It was another chilly day in the Death Reaper's hideout. Cold air blew in from the far entrance of the cave, sending faint whistles through what was once a Dragon's abandoned shelter.
Other than that, the place was just as silent as usual, barely lit by the few rays of light that seeped in from outside. This allowed the group's few present individuals to stay well-hidden, lurking in the long, dark shadows. Though they were all part of the same organization, most of the members were incredibly secretive of their identities, wary even amongst their fellow societal outcasts. Faces were covered by low hoods, masks, veils…
It was to the point that some chose not to speak unless it was truly necessary.
Voice recognition was also a part of the problem, after all.
Of them all, Jarak was one of the ones who didn't mind making himself known, outwardly expressing his dissatisfaction. Though he couldn't be called weak amongst his members, no one would disagree to say that he was indeed the stupidest in certain ways.
"Tch. Why should I babysit this newbie on his mission?" he grunted in annoyance, his complaint echoing loudly through the rocky walls.
A faint snicker was heard from the other side of the lair.
"You are not 'babysitting' anyone, Jarak." The calm yet firm voice came from the deepest part of the maze-like lair where a large boulder protruded from the stiff, uneven ground. Shrouded by the darkest shadows, the mysterious man sat atop the rock with lax composure, the flowy outline of the hood-drawn cloak he wore barely visible.
"From here on out," he continued, "you and Winter will be partners for all tasks I assign-"
"What?!" Jarak interrupted with a shout of indignity. He straightened up and opened his mouth to disagree, but he was ignored as the man went along to finish what he had to say.
"-till the time comes when I feel you two are ready to be separated. Winter's personality is perfect to keep your unruly behavior in check, don't you think so?"
Again, Jarak stepped forward in attempt to argue his way out of this, in his opinion, ridiculous pairing but once again, his raging attitude was set aside as the man shifted his attention to the newcomer.
"Any complaints, Winter?" he asked over Jarak's unrestrained, colorful swearing.
"No, Leader," he nonchalantly replied. Though he wasn't too bothered, he would gladly accept if he were partnered with someone else. "I'll do my best to 'babysit' my senior," he added, putting oil to Jarak's raging flames.
"Then it's settled," the Leader said. Both he and Winter turned a deaf ear to the new flow of curses that Jarak was now directed towards his newly assigned partner.
Winter was currently dressed in a fresh set of the Death Reaper uniform, white gloves on his hands. Gold buttons lined the black, double-breasted military coat, matching the color of the novelty epaulets on each shoulder, a gold aiguillette hanging on the right.
Above it all, he wore a long, brown-red cloak, in which the patterned stripes on the shoulders distinguished themselves from the many Dragon-slayer faction uniforms in the world. On the left was the Reaper insignia: two crossed scythes.
Around his neck hung a stylized pendant of the Ember Tribe low on a thin necklace, something Blaze gifted him when he and Blake became officials of the Lunargard Council. That alone, was the only thing physical thing he kept of his past life.
Winter's hand subconsciously reached up to feel the pendant, but he dropped it when the leader's voice suddenly spoke again.
"That's it for today. You're all dismissed."
And so without a word, most of the members quietly slipped through the shadows, appearing for a short moment once they reached the exit before disappearing out of sight once again.
As Winter headed for the exit as well, he mused on how different it was from the academy back in the Faction. Once dismissed, he remembered the dragon-slayers to be obnoxiously loud as they gathered in the friend groups before leaving-
"You have an impressive resumé, Winter."
Winter came to a halt just outside the entrance of the hideout as someone addressed him.
He turned to see a pair leaning against the wall of the jagged entrance, one of them had her eyes on him while the other was simply uninterested. The woman that spoke to him was wearing the standard Death Reaper uniform just like he, only instead of black pants, she wore a skirt that fell midway down her thighs.
Malileah Starasis, a supposed dead criminal from a faraway faction, stepped and leaned forward with a wry smile on her face.
He knew little about the female convict before him, someone who was currently his recognized colleague. However, he was wary, and he kept his guard up against the psychotic yet devious aura she had about her…
All he knew was that she was dangerous.
He stiffened as Malileah suddenly reached up and brushed off a speck of dust on the shoulder of his cloak, eyeing the woman carefully as she leaned her face close to Winter's ear with a slight smirk, whispering, "I like you."
Winter scoffed, letting out a small 'che' before Malileah shushed him with a slender finger pressed coolly against his lips.
"I like you," she said again, breathily. "So, listen to me. Always watch your back, and never trust."
And before he could respond, the woman retracted and returned to her partner's side, and Winter caught the sly look on her face before she was gone as well, leaving him alone to wait for his assigned companion who could still be heard cursing inside the cave.
* * * * *
"How're your javelins?" Colleen asked, grabbing Blaze's weapons to inspect them herself. Her lips arched up and she was satisfied upon seeing that the twin dragon-slaying javelins still looked and felt as good as new.
"What did you expect? I didn't come here unprepared, Colleen." Blaze rolled her eyes and took a sip of her morning coffee, a little treat Colleen bought for her breakfast. She sat on a wooden bench while Colleen continued to inspect her weapons in front of her.
"You took so long this morning that I thought you wouldn't come," Blaze continued. "You know, the officials assigned to accompany today's expedition are worse than you." Blaze was annoyed just at the thought of them, but at least, her best friend was with her, with whom she could share all her complaints.
Colleen groaned as she was reminded of the irksome officials that were present today. Aside from Blake, the members of the Lunargard were always dislikable one way or another, their arrogant and self-righteous attitudes were irritating as f*ck. Now that Blaze and Winter were both gone, there was no one to keep the officials in check.
"Though, we shouldn't forget our main objective today. You should prioritize your safety in this expedition, Blaze. I wouldn't be able to handle it if you die from lack of focus." Colleen handed Blaze back her javelins.
"What do you take me for, Colleen? Did you forget? If Blake and Winter didn't discourage me, I would already be a high-ranking official and representative of my tribe," Blaze recalled with a raise of her brows.
"I didn't forget. I didn't and never had doubted your skills," Colleen reiterated with a pat on Blaze's head. "I just wanted you to be careful, that's all."
Blaze smiled up at her friend. But then her expression fell serious as she remembered a piece of information she caught onto earlier. "Worry for yourself. I heard the Dragon is an Earth Wyrm."
"You're right." Colleen shook her head, low-key feeling nervous about the Dragon. "Expect the unexpected," she murmured under her breath.
Blaze chuckled in response. It was a bad habit of hers that would usually scare others off, to laugh while discussing serious matters such as this…
...to laugh at danger!
Colleen sighed at her reaction, disappointed but not surprised. "Anyways… the more difficult the enemy, the more cards the officials will expose when fighting. We need to find out who the twin dragon-slaying sword user is amongst the officials," Blaze said gravely. "Blake is not one to fall easily, we both know that. We will have to be careful investigating the officials."
Colleen nodded. "But it's too bad, there are too many Dragon-slayers participating today. The officials might just stay at the back to strategize the assault."
"I won't let that happen," Blaze said determinedly. "By the way, where do you think Winter is staying? There are no safe places outside the Faction. Other Factions won't just accept him either," asked Blaze.
"…I might have a clue, Blaze."