The colonel’s office was at the very top of the Rezah tree. Due to the limited space at the summit, hers was the only room on that level, like a loft, making navigation to her room easy. The journey to get there, however, was another matter, needing someone to climb over a hundred sets of stairs, starting at the bottom of the tree, leaving most exhausted by the end. Was it worth it? Gin let out a deep breath, out of annoyance at how time-consuming the walk was rather than tiredness, got himself composed and knocked on the door to find out.
‘Come in,’ the colonel responded.
Gin opened the door and entered the room, surveying the place as he did so. For someone said to be the leader of a squadron, the room wasn’t in the best conditions. The walls were thin and covered in untrimmed branches. The floor was covered in dust with some dark marks as if burnt by something. The ceiling wasn’t really a ceiling either; just a mesh of the tree’s branches that seemed to converge to create a makeshift roof. Even then, it had several holes that allowed rain could easily drip through.
‘The tree’s still growing, child. In a few years, this floor will have much more room and another floor will be created above this one,’ the colonel explained, almost reading Gin’s mind as she wrote on documents with her quill and ink.
‘I see,’ Gin murmured.
‘Of course, we must hollow the floor out, cut down the inside of the trees and so on to make it habitable but we’ve got a lot of time on our hands, don’t we?’
Gin didn’t comment. Instead, he looked at the ceiling once more. The more he stared, the more he felt like the branches were indeed moving, trying to cover the gaps by themselves. If it takes a few years to create a whole new floor, just how long did it take to grow the whole tree out?
‘The MBP sure is amazing,’ the colonel continued. ‘They had this idea centuries ago and now all the Eurasian squadrons use the Rezah as their place of residence and work. It’s only in the past two hundred years that their plan has come to fruition. You are definitely too young to know this, child, but we used to live under metal and wood roofs called ‘houses’. Even now, the MBP uses its metal fortress in Russia to raise the next generation. But you’re not here for this monologue, are you? Tell me what brings you to my office.’
‘Thank you, colonel,’ Gin began, having enjoyed the short story. ‘I actually have two requests.’
‘Oh? You become a battalion leader just last week when Alder left and now you’re already demanding so much, child. You’re not getting too greedy, are you?’
‘Apologies. But if you could hear me-’
‘Ha! I was just joking, child,’ the colonel jested, putting down her equipment and looking Gin eye to eye, her gaze as stern as ever. ‘No need to be so formal. No need for this colonel nonsense,’ Maria said with Gin laughing a meek laugh in response.
‘I get the feeling of Deja Vu, colonel. I don’t feel right calling you by name, colonel. I came from a place where you can’t really drop these honorifics, colonel.’
‘That’s fine with me. Shall we hear out these requests instead, child?.’
Gin took out the INS, the silver-coloured cuboid used as a projector, from his belt. He activated it to show some handwritten documents, projecting them onto the colonel’s desk. She looked through them and realised what they were.
‘These are the documents I had sent out to all battalion leaders, right?’ she questioned.
‘Yes,’ Gin confirmed, flicking through the slides. ‘For my first request, I just wanted to go through a few things and give my opinions, if that’s alright. If you need my INS, feel free to take it.’
‘I know the documents off by heart. No need to show me.’
‘So, is it true that we’re now expected to face five-thousand?’
‘Indeed. It seems that our assassination plan has somewhat backfired. Without a leader, they decided to opt for raw man-power rather than proper leadership. All information in the document is reliable, by the way.’
‘Do we know the type of mages we’re going to face? Didn’t see the specifics in the documents.’
‘We were forced to withdraw most of our intel before we could find out. We’ll need them for scouting when the time to leave has come, so we can’t risk them all in enemy territory. We just have to estimate at the moment. There are multiple places the AAA will dispatch their army to many locations, with The Path being one of them, so how the Egyptian barracks will separate is unknown, even if their numbers are not.’
‘While that makes sense, I still don’t get why it is taking so long. Their plan to attack through The Path was decided a months ago and they’re still not ready? Surely, they could have attacked us while we were unprepared.’
‘You make it seem like travel is quick, child,’ the colonel doubted, leaning a bit closer in her chair. ‘Not everyone has rideable familiars! To call for reinforcements, after the death of their leader, would take several months at the minimum due to the slow pace of walking. This assassination has bought us a lot of time, though it did bring its downsides admittedly.’
