Kanai and Iten were having breakfast the next morning when an F-scale tornado dropped on the other side of their table.
"What the hell happened again?" Kanai voiced the question after witnessing Orisa's I-will-fucking-murder-everyone look.
If pouts or furrowed brows had the power to kill, at least everyone in this world would have been dead already. Orisa threw them a stack of opened and thoroughly wrinkled envelopes instead of the answer and proceeded to bang her head against the table.
"I see. You still can't read? Let me and Iten help you, then." Immediately after finishing the joke Kanai regretted not having an ability to suck the words back as a thick murderous intent pierced his chest.
Together with Iten, they split the stack and quickly skimmed through the envelopes. Their faces grew more shocked with each letter.
"Well, isn't it great? I mean, you were invited into top teams of the world," while he tried to sound cheerful, it was evident that Kanai felt sad about the perspective of being separated from his friend.
"It does look appealing, indeed. Why are you so frustrated? Worried about us?" Iten's comment followed right away.
"Read the contents." She sounded more tired than angry, resting her head on her crossed arms.
They went through the first two letters before Iten looked up and said in an understanding tone:
"They are all like that?"
"Yeah, except basic squadrons." She groaned loudly and scratched her head in irritation. "Of course they'd want me to fight without Enrage. What was I even expecting from this freaking lead game designer and his plans on my life?"
"But you did well yesterday. Actually, how did you do it?" Kanai's curiosity surfaced as he gave back the letters.
"Concentration potion. I still don't know the details, but when I use it together with Enrage, something clicks inside me, and I turn into a smart and calm war machine."
"So what is the problem? You just...” With a perplexed expression, Kanai tried to argue but quickly understood the situation, "uh, I see. Shit."
"Indeed. Where am I supposed to get all these potions?" She quickly raised her palm to stop Iten for interjecting. "And don't you dare mention Tiana. She is my friend and not a free out-of-jail ticket. Moreover, even if I'd manage to get the potions somehow, am I supposed to carry them all the time? What would I do if they got damaged while we are in combat? And tons of other complications, too, including their condition for me to not use it in the first place. Unreal."
"I think we could solve any problem that you mentioned, but solving them all at the same time may prove to be a difficult task." Iten adjusted his non-existent glasses before going back to his food.
"And one last thing on that matter," she paused and waited until both boys looked at her. "I may not look like this and behave like an ass, but I really don't want to part ways with you. It's not just that it would complicate our world-saving quest, but because I like you both despite your trolling. Oh, fuck, I so hate you."
"Yeah, that's our girl." Kanai shook head in amusement.
"So, here is the thing. There was another letter in the stack and quite a strange one, too" Orisa stretched the piece of paper on the table so that both boys could read it at the same time.
"Sounds like a gay trap." Kanai slowly spoke with a furrowed brow.
"Traps are not gay!" She quickly retaliated on his baseless assault.
"Yeah-yeah, traps are just flat futas, we all know the drill."
Their laughter filled the canteen, and Iten tried to look like he was not associated with them.
"Let us ascertain our options and priorities," Iten suggested when they came out from the breakfast. "First priority is to stay together. The easiest option here is to leave the Military."
"But it would leave us bare and helpless in many ways," Kanai voiced his worries.
"Judging by your letters," Orisa outstretched her legs and hands, popping the joints soundly, "we won't be able to select the same squad, except for the basic one. But as far as I understood, there are many different basic groups, hence no guarantee that we'd end together, too."
"Seems like our safest bet is to leave the Military." Iten summarized their options grimly.
Orisa noticed a walking disaster coming their way and braced for impact.
"Oi-oi, Warlord Killer Queen Absolute Monarch Orisa, time to share your conspiracy! You promised!" Clemen started shouting when he was still ten meters away from them, making Orisa facepalm.
"Clemen, you won't be able to conspire with us if you will keep shouting like that, you know?"
The boy's palm instantly covered his mouth, and he even ducked a little. 'We are fucking doomed,' Orisa dejectedly thought while observing his crouching figure. Their bench was too small to house three people, so she stood up, leaving a spot between Kanai and Iten for their would-be compatriot. 'I don't know how wise it is to recruit him, but we still don't understand the danger of knowing about the waves and their fate. What if he goes spilling it left and right and next day assassins show up to shut us?' After sighing inwardly, Orisa began in a captain-like tone:
"Cadet, I'll be honest with you. The situation is grim, and the future is dark. Our small group discovered the phenomenon know to you the Waves is becoming more frequent." Orisa paused to let Clemen process this information, but by his unchanged look she understood that he still had zero clues. "The Waves will happen more often, meaning more Beasts every day, twice a day, and even every hour. We have around five months. The world is doomed."
