B2 Chapter 8: The Squadron’s Next Steps

Gin could feel the stares and glances directed at him. He narrowed down the cause to two reasons. The first belonged to the mage-eater resting on his shoulders, curled up and sleeping without a worry. The second, he hypothesised, could have been the sole human companion that walked beside him on the sandy path, Syndra. Despite her role as a leader, she wasn’t as approachable as the others. A trait Gin couldn’t rule out from his reasoning. Though when even Joan, the in-your-face type of person no matter who you’re with, kept her distance, he settled on the former theory.

‘I must say, but the thought of a mage-eater as a familiar hasn’t crossed my mind before,’ Syndra commented as she analysed. ‘Do you know how to take care of one?’

Is she…curious? Gin wondered. He couldn’t tell from her stoic expression, so he just answered as such, ‘I have dabbled in the care of carnivorous birds in the past. Though I must admit none where their main diet is human meat.’

‘I suppose we could request some extra rations for the animal and see how and where to go from there.’

‘I’ll make the arrangements as soon as possible then. As for you, how was the first day, er, the first night of training? Not too strenuous, I hope. Are you certain you don’t want to rest in the caravans?’

‘No. The injured require the seating arrangements much more than I do. I am still able to continue towards the Oasis on foot,’ Syndra rejected the offer before lifting her right arm. ‘However, it does ache around these areas underneath, but that’s expected of a non-combatant I presume.’

‘Indeed,’ Gin gave a light nod as he inspected the area. ‘If one is not accustomed –’

‘Why are you talking so strangely?’ Joan hollered from behind them.

‘– to the physical stress such exercise puts on a body, then the aftermath will be the aches and blisters around the muscles you worked out,’ Gin carried on as if he heard nothing.

He knew Joan was right. The articulate nature of his speech pattern even began to affect his thought process but he didn’t dare break the façade in front of Syndra. The relationship he built up felt too formal to show the casual side like he would with Joan or Brim. Not yet at least. Not with how the familiar type acted with him.

‘Not to sound rude and break up our conversation, but I believe someone is requesting your attention,’ Syndra leaned in and whispered.

‘Ah,’ Gin pretended to be surprised. He took a deep breath and spoke up loud enough for Joan to hear him. ‘Apologies, my hearing isn’t as good as you mages. I may struggle to notice anyone calling out to me during our conversation when they’re walking several metres behind us. It might be that certain people are too afraid to approach me with the mage-eater on my shoulders.’

The moment Gin made that last remark, an aura so powerful it sent chills down his entire body emanated from behind him. He put on a wry smile as he heard the stamps on the sand behind him, drawing ever closer. Heh. I’m in danger, he mused to himself while keeping his composure.

‘My, my. It appears someone needs a hearing checkup’ Joan pulled up next to Syndra (as far away from the mage-eater as possible, Gin noted), wiggling her nails to intimidate him.

‘Ah, Joan. I didn’t notice your arrival. What brings you here?’ Gin smirked.

‘Aside from the stupid way of speaking,’ Joan rolled her eyes. ‘What’s this about training?’

The malicious smile on Joan’s face told him the conversation could devolve into chaos if he didn’t take care of his words.

‘I sought out aid in learning about hand to hand combat from Mr Gale,’ Syndra explained.

‘Oh? You two look awfully close. Did you know each other beforehand?’ Joan asked.

‘Not particularly,’ Gin murmured.

‘No, ma’am,’ Syndra added, the title she gave Joan putting Gin off. Never would he have imagined her as a “ma’am” in any shape or form.

‘“Ma’am?” What’s with the formality?’ she retorted, just as unnerved. ‘Just call me Joan. I was part of the secondary team that helped collapse the ground underneath the enemy in the battle. Medic Division.’

‘Ah, I’ve seen you around a few times but I don’t believe I have introduced myself properly to you,’ Syndra straightened her back, cleared her throat, then stopped to make eye contact with the medic. ‘I’m Syndra, the leader of the utility group in the primary team.’

‘Pleasure to make your acquaintance,’ Joan nodded in response. ‘Hopefully, Gin isn’t causing you too much trouble.’

‘Oh, no. Not at all. He’s been extremely competent which I can’t say the same for a few certain people. Although, at times he can be a bit,’ Syndra paused, searching for the right word, ‘Exotic? However, I put that down to his manush heritage.’

