Something I probably should've mentioned in the first chapter: this is NOT going to be a harem story. Hell fucking no. Anything resembling a harem will be played strictly for laughs and will be resolved in a mature, reasonable manner. Again, since this story has multiple protagonists, it leaves a lot of room for branching friendships and different pairings.

This chapter will conclude the introductory arc for the COG. I'm shooting for lots of character development and interactions between the squad, along with more fleshed-out interactions between them and the residents of Koda Village. Why must so many possibilities for world-building be skimmed over? I weep manly tears at this injustice.

How will the Gears adapt to the Special Region? Will Gyules' otaku nature drive Weaver crazy? Just what the heck is up with Hutch? And will Captain Mayweather ever learn what a catgirl is? Let's find out…

(Alnus Hill Outskirts)

It was early morning when the COG finally sent troops out to assess the deserted battlefield after the invading army's final defeat. Unlike the previous night, the sky was cloudy, casting a gloomy atmosphere in the valley around Alnus Hill.

Master Sergeant Bare was disheartened to learn that his earlier prediction came true. Everywhere he looked were signs of battle: craters from the combined tank and mortar fire stretched across the landscape as far as the eye could see, made worse by countless corpses of men and beasts scattered around like ragdolls. Tattered remnants of once-colorful banners fluttered pitifully in the breeze, while loud snaps occasionally echoed through the graveyard when his boots would step on a broken weapon. While he understood the reasoning behind the COG's declaration of war, a part of him regretted that things had escalated so quickly.

Maybe things would've been different if the invaders tried using diplomacy instead of engaging in multiple, ultimately futile struggles against the Coalition. Perhaps it was all just a huge misunderstanding on their part. Unfortunately, it looked like Bare would never find out. These mysterious men from another world chose their path and dug their own graves.

He wished Sarah was around to help guide him. She always knew the right thing to say when he was feeling troubled.

"How many do you think we killed?" a voice behind him asked. Teddy turned around to look at the flamethrower-toting Gear who asked the question. Following close behind him were two other soldiers – Privates Dalton and Gyules, if he remembered their names correctly.

"Since we arrived? Almost 230,000." He replied in a deep, baritone voice. "260,000 if you factor in the Jacinto incident. The COG doesn't play around when it comes to warfare."

"Oh my god… we killed over a quarter of a million people with only a few thousand soldiers…" Private Dalton murmured with no small hint of shame. Bare had a feeling the kid was too nice to be a Gear sometimes.

He shrugged, turning back around and never losing his pace. The trio were assigned to search for any enemy survivors and, if possible, bring them back to base for interrogation. So far, they hadn't found anything other than massive amounts of death and destruction. They could've called it a day and went back themselves, but Bare wanted to conduct a thorough check of the area just in case.

"Like I said, they don't play around. We do what has to be done for humanity's sake – it's why we've survived as long as we have against the Locust. Hell, we could've ended this war in seconds if we had the Hammer of Dawn set up."

"I guess that's true," Dalton admitted. "I still wish we could've found a more peaceful solution, though. I'd rather not start a war if there's any way to prevent it from happening."

"They're the ones who started it, Alec. Not us." Gyules reminded him. "They came through the gate and started killing innocent people for no reason at all. If that's not grounds to start a war, I don't know what is."

Dalton stayed silent, apparently agreeing with his friend.

Teddy honestly didn't know what to make of the guy. They'd been introduced to one another a few hours ago when they were assigned to go scouting; if it hadn't been for Gyules cracking a joke about him denying a promotion, Bare wouldn't have known he was working with the Hero of Jacinto himself. Alec was friendly and polite, if a little sensitive, though he couldn't imagine the younger Gear single-handedly driving off swarms of hostiles while the civilians evacuated.

Well, he'd done it somehow. He hadn't mentioned it at all since they'd met, though, and he seemed eager to leave the incident behind and move on, so Bare didn't bring it up.

Gyules was a lot easier to figure out, at least on the surface. He appeared to be a happy-go-lucky young man who enjoyed cats and had a strange taste in literature. That's what he'd been able to pick up while listening in on his random chats with Dalton, anyway.

Bare cracked a tiny smile under his helmet. They were both good kids who didn't deserve to see the horrors of the Locust War firsthand. If visiting a new world let them keep their innocence a bit longer, even if their government wasn't on good terms with the natives, then so be it.

Who knew, maybe he'd have time to get to know them better in the future. Good friends were hard to come by these days.

"Hey, you know what I just realized?" Gyules piped up again. "Since all three of us are wearing helmets, we don't need to worry as much about all these vultures crapping on our heads!"

Then again, maybe not.

(Imperial Palace)

Lavish as the Imperial Senate's meeting chamber was, the Emperor's throne room in the Imperial Palace was comparatively simple in its design and decoration. Other than a humongous red carpet covering the length of the room, eight marble pillars that reached from the floor to the ceiling, and a pair of large windows on either side of the throne, it was mostly devoid of furnishings.

Bathed in shadow on his literal seat of power, Emperor Molt listened intently as the Internal Minister of the Empire, a bald, aging man named Marcus, went over details regarding the final outcome of the Second Battle of Alnus Hill. News of the battle hadn't reached the Imperial capital until very recently. Technically this was either a good thing or bad thing: good, if the Allied armies were holding out better than expected, and were simply too busy fighting the Blue Golems to send a progress report until now; or bad, if they were all slaughtered and the detachment of Imperial scouts watching from afar had to make the report themselves.

However, to the Emperor, either option was a good one. Now he would find out which method of victory it was.

"Your Majesty, we expect over 180,000 casualties in total among the nations. The defeated armies have been left without leadership and are returning home." Marcus filled him in.

"All according to plan, then." Molt leaned back in his throne and steepled his fingers together, looking very much like a stereotypical evil villain at that moment. "Our neighbors can no longer threaten the Empire."

He wasn't surprised in the slightest to hear the news. Some would've disagreed with his methods, and some did, but Molt Sol Augustus hadn't led the Empire to an era of prosperity not seen in more than a hundred years by acting kind. Were his vassal states planning a rebellion, now that the Imperial army was too weakened to stop them? Take advantage of their pride as warriors and sic them against a superior enemy force before they became a problem.

He'd successfully weaponized the only enemy to ever defeat the Empire in direct combat, without them even realizing it. Since they'd inadvertently done him a favor, he was content to leave them alone for now.

However, he still needed a way to stop them, or at least slow them down if they ever decided to become a thorn in his side once again. Luckily for Molt, he had a plan.

"Burn every village and town from Alnus to the Imperial City. Poison their wells and take their food and livestock. That will stop any army and leave them vulnerable," he ordered without hesitation.

Marcus nodded, his expression neutral. "Scorched earth tactics, I see."

