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With the caravans filled to the brim with water, stone and other commodities, Brim held onto the reins to the lupim carrying the lot. He patted the furry beast, receiving warm nuzzles in return before it barked at the other canines, ordering the pack around. The other dogs howled back, turning into whimpers when their leader roared in response.
‘Oho, he has taken quite the liking to you,’ the utility familiar type remarked, controlling the lupim with ease with a ruffle of its back.
‘I can tell by the happy panting, Lewis,’ Brim replied, addressing the driver by name.
‘No, no. Not just that,’ Lewis said, chuckling for a moment.
‘Oh?’ Brim raised an eyebrow.
‘Tigger told the other lupims that he’s claimed you and for them to not try anything.’
The dog looked away at her master’s comment, sparking a fit of laughter from Brim. He stroked the fur once more, getting the affectionate pants once again. Or was it contempt? he wondered when he noticed the jealous stares of the others.
‘We can’t be having that. The only thing I belong to is Eurasia. Can’t be hogging me all the time,’ Brim gave Tigger a teasing scold. ‘As punishment, I’ll leave you now.’
Hearing that statement, the dog yelped. Then she began whining and nudging brim’s shoulders, begging him to stay.
‘Haha! Don’t worry, I’ll come back. I’m only toying with you. I just need to check some things first,’ Brim said and, though reluctant at first, the pooch allowed her secondary owner to do his duties.
He began a light jog, heading towards the caravans the other leaders resided in. He wanted to visit his own one but, through the small cracks in between the wooden planks of the caravan, he noticed Michal hard at work on his miniature project. It made Brim stop and grin. He knew the stone gauntlets were meant to be a “secret”- the number of times he found the poor fellow rushing to hide them under his blanket proved that – so he left the man be and headed to the other caravan.
This time he heard clapping to a certain rhythm; four slow ones followed by two sets of three fast ones. As he got closer, he saw Syndra’s tinoo spinning in circles to the beat of her clapping. Looks like they haven’t noticed me, Brim concluded.
He backed up, cleared his throat, and said out loud, ‘Ah, sorry I can’t help you out. I need to go see Syndra really quick for an important discussion!’
The clapping stopped and the bird flew out of the caravan the next moment.
Brim decided to wait a minute before knocking on the wood. A long pause followed, prompting him to knock again. The longer the silence went on, the more that laughter began to well up inside, but he held it in to avoid letting Syndra know that he knew what she was doing.
‘Syndra?’ Brim called.
‘Yes? Come in,’ Syndra’s voice beckoned from within.
‘Yo! How is everything?’ Brim said, climbing inside the moving caravan.
‘Brim Stones, I am certain you didn’t come for small talk.’
Her pursed lips and piercing stare would have reformed anyone, but Brim remained unnerved. Maybe if he didn’t witness the unexpected side a few moments prior, he would have felt the same but, after seeing what couldn’t be unseen, he smirked instead.
‘What’s so funny?’ Syndra pouted.
‘Nothing. You’re just as serious as always.’
‘It’s my job. Miscommunication and misinformation for stupid reasons can lead to death. I thought you knew that too.’
‘Anyway,’ Brim’s smirk turned into a warm smile as he diverted the awkward atmosphere. ‘You’re right. I wanted to find our status at the moment.’
‘If that’s the case, we didn’t need to drag it out as much as we did.’
You just wanted more time with your tinoo, Brim presumed while saying, ‘Let’s not then.’
‘I’ve sent Nasir to scout ahead. We’re a few kilometres away from the campsite. Last time we messaged them, we confirmed the group that split from us had re-joined Gin’s battalion. At this slow rate, it’d take us several hours to reach them but we’ve notified them about our delay beforehand, so they’ll know.’
‘Several hours? Longer than I expected. But I guess we can’t help it with all the resources we need to take care of.’
‘Or you could tell our battalion to stop messing around,’ Syndra’s eyes began to narrow.
‘Instead of helping out and speeding the travel up, they decide it’s a good idea to play games! Shouldn’t you be supervising them? Get them into the right mentality? I know we can’t rely on Michal, but I thought you at least had some tact.’
‘I’ll go check on them then,’ Brim conceded, getting off his seat. ‘But you really ought to lighten up a bit. I know war is nothing to joke about, but being serious and stoic all the time will only demoralise everyone. I think you’ll learn a thing or two from Gin, Michal, Rob and the other mages here in squadron W if you give them a chance.’
‘I don’t have time to relax,’ Syndra snapped.
