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My eyes widened and a murmur rippled through the crowd. That was a lot of monsters. If they were all lower leveled monsters, it wouldn’t be that much a problem. If they were upper leveled, it would be a handful. Then again, that was why they’d employed ten S ranked, eighty-eight A ranked, and two B ranked Hunters.

Except I was actually recorded as my official rank, so yeah, still E. For a little bit longer. Although the fifty-grand payout for this trip sure shortened that timeline by a lot. The S and A Hunters were getting paid more because of their rank, but I wasn’t going to complain. I was just grateful for the boost. Then again, I’d only get paid if I came back alive. The Association wasn’t going to pay the families of the dead bodies.

Bethany motioned to the map behind her. “The mission, which you have already accepted, is to go into Las Vegas, eradicate the monsters there, and find the Portal. The Gates are over two hundred meters tall, you can’t miss them no matter where you are standing for miles away. This Portal is completely different. We know that it’s there, but we can’t find its location. For all we know, it's inside a building or basement or even attached to one of the fissures that opened up from the earthquake. With the high concentration of monsters, we aren’t able to pinpoint the exact location. It’s up to you to find it. Once the Portal is found, a plan will be developed to close the Portal. The sooner, the better.”

The crowd muttered in surprise. The hundred people who were part of the mission didn’t show a reaction — they obviously already knew. But the Hunters who were there for the party didn’t expect it.

Bethany glanced up in my direction. Her eyes locked on mine for a split second, and the smile on her face became more natural. Then her gaze flicked over to Kesstel. All the welcoming in her face vanished in an instant. She looked back at the crowd and spoke, taking control of the noise. “Yes, close the Portal. A method of closing a Portal has been made known to the Hunters Association Council. Inside each Portal is a supreme monster, the Boss of that Portal. Once that being is killed, the Portal will disappear. How strong that being is, we don’t know yet. But we believe that we have the manpower to make it happen.”

She lifted her hand. “Because this method will not work on a Gate, we want to get rid of this Portal before it becomes a Gate. America, as a whole, doesn’t have the manpower to tackle another Gate at this point. And after two decades of neglect, turning that area into a liveable place for people, taking the cost of clean water, housing, and food, it’s simply not affordable either. If it was left unchecked, the people who would suffer the most, outside of the New Mexican No-Man’s-Land, are the locations under the Redding and Eden Gates’ protection. Which is why it’s best to take it down, the sooner the better. And we are grateful for the Quebec Hunters to come and help out.” She smiled and nodded at them.

I planted my hand on my chin and looked at the people dressed in dark green. Bethany made them sound so gracious, but I'd bet fifty bucks they weren’t here strictly by choice. I bet they were ordered to bring a group of people, a set number of S and A Hunters.

Ironically, the two B Hunters were from Eden.

The crowd cheered the Quebec Hunters, who took it like champs.

A movement to my side stole my attention, and I looked over. The waiter was coming back with a silver tray balanced on his hand. He stopped at the table just behind me and set a tall drink down then placed a white plate filled with appetizer-like snacks.

Kesstel walked over to the waiter and touched the pay screen that the waiter pulled up.

“So,” Bethany sighed. “That was a lot of information on what has happened. Let’s talk about what will happen.” The US map behind her zoomed in until it showed a satellite image with bright yellow state lines drawn in where Utah, Nevada, and Arizona touched. Several blue dots were lit up and labeled. Bethany motioned to the map. “Because of the degree of monsters in Las Vegas, it is not safe to land a plane in the area. The closest city with a large enough airport is St. George, Utah.” A blue dot lit up brighter than the rest in the northwest region of the map. “The city has been vacant for years, but the strip is still in good enough condition and a team landed there briefly this morning to clean it off.”

