When we arrived there were a few Initiates standing around in the courtyard waiting to be shown where to go. Everyone’s bags were in a large pile so I put mine next to them, and did my best to fit in with the group.
Most of the Initiates were young, around ten or so, but there were a few in their teens, and a couple not much younger than I. I felt a bit out of place being so much taller than all the other potential Magii.
Every land in the realm was represented; red haired northerners, olive skinned islanders, fair haired flatlanders, and dark skinned eastern clansmen. Some of the younger boys and girls whispered about the giant, I presumed they meant me.
An elder Magus dressed in purple robes using a cane approached from the main entrance, flanked by two Raptor Riders in leathers.
He looked at us and sighed, he sounded disappointed. “What I must work with these days.” He muttered.
He stopped and looked me in the eye; I had to look down quite a bit to meet his gaze. “Victor Vaughnson I presume.”
I nodded, “Yes Magus.”
“I knew it. While you may not have the distinction of being the oldest initiate in the history of the university, you are the… largest.”
A ripple of laughter moved through those assembled.
“First Class Davidsen, get these worms in line.”
The Raptor riders began barking orders and we were lined up shortest in the front, tallest in the back. I obviously moved to the back of the pack. We lined up in rows of ten. It was then I noticed there were more girls and young women than males. I learned later it was because they are usually more sensitive to the connection with ink.
Once we were finally in rows the magus stood in front of us.
“Raise your right hand and repeat after me.” The old man said.
“I, state your name, do hereby join the Army of the Republic as an Initiate Magus. I solemnly swear that I will defend Velderland against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I take this obligation of my own free will and choice. In her time of need I commit my life if so required; so help me Lords.”
I shivered as I finished the oath. The mood was somber as we were shown to our rooms.
The barracks bunks were three beds high. Being in the back of the line I got the last pick of beds. As I suspected the only bunks left were two top ones.
“Oh hells no.” I muttered as I realized I would have to climb up and down every night.
Spoon was sitting on a bottom bunk. I smiled like a cat hunting a mouse. I put my bags on his bed he looked at me with disdain.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re sitting on my bunk.”
His smooth jaw dropped, “What? Nay I claimed this one first.”
I grabbed Spoon’s bag and put it on the top bunk across the way.
“No fair! I had it first!” He screeched.
Some of the other boys had gathered around to watch our confrontation.
“Look kid, you’re what, eight years old?” I deliberately took a few years off his age.
“Eleven, nearly twelve!” He protested.
“Ah, well you’re about half my age, so you can climb a ladder into bed each night.”
He punched me in the stomach, it stung mildly. “Spoon, quit before I get angry.”
He threw another punch, so I caught his fist. “Go stow your belongings over there.” I picked him up and set him down by the other bunk.
Wisely Spoon realized he wouldn’t get anywhere and climbed up on his bed to pout.
As the oldest male I was assigned as Barracks Lead. I was in charge of the watch, feeding the stove, cleaning duties and maintaining order when the Riders weren’t around. Unfortunately I couldn’t give Spoon latrine duty during all of training but he did get the first assignment.
After a few minutes to get ourselves settled the Riders came back in and we were given Initiates uniforms. Simple brown tunics and pants with our surnames stitched over the right breast. After everyone was dressed we started carbine familiarization.
I spent a couple of bored hours sitting as the instructor went over nomenclature, loading, cleaning etc. The Rider doing the instruction must have noticed the less than enthused expression on my face.
I stood up, “Yes Rider!”
He came over put his face close to mine, his breath didn’t smell good. “Do you find this dull? Are you one of those bloomin’ idiots who think weapons are beneath him?”
“Do you think you can teach this lecture?”
“I thought not… eh, what?” He backhanded me; I saw stars for a moment. “Initiates do not disrespect their instructors do you understand me Vaughnson!”
“Yes Rider, no disrespect intended.”
“Explain yourself maggot!”
“Rider, I built the carbine you’re using.” I explained. It had my mark on the lock.
He balled up his fist and was about to hit me again when another Rider at the next table over spoke up. “Rider Falkensen, Initiate Vaughnson was an Armsmaker. The double Vee marked weapons are well known for their quality.”
Rider Falkensen put his mouth up to my ear and whispered, which would have required him to stand on his tip toes if it weren’t for his iron grip pulling me down. “I don’t care if you built the rods of lightning for the Velder Lords themselves, if you try and undermine my authority again, I’ll see you don’t make it out of training. Savvy?”
“Good, now go sit your ample buttocks down.” He said as he gave my arm a good squeeze. I had to grind my teeth to keep from crying out.
Spoon wore a smile from ear to ear.
Hold the phone, your instructors could hit you?
Yes. Why What’s a phone?
But, that’s so mean and uncivilized.
Well I’ll tell you one thing, I didn’t say anything to upset a Rider after that.
But… but, gosh did they smack the little guys around too?
