Storm Wings: Chapter 19, Part 3

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Oh, Stirla…



Restra

THE TOWN HALL fell watchfully silent. Stirla clenched a fist and hoped his uncertainty didn’t show as he stared up at the stage, awaiting his fate. Except Rider Benyet and Baker Jensyn were smiling.

“Hackles down, Elly,” Benyet murmured, most disrespectfully to a woman so much on her dignity. “Stirla’s one of the good ones.”

The town leader looked at the two Aquilan men before eyeing Stirla like he was something the pyrefly had coughed up. A sandy-blonde eyebrow arched. “Oh?” she said. “I was not aware such a thing still existed in the Rift Riders at large.”

Behind Stirla’s shoulder, Neryth sighed. “You should do this in private,” she murmured.

“Not a good idea,” Derrain warned in the opposite ear, the pair of them like the opposing poles of his conscience. “They’ve seen you now. Hiding away will only make things worse.”

“Yes, but,” Neryth countered, ever the princess and authoritarian to Derrain’s ordinary lad, “airing grievances in public, without having any prior knowledge of what they might be will put Stirla on the spot.”

Derrain chuckled. “I’ve always thought he fights best when backed into a corner.”

“I am still here, you know,” Stirla grumbled, wishing they would both shut up and let him think. He stepped onto the stairs leading up to the stage, determined to take control of this unhappy situation. “Leader Ellysett, Rider Benyet, Baker Jensyn.” He nodded to the three figures before climbing another step and turning to face the crowded hall. “People of Restra, residents old and new, I know many of you, quite rightly, feel abandoned or put upon by the Rift Riders. You feel forgotten and neglected, mistreated and taken for granted. In some ways all that is true. So I stand here now in my garish red coat, with my so-called lieutenant stripes upon my shoulder, and I apologise, unreservedly, for the way you have been treated.

“But I ask, too, for your forbearance. You were never forgotten, just like the dead who lie inside Aquila’s tunnels are not forgotten. Just as those who died in the town and the citadel, in the air and in the destruction of the Miryhl Shadow are not forgotten. They are our heroes, our friends, our brothers, our sisters, our family. Their blood is our blood, and to that end we will not abandon them to the kaz-naghkt and the Wrathlen. To dishonour and defeat.

“This, my friends, is why we left when we did. This, my friends, is why I have returned. For while the Rift Riders have no home, we cannot afford to stand still. We will not rest until Aquila in ours again. And so, friends, I not only beg your forgiveness, I humbly ask for your assistance. Whatever you may feel towards the living, I ask you to help me honour the dead. I am travelling now to Nimbys, having already journeyed across the entire Greater West.

“Gentlemen, ladies, Riders, we are gathering an army. The greatest the Rift Riders have ever seen. Our wings will fill the skies above Aquila and our swords, bows and talons will not rest until the citadel is ours once more. You may have been left here to recover and grieve, while the rest of us forged on far to the west, but I ask you now, will you stay here still? Will you harbour your grudges, nurse your grievances and feed your anger, choosing only to watch while the Overworld takes back what is ours?”

Feeling the eyes of every person fixed upon him, Stirla climbed another step and lifted his head, proud of the insignia upon his bright red coat. Proud of his rank, of who he was, of being a Rift Rider, and willing to show it to the whole world.

“History is in the making,” he told them, his voice soft but confident. “Will you partake or will you just watch? When the scrolls of glory are written down, many, many years from now, will your names be amongst them? Or will your ancestors simply shrug and say it wasn’t your fight?”

He looked around the room, taking in the shining eyes, the clenched fists, the smiles and the frowns. Derrain watched him in silence, while Neryth looked impressed.

Breathing deep, Stirla turned to address the three people on the stage. “I have no time to spare on this journey, but this is not a decision to be made lightly. Think it over, talk about it, decide as individuals or as a town. Whatever happens, before the end, I will make sure this question is put to you again.”

He turned back to the room at large. “You are not forgotten,” he told them. “Whether history will remember you or not is up to you.”

With a final nod, he jumped off the steps and strode back down the central aisle, aware once more of the faces turning to follow him. He glanced neither right nor left, keeping his gaze fixed on the door, wishing it was closer.

Finally he was free, back outside in the gathering dusk, but he didn’t slow or stop. He couldn’t. Energy was coursing through him. He wanted to run, to shout, to start a fight, anything to get rid of this damn tingling.

A hearty slap landed on his shoulder. “Remarkable,” Neryth crowed. “You strode into a hostile room and within a few sentences had them all eating out of your hand. Such a stirring speech! If I wasn’t already clinging to your coat tails I would have pledged my allegiance to you then and there. All Gods, they should make a general out of you.”

Stirla’s mouth twisted and he glanced over his other shoulder, catching Derrain’s grimace.

Yes, he understood. But then he had fought with Stirla in the darkness beneath Aquila. He had heard the screams, seen the blood, felt the horror. He knew what it was like. What it was really like.

“That was glorious,” Neryth continued, more effusive now than Stirla had ever heard her. “Truly magnificent. If you’d asked it of them, I believe they would die for you.”

“Yes,” he replied flatly, knowing full well what he had done. “They will.” He finally stopped and faced the princess, letting her see the disgust on his face. “And I hate myself for it.”

He stared into the princess’s eyes, watching the excitement fade into confusion and disappointment. As Neryth started to frown, working through the implications, Stirla shrugged off her hand and walked on. He needed to get back to Atyrn; he needed his miryhl’s calm competence. He needed the skies and the bitterly cold air. He needed to get away from so many living, breathing souls who one day might end bloodily on his conscience.

“Gather our things,” he muttered to the silent Derrain. “It’s time to go.”


More next Friday.

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Storm Wings: Chapter 19, Part 2

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Yay, we’ve reached Sanctuary! Oh, erm… oh.



Restra, the Heighlen

STIRLA WAS NERVOUS. When he cast his mind back over recent months, there had been many points on his journey when nervousness had been required, but none of them had felt quite like this. Beside him, Derrain wiped his hands on his breeches, clearly feeling the same.

Only Neryth was as cool and calm as she usually was. Then again, this had little to do with her, so there was no reason for her to behave otherwise.

“Gods,” Stirla whispered, running his hands through his hair and absently thinking it needed a cut. “What do I tell them, Derry?”

“The truth?” the student suggested. “Give them a reason to feel needed again.”

While he could see the sense in that, Stirla wasn’t sure it would be enough. These men and women had a right to feel aggrieved. They’d been left here. Dumped the moment the fleeing Riders made landfall, left behind like unwanted baggage. The ordinary folk of Restra had plenty to complain about too. No one had asked their opinion before doubling the population of their little town.

His thoughts were going in circles. So he took a deep breath, checked his ridiculous red jacket was lying straight at the back, then nodded at Derrain to open the door. It was time to face the people.

As the three of them stepped into the town hall, the crowd fell silent. The big barn of a room was packed with faces, all tracking Stirla’s progress as he walked down the central aisle, Derrain and Neryth at his shoulders. Their footsteps were the only sound as they headed for the stage at the front.

The town leader waited, two men seated behind her. Stirla knew them both: Rider Benyet and Baker Jensyn. Strong men and natural leaders, chosen to speak for the survivors.

It seemed to take forever to stride across that space, but finally he was there before them, uncertain whether to walk up the steps or stay where he was, like a petitioner pleading for mercy. He didn’t even know what he was doing here. He hadn’t planned to come back, but when Neryth had spotted the town it had seemed the right thing to do. Someone needed to return to Restra and remind them that they weren’t forgotten.

“You are late, lieutenant,” the town leader said, and Stirla’s heart sank. They weren’t going to make this easy on him.

* * *

Sanctuary

AS THE SUN crested over the peaks of Sanctuary, the sky paling to its more regular blue, Lyrai sighed and turned his mind towards breakfast. His stomach was already ahead of him, he thought with a wry smile, listening to it gurgle. Before he turned away, however, he spotted something on the horizon. There, in the midst of the fading gold light, a handful of dark specks wheeled and rose before striking out towards them.

“Company coming,” Dhori murmured unnecessarily.

As the specks grew bigger it was soon possible to make out three dragons accompanied by several smaller shapes. Lyrai grimaced, not relishing the task of hefting the airstones back over to one side of the ship so that Rhiddyl didn’t overbalance them all.

Before he could worry too much, the largest of the lesser specks wheeled away from the others and darted towards the Thorncrest. An arrow of blackness that showed no intention of stopping. Well used to the vulardi ways, Lyrai, Mhysra and Dhori ducked as the bird flew straight at them, sweeping over the rail to land on the main deck behind.

It was only when he turned that Lyrai realised his mistake. “Your Excellency,” he gasped and bowed, not knowing what else to say when the Cyclone appeared without warning.

