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DERRAIN CONSIDERED HOW strange it was that only two years ago he’d barely decided to join the Riders. In fact, two years ago he’d been on the Illuminai, where he’d previously imagined spending the rest of his life. Well, for as long as she remained part of the Kilpapan fleet, anyway. Yet now he was a Rift Rider student, flying on miryhl-back as if he had never done anything else. On days like this he couldn’t remember why he’d ever wanted life to be any different.
What a strange Overworld it was.
Not that today was particularly brilliant, he had to admit. In truth it was cold, the wind was unpleasantly strong and they kept getting caught in sleet-showers. However, for the moment the way was clear and the misty curtains of distant showers dragging over the empty Cloud Sea were dramatically pretty. Beautiful even, especially when the shower wasn’t headed their way.
After leaving the wilds of Scudia behind early that morning, the lieutenants had led their flurry south over the Cloud Sea towards Havia. With luck and the fortuitous aid of a brisk tail wind, Lieutenant Stirla predicated that they should hit land shortly after dark. Which meant a long day’s flight for the miryhls but, as Zephyr had told him at breakfast, better that than a miserable night hunched on whatever pitiful spit of rock they could find barely topping the clouds. Having spent two nights like that already on this trip, and several similar ones between the Heighlen, Kevian and Etheria, no one was keen to repeat the experience.
Thanks to Zephyr’s size, strength and superior endurance, Derrain had been assigned the far right lookout position, leaving him just within sight of the main formation led by Lieutenant Lyrai. Since Atyrn was a bird of similar build and strength, Stirla held the same position on the left, with two Riders as a rearguard. Everyone else was in the middle, helping the smaller, less powerful miryhls get along.
With Zephyr for company, Derrain didn’t feel lonely as he relaxed into the slow, steady beats of her wings and the long glides in between. If he got bored, he amused himself by watching the tiny adjustments her wings made to deal with the shifting wind. It was fascinating.
It was during one such study of Zephyr’s primaries, stretched wide to caress the air, that he noticed the shadow on the horizon. A rain cloud swept across before he could be certain, but he leant forward anyway.
“Zeph, am I imagining things or is something approaching from the west? After the shower.”
Tilting her head in acknowledgement of his call, Zephyr drifted closer to the flurry, waiting.
By the time the rain shower blew away there was no mistaking the shadow that had drawn inexorably closer. Close enough to make out the individual specks flying ahead of the mass on broad, leathery wings.
“Kaz-naghkt!” Miryhl and Rider shouted together. “Kaz-naghkt from the west!”
Shock ripped through the flurry as they each looked across and saw for themselves.
“Riders to me!” Lyrai was the first to recover. “Students form up. Corin, Jaymes, Mhysra, Baylen, Rekas, arrows. Dhori, Derry, with the Riders. Fly on, all of you, but prepare to defend!” Hurricane swooped around the disordered flurry, calling Atyrn and the rearguard back in while his bonded issued orders.
“Fly!” Stirla commanded the students and miryhls milling uselessly around, as Atyrn powered in from the east. For all their recent experience in siege warfare, very few students had fought in the air before. “Make for Havia. Corin, fly ahead and raise the alarm. Rhyk, defend her.”
The student and Rider on the swiftest miryhls saluted and bolted south. Havia was still a few bells of easy flight away, but a glimmer of hope was better than none.
“Fly!” Lyrai ordered again, as the six Riders positioned themselves on the right, with the lieutenants, Dhori and Derrain.
“Archers, prepare a volley.” At Stirla’s command the student archers rose above the defensive line and took aim. “Hold it… hold…” The swarm of kaz-naghkt howled closer, eyes glowing with hunger. “Loose!”
Eight bowstrings twanged, then again as the first volley punctured eyes, wings and chests.
There was time for a third round before Lyrai bellowed, “Students down! Riders attack!”
