Joan read the report handed to her for the umpteenth time. She shook her head in disbelief. The insides of her stomach churned at the contents while her hands trembled. After another read, she turned back to the person who gave it to her.
‘Diana, am I reading this correctly?’ she inquired, hoping she got it all wrong.
‘Joan, my dear, have some faith in your abilities. You’ve come a long way,’ the colonel grinned ear to ear. ‘Regardless, my dictation is a word for word with what is written.’
‘Then can I trust Gargarensis’ words here? He’s not a medic type, after all. Does he –’
‘Dearie!’ Diana’s words sent ripples through Joan’s body. ‘I can assure you, while your concerns over my underling are warranted, his knowledge of the field is second to none. An odd quirk, shall we say, for one to be so adept in one field when their true skills lie in another.’
‘Understood,’ Joan’s heart sank. ‘I’ll do my best. Can you call for my aides? I’ll get right on it as soon as I check the patient myself.’
‘Certainly, my dear. I wish you luck.’
Joan dared not look back but could feel the spine-shivering smirk of Squadron O’s colonel. Instead, her focus turned to the body covered by a white sheet in front of her. She peeled back the covering to reveal a dark-skinned man plastered with white, jagged crystals from the seams of his lips to the joints of his toes. One eye was shut tight by the same crystals while the other lost all colour. If not for the fact it moved, Joan would have assumed the person died a long time ago.
‘Oh, Brim,’ she shook her head. ‘What happened to you?’
Yet, she knew exactly what happened. However, despite her knowledge, the reality sounded ridiculous. So, she reached out to ascertain the truth for herself. She reached out to the cluster of crystals that circled the cheekbone of the fire elemental.
‘This can’t be,’ she still tried to deny her senses. ‘But the texture, its compositions…all of this is bone. How is this possible? What happened to the tissue?’
Again, she knew. The letter described Brim’s condition to a tee. From the name to every detail to help alleviate it. It was all there. Guess I just need to get on with it, she slapped her cheeks before she checked the pulse: beating. Next came breathing: laboured. Consciousness: unknown.
It was then that she felt a presence behind her.
‘Good timing, let’s begin the op – Gin? What are you doing here?’ Her professional stance faded away. She couldn’t quite read the man’s expression. Solemn? Distant? Anger?
‘I heard from Jake and Syndra what happened,’ he grimaced at the sight. ‘How is he?’
‘Alive is all I can say,’ she sighed. ‘Hey, listen. I don’t want to sound rude but I’m about to operate on him. Mind leaving for now until that’s done?’
‘Oh. Ah, yeah. I see. I understand. I’ll let you be,’ Gin just did an awkward scratch of his hair. ‘Can I ask you to do something first?’
Joan raised a brow, ‘Hm?’
‘Ask him if that’s what he wants. I know you have your procedures and talk a certain way with patients. I also know you want to prevent people dying, especially as a medic but,’ Gin paused. He took one last look at his friend then stepped back. ‘Trust me when prolonging someone’s life for the sake of it…might not be the best option. I feel like Brim’s the type who doesn’t want the truth sugar-coated either. Let me know when the operation’s done either way. I’ll wait outside.’
‘Uh, right. I will,’ Joan simply watched Gin make his way out of the tent. What’s with that coldness? Does he not care if Brim dies or not?
She wanted to stop him. After all, she wanted to ask a lot. About what happened during the battle. About Brim. Even about a certain thing he said and did to her before they all departed that she didn’t have the heart to ask. She just left those thoughts to the side when her aides, Florence, Rosie and Jasmine, entered the tent.
‘Is this everyone?’ Joan asked.
The others nodded.
‘Good,’ Joan’s expression fell flat as she got herself into the zone. ‘Patient is seven-foot-six fire elemental type. Male. Rank: Ability-wise, on par of A. Blood type: O-. Notable features: Rough skin throughout except at face, elbow and knees. Whole skin is fire-resistant. Euler glands: Four. Can secrete oil from all pores in his body. Any questions so far?’
No one spoke.
Joan continued, ‘Patient has suffered from a severe case of “Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva.” Cause of condition: bite from gorgon-type mage. On the surface, muscle tissue, tendons and ligaments have ossified into bone. Right eye has become lame. Left is sewed tight by the condition along with several joints. Internal damage: three of four Euler glands are completely destroyed while the fourth is heavily damaged. Extent of other organs yet to be ascertained. Permission granted for immediate dissection of patient to remove Euler glands before condition gets worse. Judgement will be made for further procedures if necessary.
‘Jasmine, please fetch required equipment stated here,’ the aide got handed the piece of paper Gargarensis wrote on. ‘Florence, clean all operating tools. Rosie, restrain patient.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ the others understood.
