The Selection

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Chapter 56 - Inteiru Expota - Rising Champions

Hina and I discuss what we should include in our report to General Nero. I want to include everything but Hina prefers to leave out the piece about the referees and our previous knowledge of the snake earring group. We agree on putting in a time lapse in our story that nothing happened the first time we went to the Hodgepodge.

We make our way back into General Nero’s office and give him our findings. I incorporate the piece about our previous knowledge despite Hina’s disagreement. I hope it’ll give us another opportunity to participate somehow. It also doesn’t feel right to purposely leave out information.

“Interesting…” he mutters and smiles. He pauses for several seconds before continuing, “Good work. You’re free to go now.”

“This may be rude of me, but can you give us another task to follow up on this?” I ask.

“What task do you have in mind?”

“Well… The Academy was destroyed by those masked men who may be related to those snake earring guys. We were hoping to have the opportunity to investigate them in Neomeris.”

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. You’ll have the opportunity to embark on these personal investigations once you’ve reached the next rank up.”

“Personal? But they attacked our city. We could learn more—“

“Everyone lost something in the attack. Each one wants an opportunity to find some answers, but it’s not on our priority list right now.”

“How can it not be on our priority list? With the Inteiru Expota coming up, they could be planning another attack and deceive everyone into thinking that we did it.”

“After meeting with the Elf, I will personally go to Syrina to inform them of their ruse. We will let them handle it since it’s their territory. We could get caught in the crossfire if we send our men in there now. Besides, if you leave for another mission now, you won’t have a chance to participate in the Rising Champions.”

“Rising Champions?”

“You’ll learn more about it in the coming days. It’s a potential opportunity to advance to Lieutenant quicker. You’re excused. I have other work to attend to.”

We bow our heads and then leave the room. I ask, “Mail station?”

“Yeah,” Hina answers, and we make our way there. “I can’t believe you always have the gall to talk back to General Nero, despite that you want to strictly follow your orders.”

“Well, there’s no rule saying we can’t talk back, is there?”

“I guess not…what do you want to do now?” Hina asks. She continues in a whisper, “Investigate?”

“Hmm…” I interject. It’s really tempting, but the risk’s high. We know where the meeting point is, but there’s no way we could hear what Viessa has to say without getting caught. And someone will find out that we’re missing if we investigate up north. That would take at least a few days…not to mention the dangers even if we were to not be caught. There’s so little to gain and so much to lose. Then there’s this Rising Champions thing. “No, we should stay put for now. I’m curious what this Rising Champions thing is. The fastest way to have our investigation could be to become a Lieutenant as fast as possible.”

“Right…that’s what I was sayin’ to you yesterday. If you take only risk-free decisions, it’ll be a long time until you advance.”

“Well, I mean…slow and steady wins the race, right? I could advance faster by taking risks, but at the same time, it might be slower if things don’t go as planned. And the entire platoon suffers for it through punishments. That’s just something I—wait,” I cut myself off. Two guys are chatting nearby. I stop walking and gesture Hina to turn away from them.

“What’re you—“

“Shh.”

“Thankfully, I wasn’t drafted this year either,” one man says.

“Man it’s not fair. Ya got moved into a Sigma platoon this year, but ya didn’t get drafted,” another man says.

The man laughs. “It’s because Alpha platoons are expendable. They’re saving the big guns for the Inteiru Expota.”

“You know…” Hina mutters and then sighs. I cock an eyebrow as she turns around.

I whisper, “Wait, where’re you going?”

She approaches the two men and says, “Hey. Couldn’t help but overhear. Are you talkin’ about the Risin’ Champions by any chance?”

“Yeah…why? Who’re you?”

“I’m Hina. I joined the army about seven months ago, so I don’t know anythin’ about this. Same with him.”

She didn’t… I turn around, finding her pointing at me. I smile and wave. They give me weird looks.

“Don’t mind him. He’s a bit of a weirdo. So, what’s the Risin’ Champions? All I know is that it’s a way to advance up the ranks quicker, but you’re talkin’ about it like it’s a bad thing.”

“Well, you’re new so it’s not a surprise you don’t know. The Rising Champions is an event held by the four Human kingdoms every year. Twelve platoons from each army form six groups that fight groups from other kingdoms. The kingdom that has the most victories between each Inteiru Expota is chosen as the representative for our race for the next Inteiru Expota.”

“What’s special about bein’ chosen as a representative?” Hina asks.

“Well, nothing. Honor’s the only prize. It’s one thing the kingdoms do to decide which country’s superior to the other.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad. Why wouldn’t you want to participate in somethin’ like that?”

“It’s dangerous. Even though it’s a friendly battle, you’re fighting with real weapons against real weapons.”

“I don’t know how familiar you are with the Academy, but they held a tournament every year. Real weapons were used too alongside magic. So it’s kind of like that?”

The man stares at her for several seconds without responding. Only cocking an eyebrow but then he continues, “From what I know, the rules are completely different. You have referees and safeguards at the Academy…but there aren’t any for this battle.”

“What do you mean, no safeguards? It’s a fight to the death?”

“Well, no. Not exactly. But it can be.

“Explain.”

“I don’t know the exact rules. I only know what other people have told me.”

“That’s fine. Tell us what you know.”

“People end up fighting each other until the other side can’t fight anymore. So what I’m saying is…your opponents could end up seriously injuring you or killing you.”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense. Can’t you surrender?”

“I heard about people surrendering without even fighting, but it’s incredibly dishonorable. You’d be subjecting yourself to punishment if you do that. It’s not like everyone ends up killing each other. It’s when neither side gives in to surrender that fatalities occur.”

“I see. How’s the winner determined? The last man standin’?”

“I’m not sure. The exact rules are determined on the day of the battle by the veteran overseers. Are you in The Reserve?”

“I’m in Sigma 8,” Hina says and then points over to me. I palm over my face. “He’s in 4.”

Ohh… You were an Adventurer before you joined?”

“Yeah,” Hina answers. One of the men narrows his eyes, grimaces, and shakes his head. He looks to the other man who has a similar expression and points his hand the other way. The two men walk away without saying another word. “What’s your problem? Hey!”

They don’t stop. I put a palm over her shoulder and say, “Forget it. This is why I don’t talk to people anymore.”

“They’re just rude.”

We continue our way to the mail station. “Well, whatever. I’m surprised you haven’t bumped into anyone like that considering you’re talking to other platoons.”

“I’ve been mostly connectin’ with the Delta platoons. They have access to the cookin’ stations. They weren’t rude like that.”

