Chapter 24 – That Which Divides All

Jake found something wet sprinkle against one cheek and something else squelch against the other. He felt cold, devoid of the natural heat fire elementals possess. His mind scattered in a million directions, unable to process what had happened, but the sudden snapping of branches brought him back into rationality.

‘He’s alive! I hear heart!’

A familiar voice, Jake thought. He recognised the muffled voice, calming his nerves and welcoming him. However, he kept his eyes shut, still fearful of what happened the night before, (or was it a dream? he questioned himself), then his ears pricked up when he heard a different set of footsteps following close by.

‘Is he all that’s left, Sam?’ the gruff voice asked, bringing immense relief to Jake’s conscious.

‘I think so,’ Sam replied. ‘Five bodies. No heartbeat. Just Jake alive. Where’re others?’

‘I wonder if that inferno got to the rest.’

Bodies? Jake wondered, a sense of déjà vu enveloping him.

‘Um, sir? Are you ok? You not waking?’ Sam’s voice encouraging Jake to open his eyes in what seemed like forever. He opened the right before opening the left when he saw a group of ally mages surrounding the area.

Propped up against a tree, Jake watched juggernauts search the forestry while Sam and Rob towered over him as they witnessed a utility medic type tend to the wound on his abdomen. Eh? Wounds? Jake realised.

‘So, it wasn’t a dream after all,’ Jake mustered the strength to talk, half-expecting a sudden rush of pain but instead received numbing pulsations.

‘Dream?’ Sam picked up on.

‘Let the man rest,’ Rob instructed, getting a nod of understanding out of Sam.

‘I’m fine. Really, I am,’ Jake assured.

Rob gave him a worried look before saying, ‘That’s the medic’s anaesthetic talking. You are not in the condition to say anything.’

‘No!’ Jake protested, raising himself up with his arms, only to cry out in agony as a wound opened up on his left leg.

‘Leader! Please refrain from frolicking too much,’ the medic snapped. ‘Ugh. I have to stitch it again.’

The medic dislocated one of her fingers and twisted it, allowing a white serum to seep out of the joint. With her other hand, she pinched the substance, elongating it until it hardened in a matter of moments, turning into a thin strand. Then, with the fingernail of her needle-like pinkie, she intertwined the thread around a hook at the tip and began weaving the nail in and out of Jake’s leg, closing the wound in the process.

‘I’ll leave you two to it then,’ Rob said, turning around to head back to his battalion members. ‘Come, Sam. We need to carry on with the investigation.’

‘Wait!’ Jake called, lowering his voice after realising how loud he was. ‘What investigation?’

Rob glanced back before shifting his head to indicate that Sam should go ahead.

‘Should I leave too?’ the medic asked, biting on the thread to break it off from the finished stitches.

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‘No. I’ll need your opinion on something in a moment,’ Rob answered, getting a nod from the medic then turning back to Jake. ‘Did you cause the fire?’

‘Huh? What fire?’ Jake said, confused by the sudden information.

‘So, you really don’t know,’ Rob said, staring into the tree-covered sky, lost in thought.

‘I’m really confused. Can someone fill me in on what is going on?’

Rob snapped out of daydream but his expression turned into pensive thought. Does he not trust me? Jake wondered, afraid of learning the events that led up to this point. Was he branded as a traitor? No. That couldn’t be. Unless…

‘Alright,’ Rob muttered, kneeling down to meet Jake face to face. ‘After the hunting session, I took Sam back to camp to get treated, thinking the rest of you will join us shortly. However, an hour passed and no one came. Not even those after the deer.’

‘Oh,’ Jake’s eyes widened.

‘And then it happened. A fire began burning the forest. I don’t know how it started but with you the only fire elemental…’ Rob paused, staring at Jake for a moment and biting on the hair that dangled in front of his hairy face. ‘Roxanne, check his hands.’

The medic took Jake’s palms and inspected the crevices. The piercing touch of her nails made him flinch. Yet, he couldn’t move out of fear of being suspected.

