“I never thought I would ever see capital mages all the way out here in our small town…ugh, the war must be going really badly…” Vayling said, leaning forward, holding up his head with his hands, as he watched the squadron of ornately armored mages march through the well maintained entrance gate of West-Hail’s stone wall.
“Vay, It means the Capital can’t afford to lose even our tiny trade town…” said Maltii, half paying attention while she focused on her duties.
“But that’s not a good thing,” said Hleis, “If West-Hail is so critical, it means they can’t allow any more trade outposts to fall…”
That day started out like any other; Hleis was standing as his familiar station on the town wall, just before daybreak, sword strapped behind his back. He and Vayling spent the morning chatting about anything that came to mind while Maltii read her books next to them.
Why would those nobles in the capital feel it necessary to send such powerful resources here? thought Hleis as he leaned back against the wall to watch the clouds. A habit of his that gave away when he was lost in thought. There are other settlements struggling far more than us against mastig attacks.
Few things ever approached their outskirt town of West-Hail. Mastig attacks weren’t uncommon, but were manageable. Bandits were dispatched swiftly and merchant vessels were welcomed into town after the standard precautionary checks were taken.
“We were already fending the mastigs off fine with Captain Cruntiq leading our defense.” said Vayling. “Still, if mages were coming, we should’ve heard something beforehand, no?”
Vayling looked back at Hleis, with his signature smirk, trying to read his thoughts. Hleis and Maltii always joked that the only time he wasn’t smiling was when he was lining up a shot from his bow, or demonstrating his marksmanship in front his father and other hunters.
His friend’s words weren’t wrong. Even he knew West-Hail’s defense force was quite capable for a local militia.
“If the leadership sitting within the walls of Center-Storm believe that we’ll need elite mages then that must mean something big is coming…” Hleis said.
“Hmm…there were rumors from last weeks trade ships that Cyclone Fortress Leinel recently fell to a Mastig fleet,” said Vayling.
“Ugh…not good…Leinel was the second largest military fortress in the northwestern skies…” Maltii said.
“Yeah, definitely not great, but if they attacked Leinel, we shouldn’t be in the direction that fleet is heading. We’re so far out of the way, they would have to know we’re out here to ever discover us.” Hleis said reassuringly.
Maltii looked up at Hleis with a serious, but concerned look that Hleis knew all too well.
Despite being two of his closest friends, Maltii and Vayling couldn’t be more different in temperament. While Vayling stood tall and confident in anything he did, Maltii preferred to remain outside the limelight, doing her best to direct attention away from herself.
“Definitely!” Vayling answered. “Hey! Since we know nothing, might as well try and look at this positively. This could be a great learning experience!”
Hleis remembered back to when he had to participate in desperate defensive efforts with his friends. They were but children at the time, yet they survived the violence.
Back then, he recalled, attacks were sudden, no one knew how to prepare, no one had experience fighting mastigs because few survived their first encounters. People were always scared, and figured that was just life.
But this was all before they had the exceptional leadership and example set by their captain, Cruntiq.
Hleis had heard tales from his father of Cruntiq’s accomplishments during his younger years, participating in some of the harshest battlefields in the kingdom’s offensive efforts. When he returned to West-Hail, he had distinguished himself as a decorated warrior and recognized war hero of the CloudStock kingdom.
The first couple mastig attacks after his return were unlike any other Hleis had experienced. He knew when the mastigs would arrive. People knew where to be and could hide their families from the combat.
He made things simple. Everyone knew their job and focused on it. The fighters focused only on fighting. The defenders focused only on defending. No more distractions from worrying about family because they knew they were in safe hands. No more massive casualties.
Hleis always paid attention when Cruntiq spoke. There was something calming and trustworthy about his words and lessons. It was as if nothing was new to him. He’d seen it all before.
But today, things felt like they did back before. Unknown. Uncertain.
“Vayling, mages do not show up for no reason, and they do not show up to easy battles,” Maltii said, standing up to observe the procession. “They say there aren’t many in the entire kingdom, and that they’re the best of the best. The most elite magic users amongst our people.”
Growing up, Hleis knew that mages battled with great arches of fire and light, dropping scores of enemy’s effortlessly, but he never thought he could see them in person. He thought these tales were nothing more than that, a reputation that stemmed from the lack of magical understanding here on the kingdom’s frontier.
