Gin eyed the box in front of him, brought to him by Joan. Though he told her his wounds healed up already and had nothing to worry about, she persisted in doing the menial jobs, like collecting his food rations. It peeved him but he overlooked her unwanted actions due to the good intentions.
The box contained a few slices of meat along with vivid blue fruits. Gin couldn’t quite pinpoint the origin of the meat (the closest comparison he thought of was veal). The fruit, on the other hand, had a strange taste: a mixture of sweet, sour, and salty, but the water inside it drowned the flavour out somewhat.
With pen in his left hand and food in his right, Gin jotted down various sketches. It took some time getting used to the ink the mages used. It was thicker and took more time to dry than what he was accustomed to. He learned that the hard way, getting an ink-stained hand as a result.
‘I see Joan’s report was true.’
Recognising the colonel’s voice, Gin stood up in response to show his respect. She carried a basket which she handed over to him. Its one-sided weight caused the container tilt, making Gin wonder what it contained.
‘Very impressive, child. Very impressive indeed,’ she continued, inspecting Gin. ‘A broken arm and a missing heart recovered just like that!’
‘Thanks for the compliment, but I don’t think it was “just like that” as you put it,’ Gin scoffed.
‘I stand by my statement. Your regeneration is top tier. Even Varunel still has scars from the burns you gave him.’
‘Is that so? At least my fight wasn’t a complete loss then,’ Gin commented as he placed the basket down.
‘However, you are severely lacking in your fighting style. If not for Varunel’s whims, you wouldn’t even have touched him.’
‘I know. I know. Which is why I’m trying to come up with ideas to improve that,’ Gin indicated to his drawings.
‘Ideas are all well and good,’ the colonel said, ignoring the sketches, ‘but you lack experience, especially someone of your age, child. Fortunately, I know someone who could help.’
‘No offence, but I don’t think anyone could help with the way I fight,’ Gin argued, leaning back into the chair, ‘and, judging by how Varunel talked to me when I drew my sword, I don’t think the use of weaponry is looked favourably on.’
‘Don’t worry, child. You’d be surprised the types of people that come out of the MBP. I’ve given directions to where your battalion leader will be at five pm today. He’s a Utility Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host type mage that uses something like your sword. He’s an A rank too so I can assure you he’s of high quality. I expect you to meet him on time.’
‘I’ll see. Can’t make any promises.’
‘You will meet him today,’ she said with a piercing glare that straightened Gin’s back and corrected his posture.
‘You can drop the formalities, child. You’re one of us now. You’ve earned the right to call me Maria.’
‘Only if you stop calling me “child.”’
‘Unfortunately, I cannot do that for one as young as yourself.’
‘Then I will continue to show my respect, Colonel,’ Gin said, stressing the “colonel”.
‘That’s fine by me, child,’ the colonel replied, stressing the “child”.
When she left, Gin had a look inside the basket. The cause of the lopsidedness was a metal insignia, carved into the shape of a bird with a three-feathered plumage on its tail. From that Gin identified the species as tinoo. He found it ironic how these avian rodents managed to become Eurasia’s symbol of unity. The mages used them as couriers, but when the people of the past could communicate from their back pockets, their system of communication felt lacklustre. The most advanced piece of technology he witnessed so far was the pendulum clock on the wall, its weight swinging left to right in a hypnotic rhythm.
As he held the insignia against the flames of the torches, Gin wondered what else was different about the mages. From first impressions, they were evolved physically but primitive in their technology, a complete opposite of the manush lifestyle he was used to back in his village. His curiosity drove him. He wanted to know more; wanted to learn how the various mages ticked.
In a flash of inspiration, as he sat down at his desk, Gin wrote down a few words:
Gin’s notes #1 –
He didn’t know what to write at first. The plan of writing a book was there but the execution wasn’t as well thought out. He rocked the chair backwards, his mind deep in thought. He came up with a few ideas, writing each one down.
Gin cursed his luck. Just as he got into the flow of writing, a project he called ‘Gin’s notes’, his time was up. He needed to meet his battalion leader, so he packed up the notes, equipped the belt full of INS, then headed out using the directions the colonel gave him.
