Lol. I knew at least one person would ignore my reasoning for the last chapter's ending and whine about it in the reviews. There will be times when I'll have to make controversial choices in this story; if that's too much for some of you to handle, the exit's that way.
To those of you who stuck with me to this point, thank you. I greatly appreciate all the support and encouragement. I love you guys, no homo.
It should be obvious to most of you what events will happen in this chapter, so let's not waste any more time than needed, yes?
(Illima City, Tyrus, Five Years Ago…)
The sky above Illima was rapidly darkening, even though a few hours of daylight still remained. The sun was blotted out by an unnatural black cloud; toxic vapors colored a sickening yellowish-green hue churned within it, giving the cloud the appearance of a literal miasma hanging over the city. If one looked closely, they could see the vague shapes of Nemacyst swimming through the sea of airborne ink.
The city itself, just yesterday a thriving commercial hub for the COG, now sat under the control of the genocidal Locust Horde. Almost every Gear tasked to defend their valuable bastion had either been evacuated or killed.
The lucky ones died before artificial darkness claimed the sky. Now swarms of nocturnal Kryll washed over the ruined streets, devouring every living thing in sight down to the bone – human, animal, and Locust alike. In the few areas of the city the creatures hadn't reached yet, Locust patrols diligently searched for survivors, gunning down the ones they found without any hint of remorse.
Sergeant Theodore Bare happened to be in one of those areas. He was alone; the rest of his squad had been picked off one by one during the course of the battle, leaving him the sole survivor of Epsilon-Three. He was making his way down a random street, running like a man possessed, as if the entirety of the Kryllstorm was nipping at his heels.
He could have evacuated with the others. Should have. But when he didn't receive a response after he tried to contact Sarah and her team, fear for her safety overcame all rational thought.
Teddy vaulted over a collapsed lamp post and kept running. A squad of four Drones suddenly wandered out of nowhere into sight ahead, threatening to impede his progress.
It didn't take long for them to notice him. One of the grubs pointed a long, clawed finger at the lone Gear, contorting its hideous face into a snarl.
"Groundwalkerrr!" the thing hissed.
Without losing his momentum, Bare drew his Snub and fired a quick shot into each Drone's head. Strangely, instead of leaving behind corpses, the Locust dissolved into masses of black mist when the bullets hit their marks.
There was no room in his mind to wonder why that happened. The sergeant thundered past the spot where the creatures previously stood, kicking up several wisps of dispersing smoke in his wake.
He tried radioing the missing squad again. "Foxtrot-Two, this is Sergeant Bare! Does anyone read?"
No response. Panic flooded his veins, spurring him to run even faster.
"Foxtrot-Two, please pick up! Where the hell are you guys?! Answer me!"
Still nothing. Bare soon reached a three-way intersection, skidding to a stop and darting his head between the two possible routes he could take. An evacuation checkpoint leading out of the city sat abandoned to his left, sprinkled with the bodies of dead Gears and civilians. On his right, a line of burning cars stretched further into Illima, the warm glow of the fires providing a makeshift form of protection against the extremely photosensitive Kryll.
He didn't know where to go from here. Desperate since no one was responding over the radio, Bare threw his head skyward and boomed to the heavens.
"SARAH!" His grief-stricken plea carried across the ravaged cityscape. "SARAH, WHERE ARE YOU?!"
He waited. Waited and prayed. After a few seconds' silence, the hulking soldier shut his eyes tight, clenched his teeth together, and choked back a sob.
No… not her, too… she was so strong, and dedicated, and the thought of her being dead…
She was all he had left…
"Teddy?" a faint reply came from his right.
Eyes snapping open, heart leaping into his throat, Bare turned in the direction of her voice. "Sarah?"
"Teddy, help me!" There was no mistaking it – she sounded scared. The sudden realization made him freeze. "Get me out of here!"
Quickly shaping off his trepidation, Bare took off again, drawing his Lancer in case more grubs made their presence known.
"Hold on, Sarah, I'm coming!" he shouted back.
The Locust were all too happy to show themselves, he soon found out. As he maneuvered his way through the clustered masses of melting vehicles, an occasional Drone or Grenadier emerged from their hiding places behind cars or piles of debris to take shots at him. Bare crouched lower to the ground and kept running, somehow managing to avoid getting hit, but he knew his luck could run out at any second. If only he had time to find cover…
"Teddy! Oh god, I hear him coming!"
Snarling under his helmet, Bare instead opted for a run-and-gun approach, still moving at full speed while firing his assault rifle from the hip. It was a dangerous and foolhardy ploy that threw the Golden Rule of the Gears right out the window, but he would take the risk if it meant rescuing Sarah sooner.
A few Locust were struck by his erratic sprays of gunfire; each one he killed was reduced to the same dark mist as the first group.
At one point, a Kantus priest made a clean jump over an intact car ahead of him, screaming a challenge at the lone Gear before opening fire with its Gorgon pistol. Bare skillfully weaved around each burst of the deformed creature's sidearm, and by the time he closed the distance between them, the Kantus had fortunately run the magazine dry. Taking advantage of the opening, Bare revved his chainsaw and sliced diagonally into the Locust monk's abdomen. He nearly stumbled over when he met no resistance from its flesh, as it had immediately dissolved into smoke, but caught himself at the last second and resumed his sprint.
"He's right around the corner! Oh god, please…!"
Who was she talking about? Who was terrifying enough to make his normally iron-willed Sarah lose her composure like that?
Bare navigated down more dimly lit streets, cutting a swathe through more of those strange shadow Locust along the way. They were unusually frail, dying after sustaining what would've normally been light wounds, and each time they turned into smoke as black as the city's sky. He darted between abandoned vehicles, mantled over collapsed infrastructure, and slew every grub in his way, following after the female Gear's increasingly frantic cries for help without any signs of exhaustion.
He'd make it, he promised himself. He'd save her from this doomed city, then they'd go back to Jacinto, back to the apartment they both called home. All he had to do was find her before her unknown tormentor did.
"No! Get away from me!" He heard a burst of panicked gunfire from a side alley just up ahead, soon mixed with the unmistakable screech of Kryll. "THEODORE!"
Bare's heart hammered so fast he thought it might explode. He was so close! She just had to hold on for a few more seconds, and he could get them out of here alive!
An ear-shattering scream made his heartbeat come to a sudden standstill.
He bolted into the alleyway, Lancer raised, poised and ready for combat. The space between the two buildings seemed to stretch on for miles. The path ahead of him was swallowed by a veil of total darkness; the sergeant couldn't make out any signs of life in the void, or anything at all.
He took a few cautious steps forward, keeping his rifle aimed in front of him. For a while, the only sound in the area was his short, rapid breaths.
Something stirred in the dark. The chattering of Kryll, soon accompanied by the sound of heavy footfalls headed in his direction. As the footsteps grew louder, the outline of a truly massive figure that dwarfed any human in size steadily became visible.
Bare subconsciously lowered his Lancer when the figure finally emerged into full view.
