The sun rose, leaving a giant shadow over the battlefield thanks to the Eastern walls. The long-awaited battle came to a close. All that was left to do was to stock food for the return trip, clean up the area, and treat the injured before the trek back to squadron W’s rezah tree.
However, despite the task at hand, one man sat in front of the pile of bodies, all lined up and stripped naked in rows of ten. He watched. Watching with a clenched fist and a drooped back, his head poised at one of the deceased in particular. The one with multiple stabs wounds that already crusted over, a sheet covering the rolled-over eyes.
‘Hey, Gin?’ a worried Joan said.
‘Mm?’ Gin responded. It was an empty reply; void of any positive emotion as she feared.
‘Does-’ she paused, figuring out how to bring up the topic. ‘Did Michal’s death-’
Gin placed a finger on her lips. She got the message, giving up and joining him beside the lifeless bodies. But, instead of being focused on those dead, she tended to the wounds on her patient, tending to the gash on his leg that didn’t heal as much, coating it with a healing gel through her index finger. Afterwards, she took off his armour and inspected his back, finding several burn marks and bruises. No reaction again, she worried some more as she pierced his skin with her nails, wondering if his unresponsiveness was mental or physical.
‘I know what you want to say,’ Gin spoke up, sighing as he did so. ‘And no. I’m just counting our losses. I have to write a report to send to the colonel, no? Death is natural and expected, especially in battle. We just have to go onto the next mission and move on from all of this.’
‘That’s a little harsh,’ Joan played along.
‘Meh. They couldn’t defend themselves and died in the process. I did my best to train them, but it looks like they couldn’t use that. They didn’t anticipate a sneak attack and this is what happens. No point brooding over the grunts of the operation.’
‘And you don’t care about them?’
‘Why should I? I’ve seen worse. I’ve lost more. This is nothing.’
‘Gin,’ Joan addressed in a stern manner, sending a shiver down his spine. ‘Tell me the truth. Do you really feel that way?’
Gin lowered his head, brooding for a few seconds before turning his body around to face Joan. His eyes were red and the residue of dried tears lingered on his scarred face. His lips trembled, wanting to say the truth yet holding back at the same time.
‘No,’ Gin said at last, reluctance still in his voice. ‘Of course not. But I still need to put up this façade, don’t I? I’m the leader after all. If I say how I feel or feel how I say, it just wouldn’t be right, would it? Not in the eyes of the others at least.’
‘Huh? What do you mean?’
‘Just listen,’ Gin’s voice turned into a whisper.
Joan didn’t understand what he meant but kept quiet regardless. It wasn’t until then did she notice the slowing down of some mages as they walked past the pair. A few even stopped just out of earshot but their glances and body language showed that they referred to Gin in their conversations.
‘Wow. Did he really let a thousand Eurasians die?’ one of a careless trio of fire elementals said (all of whom Joan recognised was part of the reinforcement team).
‘What did you expect? He’s a manush!’ a second, just as careless, replied to his compatriot.
‘Really? No wonder I saw him crying a while ago. I heard the manush get super emotional. Is that why Team A split up?’ the first asked while the third looked on.
‘Yeah. Apparently, he also drove Rob’s battalion out in a fit of rage because they didn’t listen to him, leading them to their doom. We could have had a flawless victory of Rob was in charge,’ responded the second again.
‘What? No way.’
The third mage that didn’t speak throughout made his move. He shifted his body to face Gin and Joan before speaking in a tone which made it obvious that he wanted to be heard by the pair, ‘Can’t believe Maria chose him to be in charge of the offence group!’
How do they not realise how much Gin is hurting? Just because they came at the end to clean up and not witness the horrors of war he did? And the fact that he wasn’t afraid to tell me he was a manush from the very beginning (though I didn’t believe him at first regrettably) proved that it has nothing to do with his judgement and character! He is just like us mages, sheesh! the thoughts rang through Joan’s mind.
