The Subtle Mage

Three things I knew for certain:

First, that my captors had gone to great lengths to make me comfortable.
Second, that my stay was going to be a long one.
Third, that I may possibly have some superpowers.

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9. Team Games

I spent the next few days honing my skills. Luckily for me, I wasn’t approached by anybody else, so I was left to train in peace.

 

I ate a hurried breakfast, by myself, and sat in the training room. Gradually, the gym filled up with other kids, as eager as me to begin. Among them were Aurora, Tyler, Taylor and Ryan. Tyler and Taylor glared at me, Ryan nodded in acknowledgment with a slight smile, and Aurora, who sat down next to me.

 

I didn’t wait long. Within minutes, Isiah nudged the door open and cleared his throat. The room fell silent.

 

“Right. You all know what day it is-”

 

Team games!” The group called out.

 

“Yes. Team games. We’ll be splitting into two groups of operatives. Team Alpha-”

 

Half of the group broke out into roars and whoops.

 

“-Will be starting from the East side of the grounds. Team Bravo-”

 

As expected, the other half of the room exploded with equal vigour.

 

“Will start from the West. Ladies and gentlemen, today’s game is Capture the Flag.”

 

Obviously a popular one, because most of the room let out low ‘ooooooooh’s.

 

“Yeah, yeah. You guys know the rules. Be on the field in half an hour.” And with that, he turned and strode out of the room. After him, the group dissolved, and I felt myself jostled along with the crowd.

 

“I figured that you’d want the rules.” Ryan said, clapping me on the shoulder and clearing his throat. “Rule number one: Non-lethal-” He rolled his eyes, “obviously, but apart from that, be as ruthless as you like; we can fix anything.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Rule number two: We take this crap seriously. I’m the captain of Alpha, so if I tell you to do something, you bloody well do it.”

 

I was about to say something, but I paused.

 

“Am I in your team?” I asked, incredulous. He nodded. “Wasn’t my idea,” he admitted, “Dr. Scott suggested it. Welcome to Alpha Team.”

 

We took a sharp left and down a flight of stairs, where half of the group peeled off. The stairs took us further and further down underground.

 

“Those are pretty much the only rules. Apart from the typical Capture the Flag ones.” He explained as a glass door slid open. We walked down the tunnel for an age. So long that I thought we’d be well out of the boundaries of the facility. When I told Ryan I thought so and chuckled shaking his head. He was about to reply when we rounded a corner and a glass door slid open.

 

I was met with a long corridor: harshly lit and paved with concrete tiles. Lockers lined the walls, gunmetal black and uniform. Red banners hung from the ceiling, each sporting an elabourate ‘A’.

 

“Alright, lads. Find your lockers.” Ryan called over the din of the rapidly-filling room. He glanced over at me. “You too.”

 

I turned to face the lockers, scanning. Each one bore a name and an emblem. I followed the corridor down until I saw my own.

 

A. M. Kersey

 

Excitedly, I pulled it open to reveal the contents.

 

Arranged neatly inside were several pieces of armour. A full set: Chestpiece, vambraces, shoulder-plates; greaves; a pair of supple leather boots. Each piece was made of some sort of carbon fibre, inlaid with a hexagon pattern so faint I could barely see it.

 

On the breast of the Chestpiece was the Shadow Emblem, raised slightly against the carbon fibre; I ran my fingers over it. In doing so, I noticed a pair of ashy grey parallel stripes that ran down the length of the armour.

 

I hesitated, and glanced around to see people already strapping their armour on over their hoodies; I followed suit.

 

It was relatively easy to put on. First, I slid the chestpiece over my head like a vest and pulled at the laces on either side until it was tight. I slipped the bracers on, which were tipped with fingerless gloves of black leather. The knuckles were tipped with metal caps, which merited a raised eyebrow. The bracers were comfortable, I decided as I flexed my fingers.

 

My upper legs were unprotected, save for my jeans, however my shins were covered by the greaves. I untied my converse with shaky rapidity and slipped on the boots. They were sturdy and fit perfectly. How they fit was another question that sprang to my mind, but was suppressed after I tightened the greaves.

