For the first time in a month, Gin felt revitalised. His muscles no longer ached nor did he suffer from mental fatigue. Granted, his nanobots helped with the former and the eighteen-hour nap with the latter, but that didn’t stop him from brimming with energy.
He stepped out from his tent, took a deep breath of the earthy musk from the forest, then surveyed the troops. Despite the sun already past its zenith, most of the mages slept, ignoring the tempered heat or the insects that buzzed around their bodies. It prompted Gin to sniff his own body, regretting his actions as he gagged on the stench of the weeks-long worth of unwashed skin.
‘Maybe I should have joined Brim to the oasis,’ he murmured to himself.
‘Oh, you’re up already?’ Rob’s sudden gruff voice came from behind. ‘When will you be ready for hunting?’
‘Me? Am I needed?’ Gin turned around, meeting Rob with a confused expression.
‘Yes. I’ll tell you why later.’
‘Ok, I guess?’ Gin paused for a moment, contemplating what to say next. ‘Well, everyone’s tired apart from a handful of us, so it makes sense.’
‘That’s the spirit!’
Gin thought he saw Rob smile. He couldn’t be quite sure as he based the action on the moving of the long strands of hair that covered Rob’s face. However, just to make sure, Gin returned the notion as he gave a warm smile back.
‘We’ll wait another hour or so and pick the participants from those capable,’ Rob suggested.
‘Fine by me,’ Gin accepted before going back to his tent. ‘I’ll prepare my equipment.’
From the corner, beside his makeshift bed, Gin picked up the stone chest plate. He tapped on several areas, a task Michal would have done. But without him, Gin did it himself, listening in to the sound the knocks made and sighing a breath of relief when he heard no echo.
‘No inside deterioration,’ he mumbled to himself, stopping before adding a, ‘or at least I think so. Damn. Should have practised the technique more.’
Satisfied with his analysis for the most part, he took off his shirt, put the armour on, then placed the shirt over it, concealing the stone underneath. The final pieces, both for the legs, slotted over the shins with ease, making Gin want to thank Michal for all his precision and hard work, even if the armour chaffed him at first. But, after a few minutes, the feeling disappeared and, after some final checks to the INS, he was set to go.
Gin found Rob waiting outside the Eastern side of the forest, along with half a dozen of his battalion members, all of them mid-ranked juggernauts, as well as the familiar face (or rather helmet with two eye sockets) of Sam. Though the mages still looked fatigued, they stood proud as if to say it was nothing. That’s the higher ranked mages for you, Gin assumed.
Even from his distance, Gin could tell the team were drawing up plans, using sticks to draw shapes into the ground. It wasn’t until he got closer that he saw a nonagon, marked by dots on the vertices and a squiggle in the centre.
‘What is that meant to be?’ Gin asked, startling the whole group with his presence apart from Rob who remained steadfast with his stick.
‘I thought you’d take more time to get ready,’ Rob thought out loud before making a replica diagram in the dirt and turning back to Gin. ‘We’re discussing the formation plans. And you’re pivotal to the plan.’
‘Yes. Yes. Leader is needed,’ Sam nodded in agreement, as did the other mages. ‘Look. This one you.’
Sam pointed to one of the dots that didn’t align with the other vertices. Instead, it concaved and was closest with the squiggle. It was only then Gin realised the dots represented the hunting team.
‘But what’s the squiggle for?’ he asked.
‘That’s the unsuspecting animal in question,’ Rob mused, his grins more visible that his smiles. ‘I’ve scouted a few of the creatures, so I know they’re out there.’
Gin raised an eyebrow. All he saw were foxes and other small wildlife. There were deer too? he exclaimed within, but kept his cool in front of the others, looking at the diagrams and nodding in confirmation.
‘Wait!’ someone called out. ‘Where are you going?’
A few of the mages groaned as the shout roused them up. Upon seeing Jake causing the commotion, they went back to sleep, enjoying the comfort of the dirt. Gin scoffed at the reaction of the mages towards the supposed battalion leader.
‘Why wasn’t I informed of this?’ Jake scowled, most of his visible anger directed at Gin.
