Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
You can also visit the frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.
~ Previous Chapter ~
Trouble, trouble, trouble.
Oh, and a cliffhanger warning. Sorry, this chapter is a real pain to split.
HE WAS UNCLEAN. Even before he woke Willym could smell the foulness in the room, on the floor, on his skin. Then he could feel it too; the crusty, flaky dirt of dried blood, like when he’d been battling kaz-naghkt in the skies above the Overworld.
Memory returned like a swift punch in the gut. The mirror, his face, the kaz-naghkt at the door. The hunger that blinded him to everything else. Except the taste. It had tasted so good, so fresh, so powerful. The surge of overheated blood in his mouth, the crunch of bones between his teeth. How he’d revelled in it.
Willym rolled over and vomited. Black, black, oily black. It was all black like the colour of kaz-naghkt blood. Like the colour of his heavily coated skin.
“Gods, oh, gods,” he whispered – he who never prayed and only ever took the gods’ names in vain. “Maegla, Heirayk, Lithaen, help me. Help me, please.” Even as he begged he started scratching, peeling not just the dried blood smears from his body, but the skin beneath.
More blood, more blackness.
“No,” he hissed, scratching harder. “No. My blood is red, my blood is human. I am human. I am not a monster.”
But the harder he scratched, the darker it became. “I am not a monster!”
“There now, there, there,” a soothing voice whispered in his ear, as strong arms wrapped around his trembling body. “It’s not so bad.”
“Get away from me!” he screamed, wrenching free and scrabbling back into the corner, eyes fixed on the perfect pair standing before him. Their heads were tilted at the same compassionate angle, their eyes containing the same avid glow. “Don’t touch me!”
They smiled, a gentle expression so at odds with the glee in their eyes. “As you wish,” they replied with one voice.
“What have you done to me?” he whispered, huddling in his corner and scratching his arms again. “What did you do?”
“We have done nothing,” Rion said, skirting the mess on the floor and opening the window, letting in both light and air.
His sister, however, walked straight through the blood to crouch before him. She reached out slowly and ran a finger down his scar-ruined cheek. Then she smiled. “You did this to yourself, Willym. There is no one else to blame.”
“That’s not my name,” he shot back, feeling as dirtied by her touch as by the blood smearing his skin. “That man is dead.”
“Yes,” the captain twins agreed. “Lord Willym fra Wrellen, third son of Jarl Yurrayn of Scudia is no more.”
Riame smiled again, and this time the wicked grin matched the light in her eyes as she slid her fingers beneath his chin and forced him to meet her eyes. “Now you are Monster.”
* * *
“YOU KNOW, AFTER you started smooching with the lieutenant I really thought things might change around here.” Lying on her back, staring out the window of the small Rider barracks, Corin stroked a snoozing Skybreeze while waiting for a hint of blue to appear amidst the grey clouds above. The Storm Peaks had not earned their name by accident.
Sitting on the floor beside Corin’s bed, Mhysra tilted her head and grimaced. “I am not smooching with the lieutenant.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Corin said, turning to her with a grin. “It’s not safe to leave you two alone for a moment.”
“Maegla forbid you lot would ever allow us that,” her friend grumbled, and returned to cleaning Cumulo’s tack. “You’re worse than a nakhound on a hunt.”
“Just doing my duty,” Corin chuckled, making Skybreeze mutter in his sleep. “But seriously, since you and Lyrai have grown friendlier,” – She held up a hand to ward off Mhysra’s indignant thump – “he’s become a lot more relaxed. Yet here we are, our first full day in Meros, one of the liveliest, most exciting cities in the Storm Peaks, nay the whole Overworld – not to mention the first sign of human civilisation we’ve had in months – and we’re stuck in the barracks, keeping out of the way while our officers run around having all the fun.”
“Not just the officers,” Jaymes murmured from the other side of the room, where he was checking Emberbright over, scale by scale. “Dhori’s gone too.”
“Dhori doesn’t count,” the girls replied.
Jaymes smiled. “True, but they didn’t take the dragons either.”
“If they had it would have rather ruined the point of the exercise,” Corin grumbled, not appeased by Jaymes’ all-too-reasonable tone. “Besides, if they’d gone along then Lyrai and Honra wouldn’t have been able to leave us behind.”
“Reglian can pass for human when he really wants to,” Mhysra said, putting down her bridle in favour of Cumulo’s saddle.
“He just prefers to unsettle people with all the little things about himself that are not quite right to human eyes,” Jaymes agreed.
“Goryal’s a lost cause, though,” Mhysra continued. “I think they’re too old to bother with the pretence. If they ever did.”
“I doubt it,” Corin muttered, tickling Skybreeze’s sensitive ears. “But I wasn’t asking why they left the dragons behind, because that makes sense. I can even understand why they left Jaymes and me, since we come with unmistakable baggage.” She wrinkled her nose at Skybreeze and tilted her head in Mhysra’s direction. “But what’s your excuse?”
