. I look up. General Nero comes in. “I’m sorry, Kai. I completely forgot about you.”

I don’t have the energy to respond anymore. The burning, pain, and itching is too much. Just let this end. He continues, “It’s already 7 PM so you won’t have the luxury of eating dinner.”

I don’t care. I just want to get out of this room. Take a nice shower to clean this off my body.

“I was hoping this punishment has served as a good lesson for you to always follow your orders to the best of your ability,” General Nero says as he frees my hands from the back of the pillar. My legs are really sore from being locked in practically the same position. I crawl out of the ditch filled with waste and onto the ramp. There are shit stains here, but I don’t care. “But it seems you haven’t learned your lesson yet.”

What the hell does he mean by that? Was it Ada? I have to clear this misunderstanding. “Sir—“

“Shut up. You’re not allowed to speak,” General Nero orders. I grimace and grit my teeth. “Turn around.”

I do as he says and turn around. He stands behind the pillar with a smile. He points to the ditch and then says, “Drink it.”

What? Did I hear that correctly? He’s joking, right? I mutter, “What—“

Hey!” he screams. “I told you that you couldn’t speak, you fucking moron. Are you deaf?”

My heart beats rapidly as he walks toward me with a frown and narrowed eyebrows. Is this the same General Nero that forgave me for letting Sofiel get away? This doesn’t feel real. I tremble.

He grabs me by the back of my hair and drags me to the ditch. He shoves me into the brown, yellow, and discolored puddle head first. I close my eyes and hold my breath. He keeps applying pressure so that I can’t get out. Something hits my stomach, hard. The sudden impact makes me gasp for air unconsciously. I swallow and breathe in the waste. General Nero brings me back up.

The horrible taste invades my mouth. I vomit and cough simultaneously from the particles that got into my airways. I throw up the gulp that I just swallowed, but I continue to cough. I wish I had something to rinse my mouth because of all the nastiness that got into my mouth.

“That’s for speaking when you weren’t supposed to. Now, take a sip and swallow it. You’re not allowed to throw it up for a whole minute,” General Nero says.

Why is he doing this? I still don’t know. All I know is, if I don’t do as he says, worse things will happen to me. I continue to cough, but I’m scared to wait any longer. I scoop the disgusting brown liquid with my palms. I hesitate for a moment before sucking up all of it into my mouth. I hold my breath the entire time to not taste any of it. I pinch my nose and then swallow it.

My body disagrees with it immediately despite that I haven’t really tasted it. I try not to think about the taste and continue to hold my breath while keeping my nose pinched. I can stay like this for a minute easily. I stop coughing too since I’m not breathing. The next minute feels like forever.

“Good. You passed the one minute mark,” he says. I immediately gag and throw it up afterward. “Let me remind you that should you continue to do poorly on your missions and disregard your orders, this punishment could be given to the other members of your platoon.”

The thought of this happening to Marin or Ruby would break me. I’ll never risk anything again if it meant risking punishments like these. He continues, “More orders will be in your mailbox tomorrow morning. You’re free to go for today. Oh, and don’t forget to put your clothes on. You can’t walk around looking like that. And one more thing…you’re not allowed to disclose your punishment to anyone, or else…

General Nero walks out the door. It’s finally over…

I don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to. I reach down into the ditch for my clothes. I squeeze them to remove as much excess liquid as possible before wearing them again. I go back the way I came from with Captain Albius. I walk slowly because my legs are really sore from sitting in that position for the entire day. I ignore the stares from the guards and other soldiers as I make my way up to the second floor and to my room.

I go to the bathroom immediately to take off all of these dirty clothes. I rinse my mouth thoroughly with the sink water before brushing my teeth multiple times. Afterward, I hop into the shower. I spend a good hour cleaning my body. I’m tempted to drink some water from the sink, but I know I shouldn’t because it’s magical water. One sip can’t hurt. Or a few.

I take several gulps, but immediately spit out the remaining water from my mouth. It only made my stomach feel worse. I want to throw up again, but I stop myself. I carefully step around anywhere with poop particles on the ground. I go to my drawer and put on a fresh change of clothes. A knock resounds on my door.

