My chronostone chirped trying to rouse me from my deep sleep. I rolled over, slapped it and realized the bed was empty. Raven had slipped out sometime during the night. For a few moments I felt all was right with the world. Then I remembered what we had done last night, sparks of pleasant memories fired in the back of my mind. They in turn caused my stomach to tie itself into knots.
“What are you getting yourself into?” I asked myself in the little mirror above my desk.
Victor you dog!
Way to go!
If you’re somehow trying to congratulate me for bedding a woman I don’t understand. Raven wasn’t my first, and yes I was worried about what might happen between her and Carolyn.
Victor you worry a lot don’t you?
Yes, with good reason. I was a fool, I should have controlled myself.
You didn’t really tell us any of the… good parts.
That’s because this isn’t one of “those books.” If you’re looking for those “good parts” I’m sure you can find many a volume of them in your local bookstore. Just look for the covers with paintings of muscular men too poor to afford shirts with excessively top heavy women in their arms on the cover.
If you don’t mind may I continue?
Sure go right ahead.
I dressed in my plain brown robes. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to wearing a man dress. After a quick breakfast of eggs, bacon and bread I went down to the workshop. With the ground war starting near the isthmus all available Magii had been called in to ink weapons, armor, bond horses and raptors.
After the first hour my hands ached. The constant burning, healing and inking began to take its toll.
I marked an infantryman’s helmet with strength and flexibility symbols. As I was working on a symbol I glanced at Raven. She caught me looking and gave me a coy smile. Then as quick as it came it vanished, and she returned to inking a breastplate.
“Victor, why aren’t rifles and such inked?” Fish asked from across the workstation.
I finished a stroke on a symbol, “I don’t know. They’re not like axes, swords or armor. They don’t rely on the strength of metal to smash someone’s head in.”
“But what if we could use the ink on them somehow?”
I shrugged, “I’ll think about it. But right now I’ve got to burn myself.” I took a deep breath and placed my hands on the symbols.
I focused on the ink beneath my fingers, I could feel it as it worked its way down into the metal, and up into my skin. “Haec aguntur noceat.” I said and the ink burst into flame. It hurt, but I grit my teeth and waited for the symbols to bond with the steel.
When the flames died down I dunked my hands into a nearby bucket. Plunging ones throbbing palms into water was the best feeling in the world after the searing pain. Pulling them out I dried them off on a rag, my hands were already becoming a large mass of scar tissue.
We worked in the shop for the better half of the day. The orders for war material were mounting. I looked up at the pile of armor and cringed, my hands were already throbbing.
Smithson put a hand on my shoulder startling me. “Easy Victor. I was just coming to see if you had any more masks built?”
“Umm, we finished another batch yesterday, why?”
He smiled, “No reason. Well not one I can divulge.”
I nodded and got up from the workbench and lead him over to the storage room. I found the wooden box full of masks and had him sign for thirty two of them.
“You’re up to something aren’t you?” I whispered to him as he handed back the equipment register book.
“Third Magus Vaughnson, I’d love to tell you but flight operations security is something I take seriously.”
I nodded and we left the store room, “Well First Smithson, give ‘em some for Bowen.”
He winked and left.
I returned to the workbench but found I couldn’t concentrate. Smithson, and his fellow Riders were going on a daring mission. I imagined them flying to Storm Hold under the cover of darkness, freefalling for several minutes, opening their chutes at the last minute and landing on the towers and snatching Emperor Kajik from his bed.
Would they really try something so foolish? How would they make it that far? I was dying to talk this over with someone but knew the University had Skaji spies. Getting Smithson and several wings of Riders killed wouldn’t be worth it.
Noon meal arrived and we sat out in the courtyard eating buffalo stew and rolls. Raven sat down next to me and we ate listening to the wind.
“What did Smithson want with all those masks?” She asked after swallowing a bit of stew meat.
“I don’t know.” I really didn’t.
“But there has to be a reason.”
“What if it’s as boring as additional testing?”
“Why a whole bag of them?” She asked
I responded by taking another bite.
Back in the workshop we toiled away inking all manner of gear. If I knew that being a Magii involved so much toil and pain I probably would have figured out how to get out of it.
Finally quitting time came and I hit the door running. I needed to clear my head, and the best place I had found to do that was in the saddle several thousand man height above the ground.
Windrider was glad to see me he and flapped his massive wings in anticipation of our flight half blinding me with dust. I held up a bare hand and he lowered his beak to me. I pressed my palm against the bond mark on his beak and felt the ink move beneath my skin.
