‘Scouting mission 74…’
Park glared at the page.
‘Success. No enemy found or any evidence of enemy activity throughout No-man’s Land.’
He reached for the bottle of whisky.
‘Fourteen scouts were lost on the mission. Eight killed by the yajukei and six MIA.’
He took a hard slug from the bottle, letting the alcohol sting and burn his throat before setting fire to his chest. “Fucking blood bath,” he cursed.
Fourteen families now had the great honour of having given sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers to their national security. The greatest sacrifice to protect our homes.
“Stupid idiots, fucking believing the propaganda,” he slugged back more of the alcohol.
The door to his office opened.
His superior officer, Clarke, smirked. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“She’s dead,” he deadpanned back.
Clarke shook his head. “Do you have the report?”
Park glanced down at the piece of garbage he’d been writing. “I’m working on it now.”
“Anything I should know?”
“You sent fourteen soldiers to their deaths just so we can say that no-one was there.”
Park sighed. “Yes. That’s all. We entered No-man’s land, split into four squads and scouted the entire area for four days. The only thing we encountered were yajukei and they’re fucking feral out there. Eight died, we brought back what we could of them. Six never made it back to the rendezvous point, most likely they’re dead. The rest of us made it back to the wall.”
Clarke motioned for the bottle in Park’s hands.
Another quick slug and passed it over.
“The higherups are going to love this news.”
Park rolled his eyes. “Just so they can go through with their stupid plan? Morons.”
“The wall has worked at the boarder.”
“So, let’s build another. Don’t worry about the yajukei that want to fucking eat your face off while you’re still breathing, they’re not going to be a bother to anyone working.”
Clarke moved the opening of the bottle under his nose, smiling softly. “The solution to the yajukei are the hunters.”
Park frowned. “Hunters? You mean those professional ones?”
Leaning back in his chair, Park considered this idea.
“They’re already trained in how to hunt and kill animals,” Clarke continued. “They have the physical requirements to last on long missions.”
“And they’ll die just the same as a soldier.”
Clarke stepped towards the desk and placed the bottle down, careful of the neat stacks of paperwork. “This is the path that’s been chosen for our nation to survive. We can’t keep starving people with the what little land we have. We need to reclaim No-man’s Land and rebuild our farming sector.”
“I wasn’t arguing, Clarke. Just making a statement.”
“I know. Hurry up with the report. It needs to be presented tomorrow morning.” Clarke turned to leave. “And stop drinking on the job. You’re not a grunt anymore, you’re an officer.”
“That means I should drink more,” Park threw back.
Garcia swiped hastily at her eyes as she packed up her little room at the Hunter’s HQ. She had been strong when she’d gone and informed her parents, she hadn’t shed a tear in front of them and they didn’t cry either.
That wasn’t what they did.
But in the safety of her room, she couldn’t help but to let out her tears. Her knees buckled and she dropped to the floor as a jumble of limbs.
This was bad, the absolute worst thing to ever happen.
What if I die? What if I never get to come home? Never see mum and dad… never… I don’t want to go.
The tears poured. She held her hand over her mouth tight. Letting the others hear her wail wouldn’t help.
Garcia had to be strong for them. She had to be the one to keep Augie moving, stop Jin and Briar bickering, help Briar with her ideas… because that’s what she did.
Jin was being smothered to death. His grandmother’s perfume was so strong he could taste it on the back of his tongue with each gasp for air. “Let me go, old woman!” Struggling to break free of her death hold, Jin cried out for mercy.
“This might be the last time I ever get to hold you and you’re arguing with me? Shame, boy.”
A slice of guilt made him still. “I’ll be back.”
“That’s what your father said.”
“Jeez,” he renewed his struggle once again and this time slipping free. “Do you want to jinx me?”
The old woman pinched his cheek hard. The ache radiated into his gums. “Let me have my time with you.”
He rolled his eyes.