Her friend shrugged and started rubbing soap into her saddle with renewed vigour. “Despite what you assume, Lyrai doesn’t tell me everything.”
Corin glanced at Jaymes and raised her eyebrows. He shook his head, warning her off, but Corin had never been faint-hearted. “No one ever tells anyone everything, no matter how close they are,” she persisted. “Still, he must have had a reason for leaving you here. Especially with your family contacts. Just the mention of the mighty Kilpapans would get you a meeting with any captain in this port.”
Although now that Corin thought about it that might have been a good reason not to take her. Especially if the lieutenants were trying to keep things quiet. Except something about that explanation, as reasonable as it might seem, didn’t sit quite right. Something else was going on. Tickling her dragonet into moving, Corin rolled onto her side, the better to watch Mhysra’s bowed head as she focused on cleaning her tack with all her might.
“You know,” Corin began lightly, “despite frequent evidence to the contrary, I’m not completely stupid.” The snorts from Skybreeze and Jaymes were not complimentary, but she would deal with them later. “And having spent the last few years with you, Mhysra, I’d say I know you almost as well as anyone.”
Her friend sighed, hands stilling as if anticipating what would follow.
“You’ve been having nightmares again, haven’t you?”
To both girls’ surprise it was Jaymes who spoke. He smiled wryly in the face of their astonishment. “In a similar way to Corin’s intelligence, just because I don’t speak up regularly doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think any of us are heavy sleepers after Aquila, so whispers in the dead of night are bound to draw attention.”
Corin frowned, because actually her sleep was quite good. Since their time with the dragons the worst of her night-horrors had faded, and she certainly hadn’t been disturbed by any clandestine whispers in the dark. What she’d noticed was that Mhysra had shadows under her eyes again, not to mention the same pinched lines around her mouth that had haunted her across the Heighlen and beyond.
Mhysra gave a heavy sigh. “I know you see more than you speak, Jaymes, and I don’t think I’ve ever made the mistake of thinking you stupid, Corin. It’s just… I can’t talk about them.”
Which was understandable, considering what Mhysra had gone through beneath Aquila. Corin had been unconscious at the time, but she’d heard the tale. She’d shed tears over it; she’d liked Kilai.
“Well, since the last time you had them they left you unable to speak at all, I’d call this progress.”
Mhysra’s smile was faint. “Of a sort.”
Though that didn’t make much sense to her, Corin bit her tongue. She could see the strain the conversation was putting on her friend and didn’t want to make it worse. She still didn’t understand why the return of Mhysra’s nightmares meant she had to stay behind while the others went into the city, but she would accept it. For now. Maybe Dhori could be enticed into explaining later. Stranger things had happened.
“So, as we’ve no idea when the others will be back, I’m going to preen Cumulo.” Clearly longing to escape the awkward atmosphere, Mhysra packed up her cleaning kit and bundled her tack into her arms.
“I’ll join you,” Corin said, draping a grumpy Skybreeze over her shoulder. “If the dragons are back I can leave this little monster with them. Maybe then we could take our own short trip into town.” At Jaymes’ disapproving frown, she widened her eyes in mock innocence. “No one would know.”
“We were told to stay here,” he reminded her.
“They were referring to the dragonets,” she grumbled, before grudgingly adding, “and you could come too.”
“If only to stop me tattling later,” Jaymes chuckled, following them out of the room.
Mhysra shook her head as they descended the stairs. “She’s corrupting you.”
“And I used to be such a nice boy,” he agreed mournfully.
“Boy.” Corin wrinkled her nose. “Stick with me, love, and I’ll turn you into a man.”
Her friends and both dragonets snorted in amused disbelief, and Corin pretended to be offended. “Well, he certainly won’t get there on his own. Not on this trip. He only likes -”
Jaymes slapped a hand over her mouth and scowled.
Mhysra chuckled. “As if I hadn’t noticed. You’re not the only one who sees but doesn’t speak. And I think Silveo’s lovely.”
Blushing so fiercely even his ears turned red, Jaymes shook his head. “Can we talk about something else? Please.”
“See,” Corin teased, pinching his cheek. “He’s still a nice boy.”
She was following Mhysra out through the side door when her friend jumped back, slamming both her and Jaymes across the narrow corridor and into the far wall. “Stay inside,” she hissed, hands scrabbling at her waist for the sword she wasn’t wearing.
“What is it?” Jaymes was the first to regain his wits, massaging his shoulder where Corin had bashed it against the wall. “Mhysra?”
“Swords,” she whispered frantically. “Where did we leave our swords?”
“With our kit,” Corin told her, barely jumping aside in time to avoid her friend charging back up the stairs to their room. “But why do you need it?”
“Kaz-naghkt!” Mhysra shouted over her shoulder. “Outside.”
Jaymes and Corin looked at each other and swore, following Mhysra swiftly up the stairs, gripping their dragonets as they ran.
More next Friday.
Thanks for reading!