Snowfall is heavy at this time of the year. The mountain range is pelted by hail and wintry gusts, forming blinding torrents of white. Vision is limited as is distance – however steep the footprints are imprinted in the snow, they’re covered not even a minute later. It’d be difficult to tell left from right, let alone forward. The flakes seem to cascade down endless miles and naturally, it is no condition for travel.
The freezing cold is deterrence to a group of stragglers, six of them, holding onto their equipment for dear life. A closer look at their black-clad uniforms and assault rifles would reckon they’d be mercenaries instead, but professionalism is hard to gauge considering the bulk of them are teeth-chattering, teary-eyed folk.
There’s only one of them not following dress code. He goes in full winter wear with a thick parka. A scarf peeks out from underneath and his stature is that of an untrained worker, a rookie that doesn’t belong with the rest of the team. The man has purposes of his own – as for whether or not he regrets it, his face says it all. The man’s brows are slanted upward, lips taunt, his face sullen. Obviously displeased, but he doesn’t dare complain. He pushes a cargo cart slowly uphill.
A voice beside him is muffled amidst the storm. “It’s so cold...”
Another voice follows, no less miserable. “The colonel says we’re two hours from destination.”
They’re quite young, all of them, with the eldest one in his thirties. The youngest of the stragglers is a crimson-haired female whose baby face is now stiff by the wind. Her hair is cut short and hidden halfway with a protective helmet. Though she’s begrudgingly taking steps up the mountain, her frame is not meek. Frail is the last that comes to mind.
She rotates her wrist, likely checking if her blood circulation has been cut off from the sheer cold. Through her battered gloves are calluses on her skin, the indications of rough training. It had been half an hour and no one else delights to engage in conversation. The young woman is mumbling to herself now and the young man is silent beside her. He’s a mere foot apart, but the fogginess is misguiding.
In the burrows of winter, on a tall mountain peak, the six make their way up and do not look back. A soft melody is hummed by a bulkier soldier ahead, but it is drowned out by wailing winds. The nursery song sounds unholy when mixed.
The redhead almost wails. “I think it’s impossible to endure for two more hours…”
The eldest man looks behind him and answers with a flashy grin, “Private Li, don’t complain too—"
“Be on guard.” A sharp command cuts off all conversation.
The man stands in front of the entire group, his back tall and firm. Despite the low visibility, he holds enough presence to make himself known. It’s not so much his height nor the pitch-black uniform that contrasts heavily with the scenery’s white, but rather his aura – magnetic but commandeering all the same.
He crouches down and brushes away a patch of snow. On the ground is a fleck of soot and it would be barely noticeable in most cases but in such a barren environment, it strikes off as odd.
“This was recent debris,” the young man says with slightly furrowed brows. “Hannes, scout our surroundings. Li Jiayun, provide cover for him. The rest of you follow me…”
He remembers something else and then adds, “No, the gatherer should stay behind… That is, if you don’t want to be eaten alive.”
A subtle smirk makes way to his face before he schools back to seriousness. The man has quite the playful nature but on the field, he’s the most elite of soldiers and an even more capable leader, bar none – or so he likes to think.
“I should hide?” The gatherer, the blue-collar worker who’s only here to piggyback on the expedition, looks shaken. “I can’t see anything…”
“First time?” Somebody smacks him on the back. It’s the elder of the group, Hannes, who is perpetually in a good mood. His dark brown eyes always have a particular glint to them. “Buddy, the colonel isn’t joking when he says you’ll be eaten. You folks from the inner city are not aware but…”
He juts a finger in the noon direction. “Against those things, none of us may be a match.”
The gatherer squints his eyes but doesn’t find anything. “Where is it?”
“By the time you see it, you’d probably already be—"
A dark flash catches his eye and Hannes immediately backs away. The predator, that creature moved so quickly it came in a blur. The raucous shriek is all the forewarning before sharp claws drill their way forward, missing the soldier’s ribcage by a harrowing centimeter.
“—dead! Yang Rong, two o’clock!”