Now he grasped the situation, at least that's how Orisa perceived his slightly raised brow.
"What is our plan, Leader?"
"You are not going to panic and scream while running around?" Kanai was shocked and looked at Clemen in disbelief.
"Well, this is all bad and shit, but we are already dead, right?" He leaned forward with his hands clasped, fingers crossed, assuming Gendo pose. "Are we sure this is all real? What do we know about this place? Does the chicken really have that taste?"
'He is either cleverly trolling us or... Or I don't know.' She was speechless.
"Anyhow," Orisa cleared her throat and forced the conversation forward, "our plan is to learn more about the Waves and try to figure out a way to save our asses and maybe the world, too."
"Go to Miss Satou then. She is a smart and curvy woman. Why not ask her?" He suggested in a calm voice.
Orisa slowly crossed her throat with her thumb while glaring at him with a scary face.
"Why? She is a nice chick." He was still clueless.
"Are you so sure? Do you know who you can trust here? What if you reveal this knowledge and the next morning there will be a fresh bump of dirt under the tree?" She tried her hardest to look frightening, but Clemen was unfazed. "Well, we plan to tackle the issue slowly and carefully. Maybe you are right, but we must be absolutely sure before contacting anyone. By the way, what was your career choice?"
"How should I know? Where you go, there I go as well." He said as if stating something obvious.
The trio exchanged surprised looks but said nothing.
"Actually, how is our organization called?" Clemen was restless in shaking the ground under their feet. A dumbfounded silence spread across the bench until Iten suddenly declared:
"Childhood's End. That's our name."
"Wao!" - "Yey!" Orisa and Kanai yelled at the same time.
"I think something like the Dark Order of Unfathomably Secretive Godly Heaven Sacred Revolution would fit better. But whatever." Clemen sighed in a slight disappointment.
"What are you all doing here?" Onuki's calm voice almost caused four simultaneous infarcts.
"Absolutely nothing you need to know! It's surely not related to doomsday or anything!" Clemen jumped up and began articulating vividly.
"Talking about our career choices," Orisa said after slamming Clemen back on the bench. "Have you decided on something, Onuki?"
"I... I'm still not sure," she shuffled her feet awkwardly.
"Would be great to end up in one squad, right?" Orisa smiled brightly in an attempt to cheer her up, and Onuki smiled back, relaxing a little.
"Would you be okay with joining our group if we were to leave the Military?" Orisa continued after a small pause. Onuki nodded reluctantly, hugging her sides. "Great. We have around two hours to make the final decision. I need to check on one thing quickly, please, wait for me here." And so, she left to find the last piece of the puzzle.
Orisa arrived at the guest quarter in hopes to find her target but was disappointed by the guard:
"Ahem, no. Luckily, you won't find, ahem, the Captain here. He went into the park, or so I heard."
"What does he look like?" She asked the last question and was ready to leave.
"Oh, well, you know..." For some reason, the guard's attitude was unnerving. Orisa so wanted to slap his face. "If you see someone who looks unusual and sticks out of the crowd, that's him."
She turned around and left while grumbling inwardly.
Twenty minutes later, Orisa was ready to give up when she accidentally stumbled upon a peculiar man. He lay on the grass and was whispering to a chirping bird on his palm.
Orisa was perplexed by his appearance.
He was topless and wore only skin-tight black leggings with an emblem of a barking dog on both knees. If Orisa would have been a full-fledged woman, she would probably start drooling over his six-pack and overall fit built. Even his pink hair and overly excessive makeup would not be able to drive off hungry females.
But Orisa was only perplexed.
"Um, Captain Dippo?"
"Oya? Is it you, my sweet kitten? Come, have a sit," he slapped the grass by his side, at the same time grabbing and throwing away the bird in one swift motion.
"Um, I'm okay here, thank you."
"Honey, come here, I said." Orisa immediately imagined herself in place of the bird and obediently pressed her bottoms down. "See? Good girl, I already like you."
"So, um, I-."
"Seems like those geezers didn't like you the way you are and wanted some stupid stuff?" He murmured sweetly, and Orisa quietly nodded back.
"You knew? How?"
"Dear, I've been scouting people for almost seven years now. I know their way of thinking."