“It seems we are fated to keep meeting, Lieutenant Prince Lyrai,” the great miryhl said, her voice like distant thunder. “Yet our circumstances keep changing. May they be under happier ones next time.”

“I wish that too, Excellency,” he murmured.

She hummed low, possibly in agreement, before turning her attention to Mhysra. “Wingborn,” she sounded almost approving, “Cumulo has only good things to say of you.”

“And I of him, Excellency,” Mhysra returned, her voice a little squeaky. She coughed. “Mostly.”

The Cyclone chuckled. “You are good for him. I am pleased.” The warmth so briefly kindled in her stormy eyes turned to ice when she looked at Dhori. “You brought them here?”

The silver-eyed student said nothing, merely inclined his head.

“You are not welcome.”

“I would not have brought anyone,” Dhori told her, surprising Lyrai by how carelessly he spoke to the most holy miryhl on the Overworld. Though perhaps he shouldn’t have been too shocked; this was Dhori, after all. “But the idea of so many dragons loose in the Overworld unwatched and unescorted does not rest easily on my mind.”

The Cyclone snorted, as doubtful of those words as Lyrai was. “I fear your mind shall have to remain uneasy. They are not here.”

Even Dhori looked a little surprised by that, while Lyrai and Mhysra exchanged worried glances. General Keipen was not going to be pleased. How fortunate that they had flown so far away from him.

“Where have they gone?” Dhori asked, sounding weary.

“Some returned home,” the Cyclone said. “Others headed to the World’s End Mountains, to tidy up the mess Yullik ses-Khennik has left there.”

“Not to Aquila?” Lyrai couldn’t help but ask, since providing help in regaining the citadel was the whole reason why the elder dragons had relaxed the Barrier Veils. Or so Lyrai had thought. “If they’re after Yullik, why not go directly to him?”

“Aquila is the business of the Rift Riders,” the Cyclone told him sternly. “If you do not win it back yourselves, how can you be trusted to keep it?”

“Then why are we even here?” he demanded, looking from the miryhl to Dhori and back again, sensing that between them they knew the answers to everything.

Dhori’s smile was wry. “Partly to silence General Keipen,” he admitted, unruffled by Lyrai’s intensifying glare.

“Partly because you could not help yourself,” the Cyclone added, sounding amused.

“Partly because it was on our way,” Dhori added, though in truth it would have been quicker to head east from Lansbrig and travel up through Imercian. “And mostly because it kept the dragons as far away from being spotted as possible.” Which likewise would have been no hardship in the broad wilderness of south and central Imercian.

Lyrai scowled at his supposed student, wondering just what type of game he was playing now.

“A journey of many parts,” the Cyclone murmured thoughtfully. Then gave a sharp nod. “Your business here is concluded. Your companions are returning. I trust that you will not.” The last was aimed mostly at Dhori, but she flicked a hard glance at Lyrai and Mhysra too. “Humans are not welcome in Sanctuary.”

Lyrai blinked, surprised by the hostility in her voice. Whatever happened to miryhls and Riders being partners, looking out for each other? Why was she so defensive?

“You have spread across the entire Overworld,” the miryhl continued, as if hearing his thoughts. “There is nowhere that your influence does not reach. Except here. Sanctuary is a sanctuary. For miryhls and miryhls alone. Let us have this one place of peace.”

Slightly chagrined, Lyrai bowed his head in assent, aware that Mhysra was doing the same.

Beside them Dhori folded his arms across his chest. “It does you no good to isolate yourselves like this.”

“Your views are well documented, Dhoriaen Aure,” the great miryhl said serenely. “Yet as they were never sought in the first place, they bear no weight here. You remain unwelcome.”

“Then I shall take my leave.” Dhori grinned and bowed at last. “Until next time, Cy.”

She narrowed her stormy eyes at him and gave a haughty toss of her head. “Impertinent scamp. You remain as disrespectful as ever.” Despite her disapproving words, there was humour and a touch of affection in her tone.

Dhori winked. “Blame it on my upbringing.”

The miryhl huffed a laugh, shook her feathers and cleared the side rail in a single bound. “Go!” she ordered, sweeping out and away into the dawn. Her wings seemed to stretch forever, shimmering with hints of silver in the sunrise.

A collective murmur of surprise and awe behind them made Lyrai turn. They had gained an audience of several crew members, Captain Torven, Corin, Jaymes and Honra. Each of them looked stunned. The dragonets just grumbled sleepily.

“Was that -?” Corin asked.

“The Cyclone, yes,” Dhori agreed, striding away from the rail and taking control of the situation. “Giving us our flight orders. You heard her, captain.” He nodded at Torven. “We’ve dragons and miryhls to load, then a course to set north-east. Next stop, Nimbys.”


~ Next Chapter ~

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Storm Wings: Chapter 19, Part 1

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Story time with Lyrai!


Nineteen
The Unwelcome

On board the Thorncrest
1st Winter Rains

THERE WERE SOME habits it seemed impossible to break, Lyrai thought as he rolled out of his bunk in the dark gloom before dawn. It seemed he’d been taking the dawn watch forever. Yet even now, when he could legitimately leave such a responsibility to the Thorncrests capable crew, he found himself getting up anyway.

He wasn’t the only one. Dhori passed him at the door, heading to his own bunk after taking the deep night watch. They exchanged nods, neither one questioning why the other still felt the need to do this. Until they were safe in Nimbys, they simply would.

Smiling to himself, Lyrai yawned and climbed to the top deck, stretching out the kinks in his spine along the way. As he made his way to the stern to begin a steady circuit of the deck, he nodded to the sleepy sailors taking their own watch.

At the prow, he paused to lean over the rail. Then glanced sideways at the girl huddled on top of a chest of spare rope and sailcloth. “Bad dreams again?”

Mhysra’s smile was wan as she unfolded herself from her perch and moved towards him. “All my dreams are bad these days,” she said, shivering in the predawn chill. “I don’t need Yullik to send them anymore.”

Murmuring some soothing nonsense, he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. “Shall I tell you a story?”

Chuckling, she slipped an arm about him in return. “You don’t strike me as the story type.”

“It’s that book the healer gave me when we left the Cleansed Lands,” he explained, a little sheepishly. “I can’t seem to leave it alone.”

“Like the tale of Maegla marrying a human king?” she mumbled, reminding him of a dinner table discussion back in Mistrune, which thanks to Corin and Jaymes had soon got out of hand.

“Mm,” Lyrai agreed. “I never did get a chance to read it to you.”

“I thought you were going to lend it,” she yawned.

“I’d rather tell you.”

“Go on then,” she sighed, though he could hear the smile in her voice. “If you must.”

“I must,” he agreed, hauling her in front of him when she shivered again. With his arms wrapped about her waist he propped his chin on her shoulder, marvelling again that she was almost as tall as he was. Some men might have been put off by that, but he liked it. “Although we have little interest in kings.”

“Speak for yourself,” she interrupted, leaning back against him. “I find the idea of Maegla marrying a human king rather fascinating. He must have been quite a man.”

“Quiet, you,” Lyrai grumbled, squeezing her waist to remind her who was in charge of this story. “There are no kings in your future.”

“Only princes.”

They both fell silent at that. Lyrai didn’t know what the future held – for either of them. Nor did he want to think about it. He was having quite uncharacteristically domesticated thoughts as it was of late and the last thing he wanted was to scare her away. Especially when she was standing so close.

Letting the silence pass, he squeezed her waist again and put his lips to her ear. “What if I were to tell you of a child? The child of a king and a goddess. A spoiled, beloved boy with an uncertain temper, who longed for the mother he had never known. Who walked out into the worst storms and came back unscathed and whole.”

“Does this child have a name?” Mhysra asked dryly. “Because he sounds a little familiar.”

It was Lyrai’s turn to chuckle. “The book doesn’t say. It merely tells of an unhappy boy, filled with anger and rage, searching the world for a way to meet his mother face to face.”

“And did he find her?”

“Well, this boy was not the only godling child in the world,” Lyrai continued, smiling at her eagerness. “He may not have been aware of them, but they knew of him. A set of twins, Heriame and Herione, children of Jarquais, one of the Forgotten Gods, and their gifts were of Chaos and Mischief. They taunted and teased Maegla’s child until he barely knew his own mind, then took him before Mighty Heirayk Himself.”

“As easy as that,” Mhysra said sceptically. “Why is it always so easy in these stories?”

“Well,” Lyrai chuckled, trying to remember what the book had said. “It’s a little known fact that in the days before the Clouds came, the gods still lived close to the world.”

“How convenient.”

“And they could be reached by the most brave and determined of mortals,” he said, striving to ignore her unhelpful interruptions. “Those that made such a journey were granted a gift or a boon beyond price. So Heirayk sat upon His sun throne and asked the boy what he most desired. The gift he was granted was a sword from the forge of the gods. Not just any sword, but one imbued with the power of Saempithe, child of Light and Dark, God of Fire.”

