Jake’s senses heightened. His heart wouldn’t calm down. He looked in front of him where the sand sloped upwards. He then heard the sound of water crashing against the hundred-metre-tall walls surrounding the edges of the path either side of him. Above him flew the tinoos, flying in a figure eight that indicated that they could relax for the time being. And yet, Jake’s body showed anything but relaxation.
‘Are you sure he called for me?’ he asked the messenger that stood beside him.
‘Yes. Mr Stones asked for you specifically,’ the messenger confirmed. ‘He’s with Ms Syndra.’
‘Ah,’ Jake said, his dread growing further. ‘Ok. I’ll be right there.’
Checking if he could do anything productive before meeting Brim (and failing to do so), Jake dragged himself across the appointed battlefield, towards the utility group. He used the other mages as cover, making his way from person to person, until he saw the man that called for him, talking with Gin.
Peering over someone’s shoulder while pretending to be occupied, he interpreted the state of Brim. Was he happy? Was he angry? The warm smiles he gave indicated the gentle side that Jake admired remained. However, in all the years he knew his idol, that warmth and compassion could change in an instant. He experienced it first hand in the forest. So, in order to read the mood better, he searched for a way to get closer without looking either lazy or needy.
His dilemma drew him to Michal who carried a chest plate half his height. The way the low-ranged mage walked meant the armour weighed less than it looked. Perfect timing, Jake thought, revelling at the opportunity that laid in front of him.
‘Michal!’ he called out.
Michal peeped from underneath the chest plate. ‘Yes?’
‘That must be heavy,’ Jake gestured, giving Michal a pat on the back and extending a hand. ‘Let me help you with that.’
‘Oh, I can handle this. I should be done carrying this one to the caravans quickly anyway. It really isn’t that heavy.’
‘All the more reason for me to help out. I’m sure that there’s still a lot to be done, so I thought I’d make things easier. After all, the faster we’re done, the faster we can prepare.’
Michal stopped walking, considering the offer before saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Thanks. Here you go.’
Jake held out his arms as he glanced back at Brim, not concentrating on the oncoming task at hand. He lurched forwards, buoyed by the sudden weight put on him. Not heavy?! Jake screeched on the inside but kept his composure on the outside to avoid drawing attention. How is this not heavy?!
‘Are you ok?’ Michal asked, realising his mistake.
‘You just placed it in the wrong spot,’ Jake directed the blame.
‘Didn’t realise positioning had an effect. Reckoned you’d be able to handle the weight regardless.’
‘Are you mocking me?’
‘Ah, no, not at all,’ Michal bowed his head in apology.
‘Then I can carry this just fine,’ Jake hoisted the armour into a comfortable position but still shocked at how much it weighed him down. How did someone so low ranked manage to do it so easily?
‘Ok, I’ll leave you to it,’ Michal doubted but didn’t bother arguing.
With the minor hindrance out of the way, Jake made his way past Brim. Each step took several seconds as he carried the hefty stone. On the flip side, it gave an excuse to walk past the conversation without raising suspicion as well as providing cover to hide his face, so he didn’t complain.
‘Is that so?’ Jake caught the first recognisable words of the conversation.
‘Yes, Gin. They say the walls were envisioned by a man called DJT,’ Brim answered back.
‘DJT? What does that stand for? Was he a mage?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just some rumour I heard from my travels.’
‘I see. Well, the past still eludes us. Imagine meeting such innovative minds!’
‘I know, right?’
He seems like he’s in a good mood, Jake thought, unaware of his surroundings. He crashed into a passing lupim, almost dropping the armour save for the bulky body of the dog holding it up. That still didn’t prevent the animal from yelping in pain, putting Jake under the scrutiny of the other mages.
‘Oh, there he is!’ Gin noticed.
‘Jake!’ Brim called out.
Jake twisted his neck to face him, his heart pounding in a mixture of fear and anticipation. ‘Yes?’
‘Come here,’ Brim ordered.
Following the commands, Jake heaved the chest plate and placed it right beside the leaders. He calmed his nerves somewhat, waiting for the conversation to resume.
‘Perfect timing,’ Brim announced, the lack of harsh words calmed Jake down further.
‘I’ll head off to my battalion there. Meet me there,’ Gin ran off, waving to the both of them.
‘So, a rundown of what we planned,’ Brim continued. ‘We’ve started moving some of the other group members into the offence group, understood?’
