5: I’m Not Leaving Anybody Behind

Ryo says, “Kiera, time to pack and leave now. Our Captain has returned with all the refugees.”

I look around for a familiar face among the refugees but I can’t find her. “Strange, Nisa’s group is not among the refugees. Have they been left behind? I must return to the last rendezvous and find them.”

Ryo does a calculation in his head. “The last time I did my scouting, the Undead Patrol was already moving towards our location. We probably have approximately twenty minutes before they arrive.”

I do the time calculation in my head as well. “But we can’t leave Nisa’s group behind. They will die if the undead finds them. If I go now, I would have enough time to bring them here.”

Ryo points to the refugees around us. “Weighing that against the sixty who have already been rescued? If we don’t leave now, the Undead Patrol is going to find this portal and pursue the other sixty into the City. Their lives matter too.”

I won’t look at rescue missions like some game of numbers. Behind every number is a life that matters. Behind every number is a human whose dreams and aspirations matter. “Ryo, what if you’re one of the few who got left behind? Won’t you want someone to come to your rescue?”

Ryo pauses for a while. “You’re right. I wouldn’t want to be left behind. Nisa’s group can’t return to their former town, they would be executed for desertion. And yet, if they continue to stay in the wilderness, they will eventually die of starvation. Caught between a rock and a hard place.”

I smile and put my hand on Ryo’s shoulder. “I know I can count on you to support my crazy decision. This won’t take long. I’ll make a quick run to the last rendezvous point and find Nisa’s group. I can make it back before the Undead Patrol discovers our portal’s location.”

Ryo looks doubtful. “Alright, but even if I agree to play by your crazy game, our Captain would not allow you to leave.”

Captain Ganeson walks towards us from the refugee group he just rescued. “Kiera, Ryo, this is the last of the refugees from the rendezvous. Right after everybody has passed through, we need to shut this portal down.”

How shall I approach our Captain with my crazy request? He will surely disagree. “Captain, I need to go back and find Nisa’s group. I promise it will be a quick one.”

Without giving a thought, Ganeson’s reply is quick. “Nisa’s group was slow and didn’t reach the rendezvous on time. I wanted to wait for them. But with the Undead Patrol heading towards our portal location, we will not get back to the City safely. The Undead Patrol is too big for us to take on directly. Ryo said they have more than a hundred ghouls on their side. We have only five armed militias to protect sixty refugees. Do the calculation. If we stumble upon the Undead Patrol, I assure you there will be heavy casualties among the sixty refugees. I cannot risk that. I apologize but I have no choice but to leave Nisa’s group behind. You need to understand the difficult call I have to make.”

I totally understand the part where Ganeson had to leave behind Nisa’s group in order to protect the other sixty refugees. But here I am, bargaining for the life of a little girl, who I know will not survive this ordeal if I don’t go back and rescue her group. I don’t need to be a judge to throw out a death sentence. Here I hold the power to the life and death of Nisa’s group. “Captain, if you give me some time, I assure you I can safely get Nisa’s group back here in time.”

Ganeson laughs. “Kiera, no offense intended. But you’re just the team counselor assigned to help the refugees deal with their traumatic war experiences. You’re not the fighting sort. If you encounter any ghouls, how are you going to fight them? Your persuasive counselor’s words won’t convince the ghouls from tearing your limbs apart.”

Did my Captain just throw an insult at me? Just because I’m not a good fighter as he is, he doesn’t have to make fun of my counseling abilities.

Ganeson says, “We can’t rescue everybody, Kiera. You need to let this one go. I’m going through the portal first and lead the sixty refugees to our next checkpoint. You and Ryo watch the rear. Once all the sixty refugees have gone through, shut the portal down immediately. The Undead Patrol shall be the least of our concern. Is that understood?”

I want to say no. “Understood, Captain.”

The portal door shines brightly with blue light. Ganeson and his militias walk through the portal and disappear, magically transported back to our City. The sixty refugees enter the portal one by one, until only Ryo and I are left at the portal.

The portal is hidden in a cave in the wilderness, a strategic spot which our undead enemies wouldn’t find easily. I look outside the cave towards the scorch-baked wasteland where Nisa’s group is probably still waiting for us. I look at the shining blue light of the portal again with heaviness in my heart.

Ryo studies my face and he totally gets me. “I know what you’re going to do. Even though Captain explicitly forbade you from going back to rescue Nisa’s group, you are still going to attempt it anyway. Even if that means you’re going to be reported to New Haven’s Leadership for insubordination, you will still do it.”

I smile gently at my friend’s deduction of my intention. He’s right in everything he said. Both of us arrived at New Haven at the same time. Both of us joined New Haven’s rescue operations at the same time. We were strangers when we first met. But having participated in many rescue missions together, we have learned to watch each other’s backs as we ‘rescue more souls while trying to stay alive’. Ryo has a serious demeanor and is not known to be talkative. But ironically, among everyone I work with in New Haven, he’s the one that knows my heart the best.

Armed with my wooden staff and a short sword, I walk towards the cave exit. I turn to look at Ryo. “A little girl hopes that she and her father can be freed from the tyranny of Hezekiah’s Undead regime. I won’t allow her hope to die.”

* * *

After ten minutes of traveling through the wilderness, I find Nisa’s group waiting at our last rendezvous point. The group has ten of them. I can see in their faces that they are grateful that I come back to rescue them, especially Nisa.

Nisa is currently ten years old. She reminds me of a similar situation I was caught in when I was at about her age. When I bring them back to the portal, Ryo is equally glad to see that I successfully bring all of them back alive.

But Ryo has that worried look, which in turn makes me very worried. “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”

I ask, “Does it matter which one goes first? Tell me, what happened?”

Ryo says, “I’ll start with the good news then. The Undead Patrol approached our location and almost found our portal. I was torn if I should shut down the portal to prevent them from entering our City, but that would mean you get left behind here in the wasteland. However, the Undead Patrol didn’t stumble upon our portal location.”

I feel relief. “Then what’s the bad news that could top this good news?”

“Let me show you.” Ryo points to another small cave located near our current location. “That cave over there holds a deactivated portal once used by New Haven for earlier rescue missions. When the undead discovered it a year ago, New Haven decided to deactivate the portal for good.

“Here’s the interesting part. The Undead Patrol went over to that cave. Then they disappeared. When I went over to check, I saw small flickering blue lights emitting out from the deactivated portal. It was like the portal went alive for a moment and then went dead again.”

I feel strange over the whole incident. “I don’t get it. A portal can only open if it is activated on both sides. How is it possible that the Undead Patrol can enter through a dead portal unless it is also reactivated from within our City?”

Ryo shrugs. “That’s not our biggest worry. My concern is the end destination of that dead portal. It leads to almost the same location which our current portal would lead to.”

I see the dots connected. “Oh no. That means the Undead Patrol is going to track and find all the refugees. They have the ability to ‘sniff’ out the trails left behind by the Marked Ones. We need to warn Captain and the others. We must not let the Undead Patrol find the refugees.”

Ryo sighs. “There are too many of them for us to handle. The Undead Patrol has over a hundred ghouls. And ‘something else’ is traveling together with them.”

“What else is traveling with the ghouls?”

Ryo seems unsure. “I can’t remember what I saw. Never mind about that. I think my eyes could be fooling me.”

“Then let’s regroup with Ganeson and we’ll figure out a way to solve this matter.” Ryo and I lead Nisa’s group and step into the portal, which magically transports us to the other side.