Fortunately, with a shake of her head, the medic spoke up, ‘His hands are clean. No sign of usage within the last few days.’

‘I see,’ Rob mumbled.

They really don’t trust me, huh, Jake thought, disappointed by the notion.

‘Am I needed further?’ the medic asked, putting her broken finger back into place, stopping the secretion.

‘No. That is all. Thanks for the help, Roxanne. Go see if there are any other survivors and treat them,’ Rob ordered.

‘As you wish.’

Rob watched the medic leave the immediate vicinity, making sure no one else was in hearing distance as well, before leaning closer to Jake.

‘Do you have any idea where the other bodies are?’ Rob whispered, his face close enough to touch if Jake turned his head.

‘What bodies?’ Jake asked.

‘Out of the ten that went on the hunting expedition, we have only found seven of them. You, me, Sam and four bodies – all of which are most likely dead and unrecoverable. That leaves three we haven’t found yet.’

‘Wait. Of those missing, is it one woman and two men?’

‘Yes. One of them being –’

‘Gin.’

Rob’s eyes narrowed.‘How do you know?’

Jake stopped speaking. He wasn’t sure what to say. Did he just out the truth of what happened just a few hours ago? Did he even believe what he witnessed? But the information Rob told him lined up and, along with the wounds on his legs, it was too coincidental to be just his imagination.

‘Jake?’

‘Sorry,’ Jake paused once more, his thoughts running wild. ‘I’m not sure myself, but I believe those three aren’t dead.’

‘They aren’t?!’ Rob exclaimed, causing Jake to flinch at the booming into his ears.

‘Yes,’ Jake admitted, stopping again to regain his composure. ‘Hold on. How long has passed?’

‘Since I took Sam back to the camp? It’s an hour or so past sunrise now.’

‘I see. Then it really was last night. Can we move elsewhere? I don’t feel comfortable with everybody still close by.’

Rob looked around and nodded in confirmation. ‘Can you walk?’

Jake focused on his legs. He could move one just fine, but the other didn’t cooperate, only twitching at the simplest commands. With a groan of frustration, he looked back at Rob and shook his head. He knew he wouldn’t be able to in his condition.

‘Grab hold of me,’ Rob understood, hoisting Jake over his shoulder.

The pair limped further into the forest, away from the other mages. They made no sound bar the flicks of low-lying branches. It wasn’t until the voices of the search party disappeared did Rob let Jake down onto the nearest tree.

‘So, what did you want to tell me privately?’ Rob asked.

‘Let me check one more thing,’ Jake asserted, wiping a few blood stains from his leg. ‘One of the missing bodies went barefoot, right?’

‘Dmitri? Yes. He never wore footwear.’

‘Ha! I think it’s all too much of a coincidence now.’

Another pause followed before Rob prompted, ‘Can you stop beating around the bush, please?’

‘I want you to trust me on this. Gin and the others. They’re traitors. They betrayed the battalion, squadron W, no, all of Eurasia.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ Rob stopped Jake, his eyes widening in shock, making his thought process obvious to understand. ‘Traitors? That’s impossible! I’ve spoken with him and those around him. They adore him. He’s a good guy himself. I’ve seen his progress just like everyone else.’

Jake gave Rob a solemn expression, receiving a startled response in reply. A simple nod from both of them indicated how they wanted to proceed with the conversation.

‘I think it’s obvious now. He planned this from the start,’ Jake speculated.

‘From the start? How far back does that go?’ Rob queried.

‘I don’t know. At least just before we left the rezah. From the way he got us to split up, first with our battalions during the sandpools, then with sending Brim and the others to the oasis. He whittled us down; made us weaker.’

Rob clasped his face, hiding his obviously confused expression. ‘Weren’t all of those events just pure coincidence?’

‘He might have known what was to happen. He might have just used the events to his own advantage, with a backup plan at hand.’

‘This is beyond believability. Where’s your proof?’