A rough map accompanied the directions, giving a brief overlay of the tree. According to it, there were three staircases that led to all hundred-or-so floors. The upper floors were designated for living while the middle levels were for training. The lowest levels were where all information was gathered and sent out. Gin had to climb down several floors, exiting when he reached the seventy-second.
Gin opened a door beside a flight of stairs, a blast of humid air hit him as he did so. His first step created a squelching sound, followed by his feet getting wet. Water rippled across the room with reeds and brushes sticking out in a sporadic array. Combined with the miniature trees, the whole room felt like it emulated a marsh.
A person sat cross-legged in the middle of the room. From a distance, he looked like the armoured man Gin saw during his test. As he got closer, Gin saw that the armour was twice as thick from before, causing him to doubt whether it really was the same armour fetishist.
‘Hello?’ Gin called. ‘The colonel sent me here.’
The man didn’t respond. He remained seated, his helmet covering all but his green eyes that stared into nothingness. Apart from the wooden armour that exhibited intricate markings, that couldn’t be noticed from a distance, he held no weaponry let alone anything like a sword. It made Gin wonder if this really was the person the colonel was talking about.
Gin tapped on the man’s shoulder. The knocking sound he created was louder than expected, yet the man didn’t even budge. Patience running thin, he gave up and went back the way he came from.
‘Oi, brat. Where do you think you’re going?’
Gin turned around. The man levered himself up. He towered over Gin, who had gotten accustomed to the fact that almost everyone was taller than him.
‘First child now brat,’ Gin sighed. ‘Look. My name is Gin Gale. For future reference, please call me Gin.’
‘I’m Alder,’ the man boomed in response. ‘For future reference, do not disturb my meditation.’
‘Alright, I understand. Won’t happen again. Can I leave now? I was doing something important and meeting you kinda ruined my flow.’
Alder stepped closer, inspecting Gin, before continuing. ‘Let’s spar.’
‘Spar? I recently recovered and now you want to put me back in a coma? I was told you have the same fighting style as me but you’re just a man in a suit. No sword, no shield, no nothing. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to waste my time.’
‘Well aren’t you quite the arrogant brat! Pay attention.’
Gin watched as Alder held his right arm up, perpendicular to his body. At first, nothing happened, but then the wood began to shift. It twisted and turned, growing at the end of his gauntlets. It stopped, taking the form of a hilt. He grabbed the hilt with his free hand, unsheathing a serrated blade from his armour.
‘No blade, eh?’ Alder showed off.
The hole created from the sheath closed. Alder’s armour twisted once more, expanded in width, creating a rectangular block.
‘No shield, eh?’
Gin responded with a single ‘heh’. He knew he was wrong and now placed his full attention on the man in front of him. The armour he wore intrigued Gin. The desire to find out how it worked lit a spark in his heart.
‘Draw your blade, brat,’ Alder commanded. ‘This is not a request.’
Gin grinned. He didn’t need a second invitation. He took out the green and red INS from his belt, activating the mechanisms to create a sword and shield.
‘Good,’ Alder praised, taking several steps backwards. ‘Then let’s begin. I’ll let you make the first move.’
Gin analysed the situation. Something about Alder’s sword unnerved him. He knew his own sword could cut through even most hardened metals. A piece of wood shouldn’t pose a problem, yet he couldn’t be certain. In all honesty, he just wanted to get this over with and the fastest way was to attack. Getting a bit of data for his notes wouldn’t hurt anyway.
Gin charged at the man. Water splashed below him with every stride. As he swung his sword, Alder parried with his own. The meeting of the swords created a thudding sound. To Gin’s surprise, the man’s sword did not break nor show any cut marks.
Gin took a few steps back then leapt forward again, sending a flurry of attacks at his opponent. However, the man blocked each attack as if he wasn’t even trying, treating Gin as if he was a complete amateur failing to make a breakthrough.
Gin managed to get past the man’s sword defence and had a chance to attack his body. But Alder had other ideas. He uppercut Gin’s sword with his shield, sending it crashing to the floor. Alder then switched to a more offensive stance, swinging his sword. Gin ducked, avoiding the attack, managed to grab his sword and strike a counter-attack on his opponent’s armour. It left a mark but it wasn’t enough to deal a winning blow just yet.