MHYSRA LOWERED HER bow as the Riders hit the front line of kaz-naghkt and shook her head. The buzzing was back, speckling her vision with black spots. Checking that she was strapped securely to the saddle, she hung on as Cumulo twisted sharply and put a foot through a kaz-naghkt wing.
Her hand went to her sword while her miryhl tore the creature’s head off with a triumphant scream. Black blood sprayed, coating her sword hilt and making her hand slip as Cumulo dived onto a fresh enemy.
She gripped the saddle tightly when he shook the kaz-naghkt hard enough to break its neck. Her head buzzed worse than ever, bright lights flashing across her vision and making her light-headed. Trying to regain focus, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath.
A scream of warning sounded from above, making her look up. Cumulo turned on his back to catch the overhead attacker. Blood splattered and showered down, filling Mhysra’s greying vision until the roar in her brain drowned out everything else.
Rolling back upright, Cumulo spat out his kaz-naghkt and swept swiftly upwards, Mhysra swaying on his back. She tried to move, to fight, to move as her miryhl moved, but her feet, fingers and lips had gone numb.
When Cumulo crashed into another enemy, the pain in her head exploded and she slumped over the saddle, surrendering to the oblivious darkness.
ZEPHYR WAS CHASING a pair of undersized kaz-naghkt down the wind when Derrain saw Mhysra collapse. “Dhori!” he shouted and pointed with his sword, knowing his friend was alongside him.
Snarling an uncharacteristic curse, Dhori turned and swept the arms off a kaz-naghkt that was following too close, stabbed it through the chest and removed the heart with a vicious twist. In two heartbeats. Then he tugged Latinym aside and swept down on the kaz-naghkt pair stalking Cumulo.
Knowing he’d secured the best possible defence for Mhysra, Derrain thrust his sword out left-handed as Zephyr caught the first of the undersized kaz-naghkt, leaving him with the second.
Showing the kind of intelligence its kind was well-known for, the creature impaled itself on his blade and looked surprised when Derrain gave a violent twist.
Thin, human lips formed an “oh” as life left its eyes. Derrain shook his sword free and let the body drop through the Cloud Sea below.
Looking for their next opponent, he spotted Stirla as the lieutenant swept around the small group of Riders.
“Fly on! Fly on!” Stirla called, as Atyrn ripped the wings from three kaz-naghkt too slow to get out of her way.
Compared to the creatures Derrain had fought at Aquila, these kaz-naghkt were smaller and stupider, oddly slow to react when injured. In fact they didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves in a fight, except attack. But what they lacked in combat abilities they more than made up for in numbers. Whenever one was dispatched, it seemed like two more were there to take their place.
“Move!” Stirla snapped, pushing them forward as the kaz-naghkt pulled back, the flock swirling in a menacing black mass. “Fly!”
Though coated with black gore and blowing after a hard day’s flight on top of their recent exertions, Riders and miryhls pushed south in pursuit of Lyrai’s group, who were shepherding the less able students along.
Ice spat against Derrain’s cheek and he cursed as a sleet shower engulfed them. As usual, the weather showed perfect timing. Hunching his shoulders, he turned to look behind as the kaz-naghkt flock reformed to attack, like starlings swirling over Nimbys at dusk.
“Brace yourselves!” Stirla ordered, his bellow drowning out even the kaz-naghkt’s excited yips and cackles. “Riders ready!”
Tightening his grip on his sword, Derrain shook sleet from his eyes and held on as Zephyr banked sharply left. Side by side with four Riders and Lieutenant Stirla, they ploughed into the kaz-naghkt again and the battle raged on.
NIGHT WAS DRAWING in, made worse by the heavy clouds pouring rain and sleet over them at sporadic intervals, when Lyrai caught his first sight of Havia’s shores. A long, dark line of uncompromising mountains crept over the horizon, bringing with it the faint hope of a salvation that might yet arrive.
