B2 Chapter 31: Truth

The soft crunch of stems met Gin as he exited the Rezah tree. In fact, he took a moment to watch in awe as the flowery vegetation covered so much of the area that he could count the number of grains of sand he saw on his hand. Sure, it rained the other day and plants already started to sprout recently, but all this? In a single day? He couldn’t believe his eyes!

He hesitated to walk forward, mindful of the life that flourished. But, when he saw the other mages walk around, nonchalant as ever, he soldiered on. The flowers themselves formed paths of various colours, some more obvious than others. Did the mages plant specific seeds beforehand? Gin couldn’t give an answer to a question he never knew he needed to ask until now. Regardless, he took the longest path; one adorned with pretty, white petals.

This main path forked out to every single rezah, port and other significant points of interest. However, every branch took up a different colour, reinforcing Gin’s hypothesis that squadron W planned it out without anyone knowing. From pink to blue to fluorescent green, he could see every colour imaginable but didn’t let curiosity get to him as he kept to the white path.

Gin did stop, however, when he noticed a sole, silver flower sprouting taller than the other plants. It swayed a majestic dance in the wind. It was so beautiful that it also caught the attention of a desert shrew which, at first, took a brief nibble before clipping the whole thing. It then ran off into the distance towards the nearest body of water. There, the rodent did a simple leap into it, never to be seen again.

‘What?’ Gin thought out loud, blinking several times. He shook his head and carried on but glanced back every so often to see if he made the whole scene up or if he really witnessed an animal jump into a massive lake like that. Fortunate enough for him, the air bubbles didn’t disappear every time he looked.

‘What are you daydreaming about?’ Brim wrapped a heavy arm around Gin without warning.

‘Could you not?’ Gin scowled. ‘I was just making my way to the meeting and I was a little engrossed in the scenery, that’s all.’

‘That’s a good sign!’ Brim got off and slapped the manush on the back.

‘What is?’

Brim lowered his voice, ‘When was the last time you were truly enthralled by your surroundings?’

Gin took slow breaths as he mulled over the question. Brim was right. When was the last time he was truly immersed in the world instead of constant worrying and thinking? He couldn’t remember the last time. When did he see SS Tanya for the first time? When he met Artemis for the first time? No, both times he came from some sort of mental blockage whether his dreams or not. So when?

‘You get my point, huh?’ Brim chuckled at the silence. ‘New landscape, new mission, new faces. So much to look forward to, no?’

Gin’s head bobbed up. ‘New faces?’

‘Don’t tell me you haven’t realised. With the upcoming attack, we managed to get reinforcements from the other squadrons to help us out. Look, even your own battalion is showing them around. I’ve surprised you haven’t noticed.’

Brim pointed over back to the lake where Gin could see his men with a bunch of mages that he had never seen before. He could tell because, at no stage whatsoever, did he recognise distinct figures such as the brown man with nails that rivalled Joan’s nor the hunched mage with his bangs covering one eye. Yet, those two and other (more believable looking) mages surrounded his battalion and made idle chatter with Sam of people guiding them around the place.

Gin’s body tightened at the sight. His breathing quickened and his head felt faint. However, he dismissed his condition when he saw the stone anklets along with remembering the mere fact that new mages joined squadron W before their first mission too. It all added up but he still couldn’t shake off seeds of doubt in his mind.

‘Let’s go to the meeting,’ Gin ordered, clutching his head. ‘I think the heat and all this pollen is getting to me.’

‘Sure,’ Brim grew concerned but nodded.

The two carried on down the ivory path to a certain Rezah that looked like an infant compared to the residential trees. While still tall in its own right, the branches and space didn’t allow for much room. In fact, the organism didn’t have a lift. Rather, a set of steep, small staircases led the duo up to the upper floors.

‘How nostalgic. Remember when you were telling me about different combinations of mage abilities last time?’ Brim brought up.

‘Yeah,’ Gin replied with no real enthusiasm in his voice.

‘Well, between the new mages you witnessed here in O, do you have any other bright ideas?’

‘Not really,’ Gin’s stomach lurched. He knew what the fire elemental wanted to lift the mood but he could only bring it back down again.