“Those two probably originated from The Reserve. I bet everyone there’s saying bad things about us.”

“Why would they do that? Part of my platoon came from The Reserve, but they’re nothin’ like that.”

“I don’t know. There were two members who left my platoon after the incident in Beltan. Maybe those two are giving me a bad reputation.”

“What’d you do to them?”

“Nothing,” I say. Hina quirks an eyebrow. I continue, “Really, nothing. No, wait. I take that back. I was quite reckless back then and took on a whole bunch of requests whenever the chance arose. They weren’t happy with me taking those huge risks, and I don’t blame them. I definitely wouldn’t do anything of that sort now, despite what you tell me.”

“Doin’ nothin’ is the problem. Haven’t I told you that you need to inspire people? Take the time to train them?”

“And I told you that it’s a waste of time. If they don’t wanna train, they won’t train. So I won’t train them.”

“It’s because of your attitude that people are goin’ to think you’re stuck-up. You have to show people they’re valuable.”

“I really don’t care what people think of me. If I’m in charge of them, they’ll have to do what I say as their commanding officer. If they don’t like it, they’ll quit. They always do, but someone will always be there to replace them. In the end, it doesn’t matter.”

Hina shakes her head. “So you’re the reason that those two guys just walked away mid-conversation…”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far… I’m sure some of the other Sigma platoons are having similar issues. I can’t be the only one refusing to train them. Do you know what’s going on between the other Sigma platoons?”

“No, I haven’t spoken to them.”

“There you have it.”

“Still… It’s possible that you caused it.”

I smile. “But it’s also possible that I didn’t, so there’s no point thinking about it.”

She sighs. “Okay, Kai.”

The mail station is just up ahead. We split off to check our own mailbox. I unlock mine and open it. Two papers inside. I read the one on top.

Sergeant Kai, come find me when you get this. Captain Albius.

I scrunch up the paper and toss it. What does he want now? I read the other piece of paper.

Congratulations. Sigma 3 and 4 have been selected to form one of six groups to participate for this year’s Rising Champions. You’ll receive more information tomorrow. General Nero.

Yes! Our group was selected. An opportunity to advance to Lieutenant quicker! We’re with another Sigma platoon which should be an easy win for us. What about Hina? I close my mailbox and meet up with her. Nothing’s in her hand. I ask, “You didn’t get anything?”

“Nope. Looks like you got somethin’ though.”

“Yeah. Turns out playing my cards safer got me selected. My platoon is partnering with Sigma 3 apparently. Should be a cinch to bring a win back and impress General Nero.”

Hina frowns and tilts her head. “Kai… Do you know who belongs to Sigma 3?”

I chuckle. “Of course I do. They have former adventurers like us.”

“Yeah, but…do you know exactly who’s in that platoon?”

“No. Why’s it matter?”

“It matters a lot. Ada’s in that group.”

Ada?” I ask, my stomach turning.

“Yeah. You remember her right?”

“Of course.” How can I forget? I clench my fists and frown, thinking only about how she treated me half a year ago.

“Did somethin’ else happen between you guys?”

I relax and sigh. I can’t let anyone find out what about happened. “Oh, no. Just really angry how she was so quick to lump me with the masked men. And how she made Sitos out to be a criminal.”

“Well okay. You two are goin’ to have to get over your differences if you’re plannin’ on winnin’ your battle.”

“Of all people to be grouped with… That’s just unlucky.”

“I’m startin’ to think it wasn’t by coincidence.”

“How do you know that?”

“Do you think General Nero knows that you don’t get along with Ada?”

I hesitate to answer. I know he knows based on what happened during our last interaction but I can’t explain to Hina why I know that. But there’s also that time… “Yeah, he knows. He heard Ada accuse me of crimes back at the big execution with Sitos’ family.”

“So I was thinkin’…he put you two together on purpose to get over your differences. Everything we’ve been doin’ with trainin’ villagers and all that. Learnin’ about the Inteiru Expota. It all makes sense. The Risin’ Champions sounds like a trainin’ exercise to improve teamwork and coordination between platoons. If somethin’ happens at the Inteiru Expota, we’d be forced to work with anyone on our side.”

“That makes sense…but then why didn’t you get chosen?”

Hina smiles with her chest puffed out. “Well isn’t that obvious? I’m well-liked by everyone. I’ve made friends with various Delta platoons. You on the other hand… The lone wolf. The one givin’ everyone in a Sigma platoon a bad reputation.”

I frown. “Okay, okay… Lone wolf, sure. But that other part isn’t true.”

“But you don’t know that, so there’s no point in disagreein’.”

I stare at her. She laughs.

“So I’m forced into the same group as her. But we don’t have to work together. I know her group’s pretty capable because we fought in the tournament before. We could operate as separate platoons during the battle.”

“That doesn’t sound like it incorporates much teamwork. You don’t know about the rules yet either. What if the rules say that you must work together?”

“Ugh… I really hope not.”

Her smile melts into a frown. “Well, I’m goin’ to convene with my friends to fill them in on what’s goin’ on… We’ll spread rumors about me wantin’ to meet me in the cafeteria around dinner time. I’ll see you then.”

“Wait, that’s it? We’re not gonna practice our lines?”

“It’s better if we don’t prepare to make it look natural. I’m countin’ on you to follow my lead and improvise. Just remember that I asked you to meet me,” Hina says and then walks away.

It’s time to do my part. Where would Marin be a little past lunchtime? The archery range, her room, the cafeteria, the training area, or somewhere else? I’ll check her room first since it’s the closest.

I head down the stairs onto the second level and into the ‘B’ sector. Her room is conveniently on the second floor near mine. It certainly would be harder to keep us a secret if she lived on a different floor for the number of times she’s been seen by others wandering these hallways. People would raise eyebrows and rumors would spread. I knock on the door marked with ‘B381’.

Seconds later, the door opens. Marin greets with a smile, “Oh, hi Kai.”

“Hey, Marin,” I greet and walk in. I close the door before showing her the piece of paper with the news. “Did you receive one of these?”

“Yeah. We all got them this morning. I wonder what this is about.”

“We’re gonna end up fighting another group from either Neomeris, Elbar, or Xantho. Apparently, if we win, it’ll make us look good, and I’d be able to become a Lieutenant quicker. “

“That’s great news!”

“It is…but that’s only if we win. I don’t know the rules yet, but soldiers from The Reserve don’t seem too thrilled about it. The worst part is… Sigma 3’s Ada’s group…” I inform.

“Oh, no… I’m sorry to hear that Kai. I know you two don’t get along well.”

