As the team marched northward, the mood was sombre. So far things weren’t going at all as expected and they knew they would now be walking into a trap. There was a slim chance that neither Vitaly nor Andrei had informed their superiors about the alarm at the station in Temnik, but it wasn’t likely. It was equally unlikely that they were the only ones stationed at Temnik in the first place, meaning someone would be wondering where they’d gotten to by now.
Angus had considered driving the train back to Temnik in the hope that it would allow them a moment of surprise before the fighting started, but there could easily be some manner of signal that would he didn’t know that would give them away. Plus, he didn’t know how to drive the thing anyway, making the point moot. Better to leave the remaining men at the station unsure and sneak in on foot.
The sensei had left instructions with Yuri’s widow that if any of Silva’s men were to call she should tell them that the train came and continued south, not even stopping at the town. They might not believe it, but if they investigate even a little, it would mean fewer men to block them.
As they crept near the edge of the forest, Angus considered the ramifications of their actions, not just on the mission, but on the students themselves. First year missions were designed to be fairly simple, and never involved killing when it could possibly be avoided. These kids were still young, and he had already introduced them to many dark things. Lethen already wasn’t the most stable person, and Angus had put him in positions where he was forced to torture people for information, and even had him bury someone alive. Not healthy activities for a teenage boy.
The one that really worried him was Renala. It had been her blow that had severed Andrei’s leg and the man had bled out from the injury. Where Lethen was tough, Renala was sensitive, and she had been even more withdrawn than usual since they’d left Selenduma, and he could guess what was on her mind. Every student that applied at Hikari had different expectations of what Daemon Knight life meant, and many just saw the glamor and prestige gained by those who were successful in the role. It didn’t cross their minds that Daemon Knights were essentially mercenaries, very well paid ones who could choose only to do missions they considered morally right, but mercenaries none-the-less. People generally didn’t pay the exorbitant fees required to hire Daemon Knights unless the either wanted to prevent or cause injury and death.
He watched her closely as they traveled, and once they got close to Temnik, he spoke to the team. “Lethen and Prolier, I want you two to get as close at you can without alerting anyone and see what you can see. Angel, I want you to get as high as you can to get a good vantage point, I would suggest climbing a tree. Marnie, I want you with Angel, if he gets spotted, he’s going to need some close combat backup.”
They nodded and went ahead to do as they were told. Once they were out of hearing range, he sat down. “Will you join me for a moment Renala?”
She sat down facing him. “Is everything okay, sensei?”
He smiled. “I was just gonna ask you the same question. You haven’t said a word since we left town and you keep glancing over at Lethen. Is there something going on I should know about?”
Her face reddened. “No, it’s nothing like that. I’m just not sure if I’m cut out for this life after all. I mean, I knew when I signed up that at some point I might have to hurt or kill someone, but now that it’s actually happened, I feel sick. It seemed so easy for Lethen. Is there something wrong with me, or maybe something wrong with him?”
Angus nodded. “I understand and the answer is neither. You are just very different people. You are sweet and innocent. Causing pain to others causes you pain too. Lethen is as tough a student as I have ever seen. He’s been hated his whole life by just about everyone around him, and it’s had just as much an effect on him as your privileged upbringing has had on yours. Until today, you have never truly faced a kill or be killed situation. With Lethen, that was virtually everyday since he learned to walk.”
“That’s horrible,” she said. “Why would anyone do that to him?”
“Because he’s different. It’s been the way of the world since time immemorial. In biblical days, the Egyptians enslaved and persecuted the Jews. In later centuries, white folk did the same to black folk. In Lethen’s case it’s even more extreme. He’s not only a different color or nationality, but potentially a different species. To many people it would be like a man having kids with a goat or something. Back in the old days, black people were considered inferior to whites. In this case, Lethen is seen as monstrous.”
“But if you get to know him, he’s the same as us. Isn’t he?”
“I think so, but very few people would even try to get to know him. Most humans are judgmental in the extreme. If you have tattoos, you’re probably a convict or troublemaker. If you wear black clothes, you’re an emo kid who’s probably about a hair’s breadth away from suicide. It’s not right but it’s just the way it is. I must admit that when I first found out that he had been granted entry into Hikari, I wasn’t super happy about it. Now that I’ve gotten to know him, I’m glad he was, but I found it distasteful when I heard the news.”