I leaned against the rail and stared at the map. All of this was new information to me. Honestly, I probably jumped in a little too fast since I didn’t even wait for the facts first, but I was anxious to find those two Portals. I stared at the map and frowned. There was quite a distance between St. George and Las Vegas …

An orange line snaked across the map, connecting the two cities along the winding interstate and through a canyon. There wasn’t a spec of green on the satellite picture, all varying shades of brown and red desert. Even the tiny little line labeled the Virgin River, which twisted with the interstate for most of the path before it broke off to make a couple lakes to the southeast of Las Vegas, was more brown-green than any other color. Considering the beauty that I saw in the Gate everyday, this map wasn’t that encouraging. Then again, I wasn’t going there to sightsee, even if it was my first time leaving Garden City.

“After landing in St. George, the expedition team will take the waiting vehicles to Las Vegas,” Bethany said. “It will take roughly two hours and you will enter the city from the northwest corner. From there, the expedition team will break into three groups.”

The map zoomed in on Las Vegas. Two decades ago, this city was known for the lights and glam of the rich. Casinos and clubs fought for the attention, enticing people all over the world to visit this diamond in the desert. Now, it was nothing but ruins. The torn buildings were barely a different shade from the surrounding desert. If it wasn’t for the yellow lines that highlighted the city, I might have overlooked it, taken it for a small mountain in the satellite view. Two more yellow lines dividing the map into three parts.

“Each team will be in charge of searching Las Vegas and the surrounding sister sites in their designated areas to find the Portal and kill all the monsters.” Bethany paused and tilted her head to the side, showing a charming smile that was completely different than her pampered imperial princess she usually was. “And remember. This is a joint operation. There is no competition, no prize for actually finding the Portal. The real winner is humanity and the reward is knowing that you kept it safe.”

And the money that you get when you get home. That could be in a couple days, or even a couple weeks, depending on how long this operation took. I pursed my lips, thinking about it.

“Camps and meeting locations will be set up according to your team leaders. They will also be in charge of setting up the game plan after the Portal is found,” Bethany explained. Then she took a deep breath and gave a bright smile. “Now that all the formal stuff is done, it’s time to play, yeah? But just to remind you  — the planes leave at 8 am tomorrow. Play hard, but don’t be late!”

I cheered with everyone else, the sound echoing off the walls and rafters. It hadn’t even fully died before the loud, beat-heavy music came back on. Hunters eagerly turned to their companions and talked animatedly, adding a low murmur to the song.

Kesstel appeared at my elbow and held out a napkin with … two somethings on it. “My mother used to get so distracted when she got ready for parties that she’d forget to eat. I thought you might have suffered from the same plight.”

He wasn’t that far off the mark. Food had not been in the picture when Bethany’s people tortured me into shape. I slowly took the napkin and peered down at the grilled circular pieces of bread with a smear of cheese and tiny roasted tomatoes. It looked like something straight out of a cooking show. I was so used to him handing me easily packaged snacks, it was weird looking at such fancy food. “What is this?”

“Confit tomato and ricotta crostini,” Kesstel said and took a drink.

My brows lifted. “Gazoontite,” I muttered.

He frowned at me. “Is that a word?”

I blinked back at him. “Isn’t it? Doesn’t it mean bless you? Or German for ‘health’ or something like that?”

His brow wrinkled as he shook his head. “I don’t believe that’s a word. I don’t recognize it.”

I laughed and bumped his elbow with mine. “You aren’t even from Earth. How would you know?” Because I didn’t want to waste the snack, I took a bite. The roasted tomatoes burst in my mouth in a pop of bright citrus, then it was smoothed over by the herby ricotta and anchored together with the mellow taste of sourdough. My brows rose as I instantly fell in love with it.

Kesstel hummed under his breath, the sound barely audible over the loud music. He opened his mouth but paused and looked over his shoulder instead.

I also felt the presence of someone coming towards us with intent. Curious, I leaned around Kesstel.

A man walked towards us in a flamboyant strut. His flaming red shirt was half unbuttoned, revealing a fair amount of his muscular chest. Tight black pants with silver studs hung low on his waist. His wild brown hair was brushed to the right in a roguish way, the tips falling into his handsome, tanned face. His brown eyes were locked on Kesstel, a friendly smile on his face.

