The skies were clear with very few clouds as forecasted. It was bright and blue. The massive band of light illuminated the realm below, stretching across the sky from one horizon to the other.
Hleis would look around and occasionally spot indiscernible spots of color flying in the distance, no doubt an unreachable sky beast, and nothing too interesting to look at.
Often he would look down and see the fathomless darkness that the skies would gradually become when looking at the horizon, where one would fall, seemingly without end, if gravity were to take them out of the skies.
He didn’t know what was down there. No one in West-Hail knew what was down there. And nobody could tell him where one would land if they just free fell. All his knowledge came from the books in school and his own imagination.
He heard tales of explorers who would travel as far down as they could go, but when they returned, all they reported back was simply just more sky. Those who did unfortunately fall, whether by accident or otherwise, were never heard of or seen again. Their bodies become irretrievable, impossible to know where, when or even if they landed at all.
Legends would say that’s where the dead would go after they died, but at his age, Hleis had stopped naively believing the stories that the elders would use to explain the unknown.
Still, pondering about what was there was something Hleis spent long hours doing. The unknown fascinated him and captivated his thoughts, and as his squad went about their first assigned patrol route, his mind wandered to such things.
“See anything?” asked Flask.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly no massive mastig force, so big and strong that our weak little town could not possibly defeat without the help of the super wonderful mages from the capital to come generously rescue us from,” Vayling replied sarcastically.
“…Not helpful Vay,” said Maltii. “But yeah, I’m not picking anything strange up on the air signature radar”
“What’re you looking at Hleis?” Vayling asked.
“Looking down, so no idea. Could be anything or nothing. What do you think is down there?”
“Hmm, probably nothing. Though, it would be nice if there’s land down there. Maybe we could possibly live there? I mean, we’d have to give up our daylight, but I doubt the mastigs would chase us so far down.”
“Assuming that they’re not already there,” Maltii said. “Hang on, we have a fairly large sky beast nearby to our upper-north! Squad Leader, should we engage?”
“Yes! Let’s do this!” Flask shouted enthusiastically. “Maltii, send out the bait flair and get your shields ready! Hleis, prepare to go out there, all you gotta do is distract it from knocking us out of the air! If you can, don’t deal the killing blow with your sword! Vayling! You know what to do right?”
“Yessir!” replied Vayling.
Maltii fired the bait flair, producing a loud piercing noise and sending a shining collection of reflective smoke into the air. With not much to see in empty skies, any disturbance would be worthy of investigation. This applied to fauna as much as it did to humans.
She began to set some defensive electrical barriers around the ship using the standard issue shield generators armed on her gloves and wrists. Something that Hleis was always comforted seeing.
Each barrier emerged from a floating disk conduit that reads signals from her gloves to maneuver and deploy energy barriers. Collected on her belt were twelve of such disks, the standard amount for any trained shield operator.
As Maltii did this, Hleis snapped in place the rope wire onto his harness and armor, acting as the safety line keeping him connected to the ship. He grabbed a set of grappling hooks and ropes, packing them onto his belt, before picking up his sword and jumping out into the open air to be dragged along through the currents while he waited for the approaching beast.
Hleis was comfortable floating in the skies. He loved the weightless feeling of flying with the wind. It made him feel like he was their part of the world like the clouds and sky beasts he would watch from solid ground.
He was trained in school during hunting classes. Activating his chest armor jolted him upwards and to the left; testing to see if the propulsion mechanisms were working.
Just focus on staying alive, Hleis thought to himself. Strike it when appropriate and leave the rest to Vayling and Maltii.
The two shield disks floating around him made him feel secure. They would not get in the way of his sword. It had something to do with sensors. Maltii had explained it before, but he didn’t fully understand.
Hleis ran through his mental checklist, as long as he didn’t drop his sword, he would be safe. With weapon in hand, his skills would keep him alive, but even a brief moment unarmed against such a creature, he knew could prove fatal, even if he activated the magnets that would pull the sword back to his glove.
The beast approached, rhythmically beating its heavy wings. Hleis estimated, including the plumage on its thin, but long tail, the beast was over ten meters in length and two meters in height, observing a wingspan twice as long as its body. The pointed teeth gave away that it was a carnivore, its jaws accounting for a quarter of its length and mouth large enough to swallow an adult human whole.
