Prologue / Ginger
I honestly can't tell whether this letter will find you or not. If it does, then it'll probably raise more questions than it'll answer, like how can I possibly be writing this at this time. That'll probably need a second letter to explain. But then that'd likely confuse you more and...you know what, just go with it. You're good at doing that.
I had to write this to answer a question you asked me in Zeplich Village once. You asked me who I was, and I didn't have an answer. I never really got over that, thinking back on it. Ginger tells me I have her brother's eyes, but all anybody ever sees is this uniform and the awful person who wore it. I've been receiving memory after memory of the horrible things Cassius had done, but I can't convince myself that I had a part in it.
I'm not a bad person, Fidget, and you've known me long enough to know that's true. The problem is, I can't tell if that's me or my other half talking, and the idea that isn't me is frightening. You know me as Dust, but I know that I'm more that just that. I'm a crusader. I'm a murderer. I'm a brother. I'm an assassin. I'm an avenger. I'm a menace.
I'm writing this to prove to myself that I'm not any of those things. I am Dust, but I can't accept that identity without coming to terms with the other two. The memories of the souls within me have been gradually returning, and I think you, of all people, deserve to know what I think.
And you, of all people, deserve an answer to your question. Who I am, and who I was. I certainly hope I can provide that. Share this with Ginger when you're done. I think this would mean as much to her as it does to you.
Also, I'm not sure if nimbats can read. Either you never told me or you did and I forgot. If the answer is no, then you'll probably have to share this with her anyways. If yes, well, now I know. Then again, if you've gotten to this point, it's clearly evident you can, so I guess it's kind of a moot point now.
Whatever the case, this is what happened one year ago, before you met me. Before Ahrah found me. Before any of this came to pass.
What happened before the storm.
"Jin! Come on, Jin. Wake up!"
I grunt reluctantly from under the covers. My arm feels like it's been replaced with a strand of pasta from the way I had been sleeping on it, and it flops over the side of the bed limply, a feeble sign of acknowledgement to whoever is in my room. "I'm awake," I mumble, halfheartedly trying to get them to leave.
"We both know you aren't," she immediately replies. The voice is definitely a girl's.
I go for a compromise. "Fifteen more minutes? Please?"
"You've wasted enough of your birthday already. Now get out of there!" She playfully thumps me on the back of the head, the weight of the blow cushioned slightly by the comforter engulfing me at the time. Autumn is beginning to rear its head in Zeplich; the nights are already starting to get much more chilly. I must have subconsciously pulled the covers over my head at some point. The blankets have me fully enveloped, from the feet all the way up to and over my eyes, leaving my nose and mouth poking out from underneath the layers.
I finally give in after a defeated sigh and roll onto my back, pushing the covers away from my head and into the air, sending them crashing back down on themselves near the foot of the bed. I peer over to my left, groggily but cheerfully, as I see my sister sitting down next to my nightstand. She seems energized, expectantly but reservedly glad that I had decided to forego any additional sleep. To her right, above her, the morning light floods in from the window, and I cringe posthumously as I unwittingly look directly into it for a second. The skies are clear, despite a little bit of water trickling off of the roof and past the window on its descent. It must have rained last night, or snowed possibly. It would definitely explain why I felt the need to become a Jin-stuffed burrito last night at least.
"Morning, Ginger," I force out as I sit myself up in my bed and stretch my arms behind my head. She pounces onto me and almost tackles me back down onto my back. I barely manage to keep my balance from the surprise attack.
"Happy twenty-first, Jin!" she cheers, a gigantic smile on her face. Even though I'm still a little discombobulated by her ambush, I can't help but grin back at her as I finish my stretches. She finally turns me loose after a few moments and takes a knee back near the nightstand, the sunlight igniting her eyes like sapphire.
I straighten out my sleeping shirt a bit before I say anything back to Ginger. "You're happy to see me," I observe, like it isn't already evident.
"My brother's twenty-one years old now. Why shouldn't I be?" she asks back, ducking behind the bed for something.