To put it bluntly, their attitude disgusted her. Through clenched teeth, she stood up to give the deluded trio a piece of her mind. However, before she could utter a word, another fire elemental walked up to them. She didn’t know the man, so decided to ignore him and carry on with her planned scolding.
‘Oh, will you shut up!’ the man bellowed, stopping everyone, including Joan, in their tracks. ‘Betrayals, makeshift groups, trust issues; Oh, so much trust issues. Do you know how much we’ve suffered these past few weeks? Definitely a thousand times more than your inexperienced asses who came to the fight to hog the glory without fear of death. So, how about you get back to work? Those bodies won’t move by themselves.’
The onlookers grumbled for a moment before leaving the vicinity, while the braided man who caused that to happen walked towards Gin. He stood by him, waiting for a response, but getting nothing in return.
‘Oi, help me out. We need to feed the mage-eaters,’ he said.
‘Oh? It’s time already? Right. I’ll get on it right away.’
Despite his words, Gin sat in his spot. He didn’t move at all, much to the annoyance of the fire elemental who gave him a gentle kick to the shin to show it.
‘This really isn’t the time for moping around, Gin. This really isn’t your fault alone. Just get up,’ he said, light-kicking him some more.
Joan tapped on the man’s shoulder, grabbing his attention. ‘I think we should leave him be. He’s not feeling too –’
‘Dammit all!’ an exasperated Gin cried out, punching the sand below him and scaring Joan in the process. He breathed deep breaths before jumping onto his feet in one go. With a cheesy grin on his face and an odd spring in his side, he confronted the two. ‘Sorry, I just had to release my negativity in one go. Thanks, Jake! Let’s get to work now.’
‘Ugh. I still don’t approve of you,’ the man called Jake grumbled, heading off to do the job alone.
Joan stood there blinking. What did I just witness? she questioned the sudden change in atmosphere. Gin, the guy who sat down all gloomy and downbeat just a few seconds ago, now stood as if nothing had happened. Was his smile genuine? Was he faking? Joan didn’t know the answer.
‘Joan, do you want to help me?’ Gin asked, still putting on his authentic, fake grin.
‘What’s with that face? Oh! You probably have more patients to tend to. I’ll leave you to it then.’
‘No,’ Joan denied way too quickly for her likings.
‘No, nothing. I’ll help out. The other medics already treated everyone that needs treatment anyway. I’d just be extra baggage if I joined them. Might as well carry these bodies instead.’
‘If you say so,’ Gin shrugged.
To no one’s surprise, he headed straight for Michal’s corpse. He wrapped his friend in the shaven fur of the lupim, removing any remaining inedible bits of clothing and armour as well. Then, noticing the open, lifeless eyes, he closed them before hauling the body onto a stone stretcher, newly made courtesy of the other stone elementals.
‘Grab the other side,’ Gin instructed, grabbing hold of one end.
Joan obliged without saying a word. She just observed his actions, voice and mannerisms. None of which gave what he was thinking away to her dismay. It made her realise how little she knew of him. Him being a manush with strange objects called nanobots were all she understood about the mysterious man that entered her life. From the very first day he joined squadron W to now, a whole year or so had passed. How did she manage to last this long, watching his time in the squadron, while being clueless about the person’s background throughout?
‘Joan, what is Syndra doing?’ Gin asked, breaking her thought process.
‘Huh?’ Joan paused.
She didn’t realise they already began walking towards the chasm where the mage-eaters, carrying Michal’s body along with them. However, what Gin referred to were the group of tinoos huddling around a woman with no defining feature except for how dark her hair was.
‘What do you want to know in particular?’ Joan asked.
‘I honestly don’t know why she’s doing it. I assume she’s whistling something, but that’s about it.’
At least his curiosity is genuine, Joan concluded before responding, ‘Those tinoos lost their masters. She’s just giving them the choice between staying and looking for a new master or they have the choice to be free.’