‘Oh, I would hope so! Being a manush better magically explain why he adopted a mage-eater, has disgust towards mage-meat and goes off on his own way too many times for my liking,’ Joan exclaimed before turning to Gin with a smirk. ‘Imagine if he was seen as weird by manush too? But I wouldn’t know since he never tells me anything about himself even though he said he would.’

Of course. You just had to go there, Gin’s expression told Joan but she just laughed it off.

‘Is that so? He’s been very cooperative with me, but I must confess that I never venture into people’s pasts. I realise these things can be very troubling to delve into, you see,’ Syndra stated but rubbed her chin as if entertaining the thought of asking about Gin’s past. ‘Though it might be an interesting affair to get into.’

‘Oh, please do,’ Joan pleaded before leaning in to whisper, ‘Then you can tell me all about it afterwards. I’ll help you out with your muscle pains in return. Deal?’

‘Understood,’ Syndra nodded back.

‘Excellent.’

Ugh. Guys, I’m right here, Gin grimaced at the strange friendship that seemed to form right in front of his eyes. He couldn’t interject either as he Joan would bore into him if he continued to speak the articulate way he spoke before and Syndra would raise an eyebrow if he talked like his normal self; A lose-lose situation could only be avoided by pure silence.

‘At least you won’t scheme behind my back,’ Gin murmured to the mage-eater, ignoring the conversation between the two women. Not that he didn’t want to. But rather, he could no longer keep up. Joan would say one thing and Syndra would have her say before the topic changed altogether in an instant. Mother used to do the same with her friends. Guess women are like that no matter the species, Gin concluded.

‘Oh, that reminds me Gin, what’s he called?’ Joan asked.

‘Excuse me?’ Gin responded, bewildered by whatever discussion they landed upon.

‘If I may, Joan,’ Syndra spoke up as if they were lifetime friends.

‘Be my guest,’ Joan egged on.

Without Gin’s understanding a single thing, Syndra began whistling. She kept the pitch low. So low that normal manush ears couldn’t hear the sound. Instead, you felt it.

A ripple-like effect reverbed throughout Gin’s body. Each whistle sent another wave that varied in magnitude with every breath. Even his Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host around his wounds tightened as if to warn or protect him.  However, the recipient of the whistles wasn’t Gin. No, it was the mage-eater who responded to the call. It looked up from its slumber, surveyed the surroundings then stared at the mage that tried to speak its language. Syndra stared back and whistled once more.

A couple of seconds passed. Then a few. Then several. Neither mage nor mage-eater backed down. The tense atmosphere continued until the bird conceded at last and gave a tired caw before going back to sleep.

‘The mage-eater’s dialect is difficult for me to fully understand, but I believe he is called either called “Aqmi” or “Eqhmi” though I could easily be incorrect on both. It’s a very thick accent after all,’ Syndra reported.

 ‘I see,’ Joan replied as if the ability to speak with animals was nothing to her.

Wow, Gin thought to himself, mesmerised. He could never shake that fascination off despite how normal all the abilities the mages possessed felt to them. Even the short messenger that ran towards him probably had some amazing power he didn’t know about. Oh wait, that’s Sam.

‘Message for leaders,’ he announced, out of breath.

‘What is it?’ Syndra’s became her usual stern self, causing the messenger to flinch.

‘Um, Maria arrived. She calls for all of you. A hundred metres this way.’

‘Do you know why?’ Joan asked to which Sam shook his head.

‘Understood. Joan and Gin, head over straight away. I’ll gather everyone else,’ Syndra instructed.

They obeyed and picked up the pace with Sam leading the way. They walked along the shortest path outside the forest, following a trail created by the hundreds of footprints and caravans that compressed the land. It wasn’t long until the chirps of the tinoos could be heard as the trio turned a corner into the forestry.

Then, several metres in, the vegetation thinned out, replaced by a different grain of yellow soil. The species of trees also changed to ones with longer and fuller leaves. Even orange fruits began to grow on them. The stark contrast from what laid in front of Gin and what came before all looked surreal as if he stepped into another room in the Rezah back in Jerusalem.

The sight dumbfounded Gin as he entered the clearing where the Oasis shimmered in the sunlight. The lupims, tinoos and moles, as well as their masters, all enjoyed the coolness of the waters, splashing about and generally having a good time while the elementals stood guard. The acres of space allowed for it.

‘Stop gawking,’ Joan knocked a fist on Gin’s head. ‘Maria’s waiting.’

