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After another sparring session, Gin made his way to the desert room. He rubbed lotion, courtesy of a peeved Joan, on his burn marks and let the medicine soak into his skin, creating a soothing sensation like a cool wind blowing over your body after a hot summer’s day. Gin savoured the moment, especially after witnessing the disgruntled look of his sparring partner.
‘What’s the score again?’ Gin taunted.
‘Three of those matches didn’t count. You cheated,’ Brim scowled.
‘Funny way of saying five-three to me.’
‘You’re lucky I ran out of fuel.’
‘Stalling you out was another strategy of mine.’
‘Just because you have a freakishly large amount of stamina, doesn’t mean you managed to beat me, especially since you still needed to use those underhand tactics of yours.’
‘Can’t you admit that I outplayed you?’ Gin suggested, grabbing his partner’s shoulders and giving an all-infuriating smirk.
‘No,’ Brim denied.
Gin shook his head in disapproval as the pair walked passed the battalion training room, stopping as something caught his eye. Per usual, Alder stood in front of everyone, giving out orders. However, this time the focus wasn’t on him but on low-lying tinoos that glided over the sand, going round in circles, flying at the same speed as each other, making sure no two birds collided. As soon as a mage whistled, the formation changed into a Reuleaux triangle, a triangle with rounded vertices. The battalion responded, shuffling into a pincer formation with the melee combatants in front of the medium-ranged mages.
A higher pitched whistle echoed across the room. The tinoos reversed the directions of their flight, but a rogue bird didn’t understand the command, crashing into the others, feathers scattering in the air.
‘Why so slow?!’ Alder barked, overlooking the mishap. ‘Move it!’
The battalion switched positions, with the melees behind the mid-ranged, making sure the procedure went as smooth as possible. They huffed and puffed, tired from the new exercise which tested them both mentally and physically.
‘Huh. They’re better than I expected,’ Brim acknowledged.
‘They could still be better,’ Gin pointed out. ‘They can beat low C ranked mages and probably could handle B ranks in the future with a few more alterations to their training.’
‘What, really? Most of these mages are ranked E or below. I don’t see how B ranked mages would lose to some three tiers lower than them.’
‘Didn’t you lose to me, somebody on the level of an F rank?’ Gin smirked again.
‘Shut up,’ Brim scowled again.
‘Heh. No need to be so salty. Care for a rematch?’ Gin asked with a mischievous smile.
‘Later. I need to replenish my oil reserves,’ Brim replied, returning the smile as he parted ways while Gin remained to watch the training.
‘Alright. Take care.’
Gin turned his attention back to the training. At first, he didn’t understand the use of the tinoos but, as the training went on, he noticed how the birds’ movements correlated with the battalion’s formation. With each unique flight pattern, he linked them to the corresponding formation until he could predict how everyone would react at a moment’s notice. What a convoluted way to give out hidden orders, Gin thought.
‘That’s it, everyone. Well done!’ Alder praised. ‘Relax now, I got something to announce.’
Most of the leaner mages flopped to the floor, exhaustion getting the better of them, while some mages placed all their weight on their legs, kneeling due to their roundness. They shuffled into a semicircle with Alder standing in the centre.
‘We’ve done formation training,’ Alder continued. ‘I talked about battle tactics. I’ve assessed your best positions and will continue to improve you. I’ve been doing that for the past year or so anyway.’
Alder held out a finger. He concentrated, allowing a branch to grow out, creating a long stick. Breaking it off, he planted the stick into the sand, drawing lines and writing the words “Formations”, “Tactics” and “General Training”.
‘However, as you all know, I’ll be leaving the squadron in a few months. In that time, I plan on getting everyone up to scratch on what you were never taught by the MBP due to your low-ranked status. But, that means I need to appoint someone to take over in my absence. Originally, I had planned on Jack Darius to succeed me, but that looks more unlikely by the day. Although he has bought us time – several months in fact – I cannot wait for him.’
Alder took a deep, long breath, then sat down on the sand, cross-legged. He placed his arms on his bent knees and puffed out his chest, giving him an air of authority and humbleness, a combination that didn’t mix together except on this occasion.
‘Therefore, I will pin my aspirations on Gin Gale instead. He’s improved leaps and bounds over the past few months with me and he doesn’t look down on any of you. He’s even beaten me a couple times too, so his strength is real. I’m sure he’ll be a worthy replacement. Any objections?’
Not even a single squeak from the mages.
‘Good. Then go greet and show your respect to Gin when you see him next time, ok?’
‘Um, he’s right over there,’ a bestial type pointed to a grinning Gin leaning against the entrance.
‘The brat’s here?’ Alder swivelled on his spot, jumped up and strolled over to Gin, his expression hidden under his mask. ‘How long have you been there?’
‘I got interested in the training so I watched. Nothing wrong with that. And what’s up with you calling me brat when I’m here but my real name when I’m not?’ Gin sneered.
‘Aha. Got me there. Good timing though. I wanted to talk to you in private,’ Alder admitted, turning back to the battalion. ‘Everyone’s dismissed. Like I said, go show your respect to your future battalion leader.’
The mages nodded, getting up from their seats. As they exited, they either bowed to Gin or patted him on his shoulder, leaving stray hair, water, what seemed to be mucus and other excess material from the mages’ various traits.
‘I am never cleaning this shirt again,’ Gin murmured as the last of the mages left the room.
