I have no idea why Microsoft Word has been acting so glitchy for me lately. I noticed it was a bit laggy while I was writing the last chapter, but now it's crashing or doing something stupid every ten seconds. Ugh, modern technology…

I DID NOT JUST OPEN SYSTEM 32, LAPTOP. STOP THAT.

Ahem… anyway, not a whole lot to say about this chapter, which is ironic given how many important events happen in it. I mostly just want to get episodes 3 and 4 out of the way so I can start on the Italica arc, but I refuse to let the quality of this story drop as a result, so I'll make sure to put in just as much effort as I've been giving so far. And who knows, maybe a genius idea might crop up as I'm working on this.

Music recommendation: "Peace Walker Battle 2 Theme", from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker during the fight with the Fire Dragon.


(Koan Village Remnants)

Wesley Hutch couldn't believe his eyes.

All seven members of Theta Squad were congregated around the well at the center of the forest settlement's ruins, each of them staring down at the bottom of the pit with varying expressions of amazement and disbelief. They'd heard Bare's alarmed shout a few seconds ago and came over to investigate; however, once they got a good view of the lone survivor for themselves, not one of the team could find the correct words to properly describe her.

"Her" being a beautiful, pale-skinned girl, roughly sixteen or seventeen in age, with extremely long blond hair that lazily drifted in the shallow water at the bottom of the well. She was dressed in a simple green tunic that clung to her lithe body due to the moisture it absorbed, along with long green stockings and a small red neckerchief.

She was also unconscious, Hutch noted, likely from being hit in the head with the bucket Bare randomly decided to throw into the well earlier. Fortunately, her face was still above water level, so she wasn't in any immediate danger of drowning. Unfortunately, she'd also probably been stuck there since last night, presenting a much more urgent problem.

"You guys think she's okay?" Dalton broke the silence.

"Unlikely. If she survived the dragon's attack by hiding in the well, the chances of her acquiring hypothermia since then are logically high." Hutch replied in his usual emotionless tone.

Reynolds began barking out orders. "O'Nellis, head back to the Packhorses and find a rope! Hutch, go with her and grab any medical supplies you might need! Bare, how comfortable are you with small spaces?"

The medic turned and left before he could hear the master sergeant's response. Whatever his job might've been, it wasn't important to Hutch right now. All of his attention was focused on getting to the jeeps and bringing back everything that would help treat hypothermia.

He almost flinched when O'Nellis suddenly seemed to materialize out of thin air on his left side. Almost.

"That girl in the well… she was awfully quiet even before we found her, right?" the spotter asked him. "I didn't hear a single peep the whole time we were there. Do you think she might be…?"

"I don't know, and I'm not waiting to find out." Hutch said resolutely. He didn't think the girl was already dead when they arrived, per se, but he knew she grew closer to death's door every minute she spent in the watery hole instead of dry ground. There were never any guarantees when it came to saving someone's life.

"Do you think she has anywhere else to go?" O'Nellis kept talking, to Hutch's mild irritation. "I mean, her village and all her friends and family who lived there are gone. Where's she supposed to stay now? How will she survive? Do you think the folks in Koda Village will let her move in if we bring her to them?"

Hutch glanced at his squadmate. She sure was a chatty one. How on Sera did she and Weaver get along so well? "I don't know the answer to any of those questions, and right now, they aren't something we should be dwelling on. Our priority is to get her out of the well and make sure she's stable. I suggest we make haste on that and not waste time with unnecessary conversation."

"Are you telling me to shut up?"

"Yes."

O'Nellis huffed indignantly but didn't say anything further. Hutch found he was perfectly okay with that.

The duo soon reached the parked Packhorses, opening the back doors of the turret-mounted jeep they'd traveled in together to start gathering supplies. Wes immediately grabbed three military-issued blankets from the cluttered interior; he left his medical kit untouched, which must've confused O'Nellis if the odd sound she made was any indication.

"I know what I'm doing. Don't question it." He stated plainly. The female Gear shrugged, then reached in after him to grab a length of thick rope.

Once it was securely wrapped around her shoulder, the two soldiers shut the doors and began the short trip back to the village's epicenter. Hutch kept his eyes ahead of him at all times, although he glimpsed O'Nellis sneaking a few looks at him as they walked. He ignored her, just as he ignored everything that didn't have to do with the mission or his medical duties. Whatever she had to say could wait until after the survivor was rescued.

The private knew he was acting like a bit of a jerk, and that Weaver would likely hassle him over his treatment of his partner if he ever found out about it, though years of practice easily let Wes brush those concerns aside. He wasn't assigned to this squad to make friends. He was there to ensure none of them died prematurely, and that was it.

That was the type of existence he'd willingly condemned himself to live.

"Good timing, you two!" Reynolds greeted her fellow Gears once they made it back to the well. "Next, we'll lower Bare down into the well and pull him up when he's got the girl. O'Nellis, the rope?"

"Got it!" the spotter chirped, handing the rope over to Teddy so the big man could tie it around his waist.

The rescue operation went off without a hitch. While the master sergeant dwarfed his teammates in terms of both size and weight, the combined strength of six Gears holding the rope was more than enough to keep him steady as he slowly descended into the hole. When he called out that the survivor was secure thirty seconds after he reached the bottom, the team strained their muscles to lift them both out, and were rewarded when Teddy's helmeted head emerged from the depths with a certain blond resting over his back.

Hutch unfurled one of the blankets and instructed Bare to lay the girl down on it in a horizontal position. Now that she was above ground, the squad huddled together again around her prone form, mesmerized as the medic crouched down at her side to begin conducting his examination.

He started by checking her pulse. It was weaker than normal, but it wasn't life-threatening, and more importantly it meant she was still alive. The white-armored Gear breathed a huge sigh of relief inside his mind at the revelation. That being said, she wasn't out of the woods yet (no pun intended) – her condition could still worsen if she wasn't given first-aid treatment straight away.

He needed to get her out of her soaked clothes, to begin with. No sense keeping them on if they would only serve to make her ill. Hutch unsheathed a knife from his belt and held it close to one of her sleeves, pausing to glance back at Theta Squad before he cut any of the fabric away.

"She's alive, and apparently stable, but I need to raise her body temperature before the hypothermia really sets in. That involves removing her clothes. If any of you are uncomfortable with the sight of the female anatomy, I suggest you turn away."

Reynolds and O'Nellis departed almost instantly after the words left his mouth, followed by Bare a few seconds later. Weaver just shrugged and smiled pleasantly, though his smile quickly morphed into a pained expression accompanied by a startled cry when O'Nellis returned to drag him away by the scruff of his neck. Gyules was bouncing in place and probably grinning like an idiot under his helmet. Dalton placed a hand on his friend's shoulder, said something about giving Hutch some privacy to work, and led the dejected pyro somewhere else.

He overheard his fellow privates talking to one another as they left the scene:

"C'mon, dude! Didn't you see her ears? When am I ever gonna get another chance to see elf boobies?"

"Totally not my problem… hold on, didn't you have a fetish for catgirls?"

"It never hurts to keep your options open!"

While Hutch was a medical prodigy, he didn't believe any amount of treatment could cure Gyules' abnormal interests.


(Koda Village, Four Hours Later)

The residents of Koda watched in fascination as Theta Squad's Packhorses parked directly in the middle of the settlement, just outside the village chief's home. It was understandable: they'd never seen such high-grade vehicles until yesterday, and would probably remain in awe of the jeeps and their occupants for a long time yet.

They still greeted the squad with friendly smiles and waves when the latter group stepped outside, though Lieutenant Reynolds only responded with a brief wave of her own before she began searching for one local in particular. It didn't take long to spot him despite his short stature – the chief was already approaching the team, having to push his way through the gathering crowd's legs before he reached them. He looked up at the blond Gear with a slightly puzzled expression.

"Reynolds! What brings you back here so soon? Weren't you and your soldiers heading to Koan Forest?" he asked.

Reynolds frowned sadly, thinking back to the destroyed settlement many miles away. Whoever lived there hadn't stood a chance against the fire-breathing monstrosity that snuffed out their lives with seemingly no effort, and she agreed with Weaver that Theta Squad would've all perished if they fought the dragon themselves. If seven armed Gears, most of them possessing years of combat experience, were reluctant to face it, then a defenseless village like Koda was certain to share the same fate as its neighboring settlement if the dragon showed up again.

"Forest burned. Village gone," she told him in the Special Region language.

"WHAT?!" The chief's eyes bulged out of their sockets. It was honestly a little frightening. "The settlement's been wiped out? What happened?!"