“We’re gonna have to somehow see eye to eye if we’re gonna win this thing. I know this is gonna be hard for you too. You’re hardly comfortable talking to our platoon other than Ruby and I. Now you’ve gotta communicate with an entirely different team. But you might not have to. I’m hoping that we don’t have to actually work together. If we’re lucky, we can agree to stay as two separate entities. We’d be a team by only appearances.”

“That would probably be for the best. But don’t worry about me, Kai. I’ll figure something out. How’d the mission with Hina go?”

What happened after the meeting with Viessa sticks to my mind. But right now, the most important thing is the meeting. “It went…well. I need to fill you in on what we’ve learned. It’s pretty important.”

I fill her in on everything she missed. She’s silent for a few minutes. It takes a while to absorb. I’m not surprised. It’s a lot of information.

“The Cursed Expedition… Do you think those masked people were responsible for that too? The timing seems too perfect. This entire time I thought mom and dad died in their line of work…but—“

“It doesn’t matter now,” I say. “The end result’s the same. They’re gone. No use thinking about it now. We have no way of knowing whether they had something to do with that or not. What’s important is finding who those people are and making them pay. Something’s definitely gonna happen at the Inteiru Expota. We’ve gotta focus on performing well in the Rising Champions so that General Nero’s more likely to select us as escort to Neomeris.”

“Okay… Did you want to do some training with our platoon first? Or work out a strategy?”

“Maybe later… I don’t really wanna do anything until we’ve received more information about this thing,” I say. I need to bring up that other matter. “About the thing with Hina… Um… Later today we’re executing the plan to start the fake relationship. I don’t know what’s going on exactly we’re just improvising on the spot. She’s gonna spread rumors that she asked to meet with me in the cafeteria at dinner time.”

“Okay. Did you tell Ruby about it yet?”

“No, but I will when I see her. Have you seen her recently? I haven’t seen her since we first left to train the villagers earlier this week.”

“No, I think she, Jetia, and the others are still gone.”

“Hmm… Well, they should be back in time. General Nero wouldn’t give them a task that conflicts with participating in the Rising Champions.”

“Yeah.”

“Soo…” I say, still delaying to bring up the other matter. “So there’s one more thing Hina wants me to run by you… I know you said you’d be okay with us three, well…doing stuff. But for part of our plan to work, I need to be alone in a room with Hina… doing stuff…several times a week to not draw suspicion. At least make it appear that we are, but Hina’s asking if we don’t have to pretend. Hina said that she’s fine with just a physical relationship but it’s also fine if you don’t want me to do the whole fake relationship thing either because it’ll take away from us. So…the choice’s up to you.”

Marin stays silent for several seconds before asking, “Do you want to go through with it?”

It feels like she’s testing me. But she should already know that my heart lies with her. Though, I still don’t want to really bring up last night to her in detail. This whole act is just a friendly gesture to Hina as her friend. I want to help her if I can. “Yeah. I can’t ignore it. If she doesn’t do anything about it. It could lead to…”

Something much worse. Something unthinkable. Something I won’t let happen if I can help it.

“I understand, Kai. You can go through with it. But only if you promise…” her voice growing quieter with every word. I gulp. She stares into my eyes and wraps her arms around my neck before continuing, “…that you’ll make up the time that we don’t see each other for when we do.”

“Of course,” I answer with a smile.

“How about now…?”

I wouldn’t mind indulging a little…but I don’t want to to keep Captain Albius waiting too long. If he finds out that I’ve been back but haven’t done as he has instructed me, he might get angry. “I wanna, but Captain Albius’ asking to see me. You wanna come?”

“Are you sure if that’s okay?”

“Eh, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a big deal. Worst case, you can wait somewhere while I talk to him.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We leave her room and then try to locate Captain Albius. He’s not in his office or the training area. He might still be in the cafeteria since it’s close to lunchtime. Not in the cafeteria, but maybe one of the cooking station rooms. We check, and there he is with his platoon. He sees us immediately and approaches us before we enter the room.

“Sergeant Kai, good to see you,” Captain Albius says with a smile. What ploy does he have this time?

“Hello, sir. What’d you wanna see me for?” I ask.

“I’m goin’ to need to speak to you in private, go on a walk with me.”

A bit hesitant, but I’m in no position to refuse. “Sure.”

Captain Albius leads me out into the outer hallway toward the outer corners. Pretty deserted area since there’s no reason to be here. All the entrances to the four zones on this level are closer to the center and entrances to the castle. The only ever reason to be here is for some occasional privacy, patrol, or running laps.

“So I’ve got some insider information for you about the upcoming Rising Champions,” he informs. I’m a bit skeptical since he never does things out of the blue that are solely for my benefit.

“What’s the catch?”

“There’s no catch.” I cock an eyebrow. “I know we’ve had our differences…but it was a misunderstanding. I had the wrong first impression about you. Thought you were just another cocky adventurer but these last few months proved me wrong. I’m truly sorry for how I treated you in the first few months. The thing is… I had no other choice.”

I don’t believe any of this but I nod my head and pretend that I do. He continues, “General Nero has been on my ass ever since the attack on the city. And I really shouldn’t be tellin’ you this, but I want you to see that we can be friends.”

“Friends? I don’t wanna be rude…but you covered me in shit.”

“Wasn’t on my orders. It was General Nero. That’s what happens when he’s angered. His punishments are really brutal. I didn’t want to come into his crosshairs.”

He continues in a whisper, “He’s tasked me to basically treat all the new recruits like trash. Tauntin’ and annoyin’ them whenever possible. I didn’t mind considerin’ I didn’t like how some ex-adventurers behaved in the past and most recruits at the time were adventurers… I didn’t want to get on his bad side, you know. I had to suck up to him. Do as I’m told. He knew that you weren’t lyin’ on that report the first time around.”

I open my mouth slowly into a gape. Wait. No… That can’t be right. Is he talking about that report back then? I clench my fists and answer, “You’re telling me… I had shit dumped on me when he knew the truth the entire time? He made me eat shit for no reason?”

“I had to play dumb because he was watchin’ me. No hard feelings. For some reason, he wanted to pick on you out of all the adventurers who joined. You’ve got any reason why?”

“I have no clue… I thought I was on his good side during our first meeting.”

“Look… I’ve been tryin’ behind the scenes to tell General Nero what a great job you’ve been doin’ and tryin’ to convince him that you’re not another one of those smug adventurers. Naturally, he’s not too fond of them either. They usually come with attitude problems. Got problems with bein’ told what to do. He believes that deliverin’ harsh punishment would change their attitudes for the better.”