The tent turned to controlled chaos as mages did their respective tasks. Joan herself went to help with the restraining. She and Rosie got four belts and tied Brim down by the limbs. They made sure to move his arms and legs with care. But, when they finished with the final restraint, Brim groaned and his once, lame eye began to move.
Is he conscious? Joan froze. ‘Brim, if you can hear and understand me, groan again.’
That changes things, she pursed her lips. ‘Rosie, could you go help the others. I’m going to debrief the patient.’
The medic understood and let the two be.
‘Confirm again. Can you hear and understand me?’ Joan asked once more. ‘Groan and try to look at me at the same time.’
It took a few moments but the man did just that. He groaned then stared right at Joan.
‘Ok good. Brim, I’m going to operate on you. Judging by both your external and internal damage, it is likely that I will need to remove all of your Euler glands as well as needing treatment for the rest of your body. During the process, we will numb your senses but can’t outright put you to sleep due to the poison running through your body. Does that make sense?’
This time Brim stayed silent. His eye trembled, not out of fear, but out of worry. Worry for what? Joan wondered. Though the more she thought about it, the more Gin’s request repeated in her mind. Especially with the aftermath…would he even want to live?
‘Hey, Brim, listen. I know what you’re thinking, so I’m just going to tell you straight up,’ Joan let out a deep sigh. Brim stopped trembling and focused solely on her. ‘If I don’t do this, you will most likely die within the next week or so. But if I do, then you will lose most, if not all, of your fire capabilities. Even with the operation, you will also struggle to move. You will struggle to speak. Life will be painful every waking second. Even after all that, I can’t guarantee this operation will be a success regardless. Do you even want –’
Joan felt a tug on her clothes.
‘Please…’ a coarse voice forced its way through Brim’s unopened mouth. ‘I want…to live.’
A wry smile formed on Joan’s face. ‘I’ll do my best.’
She turned to her aides who finished their respective tasks. From a tray, she picked up a nail, a jar full of a sedative and a rolled-up towel before getting back to Brim. She placed her nail in the jar and began to extract the contents. Then, with precision and care, she injected the liquid into Brim’s arms. He twitched but didn’t resist too much.
‘I’m going to unsew your lips then have you bite into the towel until the operation is done.’
Brim responded with the slightest of nods.
Joan stepped out of the tent. Gentle droplets of rain pattered on her clothes and helped wash off the blood from her shaking hands. She looked around to find anyone she recognised but collapsed to the floor when she didn’t. She clutched her head. She grew lightheaded now the operation was over at last.
She looked on as several more boats landed on shore. Several mages from squadron O rushed up the ramps to retrieve even more injured back onto land. All the while, mage eaters circled overhead, waiting for their next meal.
‘Ugh. This never gets easier,’ Joan bemoaned. Her work wasn’t done yet.
‘Oh, Joan. Are you done?’ she looked up to see Syndra and Jake.
‘Yeah,’ the medic sighed a breath of relief.
‘How…How is he?’ Jake asked in a meek tone while Syndra avoided eye contact. She had her arm in a sling, though she tried to hide it behind the tent. Unsuccessfully.
‘The operation was “successful.” He’ll live at least. There’s still work that needs to be done before he can regain certain functions but, for now, he’s sleeping. He really is a warrior haha,’ Joan tried to pick up the mood. ‘He didn’t faint throughout surprisingly. Most would, for sure. What’s the update on your end? I assume the fact that you guys are back too that it’s finally over?’
‘Yeah. The enemy retreated. Some tried to attack us on shore but we apparently had defences in place?’ Jake questioned, unsure of the truth. ‘But yes, it should be done now.’
‘So, uh,’ Jake fidgeted on the spot. ‘Can we go see him now?’
‘Pfft,’ Joan chuckled at the sight. Two grown adults, hardened by battle, acting so awkward just to see their closest friend. Not that she could blame them. ‘My staff are still working and collecting samples for testing later on, but there’s no harm in checking in on him. Just don’t get in their way.’
‘Ah, great. Thanks!’ Jake rushed in.
Syndra, on the other hand, stepped from behind the tent and made sure to keep her broken arm away from Joan’s sight.
‘Do you want me to have a look at that?’ Joan stood up.
‘No need, Joan. Someone else already did,’ Syndra spoke her first words that day. ‘I know you’re exhausted after saving Brim, so I couldn’t –’
‘It’s fine. Helping the injured is what I do,’ Joan interrupted.
Syndra looked away, a tint of red rushing to her face. ‘Ah. Thank you. I’ll take you on your offer and have you check on me at a later time then.’
‘It would be my pleasure,’ Joan smiled back. ‘Say, have you seen Gin? He said he would be outside.’
‘Oh, yes! We saw him just fifteen minutes ago!’
Joan raised a brow. She eyed her friend in suspicion (who soon realised how excited they acted up and calmed down). After a few, awkward seconds, Syndra spoke up.
