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“We really have to push this the whole way?” Fu groused, straining against the large cart. “Why couldn’t we just find a Ponytaur or something. You know, a girl who’s designed for this shit.”
Aella grunted from her position beside her. “Because this is how they said the humans did it.”
“This is so dumb.” Fu groaned. “I don’t see him pushing!”
“We’re supposed to be attacked.” Lyn’s voice drifted from the other side of the cart. “Do you really want him in the line of fire?”
“No.” Fu grumbled.
“We’re making good time.” Gale called from her position near the front. “Only four more hours to go.”
A safe distance behind them, Andrew walked alongside Cristina. “If Fu doesn’t quiet down, she might just attract more attention than we’re going for.”
Cristina giggled. “She can be as loud as she wants. We’re not expecting any action until we pass near the lake anyways.”
“I still don’t get why you think that’s the place. Paul said the first caravan was found wrecked near the bend the road takes north, which is nowhere near that. The second vanished.”
“If we’re assuming ferals, that’s the only place that could hide them. That’s why.”
“If you say so.”
The next few hours passed mostly in silence and soon Andrew could see the lake ahead. He and Cristina drifted back, watching the waters carefully.
The cart had made it a few hundred yards along the shore when movement in the water caught Andrew’s eye.
“I see it too.” Cristina muttered. “Want me in the air?”
“I’m currently debating whether or not to let the ambush happen.”
“Mmm, Gale’s on that side.” Cristina murmured. “I don’t think you hate her that much.”
“Not really.” Andrew chuckled. “In the air you go. My armor is active and Lucina is standing by.”
“Roger that.” Cristina took off, flitting over the cart as she informed the four below what was happening. Along the waters edge she watched a massive crowd of forms begin to gather, slowly following the cart as it progressed. If she had to guess there were at least a hundred figures gathered before the first broke from the water and charged the slow moving target.
“Aella you are weapons free.” Cristina wheeled back and stared at the swarm of pokegirls in horror. “If this is what caught those humans, I don’t want to imagine what happened to them.”
Aella snarled, shifting and climbing slightly to get a better look at her targets. She barely hesitated before pumping electricity into the frontrunner, any restraint she would normally show gone in the face of the very real threat.
The pokegirl she hit never reacted as it collapsed, the next few trampling the body underneath even as they, too, were pumped full of electricity and crashed to the ground to lie motionless. As the bodies began to pile up Aella reared back and roared, her angry challenge echoing across the lake along with the flashes of light from her lightning storm.
“You don’t need my restraint this time, Aella.” Lyn laughed, casting a spell and watching in glee when a chunk of the swarm exploded from her arc bomb. “Oh baby there are a lot of them.”
“Abandon the cart.” Andrew watched Cristina rain bolts of darkness into the ferals. “If the choice is protect it or survive, survive.”
“Three circling around the left.” Cristina watched the ferals sneaking through the low cover. “Fu?”
“Gladly.” Fu ducked past the cart, her aura bleeding from her jaws before she roared her own challenge, the noise drowning out even the thunder of Aella’s attacks while she shifted.
Gale stepped back, watching Fuu slam into the first feral with a chuckle. “That’s an angry dragon.”
Fu hurled the corpse at the second, laughing when her target dropped. “Easy.”
Andrew grunted, bracing when he felt Lucina climb up his back and perch on his shoulders. “Aren’t they great?” She asked playfully. “Big, strong girls.”
Andrew chuckled, reaching up to scratch her side. “They’re great, but I need balance in my life. Finesse and subterfuge to balance out the explosions.”
Lucina purred. “Good.” Her tail flicked. “Hold that thought.”
Andrew staggered when she sprung from his shoulders, twisting in midair and driving her heel down into the bushes nearby. An angry scream echoed and she flipped away, narrowly avoiding a Water Gun that shot off across the plains. The feral didn’t get a chance to attack again; Lucina darted back in, a knife seeming to materialize in her fingers before she slammed it into the girl’s throat, twisting the handle and pulling it free with a spray of blood.
Andrew waited for her to confirm her kill before gesturing, chuckling when she leapt happily into his arms. “You’ve gotten so much better since Mary Lou came along.”
Lucina kissed his nose. “Because my darling believes in me.”
Andrew kissed her back before letting her go. “Any more out there?”
Lucina shook her head, her ears flicking idly. “Not unless they’re a dark type.”
“Stay alert anyways.”
“I know.” Lucina glanced around them. “I’m always alert when I’m on duty. Protecting you is a great privilege.” She winked at him. “I’d hate to lose it.”
“Or you.” Lucina giggled.
“Fu you’re too far out.” Gale drifted towards where the Warvern was crushing her opponents. “Don’t get cut off.”
Fu growled but retreated, letting the handful of ferals that had come to join her battle do the same. “Mine are headed back to the water.”
Lyn watched a few more break from the main group and run back to the lake. “Ours are breaking. Keep an eye out.”
A few minutes later and the only sign that there had been an attack was the dozens of bodies strewn across the ground. Andrew kicked at one, picking out the various breeds that made up the dead. “We’ve got quite the mix of water types here. I see Titodile, Titacool, I think there’s a Boobfin over there.”
“Mostly carnivores.” Gale noted, checking one of the bodies. “It’s a bit strange. Why aren’t they fighting each other?”
“It’s a big lake.” Andrew replied, looking out over the water. “I’m sure there was enough fish for them for a while. They must be running out now.”
“Or there’s something bigger that’s taken over.” Lyn muttered.
Andrew glanced at her. “Let’s hope that’s not the case. We need to get these bodies out of here so the site doesn’t become a feral feeding ground.” He gestured out into the lake. “Aella, Cristina, Fu, dump the bodies on the other side if possible. Far out in the water if not. Hopefully we can lure the remaining ferals away from the road.”
“Hey.” A man jabbed his sleeping partner. “Wake up.”
The sleeping man started awake. “Wha? Huh?”
“Look.” The first pointed down the road. “Is that what I think it is?”
The second peered out the window. “I’ll be damned.”
Andrew slowed when he saw the guard step out of a building, the man’s rifle ready but not trained on him. “Delivery!” He yelled. “Supplies from Carlsbad!”
The guard waited for him to get closer before speaking. “Who the hell are you and how did you get a shipment through?”