“How does delivering harsh unjust punishment change my attitude? I didn’t do anything wrong. Punishment’s one thing…but he made me eat shit.”

“It’s because of his personal experiences. Believe it or not, he used to be a petty criminal. He was caught, endured harsh punishments, and changed completely. That’s why he believes that harsh punishment’s the way to change people. I know you want to get payback, but that’s not what you want to do. Swallow your pride and suck up to him. Get on his good side and reap the benefits.”

He used to be a criminal? I can see that. Sometimes I felt like he was really unprofessional. Captain Albius is right though. What kind of revenge would I be able to achieve? I’d be putting Marin and Ruby at risk. And no one else would believe me because he’s the general. His word against mine.

I don’t think Captain Albius is lying anymore. I knew things were fishy when they suddenly apologized for that mess back then. General Nero is the real villain here. But I can’t do anything to him… It’s better to suck up to him to minimize the damage.

“I personally believe you’ve got what it takes to make it far up the ladder. I vouched for your platoon to participate in the Rising Champions for this year. He wasn’t plannin’ on lettin’ you participate until I pushed him for it.”

“Thanks,” I say. Feels really weird saying that to him after what we’ve been through.

“Anytime, Sergeant Kai. If you need anything, let me know. As a token of our new friendship, I’d be willin’ to do you a few favors.”

This is convenient. “There’s one thing you can do for me today.”

“What can I do?”

“Do you know Captain Citrio?”

“Yeah. I know him. What business do you have with him?”

I could use Captain Albius to make him back off of Hina. But, if it doesn’t work, things could end badly. It’s not like he has any control of any of the other Captains. It’s better to proceed with our plan. “I need him to be present at the cafeteria tonight at 6 PM. He’s been harassing one of my friends and we’re putting on an act to make him back off of her.”

“Oh? That sounds interestin’. I’ll find a way to make sure he shows up.”

“She’s having her friends spread rumors that she asked to meet me at the cafeteria tonight. Just need to make sure Captain Citrio’s actually there when the time comes.”

“I’ll make it happen. Now onto the insider information… How much do you know about the Rising Champions?”

“Not much. Heard from two people before. It’s like the tournament without any safeguards. Dishonorable to surrender but you can give up at any time. Something about exact rules being determined by the veteran overseers. I guess that’s you?”

“Exactly. The group you’ll fight will have one too. We’ll have a discussion and come to an agreement on how the winner should be decided. I’ve participated a few times both as the fighter and overseer. I’ll tell you exactly what the purpose of this event is.”

“Isn’t it just to select the representative for the Inteiru Expota?”

“Yeah, but…its true purpose’s to allow newbies to get combat experience and toughen them up. Traditionally it’s also used to clear any bad blood between platoons. Makin’ them work together to accomplish a common goal. That’s why I can’t change his stance on movin’ you with another platoon. It’s a part of my job to make sure that both platoons are behavin’ properly and workin’ together.” Captain Albius smiles before continuing, “If Sigma 3 doesn’t behave… I’ll make sure General Nero knows it. Winnin’ the match isn’t the most important determinin’ factor.”

Is he saying what I think he’s saying? That I don’t need to win to impress General Nero? I smile. If Captain Albius is on my side, I won’t have to worry about being penalized. I’ll try my best to get along with Ada. It’s not my problem if she’s still hostile toward me. I thought it was all over but thanks to his insight this trial will be a cinch. It’ll even be better if Ada doesn’t play along and we manage to win. Or maybe it’ll be better if we lose? It would clearly be her fault and she’d take the downfall.

“I understand. Thanks for the heads up, Captain Albius.”

“No problem. Let me know if you need anything else. You’re free to help yourself to our leftovers. I’ll introduce you to my team.”

“Uhh…” I interject, hesitating for a moment because of the last time he offered me food. But that was in the past. He’s only here to help me now. “Sure. I’m pretty hungry since I haven’t eaten. Marin can join too, right?”

“The more the merrier.”

We head back to the cooking station he was at, Marin waiting. She gives me a confused look, but she follows me inside.

“This is Sergeant Kai,” Captain Albius introduces. “I’m sure you know already.”

“Of course we know,” someone responds. “He’s the one who had the gall to challenge you on his first day!”

They laugh. Captain Albius says, “Now, now…that’s all in the past. Sergeant Kai’s won me over. He’s not like those adventurers we’ve dealt with in the past. He’s someone you should keep an eye out for. He’s going to be the newest Lieutenant in record time. I feel it.”

“And this is Corporal Marin, right?” Captain Albius asks, pointing to Marin.

“Yes…” Marin replies quietly.

“Well, help yourself, Sergeant Kai.”

“Right…” I answer and sit next to these men I don’t know. The only thing I can think right now is eating the meat in front of me. There’s a good portion left. From the looks of it, it was a boar.

“Get this man a plate and some food!” Captain Albius exclaims.

“Yes, sir.”

“I need to run some errands. I’ll see you guys at six sharp tonight,” he says and then leaves.

“See ya, Captain,” several men say.

He must be meeting with Captain Citrio. Glad he’s not wasting any time on this. I like how he emphasized six o’ clock. We need the biggest audience we can get. A man hands me a plate. Another cuts a large portion of the boar onto my plate. A bit messy, but can’t complain.

“Here you go, sir,” a man says holding a fork and knife.

“Thanks,” I say and take the silverware. I help myself to the food.

“So what’d you do to impress Captain Albius to this degree?” a man asks. “Captain Albius rarely praises anyone. On top of that, he hates adventurers.”

I’m still chewing, so I don’t answer.

“Whatever man. Captain Albius is on board with this kid, so hell with it. I’m on board. Tell us one of your old adventurer stories.”

“Does the girl want to join too?”

“Umm…”

Right, Marin’s pretty uncomfortable. Well, it’s probably awkward for her to be standing over there too. It’s better for her to join in even if she’s not eating. It’ll be some practice for her socializing with other platoons before we have to work with Sigma 3. I gesture her to come over. The other guys scoot over to make room for Marin.

Heh, now Hina can’t mock me for not talking with other platoons. It’s not so hard. I enjoy my meal while sharing stories, mostly from our fifth year at the Academy.

I eat my fill but stay to socialize with them a bit more. I figure I should maximize this opportunity to get them on their good side. Captain Albius giving me his praise is probably enough, but more couldn’t hurt. Time flies by faster than I would anticipate. We eventually part ways. There are still a few more hours until the agreed meeting time tonight. With nothing else to do, we head back to the second level.

