Tales of Raetrethra Vol. 2

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm


Norah and Nemo clash over the criminal case they're attempting to solve; Dezmond receives an unexpected award.

Chapter 7 (v.1) - Chapter 7 - Task, Duty, Responsibility

Submitted: October 25, 2018

Reads: 75

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Submitted: October 25, 2018

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Cambreford warmed steadily as morning matured into noon, dissipating dawn’s lingering frost and replacing it with mild sunshine. A thin layer of cirrocumulus speckled the pale-blue sky like countless puffs of cotton, the mere sight capable of making one become drowsy.

In this clear day caressed by gentle winds, a simple jacket or blouse would be adequate for one to stroll about the city. However, many left for work wrapped in thick overcoats due to a freezing dawn. They now suffered the dilemma of going out for lunch overdressed or braving the chill without.

As for those too bogged-down to afford a break, they at least had the comfort of remaining in their heated workplaces while listening to their grumbling stomachs.

Despite belonging in the latter category, Nemo felt his circumstances weren’t exactly comparable; because today, his workplace was a small back-alley café.

Since arriving six hours ago, he had consumed eight cups of coffees and nibbled on half-a-dozen different pastries and tarts. Not out of gluttony, oh no. He’d had less than ten hours of sleep within the last week, so the things keeping him sane were caffeine and sugar.

And despite sitting here for many hours, he’d not had a moment of relaxation. Testament to that were stacks of files piled on the table, all confidential. Fortunately, this café was managed by a retired chief-investigator, thus all its patrons were involved with law enforcement one way or another. Besides Nemo, there were two policemen ordering coffees-to-go and a lawyer drafting court orders.

After signing off a file, Nemo closed the folder and added it to the ‘done’ pile. He reached out and brought the coffee cup towards himself, but stopped upon realizing it was empty. Thankfully drinks were refillable, so he waved it at the waitress.

As he waited for a refill, Nemo contemplated the remaining pile of folders demanding his attention.

Despite knowing law-keeping involved paperwork, this was far beyond what he expected. One year ago he could finish such assignments while on a break or in his spare time, but since then they increased exponentially, threatening to swallow him if he so much as sneezed.

And to make it worse, only half of them actually related to cases handled by him or his subordinates. The rest were menial administrative tasks handed down by superiors with ‘more important things to do’.

“So this is the gap between supervisor and supervisee…”

Nemo muttered, wondering if this was the fate of all promotions. While he remained chained-down by paperwork, his subordinates patrol the city and fight crime in person; leaving him with more paperwork afterwards in the form of missions reports.

That said, Nemo wouldn’t dream of getting himself demoted and returning to the field. Despite his complaints, he couldn’t deny the good pay and other benefits his position offered.

“Here is your bill, sir. I hope you enjoyed your stay.”

The waitress laid the slip of paper at the edge of his table.

For one, Nemo hadn’t called for the bill. And, the woman hadn’t bothered refilling his cup. Regardless whether the result of a great misunderstanding or simply bad manners, such terrible service would undoubtedly elicit irk in any regular café. However, this café – managed by a retired chief-investigator – was not one of them.

Nemo glanced over the bill’s content and fetched his wallet.

“Indeed I have. Please have these delivered to the station.”

“Of course, sir. Please come again.”

Not bothering with counting the credits handed to her, the waitress bowed once and returned to the counter.

In the meantime, Nemo rose, crumpled the bill and tossed it into a bin. After pulling on his coat, he left the café with a single folder tucked under one arm. A crisp breeze tickled his clean-shaven face the moment he stepped outside. Jamming both hands into the coat’s pockets, he headed towards the main road.

Compared to Atlantia’s finer cities paved with cobble, most of Cambreford’s roads were black tar marked with yellow lines. Cleanliness was maintained by a division of cleaners funded by taxpayers. A labyrinth of underground tunnels carried residential and industrial sewage waste to sanitation plants for treatment before discharging them into nearby lagoons.

In summary, Cambreford was the cleanest city in the world where safe drinking water was available for all.

In due time, Nemo entered the district’s police station; a three-storey, red-bricked corner-side establishment which faced a busy crossroad. After greeting the entrance receptionist – who spared him an amicable smile before returning to work – he entered a right-side doorway leading to the station’s holding cells and interrogation spaces.

The station’s neat and professional ambience faded the further he went, in part due to dimmer lights and mostly due to lack of heating. After taking another turn and crossing a hallway lined with closed doors, footsteps resonating on the stone tiles the whole time, Nemo arrived at his destination. He turned the handle, pushed open the door, and smiled at his guest sitting on one of the two chairs opposite a small desk within the small room.

