Gin concentrated on his arm, picturing the image of the Xernim returning to the default position. It complied, though instead of decaying like usual, it peeled off his arm like the skin of a Bandra fruit. Regardless of the parasite’s methods to reveal the sliced-up limbs, he found the underside of the Xernim the most interesting discovery as small, thin spikes riddled the peels, each secreting a liquid that solidified upon touch.
‘Is it meant to do that?’ Michal questioned, watching the whole spectacle.
‘Not sure,’ Gin admitted, applying medicinal lotion on his wounds.
When he finished, Gin thought about the Xernim going back to its usual position. However, it didn’t listen, wrapping around his whole arm and planting the spikes into his flesh instead. For some reason, the multiple pin-like objects didn’t hurt or leave any sensation his nerves could have picked up on for that matter.
‘Hmm. I wonder if that’s the case,’ Gin mumbled to himself.
‘What is? Did the Xernim not listen to you? Maybe I should check it out to see if there’s anything wrong,’ Michal offered, shuffling closer.
‘No. Well, yes, it’s not acting as my thoughts ask it to.’
‘But, and this is a big but, based on Joan’s analysis when she does my check-ups and how Alder also describes his Xernim, it might be possible that it’s not my thoughts that the Xernim listens to. Rather, it’s what I truly think if that makes sense.’
‘No. You’ve lost me. Not your thoughts but your true thoughts? Maybe the Xernim really has affected you. Let me take a look,’ Michal outreached his hand.
‘Let’s see if there’s a better way of saying it,’ Gin rejected Michal’s offer, pushing his hand away. ‘My verbal words could be lies, the thoughts I tell to myself could be lies. However, under no circumstance would my body be able to deceive the Xernim.’
‘Gin, now you’re speaking gibberish,’ Michal’s hand still hovered.
‘Still don’t get it?’ Gin asked, pausing for a moment to think of an analogy before saying, ‘Let me put it this way. I can tell an enemy I’m not scared. I can lie to myself and say mentally that I’m not scared. But if my body still trembles, I am obviously shaken, even if I’ve disciplined myself not to. So, maybe the Xernim picks up on the truth and is trying to protect me? What if the fact it’s covering my whole arm – what if those spikes and that strange liquid are actually good for me and my body knows it but I don’t? It might explain why it’s not going back to normal.’
‘I don’t think that’s it.’
‘Yeah, maybe. Just random speculations.’
‘You’re definitely suffering from exhaustion. You need to be checked out. Extend your arm towards me,’ Michal became a little too assertive, causing Gin to raise an eyebrow in suspicion.
‘You’re awfully interested in my gauntlets all of a sudden. Is there a reason for that?’
‘Oh, not really. Just looking out for your wellbeing,’ Michal gave an alternative truth, his hands sliding towards the blanket beside him.
‘Sorry,’ Michal apologised despite no provocation at all. ‘I’ll show you later. After the battle, ok?’
‘So, you really were up to something, huh?’
‘What? Oh, you heard nothing.’
‘If you say so,’ Gin smirked.
The next few moments consisted of a couple of tests. First of all, he tried growing the Xernim further. It listened, crawling over Gin’s shoulder blades without a problem. Then, he tried to reverse the command and, as he expected, the branches decayed instead of peeling, returning to the (new, current) default position. Maybe I really do want the Xernim to go so high, he concluded.
‘Y’know, I talked to my battalion and Brim talked to his,’ Michal started.
‘And what did they say?’ Gin continued the conversation.
‘They’re fine with everything. Well, not fine with how a third of the battalion just went up and left, but they’re fine with you. Some took more time to convince than others but still.’
‘That’s good to hear. What’s left of my battalion are happy with me too. What about Syndra?’
‘Oh, I tried talking to her.’
‘And? I haven’t spoken much with her at all – used Sam to relay messages for me – so I don’t know what to expect.’
‘She thought it was pathetic that you sent me instead of yourself to settle things.’
‘Didn’t she know I was injured and needed treatment?’ Gin asked, stopping his tests for the time being.
‘Not sure. I didn’t tell her explicitly,’ Michal’s eyes began shifting.
‘If that’s the case, then I should get going and see her.’
But just as Gin prepared to leave the caravan, Michal called out to him. ‘Gin,’ he said, contemplating whether he should speak his mind.
