B2 Chapter 5: Maria’s Return

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A strange man sat opposite Maria in the caravan. Tight, packed muscles covered every inch of his body while frills adorned his neck. Long cuts engraved into his arms, revealing a retractable bone that slotted inside of his blue-tinted skin. As he moved, his dark-brown hair stiffened into some form of fin, relaxing once more when he stopped. She could tell why he boasted the “rank S aquatic bestial type mage” title. However, what irked the colonel wasn’t his appearance but rather the gazes she received that reminded her of the king of Eurasia. Is he one of those rogue mages? she thought, shuddering at the idea of another Arthur eyeing her up.

You look beautiful madam Anasta. How would you like to take a swim with the biggest fish in the sea?’ said the man.

‘Astral, while I appreciate the offer, I will have to respectfully decline,’ Maria replied, aiming to be as professional as possible.

‘Ah, that’s a shame. Been years since I was successful and got some,’ he sat back, deflated by the rejection.

‘And what do you mean by that?’

‘Oh, nothing. Just my hopes getting shattered again,’ Astral slumped further into his seat.

‘For the record, speaking from previous experiences with certain royalty, those who like to see themselves as big are often the ones who are compensating in other areas, Mr Tempest,’ Maria gave a damning statement that caused the mage to sink further and blush a strange purple.

‘Wow. No mercy,’ Wo burst into laughter.

‘As for you Mr Poxim,’ Maria turned to Wo, ‘I’m assuming you’ve read the reports, right?’

‘Ah,’ Wo calmed down in an instant. ‘Yes, I have.’

‘Then you must realise what Brim has talked about in particular in it, right?’

Silence fell upon the caravan. Maria stared at Wo and Wo stared back while Astral glanced from person to person, indecisive on how to split the tension.

‘Gin?’ Wo said.

‘Gin,’ Maria confirmed.

Astral leapt out of his seat, crashing into the roof of the vehicle. ‘Wait, Gen is here?’ he asked, clutching his head.

‘No. not Gen, Astral. Gin,’ Wo corrected.

‘Who’s this “Gen” person? And how do you two know him?’ Maria’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

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Wo exchanged a glance with the bestial type. They both nodded before he turned back to the colonel. ‘Gen was Gin’s father. Astral knew him several decades ago. Apparently for longer than I did.’

‘And do you know him too, Wo?’

‘Yes. He was a very close friend of mine. Unfortunately, he passed away a while ago.’

‘No way,’ Astral’s heart sank and so did his body.

‘Moving on, so the griffon’s out of the bag, huh?’ Wo attempted to uplift the atmosphere. ‘Yes, Gin’s a manush. But you already knew that, didn’t you?’

The colonel smirked. ‘I had my suspicions. I have dealt with his kind before.’

‘Let me guess, the application?’ Wo smirked back.

‘The application.’

‘Told him to put fake credentials but noooo, he just refused to lie and so put as little as possible without giving it away. All that did was the opposite. Gigi’s too simpleminded for his own good, I tell you! He takes after his father after all,’ Wo sighed, stretching a few times before continuing, ‘But if you knew about it already, that means you were okay with it since the very beginning.’

‘I wasn’t entirely sure, Wontiferus. You just confirmed it for me right now,’ Maria admitted. ‘However, you’re right in saying that I do not intend to cause him harm by kicking him out or anything. You would have gone to another squadron where you had connections already if I did, right?’

The pair looked over at the puzzled mage in blue. Maria smiled at the man while Wo patted him on the back. They knew what each other thought of Astral, but didn’t say it outright.

‘What are you guys talking about?’ Astral asked.

‘Nothing in particular,’ Maria replied, shooting a glance at Wo that said “With easily manipulated connections like him, I can see why he was your backup plan. But I’m still not sure about him.”

‘Just us sharing a joke,’ Wo added, shooting a glance at Maria that said “Meh. He’s dependable. Just trust me.”

All of a sudden, the caravan ground to a halt. The lupim that carried it let out a long howl before panting and licking its master. The driver took off the beast’s collars and let it bound forward where it didn’t take long to make loud splashing sounds.

‘Maria, we’re here,’ the driver announced, getting everything ready.

‘Shall we go then?’ the colonel asked with the other two nodding in agreement.

A nice breeze met the trio as they clambered out, but the sight that hit them felt nicer. Ahead of them was a glittering oasis that spanned acres with a multitude of palm trees surrounding it. You could even see animals grazing and drinking nearby, unaware of the newcomers to their home. Either that or the rabbits, foxes, deers, fish, various species of birds and whatnot didn’t care by their presence.

‘Looks like the others have just arrived too,’ Wo pointed out, indicating to the band of caravans that stopped on the opposite side of the oasis. In his excitement, he picked up the pace, leaving the other two behind.

‘Astral, mind doing the safety checks now then?’ Maria whispered instructions. ‘I doubt my men can do it – or at least not on the same level as you.’

‘No one can swim?’ Astral questioned.

‘No one being able to dive and fight properly would be the better phrasing. After the reports of a sneak attack in this very forest, I want to be even more vigilant. As the leader to squadron W, the blame for not expecting such a move by the enemy is to fall on me and me alone. I will not make similar errors this time.’

‘I see…’ Astral stood speechless, taken aback by the sheer determination in her words. ‘Well, I’ll get onto it soon.’

‘I’d prefer if you’d do it now,’ Maria sent out a piercing glare that sent a shiver down the bestial’s spine. ‘Prior to deciding to shadow your squadron, I had gotten into deep conversations with Diana, your squadron leader. It so happens that we talked a bit about you since you were the chosen ambassador and that you had a tendency to procrastinate quite frequently.’