“I hope the hilt was well wrapped,” Mhysra muttered sceptically. “It sounds a little hot to handle.”

Giving her a warning squeeze, Lyrai continued, “Taking his gift the boy travelled the world, looking for the strongest storms to challenge his mighty mother to meet him. Yet always She refused. The boy travelled on, but he was rarely alone. The Twins of Discord followed, stoking his anger with their mischief and lies. Then one day they chanced to spy the goddess looking down, saddened and sorrowful to see such rage in Her beautiful child. They told the boy She was watching and lent him the sight of the gods to reveal the Storm Goddess in all Her glory.

“Crying out, the boy threw his sword at his mother. It struck Her clouded seat with a crash that shook the bones of the earth.”

“What a brat.”

“Did I say his father was dead?” Lyrai said. “And that the boy blamed his absent mother for breaking his heart and driving him into his grave?”

Mhysra sighed impatiently. “No, you forgot to mention that.”

“Well, he did. Anyway, ‘My son,’ spoke the Goddess in the voice of the thunder newly born. ‘Why do you throw your sword at me?’”

“Because I am throwing a tantrum of misplaced angst.”

“You are not helping,” Lyrai grumbled. “I am trying to tell you a story.”

“Sorry,” she murmured, hanging her head, but he wasn’t convinced.

Giving a sniff of wounded dignity, he tried to remember where he’d got to. “In answer to the Goddess’ question the boy raged with all the power of a tempest, for had She not left him to his father when he was still a babe in arms? Had She not once ever tried to speak with him? Where had She been when his father died? Where had She been when Her son cried for Her? Why had She left him alone? Did She not love Her son?”

“Not if She was -”

Lyrai cut off her unhelpful comment by putting his hand over her mouth. “Such bitter words wounded the Goddess far more than any sword could, and She at last descended from Her skies to hold Her child in Her arms. Words passed between them then, as sharp as lightning, as deep as thunder and as healing as rain. With Her wisdom to guide him the lies of the Twins of Discord were slowly blown away, leaving his mind free and unclouded for the first time. When he returned to the world, it was as a new man.

“For though the Twins had meant nothing but trouble, their mischief had served a purpose. The sword,” he murmured against Mhysra’s cheek, and felt her smile against his palm. He trailed his fingers along her jaw, tilting her head back for a butterfly kiss. “A sword forged of divine fire, whose every blow echoed with thunder. And so the child of the Storm Goddess was granted the gift of Lightning, to wield in his mother’s service.”

“Which is all very nice for them,” Mhysra grumbled. “But surely there was thunder and lightning before all this family infighting? Otherwise what kind of storms were they?”

“Wet and windy ones. Squalls, as the dragons would say.”

Startled, Lyrai looked over his shoulder, loosening his grip on Mhysra. Dhori was watching them with a wry half-smile. “Probably a few plagues of frogs and blood, and some other such stuff too,” he continued airily. “Isn’t that what usually happens in tales of the time before yore?”

Lyrai watched the silver-eyed student thoughtfully, while Mhysra chuckled. “When was yore anyway?”

Dhori grinned, his face lit by the first rays of the rising sun. “After the time before.”

Rolling his eyes at their silliness, Lyrai turned towards the dawn. “I thought you were asleep.”

Dhori shrugged and joined them by the prow rail. “There wasn’t much point. Besides I like to watch the sunrise.”

Which was precisely what they did as the sun crept into the sky, peering over the jagged edges of Sanctuary. Golden and glorious, the light bounced off the early morning sea and made the whole world precious.

Smiling, Lyrai looped his arm around Mhysra’s waist and pulled her closer. At times like this he liked to watch the sunrise too.


~ Next Chapter ~

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Is It Really Worth Getting Up Early?

As I regularly drag myself out of bed at awful o’clock to walk the dogs, I frequently ask myself – is it really worth it?

P1070679.JPG

Yes, yes it is. Especially when I get to not only hear a cuckoo calling but see one for the very first time. Spending the sunrise outside is always worth it.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

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Storm Wings: Chapter 18, Part 3

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Derry!



The Heighlen
32nd Cold

IT WAS MIDMORNING in the Heighlen Range and if Derrain didn’t see something other than peaks and snow soon, he was going to go stark staring mad. Beneath him, Zephyr flew in her dogged style. It wasn’t flashy or showy like some miryhls he could think of – Cumulo, for some reason, came top of that list – but it ate up the miles with as little fuss as possible. Thankfully both Atyrn and Bracken were similar in build, flight style and temperament, making them a well matched trio, who each took their turn in the lead without argument.

If he sometimes yearned for a minor spot of theatrics, or the tiniest of crises, well, surely no one could blame him for wanting to break the monotony a little. Just a touch. Nothing serious or life-threatening, just something different for once. Yes, an endless view of sharp-toothed mountain peaks stretching across all horizons was an awe-inspiring sight. Adding in a blanket of snow gave it a magical touch, throwing shades of white and deep blue into an already beautiful mix. Then there were the monumental glaciers, carving their inexorable way through the landscape.

Undeniable, unstoppable, amazing. Yet after twelve unrelenting days, enough was enough. The bitter cold had numbed him into acceptance, Stirla had started cooking again to save them from the horrors Neryth kept producing, and the blizzards were mostly leaving them alone. Which was all to the good. Now all he needed was a change to his view, because the prospect of spending another twenty or so days like this was really getting to him.

“Ho!”

The sound of Neryth calling up ahead jerked Derrain from his thoughts. Narrowing his eyes against the glare of the low midday sun, he squinted at Bracken, leading their shallow formation.

The princess on his back was waving her arms and pointing south. Dutifully, Derrain turned his head in that direction, but his eyes were so used to peaks and snow that it took him a moment to register what he was looking at.

“Houses!” Zephyr called beneath him, the joy in her voice telling him exactly how she’d been feeling until now. “People. A town, Derry. It’s a town!”

“Not just any town,” Stirla called out. “Don’t you recognise it, Derry?” So saying he and Atyrn raced ahead to gather Bracken back in, indicating for Zephyr to follow as they stooped down the mountain pass that rose above the town.

Beyond the clustered dwellings, some of which seemed brand new to Derrain’s thirsty eyes, he saw the wide blanket of the Cloud Sea. As they followed the others through the pass and into the open air beyond, Derrain stared off to the south.

“Next stop Aquila,” he murmured, remembering now.

The cramped skyships, those desperate days, the suffering, the dying, the grief, anger and burning rage. Then land on the horizon and a town full of stunned people. Restra. They were back in Restra, where news of the fall of Aquila had first reached land. Where so many of the injured and dying had been left behind, as the Rift Riders were forced to move on to find help.

Restra.

“Maegla,” he whispered, wishing he’d never been so stupid as to wish for a change in his horizons. What harm were peaks and snow now, compared with a nightmare of memories?

* * *

Somewhere in the Cloud Sea

IT DIDN’T LOOK like much to her, but then ever since she’d emerged from the Storm Surge Rhiddyl had been forced to adjust her expectations. Nothing in the Cursed Lands – sorry, Overworld, she must remember to be polite – was as she’d imagined. It was so different to her homeland. The relentless white of the Cloud Sea was at once astonishing and awful. How much land lay drowned below those clouds? How much potential had been lost? And yet how much beauty it brought to the world, where the mountains were just islands in the high rising seas.

Then there were the human towns, clinging to the steep peaks. She’d been taught that humans were a tricky, sly kind of folk, but no one had told her of their ingenuity. She had expected primitive quarters and been surprised with wonders. She only wished she could change her form into a small enough shape to fit inside them.

True, they were not quite up to dragon standards in their levels of architecture, but for people so small they nevertheless achieved remarkable things. Like the skyship that had carried them across so many miles. Yes, it had the added buoyancy brought to it by well placed dragongift airstones, but in Meros she’d been lucky enough to see many other ships and had marvel at the variety of ways the humans built them. Their lack of wings had not stopped them from finding plenty of ways to fly and transport their goods. A skyship was far more comfortable than a belly net, any day of the moon.

Now she was soaring in the skies above the ship, far more efficient and faster than the elegant vessel, approaching a place that was a myth to the humans watching her below. They spoke of this place with reverence and whispers. It was a mystery and a marvel to them.

To Rhiddyl it was just a scrubby collection of dead volcanoes, adrift in a sea of white. There were sparse patches of greenery down below, but she’d seen better. The forest of Lansbrig sprang indelibly to mind and she sighed in remembrance. Now that had been beautiful. She wasn’t sure even the Cleansed Lands had a place to match that glorious cloud forest.