‘You having dancing lessons with your tinoo says otherwise,’ Brim chuckled, seeing her shocked expression just as he jumped off the caravan.
He decided to search for his battalion. However, before he could start looking, a plated ball skidded in front of him. He inspected the object, realising what it was in a matter of seconds, then picked it up, poking the shell a couple times to lure the creature out of hiding. When that didn’t work, Brim secreted some of his oil. He watched as the ball unfurled, the plates slotting underneath the fur, revealing a mole that had its forked tongue sticking out, tasting the liquid formed in front of it.
‘Oh, sir!’ someone called, racing towards his leader.
‘What is it?’ Brim responded, stroking the mole’s fur as he did so.
The person stopped in front of Brim. He opened his mouth, closing it straight away afterwards without uttering a word. Instead, silence filled the next few moments as they walked side by side at the pace of the vehicles.
‘Did you want to say something?’ Brim pressured, noticing how the person – one he recognised was from his battalion – kept glancing at the feeding animal.
The man stayed silent for a bit longer before asking, ‘Can I have the mole back?’
Brim smirked, leaning closer his teammate while holding the mole higher than before in one hand and pointing with the other. ‘Those are some nice scaly skin you got there. It’s a shame that you seem to be a fire elemental instead of a utility familiar. Maybe I’m mistaken and the MBP has cooked up something different.’
‘Um,’ the person whimpered, unable to respond. He looked back, prompting Brim to follow his line of sight. Beyond them both was a large portion of the artillery group, watching the pair with eager eyes. But when they noticed the gaze of their leader, they diverted their attention as if they knew nothing.
‘You guys are doing something suspicious,’ Brim commented.
‘We’re doing a training exercise to help improve our range on our throws while not using our fireballs and it’s something other people can do, not just use fire elementals, and it helps us –’
‘I’m gonna stop you right there before you run out of breath, but I understand.’
‘Sorry. I got carried away,’ the man admitted, scratching his bald scalp. ‘But we need the mole, please. Its owner allowed us. As did the animal itself. I’m telling the truth, sir.’
‘Is that so?’ Brim questioned, watching the animal’s reaction. The mole looked back, licked the palm once more for the final droplets of sweat before curling back into the plate-covered ball Brim found it in, rolling a few times to indicate that it wanted something done.‘Alright then. But only if you let me participate in this “training exercise” of yours.’
Brim watched with glee as the man in front of him turned his head to his group and back in quick, dizzying succession. His comrades remained uninterested, but their nervousness seeped through.
‘You’re not going to lead me?’ Brim asked in a mischievous tone, putting the mage on the spot.
‘Oh, yes,’ the man stopped again before adding, ‘Right this way.’
He led Brim towards the group of people, who could no longer pretend they weren’t part of the “training” anymore, giving meek nods of acknowledgement to their superior to show it. Their eyes focused on the mole, waiting for it to get retrieved.
‘Wait right here,’ the guide instructed.
Brim listened, watching the man’s rigid walk towards his teammates. He couldn’t quite hear what he said, but he could recognise the teasing going on with all the light-hearted punches and headlocks on the unfortunate victim. It wasn’t until the group let him go, nodding in approval to the man’s request, did he turn back with a forced smile.
‘They said yes,’ he said.
‘I know,’ Brim replied, a wide grin on his face. ‘So, what do we do?’
‘Hey, Alfar! Hurry up so we can play!’ his friends yelled at him.
‘“Play”?’ Brim questioned, realising he never asked for a name.
‘No, sir. This is purely training,’ Alfar tried to divert. ‘But we basically split ourselves into two teams. Their team is a few hundred metres ahead of us. You’ll join our team, sir.’
Alfar pointed towards a group further ahead, all watching the conversation at hand, or rather Brim speculated they were watching the animal still rolled up into a ball on his palm. As he examined further, he saw five more people separate from the other team’s group and, when he looked back on the team on his side, he noticed five people were detached from his team.
‘The aim is to get the ball to our team’s catchers. We got five of them as you can see. The other team has five on our side too,’ Alfar explained. ‘If you catch the enemy team’s throw, you get three points. If you prevent the catchers from getting the ball, you get one point but if your team’s catchers get the ball, you win ten points. First to one-fifty wins. Also, you must keep a minimum distance of three-hundred between teams.’