It was a Locust, adorned in ornate yet thick black robes. It carried in its right hand a serrated sword that looked like it could cut through COG armor like hot butter. There was something else held in its left hand, though the small swarm of Kryll fluttering around the monster prevented the sergeant from getting a good look. Amazingly, the Kryll made no moves to attack the towering grub despite their carnivorous instincts.
The Locust slowly stretched its left hand forward, revealing in its grasp the top half of a human skull stripped of flesh.
Even without any identifying features, Bare had a feeling he knew who it belonged to. He dropped his gun to the ground, but still remained rooted in place, unable to remove his gaze from the piece of bone.
General RAAM crushed the skull to dust, then pointed at the devastated Gear.
Paralyzed with terror and overcome by crushing grief, Teddy didn't move when the Kryll screeched and lunged at him with open jaws, their tiny fangs poised to rip into his skin.
(West Gate Perimeter, Italica, Present Day)
Bare woke up without a sound.
It took the feeling of soft grass tickling his arms, along with the chattering of voices close by, to remind the Master Sergeant of where he was. He was lying prone in a field; when he looked up at the sky, he realized the darkness enveloping the team was due to it actually being nighttime, not because of a Nemacyst infestation. The dim glow of the Special Region's moon was partially overshadowed by the strange violet lights emanating from the odd cluster of bell flowers surrounding him.
It was all just a dream, he told himself. I'm back in the Special Region. There are no Locust here. I'm safe.
That knowledge helped to ease Bare's still-hammering heart. He may not have woken up screaming, but the nightmare was still vivid enough to leave the veteran Gear in a cold sweat.
He took a moment to observe more of the area around him. The rest of Theta Squad – minus Dalton – and the local girls were hunkered down on either side of him, engaging in whispered conversations he couldn't decipher. The city of Italica sat half a klick in front of the group, peacefully quiet now that the bandit army had been dealt with.
At least, he hoped it was quiet. Who knew what those knights were doing to his captured squadmate in there?
If anyone had noticed he'd fallen asleep, they didn't comment on it. Lieutenant Reynolds eventually broke off her conversation with Lelei to address the team's resident demigoddess.
"Rory, are you sure the Packhorses will be safe back there?" she inquired, sounding a bit skeptical.
"Of course," the reaper crooned. "Anyone outside of our little group who tries to tamper with your steeds will meet a very messy end. Trust me, you needn't fear a thing."
They'd left both LAVs parked in a shallow ravine a few minutes' walk from their current position. It was an inconspicuous spot, not easy to find if you didn't know where to look, and the tall grasses they'd covered the jeeps with provided some extra camouflage. O'Nellis was originally ordered to stay behind and guard them from any unwanted guests, until Rory revealed a simpler (as well as arguably inhumane) alternative: hex magic.
It turned out the length of the Apostle's supernatural abilities extended beyond even immortality; she was also able to place curses on objects that only permitted certain individuals to touch them safely, seemingly at her choosing. While she hadn't elaborated on what would happen to those who weren't permitted, it was easy to deduce the results would be gruesome, as expected of someone chosen to be the Death God's hand in the mortal world.
Bare idly wondered what would happen if a curious animal wandered too close to the Packhorses, before shoving those thoughts aside. Not now – there was a job to do.
Reynolds nodded, still looking mildly concerned, then turned to the team's sniper next. "Weaver, what do you see?"
The sergeant didn't remove his gaze from his rifle scope. "I'm counting at least fifteen Imperial soldiers patrolling the wall. Couple civvies, too. Looks like those knight chicks came with the whole damn cavalry in tow."
The COG group had chosen to try and sneak into the city through the western gate. The north entrance was practically inaccessible, and with the south and east sides still damaged from the siege, Reynolds concluded that any major reinforcements sent to Italica after the battle would be split between the two.
Princess Piña had stated before their departure that the West Gate would be converted from a military district into a temporary residential one. It made sense to Bare – there was no point having a militarized area when the city's standing army had been wiped out, and it was best to keep the civilians as far away from the more vulnerable walls as possible. It was better to let the army fill in the cracks where they were needed.
Fifteen guards was still quite a lot, though.
Gyules, who was also lying prone next to Bare, suddenly made to rise. "I don't care if there's fifteen of them or five hundred!" he exclaimed. "Those bastards have Alec, and I've gotta find him! HOLD ON, BUDDY, I'M COMING!"
Teddy grabbed the pup by the collar of his cuirass and forced him back down.
"Easy there, rook. I know you want to rescue your friend, but charging in recklessly like that will only sound an alarm," he advised. "We'll try to get him out as quickly as we can, but you need to be patient. We're not even sure if these guys know about the ceasefire."
Flickers of the nightmare returned to him. Bare could sympathize with Gyules wanting to rush in to save a loved one, but unless they could devise a way to get into the city that wouldn't reignite hostilities, there was little the squad could do.
Apparently, Reynolds had been thinking the same thing. "If anyone knows a way we can sneak inside without violence, then speak up. I'm drawing a blank on ideas."
"I have two." Weaver said. "The first is that we offer them the weeb as a sacrifice."
"Hey!" Gyules whined.
"Do I even want to know what the second option is?" the lieutenant sighed.
Weaver glanced at them, smirking that all-too-familiar smirk. "The second option is we send Hutch over to practice his motivational speaking on them. I guarantee they'll fall asleep in seconds."
Everyone turned to look at Hutch.
"That… might actually work," the medic admitted.
O'Nellis stifled a giggle. "I kinda want to try that now, to be honest."
"Well I don't. As squad leader, I'm vetoing both those suggestions." Reynolds declared.
Weaver slowly raised his hand.
"And no, an override vote won't work."
Weaver lowered his hand.
Surprisingly, it was Tuka who spoke up next. "I might have an idea…"
(Formal Mansion, Italica)
Bozes Co Palesti winced in pain when the goblet Princess Piña threw at her struck her forehead and clattered to the floor, spilling out its strawberry-flavored contents. She watched, too transfixed to notice the fresh blood flowing from the point of impact, as the Rose Knights' commander heaved in very obvious rage.
She and Panache had entered the mansion's throne room moments earlier, eager to show the princess the evil Blue Golem they'd captured on their journey to Italica. Bozes expected Piña to be shocked when they proudly presented their captive, as well as delighted to finally have a chance to interrogate one of those monsters in human skin.
She'd been shocked, alright. Just not in the way the two knights expected.
"You absolute idiots…" she ground out.
Panache was quick to draw a handkerchief from her travel pack and knelt down beside her injured friend, gently wiping the blood off her face, while simultaneously staring in slight fear at the outraged royal.
"Your Majesty, what have we done to make you this angry?" the White Rose asked.
"What do you think?!" Piña snapped, pointing to her left.
She was referring to the Golem they'd captured earlier, because what else could've set her off so badly? The enemy soldier was slumped unconscious against the wall, completely unresponsive to Hamilton's rough shaking and desperate pleas to wake up. He was still clad in his armor, though the brunette had removed his helmet in order to try slapping him awake. It hadn't worked.
