In a complicated underground cave system where no light shone hid two thousand Botanian civilians. They were lumped together, distress thick in the air. The light in their eyes was distant and numb.
“Papa, I’m hungry.” A small lime Botanian that was barely half a metre tall tugged on a larger lime Botanian.
“Hold on a little longer, alright?” The lime Botanian caressed his child helplessly.
“Alright.” The smaller lime pouted but soon found interest in counting rocks.
The parent heaved a sigh as he watched his child and the surrounding Botanians that suffered the same fate. They were hiding on karst terrains so there were more rocks than vegetation. The surface was covered with weathered rocks and soil was close to non-existent. Botanians who fed on soil were left with nothing to quench their hunger. Ironically for the lime Botanians, they couldn't exactly extract nutrients from limestone to survive. While the lack of sunlight wasn’t too big of an issue. However, the Botanians would collapse soon enough without soil to replenish their lost energy.
When dinner time came, Botanians who brought along rations ate their food cautiously. Those that had none could only watch them with strong envy. The lime father presented a half palmful of soil to his child. “Here, go on.”
“But Papa, what about you?” The little lime suckled on his tiny fingers. He was hungry but manners came first.
“I already had some. Go on, son.” The bigger lime smiled but his greying complexion betrayed his tough front.
“Alright!” The smaller lime nodded fervently and wolfed down the soil. He was too young to notice that his father was hanging on by a thread. He finished it in two chomps and licked his lips. The portion was too small, barely a typical meal but it was all he had for today.
When night fell, the limes moved over to a corner. With no light, the Botanians could only tell apart day and night by the number of pulses that went by.
“Papa, where’s Mama and Sister?” The smaller lime shifted around in his father’s embrace.
“They’re… They’re in Green Leaf City now,” answered the bigger lime after some thought. Green Leaf City was the nearest Botanian city to their house. The smaller lime had always wanted to visit it.
“Papa, why don’t we meet them soon?” Frankly, the smaller lime wasn’t all that clueless. While he knew that the reality was far from what his father said, the smaller lime suggested it anyway.
The bigger lime could feel his breath hitch in his throat. His eyes began to tear up as he recalled the tragedy that separated his family. The cruel invaders had captured his wife and daughter a week ago. He and his son had escaped their grasp with the rest of the Botanians in a flurry but the fate of his beloved wife and child remained unknown. It pained the lime to know that some of the invaders tended to devour Botanians as soon as they were captured.
Tightening his fists around some rocks on the ground till his fingers went red, he exhaled shakily. “Sure, we’ll meet them tomorrow.”
Soil was pitifully scarce here. If they continued to wait it out, it would be no different from waiting for their deaths. Their best shot at survival was to travel to bigger cities for refuge but there were no Botanian cities left nearby.
After two days of starvation, the bigger lime finally made up his mind. In between waiting for his end or getting killed by invaders, he chose the latter. Perhaps the alien invaders could offer him closure about whether his wife and daughter survived before slaughtering him. He kissed his sleeping son’s forehead softly with an aching heart. The bigger lime felt like a failure of a father; he had failed to protect his family.
Unaware of all the turmoil, the little lime dreamed happily away. Perhaps he was dreaming of his family or perhaps he had dreamt of bountiful scrumptious soil and warm sun. Whatever it was, his dimples were peeking through the skin of his thinning face.
“Are you sure there’s Botanians here?” Locke was dragged over by the leash of a sienna-coloured monster hunter hound whose nose was three times larger than regular canines.
The mid-rank hound howled and nodded, completely capable of understanding Locke’s speech. It wagged its tail continuously. They were in a mountainous terrain that was completely barren. The only plant Locke had encountered after a long trek were weeds that barely went over his knees. Everything here was rocks and sand, which was barely a fit for a Botanian’s necessity.
Sceptical about the hound’s perception, Locke planned to search the area thoroughly. He continued to head forward, bringing forth near a thousand slaves of varying forms along the harsh terrain. They were on a hunt for surviving Botanians. Cloaked casters, on the other hand, were tightly protected in the middle of the formation.