The air around her filled with the excited chatter of miryhls, and she shook off her memories to focus on the wind. A tempestuous place, she thought, spreading her wings and revelling in the challenge they offered. She dearly loved to soar.

Especially when she did not soar alone. Reglian was with her, an enormous thundercloud of a dragon, and between them drifted Goryal, fragile, ethereal and barely visible in their glassiest hue.

Rhiddyl was so enjoying herself riding the winds, that it took a moment for her to realise what was missing. She looked down between her front paws, then back over her wings and around towards the ship. The skies were empty.

Where were the miryhls?

“Reglian!” she called, startling the big dragon from his own enjoyable flight. When he frowned, Rhiddyl waved her front paws in agitation. “Where are the miryhls?”

Golden eyes rounded in horror as he realised he’d once again failed in his duties towards the Rift Riders. Roaring a curse in draconic, the big black dragon tucked in his wings and dived towards the nearest caldera.

Goryal was ahead of him, their wings singing in the wind, while Rhiddyl followed them both. It wasn’t until they were below the highest lip of the largest volcano that they saw them, spiralling down in a large flock, the vulardis with them, joining with more and more miryhls, the most Rhiddyl had ever seen.

There were so many it was like a rippling sea of brown feathers, shining in the sun. She flexed her wings and hovered for a moment, breathless at their beauty.

Until the roaring Reglian barrelled straight through them, unable to stop himself in time. Goryal and Rhiddyl could only shake their heads. Truly, the archivist had no finesse.

Thankfully the miryhls scattered and wheeled gracefully away from the black monster, as the dragon spread his golden-shining wings and soared once more, calling for the miryhls he knew to, “Come back, at once!”

They ignored him.

Amused, Rhiddyl glided above the flickering flock, enjoying their exuberance. Until one particular miryhl separated itself out and soared to meet her.

She was the biggest miryhl Rhiddyl had ever seen, close to a vulardi in size. And so beautiful. Her eyes were the colour of a storm, and the essence inside her called to the spirit inside Rhiddyl. Her body hummed with recognition.

A true Storm Wing. A pure creation of Maegla herself. A miryhl of the storm.

This was the Cyclone, the holiest miryhl on the Overworld.

Rhiddyl hovered politely, waiting for her to come close, and when she did she bowed her head in respectful greeting. “Well met, Blessed Cyclone.”

She hovered opposite, the storm in her eyes answering the lightning in Rhiddyl’s. “Well met, Rhidystel kin Tempestfury Clan Skystorm. Welcome to Sanctuary.”


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Storm Wings: Chapter 18, Part 2

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Previous Chapter ~

In which Dhori shows how not to make friends.


BEFORE MHYSRA COULD ask anything else, Dhori found his way to the others, who greeted him with exclamations of surprise, delight and confusion. Mhysra sighed, watching as Corin threw herself into his arms, Skybreeze getting entangled along the way, while the human-shaped Reglian and Goryal hung back with notable reluctance.

“He must seem so strange to you.”

Mhysra looked up at Rhiddyl, surprised to find her so close. In the two days since leaving Meros, she’d settled so carefully and unobtrusively onto the top deck of the Thorncrest that Mhysra had practically forgotten she was there.

She smiled at the young dragon. “He is strange. There’s no seeming about it.”

Rhiddyl chuckled softly. “True.” Her head tilted to one side as she watched the chattering group on the other side of the deck, their questions tumbling over each other, leaving Dhori free to ignore as many as he wished. Which was most. As usual. “So many secrets.”

“Because dragons are so open and free,” she muttered.

Rhiddyl turned to her, her whole body rumbling with her amusement. “Also true. Who would have thought humans would be the most open of us all?”

“Open is not always honest.” A new voice entered the conversation. “Lies can hide just as much as secrets can.”

As Rhiddyl whistled thoughtfully over this observation, Mhysra smiled at the handsome captain she’d once met, quite by chance, sailing into Nimbys with a new batch of Rift Rider students. “Good afternoon, captain.”

Torven smiled his most charming smile and swept her a courtly bow. “My lady,” he returned. “I see your lost comrade has returned. And across most perilous seas. He must be a fearsome flyer. Or his miryhl most brave.”

“Latinym is a fine miryhl,” Mhysra agreed, though she would have had her own private doubts that he could have made such a journey on his own before this day. Then again, with Dhori on his back, who knew what miracles he might perform?

“Dhoriaen Aure is a most skilled Rider,” Rhiddyl fluted above their heads. “Capable of bringing out the very best in most.”

“And inciting the worst in others,” a subdued voice murmured as Reglian shuffled over. It was strange to see the arrogant dragon so quiet, but the anger of Dhori and the Riders had shocked him. Even now he flicked Mhysra a wary glance, unsure whether to smile or leave.

Thinking such uncertainty was good for him, Mhysra said nothing. He gave a heavy sigh, and above her head Rhiddyl made a sad whistling sound through her teeth.

Oblivious to the undercurrents, Captain Torven beamed. “Truly, my brother captains are fools. The gods smiled on me the day they made me return early to Meros, just in time to meet you, my lady. An adventure such as this is worth any price.” He looked at the two dragons approvingly as if he’d never doubted their existence, laughed at the idea of journeying to Sanctuary, or sworn long and voraciously at the sight of Rhiddyl attempting to alight on his precious deck. After almost tipping the ship over in the process, Reglian and Goryal had hurriedly shifted the airstones about to balance everything. It was probably for the best that Torven hadn’t seen Reglian in his full glory just yet.

He was lucky Rhiddyl was such a well mannered young dragon, who did her best to stay quiet and out of the way. As it was, half the crew had refused to make this trip. Part of Mhysra wondered if that was what had made Torven finally agree to come. The opportunity to order a bunch of Rift Riders around like crew, especially when one was a Kilpapan, was probably too good to miss. If he’d known who Lyrai really was, he’d probably have paid them. He’d been wary of shouting at the dragons at first, but when they’d flown into their first storm, barely a few miles out of Meros, he’d adapted quickly enough.

Luckily for Torven they were all good workers, including the dragons. Which had come as a surprise to more than just Mhysra. The bemused expression that had settled on Goryal’s face, suggested that the elder had yet to adjust to their new circumstances either. It was probably for the best that no one told Torven just how old his unusual crew really were.

Amused by her thoughts, Mhysra paid little attention as her companions’ talk turned to the mystery of Sanctuary. Only those connected with the High Tempest of the Cathedral of Maegla in Nimbys had ever set eyes on Sanctuary, let alone entered it. Charts of its location must surely exist, but they, like the High Tempest, would be in Nimbys, protected by the distant cathedral.

All they had to go on were rumours, stories and the airy musings of a group of dragons, who really should have learned their lesson by now. However, while the Riders might have lost faith in what the older dragons had to say, Torven had not been let down by them yet. He hung on their every word, fascinated and awed, though he tried hard to hide it.

“We hear so many things on the wind,” Reglian told the captain now. “They guide us well. How you humans get anywhere without listening to the wind is one of the great mysteries.”

Above her head Rhiddyl nodded in agreement, while Mhysra rolled her eyes. Compasses, navigation charts, familiar landmarks, the position of the sun and the stars at night had served her kind for more centuries than even Goryal had under their scales. Truly, their arrogance made the dragons so patronising at times. With every passing day in their company, Mhysra understood Dhori’s attitude towards them a little more.

“So what news does the wind carry this fine day?” Torven asked, beckoning Reglian to follow him up to the aft-deck and the wheel.

Curious as to what further nonsense Reglian would come out with, Mhysra trailed after them, stepping aside as the burly navigator fled from the dragon’s presence. She fought down a smile to see such a big man so easily scared away. He could probably take on boulders and win, but a tall, broad-shouldered man with gold eyebrows and golden nails sent him running like a well-bred lady from a mouse. All that was missing was the scream.

Stepping into the gap the navigator had left and catching the wheel before it could move an inch, Reglian showed no sign of discomfort at so unsettling the crew. He just smiled, raised his face to the wind, closed his eyes and breathed in deep. “There is land to the north-west. A largely empty space, wrapped in whispers and mysteries.”

Torven rubbed his hands together happily. “Sounds good. We should head that way, yes?”

“Only if you want to end up in the Wrathlen.” Dhori lounged against the rail, looking amused. “True, by now most of the pirates have moved to Aquila, but still, it’s not a pleasant place to stay. That’s if we don’t get swallowed by the Storm Surge first.”

Reglian’s golden nails darkened to black as his hands tightened on the wheel. “It has been many years since I last flew these skies. I am no longer familiar with Overworld geography.”

Dhori conceded the point with a tilt of his head. “It would take us three more days to get there, at any rate.” Pushing off the rail, he sauntered across to the wheel. “If I may?” he said, miming for Reglian to move over. The dragon did, but with notable reluctance.

