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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time for a miryhl moment.
AS THE BIGGEST and richest of the four kingdoms of the Greater West, Etheria was home to the Western Flying Corps, including the Rift Riders. After the attack on Feather Frost three years ago, Rider life had become centred at Kaskad. Situated along the main spine of Etheria’s east-west sprawl, inside a mazy canyon, it was more sheltered than Feather Frost had been and protected from the brunt of the north wind.
Yet despite its reasonable location, the land was barren and surrounded by brittle cliffs. If the rock didn’t shatter at a hammer blow, it sheered off in great sheets that sliced down the canyon side, crushing all in its path. As such the base was built out of pine: quick to use and easy to replace. Unlike the beautiful, weather-bleached stone of Aquila, the stately elegance of Nimbys or the icy isolation of Feather Frost, Kaskad had not been designed to last.
In short it was ugly. That had been Lieutenant Lyrai’s first impression of the place, some four years ago, and it hadn’t changed in the time he’d been away. Squat, sprawling and ugly, it looked like a mishmash of children’s toys, thrown in a heap against a tilted bookshelf of dusty, yellow cliffs. There was plenty of beauty to be found in Etheria, with its fertile valleys and high grazing plateaus, but what use were such things to Rift Riders? Or so the monarchs had decided, when they awarded the Flying Corps this scrubby spot in a desolate canyon.
Strong winds gusted down the zigzag gullies, living up to Gale Month’s name and kicking up dust spirals. It was a day to stay inside with the shutters locked, and Lyrai wasn’t sorry that they didn’t have to fly today. Though the novelty of a dry flight would be welcomed, the dust and gusts would not.
Flying or grounded, he still took the opportunity of his free morning to visit the eyries and check on his bonded miryhl.
“How do you like your new quarters?”
With his brown on cream marbled feathers, Hurricane didn’t look like any other miryhl Lyrai had ever known. That didn’t mean he wasn’t like the rest of his species in enjoying a good preen from his Rider, though. As Lyrai ran his fingers through his miryhl’s feathers, shaking out the dust and checking for injuries, the big eagle purred.
“After all the scrambling we’ve done of late, a rickety barn is quite a haven.”
The miryhl next to them – a big, conker-brown male with golden highlights – snorted and muttered beneath his breath. Lyrai distinctly heard the words Nimbys, Wellingdrop and rats, and had to smile. Cumulo was not impressed with his new residence.
Once Lyrai would have been shocked to hear another miryhl speak. It wasn’t that they couldn’t – all miryhls could talk perfectly well – it was just that they didn’t traditionally choose to speak with any beyond their own Rider. Except in emergencies. That didn’t mean conversations weren’t overheard, but it was always politely ignored. Not so with Cumulo. But the brash Wingborn was not known for following the crowd. If he felt something needed saying, he would come out with it, regardless of who was listening.
“At least there isn’t a draft,” Hurricane said, once Cumulo’s grumbles had died down.
“In this place that’s something of a miracle,” Lyrai remarked dryly, wishing he could say the same of the quarters he’d been assigned. No matter how many blankets he and the other lieutenants had shoved into cracks and corners, there was always another breeze waiting when he lay down again. After a month and a half camping in the wilderness, he didn’t think it was too much to ask to spend one night without a chill creeping down his neck, but apparently it was.
Moving onto Hurricane’s beautiful wings, Lyrai chatted with his bonded as he worked, asking how he was feeling after their recent flights and catching up on the gossip. The eyries were a busy, raucous place at the best of times, but Kaskad was dangerously overcrowded. Since the place doubled as a base for working Rift Riders and the Greater West’s selection school, it meant there had already been a full flight of a hundred miryhls here before the Aquilan refugees had even arrived.
Then there were the newly chosen eagles from the newest students, who should have gone to Aquila months ago, except fate and the Wrathlen had interfered. It had been a good year for applicants too, and normally Lyrai would have been delighted to see forty newcomers ready and raring to train, but right now they were nothing but a nuisance. With the addition of a hundred unexpected arrivals, Kaskad was at its limit, for both humans and miryhls.
Yet that was still too few. There had been two and a half flights of Riders in and around Aquila, and around one-hundred-and-forty students, before the troubles began. They’d lost three-quarters of their number, and many miryhl/Rider pairings were currently temporary, forged out of necessity after one partner had died or gone missing and left the other grieving and stranded on the long escape flight.
“All hail the mighty Rift Riders,” Lyrai muttered from the muffled warmth beneath Hurricane’s wing.
How could they ever regain Aquila when the cost of losing it had been so high? But they couldn’t simply abandon it. It was more than just a base or training academy – it had been their home. Their heart. The one place across the Overworld where Riders could simply be, without needing to bow to any higher power. Now they were reliant on handouts and politics. If the kaz-naghkt’s aim in taking Aquila was to destroy the Riders, they had quite possibly succeeded.
More likely it was just a side bonus to their real goal of securing a base as close to the middle of the Overworld as possible. From Aquila, the enemy could strike east and south without the inconvenience of getting past the Greater West first. Which made it even more important that the Riders regain their lost home as swiftly and cleanly as possible.
A gentle murmur drew Lyrai out of his self-pity long enough to emerge from under Hurricane’s wing. Ruffling the dust from his hair and dunking his hands in a bucket to scrub off the grim, he smiled at the girl leaning against Cumulo’s chest.
She acknowledged him with a nod and turned her face away.
He wasn’t sorry for it. Her grief was a stark pain ever-present in her eyes, and it made him near sick with guilt. He’d been with her under the mountain. He had held her back from her brother. Perhaps if he’d tried harder to kill that well-spoken stranger, Yullik, things would have been different. But he hadn’t, and they weren’t, and another good Rider had been lost. More than half of Mhysra seemed to have gone with him. He missed the girl’s sly humour, even the way she used to blush and hide from him. He missed the way she flew on Cumulo as if they were the same creature, and the way she used to interact with her friends. She was one of his students and he had failed her.
Rumbling with concern, Hurricane rested his beak against Lyrai’s back. “She will get better,” he murmured. “Give her time and Cumulo. She will recover.”
Knowing his bonded spoke the truth, yet unsure that he could believe it when the girl stood unseeing by her Wingborn’s side, Lyrai stroked Hurricane’s cheek. “I’ll see you later.”
Turning to leave, he paused and glanced at the girl and her miryhl. It was time to meet Captain Hylan in Kaskad’s hall, to check who had made it and who had not. Yet watching Cumulo preen his Wingborn’s hair and coo softly, he realised he didn’t want to intrude on whatever healing the miryhl might be doing. Instead he shook his head, nodded farewell to the eagles around him and left.
It was time to do something constructive for once.
~ Next Chapter ~
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