‘Still don’t trust me, huh?’ Jake sighed, once again doing his reoccurring pause. ‘Last night, I woke up, face on the floor. I was surrounded by bodies as well.’

‘Yes, that’s how we found you this morning.’

‘You didn’t see the others?’

‘No. It was just you lot.’

‘Well, I heard three people. Two men and a woman. It was obvious they killed everybody else. It was them who started the fire.’

‘No wonder you were found so far away from the inferno. It was a distraction all along.’

‘Now you’re thinking like me!’ Jake announced, receiving a sharp pain in his stomach as punishment for his sudden energy. ‘What happened to the fire anyway?’

‘Luckily it rained, otherwise we would have still been dealing with it.’

‘Thankfully. As for what I witnessed, the woman sounded like the leader of the three while the other man – Dmitri you called him, right? – seemed to have picked off our people.’

‘What did they look like? What were the wounds of those they killed like? Dmitri was in my battalion, so I know how he fights.’

‘I don’t know. I was too scared to open my eyes. All I saw was a severed head.’

‘Yes, that does sound like something he’d do,’ Rob admitted. He then howled in annoyance and punched the tree behind him, causing the bark to snap off. ‘How did I not realise earlier?!’

‘Rob it’s ok. I trust you and they were clever about it. It’s not your fault.’

‘Thanks,’ Rob said, going into a train of thought afterwards. ‘Though it does make me wonder if the AAA has more backup. How many were on their side? What type of mage were they?’

‘I didn’t hear anything to help answer that.’

‘That’s frustrating.’

Rob’s eyes wandered down to the three linear wound marks that had clotted and begun healing already.

‘Now that I think about it,’ Rob analysed. ‘Those cuts. They’re-’

‘Gin stabbed me. These are the marks of his blades,’ Jake interrupted.

‘No doubt. None of the other mages have the ability nor the skill to be able to make such clean slits. How did you even survive?’

‘Through luck. He thought I was dead already and just did not-so-deep stabs. I lost consciousness right after. They left me to rot with the others. I don’t know what we should do now.’

‘Of all the times for Brim’s battalion to need another day…’

‘What?’

‘Oh no.’

‘Hu-’

Rob lifted Jake up, catching him by surprise, and rung him around his back.

The very next second, they darted through the forest, heading towards where the search party were. Jake wanted to speak up but the speed told him all he needed to know. The urgency required pure silence and he abided, keeping quiet while his heart thumped and wounds throbbed. Then, as the chatter of the others echoed through the forest, he heard the deepest sigh of relief in his entire life from Rob.

‘Rob?’

‘Everyone’s still here,’ Rob mumbled.

‘Oh, I understand now. We can’t leave anyone alone now,’ Jake concluded, glad to see Rob worried about the others.

‘Yes,’ Rob confirmed as he stood up straight, puffing out his chest. ‘Everyone! We’re leaving now.’

The mages turned towards their leader, baffled by the sudden command. Yet, his assertive voice made them obey, having them clean up the mess they made and leaving the forest in its natural condition first.

‘Leader? What’s wrong? You found Gin?’ the petite Sam questioned Rob.

‘Worse,’ Rob replied. ‘Hurry up everyone! This is urgent! Throw the bodies to the nearby mage-eater nest and head back to camp as soon as possible. No detours, even if you find something.’

Jake didn’t hear their reply as he lurched backwards from the sudden acceleration from Rob. They headed towards the other mages, bursting through the clearing in one, single bound, shocking all and grabbing their attention.

‘What happened to Jake?’ one of them asked, leading to murmurs amongst the crowd, the wounds drawing eyes.

‘We need to leave. It’s too dangerous here,’ Rob warned, his eyes stern enough to pierce the hardest of hearts while avoiding the mage’s question altogether.

‘Leave? You haven’t told us what happened!’ another protested.

‘There’s a high chance of an AAA army in this forest. We have to leave as soon as possible,’ Rob added, leading to more discussion, all of which were of disbelief.

