Chapter One: Guide

You would think with the Taint hovering in the sky that people would have taken better care of their lungs. But with the war going on, the smoke filled bar of Ander'z was a prime example of how the stress relief provided by tobacco was worth a little grime sticking to the inside of people's breathing bags. The establishment was in perhaps the poorest part of Citi, where the doors were still made of aluminium and opened with handles, and ventilations were done with the spinning of fans. There were only two booths and a line of six barstools. The whole establishment could be crossed with five wide strides.

But Joashden Stalewaver liked the tight space. He liked the gloomy lighting and wispy smoke that floated. He liked that most of the liquor bottles behind the counter were either emptied or running out. Even the creaking of the stool he sat on at the far side and the old door opposite was tolerable. They reminded him of home, in that everything was either well used, rotting, cheap, or about to break. Nostalgia had a strange way of turning even the dankest of places into a shining utopia.

The old bell jingled as the door opened and the five patrons, two from the booths and three from the bar, all turned to look at the newcomer.

At Ander'z, you knew everyone by names. Or, if you wanted to play it safe, nicknames. It was a place where few people went, and those who did were usually of two kinds. The 'patrons' who needed a unique talent or service, and those who provided.

Standing at the archway of the entrance with the pale light of the world behind her stood a girl in her late teenage years. With long, free-flowing hair of streaks of ash brown and gold held back by an aviator goggle, a clean red scarf around her neck, a freckled and sharp scar-free face, she did not play the look of the usual bar-goer. Yet, her peeling brown leather jacket, stained khaki skirt, thick black leggings, and muddied shin length boots, were not the look of the usual high society 'patrons' the bar-goers dealt with.

Without hesitation or delay, the girl announced, "I need a Guide. Two pax." Most of the bar-goers turned back to their drink as if nothing happened.

But his ears plucked up. Guides were mercenaries who brought people across the battleground of the Titan War. They were a rare trade, as they required a specific minimum skill-set to do their job. Pilot. Engineer. Survivalist. Soldier. No exception.

From the corner booth, a female hume-elf offered up, "Sixteen thousand kilq. No less." They called her Talia, and she was the only other Guide he knew of that day.

The girl added, "Across the Leviathan's Helm." Suddenly, the rest of the bar retuned her their rasp attention.

Talia scoffed, "You're insane. No one has ever made it pass Leviathan's Helm."

"Fifty thousand kilq," the girl offered. It was enough money to buy a penthouse in Upper Citi.

Talia seemingly considered the offer but realized, "No thanks, girl. If we even make it through, we won't be able spend that money on the other side anyway."

He immediately raised his glass, "I'll do it. For free."

Everyone turned to him and the bartender voiced, "Don't be stupid, Josh. You won't make it back."

Josh downed his drink, feeling the sharp pang of cheap, cold, alcohol sliding down his throat. "That's the hope, isn't it?" He was feeling warm, but years of drinking meant that not even something like Ander's Special would tip him. He got off his stool, grabbed his pack off the ground and headed for the door where the girl waited. "What's your name?"

"Luce. Lucinda Baerrinska." The girl had deep opal eyes, clearer and sturdier than half the people that came into the bar. Definitely more stable than when most left. From up close, he could see the end of a scar protruding out of the edge of her neck, the rest hidden beneath her scarf. She asked, "You?"

"Josh. Joashden Stalewaver."

He watched as the girl scrutinized him with her cutting gaze. He felt unpresentable, which was strange, as he had never much worried about his looks, let alone in front of a girl two heads shorter than him. His stained grey shirt and dirtied cargo pants suddenly seemed to be in desperate need of a wash, and despite having a thick brown trench coat over him, he wished it did not wrap his arms so tightly that his muscular physique bulged out. He wished he had combed his greying brown buzz cut, as impossible as that was a thing to do, or at least had the multiple scars that ran across his face surgically removed.

After a moment, apparently satisfied with what she saw, Luce nodded and said, "It's a one way trip."

"It always is."

He liked how the girl held his gaze. He liked how direct she was with her request. He liked how she was prepared that they may not make it back. Most people who came in looking for Guides were there out of desperation. Usually because they had urgent businesses that needed to be taken care of across the border. They had also always been from the upper class. People who had the money to throw around, and hoped that having a Guide would provide them with guaranteed safety. When they were told that even with a Guide, safety was not the case, they would usually start panicking.