However, before Gin could say anything, Rob stepped up to Jake instead. ‘This was my idea. You know the situation regarding our reserves, or did you forget it was because of your lapse in judgement that we lost them in the first place?’
Jake gritted his teeth but didn’t turn away from everyone’s gaze.
‘Yes. And I apologise for how I acted,’ he said, his words without complete sincerity but still had that hint of remorse at the same time. ‘I need to step up, so I’ll play my part in this activity too.’
‘You sure?’ Gin questioned, testing where the man stood on his beliefs and pride. ‘You did sleep the most out of the ten of us despite saying how hardy you were.’
‘We don’t have a fire elemental,’ one of the bestial types mentioned.
‘Yes. Fire useful,’ Sam added when no one spoke the next moment.
‘True,’ Rob confirmed. ‘What do you say, Gin?’
Gin shrugged, letting Rob take control of the situation. The hunting expedition wasn’t his plan after all. That and his heart was bouncing in anticipation of all the potential research material he was about to meet. The faster he got into the forest the better, even if that meant allowing Jake to tag along despite his rudeness earlier on.
‘No objections then,’ Rob confirmed. ‘I’ll redraw the plans. Gin will still be the pivotal member.’
Again, Gin questioned what he was meant to do, but kept quiet and watched Rob change the shapes to include Jake, turning them into decagons, followed by an explanation on who represented what. The details of the plan remained a mystery, but Gin assumed it was a reactive rather than proactive strategy and so no real strategies could be formed at this point in time.
‘I already notified the battalions they should expect us to arrive around after sunset. Maybe even earlier,’ Rob explained, rubbing out the markings in the dirt. ‘We’re all ready now, so let’s go.’
Rob led the way as the group followed in a straight line behind him. At first, the pathing made the formation easy. However, as the shrubbery and trees became denser, keeping in shape grew difficult and the group diverted somewhat while moving in the same direction. Though it meant travel became smoother, the task of creating a path through the jungle proved tedious.
Gin learned that all too quickly and, after getting hit by one too many branches to the face, he activated his blades and started hacking them down. They tumbled to the ground, causing hidden bugs to scatter upon impact. If hunting wasn’t the key objective, he would have easily become immersed with the wildlife. That didn’t stop him taking mental notes of the animals he saw along the way for his physical notes back in camp though.
‘Hold your ground,’ Rob ordered, holding up his hand.
He then signalled to come closer before switching to a “keep the noise down” hand motions. Everyone complied, tiptoeing towards the leader of the group, making sure not to step on stray branches.
By the time Gin got close enough, he noticed why Rob called everyone to a halt. Around fifty metres ahead of the group was a brown-furred quadrupedal animal, with horns on top of its head, facing away from the mages, unsuspecting of their presence. Was that a deer? Gin wondered, basing his assumptions on the descriptions in books he read back in his village, though he couldn’t be sure. It had its head lowered, grazing on the shoots on the forest bed while looking up every so often. But, for some reason Gin couldn’t pinpoint, the animal only looked in one particular direction when it did so.
‘What are we waiting for?’ Jake asked, careful not to make too much noise.
‘Wait and see. It’s hunting,’ Rob answered with confidence.
Hunting? Gin picked up on the word. He grew confused, but didn’t question the phrasing. Instead, he made sure to observe the creature’s actions without fail for future reference. It was then that the Deer pricked its head and remained still, staring in the same direction as before where a group of plump birds came into view, pecking at insects on the ground along their journey. The next few moments remained silent, bar the splatters of crunched up insects, as the birds stepped closer towards the deer in their search for food.
Gin’s confusion turned into shock and disbelief as the deer charged at one of the unsuspecting creatures, impaling the bird right through the stomach. The rest scattered in frantic chaos, leaving their dead brethren to the mercy of the predator which used a nearby tree to unhook its prey, letting it drop to the ground. The animal then revealed a set of fangs as it dug into the innards of the feathered creature.
So much for the books saying they’re herbivores, Gin thought.
‘Great. Let’s use this as a distraction and into position,’ Rob instructed, letting the group crawl away before turning back to Gin. ‘You stay here until I get behind the animal. Then walk slowly towards it.’
