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‘Three, two, one. Heave!’
The bestial juggernaut types tugged on the vine rope attached to the cart, preventing the churning sand from swallowing it like anything else caught within its trap, a spiral of death. The whirlpool of quicksand grew and grew, forming a depression in the centre where all the sand converged. Where it led to, the mages could only guess.
‘Good job everyone,’ Rob praised his battalion.
‘Can’t believe how strong you guys are. Pulled that cart out effortlessly,’ Gin added.
‘That’s our job,’ Rob replied, giving Gin a gentle punch on the shoulder.
‘This is our chance. Support team help out,’ Brim ordered.
‘Wait. Help out with what?’ Gin questioned.
A sudden stench filled the area. The mages carried pots of their waste, chucking the excrements into the sand whirlpool. The faeces circulated the sand, crushed with each rotation and grounded into a stinky pulp before getting lost inside the vortex.
‘Why on earth did we chuck our literal s*** into there?!’ Gin exclaimed.
‘S***?’ Rob got confused.
‘Really? Not even that word?’ Gin sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘Ok, dung then?’
Michal watched the whole ordeal from the side-lines, chuckling at Gin’s occasional moment of stupidity and his constant need to have things explained to him. How did he not know the excrements helped the desert’s fertility? Sure, the sand above couldn’t even allow a brush to bloom, but down below was an oasis of nourishment for those plants capable of reaching it. Wasn’t it obvious the sand whirlpools helped deliver the manure down to the depths? But Gin’s a bit special in the head, isn’t he? Michal argued with himself.
‘What should we do?’ one of the stone elemental type mages under Michal’s command asked him, tugging on his shirt to grab his attention.
Caught off guard, Michal panicked. ‘Um, Er. Er. What we could do is…’ he looked around, seeing if he could get any inspiration.
Unable to find any, he glanced at Gin who nodded after whatever explanation Rob gave him. Gin did his signature hand on chin motion, going into a moment of thought. He then looked up and around and, after noticing the pickle Michal was in (or at least Michal thought he noticed), he turned to Rob again.
‘From the sounds of things, you guys need someway to make getting the last bits out of the pots. Not to mention the pots are a bit inefficient in keeping our wastes being so small,’ Gin said out loud.
Michal smiled, understanding the (probably) intentional hint. ‘Let’s go make tools to help with the process.’
‘Order understood!’ the mage responded, rushing back to the battalion.
With the whole squadron put to work, the tinoo formation in the sky changed to that of a line that slanted, indicating that the leaders needed to gather at their caravan for a meeting, though there was no rush based on the tinoos’ speed. However, knowing that he wasn’t of much help when it came to creating tools, Michal headed towards the meeting point, arriving first.
Having found time for himself, Michal unhooked one of the stones attached to his limbs. He caressed the slab, letting his sweat to change outer stone into a malleable material but still allowing the core to remain solid. He tweaked one end, elongating the side in five places, before snapping the finger-shaped objects off. His sweat then turned foamy, eating away at the insides of the fingers, leaving a hollow gap that his finger could slide into, only for the acidity to eat through the whole thing, creating a tube rather than anything he could use.
‘Ack!’ Michal cried out in frustration.
‘Will you shut up?!’ a disgruntled and sleepy Jake clamoured back.
Jake went back to sleep while a startled Michal placed his failed creation under a piece of cloth. How long was he there for? Ignoring the man, Michal went into a thoughtless daze until the others arrived. It wasn’t until the sun set, as well as all the duties getting completed, did the other leaders join the pair. All except for the other support group’s leader.
‘Where’s Syndra?’ Michal asked.
‘She needed to scout something,’ Rob responded, his voice as gruff as ever, though still sounding friendly at the same time.
‘Oh. Why do we need to have the meeting then?’
‘Huh. What’s happening?’ Jake wondered too, rubbing his eyes awake.
‘There are more sandpools further in our path,’ Gin explained. ‘They’re fine to navigate for most of us, but for some of the wagons and particularly the less mobile mages, it’s too dangerous for them.’
‘And so, Jake’s and my battalion, as well as half of Syndra’s, will take a different route to avoid them. It’ll set our group back by two days from the main group,’ Rob picked up.
‘We can’t predict these natural events, unfortunately,’ Brim admitted. ‘Anyway, we decided to leave by tomorrow. We’ll rest up for today since we’re still ahead of schedule.’
‘Ok,’ Michal agreed.
Jake didn’t respond, going straight back to sleep with Rob and Brim following suit. Gin, however, placed a hand on Michal’s shoulder.
‘You did well,’ he whispered. ‘The tools helped us immensely. They couldn’t have done it without your orders.’
‘That’s because you helped me out.’
‘What are you talking about? I haven’t spoken to you at all today,’ Gin said with a smile, emphasising the last sentence while keeping his voice down. ‘This was all of your own making.’
‘So I was useful?’
‘Very. Anyway, I’m going to sleep outside.’
‘Again? We do have the tents and the caravans for leaders, y’know.’
‘Heh. Promised the battalion I would. Not that I mind either. Some of the bestial types are super fluffy and a great pillow! Wonder what the fur is made of,’ Gin mumbled in the last sentence.
‘Ah, ok,’ Michal replied while thinking, He really is a strange one.
