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~ Prologue ~
In which Mhysra dreams and Derry worries.
IT WAS DARK here, so very dark, lit only by the sullen red of the dragongift globe clenched tightly in Mhysra’s fingers. The walls were wet to the touch, yet warm, and somewhere water was dripping. A steady, relentless plip that kept pace with the slow pulse of the light in her hand. Her feet scuffed against the rough floor of the tunnel as she stumbled along, looking for something she couldn’t remember.
Firelight flickered up ahead, promising warmth, light and comfort. The globe fell from her fingers as she tripped hurriedly on, falling into the wider space of a cavern half-filled with rubble. It rose in heaps and mini mountains, except for a cleared circle in the centre, where a man sat, stirring a great cauldron over the fire. Too lonely, tired and cold to care who he was, Mhysra scrambled over the rocks and dirt until she slid down to join him.
Eyes intent on his bubbling brew, the man smiled. “You took your time.”
“S-sorry?” She shivered, holding her hands out to the flames, but though they shimmered orange and yellow, she felt no warmth. The backs of her hands and fingers were scraped raw and bleeding, but even they were chilled.
“So you should be.” The man looked at her, pale eyes narrowing in amusement when she stared dumbly back. “Lost your tongue, little one?”
Something broke the surface of the cauldron and she looked down – and recoiled as a thick, meaty tongue slid over the spoon before sinking again.
Seeing her horror-stricken face, the stranger laughed. “Forgive me, I couldn’t resist.” He stirred the brew again and scooped out a sliver of meat. “There’s nothing so delicious as tender doelyn, is there?”
Stones bit hard into her palms and wrists where she’d scrambled backwards, but she didn’t care. She stared at the innocuous lump of meat on the spoon, then at the smiling man holding it. Something didn’t feel right, but she relaxed anyway and settled close to the flames again. It was too cold for suspicions.
“Good girl,” he chuckled, dunking the meat back into the broth. “Can’t have you frightened of me. Wingborn should stick together.”
An unpleasant buzz started in her mind, and she stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“Wingborn.” He raised his dark eyebrows in surprise. “You know, born at the same moment another hatches from its egg. You and your miryhl, Cumulo, I believe his name is. Twins in different forms.”
“I know what a Wingborn is,” she told him, frowning as the buzzing grew louder. She touched a hand to her temple and rubbed.
He smiled and stirred. “Then you will recognise in me what I see in you.”
“You’re Wingborn?” she asked, more because of what he was implying that what she could see. To her he was a stranger of slight build, with dark gold skin, sharp features and the palest eyes. They glowed a weak barley in the firelight. Looking at him made her shiver, as if something was missing in him. An emptiness that scared her. Yet she was fascinated, unable to look away. He drew and repelled her in equal measures. No wonder she was confused.
“Clever child,” he murmured, lifting his spoon and sipping the broth. “However did you guess?” When she said nothing, he smiled and went back to stirring. “Hardly loquacious, are you? But it’s been a long time since I last encountered another Wingborn, rare as we are. Perhaps I am your first?”
Again he paused, again she said nothing. No words would form over the noise in her head. It hurt and was distracting, yet his words came through clearly.
“It’s a shame we are so few these days. A shame to be so alone. No one knows how we feel. No one else understands. Just you and your miryhl, and yet he’s a bird. Not even he can understand how you truly feel. Nor you him. Different from everyone, separate. How does it feel, child, to be so alone?”
“I’m not alone.” The words were weary and forced, slurring as they struggled to get past the buzzing.
“No,” he agreed, with a smile and a stir. “You have me. And I have you. Where are you, by the way?” The question was casual, yet it made something tighten in Mhysra’s gut and the buzzing in her head became a roar.
She felt her lips move, but couldn’t hear the words. She had no idea what she was saying, but the stranger nodded, smiling as he lifted a bowl and spooned broth into it.
“Very good,” he said. “Here. I’ve got something for you.”
The spoon swirled and she looked down.
Into the staring eyes of her dead brother’s face.
