B2 Chapter 4: Night Time Escapades

As the sun began to set over the forest squadron W rested besides, Gin became more and more bewildered. Not only did he have to prepare for a lesson in hand-to-hand combat he never asked for but he needed to teach someone so inept in the art.

‘Um, Gin?’

‘Oh sorry, Brim. Didn’t see you there,’ Gin broke out of his trance. ‘Did you need anything?’

‘Yeah. Did Syndra ask to switch shifts to the night watch to be with you,’ Brim stopped, a mixture of confusion and concern in his tone, ‘on her own accord?’

‘Not sure to be honest,’ Gin averted his gaze, thinking of a rational reason though nothing certain came to mind. ‘She did want some training in blade-boxing for some reason.’

‘What?! Really?’

Gin didn’t respond. His silence told the truth. Though his colleague didn’t believe him at first, putting up a grin as if he just heard a joke. But that smile fell and fell as his eyes widened and widened.

‘No. No. Noooo,’ Brim refused to believe. ‘No. Wait. Really?

‘Mhm.’

‘Wow,’ Brim scratched his head and sighed. A switch flipped, his expression becoming more serious. He then placed a hand on Gin’s shoulder, bringing him closer. ‘I don’t know if you’ve caught on already but the death of her tinoo has hit her harder than she looks.’

‘Is that so?’ Gin replied, no emotion in his voice. He didn’t know how else to respond. Was he meant to be concerned? Unapologetic? Serious?

‘I’m not joking. I’ve kinda known her since my time in squadron L.’

‘“Kinda?”’

‘Well, you see,’ Brim started, taking a quick glance of his surroundings to see if anyone relevant stood watch, ‘She was always a bit secluded comparatively, not going to lie. Any attempt to become amicable with her were – how should I say it? Swiftly rejected and I still feel like she views me as “an incompetent moron” as she openly tells me. Though I haven’t heard her use that phrase in a while to be fair.’

Gin burst out laughing, clutching his stomach and drawing the attention of the nearby mages. Brim tried to calm him down, fending off the gazes of the onlookers. Some moved on while others pretended to work on the campfires yet still in earshot of the conversation.

‘Gin!’ Brim snapped.

‘Heh. Sorry,’ Gin calmed down. ‘Just that hearing you being called an incompetent moron caught me off-guard.’

‘Ha. Ha. Laugh it up,’ Brim rolled his eyes. ‘But I’m serious. Her tinoo was all she had. I don’t know what happened to her in the past but she was like that when I joined. So, all I’m saying is that you be cautious around her and maybe not be too harsh on her.’

‘Yeah, I understand.’

A reassuring smile later, Brim gave Gin a slap on the back. ‘Great. Then, good luck. I know I wouldn’t be able to handle being in your shoes.’

‘Not giving me much confidence, are you?’ Gin chuckled back.

The pair parted ways. Brim went over to help the others collecting and lighting up firewood while Gin found a spot by a tree where he could be alone with his thoughts. His mind wandered back to his original predicament: how to handle the lesson with Syndra.

He recalled his first time meeting Alder. Or rather, the second time since he didn’t know who the man was when he took the squadron’s initiation test. Either way, he showed off his fighting capabilities to him, once with Varunel and the other in direct combat with Alder. Both fights he lost and both he didn’t even leave a meaningful dent. Outclassed and out skilled, Gin knew his opponents played with him to an extent, never showing off their true capabilities.

But could I do the same with Syndra? Gin wondered. Sure, he could beat her in a one v one. However, his issued lied with by how much. He didn’t want to go overboard nor could he become complacent and fight at too low a level. As he took more time to think, an increasing number of questions popped up. At what point do I even stop the training? Until one of us surrenders? The problem proved much more difficult than he first anticipated. It wasn’t like battalion training where he just gave orders and let the others get on with it or sparring with Brim where he could go at full force.

‘Look what we have here. Been a while since I saw this side of you.’ the all so familiar sweet voice of Joan broke Gin’s trance. She stood bent over, looking up at him from below.

How did she get there? Gin thought before returning a warm smile and saying, ‘Whatever could you mean?’

‘The mechanical, pensive mode you used to get into. You’re also voluntarily alone like whenever you just lock yourself in your room. I think I’ve known you long enough to realise something’s on your mind at this point. That and your lack of hehs.’

‘Are you really basing my mood on my hehs-per-day?’ Gin gave an unimpressed look.

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Joan stood up straight and faced him at eye-level, revealing her array of teeth in the process in a mischievous manner. ‘Why, yes. Yes, I am. And you’ve done none from what I can tell.’

