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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time to meet up with an old friend or two.
Warning: This chapter contains a discussion of attempted suicide.
“PUT THIS OVER your face.”
A scrap of cloth appeared over his shoulder and Mouse was quick to obey the order. The midnight air was sharp with snow, making white clouds puff before his mouth. They were small and swiftly gone, and the night was too cold for many watchers, but one could never be too careful. Over the past few months Mouse had learned a lot about concealment, and slight as his breath clouds were he wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He was also more than willing to cover up his frozen nose. It ached so much he wouldn’t have been surprised if it started glowing like a beacon.
“Gods, how I envy them,” Greig grumbled, nodding at the nakhounds sharing their watch. “That fur looks so warm.”
Smiling, Mouse stroked the silky wings of the black and white bitch lying beside him. She twitched an ear in his direction but otherwise didn’t move. With her staring out at the night beyond the hanging foliage concealing their watch post, no one would have known her as the bumbling pup Mhysra had brought from Nimbys. All signs of exuberant play and clumsiness had vanished amongst the relentless seriousness of recent times. Bumble’s beautiful wispy coat was gone too, replaced by thick, shaggy fur that had grown at the first hint of snow. Mouse wished his own changes had been half as practical.
Hunching his shoulders and tugging his blanket higher up his neck, he blew some warmth into his hands. “We don’t do so bad,” he said, knowing there were worse ways to scrape a living while hiding beneath the shadow of one’s enemy.
Greig grunted, but it was too cold to pursue the conversation. Instead they sat either side of Bumble, another nakhound sitting behind them, the dogs’ noses raised to the wind as they watched and waited.
Below, Aquila lay blanketed beneath heavy snows, while the clear night formed glittering frosts that promised treacherous times ahead. Even the falls were freezing, with a shimmering crust on the river and sharp icicles hanging over the drop. Winter had come to Aquila and settled in to stay.
Not that it was all bad, Mouse thought, stroking Bumble’s soft wings. The kaz-naghkt hated the cold and flew less when there was snow around. Which meant the majority of the citadel’s defences were left to the all-too-human pirates, who were quick to grow cold and bored. After a half-moon of snow, the cracks in that unlikely partnership were definitely starting to show.
Many in the resistance were surprised that the pirates had lasted this long, doing all the cold guard work while the kaz-naghkt laired in the halls, emerging only to feed. The Wrathlen might not have been good for much, but it was warmer than Aquila, even during the foulest weather. Surely the pirates would get sick of doing all the work for no rewards soon. Mouse wasn’t sure what they’d expected to gain by seizing Aquila, but he doubted they were content with what they had – an abandoned, half-ruined town, too close to the kaz-naghkt for comfort. Especially when they were the nearest food source.
A scream cut through the icy night, rising above the roar of the falls in a sobbing wail. A pause, then a shout of rage echoed through the valley. Something snarled and there was a scuffle in the darkness before things settled again.
“That’ll be one less to deal with,” Greig muttered, as the nakhounds shifted restlessly.
“Probably two,” Mouse agreed, wondering if the kaz-naghkt had succeeded in killing both or whether the second pirate had successfully fought it off.
“Maybe three, if we’re lucky.”
Possible, but unlikely. Few of their small band of survivors would dare rely on something so frail and changeable as luck. If luck was what had kept them safe and undiscovered this long, it could be removed at any moment. Which wasn’t something he wished to contemplate, so Mouse drew his knees up against his chest and leaned forward to better study the view.
The mountain beneath and all around the citadel was riddled with tunnels, caves and passages. Some, like the ones leading to the bath caverns or Buteo, were well known and regularly used. Others less so, but easy enough to access for the determined. Then there were the ones that were completely secret. Or had been, until necessity had led the healers to open them again. Mouse and Greig were in one now, which opened over the cliffs above the western citadel. Covered and concealed by hanging moss, tree roots, bracken and gorse bushes, it provided an excellent post for observing any activity below. They were even higher than the towers and could see the distant pirate sentries ambling around the platforms in the light of their braziers.
Mouse’s fingers itched for a longbow, and Greig chuckled. “You’d never make it. Not even if you could shoot like Corin.”
Yes, it was a fool’s chance and a fool’s hope, but still… “I can dream, can’t I?”
“Always,” Greig said, turning grim. “I don’t think any of us can stop doing that.”
Ever since the loss of the citadel, Mouse wasn’t the only one to wake every night, chased out of sleep by terrors, memories and half-imagined threats. Unsurprising, considering the circumstances.
“I used to think secrets were exciting,” he murmured, staring at the shadows flickering past the west tower windows as someone climbed the stairs. “Until I became one.”
“They’re still exciting,” Greig told him, also watching the climbing shadows and frowning. “Just because something’s exciting, doesn’t make it good.”
“Or fun,” Mouse grumbled.
“Fun?” Greig snorted. “No, it’s not fun. But I’ll take months of this over one day of fun and a quick capture, any day of the moon.”
Mouse sighed in silent agreement, watching lights flare in the top room of the west tower: Dean Marshall’s office. He shivered. “I wonder what they’re up to now.”
