"Seryu, you barely did anything wrong," said a confused Ogre. Seryu stood in front of him, bowing low.
Seryu replied, "I was late to my tests with Koro. My carelessness caused me to disobey a direct order from you. I accept whatever punishment you see fit for my tardiness."
"You were late by about five minutes."
"Six minutes and thirty-seven seconds."
"Seryu, for the love of the Emperor," groaned Ogre. "You know what, tomorrow morning, before your first patrol, pick me up a half slab of ribs from Exotic Bites. Do that and I'll call it even."
Seryu looked up. "That's it?"
"Well, I used to get the full slab, but Doctor Stylish said I need to watch my red meat intake. Something about my heart. . ."
"No, I mean that's all you want me to do?"
Ogre sighed. "Seryu, this is the first time you've messed up, and it wasn't even on my time. I'm not gonna lose sleep over it, and you shouldn't either."
Seryu stood up, saluting the captain. "Thank you, Captain Ogre."
"Don't sweat it, you're a good soldier. Now go get some rest."
It was a cold fall afternoon. Outside the gates of a village, a girl with amber eyes and auburn hair was giving a hug to a man in Imperial armor.
"Dad, I don't understand, why can't I help you?" asked the girl.
"Seryu, the scouts said a large group of rebels is preparing to raid our village. I was handpicked to help in the defense. The battlefield is no place for a fourteen year old girl."
"But Dad, I want to help fight the rebels with you!"
"You're too young to face these monsters. Look, it's my duty to protect our home from the rebels, and I need you to help your fellow citizens evacuate before the rebels arrive. Can you do this for me, Seryu?"
Seryu looked like she wanted to protest, but instead she replied, "Yes, Dad. I can do it. I'll be strong for you."
Seryu's father smiled. "Good girl. I promise I'll be waiting for you when you get back. In the meantime, stay with Noda's family. You know how much that boy depends on you."
The father and daughter were interrupted by a masculine voice calling out, "Seryu, I hate to pull you away from your dad, but we really need to go."
Seryu turned and saw Noda's dad waving at her. Standing beside him was his wife and thirteen year old Noda. Seryu took off towards her friend's family, looking back to wave goodbye to her father.
"Goodbye, Dad! I love you! And I promise that one day, I'll fight evil just like you!"
"I know you will, Seryu, and I love you too!"
The scene changes to an empty cemetery. Standing over a grave, a girl with amber eyes and auburn hair looked down with tears in her eyes. On the grave was inscribed the words, "Seito Ubiquitous: Husband, Father, Hero." Buried beside the fallen soldier was Seryu's mother, who had died before Seryu had spoken her first word. The girl remembered what everyone had told her. Reinforcements from the military came and routed the rebel army before the village could be destroyed, but by the time they came, the defending guards had all been slaughtered. Since that day, the Donner family had been taking care of her until she was of age. Seryu paused her grieving when she heard footsteps behind her. She didn't need to turn around to know who it was.
"Did your dad send you to bring me back, Noda?" asked Seryu bitterly.
"Dad's not mad about what you said, Seryu. He knows that you're grieving. We understand what you're going through. . ."
"No you don't! None of you do! Least of all you, Noda! You still have both your parents! You got to know your mom! Your dad wasn't murdered by rebels! You don't know ANYTHING about how I feel right now, and you never will!" the girl spat.
Seryu stood quietly for a moment, waiting for the boy to respond. When he didn't, Seryu continued, "Just go home, Noda. I don't need your help. I'm strong enough to deal with this on my own."
Seryu expected Noda to walk way. She was completely caught off guard when she felt Noda wrap his arms around her.
"I know you can handle it by yourself," whispered the boy into her ear, "the point is you'll never have to. I can't pretend to fully understand your pain, but I'll always be by your side to help you through it. That's a promise."
Seryu stood still, dumbfounded in Noda's embrace.
"Please, let me be strong for you, just this once," pleaded Noda.
Giving in to her sadness, Seryu buried her head in her friend's shoulders and bawled. She released all the pain she had tried to hold in since her dad died. She sobbed heavily as she took comfort in the warmth of her silent friend.