Hleis raised his sword in front of himself. It was big, as tall as he was, but he knew the grip well and held it with confidence. He knew where all the kinks and dents along the edges were too and how they got there.
He picked it up from his father’s workshop years ago, out of necessity, to save him during his first mastig attack. He had been using it since, preferring it to all other weapons available.
In the open skies, the large size was never a detriment. There were no confined spaces and Hleis became exceptional at swinging the blade with extraordinary speed, much to the surprise of everyone who fought with and against him.
The beast lunged, and Hleis dodged, careful to protect the wires that connected him to the ship. When he couldn’t dodge he would strike at its mouth with his sword or deliver a heavy kick.
Be careful with my swings. Don’t kill it with the sword. Don’t let its carcass fall out of the skies. Allow them to retrieve the body for the meat.
Vayling armed the hunting harpoons on the ship and fired them, lodging sharpened barbs into the beast connecting it to the ship via rope wire.
The beast violently convulsed, caught off guard by the harpoons in its side. Hleis maneuvered above its head while it was distracted, deactivated any propulsion and dropped his whole weight into a downward kick.
He felt the impact reverberate through his legs. It was harder than he thought it would be. The creature was just as stunned as he was.
No time to catch his breathe, Hleis separated from the creature and fell before the tug of the rope started dragging him through the skies once again.
He looked over at Vayling back on the ship drawing back his tech bow.
Vayling was trained to be a marksman by his father, the most accomplished hunter in town and a war buddy of Cruntiq’s.
Opting for more power, hunting marksman like Vayling used the age-old bow and quiver needle as the weapon of choice. There were a variety of other long-range firearms with blueprints brought in by travelling merchants, developed by other settlements, but were often found to be lacking in firepower. Not strong enough to take down beasts and mastigs with a single shot.
Readying his shot, Vayling pulled back the arrow made of deep orange energy generated from his quiver needle, the small syringe shaped device that he held in his right hand.
Hleis had forced the beast in a relatively stationary position, perfect conditions for Vayling to take his shot.
The arrow flew off of Vayling’s bow through the sky, cutting through the wind, no visible resistance, connecting with the beast just behind its eye, penetrating it through cleanly and swiftly.
It took around four minutes for Hleis to be reeled back onto the ship. The massive predator that he was fighting moments ago, hung limp as it was dragged through the air.
“Good job folks!” shouted Flask from the cockpit. “I’m impressed Hleis! You didn’t even look like you broke a sweat out there!”
“Oh he’s good alright, I hardly ever need to use any of the defenses when it comes to him,” Maltii said.
“Thanks for the nice words, but I still need to improve,” Hleis replied with a chuckle while massaging his legs. “I know how strong the captain is, but he won’t be around forever and defending West-Hail will someday become our responsibility, you know, if we make it through all this recent stuff with those mages…”
“Hah! Hleis, you’re too paranoid! I’m here with you so there’s no need to worry so much about the future!” Vayling jokingly exclaimed. “You know what? I bet you’re already stronger than some of those mages! I mean c’mon! I bet half of them have never even held a sword once in their lives! They learned all their fighting at school whereas we had to learn it on the job!”
Hleis, Vayling, Maltii and Flask had finished their route by the late afternoon. The docks were busy with the chatter of the later rounds of patrols that day talking to the groups who just returned, as they prepared to set out themselves.
Flask said goodbye and left immediately in accordance with the reporting protocol. Since they had engaged, hunted and dragged a sky beast back to West-Hail, Flask had to spend some extra time explaining why their patrol went on longer than scheduled.
They had plenty of time to rest on the ship, but unsure if their day was over, the younger three took a break outside the town hall, waiting to see if there were further orders abound.
Vayling turned to the other two and quietly asked, “Did you guys get a look at the Mage Captain? He’s actually pretty big for a guy who learned how to fight from a book.”
“I’m sure mage school is more than just classrooms…” Maltii said. She was somewhat uninterested in Vayling’s comments and was largely distracted by the book on local fauna in her hands.
Hleis on the other hand, was fascinated by the mages. Just how powerful was their magic to earn an esteemed reputation like that?