Reynolds had to get her notes out to keep up with him. "We saw large bird," she explained, substituting the word "dragon" for something less terrifying. She hadn't learned the proper translation yet – she didn't think she would've needed to. "Forest and village burned. Checked after it left."

The elderly man glanced around Courtney's frame to look at her team, silently asking them if what their leader said was indeed true. He received six different nods of confirmation.

"A fire dragon…" he breathed. "No… it can't be…"

Well, at least she now knew what the native word for dragons was. That might come in handy later.

"Fire dragon breathed flame. Burned up many people." Reynolds told him. She motioned for the chief to follow her to the back of the lead Packhorse and opened the doors, exposing the unconscious elf girl on the floor inside for all to see. She was wrapped snugly in no less than three blankets; only her angelic face and distinctive pointed ears were visible.

"We saved one girl," the lieutenant finished.

She'd ordered Hutch to move into the more spacious jeep to keep an eye on her condition. The medic managed to bring her body temperature back up to a safe level, as well as confirm that she hadn't suffered a head injury after the bucket knocked her out, but advised that they drive more carefully from now on to prevent her from jostling around too much. He'd warned them that any sudden, vigorous movements to her person risked triggering cardiac arrest.

Reynolds wanted to point out that they needed to reach Koda as soon as possible to inform the villagers about the dragon, but he was the medical expert, not her. Besides, the thought of arguing with a man who could stare down a dragon and not get scared promised nothing but headaches.

"Just this one girl?" the village chief echoed, gazing at the young elf with a mixture of sympathy and pity. "What a tragedy. I heard there were at least a hundred people living there."

"Can she stay in village?" Reynolds asked the million-dollar question.

She would respect his answer, no matter what it was. If the girl could stay here and make a new life for herself, then great, problem solved. If not, well… Uncle Maurice would know what to do. He wouldn't turn away a refugee if there was something he could do to aid them. And if it came down to it, the COG base was about as good a home as any village.

That plausibility became a likely reality when the chief shook his head in refusal.

"We can't take in an elf. Besides, we must flee this village while we can."

Well that threw a wrench into things. Now that he mentioned it, Reynolds noticed the crowd from earlier had dispersed in a panic; all of the residents were now hurriedly stockpiling food, water, and other belongings into horse-drawn carts and wagons. Apparently, the mere mention of a dragon sighting was enough to warrant a mass evacuation.

"Huh? You abandon village?" Reynolds queried.

"We must," the chief replied, staring up at her again. "Once a fire dragon tastes the flesh of humans or elves, it will keep attacking villages and towns until its hunger is satiated."

The officer hesitated. "And… how long does that take?"

"Years, my friend. Years."


(Koda Village Outskirts)

Nestled in a quiet grove away from the hub of Koda Village was a small cottage. There wasn't a whole lot to say about it, except that a miniature waterfall adjacent to it cast a pretty little rainbow for anyone outside to see.

"Dammit! Dammit all- WHOA!"

CRASH!

Well, there was one interesting thing to say about the house – it was the home of Cato El Altestan; a reclusive hermit, legendary sorcerer, and lecherous old pervert, all rolled up into one pint-sized package. Even the most uneducated peasants could tell he was a practitioner of the magical arts, due to the dark wizard's robes and pointed hat he wore, along with the catalyst he carried with him at all times.

His only company in the solitude of the grove was his apprentice, who stopped loading books into their cart to stare at her master as he lay groaning at the bottom of the cottage's front steps, surrounded by at least a dozen other dropped books on magical theory and spellcraft.

Lelei La Lelena tilted her head curiously, causing a few rays of sunlight to reflect off her light blue hair. She was dressed in simple yellowish-green robes with patches of white and blue, and matching traveling boots. Resting against the cart was Lelei's own catalyst; a wooden staff with an ornament resembling a large blue flower bud on one end.

"Are you okay, Master?" she asked softly.

"Yeah, I'm fine…" Cato groaned, getting to his feet and cracking his back. "Ugh, if magic weren't such a sacred thing, I would've just levitated all these books over and been done with it."

"Why do we need these many books, anyway? You never read them," Lelei grilled him.

The old wizard shrugged. "I may not read them, but that doesn't mean I don't need them. Do you have any idea how many years it took for me to assemble this kind of library, Lelei? How long I've scoured every country in the Empire and beyond to collect these tomes? If what the villagers say is true, and the Fire Dragon really is coming for us, then countless years of knowledge will be burnt to ash unless we work to save it!"

"Master, half of these books have copies in Rondel. You know this. Arpeggio writes them," his apprentice reminded him, leaning down to help her teacher pick up the scattered reading material.

"…Doesn't mean I want to have to pay to get them all back…" Cato grumbled. "Just because I'm well-known, that doesn't mean I'm well-off…"

"Even still, I believe the cart is reaching its capacity. We soon won't be able to carry any more." Lelei said.

Cato moaned in despair, thinking of the absurd amount it would cost to get replacements for many of the books they left behind. He knew his young ward was correct, as she usually was, but that didn't mean he had to like it. "Fine, fine. We'll have to prioritize any irreplaceable books, then."

Both mages worked diligently to identify and pack up the most valuable tomes in Cato's collection after that. Once the cart was fully stocked, they secured the books by tightly covering them with a khaki tarp. Lelei hopped into her seat and took hold of the reins, then turned to look at her caretaker.

"Mount up, Master."

Even under dire circumstances, Cato couldn't resist pulling a fast one. "What kind of man do you take me for, Lelei? You know I'm not interested in mounting young girls. If your sister were around, however…" The old wizard's face flushed pink and he started drooling at the thought of his former second student.

Mmm, those curves…

He was so indulged in his fantasy that he missed how Lelei frowned and picked up her catalyst. The next thing Cato knew, he was being buffeted by a gust of freezing wind, courtesy of his teenage apprentice.

"L-Lelei, quit it! I was only kidding! You know magic is sacred; it must never be abused!" he pleaded, shivering and struggling to stay balanced as the wind relentlessly pounded him.

She obeyed, much to his immense relief, ceasing the spell without a word. She patted the free spot next to her on the cart, silently beckoning him to get on.

"Sheesh, you sure can't take a joke…" Cato grumbled as he sat down beside her.

"I blame you as my educator, Master." Lelei retorted.

"Yeah, yeah. Let's just get a move on."

The blue-haired girl cracked the reins, but the donkey pulling the cart didn't move. This obviously didn't go unnoticed.

"…He won't move." Cato said. "We must be carrying too much."

Lelei fixed her eyes on him, unblinking. If she was annoyed by his needless observation, she hid it well. "You were the one who said to pack all this. This was to be expected," she informed him.

The elder mage hummed in thought before he replied. "Not to worry, Lelei. I am a sorcerer, after all!"

Ordinarily this would've been a problem, but Cato El Altestan was no ordinary man. He proudly brandished his catalyst, though what he planned to do with it was anyone's guess – maybe he had some epic spell in his arsenal that would get them unstuck, or perhaps his solution would boil down to poking the donkey's ass with the staff to get it moving. His eccentric nature made it hard to tell for certain.

Lelei's blank stare grew slightly wary.

"Isn't magic sacred? Something not to be abused?" she queried. "Those were your words, Master."

"But-"

"But in this case, we have no choice." She conceded. The younger mage drew her own catalyst and gave it a wave.

Suddenly, and with no logical explanation behind it, a pale blow glow coated the entire cart. What made the occurrence even more bizarre was that the cart was lifted an inch off the ground moments afterwards, allowing the donkey pulling it to move freely.

The two wizards sat quietly on their levitating cart for a few minutes before Cato spoke.

"Sorry about all that, my dear girl. You must understand, these books are very precious to me."

"Hmm? Oh, I don't mind." Lelei perked up in response. She'd looked a bit distracted during the ride, probably lost in her thoughts. "I've always known that this is simply how you are."

"…Is there something you'd like to discuss?" Cato asked, picking up on the anomaly in her behavior.

Lelei shook her head. "Nothing we haven't already been over."


(Koda Village)

There were two things bugging her, Lelei reflected as the cart drew closer to the convoy evacuating the village. Two issues about the whole situation that just didn't sit right with her; that even Master Cato wouldn't have had a concrete answer for.

