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Gin didn’t know how to react to the pile of boxes on his bed. Each and every one of them had the same, mage-meat-filled, premade meal. On top of it all was a letter, written by Joan with handwriting so horrendous that Gin ruffled his face, trying to figure out the message. Even then, the legible words were written as they were pronounced, rather than their correct spelling.
The letter contained instructions and warnings, ranging from how to eat the food to, in her own words, “Dont you dare get badly hert or Ill kill you insted”. So much for her enjoying being my medic, Gin thought, reminiscing on what the colonel said the other day. As he read further, he concluded that the rest of the letter was just as bad. Granted, Gin wasn’t perfect in his own prose, but at least it was miles above this atrocity. It reminded Gin of how Joan left in a not-so-peaceful-manner.
‘They need to practise or we’ll be outclassed,’ he said at the time.
‘We need them healthy. I.E. not in the pathetic state you leave them in after each session,’ she snapped back, in front of the entire battalion.
‘They won’t be efficient if they ease up on the training.’
‘They won’t be efficient if they get injured pointlessly.’
‘There’s a point in practice!’
‘There’s a point in resting, too!’
There was no chance of winning against her, so Gin conceded. He didn’t believe he was wrong. Just that Joan put out valid arguments. There’s a difference in his mind. But, with that scene put into the back of his mind, Gin focused on the task ahead. He equipped his Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its hosts with blades and shields, loaded his belt with the INS and put on the stone chest plate Michal made for him.
‘You in there Gigi?’ Wo called.
Wo barged in without neither letting Gin finish his sentence nor putting on the armour. He carried two small capsules in his hands, throwing both to Gin. They had a ‘do not use unless emergency’ label on them.
‘What are these?’ Gin asked, catching both of the capsules and inspecting them.
‘The last of your nanobot-boosters,’ Wo replied in a solemn tone.
‘Thought so. Are they really what’s left?’
‘We didn’t bring that many when we left the village. You had to use two when you were in a coma as well. We didn’t even bring the machine that makes them with us. If something similar happens again, you’ll only be able to recover once. Get another fatal injury after that and you probably won’t live.’
‘All the more reason for us to go back to my village, no?’
‘I’ll ask the colonel to allow a side mission once your battle is done.’
‘Does she know?’
‘That you’re a manush? No,’ Wo rejected the notion, sitting on the bed before continuing, ‘That’s our little secret. Not sure how everyone would react if they found out. Can’t have that now, can we?’
‘I would have expected you to joke about telling everyone.’
Wo pursed his lips, staring at Gin with the kind of intent that spoke more than any words could.
‘You’re awfully serious today, huh.’ Gin noted.
‘I’m worried about you,’ Wo replied straight away. ‘I won’t be around for this mission, so I got to make sure everything’s alright.’
‘Woah. Did not expect you to say you actually care for me. Where’s the aloof Wontiferus Poxim who mocks me that I know and don’t love?’
‘Sorry.’ Gin composed himself after enjoying the rare brief moment of power over Wo. ‘Why the sudden concern?’
‘Will you be ok?’ Wo’s response once again instant.
‘Oh. That’s what you’re getting at.’
‘After what happened all those years ago, I’m not sure how you’ll act this time.’
‘I told you already. I’m fine now. The fact that I’m letting you speak with me proves it.’
The room went silent again. Gin looked down, fiddling with his Xernim, double-checking that the INS had no room to slip out. He ignored the sympathetic gaze of what he considered his uncle turned best friend, unsure whether he wanted to talk more about their past or not.
‘Liz would be rolling in her grave if I ever caused you serious harm,’ Wo mumbled.
‘Instead, you send her son to war?’ Gin taunted.
‘Better than letting you be the fat-ass you were,’ Wo joked back.
‘There we go!’
Gin leapt from his bed and grappled Wo by the waist, knocking him down, before latching onto his head into a headlock. His target’s face turned red but in return, a smile, one that ran from ear to ear, brightened the mood for both of them.
‘Haha looks like you’ve learnt some new tricks,’ Wo wheezed, patting Gin’s arms in surrender.
‘Your age must be getting to you,’ Gin smirked, letting go of his hold.
‘I let you have that.’
‘Sure, whatever. By the way, where’s the colonel? Haven’t seen her yet and I need to do final checks on the battalion before we leave.’
‘She went and took some of the A ranks and above towards Squadron M’s base. She said she needed to get something.’
‘Huh? I wanted to ask her about something.’
‘Save it for after you’ve won. You should be going anyway, Gigi. I took too much of your time.’
‘That’s true,’ Gin said, getting up and back to his desk to tidy things up. ‘It was nice to have a decent conversation with you for once!’