“Kai? Are you back yet?” Marin asks.

“Ye-yeah,” I answer, but my voice is a bit raspy.

“What’s wrong? Can I come in?”

I can’t have her come in now. She’ll see the shit-stained clothes I have in the bathroom. I have to keep everything a secret even from her. I don’t want to find out what’ll happen if other people find out about my punishment. “Nothing. Just tired. I would prefer you don’t stay over today.”

“You’re lying about something again, aren’t you?” she asks. I forgot about it until now, but this morning she mentioned something about me lying to her when I never have. Although, I’m forced to actually lie to her now.

“I’m not lying. When have I ever lied to you?”

She answers several moments later, “You’ve never lied to me before…but you’ve hidden stuff from me. To all of us. About your Mana and magic. To me, that’s the same thing as lying.”

Oh, so that’s what she meant. That’s a relief…but I still can’t let her in now. “I understand, Marin. You’ve gotta trust me on this one. I’ll tell you eventually, but I can’t right now.”

“Okay…” she responds with a dejected voice. “Can you open the door so I can at least give you some food? Ruby and I hid some of our portions today at lunch and dinner because we noticed you weren’t there. I know your starving because you haven’t had anything to eat all day.”

I bite my lip. While I’m being forced to lie to Marin, she and Ruby have been breaking rules to help me. The fact that I’m the one who put us in the situation in the first place hurts me. Even if I’m the one to bear all the pain, Marin and Ruby will take risks in order to support me. I don’t want to accept the food because she’d expect me to eat it immediately. My throat is still extremely sore from all the times I threw up. I’m not sure if I’d be able to eat it without raising suspicion from her.

“I’m not hungry. Captain Albius took me to this place called the cooking station in the cafeteria. I ate the best meal ever since coming here to the Castle,” I say. “I’ll tell you about it some other time. Thanks for bringing me the food. I know you and Ruby always have my back. You should eat the food. You’re probably still hungry, right? The portions are smaller than normal.”

“Yeah…okay, I will. I’ll see you tomorrow at breakfast. Good night, Kai.”

“Yeah. Good night, Marin,” I say. I sigh as her footsteps fade away. I return to the bathroom. There’s no point trying to clean these clothes anymore. They’re useless. I’ll get new shoes too. I can’t exactly toss them out without people giving me weird looks again. I’ll burn them. There’s nothing that my Fire magic can’t burn. I point my right palm at the pile of dirty clothes on the floor.

I bind Fire Affinity to my Mana. I activate it and release it straight out of my right palm. The poop-covered clothes and shoes burn into nothing almost instantly.

I sigh. I’m really glad this is all over. I still feel a bit sick, but I just need to sleep it off. I tuck myself into bed and then fall asleep.

I wake up the next morning at the usual time. Feeling much more refreshed compared to yesterday. My stomach still hurts. On top of that, my body feels heavy and it’s burning up. A dull pain aches my head too. I get and then get dressed. I can’t be late for breakfast or Marin might ask me more questions later.

First, I need to check the mail station for more orders. I head on over to the mail station on the third level. I unlock my mailbox with the key and find a new piece of paper inside. I take it and read it.

You will serve as the day and night prison guard for two weeks. You are to only allow authorized personnel into the prison. The current guard on duty will explain how to complete your other duties. You are expected to be there at 7 AM today and stay until 7 PM. Sleep for a few hours before returning to your shift from midnight to 7 PM again. Food will be delivered to your post.

Signed by General Nero. Ugh. This means that today’s breakfast will be the only meal I’ll be able to enjoy in the cafeteria for the next two weeks. Of all tasks General Nero could’ve assigned me. Guard duty? That’s so boring. And it’s in the prison. I gag with memories of yesterday. I thought yesterday would be the last time I would have to bear with that smell...

I hurry to the cafeteria to meet Marin and Ruby for breakfast before it’s too late. I wait in line to check-in to collect my meal ticket, eventually moving to the front of the line. I give one of the two men sitting behind the table my ID.

“Hmm… Sigma 4. Third one today,” the man says and then rips one of the meal tickets in half. He hands it to me along with my ID. I take both and move on to the next line.

