Chapter 21 – The Forest

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To eat or not to eat, that was Gin’s question as he stared down at the pre-made lunch, hating himself for salivating at it. It was a mish-mash of fruit, mage meat and (what seemed to be) rice. On the one hand, it was very well made and the procedures to get the food seemed humane enough. On the other hand, it made Gin question his moralities with every mouthful. If only he had his mother’s cooking. He’d have had no problems with that.

In the end, he compromised his beliefs once more. With his right hand, he ate his food; with his left, he picked up a pen and paper and placed them on his lap. He began the start of another notes page. He wanted to do a short sketch of the journey, mapping out the key areas. In terms of his notes, this was the most productive he had been in a while. There was so much he learnt in this short journey that he was overflowing with ideas. He just had to put them down on paper.

‘Um, leader. Can I come in?’ Gin heard Sam’s voice from outside the caravan.

‘Yes,’ Gin answered, finishing his mouthful and tidying the caravan first.

Sam struggled to climb onto the moving vehicle due to her lack of height and strength but Gin helped her on without too much difficulty. Even then, the sound of loud breathing could be heard from underneath the mask, making Gin wonder how this person managed to travel so long despite his stamina.

‘Did you have a message for me?’ Gin asked.

‘Mm,’ Sam confirmed, still panting with every breath. ‘Rob nearly here. Half a day behind.’

‘Half a day?’ Gin put his hand on his beard, stroking it as he calculated some numbers before concluding, ‘Isn’t that too short? Shouldn’t they be at least a day behind?’

‘I don’t know. Their message said half.’

‘Ok, fine.’

Gin headed out of the caravan but stood frozen there by the sight he saw. He didn’t realise at what point the sand turned into soil, or when the horizon turned from a hazy blue to a luscious green. He also didn’t expect the family of (what the textbooks from his village called) foxes that greeted his battalion before scampering back into the forest. The trees were much shorter than a rezah, their roots emerged out of the ground, and their trunks were smooth making for interesting terrain.

Further down the forestry, an unnatural dirt path, that spanned a few hundred metres in width and several kilometres in length, divided the forest in half. However, it allowed the battalion to set up camp in convenience, so they headed towards the clearing. Brim was right. Gin couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the scenery. One that he never expected to see in his lifetime.

‘Sir?’ Sam poked at the living statue.

‘Alright. Let’s set up camp and get prepared for the slower group’s arrival,’ Gin instructed, snapping back to his senses taking a short jog through a sudden burst of energy.

Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the ground differed from the one the trees grew in. The silt the clearing was made up of made for poor quality compared to the heavier, more nutritious (Gin could tell from experience) soil on either side of the opening. Finding the cause of such an environment, especially how all of this managed to grow in the desert despite the odds, intrigued Gin. However, he decided to track back, hopping into the caravan to pick up a piece of paper and his quill pen and began taking notes. He also jotted down the procedures for setting camp; something he failed to do before for lack of time. From the way the mages used the farmer types’ excess shrubbery as firewood to the careful positioning of everyone’s resting spot as to avoid damage to the surroundings, Gin enjoyed learning about the intricacies of the mages’ culture, filling up several pages’ worth of notes regarding it.

However, as Gin looked on, he noticed how small the numbers that accompanied him were. Of course, as promised, Brim took pretty much everyone while Rob’s battalion was yet to come. However, it unnerved him when he had to consider that they were the first and only line of defence against a supposed five-thousand. On the plus side, with fewer numbers to supervise, it allowed Gin to examine the area without needing to keep an eye on more than he could handle.

A few of the animals poked their heads out to see the aliens that had just invaded their territory. They all ran when Gin tried to get close, so he had to make do with the colourful snail that forced its way along the ground only to get picked up by an afraid hand.

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‘We don’t have this species back home,’ Gin commented out loud.

He then put the animal down again in order to draw a rough sketch, drawing the attention of the family of foxes again. The more strokes Gin made, the more the foxes got curious. It got to the point that one of them, the smaller of the bunch, mustered the courage to approach Gin, tilting its head in expectation.

‘Want to be my model?’ Gin asked, smiling to the youngling.

It lowered one of its pointy ears and began prancing on the spot. Gin chuckled and began drawing the pup. Four paws, each with four toes. Ears as large as its head, Gin thought, annotating his notes with deliberation and precision. Though the final article didn’t look too impressive, he held the picture towards the animal, getting a yip of excitement in response.

‘Leader not tired?’

Gin jumped up, startled by the voice, causing the fox to also scamper towards its family. Cursing his luck, he composed himself again. He was so enthralled by the new scenery that he didn’t notice Sam walk up to him. The mask that continued to hide any expression and the muffled voice didn’t help either.

‘Ah. Sorry,’ he apologised.

‘No. I was just being absentminded. What’s up?’ Gin asked.

‘Rob’s group here now.’

‘What?! Already?’ Gin looked up and noticed the setting sun and the prepared campsite. How long was I occupied for? he thought to himself before saying, ‘never mind.’

‘Jake wants to see you too.’

‘Ugh.’

‘Um. I see how you act. Does leader not like Jake?’

‘No,’ Gin flinched at how blunt and swift he responded that question.

With reluctance in his stride, Gin left his research and carried out the formalities of greeting the oncoming battalion, only to grow concerned as he saw their fatigue. Instead of walking, the mages were closer to dragging themselves across the ground. Guess they’re still human beings, Gin thought, concluding that the resting period was a much-needed activity.