All of a sudden, Alder picked up the pace.
Gin was forced to take a few steps back. Alder sent out few but deliberate strikes. Gin lifted his shield, feeling the force of the sword. Each blow numbed his arm, but he persevered. After blocking a few more times, he felt the hardness of tree bark behind him. The man took the opportunity to swing his sword, aiming for Gin’s neck. Gin saw it in time and ducked and rolled away, dropping the shield in the process. The marsh drenched his clothes, weighing him down.
As Gin regained his balance, he heard a crashing sound. The tree behind him was now on the floor. A diagonal cut remained from where it had been severed from the trunk. In awe of what he had just witnessed, Gin only caught a glimpse of the looming threat behind him. He turned around, grabbed the green INS and activated the shield. He was just in time as his opponent clanged against the shield, forcing Gin to stagger towards the floor.
With his right arm trying to hold himself up, and his left blocking the man’s sword, Gin didn’t have too many options. The man raised his arm with the shield, the wood twisting again. Gin’s eyes widened as he knew what was to come: another sword! Unlike last time when he needed his free arm to unsheathe the blade, this time the sword sprang out. As if he’s done it a million times, Alder caught the sword mid-flight and swung it in one motion.
Gin was not in the position to block and was forced to try to leapfrog backwards in an attempted dodge. However, his movements weren’t fast enough and the sword nicked the skin on Gin’s face. Red streaks ran down his face as he fell flat on his back. The armoured man didn’t hesitate to knock Gin’s sword away as he planted his boot on Gin’s chest, making him lose any hope of getting up.
‘You’re lacking,’ Alder said, letting go of Gin. ‘Your strength is poor and your grip on your weaponry is abysmal.’
‘Thanks for the confidence boost,’ Gin retorted, wiping the blood off his face.
‘However, your speed is decent, and your reflexes are excellent.’
‘I admit that it was a good fight. Though I did feel like you were trying to kill me at one point.’
‘I was,’ Alder admitted as he went to pick up the INS he knocked out.
‘Really?’ Gin laid back into the water. For some reason, he didn’t feel surprised.
‘I wouldn’t be able to see how you coped under pressure otherwise. Now I know how to train you. You use this thing to fight, right?’ Alder said, holding up the INS.
‘Mhm. I call it the Integrated Nanobot System, INS for short.’
‘How does it work? It’s just a block now.’
‘Just put your finger in the first slot to activate the mechanism. Pretty easy to use, hard to make.’
The wooden armour receded around Alder’s hand, revealing a naked finger. He inserted it into the INS, reaching the bottom. Nothing happened.
‘Oh, I have it touch sensitive,’ Gin realised. ‘There’s another chamber below that.’
‘Is it possible to disable it?’
Gin sat up, bemused by Alder’s sudden questioning. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I’ve been thinking, brat,’ Alder said pausing for a moment.
‘What do you think about having your weapons equipped permanently. I reckon a certain style of fighting would suit you more. It’ll also help deal with your awful grip.’
‘Oh?’ Gin’s curiosity perked up. ‘I’m all for self-improvement but mind explaining further?’
‘Mmm,’ Alder pondered, debating whether to tell Gin or not. ‘I’d rather you wait but I can see you’re an impatient brat, so I’ll tell you the bare minimum. It’s called blade boxing.’
Gin thought for a moment. From the name, he could guess what blade boxing entailed. It was also a great opportunity to learn about that strange armour Alder wore first hand.
‘Fine,’ Gin accepted. ‘I’ll let you borrow one since I got a spare. Just stop calling me a brat. I don’t deserve this.’
‘With your arrogant attitude, you deserve every time I call you it.’
Another lost cause, Gin thought.
‘I’ll train you three times a week and will have you join in with the battalion training by next week too,’ Alder commanded.
‘Oh, I get to meet my battalion that soon?’
‘Most of them, yes. A few are away on a mission though.’
‘This three-way war really keeps everyone busy, huh?’
Alder looked up, lost in a train of thought, ignoring Gin’s comment. ‘I wonder how they’re doing right now,’ he muttered to himself.
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