Seryu woke up in her room in the capital. Why did I have to dream about that? Seryu wanted to cry, but thinking about all the time she spent with Noda made her heart flutter. He's always been there for me. He's my best friend, but why does he make me feel this way? Seryu thought about what her relationship with Noda, looking at every time they had interacted. He's like having a kid brother who always looks up to you. That's all there is to it. Koro, noticing his master had awoken, jumped into Seryu's lap. Seryu held her pet close as memories of the past flooded her mind.
Seryu stopped by the Cloud District bright and early. Her memory of Exotic Bites's location was hazy, so it took her some time to track it down. After what felt like an eternity of walking the quiet streets, she spotted a familiar giant sign with the restaurant's letters all in bold. After realizing the door was unlocked, the soldier let herself in.
"Hello? Tantalus, are you here?" called Seryu, who received no response.
She was about to sit down and wait for the chef when Koro took a good whiff of the area. The small dog then bolted through the building, causing Seryu to give chase.
"Koro! Where are you going? Stop!"
Koro ignored his master and raced down the stairs into the lower levels of the building, with Seryu close behind. He stopped at a locked door and began scratching at it vigorously.
"Koro, stop! This is the business of a law abiding citizen!"
Koro replied with a whine before transforming into his giant form. With one paw swipe he knocked down the door. Seryu was about to admonish him when she looked inside the room. What she saw made her jaw drop in horror. There, hanging from a meat hook, was the beggar from the other day.
"Well, I guess the cat's outta the bag," said a voice behind Seryu. She spun around to see Tantalus in his work clothes.
"You animal! You've been serving people human meat! Is that what you fed me and Noda yesterday?"
"Don't make me laugh. Man is the sweetest meat one can taste. I only use it in my grandest dishes, not the lower tier meals you tried. Not that anything I prepare is something to sneer at, mind you."
"How can you talk so cheaply about butchering the good people of this city?"
"Please, they are mere gutter rats. They should feel honored that I turn their bodies into culinary masterwork!"
"I've heard enough, you villain! Your crimes end now!"
Tantalus let out a laugh. "Feeling righteous, are we? I know the cure for that." The chef reached into his pocket and pulled out a fat coinpurse. Tossing it at Seryu's feet, he stated, "Just walk away, and it's yours."
Seryu's nostrils flared. "You think my devotion to justice can be bought and sold! You disgust me!"
Tantalus's cocky smile disappeared. "You disappoint me. No matter, your shoulders look delicious anyways," said the chef before lunging at Seryu with his meat cleaver.
Tantalus was fast for his size, much faster than Seryu expected. Despite the soldier's attempt to dodge, he landed a blow on her lower abdomen. Seryu winced from the cut and tried to disarm her opponent. She grabbed the chef's arms, holding him in place. As the two struggled, Tantalus landed a kick to Seryu's abdominal wound, causing her to lose her grip. The cannibal prepared another strike, but was stopped when a giant Koro swatted Tantalus away from his master. The chef hit the ground, dropping his weapon. Koro lunged at him, and despite his attempts to escape the dog's colossal maw, had both his legs bitten off at the knees. Tantalus screamed in agony as he tried to crawl away. His efforts were in vain as Seryu pinned him down.
"It's over, I'm bringing you to justice!"
"Oh drop the act already," cried Tantalus.
"You think I don't see through you? You think the whole 'justice girl' routine is fooling everybody?"
"You know nothing about me!"
"I know plenty. Lots of higher up guards come here, you know. I hear them talk about their troops all the time. You've got quite the reputation. That 'dad died protecting a worthless village in the country' sob story. How clingy you are with your superiors, especially that Captain Ogre. How much you try to be like your father. It might be enough to win over some of the elites, but I see you for what you are!"
"Shut up! You're talking nonsense!" Seryu shouted.
Tantalus continued, "Behind the dutiful soldier facade, you are nothing, except a sad little girl crying out for her dead daddy!"
Tantalus felt Seryu's grip tighten, and he knew he hit the mark.
"It'd be funny if it wasn't so pathetic. What the hell, I'll laugh anyways," mocked the chef before bursting into a fit of laughter.
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP!" screamed Seryu as she smashed her fist into Tantalus's face. She punched him until his laughter finally stopped. She stood up and looked down, having bashed the chef's skull in, reducing his head to a pulp.