Andrew stopped, releasing his grip on the handles of the cart and withdrawing his ID card. The guard took it, running his eyes over the text. “I’ll be damned.”
“There was a problem. I came to solve it.” Andrew replied. “Where do I bring this? And more importantly, where’s the officer in charge? I’ve got reports.”
The guard handed him his card back. “He’s going to be very happy to see you. How are you pulling that? It looks heavy.”
Andrew gestured back, Cristina and Fu popping their heads out from where they were pushing. “I’ve got help.”
The guard took an unconscious step back at the sight of the two armored pokegirls. “So you do. You’re on Grand Ave right now, and the League office is on the site of the old training grounds. You’re on the right road, just keep heading north past the hospital.”
“They’ll want you to deliver that directly there.” The guard gazed longingly at the cart. “You wouldn’t happen to have any of Lean’s sweets in there, would you?”
Andrew raised an eyebrow. “The situation down there is still ongoing, so probably not. What kind of things would this Lean make?”
“She had a sugarcane plot she’d use to make flavored sugar.” The man shook his head. “Used to sprinkle it on dough balls and make these great little snacks.” He sighed. “Haven’t had of one them since the caravans stopped.”
“Tell you what.” Andrew chuckled. “Next one, I’ll do my best to pack a goody bag for you.” He winked. “As long as you’ll be the sentry down here often.”
The man winked back. “I should be.”
Another few minutes of pushing brought them into what appeared to be the city center. A small river wound past, a few people washing or otherwise using the waters as they passed.
“Slope.” Andrew called, grunting when they hit the incline of the bridge over the river.
“Let me help you with that.” Andrew shifted aside when a uniformed man appeared and took one of the handles. “Ready? One. Two. Three.”
The entire cart felt lighter when Andrew pulled and he turned to see two additional pokegirls helping Fu and Cristina push. With the extra help they easily made it over and Andrew turned to the man.
“My pleasure.” The man grinned. “I’ll help you to the compound. Honestly I’m surprised you didn’t use one of them ‘taurs to pull this thing.”
Andrew shrugged. “Didn’t have one.”
“Really? Sentry said you came from Carlsbad. I know they’ve got a few.”
Andrew shook his head. “I was never offered one.”
“Hm.” The man gestured. “Let’s move.”
Andrew noticed the insignia on the man’s shoulder and his throat went dry. “Th-Thank you, Sir.”
The man glanced at him with a grin. “Just noticed? Don’t worry about it. I’m just happy you’re here.”
They pulled the cart through the streets until the buildings gave way to a large cleared area. In the center Andrew could see guard towers and various forms moving around the walls, some stopping to watch them as they approached.
“BATES ON APPROACH.” The man roared, waiting for someone to peel from the shadows of the wall and come hurrying towards him. “Let my men grab this.”
The soldier skidded to a halt. “Sir!”
“Get this cart inside and start prepping it for our own regular convoy.” He stepped away, motioning for Andrew to do the same. “Come with me.”
He led Andrew inside a small, surprisingly cool building. “Corporal, check this man’s identification.”
Andrew handed over his card. Behind him he could see Fu and Cristina enter, flanked by the other two pokegirls.
“Confirmed, Sir.” The soldier handed Andrew back the card. “Registered through Ciudad Juarez.”
“I thought so.” Bates turned back to Andrew and extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Captain Richard Bates.”
“Andrew Ranger.” Andrew replied. “I’ve got reports from Carlsbad.”
“I was hoping you would. Come on into my office.” He paused when the pokegirls started to follow. “Just you, Emily. Andrew, I’m going to have to ask you to leave those two out here. Amanda will take care of them.”
Andrew glanced at Fu but shrugged. “That’s fine.”
One of the two broke off, following them into a nearby office. Andrew sighed when he saw Bates hold the door open for an extra few seconds before closing it. “You knew.”
He chuckled. “Emily’s got a good nose.” Bates looked around expectantly. “Well?”
“Lucina.” Andrew said in resignation. The Shadowcat dropped her invisibility and gave the other man an unabashed grin.
“I’m not angry.” Bates nodded at his Coyotits. “Emily here was an infiltrator herself. I understand a healthy dose of paranoia.” He reached behind his desk, withdrawing a few canteens and offering two cups to Andrew. “Want some water?”
“Thank you.” Andrew took the cups, passing one to Lucina before taking his own. “From what you said to the corporal, you know of me?”
“Never expected to see you this side of Texas, but I do. Hadn’t heard you were a Hunter.” Bates replied, taking a sip and putting his cup down. “Rumor has it you make problems disappear.”
“I’ve got quite a few I can’t officially solve.”
“Don’t you have a local Hunter?”
“He doesn’t leave Roswell.” Bates growled. “He might as well still be in the military with the way he acts. But you, you’re a straight mercenary. I can work with that.”
Andrew shrugged. “It all depends on the job and the price.”
“I wouldn’t expect it any other way.” Bates nodded at where Lucina still stood between Emily and Andrew. “You charge fairly, if the gear I’m seeing on her is any indication. Anyways, that’s something to talk about later. First, let me hear the report from Carlsbad.”
“The situation is relatively unchanged.” Andrew reported. “The farmers are still missing and food supplies are tight. The shipment today was gathered together by myself and the civilians. First Sergeant Perez still holds order, though only barely, through his hold on the recaptured Milktits.”
Bates’ expression was unreadable. “If that’s so, how did you get enough for a full cart?”
“The citizens are trying to show their good faith, Sir. I’ve been told many of them have friends or business here in Artesia. Starving isn’t good on anyone.”
“Let me tell you what I’ve been told.” Bates growled. “Shipments are halted because of a bad batch and broken carts. No, they don’t need assistance. Reserves are fine and the populace is satisfied.”
Uh oh. “Sir, I was there. There’s trouble.”
“What does Mayor Gunn have to say about it?”
Andrew blinked. “I didn’t have a chance to meet the Mayor, Sir. But the first sergeant made his thoughts clear.”
“You met the wrong man.” Bates replied. “The Mayor coordinates the city, Jonathan is just there to maintain a patrol presence for the farmers.”
“You know, Paul warned me I was entering a hornet’s nest.” Andrew grumbled. “I should have listened.”
“What do you mean?”
