Prologue: Argenport Banner
The harness lay on the table between them. Empty, its outline was skeletal.
"Will they be ready?" asked Rolant.
"The artificers say they can build as many as we need. The challenge is finding the soldiers to wear them." General Izalio shifted uncomfortably. "They must have sockets fused to their bones. The process is painful and unreliable. It's difficult to find volunteers."
The faint hum of active shiftstone cores could be heard in the silence. "And then there's the matter of training, in the air, in untested gear. Where any failure, of man or machine, means a messy death. I estimate that one in three of our cadets will not survive the process."
Rolant lifted his eyes from the gleaming prototype to meet Izalio's. "Will they be ready?"
Izalio took a deep breath and nodded. "They'll be ready."
Chapter 1: Valkyrie Aspirants
On the roof of the tower, the sun was bright but the wind was cold and cutting. Makto fought back a shiver, sneaking a glance over the edge of the roof. The pile of hay in the courtyard seemed too small and very, very far away.
Elias stood very still a step behind him, his eyes closed, his breaths rapid and shallow. Makto nudged him reassuringly and said, with more confidence than he felt, "It'll be fine. Not even as hard running from the guards with an armful of bread."
Elias smiled shakily. "You were the one running with the armful of bread," he said. "I was the distraction."
Makto reached out and tapped Elias in the chest, where he knew the metallic ring socket would be, just under the skin. Where he knew the pain from the surgery was just starting to fade, because his was. "We aren't going to go through all of this and not fly."
Elias nodded, still distracted. Their instructor watched closely but did not interfere. She might have been almost as nervous about ordering the teenagers to jump off the roof as they were to obey.
Makto nodded. "I'll go first," he said. "It'll be fine, and you can come right after." He took one step towards the edge, then another. He took a slow, deep breath.
"AAAAAAAIIIIIIIIEEEEEEE!" A sound halfway between a battlecry and a scream, rising rapidly as its source approached him from behind. He felt the pressure of air as Icaria passed him and launched herself off the edge of the roof. The scream continued, descending, for a fraction of a second. Then there was the muted thump of her wings catching the air, and she carved a curving path to the ground. She staggered as she landed, catching herself on one hand, gasping and laughing.
Makto felt like there had been a glass wall between him and the edge, and Icaria had shattered it. He shrugged and leapt.
And fell. It was too fast, impossibly fast. His gut clenched and he gasped in shock. He clawed uselessly at the air with his arms and legs and wings and... he had wings. He had wings. They caught the air and his descent slowed, just a fraction, but enough to dampen his panic. He tentatively tried to flap them to gain altitude, but this gave the path of his glide a very distracting wobble and he stopped.
Even with his wings, the ground seemed to rush quickly towards him, and his knees crumpled under the added weight of his harness. He felt himself pulled up from the ground by Icaria. He met her eyes, and they exchanged shaky, ecstatic grins. They didn't speak, but they shared something. They had flown.
They turned back to the tower, waiting for Elias. The silhouette of his head appeared briefly, then disappeared. Then, he was in the air.
There was no scream, but Makto knew immediately that something was wrong. Elias had rotated too far, and his wings were thrashing uselessly. Makto took a bounding step and leapt, straining bone and sinew and metal and magic to take to the air and it was too slow. He was going to be too late.
Icaria shot past him in a blur, wings beating frantically. There was not time to even think about catching Elias. She merely collided with him, pushing upwards as long as she could before their combined weight overcame her efforts and they began to tumble.
Makto steered towards their tangled bodies, trying to steer their descent into the ludicrously inadequate pile of hay. Then his shoulders and hips and the back of his head sparked with pain as they slammed into the ground and all the air was forced out of his lungs and he lay still.
He was vaguely aware of worried shouts and footsteps as the trainers converged on them, but he could feel Icaria and Elias breathing above him, and he let himself slide from consciousness.
Chapter 2: Rise to the Challenge
Elias knew the exercise was not going well. His squad, led by Makto and wearing green tunics, had taken heavy losses in the first skirmish against Icaria's red squad, and now they were spread too thin in patrols protecting their banners on each of three towers.
They were using weighted wooden weapons, but it still stung when you got hit, and there was no way to blunt the danger of getting knocked off balance in midair. He'd seen two falls today that would send the cadets to the healers’ wing for a week.
Keeping the banner in his view, he beat his wings twice to gain altitude, then glided for a moment to listen as he scanned for threats. That was when Icaria hit him from above, diving silently out of the afternoon sun.
He took the blow on his shoulder, losing altitude but stabilizing, and parried the follow-up. Mid-air combat was a series of passes, interminable seconds of anticipation followed by a breathless flurry of blows. And Icaria was better at it than he was.
He readied himself for her second pass, managing a parry and a quick cut at her passing left wing. It caught, and she tumbled, but she turned the fall into a headfirst dive, then spread her wings and flipped to recover. He dove, trying to take advantage of her lost altitude, but she blocked twice quickly and they were back to even.
Icaria grinned and circled towards the banner. “You can’t stop me, Elias. You never could.”
Elias repositioned, looking past her. “I don’t have to,” he panted. “I just have to slow you down until Makto gets here.”
Icaria spared a glance back, where a rapidly growing green speck was resolving out of the fog. She cursed and charged.
Her earlier attacks had been playful, but now she came in earnest, and her spear slipped past his defenses over and over. But he knew what he had to do, and positioned himself between her and the banner after each pass, absorbing the blows but giving ground as slowly as he could.
Makto hit her from above. The flurry ended, and even though he ached, he sped wordlessly to take a position that would give him a clean line of attack after Makto’s next pass. Icaria was on the defensive now, losing altitude, every path cut off. Finally, mere feet from the ground, she caught Elias’s blow in an overhead block, but was driven to the ground.
The bruises were already beginning to blossom on their bodies, but she was grinning as she dropped her spear and raised her hands to yield.
Chapter 3: Rebel Valkyrie
The smell of smoke was still everywhere, four hours later. The sun was setting, but it was the eastern horizon that was bright, as a quarter of the city smoldered.
Matko stood on the roof of the parapet, silhouetted by the glow. “Turn back now. Go back to the barracks, and we’ll pretend this never happened.” His words were confident but his tone was pleading.
Icaria shook her head and gestured at the burning city. “I’m not going back. I’m not going to be a tool in his hand.” It was her turn to plead. “You could come with me.”
“Rolant did what he had to,” said Makto. “So will I. You know I can’t let you leave.”
“You know you can’t stop me.” She hefted her bulky bag to her left hand and readied her spear in her right.
“Maybe not alone,” said Makto. “Elias will know what you’re thinking as soon as you don’t check in, just like I did. He’ll be here any second.”
Icaria closed her eyes and exhaled. “You’re right. He knew right away. Even before you did.” She upended her bag. Elias’s harness clattered onto the stones between them. The straps glistened with blood, near-black in the fading light.
She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I didn’t… He’s not dead. In the courtyard. You can still save him.” She raised the tip of her spear, whispering hoarsely. “Please save him.”
Makto’s eyes hardened. Silently, he bounded past Icaria and dove into the shadowed courtyard. Without looking back, Icaria took to the burning sky.