Synopsis: A fast-paced story about a youngster who loses everything and everyone he holds dear. Through the only family that still remains with him, his uncle, he gets to choose to dedicate his focus and attention to blacksmithing rather than to fall into depression and street life...
Looking for Authors for Exclusive positions! Paid. DM the Admin on Discord if you're interested. LINK
With the time of the meeting upon them, Gin picked up Brim and the pair made their way to the allocated room. An ominous silence surrounded them in the initial stages of their journey, both knowing that their peaceful lifestyle, relative to the other squadrons, was about to end.
‘You’re awfully silent,’ Brim said, breaking the deadlock at last.
‘Hm? I was busy thinking,’ Gin replied.
‘You do that a lot, don’t you? What’s on your mind this time.’
‘About other combinations like the human fireball catapult like if I have some water elementals instead of fire elementals. They would then form an anti-fireball team. Add some earth elementals and we could use stones as projectiles too! I can’t wait to see how they will do in the battle, Brim.’
‘I can see why Alder thought of you as a brat. You’re way too enthusiastic for an adult.’
‘Brim. I don’t expect this of you.’
‘Haha. I jest. Anyway, if we succeed and get promoted, we could have other types of mages joining us.’
‘Eh? There are other types of mages?’ Gin asked in confusion, causing Brim to raise an eyebrow in suspicion.
‘Have you been living under a rock or something?’
‘I didn’t learn about other mages when I was growing up. Squadron W is also the only squadron I’ve been in. My only experiences of mages are the ones in this squadron,’ Gin responded, choosing his words wisely.
‘I see,’ Brim replied, accepting the twisted truth. ‘Well anyway, some types of mages are high ranked by default. You won’t see an acid elemental, or at least a living one, that is ranked D or below for example. Low ranked versions would probably have died to their own acid eating away at them.’
‘Wow. That just makes me want to get promoted even more. Imagine marching on the battlefield, with no vision of the enemy, and a random blob of acid falls on top of you.’
‘errr. Alright then,’ Brim said, not knowing how to respond.
‘Hey. Don’t give me that. You’ve got to be a little crazy to make progress. It’s something someone always told me.’
‘If you say so. Oh, we’re here.’
Gin paused outside the door. His last comment sent him into deep thought, making him remember of a past he thought he locked away years ago.
‘Are you afraid?’ Brim broke Gin’s trance.
‘Afraid of what?’ Gin perked up.
‘I know squadron W hasn’t been in any battles in their history. This being your maiden is probably a big deal. I know it was for me when I first went onto the battlefield.’
‘If I was so afraid of death and killing, I wouldn’t have accepted being battalion leader in the first place!’ Gin paused before adding a, ‘Yeah. That part of me is long gone.’
Unconvinced by what Gin said, Brim gave him a consoling smile. He understood the feeling well. Gin was still human, just like everyone else. With that hint of hesitation shown, Brim opened the door for Gin, allowing him to enter first. Inside the room was a large round table, surrounded by about twenty chairs and only one of them was being used.
The occupant was a man covered in so much fur that you couldn’t see any skin. He wore just a pair of shorts, long enough to reach his knees. It reminded Gin of his fight with Varunel. Like Varunel, he was covered in fur. However, the man in front of him did not have horns, nor did he have an elongated snout, so he had his unique distinctions. Instead, his nose was short and closer to Gin’s in shape. Wait. Have I seen this person before? Gin wondered. Oh, I remember.
‘Hi!’ Gin greeted with an outstretched arm. ‘I believed we met once before when your colleague bumped into me. My name is Gin Gale. What’s yours?’
The man didn’t move at all. He just shifted his eyes towards Gin, grunted in an unfriendly manner. Gin couldn’t help but feel offended, expecting an insult like a comment about his rank, but then he smiled through his hair and met the handshake.
‘It’s Rob. Nice to meet you.’
‘Not going to lie, but I thought you were going to show hostility. I do remember your comments several months ago. Glad I’m proven wrong,’ Gin said.
‘Yes, I apologise for how I acted back then. I didn’t expect such progress in such a short time.’
‘And you must be Brim Stones. You transferred from another squadron, right? Gratz on your role as battalion leader.’
‘Thank you,’ Brim acknowledged with a bow before turning back to Gin, whispering, ‘Do you two know each other?’
Gin did an unnoticeable shake of his head. Looks like you can’t judge someone on first impressions, Gin thought.
The door to the room swung right open, not a moment before Gin and Brim sat down. Five people entered, three of whom Gin recognised. He knew Michal, the woman that rode on the lupim, whose name Gin found out later to be Emsee, and the colonel. The other two were new. Brim seemed to know them though, greeting them with open arms.
