I had a hard time finding my stomach. Our instructors flew like men possessed. We climbed so high I felt lightheaded. Then we dove so fast I began to suffer from tunnel vision. By the end of our flight any thoughts of “fun” disappeared.
The Riders flew us far out into the wilderness. We practiced flying in formations: delta, diamond, double delta, line, and broad. The sun was almost below the horizon when we received a strange order.
First Davidsen yelled at us over out comm stones. “Know this; flying can become a fight to survive at any time. Initiates, dismount!”
I looked over Windrider’s wing at Raven, she shrugged.
“I said dismount! You will deploy drop chutes and make your way back to the University on foot. Good luck.”
I pulled the carbine out of the scabbard and slung it across my chest, careful to avoid the drop chute. I unbuckled the safety harness and leapt off the back of my bird. After the initial shock free-fall was amazing. I practiced the different fall positions, the frog and swan dive, until I reached the “open or die” zone.
My chute opened perfectly and I floated down into the middle… of an alpine lake. A few small icebergs floated in the water.
I ditched my chute and began swimming after the initial shock of hitting the frigid water. My reserve chute became soaked with water and started pulling me to the bottom. I somehow managed to unhook it and powered my way toward shore. Slim, found land and was yelling encouraging words my direction.
My legs and arms quit working and I tried to drink the entire lake. Lungs burning I almost gave up and let the lake have me. Raven appeared and tied cords cut from her chute together. She tied a short stubby branch to the line and tossed it to me. The improvised life saver fell a half rod short but I managed to swim to it.
The two Initiates pulled me to shore, when I arrived I was half drowned, half frozen, and all miserable.
I was surprised at how fast Slim was able to get a fire going, soon enough I was naked, wrapped in a drop chute and huddled next to the fire trying to think warm thoughts.
“Vic, your lips are blue.” Raven said as she added a couple of branches to the fire. “You are suffering from ice sickness.”
Through my chattering teeth I replied, “What does… an eastern clanswoman know about ice sickness?”
She put her hands on her hips and muttered something in the tongue of her homeland, “I did listen during survival training did you not?”
I was too miserable to argue. Then she began removing her leathers.
“Raven… what are you doing?”
She finished removing everything but her underclothes, which left little to the imagination. Slim stared, jaw agape.
“Careful little man, bugs might fly inside. Get more firewood.”
The young Initiate obeyed and ran off into the woods to find more dead branches. Raven joined me under the silk. “You saved my life, now I save you.”
I shrank away from her at first, but soon her warmth was irresistible. Despite freezing, I couldn’t help having impure thoughts about the exotic dark skinned beauty curled up next to me.
Victor, you were quite the ladies’ man weren’t you?
I assure you, I took her body warmth and nothing more.
Sure you’re a bad liar.
Cease and desist your insulting rubbish.
_ c__ld f_n_sh th_ r_st _f th_ b__k w_th__t v__w_ls _f y__ pr_f_r.
I could finish the rest of the book without vowels if you prefer.
No, please, vowels are important.
Ar_ y__ s_re?
Where was I?
You were… getting warm.
A while later I began to feel much better.
Unfortunately my clothes were soaked. Thankfully the inked markings made the leathers maintain their shape where untreated leather would have shrunk. One side benefit of having these suits made to help keep blood out of ones toes when flying aerobatic maneuvers.
I was nearly falling asleep when Spoon, Bosque, and Fish showed up in our little clearing.
Spoon called out, “Hello we saw your fire and…” He stopped when he saw us in an obvious state of undress together. “Umm… alrighty then. Vic, I didn’t think you were one to like darkies.”
I was about to spit something harsh at the rich brat when Raven beat me to it. “Silence your liars tongue boy or I’ll cut it out and wear it around my neck on a cord!”
He stammered a quiet apology and found a log to sit on as far from us as possible.
It was too dark to make our way to the University tonight. Once my clothes were roughly dry we dressed and I set about to get my carbine working. Many of the Initiates had foolishly left their weapons in their saddles.
All the paper cartridges in my belt pouch were useless, thankfully the others had plenty to spare. There had to be a better way to carry powder.
Victor, you do know about the metallic cartridge don’t you?
Reader, can you stop interrupting my narrative so much? Of course I know what a metallic cartridge is. I also know about smokeless powder, and phased plasma weapons, but I didn’t back then. They hadn’t been invented yet.
Sorry, please continue.
Right, so as I was saying my gears began turning and I puzzled at the… puzzle of packaging a charge of powder, an improved ball, and an ignition source in a water repellant case. When I got back to the university I’d have to sketch a few of my ideas down on paper.