Familiars? Who said anything about familiars? It became apparent to Gin that transport, such as the hover-cars he drove as a young teen, wasn’t used by mages. It was probably because of the fall of the age of science, Gin thought. He took those pieces of knowledge of the past world like that into account and kept them to himself. The problem was that he didn’t know what he shouldn’t know most of the time and made assumptions too eagerly. Still so much to learn about the mages.
‘The intricacies of war sure are difficult to wrap your head around,’ Gin commented, scratching his head.
‘That’s why I was bred to do this and you were not,’ the colonel smirked.
Gin ignored the remark. ‘Anyway, back to the topic at hand, If they don’t have an experienced leader, they’re pretty much all brawn now and will most likely try to brute force their way through our lines. We have less than two thousand combatants. With our numbers, we wouldn’t stand a chance if we fought them head on.’
‘So, what are you proposing, child?’
‘We’re fighting on our home turf, basically. I would like to use that to our advantage. If the maps are correct, the plan should work, I think. I put everything on my projector. Go ahead and look through it. The relevant slides are at the end.’
Gin handed the INS over to the colonel. She fumbled a bit with the technology but, after some guidance, she got the hang of it by the end. She flicked through Gin’s slides and, although Gin’s handwriting was on the brink of illegibility, she got a grasp on what he wanted to do.
‘You want to use our non-combatants, child?’
‘Yes. I’ve gone through everyone’s profiles and realised that most of our non-combatants are just people who haven’t found a role in the squadron because of their lack of individual ability. But I think I can make use of them. Its success might bring our numbers up another five-hundred. If you could send the names on the final slide to either my or Brim’s battalion, that’d be great.’
‘Something the matter, colonel?’
‘No. It’s just that you only just received the mantle of battalion leader from Alder a few days ago and you’ve already shown this much composure. Guess he was right to pass it down to you. This plan of yours could work, maybe not. I did something in mind but I will have to make some amendments to your plan before it could be considered. As for the F ranked mages, that will be possible.’
Gin smiled meekly and bowed down in gratitude. Although he showed humility to the colonel, he couldn’t help but feel ecstatic from the small win, even if her response was a bit ambiguous. He was thrust into this alien world that he never knew existed until the attack on his village, but he was determined to conquer it. It’s what his father would have wanted and what his mother would have watched with affection. Despite being a manush adult, Gin still had that child-like ambition.
‘What was the other request?’ the colonel asked.
‘Oh, right,’ Gin said, standing upright again. ‘I need a lot of moldable stone and wood and people who can create things using them.’
‘I can grant that request since we have a lot in reserve. What do you need them for?’
‘You’ll see. I’ve actually got quite a lot planned.’
‘If that’s the case, then I’ll enjoy finding out what you will do. Is that all for today?’
‘Then you are dismissed.’
Gin bowed once more and Maria watched as he left the room. She enjoyed watching his progress from behind the scenes. She felt like she was his guardian and wanted to nudge him in the right direction but Gin had been doing that by himself, without any help. Even when Alder was leaving and Gin didn’t come to see him off, it turned out that instead of sulking (like all adolescents would have upon losing a role model), he was busy drawing up plans for both the squadron and his battalion.
Despite his rise in responsibilities seemed to be going too fast, Gin seemed to make rational decisions, acting calm and responsibly as if he was an experienced man. Maybe Gin wasn’t in puberty and actually was an adult like he tries to tell her. But an adult at thirty-three? That’s impossible! Maria couldn’t convince herself and continued her opinion of Gin being an immature child.
With his requests over and done with, Gin headed outside the Rezah tree, dreading the climb back down to the lowest floor, where he had gathered his battalion together for special training. Though the rooms used for training were very realistic, they could never compare to the feeling of nature’s wind blowing across your face, cooling those enveloped by the warm air at the expense of sand getting in fur and eyes.
With a few members yet to come, Gin decided to start. He ordered everyone to get into a standard block formation. With only a hundred at his disposal, he didn’t have much flexibility in what formations he could create. The ten by ten block would have to do for now. Gin stood at the front and got everyone’s attention. Their faces were filled with doubt and confusion, as they looked towards their new battalion leader. Gin felt the same. Not long ago, he stood by the others as equals, but now he was an unproven leader.