Andrew wordlessly placed the recorder on the table and hit play. Bates listened until the end, the color around his lips draining as he clenched them together. He waited to speak until Paul’s edited conversation had finished. “When was this taken.”
“Two days ago.”
Bates mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “I knew it” before walking to a window and staring out at the skyline. He stood there for a few minutes, long enough for Andrew to start fidgeting before turning back around. “Are you headed back down south?”
“I need to. I discovered the cause of the attacks on the caravans, which fulfills my obligation to the first sergeant.”
“You will be taking two of my men with you.”
Andrew knew it wasn’t a request. “Yes Sir.”
“You will also be taking a set of orders, to be hand delivered to First Sergeant Jonathan Perez. You will not leave until he has read and acknowledged them. You will make sure he leaves with the man I designate and will stand on call for the other I send with you to take command of the Carlsbad complement. At that point your duty will be complete.” He tapped on his desk. “For this, what is your demanded price?”
“You could invoke my contract, Sir.”
“I can but I will not. You seem somewhat capable, Ranger. And right now it sounds like I really need a capable Hunter.”
“As First Sergeant Perez promised, I am willing to take a pokegirl in exchange for all tasks so far given to me.”
Bates shook his head. “Sorry, but that won’t be happening. I am still willing to pay you, both for what Jonathan asked and what I am asking.”
Andrew sighed. “I figured that might be coming. In that case, I’d like to add an additional penalty on my regular pay and hazard pay for this job. I want a promise.”
Bates frowned. “What.”
“I’m a man of the people, Sir. It’s why I became a Hunter and flirted with the military until I could be an official part of the league. The people of Carlsbad are hurting. They need help, not an iron fist.”
Bates nodded. “I’m a man of the people too, Andrew. After all, I’m both Sheriff and CO here.” He smiled when Andrew looked surprised. “Yes, it’s tough wearing two hats, but I get it done.” He sat, grabbing some papers. “What promise.”
“I want to know that the people will not be punished for standing up to the man who murdered their friends.”
Bates glanced back at him. “Careful with the accusation, Hunter. First Sergeant Perez is a soldier of the Sunshine League until he is discharged.” He shook his head. “That being said. I give you my word that no punishments will be given until a full investigation into the recent events in Carlsbad has concluded, including a full court martial for the implicated soldiers.”
Andrew sighed. “Thank you.”
“Just remember that crimes committed are crimes committed.” Bates warned. “No matter who, why, or when. Rebels and traitors will be dealt with accordingly.”
Andrew nodded, prompting Bates to begin writing. “Wait outside please.” He held out his hand when Andrew reached for the recorder. “I’m keeping that as evidence.”
Andrew nodded again, walking out to join Fu and Cristina again.
Andrew glanced at Cristina. “We’re escorting two soldiers back with us. My position got the result they needed.”
“I’m glad, Master.” Cristina kissed his cheek, her eyes glancing at the corporal when Andrew frowned. “We’re in public.”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “Right.”
It took an hour before two men walked in, each trailed by a pokegirl. They disappeared into Bates’ office for a long time before re-emerging, one nodding at where Andrew sat.
“You’re the Hunter.”
Andrew nodded back. “Andrew Ranger.”
“Lieutenant Nathan Frank. I understand you have your orders from Captain Bates, and you’ll follow them as needed. However, beyond that, you will not speak to the first sergeant or any of his men. Leave that to me. Understood?”
“Good.” Nathan handed him a sealed letter. “These are the orders for First Sergeant Perez. We’ll have to make camp on the road tonight so we can walk into Carlsbad nice and early, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Ready to leave?”
The group walked in silence for a while before Nathan spoke again. “Did Jon really fire on civilians?”
“I wasn’t a witness to that.”
Nathan nodded to himself. “I get it.” He glanced at Andrew. “I really hope there’s some sort of an explanation for this.”
Andrew didn’t respond, the group making their way south in the afternoon sun.
The same sentry as before was on duty and he began to train his weapon before recognizing Andrew. “You’re back.” His eyes widened when the other two men came into view. “S-Sir!”
“Good morning, private.” Nathan came to a halt. “Where is your CO?”
“I-inside, Sir.” The sentry glanced between the three and shot nervous glances at the veritable mob of pokegirls that silently followed them. “It’s g-good to see you again, lieutenant.”
“It’s been a while since you’ve been under my thumb, isn’t that right Henry?” Nathan smiled humorlessly. “Is Jon available?” He shrugged when Henry continued to sweat. “The sooner you announce us, the sooner I’m not your problem.”
Henry wordlessly nodded, swinging the door open. “THREE FOR YOU, FIRST SERGEANT.”
“WHO THE HELL-“ A voice started to shout before Nathan stepped inside. Andrew could only hear half of the conversation but it was obvious Jonathan was panicking.
“I’m your escort.” A pause. “The load was good enough that the captain wants to thank you personally.” Another pause. “Yes, today. First Sergeant Brooks is here to cover for you.” Andrew could see Nathan nodding. “I understand.”
Nathan stepped back out and gestured at Andrew. “Your turn.”
Andrew hesitantly stepped inside. All eyes were watching Jonathan, the man torn between excitement and terror until he stepped in. At the sight of him Jonathan’s face smoothed. “The merc. What the hell did you do?”
“I used a delivery as bait, Sir.” Andrew replied crisply. “The attackers were ferals, a horde living in the lake. Once I discovered that I decided I might as well bring the load the rest of the way. Captain Bates met me in Artesia and gave me this for you, Sir.” He handed over the letter, waiting patiently while Jonathan read. Whatever was inside seemed to relax him and he was much more calm when he replied.
“Very good. Glad I could count on you, Ranger. I’ll have to arrange your payment when I return.”
Andrew nodded. “I understand.”
Jonathan rolled up the paper. “Boys, Brooks will be your CO until I return. Try not to give him too much shit, alright?” There were scattered chuckles and Jonathan turned. “Girls, on me. We’re taking a trip up to Artesia.”
Andrew stepped aside, waiting for him and his two pokegirls to exit before stepping out. As he did Brooks slipped in, the door swinging shut before anything he said could be made out.
“Already ready?” Nathan asked Jonathan in surprise. “Nothing to pack?”
“It should be a short trip, right Sir?” Jonathan asked. “A day or two. I can manage.”
