Several thin branches grew out from the shoulder blade portion of Gin’s gauntlets. They twisted and turned, reaching the various scabs and clots that riddled his body, before trying to wriggle their way underneath them.
‘Hm? What happened?’ Joan yawned, awoken by the sudden outburst. Despite the hard wood of the caravan, she seemed to sleep well enough and didn’t snap at Gin like normal.
‘It’s nothing. You can go back to sleep. That operation must have taken a lot out of you,’ Gin redirected the attention while taking off his vest and shirt to uncover the state of the Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host. ‘Huh. That’s odd.’
‘You mean you didn’t intend for this to happen?’ Brim interjected, pointing at the Xernim’s attempt to pick off the scabs.
‘What?!’ Joan sat up with the usual immediacy Gin grew accustomed to when it came to the happenings of him and his parasite. However, despite the manner of her awakening, she still looked dazed and ready to collapse at any moment.
‘No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se,’ he reassured. ‘I’ve been meaning to pick them off myself for a while now.’
‘You do realise how unhealthy that habit is, right?’ Joan now gave an unimpressed look.
‘I do, but there’s this side effect of the nanobots –’
‘And you’re telling me this now?’ Joan grew even more unimpressed much to Brim’s amusement.
‘Let me finish,’ Gin sighed. ‘Although the nanobots give me heightened regeneration, they sort of make the aftermath of any healing reluctant to fall off naturally. I.e. the scabs and scars don’t come off properly. I need to do it manually.’
‘Right…’ Joan accepted the response, though reluctant, before crashing back to sleep.
‘Her duties really took the life out of her, huh?’ Brim commented.
‘Mhm,’ Gin agreed. He took a few seconds to relax and clear his head. He could tell he was under close supervision by Brim, even if he said little during that exchange. Knowing Joan, her worry wasn’t anything out of the ordinary yet, at that very moment, Gin sensed Brim’s matched hers. Did something happen or was it always like that? He wondered as he instructed the Xernim to chip away at his injuries at the same time.
The Xernim listened, following the mental orders with utmost precision. Compared to when he first started, it almost impressed Gin how much he improved his mastery over the plants. He could think one thing and instruct another unlike when he needed to give his full attention just to make it grow a little. However, he understood he still hadn’t fulfilled the true potential of the gauntlets. One step at a time, Gin. One step at a time.
‘Is your skin meant to be that colour and pattern?’ Brim whispered as to not wake Joan again.
As the crusty remnants of the battle wounds fell off his chest, Gin saw that the soft skin underneath contained a silvery hue. But what Brim referred to was the pure pink streaks that ran across the silver; two going down and four up.
Ah, that’s still there, Gin contemplated answering the question. Thinking about it ached his artificial heart. He didn’t want to say anything, yet he had no real reason to keep it to himself either. ‘My late mother accidentally injured me when I was younger. The scar’s still there it seems.’
‘Mother?’ Brim raised an eyebrow.
‘Oh, right. You didn’t even know what a father was. I guess the simplest explanation of a mother is the female offspring rearer. Father being the male,’ Gin explained, though the bewildered looks of his compatriot told him it didn’t work. ‘You do know how manush procreate, right?’
‘You do at least know animals reproduce, right?’
‘Uhhh. Selective breeding through the MBP?’
Gin’s eyes narrowed. ‘I’m talking about how it’s done in the wild.’
‘You do know what sexual intercourse is, right?’ Gin leaned forward only to get an even more confused face out of the mage. ‘Wow. Is your knowledge on the matter the same for all of you?’
‘I think so,’ Brim gave a blunt reply, unsure where the conversation was heading.
‘Go figure,’ Gin sighed, resting against the caravan again. ‘Well, I guess when everyone, including your familiars, are bred, there’s no need to know about it. I mean, I didn’t know what it was until I was like, what? Ten? Now that I think about it, that’s forty in mage terms, no?’
‘You’ve lost me,’ Brim’s bewilderedness told Gin to stop rambling.
‘Forget it. It’s nothing important.’
Silence fell upon the vehicle once more bar the turning of the wheels and the snoring of Joan. The Xernim continued their job, picking away at the clots, revealing more silvery flesh underneath. The skin felt smooth to touch but still had an unnatural texture to it, like rubbing your fingers against clingfilm. Or at least the closest analogy Gin could come up with. Even then, except for the scar, nothing abnormal could be found, as if his body kept a state of being from which it reverted back to when injured. Except for the sudden inclusion of the Xernim, of course.
The parasite continued its journey on two fronts – one from each gauntlet – attempting to cover the exposed skin. Gin assumed the intent was to act as a protection from further infection, but his speculation was just that: speculation. He had no real basis for his claims bar a hunch. Though he noticed a strange occurrence he never thought about experimenting on beforehand.
The left gauntlet began covering the left half of his body with a half dozen branches that circled around the past wounds. Likewise, the right gauntlet covered the right side. However, in the middle, around the area where Varunel punched through him a year prior, they both interacted.