We bump into Jetia at the Crossroads. I ask, “You’re back from your mission already?”

“That’s my line. I was hoping to enjoy some more time to myself without you.”

“Whatever. Is Ruby back too?”

“No, I returned here by myself.”

“Right…is she here?”

“No, I returned here by myself,” he repeats himself.

He annoys me. Jetia never seems to play along with me. I’ll have to work with him the best I can for the sake of this Rising Champions. If I can’t get along with my own platoon, General Nero won’t be impressed. I say, “Well, I found out that we’re gonna team up with Sigma 3 in the Rising Champions. We’re gonna need to learn to work together if we’re going to have any chance of working with them and winning this thing.”

“It’s always like this with you. Something comes up and you want to act like a team when you don’t care about any of us besides Marin and Ruby.”

“Come on…that’s not true,” I say sincerely, despite it not being true. “Look, I’m sorry for the way I acted before. I know I ignored you guys, but this time I’m serious. I’ll train you individually if I have to. I’ll even put in a good word with Captain Albius for you.”

“Hah, that’s worth nothing coming from you.”

“No, I’m on friendly terms with him now. He’s praised me in front of his platoon and said I’d be the next Lieutenant. Ask him yourself.”

“What kind of bribe did you give him? He’s known for picking fights with adventurers. Almost everyone in the army knows him. That goes to show how great he is.”

“Picking fights with adventurers? He didn’t get in trouble for that?”

“Before Sigma platoons were made, all new recruits started as soldiers regardless. Adventurers acted like they were better than everyone else and had attitudes about it. Frequently disobeyed orders from their superiors. Captain Albius bent the rules in his favor and actively put them in their place until they became compliant or quit. That’s how everyone got to know him. He got a lot of praise for it.”

“Is he really that great?” I ask, skeptical. In my eyes, he hasn’t done anything particularly great.

“Of course. His Omega platoon is in the single digits.”

“Omega platoon… I’ve heard that term with Delta and Alpha but don’t really know the difference.”

“I’m not surprised. You were an adventurer. Most of us learned that in the first week.”

“I can’t change what’s done. I’m asking now, so please,” I say politely.

“Delta platoons consist of twelve people led by a Lieutenant. Omega platoons are the same led by a Major or Captain, so they’re more elite. The lower the number, the higher the prestige. Omega 1, 2, and 3 are reserved for the Majors. Alpha platoons have four people led by a Sergeant. Those are temporary short-term platoons. That’s how I got to know Dano and Banni… Numbers don’t mean anything. I’m sure you don’t know what a Beta platoon is, do you?”

I shake my head. He continues, “Beta platoons are temporary platoons too containing up to twelve people. They’re formed by combining Alpha platoons and people from The Reserve. They’re only formed to serve as additional reinforcements for Delta or Omega platoons.”

“So what number’s Captain Albius’ platoon?”

“7 or 8 last time I heard.”

“So, he’s not that great. There’re several Captains above him.”

“He hasn’t been doing much. I’m sure he could be a Major if he really wanted to.”

“Why wouldn’t he want to? The higher the rank, the higher the pay, the more stuff you can do.”

“Yer an idiot, that’s why. Past Lieutenant, there’s a lot more administrative responsibility. He’s got us under his wing, and I’m sure several others. Majors have to review work that everyone has done and that means reviewing several Captains who review a lot of platoons. They have to meet with the personnel working in the Request Center and Record Zone and resolve any issues. On top of that, they have to meet with the ministers and meet their demands to the best of their ability. General Nero also gives them direct orders. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

“That sound’s boring…but I didn’t know you were this knowledgable.”

“As I said, it’s common knowledge. It’s just yer an idiot.”

“Whatever. Anyway, I’m in good relations with Captain Albius now. I’ll give him word that you’re doing a good job, and you could finally be promoted to the Corporal rank. I need your help to find the other guys in our platoon for group training and coming up with a game plan.”

“You don’t even know their names and you want to do group training?”

“Names aren’t important. I know their faces. Look. I’ll use my savings to fund you a seminar about learning how to manipulate Mana. You’ll be well on your way of using magic and climbing to Sergeant.”

“I already know how to manipulate Mana.”

“Oh, you’ve taken that seminar already?”

“No, I went to the Academy.”

I widen my eyes. “What? You went to the Academy? You were an adventurer? Why haven’t I seen you use magic?”

So many things don’t make sense. We learned how to use basic magic in the middle of our second year.

“No…I never intended to become one. I completed the first year and dropped out early in my second year.”

“You dropped out?” I ask, trying not to smile. He was one of those kids. Was he really that untalented? I let out a chuckle accidentally.

“I know what yer thinking…you idiot. I’ll have you know I was above the average student. I left because my mother fell ill. I had a different childhood than others because I had to do whatever it took to get by and buy her medicine.”

“Couldn’t you have gone back? What happened to your group?”

“By the time my mother regained her health, it was too late. I couldn’t just continue from when I left. I had to re-enroll again. Since I was 15 at that time, I couldn’t enroll anymore. My group was understanding and continued on. I don’t know what became of them.”

“So what…you joined the army instead?”

“Yeah, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do anyway.”

“Then why’d you attend the Academy?”

“You idiot, not everyone that attends the Academy wants to become an adventurer. It’s how you become an adventurer, but does not mean you become one by going there.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“He’s right, Kai,” Marin answers. “The three paths are Adventurer, Soldier, and Craftsman.”

“Why does Marin know but not you?” Jetia asks.

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve heard anything about this. I thought everyone in our class wanted to be adventurers.”

“Kai, that’s because everyone signed up to be adventurers in our class. Didn’t you see the options when you enrolled in the Academy?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. All I know is, Emdos enrolled me into the Academy.”

“He must’ve known that you wanted to become an adventurer, so he picked that option for you,” Marin says.

“Yeah, he knew. So you were on the Soldier path? What’s the point of going to the Academy if you could enroll in the army anyway?”

“To learn how to manipulate Mana and use magic, why else?”

“If you know how to manipulate Mana, why haven’t you attended the seminar for bonding with an Affinity? You look older than me, so at least a few years. In that amount of time, you never had enough money to go to a seminar?”

“I’ve been in the army for four years. I send a portion of my earnings to my mother. She’s not well enough to work, so I need to help her survive.”

“Alright, I’ll give you enough money for you to attend a seminar for whatever you need. You’d be well on your way of being able to use magic in a fight.”

“No,” Jetia responds. Why would he refuse? He has nothing to lose. “Instead of funding my education, fund the other guys’ education on their first seminar for Mana manipulation. Only then will I agree to rally everyone up for your meeting.”

