Feeling ominous glares surrounding him, Gin opened a single eye. It took a few seconds to gain his vision but, when he saw the curious faces of Brim and Michal, he wanted go back to his slumber. However, the gazes prevented him from doing so, provoking him to keep awake instead.
‘Can you stop?’ Gin requested.
‘But this regeneration is amazing,’ Brim replied, with Michal nodding in agreement.
‘Is that what’s so interesting?’ Gin lied down flat, using the vacant space the demoted Jake left behind to his full advantage.
‘Mhm,’ Michal added, again getting too close to the gauntlets for Gin’s liking. ‘Even most A ranks don’t regenerate this quickly.’
‘Is that so?’ Gin gave a thoughtless reply, yawning straight afterwards. ‘Thank my father for that.’
‘Huh?’ Michal responded in surprise.
‘Father? What’s that?’ Brim reiterated the confusion.
Gin sparked back up, giving the others a puzzled look who returned the favour as if he said something alien to them. Are fathers not a thing for them? Are mothers a thing? Did mages even have parents? He knew the basics of breeding within the MPB and yet, the lack of parents was such a strange notion that Gin formulated more questions than answers. How do you even explain what they are?
‘Just someone I looked up to,’ he came to the best explanation he could think of at that moment.
‘Oh, I understand!’ Michal concluded.
‘You do?’ Gin doubted.
‘Yes! That means you’re my father!’ the excitement and sheer confidence radiated from Michal’s voice.
‘Oh, I look up to Gin too. He’s my father as well, no?’ Brim caught onto the drift of the conversation.
‘Gin must be half the battalion’s father then.’
‘I think you’re onto something, Michal.’
‘No!’ Gin interrupted the strange turn of events. He placed his hand over his face, filled with regret for bringing up the topic. ‘Ugh. None of you get it! Like at all. Look, what I meant by father is that –’
A sudden gust of wind, followed by the caravan rocking from side to side, almost ready to collapse under its weight. The pressured didn’t stop either as more blasts of air hit the wagon in bursts, forcing the leaders to hold onto the railings to keep stable.
‘Don’t tell me,’ Brim muttered before yelling, ‘Driver, stop this Instant!’
‘What is going on?’ Gin asked when the shaking stopped.
Brim jumped out of the caravan with Michal next. With Gin coming out last, he noticed the mages all looked up to the sky, and another gust of wind made him do the same. Up above were low-flying birds. They had long necks, fangs that protruded out of their beaks and sleek, black feathers all over their body. They were massive; twice the size of Gin, or four times if you measured from wing tip to wing tip. However, only one thing entered Gin’s mind as they flew: That chick grows into that? he shuddered at the thought of an adult version wanting his blood.
‘Guess the reports are true,’ Michal said out loud.
‘What’s wrong?’ Gin asked.
‘The mage-eaters are heading in the same direction as us,’ Brim analysed.
‘Mage-eaters?’ Gin queried, alarmed by the name given to them and remembering the nest Syndra talked about. ‘Don’t tell me they’re going to attack us.’
‘No,’ Brim reassured. ‘They’re scavengers that prey on dead corpses. They have no interest in the living.’
‘Oh, that’s goo- Wait. Then that means-’
‘A large number of people probably have died ahead, yeah.’
‘Should we really be saying that out loud?’ Michal whispered.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Syndra interrupted, arriving with her tinoo. ‘Everyone knows what’s happened the moment they saw the mage-eaters.’
‘Hang on,’ Gin said, realising something. ‘What about the mages ahead? Are they safe?’
‘They should come into sight at any moment,’ Syndra explained. ‘The mage-eaters aren’t stopping there, so I believe they’re fine. We’ve checked the surrounding area too and found no ambush-in-waiting.’
‘Then the AAA have probably made contact with Rob’s battalion,’ Brim concluded.
‘It would seem so. We can’t find their bodies at the designated spot we planned on defending.’
‘Either the mage-eaters already had their fill or the battalion were taken further than expected,’ Brim analysed, stopping to think everything over a bit more before continuing. ‘I’d say the latter because we would have found the African army along the way, even if by some miracle they got whittled down somewhat by the deserters. Isn’t that right, Syndra?’
‘Yes. The enemy is still too far away for them to arrive at the entrance to The Path.’
‘Um,’ Michal spoke up after listening to everyone. ‘What if Rob killed his battalion and met up with the AAA afterwards?’
A solemn silence fell upon the leaders as they mulled over the possibility. The more they thought, the more the idea became realistic and aligned with the mysteries surrounding the missing members. However, they still couldn’t be quite sure and it wasn’t until another mage-eater flew overhead did Brim break the silence.