Bozes still failed to grasp what the problem was. He wasn't dead – probably – and she didn't think they'd permanently crippled him, either. Should she have done more?
"Tell me exactly what methods of torture you used on him," Piña demanded. She placed her hands on her hips and waited, glaring holes into her second-in-command.
The blond warrior hesitated briefly. "Princess…?"
"TELL ME WHAT YOU DID!"
"We- We clubbed him near his joints!" Bozes hastily informed her. "His armor is surprisingly resilient, so we had to improvise. We struck him every time he spoke until he learned to stay silent. After that, we tied a rope around his neck and had him run after us on foot all the way to the city gates. Nikolasha intentionally provoked her horse into bucking him at one point, and… Princess?"
Piña visibly grew more and more horrified with each atrocity her subordinate listed. The royal swayed on her feet, then sat back down on one of the twin thrones, clutching her head with one hand. She was barely restraining the urge to scream or cry, judging by her expression.
"I suggest you stop there." Grey advised, having kept silent from his spot near Piña's side until now.
A dull thud followed by a scream from Hamilton brought the quartet's attention back to the side of the throne room. The mythical Blue Golem – the soldier from an otherworldly army so deadly that even the Imperial military crumbled when pitted against them – had toppled over in an ungraceful heap.
Deciding that keeping their unexpected guest in the same room as his captors wasn't a wise idea, the princess summoned a group of four Formal maids and instructed them to carry the unconscious Gear to a private room so he could begin recovering. It was the least she could do after the agony her idiotic knights put him through.
Speaking of her idiotic knights, she'd dismissed Hamilton, Bozes, and Panache for the time being; she'd also made it very clear to the latter two that they should expect to face severe punishment in the near future. The redhead might've found their faces when she explained the treaty amusing had the situation not been so dire.
She was still sat in the late Count's throne, eyes closed and nursing her forehead. It really was incredible how the sequence of events over the last twenty-four hours went from hopeless to sort of good and then back to hopeless. She'd just started getting comfortable with the idea of the Coalition having an embassy, too.
When whoever was running the show at Alnus Hill learned that one of their soldiers was captured and tortured so shortly after the treaty was signed, there was little reason to doubt they would forego the embassy and simply take over all of Italica by force instead.
"We broke the treaty less than a day after we signed it," she muttered to Grey.
The princess heard him shift in place. "We did. Unintentionally, but yes."
"So what happens now?"
"The Coalition can use this as a reason to restart the war," he pointed out. "It's exactly what the Empire does to any lesser country."
He was right about that, sadly enough. In the rare instances where the Imperial Army wasn't able to immediately conquer a weaker nation by force, the Emperor would forge diplomatic treaties much like the one she'd made with the Coalition. Once it was in place, all he needed to do was wait for the slightest infraction on their side to use as an excuse to resume war. It was a brilliant strategy used by Imperial rulers for generations, and one that Piña was unashamedly proud of.
Until now, anyway. She was beginning to see why some people would take issue with a foreign army raping, pillaging, and murdering their way across their country.
It reminded her of what Kaine said about her home town of Rosa. She still vividly remembered the disdain in the maid's eyes when she spoke of how the Empire seized it as part of their own territory.
The thought of an unstoppable juggernaut like the COG rampaging through her family's lands, all because of a misunderstanding…
"If that happens, the fighting would be over very quickly." She grumbled.
"At least Bozes and Panache didn't go overboard and kill the guy." Grey paused for a second. "Wait… wasn't that the same Gol- err, Gear you hit with the door the other day?"
Piña audibly sucked in a steady stream of air through clenched teeth. "Yes. The very same."
She'd known it was him the moment Hamilton took his helmet off. The scar on his nose was a dead giveaway.
"Damn. I don't know if they targeted him specifically or not, but that's just unlucky. Combined with how you plotted to use him as cannon fodder, I think it's safe to assume you haven't made the best impression on him."
Piña said nothing, prompting Grey to continue. "Even if he knows you didn't mean to, there's still plenty of negative things he could say to his superiors about his experiences here. That kid could single-handedly restart the war if he wanted to."
"Are you saying all of this to try and make me feel guilty?" the princess asked crossly, finally turning to face him directly. Yes, her knights messed up! Yes, she regretted it! Why did her mentor feel it was necessary to rub it in?
The old warrior fixed her with a firm, even stare. "No. I'm saying this because, despite some of the mishaps, it's not too late to make amends." His weathered face softened, then morphed into a smirk. "You could always try a simple apology."
"You're saying I should grovel at his feet? Prostrate myself in front of him?!" Piña asked, flabbergasted.
Grey shrugged. "If that's what you think it'll take. Truthfully, I'd rather take my chances in a one-on-one against Rory Mercury than wake the sleeping COG giant again."
Piña turned her gaze to the polished floor, frowning in deep thought.
In hindsight, and even if she felt horrible for thinking this, it was probably for the best that Dalton was the one captured and not someone else from his squad. While she didn't know him all that well, what she saw was enough to convince her that he was a gentle and kind-hearted Gear compared to the others she'd seen. He actively sought her out and tried to comfort her when she was still grieving over Norma. The fact that he did so, even though they were initially enemies, proved that he was a very trusting person…
…Which also meant he could be easy to manipulate.
(West Gate Perimeter)
There was never a dull day when you lived with the COG, Tuka Luna Marceau reflected wryly as she, Lelei, and Rory approached the West Gate at a casual pace. There was always something new to learn; whether it was a linguistic term, a basic survival skill, or a tutorial on how some of their strange technology worked, she found it all equally intriguing and sometimes even fun.
And that was just at Alnus Hill. Every time she was out on the field with Theta Squad, she'd witnessed miracles once thought possible only in legends. They drove off the Fire Dragon! They'd saved Italica from a rogue army of outlaws! She was starting to believe there was nothing they couldn't do when they put their minds to it.
However, while she enjoyed her new life with her new friends – both native to her world and otherwise – she couldn't help but feel left out of place at times. Each member of Theta was a lethal combatant by themselves, along with Rory. Lelei absorbed everything she learned about the Coalition at an astonishing rate and could serve as a semi-fluent translator when needed, and that wasn't even mentioning her magical prowess.
What did Tuka contribute, then? Well, she was a talented archer for starters. So what if her bow was inferior in every way to a "Lanswer"? Also, her elven heritage gave her magical abilities on par with Lelei's… even if it was a bit unstable, since spirit magic wasn't commonly practiced… Oh, and she could hear things from a longer distance! That was helpful… sort of.
Okay, so she hadn't been much use to the team so far. But that was changing! She'd come up with a plan all by herself, and Reynolds gave it the go-ahead! Progress!
"If only dad could see me now," she sighed with a wistful smile.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that?" Lelei turned and looked at her curiously.
The elf winced a little; she hadn't realized she'd said that out loud. "Oh, nothing! I'm just excited to be helping again, that's all." She assured her companion.
