Frequent footsteps around, as if…
Yang: [Hey, hey, I’m up, I’m up! Don’t need to shove me.]
I forced my eyes awake from the shaking of a certain annoyed Patches. I would have woken up naturally if he’d just given me a little bit more time to…
The mood in the air wasn’t the same as the past three days. They were mundane, sure, but they were novel experiences that I don’t think I will ever get the chance to experience again back on Earth. They were even fun to a certain extent and not the least tense in any way shape or form.
No. Today was different.
Today would be far from any other day.
That was the conclusion I had come to as I observed the seven guys in our tent beginning to don their leather armour that we so painstakingly brought along, before strapping on their leather dagger sheaths onto the back of their chest plates.
Not wanting to be a burden for them, I decided to follow suit. I began to wear the armour over my clothes, starting with the pants, then the boots, followed by the chest plate and lastly, the leather cap. It was hard for me to reach my back so I got Patches to help with strap on my sheath to the back of my chest plate. I was expecting him to refuse to help but he seemed more than willing to help me this time around.
After that, we took out our individual strange square white cloth that I didn’t know what it was used for and folded it in half, before using it to cover half of our faces, mainly the nose and mouth. Ah, I get it, the white cloth served as cloth masks!
The last piece of clothing we put on was our hooded cloaks, ones that Hood never took off ever since I first lay eyes on him. Got to say, I am rather curious about the face behind Hood’s hood…
Once we were completely suited up, we carried our respective cleaning brushes and cloth that were also packed into our haversacks and jogged our way to the horse carriage that we originally used to pack our logistics.
We also brought along our water pouches that we had been using to drink from for the past three days. It came with a nice string that could be easily tied to the chest plate.
Where do we get our water, you ask?
Well, that is a good question. I wondered the same initially seeing that there is no wells or freshwater bodies within walking distance around the tent. I only found the answer when I walked up to Aniki with my empty water pouch.
Interpreting that as my way of asking for a refill, he took out a small pouch from inside his haversack and retrieved a small metallic device from within. The very magical device we morderners known as the “tap”.
I was surprised to see such familiar inventions in this fantasy world. Then again, the invention of the tap isn't new either, some even dating all the way back to the ancient Romans.
But that doesn’t exactly help me with getting water. Not when it isn’t connected to any pipes that go straight to any water sources, or so I thought.
As if to prove me wrong, Aniki turned the valve on the metal tap and water soon came pouring out and into my water pouch.
Noticing my disbelief, he pointed to the small inscriptions carved around the tap that were glowing with a blue hue.
Yang: [So you are telling me that this tap here is a magic device that produces water!?]
I was shocked until I recalled having seen the same tap just recently. It was in the bathroom of the Granharts where I took my first shower in this other-world. In a sense, I guess this is the norm in this world?
Going back to the tent. The sun was not up yet, so we had to find our way around our vicinity with the help of our personal oil lanterns. Although, it seemed like the campfire had been properly maintained by Hood and Futsu after they took over us as sentries last night, providing an extra layer of illumination.
Along the way, Aniki and Basil could be seen throwing in the wheelbarrows that we brought along.
We never did take out the myriad of big black bags inside the carriage. In fact they were the only things we left behind. We even took out all of our firewood and dry rations but they alone remained.
As I was about to board the horse-drawn carriage along with Aniki and the others, Patches gave me a tuck on my sleeves. I turned my head to see what was up and there he was, gesturing me to follow him instead.
Apparently, the three of us, Patches, Hood and I were assigned donkey duty i.e. we were tasked with leading the donkey pull carts over to wherever it is that we were going.
I mean, it is only fair. During the trip from the Matha Biquadrant to where we were camping, it was Aniki, Futsu and Basil that guided the donkeys and Bones and Mono were the ones that acted as the coachmen for the horse-drawn carriages. The three of us did not really contribute much then so now is our time to shine.
It is just a division of labour.
Yang: [This may be simple work but let’s do our best, okay?]
There was no way Patches could have understood the content of my message yet he still gave a firm nod. Hood on the other hand was pretty faithful to the character he established to be, one that abstained from any social interactions and lived in his own world behind the hood.
With that, we began to make our way to the worst place that this world had to offer.
Our destination was less than far compared to our trip here. A mere quarter of an hour of walking and we were already there.
Although, you would have smelled it at around the ten-minute mark:
The distinct putrid smell of meat rotting away at the back of a wet market.
There was no way the cloth mask I was wearing could filter off all of the foul scent but I could not imagine getting through the rest of the day without it as we inched our way closer to the source of the smell.
