As Gin waited in the corridor for the room opposite to become vacant, he made a mental note of all the mages that passed him. By now Gin could guess the type of mage someone was based on their traits. The self-imposed classification and terminology the mages possessed seemed random at first but, after his brief stay in squadron W, it began to make sense.
From Gin’s understanding, those with enhanced combat strength or animalistic abilities tended to be of the ‘bestial’ class, while the manipulators of the elements were called ‘elementals’. The mages dubbed the remaining people, who belonged to neither category, as ‘utility’.
Gin found it simple enough until he realised the categories separated further into several more subclasses. That didn’t deter him from trying to learn it all though. Instead, he grinned at the prospect of a challenge. More research for my notes, he thought.
The door opened, revealing the group of people using the room. Some had hair that covered their entire body. Others didn’t even have a single thread apart from the hair on their heads. The contrast didn’t divert Gin’s attention from how beefy both the men and women were. He gawked at the absurd size of their muscles, almost ripping into their clothes. When they passed Gin, they gave him a look of disdain, turning his amazement into confusion.
All of a sudden, something grabbed Gin’s chest. He looked down to see a person that he’d never seen before embracing him. The person’s full-bodied armour, covered with cobbled stone, dug into Gin’s body. But the strange thing about him or her (Gin couldn’t be quite sure) was that he was shorter than Gin, unlike most of the other mages.
‘Play along,’ the person said, his voice muffled under his helmet.
‘What?’ a bewildered Gin responded.
One of the mages leaving the room broke off from the rest. He walked up to Gin, giving him a distasteful glare. Long strands of hair hung from his body like a feral beast that needed to be shaved. He looked just like Varunel but without the canine snout.
‘Oi Sam,’ he barked at the armoured person. ‘What’s the meaning of this?
‘Uh, I know him. Let me be,’ Sam said, pausing mid-sentence, struggling to speak through the armour. ‘With him.’
Gin looked at Sam, his hazel eyes pleaded through two round holes in the helmet. Then he looked at the grouching man in front of him.
‘I don’t know who this is,’ Gin said, not bothered by the person’s troubles. ‘You can take him away.’
‘Eh?’ Sam whimpered. ‘But why?’
‘Sam!’ the hairy man snapped. ‘He’s part of Alder’s battalion. You know what I told you about those who train under him.’
‘B-but. Ok, fine,’ Sam conceded before turning to Gin. ‘I don’t like this you.’
‘What was that all about?’ Gin mumbled to himself, confused by that last sentence.
With the last of the mages gone, Gin entered the vacant room. The sudden change in temperature took him by surprise. Sand crept into his shoes not a moment after traversing the desert dunes the room emulated. Beads of sweat formed on his skin, the dry, windless air not helping him cool off.
‘For an arrogant brat, you sure are punctual.’
‘Heh. Alder, being on time is just a habit,’ Gin greeted his battalion leader. ‘So, this is the room we’ll be training in? It’s a bit hot. I prefer the marsh for our sparring.’
‘This, you presumptive brat, is where we have our battalion training,’ Alder clarified.
‘Oh. I finally get to meet them? It doesn’t seem like a coincidence then,’ Gin commented, sitting down only to jump straight up from the blistering heat of the sand.
‘What doesn’t?’ Alder asked, hiding his smirk under his mask.
‘I overheard people talking badly about your battalion. Is there something I should know about them?’
‘I train those that the Mage Breeding Programme refuses to teach,’ Alder began. ‘Apart from us, no squadron would accept the F or E ranked mages that come out of the MBP. Without a squadron, these low-ranked mages would simply die of starvation. Squadron W accommodates roughly fifteen-hundred of them, making up most of our roster.’
Alder sighed, sitting down on the sand, his armour protecting his body. He didn’t speak but Gin decided not to talk either. The mood didn’t allow for it.
‘Brat,’ Alder said at last. ‘I never told you about this before but, now that I have, you can leave my battalion. No one’s forcing you to train with the low-ranked. I can file a transfer if you wish.’
‘Why would I?’ Gin gave an immediate response.
‘You’re not looking down on them?’
‘I haven’t met them yet. There’s nothing to look down on.’
‘Are you sure? You’ll be associated with them for your entire stay.’
‘I’m certain,’ Gin said without hesitation ‘I’m interested in how low-ranked mages differ from their higher-ranked counterparts. Surely, there are ways they can improve. Can’t do that if I’m never with them, now can I?’