He said to Vayling, “Who do you think is stronger between the two captains? Cruntiq? Or the Mage?”
Vayling pondered a bit before responding. “Hmm, honestly I haven’t seen much magic in my life. I joke about them, but… no amount of nobility explains some of the stories.”
“Cruntiq has magical skills too though, along with his close combat skills.”
“Well here’s the thing right? There a lot of people can use a little bit of magic, but most don’t spend their entire lives learning it. They happen to be the most talented ones with formal training, or so they say.”
“But isn’t it interesting that there are very few mages considered heroes throughout our kingdom’s history? You think maybe their standard is just that high?”
“I doubt it. I think it’s that battlefield experience allows for higher growth. They’re probably deployed in very tactical ways, whereas soldiers like Cruntiq when he was younger, were probably just thrown into whatever battlefield they were needed in and left to figure it out on their own. He no doubt gained a lot doing so.”
“Well, I suppose recognition is based off expectations. Still, magic is hard to account for when talking about combat strength. Ha! If things go bad here, we’ll probably get to see them in action anyways.”
“Yeah, I wonder how that’ll go though? Will they be fighting along side us or separately? Not many of us have fought with specialized magic users before.”
“How’d the patrol go today?” asked Traer as he approached the three sitting together. His hair was a mess and dark circles bordered his eyes.
Vayling casually replied, “Nothing too eventful. Hunted a beast on the way back. What’d you do today? I don’t think you would’ve been assigned to any patrols, yeah?”
“I had to sit through a bunch of town meetings since daybreak. Nothing really got accomplished, we spent the entire day trying to figure out why the mages were here since everything about them is extraordinarily vague…” Traer said. “He wouldn’t explicitly say, but I did get a sense from the captain though, that what’s going on now isn’t too out of the ordinary for the capital. He’d seen it before and that we’d be bolstering our defenses over the next few days.”
“Any idea of what’s the plan then for the immediate future?” Hleis asked.
“More of the same, they’re clearly expecting either we find something or something to find us. Now, I don’t know if that’s mastigs or what, but we should be ready for it,” said Traer.
Over the next few days, the same pattern continued, sometimes the time slots of the shifts would change, but overall, nothing out of the ordinary would occur. During the day the squads would conduct their duties, and at night would socialize with each other to keep the tension at bay.
This continued for several weeks. With no results or developments, and no new information about the mage’s presence, restlessness and frustration took hold.
Hleis listened to the complaints of Tyrize, about how the mages were stirring up trouble for nothing and wasting everyone’s time.
He saw where his friend was coming from. None of them had much experience dealing with the capital. Here, things were built on trust and community.
Secrecy was uncomfortable. It only created suspicion and uncertainty.
At the start of the third month, all the squads were to assemble at the docks for a morning address. Reason unannounced.
Hleis was shocked to see the mage captain present. He stood a little taller than Cruntiq. His build was just as muscular despite being a magic specialist. Something about the way he carried himself made Hleis believe that this guy was strong. Something about him radiated power.
When a majority was accounted for, the mage captain stepped forward.
“Soldiers of West-Hail, my name is Veindelio, Mage-Commander of the third battalion of the Center-Storm order of Magus.” He paused and scanned the troops before continuing his address, “Thank you for your dedication and patience these past two months. Today, we will be making an adjustment to the normal patrol protocol.”
Hleis looked over at Cruntiq nearby, wearing an expressionless look, while other local leaders and members of the strategic team, including Traer, whispered amongst each other in a panicked haste.
Was this address was not communicated at all to the town leadership beforehand?
The mage captain wisely continued with his announcement before people got too restless. “For today, every unit is to travel in a direction that will be assigned to you for four and a half hours before immediately turning back and returning to West-Hail. Your ships have been stocked with enough supplies to last you throughout the day. You are not to stray from the direction, nor are you to get distracted by any other activities like hunting.”
After a brief moment of silence, murmurs spread throughout the troops. Confusion was in the air.
Cruntiq stepped forward and loudly said, “Soldiers! A nine-hour patrol is no small task! Do not waste any more time here, head out immediately!”
As people ran by him to their stations, Hleis looked back at Cruntiq, who walked past the mage captain to address the local leadership. He couldn’t say why, but Hleis had a really bad feeling about today.