Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host Gauntlets
Gin took his time preparing for the last lesson with Alder. He checked each INS one by one, making sure they functioned as intended. Though tedious in nature, Gin managed to work on two INS at the same time, one with his left and the other on his right. Satisfied with the maintenance, Gin slotted them into his belt and headed out.
When he arrived at the marsh room, Gin found Alder meditating in the centre. Knowing how aggravated Alder became when his meditation got interrupted, Gin joined him. He focused on his breathing, calmed his senses and went into a train of thought, imagining possible scenarios of what the lesson may entail and how he would respond.
Gin opened one eye to see Alder holding a pair of wooden gauntlets. They each had two rectangular holes embedded in them. On the right-handed gauntlet, the INS Alder borrowed from Gin slotted inside of it.
‘What is that?’ Gin asked as he stood up.
‘Gauntlets,’ Alder answered. ‘Put them on.’
‘I can see that. What? Is this what took you a month and a half to make? I know there’s a catch.’
Alder remained silent, the gauntlets creeping closer to Gin, begging him to wear them.
‘You really are a shitty mentor,’ Gin murmured, adamant in his refusal until he knew what he was getting into.
‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,’ Gin apologised, interrupting Alder before he could say a word. He could almost feel the gentle caress of his mother, warning him not to swear. He would tell her, “It was a slip of the tongue,” and she would reply “I know” with a kiss on the forehead.
‘Not sure why you’re apologising. I wanted to ask what it meant,’ Alder inquired.
‘Eh?’ Gin responded.
Now that he thought about it, Gin had never heard a mage use vulgar language, no matter how angry they got. Were mages not taught words like that? he wondered. Is this what happens when the MBP runs everything?
‘Guess it’s old English,’ Gin theorised out loud. ‘Just don’t use it. No one will know what it means.’
‘Right,’ Alder replied, unsure what to make of what Gin said. ‘I suppose it’s unfair to expect you to act rashly like the impatient brat you are.’
‘Glad the insults keep coming, even if this could be our last lesson. So? What are they made of?’
‘These are the daughters of my Xernim armour.’
‘Are they alive?’
Alder paused for a moment before answering. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They will make you their host. But in exchange, they will listen to you and protect you when you’re unconscious.’
‘Listen? How does that work? It’s just a parasitic plant, right?’
‘I don’t know myself but, whenever I have a thought, the Xernim responds like so.’ Alder shifted the gauntlets to one arm then stared at his free arm. Branches from the Xernim grew, interlocking with each other, creating a broad base that narrowed until a sharp tip formed. ‘Magic maybe?’
‘Magic doesn’t exist, Alder. It’s a folly of man to blame what we don’t understand on magic. Normally I wouldn’t do something so reckless without knowing the consequences, but…’ Gin lied to both Alder and himself, convincing his mind it was due to what Joan told him the other day. Along with his fascination with how the Xernims worked, he decided to take the risk. ‘I’ll accept them.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Why are you trying to make me doubt myself now? Give them to me.’
‘Ha! Arrogant and impatient as always, brat. Though that recklessness is a cause for concern…’
Ignoring the comment, Gin took the right-handed gauntlet and put it on, the wood smooth and cold. All of a sudden, something sharp pierced his arm as if it was latching onto him. Gin writhed in pain. Several more needle-like wood punctured his flesh, draining Gin of his energy, making him weak to the point he struggled to stand up.
‘Looks like it likes you,’ Alder commented.
‘What?’ Gin responded, the word distorted by his agony.
‘Being liked isn’t normal for you, is it?’
‘Just tell me how long this goes on.’
‘I’d say give it ten minutes. It’s “setting the roots” into your veins. How many roots do you feel?’
In between irregular breaths, Gin counted how many spikes pierced his flesh. ‘Twelve?’
‘That’s more than I expected. You should be done within the next minute or two then.’
Gin clutched his arm. He gasped for air. His heart raced. Then, as the seconds rolled on, the pain subsided.
‘Is it over yet?’ Gin gritted his teeth, fearing it would hurt again upon speech.
‘Has the pain stopped?’
‘I think so.’
‘Then it’s settled in quickly. Let’s move onto the next test. Brat, I want you to clench your right fist.’
Gin got up, a mixture of water and sweat dripping from his clothes. He closed his fist as instructed, waiting for the gauntlets to react in some way. However, nothing happened.
‘Am I doing something wrong?’ Gin asked.
‘No, it’s not meant to do anything right now. Now for the real test. Imagine the Xernim entering and activating your INS.’
‘I don’t understand. What would that accomplish?’