Lelei nodded in agreement. "As am I. These 'field ops' have proven to be quite exhilarating." The mage then shifted her attention to the third member of their party. "Priestess, may I ask you something?"
"I told you, dear, call me Rory." The halberd-wielding mass murderer replied airily. Unlike Tuka and Lelei, who both exercised a degree of caution in their movements, the Apostle sauntered toward the city's entrance with her usual and well-deserved confidence. "And please, ask away."
"You could've prevented Pry-vit Dalton from getting kidnapped, even without threats or violence. Why didn't you?"
Tuka had wondered the same thing, to be honest. She'd watched the standoff between the Gears and the knights through the Packhorse's window. She'd been too panicked back then to notice how Rory hadn't moved a muscle, or even look like she cared about what was going on outside.
Even if her village preferred to stay isolated from the rest of the world, no one in the settlement didn't know about the Twelve Apostles and their influence. Their words carried more weight than any emperor's or king's.
"And why should I have?" Rory answered, shrugging nonchalantly. "It was Dalton's own fault he got captured. I wasn't about to bail him out of the mess he created."
"…But isn't he a part of the team?" Tuka asked hesitantly.
The reaper tsk-tsk'd, shaking her head of raven hair. "I'll be blunt with you, sweetie: that boy desperately needs to toughen up. He's so unsure of himself that it makes me want to put him out of his misery sometimes. Every other member of the squad has their own set of principles, their own goals for the future… except for him."
Tuka wasn't sure she believed that. She always thought Dalton was a good guy. Maybe not as brave or determined as someone like Bare, but not as expendable as Rory claimed him to be. He even went out of his way to sit with her during meals to check up on how she was settling in; a small gesture, though one she greatly appreciated.
"Reynolds' goal is to peacefully spread COG influence and make diplomatic ties with the Empire. Bare desires the protection and cooperation of non-combatants," Rory began listing off. "Hutch strives to keep people healthy. Weaver and O'Nellis place each other's safety above nearly anything else, and even Gyules seems to have some long-term plans. Dalton, however… his ideals are all over the place. Half the time he shows a warrior's conviction, and the other half he laments about his life as a soldier. He'll fight alongside his comrades, but refuse to take credit afterwards. Why would I assist someone like that?"
"You let him get captured on purpose?" Lelei inquired. The young mage looked more perplexed than shocked at Rory's odd logic, unlike Tuka, who stared at the demigoddess in mild disgust.
Rory noticed the latter's reaction. She sighed, adjusting the halberd resting over her shoulder.
"It was for his own good. Emroy, and by extension myself, believe that in order to have a good death, one must first live a fulfilling life. I'm hoping Dalton's experience in captivity will teach him to value his existence more. As it stands, he thinks himself unimportant in the grand scheme of things."
"And if you'd intervened and saved him, it wouldn't have taught him anything," Tuka deduced.
Rory nodded and smiled. "Now you're getting it!"
Well, at least she let him get kidnapped for a reason and not for shits and giggles, the elf mused silently. She still didn't agree with Rory's methods, but she could see the point behind them.
She wondered if the "lesson" would bear any results.
The magical trio were only a few dozen meters away from the West Gate by now. A couple of patrolling Imperial guards paused to look down at them, but relaxed when they saw Rory's familiar figure.
As they approached the front doors, Tuka's sensitive hearing picked up snippets of conversation from the other side of the wall.
"Ugh, this sucks. Just looking at those Imperial Army thugs reminds me of the bandits. I wish those flying beasts would come back and chase 'em all out." A male voice grumbled.
"Easy there, man," a second, deeper voice cautioned. "You don't want those guys up there to hear you, do you?"
Rory had no problems pushing the heavy wooden gates open. The three of them entered without any resistance – which, more importantly, also meant no alarm.
"Hey, check it out. It's the priestess and her friends." The second voice from earlier noted.
Tuka glanced to her left at the two militiamen leaning against the wall, smiled, and gave them a friendly wave.
Compared to the South and East Gates, the western side of Italica showed no signs of battle anywhere in sight. Torches placed in wall sconces provided illumination, revealing a pristine courtyard dotted by the occasional waist-high barricade. Five more militiamen, three with torches of their own, kept watch over the open area.
The girls stopped in the center of the plaza. Tuka felt a tap on her right shoulder; when she turned around, Lelei silently mouthed three simple words to her:
Go for it.
The blond elf nodded. She lifted her hands, holding them adjacent to one another, and gathered her focus.
Amazingly, a ball of bright, pinkish-purple light began to form in the empty space between her palms.
"Spirit of slumber, take these souls with you." She chanted. Her voice adopted a noticeable echo, which rang throughout the sparsely populated plaza. "Allow them to experience true peace and harmony!"
The orb of light grew larger with each word of her incantation. When she couldn't contain it anymore, Tuka threw her arms up and let the condensed magic disperse.
The resulting display closely resembled a meteor shower. The ball of light fragmented into numerous smaller orbs that rained down throughout the courtyard, homing in on Imperial soldiers and militiamen alike; each time an orb struck them, instead of causing physical harm, it would instantly put the guard into a deep sleep.
She made sure not to target Rory and Lelei, of course.
Once the guards were all in dreamland, Lelei worked to extinguish any dropped torches with small gusts of wind in order to prevent a fire from starting. Meanwhile, Tuka grabbed one of the wall-mounted torches and ascended the rampart's stairs. After she reached the top, she waved it in a vague direction, signaling to her allies that the coast was clear.
She grinned when she saw several blue lights emerge from the tall grass. For a military that favored the direct approach, Gears could be surprisingly stealthy when they wanted. Anyone who wasn't an elf wouldn't have noticed Theta Squad trailing behind them the whole time.
"How come you never told us you could use magic?" Bare asked after they'd all regrouped in the courtyard.
"You never asked!" Tuka giggled in reply.
It was probably best not to mention how the spell had a slight chance of overcharging and knocking someone into a coma. Spirit magic was notoriously difficult to control if the wielder didn't have several hundred years of practice under their belt.
Still, it felt good to be useful for once.
(Formal Mansion Guest Room)
Private Alec Dalton woke up and shot upright in a split second, heart racing and eyes wild.
"I DON'T WANNA PLAY THE BONDAGE GAME!" he screamed. "…Huh?"
He shakily lifted his hands to his neck, then let out a small grunt of confusion when his fingers touched... bandages? The rope was thankfully gone, though that was only a small mercy at most.
His entire body felt like he'd been run over by an Assault Derrick. His limbs were numb from exertion after running for what felt like miles to keep up with his captors' horses, and the parts that still retained sensation made him wish they didn't. The areas around his joints throbbed with pain, courtesy of a few Rose Knights with blunt weaponry.
He was out of his armor, too, he soon noticed. A quick inspection under the bedsheets revealed he'd been stripped down to his gray boxer briefs. More bandages and pads covered the worst of his injuries from view.
…Wait, bedsheets? What the hell?