“Sorry to have kept you waiting!”

Norah’s mouth twitched in reply. Despite changing out of the revealing clothes and wearing multiple warm layers, she was cold.

“Come in. Close the door.”

Nemo did and sat on the remaining chair, placing the folder he brought along at one corner. At first glance, the Aszyrian woman seemed cool and aloof as usual, but her shoulders were tense and her posture rigid. He hardly expected her to be cheery after complying with his wishes to be an undercover agent in a nightclub, so he accepted her foul mood by apologizing.

“Apologies we can’t meet at our dorm, or someplace else more comfortable. Maybe I’ll get my own office after this case. In the meantime, may I get a cup of coffee for you?”

Norah shook her head and mumbled ‘I’m fine’, her usual grace and confidence born from living a life of hardship absent. Shaken would be the best term to describe her.

Realizing this was not the time for jokes and jolly, Nemo retrieved a pen and paper from his coat’s inner pocket.

“Very well. What have you to report?”

Within the next hour, Norah recounted her experience. Unlike her posture, her voice was steady and composed. Despite causing a commotion, her identity hadn’t been compromised, and she worked through the night without sighting the criminals they sought. When the time came to voice her final thoughts, her voice mellowed and her posture sunk further.

“I… don’t think I can continue this task.”

Having already guessed her intentions, Nemo was not surprised. Instead, he asked a simple question. Why?

“I… am too proud, and rely on violence far more than diplomacy.”

“That is true… So, who would you recommend taking over?”

Nemo coolly inquired. Norah frowned at the unfair question.

“How would I know? I don’t know every personnel within this force.”

“Then how about this: what skills would you recommend the person who takes over your position should have?”

Norah’s lips pursed. Physically and mentally trained; a master of lies and disguise; unafraid of danger. She possessed all those traits, so she lied.

“I don’t know.”

Unfortunately for her, Nemo was also a master of lies and disguise. But instead of calling out the lie, he used a skill he was more proficient in: diversion.

“Of all the agents I can call upon, you are the best… no, the only person, the city has to resolve this crime.”

Rather than feeling flattered, doubt wormed into Norah as she frowned. Ignoring her doubtful gaze, Nemo reached towards and pulled the folder between them. Flipping it open to a certain page, he pushed it before the Aszyrian woman.

“This…”

It was a page Nemo had shown her not long ago, on the rooftop of a tall building where he requested her assistance. Rows and columns of portrait photographs stared at her. All of them were children or teenagers, and more than half were girls.

“You understand, don’t you?”

Nemo asked. Norah shook her head.

“I, don’t-”

“This girl left for school in the morning and was never seen again. That teenager was on an outing with friends and had stepped aside to use the toilet, but never returned. This boy was last seen at a stationary shop purchasing art supplies.”

“Why are you telling me this…?”

“The victims come from all sorts of backgrounds, and no ransom notice has been issued for any of them. It’s as if they were spirited away by supernatural beings.”

Nemo fixed his gaze on Norah, who could not maintain eye contact.

“If these children weren’t kidnapped for money or as an act of revenge… you understand, don’t you?”

When he repeated the question from earlier, Norah bit her lower lip. She did not feel her nails digging into her palm, nor her shoulders trembling.

“Even if we manage to find and rescue them, the horrors they experienced will follow them for the rest of their lives. It would be a miracle if-”

Norah’s chair made clattered against the wall.

“Enough! I already know!”

She hissed, slamming the table with both hands. Forcing her jaw muscles to relax, she spoke, her tone rigid.

“They’re being trafficked as slaves, forced to exist at the whims of others. I also know you chose me because I used to be like them…”

Unable to sustain her unfounded rage, Norah’s glare faded into defeat.

“But I’m telling you… I can’t. I can’t play the meek little lamb to bait the monsters you want!”

Finally uttering the words she wanted to say, Norah looked at Nemo. She expected to see disappointment or frustration within his gaze. Instead, she saw cold amusement.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Little brown-riding-hood.”

Norah reeled backward as if the surface her palms pounded on wasn’t a table, but a gas stove. So far, every time Nemo called her ‘little brown-riding-hood’, it carried a teasing sentiment as if he was addressing a child. But this time, it was laced with sarcasm.

“You… are a stiletto dagger hidden within a heeled shoe, a needle disguised as a hairpin. You are not a meek lamb. You are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Nemo’s chilling statements sent a shiver up Norah’s spine, and her knees wavered at the look in his eyes. Compared to when his auburn hair was long – which combined with his ruffled attire gave him a roguish disposition – his current neat and tidy appearance troubled her more.