I shrug. "I don't know. I've had twenty of these things before, and I don't think I've ever seen you this excited about it."
"Oh, and you aren't?"
"Well, no. I am, but..."
"Then stop being so tired and cranky and start being the Jin that I'm familiar with, okay?" Ginger sweetly retorts, returning back above bed level with a small saucer in her hands. Resting on it is a well-portioned slice of cake, coated in pink and white icing and topped with a small candle. I cautiously but graciously accept it, like one would a package that might have been tampered with, and watch the wick burn away as the flame sits upon it.
I admire the pastry's beauty for a few more moments, then look back up at Ginger. Her eyes seem to be coaxing me to the cake, encouraging me to sample it.
"I'll do that," I respond with an appreciative smile and a laugh. I stare at the candle's fire for another second or two, then shut my eyes and blow it away.
The first act of my celebration comes to a close, and Ginger takes the dishes downstairs to clean them. I generally don't bother cleaning myself up too much in the morning, so after I allot some time for my teeth and a few extra seconds to get the stray icing off of my face, I go straight to the drawers and get my outfit for the day ready. It's one of those days where I just grab whatever's on the top of the dresser: sea green shirt for the top half, blue cotton pants for the bottom. I glance out the window again, at the dripping water sliding off of the roof, and, surmising that it'll still be a little cold, decide I'll need a jacket. Or rather, the jacket, the only one I have and will ever need. The one that apparently makes me look like a detective according to Ginger, despite my deduction skills being marginal at best. That doesn't mean I don't like it, though, and I slip the brown leather outerwear over my shirt, then stroll past the bathroom mirror to make sure it looks good.
What am I thinking? Of course it does, I chastise myself for not having more trust in my tastes. I straighten the coat up a bit onto my shoulders then exit my room and head down the stairs. One medium length hallway later, I am that the door to the kitchen. Our home is a modest one. The furnishings and architecture are not nearly as flashy or expansive as the estates in Aurora may have been, but for a family of four, there isn't any other spot Ginger and I would like to be. Too many memories live in this house; it had stood here sheltering our family for the last five generations, and I'd like to help it last five more. Zeplich may be located right at the peak of the Blackmoor Mountains, meaning not only cold and windy weather sometimes but some very infrequent and sparse trade routes, but Ginger doesn't mind it at all. And neither do I. Location is a trivial problem next to all the value Ginger and I place on it personally.
Considering I am yet to run into the parents this morning, my best guess is they are out getting the shopping done. Ginger probably went through most of our groceries while she was cooking the cake for me. I get a little sad, since I kind of wanted to be with my parents for today, but it's either wait for them to get back or live in a house that doesn't have any food in it.
I quickly convince myself that the former is much less worse and push the kitchen door open. Ginger probably didn't have any intentions of hiding anything from me, but she surprises me nevertheless. She's still at the sink, working on the cleanup for her baking, but I'm skeptical that she's unaware of the lanky, white-furred vulpine Warmblood sitting at our dining table, and the plain rectangular cardboard box resting in front of him.
He's taken the seat closest to the cooking area, but he springs up from it right away as soon as I walk through the door. "Man o' the 'our!" he exclaims with an accent before audaciously laughing and offering me a friendly handshake. I hesitate for a second before accepting it, and then find myself trapped in yet another breath-pinching lock around my chest. Apparently, in addition to being a burrito last night I somehow magnetized myself to everyone who dared come within five feet of me.
With effort, I put a hand to his back, but not in any attempt to return the gesture. "Nik," I eke out, slapping his back in a weak panic, trying to restore my oxygen intake. "Nik, I'm..."
"Surprised I remembered yer birthday, son?" Nikolai incorrectly finishes for me. I'm not sure if my vision is going dark because I am running out of air or because I think I am. My brain isn't about to tell the difference at this rate.