‘I see. So, what you’re saying is the best way to win is to get to the catchers? In that case…’
Brim pulled back his arm, dislocating his shoulder and repositioning the joint, increasing the length of the limb. He focused on his technique, utilising all the muscle in the one area of his body to its utmost potential. Then, with a lightning quick slingshot, he let the mole loose. The creature flew through the cloud-filled sky, over Brim’s team, over the desert, over the enemy team, over the catchers and, at last, landing on the area behind everyone. Those on the other stood static for several seconds before the catchers burst back to life, using their distance advantage to snatch the mole off the ground.
‘Well, that was an easy ten points,’ Brim self-praised, slotting his arm back into its natural position.
‘Hmm? Did I do something wrong.’
‘N-no,’ Alfar stuttered. ‘You just covered seven-hundred like it was nothing.’
‘Well, I got lucky with the wind in my favour and all. Though the mole is heavier than I expected. On a good day, my fireballs can reach eight-hundred. Think that was my record during the battle of Lisbon,’ Brim explained before he realised that both Alfar and the other teammates looked at him with gobsmacked expressions. ‘What?’
‘You are amazing!’ Alfar exclaimed out, the other people soon joining in to listen to the conversation. ‘I don’t think any of us could throw as far so we just left made sure to cover the front.’
‘Oh, tell us about the battle of Lisbon!’ another blurted out, getting muffled agreement from the others.
‘Yes, it sounds like an awesome story,’ a third added.
‘I think I’d rather get back to the game haha,’ Brim jested. ‘But to keep it short, the enemy was surprised by our range and we managed to sink TA’s ships. They haven’t bothered us since!’
‘Wow!’ the crowd admired in unison.
‘Well, I’m sure you guys will accomplish similar feats. For now, can I ask what stops you from holding the catchers down? Or how about having people defending the backside to prevent the enemy team from getting behind us? I think we can improve on this “training” of yours,’ Brim said with a comforting smile.
‘Look! We can see the campsite!’ someone called out.
Everyone looked up in unison, spotting the thin strands of grey coming out of the forest in front of them, meshing with the gloomy sky. An excited cheer roared through the area at the sight, with fist-bumps and the odd fireball coursing through the air.
‘You guys really want to see the offence group that badly, don’t ya?’ Brim commented.
He put on a calm demeanour, but still felt like something was off. Thought we were too far to see the remains of campfires. Though I guess we travelled further than Syndra expected. But that’s still a lot of smoke lines anyway, he questioned before shaking his head and putting it down to multiple fireplaces.
‘I’ll just have to scold them for wastefulness,’ he noted to himself, turning back to the upbeat battalion. ‘Shall we get started on the game changes then?’
With his guidance, Brim’s battalion ironed out the flaws while adding more complexity to the game until it actually turned into training-programme worthy. As each point played out, they worked on improving tactics, rules. Different modes were added, increasing or decreasing the rewards, adding an element of risk such as the “No one’s allowed to move” condition giving bonus points if catchers caught the mole (who was having the time of its life).
Not only were the participants enjoying themselves, the other people marvelled at the spectacle. Some joined in, testing out their strength and capabilities despite knowing they have never used projectiles in their life. Even the animals got curious. A few of the moles rolled into balls of their own. The tinoos cawed up above at each throw. The lupims began howling in joy. One lupim howled, then two, then five, then ten lupims. Too many of them in fact…
Hang on a minute, Brim realised, his eyes widening at what he saw further into the distance. Beyond the forest, the strands of smoke had turned into a multitude of plumes that no campfire could have created.
‘Everyone!’ he bellowed, disrupting the peaceful atmosphere in an instant. ‘Get to your stations. Formation nineteen. Artillery group help the lupims out in travel and move to the campsite ASAP. We don’t have much time! The others are in danger!’
Brim’s orders were brief but clear.
The next moment, he darted through the sand with a few others following close behind. He could hear the sound of the wheels from the caravans turning faster while more distant at the same time. His lungs burned, but he continued his sprint, making sure not to slow down lest he arrived too late. Then before he knew it, he saw the beginning of the clearing he was all too familiar with and used the goal in sight as the final fuel to burst into vision of the campsite.
However, all that remained was a mere fraction of who should have been there.
‘What is going on?!’
But no one answered. Those that were present formed small groups, not wanting to talk with each other, or rather, completely avoiding their own allies. And yet, the spontaneous shivering of everyone told Brim that they heard him loud and clear.
‘Tsk,’ he tutted before singling out someone who didn’t belong to any group. ‘You over there! I know you can hear me. Tell me what is going on.’