‘Hey, I’m not that bad!’
‘Sure you aren’t,’ Gin replied, his voice riddled with a smug sarcasm.
‘Anyway, Good luck Gin. Win one for Eurasia, even if this is a low-level clash.’
Gin placed the nano-boosters in an INS-sized container and fitted that on his belt. With that done, he was ready. After final goodbye to Wo, Gin headed out towards the ground floor where his battalion waited for him.
The walk along the way was relatively quiet. With half of the squadron already gone and the rest were waiting outside, except a certain group of mages that remained. Their skin looked layered, like several rolls of fat, and flaky, as if to fall off any moment. There was nothing to suggest any offensive capabilities nor any defensive ones on these mages, so Gin carried on as they continued a small briefing with the colonel’s second-in-command, whose name Gin had forgotten.
It turned out those mages weren’t the only firsts for Gin. Several wooden carts and caravans, lined up and filled with food, water and material stood proud outside the Rezah. Each was assigned a lupim; smaller that Emsee’s, (Oh, that’s her name, Gin realised), but were packed with more muscle to carry the carts.
Maybe mages thought using animals don’t count, Gin thought as he wondered why the prideful mages used the Lupim3LupimA breed of dog. Large in size and often used as carriers. without hesitation. But Gin concluded that the way the mages used technology made it seem like anything made in the last three-thousand years didn’t exist. It would have been a different story had he showed them the cars from his village. The mages probably would have rejected them straight away. Probably.
A squawk drew Gin’s attention to the sky. Tinoo2TinooA breed of bird. Often used for scouting.s flew overhead, going around in circles. All of them had red plumes, and eyes that that lit up under the dark before the dawn. Their formation signalled that everyone was to stay put with only a matter of time before they change their flight pattern.
‘Gin!’ someone called out.
‘Hm?’ Gin looked towards the origin of the sound.
‘Looks like you’re all ready to go now’ Brim rushed towards him as he finished talking with members from his battalion.
‘Yeah,’ Gin agreed, double checking his equipment. ‘How long left until we leave?’
‘Still a couple more days. Most of the combatants are out though,’ Brim said, indicating to the battalions standing in a half-hearted square formation. ‘We’re just getting our supplies loaded now. Want to help out?’
‘Maybe later. My battalion is probably waiting for me.’
‘Suit yourself. Your battalion is next to the caravans anyway. Might as well accompany me.’
Gin nodded. After letting Brim have a few final words with his battalion, the pair headed towards the caravans. The usual items, like jugs of water, fruit, meat and tents, were loaded into them. However, what caught Gin’s eyes were the same, flaky-skinned mages boarding them as well. Alongside them was another new type of mage Gin had never seen before, each covered by shrubbery on their fronts and back, like a walking, talking bush.
‘Who are they?’ Gin asked.
‘Those guys? Oh, they’re our food,’ brim replied.
‘Don’t tell me you haven’t seen the utility farmer types before?’
Gin stood still for a moment, taken aback by the revelations.
‘They’re the farmers?’ he tried to say in a calm manner but still failed to hide his shock.
‘Why are you so surprised? What did you expect?’
‘People with a plot of land and tools,’ Gin said, causing Brim to raise an eyebrow.
‘I don’t even want to know where you get these ideas. But no. The flabby ones provide us with the meat, and the ones with the bushes grow fruits on their body.’
The thought, that even the fruits were tainted by the mages, made Gin’s stomach churn in rejection to the “vegetarian” meal he ate for breakfast. Did that count as cannibalism? He already tried to boycott the meat, but now he didn’t know if the fruit and vegetables were safe to eat either. Both the meat and plants tasted amazing and he was assured they were good for his health too. There wasn’t a reason not to eat them. Why did it still feel so wrong? Gin wondered.
‘Alright. This is where we part ways,’ Brim said. ‘You’re free to come and help out after you’re done.’
‘Sure,’ Gin replied, trying to forget what he just witnessed.
‘Oh! Forgot to give you this.’
Brim handed Gin over several cuboid-shaped stone containers. Gin opened one and smelt the distinct aroma of a fire elemental’s sweat. He drowned himself in the stench, taking away the thoughts of his newfound dietary issues, anticipating how he could incorporate the mage-oil into his blade boxing.
‘Thanks! Can’t wait to use them,’ Gin said.
‘Still, don’t know what you plan on doing with them,’ Brim responded.
‘Oh, they’re so I can continue my winning streak and lead against you to fifty forty-two.’
‘It’s forty-seven forty-five’
‘I’m still winning,’ Gin’s scoff showed its effectiveness as Brim grimaced under the truth.