Of course, I enjoyed watching them slap Spoon.
You’re so, uncivilized.
What? Velderland? We’re a paragon of civilization compared to the Skaji.
No butts, can we continue the story?
The next few weeks passed slowly. We learned how to fight, shoot, and pack drop chutes. All the basic things a Raptor Rider needed to know to survive on the back on a bird in combat. The food I was given was about the same as the younger kids. They wanted to starve the stone weight off me.
We did plenty of running, digging, hauling buckets of dirt and rocks, only to fill the holes up again. We hadn’t even started with ink. A few of the younger Initiates quit and went home to mamma. Unfortunately Spoon wasn’t one of them.
One night I awoke to the sound of muffled sobs. It was Slim, a little nine year old boy who looked seven. He was from a poorer district to the north, Vasguard I believe. I hauled my tired hind end out of bed and walked over to his bunk. He huddled under his blankets, face pressed into his pillow.
“Psst, Slim. You okay?”
A weak whimper leaked out from under the blanket. “Yes sir.”
I tapped the illumistone on his bunk and put it on the lowest setting. “Slim, you’re not alright, what’s wrong.”
Tear streaked eyes met mine. “I… I…” his bottom lip quivered.
I was about to tell him to suck it up when something about him softened my heart. “Slim, it’s alright. Uncle Victor’s gonna take care of you.”
He sniffed, but couldn’t say anything.
I held out my arms and in moments he wrapped me in a tight hug. I picked him up, he weighed next to nothing. We ended up sitting in a chair wrapped in blankets against the evening chill. I rocked him back and forth telling him everything was going to be alright.
Having a little warm body cling tightly to your chest in the middle of the night makes one tired. I fell asleep before I had the chance to put him back in his bunk.
I awoke to a crowd of initiates standing around whispering.
I blinked the sleep from my eyes and shooed them away. I woke Slim up and told him to get dressed.
Did you get in trouble?
What? I don’t understand.
There are some people that wouldn’t look favorably on what you did?
What, comforting a homesick little boy who probably wasn’t ready for Initiate training in the first place?
You moderns are very strange indeed.
Right, so a bit later we finished the first phase of training, and graduated to Flight School. I thought we would climb up in a saddle and take to the skies. Unfortunately first we had to learn how to care for a giant Raptor. Beaks, talons, feathers, and droppings all had very specific tasks we had to learn. Tack and saddles took the better part of a week. If a horseman doesn’t put a saddle on right he’ll fall a couple of feet. A Raptor Rider on the other hand, had much more to lose, even while wearing drop chutes.
A grizzled veteran of the last war of Skaji aggression spoke to us about his experience hitting the silk. Stormchaser his mount had caught on fire and they plummeted toward the ground. The veteran knew his bird was finished so he unhooked himself from the saddle and leapt into the air.
He panicked and pulled his drop chute too early. A Skaji Wyvern saw him floating and took most of his leg. We learned to dive to the earth and pull our chutes at the last possible moment, to avoid a similar fate.
Drop day was as frightening as it sounded. We started by jumping off a tower around twenty man height tall, riding a rope and pulley to the ground. One of the younger girls didn’t want to go. I stood on the tower waiting for her to jump. The Rider instructor barked orders but nothing would move her.
I knelt down, glanced at her name stitching and spoke to her. “Initiate Bosque, look at me.”
She did, tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t want to jump.”
“I know, but do you want to ride a Falcon?”
“You can do this; your bird is waiting for you to jump. If you don’t she won’t have a rider.”
She chomped on a braid of raven hair and dove off the platform. I watched her go, she screamed the whole way down. I was next. I had to admit, looking at the ground so far below made me pause for a moment.
I took a deep breath and plunged into the air. I landed hard but nothing seemed to be broken. The girl wore an ear to ear grin on her face despite her tears.
“Can we go again?”
I smiled as I unclipped my harness.
Next we rode a tethered balloon high into the air. This jump would be with real packed drop chutes. If anything happened and the chute didn’t deploy we would end up on the ground sooner than we wanted to.
Spoon jumped, the static line attached to the platform pulled on his chute bag and his canopy deployed filling with air. He landed close to the target painted below. The top three initiates who landed closest to the mark would have dinner with the Magii. Buffalo steak was on the menu.
I stood on the edge about to jump when a few wings in the distance caught my eye. They were coming over the Talon Mountains. I was about to dismiss them as Raptors coming back from a long patrol when something told me something was wrong.
“Vaughnson you ready to jump?” The instructor asked.
“No! First Sir, give me your spyglass!”
“Has the altitude gotten to you Initiate?”
“Sir, I believe I see Wyvern!”
“Lords save us!” He grabbed the spyglass and was about to look through it when I grabbed it from him.
“Your eyes aren’t as good as mine.”
He didn’t argue. I moved the focus slide until I could make out the shape of the fliers. I didn’t want to sound the alarm too quickly as a false alarm would cause unneeded panic, but the sooner the high cliff Riders could be alerted to intercept them the better.