“Really? I never expected that you would be racist.” She said it before she knew what she was saying, turning her cheeks crimson once again. “I didn’t mean that. I mean. I. I don’t know what I meant. I’m sorry I said that.”
“It’s quite alright, and generally I’m not, but as I said, it’s different with him. I wasn’t always a teacher. I was involved in the Grizzard war and I saw them kill friends of mine. I know they were just doing their jobs, same as we were, but when someone is an enemy for that long, it’s hard to put yourself in their shoes. I’m sure there are many Grizzards who think of me as a monster because I killed their friends. I don’t hate Lethen, and it was never a personal thing. I like who he is, it’s just hard to get past what he is. It’s a new world and Lethen may be the first half-breed, but I doubt he will be the last.”
He gave her a minute to take in everything he’d said, and if he was honest with himself, he’d admitted things to her that he hadn’t fully admitted to himself yet. He had misjudged Lethen and had been a fool to do so, but that was some self analysis that would have to wait until later. They’d gone off topic and he needed to make sure that she was going to be able to function for the rest of the mission. Further consolation could happen once they were safely back at the school, but she needed to come off the ledge right away. “You feeling any better?”
She looked into his eyes for an answer and slowly shook her head. “Not really. I know what I did was necessary, but it still doesn’t feel right. I should’ve tried to save him or something. I know he was an enemy, but did he need to die?”
“Yes,” he said. It wasn’t necessarily true since there were many ways to disable an enemy without killing them, but she needed a clear head. “It was either him or us, but don’t be worried about feeling sick over it. I had the same kind of childhood as you did. I wanted for nothing and had a parent who was a Daemon Knight. All I ever saw of the life was the fame and adoration that people showered on my dad and that’s why I joined up. The first time I had to take a life, I actually threw up afterward. Honestly, even though I understand why he’s as tough as he is, it bothers me much more that Lethen had no reaction to burying that man alive. Being that cold already could be a bad sign for the future.”
“Do you think he’s gonna turn bad one day?”
“I sure hope not, but I think we will need to watch both him and Prolier very carefully in the coming years. Our clawed friend was a little too ready to kill him during our practice match if you remember, and they’re still not exactly at peace with each other. They put on a good show for the rest of us, but one of these days, that little rivalry will come to a head and there’s a good chance that we may lose one or both of them on that day.”
Renala’s eyes widened. “How can we stop it?”
“I’m not sure we can. The best thing I know to do is to keep them so busy that they don’t even have time to think about each other, but we all need to keep an eye on them and work together to keep them from each other’s throats. Will you help me?”
She nodded. “I don’t want to lose either of them.”
Angus cocked his head suddenly to the side and pressed his finger to his lips to indicate quiet. After a moment he relaxed. “Sorry to scare you. I heard movement, but it’s just the others returning from their recon missions.”
The boys returned first, with Prolier berating Lethen for being too loud. Next were Marnie and Angel, both moving silently through the scrubby brushy.
“So?” Angus asked once they had all assembled. “What are we dealing with?”
Prolier spoke first. “There are two men stationed there that I could see. They didn’t seem to be overly alert, so I’m guessing they don’t know about the two we took out in town yet. In fact they’re not doing much of anything. Just sitting in their little room at the train station playing cards or something. I’d say if anything, they’re bored.”
Angel nodded his agreement. “If they do any kind of regular patrols, they are very lax about them. Also I recognized them from our first day. They are definitely Silva’s men and daemon weapon users. I couldn’t see the weapons from where I was, but if I remember rightly, one wields a claymore and the other, a hand axe. Sneaking up on them shouldn’t be difficult.”
“Alright,” Angus said, “sounds like this might work out a little better than the rest of it has so far. I knew this mission would be tough but never would I have expected so many random obstacles to rear up. We’ve had some of the worst luck I’ve ever seen, but I’m proud of you all. You’re taking on a mission made for students two years your senior and you’ve done well. The only major injury so far in Marnie’s leg. How’s it holding up by the way?”
“I’ll survive, just don’t expect me to run a marathon any time soon.”
Angus smiled. “Glad to hear it. Okay class, for now we move forward and watch for a bit. We will move on them once we’re sure-”
Angus stopped and looked toward the south. He could hear a train coming and it was coming fast.
* * * * *