At first, there seemed to be a tussle between the two gauntlets with branches colliding together from both sides. It made Gin realise that they were indeed two different entities that worked separate to one another but tangent to their host. How many times have I called them Xernim instead of Xernims? he wondered, correcting his usage as he watched the in-fighting. Or at least he assumed they fought for dominance. That changed when branches started intertwining and encircling the large patch of silver until he could see nothing but brown of the wood there.
Then both Xernims stopped. They completed the task they set out to do. The lines of branches and various shapes that covered Gin’s body, with one area on his chest where they collaborated, made for a cool pattern (in his opinion). Almost like the start of…
‘Hey, Brim,’ Gin looked up. However, he found the fire elemental asleep and unresponsive to his call. ‘Ah. Looks like the battle took a lot out of him too.’
Opportunity missed, question unanswered and with the inability to sleep himself, Gin decided to set out, putting his clothes back on first. He was met with the sight of several caravans joined the few his battalion first set out with, most of them coming from the second group that travelled underground. Mages weaved in and out of them, taking their turns to rest and treat the injured; a serene scene where Gin couldn’t help but admire the efficiency of it all.
‘What a nice view,’ he commented, greeting his fellow squadron members as he walked ahead of the vehicles.
The sight of trees in the distance gave an idea of how much everyone travelled. It covered the horizon apart from two close but distinct areas. The first was an empty domain that divided the whole forest. The other was a char-filled mess of nothingness. A sinking feeling plagued Gin upon seeing the latter.
That feeling disappeared soon enough as the sight of his teammates playing a weird game of catch using one of the moles. When did they start doing that? Gin asked himself. The mages were more human than he thought despite being bred. Maybe playfulness is a natural trait of man. He wanted to join but he knew his throwing technique couldn’t cover the obvious hundreds of metres needed to play the game.
Just then, a light tug grabbed his attention. He looked down to find the ever short and stone-clad Sam looking up at him. His hazel eyes contained a hint of urgency and fear at the same time while any other emotion hid behind his armour.
‘How can I help you?’ Gin questioned the mage.
‘Syndra. She calls for you,’ Sam replied in the usual short and muffled sentences followed by a break to breathe.
‘No wonder you look nervous,’ Gin chuckled knowing all too well what most thought of the utility group leader.
‘Alright, you’re not. But anyway, do you know why she called for me?’
‘Update. I think.’
‘Is that so?’ Gin raised an eyebrow. ‘Did she want me to give her an update or does she have one of her own?’
‘Mmm,’ Sam stopped to think. ‘Her to you. You can find her. She’s ahead of everyone.’
‘Understood,’ Gin deciphered the message as “meet her at the front of the squadron”. ‘Ok. I’ll handle this. You go rest, Sam. I’m sure you’re tired from the battle like everyone else.’
‘Yessir,’ Sam obeyed, scurrying to the nearest caravan and checking their occupancy.
Wait, what? Syndra called for me? Since when was that a thing? Gin processed at last. He tried to recall a time when she sought his presence rather than him needing something from her or on someone else’s behalf. However, not a single memory came to mind. It brought doubt as he paced his way across the desert. Did he hear right or was he about to make a fool of himself? He couldn’t be quite sure. It was an odd feeling like when you need to enter a room for a certain task but forgetting what and why once you do enter said room.
Still, he ventured forth, making his way to the front, just behind a group of mages that led the squadron. He found the fellow leader amongst the other familiar types and, to Gin’s relief, she kept glancing every so often. His doubts further diminished when, after spotting him, she made her way to meet halfway. But that only raised more concerns. What’s gotten into her? he wondered.
‘Gin Julius Gale,’ she addressed. ‘I assume your messenger, Sam, has sent you over.’
Why the full name? he thought, readying himself to be as stoic as possible for the upcoming conversation. ‘That is indeed correct.’
‘Has she given you the reason as to why?’
Was she testing him? Was she about to scold him for whatever wrong he didn’t do? Was she just asking the question without any hidden meaning? Gin couldn’t tell. He observed her unwavering eyes, her uncrumpled face and unmoving lips. Nothing gave her intention away.
‘According to Sam, you called for me to update me on some matters,’ Gin shifted the focus in the end. ‘As for what, I have no idea.’
‘That is all?’ Syndra interrogated further.
‘Good,’ she breathed a little bit. Maybe of relief. Maybe of satisfaction. Maybe there was no intent in this breath. Gin couldn’t tell until she spoke up. ‘There is actually more I wanted to talk about, but first -’
Syndra stopped talking. Or rather, she moved her mouth as if to speak but no words came out. When she picked up on Gin’s confusion, she rubbed her eyes with one hand and gave the most unimpressed expression he had ever seen from her.
‘You did not understand a word I said, did you?’ she asked.
‘Unfortunately, I did not,’ Gin replied, trying to keep his composure.
‘It would appear you manush cannot hear at my frequency. I may have overestimated your capabilities.’