‘Ow, that hurt,’ Gin mocked but got an unimpressed look in response. ‘Alright, alright. I got it. Where is she?’

‘Over here,’ Sam answered.

At the edge of the oasis sat the colonel, all alone and dipping her feet into the water. She looked like she enjoyed the place the most as she had the most enthusiastic grin out of anyone in the area – a grin that got creepier the closer Gin got to her. Though it seemed no one else noticed. Their gazes fixated on the mage-eater instead, as if their natural fight-or-flight mechanism activated at the sight. However, GIn ignored them even if he found the situation humourous.

‘Oho, what do we have here, child? Didn’t expect you to get friendly with a mage-eater,’ the colonel called out when she noticed the pair approaching.

Wait. Pair? Gin looked around to find Sam had disappeared off somewhere. Well, whatever, He shook his head and focused on his professionalism. ‘Welcome back, Colonel.’

‘Afternoon, Maria. How are you?’ Joan added to the greetings.

‘Just excellent. You two are in for a treat!’ the colonel splashed against the water like an overgrown child. ‘My plans are coming to fruition thanks to everyone.’

‘I haven’t seen you this excited in a long time, Maria,’ Joan remarked.

‘Of course. I’ve been itching to tell you two what we’re going to do now. I’ve already briefed Brim and Wo, but you guys are out of the loop.’

‘Shouldn’t we wait for Syndra?’ Gin asked.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I already sent someone to brief her.’

So that’s where Sam went, Gin realised. ‘I see.’

‘There are also some details that I wanted to talk to you two alone about,’ the colonel’s voice dampened as she got up. ‘Out of the whole squadron, I trust you the most. Especially with what happened, according to the reports I received, I have started to give different people different information. I request you don’t say anything unnecessary and assume everyone knows what they’re doing. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Yep,’ Joan confirmed.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ Gin agreed, though a bit less convinced. ‘But with all due respect, Colonel, saying that you trust me the most is too much, no? If you were to lose trust in anyone, surely it’s me considering I’m a –’

‘A manush?’ the colonel interrupted. ‘I already knew. Brim’s report talked about it loud and clear.’

‘Ah,’ Gin put up a wry smile.

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‘But I mean what I said and say what I mean with a hundred percent sincerity. I have my reasons for my statement, however. It’s best not to pry too much into it for now, child,’ the colonel’s eyes exuded truth and nothing but the truth. ‘Follow me. We’ll continue talking along the way. But, first thing’s first, Joan do you know about Diana’s situation?’

‘Squadron O’s leader?’ Joan queried.

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‘Mhm.’

‘Then yes.’

The colonel glanced at Joan and she glanced back. Gin had no clue why they did that but the ominous of their expressions told him it wasn’t anything good. It felt like they were cross-examining an autopsy and deciding what killed the corpse. It irked him and that’s before getting to the fact Joan wasn’t acting her usual self.

‘Who’s he closer to?’ the colonel questioned as she led them to the edge of the oasis, away from everyone else.

‘Alder, fortunately,’ Joan answered.

‘Good. We can carry on with the conversation.’

‘Sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ Gin spoke up at last. Were they just talking about him?

‘Child, there is a lot that you don’t know about the world. I’ve seen things you could only guess in your minuscule manush lifespan. For example, how many types of Xernims, apart from yours and Alder’s, are there?’

Where is this heading? Gin wondered while giving the colonel a simple, ‘I don’t know.’

‘I could tell you, but it’s better if you witness them yourself,’ the colonel came to a conclusion to a question never asked. ‘For the record, you’ll meet at least two in the coming weeks but their number of species can easily reach double digits. But that’s beside the point. I just wanted to find out if you’re really you.’

‘Huh?’

‘Here, take this,’ the colonel took out two pieces of rolled-up paper from within her shirt and handed it over to Gin and Joan. They unravelled it to find a map that spanned from Eastern Europe to the whole of Asia.

The first thing that grabbed Gin’s attention was how much water had taken over the terrain. In particular, large areas in western Russia were flooded to make miniature seas. Not to mention how parts of Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Northern Russia appeared to have a chunk bitten out of them but Singapore somehow got larger? But in general, the seas got bigger and the coastline shrank. However, what got him truly intrigued was the stark contrast between his knowledge of the world and reality. Then again, with how his ancestors hid to such an extent that his village doesn’t even register on the colonel’s map, the outdated nature of the atlases he read as a child was understandable.