‘You see, Aqmi came round and said something about finding Sam. Gin immediately ran off with the mage-eater. Towards the oasis, I believe?’
‘Sam?’ Joan narrowed her eyes. Her stomach churned at the thought. ‘I’ll go check on him. Remember not to disturb Brim too much.’
‘Understood,’ Syndra nodded before entering the tent.
At first, Joan took small steps towards the Oasis. However, before she knew it, she found herself running. She ran and ran across the wet sand, ignoring all of the other people in her way, until she saw the back of her manush patient and his bird alongside two people she didn’t know. The first was a woman who kept her face hidden under some sort of camouflage. A stealth bestial?
However, Joan’s heart skipped a beat when she recognised the stone armour of the other. It belonged to Sam. Joan couldn’t believe her eyes as she walked ever so closer.
Gin unsheathed his blades. He pointed one right at the throat of the silver-haired woman. He spoke in a loud and threatening tone but the contents got muffled by the rain and the wind. Then, with one swift strike, he –
Joan couldn’t look.
She opened her eyes one by one, only to gasp for air at the sight. Not a single scratch on either the mystery woman, Sam nor on Gin. Instead, his blade vanished into thin air as if eaten by something. He looked at the missing weapon and laughed a manic laugh, unhinged the INS and inserted a new one. This time, he activated another blade that shined despite the weather. In an instant, it burst into flame and, once more, Gin threatened Sam.
‘Gin!’ Joan called out but no one listened.
However, this time, Sam complied with whatever demands she received. Hesitant, he grabbed hold of his helmet and prised it open. Then, he lifted it up to reveal his – or rather, her – complexion: a woman with a thin jawline and freckled face. As she lifted her helmet off further, long locks of silver hair waved in the wind, except for a couple of bald patches on the top of her head.
At the revelation, Gin lowered his blade. He burst into laughter before charging at the girl and grabbing her by the collarbone. He spouted more, angry threats at Sam who stared back with an uninterested gaze. At last, she spoke back in words that made him drop her on the spot.
The two exchanged more words. Gin shook his head at every sentence while Sam spoke with more and more authority. It came to the point where he took orders and unhinged a silver INS from his belt: the “projector.” He unscrewed the bottom and expanded it so that a screen popped up. He tapped a few buttons.
As if the world froze, nothing happened. Nothing at all. They all just stared at the blank screen. Almost like they –
Gin collapsed to the floor. He dropped the INS. Joan rushed to him in an instant. That’s when she heard a voice. Not one belonging to the other three but from the INS itself.
“‘Helloooooo ~ Anybody here?’”
“Nothing. Where are
these zombies coming from anyway? Too bad I don’t have the answer. They just sort of
appeared when I returned to this city. I would have put it down to the mages,
but this just seemed too surreal to be the case. A zombie apocalypse? Reminds me
of a book I read to my son once. Boy, was that not a good idea. He had
nightmares for weeks afterwards. Wontiferus didn’t help either though…”
Two voices. One human and the other not.
“‘You look surprisingly calm for someone held down by my children.’”
A third voice.
‘Uh, Gin?’ Joan spoke up.
He didn’t respond.
“‘Finally. Though you are a complete annoyance, you have the pleasure of becoming part of me, “The
leper said, edging closer to this nuisance’s face as his eyes opened wide at
what he’s about to experience”. Was
this what you wanted to say?’”
“‘End of Message. Would you like to replay that?’”
‘Ah,’ Gin whimpered. He looked up. His face contorted into an indecipherable expression. One side of his face teared up in joy while the other cried in despair. One side of his mouth trembled in fear while the other shot up in sheer relief. His right eye wavered while the left shone bright in the dimness.
‘Did you know all along, Samantha?!’ he yelled at Sam.
‘Of course,’ she responded with confidence.
‘Gin, I don’t understand. What’s happening?’ Joan knelt down and grabbed his shaking hands.
‘It’s him! He’s…he’s alive!’ she could see how lost for words the man was.
‘Relax for a moment. Deep breaths,’ she assured before shooting a glance that screamed “I’ll deal with you later” right at the other women. ‘Who is?’
Gin did as advised and took several long, deep breaths. He reached out for his INS once and whispered, ‘Repeat message.’
Good. Time to go.
By the way, for future reference, I am on a mission and where I am is a little…complicated. I can’t say the name because I don’t want the enemy an easy target if this message does get intercepted. Let’s just say that I’m in an amazing city. Amazing scenery. Amazing mountains to the North. Just pure awesomeness. Anyway, I’m sidetracking a bit, but I guess that’s not a problem when I’m travelling and want to waste some time.
Basically, out of the 3 rings of water and 2 of land, I’m on the bridge connecting all of them and about to reach the inner island that’s dead centre of it all. I’ve already dealt with the other places, so that’s all that’s left to purge. Also, probably the riskiest.