‘You’re more of a thinker rather than a doer, aren’t you?’ Alder said, not showing any emotion to Gin’s decision and instead thought of the best course of action for him. ‘I’ll have you sit out for now. I’ll be going over formations with the battalion. Learn those and soon you’ll be joining them.’
‘Fine by me.’
It didn’t take long for just over a hundred battalion members to join them. As they walked into the room, Gin couldn’t contain his fascination. From the anorexic to those covered in rolls of skin; the silky-skinned to the rough-skinned; the hairy to the bald and so on, how mankind managed to evolve into these beings was beyond Gin’s precognition.
However, though each mage differed in appearance, each and every one of them greeted Alder with respect in their eyes and smiles on their faces. Alder greeted them back. Gin could feel a sense of unity amongst them, a contrast to the pair he met earlier on.
Gin picked up on the formations with ease. Alder would call out code, a number or letter, and the battalion arranged themselves into triangles or squares. Some struggled to keep up, due to their physique hindering them, but they managed as instructed, apart from one exception.
During a break, Alder talked to a man with orange slabs of stone strapped to his arms and legs. They weighed his frail body down, bringing him to a standstill whenever a change in formation was required.
Why doesn’t he just remove the stone? Gin wondered.
After speaking with Alder, the man moved to the sidelines, away from the others. He unstrapped a stone slab from his arms and sat on the sand, somehow tolerating the heat. He stroked it several times, causing foam to appear on top.
The depressed emotion he failed to hide struck Gin as odd. For all the talk of accepting low ranked when no one else did, the man’s exclusion didn’t match Alder’s words.
‘Hey,’ Gin said, walking up to the man to find out what happened.
He looked at Gin, forcing a smile. Again, his true emotions showed. ‘Hello,’ he said in a meek voice.
‘Aren’t you taking part in the training?’ Gin asked, regretting his insensitivity the moment he said it.
‘No,’ he sighed. ‘I’m working on my ability as Alder told me to.’
Gin continued to watch him. The foam melted away at the slab, softening it up. He twisted the stone, creating a horn that hardened within seconds. Gin couldn’t comprehend the final product’s use, but he found the man’s ability to manipulate the stone intriguing.
‘That’s a cool ability,’ Gin commented.
‘Huh?’ the man replied, astonished.
‘Did I say something wrong?’
‘Uh, no. I didn’t expect you to call my ability “cool”. That’s all.’
‘You literally softened, formed a new object and let it harden. Better than anything I can do.’
The man blinked at Gin then scrunched up his eyebrows as if figuring something out. Gin let the silence go on as he took note of the second half of the training.
‘You’re the guy who lived without a heart,’ the man realised.
‘Yep,’ Gin affirmed.
‘You must be a high-ranked mage then. I think you should avoid me and the others.’
‘Alder hinted at something similar literally a few hours ago and I said no, I’m fine. Why would I want to avoid such interesting beings such as you guys? Do you know how much research I’d miss out on if I stayed in my room all day?’
The man blinked at Gin twice more then burst out in laughter. Gin followed suit, laughing alongside the new-found companion.
‘You’re not like most mages I’ve come across,’ the man said.
‘What if I’m not?’ Gin hinted at his manush heritage. ‘By the way, I’m Gin.’
‘Michal,’ the man responded.
‘Oi, brat!’ Alder called out. ‘I told you to watch, not to chatter.’
‘I have. You just went over formation five, seven and D, making a four-four triangular, six-two square and a cup shape respectively,’ Gin replied with confidence.
‘Cheeky brat,’ Alder cursed before turning to the rest of his battalion for more instructions.
‘Just wondering,’ Gin said, turning back to Michal with one eye on the training. ‘Why did Alder exclude you from training?’
‘With my slow speed, my clumsiness, the fact that I can’t maintain my foam for long, I’m nothing compared to the other stone elementals,’ Michal admitted.
‘Why not take off the stone slabs you’re wearing? They must be the reason why you can’t move as well. You don’t look that unfit otherwise.’
‘I’m an F ranked stone elemental. Without my stone, I’m even worse than an F rank. I have no purpose. I can’t fight like the other bestials or elemental types nor can I do reconnaissance like the utility types. I could tell the others feel the same way. They know they’re useless but still try to make something of themselves.’
Gin didn’t say anything. He looked at Michal then back at the battalion he joined. Though his time with them was brief, Gin could already see flaws in everyone; inefficiencies that he knew he could eradicate. In Gin’s eyes, it would be a fun experiment to conduct. His first subject was the self-loathing mage beside him.
‘How about a more support style role?’ Gin asked.
‘Huh?’ Michal responded, confused by the suggestion.
‘I want you to make something for me.’
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