‘As you know, Alder has retired and he has made me his replacement,’ Gin began, taking a firm approach. ‘I can see from a few of you that you either disapprove or are uncertain of the decision, even resulting in some becoming tardy or unwilling to turn up to my training. My aim is to change your minds and to gain your trust. I will say one thing, however, and that is that my methods will be different from what you’ve experienced in the past. Everyone understand?’
Gin saw a few nods and heard a few mumbled yeses. He wasn’t sure what tone he should have spoken in. Should he have been harsh? Should he have been lax? Or maybe a more forceful approach would have been best. Instead, he opted for what felt more natural.
‘I’m presuming this is the first time you’ve ever been brought outside for training, right?’ Gin continued followed by more disgruntled words of agreement. ‘Well, I brought everyone here for some sparring training. After each spar, I would like you to go to over to the man over there.’
Gin pointed to Michal, who stood outside of the formation, right next to surface roots from the tree.
The battalion began to talk amongst themselves. The main topic of interest was ‘sparring’. Gin sighed a breath of annoyance. It seemed that, even within Squadron W, sparring was an uncommon practice. Why did Alder only spar with me and not with the others in his battalion? Gin thought, beginning to think that he should expel any confusion.
‘It seems that no one wants to spar. I’ll be honest with you here. I find it weird that training, sparring and any other form of improving one’s battle prowess, apart from when you are raised in the MBP, is not practised at all. Are we not in times of war? If so, shouldn’t we strive to be the best, even during adulthood?
Of course, the MBP has told us that we can’t improve once we hit adulthood. But with my relatively unorthodox methods, we will dispel that notion and reach new heights! But that’s not what you want as an answer, I’m sure. To explain why I want to spar is one thing, but to show its effects is another.
If we looked at the overall stats of everyone, I would lose to each of you. But I really want to show you why I support my methods. Therefore, I will fight everyone in a one v one. Sound impossible? Well, let’s see. First on the list is Emily Blunt. Would you step forward.’
A chubby woman stepped up. She had holes in the palm of her pale-skinned hands and the sags of skin seemed wobble with every step. She found it hard to walk, but Gin waited with patience for her to get to a large square-shaped open space he had set up as the arena, using his blades to carve the outlines. The rest of the battalion gathered around while Gin and Emily faced each other.
‘Oh, before we begin, Michal could you bring gauntlet type beta for Emily to wear?’ Gin asked.
Michal nodded, hopping over the tree root, rummaging through stone equipment he hid behind, out of sight from the battalion. He picked out a gauntlet with a convex cone attached to the centre, a hole at the very tip, and joints held together by an array of flexible vines.
‘This one?’ Michal asked.
‘Yep!’ Gin confirmed.
‘Um, sir. You want me to use that?’ Emily questioned, followed by a few sniggers from the crowd, prompting her to add, ‘I don’t want to.’
‘Heh. Then why not stop me as you are now. Demonstrate the power of an E rank water elemental. Don’t worry, I won’t dodge.’
Blades. Shields. Gin activated his INS and charged at Emily. In response, she held out her hand and fired a weak stream of water that couldn’t even reach Gin until he got into range, taking the full force of the attack. However, the water didn’t even leave a dent in Gin’s shirt let alone the armour he held beneath it. It was an easy victory as Gin held his blade’s tip against Emily’s neck, startling her into falling onto the floor.
‘The holes on your hand are too loose, too large and not suited to damage others. You expect to fight with that level of ability?’ Gin criticised.
‘I know!’ Emily shrieked. ‘This is why I’m low-ranked! Are you happy that you beat an E rank with your high-ranked abilities?’
The other members of the battalion looked away in self-pity. Why do they think I’m high-ranked? Gin took a deep breath and decided to dispel the notion.
‘Take away my weapons and shields, take away my Xernims, take away my armour and what am I afterwards? A person who’s weaker than anyone else on Earth. Yet all of you blame your weakness when you could just as easily improve by setting aside your conditioned pride like I, not to mention the very leader you loyally followed before me, have.’
‘I know I’m sounding harsh, but how about you wear the armour and see the difference for yourself? I’m not forcing you to keep it if you don’t like it?’
‘Fine,’ Emily pouted.
With the help of Gin, she rolled her way back onto her feet and trudged her way to Michal who handed her the gauntlet. She slotted the gauntlets over her hands, surprised by how snug they felt, especially the cone that fitted over the cusps on her hand without causing pain.
