Gin sidestepped a diagonal swing, keeping his balance, steeling himself for the next barrage of attacks. Alder told him to dodge, not that he had a choice in the matter. With his INS taken away, Gin didn’t have a way to defend himself.
Alder picked up the pace. Gin ducked below the first strike then rolled out of the way for the second. The relentless speed kept him on his toes as he leapt back to avoid a guillotine-like attack. He managed to avoid each swing, noticing Alder’s repetitive movements.
A sudden lunge threw Gin off, but his reactions didn’t fail him. He stepped back, turning just as Alder reached him, allowing the blade to glide past him.
However, despite the dodge, Gin landed on a stray tree root that tripped him up. Alder took the opportunity, knocking him over with the blunt side of his blade.
‘Dammit!’ Gin exclaimed.
‘Cheer up, brat,’ Alder consoled. ‘Most can’t even get past the five-minute mark against me. You achieving eleven minutes this time is very commendable. A major improvement on the three minutes on your first go.’
With his back drenched from the marsh-like floor, Gin took a breather. He clenched his teeth in annoyance. Having done the same exercise for a month, with no deviation, it got to him. Not only that but Alder refused to give the INS back. What was he doing with them? Gin wondered. Whatever it was, he had enough. He didn’t say anything up till now but he knew he had to speak up sooner or later or he would achieve nothing.
‘When are you going to give me my weapons back? It’s already been four weeks and all we’ve been doing is the same thing day after day.’
‘You need experience, brat,’ Alder explained. ‘Repetition enables your body to act instinctively allowing you to think up strategies while your body is in auto-pilot. If the enemy can’t touch you, you won’t lose.’
‘If I can’t defeat the enemy, I can’t win either. Your point?’
‘Have faith. You’re improving with each passing day. Everything is being done according to plan.’
‘A plan you’ve never explained to me. Not only have you gone with such mediocre methods for both me and the battalion but you don’t even listen to any suggestions I put forward. You’ve even taken me out of battalion training for some stupid reason of yours. If you really wanted me to improve, I should be joining them! If I knew my month would end up like this, I would have accepted your offer to leave your battalion.’
‘Impatient and arrogant as always, brat,’ Alder shook his head in disappointment.
Gin didn’t respond to the insult. It wasn’t anything new, like a catchphrase of sorts. The words became meaningless and easy to drown out. On the other hand, they proved to be a good indicator of whenever Alder got frustrated.
Or maybe that was just Gin’s own frustration pouring out. He liked progress and efficiency. When neither existed, he found no point in continuing. A month of dodging practice just to gain eight minutes of survival against Alder? It almost made Gin laugh at how pitiful his improvement was. What made things worse was how Alder didn’t tell him a thing about what he’s doing with his INS.
‘You remind me a lot like myself two hundred years ago,’ Alder said, sitting down beside Gin.
‘Alder. Don’t you think it’s too soon to open up to me?’ Gin interrupted. ‘Do you normally talk about your past for someone you’ve barely taught?’
‘Let me continue. I have my reasons, brat.’
So? Doesn’t affect me. Wait. Two hundred years? Just how old can mages be? Gin wondered, sparking a new curiosity. Though he didn’t want to hear the Alder’s monologue, something prevented him from leaving either.
‘I was trained under Maria’s predecessor, the previous colonel of squadron W,’ Alder said, taking Gin’s silence as an excuse to tell his story. ‘I was desperate to fight in the war that’s been going for more than a thousand years now.’
Thousand years, huh? Really does put the manush’s peace into perspective, Gin thought.
‘Yes, I remember how it was back then.’ Alder continued. ‘I was rash and rarely wanted to do as my mentor asked when I first started. Just like you now. Did you know we had sparred a total of one-thousand-five-hundred-and-ninety-two times? I have lost all but two of them. Even the two I didn’t was down to her needing to leave mid-fight.’
‘Sounds like she had a strong ability,’ Gin commented. ‘Almost makes me want to meet her. Almost.’
‘She’s no longer around, so that’s impossible anyway.’
A silence followed. Gin glanced at Alder to see what could be on his mind. Though his armour hid any emotion, Alder’s sigh showed that he was in deep thought.
‘One more lesson,’ Alder said at last.