Dhori’s smile turned wicked. “Hold tight!” he bellowed, wrenching the wheel to the right. Behind and below them ropes and tillers creaked and groaned into movement, while above the rise-side sails flattened and collapsed.

The whole Thorncrest moaned as it keeled over to one side, sending everyone scrabbling for a handhold as anything not tied down bounced loose on the tilting deck.

“Are you crazy?” Torven screamed, lunging for the wheel, trying to right his ship before the gasbag overhead lost too much shape. “You’ll kill us.”

“Nonsense.” Calm as anything, Dhori corrected the wheel and checked their new heading. “There. Keep on this line and we should get there before sunset. Keep up the good work, captain.” He slapped Torven on the shoulder and ducked away before the man could close his massive fist around Dhori’s neck.

Mhysra edged away from the captain’s murderous glare, but Reglian was chuckling. “If I did not know better, truly there are times when I would think he was a dragon.”

When Torven turned his glare in his direction, Reglian just laughed. Which seemed to Mhysra to be a good time to escape, before the good captain remembered who’d talked him into this fool’s errand of a voyage in the first place. Besides, she wanted to check that Cumulo and the miryhls were all right after such a shocking manoeuvre.

Reglian was right, at times Dhori could have been a dragon after all.


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Storm Wings: Chapter 18, Part 1

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Previous Chapter ~

Flying again. Finally!


Eighteen
New Horizons

Aquila
30th Cold

WILLYM WOKE AND had no idea where he was. This was not an unusual occurrence. Over the last few days he had been growing increasingly familiar with moments of blankness, followed by confusion. He felt no surprise to find himself standing in the middle of a room, when the last thing he remembered was lying down on his bed in the tower for a rest. All he felt was a weary anger.

Why was this happening to him?

A futile question, one he doubted would ever get answered. According to the captain twins he had Yullik to blame for his continued survival, but Willym hadn’t seen that cowardly bastard since he’d returned to his full wits. Well, half full wits. Half wits? He shook his head and brought his focus back to the room around him. Where was he?

It was gloomy, but thanks to whatever Yullik had done, Willym’s night-sight was now excellent. So despite the lack of light he could still make out the step up out of the disused storeroom, still recognise the metal rings bolted into the floor and high on the walls. The chains were familiar too, just like the stains on the walls. He knew this room. With the recognition came the blankness, wiping out thought, sensation and consciousness.

He woke to find himself licking the walls, trailing his tongue over the darkest blood stains.

Snarling and cursing, he wrenched himself away, spitting the taste of mildewed plaster, damp rock and blood from his mouth. The last was the worst, faint though it was, because he only wanted more of it. Monster stirred inside, but Willym growled it back down.

“I am not an animal,” he told the dark memories of this room. “I am civilised.”

“Tell that to your victims.”

Willym whipped his head around and scrambled to his feet, facing Yullik down. A wave of fear washed over him, but he dug deep, encouraging Monster to rise for the first time. But Monster would not come. It was Monster who was frightened, terrified by this frail man standing before them. He could smell him, Monster could smell him, and he smelled… strange.

Willym had always wondered if Yullik was human. Now he knew he wasn’t.

Smiling, Yullik stepped into the storeroom and even though this put him at a height disadvantage, he lost none of his presence. Willym wondered how he’d missed it before. How could he not have known what horrors raged beneath this man’s skin? He’d thought him a contemptuous coward; he knew better now.

Monster cowered, and it was all Willym could do not to do the same.

“At last,” Yullik chuckled as he approached, backing Willym into the corner. He reached to pat Willym’s cheek, but Monster made him flinch away. Yullik smiled. “Yes, at last.”

“What?” Willym demanded, forcing his voice not to quiver, searching for the cocksure young lord who’d feared nothing and no one, and had been so very sure of his place in the world.

Yullik narrowed his pale gold eyes, and Willym could have sworn they were glowing. “You’ve grown up, Lord Willym. You are almost worthy of the name now.”

“Lord Willym is dead,” he growled.

Yullik grinned. “All the better. I can use you now.”

Willym clenched his fist against the trembling Monster inside him. “I am not a toy, Lord Yullik. I am not to be played with.”

His defiance almost broke his nerve, but Yullik only laughed. “So the boy still lives, but as always he is wrong.” The laughter stopped and Yullik stepped in front of Willym, close enough to reveal a glimpse of the thing that lived beneath his unprepossessing skin. “I saved your life. I made you what you are. I own you. You are my creation. My Monster.”

And just like that, the horror inside Willym succumbed to the greater power. But not Willym, never Willym. He might have lowered his eyes, he might not have dared voice his dissent, but he felt it. The rebellion that stirred the oldest parts of his soul. He belonged to no one.

The man before him gave a half smile, but what he saw Willym could not tell. He just nodded slowly and turned on his heel. “You will brighten the last of these winter days, Willym. But if you don’t stop eating my kaz-naghkt, I will eat you myself.” A threat delivered in the most neutral and careless of tones – and was all the more chilling because of it. “Now come along. We have work to do. My kaz-naghkt must awaken. The citadel needs tending.”

He paused and looked over his shoulder into Willym’s dazed eyes. “Company is coming. We must prepare a warm welcome.”

* * * 

On board the Thorncrest
31st Cold

EVEN WITH THE sun sitting high over the Cloud Sea and a completely clear sky above them, the wind to the north of the Storm Peaks was a capricious beast. What had started out as a mere exercise flight, was rapidly turning into serious training for Cumulo and Mhysra. Not that anyone would know, since Cumulo was riding the winds with a whoop and a laugh.

Tucked on his back, her face protected by a hat and a scarf, Mhysra smiled to hear her Wingborn so happy. It was almost like the old days, when they still lived in the Lowlands, or just after they joined the Riders in Nimbys. For the first time in ages, they were flying for the sake of flying and it was glorious.

A shrill cry to their left let them know they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the brisk conditions, and her miryhl banked in that direction. Half-expecting to see Hurricane, Mhysra was surprised to recognise a flash of silver on the newcomer’s wings.

“Latinym,” Cumulo called in surprise, racing to meet the other miryhl.

They’d left the silver-tipped eagle in Meros – at his own request – two days ago. It had been seven days since she’d last seen the man hunched upon his back. But, after a long sulk in the wilderness, Dhori had returned.

“Where have you been?” she shouted, as her Wingborn swept around the weary pair. “We had to leave you behind!”

A decision that no one had wanted to take, but after Mhysra had led her lieutenants to an agreeable skyship captain – and the ship had taken two days for restocking – they could hardly delay their departure date because of one errant member of their band. Especially when they were paying the captain a mere pittance.

“I needed time to calm down,” Dhori called in reply, waving towards the ship. “Latinym needs to rest.”

Mhysra and Cumulo snorted. Dhori had needed to calm down? It was Mhysra who’d suffered from the dragons’ neglect. If anyone had needed time alone, surely it had been her. She could have done with Dhori’s quiet wisdom in those days of doubt, before Lyrai dragged her from her self-pity and forced her back out into the world. Then again, Dhori had always been and would always be his own person, mystery, sulking and unexpected temper and all.

So she held her tongue, because poor Latinym did look exhausted. As well he might, covering a day and a half’s sailing distance across these wild winds on just his wings. Dhori was lucky to have such a miryhl.

Running a soothing hand over Cumulo’s neck feathers, she urged him to return the skyship drifting a short way ahead. The Thorncrest was an impressive sight in the glinting sun. Dark and thin, it cut through the air like a finely honed blade, its long deck curving beneath a red and black gasbag. Mhysra adjusted her weight as Cumulo dived past the five tiers and swooped under the hull to the doors on the lowest level.

The rest of their miryhl friends were inside the eyries. They barely stirred at Cumulo’s showy entrance. Until they realised that he had not returned alone. As the chattering miryhls gathered around Latinym, Mhysra rushed through untacking Cumulo and hopped impatiently from foot to foot, waiting for Dhori to do the same. The moment the last trace of leather left Latinym’s feathers, she grabbed her friend’s arm and dragged him from the eyries.

If she didn’t take charge, the miryhls would soon turn their attention from their fellow eagle to the Rider who directed their strange activities. Once a miryhl interrogation started it was almost impossible to stop, and she had too many questions of her own for Dhori to wait for them to finish.

“Where have you been?” she repeated, letting him go long enough to hang their tack in the store room, before heading for the ladders that led up to the decks above.

“I told you,” Dhori sighed. “I was calming down.”

Coming from the most even-tempered person she’d ever met, Mhysra could only raise her eyebrows. True, Dhori had been very upset with the dragons, but even so… “For seven days?”

He conceded her point with a half-shrug. “I had some thinking to do. And when I returned to the eyries you were gone.” Before she could argue why they’d had to go, he held up a hand. “I expected as much. We all know how short time is, and there’s no room for self-indulgence. Not even my own.”