The first issue was, of course, the Fire Dragon's premature awakening. She'd learned from her master during their studies on wildlife that the dragon operated on a cycle of hibernation: it remained asleep for many years before awakening, then spent all its time consuming anything edible before once again entering a deep slumber. While it was nigh-unstoppable when awake and active, the Fire Dragon's sleep schedule was extremely predictable, leaving the citizens of Falmart with plenty of time to prepare for its hunger-driven outings. However, the beast seemed to have awoken fifty years early for unexplained reasons, thus necessitating their hasty withdrawal from Koda Village.

The second issue was tied to the location where the dragon was spotted yesterday. Apparently it was witnessed razing the neighboring settlement of Koan Village to the ground, but that was all Lelei knew. Both Koda and Koan were self-sufficient villages that generally never interacted with one another, which begged the question as to how the residents of Koda learned about the other settlement's destruction in the first place. The only logical explanation was that any survivors from Koan must've fled to Koda under the cover of night and warned the locals that the Fire Dragon had returned. It was a sound theory, but it wasn't perfect.

Lelei sighed. Life was so much simpler when she and Arpeggio were still nomads in the Rorudo tribe. While she was thankful to Master Cato for taking her and her sister under his wing to teach them the secrets of magic, her path as a mage led to a lot of strenuous thinking at times.

She'd have to uncover those mysteries at a later date, though. They'd reached the rendezvous point for the evacuating convoy, and right now getting to safety took priority over her own curiosities.

Her instincts immediately told her something was wrong.

"Damn, that's quite the line ahead of us." Cato noted. "Why aren't any of the wagons moving? Is there some kind of problem?"

The sound of a loud snap, followed by the high-pitched scream of a child startled both wizards.

"What in Hardy's unholy name just happened?!" her master cried. Lelei's eyes widened and her posture straightened, though she remained silent.

A man in a farmer's hat ran towards them from somewhere up ahead. Lelei recognized him as the person who brought the wizard duo their daily supply of food and water, as well as the one who initially warned them about the impending threat of a Fire Dragon.

"Master Cato! Lelei! One of the carts was carrying too much; its axle broke, and it's blocking the way!"

Forget that, what about the scream they heard? Lelei was prepared start grilling the man for details when an unseen voice, probably belonging to an adult female, snagged her attention by calling something out in a language she didn't understand. Adding to her newfound confusion, a strange white creature resembling a golem suddenly rushed past their cart in the direction of the broken wagon.

"Huh? What's that?" The blue-haired girl leaned forward to try and get a better look at whatever that thing was. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the "creature" was actually a human clad in some sort of heavy white armor.

Lelei assumed he was a male, but who was he? Where had he come from? Was he responding to the woman's shout? She needed to find out more.

"Who was that just now? I've never seen a suit of armor like that before…" Cato observed.

"Master, I'm going to go take a look." His apprentice's curiosity got the better of her. Lelei jumped off the cart and jogged ahead, ignoring her master's shout of protest.

She knew there had to be at least two very foreign people here. Whoever they were, their presence in Koda Village during an evacuation couldn't be a coincidence. An even more pressing concern was that she still didn't have any details on the earlier scream – what if someone was in trouble? If there was anything she could do to help, then by the magic in her veins, she would do it. She could learn more about the mysterious visitors some other time.

Lelei shoved her way through the small crowd gathered around the broken wagon, taking in the scene before her.

The accident had occurred about thirteen wagons ahead of hers and Cato's. The cart had tipped over on one side, and the horse that drove it was on the ground, set free of its reins. The strangled whinnies it made told Lelei the animal was in a great deal of pain.

More alarming was the small girl laying on the ground several feet away from the group. She was hyperventilating, and her eyes were shut tight; Lelei couldn't tell if she was even conscious or not. The white-armored foreigner was at her side, hunched over with his back facing the crowd.

The young mage gasped lightly, breaking away from the others to crouch down next to the man. She mentally scrolled through her list of spells, searching for any that might be useful for healing.

"Not safe. Must leave now."

A heavy hand resting on her shoulder accompanied those broken words, prompting Lelei to glance behind her. She shrunk back in fear at the sight of a living colossus looming over her.


Teddy Bare sighed in resignation at the blue-haired girl's reaction to his presence. His menacing appearance was a double-edged sword; while it was enough to demoralize most enemies, even the Locust at times, the sight of him also had the downside of easily scaring civilians.

Come to think of it… who was this girl, anyway? Teddy didn't recall meeting her the last time he was in Koda Village, and he definitely would've remembered seeing aqua teal hair. Was she not from around here?

He mentally shook his head, brushing those thoughts to the side. There were far more important things to worry about right now.

"Hutch, how's the kid doing?" he called to his squadmate after helping the other girl to her feet. He kept the corner of his eye on her, just in case.

"Not good," came the medic's reply. "She must have hit her head when the wagon tilted over. She has a concussion. Possible skull fracture as well."

"Anything you can do?"

"I can give her acetaminophen if she regains consciousness to help ease any pain. Other than that, the best we can do is-"

An ear-splitting whinny cut Hutch off before he could finish. The wounded horse had regained its footing but was evidently still in a huge amount of pain – it went berserk the moment it was upright, and it was much too close to the children and Gears.

Acting on pure instinct, Bare swiftly repositioned himself in front of the blue-haired girl, shielding her from the out-of-control animal with his massive frame. He shut his eyes and braced himself for the pain – he was strong, but the horse was stronger, and it could very easily injure or kill him.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

…That didn't sound like hooves breaking his ribs.

Bare opened his eyes and saw Hutch, still kneeling but with a smoking revolver in one hand, staring at the now-dead horse without a hint of fear in his posture.

"No. Bad horsey." He scolded.

Leave it to Hutch to punish anything that threatened his patients, the master sergeant silently mused.

He relaxed his muscles now that the danger was over, turning to check on the teenager he'd protected. She was shaken, but otherwise unhurt – thank goodness.

"You okay?" he asked.

The girl craned her neck to first look up at his concealed face, then over to Hutch, then back to Teddy. Her teal eyes were unblinking and wide as saucers.

"They saved me…" he heard her whisper.


Sergeant Weaver rested against a wall, arms folded and smoking yet another cigarette as he observed the convoy making its final preparations before departure. Sitting on a crate adjacent to him was Private Dalton.

After the incident involving Hutch and Bare, Lieutenant Reynolds ordered the squad to pair up in groups of two and spread out at intervals along the convoy to provide extra security. He'd wanted to go with O'Nellis, as he always did, but was shocked when his longtime companion decided to partner up with Gyules instead of him. She'd said something about branching out to make new friends – although why she was interested in befriending a tone-deaf weaboo, he had no idea. Even Vinnie wasn't sure what went on in that woman's head sometimes.

He spared a brief glance at the dweeb to his right. With Reynolds occupied talking to the village chief, that left Dalton as the only free alternative for a partner. He supposed he could've done worse. The kid did his job admirably; not only did he vigilantly watch the line of wagons for any sign of a problem, he also kept his mouth shut doing so, allowing Weaver's mind to wander in peace.

Let's see, four cigs a day from two packs of twelve… I've gone through six since we left base, including the one I've got now, so that leaves me with-

"Do we have any kind of plan for the refugees?" Dalton suddenly broke the silence.

Dammit, Dweeb, you were doing just fine until now.

While he inwardly wished the private would shut up and go back to being irrelevant, he knew full well that he'd suffer the combined wrath of O'Nellis and Reynolds if he said those words out loud, and Vinnie really wasn't keen on the thought of two angry women making his life miserable.

The sergeant grunted under his breath. Like it or not, he had an obligation to act like a proper superior, which meant he had to take the kid's question seriously and not needle him too much.

"I don't follow," he responded in his best uninterested tone of voice. If the dweeb was smart, he'd pick up on it and hopefully go back to being quiet.

"Like, long-term." Dalton turned his head to face him. Well, crap. Apparently he'd given the guy too much credit. "We're not going to be taking care of all these people forever, are we? Aren't there any lords or royalty around here who could take them in?"

"What do you think?" Weaver's response came out a tad harsher than he meant it to be. He really wasn't good at this whole 'role model' schtick.

Dalton didn't seem fazed, however. "I don't know. That's why I'm asking you."

Vinnie gave his younger squadmate a long, calculating glare. It took a few seconds before a realization suddenly struck him: Dalton was serious about this, more so than the sergeant had ever seen him. Any trace of uncertainty or timidity in his body language was gone, replaced by a firm, unyielding determination to get the people of Koda Village to safety.