‘By free, do you mean that the wild tinoos we see are actually –’
‘Yeah, they’re likely to be the descendants of the familiars of fallen mages.’
‘I see,’ Gin said as he watched some of the birds fly into the sky and away from the battlefield. ‘That’s an interesting custom.’
Joan noted how Gin learnt more of her species just like that and yet, she couldn’t do the same. She didn’t have the right questions. Where would she even begin?
‘Um, leader,’ a fire elemental called out to Gin, this time someone much more hospitable to him to Joan’s relief. ‘Can you help me?’
‘What do you need?’ Gin answered the woman.
‘Sorry for causing you too much trouble but I can’t seem to create a spark,’ she indicated to an oil-laden enemy bestial.
‘Sure, I can help with that. Joan, do you mind?’
‘No, not at all,’ Joan replied, lowering the stretcher with Gin.
He went over to the body and activated his blades. The branches then entered the second chamber of the INS, creating a spark that ignited the body. The burning flames covered the stench of the decaying body for the most part, but everyone still needed to cover his nose.
‘Why couldn’t you make a spark in the first place?’ Gin asked, a weird nasal sound covering his normal voice.
‘My fingers are a bit wet from my sweat,’ the meek girl responded.
‘Is that so?’ Gin understood as his Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host began to grow a thin sheet of wood out of his upper arm. He split it off and gave it to the mage saying, ‘Use this to wipe your fingers. It should absorb most of the oil.’
‘Oh, thank you!’
At least his kindness is genuine, Joan chuckled to herself as she watched the spectacle. Wait. When did the Xernim grow that far?!
‘What’s so funny?’ Gin wondered, stopping her from asking out loud.
‘Nothing,’ she smirked instead, picking up Michal again. ‘We’re almost at the chasm by the way.’
‘Oh, you’re right,’ Gin said, stopping all of a sudden. ‘Woah.’
Joan looked at what caught his attention. An adult mage-eater sat on the edge of the hole with a quadruplet of featherless chicks by its side. It waited for its opportunity, leaning and inspecting those that came close. Then, when someone threw a corpse into the pit, it dived down, grabbing the body mid-flight before gulping it down in a matter of seconds.
The chicks on the other hand screeched and bobbed their little heads up and down, begging their parent to pay attention to them when it returned on its perch. The adult listened to the younglings, rolling out its long tongue. A reddish-brown sludge rolled down to the tip, dripping into the birds’ gaping mouths where they swallowed the mush with satisfaction. Wait. Why am I watching this? Joan questioned her interest despite seeing the same scene many times in her past.
‘This is all so fascinating. How did we even get to this point?’ Gin mumbled as he picked up the pace again.
‘Is this how you see the world?’ Joan asked, linking her own experience with Gin’s words.
‘You heard that? Ah, well, ok then,’ Gin gave a soft chuckle at his absentmindedness. ‘How do you think I see the world then?’
‘I don’t know. Seeing everything with child-like enthusiasm? You find amazement in the most mundane of things and never hesitate to explore what you don’t know. All of which under a secretive state where you lead people on, making them think they know you when no one really does. Hmph!’ Joan pouted at the end.
‘Are you,’ Gin stopped by the edge of the chasm and noticed Joan’s expression for the first time. ‘Are you perhaps angry with me?’
‘I’m not that stupid, Joan. I can tell you’re not happy about something. My guess is that you’re frustrated because you know nothing about me, my past, or where I came from.’
‘What? How did you…’
‘Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately,’ Gin paused to lower Michal onto the ground. He sat by the body, looking across the chasm. He stared at a fifth chick that joined its family, this one with a complete set of feathers on its body. However, what irked Joan was that this particular chick seemed to stare back.
‘And what have you been thinking?’ Joan asked, shaking her head to dispel her suspicions about the bird.