Would it work? Possibly. The golems were clearly an advanced race of beings, and with both sides of the gate under their control, it was feasible they could form a steady supply line from their home dimension if they ever felt inclined to leave Alnus. Then again, there was a slight chance the recent battles could have cowed them into submission – in spite of their overwhelming victory – making them afraid to venture far beyond their stronghold in fear of further attacks. With so little information about the Blue Golems or their motivations, it was impossible to know for sure.

Did they even need to eat or drink? Again, he didn't know, but he wasn't willing to take any risks regarding them. Not when the Empire was in a state of political turmoil.

"I worry about defectors and the loss of tax revenue." Marcus voiced a new concern.

Speaking of political turmoil…

"Defectors, you say?"

The Internal Minister lifted his head to look Molt in the eye, causing the Imperial ruler to inwardly frown. He'd been busy admiring his reflection on Marcus' bald dome.

"There are motions to have you recalled within the Senate, beginning with Duke Casel." His retainer clarified.

Molt leaned forward, suddenly showing more interest than he had throughout the entire meeting. "Is that so? This is a good opportunity to take care of the entire Senate in one swoop." Casel dared to challenge him? Oh, this was getting fun. He grinned at the thought of making the troublesome Duke's life a living hell. "Let us order the Council to investigate."

Whatever Marcus was about to say next was interrupted when both men heard the doors to the throne room slam open, followed by the sound of armored footsteps approaching them.

"Your Majesty!" a female voice called out.

"Ah, my beloved daughter. What do you need?" The Emperor planted a fake smile on his face as the Imperial Princess came to a halt next to Marcus.

The fifth eldest of his numerous children at nineteen years old, Piña Co Lada was nonetheless third in the line of succession, despite her mother being nothing more than a mere concubine. She was dressed in a red and white sleeveless blouse that exposed a generous amount of her ample cleavage, along with a short white skirt, thigh-high leggings, and black stilettoed boots reinforced with steel. Pieces of bronze armor covered her shoulders, knees, and parts of her chest; completing her outfit was a pure white cape that nearly touched the floor. Piña's unusual red eyes perfectly complemented her long crimson hair, which was tied back in a single large braid.

She was beautiful, but also the biggest pain in the ass Molt had ever raised. She was smart enough to pose a serious threat should she ever desire the throne for herself. If it wasn't for her unwavering dedication to the Empire and its welfare, Molt would have had her removed a long time ago.

She also had a bad habit of barging in when she wasn't wanted, as she demonstrated just now.

"It's about Alnus, of course." She replied to her father's inquiry without missing a beat. "I have learned that an allied army has faced miserable defeat, and that the Empire's holy ground at Alnus Hill is occupied by enemy forces."

Was she telling him this, or asking for confirmation? He made a mental note to keep her away from Marquess Casel. The two of them working together to bombard him with facts he already knew would've been too much.

"What are you doing at a time like this?" she demanded.

"We will use this opportunity to take back the Hill-"

"What complacency!" Piña cut Marcus off, scowling at him. "That will not help us stop the enemy invasion! If the combined strength of the Allied Kingdoms wasn't enough to defeat them, what more can we do?"

Molt took that opportunity to step in. "Piña, you are correct. We are far too ignorant regarding the enemy that occupies Alnus Hill as of now." He grinned when a new scheme suddenly came to mind. It was the perfect excuse to make her go away and stay out of his business. "This is perfect. Could I ask you and your Order to scout their position?"

That got the effect he wanted. The princess flinched in shock, her red eyes widening. "M-Me? With my Order?"

"Indeed… If your Order is more than your plaything, of course." The Emperor added in a somewhat mocking tone.

Piña gasped, then stiffened. She got down on one knee to kneel to him.

"I understand, Your Majesty."

Molt watched with a smirk as his daughter stood up and departed the room. Once again, he'd come up with a win-win scenario to get her out of his hair. Simple recon was an easy enough task, though it would take almost a whole week for her and her knights to reach Alnus Hill proper. Any information they could gather about the Blue Golems would be invaluable. On the other hand, if the Order was compromised and Piña were to be killed… well, that just left one less contender for the throne, didn't it?

The only way things could get more perfect would be if that bothersome Fire Dragon decided to attack Alnus Hill as well.

(COG Command Tent, Alnus Hill)

"Report in, Second Lieutenant. What sort of losses have we taken?"

Captain Mayweather waited patiently at the table as Akira Yanagida flipped through his folder, searching for the correct details in the COG after-action report.

"My biggest concern is that we're running dangerously low on artillery ammunition. Our supplies at Wrightman Base have been exhausted. If the enemy returns again, I doubt we'd be able to hold them off a third time." Yanagida informed him.

"Noted. I'll send a message to High Command as soon as I can." Mayweather nodded. "Anything else?"

The new lieutenant tensed in his seat. "We… do have one confirmed casualty, sir." He said hesitantly. "One of our men was killed in last night's assault. Apparently, the enemy made it closer than we thought."

The old captain sighed, removing his boonie hat to rub his forehead. The night raid came as an unexpected surprise for the COG; the only reason they'd detected it was because of the rotating snipers they kept on constant watch. While he wasn't too worried about their defenses being overrun, he also wasn't naïve enough to believe they would survive the whole ordeal unscathed. It was the closest thing to a real threat they'd encountered since arriving in the Special Region.

"How did he die?" Mayweather asked.

Yanagida checked his papers again. "One of the enemy soldiers made it close enough to fire an arrow, it seems. It went straight into his neck."

Ouch. That was unlucky. If there was one place where a fully armored Gear was vulnerable, it was their exposed neck.

"What was his name?"

"Private Damien Carmine, sir."

Carmine, Carmine… the name sounded vaguely familiar. If he remembered correctly, the Carmines were a family with a long and colorful background in the military. However, if the whispered rumors surrounding them were true, they were also said to breed like rabbits and die like lemmings.

"We sent his body back through the gate this morning," Yanagida continued. "His family will want to see him one last time. Other than that, we've gotten off easy, to say the least."

"Very good. If that's all there is to report, then you're dismissed, Lieutenant."

Yanagida nodded and made to exit the tent. As he opened the flap, another Gear with blond hair ducked under his outstretched arm in order to enter.

"You called to see me, sir?" First Lieutenant Reynolds straightened her posture, ignoring the glare Yanagida sent her way.

"Ah, Rey-Rey, you made it just in time!" The captain greeted his niece with a warm smile. "Take a seat. There's something important I need to discuss with you."

Courtney sat down, eyeing him curiously. He quashed the urge to gush over how much she looked like her mother at that moment – he needed to focus. There would be time to embarrass her later.