Was that a jibe or a comment? Once again, Gin couldn’t decipher the meaning behind her words. ‘While we may not be as specialised as you mages, we are capable enough to survive. Me being alive proves our worth since we’ve managed to live for thousands of years in this mage-dominated world.’
‘I suppose so. Follow me,’ Syndra instructed, diverging from the main group into emptiness while still walking in the general direction of the forestry ahead.
‘Might I ask where we are headed?’
‘Away from potential prying ears,’ Syndra’s voice softened.
‘Oh?’ Gin raised both eyebrows in shock, though Syndra couldn’t see with her back turned to him. A moment where he could drop the act somewhat.
‘I wanted to discuss three matters. A series of facts, a theory and a request.’
‘Is that so? Well, you’ve piqued my interest. Carry on,’ Gin tried to hold his surprise.
Syndra stayed quiet until they reached a distance of at least thirty metres from the nearest mage. There she slowed down until Gin caught up level to her where they continued walking at the same speed, away from everyone else.
‘As you know, our next rendezvous point is the Oasis,’ Syndra began. ‘We plan on meeting with the colonel where she will give us our next mission if her negotiations with the MBP have been fruitful.’
‘She’s finished already?’
‘Yes. We expect her to arrive in a week’s time while it would take a day for us to reach the same point. She has confirmed that our battle has given her some leeway with the other squadron leaders, but what the mission entails is a different matter.’
‘I see nothing contradictory with what you said,’ Gin said in an attempt to act in-the-know despite hearing some of the news of the situation right then.
‘Then you can confirm that both you and Jake were attacked in the forest, right?’
‘Yes,’ Gin confirmed while thinking, what is she getting at?
‘According to Jake’s reports, there were three present at the time. Rob, an unknown man and an unknown woman. Our further investigations only found us strands of hair. Other than that, we know nothing of these perpetrators. Then we have the case of the sneak attack on the tent where specifically the utility group leaders, Michal and me, were held.’
The gears clicked in Gin’s mind. ‘You’re not suggesting that one of the assailants is still with us, are you?’
‘I am just merely stating facts at this moment in time. Though with how AAA were winning up until the “surprise attack,” combined with the obviously coordinated attack in the forest and separation of the squadron to reduce our numbers, does leave one to consider such thoughts.’
‘I understand the need of privacy now,’ Gin commented, realising the pair were now at least a hundred metres away from everyone and their voices at an all-time low.
‘Indeed. Had we discussed this in the vicinity of the others, I fear said assailant would become too cautious. That is unless he or she hasn’t already escaped of course.’
‘What makes you think it’s not me?’ Gin asked, wondering if he made his question clear enough before adding, ‘Since you’re telling me all this instead of, say, Brim or Jake.’
‘That’s simple. You had knowledge of our secondary group which AAA didn’t. You got attacked with wounds that signified intent to kill rather than wound and deceive. Your ties with Wontiferus Poxim also shows you have no real reason to side with AAA, even if you are a manush. Or are you telling me I’m wrong?’
‘No, no. You are absolutely right in that regard,’ Gin agreed, though he noticed how she dodged the second half of his question. Even then, the response boosted his confidence with the mage. At least she trusted him to an extent. So, in a half-joking manner, he queried, ‘And what makes the assailant not you?’
A shudder ran down Gin’s spine. The atmosphere changed from a standard discussion, with both parties on equal footing, to where one radiated authority over the other like a predator looming over its helpless prey. As he turned to face Syndra, who stopped walking to meet his gaze, he saw the steeled determination in her eyes that sent another shiver throughout his body. Did she not get the joke? he asked himself, not saying a word out of irrational fear. At that very moment, he understood why everyone else felt the way they did about her.
‘Well, while I don’t have any definite proof, I believe it goes along the same reasoning as your defence. I knew of the plan while AAA did not. That and, if I were the traitor, I would definitely not put my familiar at risk,’ she said at last, her voice cracking ever so slightly on that last sentence.
‘Ah,’ Gin replied, still attempting to remain calm. He had forgotten the death of Syndra’s tinoo in its entirety. Though he didn’t care in all honesty, he knew how important the bird was to the familiar type. He mulled over his next words as to avoid any potential outburst, finalising on a, ‘I can accept that logic.’
‘I suppose all that I can ask is that you trust me that I am not the assailant.’
‘Fair enough,’ Gin’s words came out immediate and semi-unconscious.
‘Well, arguing over who it is or isn’t will get us nowhere at this rate. The point is to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. It’s also best to keep this to yourself. After all, it is still a theory and it’s better not to have the squadron go into discourse over potentially nothing.’
‘Now this should all tie in nicely to that request of mine,’ Syndra changed the topic, walking in front of Gin to meet him head-on before proclaiming, ‘Gin Julius Gale.’
‘I would like you to teach me blade boxing.’
The fear and desire to keep calm Gin felt moments prior vanished in an instant. Instead, his emotions turned to complete disbelief, his eyes widening, his shoulders slouching and a puzzled look covered his face as he uttered just one word.