"Uh, Nik, I think he's suffocating," Ginger points out, in a distressingly unalarmed tone. Then after a sheepish "Whoops," Nikolai releases me, finally permitting me to catch my breath once more.
"Sorry 'bout that, lad," he apologizes, scratching the back of his head as he lets me pant with my hands on my knees for a minute.
I need about three deep breaths before I'm ready to talk again. "What are you doing here, Nik?" I huff.
"Exactly what you think I'm 'ere for!" Nikolai grins, sliding the box off the table and into his hands. "Checkin' in on an old friend, right?"
"And nearly strangling him in the process, eh?" I good-naturedly fire back. I start rubbing my neck for some reason, even though it's nowhere close to where Nikolai was holding me.
"He has a point," Ginger supports me from the kitchen as she finishes dividing the rest of her cake. "I think he's been squeezed enough between the two of us for now."
Nikolai inspects the box with skepticism in response. "Ah, so he's gone fragile since I saw him last?"
That gets my attention. I'm almost certain he's playing with me, but a challenge made as a joke is still a challenge. "I haven't 'gone fragile,'" I argue.
"Yer sure?" Nikolai asks back, lifting the lid of the box just enough for him to peek into it. "'Cause this 'ere's a man's gift, Jin. If you gone soft on me, I can't have you runnin' around with this thing. Way too nasty. Can always sell it off and find you a teddy or somethin'?"
I take the box from him without resistance, grinning as I pass him, and take a seat at the table. "Thank you, Nikolai," I sarcastically say to him as I set the box down in front of me. He rests his arms on the back of the chair next to me, observing me as I slowly work the lid off of the container and peer inside.
The contents hold me speechless for a few moments, as I struggle to find any commentary on what lay inside. I think I can manage a "Wow," at least, but that would not do any justice at all, so I remain silent and completely mystified.
"Told you he'd like it," Nikolai smirks at my sister as I remove the gift from the mess of paper scraps guarding it from inside the box. I can't say I'm surprised at all by the gift; Nikolai is a blacksmith by trade and leisure, designing and crafting blades and armor whenever the time was made available for him. But that doesn't make the short sword I now held in my hands any less glorious. I think I can best describe it as what a knife would want to be when it grows up. The blade is light and maneuverable, giving it a very knifelike feel, but is physically much longer than just another bayonet, at about two feet in length. I take a few practice slashes with it, and watch Ginger cringe as it comes dangerously close to marking the table. I rotate the blade a bit, watching the light bounce off it at various angles, and bring it closer to me to inspect it, holding the cutting edge delicately between my thumb and forefinger.
"This is..." I lose my words again.
"I know what yer tryin' to say, son," Nikolai claps a hand onto my shoulder. "Just take good care o' her, aight? I worked for two weeks on her and it'd be a shame if she went to waste."
I smile gratefully back up at him as I take the accompanying leather sheath out of the box and slip the blade into it. A perfect fit. "I love it," is all I can say. "Never had any practice with it, but I still love it."
"Aight, so let's fix that then," Nikolai proposes, clapping his hands together. "Why don't you come by my shop tomorrow, after lunch? Bring your friend 'ere and I'll show you a few things 'bout swordplay?"
I look up at him enthusiastically. "I'll be there!" I confirm our appointment.
Nikolai grins, then points back at the crumpled paper inside the box. "I'm not the only one thinkin' about you today either," he states as I inspect the box more closely, and notice that not all of the paper inside is for padding. There is a card hiding amongst the brown crumples, and I carefully remove it from the rest of the clutter.
At first, I'm not sure who it's from, but I slowly answer my own question as I turn it open to the scrawled, barely readable print inside. I read it out loud for Ginger as she finishes putting away the leftovers:
Here's hoping you have an excellent day. Thank you again for everything your village has done for us. Give my regards to your family and do enjoy your twenty-first year.
"Your friend, Fuse," I finish, then turn to Nikolai as I set the card down next to the box. "And he left this with you, I'm guessing?"