‘Ah, well, no worries. I’m sure you’ll think of stuff later and then we’ll hit another level of strength.’

Silence followed until they reached the top of the stairs. They didn’t talk when they walked down the narrow corridor nor did they talk when they met Syndra along the way. She kept her distance while Brim kept sending glances Gin’s way, reminding him of the request the other day. I know, Gin wished he didn’t have he extra problem to deal with.

At last, after a long period of tip-taps of boots meeting wood, the three arrived at the designated meeting room where the colonel waited for them with a content look on her face.

‘What’s with the long faces?’ she greeted them in. ‘Sit down and we’ll begin.’

They all went in without saying a word. Inside, a table with chairs filled up most of the room. Despite the lack of Wo, Rob, Jake and even that Lupim3LupimA breed of dog. Large in size and often used as carriers. rider (whose name Gin forgot), the area felt more compact and a little claustrophobic.

Brim and Gin took one side of the table while Syndra sat at the complete opposite end. They all picked up a pile of documents laced with vines. It contained several maps, shapes and lines drawn with minimalistic levels of writing. The writing could be omitted upon further inspection due to the simplistic nature of the diagrams. Guess it’s to help people like Brim, Gin noted.

‘As you can see on the third page, the crux of this battle is that we are simply assisting squadron O. We have four ships allocated to us luckily which I will now showcase,’ Maria started before adding a sly, ‘We won’t be needing your projector, Gin. I got something much better.’

The thought didn’t run through his mind until mentioned as he clutched the silver INS on his belt. I really should do maintenance on these soon, huh? he realised how little he used some of them now. Between his mental condition and the honest fact that he grew far too accustomed to mage culture, he neglected the few remnants of his village life much to his dismay.

However, his self-sorrow got cut short when the colonel placed her palm on the far wall. All of a sudden, the vines latched onto her hand and ebbed into the tree. The wall took mere moments to disintegrate and rebuild anew with several lines, triangles and squares. Once the shapes settled, they then bloomed with flowers of various colours.

‘Lovely,’ the colonel beamed with her demeaning excitement. ‘Our defence starts with this standard formation of two lines of ships, denoted by the triangles, parallel to the coast. Squadron O has provided us with four ships, marked in orange, to use with two ships spaced out on each row. The square ships are the enemy and the lines are our underwater compatriots. Since they have their own instructions, I will focus on your task this meeting. Understood?’

A few silent nods later, the wall began to shift. The outer boats fell off and the ones in the middle grew in size while keeping their original shape intact.

‘As our artillery and our reconnaissance, I have allocated Brim’s and Syndra’s battalions in the backline while Gin’s will help out the frontline. Long story short, similar roles as your first battle but on water. Now comes the actual plans –’

Before Maria could continue, Syndra raised her hand. She gritted her teeth, mulling over her decision then spoke up, ‘I have a request more than a suggestion.’

‘Oh?’ the colonel raised a brow.

‘Forgive my interruption but over the past several months, ever since the passing of my partner, I have undergone rigorous training. I have honed my physical aptitude and developed my battle prowess,’ Syndra paused, took a big sigh then continued, ‘As a result, I firmly believe that I can play a more active role and be put further up front.’

‘While I have no problem myself – in fact, a skilled communications expert who can fight is indeed valuable – I do need evidence that you are up to the task.’

‘Ah,’ her hands trembled for a moment as she risked a glance at Gin’s. ‘Mr Gale has been supervising my training and has instructed me thus far from the very beginning. He can vouch for me.’

‘Is that so?’ Maria’s eyebrow was kept high as she turned towards Gin. ‘Can you confirm this, ch- Mr Gale?’

All eyes fixated on Gin. Brim pretended she knew nothing of the situation, the colonel acted interested but didn’t care either way and the woman in question, who caused this dilemma in the first place, avoided any and all eye contact with the manush.

Gin hated it. He hated the situation so much that thoughts of leaving crossed his mind more than once. However, the desire the meet Artemis trumped any inconvenience set out in front of him.

‘While it is true that I have been overlooking her training and I do admit she has improved leaps and bounds,’ he decided to pour out his honest feelings, regardless of the consequences, ‘she is not ready to be placed in the front lines. She can fight at a competent level but she does not have the mental fortitude yet to handle actual hand-to-hand combat where lives are on the line.’