She knew, underneath his jovial flamboyance, resides a cold and apathetic personality. It was said all animals – people included – emit unique auras when they intend to kill. For Norah, hers resembled a concealed blade waiting for the right moment to strike. Nemo’s, on the other hand, was like staring into a deep ocean; something waits there obscured from view, and the longer you gaze into its blue-black depths, the more it gazes back.

It reminded Norah of her own father, who raised her to become a tool of murder.

Thankfully the room was small, so when Norah’s legs failed, she landed on the chair with a solid thump. The moment she did, the darkness swirling behind Nemo’s eyes disappeared. She witnessed guilt crossing his roguish features for a brief instant before he turned away and stood.

“Take the rest of the week off. If you still wish to retire, fill in the resignation form and hand it to the front desk.”

Still presenting his back to Norah, Nemo spoke dryly and went to open the door, leaving the open folder containing confidential documents on the table.

 “Otherwise, I will meet you here first thing in the morning next week.”

Nemo departed and closed the door after him, leaving Norah and the victims to stare at one another.

***

When Elfred finally crossed the finish line, he gave into exhaustion. Even so, he refused to collapse like a corpse. After slowing to a weak stagger, he bent one knee and knelt into the grass.

“Oh, Elfred! Where’s the rest of your squad?”

Asked the Rangers-in-training who’d arrived before him. Their voices sounded distant and fuzzy, as if his ears were filled with cotton. Elfred ignored them and focused on catching his breath, at the same time fighting back nausea swimming in his head and forcing his wavering body to remain upright.

Two dozen breaths later, once the whiteness clouding his vision faded and the weightlessness in his extremities diminished, Elfred examined those present. Of the eight five-or-six-person squads the forty-five Rangers-in-training were split into, only three were present.

After several dry swallows, Elfred croaked.

“We split up. Is… this all that made it?”

A few nodded. Some shook their heads. The rest remained uneasy. In other words-

“We don’t know. But, my squad was behind another. However, at one point, they went in a different direction. What about yours?”

Someone passed Elfred a flask of water to drink from. After wetting his throat, the former Aragonian soldier answered.

“We were also following a squad, but they were ambushed and taken away. Dezmond insisted on rescuing them. The others followed him.”

Despite willing his tone to remain neutral, bitterness crept into his voice towards the end. His listeners exchanged worried glances.

“Same as us then… Also, none of the instructors are here, what should we do?”

With help, Elfred stood. He looked around and saw no one else besides his peers. The blue flag fluttering from the pole planted nearby indicated they were in the right place, so why did it feel like they weren’t supposed to be here?

Elfred’s thoughts were cut short by a distant engine rumble. In the direction opposite to the steep slope they had ascended to reach the hilltop, a six-wheeled cargo truck with an open cab approached their position.

“Who’s driving it?”

“… It’s one of the drill instructors.”

Someone with keen eyes reported, and a collective sigh of relief escaped the Rangers-in-training. They watched and waited for the cargo-truck to reach them.

After pulling over on the hilltop, the instructor behind the wheel called at them to get on-board. The fewer-than-two-dozen Rangers-in-training complied, pilling into the cargo bed which barely fitted all of them. It was as if the instructors had predicted only this many would make it.

The journey back to Cambreford went by without any debriefing from the driver. An-hour-and-half later, they returned to the Guardian Organization headquarters and disembarked in a field outside the Rangers training camp.

If an uninformed third party had been present, they would have misunderstood and thought the truck carrying Elfred and his group were ferrying the latecomers. The reason for that was because a similar truck had arrived not long ago and unloaded another group, which included Dezmond and Aria. They now stood in five orderly lines as if were the natural thing to do.

Besides them, at least forty other individuals were present, all garbed in forest-coloured uniforms and smeared with camouflage paint. Some they recognized to be their drill instructors. If anyone had to guess, they would all assume the same thing: they were Rangers.

Elfred and his group regarded their missing comrades with unveiled surprise. But before anyone managed to utter a word, a harsh voice which could only belong to their drillmaster barked.

“Form lines, ye dogs!”

Cratos’s ear-shattering roar sent the weary Rangers-in-training scrambling like ants. Within the time it took to breathe twice, three more lines formed up alongside the previous five.

Elfred joined the rear of his squad’s line and scrutinized each person as he passed them. They appeared no different than when they parted ways, but he sensed something different about them. If he had to guess, he would say they were-

“Thank you, Cratos.”