 

The armour was surprisingly light, yet felt robust; it allowed mobility, but whether it would keep me in one piece was yet to be determined.

 

It was also the most subtle of the armours. The others bore stripes of orange, blue, green and silver. I paced the floor.

 

It took a matter of seconds for the rest of Alpha team to armour up.

 

“Alpha Team, on me.” Ryan called out again. There was no delay as everybody headed over to Ryan.

 

“Right. You all know the rules of capture the flag, but just to annoy you, I’m going over them again.” Everybody groaned but there were no complaints.

 

“Alpha Team’s flag-” he raised it up in his right hand: a battered looking piece of red fabric “-will be hidden somewhere in the east side of the grounds. Bravo Team’s flag will be to the west. We have to get it and return it to our base. Simple, right?”

 

He paused for effect, to allow the rules to sink in. He was right; it did sound simple.

 

“Be ruthless.” He hit the point home with a clenched fist. “They will be. We also need to be. We-” he gestured to the Earth emblem on his chest and then at one or two other Terramancers “-Won’t let you die. Getting hit by something will still bloody hurt though.”

 

He let out a wry grin, and then his face grew serious again.

 

“Pain is real. Out there you will feel pain. Out on the field you will feel pain.”

 

He checked his watch.

 

“Right then. The plan.”

 

“We split the group into three squads. Charlie, Delta and Echo. Charlie Squad will consist of…”

 

He began to list off names, amongst them himself.

 

“I will captain Charlie Squad, unless anybody thinks they’d be able to do a better job.”

 

Silence.

 

“Right, then. Charlie Squad, we defend the flag. A simple a job as any.”

 

“Delta Squad is…”

 

Again, he read out some names, pointing to those he saw in the crowd. Tyler was amongst them. He looked formidable in his armour, which only accentuated his bulk. His bracers were different to the others. They had slots in the palms, which seemed to have buckles on them. He glanced up slightly at his name, and then went about slotting two small Zippo lighters into the slots, and fastening them. They were angled in such a way that the flames would be lit just beneath his middle and ring fingers.

 

“Tyler will lead Delta Squad. Any objections?”

 

“Tyler’s a right arse, but he gets the job done.” Somebody remarked. I was expecting Tyler to scowl or retaliate, but instead he grinned and said

 

“Damn right I do.”

 

“Delta team are our vanguard party. Capturing the enemy flag.”

 

Finally, we have Echo Squad. Echo Squad is Aaron and Aurora.”

 

I got a nudge on the shoulder. I turned to see Aurora standing to my right. She was clad in the same armour as I was, but she managed to wear it in such a way that it didn’t appear bulky, but rather made her look svelte and elegant.

 

“So we’re on a team together, huh?” Aurora whispered. I nodded.

 

“Echo Squad will be led by Aurora.”

 

“Echo Squad, you’re our Scouts. I’ll leave your plan of action down to Aurora, but I want regular updates.”

 

“That’s about it. Any questions?”

 

More silence.

 

“Good. Go and report to your captains. I’ve already spoken to them.”

 

***

 

“Take this.” Aurora told me, handing me some sort of headset.

 

“What is it?”

“You’ll need it to coordinate me and Ryan.” I slipped it on. The microphone was slender stopped just below my chin.

 

“Testing, testing.”

 

“It’s working.”

 

“Okay. The button by your ear activates the mic.”

 

I took a moment to adjust the headset on my head. It was lightweight and unobtrusive, and fixed quite tightly, so I doubt it would come off.

 

“Right. We’ll stick together for the most part. We find the flag, we tell Ryan where it is, and then we get out.”

 

“No fighting?”

 

“Not if we can avoid it.”

 

I shrugged.

 

“Okay.”

 

She looked as though she was going to say something, when Ryan came over to us. Aurora went over the plan. She kept it brief and simple, and when she was done I turned to Ryan and asked

 

“Why is there only two of us?” Ryan looked pensive before replying.

 

“I think you two can get the job done. Two people is less conspicuous.” He reasoned finally, turning to glance back at his team, who looked ready to go.

