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Gin created a mental picture while looking at his gauntlets. A small branch grew out of the Xernim gauntlets. It wrapped its way around the INS, entering the first chamber before hovering just above the button at the bottom. So far, so good.
Blades, Gin said in his mind. The branch continued growing, pressing the button. The mechanism activated and the blade formed itself in an instant. The silver shininess of the blade contrasted heavily with the darkness of the gauntlets’ wood. Despite the contrast, it had its own beauty that Gin couldn’t help but admire.
Once more Gin said the word “blades” in his mind and the branch degraded back to its original position, just above the button. The INS mechanism deactivated, causing the blade to disappear into thin air. Having decided that the experiment succeeded, Gin grew more branches that wrapped around and entered the INS.
‘Woah. That’s pretty cool.’
‘I’m not sure. It’s putting a large burden on him. I might need to make our appointments daily from now on.’
Gin turned his head. He found Joan and Wo looking, both with keen gazes, at what he was doing. As usual, Gin never invited them but that didn’t stop them from coming, especially when the colonel, for whatever reason, gave them a spare key to his room each.
‘Why are you two even here?’ Gin asked.
‘When you decided to host a Xernim, I decided to have more frequent appointments,’ Joan responded.
‘Same here, Gigi,’ Wo added.
‘You’re not even his medic!’ Joan exclaimed
‘But I am his very, very, VERY good childhood friend.’
‘Don’t listen to him, Joan. He’s been torturing me ever since I was born,’ Gin said.
‘You can’t really call those things “torture”,’ Wo replied.
‘Oh, really? Are you saying that almost letting me drown in a lake and telling my friends and relatives that I was “learning to swim” not torture?’
‘Nah,’ Wo shrugged. ‘That was an educational experience. You managed to swim in the end so it was worth it.’
‘What about that time when you left me on top of the roof of the town hall for a whole day?’ Gin continued.
‘It was to allow you to experience nature in all its beauty. The night sky is a wonderful sight, Gigi.’
‘And the nickname “Gigi” that annoys me to this very day?’
‘Hehe. Gets you every time.’
‘Ugh. Why are you like this? Just leave already.’
‘Oh come on. Don’t be so mad. No need for me to go, right Joan?’ Wo said turning to Joan who just gave him a look of disgust in response.
‘You are a horrible person, Wo,’ Joan said. ‘I’m with Gin here. You should leave. I need to do his checkups anyway,’ she said.
‘Not you too,’ Wo whined, giving them both puppy eyes.
‘Leave!’ Joan and Gin snapped in unison.
‘Alright. Alright. I’m outta here.’
With Wo closing the door behind him, Joan began preparing for the examination. She picked up the relevant medicines, pouring a few onto her fingers, absorbing them into the nails ready for use. She pierced Gin’s arm, extracting a blood sample while injecting the medicine into his veins.
‘Huh. From the samples I got, everything is normal apart from your protein levels which are lower than average. Are you eating your rations?’ Joan asked, piercing her nails through Gin’s skin and injecting the vaccines.
‘Everything apart from the meat,’ Gin responded.
‘It comes from mages. Goes against my morals’
‘Not this again,’ Joan sighed. ‘So? Those mages shed their skin for everyone to eat. It’s a very good source of protein and other essentials.’
‘I guess I’m the only one who sees a problem with eating human flesh.’
‘It’s what they’re bred to do! Their whole life’s purpose is to feed the rest of us. They don’t even die in the process and are willing to do it as well. Keeping humanity alive is a noble cause so, of course, there’s no problem with eating mage meat.’
‘But still -’
‘But nothing! Don’t you understand how dangerous it is to be deficient in any substance, especially after you took on a Xernim? I’m making you eat it whether you like it or not. This is for your sake, Gin.’
‘Can’t, Joan. I need to meet Alder soon, so I got no time,’ Gin explained, giving an innocent tilt of the head. ‘I also gave all my meat rations to Wo.’
‘Then I’ll just have to give you some of my own,’ Joan replied with a mischievous grin. ‘Oh, and I’m making sure you can’t escape.’