He cleared his throat before speaking. "So, the Chairman has come to the conclusion that we need to investigate the people, industries, religions, and politics of this region. The more we know about this world, the easier it will be to pinpoint the mastermind behind the Jacinto incident."

"An investigation, huh? That sounds great and all, but what does that have to do with me?" Reynolds queried.

"I'm getting to that. First, we're going to form six deep recon teams. Your mission will be to command one of them."

She blinked owlishly. "…You're kidding. This is another one of your jokes, isn't it?"

"What makes you think this is a joke, Rey-Rey? You're an officer with years of leadership experience. There's no one more qualified to lead a team in the Special Region than you. Besides, I thought you'd jump at the chance to go out and explore the frontier, get some fresh air, maybe kill a few bad guys…" Mayweather listed off.

"Okay, okay, I get it." Reynolds relented. "Which team will I be in charge of, and how soon can I get copies of their records?"

Her uncle smirked. "I'm glad you asked."

(Three Hours Later)

Lieutenant Reynolds stood rigidly with her hands clasped behind her back. Lined up in front of her were six other Gears, each one of them fully armed, armored, and ready to deploy at any minute.

She wanted to say they looked like a team of carefully selected professionals. Truthfully, they more closely resembled a random mish-mash of specialists and personalities than anything organized. Not that any of them were bad people – okay, maybe one of them was – but Reynolds knew she had her work cut out for her if she wanted to convert them into a cohesive and deadly fighting force.

First from the left was Sergeant Vinnie Weaver, the most likely the group to cause problems and the one she trusted least. Once hailed by the public as a decorated sniper, then shunned as a convicted murderer, Weaver's release from prison had only been done out of sheer necessity. Although his psyche profile indicated he held no grudges against the COG for his incarceration, Reynolds would make sure to keep a tight leash on him as they explored the Special Region.

Following him was Corporal Faith O'Nellis, Weaver's trusted spotter and the only other female Gear on the team. She and him came as a package deal; neither of them seemed to go anywhere without the other. She'd also reportedly testified for Weaver during his trial, narrowly saving him from execution. If anyone could keep the unruly sniper in line, it would be her. Other than that, she was a fairly level-headed and outgoing woman whose presence would definitely be welcomed as a benefit.

Private Wesley Hutch, medical expert. As intelligent as he was antisocial, Hutch possessed over ten years of experience in the Medical Corps that gave him unparalleled knowledge on how to put a broken soldier back together. That being said, the man had a very peculiar issue: his ability to express emotions had been severely hampered due to a rare form of PTSD. There was no given reason as to why, though Reynolds guessed it likely had something to do with his status as a medic. They saw some utterly fucked up injuries sometimes, especially during the Locust War, so she could sympathize if he had trouble socializing.

Master Sergeant Theodore "Teddy" Bare, heavy weapons specialist. The oldest and most experienced Gear on the team, Bare's physical strength and brutish appearance concealed a sharp mind with a lot of insight on the art of warfare. Any hostile contacts they might run into would be smart to think twice before picking a fight with him. If they weren't, then the Mulcher machine gun he hefted around would quickly show them the error of their ways.

Private Rudolph Gyules, incendiary handler. She knew from Yanagida that he lost his brother to the Locust, fueling a strong desire for revenge against a specific and extremely lethal type of grub. In a way, coming to a new world and doing some recon was the best thing that could've happened to him – he had a much better chance of long-term survival in the Special Region than the remnants of Sera. He was another one she'd have to keep an eye on, however; while none of them were strangers to personal issues, Gyules was the top candidate for biggest potential clusterfuck.

And finally, Private Alec Dalton. He was just… there.

For all the hype surrounding the "Hero of Jacinto", there was surprisingly little content in his records. He'd done a brief stint as a guard during the Lightmass Offensive, patrolled the streets of Jacinto on a daily basis… and that was about it. There was nothing noteworthy to say about him prior to the invasion. He seemed satisfied to just stay in the background and follow orders. He looked disciplined enough, so Reynolds guessed that counted for something.

These were the Gears now under her command. These were the people she would fight and bleed alongside for the foreseeable future. Their teamwork and trust in one another would determine whether they succeeded or failed in their mission.

This was Theta Squad.

"Fall in, Gears!" the lieutenant ordered. "I'm First Lieutenant Courtney Reynolds, and I'll be your commanding officer on this assignment! Our mission is to make contact with the townspeople in this area and determine their nature. If possible, we should seek to establish friendly relations with them."

"And if they're not friendly?" Bare rumbled.

"Then we retreat. Don't engage unless you feel it's absolutely necessary." Reynolds answered. "Any other questions? Good, then let's mount up and get moving! I want us on the road in ten!"

"Yes, ma'am!" the rest of Theta chimed in unison.

The newly formed team began walking to the two Packhorse jeeps they were given for their mission. Dalton and Gyules walked side by side, chatting excitedly to one another, when Weaver suddenly slipped in between them.

"Well, well, if it ain't my old friends, Dweeb and Weeb!" the sleazy sniper greeted, clapping a hand on each of their shoulders. "How've you guys been doing? Did you have fun killing medieval retards yesterday? I sure as hell did. I had lots of fun."

"Vinnie! We've been over this!" O'Nellis yelled at him.

"Wait, what makes me a dweeb?" Dalton asked confusedly.

Reynolds stifled a groan. This was going to be a loooong deployment…

(Imperial Palace Exterior)

Many miles away, in the Imperial capital city, another expeditionary force was also preparing to leave.

Princess Piña Co Lada paced back and forth near the gates to the palace while the trio of knights she'd chosen to accompany her looked on. It hadn't been an easy decision to bring such a small group; conversely, having the entirety of the Rose Knight Order as backup would've ruined the covert nature of their assignment. As such, she'd carefully chosen the three members of her Order best suited for the task.

Her first choice was obvious. Grey Co Aldo was a man in his middle age, with short gray hair and a few wrinkles on his stern face. He was clad in an unremarkable set of plate armor, and carried a two-handed greatsword over his back. He'd been the one to help her found an order of knights all those years ago, back when she was a preteen with a wild imagination and an insatiable urge to prove herself to her father. Grey was a wise yet hardened warrior with decades of combat experience. If anyone could find the best solution to the enemy occupation of Alnus, it would be him.

The second choice was also an easy one. As her personal attendant, Hamilton Uno Ror was intensely loyal to the princess and quite ferocious in a fight despite her youthful features. She wore an identical copy of Piña's outfit, though the red coloration was substituted for brown in her case; to top it off, she wore a blue headband over her light brown hair. Even Emperor Molt found her adorable, which was why Piña brought her along in addition to her capabilities as a knight. A lot of the Empire's citizens wouldn't see any harm in giving her information. Plus, if worst came to worst and they ran into the Blue Golems, would they really be heartless enough to kill someone so cute?