As the ones guiding the donkey carts in front of the horse-drawn carriage, we were the first ones to bear witness to the sight of terror:
The aftermath of a violent battle.
I don’t think I have the right words to describe what I am seeing here other than what it is.
This isn’t something a civilian girl like me could have seen up close and personal back in the modern world.
I could be desensitized to images of conflict shown on media but when the very sight of it is right in front of me overflowing my every senses, there was hardly any way for me not to be disturbed by it.
Before long, I found myself stood rooted to the ground and unable to take a step forward.
The donkey I was leading stopped too but not without giving me a soft nudge on the back, as if telling me not to lag behind the others.
I don’t think I could take another step forward.
Don’t look at me like that.
How could you look so calm when you are walking into a land plagued with death?
What is going through your mind as you lay your hand outstretched to me like that?
There’s no way I could take your hand.
There’s no way I could…
I took his hand in the end.
There’s no way I could forgive myself if I let myself become deadweight for the others.
Plus, the others are here with me. We are all in this together.
So there’s nothing for me to be afraid of.
Taking a deep breath, we resumed our approach to the carnage.
By then, Aniki and the others had already disembarked from the horse carriage and took out everything we were going to need. Not that I know what foul business we have with this place.
After making sure that we got everything with us, we began doing our job, the worst kind of job there is. I saw exactly what Aniki and the others were doing and could replicate their actions rather simply but I could not understand the intent behind doing any of this.
I walked up to the body of a fallen foot soldier.
His guts were spilled open to dangle onto the floor from a gaping wound in his abdomen. Judging from the shape of the wound, I could not help but wince at the conclusion I arrived at: The wound was inflicted from a single punch.
This man must have died instantly yet his hands still firmly clasped onto his sword.
His last expression was one with agony, mouth gaping as if releasing a silent scream that would never be heard no more.
Yet the look that remained in his eyes. They were far from ones filled with fear and despair. Instead, they were relieved, or even proud to be in this state.
I did not understand.
I could not understand.
So instead, I just let my hands copy what Patches and the others were doing and gently closed the eyes of this dead man.
The next part of the job entailed weight lifting but I am nowhere strong enough to carry a fully-armoured soldier. The armour is no leather-armour either but ones that were made out of pure metal that is heavy beyond disbelief.
I could ask Basil or Aniki for assistance but I really don’t want to trouble them when they were busy. So instead, I would need to do things a person of my size would.
Patches was pretty efficient. He would remove all of the armour of the dead person before putting him into one of the big black bags, which he would then load up onto one of the wheelbarrows and transport him to where the carriage is.
I was about to do the same until I realized that I barely knew how the metal armour was worn. Seeing that sitting there racking my head over such a small obstacle was getting me nowhere, I decided to simply cut all the binding straps with my daggers.
Before I could actually do that, Hood took my dagger away and proceeded to remove the armour of the dead soldier himself.
I might be imagining it but is he also taking the special consideration to remove the armour slowly and clearly for me to see?
As I was disrobing the chest plate of the body, a crude drawing of two humanoid figures fell out onto the pool of mixture of blood and mud on the floor. I slowly picked up the now-stained drawing and took a closer look.
Two humanoid figures, one large and one small, holding hands on a grassy field. At least that was what I had interpreted from the childishly-drawn sketch.
Yang: [I am sorry. She must have been proud.]
Leaving only those words behind, I lay the crude drawing to rest into the big black bag where its owner lies.
Eventually, I managed to load up my first body onto the carriage, only to be greeted by a small but growing pile of big black bags that were no longer empty back when we first counted them.
That’s right. Those big black bags were no doubt body bags and right now, each of the bags in the pile contained the dead body of a soldier that once fought at the very ground I am standing right now.
I don’t know why but something about that thought stirred my innards, so much so that I felt myself biting back stomach acids just so that I don’t instantly throw up.
Slowly, I made my way back to the land plagued with death.
It would appear that transporting bodies was not the only part to our job scope. In addition to that, we have to bring back whatever usable equipment we could find.
I find myself scouring the dead bodies just to make doubly sure I did not miss out on a gauntlet or a shoulder plate here and there. Thankfully, or rather, unfortunately, most of the armour were damaged beyond repair, like the chest plate with a gaping hole from the first body I handled.
After which, the retrieved armour and weaponry would be placed into their respective donkey carts to be transported back to the Matha Biquadrant I would assume.