Gin felt a thin spike lodge into his lower back. His body froze up, refusing to move. His eyes shifted towards Joan who grabbed hold of Gin, positioning him onto his chair so that he couldn’t fall. With a final pat on the shoulders, she left Gin alone to wait for her return.
Gin tried to see if he could move anything or if Joan had paralyzed him completely. Working from the ground up, he found out that his toes, fingers and eyes moved with ease but the rest of his body didn’t budge. Gin couldn’t do anything but wait and be at the mercy of Joan. The thought made him shudder (mentally rather than physically as his body wouldn’t allow movement).
Then an epiphany struck Gin. Though a bit of a stretch, he knew he could make it work.
Gin took a deep breath and concentrated. He thought about the Xernim creating another branch. As he imagined, a branch sprouted out of the Xernim, wriggling its way around the side of Gin’s body and reaching the back. It worked its way up before snagging against an object sticking out of his back. Gin thought of the branch now wrapping around the object. Just touching that spike brought intense pain.
One. Two. Three, he counted to himself, pulling the spike out on three. Gin bit his tongue, avoiding an outburst by fighting pain with more pain. The spike came out at last and, with a single thought, the branch degraded, rotten bits of wood falling to the floor.
A few stretches later, Gin moved to his heart’s content. He inspected the blood-tipped spike which, to Gin’s amusement, turned out to be one of Joan’s nails. Was she always able to use her nails like that or did she come up with it just to subdue me? Gin wondered. If it turned out to be the latter, she was more persistent than he thought, much to Gin’s annoyance.
Before Joan came back, Gin concluded that he should go see Alder. They weren’t meant to see each other for another hour but Gin wasn’t going to stay in his room and be forced to be a cannibal. Since when did it become morally acceptable to eat the meat of your own species? Gin questioned. However, if Joan didn’t find it strange, the other mages wouldn’t either and might try to make him eat it too, so Gin decided to keep that question to himself for the time being.
Along the way, he saw a group of mages being guided by a skinny woman riding a behemoth of a lupim, a canine covered in brown and black fur with its tongue sticking out, panting for air. A utility familiar type, Gin classed, wondering how the ranking system worked for those with animal compatriots.
With the squadron getting busier, ever since the announcement of their first battle, Gin found it refreshing to see the hustle and bustle within the corridors, compared to the emptiness of before. It reminded Gin of the marketplaces of his (now ruined) village, a time of ignorance and tranquillity.
Categorising all the mages he saw along the way, when Gin arrived at the usual training room, he found Alder speaking with a ginger man with rough dark skin and a beefy build that glistened under the torchlight. Another fire elemental? Gin guessed.
‘Ah! Brat, we were just talking about you,’ Alder called out.
‘You were?’ Gin queried.
‘You’re a bit early but I planned on introducing you two,’ Alder said.
‘I’m Brim Stones. Nice to meet you,’ the man greeted, extending a hand.
‘Likewise. My name is Gin Julius Gale,’ he replied, shaking Brim’s hand. ‘So, what’s with the sudden introduction?’
‘I was going to explain to you when we were meant to meet up but I’ll tell you now. Brim, mind letting us talk for a moment?’ Alder requested.
‘Sure,’ Brim replied, stepping aside.
‘Essentially, I am going to retire,’ Alder said.
‘You can retire?’ Gin questioned.
‘Yes. The MBP has contacted me asking me to be used to pass on my genetics to the next generation. I’ve rejected them in the past but I’ve now grown too old for them to accept my refusal. My two-hundredth birthday is next month.’
‘Yes. Is something wrong with that age?’
Yes, for a manush whose average lifespan is ninety, Gin thought.
‘No, you just look younger than that,’ Gin lied.
‘Haha. Thanks for the compliment, brat. But as I am about to retire, I will need someone to take over the battalion.’
‘And so, you brought Brim over to be the next battalion leader?’
‘No. He’s transferred to take over another battalion. As for my battalion, I’ve decided that duty will be placed on you.’
‘Not surprised, brat?’