‘Just do it,’ Alder snapped
Though confused, Gin carried out the order. As soon as he pictured the motion, the gauntlets began to change. Thin branches grew and entered the first hole of the INS. They weaved their way, opening the hatch to the chamber below, pressing the button at the bottom. The mechanism activated, creating a blade without delay.
‘How?’ Gin gawked, dumbfounded by what he had just witnessed.
‘I told you. I don’t know how it works. All I know is how to use it,’ Alder said before pointing to the other slots. ‘You use a shield too, right? I’ve left slots for you to put them in.’
‘This is amazing. Are you sure there are no major repercussions to this?’
‘Apart from the constant need to feed it, there shouldn’t be,’ Alder assured, looking up for a moment before turning back to Gin. ‘People may look down on you though.’
‘Because of the Xernim?’
‘Because of the Xernim. We’re not exactly looked favourably on, no matter how strong we get. Relying on a foreign entity is seen as a weakness. We can’t fight by ourselves, so we fight with a parasite. I apologise for not telling you earlier.’
‘So? Does it look like I’m the type to care about such things?’
‘Haha, true. If it’s one thing I learnt about you, it’s that you’re not one for social norms. Anyway, put on the other gauntlet and then we can start Blade Boxing.’
Through gritted teeth, Gin braced himself as the left-handed gauntlet burrowed its way through and into Gin’s veins. The process lasted longer but less extreme than its right-handed counterpart. Gin could manage it. He took methodical breaths, reducing the burden on his body caused by panic.
‘Come with me,’ Alder instructed.
Alder walked up to the nearest tree. He focused on the bladeless arm, allowing branches to form into a bladed spike, shorter than Gin’s sword. He took up a stance, left foot in front of his right which Alder placed at a forty-five-degree angle. Alder then held his arms up, left in front of the right, covering the head. Despite the position, every joint in his body had a loose aura to it, like rubber ready to attack then bounce back.
Alder sent a jab with his left arm, retracting it the immediate moment he did so, leaving a clean, narrow horizontal mark where his blade pierced the tree. The depth of Alder’s strike showed as sap oozed out of the cut.
‘Listen here, brat,’ Alder snapped. ‘For ease of communication, that strike is called a “jab”. A right-handed version is called a “cross”. I’ll be teaching you other techniques like uppercuts and such, but for now, practice on getting the jab and cross perfected. Equip another blade on your left gauntlet and we can begin.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Gin exclaimed.
Gin took his spare sword INS from his belt and slotted it into the left gauntlet. Like the first time he used the Xernim, Gin concentrated, forming a mental picture of the plant growing into the first chamber, activating the mechanism. The process took a minute, much to Gin’s annoyance. Why was this slower than the first time? he wondered.
‘This takes too long,’ Gin complained. ‘I’ll be too vulnerable if I need this long to activate my INS.’
‘That’s expected,’ Alder consoled. ‘Once you get used to it, you’ll be able to just say one word in your mind and the Xernim will react straight away. Just takes patience which I know you lack.’
‘Hmph. Fine. Anyway, you just want me to go for a left-handed punch on a tree, right?’
‘A jab, but yes. Make sure to copy my body position.’
Gin took a deep breath as he walked up to the nearest tree, taking up the stance Alder showed him. Gin sent out a jab, piercing it with ease but, when he tried to take the blade out of the bark, his shoulder jerked as his arm remained stuck inside the tree.
‘It’s harder than it looks,’ Alder commented, hiding an obvious smirk under his mask.
‘Ack! How do I free myself?’ Gin asked, humbled by his failure.
‘Think of the Xernim rotting away from your INS or however they go back into their mini form. I don’t really understand how your weapons work.’
‘Most don’t. I get what you’re saying though.’
Gin thought of the Xernim degrading away from the first chamber. Just like that, the branches surrounding the chamber rotted away into nothingness, deactivating the INS and freeing Gin from the tree’s hold.
‘Amazing,’ Gin muttered before turning back to Alder.
‘Let’s end for today. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the Xernims. They’re getting used to you as much as you are getting used to them.’
‘I see. Guess you’re right. I do feel a bit tired,’ Gin agreed. ‘By the way, what did I do wrong with my attack?’
‘What did you do right?’ Alder retorted. ‘Your right foot wasn’t at a forty-five-degree angle, your hands were too low when you sent out the punch and, though your initial hit on the tree was clean enough, you too much time to retreat, leaving you stuck.’
‘Anything else?’ Gin asked, rolling his eyes – not aimed at Alder but at his own complacency.
‘Lots. But it’s still early days. If you remain under my guidance, all of this can be rectified. So? Do you still intend to make this lesson your last?’