As my eyes shift between the carts filled with armour and weapons retrieved from dead bodies and the cleaning brush and cloth we brought along, I began to feel less and less optimistic of what else our job scope might entail
At this point, I am starting to hate the me that no longer felt disgusted when I had to pick up hacked-up limbs and decapitated heads with my bare hands. In fact, even when my hands were getting stained by more and more blood, my eyes were getting better and better at recognizing and differentiating usable equipment from those that are not.
Is this what vultures would see as they fly high in the sky in search of corpses to feast on? I would not deny that what I am doing is no different from a scavenger.
Lying on the ground there were not only human bodies. Although not as frequent as them, we did find other bodies there. If this is a conflict, these “other bodies” must belong to what the human soldiers were fighting against
A brief look at them revealed that there is but one similarity between these “other bodies”:
They were inhuman.
There were a few goblins and two dark elves.
I myself am making my way to one of them right now.
If this corpse was alive and was to stand up straight, it would be taller than Aniki and bigger than Basil. One key difference is that its body would not be filled with fats but bulging muscles that bolstered the strength to crush anything in front of him.
Ironically, there it laid, with multiple swords and lances lodged deep within its body and limbs. The one that took its life seemed to have come from a spear right through its head but the victor wasn’t any far off either seeing as the only remnants of him remaining was the two arms dangling on the long spear after having been ripped out from their sockets.
Yet, I could not feel anything personally about the death of this orc here, just annoyed at the vast number of swords, lances and spears I would need to retrieve.
As I was about to pull the spear out of its head, I felt the strangest sensation yet.
No, wait. I felt the same sensation more than once now. The first time was in the impossible mansion and the second was during the interrogation when I was first “invited” to the Matha Biquadrant.
The feeling of being stared at.
I was amazed that my body and mind were able to pick up vague sensations such as this but now, more than anything, I need to identify who was staring.
It wasn’t any of the guys, my fellow Scavengers, since they were engrossed in their work.
Ah, there it is, in the bushes, hiding its small body away from sight. At that instant, I came to lock eyes with a pair of yellow eyes. Yellow eyes with elongated pupils that were vastly different from a human’s circular ones.
Once the owner of the pair of yellow eyes recognised that it was spotted, it acted rather swiftly. Without hesitation, it dashed out of the bushes and towards me with a knife in its hand.
I could hardly react fast enough to take out my small dagger from my dagger sheath strapped to my back.
Thankfully, that stopped it in its tracks just barely before pouncing distance.
I do not have the gall to look away from my attacker, a goblin the height of my knee caps, who had all the intentions of killing me just mere moments ago.
Even though I wasn’t looking directly, I could just about make out from the corner of my eye the movements of my fellow Scavengers encircling both the goblin and I as they took out their personal daggers in preparation to strike.
From its dash just now, I could tell that the goblin was faster than any of us here. Yet, even so, there would only be so much its speed and agility could help it when it gets completely surrounded.
If either of us wants to do something to overturn the situation, it has to be now.
No matter how much I racked my brains over the most optimal solution, nothing tangible came up that could guarantee my survival.
We found ourselves staring into each other’s eyes again but this time around, I was no longer distracted by the peculiarity of its abnormal eyes. Instead, I think I got a glimpse into what was behind those eyes.
It was like staring into a reflection yet I was sure that that was the first and only time I had seen a living and breathing goblin. I always thought goblins were crazed beasts but there might be more than meets the eye in the goblins of this world.
This one at the very least had conscious thoughts and was able to convey to me a singular desire that I shared not long ago through the minute but purposeful movements in its eyes.
All this suggests that what I am about to follow-through might be the craziest thing conceivable yet it would most definitely work.
The very next instant, I loosened my grip on my dagger and allowed it to free-fall towards the dirt ground.
Immediately realising what had happened, the goblin followed suit, releasing his knife. However, unlike me who was only able to stand there for the whole duration, it was quick and proceeded to do what it came to do.
Climbing up the body of the huge orc, it reached out to a simply decorated necklace around the orc’s neck and cut it out cleanly with its sharp claws before retrieving it without dropping any parts of it onto the floor.
After which, it collected its knife that had yet to even complete its journey towards the ground and scuttled its way out of the encirclement.
Only after my dagger blade had sunk deep into the dirt was I able to finally interpret what had transpired in a moment between heartbeats. By then, the goblin was long gone, disappearing into the nearby tall bushes.
I was sure that even with all its quickness, it took a long second to look back at us before running off.
As for why it did that, I highly doubt I am qualified enough to be a beast interpreter, though I am sure Jyn could, the guy could even talk to crows.