A familiar voice reached Elfred’s ears, shifting his focus on the speaker: Wynstal Minstrel, younger son of the director and a senior officer of the organization. He’d met and spoken with the aloof man several times before, and recognized him at once.

Elfred wondered how he missed the senior officer’s presence till now, despite being present the whole time just behind Cratos. Judging by the stiffened postures of those around him, he realized he was not the only one.

The senior officer with bored eyes and can’t-be-bothered demeanour gazed over the assembled Rangers and Rangers-in-training, and addressed the latter.

“Good eve. I am Wynstal. Mine rank – though it hardly matters – is that of a colonel.”

Wynstal shrugged as if he truly cared naught of his rank, but only he felt that way. It was a single rank away from general, making him one of them top senior-ranked officer within the Guardians.

“In the last twenty-four hours you marched sixty-miles; crossing forests, circumventing marshes, even navigating through the night without a map or compass. Truly, I admire the physical and mental prowess of each and every individual standing before me.”

Despite uttering words of great praise, his posture reeked of sloth. And though Wynstal smiled, it contained little pride and much wry.

“Indeed. Such was this cohort’s dedication that though half their compatriots were abducted, they cared not a whit. All except for one squad, though even they disputed and fragmented.”

His coolly delivered sentiment heated the chilly evening air, and the laxness in his eyes hardened.

“Have anyone anything to say in their defence?”

None dared. Not when so many Rangers and senior officers were present. However, Wynstal noted the clear frowns of dissatisfaction on several faces.

“Rangers, recite for me your creed.”

Cratos went stiff like a boulder, as did every Ranger present. In perfect unison, they voiced.

“I volunteer, body, heart, and mind, to be a Ranger. I vow to uphold the Ranger’s four tenets.”

The forty-five Rangers-to-be stood straighter as their seniors and drill instructors chanted the tenets.

“First. A Ranger is better than the most elite soldier. A Ranger runs faster, marches further, and fights harder than any other soldier.”

They remembered the gruelling training they endured for the past few months. Running till they vomited, marching despite sprained ankles, and ending their days covered in scrapes and bruises.

“Second. A Ranger never gives up. They hold the line without wavering, charge the enemy without fear, and never surrender; even when everyone else has.”

Every week, they undertake a torturous physical trial. Those who fail two weeks in a row were dismissed. By the end of their first month, more than half the original volunteers either gave up or were dismissed.

“Three. A Ranger is more than a weapon. They treat the wounded, build roads and bridges, transmit encoded messages, and do whatever responsibility is required of them.”

After the first month, each person selected two specialist training courses. The extensive list included: paramedics, pioneers, sharpshooters, communications, demolitionists, and reconnaissance. Free-time became a luxury, as failing the weekly course tests also resulted in dismissal.

“Fourth. A Ranger is a paragon of goodness. They kill out of duty, but grant mercy to the surrendered. They show courtesy and respect to friend and enemy alike. They never leave behind a comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.”

A strangled silence ensued as the damning final sentence was uttered.

At that point, every ranger-in-training realized… the entire exercise was an examination in disguise; at least for half of them. It was deliberately set up so one squad would follow another. The leading squad would be captured and led away, presenting the squads following them the dilemma of completing the mission or abandoning their comrades.

“Today, only one individual demonstrated true Ranger qualities.”

Wynstal declared, though his voice remained dull.

“They displayed exemplary leadership skills and demonstrated excellence in navigation and reconnaissance. And most importantly, they refused to leave behind their comrades.”

“Trainee Dezmond Alcast, step forward!”

Cratos barked. A moment passed before the Aszyrian in question stepped towards the officers, stopped at a fixed distance and stood to attention. Despite knowing they were about to deliver some sort of commendation, being singled out made him shift with unease.

“After evaluating your performance thus far, I put forward your name for promotion. Drillmaster Cratos gave his approval, and General Bealus granted permission.”

While speaking, Wynstal approached the Aszyrian and pinned a thumb-sized badge on his mud-splattered, sweat-soaked shirt.

“Congratulations.”

Upon delivering his congratulations, Wynstal raised a hand for a handshake. Dezmond’s eyes went down to regard the outstretched hand, at the same time witnessing the badge pinned on his chest.

A silver badge of a sword against a shield. The coveted Ranger’s badge.

Accomplishment. Yes, those were the looks worn by Elfred’s squadmates when he passed them.


© Copyright 2020 AJLKS. All rights reserved.

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