The woman shook even more, using her hair to cover her face. The crowd also shuffled away, isolating the person, much to Brim’s annoyance. He decided to take it upon himself, storming to the poor soul. He made sure to maintain eye contact until she couldn’t look away.
‘I won’t repeat myself,’ he snapped. ‘Tell me what in Eurasia is going on.’
The woman gawked at the battalion leader, her lips quivering. Words didn’t come out.
‘Well? No response? Lives are on the line here,’ his voice became more assertive with each passing word.
‘Rob and Gin and others. They’re not here.’
‘What?! Where did they go?’
‘Jake,’ the woman whimpered, stopping right after saying the name.
‘What about him?’
‘And you don’t?’ Brim interrogated but the silence that followed answered his question. ‘Where is he then?’
As if everyone heard the conversation, the offence group moved, leaving a direct line of sight for the woman to point her finger through, revealing Jake’s location. He sat against a tree, holding his stomach while a medic tended to him. Despite the gravity of the situation, he looked smug, only aggravating Brim’s furious mood further.
Brim tore through the dirt underneath with every step. Those in his way didn’t hesitate to move without needing to be told. His rampage sent the message that even the medic understood, moving out of the way when he got close. Yet, Jake remained the only one oblivious.
‘Oh. Brim, you’re here at last! I did it! I saved everyone,’ Jake exclaimed with a stupid enthusiasm.
Brim took a deep breath. He knew Jake for far too long and understood how stupid the man could be at times. A simple scolding or forgiveness would never work on him or else the situation spiralled down beyond salvation.
‘How did you save everyone?’ Brim started.
‘I found out the truth! I had a feeling all along but now I’m certain. Gin’s a traitor and he betrayed us all.’
‘Is that so?’ Brim said in a calm and methodical manner, inviting Jake to tell the lie he believed.
‘Yes! A few of us, Gin and Rob included, went for hunting on the eastern side of the forest. We made a plan in the dirt and everything. Then we managed to secure a deer. Someone got injured but needed more food so we split up. I don’t remember much after that but I was surrounded by at least five people from the AAA. Gin was one of them! I fought killed off half of them but they were still too much so they took me down. Then Gin stabbed me as you can see,’ Brim could tell Jake exaggerated as he showed off the scars on his legs and abdomen, ‘But I was able to escape with the help of Rob. Gin caused the forest fire but luckily Rob and rain helped quench the disaster. It also turned out he’s a manush too!’
‘A manush, huh?’
‘I did a good job right? I saved the squadron. I figured it out by myself. I mean, I kind of knew he was suspicious since the first time we met but I kept to myself so that you don’t get hurt yourself. That’s why I-’
Brim didn’t concentrate on what Jake spouted afterwards. He went into deep thought, picking apart what was truth and what was fabricated. However, certain questions reoccurred more often than he would have liked. Him being a manush? It’s so ridiculous that Jake couldn’t make it up. But still…
‘What is going on? Where is everyone?’ someone yelled.
Snapped back to reality, Brim found Jake still talking followed by the panting of an exhausted Michal. The rest turned the corner one by one, speeding up as soon as they saw the aftermath, all as perplexed as another by the situation.
‘Brim! I am so confused,’ Michal caught up with the leader, still catching his breath. ‘Do you know what’s happening?’
‘Kind of,’ Brim answered, turning back to Jake. ‘And where is Rob now?’
‘What? Oh, he went ahead,’ Jake explained. ‘He’s taken most of the offence group to safety. He should be only a few hours’ worth of walking in front of us. It’s too dangerous to stay here and yet most of Gin’s battalion and other equally stupid people still remain.’
‘Which explains why you’re here,’ Brim mumbled. ‘Ok, Michal go and get a tinoo to scout ahead and look for Rob. Then get someone to go to the eastern side of the forest. Look for where the plants got crushed. There should be some drawings nearby. After that, you speak with the others and talk with them and find out what they think. Got it?’
‘Still clueless but understood,’ Michal obeyed, jogging to the familiar users.
‘Brim,’ Jake hesitated before asking, ‘Do you not trust me?’
Brim took another deep breath, responding, ‘Are you certain Gin caused all this?’
‘Did you see him?’
‘Did. You. See. His. Face?’ Brim spelt out each word.
‘No. Not exactly.’
Brim’s eyes narrowed.
‘Thought he attacked you. How could you not see his face?’
‘I had to play dead –’
‘After dealing with half of the assailants, right? So damaged you had to collapse and pretend they got you, right?’
‘Um,’ Jake’s eyes began to dart from side to side, avoiding eye contact. ‘Yes.’
