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~ Previous Chapter ~
Okay, focus. Kilai is still in the Wrathlen, the weather is still foul and there be pirates out there…
Cliffhanger warning! This is also the end of the sample chapters, so heed the warning and don’t swear at me too loudly :) x
BY THE TIME the scouts had returned, the lieutenants had consulted and their plans had been passed along the frontier, it was midday and the rain was lashing down.
“All back to normal after Heirayk’s day,” Cynek grumbled to Kilai as they waited by the cave mouth, their miryhls behind them.
“One day of Midsummer blessings is probably all He can managed here,” Kilai agreed. “This is the Wrathlen. If the gods could change it, you’d think They would have done so before now.”
Cynek grunted, unimpressed by his logic. Most Riders, beyond their devotion to Maegla, didn’t spend much time thinking about gods. Feast days were nice, but beyond that they were just names for ordinary things. Personally, Kilai had always had a healthy respect for all gods – it seemed wisest.
“Kilai, Cynek, Janoi, Poyl, you’re with Hensyn.” Brathyn emerged from the pouring rain, oblivious to the water streaming from his hat and dripping off his bearded chin. “Take it steady. Get as close as possible and avoid notice as much as you can. Stay in close formation and be wary. This weather looks set, but it’ll probably get worse.”
“Storms?” Janoi asked, a Sutheralli former-priest turned Rift Rider who still performed obeisance to Maegla whenever thunder rolled.
Brathyn shrugged, already turning away to deal with the next group. “You’ll have to ride them out. No time for landing and praying. Maegla won’t begrudge you making it up to Her later. To wing.”
Janoi opened his mouth, but Sergeant Hensyn raised his eyebrows in warning. The Sutheralli huffed. “You have no true respect.”
“You should be used to that by now,” Cynek retorted. “How long have you lived amongst us northern barbarians?”
“Long enough for everyone to get used to each other, and for the whole Wrathlen to fly out while we stand here chatting,” Hensyn interrupted before Janoi could reply. “Can we continue this conversation later? It isn’t going to stop raining, no matter how long you put it off. Shift.”
Janoi raised his eyes, muttering under his breath, while Cynek sighed. “It was worth a shot.”
“Aye, and might have worked if you didn’t start a theological debate with him every time it rains,” Kilai remarked, tightening the strings of his hat and checking the buckles on his coat. He was as covered as he was going to get, so mounted up. “Come on, Cirrus. Brace yourself.”
Despite his words, the icy slap of the rain as they emerged from the cave stole his breath. Cirrus emitted a squawk of discomfort, but still managed to take off. The visibility was terrible and he could barely make out the others in the gloom.
“Form up!” Hensyn’s voice drifted out of the rain, but all Kilai saw were shadows where his flurry-mates should have been.
“What can you see, Cirrus?” he called, squinting through the downpour and hoping his miryhl could find their place in the formation. Hensyn was taking point, with Kilai behind to his left and Cynek behind him. There was definitely one miryhl in front, but that was about all he could tell.
“We’re in place,” Cirrus replied. “Janoi to our right. Cynek behind on our left. Sergeant Hensyn in front, with Poyl on the far right wing.”
Sighing, Kilai settled against his miryhl’s back for the flight ahead, relieved that she at least could make out some details in this weather. Relying on her to stay with the others, he hunched his shoulders up to his ears in a futile attempt to keep out as much water as he could. The wind blowing off the Stormwash was bitter, driving at their faces. He didn’t know how the miryhls could stand it.
A screech made him tighten his grip moments before Cirrus banked right and their formation turned. Now the wind struck at an angle, skimming water over and away from them. It was still cold, but not as uncomfortable.
The squall grew worse and soon Kilai was completely blind. Only the flexing and tensing of Cirrus’ muscles warned him when they descended, dropping towards the ferocity of the Cloud Sea fighting against the roiling Stormwash. The miryhls struggled but were too well-trained to complain. Flying low and fast was the only safe way to approach the Wrathlen – in any weather.
The wind roared, filling his ears and drowning out everything but the world’s fury. Gripping tightly as Cirrus was tossed high, dropped and battered from either side, Kilai stared ahead. Thanks to the turbulent air, the visibility was better and he could see the others fighting to hold formation. Ahead of them, looming across the whole horizon, the Wrathlen beckoned.
Then, without word or warning, Hensyn shot up, leaving the rest to follow. The surface of the black rocks was barely a wingspan away as they swooped up the face of it, breaking over the top without raising any alarms.
The heavy rain drifted in misty clumps, leaving clear patches in between. To the uninitiated it was an desolate wasteland, riddled with cracks and battered by the elements. There was nothing to see. Hensyn waved for them to keep rising and remain on guard. A glance over his shoulders assured Kilai that both Cynek and Poyl had their bows ready. When he saw the sergeant reach for his, he copied. Although he was an indifferent archer, he still felt more secure with a weapon in his hand.
Soaring into a rain cloud, Kilai and his companions did their best to protect their bow strings from the damp, muttering curses as yet more water crept under clothes and feathers. Then they were through. Above the rain, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
And the Wrathlen was waiting.