‘Syndra’s a bit, how should I say it? No-nonsense? Excuses won’t work on her.’
‘Ah. So, she’s that type of person. Don’t worry, I know how to handle them,’ Gin assured with confidence. ‘Fight serious with serious, no?’
‘Alright. Good luck. She’s a bit scary, not gonna lie.’
‘Heh. It’s my fault that most have gone. I should at least make sure those who remained are on the same wavelength as the rest.’
Scanning the surroundings, Gin found the mages hard at work. Some prepared for departure, a few entered the forest to search the area, while others did their usual chores of harvesting, shifting of resources, and getting rid of waste. It was as if the last few days never happened but, deep down, he could tell everyone kept their nerves hidden, using duties as a mask for their anxiety. Everyone except for Syndra that is. She stood at the end of the clearing, hands locked behind her back, watching the clearer skies with a steely determination. Though that didn’t faze him as he walked towards her.
‘What’s our status at the moment?’ Gin began, putting on a serious expression and joined her in staring ahead of them.
Syndra neither answered straight away nor turned her head to talk to him. Instead, she rolled her eyes in his general direction, assessing him somewhat, before speaking.
‘I have sent Nasir, my tinoo, further ahead along with others. They’re still scouting ahead for any of the deserters,’ she reported.
‘I see. And what of those that entered the forest? Have they found anything?’ Gin asked another question, making sure to not break from his stoicism.
‘We interrogated Jake beforehand who said he saw the deceased members in a set location. Some have gone to search the area but it seems that they’re gone already.’
‘Do we have a lead where the bodies might be?’
Syndra didn’t reply. Instead, she pouted, leaving a small gap in between her lips. No sound came out but the way her chest deflated indicated that she was blowing through the hole. Her face then crumpled enough for Gin to notice it from the corner of his eyes but not enough to decipher the meaning of such a demeanour, especially coupled with the strange actions prior.
‘There’s a mage-eater nest nearby,’ she announced, nonchalant as ever. ‘They probably disposed of them there.’
Mage-eater? Gin questioned the unfamiliar terminology. But he kept that to himself out of his desire to not ruin the impression Syndra might be forming about him.
‘We’ve also found the odd hair that belonged to no one in our squadron. I believe it’s safe to say that they are the enemy in question.’
‘Any details on the hair?’ Gin noticed Syndra’s pursed, frowning lips loosening a little. Whether that meant something, he couldn’t be quite sure. Still, he decided to press further. ‘Colour? Shape? Size?’
‘The suspicious strands were all long and straight. A few brown, some black and a couple white. However, it is also possible that animals have left those unknowingly as well, so we need more time to separate what’s what. Does that mean anything to you?’
‘Other than the long brown ones that could possibly belong to Rob, no. It might be as you said and the others are red herrings. The assailants sure thought this attack through. I’ll keep it in the back of my mind though. Anything else to report?’
‘No. That is all. If my suspicions are correct, we will leave by nightfall and travel faster than normal to catch up for the time we lost here,’ Syndra finished, her head unmoved throughout the whole conversation.
‘Understood. Keep up the good work,’ Gin gave a professional reply.
He glanced at the unmoving leader, gauging her emotions in that brief moment. Though on the outside she seemed the stern and scary type, as Michal put it in his own, blunt way, Gin could tell she hid another side to her. A side that someone wanted to show while still keep it hidden for the sake of others. A feeling he knew all too well.
‘If there’s nothing else to report, I’ll make my way back to my battalion,’ Gin said in an attempt to break the barrier.
‘I believe you should wait for a moment,’ Syndra interrupted before he could even turn around.
Heh, Gin scoffed to himself, while saying a composed, ‘If I’ve been given all the information, I don’t see the point in staying. If you wish to have idle chatter, then I’ll have to decline as I don’t see how productive that will prove.’
‘I am of the same mindset,’ she acknowledged the reasoning, turning her head to face Gin eye to eye for the first time. ‘However, with Nasir and other scouts arriving at any moment, it will be counterproductive to fetch you so soon after you leave.’
‘You make a fair point.’
‘Yes. As opposed to the alternative of dealing with the joker that is Brim or the naïve optimism of Michal, you seem competent enough. At least you understand the gravity of the situation.’