 

“Right. You guys are heading out first. Pace yourselves.” He urged, “I cannot stress that enough. Aurora, you know how long these things can go on for.”

 

He nodded, clapped me on the shoulder and went back to his Squad. Aurora nudged me again and gestured towards the end of the hall, where the floor sloped upwards again.

 

“Ready?” She asked me, without looking at me. I stood, determined, at the gates, eyes fixed.

 

“As I’ll ever be.”

 

Aurora grinned and pulled her hood up over her headset. It was a little melodramatic, but I followed suit, drawing up my own hood.

 

I held my breath as the metal doors slowly grated open. When a gap formed large enough to fit through, we slipped past and headed off into the forest.

 

***

 

I’m not the most athletic of guys. I’m not strong and I’m not especially fast. But, when I run, I can run for a long time.

 

Being outside gave me some idea into the scope and size of the facility. We’d ran for hours, and as we ran, I saw no fences, no guard towers, nothing. Either the boundaries of the facility were so well disguised, or we hadn’t even come close to the edges.

 

I followed Aurora most of the way. Since we’d started in the east, Aurora led us south as opposed to cutting straight through. Smart, I guess, unless the Scouts for Bravo team were thinking along the same lines.

 

I had to hand it to Aurora, I thought that I could run long distances, but even as I was running a little short of breath she sounded absolutely fine. After a while, we slowed to a jog, and from there to a walk.

 

I took the pause to appreciate my surroundings. What little light that filtered down onto forest floor transformed it into a carpet dappled with shadows that I could slip easily into and out of.

 

Aurora reached into the small, single-strapped rucksack that she carried on her back and drew out two bottles of water and a couple of apples. I ate quickly and drained the water by half, before she stowed it back in the bag.

 

“We’re about half way to Bravo team’s camp.” She told me, between bites and not even out of breath from the running. Half way? “We’ll take it slow from here; I’ll bet you anything they have sentries set up.” She threw her apple core into the scrub and stood up again, facing the way we’d come. She turned again to look at the way we had left to go

 

It was eerily quiet. Aurora moved swiftly and silently through the trees, and I tried my best to follow suit. It was as if the forest was holding its breath: a balloon of tension that I was certain was about to pop.

 

When it did, it did so without warning.

 

“Stop.” Aurora told me. Her voice was low, urgent. I froze in my tracks and turned my head slightly to face her. Beneath the hood, her stormy eyes darted left to right.

 

“Scouting party. To the trees, hurry!” She hissed.

 

I didn’t think twice, before Jumping to a fur tree. The branches creaked in protest at my sudden weight, but I ignored it, shuffling further towards the trunk. The rich scent of amber sap filled my nose, replacing the subtle smells of the forest.

 

There was a burst of static in my ear.

 

Stay there. Don’t move.”

 

I scrutinised the foliage until I saw her nestled in the arms of an oak tree a few metres away. She’d chosen her spot well: hiding in the uppermost boughs where the light filtered through. At a glance, the white she wore easily blended with the clouds. She was stock-still, eyes fixed on something below.

 

The scouts appeared quite suddenly beneath us, and passed through without a word and barely a sound.

 

When we were sure they were gone Aurora motioned to me, then to the tree. Interpreting this, I Jumped to her tree, clinging easily to the branches.

 

She held a finger up, whilst she pressed another to her ear.

 

“Ryan, Aaron and I have just encountered another Scouting party. There were around five of them.”

 

I heard radio chatter faintly from her ear and she nodded, despite Ryan not being able to see the motion.

 

“Okay. We’ll keep you posted.”

 

 

 

She turned to face me. “Ryan says we need to get to their camp. We’re attacking at nightfall and we need to know where the flag is.”

 

I nodded before doing a double take.

 

“Nightfall?” I asked, incredulous.

 

“Yes. You know how long it’s taken us to get this far. Delta Squad’s already started to advance. They know about the Scouts now and they’ll take care of them.” She leapt down from the tree with little sound.

 

“We need to keep moving.”

