Chapter 1

 

Wyla’s found herself ripped from a night of fitful slumber by a deafening sound that filled ever square inch of her tent. She slammed her hand down upon the crate that served as her nightstand, frantically groping around for her pistol, and steadied her breath as she felt her fingers curl around the handle. With her other hand she touched the locket that hung around her neck. An air raid didn’t leave her much time to think. Wyla threw herself out of her cot, leaving it to lean haphazardly against her crate-table as she flew to the door-flap of her tent. The loop of her rucksack caught her ankle as she rushed outside. She quickly removed the pack and tossed it back into her tent, hearing it thud against her cot. The rows of tents outside were bathed in the predawn shadows of an overcast night. What little light the twin moons provided gave the base a pallor glow that made the siren feel more like the howl of some unholy beast.

Her bare feet pounded the ground with a savage rhythm that carried her down the alleys of the Coastal army’s base at Anfang landing. Wyla let her gaze drift across the tents as she passed. A total absence of other soldiers readying themselves for the raid caught her attention. No lights shown from within them. A clear sign of a black out. Wyla knew better than to follow such a trite strategy. She shook her head as she hastened her pace, bound for the hangar and her flyer within. If Wyla Remsca was to die, she would die as she lived: in the sky above.

The wooden maw of the hangar was filled with darkness, but Wyla knew her flyer was front and center, right where she had left it after returning from patrol the night before. She cast her emerald eyes to the sky above and scanned it for Royals. The pale glow of the moons behind the clouds gave her face a gentle luminescence, bouncing it’s light off of her lean features. A slight breeze moved the clouds gently across the heavens above, but she saw no enemy flyers. Racking her brain, Wyla felt the breeze finally reach ground level. It blew her loose night ware against her rail thin frame, causing her to shiver. She was ripped from her thoughts by it. Even in the midst of summer, the sea winds retained their chill. It briefly gusted and blew her curly hair into her face. She flipped it back and touched the felt like side of her head where the hair had been shaved away. The Coastal army shaved the sides of their heads in a style worn by the barbarian hoards from the time of lords. As an army that had risen in rebellion against the king, it was only right to pay homage to the royal family’s last great foe.

Regaining her wits, Wyla walked into the hangar with one hand extended. The darkness swallowed her as her hand touched the wing of her flyer. She stuffed her pistol into the back of her pants before placing her other hand next to it and leaping onto it’s wing. The flyer shook lightly with the force of her landing. She tread lightly on the cold metal of the wing, taking great care to feel for the rear facing propeller that allowed the flyer it’s power of flight. The lip of the cockpit caught her toe as she reached the fuselage. In the pitch black of the hangar, Wyla managed to drop down into the pilot’s seat with ease. Years of practice had armed her well in that regard. She kissed her locket before letting her hands glide over the controls. They navigated by pure instinct. Her right hand found itself on the ignition while her left rested on the tiller. A quick flick of her right hand unleashed a whine from the steam pipes as they opened their valves and billowed vapor across the turbines that spun the propellers. Her right hand then drifted down and wrapped itself around the throttle. The scent of drake-throat coal filled the air as she pushed the throttle forward and slowly taxied out onto the runway.

As battle plans formed in her mind, she looked down the nose of her flyer. A shaft of moonlight was freed from the clouds overhead and cut through the shadows ahead of her, revealing a figure that approached her with a strict, marching gait. As his face came into focus, Wyla felt her heart sink. “Lt. Remsca!” His voice slashed through the sound of both her engines and the air raid siren. “Cut your engines!” Wyla dropped her throttle and disengaged the ignition switch as her commanding officer leaped onto the wing of her still moving flyer. His face was red with anger as he stood above her. “What in the fires of Malia do you think you’re doing?” Even screaming at the top of his lungs, Commander Connard’s voice was deep and booming. His clean shaven head shone in the moonbeams.

“Taking initiative.” Wyla’s gentle rasp barely reached Connard’s ears. His scared right eyebrow twitched at her remark. Connard leaned closer to her, his dark brown eyes locking with hers. The features of his face were sharp and square, with a thin nose and a heavy brow.

“Care to repeat that?” His voice had a hint of menace. Wyla knew better than to take his bait. He left a moment of silence before continuing. “Why are you attempting a takeoff with out clearance? And during a drill none the less. Have you lost your mind?”