‘Ever since the attack in the forest, I feel like my past has come back to haunt me. I locked it up or at least thought I did, but I now think that was the wrong thing to do. If I wasn’t as insufferable in the beginning – if I wasn’t as impatient with Alder – I could be much stronger and the other battalions might have looked on me favourably instead. Fewer people would have deserted as a result.’
‘Gin, thought we told you already. All the bad that’s happened so far isn’t your fault.’
‘How about you?’ Gin ignored Joan’s comments. ‘Do you have any regrets? Stuff that you wish you could have changed in the past few months?’
Joan didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t even expect the questions in the first place. It made her step back to think as she came with her own answer. But, when she figured how she would respond, she joined Gin, sitting down with her legs dangling over the edge of the chasm.
‘Yes,’ she began, letting out a deep breath to clear her lungs. ‘I should have believed you were a manush when we first spoke. I should have asked to join you on your side of this mission instead of using the underground caverns under The Path. I should have been there to keep both you and the squadron in check. But I wasn’t.’
‘What’s so funny? I poured my heart and soul into that.’
‘I know. But hindsight is both wonderful and useless, isn’t it?’
Joan looked at the lifeless Michal then back at the ever-pondering Gin. ‘Yeah, I suppose it is.’
‘But the beauty of it is that we can improve on ourselves today.’
Gin stood up to Joan’s surprise. He picked up Michal with both arms and, with a couple of pre-emptive swings, he hurled him into the pit. The adult mage-eater that was watching them all along plunged and scooped it in its beaks, completing the process by swallowing Michal whole before returning to the chicks.
‘Did you know us manush bury our dead instead of feeding them to animals?’ Gin gave a triumphant exclamation before breathing a final sigh at his friend’s fate.
‘Where did that come from?’ Joan jumped from her seat, almost tumbling over the ledge.
‘It’s me trying to turn over a new leaf. I want to be more open about my past. I want to be proud of my heritage. I want to learn about more and more about you mages. And you wanted to know more about me and the manush, right Joan?’ Gin said with a smile directed at her.
Before she knew it, Joan kicked her legs against the chasm in a playful manner, glee running across her face. ‘So, why do you manush busy your dead instead of feeding them to mage-eaters?’
‘I don’t know. Something something tradition something something. We just do it. We don’t have the mages’ sentiment of looking after the environment. If we were to do something, it’s probably because my ancestors did it and no real reason, unlike you guys who feed the animals who in turn feeds nature which in turn feeds you back.’
‘Pfft. Yeah, that does sound stupid,’ Joan agreed, unable to hide her amusement.
‘I know, right?!’
‘Let’s head back. We got lots of work to do still,’ Joan reminded, getting up on her feet and grabbing the stretcher. ‘But I’d love to hear more of your customs along the way.’
‘Ah, right. You’re right as always!’ Gin replied, grabbing the other side.
‘Oh, by the way, you weren’t insufferable when you first joined,’ Joan tried to console, still unsure what Gin’s mental state was.
‘I think I was.’
‘Ok, you kinda were.’
‘Heh. Told you!’
‘Shut up. You still are,’ Joan stuck her tongue out.
‘Aaaaanyway, shall we get back to my culture? I got a good one where we celebrate someone’s birthday even though that guy’s been dead for nearly half a millennium.’
‘Yes, let’s. I want to know how stupid your race really is.’
Gin burst out in laughter. It got so serious he stopped moving to take a moment to relax. But, when he regained his composure, he turned to Joan.
‘Thanks,’ he said with the warmest of smiles.
Or that’s how Joan would have liked to believe. In all honesty, she realised that Gin was still hurting from the losses. He still blamed himself for them. His smiles? Probably an attempt to not make her worry. His offer to talk about his past? She could tell he only scratched the surface of the truth. The sudden change in emotions? Well, she really didn’t know why he was doing that.
But still, Joan couldn’t help but think, at least Gin is someone genuine.
Book One End