One of them had the same rough, dark skin as Brim. His hair was black and braided. The other looked like a manush. She had pale white skin, average proportions, neither looking too weak nor too strong, with no defining feature that hinted at an ability. Instead, she had a tinoo resting on her shoulders, playing with her black hair. A fire elemental and a utility familiar type respectively, Gin assumed.
Everyone sat down apart from Emsee, who handed out some documents containing detailed descriptions about the proposed plan. The first few pages had hand-drawn maps of the supposed battlefield. The later ones were about the battle strategy. Everyone took a few minutes to skim through it before the colonel called for everyone’s attention.
‘Is everyone ready?’ she asked. Brim raised his hands in response.
‘Aren’t there more battalion leaders? Shouldn’t we wait for them?’
‘You’ve probably haven’t read that far into the plan, have you? Basically, we’ve split into two main groups. I just had a meeting with that second group, which explains my lateness. The six of you will have a different role in the battle, so your briefing will be different from the other group.’
‘Ah. I see,’ Brim understood.
‘Maria,’ Emsee whispered. ‘I don’t think everyone knows each other.’
‘Oh, right. An introduction is called for then. The fire elemental on your right is Brim. He’s transferred from Squadron L. Other transfers from squadron L are Jake, another fire elemental, and Syndra, the utility familiar type,’ the colonel introduced, gesturing towards Brim and the other two mages that he was friendly with. ‘The hairy sasquatch bestial is Rob and the child with the Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its hosts on his arms is called Gin. The stone elemental is Michal. Of course, you should know my second-in-command, Emsee, and myself. Just call me Maria.’
Second-in-command? Gin realised, shocked by the statement considering he never noticed her before.
‘Both Emsee and Syndra have come from their mission in Africa,’ the colonel continued.
With the introductions done, everyone nodded to one another, acknowledging their positions. However, Jake and Syndra looked at Gin with doubt in their eyes. Was it the Xernims, the rank he gave himself, or his height (Gin didn’t take anything out of the potential reason)? Not that Gin was too bothered by the looks, half-expecting them in the first place.
‘Any other questions? No? Let’s begin then. I’ll hand it over to Emsee,’ the colonel prompted, sitting down into her seat.
‘Our scouts set out to complete an assassination in Egypt and then retreated once that was complete. Out of our men, five remain in the city while four got captured and their whereabouts are unknown,’ Emsee reported. ‘However, our intel says that the AAA will send a force of roughly five-thousand. We expect to have four-thousand by the time we depart. Since we’re splitting into two groups, the combined strength of your battalions is closer to two-thousand-five-hundred.’
‘Surely, that’s not nearly enough!’ Jake complained. ‘That’s a suicide mission. Not to mention seventy percent of this squadron are rank D or below. We wouldn’t stand a chance anyway. The best course of action is to have everyone on defence, not separate into two groups.’
‘I understand what you’re trying to say, Jake. I’m sure everyone has the same concerns. However, our aim is not to beat the enemy in a battle of strength. Rather, we will win by outwitting them. I’ll tell you how later on. But first, we will split your group into three small teams: utility, artillery and defence,’ The colonel ordered.
‘Maria and I can’t join this battle. She is SS rank while, even though I am E rank myself, my lupim is S rank. The MBP said my lupim isn’t allowed, so I’m pretty much useless. The rest of you meet the requirement of being B rank and below.
The utility team is composed of Michal and Syndra, with Syndra being the overall in-charge of the team. Your role is to provide backup for the other two teams. Syndra, with the other utility familiar types, will send and receive information. I’m sure everyone has memorised the signals by now. Michal, on the other hand, has recently been creating armour for Gin’s battalion. He will be on maintenance duty. Any questions?’
‘No ma’am!’ Syndra and Michal said in unison.
‘Good. Now for the artillery team. That would be run by Brim and Jake, with Brim in charge of that team. Your job is simple. Bombard the enemy with your fireballs and such. Whittle them down. Give our defence team protection with your water-balls. You guys are the support.’
‘Looks like we’re working together again,’ Jake commented.
‘Looking forward to it,’ Brim replied.
‘The final team is Gin and Rob. As the offence team, you are the backbone of this operation. You cannot let the enemy pass through you. With the armour and the training going on, this should be manageable. Just hold your ground and we will have a good chance of victory. And the one leading this team will be-’
Emsee turned to the colonel. They whispered something to one another. A mutual nod later and Maria faced the others once more.
‘Yup. The one leading the defence team will be Gin.’
‘What?!’ Jake exclaimed, jumping out of his seat and slamming on the table.
‘Is there a problem, Jake?’
‘That man can’t be leader. He definitely can’t be in charge! He’s a low ranked, weak, inexperienced, Xernim user. Putting him in charge of the most important part of the army just confirms the loss!’
‘Me a weak Xernim user?’ Gin retorted. ‘Care for a duel if that’s the case?’
