Ohoudulus stood with his hands on his waist, watching the troops try to organize themselves into teams. “Watch and learn,” he told Geoffrey. “Watch and learn.” He walked to the first team.
“Your ties are too loose,” he told them. “If they come undone, you’re disqualified.” He walked around behind the team, sniffed, and continued walking to the next one.
The first team had the woman on the end, the one who spoke up first.
“Tiny,” she said, catching the attention of the giant man tied to her. He looked up from helping the much smaller fighter on the other side of him. “Remember how you carried me on Azarth?”
“Was that the planet of the slugs?” asked the man on the other side of Tiny.
“No, the desert campaign,” said Tiny.
“That was a great story. I want to hear it again.”
“Maybe later,” said the woman. “Do we all know what we’re doing?”
“Sure, Lotte,” said the man on the other side of Tiny, echoed by the other men down the line.
Geoffrey walked after Ohoudulus.
The next group was still organizing itself.
“When I say, ‘one,’ everyone lift their first leg,” said a fighter in the middle.
“Is that my right leg or my left leg?” asked the man next to him.
“The right leg,” said the next one.
“No, that’s your left leg,” said the group’s leader.
“So my first leg is my right leg?”
“No, your first leg is your left leg, and his first leg is his right leg.”
“So my first leg is his second leg?”
Geoffrey was trying to remember if he’d ever been introduced to any of the men when he heard a loud whistle. Ohoudulus was back in front of the troops, holding a whistle in his hand. He blew it again until he had everyone’s attention.
Geoffrey walked between the second and third groups and rejoined him.
“Watch and learn,” Ohoudulus told him. “We’re about to create some team spirit here.” He turned to the troops. “Are you ready?”
He got some half-hearted shrugs in response.
“I said, are you ready!” he yelled.
“Are you ready!” Ohoudulus yelled even louder.
“Sir, yes sir!” some of the soldiers yelled back.
“All right then. When I blow the whistle, you start running. First team that makes it to the end gets the stars.” He walked to the side of the field, out of the way, and blew the whistle.
The first team, the one with Lotte and Tiny, reacted first and Geoffrey realized that the random order of the fighters was actually deliberate. They had arranged themselves by alternating size — one of the largest men, then a smaller one, then a large one again, then a smaller one, then Tiny, then Lotte. When the whistle blew the shorter men hopped up a little bit, the larger men grabbed them around their waists. Lotte, at the end, just had Tiny holding her. Then the immediately started moving, not having to synchronize their steps.
The second team’s leader immediately sounded off, “One!” but the half the fighters forgot which leg was which and struggled to move. The last two teams didn’t fare any better.
Lotte’s group was half-way down the field by the time the other three even started moving. They won easily.
Ohoudulus blew his whistle again. “Good hustle, good hustle! Give yourselves a round of applause!”
Nobody clapped, except for the Duke, who’s been watching from the balcony.
“Geoffrey, go hand out the gold stars,” Ohoudulus said.
Geoffrey glanced up at the Duke, signed, and dug six stars out of the trainer’s box.
“How is this supposed to help us fight bandits?” Lotte asked as Geoffrey walked up to her. “They’re not paying us enough for this.”
“Lotte, right?” he asked.
“Lotte Lauridsen,” she said, accepting a gold star.
“And you’re Tiny?” Geoffrey asked the man next to her.
“Tiny Nutmeg Bonemantle,” said Tiny. “You’re the military advisor, right? Where were you before?”
“World of Battle,” said Geoffrey.
“You’re the guy who got kicked off the grid for being too mean, right?” said the next fighter in the group, passing the fabric tie to Geoffrey. “What are you doing here?”
“Learning to be nicer,” Geoffrey said, trading a star for the tie. “What’s your name?”
“I’m the Knock Knock Slayer.”
“Wolverine Nightshadow,” said the next fighter, accepting his star. “Did you really bring down an army of ten thousand on your own?”
“Twelve thousand,” said Geoffrey.
“I’m the Buzzard,” said the next man, shaking Geoffrey’s hand. “It’s good to meet you.”
“Jake Lin,” said the last fighter. “What are you doing here with these idiots?”
“Penance,” said Geoffrey. “I’m paying for my sins.” He handed over the last star, collected the rest of the ties, and returned to Ohoudulus.
“I’ve learned a lot already from watching you work,” he said. “This has been great. Maybe tomorrow…”
“Tomorrow?” Ohoudulus laughed. “We’re just getting started! You’re nowhere near understanding the true meaning of team spirit.” He patted Geoffrey on the shoulder. “I can see you’re new to all this. But don’t worry. I’ll teach you.” He looked up at the three other teams scattered around the field, one covered in mud from a series of missteps along the way. “Go get their ties and get them ready for the next exercise.”
“We’re going to kill that guy,” said one of the muddy soldiers. “I hate team building exercises.” The rest grunted in agreement.
Geoffrey was tempted to tell him to go for it. He could always start over again in another city — or on another virtual world.
He looked back at the balcony where the Duke was sitting in his armchair. Flame was next to him, sitting on the edge of the balcony, feet swinging down. She was eating an apple. She saw him looking at her and waved.
He needed to buy some time.
“I think Lotte’s team is going to have first dibs on killing Ohoudulus,” Geoffrey said to the soldiers. “Especially if they plan to slowly slice him to death with his own stars. Of course, they deserved to win that race. They had some strong guys on that team.”
“They just got lucky,” said one of the soldiers.
“Yeah,” said another. “They had three shrimps. We could have won if we had three shrimps.”
“Well,” he said. “If you think you can do better…”
He walked back to Ohoudulus. The man was going to get himself killed and the soldiers were going to quit. Maybe he could postpone the inevitable long enough for the Duke to see what was really going on.
Ohoudulus blew his whistle.
“Listen up, everybody! Next up is the egg race! Geoffrey, get me four raw eggs.”