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Even with his resistance to the heat, Brim could feel the sun’s gaze bringing sweat to his brows. At its zenith, moving became a chore and constant hydration was a must. At least with over two-thirds of the journey over and done with, the squadron could relax and catch their breath.
The squadron’s growth astounded Brim. In all honesty, he thought they needed much more time but they held their own, soldiering on through the searing temperatures. Even their puffed-out chests, strides that turned into waddles, and the obvious fatigue amongst the mages made for a determined air to them.
‘Mr Stones. Message.’
Brim looked down at the petite armoured man (or woman? Brim settled with man in the end). The same one that followed Gin during the journey, acting as his messenger, though Brim could tell he had ulterior motives by the way they slept together out in the open like a single entity. Or when Gin carried the midget to the caravan due to an “injury” even though it turned out to be nothing serious. Or how Gin would give him some not-so-secret slices of food in order to appear like he finished his meat. Wait. How close were these two? Didn’t they meet just before everyone departed? Brim shook his head in disbelief.
‘Ah, sorry. I spaced out for a bit,’ Brim admitted. ‘Sam, was it? What message did Gin send you for?’
‘Harvest. It’s ready,’ Sam responded, his sentences still short and unfinished.
‘Already? That was faster than I was anticipating. Are we stopping now?’
‘No. He not want harvest. You help.’
‘Is he still squeamish about harvesting? How can someone be so pathetic and be reliable at the same time?’ Brim commented as he scratched his head at this enigma. ‘Oh, well. I needed to talk to him anyway. There’s a fledgeling rezah a kilometre west from here. Tell everyone to head there and get the relevant utility types for extraction.’
The tinoos’ formation soon changed, calling everyone to head west as Brim instructed. Then, as they got closer and beyond a mountainous sand dune, the rezah came into sight. Although a fraction of the size of the squadron’s home, the tree still stood tall and mighty, perfect for taking materials from.
A few caravans pushed on, overtaking Brim’s battalion and parking themselves outside the trunk of the tree. A couple of mages hopped out followed by their familiars: the moles. Around ten of the brown-furred rodents bounded out. They were so small that they each one could fit inside the palms of a person’s hands if not for the claws, that were almost as large as the animal’s bodies, which protruded out of their four-fingered paws.
The rodents, after being given the order by their masters, burrowed their way underneath the tree. Their claws arced in such a manner that digging was made easy, each swipe more of a scoop that flung the sand out of their way than a dig. Either way, it took only a few seconds to go out of sight, leaving a trail of dirt and sand behind them.
In the meantime, the others brought out jugs, one side thinner and flatter than the other, from the caravans and placed them beside the tree trunk with the flat side facing the tree. The two familiar types then lathered a sweet-smelling substance on the bark right above the jugs. It didn’t take long for the moles to dig their way out of the exact spot the substance was placed. They held onto the tree using their claws as they lapped up the substance. Behind them were the holes they made from which flowed a stream of water that trickled into the jugs.
Nodding in approval, Brim headed towards the other caravans where the utility farmer type mages rested. From a few of them, he could hear the huffing and wheezing, most likely from the mages ready for harvest. He opened the veil to one caravan to see a pair of mages, one covered in bushes and fruits growing on him while the other’s rolls of skin were about to peel off the person’s main body. They both stared at Brim, unsure how to react to the arrival of the battalion leader.
‘Need some assistance?’ Brim said, nodding to both of them.
‘Battalion leader!’ the bushy one exclaimed. ‘Oh, no we can’t possibly trouble you.’
The thick-skinned one attempted to respond in a similar manner but her heavy breathing and visible pain prevented her from uttering a single word. Despite the inability to speak, the woman managed to lift a flabby arm, some skin falling in the process, to stop Brim who sighed in response.
‘Just because I’m a leader, doesn’t mean you can’t rely on me,’ Brim scolded. ‘The farmer types are the only mage where I always had the utmost respect for, even the low-ranked ones. You guys provide the sustenance for the whole battalion. It’s the least I can do.’
Brim climbed into the caravan and inspected the meaty mage. He could almost roll the brown flesh off her pink skin if it wasn’t already doing so under its own weight. But the most disturbing part was the pus and areas of swelling that occurred on her main body, most common in the low-ranked. However, that didn’t faze Brim.
‘I think she needs help,’ Brim commented. ‘Pass me a cup.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the man obeyed, handing over a stone cup.
‘What’s your name?’ Brim asked.
The woman couldn’t respond, so the man stepped in. ‘Jaina. I’m Basil.’
‘I see. Nice to meet you both.’
Brim covered just his fingertips with his sweat, making sure he didn’t use too much nor too little. With a flick of his thumb against his palm, he created the spark that allowed the oil to combust, creating a small yellowish flame. He then hovered the cup over the flame, heating the bottom until the time was right, knowing when through years of practice rather than precise measurements.
‘Alright, I’ll begin now,’ Brim instructed.