“Sir, I was not informed that there was a drill with morning.” Wyla kept her eyes locked with Connard’s. He pressed his fingers against his temples as he stood up, his large frame looming over her. She knew this was a bad sign. The commander had a severe temper.

“So,” he began as the siren finally ended. “Not only did you not read this week’s operations plan, but you didn’t even ready yourself for battle.” The crimson had began to fade from his complexion, yet his anger remained. “You didn’t even ready yourself for battle.” He repeated himself under his breath in disbelief. “I’m certain the shrapnel would take it easy on your pajamas.” His voice took on a decidedly sarcastic tone.

“I didn’t have time to read the plan.” Her response was calm and measured, but only served to enrage the Connard farther. He stood there sputtering and twitching with suppressed fury.

“Maybe, if you’d remained in formation, you would have found your way back in a timely manner.” The twitch in his eyebrow intensified, jerking up and down in a rabid fervor.

“I thought I saw Royals in the town.” The nonchalant tone of Wyla’s voice incensed the commander. He began stamping his foot on her wing like an insolent child.

“Are you even aware of the procedure for reporting possible enemy presence?” The red returned to his face as he screamed. “You return to base, you report what you saw, and we send a scout to investigate!” Spit flew from his mouth as his voice reached a fevered pitch. “Now return to your quarters and get out of my sight!” Wyla pulled herself out of the cockpit and landed gracefully on her feet. Connard stood on the wing of her flyer weaving a tapestry of obscenities under his breath as she walked away.

The sun was just beginning to glance over the horizon as she made the return trip to her tent. Soft golden rays painted the outpost with dusty hues and sepia tinted colors. A picturesque horizon lay before her as she dragged herself past tents and soldiers. The stiff sea breeze returned to rack the tents, blowing her locket around to her back. She paused to readjust the locket and felt the camp roaring to life around her as she did. She moved around the slowly forming groups while keeping her hand on the locket. Wyla avoided eyes as soldiers saluted her and bid her morning pleasantries. She had no desire to engage friendly conversation with any of them. Between the dressing down from the commander and the way the other soldiers regarded her, the thought of conversation didn’t apple to her.

“Hey, Wild-eyes!” A tenor voice cut through the chorus of the camp rattling to life. Wyla lifted her head and pivoted in the direction of the voice. A young man stood next to his tent, a smile plastered across his face. She focused her eyes on him and approached with ill intent.

“Don’t call me that.” Her voice gained a snarl on top of it’s usual rasp that removed all ease from the soldier’s demeanor. His smile faded as Wyla halted in front of him. “You understand?” Her question was punctuated with a slight growl. Even though the soldier stood head and shoulders over her, he felt fear in the fury of her gaze. “What’s your name?”

“Pardon?” He stuttered as she leaned in closer, her eyes stabbing into his soul. She didn’t repeat herself. “My name? Um. Richard Malik.”

“Noted.” And with that Wyla spun on her heal and stormed back down the alley leaving Richard to stand there holding his breath. He watched as Wyla disappeared into her tent before finally letting himself breathe again.

Inside her tent, Wyla tipped her cot back over and sat down on it’s edge. The dawn’s light was beginning to give the canvas walls a golden shine that lit the inside with dim light. She pulled her nightshirt over her head and tossed it onto her crate-table, exposing the deep scar that ran across her torso. It started at her left hip and ran to just under her right breast. She stood up and felt her pistol fall out of her pants. A sigh escaped her lips as she scooped it up and placed it on top of her nightshirt. “Today’s off to a wonderful start.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Of course it was a drill. It’s always a drill.” She pulled her pants off and tossed them onto her cot. “That’s why they sent me here. Nothing ever happens.” Her voice grew harsher as she dug her uniform out of her rucksack. She sighed again as she jammed her foot down the leg of her pants. “I know it’s to keep me out of the action.” Bitterness swelled up inside of her as she pulled the pants up and ripped her shirt from her pack. “Keep me alive.” She buttoned the shirt and stood there for a moment before tucking her locket into her shirt. The black pants and dark blue shirt of the Coastal army uniform made her cut a dashing figure as she stood there in her tent. The brass buttons caught light from the small holes in the walls of her tent as she thudded back down on her cot. She pulled her boots out from the sack and jammed her feet into them. “Down here with commander Connard.” She spat on the ground as she laced and tied her boots. “Lords, I hate him.” She pulled her jacket out of the pack and slid it on before grabbing her pistol and sliding it into the holster on her right thigh. A bell tolled outside, summoning Wyla from her tent. Shuffling with a crestfallen stride, she made her way toward the mess hall.

