“Agh! Does anyone have any idea where we are?” Vayling asked.
Maltii slowly looked up from the radar, frustrated, and said, “We don’t usually map out the skies this far out. Things float by and change rapidly out here.”
Hleis had no idea where they were. He didn’t think they were moving that fast, but aerial travel always was deceptive. Nearly three hours had passed since they first embarked and they were in uncharted territory.
Maltii was tracking even the slightest change in direction, relaying them to Flask. Even a shift caused by errant winds, had to be monitored to prevent the squad from veering off in the wrong direction.
“So what do you all make of what Traer was saying earlier?” Vayling asked. “What we’re doing now and what happened earlier are definitely weird, but his speculations were a little out there, don’t y’all think?”
Shortly after the announcement that morning, Traer caught the group while they were preparing for take off.
Hleis greeted him in the usual manner, despite of the uneasy mood hanging in the air. “Hey Traer, what’s on your mind?”
“Hey. A lot. Whatever’s going on, from our side at least, the captain seems to be the only one with any clue of what’s happening.”
“But, you have some ideas, right?”
“Yes, I have some guesses for why they’re asking us to do this. This is too odd of a tactic to execute with no concrete plan, but the mages and even the captain have been extremely secretive about the whole thing.”
“So what are you thinking?”
“Based on the last two months, the mages are aware of some mastig military force nearby and are asking us to assist with recon. What happened just now, in some ways confirms it, but also introduces some concerning factors. Them asking us to travel into unknown territory indicate that they desperately want us to find whatever we’re supposed to be looking for.”
“Well, if we didn’t find it, it would’ve been a waste of the last two months of scouting and preparation. Also, if we didn’t find these mastigs then some other, probably less equipped, town or village would’ve been attacked by them with no warning.”
“But the problem with everything is, since they’re sending you guys out as individual units, whichever unit actually discovers anything would face almost certain death. That unit would not return to report anything, but the mastigs would be able to figure out the direction of West-Hail. Basically we’d be telling a mastig military force of unknown size, that normally would not have noticed, that we exist, here we are.”
“I see what your saying. The capital also hasn’t sent any other reinforcements. They’re expecting us to handle it on our own?”
“I don’t know if they’re expecting us to handle it.”
“Why would they do that though? And why send mages here if that’s the case?”
“No idea. We’ll find out I guess.”
Flask seated in the pilots seat heard Traer’s theories for the first time. He interjected with, “Ya know. In my years and experiences, I’ve learned that trusting Cruntiq is the best rather than worrying and speculating. You’ll speculate yourself into being a useless paranoid. He’s proved time and time again that he has our backs. Just trust him and we’ll deal with things as they come.”
Another hour passed by and the squad reached the end of their time spent travelling away from West-Hail. They found themselves in empty skies that looked like any other. They turned back to begin their journey home while there was still daylight.
There wasn’t a lot to look at on the way back either. Hleis saw Vayling staring out into the open skies, searching for something interesting to see. Occasionally he would spot a far off wild sky beast. He would draw his bow, never arming it, but measuring to see if he could hit it from this distance, both gauging his abilities and keeping himself busy.
Maltii, spent ninety percent of the trip next to the aerial radar, seeing if there was anything nearby or approaching. She spotted nothing. To multitask, she would practice with her shield disks, drawing intricate shapes in the air with them while their ship was in transit.
Flask, focused on his piloting, occasionally striking up conversation with whoever was nearest, but with his level of experience in both life and battle, he had no problems keeping boredom at bay.
Hleis fulfilled his tasks as well, but every now and then he found himself staring at the skies below them, unable to look away from the dark expanse that existed below their world.
The mystery of the black depths below captivated him. He was never afraid of falling. He wanted to know what was there.
Maybe, Hleis thought. Someday, if I survive and make it old age, moments away from my death, I could throw myself off the side of wherever I lived, and into the darkness below. I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about what was down there, but I would be able to satisfy my own curiosity at least.
A full nine hours had passed. They returned from their scouting trip in the early evening.