Following Hannes’ shout is a torpedo of bullets and the man instantly kicks the gatherer aside. Li Jiayun grabs the person by his collar and pushes him up. The man is stunned during the crisis and she has to yell to get his attention. “Get up and go!”
The gatherer is frozen in fear, however, and just when he’d steeled himself to hide behind a boulder, his vision is blocked by a leopard-like creature the size of a truck and its features are grotesque enough to make him vomit – protruding eyes, fur like daggers, scaly abdomen. Its body may be in the shape of some feline, but it has to be a fusion.
The head bulges out in pulpous ways. Its ears are oozing white liquids and even those ears don’t suit its body. The mutation has formed a chaotic thing, like different animals melting into its body.
The man opens his mouth to scream but crimson claws pin him against the rock. His death was not a painless one but that’s how they all go – eyes opened wide, blood spurting from the orifices, guts ripped out.
They’d been trained for this or perhaps they have some immunity, but none of the soldiers bat an eye before engaging in combat, completely disregarding the gatherer. As the grimy fangs begin feasting on the deceased man’s body, the squad shoots the creature down. It only has an effect to some extent.
“These cheap bullets!” Hannes curses during reload. “Sending us out with limited ammo is just telling us to die.”
“Sergeant Hannes!” A soldier lands a shot to its temple and the creature staggers back, still alive but more obviously crippled. “Shoot its back! It’s forming wings!”
“Nice shot!” The man grins. “You’re a real talented kid. No wonder the colonel took you in. A few more years and maybe you’d be able to scratch my ankle.”
“Ah…” Li Jiayun is flustered, “thank you, Sergeant…”
“Don’t flirt in front of my face!” yells a handsome young man, the colonel, as he fires a bullet straight at the creature’s back. It ruptures a spot above the front arm, breaking its scales and eliciting a loud roar. The mountain almost shakes at the intensity of the sound.
Hannes clicks his tongue in dissatisfaction and roars back, “Yang Rong, you’re too pent up. How can this even count as flirting?! This little kid is not my type at all – let me tell you, I like an omega with pretty eyes, plush lips and a big—holy fuck! Watch out!”
Yang Rong quickly flips over to the side, arms tucked inward so as to block the blow coming his way. There is little hesitation in his movements – there’s a reason why he’s a wartime colonel. His body is lean but firm, muscular in all the proper places. The dodge is too close for comfort and as the beastly thing rushes for a kill, the colonel pulls a full-tang knife from his belt and slashes upward. Putrid liquids splash from the creature’s neck, dotting his black jacket in whites and blood red, sweeping right past the insignia on his chest.
His fast reflexes do not leave him unscathed and he grunts before finally prying the beast off. Nails have torn through his clothes, leaving three ragged stripes of blood.
Hannes takes the final shot and sloppily blasts the predator’s head off. Yang Rong sighs as the rest of his team rush up to inspect his injuries. While Hannes is examining the corpse, Li Jiayun and the other two young soldiers quickly unload their med kits.
“Are any of you injured?” the colonel asks as he roughly slaps a bandage on his chest, more so for decency than anything else. “Let me check.”
“Worry for yourself first, Colonel Yang.” Li Jiayun makes a noise of frustration and she slumps onto the ground. “I’ve lost track of how many of these things we’ve killed.”
“I am worrying for myself,” Yang Rong replies as he brushes snow off his boots. “If any of you were bitten, I might have to shoot you myself.”
He says it like a jest, with his lips curving up and all, but there’s more hidden in his forest green eyes. They’re of an uncommon color, some shade between jade and steel blue. They’re also a lot paler when the light catches at certain angles, like now when he has his head tilted upward, smirking in that carefree way he always does.
As a person, his personality can be considered overbearing and quite often irritating, but as a leader, he’s hard-edged, firm and most importantly, capable. It doesn’t mean he hasn’t suffered losses nor does it mean he’s unwilling to go back on his words. He scrutinizes his men with eaglelike intensity, not missing even the smallest of papercuts.
“Old man Hannes, show me your hands.”