I arrived at my first destination: a house two blocks from the right of the temple/spire thingy for your information. In it, I find another one of those people. It’s a shame because I knew who he was before he got taken. He still had the dark mane of a hair. He still wore the same clothes, albeit a bit torn. He still is my friend, just lacking any knowledge of who I am or any humanity for that matter atm. Oh, well. I’ll put him to rest. It’s not him anymore anyway.
I extend my right arm, typed the commands and unsheathed a whip-blade from my belt. I put it in spear mode, allowing the weapon to extend and give me a medium-range advantage. Back against the walls, I shuffled into the stone home, hidden from the moaning human who struggled in walking, needing to drag his feet along the way.
When I got into position, behind the counter on the northwest side of the house, I pulled my arm back, drawing out maximum power, then hurled the spear at the man. The good thing about the whip-blade’s spear mode is that I keep hold of the hilt while serrated metallic parts fly towards my target, piercing through their body. The best part? These parts always fly back into their position like a boomerang, so I don’t have to go pick the pieces after each throw. Talk about efficiency!
Anyway, back to the zombie I just killed. Of course, it wasn’t really dead. The person died ages ago when it was taken over. No, my true target was what slithered out of the nostrils of the body: a white eyeless worm. Now it’s easy pickings.
I extended my right arm once more. A hole opened up. I aimed it at the parasitical entity and launched a stream of fire at the worm. Luckily, I don’t feel anything, otherwise I would of (or is it “have”? I never really did get the fundamentals of language. Sorry Liz!) hated to use my flamethrower every single time. Can’t say the same for the line of ash that belonged to the worm.
‘Hmm. Wonder if there’s anybody else here?’
Woah. Forgot I implemented the voice recording a while ago haha. Enjoy my luscious deep voice ^.^
‘Helloooooo ~ Anybody here?’
Nothing. Where are these zombies coming from anyway? Too bad I don’t have the answer. They just sort of appeared when I returned to this city. I would have put it down to the mages, but this just seemed too surreal to be the case. A zombie apocalypse? Reminds me of a book I read to my son once. Boy, was that not a good idea. He had nightmares for weeks afterwards. Wontiferus didn’t help either though…
Suddenly, I hear a rumbling. From where? I don’t know. I readied my whip-blade for another round. I searched the place, wary of any avenue the zombies could come from. What I didn’t expect was them to come from below. The ground erupted with several zombies grabbing hold of my limbs. These zombies didn’t look like the typical human ones I faced before. No, these people were tall like the mages. Some had fur while others were hairless. But they weren’t really mages. They still looked lifeless. You could tell in their eyes. Didn’t know the white worm thingies can also invade mages. Fascinating!
‘You look surprisingly calm for someone held down by my children.’
That wasn’t me by the way. That voice belonged to a midget, even by manush standards, who just entered the room. His back arched in a hunchback and skin was peeling off of him. Talk about a nasty leper! Mage or manush? That’s what I’d like to know. Well, judging by how he described the monsters holding me down as “children”, he was probably a mage that produced these parasites. I found the cause, guys! Would explain how these particular zombies are so well coordinated.
‘What are you doing with your hand?’ the leper said.
He was referring to the way I typed with my left hand, recording this message in the systems for you to read from. To be fair, it did look weird having a hand floating mid-air with the fingers going in archaic motions.
‘Nothing special,’ I said.
The man looked at my hand with disapproving eyes. Looks like I’m annoying him as I type.
Yep. Definitely annoying him.
‘Tsk. Take it off, my children.’
Oh no. I don’t like the sound of thawjkfjaejvioadioaohoacoiaclancanffioafnasnclanwlfnalclanajnajlknscjancjaclalcalcaklsjfkajwlkjwahwihalclasncalncaljwajwaoiclaj.
‘Wonder if the voice recording still works, I said with my left arm lying on the floor.’
‘You’re lucky I need a new host.’
‘Said the leper, I said.’
‘Questioned the midget, I said, grinning at how annoyed the man looked.’
‘Shut him up!’
‘The zombies wrapped their mmph. Mmm. Mm!’
‘Finally. Though you are a complete annoyance, you have the pleasure of becoming part of me, “The leper said, edging closer to this nuisance’s face as his eyes opened wide at what he’s about to experience”. Was this what you wanted to say?’
“‘End of message. Would you like to repeat that?’” the INS repeated.
‘W-what was that?’ Joan knelt there confused.
‘You still don’t get it, do you?’ Gin bit his lip in frustration.
Joan didn’t know how to respond. What does she say? What does she do? None of it made any sense and yet she was meant to piece it all together somehow? However, she did understand one, simple notion. That they all not faced the turning point of fates. And it all started with one single line:
‘My father’s alive!’