The final member of her party was Norma Co Igloo, who held the distinction of being the youngest male member of the Rose Knights. He had blond hair kept in a short ponytail along with a soul patch, and wore full plate armor like Grey, though Norma's was a bit more ornamented. She'd initially considered bringing Bozes or Panache instead of him, since they were better fighters, but both girls had a reputation for their… direct methods when something didn't go their way. Norma's laid-back personality ensured he wouldn't be bothered if the mission ran into any obstacles or lasted longer than expected.

"This is our first real assignment as Rose Knights," Piña began, slowing down her pace to properly look at each of her underlings. "What we've been tasked with may sound simple, but the outcome could very well solidify our reputation as an Order, as well as help the Empire determine the best course of action regarding our unknown foe. I've chosen you three since your particular skillsets might give us an edge."

"What would the Emperor have us do, princess?" Hamilton asked.

Piña stopped and took a deep breath. She didn't have a clue how any of them would take the news, but it was too late to back out now. "We are to scout the enemy position at Alnus Hill." She stated plainly.

Norma's jaw dropped. "I'm sorry, but has your father lost his mind?! Doesn't he realize that no amount of manpower will drive the Blue Golems out of their fortress? What he's asking is impossible! We'll all die!"

"Watch your tongue, Norma!" the leader of the Rose Knights reprimanded. "He wouldn't do this just to get us all killed! He never said we needed to face these 'Blue Golems' directly, so for now we'll try the indirect approach."

"Which would be…?" the blond teen trailed off.

"I recommend we start by asking some of the townsfolk in nearby settlements for information. Chances are at least one of them might know something useful." Grey suggested.

Piña nodded in approval. "That sounds like a good idea, Grey. If we stop at each town and village between Sadera and Alnus Hill, we could get a better understanding of what to watch out for by the time we arrive at the enemy's doorstep."

"I'm curious to find out whether they're really golems. Do you think they're made of stone?" Hamilton pondered.

"Why? Are you imagining what they'd look like if they aren't? Wondering if you can take one home to conduct a private examination, maybe?" Norma teased.

"N-Norma!" Hamilton's face flushed. "I have a fiancé!"

The Imperial Princess, having grown weary of their conversation, motioned for the knights to follow her to their waiting horses. "I don't know what they are or what they want, but that's why we've been sent to investigate," she reminded them. "Now, come. I'd like to reach the first major settlement by dusk."

Her father finally gave her a chance to prove that the Rose Knight Order was more than mere honor guards. Piña was determined not to let this opportunity slide.

(Koda Village)

Private Wesley Hutch stepped out of the Packhorse into the daylight, stretching his limbs as he adjusted to finally being outside after four hours cooped up in the back of the vehicle. They'd chosen to follow a dirt road leading northwest, and while the scenery outside was quite pleasant, the cramped interior of the turret-mounted jeep hadn't exactly been comfortable. O'Nellis and Weaver emerged from the driver and passenger sides, respectively, linking up with the rest of Theta Squad to observe the village that lay ahead of them.

They'd found a settlement a lot faster than he'd expected. It was a moderately sized, isolated location in the middle of a small forest. A wooden gateway with unfamiliar writing painted at the top was situated at the village's entrance; beyond it were many simple houses. Hutch could see a few locals stop whatever they were doing to stare in awe at the Packhorses and their occupants.

He wondered if any of them carried contagious diseases. He'd need to give the squad a full check-up later.

Anyway, the first part of their objective was complete. The group of Gears huddled together, and Wes made sure to pay close attention as Reynolds explained the next phase.

"Now that we've made contact with the natives, we need to show them we don't mean any harm," she instructed. "Do whatever you can to look peaceful; if someone tries to instigate a fight or otherwise bother you, just ignore them and hope it gets resolved. Remember, we're visitors here. We can't afford to make ourselves look like the bad guys."

"And if we aren't comfortable mingling? Not all of us are great conversationalists." Hutch interjected.

"Then lay low and let the rest of us take care of it. I've picked up a few words from the POW's in Jacinto, so I'll try to handle most of the talking."

Her answer was enough to satisfy the medic, and he thought he saw Weaver's posture relax a little. The other four soldiers on the team simply nodded in understanding.

"We all set, then? Great. Let's go make some friends!" their leader finished encouragingly.

The seven Gears approached the town's entrance at a casual pace, each of them trying to look as unthreatening as possible. Word of their arrival seemed to spread quickly across the village; as they drew closer, Hutch noticed more and more people clustered around the gateway. None of the residents appeared to be armed, and they weren't pointing fingers and yelling for blood, so he took that as a good sign.

When they were roughly a dozen feet from the entrance, a short, portly man with a large mustache split away from the crowd to approach the team. He was dressed in a simple brown jacket over a beige button-up shirt, dark pants, and wore a light red scarf around his neck. Sitting atop his frizzy gray hair was a brown fedora.

He stopped six feet away from them, spread his arms in welcoming with a cautious yet kind smile, and said something in the native language. Reynolds replied with words of her own, although her voice sounded a lot stiffer. Whatever she said must've been correct, however, since the man's smile grew and he began talking at a mile per minute (much to the lieutenant's chagrin and the squad's amusement).

Once he finally shut up, Reynolds turned to face her team with a victorious smile.

"He says we can come in!"

"Hold on, are you saying you actually understood most of that?" Gyules asked in amazement.

The blond officer shrugged. "Barely. Almost nothing he said matched the most common vocabulary our prisoners used… Although now that I think about it, that might not be a bad thing."

"Hah! Reynolds learned all the nasty words first!" Weaver cackled, earning him an elbow to the gut from O'Nellis.

"Just for that, Sergeant, you get to stay behind and guard the Packhorses while the rest of us go in." Reynolds ordered, glaring sharply at the offending sniper. Then she sighed, shifting her attention to Wes. "Would you mind keeping an eye on him, Private Hutch?"

Hmm… Socialize with potentially hundreds of unknown people, or babysit a single, mouthy Gear? He'd be missing out on a possibly valuable opportunity to study this world's medical practices, but then again… socializing. He'd stopped doing that years ago when he realized that meaningful interactions were ultimately pointless in his field of work.

Even though Reynolds said he could lay low if he wanted, the chances of him making it through the ordeal without having to talk to anyone were slim to none. He'd come if he was needed, of course; as a medic, it was his duty to identify and treat illnesses, fix broken bones, and save human lives whenever and wherever he could.

In the end, it wasn't even a choice.

"I'll watch him."

"Thank you." Reynolds nodded appreciatively. "Gyules, Bare, Dalton, and O'Nellis, you're with me. Let's see what these locals have to share."