The sergeant shrugs, holds out both palms and allows his superior to check. Safety precautions are always a drag but it’s protocol they’ve learned to follow after too many incidents. Seeing that Yang Rong is appeased, the older man wraps an arm around his shoulder and says with his most greasy voice, “If you care for a more thorough body inspection, I can undress for you.”
“Not interested,” comes Yang Rong’s offhanded reply. “I’m desperate but not for you.”
“Baby, I’m a huge catch.”
“The only thing huge about you is your body,” he replies. “All the nutrients have supplemented your horizontal growth and not so much anything else.”
Hannes bats his eyelids and says, “I’m also huge in another region.”
Yang Rong seems to think about it before denying. “Not quite. In fact, we’ve compared before and—"
“—Colonel,” a dull voice interrupts them before the conversation gets any more unbearable, “we should crate the corpse and head to the nearest zone. I’m losing my sense of smell.”
The mediator is a young soldier in his mid-twenties. He has on a disinterested expression and first impressions would show he doesn’t care much for conversation – straight-faced, deadpan eyes, lips thinned into a line. The only characteristics that would show some semblance of personality are his arched brows and the tiny scar above his cheekbone.
His name is engraved on the silver badge clipped to his uniform: Yoo Seok. He’s of Asian descent, as are most of the squad with the exception of Hannes and partially Yang Rong, whose origins are still unknown – unasked, really, because the matters of family are considered insensitive in such times.
Yoo Seok is a little more than average looking, with extra points added due to his height but also lost due to his stony exterior. If there were ever gossip polls on the most attractive force in the seven continents, Yang Rong’s would be the top contender; never mind that the number of combatants is limited in the first place and that beauty standards are just a tad desperate.
This even includes Hannes Miller who might come off as a slovenly man with his unshaved, prickly beard and his tangled brown hair that hasn’t been washed for days. He shows signs of early aging due to this harsh lifestyle but his deep-set features were no doubt attractive in his prime years.
A low cough comes from Yang Rong and he gestures for Yoo Seok to go on ahead, completely disregarding the fact that he and his sergeant were acting like greasy old men. So what if he ventures off-topic occasionally, the colonel is still convinced he’s a great leader.
“The nearest shelter is twenty minutes northeast,” Yang Rong says as he directs his men to take care of the creature’s corpse. “Pack it up and we’ll bring it back to the Nexus.”
“What about him?” Li Jiayun motions to the gatherer’s body. “Are we bringing him back too?”
“No.” Yang Rong approaches the dead man on the ground. His expression is indecipherable when he examines the gatherer’s torn body. The wounds are already blistering and purpling from the cold. “We cannot transfer more cargo.”
Yang Rong brushes a pile of snow onto the corpse, hiding the pools of blood underneath, and then he says, “The report will be that he’s lost his way in the beautiful peaks of the Arctic, buried by soft snow.”
“Ahh! Colonel Yang!”
A high-pitched shout holds the attention of everyone in the vicinity. The person is a meek-looking young soldier with eyebrows perpetually downcast. The inner corners are pulled up and together which makes him look like a frightened fawn. It doesn’t help that his eyes and nose are bright red from the cold. If not for the military uniform, the boy would be mistaken for a young immature teen.
“Colonel Yang!!” The soldier treks the upward hill and continues to scream to be heard. “There’s blood!”
“Huh?!” Yang Rong shouts as he zips his backpack. “Blood? Of course there’d be blood! Idiot, is this your first time outside?!”
“N-No! I mean there’s blood—like, another type of blood!” He tries his best to convey but the stutter and teeth chatter aren’t helping his case. He resigns to gesturing wildly with his hands. “Like another person’s blood and it’s leaving tracks down the slope. Right there!”
“Don’t think about it,” Yang Rong says disinterestedly. “Jiayun, tell him it’s not our problem.”
Li Jiayun, who is forced to bear the brunt of the colonel’s irresponsibility, is hesitant. She blinks her eyes rapidly. “Jae found something. I think it’s good if we take a look?”
Yang Rong immediately seeks his next target. “Hannes, go and take a look. Shout if you’re in trouble.”
He pats his chest before adding, conveniently, “I’m injured.”