She released him and moved around the kitchen. “Your grandfather would be proud of you.”
“What for?” he frowned.
“You’ve become a fine young man, a good hunter, and now you’re going to protect our nation…” she broke off.
Jin rubbed at the back of his neck and looked anywhere but at her. “We’re not even at war.”
“We’re always at war with the North.”
Jin frowned. The North… that’s where the ferals prowled on the other side of the wall. Unconsciously, he stood and made a move to the door.
A wooden spoon struck the door just beside his head. Startled, he spun around.
“Where do you think you’re going?!” his grandmother yelled.
“Back to HQ…” he trailed off, realising he wanted to tell Briar about the idea he was forming as to why they were being conscripted.
“You are not leaving here any sooner, Jin. Sit your backside back down and let me have the last of your time at home.”
Augie ran. He pushed hard to make it back in time.
Tears hit the back of his eyes once again, this time in fear of the soldiers thinking he was refusing to serve. No, he was just late.
He’d been late because of Lettie. She was in shock when he told her that he’d been conscripted. And then pissed off. She’d marched up and down the lane at the back of her family’s property, cursing the king and the military. Finally, she stopped and…
Augie wished he’d asked her to marry him last year when they turned eighteen together. If she’d been a dependent on him, then he would never have met the minimum requirement for service.
But then he would be feeling guilty about the others. Briar, Jin, and Garcia. Garcia would probably tell him to just get on with it, that that was that. Briar would leave detail instructions about the conservation plans as well as how to care for all of the plant specimens she’d collected and hoarded in her room in HQ. And Jin would be angry and then last-minute order him to check in on his grandmother just to make sure she hadn’t died, the old woman.
Augie didn’t like the idea of being able to stay when the others were forced to leave.
Too bad that wasn’t the problem for him anyway.
“They’re late,” Briar laughed.
The four of them sat on the steps to HQ, their luggage resting beside them. Out of all of them, Briar’s bag was the biggest and lumpiest.
Augie eyed it suspiciously. “What did you pack, Briar?” he cautiously broached the subject.
“Hmm? Oh, just some books and what not.”
Garcia sighed heavily. “Clothes and toiletries are the only things you’re meant to pack.”
“No-one mentioned that,” Briar replied innocently.
“And when are you going to have time to read?” Jin grumbled.
Briar snorted. “I’ve always heard that the military is all about ‘hurry up and wait’. I’m just being prepared.”
Garcia cracked a smile. “When dad came home from the war he said the same thing. More than half the time he served he was waiting.”
Jin stretched out his legs. “I don’t think we’re being conscripted to just sit around and wait.” He made sure he didn’t turn to look at Briar. “I think they’re planning on sending us to the northern border.”
Briar’s head spun with the possibilities of going North. Feral beasts. Forests she’d never roamed around. Plants that could be used to treat all kinds of ailments. “What makes you think that?”
“Something my grandmother said; we’re always at war with the North. Maybe we’re going to launch an all-out attack or something.”
Briar started to chew on her thumb nail. “Hmm.” That didn’t really make sense then. It would be better to recruit more than just the hunters, build up the public opinion and have the people raring to fight.
“Stop over thinking,” Jin complained. “It was something I thought could happen. Who knows where we’ll be going or what we’ll be doing.”
The cart finally rumbled down the road, carrying other hunters, all wearing their hooded capes in various shades of red. The soldier driving jerked his head to the back. “Get on,” he ordered the hunters of Alburn, not bothering with any formal process.
Briar swallowed hard. This was it, the first step towards an unknown future. She climbed on behind Garcia, taking a spot on the floor of the cart, stuffing her bag between and under her bent legs. Something solid dug into her thigh. She tried to readjust it without too much movement or having Garcia realise what exactly she was fixing up.
Her elbow bumped the shin of a hunter seated on the bench. “Sorry about that,” she shot an apologetic smile up.
The young woman smiled back kindly. “That’s okay. It’s hard to find a comfortable spot.”