He could worry about his missing armor later – right now he needed to figure out where he was and how he'd gotten here. He'd blacked out earlier before he could see any kind of civilization.
Okay. He needed to work with what he knew and go from there. He was in a bed; that much was obvious. A comfy one, too. In fact, he'd never been this cozy before. He entertained the thought of taking the mattress with him when he escaped from-
Dammit, Private, focus! Dalton chided himself.
How was he going to escape, anyway? He doubted he'd make it very far without weapons and armor. Also, why did his captors leave him in a bed, and not some dark, smelly prison cell? And why did they bother treating his wounds when they'd previously been so eager to hurt him?
The young Gear flopped back down, sighing when his head hit the equally soft pillow. None of this made any sense.
"Umm… are you okay now, Master Dalton?" an unfamiliar female voice suddenly asked.
Dalton immediately went stiff as a board. Trying to ignore the pounding in his aching chest, he slowly moved his eyes in the direction of the voice's owner.
Said owner was a young woman, likely in her late teens or early twenties, with brown eyes and a kind face. She was dressed in a dark blue maid outfit with white frills and a white apron, along with a red neckerchief. Atop her head of shoulder length black hair was a frilly white maid's hat. Her smile, while genuine, looked a bit uncertain for some reason.
Probably because you shouted "bondage game", you fucking idiot.
"…Huh?" he repeated dumbly.
"Damn, I guess the princess' knights must've broken his mind along with his body," a second female voice interjected.
A third woman spoke up. "Mamina, don't assume things like that! I'm sure he's just a little confused, that's all."
What the fuck was going on here? None of these people sounded like his tormentors, so who were they?
Finally regaining his bearings, Dalton took a closer look around the room he was in. It was spacious, decorated with a couple of couches, chairs, and paintings of people he didn't know and places he didn't recognize. A large wooden trunk sat in the left corner, while the doors were to his right side. The room's walls were painted a light beige color.
It was a truly luxurious space; far fancier than his room back in Jacinto, and definitely a cut above the barracks at Alnus Station. However, it was the three other women accompanying the black-haired maid that really caught his attention.
Standing closest to the right of her was… something. She was dressed in the same outfit as her friend, and if one could ignore how her glossy yellow eyes perfectly matched a snake's, she could've passed for a human… if her long red "hair" wasn't made up of literal snakes.
He watched, transfixed and utterly baffled, as the thin serpents lazily swayed in random directions. Only after one of them hissed at him did he finally look away.
The next maid was slightly less of an oddity, but an oddity nonetheless. She had wavy, light brown hair that reached down to her waist, red eyes a shade darker than Piña's, and… rabbit ears. There were actual, god-honest rabbit ears growing out of the top of her head.
Dalton knew a few Gears who would get a real kick out of that. Unfortunately, her long hair prevented him from seeing whether she had a set of normal human ears in addition to the extra ones.
As for the final maid…
Holy crap; Rudy was right. There really are catgirls in this world!
She was easy on the eyes, too. Mostly human in appearance, save for the pair of fuzzy feline ears visible in her mane of purple hair, which was tied back in a high ponytail. She wore a small pair of glasses over her slitted, crystal blue eyes, and rounding out her facial features was a tiny fang protruding from her lower jaw.
The private didn't know what to say. What could he say? He was in a room with four beautiful maids, and at least three of them weren't human. How was he supposed to respond to this?
"…Where am I?" he eventually settled with.
"You're in the mansion of Count Formal!" the first maid happily informed him.
Dalton blinked. "Wait… so that means I'm back in Italica?"
He thought the architecture of the room looked vaguely familiar, though he couldn't remember where he'd seen it until now. In hindsight, it should've been obvious his captors would bring him back to the city their leader was currently staying in.
"You sure are!" the snake-haired woman beamed.
He was about to ask if any of them knew where Piña was, until the catgirl maid daintily walked over to his nightstand and started to prepare some tea from a tea set he hadn't noticed. Dalton's eyes glued themselves to the furry purple tail sticking out from the back of her dress.
"Gyules must never be allowed to see you," he muttered.
The maid turned to look at him, concerned.
"Meow? Is something wrong?" Her voice sounded as soft as her animal parts looked.
Dalton sweat-dropped. "Uh, no. Nothing's wrong." Hastily changing the subject, he said, "That tea smells good, by the way. Did you make it yourself?"
She grinned widely, unveiling more sharp teeth intermixed with her human ones. "I did! Thank you for the compliment, Master Dalton!"
A love bite from her could tear out flesh.
This was getting really fucking weird. Not that being in a fantasy world wasn't already weird by itself, but… still.
"Does anyone want to explain to me just what the heck is going on?" he asked out loud.
"There's no need to worry." Yet another woman entered the room, smiling as she closed the door behind her. She looked older than the other four, and wore a slightly different set of clothes, though she still carried the air of a servant. "We've been ordered by the princess to give you the best service possible. Regarding the knights who mistreated you, well…" Her smile changed to a wry smirk. "Let's just say they're in the middle of being severely reprimanded."
The woman stopped at the foot of Dalton's bed. She closed her eyes and bowed to him, and the other maids followed suit.
"Your actions have given this town a new life," she stated, "and for this, we are eternally grateful, my lord."
Dalton was ready to point out that she was wrong, that he didn't do much compared to the real heroes like Kipp or Bare, but stopped himself at the last second. Memories of his talk with Lieutenant Reynolds back at base came to mind, along with the advice she'd given him.
Learn to take more credit for my actions, huh…?
"I… It was a group effort, but I'm proud to have helped."
The elder maid straightened herself and clapped her hands together. "So humble!" she praised. Her expression suddenly turned serious. "To assault one of Italica's saviors in the way they did is unforgivable. If you wish to raze this town to the ground, I will gladly assist you in doing so. Those so-called 'noble' brats certainly deserve it…"
"…Excuse me?!" Was he hearing her correctly? Did she really just say she'd help him destroy Italica if he wanted, or had Piña's knights given him brain damage?
"I only ask that you spare our mistress, the Countess," the possibly crazy lady continued, seemingly unfazed by the Gear's clear shock. "Please don't make her part of your retribution. She is only a child, and she looks up to you and your people immensely."
"Why the fuck would I do that?" Dalton blurted out. "I'd never hurt a child! And from what you've told me, this sounds like it was all just a huge misunderstanding. Those knights must not have known about the treaty." He thrust his hands up. "Besides, why would I destroy this place when we worked so hard to save it? My CO would fucking kill me!"
The woman raised a hand of her own to silence him.
"You've made your point, my lord. Thank you for your generosity; it is greatly appreciated." She bowed again.
The black-haired maid moved closer to Dalton to help him sit upright, allowing the catgirl to safely let him sip some tea. Even though he wasn't really a tea person, the hot beverage was still a welcome relief for his aching throat.
"I am Kaine, head matron of the Formal mansion and caregiver to Countess Myui." The older maid introduced herself. "These four will be your personal nurses. Feel free to ask them for anything you need while you're recovering."