He stopped on the other side of Kesstel, his S ranked aura as thick as his musky cologne. “Hey, there you are, Kesstel. I was starting to think you didn’t actually come.” The man’s eyes lowered and zeroed on me. “Hm, this must be the little E girl everyone is talking about. Cute.”

I swallowed my bite hard, trying to think about how to respond to that. Did he come for Kesstel, or did he come to get a look at me? Which S Hunter was he? Without seeing the emblem on his armor, I didn’t have a clue.

Kesstel, without even looking at me, palmed the top of my head and turned me to face the lower floor. “Tyson,” Kesstel said in greeting, his tone neutral, neither welcoming or rejecting.

I reached up and pushed up on Kesstel’s wrist with my finger, lifting his hand off the top of my head. He dropped his hand on to the rail next to me, still blocking me from view.

Tyson snorted with laughter, not the least bit offended. “Come on, man. Don’t be like that.” He stepped around Kesstel and held out a hand to me. “I’m Tyson Walker, also known as the Warlock.”

Color me surprised. Weren’t warlocks supposed to be old guys that spent all their time studying magic? With pointed hats and a thick book of spells? There was nothing studious or research-y about this man. I knew there was an S god lightning Mage named Warlock, I just didn’t think he looked like this.

I reached out with my free hand and shook his. “Jyn. Nice to meet you.”

His hand barely closed around mine, like he thought I was going to break at any second. “The rumors are true. You are the girl that’s coming along. Interesting.” He let go and tapped a knuckle on Kesstel’s shoulder. “I don’t know how you talked President Anderson into letting her come. I can’t get shit out of that man. Tell me how you did it. I wanna bring my lover to Vegas too. I mean, it’s nothing like it was in its heyday but it’s Vegas, baby. A little danger is exciting, am I right?”

Instantly I choked on the bite I just put in my mouth. I gasped and sputtered as food started down the wrong tube. After struggling a second, I swallowed and blinked away the instinctive tears in my eyes. All thoughts of eating were completely wiped out of my shocked mind.

Kesstel turned his head and glared at Tyson. “Those rumors are groundless. Have a mind of what you say around her, so you don’t dirty her ears.” His angry aura flickered out in warning.

Tyson held up his hands in surrender. “Hey, I’m just commenting on what I’m seeing with my eyes. After the stunt the other day at the Gate, there’s quite a few rumors running around about this girl. Everyone is dying to find out more about the girl that you’re so damn protective of. I mean, if she’s not a lover, what is she?”

It’s true, Kesstel and I had a bit of an ambiguous relationship. I didn’t even know exactly when it turned that direction, but it was fun and comfortable. There was no question that I found him attractive and he was very important to me, right up there with my family. But a lover? Hell no. I wasn’t ready for any relationship close to that stage.

The amazing taste that I should have after the crostini was sand in my mouth. I set the rest of the snack on the table and stepped back. “I’m, ah, going to …” But I couldn’t come up with a good excuse. Instead, I flashed an awkward smile and walked away.

Behind me, I could hear Kesstel hiss. “Are you an idiot?”

I glanced over my shoulder to see Tyson reach out to hook his arm around Kesstel’s shoulder, as if the action was second nature. He paused a second before he actually touched Kesstel and dropped his arm. “Hey, I didn’t mean to scare her away.” He paused. “But seriously, how do you not lose control and kill her in bed? Such restrained sex sounds so … boring.”

Kesstel whacked him in the back of his head and sent the man stumbling.

My whole body went up in flames. I turned and hurried away. It didn’t matter where, as long as I couldn’t hear Tyson anymore.

*****

 

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A note from MichelleRReid

Don't kill me! I actually did spell Gesundheit like that on purpose.

Partly because of how horribly I slaughtered the word the first time I spelled it. (The computer couldn't even figure out what I was trying to spell. It was that bad. lol) Another part is because of how badly Americans slaughter saying that word. I didn't even know it German until I was a teen. And another part because ... you'll find out later if you're paying attention. Bahaha!


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About the author

MichelleRReid

Bio: I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.

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