“Very well.” Nathan turned to Andrew. “Andrew, thank you for your assistance to the Sunshine League. You are hereby assigned to operate under First Sergeant Brooks until otherwise notified. Any questions?”
Andrew bobbed his head. “No Sir. Thank you Sir.”
They waited for the two to leave before Andrew looked at where Brooks’ pokegirl was glaring at the terrified sentry. “I’ll be on my way.”
He, Fu, and Cristina walked off when neither of them responded. They had walked only a few blocks when Andrew heard laughter coming from nearby.
“Yo!” Andrew turned at the voice, watching a man with a rifle step into the street and grin at them. “Did I just see Jonny boy getting marched out of here? What did you do?”
“I merely reported the situation in the city to his superior.”
The man continued laughing. “You know, when I saw you strolling down these streets, I wasn’t sure if I’d like you, merc. But you’re not bad. You planning on sticking around?”
Andrew chuckled. “I’ve got a promise to keep. You’ll be seeing me again.”
The man motioned, a full fireteam walking out and taking their turns shaking his hand. “Heard a rumor you helped the boys out there too.” One of the other men said quietly. “I had my best meal in weeks because of you. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me just yet.” Andrew cautioned. “I don’t know what Brooks will do to the city.”
The leader shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. You’ve already done more than anyone here ever expected would happen. Even if tomorrow nothing changed, you’ve done something incredible for us. We won’t forget that.”
“And that concludes our debrief.” Cristina looked around the table. “Fu, thank you for being here.”
Fu shrugged. “I saw the most so it only makes sense. Feels kind of weird, though.” She grinned. “Feels like I’ve infiltrated somewhere I don’t belong.”
Andrew chuckled. “You do know that I’m considering you for the Alpha position.”
Fu nodded. “I know. I also know I hate bureaucracy.” She stood. “Thanks for showing me this, but I’ll stick to fighting and tactics. Aella’s failure has shown me that I’m better off just being your combat leader.”
Cristina looked at him after she had left. “I guess that answers that question.”
Andrew sighed, rubbing at his face. “She doesn’t want to do it. I’ve really only got three choices now.”
“No.” Lyn immediately replied, earning a few laughs. “Don’t even think of throwing that on me.”
Gale smiled at him. “Oops, make that one.”
All eyes turned to Kuu when Andrew addressed her. “Congratulations. You win.”
Kuu blinked. “I already declined.”
“Nobody else wants to be Alpha.” Andrew replied. “And I’m not saying you get it either. You won your little game. Are you sure Melody can handle this?” He gestured around when Kuu hesitated. “I’ve already discussed this with them. She has essentially already stepped into the role ever since Aella officially stepped down, and she’s been doing a damned good job of it. Cristina has actually been able to start stepping back and things aren’t exploding. All of the girls I asked like her. She’s even won over Nami somehow, and that’s something I don’t think even Cristina has done. As long as you can honestly tell me she’s a good pick, not as the scheming woman you’ve been pushing her as but as a member of my command team and the head of our defense forces, then the nomination is hers.”
Kuu nodded slowly. “I believe that Melody requires real experience before she can act perfectly as the Alpha here. However, she will have a very strong support team in the four - five - of us, and she is already much further along the right path than Aella ever was. Additionally, she is a Wet Queen. She’s designed for this job, just as I am. The only issue I have with her taking the role is that I’ll have to answer to her, but that’s more of a conflict of interest problem regarding my queendom. As your head of defense, I endorse her for the Alpha position.”
“Very well.” Andrew nodded at Cristina. “After the meeting we will ask her. Providing she accepts, she’ll be welcomed into the command team at our next weekly meeting and announced to the harem shortly afterwards.”
“Just in time.” Cristina laughed. “You almost broke the deadline.”
“I wasn’t expecting to get caught up in harem politics while figuring this out.” Andrew groused softly. “Damn you, Kuu.”
The ElfQueen giggled. “Sorry. It’s second nature to me.”
“Why am I cursed with intelligent women.” Andrew playfully complained. “Alright. If there’s nothing else, Cristina and I have someone to find.”
“There’s just one more thing.” Gale looked at the closed door. “It has to do with Fu, actually. What is your timeline on the marriages?”
“I wasn’t expecting you to be the one asking.” Andrew said in surprise.
“I’m the medic.” Gale looked back at him. “And the secondary tactician, behind Cristina. I can’t in good faith suggest that we have more than one of us out of commission at any one time with a pregnancy. That means children need to be around five months apart.”
“If we accept that, it’ll take years for some of the ones who want children to have them.” Andrew pointed out. “That’s not fair to them.”
“Look.” Gale sighed. “It’s about redundancy. I’m our only medic, so what happens when I get knocked up? Do we wait for a year and pray nothing comes after us? And the threat doesn’t go away after birth. Those children will need constant attention, which will take their mothers out of any fight. I am as excited about this as any of you are, but it’s my job to temper my cheerful nurse side with a cold, pragmatic combatant. Cristina is one of our heaviest hitters. Having her sidelined or at the very best out of the action is going to make our operations suffer.”
“And you’re saying too many kids will just compound the problem.”
Andrew nodded. “I agree. The problem is this is our life right now. We’re still only able to survive because we fight and I don’t have any way to change that. We’ll have to make it work.”
“Our life will be building a family.” Gale countered. “So we need to find a way to change, and soon.”
“I’ll tell you what the first step should be.” Cristina said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about. I don’t want my children growing up in a cave, no matter how nice it is here.”
Andrew let out his breath. “I’ve been thinking about that too. I call it a home but it’s not one, is it? It’s a base. It’s... it’s not a place for children.”
“The clock is ticking.”
“Houses take time.” Andrew whispered. “Time we may not have anymore. And we’d need to ask everyone what kind of house we should have...”
“It’s going to be holding over twenty people.” Cristina pointed out. “More and more as children come. It’s going to be a mansion.”
“Okay. I’ve failed a bit here. I haven’t put any thought into all this, and I needed to. These things needed to be figured out long before any of the fun happened.” Andrew looked at Cristina. “I failed you. I’m sorry.”
Kuu reached over to hold his hand. “We all failed. We didn’t think of some things and now we’re in trouble. Fine. We’ll find a solution and we will fix this. Bringing in Melody to act as an actual Alpha will help a lot, taking the load off a bit from you and Cristina and letting the two of you focus on the parts of this happy time that matter.” She looked at Lyn. “Your future wives will do their part too. The two of you are in a strange position, being the first. You get to make all of our mistakes for us.”