‘I did one today,’ Gin murmured.

‘Well, that’s a start, isn’t it?’

Gin covered his face with his hand, asking, ‘Shouldn’t you be doing your medic work?’

‘I’m off duty,’ Joan explained.

‘But isn’t a medic’s work never fin-’

‘I’m off duty,’ she reiterated, interrupting him.

‘Wha-’

‘I’m. Off. Duty.’

‘Fine,’ Gin let out an exasperated sigh. ‘You’re off duty.’

‘Good to know we’re on the same page,’ Joan’s cheeky grin peeved Gin more than he would have liked. ‘What’s got you bothered?’

Gin didn’t say anything at first. He didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t tell Joan he intended to train Syndra (out of fear she would give him an earful as to why she was against the idea), but he couldn’t keep it away from her either. Somehow, no matter how hard he might try to hide a secret, she always managed to find out. So, he decided to ask a question instead.

‘Hey, Joan?’

‘Yes?’

‘Have you ever felt nervous about teaching someone your trade? Like it’s your first time doing it and you don’t know if you can pass it down properly or not.’

Joan tilted her head and crossed her arms. Her face crumpled into obvious confusion, but she still looked like she considered the question without her previous mocking tone. It wasn’t until a minute or two had passed did she have an answer.

‘I don’t really understand what’s going on,’ she began. ‘But when I first started teaching the other medics, I guess I did feel uneasy. I didn’t want to give the others wrong information or make a wrong cut in an operation for example. However, once you get into it, I think you’ll find it satisfying and you tend to forget about everyone else and just get on with it. I hope that answers your question.’

‘Yeah…I think it does. Thanks.’

But just as Gin was about to take off, he felt a hand grab his shoulder. When he turned around, he found Joan grinning a grin that told him “where do you think you’re going” to which he returned a wry smile.

‘Why did you ask?’ Joan ordered rather than question.

‘Aha. Well, I intended to teach others about blade boxing. We were left underhanded in the battle because quite a few didn’t have any combat experience,’ Gin tried to worm his way out.

‘Oh?’

‘But giving lessons like that is different from training those already bred to fight. So…’

Joan let go much to Gin’s relief. ‘I get it. You go do you.’

‘You’re not going to stop me?’

‘Pfft. Even if I say no, you still plan on doing it, right?’

A rush of blood flowed through Gin’s cheeks, though his skin didn’t show it. He didn’t want to admit it, but she was right. However, he still appreciated her input. It always calmed him down when he felt a certain way, even if the way she spoke sometimes annoyed him.

‘Yeah, yeah. Can’t argue that,’ he said, looking up at the sky. The sun had almost set, with the only lights coming from the campfires and the starry night. ‘By the way, I do have to go now though. I’m doing the night shift.’

‘Yeah, I heard.’

‘Oh, I did want your advice on another matter while you’re here,’ Gin realised all of a sudden.

‘What is it?’

‘You know how the forest burned down somewhat? I want you to come with me tomorrow afternoon if that’s alright with you. There are a few things I want to check out.’

Baffled by the request, Joan blinked a few times and raised an eyebrow. She looked as if she was analysing the question, wondering if she should ask more questions. But Gin’s stern expression gave nothing away.

‘Alright then. I’ll join you,’ she said at last without question.

‘Again, you have my thanks. I’m a bit more confident with myself now.’

‘No problem,’ she said as the duo shared a smile. ‘I need to go back to work too.’

But weren’t you off du- nevermind, Gin thought but decided against saying anything. Instead, he made his way through the forest where a few other mages, most coming from the utility group and his own battalion, gathered around a singular campfire. They all waited for the previous group to return from the afternoon shift. Till then, they relaxed and chatted amongst each other.

It didn’t take long as another group of mages hobbled towards them, led by Jake. From what Gin recalled from Brim, apparently the demoted fire elemental still carried out his duties even without his official role. Even then, the shame and guilt still hung around Jake as he avoided eye contact with Gin while taking everyone else away. He couldn’t blame him though. Not after what happened not even a fortnight ago.

On the one hand, Gin wanted to try and fix things with Jake (in all honesty, he didn’t harbour any ill feelings for the man). On the other hand, the timing of it all prevented him from acting rash, especially with multiple eyes watching. Instead, he let the group pass them, allowing his own to rise up and get ready.

‘I see everyone’s here. I’ll give the briefing as per usual,’ a familiar voice caught Gin’s attention.