The stories about their feats were often inconsistent, but the one commonality was that these mage units consisted only of the most talented magic users. That they are recruited at a young age, from across the kingdom, to be trained at the premier magic school in the capital, Center-Storm
They were the icons of hope on a bleak battlefield, but their presence was also the sign of a dire situation.
He looked once again at the recently arrived squad; he counted twenty-five mages.
At the front of the unit was a man whom he assumed to be their leader. He was tall and had a large frame.
For some reason, it looked as if nothing was comfortable being near to him, all the mages followed at a significant distance behind and critters ran away far before he was even near.
He wore extravagant armor that reflected the colors of the town, while his fine purple cloak fluttered behind him, never touching the ground.
His attire was more ornate than the mages that followed behind him. They wore the same purple robes under an engraved metallic white breastplate. Just by their attire alone, Hleis could tell that they were a cut above all other military units.
Is any of that necessary to fight mastigs? I guess it makes no difference for them, they must be hard to kill otherwise why attract so much attention to yourself?
At the center of town, Cruntiq and other local leaders were waiting to meet them.
“So, did you guys see the Center-Storm mages earlier? I heard they went to meet with the captain and the others,” asked Tyrize, another friend of theirs, as he sat down across from Vayling, drink in hand.
“We got a pretty good look at them. They had some pretty high quality armor and looked tough.” Hleis replied as he turned rightwards towards Vayling, “Vay is your father in that meeting?”
“He is, but that thing’s been going on for basically the entire day…”
“Must be something really important then…” Maltii muttered. “I wonder what they’re here for… It’s even weirder that they came alone. Just them. No other official military group or backup…”
“Yeah, no doubt. Especially considering how well we’ve been surviving so far…” said Traer.
Hleis was happy to see Traer.
Not only did he grow up nearby Hleis and Vayling, he was the friend who would always help him clear his thoughts. Someone whom he could speak his mind to comfortably and someone who was not afraid to speak his mind back.
Traer wasn’t a warrior, but he was observant, clever and spent a lot of time thinking, often coming up with creative solutions during moments of crisis.
Traer was reliable; he was often included in strategizing meetings with Cruntiq and other leaders. His ideas and interpretations of events were sometimes a little too creative, but that was something that Hleis enjoyed listening to.
As the group was getting ready to leave the dining hall, the vice-captain of West-Hail’s security, entered and announced, “Alright, listen up everyone! Starting from tomorrow, everyone will be assigned to a squad of four and will embark on scouting shifts outside the boundaries of the town airspace! If you see anything beyond the usual, you are to record it and contact us immediately! Report it to either Cruntiq, myself or one of the capital mages!”
He left immediately after his announcement, with an unhappy look on his face, more upset than the usual disgruntled look that Hleis was familiar with.
The hall was silent before murmurs and confusion arose, loud discussions that could be heard echoing across the entire facility.
“Huh? What? That’s it?” Vayling said.
“Yeah, what the hell was that? Okay, this plus the presence of those mages makes me think that this was their call,” Tyrize said. “I bet, the war’s going bad with the official military and now those nobles in Center-Storm are using towns like ours to make up the difference!”
“Hang on Tyrize,” Hleis responded, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. We could be expecting a large mastig attack or something and are being asked to scout and take precautionary measures, probably in advance to protect the more inner settlements.”
“If that was the case, why couldn’t they just tell us that?” said Maltii. “Well…whatever it is, it probably has to do with what those mages discussed with the captain…”
“Right. I’m concerned over the fact that they didn’t send any preliminary communications or anything, just sending a squadron of mages is in no way normal protocol. There’s no way they didn’t know that a local garrison like ours would react harshly to capital orders with no explanation.” Traer responded.
Hleis looked around, others were also concerned.
From what he could tell, people weren’t afraid of combat. The discomfort came from the ultimate fact that he knew well, that they were nothing more than a local militia. They were so far out on the outskirts of the kingdom. Does the rest of the kingdom even know of they exist?
Hleis had his own concerns.
He was struck by how reckless of an assignment this was. If mastigs were found, a group of four would not be able to get away safely. If the purpose was to find something, this was a suicide mission.
“Hmm, I want to speak with Cruntiq. I doubt it, but maybe he’ll tell us what’s going on,” said Traer, as he, Hleis and Vayling walked to their homes from the hall. “If these are precautionary measures, I’m not sure if these precautions are for our safety…and if they’re not, I’m also not certain if we should trust the capital mages under such suspicious circumstances.”