‘That I do. In fact, I wanted to tell the situation to you in person but the others insisted on me resting and, apparently, Michal even went to you in my stead without my asking,’ Gin admitted, gesturing his hand to show off his innocence.
‘Is that so? Then I may have misjudged you. Yes, Michal did come to me to vouch for you, but I assumed that was you being somewhat cowardly.’
‘An understandable misconception. Though keeping such thoughts and feelings to yourself and not speaking with the person in question is unhealthy in the long run.’
‘Hmm?’ Syndra raised an eyebrow and glared at Gin like a person about to make a final, unchangeable decision.
‘If one were to keep our true thoughts hidden, it’ll only lead to situations like now with Jake where we suspect each other without proper basis and overlook the true threats. Miscommunication and misinformation, including the hiding of feelings, can lead to death.’
Syndra’s right eye twitched at the last sentence as if it hit her hard at heart. Or at least that’s how Gin saw the reaction. He also theorised the possibility of there being no hidden meaning by the spasm, but his gut told him to trust in the former conclusion.
‘I see,’ Syndra said after taking a minute or so to think things over. ‘We’ve seen first hand the issues with unwarranted doubt amongst others, so I’ll take your advice into account.’
‘Oh, Nasir is here!’ Syndra changed the topic, staring at the distance once more. She had an expression that didn’t seem like much to the unknowing but, compared to the solemn, moody and impassive look beforehand, it radiated some form of positivity.
It’s as if she’s…happy? Glad? Relieved? Gin couldn’t quite put his finger on the emotion.
So, in order to understand why she felt the way she did, he watched her while keeping an eye at the distance. At first, he didn’t notice anything, but soon a flock of birds came into vision, later becoming distinguishable as tinoos. Heh. I see how it is, Gin chuckled to himself, stopping the next moment to avoid ruining the impression of him he built in an instant. That’s some pretty good eyesight too.
The tinoo landed in front of its master who pouted her lips and began blowing like before. The bird responded, spinning round and moving its wings like a ceremonial dance. Though silent, the pair understood one another somehow.
Gin heard a weird sound all of a sudden, like a high-pitched screech that disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Yet, the noise aligned with the breathing of Syndra along with the fact the tinoo responded as soon as the sound ended. Wait. Is she whistling?! Gin realised, taken aback once again by how amazing the mages were.
‘It’s just as I suspected,’ Syndra said, her tone less dry than before. ‘Nasir has found a group further ahead.’
‘Group?’ Gin questioned. ‘Does that mean not everyone’s together?’
‘He didn’t take note of individuals but it’s definitely not the full amount. The others are still MIA. At least we won’t be a gaping hole any more if we get them back. Let’s get ready to depart and retrieve them.’
‘What if it’s a trap?’
‘We can’t afford to be as cautious,’ Syndra assessed, biting her lower lip at her own judgement. ‘We’ve wasted enough time already and need to prepare for the battle.’
‘I agree. Our reinforcements will be sitting ducks if we’re not there on time either.’
‘We’ll scout the area around them as we travel just to make sure there are no surprises. Would that suffice or shall we take a different approach?’
Gin thought for a moment before responding, ‘Let’s go with the former plan. We need all the help we can get.’
Syndra whistled her silent whistle, telling a hidden message to her tinoo. The animal understood, grabbing a piece of paper it hid in its feathers, punching holes with its beak before flying off, relaying the message around the campsite.
‘I’ll admit that I get the feeling I’m not given the full plan of our battle strategy,’ Syndra brought up, facing Gin with the no-nonsense look he grew accustomed to. ‘I assume Maria has told you though. Is that correct?’
Gin analysed the woman, wondering why she asked, or whether he should tell her the truth.
‘I understand why you don’t want to say anything, Gin. There’s an air of distrust no matter how hard we try to hide it. I’ll leave it up to you if you want to discuss the matter with me or not.’
‘No, it’s alright,’ Gin made a decision. ‘If anything were to happen to me then we’ll be clueless. I believe it’s best if I were to tell someone else. Shall we head to the caravans? I’ll talk there.’
‘Sure,’ Syndra agreed, the pair of them turning around. ‘I’ll go gather the other leaders too.’
‘Sounds like a plan,’ Gin gave a soft sigh as she walked away. His work was done for now.
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