The five of them left for the village, leaving Hutch and Weaver to themselves. The latter meandered over to the front Packhorse and sat down on its hood, lighting up a cigarette. Hutch frowned under his helmet.

"Smoking is a health risk," he stated.

"Yeah, and the sky's fucking blue. Any other wise words to share with me, doc?" Weaver retorted.

"Lung cancer is a serious ailment that could hamper your-"

"I was being sarcastic, genius!"

(One Hour Later)

Lieutenant Reynolds slumped against the side of a small building and let gravity carry her to the ground. The diminutive man who welcomed them earlier – whom she learned was the chief of Koda, the name of the village – was nice enough; but man, he'd been all too eager to teach the COG visitors the native language and recount the history of the sleepy little settlement. She didn't think the people living here saw much excitement in their day-to-day routines.

She'd grasped enough of the language that she'd written down several fractured sentences in a pocket-sized notebook, so that was a plus. Reynolds excused herself after an hour of crash course studying to take a lunch break, which led her to where she was currently resting.

She discreetly pulled her old grade school lunchbox, messily decorated with at least thirty horse-themed stickers, out of her satchel and gazed at it lovingly. The hunk of metal and plastic didn't just hold food; it also held memories of simpler, happier times before Emergence Day turned the world on its head. Courtney was initially mortified when Uncle Maurice presented it to her shortly before her introduction to Theta Squad, but now she couldn't be more grateful that he'd held onto it for all these years.

It felt too heavy to be empty, so she opened it up and smiled when she saw what was inside: a simple baloney and cheese sandwich, a bag of barbeque flavored potato chips, and a can of diet soda. She didn't bother to hide her smirk. While Captain Mayweather was adept at leading soldiers into battle, he couldn't lead eggs to a frying pan.

Tucked into a corner of the lunchbox was a note. Reynolds unfolded it and started to read as she took a bite into her sandwich:

Hey Rey-Rey!

This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime for both of us, huh? I wish I could be out there exploring the Special Region with you, but I'm afraid I'm just too old to go on those kinds of excursions. Besides, someone has to keep the Gears in line at base, and I kinda don't trust Yanagida not to go mad with power if I leave him in charge. Ah well. I'll find a way to entertain myself, so don't you worry.

I'm proud of you, Courtney. I know I say that a lot, but it's true. You've grown so much and never lost hope in humanity, even when the chips were down, which is more than I can say for many people since the damn grubs first attacked. I'm confident you'll succeed in your mission and make a lot of friends along the way. Even if things don't go as planned, just keep your chin up and make the best of what you have. That's the kind of attitude that made you an officer, yeah?

Anyway, have fun, and don't forget to bring me a souvenir!

Love, Uncle Maurice

P.S. If you happen to find yourself a handsome man out there, bring him back to base. He'll only get my blessing if he beats me at poker.

Reynolds wiped the tears away from her eyes. She really was lucky to have such a great uncle, even if he plotted to embarrass her to death half the time.

"Penny for your thoughts, Lieutenant?"

She yelped in fright and swiftly hid the lunchbox behind her back when she heard Bare's voice right next to her. Reynolds turned to glare at the Master Sergeant, who was easily carrying a wooden log under one muscled arm.

"For the love of god, Bare, don't sneak up on me like that!" she snapped.

"Sorry. I'll try to make louder footsteps next time." Teddy replied smoothly. "Anyway, what are you up to? Had enough of people for a while?"

Out of everyone in the squad, the tattooed veteran was probably the one Reynolds had the least overall concerns about. He didn't talk much, but it wasn't for the same reasons as Private Hutch; Bare seemed more content to sit back and listen to others first before offering his own opinion. Combined with his calm demeanor and years of combat knowledge, Reynolds was seriously considering making him her second-in-command.

"You could say that. The chief's been really helpful, but he'll talk your ear off if you give him half a chance. Sorry for yelling at you, by the way." She apologized. Teddy used his unencumbered arm to shrug, indicating that he didn't mind. "So, any word on how the others are doing?" the blond Gear continued, curious to know what their progress towards peace was.

"See for yourself," Bare swept his free hand in front of him in the direction of the village's main street.

It was easy to pick out her squadmates through the gaggle of residents. O'Nellis was attempting to communicate with a brunette woman by pointing out various objects around them and saying their names in Tyran; in turn, the woman provided a local translation for the corporal. What made the scene especially noticeable was the eight or so teenage boys not-so-subtly ogling the Kashkuri woman a short distance away. If Weaver was present (and Reynolds was thankful he wasn't), he no doubt would've picked a fight with them by now.

Gyules was being far less productive. He moved from person to person, mimicking cat gestures and meowing, and would sulk each time the residents gave him odd looks or shook their heads. Reynolds was prepared to march over and demand to know what the hell he was doing, when the sound of something heavy hitting the ground close by grabbed her attention. An old woman had dropped a basket full of fruit, and much to Gyules' saving grace, he immediately jogged over to help her collect the wayward food.

Dalton apparently became a huge hit with the village's children, evidenced by the five kids clinging to his armor as he slowly waded through a crowd of cheering youths. They seemed to be playing "Dogpile the Gear", and though he held strong for now, it would only be a matter of time before the private was buried under the sea of squealing children. All the parents were laughing jovially as they spectated him playing with their kids, and Reynolds was glad to see one of the adults watching over Dalton's discarded weapons. It meant he knew as well as she did that letting children touch a chainsaw bayonet wasn't exactly a smart idea.

She didn't think she could hope for better results.

"This is amazing!" the lieutenant beamed, a huge smile spreading across her face. "We're actually making friendly contact with people from another world!"

"It is pretty incredible, isn't it?" Bare agreed. "I'm just happy to know that peace really is possible. I've been in three different wars so far, so it's nice to see everybody getting along for a change."

Reynolds looked back at him, still smiling. "Oh? Is our big bad Bare secretly a softie at heart?" she teasingly asked.

"They call me Teddy Bare for a reason," the muscular man replied, taking her jab at him in stride. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to deliver this log to the firewood shed. Nobody likes this sort of manual labor, so I figured I'd do my part to help out by sharing the burden. Enjoy your lunch, Lieutenant."

He left with the log in tow, waving over his shoulder without looking back.

Reynolds made herself comfortable against the wall, opening the bag of chips once she finished her sandwich. She giggled when she saw Dalton finally topple under the children's combined weight.

Between the note from her uncle and the friendly interactions between her Gears and the natives, it would take something utterly ludicrous to ruin her good mood.

(Road to Koan Forest, Two Hours Later)

Private Gyules was bored.