‘Yes,’ Jake responded, adding a muted ‘sir’ at the end for good measure.
‘Good. As you know, we lack personnel who can be of use in both long range and melee combat.’
‘You’re absolutely right.’
‘And with the offence group lacking a leader ever since Rob went MIA, while still keeping its original size. Gin won’t be enough. On the other hand, the artillery group is reducing in numbers and so doesn’t really need a second leader.’
Brim stared at Jake for a moment, analysing the man’s expressions. ‘You get what I’m hinting at, right?’
‘Eh?’ Jake gave an instant, honest response.
‘Look,’ Brim sighed as he wiped his entire face. ‘I’m asking you to be a Pseudo-commander to Gin; his second-in-command in Rob’s stead. Despite your complete idiotic actions, you’re still one of the most experienced in squadron W, and I can’t take that away. Plus, if anything were to happen to Gin, I’d need someone to step in and I don’t really have any other option. Now, do you understand?’
So, it’s about Gin, Jake concluded, disappointed by the notion. He still didn’t like the manush, but he knew he couldn’t protest. He didn’t have the proverbial high ground to do so. Not towards Brim at least.
‘I understand,’ Jake replied, his voice deflated by his thoughts.
‘The enemy will be here within the next twenty-four hours. We’re getting into formation soon. There’s a few thousand over the horizon, making their way towards us, with some reinforcements joining them a bit afterwards. We suspect fire elementals and juggernauts respectively. That’s all we’ve scouted of the enemy.’
‘Yessir. Understood sir,’ Jake gave a flat acknowledgement.
‘Then I wish you good luck.’
Grabbing the armour, which he still found way too heavy, Jake carried it over to the caravans. He pondered on his mixed emotions, the upcoming battle, the series of events that led up to rise to leadership, suspicions and eventual downfall. Even when placing the chest plate in the caravan, he didn’t feel like any burden had been lifted.
He walked passed the makeshift formation, passed his (now former) battalion members, and towards the offence group that started to form into the blocks they drilled into their conscious; A stupid exercise squadron W did, considering the MBP should have provided all the training they needed. That’s the low-ranked for you, he cursed. And yet, someone even worse than the lot, with no training from the MBP whatsoever, led them to what could be the beginning of their end.
Jake wanted to protest. He wanted to rebel. However, he couldn’t. Not when everyone else put their faith in such a person like Gin. So, he gritted his teeth and locked away his pride. Brim gave him a task and he made sure he was going to fulfil it.
‘Gin,’ he addressed.
‘Oh. You finally arrived. Beautiful day, isn’t it?’ Gin replied with a giant grin on his face.
‘Yes, it is,’ Jake went with the flow of the conversation.
‘I love the way the tinoos fly in a set way too. You can easily distinguish our ones from the chaotic free-flying wild variants.’
‘And the shade the walls hit you just right. Heh. Earth really is a mesmerising place!’
What’s wrong with this guy? No class. No urgency. No nothing. He hasn’t changed one bit! Jake thought while saying, ‘Yeah…I’m going to check on the others if that’s alright with you?’
‘Sure thing. Brim did say you’d be my temporary right-hand man, so I guess that’s normal.’
Jake didn’t waste a second further, taking his leave to inspect the others. At least their nerves showed as they should. In a matter of hours, the land will become a bloodbath for crying out loud! Jake screamed internally, still peeved by the brief conversation with Gin. How in Eurasia could anyone like someone as immature, aimless, and bland as him? The answer was beyond Jake.
To take his mind off the matter, Jake carried out his excuse. He looked at all the formations, making sure they aligned while scolding those out of place though, to his surprise, the original battalion didn’t need the telling off. Maybe the training did do some good after all, he considered the possibility of him being wrong before denying the notion in an instant.
Without warning, the atmosphere got tenser. All eyes locked on a single tinoo that flew towards the offence group. It gave a piercing screech before flying back to the other tinoos, changing the formation to that of an ellipse. That meant only one thing.
Michal tensed up. He rushed the final checks before running towards his own position in a block of mages next to Gin’s. Nervousness welled inside him but he didn’t show it. His experience told him to do so. However, he still could never get used to the feeling. Concentrating on the sandy slope in front provided the only distraction. He made out figures, spanning a couple thousand, the gentle slope of the land preventing him from seeing them earlier. He couldn’t make out any distinguishing feature but, from the way they stopped several hundred metres away, he could guess they were the AAA’s artillery group, while the glistening limbs under the setting sun confirmed their fire elemental typing.