‘It was kind of obvious. When you took me out of training sessions with the others and only allowed me to observe and memorise the formations, despite me being one of the better combatants, I knew something was off. Along with the changes going on in the squadron due to the upcoming battle, it fell into place.’
‘That astute observation of yours will take you far.’
‘Oh, a compliment. Don’t get those too often,’ Gin snarked.
‘But that attitude will not,’ Alder corrected himself.
‘You two have quite the relationship,’ Brim noted, unable to help eavesdrop on the conversation. ‘What do you even want me to do?’
‘I’m presuming you’re taking over the training that I normally have with Alder?’ Gin replied.
‘He’s correct,’ Alder acknowledged. ‘I wanted you to train him, Brim. Oh, Brim’s a fire elemental that specialises in flame boxing which is very similar to blade boxing which is why I brought him to Squadron W, brat. The only difference is that you do piercing damage while he does damage over time.’
‘Makes sense,’ Gin agreed.
‘Wait. What rank and type are you?’ Brim asked.
‘Let’s say I’m on the level of most rank Fs,’ Gin answered, assuming his knowledge on the mages’ ranking system was correct. ‘I’d prefer not to say my typing.’
‘Don’t worry Brim. The brat can’t fight by himself so he uses those metal things and now the Xernim. He’s stronger than his rank suggests,’ Alder added.
‘Are you sure about this, Alder?’ Brim responded, disbelief in his voice. Gin could tell why and so did Alder.
‘Yes. For today, just watch Gin. I need to speak with Maria about handing over leadership. It’s exercise session three, so you know what to do, brat,’ Alder ordered, his words hinting at another task which Gin caught upon.
‘Understood,’ Gin obeyed.
‘Then I’ll let you two be,’ Alder said, leaving the room.
‘I don’t understand why he always has a soft spot for low ranks like you,’ Brim muttered to himself, loud enough for Gin to hear.
‘Neither do I,’ Gin replied. ‘That still doesn’t stop me from trying to improve under him.’
‘Improve? You? You couldn’t achieve a high rank in the MBP when you were still a child with unlimited potential. What hope do you have as an adult that hasn’t achieved anything except being a burden to Eurasia?’
‘Let’s just do as Alder ordered. I’ll do my normal training session while you watch me, okay?’
Brim didn’t respond, instead giving Gin a scornful glare before walking towards the edge of the marsh room. Gin smirked in response, fire lighting up inside of him with a resolve to show off his worth to the man who looked down on him.
Gin walked up to the nearest tree, keeping an arms-length distance between him and the plant. He took up the stance drilled into him since the day he took the Xernim on, concentrating on the positioning of his arms and feet.
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Branches hovering above all four of Gin’s INS activated the mechanism, creating a shield and blade on each arm. He took a step to the side, then sent out a jab followed by a cross, repeating the manoeuvre in multiples of twos until he felt no friction between the tree and his blade.
‘Damn,’ Gin sighed, ‘not clean enough.’
He wanted to create a thin line, in the shape of the cross-section of his blade, not the hole that could fit a fist in it. At least his punches didn’t get stuck like when he first started off, but he still needed to improve his technique. I go again, Gin stoked himself up.
Gin continued honing his technique for the next hour, taking a break every ten minutes and using up several trees in the process, until Brim had enough. He walked up to Gin, tapping him on his shoulder.
‘You need something?’ Gin asked, putting down his arms and shaking off the sweat on his forehead.
‘Why do you do this?’ Brim replied.
‘All of this training.’
‘Is there something wrong with my training?’
‘No one does it. This is the first time I’ve seen a squadron where everyone trains.’
The world was in a war, right? Surely the mages would want to improve themselves to increase their battle proficiency, Gin thought, perplexed by the notion Brim suggested.
‘If the other squadrons don’t train, what do you do?’ Gin asked.
‘Eat, sleep and wait for orders to go to war,’ Brim said, no hint of dishonesty in his tone.
‘I see. Well, we train to improve our abilities,’ Gin explained, sitting down on the watery floor, using the marsh to cool off.
‘You can do that?’
‘What do you mean? Of course. Did you think that’s impossible?’