Unfortunately for the younger Gear, Weaver had seen this same conviction in a lot of recruits, and it rarely turned out well for them. They'd all enlisted hoping they could make a difference in the war and save everyone they met. Most of them were dead now, killed by their own idealism as much as Locust weaponry. Dalton would be in deep shit if he was headed down that same path; he'd pulled something heroic previously, which was all fine and great, but if he thought he was anyone special because of that, then he was in for a rude awakening.

In the end, Weaver concluded that the best thing to say would be the cold, hard truth.

"You wanna know what I think, huh?" he grated out. "I'll tell you. I think we're just gonna dump them off at the first safe place we find and be done with it. It doesn't matter how nicely they've treated us – their lives ain't our responsibility. We have enough problems on our hands to deal with as it is."

"But if their lives aren't our responsibility, then why are we escorting them?" Dalton countered.

Vinnie shrugged. "I dunno, because Reynolds wants us to look good for the natives?"

The kid brought up a good point, come to think of it. Why was Theta Squad bothering to tag along with a band of evacuating civvies in what was essentially enemy territory? The best explanation he could think of was that word of mouth would spread regarding the COG's selfless actions afterwards, possibly swaying the general public into seeing them as something other than an invading army. He also theorized that the convoy had a possibility of getting attacked as they traveled; since Koda Village's residents were more or less completely defenseless, it made a lot of sense to enlist the Gears as guards seeing as they had unrivaled firepower. Or maybe there was no ulterior motive at all, and his teammates just pitied the villagers enough to lend a helping hand.

The ex-convict sighed. Pondering on the what-ifs was half the reason he took up smoking in the first place.

He decided to switch the subject. "You can ask her about it later. As for your question about the lords… well, they're all dead."

"Huh? What do you mean?" Dalton clearly wore a puzzled expression, even if his helmet blocked it from view.

"I overheard some of Reynolds' conversation with the chief earlier. I didn't understand most of it, for obvious reasons, but it seems like a lot of the enemy forces' commanders were also nobility." Weaver informed him. "If you can't see where I'm going with this, then you're a fuckin' idiot."

Dalton turned his gaze back on the line of wagons. "So what you're saying is, we killed off the people who could've given these villagers a safe refuge."

"Yes."

"Oh. Well… fuck."

He went back to being silent after that, like a good little private should, leaving Vinnie alone with his thoughts once more. The sniper was fine with that.

It gave him plenty of time to imagine all the different ways he'd murder Gyules if Faith started singing anime openings the next time they hit the road.


(Nightfall)

Many miles away from Koda Village, clustered around a roaring campfire in an arid region, a band of unsavory folk were plotting their big move.

"It seems the whole of Koda Village is on the run!" one of the bandits said excitedly. "This is a good opportunity!"

"Do we have enough men?" another marauder asked.

"We can always find more," a third man stated. "There are plenty of stragglers left after the recent battle. Round them up, and we could take on not just a village, but an entire town!"

Most of the men cheered, but a few shuddered at the memory of the "recent battle" their comrade mentioned. They were a decent sized bunch, numbering around sixty in total, and all of them possessed military training that made them formidable adversaries. Even still, it appeared that some of the former soldiers still hadn't forgotten the magnitude of the slaughter at Alnus Hill.

Their pride was destroyed. Their purpose was muddied. Their will to fight was corrupted. All that remained of these once-proud warriors were empty husks that needed a victory – any victory – to fill the hollow cavity in their chests.

If they couldn't kill the Blue Golems, then killing the bastard Emperor's subjects was the next best thing.

"We could overthrow the local lord!" someone exclaimed.

The bandits' leader, an unremarkable fellow in a gray headband, tilted his head back and sighed blissfully at the suggestion. The money, the women, the fine food… the thought of how fucking pissed old Molt would be when he learned that a ragtag band of brigands swiped a piece of his precious Empire right out from under him. It was too perfect to believe, but the opportunity was there, tantalizingly within reach.

"From a bandit leader to a lord…" he whispered. "I like it."

Schkt!

The other bandits' optimistic expressions instantly shifted to horrified ones when they saw their leader's grinning head literally slide from his neck. His corpse hit the ground with a dull thud a second later, revealing the living nightmare standing directly behind his seat.

"Gentlemen…" a female voice crooned.

Illuminated by the firelight was a young girl who couldn't have been more than thirteen years old. She wore an elegant black dress with red frills, along with dark red boots and black stockings supported with garters. Atop her head of flowing black hair was a large bow closely resembling cat ears. Most disturbing was the weapon she carried in her right hand: a massive, dark purple halberd with snake-themed decorations entwined around each end of the shaft. Fresh blood dripped from the weapon's razor-sharp blade.

The youth licked her lips as her crimson red eyes swept across the group of horrified brigands, magically changing her pink lipstick to a foreboding shade of purple.

"Thank you for tonight," she continued in a low, sultry voice.

One of the bandits stood up and drew a sword. "Who do you think you are, you little bitch? You want a piece of us?!" he snarled, ignoring the warnings and pleas a few of his fellows sent his way.

He charged at the newcomer with a battle cry, but the girl wasn't fazed in the slightest. Instead, she smiled.

She swung her halberd in one swift motion, faster than the naked eye could see, instantly bisecting the man at the waist. Blood spattered across her uniform; however, rather than get upset over her clothes being ruined, her creepy smile merely grew wider.

"Thank you very much for giving your lives so selflessly…"

Schkt!

Another marauder was cut down before anyone even knew what happened. The remaining bandits all got up and backed away slowly, some of them drawing their weapons even though they knew it was pointless to fight back against this she-demon.

"The All-Father is very pleased with your actions. He now requests your presence."

Two more bandits were beheaded as she spoke. They were freaking out at this point, which seemed to amuse the preteen killer.

"I am Rory Mercury," she introduced herself, "Apostle to the Dark God, Emroy."

Nearly all of the brigands' faces turned sheet-white when the girl stated her name. They were aware now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were utterly and royally fucked.

One of the handful of men who didn't piss his pants scratched his head in confusion. "Uhh… you're the what to the who-now?" he asked dumbly.

"She's one of the Twelve Apostles! Death God Rory!" Another person helpfully filled him in.

"She's… She's wearing the Emroy shrine oracle uniform!"

"RUN!" someone cried.

Nobody needed to be told twice on that one. The brigands scattered like leaves in the wind, running as fast as their legs could carry them from the incarnation of death who stumbled across their campsite. Most of them ran in no particular direction, only knowing they had to get away from the young reaper before she could seal their fates.

Rory grinned as she watched them try and flee, readying her halberd as she prepared to chase after them.

"Oh, I don't think so…"

She took off in a blur of motion, slicing through three men with the first swing of her weapon. The Apostle of Death then slammed the halberd into the ground, sending chunks of rock into the air; another swing sent the debris flying toward a tightly-knit pack of bandits, impaling some and knocking the rest off their feet. It didn't take long to end their pathetic lives afterward.

Rory bobbed and weaved through the terrified bandits' ranks, gruesomely eviscerating each marauder with a series of acrobatic flips, kicks, and slices. She heard no less than six ribs crack when her boots impacted against one man's chest – a new personal record for her. Mortals were so squishy, and unlike her and the other Apostles, they couldn't regenerate all their wounds in seconds. Plus, the vast majority of them lacked the strength to properly fight back, a fact that was definitely working in Rory's favor right now.

A cheerful laugh echoed over the sound of rending flesh and the bandits' dying screams.


(The Next Day)

"C'mon, Gears, keep pushing! Put some backbone into it!"

"I – ugh – I am pushing!" Dalton grunted, heaving with all his might.

"This would be so much easier if I didn't have such noodly little arms…" Gyules wheezed.

Lieutenant Reynolds grit her teeth and pushed harder against the back of the stuck cart. They'd sent a message down the line of wagons to watch out for this particular patch of mud on the road, but apparently one of the drivers hadn't gotten the memo in time. Now they had to circle the Packhorse around and help get the cart's wheels back on solid ground.

Unfortunately, the cart remained firmly planted in the muck despite the best efforts of Dalton, Gyules, and herself, much to Reynolds' immense frustration. No matter how hard they tried, it just wouldn't budge. She was ready to give up and think of an alternative plan when a pair of heavy footsteps caught her attention.

"Need some help?" Bare offered, approaching the struggling trio from the parked jeep nearby.

"Would you mind? This is ridiculous," the officer panted in exhaustion. She was tough, nobody would argue that, but she just wasn't built for handling heavy objects.

If only the Special Region had radios, she thought bitterly. Then this probably wouldn't have happened, and they could all resume their journey to wherever the hell they were going.