Brim nodded in agreement. Maria turned back to the map on the wall, assuming the discussion ended there. The usual pursed lips of Syndra dropped by a slight yet noticeable amount. Not that Gin could blame her after that personal betrayal.

‘We will stick to the original plan then,’ the colonel concluded.

‘But –’

Maria sent out a piercing glare. ‘Syndra, I understand your sentiment but without further information, I cannot agree with your proposition. I hope I make myself clear.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ the familiar type sat down in her chair.

The colonel proceeded as if nothing happened. She kept her explanations short and precise of every situation that would occur. With each, the map reacted to her thoughts and emulated the squadrons’ response and what everyone’s role would be.

During the lecture, the three leaders just nodded. After the earlier incident, no one dared speak up even when prompted for questions (except for Brim who only asked about simple flaws every so often).

Gin himself felt content with most of the ideas put forward. He understood squadron W’s role in the battle wasn’t that big. The majority of variance and problems would be dealt with by squadron O not to mention they drilled all of the formations and plans from day one of the lessons. What the colonel put forward didn’t show anything new. However, one unknown stuck out in particular.

‘That is all I wanted to discuss for today. Any questions?’ the colonel finished.

‘Yes,’ Gin responded. ‘You haven’t mentioned anything of Wontiferus Poxim. He’s not affiliated to any battalion in particular but I don’t see him in any of the plans. Are we not using him?’

‘For all intents and purposes, he is considered under squadron O’s jurisdiction. He will receive his own instructions.’

Right, Gin wondered if he should straight up ask Wo himself. ‘That makes sense. I didn’t have any more questions.’

‘Anybody else?’ Maria looked towards Brim and Syndra who shook their head. ‘If that’s the case. You are all dismissed. Be prepared to leave at any moment in the upcoming weeks and I wish you all good luck.’

Syndra left without hesitation. She didn’t acknowledge the others around her at all. Brim on the other hand took his time to stand up. When he did, he patted Gin on the shoulder.

‘You did the right thing,’ he whispered before making his way out.

‘Yeah,’ Gin looked away. He stayed in the room. He waited for the colonel to finish up with the map. All objects crumbled to pieces and the wall returned to being a standard, wooden wall. The vines unclasped from her hand, allowing her to move again as she wished.

‘So, child, why are you still here?’ she brushed excess rot off her palms. ‘If it’s about Wontiferus, then I can’t help you at all.’

‘No, it’s something else I need help with,’ Gin stood up.

The mage frowned, ‘And whatever could that be?’

‘Do you know who Artemis is?’

‘Why are you asking?’ the colonel after a lengthy silence.

‘I need to speak to her,’ Gin gave his immediate reply.

The colonel leaned a little forward until she realised that she no longer stood taller than him. ‘Well, let me ask you this first: Do you know who she is?’

‘Honestly, not really. She’s a bit of a mystery to me but –’

‘Then you have no right to speak to her,’ Maria snapped.

‘I understand where you’re coming from. However, -’

‘Do you understand where you stand at the moment? You’re merely a speck and yet you act as if you’re some big shot who can ask for whoever at any given moment,’ Gin could see the redness in Maria’s pointed ears. ‘Is it because of your quick promotion? Or your first battle victory? Or do you think your trait is unique? Well, Gin Julius Gale, you –’

‘I don’t mean any offence or insubordination,’ Gin stood his ground and equalled the paralysing glares sent at him. ‘I simply need her help on a matter which only she can help me. I have spoken to her in the past so even if she’s really busy now, I’m sure she will at least acknowledge that I want to speak to her.’

‘I do not give permission. You are dismissed,’ the colonel ordered.

Her frown grew larger as the two met eye to eye. For a moment or two, Gin expected some sort of physical confrontation. Could the colonel even fight? He didn’t know but a simple slap wouldn’t be unexpected. Either way, neither backed down.

‘I repeat, you are dismissed,’ she reiterated.

‘Well, that won’t do Anasta, my dear,’ a third voice echoed through the room.

‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,’ the colonel ground her teeth.

