Cruntiq said, “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.” He paused a moment and looks around the hall.
The conversations quickly died as the audience shifted their attention to Cruntiq.
“I know everyone has questions as to what’s been going on recently and why you’ve been going on these unexplained patrols for the last two months.” He paused again, his words briefly echoing throughout the spacious dome. “One reason we’ve called this conference tonight is to discuss this with you all, but before we get to that, I’m sure all of you know that today’s patrol was by no means standard. And I’m also sure most of you are aware that one squad did not return from this mornings mission.”
“Unit 144 did not return this morning… We cannot at this moment say that they are deceased, but having not heard from them at all today, as well as them falling off the ship tracking system, we must declare them MIA for the time being. News has already been delivered to their families just before this gathering.”
Hleis looked over at his friends. They looked back at him; all mirroring the same solemn look on their face, one that they were all familiar with.
Since birth they were taught the kingdom was in a state of war, a kingdom that had been in a state of war for millennia, a kingdom that had been created for the purpose of war. The feeling of unexpectedly losing friends, without saying a proper goodbye, was a familiar one. Through repetition it transformed into am aching feeling of emptiness.
Cruntiq continued, “With that in mind, for tomorrow we will be doing the same patrol procedure again. All units are to keep their eyes and radars open for any traces or signs of unit 144, either for rescue or recovery. We will also be assigning three units to travel the same direction as 144 tomorrow.”
Before he could continue, someone yelled from the mid rows of the conference hall, “Where the hell are the mages! My brother died for this and yet they’re nowhere to be seen!? They don’t even speak to the people they’re making die for their missions!?”
Murmurs and whispers echoed throughout the hall.
A few people shouted at Cruntiq, “Yeah! Where are the mages!?”
“Bring them out here! They owe us an explanation!”
“They’re orders got four of ours killed! Make them answer us!”
Cruntiq stood for a moment, before he turned his eyes at Veindelio.
Veindelio did not return the look and kept his eyes forward at the crowd the entire time, maintaining a stoic expression on his face. Cruntiq turned his eyes away, takes a blink and a deep sigh before stepping up to address the hall once again.
“People, do not forget that we are a strong group. Our small town has been a pillar of the outer trade routes for decades due to the strength of the individuals that we consider our neighbors. We owe it to their strength and skill to not assume them to be dead.”
When Cruntiq spoke the people of West-Hail listened. The trust they had in him translated to the respect they showed him when he spoke.
“It’s true. The mages have been out of sight for the majority of you all, but please remember that they only number in the twenties while we number in the thousands. I have been in contact with the captain of the mages, the man many of you saw this morning and the man standing besides me now.”
From the seats, someone shouts loudly, “Explain yourself mage!”
This was followed by an assorted array or “Yeah!” and “C’mon!” All from frustrated soldiers seeking to provoke an answer from the head of the mages.
Veindelio, unfazed by the provocations, rather assertively stepped up to the microphone.
He was slightly taller than Cruntiq, while being exceptionally well built despite being a magical specialist. He had been on many battlefields from his demeanor. His stature revealed that could hold his own in close combat with any of the people here. This was apparent to nearly all the soldiers here just from his calmness alone. He began speaking.
“Although we may come from Center-Storm in the heart of our kingdom, do not think that we do not recognize your strength. As an unfortunate occurrence happened today I owe it you all to give some context as to why we’re here. The Order of Capital Mages is stretched thin during these times, and as such deployment of our units is reserved for critically important tasks. I apologize with all due respect, but we have been assigned to complete a task in West-Hail. One that we must carry out in secrecy and that has important implications for our entire kingdom.”
Veindelio looked around to gauge the atmosphere in the room before continuing, “As Cruntiq pointed out earlier, there are but a handful of mages here in West-Hail. Our numbers may seem small, but that is no reason to be concerned. Leadership in the capital is aware of the competence of West-Hail and decided to not to send any more reinforcements. It is a testament to your town that official military forces was not deployed here and that the capital trusts you all to be able to help us accomplish our task.”
He paused yet again before making his closing statement. “I thank you for your trust, and I promise that all will be clear in time. The role that you play will be crucial for the success of our kingdom.”