‘What?’ Gin responded, sitting up to face Alder eye to eye.
‘One more lesson, in one week, and then I’ll give you the liberty to decide if you want to quit training under me. Also, the equipment I’ve made for blade boxing should be done by then. If you don’t like them, I can remove the changes. My Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host is helping me.’
‘Xernim? The colonel told me you’re a Xernim user but I never got around to asking what that was.’
‘You don’t know?’
Alder extended his arm. Branches grew out of his armour before they degraded just as quickly. They moved, forming hooks and needles. Gin analysed the shapes. They were too intricate to be premade like the blades. Then it hit him.
‘Your armour’s alive, isn’t it?’ Gin asked.
‘It feeds off me and in return it provides me offence and defence,’ Alder confirmed.
‘Hold on. You’re telling me a parasite is working on my INS?’
‘I trust it more than I trust you.’
‘Oh. Great. Thanks for the support,’ Gin replied in a sarcastic manner. ‘You still haven’t told me what they’re doing to my INS.’
‘Again, I’m asking you to wait,’ Alder replied with a firmness that put Gin off.
Another silence allowed Gin to process his thoughts. The lack of information from Alder still annoyed him but his initial eagerness to find out about blade boxing remained, albeit dwindling due to the time wasted.
Gin’s desire to find out what made a mage a mage and not a manush also floated around in his sea of unanswered questions. Although he made significant progress in the past, he was stumped for the time being. This might be the thing he needed to boost his research.
‘Fine,’ Gin said with a wry smile. ‘This better be worth it.’
‘Is that it for today then?’
‘Yes. You are dismissed. I’ll join you for battalion training a little late today.’
Gin got up from the floor, not saying a word more to Alder. As he left the room, he saw the colonel standing outside. Gin gave her a nod of respect before heading to his room. Once again, he needed a change of clothes.
When he arrived, Gin noticed that his room’s door was left ajar. Knowing who did it, Gin slammed the door wide open. As he expected, Joan sat on his bed, preparing some medication.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ Gin murmured, pretending he had no idea it was her that snuck in.
‘I’ve been at your side until you’ve recovered and this the reaction I get?’ Joan retorted.
‘Sorry. I’m a bit peeved today. Anyway, you were meant to stop when I fully recovered.’
‘That was the plan.’
‘Then why are you back?’
‘A high ranked mage from squadron A itself decided to transfer to our squadron.’
Gin didn’t know the importance of the different squadrons but, based on the alphabetical ordering, he assumed that squadron A were the big shots of the Eurasian army. Yet another thing about the mages Gin had to find out.
‘That still doesn’t explain anything,’ Gin criticised.
‘Well, apparently this guy said he wanted to be your medic specifically,’ Joan explained.
‘I know, right? Maria found it fishy too and told the man that you already had a medic.’
‘An obvious lie.’
‘Yep. But to make it into the truth, she told me to be your medic for real until we sort things out. By the way, your clothes have been dripping this whole time,’ Joan pointed out, handing Gin a new set of clothes.
Gin looked down to see a small puddle forming below him. He took the clothes and put them on straight away. Taking a seat at his desk, Gin continued the conversation.
‘Do you know who this person is?’
‘Nope. Do you?’ Joan questioned.
‘I don’t think so,’ Gin said, stroking his beard. ‘Unle- Oh no. Joan, do you know where he might be?’
‘Um, I’m not sure. Probably looking for you.’
‘I have a bad feeling about this. Got to go.’
‘Wait. Where are you go-’
Before Joan could finish her question, Gin had already dashed for it, forgetting to close the door behind him. He rushed back to the marshy room. But before he could he noticed that a small crowd formed outside the room, blocking the entrance.
As Gin forced his way through the sea of mages, a hand grabbed hold of his shoulder. He swivelled, turning to see Michal indicating that he should follow him. Gin complied, taking a detour around the room and into a corridor on the side.
‘There’s a gap in the wall,’ Michal whispered, pointing to the spot.
Michal went into a crawl, entering the hole with Gin following. Light seeped through openings between the branches inside the wall. The branches themselves stuck out of the passageway, cutting Gin whenever he got careless.
‘Stop,’ Michal instructed.