The squad departed Koda Village half an hour ago and were now back on the road. Rudy was seated in the back of the lead Packhorse with Alec, with Bare driving and Reynolds riding shotgun. The lieutenant had lucked out when the village chieftain gave her a crude map of the surrounding area as a parting gift, along with directions to another settlement in a place called Koan Forest. While the chief confessed that he knew very little about the other settlement's inhabitants, he promised Theta that neither side would come to harm.

Gyules knew the mission was proceeding flawlessly so far, and that he should be in high spirits because of that, but his mood was still sullen. Not one of Koda's residents knew where to find a catgirl. And to make matters worse, he was still bored.

"I'm bored!" He voiced his plight out loud.

Reynolds sighed, and he heard her fold up the map she was examining. "Me too, Gyules. Staring at the landscape got dull the first hour after we left base." There were more sounds of crinkling paper before she spoke again. "Forgive me for sounding unprofessional, but we'll need ways to keep ourselves entertained between these long road trips. Any suggestions? Books, maybe?"

"I wouldn't recommend that unless you have a strong stomach," Dalton advised. "I tried binge reading comic books on a train when I was eight. One minute I'm fine, then boom! Vomit everywhere."

Gyules laughed at the memory. It was the day after they first met, when he and Randy invited Alec into their family while they made the journey to Jacinto. The puke-stained cabin was obviously disgusting to think about, though he reflected on the flashback with nothing but fondness.

It was the day the three of them became barf brothers.

"Ugh, yeah, good point. Don't need anyone getting nauseous." Reynolds shuddered.

"We could always play some music," Bare threw in. "I severely doubt this world has radio stations, but I think I can scrounge up my old CD player. Pretty sure it still works…"

Reynolds nodded in agreement. "Music, definitely. I don't care what genre you guys like, as long as it lasts until we reach our destination. Remind me to make a list later."

"Ooh! I know!" Gyules suddenly perked up when an idea came to him. "How about we sing a song to help pass the time?"

Dalton snorted. "After the last time? No way."

"I'll pass. I don't have much of a singing voice." Bare declined.

Reynolds shrugged, turning in her seat to face him. "I'll bite. What song did you have in mind?"

Wait, she was agreeing to sing with him? Rudy cheered inside his mind; this was the perfect chance to demonstrate the superiority of Eastern culture to everyone in the jeep! And she was their commanding officer, too, so that just made it even better!

"Are you familiar with the Mei Com theme song?" he inquired.

Across from him, Alec buried his helmeted face in his hands and groaned. Hmph. He was just in denial. Rudy would convert his best friend, one of these days.

"Um… no?" Reynolds responded hesitantly.

"Don't worry! I'll teach it to you!"

Alec groaned louder as Gyules cleared his throat and began to sing:

"Right now, Meikon! Meikon!

Here we go, right now, Meikon! Meikon!

Spread their wings, see them fly!

Magical girls soaring through the sky!

Right now, Meikon! Meikon!

Everybody, Meikon! Meikon!

Evil villains, you're out of luck!

No way these chicks will let you-"


The young soldier winced. Heheh… uh… whoops. He must've accidentally opened a channel to the other jeep's occupants at some point.

"Sorry about that, mate." O'Nellis apologized a moment later. "Word of advice – don't ever wake Vinnie when he's napping."

Reynolds noticed he'd abruptly stopped singing and frowned in mild concern.

"You okay, Private? Not that I'm complaining or anything, but why'd you stop?"

"…I forgot the rest," Gyules fibbed.

(Koan Forest Outskirts, Nightfall)

The plan was originally for the Gears to set up camp when they reached the forest's border, Sergeant Weaver recalled. It wouldn't have done them any good to wander into unfamiliar territory without a good night's rest beforehand. Additionally, if they just moseyed into the next settlement without warning in the dead of night, they risked spooking the locals, and that wasn't something any of the squad wanted.

However, as the saying went, "no plan survives contact with the enemy". Or in this case, "no plan survives contact with a fucking dragon".

"Is that a real d-d-dragon? Like the ones f-from the fairy tales?" O'Nellis squeaked. The poor woman was visibly shaking in her armor, clutching tightly to Vinnie's side even as he wrapped a comforting arm around her waist.

The forest was burning. It wasn't the type of fire caused by a cooking mishap during a camping trip, either – everywhere he looked from Theta Squad's perch two klicks away were flaming trees. Massive plumes of smoke stretched high into the air, obscuring much of the nighttime sky in front of them.

It wasn't thick enough to hide the rampaging dragon flying above the forest's canopy, though. He'd gotten a fairly good look at it through his Longshot's scope; the fat lizard must've been at least twice the size of a Brumak or Corpser, and at least three times as deadly, since it was spitting fire hotter and more frequently than his old drill sergeant when he first enlisted in the army.

Weaver almost wished he was back in the Slab, even if it was just a pile of rubble by now. He'd rather take his chances with the other inmates than deal with an honest-to-god mythical monster.

"Bare, what sort of firepower are we packing?" As always, it was Reynolds who took charge of the situation. He wondered if she noticed her accidental pun. Probably not.

"One fifty caliber turret, one Mulcher, one Longspear, and whatever it is we're carrying," the Master Sergeant listed. "We might be able to injure it, but I can't say I'd like our odds in a fight."

"I am not going in there." Dalton stated.

Vinnie didn't blame the kid for speaking out of line. Hell, if Reynolds decided to channel the spirit of his previous CO and order the squad to charge in, he would've grabbed Faith and ran the opposite way as fast as possible.

The dragon roared in the distance, making O'Nellis flinch in fear and adding even further incentive to that plan.

"It's unusual behavior for an animal to destroy a habitat for no reason." Hutch interjected.

"Everything about this situation is unusual, doc!" Weaver sarcastically pointed out.

The medic ignored him and kept talking. "Remember, we've been informed there was a village somewhere in this forest. I hypothesize that the dragon is currently attacking it, or perhaps making it impossible for the residents to escape before it can get to them."

"I changed my mind. If anybody wants to try and save the civilians, I… I wouldn't back out," Dalton said, although the nervousness in his voice betrayed his brave façade.

"What should we do, Lieutenant?" Gyules inquired. Six pairs of eyes turned as one to look at their leader.

Reynolds lowered her gaze to the ground, deep in thought. Weaver prayed she would make the right decision. There was nothing heroic about sending an entire team to their deaths – he and Faith knew that better than anyone.

It was part of the reason he was imprisoned, after all.

"…We'll camp here for tonight. If the dragon's gone by morning, and the fire's settled down enough, we'll try to find the village." The blond Gear sighed, raising her head. "Believe me, I want to save as many people as I can. I do. But the team's safety comes first, and I don't want to rush in without knowing how powerful this thing really is."

