Scrutiny (episode 9)


Milak returned to the camp feeling more at peace with his past, the loss of his family always stirred conflicting feelings of rage and guilt.  He struggled to get those feelings under control lest they consume him as they had consumed his father.  Thoughts of his father promised to lead him down another dark and dangerous path.  Before his mind could even start down those bleak roads that led to the bitter recesses of his mind, he came upon his tent and saw Elandria waiting for him.  In his haste to gain control over his personal demons, he had forgotten about asking her to wait for him.  “Ah, my dear friend, if I were a bird I would surely never catch the worm.  My apologies for keeping you waiting, I needed to clear my thoughts after receiving disturbing news.”  He invited her into his tent.  “Would you like some tea?  It is the least I can do for keeping you waiting.”  He put a kettle over the fire and produced two finely crafted teacups from a chest.  He put together a small table for the tea, “Tell me what you learned from Zaor and Vander.”

“They were in place for a little over a week at most.  In that time they saw a daily air transport fly through the valley, each with a contingent of winged-men as guards.”

“Most probably Powerstone Aerialists, Grimtok favors them.”  Elandria looked at him questioningly.  “He owns the mine,” said Milak.  He signaled her to continue as he poured their tea.

“I have heard of them but as of yet, I have not had the privilege of engaging them.  The surprising thing is that for every airship, there are at least two ground shipments.  I did not think the Kelrands regularly used ground transports; they are much slower than airships.  In any event, to support eighteen shipments a week, the mine must be producing a vast quantity of topexx crystals.”

He handed her a cup of tea.  “Hmm, that is interesting and agrees with what Nuala and I discussed.  By the way, we are heading south with her to investigate his operations.”  After catching her up, he sipped at his tea seemingly lost in thought.  “The only time I have known Kelrands to transport goods on the ground is when they want to hide something.  What would make him hide two-thirds of all that he finds?  Could it be he has found more than just topexx in those mines?”  No answers came for these questions and dozens more that floated through his mind.

Elandria and he continued making plans for their trip south; it was well into the night by the time they parted company.  The new day would bring more opportunities, but for now, it was time to make peace with the day.

—–

Days later, Milak crouched down below thick bushes that grew along the west side of the Evernall in this region.  He turned to Elandria and Nuala, and said, “The patrols are converging now; in the next few minutes, they will circle back out providing us our opportunity to scout the camp.  Is Andra ready?”

Elandria’s owl sat on her forearm, cleaning his wings, likely oblivious to the tasks they needed from him.  For as long as he had known Elandria, she always had her owl nearby.  The two shared a bond deeper and more profound that what he shared with his horse, Severance.  At times, Severance and he seemed to move and think as one, but it was more illusion than reality brought about by long familiarity and his strong Gift of animal empathy.  With the aid of a topexx, he could sense strong emotions from Severance but he could not share more than that.  Elandria, however, could form a deep and immersive bond with Andra, sharing thoughts and more importantly senses.  The use of the owl’s sight enabled them to scout and map the mining operation without risking personal capture.  Andra’s small stature at just over a foot tall should keep him out of sight of the patrolling Powerstone Aerialists long enough to explore the main encampment and look for airshafts.

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Elandria produced a necklace from her pouch.  It had a simple catch at the back, rather than a chain, and a thin, flat, metal band that widened as it came around to the front.  At the front of the necklace, it dipped down creating a vee shape, with inset topexx crystals.  The center of the vee held a large topexx surrounded by three topexxes on each side.  Milak had seen it a handful of times on prior missions, and each time he thought it was a beautifully crafted necklace, simple, yet elegant.  She clasped it around Andra’s neck; on him, it fit perfectly as a collar, with enough room that the owl still had a full range of motion in its neck.  She bowed her head to Andra, touching her crown shakaa to the topexx crystal in the center of the collar; Milak assumed she was channeling her energy into the topexx to activate their shared senses.

Elandria lifted her head, “We are ready.”  He marveled at the shared experiences she must be feeling, joining her mind with Andra.  She lifted her arm and Andra spread his wings and took flight into the twilight sky.  Milak and Nuala watched as Andra flew over the river and then lost sight of him as he disappeared into the trees on the other side.  Nuala turned to Elandria who had her eyes half closed.  “We are over the camp.  It’s a massive hole in the ground, we’ll fly over it, 1 … 2 … 3,” she counted half to herself until she reached a twenty count.  “That’s over eight-hundred feet wide.  Men are scrambling all over the camp.  We see dozens of wooden buildings, probably barracks.  We see many mice scurrying about.  A patrol is approaching; we must dive under the cover of the trees.”  Elandria continued making passes over the encampment, each time she described more of the camp while Nuala drew a map.

On the latest pass over the camp, a patrol of two Powerstone Aerialists spotted Andra and decided to follow him.  Yet again, Elandria directed the owl low through the trees, she hoped it would give cover, yet they persisted.  Arcs of blueish-purple lightning slammed into a tree causing splinters and bark to rain down as Andra swept left out of the way.  Elandria lessened her control and let the owl’s natural instincts take over; he knew how to evade flying predators better than she did.  For several harrowing minutes, Andra flew a dizzying array of aerial acrobatics, eventually flying through tightly packed tree branches where the humans could not follow.  He briefly emerged above the treetops only to dive right back down through a different set of densely packed branches.  He perched on a branch where Elandria and he could watch the darkening sky.  A minute later, the Aerialists popped up above the trees, looking left then right, but not seeing a trace of Andra.  Moments later, they disappeared from Andra’s sight, likely returning to their patrol.  Elandria no longer wanted to risk Andra’s life by flying over the main camp, since it had no easily accessible tree cover for him to escape.  It was time to look for signs of airshafts.

As the sky deepened from dusk to night, Andra flew through the trees between the river and the camp, looking for airshafts.  “We see a pattern in the trees; they are cleared in a zigzag line between the camp and the river.  The lack of trees heads mainly towards the setting sun,” Andra rose to just above the treetops, “we see airshafts.  We found our path,” Elandria pointed to a spot on the map, “we fly back over the water; we see a hole in the ground.”  Suddenly, Elandria grabbed her left arm in pain and fell to her knees.  “Arrrggg, our wing!”

Milak turned to the south and saw a shadowy, winged-man firing arcs of blueish-purple lightning.  “Damn it, it is that Aerialist again.”

“I have lost contact.  He still lives, somehow.  I believe he flew into the airshaft to escape.  Milak we must retrieve him,” she pleaded.  Tears streamed down Elandria’s face from pain or concern he could not tell.

“Andra needs our aid, let us go.  If that truly is an airshaft for that mining encampment, we need proof.  If we hurry, we can make the shaft before the moon rises above the trees.”


Story day!  Today is an extra-special story day, too.  On this day 25 years ago, I (as in Aj) made the best decision of my life.  I said “I do” to my lovely wife Jenna.  We’ve had good times and we’ve had bad times, yet here we are 25 years later, stronger than ever, more committed to each other than ever, and having more fun than ever.  She is my inspiration, my muse, my love.

In this episode, we find Milak, Nuala, Elandria, and her owl, Andra doing recon over Grimtok’s mining expedition.  If you had a beloved animal companion would you send them on a dangerous mission?  Leave a comment and let us know.

Next Episode:  Final release September 10, 2016 (first draft on Sept 3, second draft on Sept 6, and rough color on Sept 8)

Previous Episode:  Maps and Mines

First Episode:  Rainfall


This episode was originally posted on the Space Monkeys Down Patreon as Beating the Drums of War:  Scrutiny.

Beating the Drums of War: Scrutiny

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