‘Then you must have heard his voice, right?’
‘No sight. No sound. Then how did you know it was Gin? Did you just happen to brush against the bristles of his facial hair?’
‘T-they said his name.’
‘They? The enemy? The traitors?’ Brim’s anger finally got through to Jake. He trembled in his seat, unsure what to do next. ‘Well? Nothing? Jake, we can’t make baseless assumptions just because you trust the enemy’s words more than your trust your own allies!’
‘But these stab wounds,’ Jake got quieter with each word.
‘You think the AAA’s MBP wouldn’t be able to breed metal elementals? That it’s an exclusive breed just for us Eurasians?’
‘Brim!’ Michal called out again, still breathless by all the running around he did.
‘Spoke with the other mages. They said they don’t trust Rob. They want to find Gin instead but are too scared to speak up. And what’s this about him being a manush? Aren’t they extinct?’ Michal reported.
‘Want to find Gin? Are they crazy?’ Jake scoffed. ‘Don’t trust Rob? He’s looking in the best interest of ever-’
‘Jake! Shut it,’ Brim scolded. ‘If anything, he’s the prime suspect from your story.’
‘What about the drawings?’ Brim asked, ignoring Jake’s state of shock.
‘There is none.’
‘None?!’ Jake exclaimed. ‘Then Gin must have rubbed them out before we went hunting.’
Brim grabbed hold of Jake’s vest, slamming him against the tree and lifting him at shoulder height. Pus oozed out of his wounds upon impact but no one paid attention to that. Instead, eyes were focused on the heated moment between the two leaders. Even Michal’s mouth opened agape.
‘How can you be so sure it was Gin. Did you see him do it? How do you know Rob or the others that joined your hunting didn’t do it instead? Why are you so fixated on him being the culprit?!’ Brim roared.
‘B-but he’s a manush,’ Jake gave a half-hearted, ill-informed, weak-minded argument.
‘And what if he is?!’ Brim fumed, his teeth gnashing together to make a frightening sound. ‘If anything, that would him so weak, so stupid and so powerless that he shouldn’t be able to do anything against us. So, how has he managed to betray us while being a manush as you say he is? Or is that more lies of the enemy that you just happened to believe?’
‘But Rob would never –’
‘Leader! Leader!’ a messenger hollered, holding a piece of paper in his hands.
‘What?’ Brim bellowed, his anger carrying over to the next recipient of his wrath.
‘Um, the tinoo came back. Rob and the offence group are nowhere in sight.’
‘You were saying?’ Brim turned back to Jake.
‘But Gin –’
‘Jake, stop. It’s Gin this, Gin that with you. You are so far up your own ego that you have lost all ability to think logically. Not once did you inform us of your circumstances nor did we receive a tinoo’s message from Rob himself. Now he’s missing and you continue to push your outlandish theories upon me? On all of us? You have single-handedly put all of squadron W in jeopardy and still have the audacity to say you’re in the right? You refuse to stop for a moment and assess your claims which I have dismantled one by one right in front of you. And yet you still blindly believe your own delusions? And what if Gin really is a manush? How does that change anything? Is he not Eurasian? Does that mean he’s not on our side? Well?!’
Jake’s responded with quaking lips and a gawking mouth. He didn’t say anything but a few forced “ah”s and “um”s. Brim wanted to punch the child back into adulthood but decided against it. Instead, he calmed himself, not wanting to bring morale further down. That was one thing he couldn’t afford to do.
He looked Jake right in the eye and said in the most relaxed and authoritative manner, ‘So, until you learn to stop being such a judgemental moron, I use my position as leader of the artillery group to hereby strip you of your role as battalion leader. You’re dismissed.’
Jake stopped resisting. He slid down the trunk, deflated and in shock. The man clutched his wounds once more, disbelieving that he was wrong, but everything pointed towards the case. But his hopelessness didn’t concern Brim.
‘Everyone! We’ve got a lead on the true perpetrator. Gin is not the prime suspect. I repeat. Gin is not the prime suspect. Regroup and reorganise yourselves while we wait for the caravans to join us,’ he demanded the silent few. He could tell from sighs of relief that he lifted a great burden on their chests with his statement. The quiet chattering afterwards felt like a cheer instead. ‘Hey, Michal.’
‘Grab a few volunteers. We’re going to the heart of the forest fire. If not Gin, I believe we’ll find some clues there,’ Brim said rather than ordered, taking one last deep breath. ‘Today has been a long day.’
Synopsis: The online game <