On the bright side, the immediate threat was averted but that did not stop the rest of the Scavengers from berating me for my rash decision.
I know I know. I am sorry, Aniki.
You look like you are about to cry, Patches.
You could show more emotions, Hood.
You don’t actually have to cry, Basil.
Don’t hit me with your single crutch, Mono. What would happen if you lost your balance and fell down?
I don’t think this warrants laughter, Bones.
Do put away your wry smile, Futsu.
I think I am grateful to be alive, this world or otherwise.
Even after that ordeal, our job remained unchanged. We still have to transport the bodies onto the horse carriage and retrieve whatever usable equipment we could find.
It took us the whole morning but we eventually “cleaned up” the battlefield. It was lucky of us that we just so happen to have enough body bags for each and every one of the human bodies still intact.
Only the bodies of the inhumans were left and I could not help but sympathise with the state they were left in, even if they were most likely our enemies.
A part of me wanted to suggest burying them but I don’t think that idea would be well-received amongst the fellow Scavengers. Additionally, I could not be sure that is the proper way to treat the inhuman dead.
We made our way back to our tent with moderately-filled donkey carts and a carriage that reeks of death. Instead of taking a moment of repose, we immediately proceeded with the dismantling of our tent and the campfire setup.
Having gone through the tedious work of setting up the tent, the dismantling had become a breeze. The most troublesome part came not from the tent but in the somewhat meaningless act of taking out the body bags to load our logistics closer to the back of the carriage only to put them back in.
I was always curious what Futsu and Bones were up to when we were setting up the place three days ago so I followed them to where they were heading once I was done with tearing down the tent.
They didn’t exactly walk there but took the entire carriage with the dead bodies to a place some ways off our holding area. There in the middle of nowhere stood a small structure made up of wooden poles and big pieces of cloth. I could recognise instantly that those were part of the logistics that we brought here.
In fact, the big pieces of cloth that served as the walls of this small structure were none other than the missing pieces with strange inscriptions on them. The only difference being the inscriptions on the cloth here seemed to be glowing with a blue hue.
I wasn’t exactly the sneakiest when I was tailing them. The very fact that I hopped onto the carriage that they were riding on would most likely alert them to my presence. That would explain their indifference when they spotted me as they were carrying the heaps of body bags into the small structure.
Bones was even glad that I was there and spared no effort in dragging me into helping them transporting all 40 body bags into the small structure.
I couldn’t really understand why we went to all the trouble of packing the bodies up only to leave them behind in a small structure in the middle of nowhere. All I knew was that before we left, Bones and Futsu could be seen having a brief exchange with someone in what appears to be priest robes.
We returned to our holding area with no more dead bodies in our carriage. I would have loved to board the carriage that was allocated to carry the living instead of the dead but I can’t shake the guilt of having to force one of my fellow Scavengers to take over my donkey duty.
Instead, I took it upon myself to walk the same path that Aniki, Futsu and Basil did back when they were guiding the donkeys all the way back from the Matha Biquadrant.
As we left, I tried my best to ignore the smell of burning ashes and the sight of a bright glow that came from the direction of the small structure we just returned from.
Sometime later, we joined up with a caravan of carriages though lesser than the one that we came along with. All of us were unmistakably making our way back to the Matha Biquadrant.
As we passed the vast fields of grassy plains just before the outer walls of the Matha Biquadrant, I could not help but feel envious of the me three days ago that was still fascinated by the sights of this world and blissfully ignorant of its reality.
On our entire way back, I wasn’t consciously thinking, if at all. No different from the walking dead, I find myself back at our cottage/ barn house place.
My mind was telling me that I should be feeling relief for having returned in one piece yet my heart refuses to let my being feel anything.
There was this sense of hollowness where “feelings” used to be. I couldn’t even let myself feel tired as if my body was no longer mine to feel.
Instead, I felt like an out-of-body apparition, observing the actions of another being designated the name, “Yang”.
If the being was tasked with unpacking all of her haversack items back into her wardrobe, she would do it without complaints.
If she was assigned the role to scrub the damaged pieces of armour and weapons with the rest of the Scavengers using their personal cleaning brushes and cloth, she would do it no questions asked.
Like a robot or an obedient daughter, she did what she was told. Father would have been proud.
Before she even realised it, her fourth day with the Scavengers came to an end as she laid down on her lower bunk bed.
There were no oil lanterns or starlight nor moonlight to provide an ounce of illumination that would allow her to see anything. Yet she could not find it in herself to close her eyes and sleep.