That night we spent huddled around the fire while one Initiate kept watch. We had no way to know if our instructors planned any nasty little tricks, or if there were any bears or mountain cats around.
Slim woke me up in the middle of the night, naturally by poking me in the face.
“Victor, something’s… out there.”
I shook my head trying to bring my eyes into focus. “You’re probably jumpy. I’m going to go back to sleep…”
An animal crashed through the underbrush only a few strides away.
“See there is something there!”
I struggled to my feet, grabbed my carbine from where it leaned against a log. Selene the daughter moon was peeking through a few wispy clouds. But she gave me just enough light to catch the faint outline of an animal. Theia, the mother moon hadn’t risen yet.
Pulling back the hammer on the weapon the beast turned its head toward me. I caught a glint of moonlight reflected in the animal’s eyes. It was too dark to line up the front and rear sights so I pointed the best I could.
It snorted; prompting me to take up the slack on the trigger. I lightened the trigger from the approved seven to eight pound pull down to four and a half. I was about to squeeze when the clouds were brushed away from the moon and I recognized the creature for what it was.
“Slim.” I whispered with false fear in my voice.
“Be careful I’ve heard their bites can be pretty nasty.” I chided him.
I carefully lowered the hammer back to half cock and tossed a rock at the “dangerous animal” it bounded away.
“I’m going back to sleep now Slim.” I said as I lowered myself back to the ground. “Wake me if there’s a wyvern, bear, or giant badger, okay?”
I failed to fall asleep. Isn’t life grand?
First light arrived an indeterminable time later. We pressed south through the thick forest, following the needle of Spoon’s compass. Picking landmarks was tricky in some spots, but we managed. After about an hour of walking I decided to double check Spoon’s land navigation abilities. He forgot to account for magnetic declination so we had been off course by roughly fifteen degrees.
Not that it really mattered yet since we didn’t know where we were. But I still teased him about it. We had maps but the little alpine lake where I took my involuntary swim could have been one of dozens dotting the wilderness.
Velderland maps, like the one seen in the front of this book were highly accurate, as compared to the maps made in your history. Naturally since we harnessed flight a good four hundred years technologically speaking, earlier than you Earth people.
Didn’t you cheat though?
Cheat? Whatever do you mean?
You had the help of big flying buzzards.
True, but if one isn’t cheating, one isn’t trying hard enough. Where was I?
You were lost in the woods.
Quite right, and was that ever a downright miserable experience. Sure my father took my brothers and I on excursions in the wilderness, and I’d been in the Velderland Youth Corps but I’d always taken the right gear for the conditions.
I’d like to tell you we had many exciting things happened on our trip back to the University, but no, it was anything but. To regale you with stories of twisted ankles, blisters, and dehydration would be rather droll. So let’s skip ahead shall we?
My feet hurt, I felt like murdering the sack of bird dung who thought this was a good training exercise. We hiked for roughly twelve leagues over some positively rugged terrain. My feet hurt all I wanted to do was take my boots off, rinse the blood and sweat off my feet and crawl into my rather uncomfortable bed.
But alas, we were put to work mucking out one of the aviaries. Regular birds make plenty of droppings; giant birds create putrid mountains of poop.
We hauled a large number of carts full of droppings and put them in a pile for farmers to spread on their fields. I was told the sales of giant raptor fertilizer helped pay for the care of wounded Riders.
The next three weeks passed in a blur. Each morning we would do physical training, attend magic ink symbol training where countless colors and shapes were slammed into our heads. We practiced using feather pens, brushes, chalk, and even pressing sticks into blocks of clay.
Examinations were held to test our knowledge of ink patterns and symbols, the benefits and dangers of mixing ink, and pain tolerance. By the end of the third week we began using live ink, not the cheap copies without ethereal ingredients.
“Initiate Vaughnson, I want you to activate that hardening symbol you just completed.” Carolyn said as she walked by the workbench where I was busy painting a steel breastplate, for the ground troops.
“Yes Magus.” I replied, took a deep breath and placed my hand over the sharp angles of the light blue symbol.
I closed my eyes and focused trying to feel the ink beneath my fingers. At first nothing but emptiness filled my mind. I focused on breathing and the piece of steel plate. In a few moments I could feel the rough outline in my mind.
I felt a part of me leave and imbue itself into the ink. I spoke the required phrase of power for this symbol, “Panis dulcis non verum.”
Blue flames licked the surface of the steel and my hand. At first I didn’t feel a thing. A second or two later I began cursing like a drunken deckhand. My hand was on fire, it was double bad!