All four of the younger maids politely curtseyed.
"You can count on us, Master Dalton! We are more than happy to serve you!" they exclaimed in unison.
A part of him wanted to make a joke about sending one of them to fetch the newspaper. Alas, the printing press hadn't been invented in the Special Region yet, so it would've fallen flat.
"As I said, you may ask them for anything at all." Kaine repeated in a genuinely warm tone.
Dalton pulled the sheets up a bit higher to cover the redness in his cheeks. Anything at all, eh…?
His stomach suddenly growled, making his blush intensify. He awkwardly averted his gaze from the smiling maids. "Uhh… what kind of snacks do you have?"
Elsewhere in the city, Theta Squad and the local girls were making good time in their mission to find their captured comrade. The streets were totally dark and devoid of life – not unlike most COG cities in the aftermath of a typical Locust invasion.
It was hard to remain stealthy when their bootsteps and jangling weaponry broke the otherwise silent atmosphere, but that didn't stop them from exercising plenty of caution. They'd even developed a pattern: Reynolds nonverbally ordered the team to halt at every intersection, checked to see if the coast was clear, and would give the "all clear" signal when each street invariably ended up deserted. As unlikely as an ambush was to occur, she couldn't rule out the possibility.
After almost forty-five minutes of moving up street by street, the nine of them were finally approaching their goal: Formal mansion. Reynolds hypothesized before the rescue op kicked off that it was the most likely place for Dalton to be held; the local jail was filled to capacity with POWs from the siege, leaving the lavish estate the next best place for the Rose Knights to interrogate their new prisoner.
The invasive mental image of those arrogant little girls sipping wine and laughing while her squadmate was tortured in front of them made the lieutenant's blood boil. Princess Piña better not let anything like that happen, or there would be hell to pay.
It took a few more minutes for them to sneak around the courtyards to the back door. The mansion's interior was well-lit, forcing the group to stay low and avoid the windows lest they notify anyone inside of their presence.
"I don't know if the princess told her knights about the treaty by now," Reynolds whispered once they'd huddled together at the rear patio. "I assume she did, but if anyone comes at us with hostile intent, aim to incapacitate. No killing, am I clear?"
She counted the nods and pretended not to notice when Bare's Mulcher accidentally bumped her side. The big guy alone took up a sizable portion of the patio space.
"Good." Reynolds turned to open the door, then scowled in annoyance when it didn't budge. "Shit… padlocked. Rory?"
The demigoddess giggled. "I'm on it. Step aside, darling." She instructed.
The team gave Emroy's Apostle a wide berth as she brought her mighty halberd to bear. With one vertical swing, she chopped the padlock in half, also somehow managing to avoid leaving even a scratch on the door.
Reynolds nodded in appreciation. Briefly checking to make sure her Retro Lancer was loaded, the squad leader approached the door and kicked it wide open.
Private Dalton made a satisfied noise while he nibbled on a warm chocolate chip cookie baked fresh from the kitchen, clutching it like an overly possessive hamster. It tasted divine. Still not as good as his grandma's, but it was a close second.
He alternated between munching on his treat and sipping his tea, careful not to eat too fast. Kaine had noticed this and further praised him on his knowledge of eating lightly when stressed, going on to state how Princess Piña hadn't known that until recently despite calling herself a warrior.
The way she mentioned the redhead with veiled hostility, as well as her earlier quip about the knights being noble brats, led Dalton to believe that Kaine wasn't a huge fan of the Imperial hierarchy.
He also hadn't known that little tidbit of wartime information either, to be truthful. He just wanted to savor his cookie.
The maid with the bizarre snake hair stood dutifully next to his bedside, cleaning up the stray crumbs that fell on his lap with a napkin. Five-star service at its finest, he thought with a smile. You couldn't get this kind of treatment anywhere on Sera.
Before he could ask for more tea, the bunny girl suddenly stiffened, and her rabbit ears shot up in alarm.
"What's the matter?" Kaine inquired immediately and sternly.
"Someone's at the back door. It sounds like they're trying to force their way in," the brown-haired maid reported.
Dalton stopped chewing.
"Oh, are they now?" To the private's confusion, Kaine appeared completely unfazed by the possibility of a break-in. "More than likely it's Master Dalton's friends coming to save him. If that is indeed the case, you may bring them here. Otherwise…" The head maid adopted the same cruel smirk she wore when describing the Rose Knights' punishment. "You know what to do. Bring Persia with you, just in case."
"Yes ma'am." The bunny woman and catgirl both bowed, then moved to exit the room.
Dalton watched them leave, fascinated. He turned back to Kaine. "Um, excuse me? Are you sure those two can… y'know…?" he trailed off.
Kaine chuckled. "Defend themselves? They are more than capable of holding their own in a fight, I assure you. Mamina is a Warrior Bunny – a race of highly aggressive demi-humans who favor speed and precision in combat. Persia is one of the Nekomimi, or 'cat people' as we humans call them. I've seen her inflict wounds on would-be assassins that never healed."
The kitty has claws. Noted. Rudy, if that really is you, please don't do anything stupid to piss her off. I don't care how tough your armor is.
The head maid motioned to the snake girl next. "Aurea here is a Medusa," she continued. "They're quite a rare species; almost as hard to find as the High Elves."
Dalton's curiosity was piqued. The diversity of this world's intelligent species was mind-boggling.
"What about her?" He turned his head to nod at the black-haired maid.
All of the maids he'd seen besides Kaine were clearly only part human, so what could the last one be? Did she have goat legs hidden under her dress? Or maybe bird ones, like the bandit O'Nellis found?
What about a hidden pair of wings? If so, what type? Feathery ones? Ooh, or maybe draconic? What if she was a shapeshifter, disguised as a human to make him lower his guard and hide her hideous true form?! His nerd side was totally freaking out. The possibilities were endless!
"Mome is human." Kaine informed him.
"The late head of the family was very open-minded, and made it a point to employ species of all varieties," she went on. "You could go as far as to say it was an… interest of his."
She didn't say more than that, and she didn't need to. Dalton got the hidden message loud and clear. Count Formal went out of his way to get these girls jobs and make them feel accepted, so he could understand if the man wanted a little possible "side action" as compensation.
He just hoped Myui never stumbled upon said side action.
Dalton's mental musings were shattered when Aurea's smiling face seemed to materialize right in front of his own. He froze, unsure of what she could've wanted.
"You have a very similar scent to the late head of house, Master Dalton!" she brightly exclaimed.
He didn't pay attention to her compliment because he was too busy focusing on her snakes which were inching closer to him and starting to hiss and oh god one of them was opening its mouth-!
Mome smacked the Medusa on the back of her head. Considering how Aurea's head was covered with living predators, it was the ballsiest move the rifleman had ever seen.
"Aurea! You know better than that!" she scolded.