All of a sudden, a corner of the room bulged. Pieces of wood splintered off in every direction possible. Gin covered his face while the colonel didn’t even flinch. The organic tumour grew and grew until, in an instant, it collapsed, revealing black sludge that contrasted with the pure, ivory white of Artemis.

The colonel seethed. ‘What are you up to?’

‘Anasta,’ the xernim-user began, showing her gummy mouth, before speaking in a foreign language.

Gin could only watch. The two women’s voices became more and more jagged and their language more and more jaded as time went on. Artemis smirked throughout whereas Maria clenched her fist harder at every sentence. The manush understood none of it, yet he picked up the words “Diana,” “Artemis,” “Dan,” “Paidi,” “W” and “O.”

At last, the conversation ended. Maria returned to her normal, deadpan self. She let out a sigh a child would make to their misbehaving children. She nodded, spoke another word in their unknown tongue and left the room without further fuss.

‘Now then, shall we commence, my dear?’ Artemis turned to Gin.

‘Ah. Yes,’ Gin sat down in a rush.

‘In all honesty, I have been meaning to contact you,’ she sat down opposite him, ‘It’s been a while, after all. However, I do apologise because, as it would so happen, I have been incredibly busy with my preparations. Nonetheless, I did anticipate this chance to speak to you with utmost glee. Now, darling, have you figured out the curious case of the mouse? That’s what you wanted to talk about, is it not?’

Gin quivered in his seat. He wanted to speak with Artemis so much to get over his troubles but the woman misunderstood his intentions. The puzzle Artemis gave to him last time they spoke didn’t even come across his mind until she mentioned it.

However, he relaxed his muscles and gathered the courage to speak out, ‘I’m sorry but that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.’


‘I’ve been struggling with something else. I can’t quite describe it but it’s been gnawing away at me for a long time now,’ Gin lowered his head.

‘And how could I, of all beings in your vicinity, be of assistance when others cannot?’ A white tendril grew from her Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host armour and encroached towards Gin’s gauntlets.

‘I need you to use your powers to make me tell the truth. I’m missing something and I think I know what it is but I just don’t know. I’ve asked others for help but they can’t really and I don’t want to burden anyone with my problems any – ’

‘Stop. I’ve heard enough.’

‘Eh?’ Gin looked up in disbelief.

‘What makes you think I can magically solve everything for you?’ a fire lit up from the mage that shook the manush to the bone.

‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ he uttered.

‘I’ve told you before but you are the type of person I hate using my abilities on.’

‘I don’t understand.’

Artemis jumped up onto the table, grabbed hold of Gin’s arms and stared right at him, mere centimetres away from his face. ‘What good is telling the truth when your truth is a lie?!’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Even now you speak in questions rather than statements,’ vines began to grow out of her helmet towards his face. Yet, Gin didn’t back away in fear. ‘Paidi, you think you’re in such an egregious dysphoria that could be solved by my abilities alone. Oh, how erroneous a thought that is. If I had you speak now, it would be lies! Not of your own omission, mind you, but because you believe that lie so much it becomes your truth. Now, do you understand the dilemma here?’

‘I’m lying to myself?’ Gin crumpled his face in confusion.

‘Not even that,’ the mask no longer resembled a face. Instead, an abomination stared deep into his soul. ‘There is no truth for you to refuse in the first place! Tell me, have you heard the story of the pied piper?’

Gin couldn’t shake his head as the vines imprisoned him. ‘No.’

‘It is quite simple,’ the vines let go and Artemis slumped back into her chair. ‘A town was infested with rats and the adults of the town of Hamlet wanted them gone. So, who do they seek help from? The Pied Piper. Who is this Piper fellow? You may inquire. Well, my dear, he was an artisan. A mysterious, mystical man of unknown origin. But this man had a magical flute that could control any creature he wanted to do his bidding.’

‘I see,’ Gin lost all feeling in his body as he fixated on the story.

‘The adults promised they would pay any amount of riches to get rid of their infestation to which the hapless manic obliged. This was an easy feat for the Pied Piper and he drove the rats into a lake for them to drown. Now, you see, the issue soon arose when he returned and the townsfolk refused to pay their due debt.’