They weren’t the first group to return nor were they the last. But most groups returned within that same hour.
The variations came from standard reasons. Some had gotten slightly off course. Those groups had to take extra time to correct themselves, while others experienced extra wind that affected their travel times. Some were even attacked by the rare aggressive sky beast, but were able to outrun it or repel it with force.
As Hleis’ group unpacked their items and restocked their ship, Traer walked up, with a concerned look, and asked, “Have you guys seen or heard anything about the three groups that haven’t returned yet?”
“No, it’s pretty late now, do you think something’s happened to them?” Maltii replied.
“Well, we’ve heard no communications aside from one group early on saying they ran into some mechanical problems… For any unit to be running nearly two hours later than all the other groups almost certainly means something happened.”
Attempting to lighten the mood as he headed out for the day, Vayling joked, “Well, we sent out almost two hundred squads out this morning. It could just be we have three teams of slowpokes.”
“Was Tyrize in one of those squads?” Hleis asked. “I haven’t seen him since we returned.”
“Yes he was, he,” but before Traer could finish his statement, a secretary from the administrations office ran up.
“Traer! We’ve got an update on the situation! One of the groups just landed, they were having some engine breakdowns and had to navigate back using the winds. Pretty impressively too,” reported the secretary. “We’ve also just received a communication message from another squad saying they discovered a fairly large piece of land that, they’re guessing, drifted nearby recently. They stopped to scout it out which is why they’re so delayed.”
“What are their unit numbers?” Traer asked.
“29 and 167.”
“And the third unit, 144?”
“Unfortunately… we’re still waiting to hear from them.”
“Okay. Thanks for the update and all the hard work,” Traer replied.
The secretary nodded her head and walked away at a brisk pace, probably on her way to update other members of the West-Hail strategic team.
Traer turned to Hleis and said, “Tyrize is in unit 144. Hopefully we hear back from them soon too.”
“You think it has to do with your prediction from this morning?” Hleis asked.
Traer pauses for a brief moment before he said, “I definitely hope not, that would be the worse case scenario because if that was the case, not only would we have lost our friend, but an unknown force would be preparing to or are already on their way to attack us now.”
“I’ve never seen you this stressed,” Hleis said. “I hope Tyrize and everyone’s fine also, but it’s not like we’re not used to this. You have something else going on in your mind right?”
“Ha,” Traer chuckled. He leaned in and whispered, “I heard a rumor today between the town’s leadership that’s really concerning. Keep it a secret between us okay? It’s not something I think we want the mages, or really anyone, picking up on just yet.”
“Got it. Are you sure you want to be telling me though?” Hleis whispered back.
“I trust you to keep a secret, and I need to tell someone to help clear my mind.” Traer whispered. “I overheard the mayor and the vice-captain in the hallway of the town hall. I heard the words ‘secret evacuation’. I’m still trying to figure out who this is supposed to be secret from, or what we may need to evacuate from, or even if I’m freaking out over nothing…”
Hleis responded, “Well I definitely wouldn’t ignore that. It was between the mayor and vice-captain after all, that definitely doesn’t sound good, but I don’t think we can we act on a rumor like that considering the situation West-Hail might be in.”
“Well, yeah, you’re right. A misunderstanding in tense times like now will do no one any good.” Traer said as he leaned back with a slight nod of the head.
Hleis said, “The entire town’s on edge right now. I say we first focus on whatever is going on with Tyrize and then worry about the rest of town. If it’s as you predicted then whatever will happen to West-Hail is connected to what his unit discovered.”
“That might be best, no, I think you’re right. I’ll continue to ask around and see if I can pick anything else up. We don’t know if we’re short on time, so information right now is the most valuable thing we have.” Traer mumbled in agreement. “Let’s reconnect later tonight, bring Vayling along also, I wished he stayed for this conversation because I’m sure his dad’s probably in on whatever this is…”
“You got it. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open too. See if there’s anything going on or any rumors floating around the soldiers.” Hleis said as the two dispersed.