The kaz-naghkt were still on their tails, harrying them with short, ferocious bursts of fighting, even though their numbers lessened with each pass. The creatures that remained, however, were bigger, stronger and smarter than the rest. And with each flown mile the miryhls grew more weary. Over prolonged distances, kaz-naghkt were stronger.
Urging Hurricane upwards, they caught the wind and steadied out, letting the flurry skim by beneath them. Lyrai assessed the group he and Stirla had been given, comparing it to the ragged ones left. Four students and miryhls had been lost in the constant battering from behind, along with two Rider pairs and one of the pack miryhls. Of the rest, many were injured and all were exhausted. They needed to reach land soon or they weren’t going to make it.
He looked up and found that Stirla and Atyrn had risen to join them, taking advantage of the momentary respite to confer.
“How’s the arm?” Lyrai asked, nodding at where his friend was holding his left arm across his body. If there was any blood, he couldn’t see it, but they were all so thickly coated in kaz-naghkt black that it was impossible to see anything else. That combined with the rain made him wonder how the miryhls were keeping aloft. Hurricane was several shades darker than usual, his beautiful feathers mashed in thick matted clumps.
Stirla’s grunt was just audible over the rain. “Be better for a rest.”
They would all be, Lyrai thought, but didn’t bother saying it. Instead he glanced behind to make sure they weren’t under any immediate threat. If anything the kaz-naghkt had dropped back. It made him suspicious. No doubt they had something worse planned.
Following his glance, Stirla looked over his shoulder and grimaced. “Should we make a sprint for it?”
Tempting, but… “We daren’t. The student miryhls won’t make it.” Many of them had come close to being left behind already, struggling to maintain a steady pace without any hope of rest. Only the constant bullying and berating of Cumulo and Hurricane had gotten them this far. Raising the pace would finish them off entirely. “We need to stick together.”
Stirla grunted again. “Just wishful thinking.”
Knowing how he felt, Lyrai nodded to his friend and leaned forward, urging Hurricane back to the front where they belonged. As they settled into the rhythm again, keeping the pace as fast as the weakest could maintain, Lyrai wiped the rain from his eyes and wished the smudge of Havia was closer.
Below them, half-hidden by the turbulent Cloud Sea, spikes and spires of low outcrops cast black marks against the grey-white, promising firmer land just ahead. It was tempting to take a rest, but it would be freezing down there, lashed by sleet and sea, not to mention near impossible to defend when the kaz-naghkt inevitably attacked. With the miryhls this exhausted, there was a high chance that any who landed down there would never take off again. He needed forests and shelter. Which could only be found on Havia.
With such thoughts in mind, he hunched his shoulders, lay closer to Hurricane’s back and focused on the land ahead. Which must have been why he missed the thick shadow grouped against the darkness of an outcrop, waiting for them to fly over.
“Below!” Dhori shouted, and Lyrai looked down as the shadows uncurled and sprang.
“’Ware, ’ware, above!” came a cry from further back, and Lyrai drew his sword with a curse as another kaz-naghkt pack struck through the screen of rain clouds.
Safety and salvation were so close, but the enemy had no intention of letting them get away.
Screaming his own frustration, Hurricane arrowed down to barrel through the rising cloud of kaz-naghkt, shredding wings and knocking several silly as he slammed them against each other and back into the outcrop they had come from. His miryhl was not happy. Lyrai couldn’t blame him, as he sliced off limbs and stabbed for any chests that came within reach. He was sick of this, sick of fleeing, of fighting, of blood and death.
“Havia! Havia for the Riders!”
The most welcome of cries sounded as miryhl-screams surrounded him and a flurry of fresh, furious eagles joined the fight with a pack of baying nakhounds.
The kaz-naghkt scattered, unwilling to face a well-rested foe. The Havian miryhls and hounds gave gleeful chase, while Lyrai was all too happy to turn his back on his enemy. He had enough presence of mind left to check that his depleted flurry was still with him before he pushed on towards land and a place to rest.
No lieutenant could ask for more.
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