"You three step back. I'll handle this." Bare assured them. Once they complied, the master sergeant rolled his shoulders and cracked his knuckles, then glared at the immobilized cart.

Then he charged forward and rammed straight into it, causing everyone watching to recoil in shock. Astonishingly, the impact succeeded in dislodging the cart, sending it wheeling forward a few inches. The horse at the front of the wagon, mildly spooked though seemingly noticing it was no longer stuck, took the rest from there.

Bare turned to face his squadmates, massaging one of his enormous shoulders. "There. That did the trick," he quipped.

"…We loosened it." Dalton grumbled.

The older Gear chuckled heartily at the comment as the group made their way back to the Packhorse. The only occupants left in the vehicle were Hutch and the elf girl, who still hadn't awoken.

"Status update, Private Hutch." Reynolds ordered while she strapped herself in.

"Her vitals are steady." The medic reported. "She should regain consciousness soon."

"Glad to hear it. Bare, how are we on fuel?"

"Don't worry about it, Lieutenant. There's enough Imulsion in the tank to last us a whole week." Teddy answered.

Reynolds nodded, making herself comfortable while the heavy weapons specialist ignited the engine and began the drive back to the front of the convoy.

She wouldn't admit it, but the mass evacuation of Koda Village left a sour taste in her mouth. It was an exact mirror of how the COG responded every time the Locust Horde popped their heads above ground in a human city: drop everything and run. Don't try to fight back, don't try to hide until it's over – just get the hell out and hope there's a place to fall back to. They'd employed that strategy for years, again and again, until there was nowhere left to escape to. Jacinto truly was the last bastion of humanity on Sera. If it fell, then the fate of not only one world, but possibly two, would be set in stone.

Come to think of it, if the Coalition ever met the person or people responsible for the gate invasion, that information could be a powerful bargaining chip towards brokering peace. Although the Special Region's population didn't know it – yet, anyway – the COG army was the only thing keeping away a potential invasion by the Locust.

She definitely wouldn't object if the government decided to pursue a peace treaty with this land's ruling body at some point in the future. True, the Gears were a force to be reckoned with thanks to their superior training and equipment compared to the enemy's; on the other hand, there was no way they could endure forever if pitted against every hostile army on the planet. Besides, staging a full-scale counter campaign would invariably lead to a bad impression.

Most glaring was the knowledge that the COG simply didn't have the manpower or resources to fight two wars at once.

She'd need to ask Captain Mayweather for his opinion when Theta returned to base. His word carried a lot of authority, especially since he was in command of all military activity in the Special Region. Maybe he shared his niece's sentiments; if he did, then perhaps he could convince Chairman Prescott to formulate a less bloody solution to the mysteries behind the gate.

Courtney continued to ponder the various outcomes of their expedition for a few hours. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn't notice Bare calling her name until he roughly shook her by the shoulder.

"Lieutenant Reynolds!" he yelled forcefully into her ear.

"Huh? Why are you yelling? What did I miss?!" Theta's leader sat up straight, suddenly focused and alert. Judging from his tone of voice, whatever was going on was more urgent than the need for a roadside bathroom break.

Teddy gestured to the Packhorse's window. "Take a look. See for yourself."

She did, and her heart dropped when she saw the scene outside. They were facing a wagon that had gone a small amount off-road; the chief of Koda Village was standing next to it, accompanied by a young family of three. She immediately realized what the problem was – the wagon's axle had broken.

"Son of a bitch…" Reynolds sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. This was the second time that particular accident had happened in two days. "Are there any injuries?"

"Not that I can see." Bare shrugged.

The officer tapped her chin, processing this information before she reached a decision.

"Hutch, stay in the jeep. The rest of you, come with me. I want this resolved ASAP!"

She was already halfway out the door before she heard their affirmative responses. The chief turned to watch her approach, wearing a grave expression.

"What happen?" she asked him, switching to the native language.

"This family's horse went off the road to graze. The wagon must've hit a bump and broken something," the short man explained.

Reynolds frowned. "Spare parts?"

"None, I'm afraid."

She wanted to yell at someone. Did nobody predict this kind of thing might happen? Did none of these people bring extra supplies to fix their carts in case they broke down? Hell, half the crap stored in O'Nellis' Packhorse consisted of spare car parts, just in case Theta Squad ran into the same issue. How did none of the villagers think to do the same?

Because they're villagers, she told herself. Villagers who lived in a small, rural area who never expected the need to suddenly get up and leave. She couldn't blame them in hindsight for being ill-prepared for such a long journey.

The lieutenant exhaled a long, slow breath, placing her hands on her armored hips. She needed to think about this more rationally.

"No can stay?" she asked the chief.

He shook his head, then turned his attention to the wagon's owners. "We would only be waiting to die if we stayed. Shoulder what you can and keep going. Bring the horse if you're able to."

"But… but all of our valuables are on that cart! We can't just leave them behind!" the father of the family protested.

"I'll say it again: we'll die if stay! Either you take what you need to survive and move on, or wait here for the Fire Dragon to get you!" the chief shot back. He spread his arms to indicate the grassy plain surrounding them. "Besides, look around you! What do you intend to do? Start a new life in this very spot? How would you provide for your family?"

The younger resident lowered his head in defeat. "I… all right."

He moved away from the group with a downcast expression. His wife and child followed after him, and together they started collecting whatever they needed for the long haul.

Once again, Reynolds reflected on how difficult life was for a refugee. She'd been much the same in her later youth, always bouncing from place to place, trying in vain to flee from the genocidal race of monsters hell-bent on hunting down and exterminating every last scrap of humanity. First, she lost her valuables; then, her parents. By the time she reached Jacinto City, she had nothing left except the clothes on her back, a chip on her shoulder, and an uncle who would one day groom her into a hardened soldier. She understood how difficult life could be, and how sometimes you needed to make difficult decisions for the better good.

She was about to make one of those decisions now.

"Private Gyules," Reynolds said calmly, not taking her eyes off the somber family packing their belongings. "Once they're finished, I want you to torch the wagon."

"W-What? Why me?" she heard him stutter out.

"There's still a chance they'll refuse to part with their valuables. Make sure there's nothing left to leave behind."

The lieutenant looked back when Gyules sighed miserably. She hated ordering him to do that, but he was the one with the Scorcher, and she wasn't going to waste explosives on a broken wagon. He'd get over it eventually. Gears always did.

Private Dalton gave his friend a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Try not to sweat it, dude. Would it cheer you up if we sang Mei Com later?"

Hell, she wouldn't complain if they did. Reynolds was willing to temporarily lift the "no singing" rule she'd imposed a couple of days ago if it boosted their morale.


(Two Hours Later)

Even though Dalton tried his best to brighten the mood, the atmosphere in the jeep had taken a nosedive. Gyules hadn't even finished the first verse of his favorite song before clamming up and staying silent. Hutch was no help either, though Sergeant Bare knew lifting spirits wasn't the medic's strong point. Reynolds, for her part, was asleep in the passenger seat; she was likely tired out after all they'd went through today, the master sergeant figured.

Teddy adjusted the dashboard mirror to look into the vehicle's rear compartment, frowning when he saw Gyules staring blankly at his weapon. The kid was normally always so upbeat – it pained Bare to see him this downtrodden. While he agreed with Reynolds that burning the wagon was necessary, the youngest member of the team apparently wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with the tough choice.

"You did the right thing, kid." Bare told him, feeling like he should say something, anything to help the private out.

"Then why doesn't it feel like I did?" Gyules sullenly replied.

"It rarely does. Sometimes people need to make decisions they don't morally agree with for survival's sake." Bare said wisely. "Take the Hammer of Dawn Counterattack, for example. I can't even begin to imagine how Prescott must've felt when he flipped the switch."

Dalton slammed his fist against the bench. "Dammit, I wish we had the Hammer in this world! Then we could've just erased that stupid dragon and none of this would be happening!" he angrily exclaimed.

"It's not that easy," Bare sighed. "The Hammer of Dawn is incredibly complex. We'd need to launch a satellite into the planet's orbit, among a ton of other obstacles. Such an undertaking would be too costly, as well as impractical since we haven't found a need for it here."

"Plus, it's meant to be a deterrent." Hutch threw in a rare comment.

The tattooed veteran nodded. The Hammer was a weapon of last resort; while the Locust forced the COG's hand with their sheer numbers and ruthlessness, the humans of Sera hadn't yet encountered a foe in the Special Region they couldn't defeat conventionally, the Fire Dragon being the only possible exception. Even then, setting up the orbital laser network in a new world for the purpose of killing one creature was complete overkill.