‘Shouldn’t we wait for the others?’ a mage different from the other two suggested.

‘Yeah, Brim, Michal and Syndra are on their way,’ added a second.

‘What about Gin?’ a third chimed.

‘Yes! We should find Gin too,’ a few agreed. ‘He’ll be able to help.’

The noise in the camp grew so loud that birds flew away from the branches. But that didn’t grab Jake’s notice. Instead, the chatter and concern peeved him off. Every other sentence contained the word “Gin”. Gin this. Gin that. How could they all be so blind to the truth? However, when Jake turned to see what Rob had planned, he could see the visible frustration of a man who couldn’t control the mob.

‘Let me down,’ Jake whispered.

‘What? Why?’ Rob responded.

‘Trust me.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

Rob obeyed, lowering Jake onto the ground to sit. But he insisted on standing up, using all of his strength to do so, his legs still numb from the anaesthetic. He waited to see if the crowd would die down though it never happened.

Jake took a deep breath.

‘Silence!’ he bellowed, grinding everyone’s words to a halt. He might have ruptured something, but he didn’t care, using everyone’s, even Rob’s, shocked looks as fuel for his determination. ‘Don’t you see that your own weak, low-ranked lives are at risk? The enemies are just beyond the clearing, waiting to attack us. Rob is trying to protect us all and you still stand there, gawking and asking questions and not seeing the urgency of the situation! And Gin? He betrayed us all! Us splitting up. Us being distracted by the fire. Us getting caught out and slaughtered one by one. My wounds, our battalions, Eurasia’s squadron W — Gin orchestrated the downfall of each and every one of them from the very beginning! So please! Listen to Rob and leave this place!’

‘Gin betrayed us?’ the sound of Sam came from the clearing.

The silence that followed unnerved Jake. It was only at that moment that he noticed the confused and disbelieving glares of his peers. Did I say anything wrong? he wondered, starting to shake under the pressure exerted on him. Then he realised the lot of them waited on his answer to the question.

‘Yes,’ Jake confirmed, making sure to ooze confidence in his reply. ‘Their negligence failed to kill me off, but the hunting party was definitely assaulted. And Gin was there. The blade marks on my legs prove it.’

The camp remained silent. Some still disbelieved while others began to shift, packing up the tents and caravans. Though slow, their movements lifted an immeasurable weight off Jake’s chest, and he could see the gratitude from Rob.

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‘But I know Gin,’ Sam argued over the silence. ‘We talk lots. He wouldn’t do this.’

Of those that stayed firm in their beliefs, they nodded after some thinking over and started trying to convince the others to stop. It pained Jake to see such a sight. Just how much has Gin brainwashed the poor folk?  he asked himself, gritting his teeth. He wanted to protect everyone. Just like Brim would have had he been here. However, he couldn’t find the words to do so.

‘Unless,’ he muttered.

‘Did you want to say something?’ Rob asked, drawing the gazes back to Jake.

‘I am not mistaking this. I heard it in front of the assailants. The reason Gin betrayed us all. It’s not that he’s not working with the AAA,’ Jake spoke up, taking his time to think of his next words. ‘Well, he is, but it’s something more. Something worse. He’s not even one of us. He’s not even a mage.’

The chorus of “huh?”, “What?” and general puzzled groans filled the air. Jake knew he couldn’t go back but something felt off. His mind began doubting itself. Did he even believe what he heard? His conscience told him to shake the whole news off, aiming for a different method instead. Anything but telling the full truth. However, a firm hand on his shoulder made him look up at a reassuring smile from Rob. Their mutual trust spurred Jake on to turn back to the crowd.

‘Yes. I am certain! The reason he’s so weak. The reason he betrayed us. The reason we need to leave-’

‘You can’t mean…’ Sam realised.

Jake took one more deep breath.

‘It’s because he’s a manush.’

- my thoughts:
The Plot Thickens.
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