‘Where are we?’ Gin asked.
‘The East side of the marsh-room. The Rezah is growing slowly in this spot, so we can use this passageway to have a peek.’
‘How did you even-’
‘A few of us found out about it and watched some of your lessons with Alder in our spare time. You’re pretty agile, aren’t you?’
‘Shouldn’t you be more focused on creating item seven?’
‘Aha. That one’s taking a while. It keeps collapsing under the weight.’
‘Excuses,’ Gin joked.
Gin shuffled to the side of Michal, who placed his foam-laden fingers on the wall. The wood eroded away, making places for them to spy from. Two men stood face to face in the centre of the room. One of them was Alder while the other was a lanky man with pale yellow skin. His white hair was long enough to cover his eyes but a clip held them back.
‘Why does he have to be here?’ Gin grumbled.
‘Do you know him?’ Michal questioned.
‘He’s called Wo. Let’s just say I’ve known him from the moment I was born.’
‘Oh, the MBP bred you two in the same batch?’
‘Not quite but never mind that. From the looks of things, I think they’re going to fight.’
Alder unsheathed his serrated blade. With the eyes of spectators watching him, Alder made the first move. He took a few steps forward, assessing his opponent. Then with a burst of pace, he leapt from his spot, twisting his body to put him in a position to strike while making sure he could dodge any sudden counter.
However, before he could swing his sword, the weapon in his hand began rotting away, as if it was being consumed by some invisible force. Alder threw it away, more by instinct than by choice, as the blade disappeared, leaving no trace of its existence.
Wary of Wo, Alder backtracked a couple of steps, gaining distance once more. He reached to a pocket in his armour and placed his right hand in it for a few seconds. Wo looked on, raising an eyebrow when Alder’s hand emerged empty-handed. Alder raised his arm but Wo remained motionless and instead put on a grin.
An orb went flying towards Wo at an alarming speed. A direct hit would most definitely pierce an enemy and Wo did not have time to dodge it. However, Alder’s eyes widened when the orb began to disintegrate just as it reached Wo.
Wo’s grin turned into a smirk. He just stood there with his hands in his trouser pockets as if nothing happened. Wo began laughing.
‘What’s so funny?’ asked Alder.
‘You are way too similar to Gin, not gonna lie,’ Wo responded, their conversation just about audible to Gin and Michal. ‘Well, Gin asked me to test a weapon design. He must have told you about the INS, right? Anyway, he asked me to test something out and it works exactly like what you did now.’
Wo picked a metallic cuboid out of his pocket. An INS. He pushed his finger through one of the holes and the cuboid began to change shape. On one side, the cuboid began to elongate and narrow, leaving a circular hollow chamber in the end. On the other side, the INS began to curve downwards leaving three holes, where Wo had his fingers inserted in.
‘What is that?’ Alder asked.
‘Gin called it a “gun”. If I press my finger in the second hole and aim at this tree…’
A large banging sound echoed around the room. The once healthy tree now had a small hole running through its trunk. Sap oozed out of the gap, like blood out of a wound, showcasing the damage inflicted.
‘Did you manage to see that?’ Wo inquired.
‘A small pellet came out of the INS, right?’ Alder replied.
‘Good eye. Probably not as powerful as your version but good enough to leave a mark.’
‘Then how did you not get hurt from my shot?’
‘I don’t want to reveal my secrets in front of soooooo many people,’ Wo said, smirking at the crowd.
The mages took the hint. They dissipated, some slower than others, gossiping amongst themselves. They enjoyed the fight and the talk of an overpowered mage in their squadron gave them an exciting prospect.
‘Shall we get going too?’ Gin asked Michal.
‘I want to find out what he was bred to do,’ Michal rejected.
‘I can tell you later myself.’
‘Where’s the fun in that?’
‘Alright,’ Gin sighed.
They turned their attention back to the people in the room. Alder checked the entrances for any remaining people that decided to stick around.
‘So?’ Alder prompted.
‘Hmm. Yeah, I should tell you, since you will be my in-charge soon. I’m a utility category mage, type: medic,’ Wo explained.