Weaver smirked, and he felt O'Nellis relax a bit against his chest. Good call, Reynolds. Not that I would've helped if you did decide to go in. You're already a cut above the last jackass I served under.

The rest of Theta nodded, some more somberly than others.

Reynolds continued, "I know this is a hard decision, but it's for the best. Who wants first watch?"

"I'll do it." Weaver offered with a lazy wave.

Three hours passed and Vinnie was still on watch. The dragon, apparently satisfied that the forest was thoroughly destroyed, had flown away about twenty minutes earlier, leaving the disgraced sniper to gaze out unobstructed into the valley of burning trees.

He blocked the mental image of fresh corpses digesting in the red beast's stomach. There was nothing they could've done to save the villagers.

"Wonder how much ammo it'll take to kill that thing," he muttered, sitting down on the grass and stretching his lanky limbs.

Luring the dragon back to base so their defenses could take care of it wouldn't work. Even though the COG forces stationed there could likely reduce it to mincemeat in seconds, the base was simply too far away to be of any practical use. Plus, Vinnie wouldn't bet on either O'Nellis or Bare dodging the dragon's fire breath for the whole eight-hour drive back.

Maybe they would never see the overgrown lizard again. That was also an option, if an unrealistically optimistic one.

Weaver didn't react when he suddenly heard footsteps approaching him from behind. Lieutenant Reynolds appeared on his right side a few seconds later, joining him on the grass in a cross-legged position.

The two Gears watched the inferno that had once been a lively forest for several minutes. Neither one of them spoke. Eventually, Vinnie pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to his new companion.

"Wanna smoke?" he asked.

Reynolds lifted a hand and shook her head. "No thanks. I'm trying to quit." She politely declined.

"Suit yourself." Weaver shrugged, lighting the cigarette and popping it in his mouth. No need to waste it when he already had it out.

The silence between them stretched on for another couple of minutes. Vinnie was fine with it, if he were honest. He wasn't much of a talker except when he and Faith were alone, and even then, it was always the spotter who kept their conversations going.

Reynolds began to squirm in place. Either she really needed to use a restroom, or she was steeling herself to talk to him again about something. Either way, she was struggling to hold something in, and Weaver didn't think he would like whatever it was that came out.

"I want to know the full story, Sergeant Weaver."

Dammit. There were plenty of good bushes in the area, too, and he wouldn't have peeped if nature was indeed calling. Vincent Weaver was a lot of unpleasant things, but a perverted sicko wasn't one of them.

"'Bout what?" he stalled, taking a long drag of his cigarette.

"You know damn well what," Reynolds snapped, glaring daggers at him through the fire's illumination. The sniper was careful to maintain a bored expression. If she got pissed at him, then whatever happened next wouldn't be his fault, and O'Nellis wouldn't yell as much if she was woken up.

"No, I don't. Enlighten me." He drawled.

The lieutenant had to take a few calming breaths before she could speak again.

"I want to know why you murdered your former commanding officer."

Of course she did. Jeez, you kill one person the world would be better off without, and you're suddenly branded as an irredeemable traitor.

Hard to believe three years had passed since the murder, Weaver mused. It felt like only yesterday that he put a pistol round through Major Quinley's eyes.

"I'll tell you the same thing I told High Command: the guy was a glory-hungry sonofabitch who would've let O'Nellis and I get butchered if it earned him a medal." He said bluntly. "I confronted him over it, he got violent, and I pulled a gun. If you want the details, you know where to ask for them."

He exhaled a steady stream of smoke. "But that ain't what you're concerned about. I know what you're really afraid of, Lieutenant. Don't be."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Reynolds demanded.

"I'm saying you have nothing to worry about with me… besides my charms, of course." Weaver grinned, wiggling his eyebrows beneath his hat. He chuckled when Reynolds made a face.

"Look, I killed him because he was a loose cannon of an asshole." He told her in all seriousness. "If he was in your position right now, he wouldn't have hesitated to send the whole team into the forest while the dragon was still there. But you? You analyzed the situation and determined that we all would've died."

"…That bad, huh?" she whispered, referring to the late major.

The ex-convict nodded. "Yeah. He got shit done, I'll give him that, but the casualties were just too high for those under his command to accept. He wasn't above using meat shields, either."

"And O'Nellis? What did she think when you… you know, killed him?" Reynolds pressed.

Vinnie glanced back at the sleeping forms of Theta Squad, his eyes lingering over one person in particular; the only Gear who stood firm and didn't crack under the weight of Chairman Prescott's interrogatory questions. He'd never felt so grateful to have someone like her in his entire life. He just couldn't stand the thought of losing her on some suicide mission.

"Faith still puts up with me, right? That should tell you enough." Weaver answered.

"She means a lot to you, doesn't she?"

"Yeah, 'course she does. She's the only person I like and not just tolerate."

Reynolds' posture loosened, and he could barely make out a ghost of a smile cross her face. "Is that true, Sergeant? What are your thoughts on the rest of us, then?"

"Let's see…" Vinnie held up a hand and counted on his fingers. "You're an uncle's girl, Bare is an edge lord, Dalton's too soft, Hutch is fucking creepy, and Gyules is a weaboo of legendary proportions. Did I miss anyone?"

"Nope, that's all of us!" Reynolds covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. "And don't you badmouth my uncle. He's the most bitchin' relative a girl could ask for."

"Whatever." Weaver extinguished his cigarette and stood up to leave.

He paused before heading back to the campsite, looking down at his new CO.

"Listen Reynolds, I, uh… fuck, what do you want me to say? I know I'm not an easy person to get along with, and I ain't changing the way I act so people will like me. And we both know I've done bad things to stay alive. But as long as you don't needlessly endanger us, I won't cause you any problems. Nothing I can't fix on my own, anyway."

Weaver started walking away after that, feeling more vulnerable than he had in weeks and determined to get some sleep, when Reynolds called out to him one last time.

"Sergeant Weaver?"

"Yeah, what?" he sighed in annoyance, turning back around.

Reynolds looked conflicted for a second. "I… I know you've gone through some difficult times lately."

Vinnie resisted the urge to roll his eyes. That was a fucking understatement if he ever heard one. If murdering his douchebag commanding officer, getting threatened with execution, and spending three years in Sera's toughest prison where the average life expectancy was one year was "difficult", then he'd hate to see what she considered a real challenge.

"If you have any concerns about anything, I'd appreciate you bringing them to me so we can work on a resolution. We're a team, Weaver. I might be in charge, but that doesn't mean I want you guys to blindly obey every order I give you. Even officers can be wrong sometimes." Reynolds said sincerely.

He didn't know what to say to that, so he didn't say anything. Instead he just nodded and left for the camp.

He silently cursed when it started raining an hour later.