‘Concentrate!’ Jake heard Gin’s command. The silence of one caused his neighbour to fall quiet, eventually silencing everyone in a ripple-like effect.
The sky became filled with an orangey-yellow colour. Thousands of fireballs arced across it, heading towards squadron W.
Squadron W’s artillery group sent fireballs of their own, along with waterballs to counter the enemy’s attack. However, for everyone they sent, the enemy returned fire tenfold.
Jake covered his face, protecting his vulnerable eyes from the fire as they crashed against his body. He could feel the heat on his limbs but the armour and skin combined protected him from any meaningful harm. The groans of his allies meant that they too felt the full barrage of the enemy’s attack. However, all Jake could do was hold on for his own life, unable to protect his comrades.
But then the attacks let up. The fireballs had stopped for a brief moment, allowing Jake to survey the situation. The battlefield was now covered in blobs of flaming oil that died out within seconds, leaving thick smoke in their remains. The offence group, though battered, looked unharmed for the most part.
The enemy’s limbs stopped glistening; stopped being alight. Squadron W’s artillery group also stopped attacking, putting everyone in a stalemate. The pause felt out of place. Jake knew the squadron couldn’t waste resources, but why did the AAA stop?
The pause turned into a minute. Then ten. Then twenty. Before long, the pause passed the half-hour mark, allowing the cloud-and-smoke-filled night sky to come into full view. The unease amongst the offence group reached an all-time high. Yet, the tinoos didn’t give orders to take the initiative. Gin didn’t give orders to take the initiative. What was everyone waiting for? Jake had enough, leaving his position to confront the man in charge.
‘Gin!’ he called out.
‘Yes?’ Gin answered, eyes on the land in front of him.
‘Their reinforcements will be here any moment and the enemy must have run out of oil. Why aren’t we attacking?’
Gin didn’t answer straight away. He stared some more, watching the empty gap between the two armies.
‘Gin! What is going on?’ Jake demanded.
‘Sure is dark, isn’t it?’ Gin gave a reply that didn’t answer the question.
‘Is that you’re worried about?! Not that we could die at any moment but your fear of the night!’
‘Their numbers are smaller than I expected. The fire’s all gone out too, huh.’
‘What is wrong with you?!’
The final words brought doubt amongst those around them. They didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, Jake felt guilty for making their morale go down like this. On the other, at least they started to realise how much of a fake their so-called leader was.
‘Hey, Jake?’ Gin answered, his voice neither raised nor agitated.
‘What?!’ Jake bellowed back.
‘Is it possible for mages to go invisible?’
‘Huh? Are you really that stupid? We’re in the middle of a war and you ask these sorts of things?’
‘Is there or isn’t there?’
‘Really? You didn’t know about stealth bestials but still–’
Gin didn’t wait for Jake to finish the sentence. He stepped out of his position and walked forwards.
‘Oi! Where are you going?’ Jake called back to no avail.
Gin’s activated blades began to glisten as if drenched in the same oil Brim used. Then the Xernim grew, arching around the third hole in his metal rectangle. The next moment the weapon got set on fire, lighting up the gloomy night. That’s when Jake noticed the shadows produced.
Gin sent a hurtling jab into the nothingness. But it connected. What he pierced was still in doubt, but it definitely connected.
It was as if time had stopped.
Blood gushed onto his blades, like a river over a waterfall. It painted Gin’s Xernims and armour red, causing Gin to give a smile directed above him as he drove the blade further into the wound he created. A body began to materialise around it, starting with the torso which soon formed into a fully visible human being.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. Were you meant to be hidden?’ Gin taunted, loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear.
The enemy didn’t respond, already dead, either from the shock of being attacked or from the wound itself.
‘No way,’ Jake muttered, shocked by the course of events
Gin kicked his victim off the blade. The body collapsed to the ground, like a ragdoll. Then, without looking back, within sight of both ally and enemy, Gin bellowed a single command.
‘They have stealth bestials! Look for the shadows and attack accordingly!’
A sense of vigour emanated from the squadron. It wasn’t enough to dispel the nerves of the mages, but it was enough to give everyone a sense of belief.
Jake stood there, gobsmacked by how the leader they put faith in managed to do it. He didn’t know how else to react. However, he did know that squadron W’s maiden battle had well and truly begun.
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