‘Heh. This was your aim all along, wasn’t it? Whatever. I’ve come this far. Guess I’ll continue our sessions.’
‘A good decision, brat. To celebrate the birth of a new blade-boxer, how about I treat you to some of my rations?’
‘Sure, why not?’
After unequipping the INS, Gin and Alder headed down to the lowest levels on the Rezah tree. The entered the largest room on the floor: the cafeteria. A few hundred mages sat down on the sandy floors, partly due to the fact squadron W had no furniture in the room. Some ate with their tinoos, lupims and other familiars, while others stayed with their fellow battalion members. Though the atmosphere had a relaxed air to it, Gin could see a divide between the low, middle and (few) high ranked. Whether the mages consciously did this or not, Gin didn’t know, but he found the prejudice mages had for one another disturbing.
Walking further into the room, Gin noticed the long queue on one end of the room. A clerk with multiple rolls of fat on her stood behind a booth, checking wooden permits from the mages. She walked into the area behind the booth, bringing out either a bag of supplies or a pre-prepared lunchbox. With each valid permit, the clerk peeled off a thin layer of her skin and rubbed it against the wood. The skin dissolved, leaving a mark to indicate that the mage had received the rations.
‘There are some of our battalion members,’ Alder pointed out.
‘You’re right,’ Gin acknowledged as he held his hands to his teammates, though no one noticed him at first.
‘I’ll go get the rations. We’ll meet up where the others are.’
‘Alright,’ Gin said, handing over his permit to Alder.
As Gin walked closer, Michal spotted him first and got up, beckoning him over. Gin greeted him and the other teammates with a smile but only Michal returned it. The rest averted their eyes, attempting a glimpse of Gin’s arms every so often. Not only that, Gin noticed mages from the other battalions did the same.
‘What’s up with everyone?’ Gin whispered to Michal.
‘Aha,’ Michal replied with a weak laugh. ‘It’s your arms.’
‘Yeah, they’re Xernims. What of it? Doesn’t Alder use them too? Why isn’t he getting dodgy looks?’
‘You do know what people think of them, right? Alder was bred to use them. You didn’t, meaning you chose to have them. Some mages might think you’re crazy.’
‘Alder warned about the same thing. So, what if I am? Does it matter? Should I ostracise you guys for being low-ranked like everyone else does?’ Gin said, giving a piercing glare to his fellow battalion members who gave him a meek smile in return. ‘I took the decision to take them on and I stand by it.’
‘Ha,’ Michal sighed. ‘To be honest, I don’t mind myself but I’m not sure about the others. I’ll go talk to them, so come join us.’
‘I was planning on doing so anyway.’
Gin sat cross-legged with the others. He took the opportunity to show off his new-found abilities, demonstrating the growth and degradation of the Xernim. Though he received the cold shoulder at first, with the help of Michal, the situation cooled down soon.
‘Oh, I’m done with the armour you asked for,’ Michal remembered.
‘Really?’ Gin responded in surprise. ‘That’s brilliant! Send them to my room.’
‘What’s this about armour?’ an all too familiar yet annoying voice asked.
‘What do you want, Wo?’ Gin replied.
‘Can’t a friend go and eat with you, Gigi?’
‘Ugh. Not with that smug face you carry all the time.’
Wo took that as an invitation to join Gin. He opened up one of the lunchboxes, showing chopped fruit, slices of meat and a cup holding water mixed with tree sap.
‘You ate already?’ Wo asked, wolfing down the meat.
‘I didn’t see him bring any,’ Michal said.
‘No, I haven’t. Alder is getting mine,’ Gin explained.
‘Y’know,’ Wo said, gulping down his mouthful. ‘I’m surprised. Didn’t expect you to accept the food so quickly.’
Gin squinted at Wo. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Oho,’ Wo sniggered. ‘You didn’t know what you’re eating? The meat is made from human flesh.’
‘Ahaha,’ Gin burst out in laughter. ‘Of all your pranks, this has got to be the most farfetched, Wo.’
Gin continued to chuckle to himself but that died down when Wo continued to smirk, followed by strange looks of his fellow battalion members.
‘What’s so funny?’ Michal wondered.
‘You’re kidding me, right?’ Gin said, unwilling to believe what Wo said.
‘Oi, brat,’ Alder called out. ‘You’re in luck. I managed to persuade the clerk to give a little extra mage-meat. You don’t get this opportunity too often.’
Gin’s jaw dropped. He could feel his lunch trying to go up his throat but managed to keep it down. He still couldn’t believe his ears. However, Alder confirmed the truth.
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