The other maid slinked away from him; her smile was replaced by a look of remorse. "Sorry…"
"Please forgive her; she did not mean to scare you." Kaine interjected after the injured Gear scooted further away from the snake-haired creature. "Medusas use their hair to drain the life force from their victims, or even transfer memories. Aurea is young and still in training, so while she's usually well-behaved, there are times when her species' natural impulses slip out."
"Noted." Dalton said with a nod. He would've been lying if he said he wasn't a bit spooked, though.
Once they were inside the mansion, the squad abandoned all pretense of stealth in favor of a sweep-and-clear approach. Bare, Gyules, and Rory took point, closely flanked by Reynolds and O'Nellis. Hutch and Weaver brought up the rear, leaving Tuka and Lelei safely protected on all sides by a wall of armor and guns.
The first plan was to storm the throne room and hopefully find Piña or her knights. Unfortunately, the room was deserted, leaving the Gears and their allies with no other options besides combing the mansion room by room.
Their sweep of the first floor yielded little useful intel. The single noteworthy thing they'd discovered was a length of rope haphazardly stuffed inside a storage closet; one end of the rope was tied in the shape of a noose. It took a couple minutes after they found it to reassure Gyules that it was probably a coincidence, and that burning down the mansion after they found Dalton wasn't a smart idea.
The team was presently working their way down another hallway, though they soon stopped when they noticed a large side corridor to their right. For a home, the place was built like a labyrinth.
Reynolds' head swiveled between the two possible paths. Did they keep pushing forward, or should they make a detour?
…Which part of the mansion were they even in, again? Crap. Getting lost in this maze was the last thing they needed right now.
This would've been so much easier if they had more clues, or at least a map. Hell, she would've settled on interrogating a servant if she could find one, but the house was eerily empty for some odd reason.
Hutch suddenly pointed to the floor.
The lieutenant walked over and crouched down to investigate, brushing her gloved fingers over the hard wood. When she felt an anomaly, her blue eyes widened.
Scratches. There were scratch marks on the floor. She felt them more than she could see them, but upon closer examination, she could make out a few that were visible to the naked eye. They were easy to miss since this particular hallway wasn't lit, but they were there, and they definitely weren't natural.
Bare leaned down to get a look for himself. "Think they dragged him through here?" he asked the CO. Even when lowered to a hush, the man's voice carried a distinctive rumble.
"Dunno, but it's a start. These look recent." Reynolds whispered back.
She stood back to her full height, keeping a close eye on the floor. Based on what little she remembered of the mansion's interior layout, she guessed the hallway to the right likely led to the foyer, where the knights would've entered from. The throne room wasn't far from the main entrance, so the hallway probably led there too.
The officer surmised that Dalton's captors dragged him from either the front door or the throne room to somewhere else. It wasn't much to go on, but it helped narrow down their search area a bit.
She signaled for the squad to advance forward. After pausing to check a few more rooms – all of them turning up empty – the group approached a large set of double doors that led to the second-floor staircase.
There was light seeping through the cracks.
Reynolds signaled again to Bare, who nodded in understanding. The master sergeant positioned himself in front of the pack, then loudly slammed the doors open, using his machine gun as a battering ram. Theta poured into the small chamber, weapons raised and ready for anything…
…And paused when they saw two young beast women in maid outfits waiting for them.
For a minute, no one spoke.
"…C-C-C-CAT GIRL!" Gyules stammered out.
None of the Gears could've known it, but Formal Mansion's flooring plan was designed with a mix of practicality and efficiency in mind. The first floor was often the busiest one during daylight hours, with visitors and workers of all social classes pouring in and out of the manor to conduct business, perform housekeeping maintenance, and other important matters. It was because of this that the throne room was built on the lowest floor, since it would allow guests to have the most direct access to the Count or Countess.
The second floor housed the servants' quarters and guest rooms, while the third floor was reserved for the Formal family and visiting nobles. Metaphorically speaking, it was fitting how the ruling class had the top floor for themselves – it was an ever-present reminder to the commoners that the Formal clan, and the Empire by association, was in charge around here.
It was in a third-floor common room that Piña was finishing up explaining to Bozes and Panache that no, the Blue Golems were no longer their enemy and yes, they'd gone and fucked up big time by mistreating one of their soldiers.
"I shouldn't have to explain how serious this transgression is, but at the risk of something else going wrong, I'll do it anyway." The ardent-haired princess crossed her legs and folded her arms, regarding her two nervous subordinates with a cross look. She scowled when she saw Bozes swallow. "I'm sure you've both been told by now how powerful the Coalition is?"
The knights nodded silently.
"Then I can assure you that whatever rumors you've heard about them are true." Piña licked her suddenly dry lips, thinking back to yesterday's massacre. The COG displayed a lot of bravado during that fight, and they unquestionably had enough power to back it up. It still scared the hell out of her. "I watched them tear apart an army of trained bandits in minutes… watched as they made a mockery of everything we know about war." She closed her eyes, sighing in resignation. "It's perfectly clear to me now why we weren't able to drive them out of Alnus…"
Panache was the first to find her voice. "I'm not saying I don't believe you, Princess, but are you sure you aren't exaggerating their strength? The rest of them fled like cowards after we trapped one of their own. They hardly acted as dangerous as you make them out to be."
"Did it not occur to you that they might've left to inform their leaders about the treaty violation?" Piña sniped back.
She felt her teeth grind together when the other knight's jade eyes widened in realization. Gods, how could they be this dense?!
"If the Coalition decides to use this incident to resume the war, the Empire will fall. We can't fight back and they know it. Therefore, the best we can do to prevent another suicidal conflict is convince your little 'prisoner' to see things our way."
She pointed at Bozes. "And you're going to do it!"
"Huh? What are you suggesting, Princess?" the blond knight asked, confused.
Piña's face turned stoic. She wasn't proud of her newest plan, if she were honest. However, if she wanted to be absolutely sure that Dalton would stay cooperative after tonight, then it was the only option available… even if it would come at a great personal cost for one of her best friends.
"I want you to give that man your body."
She could almost hear the sound of glass shattering as she observed Bozes' thunderstruck expression. Her second-in-command's irises shrunk to a fraction of their normal size; her mouth was hanging slightly open, though no words came out.
"You were the leader of the group. You are the one directly responsible for endangering his life and violating the treaty." Piña kept her red eyes locked on the blonde as she uncrossed her legs. "This will be your punishment. I'm sorry for making you give yourself to someone as low as Pry-vit Dalton, but we need to show him we're serious about apologizing. This is the only way."
The following silence stretched on long enough that Panache sent the Yellow Rose a worried glance.
Bozes stood as still as a statue, before looking down at the floor, deep in contemplation. The only sound in the room came from her labored breathing.
"I… am the second daughter of the Duke of Palesti," she eventually said, her words coming out slow and rigid. It was clear to the other women that she was speaking as much to herself as she was to them. "As a member of the nobility, I will do whatever it takes to protect our empire. Anything at all, no matter the cost."
She let out a quiet sigh, and her shoulders slackened a bit. "If this is what Your Majesty orders of me, then… I will do it. He won't be able to look at another woman after tonight."