Murmurs yet again filled the room. Cruntiq stepped up this time and addressed the group. “Everyone, Veindelio and I will remain in this hall for a while longer. If you have questions we’ll try to answer the ones we can. Everyone else is dismissed for the night. I’ll see everyone tomorrow.”
Traer turned to Hleis and co. and says, “I’ll stay for a bit, I have a few questions I want to ask. You guys head on home. You need the rest since you’ll all be heading out tomorrow. I’ll stay since I don’t patrol and update you guys tomorrow.”
“Only if we make it back,” Maltii says with a slightly sarcastic disdain for the situation in general.
“Was that it? That’s all they had to say? What was even the point of this meeting?” Vayling exclaimed.
“Good luck Traer,” Hleis said.
The next morning carried on smoothly but with a more serious tone than the day before. Supplies were packed onto the ships, the units gathered, and preparations were made in an almost silent atmosphere.
The defense force of West-Hail now knew there was real danger in the skies, confirmed by the existence of a missing squad. They also were aware that they were alone and that whatever they found, they would have to deal with it on their own.
For Hleis, Vayling and Maltii, this was especially true as they presumably lost a good friend. Flask pulled their ship out of port and begun the patrol with a solemn but serious mood permeating the trip.
The patrol was uneventful that day. The squad kept their eyes on their surroundings and the radar, but nothing out of the ordinary was spotted.
They reached the end of their four and a half hours going outwards away from West-Hail.
On their way back, Vayling said to Hleis and Maltii, “You know, after the conference yesterday I was almost expecting us to run into something today. Honestly kind of surprised that we ended up fine especially since Tyrize did not…”
“Vayling…We don’t know what the other groups found yet. Let’s stay focused here.” Maltii said.
Hleis jumped in, “Vay, think about it, of course we were going to be fine. There’s a reason they sent three squads out in the same direction squad 144 went in. We should focus on returning safely and preparing for whatever it is that those three groups found.”
Flask interjected, “Aye Hleis, that’s why they sent out three groups after all. They didn’t send them all out at once too I hear. Gave them the fastest ships and staggered them. Make sure that at least one of them makes it back to town to report.”
“Despite what the fancy mage said yesterday, we are still just a local militia. Gah, how worried do you think our families and the other townsfolk are right now after all that’s been going on?” Maltii exclaimed exasperated.
It was just before sunset when Hleis’ squad returned from their patrol. They weren’t the first group to return, nor would they be the last. Pulling into port, the tension in the air was palpable as nearly every unit was on edge, waiting on word of the three units sent out in 144’s direction. The last communication was received around midday, and none of the three groups had yet returned.
Hleis and Vayling left port together on their way to the town hall to meet with Traer and Vayling’s father. Both were hoping to see if any information about Tyrize surfaced today. Outside of the docks, there was an unfamiliar sense of disorder about. Civilians were running about in a chaotic fashion, clearly distressed.
Vayling pulled a local shopkeeper over and said to him, “Hey man, what’s going on? Why’s everyone freaking out?”
“You didn’t see anything out there? You guys just came back from patrol right? You didn’t see anything?” he replied.
“No, what are you talking?” Hleis asked him.
“We got a sudden order half an hour ago from the mayor! We’re supposed to all be gathering supplies right now and bring them to lowest level! Prepare to fortify! State of Emergency!” He exclaimed before running off to continue his duties.
Vayling looked at Hleis. Wearing a confused, but alarmed look on his face. “What the!? They found something!? None of the guys at the port said anything about fortifying the town!”
Hleis, in a low voice, responded, “Vay, this was after you left, but at the docks yesterday Traer said he overheard the word ‘evacuation’. Sounds like they might have found something then, not today. We have to find Traer.”
Vayling’s normally cheerful demeanor disappeared. He gave Hleis a head nod and the two take off, running to the center of town, heading towards the town hall where the defense force strategic team meets.
To their surprise, three mages were sitting outside the main entrance, helmets off. Their frustration was on display by their body language.
Both Hleis and Vayling looked over at them, but did not stop nor slow down as they entered the hall. Hleis looked back and made eye contact with one of them, a rather young mage. By appearance, she couldn’t have been much younger or older than he or Vayling, but wore an ornate hairstyle and had vibrant golden eyes unlike the magenta eyes of the denizens of West-Hail.