 

***

Encounters with Bravo Team became more frequent as we delved into their territory. On two occasions we had to resort to the trees again, but for the most part we kept our heads down.

 

By the time we made it to Bravo Team’s camp it was rapidly getting dark. The dwindling light only lent to my mask of dark and turned the shadows from murky brown to inky black.

 

“You look more alive.,” Aurora remarked. “In the dark, I mean.” I shrugged.

 

“I like the dark.”

 

“It makes sense.”

 

Being in the shadows made me feel more awake. I felt as though I could run further and walk quieter.

 

Bravo Team’s camp was settled beneath a rocky outcrop roots jutted out from the rock erratically. We approached low to the ground, until we reached the edge of the bluff, where we dropped to our stomachs. From there, I could Bravo Team’s members gathered around, waiting for something. They’re

 

“There’s a pair of binoculars in my bag, but I don’t know how much use they’ll be in the dark.”

 

I rifled through her pack and pulled them out. They looked expensive and well-used. Bringing them up to my eyes, I scanned the camp.

 

There were at least twenty of them, stood or sat around. They looked bored, probably waiting for news from their scouts.

 

“I see them.” I murmured, squinting.

 

“Any sign of the flag?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

I passed the binocs. To Aurora and she took a look around and huffed in frustration.

 

“We need to get closer. I’ll go around to the left, you go to the right.”

 

I nodded and shuffled to my feet. I was just about to make a move when Aurora placed a sudden hand on my chest to stop me.

 

“Sentries, over there in the trees.”

 

I followed her gaze to a group of sturdy-looking pine trees. Sure enough, I caught a glimpse of a boy sat patiently in the branches. His eyes were away from us, but as I watched, I began to notice more and more of them nearby.

 

I turned slowly, not making any sudden moves and she winked, before disappearing entirely.

 

“Seeya in a bit.” Came her voice from in front of me, although I couldn’t see her. I also vanished, and ‘turned on’ my night vision.

 

***

 

I scrambled down one side of the bluff and made for the Bravo Team camp at a brisk pace. I tried not to put too much faith in my powers, so I kept to the shadows and moved with the silence I had before. The dark had settled now like a blanket. I flitted in and out of invisibility, as to conserve my strength for when I really needed it.

 

As I drew closer, their voices became more defined. A group of Pyromancers sat around a fire, bickering.

 

“We should go now.” One of them hissed.

 

“No.” Said another, “Taylor told us to stay here. So we stay here.”

 

“This is stupid. We’ve been waiting here for hours. We could’ve won by now.”

 

“The Scouts’ll be back any second now. When they do, we’ll know where the flag is and we can attack.”

 

“If you say so…”

 

I rolled my eyes and crept past the fire. The dancing flames cast long shadows, allowing me to slip past.

 

The rest of Bravo Team stood around in little groups, talking quietly.

 

I wove my way between the groups, until I reached the heart of the base.

 

Any sign of the flag?” Aurora asked me through the headset.

 

“No, not yet…” I replied, turning when a flash of blue caught my eye. “Wait…”

 

The flag.

 

It stood hanging on a banner in a tree a few feet away from the bunker. It was relatively high-up, and , navy blue and embroidered with a golden ‘B’.

 

So close…

 

Aaron? What were you going to say?”

 

I could take it right now…

 

Aaron!”

 

“Wh-what? I’ve found the flag.”

 

Really? Then tell Ryan. Quick! He’s on channel two.”

 

I fumbled at my ear for the toggle channel button.

 

Yes?” Ryan asked.

 

“I’ve found the flag.” I told him. I kept my voice low, just in case the others heard me.

 

Where?” Ryan’s voice rose a little.

 

“A tree. About ten feet from the bunker exit. Quite high up.”

 

Delta Team are withing attacking range. I’ll give the word now. You and Aurora get back here now.”

 

“Okay.”

 

And Aaron?”

 

“Yes?”

 

Good work.”

 

I lowered my hand from the mic and, toggling back over to Aurora’s channel and turning to go back the way I had come.

 

And froze dead in my tracks.

 

Surrounding me in a perfect semi-circle was Bravo Team.

 

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