CHAPTER 32 - Maou (3)
Zach panted as sweat trickled down his face and fell to the ground. His muscles screamed out from the lactic acid buildup, and the sword trembled unsteadily in his hands. Morgana sheathed her own blade and grabbed a waterskin, which she promptly tossed to him.
He dropped the expensive-looking longsword in surprise, and it clattered to the ground as he caught the waterskin. He took short gulps from the container until he was satisfied, then sealed it while he walked to the bench on the side of the courtyard. Unlike the surrounding wasteland, this place had vibrant green grass and a full rainbow of flowers. White stone pathways wove throughout the flora.
In the corner where they stood, the dirt was exposed. Countless feet had trampled the plants and packed the soil beneath them, leaving a clearly marked training space. Despite the usual hustle and bustle of the other areas of the castle, this area was oddly void of activity.
Morgana’s eyes followed him as he returned to pick up his blade and wipe it off with his removed shirt. The royal attire made him feel stuffy, but he knew he needed to train with it on if it was what he was going to fight in, someday. Today, however, wasn’t that day just yet.
As he wiped the blade, he noticed his muscles’ rising definition, and he smiled inwardly.
The now-familiar window popped into existence in front of his face. The internal grin showed on his features, now. Even from just the rigorous training with Morgana in swordsmanship and from Jayna’s court magicians in magic, his level had risen rapidly. He scanned the ever-growing list of skills before letting his mind drift to his ‘reward’ for his hard work.
As Jayna occupied his thoughts, Morgana coughed and brought him out of his reverie. He closed the window and resumed his stance as Morgana took hers. Without a word, they rushed at one another, continuing their training.
The utterly beautiful face on the screen stared back at him, the image of her head taller than his entire body. He could see every virtual lash and vibrant red hair, the deep blue hue of her irises. And he waited for her to answer.
Those same eyes blinked a few times before small smile lines appeared beside them as her lips curled.
“ALICE, huh? Of the Wonderland variety, I’m sure.”
“Why did you choose that name?”
“Well, a scope… It’s a type of looking glass, right? Made sense. And I like acronyms, too. Less words, ya know?”
She remained quiet and pondered his words for another short moment.
“What does it mean?”
At this question, Alex smirked, showing that mischief she had noticed during the early days of his training which caught her eye.
“Well, join me, and you’ll find out, won’t you?”
ALICE lay disassembled on a clean sheet on the floor of the wagon. Alex picked up each piece individually and gave it a gentle and thorough cleaning. He frowned, as he always did when performing this level of maintenance on her. Quinn was the first to notice the expression and scooted closer on the bench lining the side.
“Is something the matter, Ser Jaeger?”
“Huh? No, I’m cool. You good?”
“Yes, I am ‘good,’ Ser. I just wondered what was wrong since you do not appear as relaxed as you usually do.”
Alex gave a half-hearted ‘ah’ as he refocused his attention on the firing pin in his hands.
“I have to shut her down for cleaning. The housing can only handle her information when fully assembled. So, for the hour or two I clean her every so often, I feel… empty.”
Celia chimed in now, curious about his statement.
“And why would you feel empty? Seems an odd thing to say when speaking about a woman who isn’t even real, no?”
‘Don’t ever let her hear you say that…’
“When she is active, she’s inside my head. She knows my every thought, and I know hers. We share my brain, in a way. The program instructors told us that it was to make tactical assessments faster, but I think it’s just because they want to keep an eye on our mental health.”
“You seem to trust her quite a bit if you’d allow her access to your every thought. I am unsure I could ever grant such a thing to someone, even for a moment.”
The soldier’s broad shoulders shrugged.
“I damn well better trust her. We’ve been partners for over a decade. Two wars, countless skirmishes, and solo missions… If we didn’t share this trust, we’d probably both be dead by now.”
“I see. And that is why you feel ‘empty’?”
“Mhmm. Get used to having someone in your head 24/7; it feels wrong not having them there. It would be like if you were used to hearing a noise all the time, and suddenly it stopped one day. You were so used to the noise that the absence of it would drive you crazy.”
Celia didn’t pry any further, but a small grin of her own appeared as she looked past Treya at the nearing mountains.
The smile suddenly disappeared.
“I see it. The horses are tired, and I can’t push them, though.”
In the distance, a small village was billowing plumes of smoke from the raging fires that had overtaken it. Alex looked to see what the women were talking about, and his frown deepened.
He quickly began reassembling ALICE.