Gin knelt down and brushed away at some of the ash that covered the burnt part of the forest. He looked around but found nothing except for emerging plants and dirt. Though that didn’t dissuade him as he moved onto the next plot of land to repeat the process.
‘I know you asked for my and a few others’ help, but what exactly are we doing?’ Joan asked from behind him.
‘Clues,’ Gin gave a brief response. ‘In particular, animal remains.’
‘Burnt bones, bits of flesh, anything really. That’s where you come in since you have experience with animal anatomy since I’ve seen you treat the lupims and tinoos and whatnot. Couldn’t ask Brim since he doesn’t know much and Syndra is Syndra – I don’t understand her one bit – so she’s a no from me too. That leaves just you.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Joan looked unimpressed. ‘Still doesn’t explain anything.’
‘Have I told you what happened to me in the forest the night I got attacked?’ Gin began multitasking his speech with his excavation.
Joan thought about for a moment before answering, ‘Hmm. From my understanding, you got attacked by a stealth bestial after a hunting expedition, was forced to burn a part of the forest and went into a dome to protect yourself. Then your battalion found you and that’s about it.’
‘Ah, so you don’t really know what happened before the attack, huh?’
Gin stood up. He picked up the gun INS and activated the mechanism. One end elongated while the other curved, pointing ahead of him. He then fired a bullet at the distance. It made an almighty bang and ached his arm from the recoil but, other than that, the bullet fizzled out after reaching half a kilometre.
‘No sound, huh?’ Gin murmured.
‘You’re acting strange, Gin,’ Joan’s concerned tone made Gin stop his experiments. ‘Just tell me what’s on your mind.’
‘I don’t know why,’ Gin started, letting out a deep sigh before continuing, ‘But I get the feeling there’s something wrong with the animals in the forest.’
‘Suspicious animals?’ Joan’s confusion grew more and more.
‘Yeah. First came a deer that happened to attack Sam, then a bird that didn’t act like its flock. It acted separate now that I think about. I killed it though, but even then, I swear I heard a strange sound when my bullet went through it.’
‘Are you sure it’s not the gun?’
‘I’m certain. I just tested it out. The bullet just fizzled out. No weird noise or anything. ‘Ugh,’ Gin slapped his forehead. ‘Maybe I’m being too paranoid, but I want to guarantee everyone’s safety.’
‘No, I think taking these precautions is necessary. It’s also nice seeing that you’re openly admitting you’re doing it for our sake.’
‘Oh, nothing,’ Joan placed a hand on Gin’s shoulder and gave a warm smile. ‘Let me get to work then.’
Joan seemed to skip away to another plot of land, joining the other mages and animals in search of suspicious items hidden beneath the ash. Gin did the same but every time he uncovered the ash, he found the usual stuff. Nothing was out of place. Maybe I am going insane after all, he thought nihilistic thoughts. The talks with Syndra of there being another traitor, the events on the day of the forest fire as well the battle that felt all too convenient to be down to chance, the strange behaviours of the creatures that may or may not have been natural; It all got to him in some shape or form. He went on autopilot, so engrossed with his thoughts that he didn’t even notice the footprints formed in the ash until much later when he spotted the creator of the tracks.
Up ahead rested a baby mage-eater. It stared at Gin as he stared back. Gin believed it was the same one that he found after he woke up from his fight with the stealth bestial, but he couldn’t be quite sure due to the scars it appeared to have on its face as well as the loss of some of the feathers on its wings. However, that notion disappeared when the bird jumped in excitement and rushed over to him.
The mage-eater pecked at Gin’s feet, drawing some blood from between his trousers and shoes, before lapping up the trickle that came. Gin jerked his leg away and growled a little at the animal. To his relief, it got the message loud and clear, though he questioned why he acted like a dog in the first place. However, the bird started tugging on his clothes instead.
‘Are you trying to lead me somewhere?’ Gin asked as a joke but, to his surprise, the bird jumped and nodded at the question. Does it understand me? he asked himself in disbelief.
When Gin didn’t move, the bird pulled some more until he complied and followed the creature. It led him to the edge of the clearing where it stopped as if hesitant of what lurked beyond.
‘Is it dangerous to me?’ Gin asked.
The bird squawked.