As they approached closer, I could make out the sharp shapes of leathery wings, and snake like tails whipping in the wind.
“Those are Wyverns! About twenty of ‘em!”
First Millersen slammed the comm stone for emergency broadcast, “Alert, this is jump balloon two, we have Skaji raiders, I repeat we have twenty Wyvern raiders incoming fast, from the south, south west, high altitude. Skaji raiders incoming! Scramble scramble scramble!”
We were easy prey sitting in a balloon. My instructor had a carbine and pistol that he handed to me. Two Wyvern separated from the main group headed straight for us. The high cliff Riders were in the air, but they were headed for the main flight as they should.
“Droppings!” Millersen cursed, “We’re on our own here.”
“What do we do?” I asked as I stared at the approaching monsters.
He unhooked my static line and dropped it onto the deck. “Wait until they attack, they’ll probably firebomb the balloon. Then we dive and low open.”
I swallowed hard, we had been taught about low opening jumps but we weren’t going to do them for another week or two until we had more experience with basic jumps.
As the Skaji Raiders approached their mounts let out an ear splitting screech and they dove. At the last possible moment I fired the Rider’s pistol but my shot went wide. Glass shattered and the balloon was bathed in flaming Devils Fire.
Millersen fired his carbine striking one of the beasts on the wing, but it wasn’t a crippling hit. He slung the weapon across his back and grabbed me by the arm. “Time to go Initiate!”
He hauled me up and we jumped off the deck of the doomed balloon. I tucked my arms behind me as I’d been taught and sailed headfirst toward the ground. I glanced to my right; the Rider was picking up speed faster than I. If the Wyvern decided to have a snack, I would be on the menu.
The ground was coming up fast; I knew if I waited too long my body would be shattered before the chute had time to open. If I pulled the cord too early I’d be an air delivered meal.
The Initiates below ran toward the trees, some with drop chutes bundled up in their arms still unpacked. They were getting too close for comfort. I yanked the drop cord and my chute unfurled. I felt it tug at my shoulders, I looked up seeing the wonderful round shape unfurled in all its glory!
I felt good for all of two seconds when I heard a Skaji firebomb shatter. One held breath later and my chute was burning!
This Wyvern must have wanted his meal cooked before he ate it. My chute failed and my gentle descent turned to free fall again. I pulled my reserve and it tangled in the flaming remnants of my main chute.
I resigned myself to death when tree branches slapped me. Prickly pines stabbed through my clothes. My harness choked me as the flaming drop chutes hung up in the branches. I came to a stop and looked down, I was suspended about five man height from the ground. Far enough of a fall I’d probably break something.
I looked up, the remnants of my drop chute were spreading flames to the trees. A drop of devils fire fell landing on my tunic. I felt it burn the moment it touched my clothes. I struggled with my harness release, but it was jammed. I grabbed my folding knife and hastily began cutting the cords holding me to my wrecked chutes.
Flesh burned, I screamed as another drop of Devils Fire landed on my arm. Drop cords snapped as my blade bit into them. I fell, bounced off the tree trunk, and rolled into a pile of tree needles. They lit engulfing me in more fire. I rolled out of the needles and into the dirt. I somehow managed to smother the flames.
I reloaded First Millersen’s pistol from a small pouch of paper cartridges he had shoved at me. If the Wyvern decided to hunt us on the ground I wanted a fighting chance.
Spoon, Bosque, and Slim ran toward me from the clearing, a Skaji Wyvern hot on their heels.
I cocked the hammer on the weapon and stood. “Initiates down!”
The little students dove, I pulled the trigger.
It failed to fire.
I cocked the hammer again, and pulled the trigger. It failed again. The overgrown worm was getting close.
I tried one last time, the powder burned smoke bellowed from the weapon and the ball sailed true striking the beast under its jaw. It fell, the Initiates scrambled past me. The Skaji rider was bucked off his monster and landed hard. I reversed my grip on the pistol and ran forward the hot barrel burned my hand but I hardly felt it.
The tattooed man was already rising; he reached for a hand cannon on his hip. His hands fumbled as I closed the distance. A barbaric scream escaped my lips and I swung the pistol, the brass butt stuck him in the jaw and he went down. I landed on top of him and don’t know how many times I pounded him in the head.
Bosque screamed, I looked up, the dying Wyvern was still trying to move toward them, despite the bloody wound in its throat. I stopped crushing the dead man’s skull and retrieved his hand cannon. It was similar to the Velderland flintlock pistols if poorly made and of heavier caliber.
I fired the weapon into the base of the flying snake’s skull and it lay still. I stumbled away and the little Initiates ran to me, even Spoon, clinging to my arms and legs.
“Victor I’m scared.” Little Bosque declared.
“Come let’s make haste away from here.” I said as we ran toward the tower.