He pressed the cup on the area of swelling. A deep breath from Jaina comforted Brim too. He knew the technique was working, relaxing his patient’s muscles and help relieve some of the mental stress that being a farmer type came with by default. In the meantime, the man called Basil offered one of his fruits, but Brim shook his head and refused the offer.
‘The others need it more,’ Brim argued.
‘Ok,’ Basil agreed, going back to picking his fruit.
The process of Jaina peeling the meat off and Brim cupping the swelling continued. Though he couldn’t prevent any bleeding, the treatment proved helpful. The moans of pain lessened until all the excess meat came off, leaving an embarrassed Jaina’s skinny, naked body to pick up the food.
‘T-thank you,’ Jaina showed her gratitude.
‘No problem,’ Brim replied with a smile. ‘Oh, I helped with the swelling but I suggest you go have a medic help with the bleeding, though they’re only minor wounds.’
Jaina gave a meek smile, only to open a wound on his mouth. She covered the cut, dropping all of her produce by mistake. Brim chuckled at her clumsiness and helped out before offering to help Basil out. However, he had to retract his statement when Gin’s messenger arrived at the caravan’s entrance.
‘Oh, it’s you again,’ Brim said, looking down at Sam.
‘This way,’ he said, tugging on his vest, impatient as he said his brief farewell to the farmers.
Sam guided Brim around the battalion members. Fatigue replaced the earlier determination, creating a union of both sighs of reliefs and groans of pain. Though Brim wanted to scoff at how embarrassing the mages made themselves look, seeing even Gin sweating his face off and gulping multiple handfuls of water changed his mind, especially when Brim knew he had the luxury of using the caravans.
‘Go speak,’ Sam instructed, before scurrying off to his battalion.
‘Alright,’ Brim responded, turning to Gin and raising his voice so that he heard him. ‘Quite the gluttonous one, aren’t you?’
Gin turned around to the sight of a smiling Brim. He decided to drink another handful of water, letting out an exasperated gasp from his quenched thirst. Wiping the drops off, he returned the smile, choking a bit as he did so.
‘Where did that come from?’ Gin asked, clasping his hand over his mouth to stop the coughing.
‘Three meals a day and several drink-breaks like now. Not sure what’s going on in your body, but it’s a bit much in my opinion. You sure you’re not a really low ranked water elemental?’
Gin paused for a moment before answering. ‘Is that why people are looking at me with estranged faces? Well, it’s not my fault my body isn’t as efficient as the rest of you. I don’t know about you, but travelling two-hundred kilometres in twenty days isn’t that high on my things-I’m-good-at list.’
‘I’m glad it isn’t,’ Brim commented causing Gin to raise an eyebrow.
‘Not sure what you’re trying to say.’
‘In the MBP, we went through gruelling exercises to build up stamina, strength and speed. Most of us couldn’t keep up. The rate of mages reaching adulthood is roughly ten percent, so the majority of those that come out are mostly high ranked mages. The F ranks are basically those that have failed everything but survived the ordeal. They were immediately cast away and unused, despite survival being a major achievement in itself. War didn’t need weaklings after all.’
Brim frowned, reminiscing his past experiences. The friends he grew up that no longer lived. The pain he endured. Those he had to kill with his own hands and those he scorned for being worse than him. All for what? His own survival?
‘What does that have to do with me?’ Gin asked, noticing the unease in Brim.
‘I’m assuming your muscles ache, your stamina dwindling and your will to carry on dropping since the first day,’ Brim snapped back, regretting the immediacy of his response the next moment.
‘Mm. yeah. You’ve assumed correctly,’ Gin admitted, rubbing the back of his hand and forcing a weary laugh.
‘Such simple-minded honesty. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but the others feel the same. They’re probably more tired than you are, even if they don’t want to admit it. But they’re grateful that you’ve allowed time to rest.’
‘They are?’ Gin looked back at his battalion and noticed the signs that confirmed Brim’s observation. ‘Wow. Here I thought I was the only one struggling. Guess they were all putting up a very convincing poker face.’
‘So are you. They probably just want to impress you.’
‘Heh. I don’t know about that. Being a role model is tough. But if what you said is true, it’s good to hear how they feel. But let’s keep the fact that the real reason for having rest breaks a secret.’
‘Of course. Can’t let them think their fearless leader is completely weak and useless, now can we?’
‘That’s rich coming from you, Brim. I’m not the one who’s idling around in the caravans.’
Brim began a light jog, did a couple jumping Jacks before returning, giving Gin a pat on the back.
‘See? I do my fair bit of exercise too,’ he joked. ‘I’ve walked this sort of travel before anyway. It’s not that hard. Not sure why you’re struggling this much.’
‘I’m sorry. What’s the score between us?’ Gin retorted cupping his hand around his ear.
‘Didn’t I win the last five matches in a row?’
‘Ah, but the score?’ Gin pointed out.
‘You’re afraid that I’m catching up now,’ Brim deflected the question with ease.
‘If you say so. Want to have a rematch if we get back in one piece? Settle things once and for all.’
