Every moment I could spare I dedicated to finishing the mask. Raven, Slim, and Bosque covered for me on my cleaning duties so I’d have more time to work. Raven managed to come up with a brass pressure vessel about the size of two fists. When I asked her about how she obtained it she told me I didn’t want to know.
The last and most difficult component to obtain was a pair of air stones. These small spheres of polished quartz were inked with incredibly tiny and complex symbols. Unfortunately if we could practice enough to get the symbols right we didn’t have any Azure ink. We needed the help of a Magus.
I knew only one who I could ask, Magus Cooke.
“No Initiate Vaughnson, you are asking me to misallocate ink for a private project of yours. Which some would consider outright theft, as well as you would be foolishly risking your status as an Initiate.”
I nodded and returned to symbol practice. While she was correct by the strictest definition of the rules, Initiates were forbidden from using ink except under the direct supervision of an instructor. But Magii did have discretion for special projects. I absently wondered if she was still plotting Raven’s demise.
Eldeday arrived and I went to the Velderlords worship service. While not strictly required as Magii weren’t clergy, attendance was strongly encouraged. At some point I fell asleep in the pew and Raven nudged me in the ribs.
“Hey V, you alright?” she whispered.
“Sorry, I’ve been staying up late…”
She nodded and we continued listening to the Zealot’s wife talk about prayer.
Zealot? Isn’t that quite rude to call the leadership of your religion.
Umm, no why?
Well to us ‘moderns’ that word has a negative connotation.
Really? To us it means to be an ‘eager follower’ of the Velders. Shouldn’t all believers strive to be zealots?
Never mind Victor, forget I asked.
After the service we returned to the common room for a few moments before our next class.
This was new, Spoon hadn’t ever called me that before. “Yeah Spoon, didn’t see you at the service.”
He nodded, “Well that’s because I was busy getting these.” He held out a fist, unrolled his fingers revealing two brilliant blue air stones.
“Where did you get those?” I said as I reached for them.
“I’m not going to hand them over that easy.”
I sighed, “Alright Spoon, what do you want for the stones.”
He smiled in that little devious way that made me want to embed my fist into his teeth. “Not much really, considering what these are and what I had to do to obtain them.”
“What do you want?”
“I want my family to get the exclusive building contract when the council orders the finished product.”
“You’re quite the little mercenary. Admit it.”
He grinned, “With pride.”
I had to give him points for ingenuity and shrewdness. “I’m not sure how I can guarantee that.”
“I thought you might doubt your position.” He replied, “It is rather simple, I’ll speak slowly so your sluggish brain can keep up.”
I bit my tongue, I needed the stones.
“When the council realizes what an advantage these masks of yours will give the Riders, they will do anything to insure your cooperation.”
What choice did I have? Without the stones the masks were worthless. “Alright Spoon, I’ll do it.”
We shook hands and the air stones were mine. I dropped them into the pressure vessel, pulled the mask over my head. Concentrating on the stones caused them to pull air into the brass tube.
“It’s working!” I said through the breathing valve.
Raven waved a hand in front of the goggles, “How can you see in that thing?”
“It’s not too bad.” I lied, it wasn’t too good either, I’d have to come up with a better solution, but as a proof of concept it was perfect.
“So V how do you plan on testing it?” she asked.
“We need to take an unauthorized flight, tonight.”
After sundown we made our way to the aviary and retrieved our mounts. I didn’t think Raven’s plan could possibly succeed. Initiates were only allowed to fly when scheduled on their training logs.
Raven produced an official looking order, authorizing us to take a low light navigation flight. The guard waved us through after a cursory glance at the document. In moments we were airborne, headed toward the Shrouded peaks.
“How high do you thing you and your mount can go?” She asked through her comm stone.
“I’m not sure. The highest flight with a rider recorded that I could find in the old log books was just under five thousand man height, about one and a half leagues.”
We continued upward until we were at about the limit for normal flight. I pulled the mask on over my head and activated the stones. In moments I felt the air thicken as the air stones began pulling air into the pressure vessel. I just hoped all my valves worked and I wasn’t wearing a potential bomb.
We circled higher and higher until I lost track of Raven and her hawk below.
“Can you still see me?” I asked.
She replied “You’re just a tiny dot, and clouds are coming in. I’ll probably lose you any moment. How do you feel?”
“Cold.” I was starting to lose the feeling in my fingers, despite my gloves and winter underclothes I had donned beneath my leathers.
“V, I can’t see you anymore.” She said, “Keep talking, you’re higher than any rider’s been before. How’s Windrider?”
I pushed a thought out to my mount. He seemed puzzled that I would be worried about him. “He’s fine.”
“Good, are you going to keep climbing?”