"Do you think it would make a good deterrent against this world's armies?" Dalton asked.

Bare sighed again, staring out at the seemingly endless road. He had no doubts that Dalton was a good guy, but the kid had a lot to learn about-

Wait… what was that, up ahead?

"Hold that thought." Bare held a hand up, then used that same hand to shake Lieutenant Reynolds awake. "Lieutenant, wake up. There's something you need to see."

"Ugh… what is it this time?" she groggily replied.

"What's the holdup, big guy? Why are we stopping?" Weaver said into Teddy's comm unit as the older man slowed the Packhorse to a halt.

"There's a contact in front of us," he answered both of them.

He squinted, trying to get a better look at whoever was blocking the road. A murder of crows hid the person from full view, which raised a few flags in Teddy's mind – crows didn't normally surround people like that, did they?

He reflected on the abnormal behavior until, without any warning, the crows flew away, revealing a young girl wielding a huge medieval halberd. She was crouched on the dirt, smiling at the approaching convoy, but made no threatening movements.

Bare had trouble putting the sight into words. He blinked. "Uhh… okay then."

"Who the heck is that?" Reynolds inquired, also noticing the strange newcomer.

"Well, um…" Teddy fumbled, still attempting to find a proper description. "It appears to be a girl wearing a frilly black dress, and holding a-"

"GOTHIC LOLITA? WHERE?!"

"What the fuck-?!" Bare flinched and leaned away when Gyules suddenly jammed himself between the front seats, all traces of his earlier depression instantly gone. He heard the private gasp in delight.

"She's adorable! Like something straight out of my manga collection! Things are looking up for ol' Rudy!"

"Dalton, control your friend!" Reynolds cried, struggling to shove Gyules back into the rear of the vehicle.

"I can't! It's impossible to restrain an otaku when they see something they like!" Dalton said helplessly.

"I can forcibly sedate him if you want." Hutch offered.

This was all getting too weird for Bare. He stepped out of the Packhorse and shut the door, still able to hear the muffled yells of his teammates. They were certainly an interesting bunch, if nothing else.

A group of five children suddenly rushed past him in the new girl's direction, shouting a word Teddy wasn't familiar with over and over again. The heavy weapons specialist watched curiously when they were joined shortly after by several adults, who all fell to their knees and clasped their hands in the girl's presence, as if they were praying to her.

"They're saying 'oracle'," Reynolds' voice stated next to him.

Bare turned to look at her, asking a silent question.

The blond woman smirked. "If you're wondering what I did with Gyules, I threatened to stick him in a Packhorse alone with Weaver if he didn't get a hold of himself. I don't think they like each other very much." She then gestured to the youth in black. "As for this, though… I have no idea. Is she some kind of wandering priestess?"

"Maybe…" He honestly couldn't tell for sure. What sort of wacko religion gave a child an axe and a fancy dress, and sent them out to preach alone? It was a far-fetched and frankly inhumane theory, but it wasn't quite outside the realm of possibility, either. The COG still knew next to nothing about the Special Region's religious practices.

"I guess there's no way to find out unless we ask her ourselves," Reynolds deduced.

The two Gears walked forward, instantly catching the attention of the girl in the strange outfit.

"And who might these people be?" she asked the children. Oddly, her voice sounded a lot more mature than her appearance would suggest. Maybe she was going through puberty.

"These are the Gears, oracle! They're helping us get away from the Fire Dragon!" one kid eagerly responded.

"'Gears', hmm? I see…"

Her odd red eyes first swept over Reynolds, then Bare. The master sergeant was aware of how her gaze lingered on him for an uncomfortably long time. Something about this girl told him he shouldn't get on her bad side – it was probably the halberd, he reasoned.

"So they're not forcing you to leave your village?" the Lolita continued her questioning.

A little boy shook his head. "Nope! They've been super awesome ever since we met!"

The girl nodded, never losing the pleasant smile on her pale face. She sauntered over to the pair of soldiers and bowed lightly.

"It's a noble deed you're performing, helping these villagers when they have nowhere else to go," she said to them. "I approve. My name is Rory Mercury, Apostle of Emroy, God of Death. May I ask who you are?"

"Reynolds," the lieutenant greeted, placing a hand over her chest. She gestured to Bare next. "Bare."

"Call me Teddy," the hulking man responded. He'd understood very little of the conversation so far, though he knew a social cue when he heard one.

Rory nodded again, taking another minute to examine them from head-to-toe. She said something else; unfortunately, Bare was lost in the translation.

Reynolds, however, looked at him with wide eyes once the Apostle finished.

"She said she's heard rumors about a race called the 'Blue Golems', and that we fit the description perfectly," she clarified. "She mentioned how they held off a united army at a place called Alnus Hill."

So that's what the natives of this land called them, huh? Blue Golems – the name sounded powerful and mysterious. He liked it. And Alnus Hill? Well, at least now the COG could come up with a better name for their stronghold beyond the gate than "Special Region Forward Operating Base".

This girl, Rory Mercury, was surprisingly well-informed compared to the residents of Koda Village. Teddy accredited the fact to her possible status as a wandering religious figure. Now that he dwelled on it…

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked his superior.

"That we should invite her to tag along with us? Definitely. She could be a goldmine of information!" Reynolds agreed.

As Theta Squad's CO began talking with the girl in short, broken sentences, Teddy reflected on how potentially valuable this opportunity could be. If her title of oracle was any indication, along with how the locals prayed to her, then Rory was an important and respected figurehead in the Special Region. Gaining an ally like that would be a huge boon to their investigation. They wouldn't keep her for long, of course – Captain Mayweather knew better than to risk the natives thinking they'd kidnapped one of their priestesses. He'd probably ask her a few questions and send her on her way when he was finished.

Bare hoped he could learn the story behind why she carried a fucking halberd before she left, though. That just wasn't right no matter how you looked at it.

Reynolds bumped his arm when she walked past him towards the jeep, Rory in tow. She smiled when Bare looked down at her.

"She's in. Let's get moving."

The trio climbed into the vehicle, with Rory entering through the back.

"Ooh! Ooh! Sit next to me!" Gyules patted the free spot next to him. "I promise I won't bite! Unless you want me to!"

Bare chuckled as he fastened his seatbelt. It was nice to see the kid's mood had improved, even if the circumstances behind it were a bit out of the ordinary.

He was about to start the engine, when suddenly…

"What the hell?!" Bare hollered, eyes bulging under his helmet.

Rory unexpectedly slithered through the gap between the seats and plopped herself down in Teddy's lap. She glanced back at him, briefly licking her lips, then began to curiously poke and prod at the jeep's controls.

Everything descended into chaos from there:

"H-Hey! Don't touch that! Get off of me!"

"What's this girl doing?"

"I don't know! Hey, keep your hands away from the pistol!"

"Master Sergeant, how dare you touch her like that!"

"I didn't mean to!"

"No fair, Sarge!"

"Dude, quit acting like a pedophile!"

"I AM NOT ENJOYING THIS!"


Meanwhile, Weaver and O'Nellis were busy wondering why the Packhorse ahead of them was violently rocking back and forth.

"Ten bucks says there's some kind of messed up orgy happening in there," Weaver proposed.

"I won't take that bet, only because I totally agree with you." O'Nellis said.


(Roche Hill, Three Hours Later)

The convoy had traveled to a barren, rocky area with zero vegetation. The hot sun beat down mercilessly on the refugees and their escorts. Corporal O'Nellis was thankful that the Packhorses came with air conditioning, although she felt slightly guilty using it, since the villagers had no choice but to grin and bear the heat. It might've just been her mind playing tricks on her, but the sun seemed hotter here than it did in Tyrus.

Normally the warm temperature wouldn't have bothered her. She grew up in central Kashkur, after all – if you couldn't take the heat, then you didn't really belong there, as her father always used to say. However, it was so damnably hot outside that Faith was forced to remove her helmet-mask hybrid just so she could breathe in the cool, crisp air circulating through the jeep. Removing the helmet's air filter might have been a mistake in hindsight…

Vinnie wasn't faring much better. He'd removed his hat, but his dark hair still clung to his red, sweat-covered face. She'd heard him mutter something about lukewarm water a few times since they'd entered the arid environment.

"We've gotten pretty far from the village," the spotter noted, looking over at her partner.

"Yeah, no shit. I wish this evacuation was over already so I can grab a cold one." Vinnie replied.

His green eyes met her mismatched ones, and Faith couldn't help but smile at his blunt statement.