‘Again, why me?’ Gin asked, impatient at the lack of detail he was given.
‘I didn’t want to offend you earlier, but you stink,’ Rob answered, chuckling to himself for a couple seconds. ‘I find it hilarious how you low ranks can’t control your own body odour without a constant need to wash.’
‘Heh. Thought it was for some stupid reason and I was right.’
‘The deer knows you’re here too.’
Gin looked back at the deer and noticed one of the ears, the one furthest away from him, was lopsided while the other remained straight. It also twitched its nose every so often and took slow steps to angle itself to have better vision on Gin’s position, though it didn’t seem to see him just yet.
‘Alright,’ Gin understood.
With a nod, Rob made his way around the forest, keeping at least twenty metres between him and the animal. The other mages were also in position, ready to cut off any escape routes which the deer hadn’t noticed yet, keeping its senses aimed at Gin instead.
When Rob got into position, Gin made his move, stepping forwards, stepping on twigs to alert the animal, but not hard enough for it to become wary of the hidden mages.
The deer straightened both ears as it saw Gin at last. It analysed the foreigner, attempting to evaluate how much of a threat he posed. It turned back to its dinner but, the moment Gin activated his blades, it changed its mind, tracking back only to fall into Rob’s grasp. It flailed around, but Rob kept hold of its neck and body with all his might, strangling the creature until it stopped trying to escape.
‘Gin! Finish it off!’ Rob shouted.
Gin walked up to the unconscious beast, poising his blade and aiming it at the throat. He nodded at Rob who nodded back and released his hold on the neck. Gin went for the strike, but the animal sprang back to life, kicking Rob right in the stomach. The blade still hit its target, puncturing the arteries, blood draining out of the wound. Despite all that, the deer managed to break free of Rob’s hold and bounded away from both of them, blood splattering with each leap.
Sam stood of the way of the escape path but the animal didn’t stop, sending the mage flying into a tree as well as catching branches with its horns. The other mages rushed over to him, checking for any wounds.
‘Leader, Sam’s unconscious,’ one of them shouted.
‘Are you alright? Gin asked.
‘I’m fine now but we should get Sam checked out,’ Rob replied, wheezing for a moment before adding, ‘Sorry. I lost my grip at the last moment.’
‘No problem. But I think I dealt enough damage for the game to not get very far.’
‘True. We have the trail of blood to guide us.’ Rob took a breather, psyching himself up back to shape, leaping back to his feet when he was ready. ‘I’ll take Sam back to camp. The rest of you secure that deer and come back.’
‘Do we have enough.’
‘I would have liked to get some of those birds. Just the deer wouldn’t be enough.’
‘I can do it!’ Jake exclaimed, overhearing the conversation.
‘You’re awfully enthusiastic,’ Rob questioned while Jake stood there for a moment, mulling over his words, giving enough time to interrupt his thoughts. ‘That’s fine by me. But only if Gin can accompany you.’
‘Why me?’ Gin wondered out loud.
‘That’s fine,’ Jake pursed his lips before anyone could answer. ‘Makes things a lot easier.’
‘Then that’s settled. I’ll take Sam back; my battalion members will deal with the deer and the two of you will catch some poultry. Is. That. Clear?’ Rob reiterated, stressing the last sentence towards Jake.
‘Yes, sir,’ Jake obeyed.
‘Yep,’ Gin added.
Rob ran over to Sam and told the other mages the same orders, leaving Gin and Jake by themselves. The chirping of nearby insects made the loudest noise as the pair watched the others head separate directions and out of sight.
‘Rob, Brim, half the battalions. I don’t get why everyone cosies up to you,’ Jake said at last with no one able to hear them.
‘Finally got the courage to trash talk me now that we’re alone, huh?’ Gin remarked, meeting Jake eye to eye with a gritty determination.
‘Of course. You got no honour, no skill –’
‘You told me that yesterday,’ Gin interrupted.
‘- and worst of all, you have no direction. You expect me to follow such an aimless leader?’
‘You’re starting to sound like the colonel.’