As Gin left, Michal went back to his project, but he could already predict the glares Jake would give if he made any noise. He couldn’t sleep himself. His heart thumped with a sense of accomplishment, his chest puffed out more than usual and he had a grin that he couldn’t contain. So to calm down, Michal let out a sigh but that only caused Brim and Rob to stir and moan. Knowing he was becoming an annoyance, he stepped out to get some fresh air.
A cold wind blew over the cinders of the campfires but a clear sky allowed the stars and a full moon to illuminate the desert in a bluish hue. The animals and mages slept like the haxors after a good hunt. Deservedly so after five days and fifty kilometres travel under the squadron’s belt.
It didn’t feel like a battle that decided the squadron’s fate was imminent but Michal enjoyed that. No tension. No unrest. No worries. Just the camaraderie between fellow mages fighting under the same banner of Eurasia. And Michal was part of it! Oh, how that thought put a spring in his step, prancing on the sand as if no one was watching. Or at least he thought that was the case.
‘Are you ok?’
Michal froze mid-air, landing an awkward leg on the sand that shifted below him, causing him to lose the little balance he had and tumbling forwards head first into the cool embrace of the desert. He picked himself up, using the stone attached to his arms as leverage, turning to see the Syndra giving him a scrunched-up look in disgust.
‘You’re a battalion leader how exactly?’ she questioned.
‘Squadron W needed me,’ Michal replied, brushing off the sand and giving Syndra the same gleeful grin.
‘I see. Doesn’t explain anything, but I see.’
‘Oh. Oh. But it’s different. I’m –’ Michal clasped his mouth, realising he spoke louder than he should have after seeing a few mages roll over in their sleep. He crawled up to Syndra, speaking in a whisper this time. ‘I’m following my dream, you see.’
Syndra sighed, keeping a watch on the moonlit skies, but decided to entertain Michal. ‘What dream?’
‘I was born a low-ranked stone elemental mage. I’m not very strong nor am I smart or fast. I can only manipulate one type of stone, have really low range, so I need to attach the stones to my limbs like now, and have to constantly replenish my resources. Never would I have expected to become of use to someone let alone to a whole squadron or even be a leader of a battalion.’
Syndra paused before giving a dry, ‘right.’
‘Sorry, I can’t contain my excitement. Just smelling the sweet, musky, smelly, er. Um. Smell of the desert. Anyway, that lifts me up. It feels so much better than being holed up in a tree all my life I can’t even sleep as a consequence though which is annoying.’
‘Say, Syndra?’ Michal caught her attention, twiddling his thumbs when he did so as he wondered whether to ask his question or not.
‘Do you have a dream too?’
A chill blew over the sand, chaining a sound orchestra with the sand particles rubbing against each other followed by animals scurrying after being uncovered. This let the miniature predators the opportunity to snatch their unlucky, even smaller prey, the crunching resonating in the area, prompting birds to squawk in response. But despite the noise, all Michal heard was the silence of Syndra who stared at the sky as if he wasn’t even there.
‘Sorry,’ Michal apologised. ‘That was a –’
‘If I did have a dream,’ Syndra interrupted, a thin smile running across her face. ‘It’d be one I share with Nasir.’
She held out her arm and, out of nowhere, a tinoo swooped on top of it before climbing onto her shoulder. The pair nuzzled their noses, or beak in the bird’s case, Syndra’s smile growing with each rub. Once done, she lowered the tinoo down to peck away at stray beetles and joining the chorus of sound.
‘I just want to survive,’ Syndra continued, watching over the tinoo, a sense of adoration for the bird in her body language. ‘If I’m with Nasir, then I don’t care what I do or where I go or who I help out.’
‘That’s a good dream! That’s why we need to help out and end this war as soon as possible. It’d be bad if we watch from the sidelines all our lives. Then you guys can live in peace.’
‘You do realise we could have just lived in the rezah without being sent to battle?’
Michal flopped to the floor, watching the tinoo hunt. ‘But what if we end the war with our own strength? Wouldn’t that make the peace more satisfying? I think that belief is what the whole squadron is running on.’
‘Pfft. Our strength? What do you mean by that? We’re the low-ranking support group. We all rely on the offence and artillery group to do their job. Without them, we’re just sitting tinoos. Tsk,’ Syndra tutted.
‘That’s why I’ve been trying to correct. What if the support group can contribute offensively too? Then we won’t be a hindrance.’
Michal paused then jumped up the next moment, startling both Syndra and himself.
‘Ah, don’t tell anyone though. I’m not finished my project yet,’ he added in a whisper.
‘Not that I care.’
‘Aww. Don’t be like that.’
‘I hate unrealistically optimistic people like you. Do you not fear the threat of death, both from nature and the enemy?’
‘I know. But if I was pessimistic, then I would have died alone in the desert instead of applying to squadron W all those years ago. So, this optimism is what’s keeping me going, you see,’ Michal admitted, lying on his back and watching the stars above.
‘Ugh. I’m going to bed.’
Syndra called on Nasir who fluttered onto her shoulder and the pair made their way to their tent. Michal, on the other hand, felt a rush of fatigue. Was it the cool air, the low after his high, or the conversation with Syndra, letting his feelings be known to someone? Whatever the reason, he closed his eyes and went into a deep sleep out in the open desert.
Synopsis: The online game <