SHE WOKE SCREAMING. At least her mouth was open, but her throat was too tight to make a sound. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t scream, she couldn’t breathe. Instead she gasped like a landed fish, while memories played behind her eyes. Of tunnels, darkness, a stranger with barley pale eyes and a thundering cave-in caused by her brother’s sacrifice.
Kilai, she mouthed, wrapping her arms about her knees and hiding her face as she rocked. There were no tears, like there was no sound. Dry-eyed and silent, but the nightmares still crept up on her every night.
Someone tapped on the door. “Mhysra? Are you awake yet?” Derrain, a fellow second-year Rift Rider student and her best friend, peeped inside the gloomy room.
At his appearance she stopped rocking and gazed at him from beneath her tangled curls. The buzzing in her head grew until she could say nothing, but then there was nothing to say.
DERRAIN GLANCED AROUND the cramped room that had been allocated to the girls. Seven rumpled beds took up almost all the space, but he only cared about one. Huddled in a nest of blankets, Mhysra looked haggard, thin and so sad that his chest tightened. Sighing, he stepped into the room and shut the door.
“Oh, little one,” he murmured, taking her into his arms. She made no move to resist, nor did she soften. It was like hugging a knot of human grief. He held her anyway; it made him feel better.
It had been a month and a half since Aquila fell to the relentless attacks of the kaz-naghkt and their Wrathlen pirate allies. His memory was still a blur of panic, fear and pain of the days when they fought through the cramped tunnels beneath the mountain, struggling to escape their enemies. There was much he didn’t remember, so much he’d missed while unconscious or dazed with injury, but somewhere in that madness people had been left behind. And Mhysra’s brother had died. A cavern had caved-in unexpectedly and, while thrusting his sister to safety, Kilai had fallen behind. Now he was buried in the rubble beneath Aquila, and kaz-naghkt were feasting in those once noble halls.
Mhysra wasn’t the only one who’d lost someone when the Riders were forced to abandon their home, the citadel where future Rift Riders had been trained for centuries, but it had hit her hard. Too hard, he’d heard some mutter, criticising her for indulging in her grief. But at least she didn’t spend all her time crying, moping or whining about things that couldn’t be changed. She just didn’t speak. At first she’d seemed fine, until she’d fallen into a fever caused by her wounds. Her recovery had been swift, but she’d been silent ever since. Then again, during their month-long trip across the Heighlen Range in the middle of the Storm Season and on down through the peaks of Kevian, Derrain hadn’t had much to say either.
He’d never thought he could grow sick of flying, but apparently there was a limit. About two days of constant rain and rough nights had pretty much been it. Yet while everyone else complained, lost their tempers, threw histrionic fits or succumbed to colds and sniffles, Mhysra had remained calm, separate and silent. If he wasn’t so worried about how she was suffering, he might have been glad. Truly, there were worse travelling companions than a silent one.
“Derry?” Corin tapped on the door and entered. “She up yet?”
Looking at his fellow student over Mhysra’s head, he shook his head.
Corin’s mouth turned down, then she straightened her shoulders and marched over to the bed. “I brought you some breakfast, Mhysra. Not that I blame you for not going into that mad house. Westerners are such barbarians.”
“Hey,” Derrain protested softly. “Some of us aren’t so bad.”
“Once we get you trained,” Corin agreed, shoving a dried fruit roll at Mhysra. “Eat. There’s nothing of you. If you get any thinner, Cumulo will blow away on an updraft.”
Mhysra pulled out of Derrain’s loose hold and straightened slowly, as if the slightest move hurt. No one had escaped the tunnels without injury, and though the wound on Mhysra’s side was deep, the stitches had been removed long ago and most of her bruises had faded. But Derrain didn’t need to be a healer to know that his friend’s worst wounds were on the inside.
“I’ll leave you to eat and get changed,” he murmured gruffly, kissing the top of her head, feeling the need to be more affectionate during her isolation. “Don’t be long. Captain Hylan wants to count everyone up today.” Knowing she would be safe in Corin’s hands, he headed for the door and left them to it.
~ Next Chapter ~
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