‘Enough! Stop. Both of you,’ the colonel ordered. ‘My choice was based on several things. First of all, Gin is your senior in this squadron, Jake. He’s been here for almost a year while you transferred only two weeks ago.’
The colonel’s piercing glare sat both of them down. She stayed silent for a few more seconds before continuing her explanation.
‘Secondly, he is a pupil of Alder. I trust his recommendations more than I trust you. According to Alder’s and my observations, Gin is great at adapting to a situation. Gin wins duels in which he would lose head on. His methods are unorthodox but it gets the job done. He’s constantly coming up with ideas. The armour Michal makes, the F ranks that can now be used in the battle, increasing our fighting force by five-hundred, all add to his repertoire. He holds no prejudice to the other members, which is what our squadron is based upon. His battalion holds huge respect for him. Even our battle plan came from an unpolished idea Gin came to my office to speak about.
Compared to that, you reckon he isn’t leadership worthy? How about we have a vote. See if the others have the same opinion. All in favour of Rob being in charge instead, raise your hands. Now all in favour of Gin, raise your hands.’
With a vote of six to two, Gin won. Brim, Maria, Michal and Emsee put their hands up straight away, with Rob following soon after. Even Gin, who wasn’t sure whether he was worthy of the role or not, put his hand up, without hesitation, after hearing the colonel’s opinion of him. The only vote against Gin came from the newcomers.
‘I thought the same thing at the start but I believe he’ll be better in the role too,’ Rob admitted, taking away his credentials as the alternative.
‘Tch,’ Jake tutted.
‘Don’t disrespect your superiors like that. That includes Gin,’ the colonel snapped, with Jake looking away in response. ‘Now that’s settled, let’s discuss the plan. Please go to page two.’
Everyone turned the pages to find a map labelled ‘The Path’. The path began at Eilat, in Israel, and ended at Suez, a town in the city of Egypt. It was the strip of land that connected Eurasia to Africa. Either side of the path was the sea and in-between the land and the sea were walls, all supposedly several kilometres tall. In fact, the entire coastlines were surrounded by the same wall.
Gin found it odd. In books of the past, he saw maps of the exact same area. The land that connected the two continents was more than five-hundred kilometres in width. The map in front of him showed that the path was only thirty kilometres wide instead. The area, that was once land, was now water. What happened in the past to cause that? Gin wondered.
‘All your battalions will hold the defence in Eilat,’ the colonel continued. ‘It’s a four-hundred-kilometre trek from our home in Jerusalem. The AAA’s barracks, in Cairo, is more than five-hundred kilometres from Eilat. Along with the fact that their army is larger, it should take them two months to reach us. On the other hand, it should take us a month and a half to reach Eilat. We will depart in ten days, so be prepared by then.’
‘What’s the plan once we get there?’ Syndra asked for the first time that meeting.
‘Defend,’ the colonel responded. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have information on what type of mages you are facing. Just don’t let them through and the other group will do their job. However, if you can’t stand your ground, then it’s all over. Winning is one thing, but not losing is another. That’s why being outnumbered isn’t as much of an issue.’
‘Then what happens?’ Brim asked.
‘The other group will do what I assigned them to do. They’re leaving tomorrow morning so that they could be prepared on time.’
‘You’re avoiding telling us what the other group is going to do, aren’t you?’ Rob pointed out.
‘Indeed,’ the colonel confirmed. ‘It’s actually a request from someone. Not knowing what they’re doing won’t hinder you, so it’s irrelevant information anyway. For now, finish any last-minute training, get your battalions prepared and we will rendezvous outside the tree in about ten days. Does everyone understand? Good. You’re all dismissed apart from Gin.’
As everyone but him got up, Gin could feel the scorn coming from Jake but Brim patted his sparring partner on the shoulder. It was a supportive don’t-worry-everything-will-be-fine sort of hold. Gin thought it wasn’t needed, but it was good to know someone trusted him.
‘Do you have a goal, child?’ the colonel started, making sure everyone had left.
‘What do you mean?’ Gin responded.
‘Do you have a plan, an ambition, something you want to achieve in your life?’
Gin placed his hand on his beard and thought for a moment but the colonel interrupted him.
‘The fact you need to think about it says a lot,’ she said. ‘I’ll be honest here. I’m disappointed in you.’
‘Why are you saying this all of a sudden?’ Gin asked.
‘You were, supposedly, an unranked thirty-three-year-old man that looked like he was a hundred and thirty. You had no distinct abilities and used pieces of metal that I have never heard of as your way of fighting. You got trounced in the initiation test but got through via a technicality. You should have died, but somehow lived without a heart. You would have thought someone like that was someone to look out for, but no. Your actions are predictable, your attitude is suboptimal and your personality is so uninteresting and bland that I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.’
‘Is that a problem?’