“Locke! My mentor asked for you!” Angelina called out from behind.
Locke turned around, only to find a huge scorpion four meters in height approaching him. Its grotesque fangs and barbs had a cold metallic sheen while the tip of its greenish-brown hook gave off an eerie glow. The white and blue silhouettes clinging onto the scorpion’s skull was none other than Angelina and Daenie.
“Angie is about to get squashed!” chastised Locke as he went forward with the hound.
Angelina rolled her eyes.
“Oh, come on. Angie is strong! I’m very light so there’s no way it’d get squashed!” Angelina tilted her head sideways, completely missing the indignant look on her scorpiondrake.
Locke’s words had Daenie feeling rather awkward. She shifted over and prepared to get off Angie. They had been in Botania for almost a month. At this point, the girls were used to the plane’s resistance and were no longer suffering from bad dizzy spells.
“It’s fine, just stay. My precious Angie won’t mind at all.” Angelina halted Daenie by clenching a fistful of her sleeve. She kicked the side of the drake’s face, almost as if asking for its opinion.
Angie was Angelina’s familiar. It was a major monster that had entered a binding contract with its master. How could it possibly voice its grudges? The poor scorpiondrake could only wallow in its sorrow and exhaustion without a sound.
Locke shot a helpless look over to the poor familiar before moving to the back.
Angelina and the scorpiondrake shared a close relationship in the very beginning. Since Locke had always insisted on training with the scorpiondrake, Angie had learned to fear him from a very young age. Angie had taken quite a lot of beatings from Locke throughout its growth.
Locke walked past different slaves as he headed to the latter end of the formation. Since he didn’t have a crystal ball, Ashar had given him a translucent crystal to be used for communication. The crystal had given Locke a vague sense of the Magister’s current location. Ashar and Carla were siblings. They would be moving together throughout the war so it would be easier for Locke to head straight to Ashar’s location since Carla had requested his presence.
Locke approached a floating carriage. As expected, he could hear two familiar voices but they seemed to be fighting. He peeled the curtains away only to find a black-robed Ashar and a white-robed Carla in the middle of a fierce glaring contest with crossed arms. Parlina was smiling wryly, stuck between the quarrelling siblings as a mediator.
Just like their magic, Carla and Ashar were polar opposites. They never got along well in life and would always fight over the smallest things. In times like this, a peacemaker was very much needed. But of course, both Angelina and Locke had no right to be one. On the contrary, Grandmeisterin Parlina were on good terms with both sisters so she would always step in to break the tension.
Noticing that the level-one Magisters were seething, Locke dared not say anything. He stood in a corner of the carriage in silence. The carriage had no wheels and no beasts pulling it. It hovered above ground and was steered by a lever with three embedded energy crystals in the middle of the carriage.
Damn. The edge of Locke’s lips twitched. The three energy crystals were of the highest quality and yet reduced to nothing but the power source of a transport vessel. Locke couldn’t help but tremble at the Magisters’ insane wealth.
As he watched the stones on the ground outside, Locke took the opportunity to rest. The month-long journey had been physically taxing; he didn’t have a floating wagon or mount to rest his tired feet. The voices in the wagon eventually mellowed, to which Locke took as a sign to adjust himself. He knew that Ashar and Carla’s quarrel was temporarily over.
“Have you found anything odd in the area?” asked Ashar. The shadowmancer was the closest to Locke among the three Magisters.
“Nothing so far. But the hound and slaves investigating the area seemed to have found traces of Botanians here.”
Ashar waved her hands nonchalantly. “They’re probably weaklings, no need to pay them mind.” She wasn’t interested in Botanians that were weaker than mid-rank Knechts. She’d rather kill a quasi level-one Botanian than extract Botanian essence from one hundred weaker Botanians. Unless there were more than thousands of them here, Ashar refused to waste her time to capture low-rank Botanians.