The brief walk to the half-built cafeteria was filled with more unwanted greetings and pleasantries, none of which she acknowledged. She found the door to the mess-hall held open by a young soldier. The bands on the arm of his jacket signified him as a private. Wyla waved in halfhearted thanks to the young man as he stood next to the door, rigidly saluting with his free hand. The mess-hall was lined with tables and chairs, all of which were in disrepair. A line of soldiers formed at the back of the building and lead towards the kitchen window. At the center of the room, with a wide berth from the other tables, was the officers table. Only half of the table was occupied. Wyla strolled forwarded through the room, but, before she could step into the food line, a soldier approached her with a loaded tray of food.

“I’ve already got your breakfast.” He stammered. Wyla sighed as she took the tray from him and walked to the officer’s table. More saluting privates met her as she sat down at the farthest end of the table. They stood behind her as she poked her food with her fork. She didn’t have much of an appetite resulting in her eating only a piece of toast and a small portion of egg before swilling her morning coffee and standing to leave. The saluting privates quickly took her tray and cleaned her place as she left. Connard ran a tight camp. Privates were little more than slaves to the officers. Wyla slowly made her way through the crowed cafeteria and ignored more salutes along the way. She walked back through the door and waved another thanks to the same private at the door.

“Lt. Remsca?” A mousy looking woman approached her as she stepped out into the morning light. “The commander would like to speak to you in his office. Wyla tilted her head back and stared straight upward into the dusty clouds above and groaned. “I’m sorry ma'am.” The woman mumbled as Wyla passed her towards the officer’s building.

Wyla made her way through the base, her footsteps blending in with the base’s growing clatter. She walked past various conversations, all of which bled into each other. Voices lowered and soldiers saluted as she walked past. She kept her eyes forward and focused on the rough canvas and wood structure in the distance. The private at the door opened it as she approached. Through the door, Wyla was greeted with the bustle of officers and secretaries. Morning conversations, shuffling papers, and the scent of coffee filled the air. Desks were scattered randomly around the room. For all of Connard’s strict and often harsh treatment of the privates, he allowed his officers far more freedom. She made her way to a large desk at the center of the room and leaned against it until the woman sitting there turned away from her flirtations with a handsome colonial.

“Lt. Remsca, good morning!” Her voice was pleasant and cheery. Wyla felt nothing but contempt for her. Her always joyous demeanor and abrasively cheery voice were nails on a chalkboard to Wyla. “The commander has sent for you.” Wyla scowled in response and she made a circular motion with her hand, signaling the woman to continue. “He’s in his office.” Wyla pivoted on her heel and walked towards a door on the left side of the room, more than happy to be away from farther conversation.

The door that lead to the commander’s office was carved from oak. Connard had bought it with his own money as some sort of status symbol. His name and rank were displayed on a brass placard affixed to the center of the door. Wyla pressed her ear to the door and listened to for Connard’s mood. If he was angry, she’d certainly hear him simmering with rage through the door. To her surprise, she heard two voices emerge from within.

“But sir,” the commander stuttered. “She never follows orders. She needs a court-marshal, not a-” He was abruptly cut off by the second voice.

“I’d prefer if you’d allow me to direct my orders as I have found fit.” This second voice was much deeper than Connard’s, with an air of joviality to it that set Wyla at ease. “She’s a hero and an asset to our forces. What better candidate could there be?” Wyla pulled her head back and knocked twice, emboldened by hearing Connard put in his place. “Please, come in.” The second voice had spoken before the commander had even made a noise. She twisted the knob and pulled the door open. The commander’s office was mostly made of old ammunition crates and high end furnishings. He sat facing the door behind a desk made from a cannon shell crate, the markings of which had been sanded off. He shot her a hard-eyed glare as she entered. The other man in the room, however, staunchly offset the air of intense hatred coming from Connard. He was a large man, larger than the commander, with a large beard and a smile stretched across his face. “Lt. Remsca, I presume.” Wyla nodded and pulled the door closed behind her.