‘You’re just proving my point. You lack a direction and have such a carefree approach to life that it’s infuriating to most. Who sparks a fight with your fellow battalion leader like you did? Do you want us to fall from within? Do you not care about the consequences of your actions?’
‘Ah. I understand now. You’re right,’ Gin sighed, contemplating his next choice of words. ‘To be honest, I used to have a goal but that was no longer possible, or rather there’s no point in achieving it now. Too much has happened. I just don’t really care at this point.’
‘So, you’re lost and aimless.’
‘I wouldn’t say that.’
‘Child, do you know why I think your training with Alder was complete and utter shambles?’ the colonel’s eyes began to narrow.
‘Alder said I was improving though,’ Gin said in defence.
‘In terms of skill. However, as a character, you’re still as bland as ever. You lack a spark. That’s what I want to develop. You could tell why I was sceptical when Alder said he wanted to appoint you as his replacement. Do you know his reason as well?’
Gin thought for a bit before saying, ‘Because I had potential?’
‘No. Although he had said that at one point, the real reason was different. It’s actually nonsensical now that I think about it. He wanted to appoint you as the next leader of his battalion because you accepted the Xernim.’
‘Wow. That really is bull-’ Gin said, stopping himself from swearing.
‘I guess it’s not his fault. We were in the same squadron at one point and he was always bullied for being a Xernim user. They’re sort of a hated bunch. The MBP conditioned everyone to believe that the successful are those who are strong by themselves. Those who rely on parasites to be their strength are considered weak by most, even if they are stronger in a one v one.’
‘So, what does that have to do with me?’
‘You treated him differently. You didn’t see him as a Xernim user, but as a mentor to be respected. You accepted to use Xernims by your own accord. Even though you were arrogant and rash with him, he valued you highly. He sat you out of training so that you could observe everyone else. He was preparing you for the role.’
Gin could tell the colonel looked unimpressed. She paced a couple of times before taking a seat, sitting down in a manner that turned the conversation into a casual discussion rather than the lecture prior.
‘I, on the other hand, didn’t like the appointment. In fact, I was about to demote you as the war was coming ever closer. But then you came to me. You had ideas. You presented them to me in my office. You do have potential though. But you need guidance. Use your brain a little, set a goal for yourself and you’ll go far. Not only that, Joan has been enjoying her time with you as well.’
‘She has?’ Gin said in a surprised tone.
‘Yes, child. She was actually my medic before you, but she decided to become yours.’
‘She used to be yours? And she voluntarily decided to become mine? This is news to me. Thought she hated babysitting me.’
‘She didn’t have to do anything when she was with me. I never got injured or did anything stupid. You, on the other hand, are rash and got hurt regularly. Although she isn’t the type to say it, she enjoys helping you heal. It keeps her busy. She also found a passion for cooking. I’m presuming that was because of you too?’
‘Possibly,’ Gin responded, thinking back to the mage-meat meals Joan make for him.
‘I’m sidetracking a bit. Essentially, the point of this talk is that you need to figure out why you do what you do, but I admit your luck is incredible. If you didn’t apply to this squadron, you would never have gotten a chance to join. If you didn’t face Varunel, you would never have piqued my interest. If you never had contacts with Wontiferus, we would probably never have gotten this mission. If you never met Alder, you would never have been a battalion leader. If I wasn’t the way I am, I might not have been so lenient with your ideas. While the other leaders needed to be B rank and battle experience, you just happened to be in the right place at the right time, doing the right things. Am I making any sense to you.’
‘Yes.’ Gin gave an immediate reply out of fear that she would say something about his hesitation again.
‘I’ll re-iterate again,’ she said anyway. ‘Your luck is incredible. It’s like a supernatural power, beyond our control, is governing your fate. However, whatever the reason for your rise in power was, you have my full support. Grow and take everyone else with you.’
‘Was this the point of keeping me behind to give me this pep talk?’ Gin asked, buoyed by the encouragement.
‘Ha! No, child. I actually wanted to speak to you about something else, but I sort of spoke my mind to you.’
‘A lot of people tell me how they feel without meaning to. Don’t know why though. Anyway, what did you want to talk about?’
‘I believe that one of you should know what the other group doing. Having no one know might lead to doubt, and a loss in morality when things get rough.’
‘Oh, right. Your plan is nothing like the one I proposed,’ Gin noticed. ‘Was something wrong?’
‘Your plan was terrible. I could point out a score or so flaws in it. The others didn’t need to know though, so I put credit for this plan upon you.’
Her serious tone made Gin realise that she wasn’t lying about finding his plan terrible.
‘Heh. I see. What are they going to do then?’
‘Remember the abnormality you pointed out?’
‘In the documents I gave you?’
‘Oh, we’re actually going to use them?’ Gin perked up.
‘That’s the only good part of your plan I used. Now, let me show you how,’ the colonel grinned, opening up a hidden document she kept in her trousers.