‘Go for a test run,’ Gin suggested, the rest of the battalion watching on with eager gazes.
Emily nodded, holding her arm up straight, aiming right at Gin who stood outside her range. She aimed and fired, taken aback by how streamlined the water became, tripling in its initial range and power. Gin blocked the attack with his shield, smiling at the success.
‘This…’ Emily muttered.
‘What? Don’t like it? We can take it o-’
‘Oops. Sorry, I got too presumptuous there,’ Gin said, not showing how smug he was, causing Emily to cover her mouth in embarrassment.
‘Shall we get on with the next step and spar then?’
Though only a handful of mages looked as impressed, Gin had grabbed the attention of everyone. Perfect. He stood on one edge while Emily stood in the centre of the circle. With blades, shields and armour at the ready, there was one more thing to say.
‘The rules are simple. Your aim is to knock me out or even kill me. I, on the other hand, have to be in a position to assure my victory. You can’t go out of the makeshift arena as well. Understand?’ Gin explained, with Emily nodding in agreement. ‘Pay attention everyone! Let’s begin.’
Gin beckoned Emily to make the first move. He saw that she was nervous. It was probably her first time fighting someone with her new capabilities so it was only natural. She was also an E ranked water elemental, so he didn’t expect her to have much confidence. But despite all that, she raised her hands at aimed straight at Gin who just grinned in return. He knew what she wanted to do. He was just a melee ranged Xernim user, after all.
Gin used his shields to immediate effect as Emily fired a jet of water right at him. He deflected the water out of harm’s way, recoiling a bit by the impact. If it had hit him directly, he wouldn’t even be sure whether his chest plate would have protected him.
Gin then made his move, rushing at Emily. She panicked and aimed both her arms at him, firing two piercing streams. Gin ran in a circle around her, avoiding the water in the process. His speed outpaced her aim and she couldn’t keep up. Gin watched her as he ran. Her sags of flesh seemed to deplete and when they looked to be gone altogether, he shifted his weight to his feet, changing directions and ran straight at her.
Emily thought this was her chance and tried to send a large blast of water at him but it came to nothing. Nothing came out of her hands. She had used all her water reserves. Before she knew it, Gin had a blade at her neck.
‘As you can see, I win that,’ Gin remarked. ‘Now here’s the part where I tell you where you can improve in the future.’
Gin lowered his blade at his speechless opponent. Her gauntlets fell as the stone armour no longer fit on her shrivelled arms, causing a cloud of dust to rise up from the ground upon impact.
‘I want everyone to listen up. It will help you in your future battles as well as give you ideas on your own battle techniques,’ Gin continued. ‘Emily here is obviously a water elemental. When facing her you can see that the bloated skin she had the beginning deflated during our spar. I figured this out ages ago but those sags of skin are probably her water supply, right? Once that ran out, I went for the finishing move with success. I didn’t rush things. If I did, I was sure to get hurt.’
‘There’s probably some work that could be done on the gauntlets,’ Michal admitted after watching the fight, contemplating on what could be improved. ‘They shouldn’t slide off at the end like that.’
‘True,’ Gin agreed, turning back to Emily. ‘Now, my advice to you is that you need to be more conservative in your water usage. Use it when you’re sure to do damage or if you aim to move them to a certain location. You just continued your assault while I just ran in circles. There was a lot of wastage. If in battle, you run out of water, you will become useless and a hindrance to us. Do I make myself clear?’
She took everything into account and nodded once more at Gin without saying a single word. It seemed that Gin got a loyal follower in his ideology already. One down, roughly a hundred to go, Gin thought.
‘Now, the rest of you will probably still have doubts and thought that I fixed that battle. So, as I said, I will take the rest of you on. Emily, go to Michal and he will suit you up. Next up is Ritordo.’
Gin went through the same process again. Equip armour on his next opponent, fight, win, and give advice at the end. With each fight, he gained another person who looked up to him. They were going to get stronger as a result and Gin enjoyed engineering that.
By the Fiftieth spar, Gin’s large pool of stamina began to show signs of reaching its limit. His movements were slower. His reactions weren’t as sharp as before. He started getting hit and as he won his sixtieth match, he was covered in cuts, bruises and burns. But he soldiered on. The adrenaline that flowed through him carried him through the pain. His desire to make his battalion accept him allowed Gin to speak and give advice with a smile.