“WELL, ISN’T THIS a fine mess?” Yullik stepped into the former dean’s office, which was now the man’s cell, and wrinkled his nose at the coppery stench of blood. “Have you eaten?” he asked the kaz-naghkt guards stationed directly outside the door. Their red eyes and drooling jaws told their own story, so he wasn’t surprised when the creatures shook their heads. “Go. I will stay until you return.”
They needed no further orders and headed towards the roof. Yullik opened his mouth to tell them not to eat the sentries, then shrugged. There were plenty more pirates to replace them, especially since the fleet had brought up whole families from the Wrathlen now that Aquila was won. It wasn’t as though the sentries were doing a vital job. Not even Rift Riders would be desperate enough to attack in such weather. Even if they did, Aquila’s walls would withstand them. They were not kaz-naghkt.
Another wave of fresh blood wafted to him and he was glad he’d sent the guards away. His control over the kaz-naghkt was absolute, but even he preferred not to have a hungry predator at his back when blood covered the floor.
Thinking of guards, he looked at the two humans Willym had left on watch. Both were former Riders, part of a ragged, rough pack who slavishly followed their erstwhile lieutenant. Yullik still couldn’t see the appeal, but they came in useful on occasion. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the door in dismissal. The idiots waited for a nodded from Willym before they obeyed, but Yullik didn’t have time to correct them just now. As long as they were out of his sight, he didn’t care what happened to them.
He focused on the room again. “Congratulations, dean, you almost succeeded.” Experience had him reading the colour of the saturated carpet and spread of the stain, as well as the pallor on the man’s face. It had been close, but not quite close enough for Dean Marshall.
The man looked pale and drawn, slumped on the floor beside his blood, exhausted more by defeat than pain. His dark eyes were glazed, but he managed to fix them on Willym.
Interestingly, the former lieutenant was unable to meet that gaze and looked a bit sick. Whoever would have guessed the boy was squeamish? Useful to know.
Amused, Yullik slapped Willym on the back. “What a hero we have here! Don’t you agree, dean? If not for his quick actions, you’d be dead by now.”
Marshall stared at Willym a moment longer before closing his eyes and dropping his head back with a sigh of bone-deep fatigue. “To save a life is not always a kindness.”
“Indeed,” Yullik agreed cheerfully, crossing the room to kneel beside the prone man, uncaring of the bloodied rug, which squelched under his feet and knees, his weight causing crimson bubbles to rise. “I can assure you from personal experience that it is no kindness to save someone from drowning. Leastwise, not at first. But then death does at times seem the easier option. Is that not so, dean?”
He reached out and clasped Marshall’s wounded wrist, bound by ragged strips of linen. When the dean weakly attempted to pull free, Yullik restrained him and flicked the bandage contemptuously aside. The slash beneath was jagged, deep but not overly long. Running three-fingers’ widths down Marshall’s left wrist and across his tendons, it still bled, but sluggishly. The nail responsible lay wetly gleaming beside the fireplace.
“Why didn’t you finish it?” Yullik asked softly, stroking a fingertip either side of the wound, memories stirring deep inside where he’d thought them permanently concealed.
Marshall hissed and tried to pull away again. “I was interrupted.”
Yullik studied his face for a long, silent moment. “The pain is more than we can ever comprehend, isn’t it? The struggle. But once begun, it’s almost a release.”
Swallowing hard, the dean looked away, but he had little to fear. His mind was one of the few Yullik couldn’t read or, rather, he chose not to. There was an insidious danger in the thoughts of a truly honourable man. Besides, at this moment, there was nothing he was thinking that Yullik didn’t know or understand.
“I took too long.”
The words were a reluctant murmur, but Yullik heard them. “Inconvenient as it may be, the survival instinct is strong,” he agreed brusquely, almost wishing he hadn’t started this conversation. “As is the human notion of hope. Particularly amongst Rift Riders, I find. You rarely give up, even when you should. It’s quite annoying.”
Marshall fixed his glazed eyes on Yullik’s face, and he dreaded what the dean might have glimpsed there. So he sliced opened his left palm with a glowing finger and wrapped his hand around Marshall’s slashed wrist.
The dean jerked, crying out with surprised pain as his eyes rolled back in his head. Yullik tightened his grip, forcing blood and golden light fresh from his flesh directly into Marshall’s.
“Please,” the dean begged breathlessly, shuddering. “No. Please, no.”
With a final squeeze, Yullik shook his head and released him. “I refuse to let you go.”
Shuddering, the dean cradled his wrist against his chest, the ragged wound now replaced with a silvery scar. On his forearm the imprint of long fingers glowed red and black. The scent of singed flesh wafted in the air.
Task complete, Yullik rose and turned to where Willym was watching, expression inscrutable. Memories retreated and Yullik smiled, licking the blood stains from his left palm. “Healing is not always a kindness either.”
When the boy said nothing, Yullik waved a hand at the mess. “See to it that the room is cleaned and that he is kept warm, well fed and watched over. Regardless of his own feelings on the matter, only I decide when my prisoners go free.”
Clearly resentful of the orders, Willym nevertheless clicked his heels and inclined his head a mocking inch. “As you wish, my lord.”
Reaching the door, Yullik noticed his kaz-naghkt guards had returned and paused. “Oh, Willym, disturb me again without permission and I will throw you off the east tower. