As the cadets slowly formed up and then dispersed to their various groundside evaluations. I pulled Neil away from Sir Patrick who was still trying to answer his barrage of questions. The man waved to us as we left. “I’ll see you at the hearing!” He yelled to me and I nodded to him, my suspicions about him being on my penalty board confirmed. My hearing was scheduled for later that evening.
Making my way through the crowd, I waited in line to check the roster listing to find my prospects. While walking across the field, I passed the masters seating and froze as I saw a pale faced Natasha Yard and the other cadet I’d seen with her earlier, Mark Wilder in an argument with an infuriated Trevon Yard as he screeched at his daughter.
It was drawing a bit of a crowd, so like any other dutiful gawker I watched the scene unfolding. Trevon was standing in front of his wife sneering at the pair as he gesticulated wildly and bellowed.
“He belongs to me! Chaitra is not yours! I’m not letting you take our best racing griffin so you can… run off with your stupid boyfriend!” Trevon bellowed and I saw Mark Wilder pale.
“He is not my boyfriend! And he joined the Air Corps, he’s just here for his officer’s qualification!” She bellowed back and spat at him. “Chatty isn’t yours! He’s my mount! You can’t take my mount!”
“You!” He pointed at his daughter “I am going to disown you if you do this, and I made sure Chaitra was blood sealed to the team! If you try and take your stupid mount I’ll call it in, I’ll be dammed if you get to keep him!”
The girl paled and I saw that the man was looking at her in triumph. I clenched my fists at the man’s victory. He didn’t care about his daughter as much as her mount? I had a feeling that he wanted both, and that blood seal had just been insurance. He knew that a rider’s bond with their beast was something that couldn’t be easily severed.
“That’s… illegal!” She hissed and the man shook his head. “You agreed, in your waiver that if you break your contract to the team all blood pacts are called in!” He cawed and I saw Mark grip his saber at his waist in a look of pure outrage.
“I… won’t go back… take him if you want I won’t go back!” She sobbed and then turned and ran from the field with a cackling Trevon calling out to her. “You’ll come crawling back! You always do you silly girl!” He jeered and turned his back on the crowd and let his wife shoo him along and out of the growing outrage of the spectacle from the onlookers.
I froze as I realized what that meant. No one would take her on if she didn’t have a mount, and it looked like she had fled the qualifications. I didn’t blame her. Mark Wilder was still standing there fuming, and I saw him giving a look of pure hatred that bored a hole in Trevon’s back as he walked off the field, one that I had once had for the man when he had called me a halfblood.
“She is bonded?” I asked and the youth nodded. “They would have to perform a severance on her mount, and it’s doubtful it will be worth much except as breed stock afterwards.” His eyes narrowed on me and he gave me a calculating glance.
“Why is it any business of yours anyways?” He said and I shook my head. I needed crew and as a bonus she would want to get as far away from Bagliona as possible, and likely do it for little to no pay.
“I need crew… and well she needs a ship.” I remarked and the cadet’s eyes went wide.
“Your willing to take on a rider? But you’re an airship captain?!” He looked completely confused and I honestly didn’t blame him.
“Doesn’t matter, she’s a flyer and I need crew. With me she will get enough hours for her journeyman’s papers. Who cares if it’s on an airship or on a griffin?”
He laughed and shook his head. “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard, but well she may just go for it. I wish you luck trying to convince her Captain Marshall.” He stopped for a second as I walked away in the direction I’d seen Natasha run for and called out.
“If she does sign on…. Keep her safe! You hear me wind rider?!” He bellowed and I grinned at him and nodded.
I found her next to her mount, which was now being watched over by a pair of adjudicators who were trying to convince her to stop brushing her griffin as she sobbed and resisted their efforts to take the griffin from her. The griffin was agitated and tossing its wings and looking around with murderous intent. He was a very unhappy griffin, and I wisely kept my distance, knowing full well how deadly even a young griffin like that was. Two magi were behind the adjudicator and they were charging their focus crystals on their staves, readying a set of stun castings.
“There has to be some mistake! You can’t take Chatty!” She wailed and I saw the adjudicator showing her the blood mark of ownership that was now glowing on the creature’s forehead as they read the contract to her. No doubt she hadn’t suspected a thing, as the mark hadn’t been apparent.
“He gave him to me as a gift! When I was five!” She bellowed as she dripped tears on the contract as the adjudicator pointed out the glowing mark.
The scene made me so angry. Many countries respected the rights of mounts, but I knew from past experience that Mageos was the exception and not the rule. It stank of slavery, as Griffins in particular were highly intelligent and smarter than some people, even smarter than a Pegasus.
“I didn’t know… all these years and I didn’t know.” She screamed in rage and tried to rip the contract up but, like most enchanted documents, it was nearly indestructible and the adjudicator flicked it out of her grasp before chiding her and threating to call the city watch if she got violent.
She whispered into her mount’s ear and it let out a mournful screech of grief. “Don’t hurt him!” She pleaded and I watched in horror as the magi didn’t even wait for her response, they just enveloped the griffin with a heavy stun spell. The creature squawked feebly, then collapsed. A litter was being wheeled up by a team of horses and Natasha gave a moan of horror as they rolled the senseless creature onto the litter and secured it with heavy chains.
“Nooooo! Nooo!” She screamed once they started moving and a few of her classmates ran over to restrain the girl and she fought their grasps as an instructor ran over, a look of outrage and pure revulsion leveled at the scene.
“This is my cadet’s mount!” The woman called and I saw her face fall as the adjudicator once again waved the contract at the woman’s face pointing to the glowing section. I saw that the woman was the leader of the training wing I had seen the girl performing in. Her glimmering patches and medals out in full glory in her formal uniform. Telling Neil to go to the hanger to meet me at Sweetwind I pointed at the repair docks and sent the boy off.
Despite how I felt about the Academy, and how it often treated the wind folk, this was a scene of horror for any flyer to witness. I wondered what it would have felt like if someone had just stolen away Sweetwind from me and I shuddered, bile filling my mouth as I thought about what kind of toad would give their daughter a lifelong companion and then take it away out of spite. It was monstrous.
I sat on the discarded griffin’s harness and bowed my head, not wanting to bother the girl in her grief. After a while, Natasha’s mentor looked up at me from where she was holding the flyer and whispering to her.
“What do you want… Captain?” She said, her eyes going to my ship patch and my rank and her face going up in a sneer. Natasha, looked up, hearing her mentor’s ire and stared at me.
“Your father is no friend of mine either.” I pulled off my flight cap, and there were gasps from around me as my ethereal hair and pointy ears were revealed. The girl nodded and looked at me in confusion.
“You’re a…” I nodded
“I’m what some refer to as halfblooded. My mother was a celestial elf.” I watched her carefully but I didn’t see the normal sort of haughty expression in her gaze, but a calculating stare as if she was just now realizing why I was here.
“You realize if you want me as crew, he will hunt you down and probably kill you right?” She asked, eliciting gasps from her classmates. I nodded, knowing that Trevon would never forgive me for letting his daughter run away on my ship, particularly because I was a half-elf and as such it would probably be taken an insult.
“He has to catch us first. I admit, my ship isn’t in the best of condition at the moment. I can’t offer much in the way of pay, but I don’t see any better prospects for you right now.” She nodded and stood up.
“Let me get my flight bag.” With great difficulty she tried to compose herself and straightened her uniform tunic as I beamed a smile at her. “I’ll meet you at the repair docks, need to check up on a few other prospects.” I said and she nodded and stalked off as I carefully secured my cap and turned to leave.
“May the sky embrace its own.” The instructor intoned the ancient words as she clicked her boots to attention and saluted me. I obtained a grin of pleasure from the wing leader as I returned the salute, a rare thing for any of the wind folk to do.
It took a great deal of time to finish up at the qualifications, I had to search the roster and ask around for some of my prospects. I did find the one I had seen with that superb agility earlier. Unfortunately, so had a few other captains. I watched helplessly as one of the local mercantile ship captains scooped him up with a much better offer than I could have possibly made.
This was often repeated as I tracked down others and I was tired, frustrated, and exhausted as I trudged alone back to check up on Sweetwind in the repair yard. The repair yards were like a kicked over hornets’ nest, and packed with swarms of repair equipment and desperate activity. About a half-dozen Mageos warships were getting an overhaul and there were countless small craft being worked on as most of the wind folk and guild ships were getting serviced.
Fighting my way through the bedlam of shouts, the pounding of hammers the hissing whine of air wrenches and the crackle bang of spellcasting, I tried to make sense of the bedlam.
I finally spotted Sweetwind’s tiny form nestled under the massive hulk of the Triumphant, a massive vessel that towered over my little ship and cast an enormous shadow that swallowed almost everything in the hanger. Within the shadow I could see the flashing crackle of a linking cast and gave a wave as I spotted Costa’s artificer, Jeb Grison working in the exposed refraction compartment and shaking his head in consternation.
He paused after he finished his cast, his focus gauntlets still glowing in red ruby light as he took one off and wiped his brow. I climbed around a sea of parts and equipment that were littered around my ship and looked up through the exposed frame, trying to figure out how to safely get up to where he was working.
“Knew you’d want a peek today Becca.” Costas laughed, his wiry form setting down next to me in his worker harness, the ballast on the back of the harness dimming softly as he stretched and yawned. I saw he had put my apprentice to work helping to hold components and tools for one of his workers who was retracing some of the starboard hull’s force lines. He was watching, entranced at the old woman who was tracing the inscriptions that formed the master warding along the hull. The glowing symbology flashed and glittered as she cleared the lines of force and watched the flow of power carefully.
I smiled, glad that he hadn’t just loafed around, and was interested enough in his ship that he wanted to learn about the artificer side of her construction. I looked around for Natasha, and spotted her talking with a few of the academy graduates who were wishing her goodbye and were wearing the Mageos Air Corps uniform and Triumphant ship patches.
Far above us swarms of workers were aboard the massive vessel and I could see that they were just finishing up, and the ship was getting ready to lift off its cradle. Officers called down to their wayward midshipmen and they scampered off to leave Natasha standing there gripping her flight bag as she sadly watched her former classmates clip onto raceways and streak up the sides of their ship, waving back at her.
A bell sounded far above, and every hair on my body stood as end as waves of power made the Sweetwind shudder in its cradle as the Triumphant’s ballast was flooded and a small army of ground crew heaved and pulled her out of the cradle, mooring lines gripped in teams of dozens of men and women as they expertly maneuvered her towards the gigantic hanger doors.
It was a truly extraordinary sight, the vessel lite up in a wonderous blaze under the scorching afternoon sun, it’s hull glimmering with golden gilt. There was a booming salute from the aerodrome’s signal tower on the other side of the field and a peal of a massive horn from the vessel that had me gripping my ears and wincing in consternation at the sound as it rebounded back into the hangar.
Soon it was aloft, and slowly ascending into the clear blue sky. Massive banks of sail falling from it’s four main masts, then from six additional wing masts along its sides. The stiff breezed caught her and her ballast glowed as the wind pushed down against it and into her sails as they filled and propelled her off towards the sea.
Two of her escorts followed from the far side of the field and the small flotilla banked and formed up far above the city as they flashed messages back and forth between the ground tower and fell into a battle formation.
Sweetwind looked small and forlorn as she was washed in the bright sunlight and I studied all the other massive warships around me, many of them making ready for lift. The sheer scale of the preparations made my stomach churn with bile and I felt sick as I thought of just how many flyers would die in the coming conflict.
How many of these majestic ships would lay broken across the far corners of the world? Would I ever know? I didn’t want to be part of the approaching storm but I knew that I would be caught up in it all the same. It wasn’t the first time, and would be far from the last.
It had been the flames of civil war in Yamania that I had grown up in, and lost everting. Now war had finally caught up with me once again. Once more like before, the sky folk would be caught in the middle, and I suspected that messengers or no, we would fall just like the rest and lie broken upon some distant land.
I walked over to Natasha who looked shattered and alone on that field, watching her friends and classmates gathered on the aerodrome field, so many of them were raising their fists in oath around the stands of the Mageos Air Corps. So many more were being led off the fields with their happy families who were congratulating them on their qualifications.
The pain of what should have been a triumph against her father looked bitter on her face. Beside her I nodded and turned her around to face me. Her hard face belied her youth, and she stepped back and went to attention. I waved the courtesy away and smiled.
“I understand you work through military discipline at the Academy. While I will need you to stay professional, I don’t need courtesy or overblown signs of respect.” I gestured to the Sweetwind.
“I will be trying to find a crew for her, one that can get me through what is coming. I need someone beside me, an executive officer if you will. Can I count on you?” I asked and she gave me a wry salute and smiled.
“I’m not crew trained, I’m a pilot.” She said and pointed at the ship. “I can fly her if you are willing to teach me her quirks, I have certifications on small craft and a class two navigators license.”
“So be it, let’s give you the copper bit tour.” I gestured for her to follow and easily hoisted myself up a ladder. Behind me her flight bag was heaved onto the deck and I dodged around equipment and workers alike.
“She’s an old design, no one really knows where her keel was first set, or even if it was on Prime. It’s an angled refractory ballast with trim aft. One wing mast that can extend from either side, though I normally just use the main mast and the bowsprit.” I gestured to the ship and she nodded.
“Arrmament?” She pointed to the deck lances and I nodded.
“While she was originally more heavily armed, probably a small warship in her first incarnation, all that is left of that part of her life is her bow lance. There are also two grapples on the bow and stern, and as you see, several mobile deck lances that can be moved between action stations.”
I pointed to the various helm stations. “Forward is main control, there is a deck helm as well as an aft auxiliary where the trim is. There is also a watcher’s turn in the mainmast.” I pointed up to the observation station in the mainmast.
“That’s a bit… much for a small vessel.” She gawked at me. I smiled and thumped my chest.
“It was designed for a small crew, or refurbished over the years for just a couple of people. There is an autohelm that is rather advanced and I think would be the envy of any Mageos ship of the line.” I pointed to the exposed charge compartment.
“I’m going to try to get us more charge, but right now It’s just myself and Neil, my apprentice that can charge the ship. You’re not a Magi are you?” I asked and she shook her head and laughed.
“Would my father have let me be a flyer if I was?” Her bitter expression went darks and her fists clenched as she glared at me. I nodded and shrugged.
“Would have been too much to expect. Any suggestions on hands? We need a few crew to help with watches, and I can’t pay diddly squat so it will have to be from the academy.” She grinned at me.
“Well, you know any of my friends would kill to fly with us, but I think the good ones will mostly be aboard warships in the next few days. I do know where I can get you a good artificer though he is a bit eccentric.”
She pointed back at the academy. “Let’s go, I know just the person who would be… enchanted with your quaint vessel.” I narrowed my eyes at her in warning and she grinned. “Ok our vessel.” She smiled and tossed her flight bag down into the hold and gestured for me to follow her.
Bio: I've been writing for nearly as long as I've first laid eyes on a word processor. In the last few years, however I've begun to focus on longer works and less short stories, etc. I have three complete books I'm currently revising in my Infernal Engineers series, and one spin-off project: Sky Drifters.