With just less than twenty to go, his battalion stopped him from continuing, his legs shaking from exhaustion, his stance no longer existed. The battalion didn’t want him to overexert himself, telling him to rest instead. Gin accepted with glee and collapsed to the ground. He wondered what he was going to do for the next training session.
Gin woke up to the sight of Joan. He was propped up on her lap, in a room he had never seen before. It was circular instead of the standard rectangular shape. Apart from that, and a few containers with fluids on the shelf, that Gin presumed was for medicinal purposes, the interior was similar to Gin’s own room. He looked up once more to see that Joan had a needle in hand and was concentrating. Gin felt a sharp pain as the needle, which turned out to be a detached nail, went through his face.
‘Don’t move. Don’t talk,’ Joan ordered, ‘or you’ll make me mess up.’
Gin followed her instructions. He was too tired to do anything anyway. The feeling of lying on a person’s lap felt nostalgic. The last time he did it was when he was a child on his mother’s lap. It was nice, apart from the pain of Joan’s stitches.
‘Ok. All done,’ she said.
Gin remained where he was. His eyes were closed and body relaxed. He didn’t hear Joan and completely missed her look of annoyance. She waited a few more moments before giving up and bashed him in the head with her fist.
‘Ow! What was that for?’ Gin exclaimed, getting up immediately.
‘Everything,’ Joan frowned.
‘Yeah…repeating the word doesn’t help me understand, Joan.’
‘You’re just an idiot, Gin.’
‘Because I got injured again?’
‘No! It’s because you decide to get injured –’
‘That’s what I just said.’
‘Let me finish for goodness sake! You go and decide to do something that will obviously get yourself hurt and you never tell me! I’m your medic. You need me! Do. You. Understand. Now?’ Joan shouted, tapping Gin’s forehead for each word on her final sentence.
‘Don’t give me the ‘but I got Wo, I don’t need you’ nonsense. He does absolutely nothing. He wants you to suffer for the sake of his amusement.’
Gin wanted to say something in defence, but the more he recalled his memories of Wo, the more he remembered of all the teasing, bullying and pranks he pulled on him. Even when he was being forced fed mage meat, Wo stood there and enjoyed the scene. Gin realised that he couldn’t defend Wo.
‘Look, Gin. What I was trying to get across to you, is that I want you to tell me what you plan to do. I know how stubborn you are. I know how much you strive for self-improvement. I know how annoying it must feel for you to be a low-ranked mage. Why else would you decide to get a Xernim? But I just want to be there when you overdo it.’
Gin remained silent, processing what Joan had just said. When did she get so accepting? He wondered, half-believing that this was a strange dream of his. However, the pain he felt throughout his body said otherwise.
‘Yeah, I don’t approve of half the things you do,’ Joan resumed, taking her own words into account and adding to them. ‘I also have this feeling you just don’t want me telling you not to do this or that. So, I won’t. I will just be your support and when you get hurt, I will treat you on the spot, so you don’t have to come to be bleeding like this time. Or any time for that matter. I have been doing so for the last few months anyway.’
‘How did I get here, wherever I am?’ Gin asked, trying to take the subject.
‘You’re in my room. Some people from your battalion brought you here. I guess your self-abuse paid off this time. They seemed worried, wondering when you would be available for sparring again.’
Gin breathed a sigh of relief. That confirmed their trust in him. They also wanted to spar again so they at least accepted his new method of training. The only thing Gin forgot to do was ask Michal how the armour was doing. He could do that later. For now, he wanted to rest. The training session took a greater toll than he had anticipated. The high he felt during the session crashed down into the draining low now. But before giving in to his body’s desire, he wanted to ascertain one more thing.
‘Do you really mean it when you said you won’t tell me what to do?’ Gin asked.
‘Mmm. Probably not. I’ll show my frustration here and there, but I couldn’t stop you even if I wanted to. Alder’s gone too so I can’t use him like last time. Remember to eat your meat rations!’
‘Yes. Yes. I guess that’s as good a deal as I’ll get with you. Mind if I sleep now?’ Gin asked as he rolled onto the ground and off of Joan’s lap.
‘Sure. Make sure you recover properly. I’ll just go rest in your room.’
‘Do you need my -’
‘I have keys to your room,’ Joan interrupted, standing up and leaving the room.
‘Of course you do,’ Gin remarked before going to sleep.
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