Syndra emerged from the clearing as soon as the previous group left. She looked the same, with her piercing glares, stoic demeanour and all, except for the fact that she wore a ponytail instead of her usual long, let-loose hair. Is that for the training? Gin wondered though he concluded he was overthinking things again in the end.

‘After what happened here last time, we will be split into teams of two and one familiar,’ she instructed. ‘You are not allowed to sleep until your shift is up. You are not allowed to leave your scouting area. You are not allowed to leave your designated partner under any circumstances. If an emergency occurs, you shout for help or send out your assigned familiar if you are unable to. You are not allowed to leave your post otherwise. The others are close enough. Do I make myself clear?’

The snap in her voice reverbed through the mages. Their backs straightened and nodded in agreement. Even the animals felt her domineering presence and stood attention. They all knew what to do and formed the teams of three (if you counted the mole/tinoo). They then dispersed into the woods, positioning themselves in their predetermined regions.

‘It appears we are the only ones left,’ Syndra turned to Gin when everyone else left. ‘I suppose that forces us to be the final pair. Shall we go?’

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‘Yes, let’s,’ Gin replied while thinking, did she just make a joke? He shook his head and followed her.

Syndra walked towards each team along the way, making sure they stayed vigilant, even if the task at hand had a low-risk feel about it. Whatever work she led, she made sure everyone gave their full effort.  Did the others want that? Based on the mages’ expressions when they saw her, Gin concluded a resounding no.

‘Where are we located?’ Gin tried to spark a conversation, noticing the lack of a familiar with them.

‘I have chosen the clearing you had oh-so-graciously created with your fire,’ Syndra said. Again, Gin couldn’t tell whether her words were meant to be friendly or condemning his actions.

‘Ah. Any particular reason?’

Syndra glanced back and inspected him. ‘I don’t know how good your eyesight is. I presumed you’d have liked some light under the stars and moon, no?’

‘I can actually see quite well in the dark. Under today’s weather, I have no trouble whatsoever,’ Gin explained, omitting the fact his sight was terrible as a child before his operation. ‘If you’re so concerned over my abilities, I can assume your night vision is excellent too, right?’

‘You assumed correctly. Though you must note that the ability to see in the dark is paramount for most familiar types.  We do need to be able to find our familiars at any moment.’

‘I see. Understood,’ Gin kept his composure, still unsure where he stood with Syndra.

‘We’re here,’ Syndra announced.

Their conversation cut short when they stepped through the last thickets of trees into a massive clearing. The area looked black (not because of the night but rather the ash that still lingered on the ground). However, sprouts of new plants grew out of the remains, giving Gin a sense of relief that the forest could flourish with time again.

‘Gin Julius Gale, I’ll need to collect something first if you would allow please,’ Syndra said, traversing over the ash, making crunching sounds with every step.

‘No problem,’ Gin replied, wondering what she wanted to get. ‘I don’t mind you calling me just Gin by the way.’

‘Duly noted,’ she said, stopping a moment before adding a, ‘Gin.’

Syndra walked over to a certain spot in the clearing where the ash built up into some form of mound. She brushed the dust away, revealing a set of gauntlets, both made out of a familiar type of stone with the joints attached by wooden vines.

‘Are those…’ Gin uttered.

‘Your guess is correct,’ Syndra confirmed, putting them both on. ‘Michal made these. From what I could surmise, he wanted to show them to you after the battle. I am unsure what his true intentions were, but I thought I might as well make use of them in his stead.’

Gin’s heart sank. He wanted to slap himself for his foolishness. He was so preoccupied with trying to show his competency to Syndra that he never realised how she really must have felt. That’s right, Gin scolded himself. The death of your closest friend and a fellow colleague would haunt even the most apathetic of people, right? Her request to train wasn’t an act of imposing her will but an attempt of self-preservation. A feeling Gin knew all too well.

‘Are you sure you want me instructing you?’ Gin checked, an odd sense of confidence growing, telling him that he could do this.

‘I’m positive,’ Syndra gave a determined look.

‘Very well,’ Gin let out a small sigh. ‘Let’s spar.’

Shields. The Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host grew and activated the INS on the gauntlets, making the serrated shield pop up in an instant. However, Syndra’s face crumpled in confusion. The rare sign of emotion surprised him but felt reassuring at the same time for some odd reason he couldn’t pinpoint.

‘Spar?’ Syndra questioned. ‘I don’t quite understand. I will admit that I am a complete novice at any combat, so to go straight into a fight does strike me as odd.’

Heh, how nostalgic, Gin reminisced his first encounter with Alder once again. ‘Draw your blades. This is not a request.’