Jake leaned in closer, once again thinking of his next words through his gritted teeth. ‘And she would be right. I’ll be honest here, I find you way too suspicious. You’re not one us, are you? You act too calm and act too differently.’
‘Heh,’ Gin smirked but was taken aback by the comments on the inside. Did Jake figure out I’m a manush? he wondered while saying, ‘You obviously don’t believe your own lie the moment you accepted being alone with me.’
Jake stared some more, retreating when he couldn’t think of a reply and looking at the light streaming through the trees. ‘The sun’s already set. We should get this job over and done with.’
‘For once, I agree with you.’
‘After you,’ Jake prompted, gesturing for Gin to take the lead.
‘Alright,’ Gin accepted, picking up his guard as he moved forward towards the corpse of the long-dead bird still attached to the trunk of the tree, kneeling when he reached it. ‘Shed some light on this area.’
Although disgruntled by receiving an order from Gin, Jake obeyed, lighting the oil on his dark skin and hovering it away from any vegetation while still illuminating the remains. The first thing Gin noticed was that the heart was the only organ missing from the carcass. So, the deer ate that first. Was it by chance or deliberate? he examined.
‘So?’ Jake said, ruining the train of thought.
‘There are some trails where a few of the birds headed off to,’ Gin pointed out.
‘Then let’s go.’
Gin stood up, despite wanting to observe the remains more, and followed the trail of squashed leaves and footprints on the dirt, going deeper into the forest. As luck would have it, the journey didn’t take long as the pair found three birds huddled together, still shaking from the ordeal they faced some time ago.
Jake stepped on a twig, alerting the creatures of his presence. Two of them darted further into the forest, leaving one to remain and peck on the ground.
‘Tch. Why always my fault?’ Gin heard Jake mutter to himself as he ran after the birds.
‘No! Wait!’ Gin called back but it was too late.
His suspicions growing ever greater, Gin decided not to follow, focusing on the remaining bird instead. He found it ironic how both their compatriots had deserted them, even beginning to sympathise with the creature. Yet, he wanted the task over and done with, not caring what Jake went off to.
Wary that his smell might alert the animal, Gin opted for a long-range attack, unhinging the gun INS from his belt and activating the mechanism. He focused on his training back in squadron W’s rezah, remembering the feeling of a near-perfect shot as he aimed the contraption at his target through a thicket of trees. Then with a press of a finger, the gun fired the bullet, hurtling towards the unsuspecting being, hitting it right on the breast.
‘Huh?’ Gin said, confused by the noise as a yellowish liquid began trickling out the creature’s body. ‘Do the bullets make a noise like that at max range?’
The bird fell nonetheless, immobile and most likely dead. Gin stepped with caution, recalling what happened with the deer when assuming something was dead, sneaking up to the game and salivating at the thought of having meat that didn’t compromise his beliefs. Though the darkness that fell upon the forest meant he couldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, wait for Jake to return.
Gin felt something rake across his chest, ripping his shirt to shreds and scratching the stone armour.
Gin took a defensive stance, his eyes shifting from side to side, searching for where the attack came from.
Am I just imagining things? he wondered, trying to remain calm and methodical.
Gin looked down at his shirt and noticed five distinct lines. But that move proved naïve as another five-pronged attack slashed Gin’s back, again the armour protecting him.
Gin swivelled on the spot, finding not a single animal in sight let alone an attacker.
Where did it come from? Left? Right? Definitely not up or down!
Another slash, this time high enough to brush against Gin’s neck, scratched the armour once again. Gin twisted, finding nothing in his efforts. His breathing became heavier. His artificial heart’s beating became quicker. His mind became more archaic.
Who? What? Why? Where? No. Idiot! Think! He’s attacking from behind. Defend that area!
Gin slammed himself against the nearest tree, protecting the nape of his neck with the cover along with his defensive stance, the blades and shields covering his face and armour protecting his body. With his newfound defence, he began thinking of a strategy.
I can’t keep defending. I need to-
The mental thought got cut short when another slash went for the chest, hitting the armour once again. Gin went for the counterattack, sending his blades in front of him, only hitting thin air, regretting his actions when something sliced across his forehead, just missing his eyes.