“Salute general Lamb!” Connard’s voice was harsh and loud. Wyla lifted her hand in an awkward salute as the general turned to face the commander.

“Must you always yell?” The general’s voice was even and calm, yet somehow still carried anger in it’s tone. He turned back to Wyla. “At ease. I’m general Lamb. It’s a pleasure.” He motioned to an empty chair beside him, inviting her to sit. She shook her head and continued to stand. “That’s fine, you can stand if you’d like. I assume you’d like to cut straight to the chase. I’ve a mission to offer you.” Wyla kept up her silent act as long as possible. She knew if she spoke, Connard would jump down her throat. “You used to be an air-courier, correct?” She nodded. “Good. I’d like you to deliver a letter for me.”

“A letter?” She allowed herself to speak. “Why?” The commander opened his mouth to speak, but Lamb raised his hand to silence him.

“Yes, a letter. A letter of great importance.” He paused as Wyla looked at him in utter confusion. “You’d like to know where it’s going. Well, that’s where things get tricky.” Another pause. “It must be delivered to the king.” Wyla’s blood froze over. The king’s palace was in Mecbar, a city at northern apex of the country. It was naturally fortified by the mountain range that ran along Vastelbram’s northern and eastern boarders. Getting there would entail flying through enemy airspace and attempting a landing in the city.

“What?” The commander leaned over his desk as he spoke. “You can’t be serious” Lamb turned to face him, a look of contempt in his eyes.

“I am. It’s a letter that must make it to the king.” It felt as if the room had become a vacuum. Thought’s raced through Wyla’s head as she stood there, baffled by the request.

“What if I refuse?” She regained her footing as she spoke. Connard stood up and began to speak, but the general silenced him with a hand wave.

“Then it becomes an order.” Lamb’s voice remained calm. Wyla locked her eyes with his and readied herself to speak again, but was interrupted by the commander.

“Coward.” Connard toppled his morning coffee as he shot to his feet. It rolled off the table and clattered to the ground. The word hung in the air like a corpse from the gallows. Wyla twisted her gaze away from Lamb and stabbed it into Connard, who took a step backwards and fell into his chair. Her eyes were like green fire as she glared at him unblinkingly.

“You’ll find I’m far from a coward. I accept.” If not for the commander’s attack on her valor, Wyla would have still accepted the mission. The commander just hastened her response. “I assume you want me to fly to Mecbar and attempt a landing in enemy territory.” Lamb nodded.

“I’d also prefer you to refrain from engaging with enemy soldiers.” Wyla nodded as the general produced a blue envelope with black trim from his pocket. “This should be an easy task for the hero of Red Ridge.” She snatched the letter from his hand before turning to the door.

“Anything to be away from Connard.” She spat the words over her shoulder as she pushed the door open and left the room before the commander had a chance to respond. Lamb followed her.

“If you leave now,” he began, checking over his shoulder for Connard. “You should make it to enemy airspace by nightfall. Try to stay high in the sky. The Royal’s won’t be able to tell you’re a Coastal unless they get close to you.” He patted her on the back. “Don’t let that happen. You’ll be on your own. Anything you do will be of your own accord. Just deliver the letter and avoid the enemy.” Wyla nodded as she stepped out of the officer’s building. “Good luck, Wild-eyes.” Wyla turned to respond, but found Lamb was already halfway back to the commander’s office.

Wyla placed a hand over her locket as she began her walk to the hangar. The magnitude of the assignment she had accepted began to sink in. She glanced down at the envelope in her hand. “Yep, I’m going to die.” She said as she removed her hand from the locket. “Oh, well.” Wyla stuffed the envelope into her breast pocket and increased her pace.

She could see her flyer still sitting on the runway as she closed in on the hangar. She darted towards it like a lost child reunited with her parents. A small smile formed on her face as she leapt onto the wing and dropped into the cockpit. She pulled her locket out of her shirt and kissed it before allowing her hands to find their rightful places. The smile grew to a grin as she flipped the ignition and pushed the throttle forward. The flyer gained speed and began to lift as the morning sun fully broke free from the horizon. As her flyer soared into the blue heavens, Wyla began to mentally plot out her route. She cast one last glance down at the camp below and watched as all the people milling about below became but dots in a sea of green grass and canvas tents.