That’s four gold coins… Is it really worth it? I’m sure he’s going to ask for more than that later. Without Jetia’s help, there’s no way I can convince everyone to attend training. To be honest, I don’t know who is really a part of our platoon. If we don’t have a good showing at the Rising Champions, our platoon may not be allowed to attend the Inteiru Expota. We’re on a time limit too with the snake earring group and masked men… The faster we can go on our own investigation the better. The price to pay is not being able to attend more advanced seminars of our own for a while.

“Okay, I promise,” I respond.

Jetia smiles. “Great. Yer not going to take that back later, are you?”

“No, a promise’s a promise. Do you know where Ruby’s at?” I ask. I’m going to take everything back if he tries to act smart with me again.

“Not sure. She said she was tired, so probably getting some extra sleep in her room.”

“Alright, thanks. I’ll see you and the others tomorrow for lunch.”

“Whatever you say, leader.”

We continue our way back to the second level. Now knowing that Ruby’s back, we look for her. We knock on her door, but no answer. Maybe she’s completely passed out in there. We knock louder, but there’s still nothing. I could use my magic to go in there, but it’s too risky to use right now, and she’s probably not in there.

There are only a few other places where she could be. We check the mail station and meeting rooms on the third level and then all the training rooms on the first level. The clinic too, in case she was sick. She’s not in the outer hallways either. This isn’t the first time she’s disappeared and each time, she said it was just bad luck of not running into her when she’s there. Or somewhere we wouldn’t expect.

There’s no way she would be at the lower level. Only prisoners would be there and the unfortunate guard who keeps watch. She could be in the request center looking for potential requests to take. We haven’t been on a request together in a while so she could be restless about that. Or maybe she’s lying about her whereabouts, but why?

“Kai, she could’ve been tasked with a mission on her own or with someone from another platoon,” Marin says. “Just like how you and Hina were.”

“Hmm…that’s true.” Maybe I’m reading too much into it. There’s no reason why Ruby would lie to us.

We return to my room for the time being. Since there’s only one more hour until the agreed meeting time, we don’t do much. I don’t want to tire myself out and throw our plan up in flames. We spend our time thinking about how we can incorporate our fighting styles together. We agree to meet up later in my room.

The awaited hour arrives.

I arrive on time. The cafeteria is much more crowded than usual. Is it because of Captain Albius or the rumors that Hina and the others were spreading? There’s the usual line of people waiting to get their food with the addition of groups of people sitting at tables without any food. Hina is standing at the center of the room. I walk up to her, noticing Captain Albius with his platoon nearby. An unknown man with him; must be Captain Citrio. With so many people around, I’m a bit nervous, even though I shouldn’t be. This should be nothing compared to when I confessed to…never mind.

“Hey Hina,” I greet, “What’d you wanna see me for?”

“Hey Kai,” Hina says with a smile. “Thanks for comin’.”

She lowers her head. She switches between looking at me and the ground as she continues, “We-well…the thing is…”

I try not to look at Captain Albius or anyone just watching. Don’t want to make it look fake. I just hope Ruby doesn’t see this. Can’t imagine what chaos would unfold. It’s best if she’s on a separate mission.

“For a while now… I can’t stop thinkin’ about you… I have this uncontrollable urge to be by your side. To feel your touch. I don’t want to spend every night not knowin’ what could’ve been, so I just want to let you know...that I really like you!” she suddenly exclaims. Now we have everyone’s attention. I don’t know what the point of that was considering that Captain Citrio’s already watching. She continues normally, “How do you feel about me?”

“Umm…that’s really sudden,” I say while trying to think of something better. If I get the point across that this isn’t just a sudden confession, maybe it’ll be better at convincing this is real. “Well, you’re cute, and if I’m being completely honest… I had a small crush on you back in the Academy days. You had someone back then, so you know, nothing came of it. Recently, those feelings are coming back since we’ve been working together this past week. I’ve had urges any normal guy would have toward a woman…but kept it hidden because I didn’t wanna destroy our friendship”

“What do you mean urges…? Are you sayin’ that you like me?” she asks.

It should’ve been obvious to any of these bystanders from what I just said. Does she want me to say it directly? I gulp and reply, “Don’t make me say it directly. Haven’t we drawn enough attention? Let’s just say that only you can satisfy my hunger.”

“Okay…do you want to go somewhere private?” she asks, holding a hand out.

“Yeah…” I answer and grab her hand.

Clapping and whistling resound around the room. Someone shouts, “Go get him, girl!”

We walk slowly out of the room side by side. We’ve got to give Captain Citrio as much time as possible to follow us. We ended that on an awkward note. I don’t know if our performance was good enough, but too late now. After we’re in the Crossroads, I whisper, “How will we know if Captain Citrio follows us? It’ll be too suspicious if we turn around.”

“I’ve got my guys stationed around. They’ll give us a signal if there’s a bite,” she whispers back. Speaking of the devil, Luke is standing by the steps up to the second level with some other guy.

Luke waves with a smile and says, “Congrats, Hina and Kai. It went well?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Hina responds.

“Good, good, good,” Luke says. A bit one too many goods. Was that the signal?

We continue up the stairs. I whisper, “Are we gonna go to my room or yours?”

“Mine. Captain Citrio knows where my room’s at. It’s in the A block. Simon and Dennis are hiding’ by the ‘C’ and ‘D’ entrances. Dennis will give Simon a signal if he sees Captain Citrio. Then Simon will give us a signal when we’re by the ‘A’ entrance. It’s perfect because of the wall that covers the stairs that lead upward.”

Oh, right. Because of that wall, anyone by the ‘C’ entrance has the best view of someone coming from the first level. Meanwhile, anyone by the ‘A’ entrance can’t see. I don’t see the point though since she already had one signal from Luke. But I guess she didn’t know whether the first signal would be successful.

We reach the second level. I look over at the ‘C’ region to see if he’s actually there. I wouldn’t have noticed him there unless Hina told me. There’s no way Captain Citrio would notice him with his eye on the prize. We quicken our pace toward the ‘A’ block and then wait by the entrance. Less than a minute passes before a speck of Mana appears near the ceiling at the center of the room. Hina tugs on my arm. That must’ve been the signal.

We head up one flight of stairs onto the second floor and walk all the way to A391. We go in and lock the room behind us. I figure this is the best time to tell her what Marin said.

“So, Marin’s fine with it,” I inform. “We don’t have to act.”

“Really?” she asks, smiling. “Did you tell Ruby?”