They sat in silence, enjoying the weather. A few minutes later the man turned to Orisa and suddenly asked:
"So, what do you think?"
"Dummy, about joining me, of course!"
"Um, where? In what? How? Who are you?" Orisa's irritation began to surface little by little despite the calming weather.
"What do you mean?" Now, Dippo became agitated and sat on the grass, looking at Orisa intently. "What was the letter for?"
Orisa calmly took out a scrap of paper and handed it to him.
"Silly me, that's the wrong one," he theatrically slapped his forehead. "But you are still here, how wonderful it is, right?"
"I guess..?" She was so unsure of everything that was going on here.
Orisa also kept in mind the time pressing on her and demanding her decision. She had to make a choice not only for herself but for other people, too. It was scary. She was used to this, she thought. But when the price was their lives and not just positions and salaries, it became that much harder to choose.
"Ok, let's get to the point," he turned to her in exactly the same motion as she turned to Tiana yesterday, and sat cross-legged, staring at her intently. "Here is the thing, sweetie. I'm the Captain of the Army's special unit the Hounds."
The Hounds was a relatively small unit as there were only seven groups operating at the moment. Each group member Dippo picked personally. They trained together for some time under his direct supervision before going into a free roaming mode.
The goal of the Hounds was to exterminate roaming Beasts in the wilderness, preventing them from stacking into big and threatening packs. They usually had a general area assigned to them but were free to choose where and how to hunt. Once a month, they had to report back to the Captain with logs and proofs of their activity.
"How do you hunt the Beasts? Do they have some, I don't know, pattern or something?"
"Of course they do. It is common knowledge that the Beasts move away from the epicenter of the Cataclysm. Unless they encounter a significant source of Mana, they move in a straight line, away and away."
"Source of Mana? Are they hungry for Mana? Not for people?" Orisa was shocked by this revelation.
"Dear me, what are they even teaching to you? So you are saying that you don't know how they operate?" Orisa shook her head, so the Captain continued. "That's easy. They eat Mana, evolving thanks to that. That's why they attack big Mana gathering, like cities and camps. Camps actually are equipped with special devices to generate strong Mana impulses to attract more Beasts."
"THEY WHAT!?" Orisa flipped.
"My jam, don't scream, you are hurting my sensitive ears. Think about it for a second. You need a place to gather the fledglings and train them, constantly using tons of Mana. Of course, you would need to protect them, right? You also need something to drive the Wavespawn away from cities, farms, roads and so on, right?"
Orisa nodded. The logic was sound. Very pragmatic, even dirty, but still sound. Spreading firepower was unwise. If one could gather enemies in one spot with the best defense possible, who wouldn’t do that?
"Why the Beasts move away from the epicenter?" She finally asked.
"How the hell should I know, idiot? We study them, yes, but only so far as to keep in touch with their behavior."
"And nobody had ever been to the epicenter?"
"Well, I'm sure there were people that made it so far. They just were unable to tell the tale." A scary smirk covered his face.
"Tell me more about the training, study, and methods, sir."
"Oya? Well." He popped the joints on his hands before slumping back on the grass. "I'll need you quickly finish all ten levels of the Dungeon. Then we'd move to our headquarters, of course. There is a huge library here for you lot to learn some basics or whatever. I'll personally drill you, too, and then we'll go out hunting."
"How long until we would be able to hunt freely?"
"How should I know? It all depends on you. The best result was three weeks. The dumbest of the fucks I had to tutor for two months." He spat on the ground angrily.
"Do you have the squad filled up?"
"Nah, only a few slots, and I'd need like five or maybe seven more people. I have very high standards, you know?" Orisa shivered after his words and quickly asked:
"Aren't you afraid of me and my fighting style?"
"I can't care less, stupid. You are not a moron to go all out amidst your team, right?" She nodded quickly. "See? Then that's good. You look tasty with all your flashy skills and moves. Your card was quite interesting, too, so I'm sure you'll be able to figure something and be useful in the meantime. Am I right, darling?"
She nodded again before diving into her thoughts. Some time passed, and Dippo spoke again:
"Are we done with the interrogation? Time is ticking, cutie. I want you now, but if you don't like it, then stop wasting my time."
She let out a long sigh. On the one hand, there was freedom and danger of poverty and other scary things. On the other hand, almost everything they wanted, but a strange and suspicious fellow. That other hand smelled fishy, but like every trap, it was tempting and well-thought.
Finally, Orisa turned to him and spoke in a heavy voice:
"I have three conditions."
Book 1: Childhood's End.