Seryu was breathing heavily, trying to calm herself down. Then she heard a familiar voice ringing through the building. It said, "Hey, Tantalus! You got my order ready yet? Where are you?"
Seryu heard footsteps approaching her location, but stood there, refusing to believe who she heard. Then, a tall form stepped into the room leading to the meat cellar. Even without the uniform, there was no mistaking him. Seryu looked into the face of her childhood friend, Noda. Noda paused, and looked on in shock as he beheld the grisly sight before him.
"Noda, why are you hear?" asked Seryu.
Rather than answer, Noda turned, hoping to flee upstairs. His efforts were thwarted by Koro, who stood tall, blocking the only way out. Seryu grabbed Noda by the collar and shoved him against the wall.
"Noda, did you know about this?" she demanded.
Noda looked away, avoiding his friend's gaze. "I. . . I di-" he stammered.
"Look me in the eye!" Seryu barked.
Noda looked painfully into Seryu's intense glare. "There's no getting it past you, is there? Yes, I knew."
"How could you! Tell me everything, and don't you dare lie to me. I've known you far too long."
"Tantalus and I had an arrangement. I would bring him the city's homeless, and he would help take care of my. . . cravings."
"What cravings?" she asked.
Noda looked away.
"I'm a cannibal, okay!" Noda shouted. "There, I spelled it out for you!"
"How long have you been doing this?" Seryu asked, holding back tears.
"When I got lost on the way to the capital, I was so hungry. There was nothing to eat. Nothing except two bodies that had just died. . ."
"You didn't," Seryu whispered.
"I had to survive! It was eat my folks or starve! It wasn't my fault!" Noda cried, now shedding tears over his secret being revealed.
"When the Imperial Guard brought me here, I couldn't get the taste of human out of my mind. It was all I could think about. No other meat came close. It nearly drove me mad. Then I met Tantalus. He said he could spot a fellow cannibal just by looking at one. He said if I brought him people, I would get some of the meat. His skills were incredible, and it kept the cravings in check. I've been helping him since I was young."
Seryu was quiet for a moment, taking it all in. She didn't want to believe it, but her friend was a murderer and a cannibal. Steeling herself, she knew what justice demanded of her.
Throwing Noda onto the ground, Seryu firmly stated, "I'm sorry, Noda, but you have committed crimes against the Empire and its people. You are an evil person, and I am sworn to fight evil."
"I'm not a bad person! I'm a victim of circumstances! I just need help! Please, Seryu, don't do this!"
Ignoring her childhood friend, Seryu continued, "You must face justice. Koro. . ." Seryu then choked up, and for a moment, she wasn't sure if she had the strength to do it.
"Seryu, please! I've always loved you!" Noda blurted out.
Seryu gritted her teeth. She wished to the heavens that she had never discovered Noda's secret, or that any other soldier was in her position. But they weren't. This was her responsibility. Her last promise to her dad was that she would fight evil, and that is what she had to do. Even if that evil had taken the shape of her best friend.
After mustering up the strength needed, Seryu gave an order to her dog: "Koro, punish."
Without hesitation, Koro devoured Noda. As the teigu finished its meal, Seryu fell to her knees and wept bitterly. Her crying was interrupted by a soft whine. Seryu looked up and saw Koro, now in his smaller form, looking up at her.
"I'm alright, Koro. Come on, we have a report to make to Captain Ogre."
"Alright, the report is filled out," said Seryu dryly. She handed the paperwork to the older man who skimmed over it.
"I'll submit this incident to the higher ups. I'll be glad to rid myself of this whole mess," Ogre muttered, turning to leave. Then he stopped, and turned to face the younger soldier. "Hey, kid, for what it's worth, I'm sorry you had to go through this. I'm sure it was difficult having to execute someone close."
"It had to be done," said Seryu coldly. Noticing the shocked expression on her captain's face, Seryu continued, "He had done an evil thing. Evil has to be punished. I am an agent of justice, and there is no compromise in justice," Seryu stated, without a trace of doubt in her voice.
Ogre nodded in understanding before leaving the room. As he made his way towards General Budo's office, a wide smirk crossed the captain's face.
It takes most soldiers months to become that desensitized. For Seryu to be so accepting of killing, the killing of an old friend, no less. . . Seryu, you'll do well here.