Hearing the wry amusement in his voice, Mhysra stopped on the third deck and waited for him to join her. “Is everything all right?” she had to ask, because he was acting very out of character. Even for Dhori.

He gave her an enigmatic smile. “As much as it ever is,” he evaded, ducking ahead of her on the ladder and scrambling up the last two flights to the top deck.


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Storm Wings: Chapter 17, Part 2

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Previous Chapter ~

Slightly longer than usual update today, but I’m sure you’ll cope ;D



Storm Peaks
27th Cold

IT WAS DARK when Lyrai entered the eyries; it was always dark, regardless of the time of day. He’d visited the Storm Peaks before so knew what to expect, except that the weather had never been quite this bad. Yes, the Storm Peaks were aptly named, but at this time of year the storms normally came every other day. There was usually space to breathe between one storm and the next.

Not this time. Ever since Mhysra’s incident, it was almost as if the sky was exhibiting its displeasure. Perhaps Maegla had been watching. Perhaps the dragons were venting their own steam. Perhaps it was just coincidence. Whatever it was, Lyrai didn’t feel like he was being too arrogant when he thought it had something to do with them. The weather was angry. The lightning forks were sharp, jagged and fierce, striking off the mountainsides as if lashing out in frustration. The thunder was a heavy, low rumble like a beating drum or an angry pounding fist. The clouds were black and menacing, and the air was a constant blanket of tension.

Lyrai rubbed his aching temples and made his way towards their huddle of miryhls, picking his way between lightning flashes. He didn’t know how much more of this weather he could stand. Thunder snarled like a distempered mountain lion, and it made him think of Dhori and how angry he’d been with the dragons. No one had seen the silver-eyed student since. Lyrai hoped he was all right, alone out there on the mountain, exposed to all this weather.

Then again if anyone was equipped to survive a thunderstorm it was Dhoriaen Aure. Or was it Auriaen? A name spoken by a goddess and a dragon elder. Yet another mystery to add to the enigma that was Dhori.

Lyrai shook his head and put a hand on Hurricane’s mottled wing. Even in the gloom he could make out the creamy patches on his beautiful miryhl’s feathers. Though he didn’t speak, Hurricane shifted to let Lyrai through, nuzzling his Rider gently as he passed. Lyrai smoothed his hand over his beak in silent greeting and knelt down inside the ring of miryhls.

Cumulo nested in the centre, one wing half-mantled like a mother duck sheltering her ducklings. Or in this case a miryhl guarding his Wingborn. Mhysra huddled against Cumulo’s side, his wing over her shoulders, keeping her warm and close. One of her hands was fisted in his chest feathers, the other supported her chin. Her eyes were closed as she leant against her Wingborn, but she looked far from peaceful.

Cumulo eyed Lyrai but said nothing; he didn’t even glare. In this the brash miryhl was just as helpless as the rest of them, and he was saving his anger for those who deserved it: Goryal and Reglian. They were supposed to be the wise ones, the ones this Yullik was wary of, if not scared by. They were supposed to be keeping Mhysra safe – and they had failed.

The great harm Dhori had spoken of was sitting right in front of Lyrai now. Though her friendship with Corin and Jaymes remained strong, Mhysra was not the same. She was silent and withdrawn, with black bruises beneath her eyes from where she dared not sleep. By day she spent her time huddled amongst the miryhls, keeping close to Cumulo. At night she lay curled between Rhiddyl’s protective paws, the only dragon any of them trusted now.

There was the harm right there: to Mhysra’s own sense of self and to their relationship with the older dragons. The trust they’d shared was shattered. Mhysra no longer felt able to trust herself, let alone them. Poor Rhiddyl was caught squarely in the middle, while everyone else could only watch.

Or work, as the case had been for Honra and Lyrai. What the older dragons got up to, Lyrai no longer knew nor cared, though he wished he knew where Dhori was. Still, idle wondering served no purpose, which was why he and Honra had spent the last two days quartering the town, searching for a ship that would take them to Sanctuary.

Without success. They were lucky if the captains would even meet them. Even then most of laughed in their faces. Which was why he was here now, doing something he hadn’t wanted to. Except there was no choice.

Sighing, he shoved aside his own misgivings and touched Mhysra’s knee. “I need your help.”

The eyes that stared at him were every bit as stormy as the skies outside, unevenly lit by flickers of lightning. Thunder grumbled as she blinked at him, then shook her head. “I cannot help you. I cannot even help myself. I have nothing to offer the world.”

Lyrai’s lips quirked and he arched an eyebrow at Cumulo. She’d been spending far too much time with her miryhl. Yes, the might-have-beens were awful to contemplate, and he couldn’t imagine what it felt like to believe so fiercely in something no one else could see, but did she have to be so dramatic about it?

“I doubt that very much,” he said, after his amusement had faded. “If memory serves me correctly, you had plenty to offer when I pinned you against the wall.”

She made a squeak of dismay and hid her face against Cumulo’s side, and Lyrai smiled again. Nice to see he hadn’t lost his touch.

“That was different,” she mumbled, muffled by feathers. “We were fighting.”

And what a battle it had been. It was certainly enough to keep him warm at night. At midwinter. In the Ice Peaks. “Fight with me now.”

Both she and Cumulo turned to him with identical glares. Wingborn – twins in different forms.

He chuckled. “I didn’t mean like that. Although you’re welcome to attack me that way any time you like.”

The word attack drained her anger as effectively as a lanced boil. She deflated before his eyes, and he wanted to kick himself.

“I cannot be trusted to fight,” she said, turning her face away.

Cumulo’s glare hardened and Lyrai held up an apologetic hand. “You are a Rift Rider.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I renounce my sword. I cannot be trusted with it.”

“There is more to being a Rider than carrying a sword,” he said, saddened to see her so defeated – but growing a little frustrated with her too. “There is more to fighting than killing.”

She frowned at him. “Don’t play with words, Lyrai. I am not in the mood.”

He could have debated that. From where he was sitting she was in a fine mood, but he didn’t think she’d appreciate him pointing that out. “I’m not playing,” he said firmly. “I’m talking about spirit and determination, Mhysra. Something I once thought you had in spades.”

Quick as a flash she was out from beneath Cumulo’s wing, facing him properly at last. “I almost killed two of my closest friends,” she growled, nose-to-nose with him. “What kind of spirit would do that?”

Unable to resist, he stole a quick kiss. “The very best,” he said, catching her shoulders before she could pull away, her expression turning from angry to confused to disgusted. “You thought they were in danger.” He gave her a little shake. “And you were willing to risk your life for them. How is that not the brightest of spirits?”

“Because I nearly killed them, you idiot!” she shouted, thumping his chest hard.

Lyrai grinned, relieved that she could still fight after all, even if he did end up winded. “But you didn’t. We got to you in time, and if those damned dragons had been doing their job we wouldn’t have been needed. It wasn’t your fault,” he murmured, as she lowered her eyes. Releasing her shoulders, he tipped her face back up to his, running the backs of his fingers along her cheek. “You didn’t cause any of this.”

Her stormy eyes filled with tears. “Why me?” she whispered. “Why did he pick me? I must have done something. You were there under the mountain too. Why me and not you? What’s so special about me?”

Hating to see her so upset, he held her close, tucking her head beneath his chin. “Why you and not me?” he echoed. “He’s a man, isn’t he? Why would he want to haunt me when he can play with you instead?”

It was a twisted compliment at best, but she did stop crying long enough to punch him in the ribs. “Shut up.”

Chuckling, he kissed her head. “I’m serious. And you are special, Mhysra, not just to me and your friends, but to Cumulo. You’re Wingborn.”

“Wingborn,” she murmured, her hands flexing against his lower back. “That’s what he said. He said he was Wingborn too, that we should stick together.”

Not liking the thought that something so rare and precious might bind her to the monster who’d caused so much death and grief, Lyrai held her tighter. “You are not like him,” he told her fervently. “You and Cumulo are so much better. You’re the best a Wingborn pair can be. You’re nothing like him.”

Wriggling free of his hold, she rolled her eyes. “I know that, stupid.”

Well, he had to kiss her then, didn’t he? Cradling her head like she was the most precious thing he’d ever touched, he spread his fingers through the softness of her hair and pressed his lips to hers almost reverently. Until she sighed and sank against him, mouth opening beneath his in welcome. There was no fight this time, just a sensual harmony he’d never felt before.

Until a large beak thumped his shoulder. “Do you mind?” Cumulo rumbled far too close to Lyrai’s ear for comfort. “If you must maul my Wingborn, I would rather not be witness to it.”

Mhysra’s head was buried against Lyrai’s chest again, muffling her giggles this time, and he sighed, all hope of dignity lost.

