The next two weeks flew by like a falcon in full stoop pursuing its prey. Every spare moment I spent working on the mask. It was much earlier now that I had access to a real workshop. My little Armsmaker’s kit seemed like a toy compared to the Magii workshop.
I quickly became friends with the workshop foreman Howard Hawken when I explained what I was working on.
The day before the mask was due to be shown to the Grand Magus I was excused from the marksmanship trials as I had already qualified as a Hawkeye last time.
“Victor good to see ya!” Howard said as I took a seat at the workbench.
“Likewise. Did you get the molds finished?” I asked.
He nodded; we had been experimenting with melting and molding mask parts for over a week. We finally had something we believed would actually work this time. “Come give me a hand I’ll show ya how it works. We’re just gettin’ ready to pour one.”
I smiled as I slipped my fingers into thick leather gloves.
The two halves of the heavy iron mold were bolted together and hot melted rubber was poured into the hole in the top. The whole assembly was immersed into a water bath with a puff of steam. A few moments later we turned wrenches to unbolt the slabs of metal.
I peeled out the mask body and turned it over in my hands.
“So, you think it’ll work?” He asked.
I shrugged, “The design is much better than the last one, but I need to know what caused the valve failure.”
I turned, Rowen Bowen stood where only air had been moments before. “Ice?”
“Once long ago I thought the closer one flew to the sun the hotter it would get.”
Bowen laughed hard enough to bring a tear to his eye. “Good one Victor. Do you also take flying tips from ancient myths as well?”
I shook my head.
“Mind if I take a look?”
I handed him the partially completed mask, “Of course not.”
He peered at the grey rubber feeling it with his fingertips. He rolled it over looking at every part of the construct. He then pressed it over his nose and lips. He feigned heavy breathing and tossed it back to me.
“Ice could be your hidden demon, up in the higher altitudes it gets mighty cold. I’ve come down with frost on my scarf plenty of times, even in summer. So when do I get to try one out?”
“Soon. Just need to work a few kinks out of it. I’d like feedback from my main customers.”
“I heard about your last high flight. Lucky you were not killed.”
I blushed, the whole Flight group had heard by now of my unsuccessful exploit.
“Do you know what caused the last mask to fail?”
I shook my head, “I’m not sure. But you may be on to something with this ice issue. Perhaps the valves are freezing shut?”
He shifted his weight, causing his well warn leather flight suit to creak, “Are you using the same valves now?”
The Foreman interrupted, “Begging your pardon First, but no, the ones in this here new mask are much stronger.”
He slapped me on the shoulder and headed for the door, “I believe I shall leave you to your work then Initiate.” He nodded at Hawken, “Foreman.”
We spent the rest of the day molding mask parts, and assembling the valves and pressure vessels, all that remained were the air stones.
Grand Magus Falkenrath unexpectedly came down to see the masks. He carried a sack of air stones not unlike a boy with a bag of marbles.
“Good work Initiate Vaughnson, Foreman Hawken, and the rest of your team. You may not know it now but I have reason to believe that this development will change the nature of the air war.”
He put two of the air stones in a completed mask and held it up to his face. In moments it was working supplying him with air.
“I can not wait for the live tests tomorrow.” The Grand Magus said as he deactivated the air stones.
“Do you have test Riders picked out?”
“Yes, and you are one of them.”
And that’s how I ended up thousands of man height in the air again, freezing my backside off.
You do seem to wind up in difficult situations a lot don’t you?
Of course, I’m the protagonist in this story. Would you rather read a story about one of the aviary boys?
No that’s not what I’m saying.
Well I could if you’d like.
No I don’t…
I’ve been moving bird droppings for as long as I could lift a shovel. The giant Raptors our people ride are giant poop machines. They poop all day long as far as I can reckon. Someday I want to get away from here, but I cannot really complain. My Aviary Master is strict but fair and I…
…get fed three meals a day. And I really do an important job for our Riders, I mean eventually the piles of whitish bird crap would grow so big we couldn’t even get inside the aviary.
Please, can you continue with your real story?
Are you sure you don’t want more of the Aviary boy story?
Yes, pretty sure.
Alright it’s your loss.
There I was sitting in the saddle, cold, windswept and nervous. Would my invention fail again? Would I fall to my death? Our three birds circled higher and higher where the air began to thin. Thankfully it was about mid-day, compared to dusk when I had flown last.
Smithson’s voice came over the comm stone, “Initiate Vaughnson, how sure are you these things won’t seize up and kill us?”
“Second Smithson, no unneeded comm talk.” First Bowen cut in. “Save your breath for breathing.”
We climbed in silence, other than the occasional wing beat and the howling wind of course. In a few minutes we were higher than I had flown on my last ill-fated test flight. I could feel the air was beginning to become thin even for our mounts. Unburdened they may have flown higher, than with us on their backs.
Far below near the edge of the horizon something caught my eye. “First Bowen?”
“Yes Initiate?” He said bringing his mount over to the side of mine.
I squinted trying to focus on the movement just out of reach of my eyes. “There’s something on the horizon. 10 o’clock low.” I reached into my saddle bags and pulled out my spyglass, slipping my hand through its lanyard. Turning the brass knobs brought the image into focus.
“What is it?” The wing leader asked as he fiddled with his own glass.
I couldn’t quite make it out, it could have been some of our own Riders on an exercise, or birds migrating, but something didn’t feel right. “I’m not sure, but whatever they are there’s a lot of them.”
Smithson’s voice full of contempt came over the stone, “Probably just some of ours, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
A few tense moments later as we began gliding toward the unidentified flight.
First Bowen called over the comm stone, “Skajii Raiders, over a hundred of them.”
“Why would they try a brazen daylight attack?”
“I don’t know.” He said with more calm than I would have been capable of. “We need to alert our Riders.”
Moments later our wings already in the air were headed to intercept, and all available Riders were scrambled.
“Victor, get your black powder bombs ready.”
Each of us had three of the handheld bombs; they didn’t seem like much against a hundred Skaji Wyvern.
“Cut the fuses to a thumbs length, and tie them together with string.”
I did, we didn’t have much of a margin of error too long and they would explode below our enemy, too short and the fragments wouldn’t do much damage.
We came in behind them; they were flying at about the limit of human lung capacity. They wouldn’t expect an attack from above.
Our first wings of Raptor interceptors were less than a league away, only around fifteen birds and riders they would quickly be shot down as the Skaji had superior numbers and altitude.
“Give ‘em hell.” First Bowen said as he lit all three of his bombs, using a small heat stone.
“Remember Tent City!” I yelled and dropped my cluster. They fell and split apart tumbling toward our sworn enemies. A few seconds of calm hung in the air before the bombs burst.
What seconds before had been a massive formation of confident Skaji snakes and raiders erupted into a chaotic mess of scattered wings. A few crippled snakes began the long fall to the earth their bodies twisting in agony. Our interceptors redoubled their flapping pouring on speed and altitude to engage the now scattering Skaji. Others were approaching from the Vassar Aviary.
“Dive, but keep above them. Don’t give up our advantage.” First Bowen said as he flicked the reigns pushing Strongbeak into a stoop.
Smithson and I followed him into the aerial melee below.