“Well I think I’ll keep going until I either freeze to death, of Windrider tells me to stop.” I said with false bravado.
We circled higher and higher until we plunged through the clouds and arrived in a peaceful height where the moon lit the night. It felt strange to look down and see a rolling carpet of clouds.
“V how do you feel?”
I was about to reply that my head was pounding but I didn’t get the chance.
I awoke sometime later on the ground. I knew I was on the ground because a rather pointy rock was trying to bury itself in between the bones in my back.
“Hey looks like he’s coming back.” Someone said, but I didn’t know who due to the artillery fire of blood in my ears.
I couldn’t breathe, no that wasn’t it, I couldn’t get enough air. I sucked it in like a starved man given a sweet roll.
Someone shone a bright light in my eyes, with a limb that felt like lead I tried to swat it away.
“Initiate Vaughnson, how do you feel?” The voice called again. I located the voice, and saw the symbol of the Airborne Surgerists, on his leathers.
“Dung.” Was all I managed to speak between gasps of air.
Raven held my hand, “I was so worried, when you didn’t return my comm. Then Windrider descended with you slumped in the saddle, the only thing keeping you in the seat was your harness lines.”
“Let’s get him inside.” The Air Doc said and I was rushed to the infirmary.
They stuffed me in a small room with several fist sized air stones, under express orders not to leave without permission.
I laid there listening to the stones soft hiss trying to figure out how I had almost died. Had the mask failed? I had tested it and everything was functional. What had I missed? Where was the mask? I could still feel where the seal had pressed against my face.
Raven and I would be expelled from the order for our actions tonight. Flying without authorization, foolhardy flight maneuvers, endangering bird and rider, and a litany of other charges.
In the morning my joints ached like that of an old man watching an approaching storm. One of the attendants let me out of my ‘cell’ and had me lie in a medical bed.
“I’m alright I can return to my duties.” I argued with the plump nurse.
She shook her head, “Initiate I’ve got my orders that you are to be kept here for observation for the next two days.”
“Two whole days?”
She nodded and pushed me back into the bed. “You need rest Initiate.”
I leaned back into the pillow and sighed, satisfied that I wasn’t about to bolt out of the room she left to see to other duties.
My mind wandered as I stared out the window. A couple of Raptors danced in the early morning light. They were practicing aerobatic maneuvers, dives, turns, loops and rolls. Useful for when formation flying disappeared amid the chaos of battle.
I slept on and off for the better part of the morning. During one quick nap I dreamt of Raven being stabbed in the back by Carolyn. She grinned maniacally as she thrust the knife again and again, crimson blood coated the blade.
I awoke with a start and blinked the cobwebs away. “Thank the lords it was but a dream.” I said to myself.
“Ah good you’re awake.” An elderly voice said off to the side of the room.
My eyes met the man and I knew who he was, I tried to get out of bed, “Grand Magus! I uhh.”
“Vaughnson, stay in that bed, that’s an order.” He said with a smile, he was sitting in a chair a couple of strides away.
“I umm, sorry Grand Magus.” Then I noticed he had my mask in his lap.
He saw me looking, and picked it up, “This is actually the reason I’ve come down here.” His locks were streaked with grey but he looked like a man who knew how to bring pain to his enemies. “Victor, I’m impressed, did you make this yourself?”
“Umm yes Sir, I mostly built it in my spare time.”
He looked puzzled as he turned it around in his hands. “Initiates have precious little spare time, unless they’ve changed the training regimen since I was young.”
“I started work on it before I came here.”
He pulled at the brass pressure vessel, “So this is where the air stones are placed then?”
“Yes Magus.” Had Spoon stolen them? Would I also be charged with pilfering University property?
“Remarkable, not any of our craftsmen, Magii, nor Riders ever conceived a device such as this.” He probed the lenses with a finger. “I do have a suggestion on your next prototype.”
“My next what?”
“Prototype, working model, test design.” He shook his head.
I felt foolish, “Sorry Magus, I know what a prototype is, but I uhh figured I was about to be expelled from the order.”
He looked puzzled, “Expelled, whatever for?”
“We… I took my mount without authorization, and I practically killed myself testing that thing.”
He smiled, “You’re not the first initiate to bend the rules. No, expelling you and Initiate Rivers would be a great loss to the order.” He tossed the mask on the bed. “I want to see the next version in two weeks. You can take whatever materials you need from the workshops. And take the eyes off the mask, see if you can make it only cover the mouth and nose.”
As he stood up to leave he asked, “So do you know why it failed?”
I didn’t but I had to tell him something, “I’ll have to look at it but one of the valves probably stuck.”
He nodded, “Well good luck Initiate.” He said and left the room.
Fredrico Falkenrath, Grand Magus of our order was interested in my device. I felt proud yet terrified. I had a deadline.