“If there’s one thing I learned from my old marriage, it’s that you never know all the mistakes you’ll make.”
Kuu beamed. “Then as each of us make them, the next will learn what to avoid.”
“That’s true enough.” Andrew rose. “Right. We need to talk to Melody. And then we’ve got some things to figure out.” He looked at Kuu. “Thank you.”
She smiled. “What we’ve started in Carlsbad is a good first step. Once we can rely on them as allies we’ll be able to really relax and just let my court protect our land, and from there all we’d need to do is find a way to sustain ourselves. I’m sure that won’t be too much of a problem.”
“We’re doing it already.”
Kuu nodded. “That’s right, we are. And sure, things will change. But we have each other.” She looked around. “All of us have each other. We’re stronger for it and we’ll be stronger still as things fall into place. We already are a family. We’ve had a few spats but at the end of the day, we call each other sisters and you, Andrew, are our common ground.” She smiled at him. “That won’t change, no matter what else will.”
Lyn breathed out, sinking deeper into her tub with a happy noise. The aromatics filled the air, a subdued but permeating scent filling her nose.
With a curse she slipped when an alarm blasted through the room, her relaxing moment shattered by the noise. “WHAT THE FUCK!”
Cortney’s hologram popped in above her. “Lyn, I’m sorry. We’ve got an emergency and it will be your call how to react.”
Lyn struggled into a sitting position. “Just spit it out.” She glared down at the water. “First time in weeks I get a chance to-“
“Radio traffic recently intercepted suggests that the lieutenant Andrew and the fireteam brought to Carlsbad has disappeared, along with the Sunshine soldier he was escorting to Artesia. The garrison is panicking. Military in Carlsbad might react poorly to what they assume is a civilian attack.”
Lyn gripped at her skull. “That was supposed to be done with. No more action for days, if not weeks.”
“It’s been three days.”
“Not long enough.” She pulled herself out of the tub. “Screw this.”
Cortney watched her grab a towel and begin drying off. “I can pass on your decision. You don’t need to lose this opportunity.”
“He’s going to need me with him, not relaxing in a bath.” She snapped her fingers, her uniform appearing as she walked out the door. “Find Fu, now. Help her be ready and send her to us. Once you have, notify Constance and Lucina and get them on standby.”
Andrew looked up from the game when Lyn burst through the door. “Oh, hey. What’s up? I thought you were having some alone time.”
“Cortney reports radio traffic indicates Lieutenant Frank and the shithole soldier vanished on their way back to Artesia.”
Andrew looked over at Yang and Shamira. “I’m so sorry. I need to go.”
Yang smiled, reaching out to kiss him. “I’ll go with you some day.”
Andrew kissed her back, dropping his cards and following Lyn out the door. “What’s our plan?”
“Fu is getting ready and there will be a team on standby before we leave.” She looked at him. “This is your call. I think we should arrive as if we don’t know the situation and let the military draw us in.”
Andrew nodded. “I don’t want to be seen as a suspect. We? Are you coming with us?”
Lyn gestured. “Whether we’re tracking or fighting you’re going to need my magic.”
Andrew grinned. “Fair enough.”
Fu met them by the door and Lyn only waited to confirm she was ready before taking both of their arms and teleporting just outside of Carlsbad. “Armor.”
Andrew nodded. “Already on.”
“You’re going to need to let me in some day.” Lyn muttered to herself.
They hurried towards the city, slowing when they approached the guard post. A few quick words and they were through, meandering down the street.
Even a few short days had brought life back to the city. Instead of deserted streets there were actually people going about their days, a few recognizing them and waving happily at Andrew.
Andrew returned a few waves. “I’m not seeing any panic.”
“Transmissions went out minutes ago.” Lyn muttered. “Give it a few more before the military reacts.”
Andrew looked at her. “You never met the lieutenant, did you?”
“No.” Lyn looked frustrated. “I also never met the guy he came to pick up. It’s going to make it harder to track their trail but I won’t let that stop me.”
“Good.” Andrew paused next to a large open space, waving at a few teenagers who were playing a game. “New cover story. We’re here to meet the mayor and check in on how things are going. If Brooks is acting like he should, the mayor will be the first person here he notifies.”
Lyn and Fu nodded their understanding, following him to the city hall. There was a uniformed deputy standing outside who grinned when he saw them approaching.
“Morning!” He called cheerfully. “You’re Andrew, right? Paul told me about you.”
“That’s me.” Andrew grinned back. “Is Mayor Gunn available today? I wanted to check in on the city and see how everyone is doing.”
“The Mayor usually only meets on appointment.” The man replied apologetically. “I don’t know if he’s available today. If you head inside, the woman at the desk can help you with that.”
Andrew thanked him and stepped into the building, walking over to where a human woman was sitting reading a book.
She jumped, looking at him. “Oh! Sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone here today.” She cleared her throat, quickly putting the book away. “How can I help you?”
“I was hoping the mayor was available.”
The woman frowned. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Then probably not.” The woman checked a schedule next to her. “He is meeting with various citizen groups to discuss his plans on...”
Andrew tuned her out when he heard shouting outside. A moment later a soldier burst in, almost running at them but pulling up when he saw Andrew. “I NEED TO SPEAK TO THE- never mind. You. First Sergeant Brooks is looking for you.”
“I’ll make an appointment for another time.” Andrew said to the woman, giving her a slight wave and turning to the soldier. “Yes?”
“There’s a problem. Your presence is required.”
“Were you coming to speak to the mayor?”
The soldier shook his head. “Only to find where you had been staying. The lieutenant is missing and we need all hands for the search party.”
Andrew followed him back to the barracks. It had been transformed in the two days since he had seen it last, windows open, furniture back in place, and most importantly, empty of the two neglected Milktits. He hoped they were in good hands now.
“Take yours and search the hills here and here.” Brooks was bent over a map, gesturing at the milling soldiers. “We’ve got a lot of terrain to cover and we are already behind. Marshal, I want you and your girl to check here, where the river splits.” He glanced up when Andrew entered. “Good. I don’t have time to argue, Hunter. What is your force composition and how quickly can you mobilize all of them?”