Piña nodded, satisfied. "Go, then. Get yourself ready. And… Bozes?"
The knight was already halfway out the room when she heard her name called. She paused, then turned back around to stare at her superior.
"I really do apologize," the princess said softly. "If there was another way to guarantee his loyalty, I would take it in a heartbeat. But there isn't, and you must be the one to make amends."
Bozes kept silent. She simply nodded before leaving in a haste, shutting the door behind her with more force than necessary.
Piña leaned back in her chair and sighed.
She knew she was taking a serious gamble with this plan. Under no circumstances could she allow her guest to say anything incriminating about what happened earlier; with any luck, he'd be too distracted by Bozes' allure to remember the torture she'd put him through. Or maybe he'd faint. The princess considered herself to be a decent judge of character, and after her few brief interactions with him, she was beginning to suspect that Dalton never felt a woman's touch before. He was far too skittish and uncertain of himself to make the first move.
She was doing him a favor, honestly.
Then what was this strange feeling that plagued her? Why was she already regretting her choice to have Bozes seduce him? It wasn't like this was an unusual tactic – sexual favors were actually commonplace in Imperial society, and they were used for a wide range of reasons, both trivial and urgent.
If Dalton knew anything about how their world worked, he should've counted himself as one of the luckiest prisoners of war who ever lived. Instead of being beaten to death or sold on the slave market, he was being pampered by the finest staff in one of the country's wealthiest estates, all at the behest of the royal princess who really didn't want to anger the rest of his people.
So why? Why do I feel so… uncertain? Piña sighed heavily, annoyed that she didn't have an answer to her question.
A cough interrupted her musings. Her eyes wandered over to Panache, who was still standing there looking mildly uncomfortable.
"And you. Don't think I've forgotten about you," Piña stated sharply. Probably best not to mention that she did, in fact, forget about the other knight. "Go and get changed as well. If Bozes fails to interest him, then you'll be up next!"
Panache's breath hitched.
"Are you, um… Are you sure I can't help with the chamber pots?" she squeaked fearfully.
A glare from the princess was all the evidence needed to convince the White Rose that she wasn't about to get the easy way out.
Private Dalton sighed in pure content. Currently he was in the middle of a special treat in the form of a sponge bath from Aurea; it took some convincing from Kaine before he let the Medusa near his side again, but he was glad he'd listened. The soft sensation of the wet sponge gliding over his skin, which hadn't seen a bath since he'd left Alnus, felt heavenly.
Mome was hand-feeding him a bowl of hot soup, while Kaine sat on couch across from him, smiling in delight at how much he was obviously enjoying the maids' services. The soldier found himself warming up to the woman. She was pleasant company, and he'd quickly lost track of time chatting with her about her childhood and what daily life in Italica was like.
"Say 'ahhh'…!" Mome held up another spoonful of soup, which he graciously accepted.
"Are you sure I can't take you guys with me back to Alnus?" he asked half-jokingly after swallowing. "The COG could definitely use your services."
Kaine laughed. "I'm flattered, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline. My duty is to remain here with Countess Myui and the rest of the Formal clan." The woman shook her head, still chuckling. "Besides, have you already forgotten that your people were granted a permanent presence in this city?"
"Still. Wouldn't hurt to have a few more helping hands."
The head maid opened her mouth to respond, but was cut off by the sudden thundering of a multitude of footsteps outside the room, along with a bunch of familiar voices shouting over each other.
"Geez, man, slow down!"
"Please, Master Gyules, I must kindly ask you not to run in the hallway!"
"What the fuck, Weeb? You finally find a catgirl and now you're just ditching her? What are your friggin' priorities?!"
"BROS BEFORE HOES!"
Private Gyules slammed the door to Dalton's little sanctuary open with a strong kick, entering with his Scorcher at the ready.
"Alec! I came to rescue you, dude! Did they hurt- wait, what?" Alec saw his best friend's jaw drop under his helmet as he took in the scene before him. He stayed frozen even as Theta Squad, the local girls, and the maids poured in behind him, all of them staring at the bedridden Gear with wildly varying expressions.
For the longest time, no one said anything. Dalton soon became aware that Aurea still had the sponge pressed up against his right pectoral. The spoon in Mome's hand hovered only a couple of inches away from his mouth.
"Dalton… what the fuck." Lieutenant Reynolds deadpanned.
He smiled awkwardly. "Hey, guys. Umm… I can explain?"
I've been waiting to write this chapter since the very beginning. It was a total blast from start all the way to finish. XD
Keep in mind that Bare's nightmare isn't an exact replica of what he went through in Illima. Did he lose someone close to him to RAAM? Yes. Did he see the eponymous Locust General in person? Also yes. However, some details were twisted around to show that he was dreaming – the dissolving Locust should've been proof.
I also want to give Persia a bigger role than she had in canon. She felt like a lot of wasted potential. I've got a few ideas on how to fix that already, so for those of you who ship her and Gyules (and I know at least some of you do), you're in luck!
Fun fact: Gyules' deceased brother is a canon character. Remember the Gear who got torn limb from limb by the Berserker in the first Gears of War? Yeah. That was him.
Other than that, not much else to comment on besides reviews:
Fer82: I agree that Dalton doesn't have the attitude of a Gear, and I'm glad you noticed that the COG has a draft policy. Spoiler: Dalton doesn't think like a soldier because he was never supposed to be a soldier. Is he breathing? Can he shoot a gun? If the answer to both these questions is "yes", put him on the draft. Who cares is he has trouble adjusting to military life?
As for my reasoning behind Rory not helping him, I think I explained it enough in this chapter. The anime does a terrible job of showing it, but Rory isn't always heroic. She'd let someone get away with murder as long as they believe their cause is justified. She only respects those who have clear ideologies and have faith in their purpose; Dalton is still floundering on his conviction while the Rose Knights aren't, so Rory saw no reason to bail him out. It's tricky to explain in detail, but I hope this helps at least a little.
I'm also pretty much done making him a trouble magnet. Other characters' subplots will start soon, so they'll be the ones getting into bad situations from now on.
headreviewer mk2: You can damn well bet Prescott is going to instill permanent fear of the Coalition into the Special Region visitors' minds.
jaalco: You like Bare? There's plenty more Bare in the future!
Ethan76: You just went into a lot of detail about why the decision I made on a whim (besides making Myui actually do something) ended up being the perfect choice… I don't know what else to say besides thank you!
The haters: Your scathing reviews make me giggle. :D
Actually… there is one more thing I'd like to say. I wholeheartedly agree that I've been sticking too close to canon. I've been afraid to experiment, and I often wonder what sort of things I could've done differently to add more of a twist. Wondered how I could get over this fear of mine.
The solution? I'm starting a new story on the side where I can have fun and merge/break canon to my heart's content. Semper Invicta will still have priority, but I need a way to test new ideas without breaking the groundwork I've so carefully laid out. Expect it to be up sometime soon.