‘The adult body can’t develop anymore and only deteriorates afterwards. We are all trained and developed during puberty. Those who couldn’t keep up died in the process and those who could were ranked based on their skill. What’s the point of training more if your body can’t develop further?’
‘I see why you think the way you do,’ Gin said. From the way Brim phrased it, the MPB sounded like they brainwashed the children, built them up and trained them from birth stopping at adulthood. The mages sure are an interesting bunch, Gin thought to himself, formulating theories on how their society came to be. Is this why they eat the meat of other mages?
‘However, it’s not true what they say in the MBP,’ Gin continued, ‘because you can improve yourself even as an adult. Yeah, sure you don’t have that growth or energy you did when you’re younger but you can get valuable experience. They reside in your unconsciousness and help you when you need it. But you need to make those experiences happen in order to use them. Sometimes what we’re taught by society could be wrong.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Brim gave an immediate reply.
‘Thought as much. You’ve spent eighty years in the MBP being told otherwise. How about we spar and see if that’ll help you trust me.’
‘Just pretend I’m an enemy.’
‘I’m not sure why I have to.’
‘That’s the whole point. I want to expel your doubts.’
Reluctant, Brim agreed and they both distanced themselves by ten metres. Gin activated his blades again while Brim coated his arms with a greasy fluid he excreted from his skin that made him shine under the light of the torches. With a flick of his fingers, his arms went into a yellow-orange blaze.
‘Ready?’ Gin asked.
‘Ready,’ Brim confirmed.
Brim made the first move, charging at Gin before sending a low punch aimed at Gin’s stomach. Gin sidestepped the punch and sent a jab of his own but Brim pushed the arm to the side with his forearm. Gin jumped back into his stance and looked for an opening.
Brim hurled a flurry at punches at frightening speed. There was no time to think. Gin dodged everything to perfection through instinct alone. However, Gin couldn’t counter. Brim’s body position didn’t allow for it while deflecting any punches Gin managed to throw out.
Gin backed off, regaining his composure. His face and body began to hurt. Why? He had been dodging every attack. Then it dawned on Gin what Alder meant by Brim having damage over time. As he watched another one of Brim’s punches brush past him, Gin felt the flames burn into his skin. Gin had to end this quickly or he would lose if he dragged it out.
Gin sent a right hook in a desperate attempt but Brim deflected the attack, using it as an opening, smashing Gin in the ribs and sending him to the ground. Gin looked unconscious with his back on the ground. That’s that. It cemented Brim’s thoughts that training proved useless.
‘See? There’s a reason why the low-ranked are low-ranked,’ Brim mocked in triumph.
‘Nice fight,’ Gin complimented, picking himself up and into a squatting position. ‘Didn’t realise how you worked at first but I got a good grasp now. Ready for another round?’
‘I got stamina for days. Also, your punch didn’t deal too much damage. I got Michal’s stone vest to absorb most of the impact,’ Gin explained, pointing towards a hole in his shirt caused by Brim’s flames, revealing the armour.
‘You’re just asking to lose again.’
‘That was never my intention. Ready?’
‘So am I.’
Gin hurled mud at Brim. Brim’s reflexes made him deflect the mud and try to get back into his stance but it was too late. Gin already had a blade at Brim’s throat. Brim raised his arms above his head. It was Gin’s victory in an instant.
‘That was a disgusting move you played!’ Brim exclaimed.
‘I don’t have honour. I got into this squadron by hiding in a shell for a few minutes. Using a distraction is nothing for me. Victory is what counts,’ Gin replied, lowering his blade. ‘That makes us even, no?’
‘I guess it does,’ Brim chuckled. ‘I still don’t get your point from earlier, though. Why did we need to spar?’
‘During that fight, I realised that you always deflect attacks rather than dodge. So, I took you by surprise, sent some mud from the floor and as you deflect it, created an opening. I can’t beat you in a drawn-out match but this faster approach got me a swift victory.’
‘You figured that out just through training?’ Brim wondered, slumping against a tree, his mind opening up to Gin.