The distant calls for Gin made him look up to the sight of a few battalion members beckon their leader. He returned a faint smile before turning back to a salty Brim.
‘Heh. Looks like everyone wants to speak to me today.’
‘It’s fine. Go meet them. I’ll continue loading the cargo.’
‘Sorry I couldn’t help.’
‘No problem,’ Brim waved before making his way to his duties. ‘Take care!’
With their temporary parting, Gin headed towards his battalion. Once they all noticed him, Gin’s battalion went into a block formation within seconds, granting a satisfying feeling at how disciplined they became, proving that the training paid off. It also allowed an easy method of counting attendance. The maths was simple, counting the rows multiplied by the columns, or at least it was for Gin. Joan’s letter made him question whether the mages got any proper education in basic subjects like English and Mathematics. The mages didn’t care though, wearing their new armour with pride. They looked stronger. They felt stronger. Their arrangements within the formation only sought to complement each other, with the mid-ranged (long-ranged mages were part of the artillery team) in the rear and the beefy, melee-only, mages as front-liners and the agile, vulnerable mages acted as support in the middle.
‘Um. Leader, sir?’
Gin hadn’t realised that he got lost in admiration of his own efforts. When he snapped out of it, he saw the new stone elemental. As he examined him, Gin realised that the mage’s stone exoskeleton acted like a mask. You couldn’t see his face, or any body part for that matter, apart from his hazel-brown eyes.
‘Do I know you?’ Gin queried.
‘Oh. No. I don’t think so. Actually, yes. I bumped into you once. I’m Sam.’
The voice was muffled through the mask. It was still audible though but had a rough sound. It still didn’t help Gin remember who this person was, but he decided that he’d play along.
‘And you’re here because?’ Gin asked.
‘Right. I was told to be your handyman. I help carry your stuff,’ Sam said.
‘Um. I don’t have anything for you to carry. Did someone say I needed help?’
‘No. I was in Rob’s battalion. I watched you. I liked you. I asked for a transfer. I didn’t know what I can do. I thought I could help carry stuff.’
Gin felt irked somewhat. He didn’t know why. Was it his style of speaking or the stalker-like personality Sam seemed to have? Or maybe it was the fact that it felt like talking to a golem rather than most of the mages he encountered so far.
‘Does leader not need me?’ he asked, with a little sadness in the muffled voice.
‘It’s fine. The more I command, the stronger my battalion becomes. I’ll find out your abilities later. How about you act as my messenger and help carry out my orders?’
‘Mm. Ok!’ Sam said, excitement in his body language rather than the voice. ‘Oh. Why is leader here? Why aren’t you in the caravan? Other leaders are sitting in the caravans. The Lupims will pull them. Rest of us will walk.’
Gin thought about it for a moment. He didn’t like the idea of walking for hundreds of kilometres, but he also wanted to gain the respect of his battalion even further. So that’s why Brim left his battalion to go to the caravans, he realised.
‘I’m not lazy like him. I think will walk alongside my battalion,’ Gin announced.
‘Leader is amazing! I like you more now.’
‘Thanks,’ Gin replied, turning a little red from the praise. ‘As my newly appointed messenger, mind relaying that to the other battalion members? They probably will try to make room for me.’
‘Mm. Will do!’ Sam accepted, scurrying off to tell the others.
Gin went around talking to everyone in his battalion. As D, E and F ranks, they were just as inexperienced in war as Gin was. Their nervousness showed, but as the day went on, talking with their leader calmed them down. It was the least he could do.
The chatter went on into the nights, as the mages camped outside the rezah as practice. Gin struggled setting up his tent. As a battalion leader, he was given one while the others had to sleep outside. It collapsed three times before he asked for help. How was he supposed to know that you were meant to stake down the corners first or where to put the wooden poles? His battalion laughed at his helplessness. It just meant that he was just like them; weak by himself, but his reliance on others made him strong.
They discussed tactics the following day. It was different from the usual training sessions (Gin had to, otherwise he risked facing Joan’s wrath). It got mixed opinions, from the downright bored, to those who stuck to him like a snail-like Sam who stuck right beside him, in whatever he did, watching with eager gazes through the confining mask.
Suddenly everyone went quiet and their eyes were focused onto the skies. The tinoos above them screeched a deafening sound. They dived down, before soaring back to their original heights. Two more tinoos joined the original three as they changed their formation from the circle to a V-shaped arrowhead. Gin knew what that meant.
‘Alright!’ Gin ordered. ‘Everyone into formation!’
It was time to go.
Synopsis: The online game <