‘But medics –’
‘But medics can’t do that, right? Well, I am a sort of special medic. Although you can’t see it, I am surrounded by a special type of microorganism. Much like your Xernim, I was bred to be born with it. It eats away at objects, both living and dead, at quite a quick pace. Your bullet was too slow to harm me. I can’t do healing like some other medics but I do specialise in being an anti-poison slash Xernim slash virus type medic, so I do have my niche. It also allows me to be one of the few medics who can fight. Want a demonstration?’
Before Alder could say anything, Wo had already walked to the Eastern wall. He pointed his palm towards the wall. A fuzzy yellow mist formed around his hands. The mist then exploded, flying towards the wall, eating away at it and revealing the pair that hid behind it.
‘Oh, hi Gigi!’ Wo greeted.
‘Gigi?’ Alder and Michal said at the same time.
‘This is exactly why I wanted to leave earlier,’ Gin complained as water trickled around his thigh. ‘Wo, please. Could you not?’
‘Could I not what?’ Wo replied, his grin as big as ever.
‘Not make my social life hell like you always have,’ Gin specified, helping Michal up from the floor.
‘I don’t know. When someone’s as easy to tease as you, my answer’s no. My. Dear. Gigi.’
‘Ugh. You make me want to puke every time you do that.’
‘I see you two are good friends,’ Alder said.
‘We’re not,’ Gin scowled.
‘Awwww. How could you break my heart like this, Gigi,’ Wo fake-cried, grabbing Gin around the shoulders and threatening to hit him with kisses.
Gin glanced back. He could tell Michal wanted to laugh to his heart’s content but remained silent for the time being. However, when Alder burst out in laughter, the room chorused with the other mages joining in at Gin’s expense.
‘Is this what you’ve been doing all this time I was running around, looking for you?’
The noise died down as the men looked towards the entrance of the room. There they found Joan walking towards them. She directed a scowl right at Gin who averted his eyes.
‘I think I’ll go now,’ Michal said, scared by Joan’s expression and not wanting to be drawn in by what was going to happen. ‘I need to make some stuff as you asked.’
‘Traitor,’ Gin griped.
‘Hey, Gigi,’ Wo whispered. ‘A woman looking for you with an annoyed look on her face? You sure work fast.’
‘It’s not what you think,’ Gin defended himself. ‘She’s just my medic.’
‘Ooooh. I understand. But glad you picked yourself a bit. I made the correct decision sending you here. Hopefully you can find a sense of purpose and reason by being here. Better than the hollow shell you were before.’
‘Do I need a purpose and reason to be in squadron W?’ Gin gave an unimpressed look while hiding his surprise by the sudden father-like words coming out of Wo’s mouth. ‘Plus since when was I a hollow -’
‘What are you two talking about in secret?’ Joan interrupted.
Wo let go of Gin, giving him a mischievous smile as he did so. He went up to Joan, grabbed her by the hand and gave it a small peck. Joan snatched it away just as suddenly, grossed out by the stranger’s action.
‘Very unladylike,’ Wo remarked. ‘I see why you like her, Gigi.’
‘Um, Gin, who is this man?’ Joan asked, cradling her hand, bemused by what is going on.
‘My name is Wontiferus Poxim. Pleasure to meet you,’ Wo replied in Gin’s stead, bowing as he did so.
‘Just call him Wo Pim,’ Gin suggested.
‘Seriously? This is the guy everyone’s talking about?’ Joan said in shock.
‘The one and only. Did you miss the show I put on? I can do it again if you like,’ Wo smirked as he began inspecting Joan. ‘And you’re the one that took my role from me, aren’t you?’
Joan looked at Gin. From her expression, Gin translated the look as “This guy’s definitely crazy”. He agreed and shrugged to show it. They didn’t know where to go from their mutual impression of Wo and the silence made the situation even more awkward.
‘Ahem,’ Alder said, breaking the deadlock. ‘Maria wanted to speak with you by the end of the day, Wontiferus.’
‘Did she now?’ Wo said, stopping his inspection. ‘Well, it can’t be helped. Lead the way, battalion leader guy.’
Wo walked beside Alder out of the room. But before he left he signalled to Gin, giving him an “OK” sign followed by a thumbs-up.
‘How do you know this guy again?’ Joan asked.
‘Don’t ask. It’s a long story,’ Gin responded.
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