‘As you can see, we’re here in the middle of Saudi Arabia,’ Maria explained, pointing to an “X” on the map, indicating the squadron’s location. ‘We’ll continue Eastwards until we reach the Persian Gulf. From there we’ll take a ship and travel by sea until we reach the Bay of Pakistan. That’s where squadron O resides.’

Her fingers moved towards a section next to India where a semi-circular shape cut into the land. On it, an “O” was labelled beside another “X”.

‘As for the main mission we’ve been graciously given by the MBP, we’ve been tasked to shadow them. Learn the ways of naval combat, gain some much-needed experience and get along with the squadron members.’

‘Won’t they look down on the low-ranked mages or manush,’ Joan sounded worried.

‘Ha! Don’t worry, my dear, for that’s why I chose squadron O specifically,’ the colonel thwarted the concern. She held her chest up high and, with a haughty grin, she continued, ‘I’m on good terms with Diana. She’s very special and quite the anomaly even in the Eurasian army as you will see. She’s made sure her underlings don’t think like most mages.’

Did she just say “underlings?” Gin shuddered at the word choice. Though the fact that he didn’t need to be as secretive sent a wave of relief through his body. He didn’t know what the colonel had in plan, but he could at least look forward to it. Not to mention the prospects of seeing other Xernim types as well as potential new mages. Just the thought excited him.

‘Any questions?’

‘Oh, I got one. Where’s Brim? Haven’t seen him around,’ Gin noticed.

‘He’s doing some errands for me. Wontiferus and squadron O’s ambassador are also scouting the area ahead. Making sure no sudden sandpools and whatnot are in the way,’ the colonel informed.

‘An ambassador? Wonder what he’s like,’ Joan said.

‘You’ll see. He should be back within the next few days. The squadron can rest here while we wait. Clean up and relax. I’ll,’ the colonel stopped and glared at Aqmi, ‘I’ll deal with that later too. So, with my briefing done, anything else? If not, I’d like to have the maps back.’

Joan obliged while Gin took one last look.

‘It’s been a while since I travelled over the sea, hasn’t it?’ Gin thought out loud, mimicking the path he took with his finger.

‘Oh, you’re used to boats already, child?’ Maria inquired.

‘I get the feeling your boats are vastly different from the ones I used to use, but yeah. I know a little bit about travelling on them.’

‘Good to know. At least not everyone is lacking knowledge on the area. Regardless, do take some rest. You look exhausted, child. Enjoy the sunshine, clean yourself in the waters etcetera etcetera. Everyone here deserves it,’ her smile assured him of everyone’s safety.

‘Will do,’ Gin accepted.

With that, he handed over the map before the colonel headed back first with a spring in her step. He could tell how important the maiden battle’s victory meant to her. Even with the casualties, he looked at the silver lining and how much the squadron had achieved in such little time. Now he could relax and wait for the next orders. Or he would have liked to if not for Joan who stared at him with such surprisal that he jumped a little and accidentally woke Aqmi up. The bird fluttered onto the ground, discontent with its current sleeping arrangements, waddled over to the shade of a nearby palm tree before napping once more.

‘Um, can I help you?’ Gin turned back to Joan.

‘I know I was joking earlier about not talking about your past but,’ Joan started, hanging on the last word for a while, ‘Even if it’s a sentence like the boat stuff, you just did.’

‘Did I?’ Gin couldn’t recall.

‘Yeah, you just did on your own without anybody provoking it. It’s like a door opened, or maybe left ajar is the right analogy at the moment,’ Joan grew more and more excited. ‘Maybe you can tell me all about your travels over the ocean now! Something at least!’

Gin clutched his face. He felt light-headed. Now that he thought about it, ever since the attack the forest, his past had resurfaced bit by bit. Before that, when was the last time he thought about his parents or his pet griffons or his brother or his friends or his –

‘Gin? You look pale.’

‘Eh?’ Gin snapped back into reality.

‘I guess I pushed it a bit much, sorry,’ Joan gave an apologetic laugh.

‘No, the colonel’s right. I’m just tired. It’s been a long week. Long year in fact,’ Gin forced a laugh back.

‘I’ll get some medication. In the meantime, get some rest. As Maria said, you need it after all you’ve gone through.’

‘Alright,’ Gin obeyed, dragging himself to the tree his mage-eater rested under and fell into a deep sleep next to it.

- my thoughts:
Sorry for the delay. Been planning these next few chaps carefully. Hopefully it ends up all worth it.
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