"Aye," Nikolai confirms, his tone a shade darker than it was earlier. "I'd call him crazy for runnin' down to my shop outside our normal meetin' time, but I'd wager he wanted to make sure you got that in time."
Ginger lets out a small giggle as she walks back from the kitchen. "You say that like Fuse doesn't know what he's doing."
"He might be crazy, but at least he knows how not to get caught," I point out, as I stand up from my seat, carrying my newest weapon with me. "Though I'll say he's lucky he hasn't bumped into any MPs yet."
"I'd say we all are," the blacksmith adds on. "Considerin' how much we been helpin' the Moonbloods, it's a near miracle the army hasn't smelled anythin' yet."
"We can only hope they don't," I respond, readying myself to try the sword properly. I lean onto my front foot, flexing the knee. I wrap my right hand around the sword's hilt, and my left at the sheath's opening, using my thumb to push the blade out just slightly.
Nikolai's eyes seem to widen. "You'd best not be gettin' any ideas with that thing, now," he warns. "We're in enough hot water helpin' Fuse's clan out as it is."
I glance up at Ginger as I secure the sheath to my belt. She's leaning on the back of one of the chairs, looking contemptuously in Nikolai's direction. "Nik, you know we wouldn't do anything as crazy as challenge the military like that, right?"
"Just makin' sure, lass," he defensively replies.
I feel like I have to say something about that as well. "We might be traitors, but the least we can do is act like good subjects until someone finds out."
Nikolai sighs a bit in response. "Right," he replies through a reluctant smile. "We're doin' the right thing, we are. Us, yer folks, the whole town."
"If the King wants to sit there on his throne and denounce a race we wouldn't have a quarrel with otherwise, then I don't want to be a part of it," I qualify, as I yank the blade out of its holster and swing it in front of me for a second. It comes to rest, and I place my off hand against the edge, pressing it against the flat side to align it.
Nikolai's confidence seems to be restored slightly; maybe it's the sound of us reaffirming our thoughts, or maybe it's the promise of his work being put to good use. I adjust my grip on the hilt a few times, trying to find the best way to hold the sword. After failing to find something that resounded with me, and mostly out of curiosity, I flip my hand over, grip the sword backwards compared to how I had it earlier, and hold it next to me, the blade pointing behind me. I don't know why, maybe Nikolai could also explain this when I go to visit him tomorrow, but this stance seems much more natural to me. Completely unorthodox, but natural.
The blacksmith doesn't seem to mind this at all, though. "I knew she'd be a good fit for you, son!" he praises, his eyes lit up with excitement at how I stood modeling his newest piece of work.
Ginger's face seems a little more puzzled, however. "Why are you holding the sword like that, Jin?" she asks. "Don't most people have it in front?"
I look down at the blade, at the sparkling steel edge that threatens to cut my pants if it shifts more than two degrees to the right. "I don't know," is my response. "It just feels right."
It's mid-afternoon, and Ginger and I are walking along one of the dirt trails snaking down the backside of the mountain. The evergreens are still dripping from the rainwater poured onto them last night, but the trail cutting through the forest is mostly dry. So save for the occasional splash of water that would find me or my sister's head, the sunny sky, decently warm temperature and clean, inviting ambiance make for perfect walking weather. Ginger's expression tells me everything I need to know. I had made the suggestion to visit Fuse and thank him in person for the card, and Ginger was more than enthusiastic to make the rest happen. As soon as I scrounge up some spare supplies for his camp and Ginger prepares some trail food and water reservoirs for the journey, we set off right away, in celebration of my birthday and in anticipation of seeing Fuse again.
Only one thing feels offsetting, however. The parents are yet to get back to us. There isn't left a note for me or Ginger telling us where they are, and that would normally make me worried. Fortunately, Ginger had encountered them before she woke me up, and tells me that they are actually on their way to a smaller Moonblood camp near the base of the mountains. My nerves are calmed as I hear this. They're out of town, so of course they wouldn't be back nearly as quickly.