Despite the state of the battalion, Jake, the sole fit mage from what Gin could see, leapt out with a scowl. His expression got more and more crumpled the closer he got. Gin smirked, aggravating Jake’s anger, before preparing for what was about to ensue. Everyone else stopped in their tracks and spectated from afar.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Jake howled.

‘Greeting you of course!’ Gin replied, putting on a fake smile. ‘Your group has finally caught up. Enjoy your two-day rest.’

‘Rest? Rest?! We don’t have time for rest!’

‘By my calculations, we have plenty of time.’

‘Are you kidding me?’ Jake narrowed his eyes, ready for the confrontation.

‘No, I’m dead serious. Everyone’s tired and we need to recover.’

‘Ahaha. Do you think we’re tired? Shows how pathetic you are as a leader. We are not as weak as you and your fools. We can and will carry on, isn’t that right?’ Jake asked, turning to his battalion. Gin could see the tiredness in their faces, but they nodded all the same.

Was it out of fear or tiredness and unwillingness to complain? Gin wondered. Either way, he didn’t want to drag out this fiasco any more than he wanted to.

‘As the in-charge of the artillery group, Brim was the one who suggested doing this,’ Gin explained, playing his trump card, causing Jake to scrunch his face in anger. ‘I simply listened and agreed.’

‘Aha. Nice joke,’ Jake said, forcing the laugh.

‘Joke?’

‘Do you know how long I’ve known Brim for?’ Jake paused, seeing how Gin would react only to get a puzzled look in reply. ‘He would never do this! Since when did he side with low-ranks like you and your whims?’

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A few murmurs circulated around the crowd as well Rob’s battalion grinding to stop. However, Gin didn’t pay attention to them. All his focus was on the man in front of him. He noticed Jake’s rough skin beginning to glisten under the setting sun and continued the conversation with caution.

‘Brim has learnt a lot in his brief time with Squadron W,’ Gin said, lifting his arms as if he was about to hold a heavy object. ‘He enjoys our sparring too when he thought he wouldn’t.’

‘Ha!’ Jake scoffed. ‘The same ones where all your victories are through dirty tricks and dishonourable tactics? You’re weak, have no skill nor any quality of a good leader. Rob should have been leader and you know it.’

‘Honour means nothing if you’re dead,’ Gin retorted, raising his arms higher. ‘As for Rob being the leader instead of me, all the leaders but you disagree, or did the meeting not help get that through to you?’

‘Tch.’

Shields.

Jake ignited his arms but Gin was prepared, blocking the immediate punch aimed at this head with his shield, putting Jake off balance in the process, then took the opportunity to sucker punch Jake in the gut.

Now winded, Gin sent the final blow, sweeping Jake’s leg, knocking him over, pinning him down by the scruff of his neck.

‘Who was the weak, no-skilled one again?’ Gin remarked, as he let a shocked and disgraced Jake go, both the mage and the crowd now in complete silence.

‘Jake, you idiot!’ A familiar gruff voice said in the distance.

Gin looked up to see a seething Rob leaping in bounds with his long legs towards him. However, Gin could tell the anger was directed at Jake instead of him and gave a welcoming smirk, showing no remorse in his actions.

Jake used the distraction to lift himself and head towards the caravans. But as he did so, Rob stopped beside him. Jake looked up, unsure what to expect, only to get an almighty wallop to the back of his head, sending him crashing back into the dirt. No words were said but the message was clear enough and the sudden wind that blew on Rob’s long body hair made for a convincing picturesque moment.

Rob then headed towards Gin, leaving Jake to drag himself towards his destination. Everyone resumed their duties straight away, looking away from the scene, acting as if it never happened.

‘I’m sorry about that,’ Rob said to Gin, sighing afterwards which sounded more like a frustrated growl.

‘No problem,’ Gin consoled, leading him back to the campsite.

‘I heard what happened. It’s not your fault.’

‘I know.’

‘Still. Did he tell you our situation?’

Gin paused, thinking if he missed anything before responding. ‘No.’

‘He really did come to pick a fight with you,’ Rob commented, slapping his forehead. ‘Basically, one of our storage caravans got eaten by one of the sandpools. Then when we heard about your change of plans, we sped up in order to catch up to the main group.’

‘I see. Most of the resources are with Brim and his lot though. I’m not sure we have enough food to help your battalion out these two days if what you said is true.’

‘That’s why I wanted to suggest going on a hunting expedition to get some.’

Gin pondered for a moment. He knew the mages advocated preserving nature and they ate flesh and fruit from their own evolved kind. Was hunting animals allowed or was Rob referring to a different task altogether? Gin asked himself.

‘You sure?’ Gin questioned Rob, deciding to play it safe in the end and pretend he knew what he was doing.

‘I know we normally shouldn’t but, in times like these, it’s safe to hunt some of the wildlife for our own health. We shouldn’t go overboard though. We can’t harm the environment after all, so let’s make a small group of ten or so for the expedition,’ Rob explained, relieving Gin of his misunderstanding.

‘Then shall I prepare a group?’

‘Yes, but let’s leave it till tomorrow. Most of us are tired and we got enough supplies to last till then anyway.’

‘Unlike what Jake says,’ Gin remarked, enjoying the irony.

‘Don’t be too harsh on him,’ Rob replied, stopping for a bit before adding, ‘he doesn’t know any better.’

‘Alright, fine. I’ll think about it,’ Gin’s said, his words coming out flat. He didn’t want to dwell on the topic any further and decided to change the subject. ‘Shall we help prepare our tents?’

‘Yes,’ Rob took up on the offer as the pair resumed their short trek towards the campsite.

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