Artemis stood up and walked circles in the room with her hands up high, putting on a mocking voice of “Rats? What Rats? We never had an infestation in the first place! Why would we give you anything?”

‘You get the gist of their gesture,’ she stopped and returned to her seat. ‘Understandably, their hero was furious and turned villain. Now, remember how he could bend all creatures to his will? Well, humans are nothing but creatures all the same. I can attest to that. Regardless, he sought out his revenge and captivated the children of the village. The adults begged for them to come back and for the Piper to stop but, alas, they and he did not. He led those poor urchins to their demise, taking them through oceans, through mountains, deserts, what-have-you, until they reached a grand chasm. One blow on his flute and the children entered haphazardly before a stone entrapped them for all eternity.’

The xernim user grinned at that last line. She drooled at whatever thought went through her head. Gin didn’t talk or move from his position. Instead, he let her finish the story.

‘For the sake of closure, I will end it here by saying there was this one child left behind. He was crippled from a young age and was always chasing the other children’s shadows. He was equally entranced by the Piper but could not emulate them because of his disability. So, when the others disappeared, he was the sole person left behind. The spell broke and he returned back to the village to tell the tale. However, by then, he had already become of age and the adults all died out from the unfortunate ailment of elderdom without a next generation. That’s where it ends. What did you take from it?’

Gin broke out of his trance and came to the conclusion, ‘It’s a story of meeting your promises or else you’ll face the consequences?’

‘That is but the most standard of standard answers, my dear,’ Artemis scoffed. ‘What I am getting at is where I can connect the legend to you. After all, the story I told you is from the perspective of the crippled boy. To him, the rats, the children getting taken away out of spite, returning back to the village only to find everyone dead is a truth that only he saw. To him, that iteration is a fact! Indisputable, infallible fact! And yet, that reality might not be the case.’

‘Then what is the truth?’ Gin understood what the mage was hinting at.

‘That, we do not know,’ Artemis’ voice lowered. ‘Maybe the adults went on a rescue mission at the unfortunate timing of the cripple’s arrival. Or maybe the Pied Piper took the children somewhere else but the cripple was so far behind that he couldn’t pinpoint where they were taken. There’s also a distinct possibility that the townsfolk paid the ransom yet the Pied Piper still took away the children out of pure maliciousness. In which case, what is the reality here? What is your truth, my doll, and what is the reality?’

‘Oh,’ Gin’s heart sank. He could feel water well up in his eyes as he couldn’t believe he missed something so simple. He worried so many for so long, even got someone like Artemis involved in his troubles and all for what? He hated every fibre of his being for the mess he became. ‘What do I do now?’

‘I cannot help you, I’m afraid to say,’ Artemis admitted. ‘However, you are fortunate enough that you have two lovely daughters itching to be of use.’

‘My gauntlets?’


‘Should I let them guide me?’

‘Always with the questions to avoid you speaking earnestly. Loathe that part of you to bits,’ Artemis grabbed hold of Gin’s gauntlets once more and grew her vines over his.

A fire ignited within Gin’s belly. ‘Fair enough. Thanks to your talk I realise what I need to do now. I’m fine with dreaming again but I can’t have it be done in slow doses though. Not when the battle with AAA is so close. I need to figure it out as soon as possible.’

‘Excellent response. I can comply with that request and have the Xernim take a more active role to speed up the process but I do warn you of something. You will lose consciousness and your body will work on its own till you figure it all out, a bit like me. You may not realise when you next become self-aware. Might be tomorrow. Might be next week. Might be years. Might be that you find yourself dead, never to awaken again. If that’s the risk, are you still willing to do that?’

‘Yes, I’m certain,’ Gin’s fire grew to monstrous heights. ‘I have to.’

‘Very well, I’ve instructed your xernim. The rest is up to you. Anything else?’

Gin felt tired all of a sudden. His vision blurred and his body wanted to collapse. However, he took up the energy to ask one more question, ‘Something else that’s been bugging me for a while. Are you Diana or are you Artemis?’

The ivory-clad xernim user smiled a warm smile. ‘Dearie, it’s Artemis.’

Heh. Thought so, Gin grinned as all went to black.

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