Gin snapped back into his defensive stance.
There was nothing there. No, this pain is an illusion. This throbbing is an illusion. No one is there. There can’t be.
Yet, the blood that trickled over his brow confirmed the opposite.
Sudden needle-like objects pierced his upper arm but before Gin could react, they retracted just as quickly as they entered. He bit his tongue to contain his urge to scream in agony.
Do I call for help? No. There might be more enemies. Bear the pain. Think, Gin, think. Faster. Harder. Smarter. Get out of this situation. Slow time. Create a thousand thoughts a second. Create a hundred plans a second. Think!
The needles bored into the other arm, deeper than the previous attack. Gin’s will to hold up his arms wavered, both begging him to rest them with every ebb.
Think. Think. Think. The more I think, the less the pain takes over. I need to keep my arms up. The moment they fall, I die. So, think you idiot! But what? My goals? My ambitions? My direction? Why the f*** is Rob and the colonel’s words coming to me? No. This is good. This is just what I need!
Gin’s right arm became the main target, receiving strike after strike, but they still didn’t drop, locked into place in order to cover his face.
Why am I fighting? Why did I join the squadron? Family? No. They’re all dead. Father? Dead. Mother? Dead. Jacob? Dead. Friends? My whole village is dead! Wo? Screw him. Do I really not have a reason to fight? It’s always been like this. Alone. Dark. Tiresome. Do I just let myself be killed? Would anyone care? Wait. What about the mages? What about my battalion? Yes! That’s it! Who will warn them of this threat? Who will lead them into battle? Who will tell them reinforcements will turn the tide of battle? Why am I so blind? Why didn’t I see this? Wait. See? See. See!
A plan formed in Gin’s mind. He waited for the next attack before moving, his senses dulling and time moving so slowly that he ran on instinct while his mind wandered again.
There’s too much to do. I have to go back to my battalion. I have to know more about the world, the mages and life.
The nails dug into his right arm once again, sparking Gin’s plot. He reached to his belt using his left and chucked a cylinder into the air at that moment between attacks.
I have to make my parents proud. I have to make everyone proud.
Through hope rather than expectation, the invisible enemy sliced through the capsule-like it was paper, spilling its liquid contents.
Heh. Simply put, I have to live.
Gin thrust his arm, betting everything in this one strike at the expense of exposing his face to another swipe.
His Blades ignited the liquid. The flaming oil splashed onto the ground. Luckily, the trees weren’t fireproof like the Rezah. Instead, the fire spread and spread and spread until it turned into a raging inferno, eating up anything in its path. Why did he do that? What did he expect? Did he think that the fire would ward off the enemy? Maybe. Gin had lost all rationality at that point. But the attacks stopped.
Gin felt dizzy from the blood loss. His legs and arms gave way as he collapsed backwards, crashing against the tree. The fire edged ever closer to him, but he couldn’t move away. His body didn’t allow him.
‘This idiot,’ someone murmured. ‘I’m not getting caught up with this.’
Gin looked up. He thought he heard something. One eye was blinded by blood; the other just saw a hazy blur. But, for one moment, he thought he saw something. A silhouette of some sort running away from the fire. Was he imagining things? He couldn’t tell what was real or not. A mage? he thought. Is it possible for mages to go invisible?
When the silhouette disappeared, Gin unequipped his right shield with his functioning arm and held it above him, pressing the second chamber. The shield expanded into a dome, surrounding him in the process.
Then, with his last ounce of strength, he unhooked an INS from his belt. He stabbed it into his bleeding arms and injected its contents into his veins. He wanted to use another nano-booster, but he couldn’t muster the ability to do so.
Gin could hear the crackle of the fire around him as he began to lose consciousness. If his battalion saw what he had done, they would probably look down on him. It was just like his fight with Varunel. He couldn’t beat his opponent so he cowered and hid in a dome shell. It was the only thing he could do. He also started the beginning of the destruction of the forest. Was this the actions of a Eurasian soldier? Where was the honour? Where was the skill? Again, Jake’s words entered his mind. But there was no honour or skill in survival, Gin thought. Surely, his battalion would understand their leader’s actions. Right?