"They're running supplies?" I ask for clarification. "On this short a notice?"
"Fuse did mention some clans to the south were running short on food," Ginger explains. "It's not like the walk there is awful, though."
"We'll probably catch them later tonight," I assure her, readjusting my backpack to fit more comfortably. I'm currently leading the way down the moderately steep grade, and I check on Ginger over my shoulder. "Everything alright back there?"
Ginger's crouched down, shuffling her feet cautiously, taking the more treacherous part of the trail as patiently as she can. "Just fine!" she calls back. "Just a bit of a-ah!" she yells, as some loose gravel sweeps her leg out from under her. She falls onto her back and slides a few feet before coming to a stop on some flatter terrain.
I shouldn't be laughing at someone else's expense, but I can't help but let loose a snicker or two as I jog back to help her up. "Just fine, huh?" I repeat, offering a hand out to her.
"Ha, ha." She immediately grabs me by the wrist and pulls herself to her feet. She's gotten all flustered because of the stumble.
"You know you need me," I continue to jest.
"I can manage just fine by myself, thanks," Ginger returns, dusting herself off and brushing past me on the trail, on a beeline for the Moonblood camp.
"Maybe," I reply, following closely behind her. "But what kind of a brother doesn't watch out for his sister, huh?"
Ginger goes quiet for a second, probably trying to think of a counterpoint. "Fair enough," she replies. I chuckle a little more, glad that I made my point.
I stop it early, however, as she still seems to have something on her mind. She doesn't voice it until the camp comes into sight through the trees.
"Jin?" Ginger turns her head to me.
I look up from the dirt trail. "What's up?"
She obviously opens her mouth to say something, but closes it and turns away again. "Never mind."
I refuse. "Ginger..." I coax.
She goes quiet for another few seconds before she finally opens up. "I...keep thinking about Nikolai. What he said at the house."
"What about it?"
Ginger sighs. "We're committing treason, essentially, because we think this is the right thing to do."
"Because this is the right thing to do," I correct her.
"It's...dangerous, isn't it?"
"It is, yeah," I slowly answer.
Ginger skids to a halt as I say that, and I stop just behind her as well. Her hand is tightly gripping the backpack strap, and I see it tremble slightly, rocking the strap back and forth on her shoulder under the tension. For someone who looked really excited about seeing Fuse a few minutes ago, this is a rather dramatic shift in the mood. She must have been covering it up until now.
"Ginger, what's on your mind?" I demand.
She lets out an audible exhale first. "I just...get the feeling something bad's about to happen, Jin. And I feel like it's going to be because of this." I think I hear her sniffle a bit. "I don't know why I'm just now thinking about this, but..." She can't finish her thought.
A weak smile and comforting words are all I can give her. "We've been doing this for the past year and a half, ever since the King put out that decree," I remind her. "Fuse and the Moonbloods need our help, Ginger. They're as good as dead otherwise."
She seems to put her other hand over her mouth. "I know, I know. I just..." Another incomplete sentence.
I take a step towards her and softly put a hand on her shoulder. She slowly turns back to me, her ocean blue eyes full of fright and uncertainty. I gently put my arms around her, and after a second she shuts her eyes and presses her head against my shoulder.
"If anything, anything happens to us, Ginger," I whisper, crafting my words with care. "I'm always going to be with you. I promise. Alright?"
She rubs her cheek against my jacket, her way of saying she understands. She glances back up at me with those signature, sparkling eyes of hers. Simply glancing at them felt like looking into deep space, a million tiny flashes of light surrounding a breathtaking azure backdrop. I finally have her smiling, and I encouragingly give her one in return.
"Thank you, Jin," she softly replies.
My grin widens, glad to see my sister's feelings alleviated. "Like I said, I'm always watching for you," I restate, then pat her back a couple of times before taking the lead down the path again.
"So, still want to visit Fuse?" I ask, hoping she can answer without words. I take a couple steps forward, and I beam as I hear the soil crack beneath Ginger's feet just behind me.