‘Is it dangerous to you?’ Gin rephrased.
The bird squawked again but in a deeper tone this time.
Gin laughed at the mage-eater. It reminded him of the griffons he had back at his village. Although they disappeared without a trace one day, their mannerisms mirrored the bird right in front of him (both of them appeared intelligent enough).
‘Shall we go then?’
The chick jumped up and down at his question before plucking up the courage to lead the way. Gin followed it into a thicket of trees that didn’t succumb to the forest fire. But soon it became sparse again. The vegetation dwindled into yet another clearing, even if this one looked natural rather than artificial.
A squawk alerted Gin to look ahead. His eyes widened in marvel of what he saw: a series of small nests made out of twigs. All of them contained broken egg shells that contained a black, polka-dotted pattern on them. They also felt rough upon touch. Though that didn’t explain what scared the mage-eater.
‘Are you sure something’s wrong?’ Gin questioned the mage-eater. It didn’t respond. Instead, it hopped in circles, too jittered to do anything else.
All of a sudden, Gin heard the beating of wings. He looked up to find a shadow blocked the sun. It wasn’t until it descended did he realise the adult mage-eater that drew closer. With a thump on the ground and a gust of wind that blew across the clearing, it landed in front of the nests, towering over Gin. Is that its mother? he wondered as he retreated several steps back to safety.
But the adult didn’t focus on the manush. Instead, its eyes fixated on the injured chick with bloodshot eyes that sent chills down Gin’s back. Oh, right. The mage-eaters don’t eat the living, he reasoned to calm himself down.
The child began squawked at the parent who screeched back, the low-pitched sound reverberated through every single bone is Gin’s body. He didn’t know what they said, but he could tell the animals engaged themselves in a heated argument. Their exchange went back and forth. Neither gave ground to the other.
Then the mother lashed out, knocking the chick to the ground and placing a sole talon on its wing. Defenceless and outpowered, the child didn’t stand a chance as it screeched in agony. But the adult didn’t listen, leaning forward with mouth agape, array of teeth showing and spindle-like tongue out, ready to devour the poor animal.
Gin stepped forward. He didn’t know what took over him. Maybe it was the fact the chick reminded him of his pet griffons. Maybe it was the foolish confidence that the adult wouldn’t attack him. Maybe it was even a sense of guilt for helping the poor creature to its demise. Either way, Gin moved with blade and shield poised at the ready.
‘Get off,’ Gin ordered, his arm and blade raised towards the adult.
That triggered a change in attention onto him. Then the bird let out a different sound, like a high-pitched growl. The chick responded in a similar fashion. Again, Gin had no idea what they said, but the mother released its baby as a result, even helping it back on its feet.
The mage-eater gave Gin one final look. A look that failed to show any malice unlike moments prior. Then, with one final growl, it beat its wings and flew away, leaving both manush and chick grounded.
‘Are you alright?’ Gin asked in a nonchalant manner, too bewildered by what he just witnessed to show emotion.
The bird squawked a deflated squawk in response. When Gin looked over, he realised how limp one of its wings was compared to the other. Blades. Shields.
‘Oh, dear. Come, I’ll get you treated,’ Gin reassured.
He picked up the bird, which didn’t resist at all, and made his way back to the others. The journey took shorter than he first anticipated, but he wished that wasn’t the case. Ah, of course she’d be there, he cursed himself.
‘Perfect timing, Joan’ Gin announced just as he saw the opening to the ash-filled clearing. ‘I need you to do emergency treatm-’
‘What in Eurasia are you doing?!’ Joan snapped back.
‘Its injured, so I thought –’
‘Put it back!’ Joan interrupted again.
‘Put. It. Back.’
Is she talking about the mage-eater? Gin looked down to find the bird cowering in fear in his palms. And for good reason. The serious look that covered Joan’s face shocked him. He didn’t even know she could express such pure severity as if the situation was a matter of life and death.
‘Joan, please, can you explain what’s wrong?’ Gin felt relieved that he wasn’t cut off this time.
‘Do you know why we try to avoid getting close to the mage-eaters?’ Joan calmed down and acted rational for once.