Carolyn’s held a look of complete disregard for my suffering. I tried to pull my hand away but it held fast to the ink. I pulled the breastplate off the armor stand and tried in vain to hurl the flaming piece of metal across the room.
“Carolyn! Ahhhh, what do I do?”
She glared at me eyes showing malice. “Dig down deep, focus on the task at hand not the pain.”
My arm shook uncontrollably as the flames died down. The accursed piece of armor finally fell from my hand with a clatter on the floor.
“Initiate Richardsen, pick up the armor.” She commanded, Spoon hesitated.
“Pick it up now Initiate!”
He stooped down, “Yes Magus.” And grabbed the metal armor, I hoped it would burn him nearly as bad as it did me.
He winced as his fingers gripped the steel. Then a look of shock came on his face. “Magus… It…”
“Cold is it not?”
“Yes Magus but how?”
She took the steel from the student and showed it to the class, the ink was darker, glossy and looked like it had imbued itself into the metal. “This is a completed symbol. It will strengthen this piece of armor by nearly three times, compared to its unmarked counterpart; allowing it to be more effective against rifles, without increasing the thickness and weight.”
She set it down on a stand in front of a bullet trap. “Unfortunately the Skaji and we Velderlanders improve our black powder weaponry every year. There are some who believe steel armor will become obsolete in a few years.”
She picked up a Mark III carbine off the rack, loaded it and fired it into the breastplate from a few paces away. The heavy improved ball struck the plate off to the side of center, putting a wicked dent into the chest protection.
“This Man-at-Arms is in pain but would suffer no lasting injury.” She said as she reloaded the carbine. “Most importantly he can continue the fight.”
One of her second year students replaced the breastplate with a new unmarked one, then hastily moved behind the firing line.
The second shot tore a nasty hole in the armor and the ball bounced into the bullet trap with a resounding clang. “This soldier on the other hand is dead, or will soon be so. He will lie on the battlefield calling for help that will most likely not come until he is beyond even ink healing.”
My hand throbbed; I turned it over expecting to see blackened flesh, but it wasn’t all that terrible. My palm was completely red, but where the symbol had touched me was already beginning to blister.
“Initiate Vaughnson, rinse your hand in the sink. I will tend to your burn shortly.”
“Yes Magus.” I said through clenched teeth, as I headed to the pump. I worked the handle with my left and soon enough crystal clear icy water splashed over my wound.
“Allow me Initiate.” Raven said as she grasped the pump handle, her fingers touching mine for a moment.
“Thank you.” I said as I put both hands in the water.
“Since I will have to treat Initiate Vaughnson for his burns, the rest of you may leave early.” Carolyn said as she grabbed a burn kit.
The younger initiates whooped and ran for the door, forgetting their books, practice sheets, pens and brushes. After calling them back and making them clean up their areas they left, only Raven, Carolyn, and I remained.
“Thank you Initiate Rivers, I can handle it from here.”
The young woman looked to her superior, “Magus, are you sure, I could learn how to treat burns.”
Carolyn shook her head, “No, that topic is on the schedule for tomorrow.”
“Yes Magus, good evening.” She said as she picked up her supplies and left.
Carolyn turned to me, “Initiate, you used my first name…”
“Sorry?” She grabbed my burnt hand and dabbed at it with a cloth to remove the excess water. Yes, it didn’t feel too nice. “Initiate Vaughnson, my students should not even know my first name. There are already those who…”
She stopped, pulled a privacy ward from a pocket and activated it. “…who have their suspicions because of our history together.”
“I’m sorry Magus; I shall refrain from mucking up again.”
“She likes you.”
“Who Raven… err Initiate Rivers?”
“Yes, I’ve seen how she looks at you.”
I sighed; I didn’t need more women troubles. Where were they when I was growing up? “I’m not sure why.”
“Are you really that thick in the skull Victor?” She said as she began rubbing burn cream into the wounds.
This was good, she had stopped calling me Initiate. “Alright then Carolyn, why does she like me?”
“I can see two reasons. One you saved her life… women like that.” Her cheeks flushed the slightest hint of red.
“And two, you are the alpha male among the Initiates.”
“It is quite simple.” She pressed harder than I thought she needed, “You’re the oldest, biggest, strongest, and the only initiate to have killed Skaji warriors.”
“Carolyn please, don’t remind me. I… I still dream about…”
“Shh,” she said as she held a long scarred finger up to my lips, to invoke silence.
We kissed, her lips warm against mine. It was over too soon. I wished for that moment to last forever. As I was about to leave she called my name.
“Yes?” I replied still inside the power of the ward.
“Don’t make me kill her.” Carolyn’s eyes met mine; they held no hint of joviality.
I swallowed hard and staggered out of the room.