Moments later we were airborne climbing above the university workshops, leaving behind the toil and cares of the day. Summer was fast approaching, but the air this evening was cool and refreshing as it blew down the canyons, out across the grasslands that fed the mighty herds of bison.
I looked down at Velderland, the cities, towns and farms dotted the landscape. They looked peaceful now but the Skaji were threatening to overrun my home. I could not let that happen. Countless thousands of Velderlanders were depending on us to hold the line.
We drifted west floating on an uncommon current of air blowing contrary to the jet winds. Far below in the grasslands I saw a thousand points of light. “What do you think that is?” I asked my beautiful mount. He didn’t answer so I turned the reigns and flicked them. He responded by shifting his wing feathers and flapping a couple of times changing our course to the northwest.
As we approached the lights I retrieved my spyglass and peered into the brass tube. Campfires, stretched for miles. It could be only one thing, the Far Western army and militia had been called up. This was Rowen Bowen’s kin, red haired and fair skinned people known to be fierce warriors. They had their own troubles with the Gurju nomads. But they were willing to send what looked like a sizable army, it looked like this had to be the bulk of the Far West’s military strength. How serious was the conflict with the Skaji this time? The Velderland Air News wasn’t allowed to give much detail on the war. But the casualty lists kept getting longer so we all knew we were in this for the long haul.
A couple of Raptor Riders keeping watch over the ground troops approached Windrider and I.
“Rider please identify yourself. This is First Rider Mason, Far West 13th aviation squadron.” a deep voice said over the comm.
“Magus Third Class Vaughnson, Vassar Magorum University.”
“Magus?” He sounded like that I was the last thing he’d find in the air, “Sir if I may ask why are you in this airspace?”
“Just out to log a few hours of flight.” I replied, I didn’t explain that I was really just trying to get away and clear my head.
“A magus alone? That’s not typical.” The Rider sounded puzzled.
I hit my comm stone, “Well I’m not your typical magus.”
“Follow us, we’d like you to deliver a message to the Vassar Rider Masters. We rather not spare a wing, what with all the Skaji around.”
“I thought our boys had pushed them back.”
In the fading light I could see the rider shaking his head. “They’ve been harassing us for three days now, usually around twilight. It looks like they really don’t want Far West to join the ground war.”
“Where do they come from?”
“We believe somewhere in the western sea.”
This was puzzling; the nearest island protectorate was more than a whole days hard flight away. Not very conducive to launching harassment missions. Also the islanders had some of the fiercest Riders in all of Velderland. If the islands fell to the Skaji we would have heard about it.
We landed in the middle of the sea of campfires. Once I dismounted the Riders saluted, shook my hand and handed me a message tube. “Please see that this makes it to the Rider Masters.”
I was about to climb back on Windrider when every comm stone in the camp blew the alarm horn. “Skaji Raiders inbound southwest, high altitude, twenty wings.”
“Magus, get that tube back to Vassar!”
I shook my head, “No, a lone bird will be easy pickings for the Wyvern. I’ll stick with you until we rout the Skaji.”
“No offense Magus, but I don’t think you’ll do much good in a fight, most of your kind are too busy inking symbols. You probably haven’t fired a weapon since you got out of training.”
I climbed up into the saddle pulled my carbine from its scabbard, cocked the hammer and said, “Let’s get airborne First Mason.”
The Rider mounted his falcon and gave me a puzzled look. “What kind of Magus are you?”
“I was an armsmaker first.” I said as I hooked up my harness to the leather seat.
He shrugged and whipped the reigns. We left the ground troops to launch flares, and ready the cannons.
Far in the distance the fight was already in progress. Scattered black powder weapons fired lighting up the dim sky with brilliant flashes, and filled the air with plumes of smoke. The airborne scouts circling the Far West army were already engaging the flying worms. We’d be in the thick of it in moments. Windrider beat the air with his wings, his thoughts turned to tasting Wyvern blood again. He wanted vengeance for every rider that had died on his back. I hoped I wouldn’t be the next rider he mourned.
I followed on the wing of First Mason and while his wingman flew on the other, as a little delta arrow we joined with four other wings. We gained altitude but it still wasn’t enough, by the time we made it to the dogfight we’d be attacking from below, not a very advantageous position.
“Far West 13th give ‘em hell!” He yelled and charged upward.
Things were too mixed up for formation firing, or bombs. In seconds we’d be fighting it out air melee style, fast brutal and vicious.
A Wyvern and Raptor fell from the main group, their bodies wrapped together in a dance of death, the Raptor’s claws gripped the belly of the beast while the snakes vicious head snapped sending plumes of feathers flying.