Andrew blinked. “What’s the situation, sir?”
“Lieutenant Frank and First Sergeant Perez never made it to Artesia.” Brooks’ tone was grim. “I need every man out there searching and I need them moving yesterday.”
“I always have a secondary fireteam on reserve.” Andrew replied immediately as Lyn informed him. “Four pokegirls total are ready to be deployed. Any more would take time.”
“Four is as many as we have here.” Brooks nodded. “That’s good enough. Radio them in and start searching the road. Where did you discover the feral attacks?”
Andrew pointed at the map. “The bank of the lake, here.”
“Everyone avoid that area for now. We will collapse there so we don’t lose any more people today.” Brooks looked back at Andrew. “You have your orders. Move!”
Andrew pushed back out. “Lyn?”
“I have seven recent signatures that don’t match the people in that building right now.” Lyn rolled her eyes. “Well, nine, but I know to ignore Cristina and Skuld.”
“Two of the nine should be nearly identical.”
Lyn nodded. “Ignore them?”
“They’re two Milktits.”
“That gives me five.”
“That’s the soldiers and their pokegirls.”
Lyn blinked. “Five people? That’s not an easy target for a feral. What happened to them?”
Andrew looked at her. “That’s what we need to find out. Assume the worst.”
“I’ve told the entirety of the combat team to start preparing. Lucina is meeting us outside the city with Constance.”
Andrew motioned. “Let’s move.”
“The trail stops here.”
Andrew looked around them. “This is the middle of a field.”
“My magic can’t find any large traces of the group after this point.” Lyn cast around, the orb in her hand barely changing in color as she turned. “Yea. Nothing.”
“Can you pick up the individuals?”
Lyn looked at him. “I can, but I don’t know which is which. And all five go separate directions.”
“They split up?” Andrew looked around. “There aren’t any that are in pairs? The humans and the pokegirls split?”
Lyn shook her head. “No. You’re right, that’s extremely strange. What’s stranger is that the path leads here in the first place. There’s nothing this direction, just open plains. Why did they come here and then split up?”
“They were looking for something.”
Lyn’s eyes widened. “Of course. Just like we’ve split up looking for them.”
“The question is, what.” Andrew peered at where Constance and Fu were moving around them in a loose patrol pattern. “It was something they didn’t see as dangerous, or the humans would have stayed with at least one pokegirl. It was something important enough to find quickly, because they all went different directions and probably met back up somewhere else.”
“Your first assumption is a bit generous.” Lyn laughed. “The humans of this world have proven they don’t understand danger quite yet. They might have sent their pokegirls off no matter what they were looking for.”
Andrew grimaced. “True. And these were soldiers, who think they’re even more indestructible.”
“Should I pick a line to follow?”
“Maybe.” Andrew pointed at an approaching pair. “That’s one of the other soldiers.”
The man got closer before waving. “Yo, merc! Find anything?”
“Not yet.” Andrew hollered back. “I was planning on checking by the river next.”
The soldier nodded. “Good idea. I’ll take over here.”
“We haven’t found anything.”
“Sure, but a second pair of eyes is always good.” The soldier replied.
Andrew frowned but shrugged. “Sure, whatever.”
They had walked a few feet when Lyn grabbed his arm. “Andrew.”
Andrew turned back. The soldier had immediately turned away from them, running out towards where Fu had recently patrolled. He could see her looking back at the approaching two and took a few seconds to wonder why the soldier was running before deciding it really didn’t matter. “Fu, get away from him.”
Fu started moving away when she stopped still. “There’s a body here!”
“It’s hidden from the road by these bushes!” Immediately Fu was charging on an intercept course with the soldier. “I don’t know how they noticed it but I can see it now from this other side.”
Alarm bells started ringing in Andrew’s head as the soldier’s pokegirl, which he now recognized as a Boobgle, dropped to all fours to sprint faster. Why isn’t the soldier saying anything.
In a flash he understood, sending a warning before the pokegirl blasted past the bushes Fu was talking about and slammed into the Warvern, the two crashing to the ground while the man pulled a pistol from under his uniform.
Lyn reacted smoothly to the action, casting a spell before the man could even fully draw. The conversation that followed through their twee was almost a buzz, all information passed instantly between the combatants.
Andrew was running to the side to clear Constance’s line of fire, Lyn layering a second barrier in front of the soldier as he began shooting into the bushes. In front of him his Boobgle screamed in pain, spinning away and clutching at where Fu had taken a chunk out of her side. The Warvern roared, chasing her opponent with blood dripping from her hands. As he watched her aura slammed over her body, more material than he had ever seen it before.
He knew the body was here. Andrew realized. Whoever that is, he doesn’t want them found alive. We need to get answers.
Constance had her rifle raised and screamed in fury when Andrew gave the order, jerking her barrel down so her round took the man through the chest instead of his head. The soldier staggered but managed to fire twice more before Constance’s second round blew apart his shoulder and sent him tumbling to the ground.
In a matter of seconds the battle was over. Fu had received no such order and her opponent lay in pieces, decapitated with a number of gaping holes through her chest. Andrew sprinted to where the man lay, the soldier screaming when Andrew kicked the pistol from his shattered grip.
“Stabilize him!” Andrew barked, sliding down the small gully the greenery had claimed and pushing branches aside to reveal a bloody canine pokegirl. “She’s still alive. Get me Gale, NOW!”
He felt Lucina teleport from where she was invisibly following him and knelt, pressing his hands to the most obvious wound. He immediately regretted his decision when the pokegirl heaved, the sharp spurs on her arms skittering across his forcefield.
A hand quickly yanked him away. Lyn glared down at him before raising her hand, a lattice of magical bonds restraining the flailing War Hound. “You’re an idiot.”
Andrew didn’t argue, rolling away and getting to his feet as Constance ran up. “I had the shot!” She snarled.
“I wanted him alive.” Andrew retorted. “Make sure he doesn’t die.”
Constance growled, shouldering her rifle and kneeling over the bleeding man.
Lucina reappeared with Gale in tow, the Night Nurse immediately jumping down and placing her hands over the pokegirl. “She has numerous breaks and internal punctures. Something tried to kill her and failed.”
“Make sure she lives to tell us what.”
Gale nodded, energy flowing into the War Hound.
“Hey, I need a hand.” Constance called. “This guy’s going into shock.”