‘Understood,’ she obeyed, abandoning any questions she had.

Syndra took a few small steps before turning her strides into a run, charging at Gin with one arm poised ready to punch. However, with the move too telegraphed, Gin just swivelled around the attack, letting the momentum make her almost trip under the weight of the gauntlets and poor posture.

Gin didn’t let his guard down, waiting for a counter-attack aimed at his back, but it never came. The slow and lethargic movements of his opponent even allowed him enough time to turn and face her as she got back into position way after Gin did.

‘Again,’ Gin commanded.

‘Ok,’ Syndra huffed and puffed a bit.

Her next strike felt more precise, going for a horizontal jab instead. However, it still didn’t make Gin break a sweat as he deflected it with his shield with as little force as possible to not unbalance her. Even then, he noticed an unnatural swaying to her movements. I wonder if it’s that… Gin analysed, concerned that he could afford to think at all.

Syndra attempted a flurry of punches. It didn’t have the same speed or number as Alder or Brim, with many openings with each attack. None of which dealt a hit on Gin who deflected or dodged them all with ease. Still, he was impressed by the accuracy of the attacks considering the darkness of the night. He watched every move she made, every point of weakness she had and thought of every potential way she could improve.

Blades.

All of a sudden, Gin ducked another attack then went for an uppercut, stopping just before Syndra’s throat. Her eyes bulged in fear and mouth agape. She didn’t even try to attack anymore nor did she attempt to defend herself. Gin wasn’t even sure whether she breathed or held her breath. Even when he withdrew his blade, she remained frozen.

‘I’m sorry about that,’ Gin apologised.

‘Oh,’ Syndra uttered a single word, unable to say anything else.

‘Are you ok?’ Gin asked, knowing full well that her expression did not come naturally but one bred from past experiences.

The words woke her up as she straightened up and tried to regain her composure. Though with her ruffled hair, cold drip that fell down her face and an obvious lack of fitness with her heavy breaths, that turn of expression proved not as effective as usual.

‘Ahem. I apologise. That was unbecoming of me,’ she said, her head a bit lower than normal. ‘Um, if may I ask, why did we do that as our first training lesson? I would have thought you’d teach me the basics before we did any combat.’

‘I wanted to assess your capabilities,’ Gin explained, putting on a smile to reassure her. ‘I did not know where you stood and so I looked into your speed, strength and agility with each attack you tried to land on me.’

‘Oh!’ Syndra appeared to light up with that answer.

‘And I will say there’s still a lot of work to do. We can improve your strength through special training and agility can be improved through increasing your stamina in coordination with specific movement-based exercises.’

‘Understood. As for speed?’

For the second time in a few hours, blood rushed to Gin’s face. A part of him didn’t want to say anything, but with Syndra looking at him with keen eyes, he couldn’t avoid it.

‘Well, there are two obvious problems from what I could tell that could easily be remedied. The first is that the gauntlets are too big and too heavy for you. They slow you down,’ he began, wondering if he should say the next part.

‘That makes sense. I’ll look into resizing the gauntlets. What was the second issue?’

‘Well, I believe you should keep your,’ Gin stopped to let out a forced cough, ‘Keep your bust under wraps. I noticed they were unbalancing you a bit.’

Syndra blinked three times before looking down. She then pressed against her chest a few times with the gauntlets before looking back up at Gin, who had already averted his gaze.

‘You’re right,’ she said to Gin’s surprise. ‘They are both ample in size and prove no use in combat. I shall limit their freedom for next time.’

‘That…’ Gin let his guard down in an instant. ‘That was not the reaction I was expecting.’

‘Is that so?’ Syndra raised an eyebrow.

‘I don’t know. I was thinking you’d get embarrassed or angry or something,’ Gin’s voice quietened down with every word.

‘Should I act more bashful for next time then?’

‘No! You be yourself. No need to conform to my manush standards,’ Gin protested before realising he needed to keep his composure once more.

‘Intriguing. I suppose your norms are different to ours,’ Syndra placed a hand on her chin, pondering on the notion. ‘But if that is all, I will take your advice to heart and look forward to working with you in the future.’

‘Likewise,’ Gin managed a response. ‘Shall we carry out our night duties then?’

‘Yes, let’s.’

As the pair went off to survey the area, Gin glanced every so often at his new student. She appeared satisfied with the lesson much to his relief. Even then, the final interaction with her made a recurring thought go around in his mind.

I’m never going to get used to the mages, am I?

- my thoughts:
Syndra is a fun character to write.
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