“Looks like leadership’s got another announcement to make huh,” Vayling said as he sat down in a wooden seat next to Hleis and Traer. “Tyrize and his unit still hasn’t returned yet?”
“No… and we still haven’t heard anything,” Traer said while looking around, watching people drift in and take their seats in the circular hall. “Lets see if they’ll address it. Something important must have happened for them to call all of us together. I even see quite a few non-military here.”
Maltii arrived not long after and sat down next to Traer. She said, “A senior member of the town barrier and security team was also on the same ship as Tyrize as well as two other kids a little year younger than us.”
“Let’s not assume they’re dead just yet,” Traer said.
The atmosphere in the conference hall was already heavy even though people were still trickling in. Hleis could hear the many concerned voices reverberating throughout the spacious dome, speculating about this impromptu meeting.
“A meeting like this was bound to happen anyways. The leadership and the mages owe us an explanation after all the strange orders and months of unexplained patrols we’ve been asked to make.” Hleis remarked.
“Speaking of which, has anyone seen the mages at all out patrolling with the rest of us or anywhere in town?” Vayling asked.
Traer responded, “Since I can hardly fight and don’t go on patrol, while you guys are out, I spot the occasional mage enter and exit the town hall every now and then. Their captain I hear is always with Cruntiq for some reason. I’ve been thinking about it myself, what these mages do, plus how and why they remain out of sight.”
“Ooh you think they’re using cloaking magic to not be seen?” Vayling asked with a smile.
“I’m sure they could, but honestly what a waste of such abilities that would be. Why the hell would they need stealth magic in West-Hail,” Traer replied.
“Ha, well I’ve yet to see one of them do any fighting,” Vayling said. “Do they even see actual combat at all in the capital? I know they get deployed where needed, but what if they’re actually just afraid of us since we’ve been so good at repelling mastigs so far?”
“Vayling…” Maltii sighed.
As time passed, the empty seats began to dwindle.
Hleis had been here many times. He remembered in the past it would seat upwards of fifteen thousand people for important announcements.
He looked down passed the circular rows and focused on the wide, but empty center stage, built on top of a floor carved from grey stone. When he was here in the past, it was used for performances and speeches. Today he didn’t know what to expect.
He looked several rows ahead of them. There sat the hunters, including Flask and Vayling’s father. The mayor sat in the front row along with the other West-Hail elders. He recognized the head librarian and school superintendent, the chief of the port, the major farmers. He recognized many others, but didn’t know their roles.
He spotted many civilian households as well. Many times he would see just a single adult sitting alone or with others. He knew most of them were married, but figured the household only needed one person to be there.
Many other families sat together with their children. He would recognize some of the older ones he went to school with.
Hleis looked for his neighbors and family friends, but couldn’t find all of them.
They probably chose not to attend, not wanting to get involved in military affairs. I don’t blame them.
Hleis spotted his parents. They were sitting together with Traer’s mother.
Maltii’s family did not attend the meeting as they trusted Maltii and her older brother to relay any important information. Her elder brother was seated several rows behind them with his friends. He was another member of the defense force, a close combat fighter and taught Hleis many of the tricks he knew. He also had some minor magical training and could use if sparingly.
Hleis briefly pondered about that fact after spotting him. Few people were born with magical talent, but it is said that almost anyone can learn how to use it at a basic level. But the ones born with exceptional magic abilities are almost always mysteriously found and recruited to Center-Storm to become trained into mages.
It must be incredibly rare to have that level of natural skill. No one from West-Hail has ever been recruited.
By nine pm, the hall was nearly packed full.
Shortly after, catching the eyes of everyone who noticed, the ornately adorned mage captain, Veindelio, and Cruntiq entered the room and together and walked onto the central stage.
Tapping the microphone, Cruntiq commanded the attention of the hall.
He looked around, making eye contact with important individuals seated throughout, confirming their attendance, before he began his address to the town.
“Everyone, thank you for coming here today on such short notice. As well as mobilizing and being so cooperative with regards to the abrupt, and no doubt seemingly strange orders we gave you this morning.”