She knew it was an irrational fear, and that it wasn't really a big issue, but her closest friend was the only person she trusted not to make fun of her heterochromia – somewhat ironic, considering his prickly personality.

Faith was blessed with gorgeous facial features: a slim jawline, full lips, and a smattering of freckles across her upper cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Regrettably, those features were overshadowed by her blue left eye and brown right eye, a condition that earned her a lot of attention from bullies during her early childhood. Even though it largely subsided by the time she fully developed into a woman, the damage had already been done.

O'Nellis had entered into boot camp a withdrawn and lonely girl, until she met Vinnie Weaver. She thought he was kind of a dick at first, but she realized after a day or two that he was a dick to everyone, not just her. He'd get into fistfights with the other recruits, argue with his superiors, call people derogatory names… the list went on. He was a fellow outcast; a kindred spirit who had trouble connecting with others.

It was this knowledge that motivated Faith to smuggle him some food one night after he was denied dinner for calling their drill sergeant a "'Roided-up ass clown". Ever since then, they'd forged an unbreakable bond. She was his voice of reason whenever he got too riled up, and in return, he kept her safe from any and all types of harm.

Her trust in him hadn't wavered when he was imprisoned for killing Major Quinley – quite the opposite, actually. She knew beyond doubt that the only reason he committed the crime was to protect her from a madman's ambitions. She didn't think she would ever be able to repay him in full for that.

"I hear you on that one. A fresh beer would be heavenly right about now," the corporal sighed wistfully.

"Don't rub it in. You're making me sad." Vinnie said half-jokingly.

O'Nellis laughed softly, then turned her gaze out the window.

Just how far was it to the next settlement? She didn't have a clue, and neither did Vinnie. They'd used up a decent amount of food and water already, and wandering through a desert region like this didn't bode well for the refugees. What if they came down with heatstroke? How would they feed their horses when there was no grass to graze on?

And… what was that thing flying towards them, silhouetted by the sun?

Faith shielded her eyes with her hand to see it clearer. It was a wyvern, although what it was doing this far out in the middle of nowhere, she had no idea. Perhaps it was starving and saw the convoy as an easy target for a snack. If that was the case, then she had no qualms about feeding it fifty caliber ammunition-

Chomp!

A massive set of jaws clamped down on the wyvern and swallowed it whole. O'Nellis blanched when a terrifyingly familiar creature set one yellow eye on the convoy.

"Oh FUCK!" She slammed her mask over her face and screamed into the comms, "Lieutenant Reynolds, we have an emergency! The Fire Dragon's here!"


"WHAT?!" Reynolds squawked, startling everyone in the lead Packhorse (except Hutch).

"What is it, Lieutenant? What's the problem?" Gyules asked, panic seeping into his voice.

"The dragon's found us! Hold on to your helmets, Theta!"

The Fire Dragon swooped down and landed on a cliff above the line of wagons; the force of its impact sent a tremor through the ground that every living being in a half-mile radius could feel. The beast inhaled sharply, opened up its maw, then unleashed a wave of deadly fire at the refugees.

"NO!" Reynolds wailed in despair. She could only watch helplessly as several wagons were engulfed in flames.

All the other carts immediately scattered in random directions, but in doing so, inadvertently placed themselves in even further danger. Axles snapped, horses tripped, and some people had no choice but to run on foot when their carts tipped over. Seizing this golden opportunity, the dragon took to the air again and flew low to the ground, incinerating every innocent person caught beneath its path.

It landed a second time once it carved a sufficient trail of destruction in its wake, roaring a challenge to any who dared to oppose it.

Reynolds was more than willing to accept that challenge. "O'Nellis, get on the turret! Hammer it with everything you've got!" she hollered into her radio.

"I'm on it!"

Next, she reached over to the steering wheel and repeatedly honked the horn, earning her a confused look from Bare.

"What the hell are you doing?!" their driver shouted.

"Buying the refugees some time! We need to distract this thing so they can escape!" Reynolds explained.

"Okay, but what about us?"

"Working on it!"

Sure enough, the blaring sound of the Packhorse's horn drew the Fire Dragon's attention to the vehicle. While it had no idea what the speedy thing was, the annoying noise it was making agitated the mythical creature greatly.

Ignoring the tiny projectiles bouncing harmlessly off its thick hide, the dragon opened its mouth and breathed another stream of fire at the jeep.


"Whoa, shit!" Bare cursed, swerving sharply to the right to dodge the dragon's breath.

The sudden momentum shift caused Private Hutch to slide down the rear bench and crash into Gyules. Perhaps more importantly, it was also enough to jostle a certain pointy-eared girl out of her days-long slumber.

The blond elf from Koan Village only took a moment to analyze her surroundings before springing to her feet – awake, energized, and also completely nude.

"Whoa, mama!" Dalton yelped, averting his gaze so he wouldn't see her indecency.

"BOOBIES!" Gyules helpfully exclaimed.

The elf darted around the vehicle's interior, taking only a second to examine each of its occupants. When she leaned over the space between the front seats – which gave the guys in the back a great view of her ass – the five Gears, plus Rory, collectively heard her gasp as she looked out the window. She must've recognized they were engaging the same dragon that destroyed her village.

She stepped back and looked at Hutch, pointing a finger at one of her crystal blue eyes.

"Ono!" the girl said in her native tongue. "Ono!"

Understanding dawned on Hutch's features beneath his helmet. He wasted no time opening a comm channel to O'Nellis.

"O'Nellis, this is Hutch. I recommend targeting the dragon's eyes."

The corporal's accented voice was barely audible over the racket of her turret. "Oh? Should I consider this to be doctor's orders?" she snarked.

"…Just shoot it." Hutch deadpanned.

Whatever her reply was, the medic didn't pay it any attention, since Rory apparently chose that moment to act completely suicidal. The diminutive reaper unlatched herself from Bare, picked up her halberd, then kicked open the back doors and jumped out into the fray.


Private Dalton was inwardly freaking out.

O'Nellis had changed tactics and now focused the bulk of her firepower on the dragon's eyes; the beast was forced to the defensive as a result, having to shield its only vulnerable area. However, that didn't mean victory was theirs. It was only a matter of time before their reptilian opponent retaliated, and Dalton didn't believe the squad would survive much longer unless a new plan was found.

As for Rory… well, he could tell she wasn't exactly a normal girl, mostly due to the dress and halberd, though "not normal" had suddenly changed to "superhuman". She was zipping around out there at record-breaking speeds, agilely evading the dragon's claws and breath while simultaneously chipping away at its scales with her weapon. It hurt his already overloaded brain to think about the newest addition to their group having superpowers, so he tried not to.

Why did this need to happen? Everything was perfectly fine ten minutes ago! And just how the hell did the Fire Dragon track the convoy down this far?!

Alec shook his head, clearing his mind. Dwelling on those thoughts wasn't going to help the team get out alive.

His eyes darted around the inside of the jeep. Reynolds was screaming orders into her radio, having gone completely red in the face. Bare juggled between avoiding the dragon's fiery breath and trying not to accidentally hit the other Packhorse, or the speeding form of Rory Mercury.

Gyules was no help, either. The poor Gear's brain seemed to have short-circuited; he was babbling a stream of gibberish about elf boobies and battle lolis and how he would be perfectly okay with dying once Berserkers were extinct.

Hutch just sat there as if nothing was wrong at all. The elf girl was next to him, now wrapped in a blanket and covering her long ears. Her eyes were shut tight, and the private could hear her mumbling something unintelligible.

There had to be something in the jeep that would be useful…

As if by divine fate, the vehicle hit a bump in the terrain, knocking open a compartment used for weapons storage. Dalton's eyes brightened when he saw what was inside.

The Longspear! Of course!

Bare had mentioned there was a rocket launcher among their list of weapons, and if there was a more appropriate time to utilize it, Dalton couldn't think of one. He reached out to grab the weapon and slung it over his shoulder.

He stood up to approach the rear doors, then paused to look back at the man he considered his brother.

"Rudy, I'm about to do something incredibly stupid! If I die, you can inherit my comic collection!"

His declaration instantly snapped Gyules out of his stupor. "Seriously? Awesome!"

Alec stared at his friend in disbelief. "Dude, I'm telling you this so you'll try to talk me out of it!"

The pyro shrugged. "Hey man, either your plan works and we all live, or I get your comic book collection. It's a win-win for me no matter what."

"…Dude…"

Armed with the Longspear and the knowledge that this was a very bad idea, and feeling more than a tad betrayed, Private Dalton threw open the doors and jumped.