But not Luce. The girl knew exactly what she came for and what it entailed. He could see it in her eyes. If Misti was alive, she would be Luce's age by now.

To the bartender, Josh said, "Leave it on my tab."

To Josh, the tender replied, "Drink's on me, bud. You'll not make it back to pay anyway." He could hear Talia chuckling behind them.

But the man was right. This was not a journey he would be returning from. With Luce, he exited the bar, the ringing of the bell muted the moment the door closed behind them. They stepped out into the light of the evening Twins. At least, that's what his gyrowatch told him.

The axis of Tearha was tilted, which meant the south pole was constantly bombarded by the light of the Twin stars – Rykka and Cirus – and was constantly aflame. The clouds of ash and rust that came from the burning of the ore-rich lands stretched across the entire continent of Katoki and is known as the Taint, leaving the country of the Dogon Republic in a perpetual dawn and midday, the blanket of smog blocking out most of the daylight and heat.

Ander'z was situated at the edge of the city, where half the buildings that formed the outer wall had been bombarded by stray fire from the war. Yet somehow, the building of the bar managed to survive, despite its two neighbours having caved in from artillery and a cannon fire. A woman stood at the railings that guarded the city moat.

Backed by the barren rolling hills that stretched till the Reveries Mountains in the distance, she looked almost like the subject of a photograph shoot. A mech Titan lumbered across the landscape from miles away. Even from their distance, the man-made machine equalled the height of the mountain from further down, all darkened silhouettes from the blood drenched light of the horizon.

Luce went to the woman. Josh followed. Hearing them approach, the woman turned and greeted Luce with a hug.

Luce introduced, "This is Josh. Joashden Stalewaver, our Guide."

The woman was slightly more well built than Luce and was half a head taller. She wore baggy cargo pants gartered at her shin and black combat boots that were equally, if not, more worn and muddied than her companion's. A tight fitting black cloth shirt covered a petite bust. Her hair was short and jet blue to match her eyes, and her freckled face had a boxed, tomboyish feature, further rugged by a bony shoulder.

Her voice was much deeper, but surprisingly, friendlier than she looked. "You don't look much like a Guide," she noted his casual shirt and jeans.

Josh nonchalantly replied, "Well you don't look much like a man."

She laughed. "I accept that," she graciously took the light jab her transsexuality. She held out her hand, "Jacques. Jacqueline – formerly known as Jackson – Fertilans." He shook her hands and noted how firm the shake was. She continued, "So? How do we do this? Is there an orientation? Get together, maybe?"

Luce added sharply. "Can we just get this on?" Jacques laughed at her impatience.

He was turning forty eight that year, and had been a Guide for over a decade. From his experience, Josh knew the key to survival across the border was understanding his charge. Unlike the people under his care, he usually only gets a chance to know them for the few days they are on the road. So even before that, he had to get a good feel of how they were as people. Will they run when there's danger? Will they collapse under hard choices? Are they fighters? Are they friendly? But most importantly, he had to make sure they were happy, as morale will affect their survival rate.

He could tell the two girls were close, that they were a double act. Luce was serious and Jacques go-lucky. He liked that they had relatively normal personalities, unlike his usual clients' shady and distrusting nature. It was important to the job that the clients were socially open for communication.

Josh offered a compromise. "We can leave tomorrow. I need to grab all my gear anyway." He was lying. He had everything he needed ready to go in a backpack at his hideout. It would not have taken more than an hour to get ready, but he wanted them to have a moment to rest. It would help to get some sleep, since judging from their muddied appearances they had rushed. Once they left, there would be no room for that for some time.

The two exchanged quick looks and nodded in synchronization to Josh. "Anything specific to bring?" Luce asked.

"All the money you have in a separate bag. We'll use that to buy the best glider we can. You'll also need three days worth of food and equipment," he paused, looked them in the eyes, and added, "And weapons. If possible, something to fight Titans with."

He was surprised when they, even Luce, grinned. Jacques replied, "Oh, that last bit won't be a problem."

Curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "Why is that?"

Before Luce could stop her partner, Jacques admitted, "Because we are Titan Hunters."

Author's Note: Hi everyone. Thank you for reading Tearha: Keep Walking. This story is a novella prequel to Tearha: The Number 139 and Tearha: Titan War. If you like what you've read so far, and would like to support my writing, you can buy one of my books at my website. Or you could check out my Patreon to help out for the long run. Of course, just sharing, commenting, and reviewing helps a bunch as well!

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