“You’re thinking we’re being asked to scout so that the capital can prepare their own defenses later on, right? And that us and our families are actually being sacrificed for information gathering?” asked Vayling.
“These are elites from the center of our civilization while we’re an isolated town on the outskirts that I doubt shows up on any of their maps. I’m not saying we shouldn’t cooperate, but if they’re going to come in out of nowhere and give us these crazy orders, we should at least know some of what’s going on.”
“Agreed,” says Cruntiq who slipped along side the group silently and unnoticed.
“Whoa! Captain!” Vayling said.
“Ha! Sorry for startling you, I was making rounds seeing how my troops were taking the new orders…Not too well it seems…”
“Sir, I’m guessing you heard everything then?” Traer asked,
“Your concerns are reasonable, Traer, but this is the capital of our kingdom we’re talking about here. They’ve been coordinating a war over this massive territory for over twenty-five hundred years against an unfathomable enemy force that we have managed to keep at bay,” Cruntiq replied. “Despite our primary duty of protecting our families, we should not forget that we are also citizens of CloudStock.”
“Captain, I’ve heard others say before that they disagree with the tactics and strategies that they teach in Center-Storm,” Hleis said. “People are suspicious, can you let us know what’s going on?”
“Unfortunately, a lot of this is hidden even from me. I have some guesses, though it’s probably best not to speculate too much at this point. Though, I will say this, we know how the mastigs fight. If we stay within our limits West-Hail will survive whatever is coming.”
Hleis looked up at the empty blue sky above. The morning light was bright. He could hear the sound of the docks, filled with the soft chatter and clanking from mechanics working on their ships.
People were active, although tense. Morale was much better than the night before.
I guess a good nights sleep and a visit from the captain was enough.
Hleis followed along with the other defense force members, searching for his assigned unit posted at the front of the docks. People moved to be with their assigned squads as decided by the town leadership.
He climbed through the layered maze of docking bays to meet with Maltii and Vayling at dock 86, happy that he was in familiar company.
Already seated in the cockpit of their scout ship was an older man who was chatting with Vayling. He introduced himself as Flask.
Hleis had seen him around town before, but never spoke to him formally. Vayling mentioned that each unit needed one person to pilot the ship and provide experienced leadership for the younger members of the force.
Vayling had his signature smile, and talked with Flask as if he was an old friend.
Their airship belonged the Flask.
Scratches and claw marks were etched along the side of the wooden hull.
It was large enough to seat a group of eight on its deck with more than enough room to carry all necessary supplies underneath.
Catching Hleis evaluating his ship, Flask reassured him with a confident laugh that the ship would fly. After all, he had just taken it out on a hunting mission the day before.
The West-Hail sky port was not something Hleis visited frequently, and when he did, he did not spend much time there. Today though, while waiting for takeoff, he had a chance to really look around at the wooden structures that held hundreds of docks meant for the small vessels that travelled in and out of town.
They all shared the same wooden style hull with similar mechanisms in place, despite their varied sizes.
He knew the basics of how these ships worked. He knew from school that metal and minerals were rare and precious. His father taught him that the ships were powered by steam generated by extracting moisture from the air.
Curious, he asked Flask to see if he knew any more details.
Flask gave a quick brief on the wind-manipulating technologies used, not knowing exactly how they worked, saying they were developed in ancient times.
Hleis looked over at one of the nearby docks and spotted one of the ships that the capital mages arrived in.
He noticed Maltii also looking at it, they were unable to look away, captivated by its alien appearance, for it was massive and not made of wood, but constructed using a pristine white stone, adorned with the same silvery material that shone on the mage captains armor.
“Alright kiddos, are you all ready? This shouldn’t be too difficult, and all the instructions were was to scout out and patrol our area of the skies,” Flask asked the group. “I don’t plan to be doing anything further than that, but since this has interrupted the normal hunting schedules, if we see anything that would be a quick kill, you youngsters willing to help this old man bring in some quick resources for the town?”
“Absolutely. No problem with me.” Hleis replied.
“Same here.” said Maltii.
“Ah! Right! My dad was saying something about this last night too!” exclaimed Vayling. “Hah, Hleis and Mal, I’ll show you two how to hunt!” “Haha! Good on ya! Let’s see how well you inherited your father’s skills!” Flask chuckled as the group set off for their patrol.