He hit the rocky ground on his stomach, eliciting a grunt of pain. The young Gear was barely back on his feet when his helmet radio received an incoming transmission from a very pissed off Lieutenant Reynolds.

"Private Dalton, what the hell do you think you're doing?!" his CO shrilled.

"I have a plan, Lieutenant!" he responded without hesitating. "Just keep the dragon distracted for a minute!"

He took a quick look at his surroundings. The only thing of note was a small, waist-high boulder about a dozen feet away. Dalton scampered toward the rock and took cover behind it, using the brief respite from the nearby battle to get his thoughts in order.

It wasn't really much of a plan, to be honest. The only reason he'd abandoned the Packhorse was because he didn't believe in his ability to hit a target from the back of a moving vehicle – even if the target in question was a colossal dragon. Not that being out here was much better. If he missed, and the Fire Dragon noticed him, then he was as good as dead. Same if the rocket launcher failed to kill the beast, or at least grievously injure it. On the other hand, if he did nothing, then Theta Squad was sure to die whether he was in the jeep or not.

Alec started fumbling with his rocket launcher.

"Argh, which part is the shooty end…?"

He'd never handled one of these in person before, though he was vaguely familiar with the technical details. The Longspear was designed as a low-recoil, anti-vehicle weapon with some kind of heat seeking capability. Since he'd never heard of Longspears being used against titanic creatures like Brumaks, he doubted the rockets could accurately track organic targets. Dalton chalked that up as another reason why firing it from the erratically moving jeep was too much of a gamble.

Oh, and it was only loaded with one warhead. He'd forgotten to bring spares. While he doubted he could've reloaded in time before the dragon barbequed him, just in case he missed, his mistake only fueled his determination to make that one shot count.

He peeked his helmeted head over the rock. Between Rory's unnatural combat techniques and O'Nellis' machine gun fire, the dragon was too preoccupied to notice the single Gear hiding behind the boulder a short distance away.

It was now or never. Alec hoisted the Longspear over his shoulder and took aim.

"SUCK ON THIS!"

Fwoom!

The warhead seemed to hang in the air for a moment after it left the launcher's tube, then suddenly accelerated to a high speed. It landed a direct hit on the monster's upper left arm, obscuring the appendage under a cloud of thick black smoke.

The Fire Dragon threw its head skyward and screeched in agony.

"Holy shit, that actually worked!" Dalton cheered, grinning like a dork.

His grin did a one-eighty when the smoke cleared up, however. Upon closer inspection, it didn't appear that the rocket did any damage at all.

"Oh fuck, that didn't work!"

Then the dragon's arm fell off. The severed limb almost crushed Rory, but the Apostle of Death managed to move aside at the last second.

"No, wait, it did work!"

The dragon roared again, flailing around wildly for a few seconds. Knowing it had been bested by the armored comic book geek, the mythical beast took to the skies and flew away, leaving the Gears and surviving refugees to peacefully stare after it.

Dalton emerged from behind the rock and took a few shaky steps forward, discarding the Longspear as he did so. He collapsed to his knees, watching the Fire Dragon's retreating form grow smaller with each passing second.

He'd done it. It was over. He'd taken on a motherfucking dragon, forcing it to flee and living to tell the tale. How many other COG soldiers could claim they did the same?

He didn't take his gaze away from the dragon, even when he heard the two Packhorses park nearby. The private was soon joined by Rory, the elf, and the six other members of Theta Squad.

Someone cleared their throat.

"Private Dalton…" Reynolds began.

Alec exhaled a long, tired breath. "With all due respect, Lieutenant, can we just skip to the part where I promise to never do this again, and we can all move on with our lives?"

"…I suppose," she conceded after a moment. "I'll let it slide. This time."

That was good, because he hoped there wouldn't be a next time.

Gyules bounced over to the elf girl, who still wore nothing but a blanket.

"Hello! I'm Rudy! Let me begin the first part of my three-part explanation on why we should be friends by stating that I'm very tolerant of other races and their cultures!"

Alec closed his eyes and took another breath. He knew his friend's hobbies doubled as a coping mechanism for stressful situations, and he did his best to respect that – but right now, he was simply too drained to put up with it.

"Rudy?" he ground out.

"Yes, Alec?"

"Please shut up before I castrate you with a chainsaw."


(Later That Night)

The battle had been won, but not without casualties. 150 of Koda Village's residents had died in the Fire Dragon's attack – a quarter of the settlement's total population – and several of the bodies weren't able to be recovered. The survivors, with the assistance of the Gears and their new allies, had spent the rest of the evening constructing a makeshift memorial to all who had perished that day.

The hill they'd built it on, Private Dalton observed, was absolutely beautiful. The graves were surrounded in every direction by twinkling bell flowers that emitted flecks of purple light; when he first saw the strange phenomena, he'd mistook it for purple fireflies. The additional light cast down by the Special Region's pale blue moon only strengthened the serenity of the area.

All seven members of Theta Squad were lined up with their heads bowed and hands clasped, quietly saying their goodbyes to the departed. They were among the first people in the new world to greet the COG with something other than open hostility. Even if they'd only known the villagers a short amount of time, the team considered them nothing less than friends.

Dalton unfolded his hands and turned around when his ears picked up a small sniffle. A little girl with messy black pigtails was standing a few feet behind him, looking like she was on the verge of crying. She looked so similar to Isabel…

Alec's mind flashed back to child he'd met in Jacinto. He remembered how she'd lost a parent, as well as what he did to help console her. He could never ignore a child in need – it just wasn't in his nature.

He walked over and crouched down, placing an armored hand on the girl's shoulder. She immediately lunged at him and buried her head into his neck, attempting to wrap her small arms all the way around his torso, and weeping uncontrollably.

"Shh… it'll be all right…" Alec whispered soothingly, gently patting her on the back.

He lost track of time as he continued to hold her. It must've been at least a few minutes, since by the time he finally stood up and let her go, the refugees were already getting back into their wagons.

The private caught sight of Reynolds talking with the chief several feet away.

"I know it sounds cruel, but we need to take care of our own, too." The old man said sadly. "The elderly, the wounded, the children… we simply can't provide care for all of them."

"Leave that to us," Reynolds assured him. "Where we go now?"

"There's no 'we' this time. The residents of Koda Village will be leaving without you." He smirked at the lieutenant's shocked expression. "My friend, you've done more than enough for us. You've dealt the Fire Dragon a serious blow. And if my memory serves correctly, some of our villagers have family nearby, so we should be able to find a place to rest without any problems."

"Are you sure?" she pressed.

The chief nodded. "Absolutely. All I ask is that you please take care of the residents we can't afford to."

"No worry. We will."

"Excellent. And… thank you. For everything."

Reynolds parted ways with the chief after that final exchange; her towards the Packhorses, and him towards the wagon train. Dalton jogged to catch up with her, the child at his heels.

"What was that all about?" he asked.

The lieutenant smiled, gesturing to the jeeps. Theta Squad was accompanied by a handful of refugees who were left behind, mostly elderly people and children. Rory and the elf were also present, both of them looking happy as they watched the convoy begin to depart.

"We're going back to Alnus, Dalton. And we're bringing a few new friends with us," she informed him.

This wasn't how Alec expected their first deployment in the Special Region to go. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would lead a convoy, or meet an elf and a superhuman, or fight a dragon. It all felt so surreal, he almost didn't believe any of it to be true.

It was true, however. Each and every last bit of it. And as he walked with Reynolds, Dalton found that he'd actually enjoyed the experience, and was eager to see what crazy adventure awaited the squad next.

One thing was for certain – it sure as hell beat patrol duty.


Done. Almost 14,000 words. Be happy.

Seeing as there were only two reviews that weren't super brief and/or some form of "Damn it Carmine", I'll answer those:

halo is bad ass: Thanks for the feedback. I wanted the flow of the story to feel like it's happening in real life, and it's nice to see someone picked up on that. And sorry to dash your hopes, but as Bare explained in this chapter, setting up the Hammer of Dawn in the Special Region would just be too impractical and time-consuming.

king Quinn The Last Heir: There's a little thing called "spoilers" I try to avoid. You'll just have to wait and see what happens. That being said, the COG hasn't forgotten about the destruction caused by the initial invasion.

I'll probably take a short break while I plan out the next chapter. There will be quite a few differences from canon, that's for certain, but I can't say what they are yet… so please don't ask. And remember, reviews get me off my lazy ass faster.