‘Speculating will get us nowhere. We shouldn’t waste time questioning the missing, so let’s focus on those we know are retrievable. Michal, get your battalion to prepare some food. The group up ahead are probably resourceless and likely to be hungry. Syndra, get the scouts to scout further ahead. See where the enemy’s position is on The Path.’
‘As for you Gin,’ Brim said, watching Michal and Syndra head off to their battalions.
‘You go rest. I’ll handle everything else.’
‘Really?’ Gin questioned, grabbing Brim’s shoulder just as he was about to leave.
‘You’re still injured.’
‘You complimented my regeneration earlier on and now you’re telling me to sit back and do nothing? Like, come on. Need me to beat you again in a spar?’
‘Gin,’ Brim addressed in an assertive manner. ‘Are you ok? You seem awfully angsty. Your “naps” when you’re actually wide awake and your sudden eagerness now that there’s work to be done. You haven’t even done your signature “heh” these past few days. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’
Gin let go, taking a step back right after. He stretched his entire body, letting out an exasperated groan, culminating in a sigh that proved Brim was right.
‘I guess I’m just being a bit self-conscious. The deserters left because of me-’
‘Because of Rob’s manipulation,’ Brim corrected.
‘-They still used my secret as a tool for said manipulation,’ Gin continued, looking away into the distance, sorting out his thoughts. ‘Maybe if I’m actively helping out then that might lower their doubts.’
Brim snorted, trying to contain his laughter, catching Gin by surprise. He then punched Gin on the shoulder and said with a smile, ‘If that’s the cause of your worries, then how about you draw up some plans for our formation?’
‘We all know those we get back won’t nearly be enough to fill the original plan. We need to improvise a little. While the other leaders and I do the menial activities, you think of a way to arrange the offence group and we can get back to you. If anything, that’d give you time to sit down and relax while giving you an equally important job as the others.’
‘Heh. You’re right. I’ll do that then.’
‘There we go! Even managed to sneak in your “heh” there. Keep that attitude up. Sulking is the last thing you want to do.’
With that, Brim left to join his battalion, leaving Gin to head back to the caravan. He didn’t hesitate to whip out paper and a quill pen. A flick of the wrist later, a drawing of the current numbers and potential formation laid in front of him. The artillery and utility remained intact but the way the offence group stayed barren, even with the potential returnees, proved a troublesome problem to solve. That didn’t stop Gin though as he made more diagrams, using all the formation training he oversaw while Alder side-lined him as a reference.
‘God dammit. Why did he have to be so right,’ he joked at his own expense, realising how impatient he acted back then.
Then he realised an option he didn’t think of before. The pen began flowing on the paper in the burst of inspiration, like waves crashing against a coast. By the end, the formation looked less lop-sided than before. However, the more Gin stared at his plan, the higher his unease piled on as if he was missing something. His gut told him that the AAA was up to something and he should take that into account. Yet, he couldn’t quite pinpoint the issue.
‘Ah!’ a voice startled Gin. He looked up to see the eyehole-armoured Sam peeking in from outside. ‘You’re alive!’
But before a word could be said, he ran off. Isn’t it a bit early to meet them? Gin thought, wondering if he got a little too carried away with the drawings and lost track of time. To make sure, he stepped out, checking the location of every one.
The majority stood much further ahead of the slow-moving caravans. The group was larger than before too, with the recognisable faces of the deserters adding to the squadron’s numbers. At the forefront of the confrontation stood Brim and Syndra, talking with the others and explaining the situation to them, while Michal scurried around with food attached to his stone tablets, busy helping distribute them.
‘Now where did Sam get off to?’ Gin mumbled to himself, rummaging through the crowd. Now that I think about it, Sam joined the deserters, right? He could hear the chatters of those shocked by his presence and those still doubtful of his ability to lead. However, he didn’t pay any heed to them, concentrating on his thoughts and beliefs. He couldn’t doubt himself anymore. He couldn’t afford to.
Somebody tugged on his shirt, pulling him back. Gin looked down to see the short-as-ever Sam holding a burnt piece of paper in his hand. He picked it up and recognised the outlines of the map he drew, the burn marks encroaching over The Path. His heart sank at the sight of his work in ruins.
‘What’s this?’ Gin asked anyway.
‘Rob wanted to burn,’ Sam responded in his shortened sentences like usual. ‘He told us to strip.’
‘Look,’ Sam pointed ahead of them.
Lying in front was a field of chest plates and other pieces of stone armoury, all of which developed and crafted by Michal’s battalion. They laid there like used scrap, ready to be demolished and recycled. The sight angered Gin along with the sheer disgust at how the mages must have been tormented and manipulated. But he didn’t show it. He couldn’t afford to in the battalion’s moment of transition.