Whoa… Briar almost lost her breath. Beside her, Jin audibly gasped. Both women looked at him. A bright red flush covered his cheeks and he quickly looked away from the young woman, a sheepish smile curving his lips. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting someone so beautiful to be a hunter.”
Briar frowned at him. Was Jin attracted to the woman? Was this how he reacted? She felt herself smirk knowingly. Turning back, she offered her hand to the woman. “I’m Briar, by the way.”
“Natalie,” she shook Briar’s hand.
Straight away she noticed the callouses on her palms and the strength of her grip. “Where you from?” Briar asked.
“The Highlands. Born and bred. What about you?”
Briar smiled. “We’re all obviously from here.”
“I was born here,” Jin interrupted. “My grandfather was a hunter and so was my father.”
Natalie nodded. “So we’re mine.”
Briar sat back and allowed them to hold a conversation over her head. Each time Jin replied or asked a question she had to stop herself from laughing, he was so awkward.
Fear coursed through his body as the feral beast lashed out and struck Annie, knocking her clear off her feet and several metres away. She didn’t move again. The pack descended upon her, teeth bared and started to feast. Strip after strip after strip of her skin was pulled.
Park stood frozen in spot.
His body refused to move.
‘This isn’t right,’ he thought.
This wasn’t how it had happened.
Annie’s head rolled to the side, her eyes had gone white suddenly rolled back and pierced him with a stare. “Useless,” she gasped out.
Park startled awake. Lifting his head from the stack of paper on his desk, he quickly looked around. Office, night.
Not a scouting mission years ago.
“Fuck,” he groaned and scrubbed a hand over his eyes.
He went back over the real events, what really happened when Annie had died. She had stepped forward to attack and was knocked off her feet by a yajukei, that part had been correct. The pack had started to eat her. But Park hadn’t stayed still, he’d killed them. Each and every last one there, he cut down and made sure they didn’t move again.
But by the end of it all, Annie had died. A pool of blood that had soaked into the ground where she laid.
Park shoved himself away from the desk and hurried from the room. Down the hall his footsteps echoed loudly in the silence.
Without a clear destination in mind, he marched down the stairs and along the hall on the ground floor.
“Shh. Someone’s coming,” a person hissed. Shuffling gave away their position outside the opened window.
Park narrowed his eyes. Damned brats up passed curfew.
With quick movements, he placed a hand on the window sill and launched himself out, landing lightly on the ground outside. A metre away, crouched under the next window, three soldiers stared wide eyed up at him.
“Which of you wants to make up the lie for why you’re out of your bunks after lights out?” Park crossed his arms and stared down at the three.
None offered any excuse.
“Tch. Stand up!” he bellowed.
They jumped and stood to attention.
He could practically smell the fear radiating off of them. Good, he thought. Fucking stupid kids. “No lies to share? How about the truth?”
One brave soldier swallowed hard and stepped forward. “Sir,” she started. “We… we were friends with Private Kaden Stevenson.”
The name made a muscle jump in his jaw. MIA on the last scouting mission.
“We were paying honour to him with…” she looked back at her friends before continuing on. “A bag of sweets.”
“Sweets?” that shocked him.
She nodded, seriousness taking over her face. “Kaden always had a bag of sweets with him.”
Park stared at the three. They were breaking the rules to eat a bag of sweets in memory of a friend… it sounded so damned childish. It made him feel old.
“You’re on cleaning for the rest of this month. Go to the stores and grab a mop and bucket,” he ordered.
The soldiers cried out. “But sir,” the girl started.
He turned cold narrowed eyes onto her. “What is it soldier?”
“Um,” she froze.
“You’re awake, you might as well do something useful.” Levi turned on his heel and started for the door. “We’ll start in the bathhouse.”
Behind him, though it was quiet, they grumbled.
“Or would you prefer corporal punishment?”
“No, sir!” they quickly and quietly followed him.