Half a meal ticket? As if the amount of food for one food ticket wasn’t lacking enough. I can’t imagine what half a meal ticket would yield. It worries me since Marin mentioned of saving some food for me yesterday. How can you save anything when it’s so little? I’m starving, but I have to put up a front for them so they don’t starve themselves too.

The line moves fast. I hand over my ripped meal ticket. It takes longer than the usual few seconds it takes to receive my food. Eventually, a man hands me a tray of food. Surprisingly, it has the usual piece of bread and hard-boiled egg. But there’s half as much mystery meat and vegetables. Still has the cup of water.

Marin and Ruby are seated in our usual place. My head throbs and my vision blurs. Two sets of everything appear. I walk between them, unsure of which way is the right direction. I shut my eyes tightly before opening them again. No more double vision. Sweat covers my palms.

“Hey,” I say while taking a seat across Marin and Ruby.

“Hey,” they both say with smiles. They haven’t started eating their meals.

I can’t look too eager either despite that my mouth is watering. I gulp. Just have to act normal. Normal.

“Kai, ya can have my egg and meat. The ones from yesterday probably didn’t fill ya up much, right?” Ruby asks.

I think to last night when Marin offered me some food. I look toward Marin who shakes her head slightly. Maybe she doesn’t want to tell Ruby that she had that food to herself instead of me. I answer, “No, it was enough to fill me up to fall asleep. I’ll be fine with this much today.”

“’Kay, I understand. Glad I was able ta help ya. Let me know if ya want more.”

“How’re you feeling, Kai? You don’t look too good. Your voice sounds better today,” Marin says.

“I’m feeling great. Slept really good last night,” I say with a smile. “How’d yesterday go for you two…?”

My question is met with silence. Then I remember what General Nero said to me. That I can’t disclose my punishment to anyone. What if it’s the same for these two?

“It was fine,” Marin answers. “They’re having me help out with a lot of the physical labor in the Armory. It’s tiring, but nothing unbearable.”

I smile. That’s a relief. I ask, “What about you, Ruby?”

She’s frowning with her head lowered. She looks up and grins. “Really borin’! I hafta help organize papers in the Record Zone all day.”

I thought it would be something awful, but that doesn’t sound too bad. It’s really good to know that they didn’t go through something like… I stop thinking. I don’t want to think about that here. It’ll be way too suspicious if I gag or do anything abnormal. It feels like the throbbing in my head is getting worse. I probably just need to eat something and it’ll go away.

“…you, Kai?” Marin asks. Her voice echoes. I didn’t catch what she said exactly. Everything around me is echoing actually.

“Sorry, what was that again?” I ask, playing it off. “I zoned out.”

“What about you, Kai? What’s your punishment?” Marin asks and then starts eating. Ruby has already started eating too. It would be unusual if I didn’t start soon.

Her question reminds me of yesterday. It makes the sour feelings in my stomach worse, but I ignore it. I think to the orders found in my mailbox today. “Nothing too terrible. Guard duty in the prison. The smell’s the worst part. They’re having me eat down there too so I won’t see either of you for a while at mealtime starting today.”

I pierce the egg with my fork. I put the whole thing in my mouth. An extremely sour feeling permeates throughout my mouth, but I ignore it and keep chewing. I shut my eyes tightly while continuing to chew. My head continues to throb and burn up. I feel light-headed. I open my eyes. Marin and Ruby’s lips are moving, but I don’t hear anything.

It’s too hard to swallow the egg in my mouth with that sour feeling in my mouth. I take a big gulp from the cup of water to force it down. I regret it the moment I do. I hunch forward grabbing my stomach with my hands. This feeling was just like yesterday. I can’t help but remember the smell, the feelings, and the taste. I vomit everything out. My body feels too heavy. I feel weak. I fall over and pass out.

I open my eyes, unsure of what just happened. Marin says, “Kai, you’re finally awake. How’re you feeling?”