“One of these days,” he growled, gently pulling Mhysra’s head up, “I will get you alone and all to myself. In a room with a lockable door.”

Still chuckling, she nipped at his bottom lip, running her hands over him and making him shiver. “Promises, promises,” she murmured huskily as she pulled away.

While she stood up and took her Wingborn to task, Lyrai sat on his heels for a moment and practised his deep breathing. Finally, once the scolding was done, Mhysra turned and offered him a hand. By then he was able to accept it without any embarrassment.

“You said you needed my help,” she said, as he slung an arm across her shoulders to steer her out of the eyries.

“Mm,” he agreed, still thinking of other things.

“Hey.” She elbowed him in the ribs. “Since you dragged me out of my self-pity, the least you can do is pay attention when I’m talking.”

“You’re the one who distracted me,” he grumbled, rubbing his sore ribs. Had she always been this violent? “I don’t suppose you know any Storm Peak captains, do you? Ones who wouldn’t mind a voyage into the unknown for little recognition and even less pay.”

She surprised him with a grin. “As a matter of fact, I just might.”

* * *

Aquila

“TALK TO ME.”

Mouse had known it was a bad idea to walk ahead with Imaino, following the slickly glowing lights along the tunnel walls. The rest of their fellow survivors huddled in a protective group behind them, casting unhappy looks over their shoulders. Silveo, Greig, Haelle and Nightriver brought up the very distant rear in deference to their discomfort.

Despite Imaino’s tentative welcome of the dragon, few of the others were ready to accept his presence. Mouse had a feeling that once they reached Buteo things would only get worse. He hoped not, but he wasn’t about to hold his breath either.

Mouse eyed his lieutenant. “About what?”

“This new friend of yours,” Imaino said dryly. “Who, what, where, why and when?”

Mouse couldn’t blame him for the questions, although he doubted he could answer any to his lieutenant’s satisfaction. Instead he gave what little he knew, explaining how he’d first met Nightriver in his fevered dreams, how he’d heard his voice through the rescue from Aquila and their subsequent flight through the tunnels away from the kaz-naghkt. He went on to describe his time in the lake, how he’d been healed and how he’d thought it little more than feverish dreams returning to haunt him. Skipping over the time of hunger and blood, he moved on to when he thought he was losing Haelle and how Nightriver had offered to heal her. He mentioned the lights and how he thought they were Nightriver’s doing, without going in to the more contentious issue of the tremors, rock falls and the damage his dragon friend had done.

To finish he recapped the second healing in the lake and how Nightriver had dug through the tunnels to return them to Imaino and the others. It didn’t take him nearly so long to recount as he’d expected, but then he hadn’t included everything.

In the back of his mind he heard a deep, low chuckle. “There is more truth in silence than words can ever tell.”

Mouse silently told him to shut up and waited for Imaino’s verdict.

The lieutenant blew out an astonished breath and shook his head. “If I hadn’t seen him for myself, emerging from the lake like some monstrous reptile of old, I don’t think I’d have believed a word of what you just said.”

“If I hadn’t lived through it, sir, I wouldn’t believe it either.”

Imaino laughed, and ruffled Mouse’s hair with a broad, calloused hand. “What would we do without you, eh? Healer, helper and now finder of mysteries. Who knows where this story will lead us all next? I have the strangest feeling you’ll be at the heart of it wherever it goes.” He looked at him again, a long considering look, then shook his head. “The gods truly do move in mysterious ways.”

“He has no idea.”

Mouse frowned Nightriver into silence. Then looked up. There was light ahead, and not the pale greenish glow of the walls either. This was bright light, daylight. The sun.

“Blessed Maegla,” his whispered, and started to run.

Imaino shouted behind him, but he didn’t hear what and he certainly didn’t stop. He just ran, not caring for once that he lurched drunkenly from side to side. With a wall to bounce off, he maintained his forward momentum. Until there was no more tunnel. No more rocks, no more darkness, no more dust or debris.

The cold air hit his lungs with a sharp, tangy bite and there was snow on the ground, but it wasn’t the all-covering white blanket he’d left on the other side of the mountain. Here it was a light covering over brown and green fields.

Not that he cared for the ground. He’d had ground under his feet all along, even if it had mostly been bare rock. What mattered here was the sky. He looked up at the deep blue day, lightly dusted with grey clouds, and in one particular gap, too bright to gaze upon, the sun shone down. Heirayk’s smiling face.

Mouse’s vision blurred and his knees buckled. Kneeling on the ground he raised his face to the cleansing warmth of the sun and laughed. Voices gathered in the distance, both before and behind, but Mouse no longer cared. They had reached Buteo.

Buteo at last.


~ Next Chapter ~

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Storm Wings: Chapter 17, Part 1

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Previous Chapter ~

Catching up with Mouse and co.


Seventeen
Kiss and Tell

Aquila
26th Cold

“WHAT’S GOING ON, MOUSE?”

Finding himself the focus of his three friends, Mouse shifted uncomfortably. An action he could be forgiven for, since the floor of the tunnel was littered with debris, both sharp and soft. At his back Nightriver hummed happily as he dug through a rock fall with ease. As well he might, since he’d been responsible for all of them. This was the third they’d encountered today, yet they could still hear the sounds of their friends struggling in the distance to reach them.

Everything was turned around underground. Or so Nightriver said. He would know.

Smiling at the thought, Mouse forced himself to meet each of his friends’ eyes in turn, his amusement fading. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Where Nightriver’s concerned I honestly don’t know anything.”

“Nightriver,” Haelle murmured, rubbing the stump of her amputated leg and staring at the digging dragon. “It suits him.”

She’d get no argument from Mouse there.

Greig followed her gaze, then took her hand away from her leg, linking their fingers together. “How did you meet him? Where did he come from? What is he?”

The scrabbling paused. “I am a dragon,” came a muffled reply from the mountain beside them. “A dragongift dragon. Don’t interrogate my little Mouse – he knows no more than you.” The digging resumed.

The three friends frowned and Mouse shrugged. “He found me. After W-W-Willym,” he stammered, hating himself for the weakness. “After Nehtl d-died, I was angry. So very angry.”

The digging had stopped again and a comforting paw, with surprisingly soft pads between a wicked fist of claws, patted his shoulder. “I felt it,” Nightriver rumbled. “Down in my lake, in the depths of my sleep, his anger called me. A strong, pure note in the symphony of Aquila. It had fallen out of rhythm, but I had not noticed. Until my little Mouse woke me with his rage, his pain, his grief.” He patted Mouse’s shoulder again. “And so I stirred.”

Silveo was still frowning, but thoughtfully now. “Dragongift,” he murmured. “Like the globes.”

Nightriver blinked his large, luminous eyes and practised his new smile – one that didn’t reveal quite so many teeth. In his almost human-sized form it worked surprisingly well. No one recoiled, at least, but that might have been because they’d grown used to having a sharp-toothed, strangely-behaved dragon around.

“The globes are indeed dragongifts, like miryhls and nakhounds, and the other flying beasts, but I and my kind are the epitome of the art,” Nightriver said, a little smugly. “And little Mouse is my dragongifted.”

It was Silveo’s turn to blink, his eyes growing wide. “Like a Wingborn?”

Nightriver wrinkled his snubbed nose. “A poor comparison, but it will serve for now.” He turned to smile at Mouse, who was stunned speechless. “We have yet to go through any formal bonding ceremony, but I believe we are as bound as any dragongift and -gifted. How could we not be when he woke me and I healed him? Blood and promises.”

“Gods,” Silveo and Greig muttered.

Beside them, Haelle smiled. “As you healed us, Nightriver. I haven’t thanked you yet.”

To Mouse’s further surprise the dragon ducked his head, suddenly bashful. “There is no need for thanks,” he said gruffly. “You are friends of my Mouse. I could not let you suffer when it would bring him further pain. You are also Rift Riders of Aquila. My first role, long ago, was to protect you. That is why my lake was placed here, to come to Aquila’s defence if it should ever be in need.”

Mouse winced as his friends all scowled.

Nightriver scuffed his claws in the dirt. “I realise to you it must seem that I failed. After all Aquila is now in the hands of your enemies and many lives have been lost. Aquila was in need, great need, and I was nowhere. I was not woken. That alone should tell you something.”

The four students looked at the dragon with varying expressions of confusion and anger. Nightriver nodded to each of them before resting his dark gaze upon Mouse.

“The days may have darkened, but there is hope yet.” A spark ignited deep in his eyes, growing brighter with every word. “I have woken, my little friends, which can mean only one thing: Aquila has need of me. The war is not over yet.”

Laughing, the dragon returned to his digging, humming more happily than ever. “Prepare to be reunited with your friends, little Mouse,” he called through the rock. “And think of what news you will have to tell them.”