‘Not quite. Through training, I have learnt how to block, how to attack and how to dodge. But coming up with a tactic to beat you was done during the fight itself. But thanks to that spar, I’ve learnt another way mages could fight, with its strengths and weaknesses. You have my gratitude.’
Gin saw Brim’s puzzled look. He sighed, realising that changing a person’s belief took much more effort than a simple spar. In the end, he decided to rephrase things.
‘Look. The point is that if I never took the steps and never took any action, I would never have learnt how to deal with potential problems until it is too late. What if I face another flame boxer on the battlefield? Now, because of our spar, I have found out that style of fighting’s strength and weaknesses, so I’m better prepared for next time. Understand now?’
‘Kind of. Still don’t believe you though.’
‘Fair enough,’ Gin shrugged. ‘Hopefully, I can change that eventually.’
‘We’ll see. To be honest, you’re very profound, Gin. It’s very different from what I’ve heard of you.’
‘Let me guess. I’ve been depicted as an arrogant, impatient brat by Alder, right?’
Brim burst out in laughter. It was an infectious laugh that led to Gin joining in too. They had a mutual understanding and both looked forward to working with one another. However, a shout across the room cut their moment short.
‘Who’s that?’ Brim whispered to Gin, nodding towards a woman by the doorway.
‘Just a crazy stalker of mine,’ Gin replied.
‘I go through all this trouble preparing your food and, when I came back to your room, you’re not even there!’
‘See? She’s even going to my room without permission,’ Gin said.
‘I heard that!’ Joan shouted as she stormed towards them.
Steam seeped out of some meat, covered by seasonings and fruit, inside a box Joan carried. The brownness of the roasted meat combined with the juice, dripping from the sliced fruits, made Gin salivate but the thought of that meat coming from the flesh of mages also made him want to vomit. Despite the fact his body was telling him to eat, Gin decided to follow his morality.
‘Ah! Sorry, Joan. I have to go. No time to eat!’ Gin excused himself.
‘Gin!’ Joan scolded.
Gin made a dash for the exit. If he stayed, Joan would have made him eat it. He turned around waving goodbye at Brim and Joan. Brim waved back while Joan just gave an unimpressed expression. Doesn’t matter, Gin thought. No way am going to be forced to be a cannibal.
Gin bumped into someone, cutting his intentions short as he realised Alder, who looked equally unimpressed, stood in his way. Next to him stood the colonel while Wo watched from behind both, grinning the grin Gin hated the most.
‘Sorry, Alder. Can you let me through?’ Gin asked.
‘We heard that you don’t eat your meat rations, child,’ the colonel said. ‘As the next battalion leader, we can’t have you malnourished.’
‘I have my reasons,’ Gin reasoned.
‘Well, hurry up. I need to go through some admin work with you if that’s alright.’
Alder took control, grabbing Gin by the arm and pinning him to the ground. With his hands locked into place and his legs held down by Alder’s knees, Gin had no chance of getting out.
‘Your warped morality isn’t a good enough reason, brat. Your health comes first,’ Alder said.
‘Wo! Help me out here!’ Gin shouted in desperation.
Wo didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything. He just stood there, grinning his face off, enjoying the spectacle. Of course!
‘Brim! Help me!’ Gin called out.
Joan explained the situation to Brim. He thought about it for a moment before agreeing to help. Joan already had prepared the wooden cutlery, as if she knew the outcome and, without mercy, the pair made their way to force feed Gin.
‘No! Don’t do this, Brim. I thought we’ve established a beautiful friendship!’
‘You are severely lacking in protein, Gin. If you’re not allergic and it’s just a problem of morality, then it should be fine,’ Brim said. ‘Not sure why the MBP would tell you it wasn’t right to eat the meat. They haven’t told the rest of us. You sure you’re not in the wrong?’
Him being wrong? It was true that the mages involved do it voluntarily and they were treated well. It was also true that the mages who provide the meat were bred for this exact purpose. They don’t even need to be slaughtered! But eating mage meat was still wrong, right? Cannibalism was still wrong, right? It didn’t matter in the end, though.
As Joan force fed Gin what he had prepared, one thought came to Gin’s mind: mage meat tasted like veal.