Marin’s sitting in a chair next to me. I’m apparently tucked inside a bed. I sit up, trying to remember what happened. Right. I was eating that egg and then… I felt really sick to my stomach. That pain in my head, my body burning up, voices echoing seems to have all vanished. I don’t feel sick either. I answer, “Great, actually. Where am I? What happened?”

“You scared us when you suddenly threw up and passed out. Ruby ran to get help from the Clinic. You’ve been asleep for several hours now. The doctor said you had a sickness, but he helped your body take care of it with Healing magic. He said you would be fine in a few hours.”

“I see. Where’s Ruby now?” I ask.

“I’m not sure. Training, I think.”

“Training?” I ask while knitting my eyebrows. “Shouldn’t she be in the Record Zone?”

“Well, you were asleep so you didn’t know… But General Nero changed his decision an hour ago. We’re no longer blacklisted.”

Changed his decision…? What? It doesn’t make any sense. Especially after the way he treated me yesterday…

“Oh, Captain Albius wanted to speak with you after you wake up and feel better. He’s waiting in his office.”

“Okay,” I say and stand up. My mind blank.

“There’s more. General Nero apologizes for the misunderstanding and gave our entire platoon free passes to the bar, bathhouse, cooking station, and a lot of meal tickets as compensation. Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah…” I answer. Unsure if I should be feeling glad or angry. It’s too much information to process.

“What’s wrong, Kai? Aren’t you happy?”

“I am…but I just don’t understand. Why’d they change their decision?”

“Hmm… General Nero didn’t say. I’m sure that’s why Captain Albius wanted to see you.”

“Maybe… I’m gonna find out. Thanks for staying by my side, Marin,” I say with a smile.

“Yeah,” she answers with a smile too. “It’s almost lunch time, so don’t be late. Everyone promised to be there. So you can convince everyone to do those group training exercises you mentioned.”

“Right, well, I’ll see you soon then,” I say before leaving.

“Bye.”

I find my way out of the Clinic and head immediately to Captain Albius’ office on the third level. I barge into his office without knocking and say, “You wanted to see me, Captain Albius?”

He stands up from his chair, smiling. “It was about time you showed. How’re you feelin’?”

I know I should be respectful, but I can’t help feel hot puffs of air escaping me. “Good now, no thanks to you.”

“No need to hold any grudges against me… I was just doin’ my job. Because of our misunderstandin’, your platoon will receive some compensation. You’ll receive—“

“Yeah, whatever. Marin told me about them. But why? What changed your mind?”

“Well, after examinin’ the value of the weapons you brought more closely, re-readin’ your report, and fact checkin’ at Beltan, we decided that you were tellin’ the truth about everythin’. You did the best you could given the circumstances. We apologize for the misunderstandin’.”

Frowning, I walk closer to Captain Albius so that his face is inches away from mine. “You had me covered in shit and piss for an entire day inside a steaming, hot room. But it was all a misunderstanding? I told you I was telling the truth the entire time.”

He answers calmly, “Yup… And to apologize, you’re receivin’ a fairly large compensation. Free passes to the bathhouse and bar don’t come cheap. Those are usually only given out to platoons who have had success on important tasks assigned to them.”

“What about General Nero? He had me…” I say but don’t finish my sentence. “Where’s his apology?”

“Where do you think these free passes are comin’ from? It isn’t on my budget. He asked me to apologize in his place. He’s busy right now,” Captain Albius informs and then puts a hand on my shoulder. He grips it tightly and brings his head closer. He quietly says, “You should be careful about what you say from now on. And be glad that your failure had a happy endin’ like this. Let yesterday serve as a warnin’ for the future. You did nothin’ wrong this time around…but just remember. Orders are everythin’.”

He lets go of my shoulder and then says with a smile, “You’re free to go, Sergeant Kai.”

I turn around and walk out of Captain Albius’ office. I hate him and General Nero for what they put me through, but I can’t do anything about it. I only can follow their orders. I’ll do what I have to in order to become a Lieutenant. Since there’s no punishment anymore, that means that my path to becoming a Lieutenant is on track. I’m also glad that Ruby and Marin don’t have to suffer anymore due to my mistake.

My stomach growls. I’m starving. I head to the cafeteria to meet the others for lunch.

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