There was a sharp crack, then a deep silence. Mouse shared a look with his friends. When the shouts and swearing began, he scrambled in Nightriver’s wake.

“It’s all right!” he shouted, half-running, half-crawling through the space the dragon had made. “It’s all right! He’s a friend.” Intent on getting out and reassuring everyone that the dragon wasn’t a threat, Mouse failed to notice the drop ahead. Yelping, his hands scrabbled at empty air and he tumbled head-first down a very rocky, very unstable slope.

Something firm and familiar reached out and pinned him to a stop, just as his nose bumped against someone’s boot. Groaning, he raised his head, spitting off to the side and wiping further dust and stones from his teeth. Then he looked up into the astonished eyes of his lieutenant.

“Morning, sir,” he coughed, as a claw-tipped paw hauled him upright by his shirt. “Good to see you again.”

Imaino blinked and looked up the slope as Silveo, Greig and Haelle appeared, peering down at them. They waved sheepishly.

The lieutenant rubbed his forehead. “What’s going on, Mouse?”

Sighing at his least favourite question in the world, Mouse rested his head against Nightriver’s shoulder. “Who knows, sir? Except he’s on our side.”

Imaino eyed him with disfavour and studied Nightriver with wary curiosity. “Unless there are more of them out there, Mouse, your friend appears to have shrunk.”

Nightriver rumbled in annoyance, deep enough to make the mountain shiver. “I was trying to be discreet,” the dragon muttered. “Since you took such an exception to me last time.”

The lieutenant, already pale from the fresh tremor, stumbled back, hands reaching for his sword. “Mouse,” he barked. “Explain.”

Too tired to be afraid, and knowing Nightriver wouldn’t allow anyone to get hurt, Mouse shook his head. “Can it wait?” he asked. “Only Nightriver says we’re not far from Buteo now, and I would like to see the sky again before I turn grey.”

Flexing his fingers on his sword hilt, but leaving his weapon sheathed, Imaino ran a hand through his own hair and ruffled the dust from it. “Underneath all this muck I think I already have,” he grumbled, with a hint of humour. “All right, Mouse, we’ll save it for later. Just tell me one thing, is your friend dangerous?”

Nightriver smiled his old smile, the one with all the teeth, causing Imaino to draw his sword. “Oh yes, lieutenant, I most certainly am.” When Mouse elbowed him sharply, the dragon chuckled. “But not to you. I save my darkest behaviour for the enemies of Aquila. And of my little Mouse,” he added, looking at him with an unfathomable expression in his glowing eyes.

“All right,” Imaino said slowly, reluctantly sheathing his blade. “To Buteo. Explanations can wait.” When Mouse exhaled heavily in relief, his lieutenant fixed him with a steely glare. “But only until Buteo. Once there I want to know everything.”

Helping Greig with Haelle, Silveo slithered down the slope with a laugh. “We all want that, sir. Mouse most of all, I think.”

Watching the three boys lift Haelle onto the dragon’s back, arranging her good leg and her new stump until she was comfortable, the lieutenant gave a wry smile. “I can see there’s more going on here than I understand.”

“That goes for all of us, sir,” Mouse said apologetically.

“Apart from me,” Nightriver rumbled, padding slowly forward so as not to unseat Haelle. “I understand everything.”

“You would,” Mouse grumbled, but not as bitterly as he once might have. Instead he put a hand on his dragongift’s shoulder and walked confidently with him into the gloom.


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Storm Wings: Chapter 16, Part 3

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Previous Chapter ~

Picking up directly where we left off, and uh oh, someone’s in trouble…


MHYSRA SAGGED AGAINST Lyrai, the fight and fear burned out of her, but he could feel her tears as they trickled down his neck. He closed his eyes and held on. Gods, what was he going to do with her? She felt so right, so familiar in his arms, but there was no denying something uncanny had happened to her today. The way she’d fought… She was magnificent. He couldn’t help but feel proud of her, yet it terrified him too.

She was dangerous. She could have killed Corin. She’d done her best to kill Jaymes – only the timely arrival of Dhori had saved him. If Dhori hadn’t run back when he did, Corin would never have been able to find them in time. Gods. That was not a pleasant thought. They’d lost so many friends already, but he knew this would have been the one that broke them all.

So what had caused it? Had she really seen kaz-naghkt, or was it all in her head? Was she going mad? He ran his fingers through her feathery curls and shut his eyes again, praying fervently to Maegla that she wasn’t. He couldn’t bear it if she did.

“Well, that’s one way to break an illusion,” a dry voice said behind Lyrai. “Not what I would have recommended, but effective nonetheless. Perhaps I should write it up for the Archives?”

Mhysra stiffened in his arms, but Lyrai didn’t let go, merely tipped his head to one side so he could see the two dragons standing behind him in their human forms. Unconsciously, his hands balled into fists, one in Mhysra’s hair, the other in the shirt over her back. She gasped, and he forced himself to relax. Not that it mattered, when Dhori was there to beat him to the punch. Almost literally.

Where were you?” Dhori demanded, with such venom that even Mhysra raised her head. “You knew what our plans were for today and you still left her alone and undefended. How could you?”

“Calm yourself, Auriaen,” Goryal soothed in their chiming voice. “You reveal yourself.”

“Damn myself!” Dhori roared. “And damn you both! They could have died! You were supposed to guard her. Where were you?”

For the first time the two dragons, with untold numbers of centuries between them, looked uncomfortable. Reglian even shuffled his feet. “Exploring,” he murmured.

For a moment it looked like Dhori would explode. His eyes glowed so brightly, his jaw bulging with enough tension to crack his teeth. Then, with a sudden exhale not unlike the roar of an approaching hurricane, he deflated. “Then I hope it was worth it,” he growled, and thunder rolled in the distance. “Because I cannot trust you now.”

The two dragons looked as if they’d been slapped. And not just by the downpour that burst unexpectedly over their heads.

“Since no harm was done, Auriaen, surely -” Goryal began.

Dhori rounded on them, his glare fierce enough to silence the elder. “Harm was done,” he snarled. “Great harm. Blood is not the only sign of injury.”

With a last raking glare of contempt, he turned his back on the dragons and stalked away. As he passed Rhiddyl, the young dragon hunched as small as she possibly could, practically white with distress. Dhori patted her reassuringly on the foot before vanishing into the rocky cliffs beyond the flying field, heedless of the rain.

No one followed him. No one dared.

Slowly, they each turned to look at the dragons. Corin helped Jaymes to sit up, crouched together on the grass with their dragonets, while Lyrai still held Mhysra in his arms. The older dragons sighed.

“Yullik again,” Goryal muttered, glancing at Mhysra then turning to Reglian.

“Yes. He is becoming quite a nuisance.” The Archivist flexed his extra long fingers and nodded at Mhysra. “You are not mad,” he assured her. “He planted a temporary illusion, that is all. It then fed off your deepest fears until the good lieutenant broke it. An unorthodox but efficacious method. I applaud you both.” He smiled.

No one smiled back.

Goryal shifted uncomfortably. “There is no madness here. You are quite well.”

Except Lyrai didn’t agree. Surely they all had to be mad to continue this farce of a journey. Dhori was right. The price of this day had been very high. He no longer trusted either of them.

The fact that Mhysra was trembling in his arms told him that she hadn’t emerged from this unscathed either. “Come on,” he murmured, turning her away from the dragons and the rain. “Let’s go see Cumulo.”

Corin and Jaymes followed, each giving Mhysra extra strong hugs along the way. Whatever damage had been done this day, it wasn’t to their friendship. As they entered the eyries, each patting Rhiddyl soothingly along the way, they left the older dragons standing alone. To think about what they had done. If they dared.

Overhead, the thunder carried the voice of their anger, while the rain shed all their tears.

* * *

Aquila

FAR ACROSS THE Overworld, in his tower above Aquila, Yullik smiled. It was all working rather nicely, he thought. Yes, very nicely indeed.

As he opened his eyes to the winter-shrouded north a tingle ran down his arm. He clenched his fist and fought it back. Not yet. Not here, not now. Perhaps not ever.

The power flexed through him and Yullik rolled his shoulders, feeling his skin tingling with a half-forgotten promise. One made in the far distant past, when the sun was shining and he was still young.

Strong hands held him, tossing him high with effortless ease and a beloved voice laughed: “One day, when you are grown, you will have wings of your own to carry you high.”

The tingle turned into a burn, a full body cramp and he folded to his knees with a stifled grunt. He fought it off, forced it back. Now was not the time to give in to a promise long expected, long denied. There were other, more important things on his mind for now.

But as he lay there the snow clouds gathered once more above Aquila, and this time he had no thoughts to spare to hold them back. Fiery cramps racked his body, and Yullik made the mountain ring with his roar.


~ Next Chapter ~

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