Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
Chapter 12: Nothing Sadder than Spilled Beans
It was quiet. There was light.
The sun had just begun to reach over the horizon, and as it painted the land with rays of gold, the fullness poured through the shattered windows of the dilapidated ruins. Sweat dripped down the back of James's neck and stuck his clothes to his skin. The summer heat swam in the air with the sour smell of lumshade, and the metallic smell of iron and copper.
James stared down at his blood-soaked hands, and the bloodied sword in them.
Sweat and blood dripped into his mouth, down from his forehead. His vision blurred. The sound of his own panting breaths filled the room, and his heartbeat reverberated in his chest.
At his feet was a woman he didn't know, with a face he didn't recognize.
Descriptions of her spun in his head. Hostile. Dangerous. Tall. Strong. Vicious. Armed with fire. Her name was Verna. She was a mage. She was the leader of the resistance, the resurgence of mages fighting to take control. She was an enemy to the Kingdom, an enemy to human civilization. She was the opposition. She was the villain.
But as James stared at her lifeless face, lying on the floor, prone, in a pool of her own blood, all James saw was a human.
Something unsettling seeped into his conscience. Something he'd been fearing all along.
He could hear the shouts of Verna and her men in his ears again.
Hold your breath!
James stood in the middle of the bloodbath, the bodies of mages strewn around him. He met Verna's lifeless eyes, for the first time letting all of the doubt sink in with a wave of horror.
In moments, a single smoke bomb of airborne lumshade disarmed 20 mages of their magic and dosed many of them to the point where they were stripped of basic functions. People who had been framed as dangerous, evil, and overpowered were, in seconds, so compromised and vulnerable. The lumshade hadn't just brought them down to the same level as people without. It had dragged them lower. It had made them weak.
It hadn't been fair.
They were no more powerful than James. But James was the only one left standing. Because he'd released the smoke.
James released his grip on his sword, letting it clatter to the ground.
What fight was he fighting? Whose war had he won?
He stared down at his hands, getting lost in the pool of red that stained his skin.
An armored hand rested on his shoulder.
"Lieutenant Hemming," a familiar voice said firmly.
James blinked, turning his head.
Carter Haddon stood beside him. Splatters of blood streaked his brown skin, some still dripping down the angles of his face. Messy streaks of his dark hair fell out of his bun, fraying around his face, and he offered James a small smile behind his deep brown eyes.
"It's over," Carter said. "It's done."
James straightened his back, nodding stiffly before he lifted his eyes to see his troop on their feet.
There was a sober silence as Carter stood at James's side, looking down at Verna's body, and the bodies of all her allies around her. The floor was stained with red, and as the sun came up a little higher, a shadow fell over Verna's face.
For a moment, neither of them said anything. And then James knelt down, feeling the hollow numbness of shock carve out a hole in his chest as he reached out and closed Verna's eyes.
When James stood back up again, the sunrise shone off his silver-plated armor, the shimmer hued with red from the blood spattered across it.
"Well," Carter said with a small clap against the back of James's shoulder. "Looks like you're a hero. After this, the war will soon be over."
Never before had congratulatory words stung so deeply. They were bitter. They were wrong. James swallowed hard. The numbness was heavy, and he couldn't help the dread that settled over him.
He couldn't lie to himself anymore.
He was on the wrong side of this war.
James stared into the dark expanse in front of him. Somewhere ahead of him was a field black with the ash of wild grass. Somewhere out in that field was another dead body, bloodied and buried by Clandestine's own hands.
He was tired of death. He was tired of the cost of war. The cost of everything.
But he knew that was not the world they lived in, and for everything, there was a price.
He could feel the attention of Clandestine pinned on him, waiting patiently as he tried to gather his thoughts in an answer.
"It started seven years ago," he finally said.
"Wow," Clandestine blurted before he could say anything more.
James pinched his brows together in confusion and turned to look at her, and she stared at him, covering her mouth like she was embarrassed.
"Sorry," she said through what sounded like a mouthful of food. "I didn't realize you were that old."
"I'm 27," he said, not sure why he felt compelled to defend himself.
"Oh," Clandestine hummed. "I'm 25. Nevermind. You're younger than I thought. Sorry. Sorry," she started waving her hands dismissively, as if at herself and by way of apology. "I interrupted you. It started seven years ago."
She twirled her hand insistently like she was urging him to move on not just for the story but to push past the awkward moment she'd unintentionally created.
Under different circumstances, James might've laughed, but he had to recollect his thoughts again. He let out a deep sigh.
"Seven years ago," he continued. "I was fighting in the Resurgence. We had been tasked to take down the leader of the mage's resistance; a woman by the name of Verna. We were following a lead that led us far north to the ruins of the former Burninghead Guild; one of the mage's guilds from before the Great War on Magic when they were destroyed. Our informant proved to be correct in that it led us to Verna, but it was ill-intended. They led us into a trap, and out of my whole troop I was the only one who managed to narrowly escape. The rest of the 9 men were held captive amidst the ruins. For a few hours... I was alone as I put together a plan to rescue them."
It was difficult to separate himself from the memory in order to retell it. He knew there were many things he didn't have to say - he didn't have to describe in great detail how things were done or what it looked like after, but he could still feel the haunting memory seeping in like smoke. Purple, sickly, only bringing death with it.
It stung, even more, to be retelling this to a mage of all people. A mage who had helped him - saving him from a fate she didn't even fully understand all because she thought he was decent enough of a person to save.
But she didn't know him.
To the kingdom, he'd been framed as a hero, but he knew he was anything but.
The shame of his active ignorance and the complicit part he'd played in the system that killed mages every day never ceased to sicken him, even being years removed from it. He could only imagine how this story had already begun to paint him - and rightfully so - as the soldier who had just as much blood on his hands as any mage hunter and any other soldier who served in the kingdom's army.
He hated who he was. He hated who he'd been. He hated that there was nothing he could--
"You went in alone?" Clandestine asked softly.
James blinked again, his jaw clenching as he once again had to rip himself out of his head, bringing himself back to the conversation.
"Yes," he said quietly.
"There wasn't anyone else out there to help?" Clandestine asked.
"No," James said. And there was a part of this conversation that felt familiar, even rehearsed.
After it all happened, he'd had to have this conversation dozens and dozens of times. Over and over and over...
"We were too far from reinforcements," he said. "There was no one to reach out to. Not within any reasonable amount of time before something inevitably happened."
He steadied himself.
"It was just me," he said.