(Koan Village Remnants, The Next Morning)

Theodore Bare brought the Packhorse to a stop and stepped out of the driver's seat, soon joined by the rest of Theta as he observed the smoking remains of what had once been a thriving village.

There wasn't much left to see. The only signs that a village even existed here were a few ropes hanging from skeletal tree branches, smoldering piles of wood that might've previously been shacks… and the charred corpses of the dragon's victims, all of them twisted and melted beyond recognition. The air filter in Teddy's helmet was working overtime to prevent the miasma of smoke and death from reaching his nostrils.

"These poor people… It'll be a miracle if we find any survivors." O'Nellis said sadly.

"Ground's still hot," Dalton noted, shuffling from foot to foot.

When was it going to end? The Master Sergeant wondered despondently. How many more innocent people were going to die because he was powerless to save them?

All this muscle, all these weapons, all this training and fighting and bloodshed, and he couldn't even help save a simple village. Why couldn't the COG save anyone but themselves?

No, the Coalition wasn't the entity to blame – he couldn't save anyone but himself. It felt like the weight of both worlds was resting on his shoulders, and he didn't think he could take much more before he collapsed.

Bare's fists tightened around his Mulcher's handles. He wasn't a savior; he was a killer. All he did was kill. Damn the Indies, damn the Locust, damn this world's invaders and damn the dragon that made him this way!

"Are you feeling okay, Sergeant Bare? You seem tense," Gyules asked worriedly.

Teddy let out a long, shaky sigh. "No, kid. No, I'm not okay."

Before the incendiary trooper could respond, Lieutenant Reynolds stepped forward and swiveled around to address the squad, unholstering her Mk. 1 Lancer assault rifle as she did so.

"Listen up, Theta Squad!" she yelled, her voice echoing through the empty village. "Our new objective is to gather information on what happened here and find any clues that might lead us to survivors. Weaver, O'Nellis, search the area and see if you can figure out what the death toll is!"

"Yes, ma'am!" O'Nellis nodded, then jogged away in a random direction.

"Ugh, I hate getting stuck with corpse counting duty…" Weaver groaned, trudging after his partner.

"Dalton, Gyules, get an estimate on the number of structures here! You have permission to check the interiors if they look stable enough, but be extra careful!" Reynolds continued.

"Got it!"

"Sure thing, LT!"

Both privates saluted and left to carry out their assignment.

"Hutch, examine some of these bodies. See what you can learn from them!"

The medic nodded wordlessly, walked over to the nearest corpse, and knelt down to inspect it.

"Bare, I want you on security. Nothing gets in or out of this village without you knowing about it. Do I make myself clear?" Reynolds finished.

"Crystal," the tattooed Gear confirmed.

He spent the next half hour dutifully patrolling the village's perimeter, but if anything was still alive in the charred forest, he couldn't detect it. The only sound besides the crackling of dead branches in the stiff breeze was the occasional chatter of his teammates.

The whole location was eerily similar to Char, Teddy realized. The only difference was that the victims here still had their flesh, so they weren't damned to spend eternity as ashen statues.

He checked back in with Reynolds every now and then to provide status updates, and she in turn shared any information the squad had collected. Weaver and O'Nellis summed up a total of 27 corpses; too few to inhabit the 32 buildings Dalton and Gyules identified. Reynolds calculated that if three people lived in each building, it meant that roughly a hundred residents died – either from getting scorched by the dragon's fire breath, caught under the rubble of collapsing structures, or being eaten alive.

What interested him most were Hutch's findings. While most of the bodies were too burnt to properly identify, the stoic soldier noted that all of the more intact corpses possessed one common feature: signs of having long, pointed ears. Neither Bare nor Reynolds knew what this meant, but since once-fictional races like goblins and orcs were confirmed to inhabit the Special Region, they couldn't rule out the possibility that the destroyed village might have housed a population of other demi-humans.

"I'm going to go file a report for Captain Mayweather. If the dragon attacks settlements, we need to figure out where it's most likely to strike next." Reynolds said once she was done briefing him.

"Do whatever you have to, Lieutenant. I'm going to have a quick rest by the well." Teddy jerked his thumb in the direction of a circular stone well.

Reynolds nodded and left for one of the Packhorses, Retro Lancer still in hand. She was on edge, he could tell. He didn't envy her.

Bare sat down at the edge of the well, inspecting a nearby bucket attached to a rope that somehow managed to avoid getting burnt to ashes in last night's attack. He briefly entertained the idea of filling it up over and over again to douse the lingering embers around the village, but ultimately decided against it. It wasn't like there was anything left worth saving. Again…

He grunted loudly. The sight of the bucket was bringing back his earlier thoughts and making him upset again. He needed to get rid of it.

Teddy stood up, marched over to grab the offending piece of wood, and chucked it into the well.


…What was that noise?

He slowly crept back to the well, drawing his sidearm as years of combat experience kicked in. He'd left his Mulcher on the ground next to it; he could easily grab the weapon if he needed to, although trying to fit a machine gun's barrels down a small hole didn't sound like an appealing prospect.

Bare reached the lip of the well and peered inside. When he saw what – or rather who – laid at the bottom, his eyes widened in shock.

"Lieutenant, get over here! We have a survivor!"

You knew it had to happen. I knew it had to happen. It's not really Gears of War until a Carmine dies.

I wasn't kidding when I said Episode 2 would be a goliath. If I combine this chapter with the last one, it would probably total around 19,000 words in length. I might have to split the chapters again, or I might not – it all depends on what happens in the episodes I'm writing for. …Yeah, it'll probably happen again.

Theta Squad has been formed and is ready to kick some ass! Their interactions were hilariously entertaining to write, and they'll get even better as the story progresses, I guarantee it. Having seven main characters to write for instead of one is waaaay more fun. Plus, it leads to more character development later on, which means extra scenes to write for!

Time to answer more of those sweet, sweet reviews:

Guest: I like to call what I'm doing "expanding on the source material". The general plot will remain the same, but I plan to make some edits to scenes that felt awkward or uninteresting, and occasionally throw in some original scenes.

Wacko12: This chapter should've answered your question. RIP Carmine.

ColonelStriker: A jewel, you say? You flatter me, good sir! I'm just expanding on all the wasted opportunities in the original series, as well as making it more badass. A lot of people only come to this site to read, but me? I'm here to teach myself how to become a better writer.

JammyONE: I thought Duran was very likeable as a character, and deserved a more in-depth role in the battle. As for the sign… Corporal O'Nellis mourns it to this day.

I worked extra hard to make a long chapter, so reviews would be a great satisfaction to me. It could be about anything: Predictions for the future? Favorite squad member, and why? Thoughts on whether Dalton will ever be relevant again? I'm curious to know!