‘What?’ Alder queried.
‘So much research material. Can’t let that go to waste, right?’
‘I see,’ Alder processed, unsure to be weirded out or accept that Gin acted like this from time to time. ‘I’ve noticed you’ve taken Michal out of training, not that he participated in the first place. He’s working with you on something, right?’
‘Oh, that’s what you wanted to find out,’ Gin repeated, taking a stroll over the desert room with Alder. ‘When he’s not doing anything productive, I guess I thought “might as well think of something for him to do”. He’s been a great help, so I don’t regret it.’
‘You’re talking about that armour chest plate you’ve hidden under your shirt?’
‘Ah, you’ve noticed, huh? Well, yeah. If I’m going to be the next battalion leader, I want to do things my way. Michal’s and a few other stone elementals are part of my plan.’
‘Are you planning on getting armour for everyone?’ Alder asked, stopping in his tracks.
‘Hm? Yep. Got a problem with that?’ Gin stopped as well, looking over his shoulders.
‘No. But the others might. Though they are low-ranked, they probably don’t want to be even more belittled for relying on such things.’
‘What a stupid reason!’
‘I know,’ Alder sighed, stopping for a moment before leaning in and whispered, ‘Do you know how many people accepted my proposal to take on the Xernim?’
‘No,’ Gin replied, eyebrow raised.
‘And how many did you offer them to?’
‘All of my battalion and many more.’
‘Wow. The Xernims are awesome. No obvious side effects and I haven’t dropped my blades once unlike when I just wielded a sword and shield, so I can concentrate on actual skill rather than a mismatch of strength. How could they reject you like that?’
‘It’s not their fault,’ Alder retreated back to his original position. ‘It’s just how everyone was brought up in the MBP. They wouldn’t want something so passive. I mean, I thought the same until I witnessed how effective defence was, saving me time and time and time again because of it.’
Alder’s Xernims began to decompose, starting at his feet and head then working towards his hip. The rotten bark of the parasite fell, heaping into a brown sludge on the floor. The decay stopped until Alder stood naked, bar the Xernim remaining on his pelvis, like shorts that ran halfway along his thigh.
Gin’s eyes widened. He didn’t know how to describe it. He didn’t know what to say.
A stub took the place of Alder’s right arm. However, that didn’t compare to the left which drooped under its own weight, muscles ebbing in plain sight beneath missing skin, consumed by maggots that no longer existed. Acid marks seared into the flesh, revealing half-eaten bone supplemented by miniature Xernims holding everything together.
Holes riddled Alder’s body with thin vines coming out of them, connecting to the Xernim on his hip. Chemical burns patterned Alder’s torso except for the ashen marks that surrounded his chest and neck. The membrane around his heart pulsated with each beat, almost falling off like a tattered zombie. Compared to the rest of his body, the forked electricity on his legs looked normal.
‘Az ou can shee, I an in a ery itiful sake,’ Alder attempted at speech.
Confused at first, Gin realised why Alder spoke this way. His jaw was completely dislocated, hanging on thin strands of tissue, unable to move on its own. What did Alder go through to get to this point? Gin wondered.
‘I an eek, sho I ee-aye on aye er-in, rat,’ Alder continued, his jaw swaying from side to side.
‘What are you saying? You’re incredible!’ Gin responded, somehow understanding the gibberish Alder said and complimenting him in return. ‘Weak? As if! You gave up your ideals in order to survive. How can I mock you for that? And to think this is what the Xernims are capable of. Wonder how I can use this for myself!’
Alder’s Xernim branched out from his hip and the vines on his chest. They spread out, first to his face, wrapping around the broken jaw, creating a delicate veil over his mouth. More branches pierced the bone, making cracking noises as they did so.
‘I’m glad,’ Alder said, the Xernim moving his disjointed jaw for him. ‘I doubt anybody else would react as excited as you. Disgust, pity and scorn come to mind.’
‘Maybe everyone would actually listen if you did show them this side of you,’ Gin suggested.
‘Who knows? They’re too afraid of wearing a piece of cloth lest others think negatively of them. Would seeing their leader half-broken change that?’
‘Haha. Probably not. I do have some ideas for them to see an immediate impact.’
‘Is that so? I don’t regret choosing you as my successor then.’
‘In my opinion, I think the transfer’s too quick,’ Gin confessed, watching the Xernim now growing around Alder’s stub, forming the beginnings of a new arm. ‘I haven’t even been in the squadron for half a year and I get chosen.’
‘Some people have the quality and mentality that can’t be taught. I believe you are one of them. Did you want me to rescind the decision?’
‘Nope,’ Gin gave a quick and honest reply.
‘Good. I’m still here for three or four months, so I’ll make sure to have you ready by then.’
‘Fine by me. Oh, that reminds me, who is this Jack Darius? You said he was meant to be the leader before me.’
‘Jack? He was part of an assassination mission. He succeeded, buying us a lot of time, but there’s a suspicion that he’s been captured. He’s squadron W’s poster boy; a low-ranked mage that somehow developed the abilities of a mid-ranked one in his adult years. Very bright too; always planning things out in advance.’
‘I see,’ Gin said, contemplating on the information he had been given. ‘Sounds like someone I’d like to meet. Shame he’s probably dead.’
‘I have a feeling he’s not executed yet.’
‘Really? Wonder what’s happened to him then.’
‘Me too,’ Alder agreed, testing out his new arm.