She and Hleis maintained eye contact until the town hall broke their line of sight.
Although the exchange was a little strange, Hleis thought nothing of it; he had no time to even begin thinking about it, as the main hallway was littered with mages, West-Hail militia and the scattered and panicked townsfolk. The main door at the end of the hall was the Mayor’s office.
It was shut closed, but the entire town hall could hear that something was going on inside.
All the other major members of town leadership, aside from Cruntiq and the Mayor, were sitting in the main hall, waiting, along with everyone else, for whatever was happening in there to conclude.
Traer noticed the guys before they notice him. He waved them down, Hleis and Vayling go over to meet their friend.
“Hey, what’s the deal here?” Vayling asked, jumping straight to the point.
“We’ve heard back from all three teams sent out, no sign of 144, but they spotted some strange aerial disturbances on their radars, I have no idea what it could be, probably Mastigs, but Cruntiq does. He ordered a full lockdown of the town and for us to make siege preparations,” Traer replied.
“144…damn…What about that thing you mentioned yesterday?” Hleis asked,
“I think that may have been the stirrings of what’s going on now. The mages were not aware of the lockdown order. Cruntiq gave the order on his own, without consulting them. Right now he and the mage captain are in the mayor’s office discussing things, but there’s no doubt that he’s upset.”
Vayling remarked, “So that’s why the mages are all scattered about here waiting for something.”
“I’m guessing if we’re fortifying the town, we’re to make preparations also? Are there any orders for the defense force? We didn’t hear anything at the dock,” Hleis said.
“Yeah, the vice captain left to initiate a high level fortification procedure just now. The mage captain pulled Cruntiq aside before further orders could be given though and that’s the reason for the state of panic right now.” Traer looked around before continuing, “The mages look like they’re waiting around as well. From the looks of things, for our survival, I hope Cruntiq and the mages work it out all right. We’ll need to cooperate otherwise we’ll be doomed.”
The three of them continued to chat, keeping an eye out for the occasional messenger relaying information about the fortification process, returning scout ships and overall supply levels.
Suddenly the mayor’s door opened and Cruntiq walked out with a serious look on his face. Veindelio followed behind him.
“Veindelio, we’ll have to continue this later, I need to oversee my town’s defenses.”
“…Fine Cruntiq, but if the Mastigs don’t destroy us, the capital certainly may. You’ll have to deliver impossible results against these odds,” Veindelio remarked.
Cruntiq replied while still walking forward, “I’ve seen how this goes before. The capital wastes exceptional and capable soldiers with their foolish tactics. They waste the resources that they never even bother to come see with their own eyes while they spend all their time hiding in Center-Storm.”
“Cruntiq, watch yourself. Center-Storm is the heart of our nation. They must oversee the defense of the entire kingdom.”
“A shrinking kingdom Veindelio…Ever thought how strange it is that in the first five hundred years of CloudStock’s history, we were basically undefeated against the Mastigs? When the Mastigs were at their strongest.”
“We had the King of Legends then. You know this.”
“A warrior king that could live five hundred years? No, however strong he may have been individually, his real power was creating a kingdom that could get a high level of usefulness from the entire population. Not the wasteful recklessness that’s set in since his death on the battlefield.”
By this point in the conversation, the two of them had reached the main entrance. Just before exiting the building, Cruntiq turned to face Veindelio and said, “I’ll take command of my men, you do the same with yours, I’ll trust you to assign them where you see fit.”
“Fine, we’ll reconvene an hour prior to the Mastic arrival.” Veindelio replied as the two go their separate ways.
The mages naturally flocked to Veindelio, while everyone else gathered around Cruntiq.
He addressed the local leaders and all those present outside the hall. “Okay, I’m sure by now everyone’s aware of the lockdown. We’ve located a class three Mastig attack fleet. A slow moving one, but they’re on the way to us now that they know our general direction. ETA is around five hours. No reinforcements, we’re on our own here. We’re too far away from any military garrison and can’t risk giving away the location of another settlement. Help the civilians that you can, fortify and supply the walls and take up defensive positions as directed by the strategic team. Let’s get through this one alive alright?”