“Yeah. I looked for her but didn’t find her. She’s probably still on a mission. I’ll tell her everything as soon as I see her.”

“We don’t have a lot of time, so…”

Captain Citrio’s right on our tail. It’ll be suspicious if he hears it from the start when we should’ve already started. I walk over to Hina and hug her. Her slightly parted lips entice me as I move my head closer to her, eventually kissing her lightly on those lips. My bottom half reacts immediately. Losing patience, I plunge my tongue inside, now wrestling with hers.

I caress the back of her body under her clothing, unclipping her bra in the process. Her grip tightens on my back as I squeeze her nipples. As if to retaliate, she presses against my crotch with one hand. I pull away from her lips temporarily and stare deeper into her eyes, both of us panting. We both take off our top halves. I push her onto the bed and then climb on top of her.

I gently massage her breasts while kissing her on her neck, eliciting soft moans. I move my head down to her hard nubs and suck on one. I put as much pressure as I can using my lips while pinching her other nipple between my thumb and index finger.

Ah!” she cries out loudly and stiffens her body. It only adds fuel to the fire. I move my kisses down to her stomach and take the opportunity to undress her bottom half. She stares at me blushing lightly with puppy-dog eyes. I gulp. I stretch out her last garment down her legs as loud as possible. There, her flower lays bare devoid of any hair. She mutters, “Stop starin’…”

I slap her on her most sensitive part repeatedly. Her body shakes as I do. She mutters, “More…”

Her juices splash on my hand with every whack. I move my body parallel to hers, wanting to kiss her again. Our tongues mingle. This time, we take turns sucking on each other’s tongue. I slam two fingers inside her. She pushes my head away and whispers, “That feels so good…”

I whisper back, “Is it bad that I’ve been anticipating this the entire day? I wanna thrust my entire body inside you… I even declined sex from Marin earlier because I wanted to be at peak performance for you.”

My erection presses hard against my pants. I can’t keep it together anymore. I climb off of her to take off my belt. And then my pants. And then my underwear. As if memorized by my body, she hasn’t said a word the entire time. I crouch back onto the bed and grab both of her ankles, pushing them toward her head. She shakes her head and then gestures me to come closer. I let her down, still very excited. Maybe she wants a position where we kiss too.

Suddenly, she sits up and whispers in my ear, “I don’t want to go through with this anymore.”

“What do you mean? Captain Citrio’s right there,” I whisper.

“Ah! You’re so hard!” Hina exclaims and shakes the bed. She continues in a whisper, “I don’t want to ruin you and Marin. I like you as a friend and Marin too. Wouldn’t want to destroy what you guys had already.”

I’m a bit disappointed even though I was doing this as a favor for her. I push her down and thrust open air above her to shake the bed. We both pant and moan for the show. She reaches for my member and whispers, “Just this time, only sex is off limits.”

I gulp. So she’s fine with kissing and touching?

We continue acting as if we have our bodies locked together, but really we’re only touching each other. Closing in on climax, we both exclaim each other’s name. I shake the bed more violently in the last few moments.

Hina-ugh!” I exclaim and explode my juices in short bursts all over her upper body. I flop onto the bed beside her. Faint footsteps resound outside the door. Captain Citrio should be gone now. Just in case, I whisper, “Sorry, made a mess.”

“It’s okay. It’s just this once. I didn’t want to make you stop again because of my selfish request at the last second.”

“It’s not selfish. You’re looking out for me and Marin, right?”

“Yeah…but things will be hard from now. I don’t want to keep actin’ like this when you get nothin’ out of it. Maybe it’s enough that Captain Citrio believes we did it once. He wouldn’t want a woman who does these things on a whim.”

“From what you told me about him, I don’t think that will work. I don’t mind if we continue to act. We’ve already put the plan in motion. I’ll see it through. Besides, I had fun acting. With Marin, it’s more…quiet. We can’t have it be openly known.”

She giggles. “Yeah, that was fun. I wonder what was goin’ on in Captain Citrio’s head while we were doin’ that.”

“Well, you should be safe from Captain Citrio from now on. Wanna get dinner now?”

“Oh, now I know why you agreed to do this.”

“Why’s that?” I ask, not knowing what she’s referring to.

“You want access to the cookin’ station. Since we’re a couple now, it would be strange if we didn’t eat meals together,” she says with a grin.

“Yep…” I answer devoid of any energy. “That’s exactly it. I just hate cafeteria food that much.”

“Let me clean up and we can go,” Hina says and walks to the bathroom.

I start to get dressed. “By the way, what’d you end up telling Simon, Dennis, and Luke? Do they know that our relationship isn’t real?”

“I told them about Captain Citrio, but…well things happened.”

“What does that mean?”

“They already knew I had a thing for you, so I couldn’t really get out of it. They think we’re in a relationship for real. I didn’t tell them about you and Marin either.”

Seriously? That’s a bit bad because I told Captain Albius it was all an act… But I’m sure he won’t spill the beans because he’s only trying to help me now. The only loose string here is Ruby. Captain Albius should be alerted when she’s back from her mission, right? I’ll ask him to tell her to find me as soon as possible when she gets back.

Both of us get dressed and head down to the cafeteria. Captain Albius is in one of the cooking station rooms, so we go there instead of her contact. I introduce her to everyone, giving Captain Albius the idea that our relationship is as real as it gets or at least it needs to seem that way to everyone. He plays along. I confirm from him that Ruby is on a separate mission by herself. So I tell him to tell her to find me as the first thing she does once she’s back.

I part ways with Hina after dinner and return to my room. I still have quite a bit of energy and fire in me despite my encounter with Hina earlier. I have a lot of unreleased energy because we never got to do it.

Marin meets me in my room where I explain to her what happened with Hina and the game plan from now on. I deliver my promise from earlier and get fairly busy that night with her.

“Kai!” someone exclaims and bashes on my door.

It jolts me and Marin awake. I sit up from the bed and ask, “Who the hell?”

“It’s Luke. Kai, you’ve got to come quickly!” he exclaims quickly. “Open the door!”

“Hold on, let me get dressed,” I say and get up from the bed. It would be really bad if he saw Marin. I signal her to go into the bathroom. She walks there quietly careful not to make any extra noise. I hide her clothes under the bed and then get dressed. I open the door, Luke standing there, panting. “What’s wrong?”

“Hina and Ruby are fighting in the cafeteria,” he informs.

I widen my eyes. Oh shit! Fuck!

He continues, “It’s bad. Ruby suddenly attacked her. Everyone evacuated the cafeteria because they started using magic.”