‘He said it’s your idea,’ Sam continued. ‘That it’s bad. So, he told us to strip.’
‘I told them stop. But some not listen. They went with Rob. Don’t know what happened after.’
‘The scouts say they’re already gone,’ Gin spoke with a heavy heart.
‘Oh,’ Sam said, realising what he meant by that.
‘Ahem. Sorry for disturbing the mood, but are you done with your work already?’ Brim interrupted the conversation, grabbing hold and giving a forced grin that told him “why are you out? Go back and rest.”
‘I did and actually wanted to discuss some things,’ Gin replied, nodding to Sam to say that he was dismissed who obeyed the order.
‘Is that so? Well, ok then,’ Brim raised an eyebrow. ‘Let’s go somewhere quieter then.’
Brim turned back to a few people he talked to a few moments ago, telling them he needed to go. The mages nodded in agreement, allowing the leaders to leave for open space within the desert, away from the prying ears of the others.
‘So, what have you come up with?’ Brim asked.
‘You’re not going to fill me in first?’
‘Aha. You’re right.’
‘Brim?’ Gin took his turn to raise an eyebrow.
‘Sorry. It’s nothing. Anyway, you’ve heard that Rob took a quarter of the offence group, right?’
‘Yes, Sam told me.’
‘Good. Even though the numbers are much better than we first anticipated, we’re still a bit thin, aren’t we? Not to mention all the armour left lying around is buying them some time while we clear it all.’
‘Can’t we leave them and come back later?’
‘And if we lose and get wiped out? The armour will only damage the environment if not dealt with. That’ll affect not just us but all of Eurasia in the long run. I don’t see the AAA cleaning up after us. Do you?’
Gin didn’t say anything at first. He wasn’t sure if he should be worried at the fragile, ludicrous nature or amazed by the intricate co-dependency of the mages’ lifestyle. Not only did they care for the environment but they also took into consideration the worst-case scenarios.
Maybe this is why my ancestors became near extinct while they thrived, Gin theorised before saying, ‘You’re right. We can’t risk that. If it’s unavoidable then we’ll have to give up on the other deserters for the time being.’
‘Seems so. You’re going to have to use that for the formation plans.’
‘I think I already did.’
Gin unfurled the piece of paper with his annotations that he brought along with him by mistake. He showed the plans to Brim who took a moment to assess it, nodding throughout the analysis. Then he looked up, handing back Gin’s work.
‘I kind of understand your drawings, but I can’t understand the writing,’ Brim admitted.
‘I suppose I do have bad handwriting,’ Gin took a moment to look things over. ‘Basically, I wondered if it’s possible if I could borrow mages from both the artillery and utility group to bolster the frontline.’
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‘Eh? Utility group? You know they can’t fight. They don’t have any training let alone ability. This isn’t even me being prejudice like I used to be,’ Brim said, his expression and voice full of scepticism.
‘I know. But, especially with all the spare armour lying around, we could use them not for attacking purposes but as a distraction instead.’
Gin grew the Xernim out, creating a thin, long branch. He snapped the twig off and used it to draw dots into the sand to represent the mages. He took a few minutes to make sure he got the idea down as best as possible, using arrows to represent the change in personnel and where they would go to.
‘If we have a bulkier frontline, the enemy might attack them,’ Gin explained. ‘Since they’re armoured, the utility types will still be pretty tanky, not to mention fireproof even if they can’t contribute offensively.’
‘It’ll mean those that can fight will have one less enemy hounding them,’ Brim understood.
‘I don’t see much issue with that plan then. I’ll send off my troops too. Like me, they can be used for both melee and ranged attacks so the transition isn’t as extreme for them.’
‘Perfect. How about the lupims? Or the other animals for that matter. Surely, they can be used for warfare too, no?’
Brim stopped himself for a second but couldn’t contain his laughter that turned into a sigh that indicated regret.
‘What’s so funny?’ Gin asked, worried by the reaction.
‘There’s a reason these are low-ranked familiars. They’re too docile. If anything, they would befriend the enemy instead of attacking them. The moles let us throw them around for fun for crying out loud!’ Brim responded, covering his face with his hand in both amusement and pity.
‘I see. What a shame,’ Gin sighed. ‘Everything else ok though?’
‘Yeah, I’ll make sure to send some people your way as well as get Michal to make some arrangements on his side too. Let’s head back to the others and tell them the plan, ok? We only got a few days to prepare when we get there, so everyone needs to be briefed.’
‘Sure. We’re really close to this battle, huh?’ Gin realised, his tone getting quieter.
‘Mhm,’ Brim agreed, his voice also softening.
As the pair walked back to their battalions, Gin couldn’t relieve himself of a sinking feeling in his chest. My first battle… Wonder if we’re ready.