The Rider leapt from the saddle to avoid being killed and dove toward the ground. The Skaji Raider fired a pistol at the fleeing man, striking him in the chest. I was powerless to do anything but watch the Rider tumble toward the ground. Somehow the rider managed to pull his dropcute cord deploying the lifesaving silk, not that it would do him much good. He’d probably bleed out before anyone could come to his rescue.
A Wyvern passed over the top of us, had I been paying attention I could have slashed it with my knife. I ducked and urged my bird to dive. The chaos swarmed around me, smoke filled the air, illuminated by the eerie green glow of flares.
We flew through the aerial fracas, and I realized I was alone, my wingmen were nowhere to be seen, flying formations evaporated as the two sides tried to kill each other. Somehow Windrider and I emerged outside the main body of the battle unscathed. I pulled the reigns to wheel my falcon around an angry bee zipped by my ear.
I glanced above and saw a wyvern beginning a stoop; he’d be on top of us in seconds. I flipped the reigns and yelled “Dive!”
The dark ground below leapt up, threatening to stab us with jagged rocks. I nearly blacked out when he pulled out of the dive, despite my flight leathers squeezing my legs and chest. The Skaji raider was behind us, but thankfully no wyvern could match a falcon in a dive.
I wheeled Windrider around and had him hover; as I hastily aimed my carbine at the monster. The Skaji Raider tried to stop his mounts dive but it was too late. The carbine kicked my shoulder, white smoke shot out and mixed with the air currents. My ball stuck true hitting the beast in the body causing it to crumple and plummet like a stone, straight for us.
We dove barely avoiding a mid-air collision. Tufts of grass touched my falcons’ talons. We were out of the fight for now. Maybe we could wait it out on the ground. Flying back up into the fray would only get us killed. I could tell Windrider was already tired; a hard flight to altitude would only bring an exhausted bird into the battle to be slaughtered.
I looked up at the fight, it wasn’t graceful and glamorous like the Velderland Air News writers tried to color it. Men and beasts were dying in close combat; their bodies struck by lead, or split open by claws, beaks and teeth.
Nearby the bodies of a Raptor and Wyvern were locked together in death. They had fought all the way down until the ground finished the fight for the both of them. We landed nearby and I dismounted. I reloaded my carbine and approached the beasts, bayonet fixed to my short rifle.
In the flickering green light of the flares I approached them. The Raptor’s saddle was empty as was the Wyverns. Neither of the mounts appeared to be breathing. Windrider nudged the brown bird with his beak, when he realized his wing brother was dead he cried out in mourning. Moments later he pecked the eyes out of the giant winged snake. I couldn’t watch as he mutilated his enemy and partook of its flesh. Despite our bonding he was still a wild animal and didn’t miss the vital opportunity to feed.
A few paces away I caught a glimpse of a crumpled up drop chute, moving a bit in the breeze. I left my bird to do what his instincts told him to do and walked through the dry grass toward the discarded chute.
“Kalu.” A weak voice called out.
I froze, it was the Skaji word for water, one of the few we were required to learn. I approached the chute with caution, the Worm rider had survived, was he lying wounded, or would he shoot me as soon as I lifted up the silk.
“I’m armed and won’t hesitate to shoot you.” I said to the hidden form.
“Ka.. kalu.” Came the call again. The voice sounded all but devoid of life.
I lifted up the silk with one hand and held my carbine like a spear. Underneath was the tattooed form of a fierce Skaji Raider, I almost pulled the trigger but something told me to hold.
The young man lying the in grass mostly covered by his drop chute looked more pitiful than ferocious. I noticed the joints in his legs didn’t line up like they should. I nearly vomited; he must have struck the ground too fast and shattered every leg bone in his body. He would be dead soon, from bleeding or wound corruption.
His eyes were those of a man not far removed from a boy, tears mixed with dirt and unburned powder as he struggled to stay alive for a moment longer.
I uncovered him and found his water skin lying nearby. I uncorked it and handed the bag to him. The Raider tried to move his hand to take it but was only able to shift his head. His back must have been as bad as his legs. I poured a little of the life giving liquid into his mouth. He swallowed and seemed to want more. A couple of more times I gave him drink then he laid his head back and closed his eyes.
This young Skaji man was going to die in a senseless attack on the Far West forces, somewhere months later a mother would find out her young son wouldn’t be coming home. Were they so different from us? Why were they here fighting us?
I sat there in the empty field listening to the occasional gunshot as the skirmish eventually came to an end.
As I got up to leave the dying young man whispered, “Danje… kalu.”
“You’re welcome.” I replied softly.
Then he was gone.