“Dive!” Hensyn yelled, before Kilai even understood what he was seeing.
Cirrus obeyed – all the miryhls did – and they were submerged within heartbeats. Dark shadows whizzed through the moisture around him. Off to his right, someone grunted. More shadows zipped past and something thumped hard against Kilai’s back, punching the breath from his lungs.
When the impact knocked him against Cirrus’ neck, she trilled with concern, but he patted her reassuringly, thanking Maegla for the thickness of his flying leathers. A second arrow lodged in Cirrus’ saddle, but he wrenched it free and tossed it away. He whispered another prayer to Maegla, grateful that his enemies were aiming blind.
Below the thick clouds, Hensyn commanded them to scatter. Kilai twisted to watch as Cirrus bolted across the open wastes of the Wrathlen. Poyl darted right, Cynek went straight down and Hensyn circled around, waiting. By the time another sweep of rain blocked the sergeant from Kilai’s view, Janoi still hadn’t appeared.
“Maegla hold him in Your hands,” he muttered, straightening to keep watch for himself.
After the first explosion of speed, Cirrus steadied. When there were no signs of pursuit, she circled cautiously back. “What now?” she asked, barely loud enough to be heard.
Kilai wasn’t sure. Their instructions had been to get as close as possible and find out what was going on. Brathyn had ordered them not to attract notice, but it was too late for that. He needed to find the others, though what he really wanted to do was go above the rain and take another look. His brief glance hadn’t been nearly enough to take in what he’d thought he saw.
Surely there wasn’t a pirate fleet drifting above the Wrathlen. Surely there weren’t so many ships lined up that they stretched across the horizon, with pyrefly swarms darting between them. Surely there weren’t that many pirates here.
Cirrus twitched, twisting to avoid a shadow dropping out of the clouds in front of them. Even unbalanced, Kilai raised his bow and hit the pyreflyer in the back before the man knew he was there. The pyrefly bucked, lashing its heavy tail and blasting fire. Without a rider to restrain it, it didn’t even notice the miryhl in the spitting steam as it thrust back up to escape the rain. Pyreflies, unsurprisingly, hated water.
Any satisfaction Kilai felt at getting rid of their enemy was short lived when he realised that a pyrefly with a corpse on its back would soon be visible to everyone above.
“Cirrus, go!” he shouted, no longer caring for secrecy. He had to find the others and get away. There was no chance of counting numbers or assessing their enemy now.
A second shadow dropped out of the rain, but Kilai’s arrow glanced off this pyreflyer’s shoulder, drawing his attention. The flyer spurred his mount around and shouted an order.
“Cirrus!” Kilai yelled, gripping tightly as his miryhl lifted into the clouds again, the air boiling beneath them. Steam hissed and spat, making their visibility even worse.
Grunting with effort, Cirrus flew on, straining to reach the end of the Wrathlen and the broader confines of the Cloud Sea. Steam erupted on their left, more directly below, and Kilai cursed: they had company.
Heat billowed from behind and Cirrus shrieked, her tail and rear scalded.
“I’m sorry,” Kilai murmured, even as he urged her on, knowing she was exhausted and hurt.
Cirrus stretched out her neck and strained for more speed, then, with a suddenness that stole Kilai’s breath, they were out of the clouds, away from the Wrathlen and over the sea.
Or at least the only miryhl in sight. They had company aplenty in the form of five pyreflies.
Kilai grunted as Cirrus fanned out her wings, bringing them to an abrupt stop, before she powered upwards.
Fire raced towards them, but they were already above it. Then, as the pyreflies were joined by three more, moving to encircle the miryhl, Cirrus tucked in her wings and dived.
The pyreflies screamed with delight and descended to the chase, sending out billowing fire-clouds in their excitement.
Whispering prayers and pleas beneath his breath, Kilai tucked himself as close as possible to Cirrus’ neck and did nothing to disrupt her balance. Down on the edge of the Cloud Sea, a miryhl had the advantage, since the turbulent winds filtered through feathers, but caught and tugged on leather-wings. But pyreflies were more flexible and they revelled in the challenge of a chase through rough weather.
Heat singed Kilai’s cheek and he darted a glance back at the three pyreflies following. He looked up, dismayed to see two more keeping pace with broad strokes and more up above them. Ahead there was nothing, just empty, empty sea. He didn’t even know if they were headed in the right direction.
Cirrus panted, her wing beats increasingly laboured, and he pressed closer, wishing he could lend her his strength and take away the tiredness as easily as they shared their fear.
“I’m sorry,” she wheezed, and he held her tighter. “I… can’t.”
“Cirrus,” he whispered.
Three pyreflies dropped into the space before them, wings spread wide to hold their block, heads raised, necks pulled back. A glow gathered in the mouth of the central beast, daring them to come any closer.
“I’m sorry,” Cirrus whispered, her wings stuttering – then sagged.
Their momentum carried them a few more feet and the other pyreflies opened their mouths, breathing deep to fill their throat bellows.
The world slowed as Kilai experienced a moment of weightlessness. The fires ignited and he began to fall. Cirrus twisted, screaming —
And the world burned.
To find out what happens next
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