‘Out of fear? Sorry, but I don’t know and don’t care at the moment. Please treat him, uh,’ Gin paused for a moment, realising he never checked the gender of his avian companion. ‘Her? Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Its wing seems to be broken and it has some other injuries.’
‘Sheesh. You really are an idiot,’ Joan let out an exasperated sigh. ‘Hand it over. I’ll take a look.’
Gin nodded in agreement. He gave the bird over to Joan who unhooked one of her nails and a strand of hair. She picked up the injured wing, put the nail underneath and wrapped it up with a neat knot, acting as temporary cast.
‘That’ll do for now, but I’ll arrange something better after a closer look at the full extent of its wounds,’ Joan reported.
‘Thank you,’ Gin felt relieved, holding onto the bird once more.
‘But seriously, of all the stupid things you do, this has got to top the lot.’
‘You never really explained why,’ Gin mumbled, excluding the encounter with the adult mage-eater.
‘First, you ditch everyone, alone, despite what happened last time in this exact same spot. But that goes without saying,’ Joan sent a piercing glare that made Gin turn away in guilt. ‘Even then, you went ahead and brought back a baby mage-eater! Though I can’t blame you if you’re this oblivious to their customs.’
‘Their customs?’ Gin thought he misheard.
‘Yeah. The reason we mages avoid actively contacting the mage-eaters is for their sakes. Although I admit we’re somewhat scared of them. Even touching this thing makes my heart beat faster than usual.’
‘I still don’t get it.’
‘You might not know this but the mage-eaters are very pack-based. They initiate their offspring into the main group by feeding them a flock member’s blood as their first meal. Apparently, that does something that allows the rest to recognise whether another mage-eater is one of them or not. I never got the logistics behind it.’
‘Oh, no,’ Gin realised.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I may have accidentally given this chick my blood,’ Gin’s words quietened down as his statement went on.
‘You what?!’ Joan exclaimed, drawing the attention of some of the mages in the clearing.
‘I didn’t mean to. I was unconscious when it happened. But, considering how close we are to the mage-eater nest, and the fact the eggshells there were broken recently, it probably wandered off and happened to come across my bleeding body. I was too physically and mentally weak at the time so…’
Joan shook her head in disapproval. ‘I honestly don’t understand what line of thought led you to think “hey, let’s help this random animal out by letting it drink some blood” even if you never knew what a mage-eater was.’
‘No, it’s fine. I shouldn’t have got riled up like that. But still, what are you going to do with it? It’s not like it can re-enter its society anymore.’
Gin looked at the carefree creature who already slept on his gauntlets. He liked that notion. It reminded him of himself after his nanobot operation. That feeling of not belonging to those that saw you since birth. He understood what such a being needed in that scenario, even if it was an animal in that case. The concept still applied.
‘I think I’ll keep it,’ Gin decided. ‘I’ll be its new flock.’
‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,’ Joan gave an expected unimpressed look. ‘I can’t stop you on this, can I?’
‘Nope,’ Gin denied in an instant.
Without saying anything, they began walking towards the other squadron members. They all eyed the baby mage-eater, some even backed off to an extent, too wary to get close. Gin didn’t pay any mind to them, however.
‘How’s the excavation going anyway?’ he changed the topic. ‘Any luck?’
‘Surprisingly, we’ve found no animal remains. No bones, no half-baked skin, not even oddly burnt ash. Are you sure you killed an animal that day?’ Joan questioned.
‘Then either it somehow completely combusted without trace or it survived and ran away. Probably the latter,’ Joan explained. She finished talking before adding a sudden, ‘Oh! We did find two pieces of metal that join together to make a cuboid.’
‘That’s most likely the capsule that contained the oil I used to light the place up.’
‘Then why were the pieces about three hundred metres apart?’
‘That,’ Gin squinted his eyes and tried to come up with a plausible explanation. ‘Maybe my attacker took it away from me thinking it’s a threat in my hands. I don’t know. I think we should head back to the Oasis. We’re not getting anywhere at this rate and it’s going to get dark soon.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. But still, there are so many questions but so little answers. We’ve achieved nothing today except getting yourself in trouble with a mage-eater,’ Joan moaned. ‘We’re not even close to finding out who the other attackers are!’
‘I’m just as frustrated,’ Gin agreed. ‘If only we could tell what the enemy is doing right now.’