“Keep him warm.” Andrew glanced at her. “I don’t care how.”
“Ew.” Constance grumbled, wrapping her arms around the bleeding man and raising her temperature. “I hate blood in my fur.”
“I expected you to set him on fire, actually.” Andrew chuckled.
Constance grimaced. “I really want to but that might kill him. You told me not to do that.”
Andrew nodded. “Gale, once she’s stable make sure this guy won’t die either.”
The struggling man went limp when Lucina walked over. “I put him to sleep.” Her lips twisted into a sadistic sneer. “I’m not too gentle with that yet. He’ll have quite the headache when he finally wakes up.” When Andrew didn’t say anything she glanced at him, her mouth widening into a smile at what she saw. “You don’t care.”
“He attacked Fu.” Andrew said quietly. “The only reason he’s still alive is so I can find out why.”
“This girl is going to live.” Gale called up to him. “She’s got a uniform on. Lieutenant’s bars as a patch on her chest.”
“She’s one of Nathan’s girls.” Andrew called back. “I recognize the breed. Is she conscious?”
“No.” Gale replied. “She’s hurt too badly to wake her up yet. Give me an hour.” She turned to try and look at him over the lip of the gulley. “If we used a pokeball she’d be healed quickly.”
“Sunshine doesn’t have those.” Andrew explained. “And so neither should I. Focus on stabilizing her so she can talk. I’ve got a feeling that soldier wasn’t the only one trying to silence her.”
Gale nodded, grimly focusing on her patient.
“Fu.” Andrew looked over at where Fu was doing her best to clean the blood from her body. “You alright?”
Fu glanced up. “She broke my clothes a bit, but not my body.” Andrew sighed when she raised her shirt to show three angry red lines across her stomach. “Bitch. Thought they were on our side.”
“They were supposed to be.” Andrew glanced down at the unconscious man. “I need to figure out how to report this to Brooks without getting a bounty on our heads.”
“The War Hound will be able to talk in about fifteen minutes.” Gale reported. “I’m fixing the internal bleeding first before making her comfortable. She’ll still be injured, and she’s weak. Real weak. But she’ll be conscious.”
“Fu, once you’re cleaned up you’re coming with Lyn and I to get First Sergeant Brooks. By the time we return I want the soldier stable and the War Hound awake.”
Gale sighed. “Understood.”
Brooks stared down at where Gale was still hovering over the War Hound. “That’s Lanisha. She never leaves Nathan’s side.” He looked back up at Andrew. “How did you find her?”
“I told you there was a fight.”
Brooks looked over at the large bloodstain that had remained after cleaning up the dead Boobgle. “With what?”
“I’m not going to say until Lanisha wakes up and tells you what I already think I know.”
Brooks frowned. “You’re going to tell me now.”
Andrew looked at his pokegirl, a rather nervous Valkyrie who kept fingering the pommel of her mace. “You see the blood?” He waited for her to nod. “See the woman over there?” He gestured at Fu. “She’s the reason there’s so much of it.”
The Valkyrie gulped. “Master, please listen to him.”
Brooks looked at her in surprise. “Really?”
The Valkyrie pointed at where Lyn also stood. “Master, whatever it was nearly killed Lanisha. He had at least two or three pokegirls and only needed one to easily kill whatever it was.”
Andrew spread his arms when Brooks glanced back at him. “I promise you I will tell you after we hear Lanisha’s story.”
Brooks sighed. “Fine. I don’t have a choice, so fine.”
“She’s waking up.” Gale called crisply. “Sir, you’ll want to be the first thing she sees.”
Andrew let Brooks push past, understanding who Gale was talking to. It took a few minutes before the War Hound’s chest heaved and she retched, a mixture of blood and bile sliding off of Gale’s armor.
“Master!” Lanisha spasmed, straining against the bonds still holding her down. “Run!”
“LANISHA!” Brooks barked. “Where is your Master!”
Lanisha’s eyes popped open and she stared wildly around her. “Where-“ she froze when she saw Brooks hovering over her. “Sir?”
“Lieutenant Frank is MIA.” Brooks snapped. “You were found half dead. Report.”
Lanisha’s breathing slowly returned to normal while she organized her thoughts. “Sir, it was First Sergeant Perez. He was talking with Master Nathan and Master Nathan let slip that the Hunter had reported everything. First Sergeant Perez pretended to hear a call for help and we went looking, even though I hadn’t heard anything, Sir. And then the- one of the pokegirls attacked my back, Sir. They... they killed Master Nathan. I tried to run with him but he- he ordered me to-“ she began to cry. “He ordered me to leave him. To get word back. I managed to escape and found shelter before I woke up here. Sir.”
Brooks slowly stepped back. “On Perez’ orders, his pokegirls attacked you and Lieutenant Frank, killing Lieutenant Frank and mortally wounding you.”
Brooks stared at Andrew. “Now I understand why you didn’t want to tell me who you had to fight off to save her. Who was it.”
“You trust her?”
“I know Nathan trusted her.” Brooks glanced back down at the sobbing War Hound. “Trusted her with his life. I know she would have rather died to let him live.” He looked back at him. “Who.”
“Lyn.” Andrew waited for Lyn to teleport, returning with the bound soldier. “Sir, under my orders my pokegirl defended herself and another attacked this man in order to save the life of Lieutenant Frank’s pokegirl Lanisha.”
Brooks cursed. “The corporal had a pokegirl. A dog. Where is she.”
Andrew looked meaningfully at the bloodstain.
“I want to see the body and the pokegirl you claim defended herself.”
“Her wounds are already healed.”
“I want to make sure the wounds on the body match what she can do. It will help confirm your story.”
Andrew nodded. “Lyn, can you get the body, please?” He turned to Brooks when Lyn teleported again. “I was attacked by traitors to the League, Sir. We struck back and captured one.” He nodded when Brooks made a frustrated grunt. “That is my report.”
“Ranger, the only reason you’re not dead or in chains right now is because I’m not confident I’d win this fight.” He glared at Andrew. “You have admitted to attacking a soldier of the Sunshine League.”
“I have not.” Andrew replied calmly. “In self defense and in defense of a loyal servant of the League I attacked a traitor. I suggest you find a psychic to check him.”