For if she did force her eyes shut, images of the day would come rushing back into her mind as if she was there to relive the experience all over again.
The smell of rotting corpses.
The sight of hacked-up limps.
The buzzing of delighted flies.
The feeling of dried-up blood.
The taste of bile reflux.
Therefore, she refused to close her eyes but opted to stare long and hard into the unending darkness of the starless nights of Umbra.
The sound of a passing bug.
???: [Psst… Hey Yang, wake up…]
Or not. If this was a bug, it would not have the necessary organs to replicate speech. So it must be something else. Something that spoke a language that Yang, no, I could understand in this world.
There’s only one being in this world other than myself that could speak in a language that I could understand.
Yang: [I don’t know how you get here through all the darkness and I don’t think I could find it in me now to care. Hello again, Jyn]
Jyn: [And greetings to you too, Yang. We were only apart for four lux but you seemed like a completely different person.]
So said the voice in the dark. I could not help but reminisce about the times where the “Matha Biquadrant” was a phrase foreign to me, where I could walk around freely in the Sagar Biquadrant with the Granharts unbeknownst to the human-inhuman conflict.
Jyn: [Anyways, I am here to get you out, come on. Let us go.]
Is the Matha Biquadrant something you can just “get out” of?
From the looks of it, not really. I don’t think the meagre powers of Jyn alone could get me out of something like the universal conscription of this world.
Yang: [How? Can you even do that?]
Jyn: [Most definitely. I am here already, aren’t I?]
Says the guy who got through the tall walls and tough guards and infiltrated his way into the Matha Biquadrant.
Yang: [How did you…]
Jyn: [Sshh, let us go before we miss the best window of opportunity.
He put his finger on my lips before I could even finish my sentence.
Yang: [I can’t exactly abandon these guys, my fellow Scavengers, and go.]
Jyn: [Sure you can, you barely knew them.]
Yang: [True. But I knew you even less.]
Jyn: [Even when I took the trouble of begging that damn bird to help find you and learned the guard pattern around this place… Fret not, for all of you would be allowed to leave tomorrow.]
Jyn paused for dramatic effect as if begging for me to ask him “why we could all leave tomorrow”. Though I refrained from giving him the satisfaction he desired. Instead, I gestured for him to continue in the dark.
Jyn; [*Sigh* Well for you see...]
Somehow he managed to see my hand gestures in complete darkness.
Jyn: [In the city of Tawouest, all of the men would spend their time training in the Matha Biquadrant for five consecutive lux before returning to their families and loved ones in the Sagar Biquadrant for two lux. Tomorrow is the fifth lux so even if you didn’t want to, all of your friends would be more than willing to rush out of the gates there and storm the bridges to get the little taste of freedom they have longed for.]
That was a vivid way of putting it. I couldn’t imagine the sight of Hood rushing off excitedly.
Yang: [Wait. You said “all men”.Then why aren’t you here?]
Jyn: [Well… That’s because I am a traveller and not a native of the city. In fact, you and I both aren’t. The Granharts did help report this to the authorities but the bureaucracy behind extracting you out had proven to be long and arduous.]
That was not what I was getting at.
Yang: [There was no way the guards then would have known either of us were travellers. They could have picked any of us or the both of us but they chose to drag me off instead. Are you telling me that I looked more of a man than you who is clearly a man?]
Don’t just keep quiet all of a sudden!
Just as soon as the silence came, it was interrupted by the creaking of the bed on top of mine. Sorry, Patches but I will chase this annoying trap as seen from others’ eyes out of here as soon as I get his answer.
Jyn: [That is my cue to leave. Come to the drawbridge tomorrow where we were separated and the Granharts and I would be there. See you tomorrow!]
Wait! Don’t try to dodge the question.
Yang: [If we would be released naturally, then why are you even here?]
I could hear the muffled sounds of him putting on his hooded cloak and making his quiet way out of here before promptly stopping upon hearing my final question.
Jyn: [To ease your mind, of course! And from the looks of it, you really needed it too. A Yang with his soul attached is that much more gallant than the empty husk of the being known as “Yang”.]
Leaving only those words behind, his presence completely vanished into the abyss of Umbra with a fleeting trail of fireflies following behind him.
Does he even know that he was being very rude, referring to me as aa “his” instead of a ”her”?
In the end, I never got his answers but yet somehow, I was no longer afraid to close my eyes and sleep.Closed.
Frequent footsteps around, as if…
Yang: [Hey, hey, I’m up, I’m up! Don’t need to shove me.]
I woke up from the shaking of a certain annoyed Patches.