‘Heh. That’s the spirit,’ Gin stretched his arms to show his exhaustion for once but stopped in an instant to point at Brim. ‘Oh, just to remind you, it’s seventy-nine seventy-seven to me.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Brim rolled his eyes at that remark. He frowned some more before turning back to Gin.
‘Hm? Something wrong?’
‘Everyone’s still going to be tired even after the break, aren’t they?’
‘If their stamina and recovery rate are like mine, then yeah.’
‘How long do you think it will take for you to be in peak form?’
Gin stood there thinking for a moment, hand on ching before responding with a, ‘I reckon a day or two.’
‘Hmm. I think we can make it work then.’
‘Make what work?’
Someone interrupted their conversation, asking for jug Gin drank from. The pair complied, taking their leave to a location more private, arriving several hundred metres away from the battalions at the cost of losing the cool shade of the rezah.
‘Anyway,’ Brim continued. ‘We’re just over a hundred kilometres from our destination and we have roughly two weeks to do it in before the enemy is expected to arrive. We’d want a day to be prepared on the battlefield, so if we travel sixty kilometres within the four or five days, then we can rest for two days before making one final push.’
‘Eh. Why sixty in particular?’ Gin queried.
‘There’s a forest at that point,’ Brim explained, drawing a small illustration in the sand with his feet.
‘A forest in this desert?’
‘Yeah,’ Brim confirmed, adding a large circle and two horizontal lines to his drawing. ‘There’s a massive oasis a few kilometres off of our path. I’m sure the change of scenery will amaze you. I do have a request though.’
‘I want to stock up on some water at the oasis.’
‘Don’t we have enough water?’
‘I’m a bit worried about our water elementals,’ Brim said, looking back at the squadron when he did so. He observed for a few seconds before turning back to Gin, adding, ‘They’re sweating like crazy in this heat and using up their own water reserves at this rate. Once they run out in battle, water elementals are useless. So why not have jugs of water as extra ammunition? Also, there’s an area where the stone elementals can mine some materials.’
‘That’s actually brilliant. But why aren’t you collecting the water from the rezah like we’re doing now?’
‘That would either take too long, at the rate the water is pouring out now, or we will kill the tree if we take too much too quickly.’
‘Huh. Didn’t realise you guys took such care to preserve wildlife. Our ancestors would have done the complete opposite,’ Gin commented out loud. ‘Can the oasis take the stress of us taking its water?’
‘Yes. It’s massive. I’ll take you one day, but you guys need your rest first.’
‘That’s a shame. I guess it means we’re splitting up further. Who do you need?’
‘I’ll take all of the artillery group as well half of the remaining caravans. I’ll also take a few of the more able utility familiar types so we can message you. We can take the diminished rest period without a problem. I’ll leave those who can’t with you. If you continue on the planned journey, there’s a path that bisects the forest. We’ll rendezvous there.’
Brim pointed to the horizontal lines he drew earlier. As he said before, it split the outlines of the forest. Though he didn’t know why it did that (nor did he particularly care), he let nature do its thing and used the opportunity to its full effect.
‘Do you need Michal’s battalion?’ Gin asked first.
‘Do you need them?’ Brim asked back.
‘Ok. I’ll bring them along as well. It will make the mining process faster.’
‘So that leaves me with just my battalion and a few others to travel to the rendezvous point. The slower group will join a day later at their rate. I’ll get someone to send a message to them, to notify them of the change of plans.’
‘Yup. Oh, that reminds me. I’ve been meaning to ask you this, but you didn’t put Jake in with Rob’s group for ulterior motives, did you?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Gin replied, failing to hide his smirk.
Brim sighed. ‘You guys really need to reconcile. Not everyone can lose their prejudice as I did. Even for me, it took some time.’
‘I’m just flexing my power as leader somewhat,’ Gin gave a half-hearted chuckle to his remark.
‘Don’t abuse that.’
‘Heh. Don’t worry. I know my role.’
Brim looked back at the squadron. He never expected to even think of giving rest breaks, getting more resources due to others’ inefficiencies and splitting up a whole army because of slowness. When did I become so soft? he wondered. But the mages’ contagious smiles spread to him as he turned back to Gin.
‘Shall we get back? I think we’ve discussed everything we needed to,’ Brim said.
‘Sure. Thanks for helping with the harvest by the way,’ Gin replied.
‘I’m not done though.’
‘Wait. You’re not?’ Gin stopped in his tracks.
‘No. You called for me before everyone finished. You’re not coming?’
‘I’d rather not find out where my food comes from. They’re also naked, aren’t they? I don’t want – never mind. I just don’t want to help.’
‘Oh, come on. There’s nothing to afraid of. You know already and this is a good experience for you,’ Brim smirked, grabbing Gin around the shoulder and bringing closer to the caravans, albeit a bit forceful. ‘This is for your own good.’
‘I’m sure it will,’ Gin grumbled, conceding at last.
What is wrong with him? Brim thought. But he didn’t care. He knew he was in good company.
Synopsis: The online game <