Brooks slowly shook his head. “This was supposed to be a quick deal, to just verify facts and possibly give Perez a reprimand. Nothing was going to come of it.” He stepped closer to the bound soldier. “These holes. What made them.”
Andrew looked at the jagged exit wounds in the man’s uniform. “That would be a rifle, Sir.”
Brooks stared at the holes. “A high powered rifle.”
“Where does a civilian find one of those?”
Andrew shrugged. “I have my suppliers.”
Brooks nodded. “I’m sure you do.”
“Sir, I am licensed as an operator here in the League.” Andrew tried to explain. “Hunter level three. That means I am given a lot more slack than most would, as long as I get the job done.”
“I understand that.” Brooks sighed. “Where is the body? They left a few minutes ago.”
“Here.” Andrew replied, stepping back when Lyn appeared and laid the body down, Fu stepping forwards. “This is Fu, Sir. She killed the Boobgle.”
Brooks squatted, doing his best not to gag when he caught a whiff of death. “She did this? She looks human.”
“She’s supposed to, Sir.” Andrew sighed. “Fu, show him.”
Brooks fell over when Fu released her aura. “Holy shit.”
Andrew glanced at the Valkyrie, watching the color draining from her face. “Your pokegirl recognizes her.”
“Master.” The Valkyrie sounded terrified. “She’s a dragon. I’ve only ever heard rumors of ones like her.”
Brooks struggled back up, looking between the wounds and Fu’s motionless body. “Alright. I believe you. Gods, I believe you. I still need to detain you but I believe you.” He covered his face with his hands. “What if Corporal Hennes wasn’t the only other traitor? What if there are more? I need to get back to the radio and get word back to Captain Bates.”
“Sir, I can have a pokegirl in Artesia and back, right here, within minutes.”
“I have one who can teleport and has been there. She met with Captain Bates already.”
“Go.” Brooks stood. “Go.”
Andrew nodded. “She’s left.”
Brooks blinked. “What?”
“She was here and invisible.” Andrew explained. “She’ll be back as soon as she can.”
Brooks brushed off his uniform. “I think I understand how you’re a level three.”
Andrew gave him a small smile.
It was almost half an hour later when Lucina appeared with a strange pokegirl. The girl looked around, nodded, and vanished, reappearing a moment later with two men. Before Andrew could even greet Captain Bates the pokegirl had teleported again, depositing two more pokegirls who each teleported as the first took a position in front of the men.
Andrew slowly put his hands on his head when the numbers in front of him swelled to a dozen uniformed soldiers. “What happened?”
Lucina quickly returned to his side. “The guards wouldn’t let me through, Master.” She nodded at the second man that was talking with Captain Bates. “This is his platoon.”
“Ranger!” Bates strode forward, waving his arms down and grabbing his hand to shake it. “I’ve been told you found one of Lieutenant Frank’s pokegirls.”
“Lieutenant!” Bates waved the other man forwards. “Please verify what Mr. Ranger’s pokegirl told us.”
The original pokegirl stepped forwards with him, antennae unfolding to reveal her as a Ka-D-Bra. She glanced between the bound soldier and Andrew’s pokegirls before nodding. “Their memories match, Master.” She started to turn to Andrew before her eyes narrowed. “I can’t read him.”
“Please don’t try.” Andrew urged. “For some reason any psychic that tries dies.”
The Ka-D-Bra blinked but lowered her antennae. “Master?”
“If the other memories match there’s no need to check Andrew.” Bates took a deep breath. “Gods damn it all. Nathan is dead?”
The other soldiers had spread out around them and Andrew gestured. “Lanisha is down here, Sir.”
Bates walked forwards, jumping down and looking at the unconscious War Hound. “I thought she was awake.”
“I put her back to sleep to heal her, Sir.” Gale explained, bowing her head. “I am Master Andrew’s medic.”
“Can you wake her back up?”
Gale glanced down at Lanisha. “I highly recommend she get some rest, Sir. The healing takes a lot out of the patient.”
“I asked you if you can.”
Gale winced. “Yes Sir.”
Bates watched Lanisha stir and blearily open her eyes before speaking. “Lanisha, it’s Rick. Can you hear me?”
Lanisha cleared her eyes. “Yes Sir, I can.”
“Can you get rid of whatever these are?” Bates waved at the bonds. “Or is there a reason she’s tied up?”
“She was restrained for her own safety.” Andrew replied, waving at Lyn to drop the spell. “She was delirious when we first tried to heal her.”
Bates watched the bindings vanish. “They tell me you’re probably exhausted, Lanisha. Are you too tired to answer some questions?”
The War Hound struggled upright. “No Sir.”
Andrew walked away when Bates began questioning her. The Ka-D-Bra and her Tamer had taken custody of the bound soldier and he could see that he was awake, the Lieutenant asking rapid questions while his pokegirl read the man’s mind.
“I’m glad we sent Constance back.” Andrew muttered to Lyn. “She wouldn’t be able to hold still.”
Fu drifted over to stand with him. “What do we do now?”
“We wait.” Andrew replied quietly. “We wait until they decide we can leave. I still want to know why the soldier attacked us.” He gazed out over the plains. “I don’t know what we’ve stumbled into, but we’re in too deep now.”
Col. Andrew Ranger
(Logistics) Maj. Lyn
Cpt. Nevaeh (Ret.)
(Defense) Cpt. Kuu
(Beta) Cpt. Cristina
(Medic) Cpt. Gale
(Council) Cpt. Rein (Ret.)
SSgt. Shamira (Ret.)
Sgt. Ann (Ret.)
Sgt. Yang (Ret.)
Cristina – (Blessed, Fiendish) Ophanim – Beta
Aella – (Hunter) Shinryu
Cortney – (Upgraded) Videogirl
Fu – Warvern
Lucina – Shadowcat
Nami – Sharptits
Constance – Tank Vixxen
Gale – Night Nurse
Shamira – Goldina
Nevaeh – (Blessed, Fiendish) G-Splice
Melody – Wet Queen
Ann – Ice Empress
Nova – Blazicunt
Furia – (Fiendish) Wolf Queen
Rein – Myobu
Ishara – Romanticide
Kuu – Elfqueen
Lyn – Archmage
Yang – Nereidame
Daria – Vampire
Camiel – (Paragon) Archangel
Albia – (Hunter) G-Splice