‘I’ll get onto it now then, aha,’ Astral forced a laugh. ‘Can’t deny what leader said, but I do a lot when I put my mind to it, so don’t worry.’

‘Excellent.’

Without further delay, Astral kicked off his shoes, revealing webbed feet. He then spit on his hands, sliding the mucus produced between his fingers, making a thin film in between that dried and hardened after a few seconds. He took one deep breath, enlarging his chest which caused his hair to stiffen into the fin as he did so. With preparations completed, he took a running start into the shallow end of the Oasis before diving right in.

The clear water allowed Maria to see the fish-like movements of Astral as he zipped up and down in a systematic fashion. The various fish ignored him, but a few of the larger predatory animals took notice and approached him. However, they swam away the moment he retracted his arms’ bone skewers and blew out a burst of air from his mouth. The animals feared him, acknowledging where he stood on the food chain.

Can’t wait to get high-level recruits like him soon, Maria thought to herself as she watched the whole spectacle. Though she cared for the members in her squadron with utmost sincerity, even she could understand how low their potential ceiling was just by themselves. She didn’t feel regretful or ungrateful for what she had. However, the new opportunities provided would prove crucial in her ambitions. She was sure of it.

‘Pwah!’ Astral burst out of the water all of a sudden. ‘Job done.’

‘That was fast,’ Maria commented.

‘Using sonar helps a lot in large areas,’ Astral rubbed the frills on his neck. ‘No hidden caves nor any suspicious objects underneath the waterbed. Also, all the animals acted normally upon seeing me, so I think it’s safe to say there are no enemy familiars in the oasis.’

‘That’s a relief.’

Maria let out a hearty sigh. She couldn’t quite relax, but the knowledge that at least one more area was safe to use relieved some of the stress. Securing the surrounding forest would be the next step, but she waited upon everyone’s return before issuing out the orders.

‘By the way, is your squadron really that small?’ Astral pointed out.

‘Huh, that’s strange,’ Maria replied, looking over to the bestial’s shoulder and realising that there were fewer mages than she first anticipated. ‘I know we suffered quite a few casualties in the battle, but we should still have more than a thousand people.’

‘Doesn’t look like it. Closer to five-hundred right there. Maybe something happened,’ Astral shrugged that turned into him correcting his hair.

‘Let’s go find out then, shall we?’

As they walked closer to the others, Maria noticed the composition of the present mages. To her relief, there was an even spread of people from the utility, offence and artillery groups. Not only that, the lack of half of the leaders could only mean that they decided to do something rather than getting into trouble.

‘Ah, you’re here Maria! Welcome back!’ Brim called out. He finished his conversations, giving everyone instructions before allowing them to spread out to carry out their duties. Along the way, they all greeted the colonel with a confident nod.

‘They’re all calling you Maria,’ Astral whispered. ‘Are they always so – how do I put it? – so informal?’

‘Mhm. It’s how I’ve set my squadron up. Got a problem with that?’

‘Kek. No, not at all.’

‘Sorry about that,’ Brim apologised as he caught up to the pair. ‘Needed to make sure everyone knew what they were doing.’

‘Are you this “Gin” person I’ve heard about?’ Astral blurted out.

‘Uh, no. My name is Brim Stones.’

‘Ah. Well, you are probably a bit too dark to be his son now that I think about it,’ Astral murmured much to Brim’s confusion.

Maria rolled her eyes. ‘Mr Tempest, mind letting me handle the situation for a bit?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ the mage heard the message loud and clear, backing off and walking back to the oasis.

‘Ahem, anyway, I’ve read your reports and I have to say I’m impressed,’ Maria admitted. ‘By both the squadron and your own personal achievements. Although I don’t know what happened in exact detail, how you handled the discord when the squadron separated, as well your decision making when saving the utility group, is nothing to sniff at.’

‘Aha,’ Brim forced a laugh, rubbing the back of his head. ‘While I’m flattered by your praise, I’m sure you didn’t come to me to say that.’

‘Well, no. I did want to brief our next mission but it seems that not everyone’s here yet. Mind filling me in?’

‘They’re investigating the forest incident in greater detail. We only had a day before we needed to leave to arrive at the battlefield on time, but we’re being more thorough this time. They should be back by tomorrow.’

Maria’s shoulders drooped. She felt disappointed by the explanation. But it wasn’t because her squadron was doing anything wrong. No, what they were doing was exactly the right decision and one she would have advocated herself. Rather, it was the sense of impatience that began to well up inside her.

‘Well, if there’s nothing wrong, then it can’t be helped. I will just have to wait,’ she told Brim. ‘Though I’ll be honest in saying I’m bubbling with excitement.’

‘I don’t quite follow,’ Brim raised an eyebrow, unable to decipher the colonel’s words.

‘Oh, come on. You know that feeling of the sea breeze against your hair? Or the adrenaline of a turning ship in battle or even the pride that comes from participating in one of Eurasia’s assets? Something that would have been a pipe dream for the low-ranked such as us just a year ago?’

‘Still lost me,’ Brim’s confusion grew by the sentence.

‘Ah, right. I never told you in my reply letters,’ Maria realised, correcting herself. ‘Remember that fishman-looking guy that thought you were Gin? Well, he’s from squadron O. We’ll be working with them soon enough. And do you know what that means?’

‘Oh, I understand now,’ Brim clapped his hands in excitement.

‘That’s right,’ Maria confirmed, her grin as large as ever. ‘My squadron W of all squadrons will get to taste naval combat.’

- my thoughts:
Our first look at an aquatic bestial type. He's a bit of a dunce, but he's pretty cool too.
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