What?! Magic? Are you serious? There’s no one there to stop them?” I ask, quickly shutting the room behind me and following Luke. We practically sprint there.

“Apparently all the Lieutenants and above are having a meeting. That’s where everyone’s running to now. You’ve got to stop them before it gets worse.”

We reach the center of the second level. People are running up the stairs. We go down into the Crossroads and into the cafeteria.

Immediately, witness a scene of pure fire and water. It’s too much to take in. Both of them scream while launching magic attacks at each other. How the hell did this happen? I know I should be stopping them, but this fight is on a larger scale of a fight than I thought. Almost the entire room has been affected. The tables are in the air encapsulated by Water magic. Other tables are burnt or bunched up together in one side of the room.

No, I know how this happened. Ruby must’ve heard about Hina and me. I did this. I walk into the chaos and exclaim, “Ruby! Stop this right now!”

She looks at me but a moment but turns away. “What’d ya do ta my Kai?! Ya fuckin’ bitch. Ya did somethin’ ta ’im didn’tcha?!”

“He’s not yours.”

“Yeah, he is! ‘N’ ya knew that! Fireball barrage! Fireball barrage! Fireball!” she exclaims while running around Hina. Two pairs of three miniature fireballs appear from the tip of three fingers that gradually increase in size as they fly toward Hina. A larger ball of fire follows. She’s not playing around. I’ve used Fire magic enough to know that she’s using Rich Mana to build those attacks.

Hina stands still, seemingly ready for her attack. The floating balls of water around the room with the tables inside them slam down on Ruby’s magic. More clumps of water appear in front of Hina too. The magic collide. Smoke and steam spread throughout the room. I can’t see. I continue walking forward to where Hina was standing. I leave only a tiny sliver of my eye open as a gust of wind blows over me. The smoke and steam clear up.

It looks like Ruby’s preparing another attack. I take this chance to run in front of Hina and spreading my arms apart, guarding her.

She yells, “Kai! Get outta the way! She’s got ya under ’er spell. I know it!”

“No! You need to listen to me! Stop attacking her right now or, I’m never gonna speak to you again!”

She drops her arms down as if defeated. Tears stream down her eyes. “But, why, Kai…?”

I turn around to see how Hina’s doing. Her left arm hangs in front of her, covered in second-degree burns. I grimace. That looks quite painful. “Go ahead and go to the clinic. I’ll handle Ruby now. Sorry about this, Hina.”

She just looks at me and nods. I think she’s trying to keep herself together. Luke runs over and lends her a shoulder. I walk over to Ruby, now kneeling on the ground head down and crying. “Ruby, I was looking for you so I could explain.”

She sniffles and asks, “That yer throwin’ me away?”

“No. Look. You have it all wrong. The truth is, there was someone doing things to Hina that she didn’t like. The only way for them to stop was to pretend that she had a boyfriend. So we’re just pretending. None of it’s true.”

She looks up. “Really?”

“Yeah. But you can’t tell anyone. No matter what. No one can find out.”

“Okay, I got it…”

“And how’d you find out about this so quickly? Captain Albius told me you were on a mission. Didn’t think you’d get back this early in the morning.”

“Oh…yeah. There was a small errand he wanted me ta run. Nothin’ hard, but took a while.”

“This isn’t the first time that you’re nowhere to be found. This time was a mission, but other times weren’t… Is there something else you’re not telling us?”

“Well…I—“

“What in tarnation?!” someone exclaims behind us. I know him. He’s one of the three Majors. One of the older ones, early 50’s maybe. “Identify yourself!”

“We’re both Sigma 3. I’m Sergeant Kai. This is Corporal Ruby. Sir, I can explain—“

“What the hell’s wrong with you adventurers? Do you think you have some kind of special privilege to cause trouble?”

“Of course not, sir, but—“

“The Sigma platoons were created so you could have more freedom and didn’t have to start as a Soldier like everyone else. But it wasn’t enough, huh? You two, you’re coming with me to see General Nero. He’s still in the meeting, so you’ll have to wait.”

We follow him to the third level to General Nero’s office. He comes by with Captain Albius sometime later.

“What do we have here, Major Galan?” General Nero asks.

“The culprits for the chaos this morning.”

“I see. Thank you. I’ll take it from here.”

“Yes, sir,” Major Galan says with a salute and then leaves.

“Well, come inside Sergeant Kai, and Corporal Ruby,” General Nero says and goes into his office. We follow him. Captain Albius right behind us. “Tell me what happened.”

“Yes, sir. I was informed by someone from Sigma 8 this morning about a fight between Sergeant Hina and Corporal Ruby and went to check it out. I stopped the fight immediately. Sergeant Hina’s being treated in the clinic as we speak. I apologize for the trouble,” I say and bow my head.

“I see. Well, I’ll let you off with a warning this time since no one else was hurt. You’ve been doing a great job recently other than this little incident. Captain Albius has said many great things about you. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes, sir. Sergeant Kai has changed a lot these recent months. He’s been doin’ a great job under my supervision.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll make sure something like this never happens again. Ruby, apologize too.”

Ruby frowns and looks away. “I’m sorry.

I hit her on the arm lightly. “I’m sorry about that, sir. Come on Ruby, try again more sincerely.”

She looks at them this time and answers, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

“Don’t let this happen again, Corporal Ruby. You’ve got a great leader. Listen to him,” General Nero says. “You’re free to go.”

“Thank you, sir,” I say again before leaving with Ruby. I walk a good distance away from their office before turning back to Ruby. “Ruby, I can’t have you acting like this toward General Nero and Captain Albius anymore.”

“But—“

“Captain Albius only means good to us. He’s helped me a lot and we cleared up a lot of misunderstandings. I won’t tolerate any bad attitude toward him anymore especially. You’ve always treated him poorly. That can’t continue from now on.”

“But—“

“No buts. You do it or I’m leaving you.”

“’Kay… I got it, Kai…”

I feel bad saying that to her because she looks really hurt every time I do, but it’s the only way I can ever get her to listen. Captain Albius is going to be a valuable asset to us from now on. I can’t have her ruining my relationship with him.

“I don’t know if you got the other news, but we’ll be participating in the Rising Champions. So, we’re gonna start coordinating with the rest of the platoon in preparation. Team meeting at lunch. Be there and don’t be late.”

“’Kay…”

“Good. I’ll see you at lunch.”

“’Kay. See ya, Kai!” she exclaims with her usual smile. It didn’t take that long for her to return to normal.

I’d better go check out how Hina’s doing. With that, I head back to the first level.

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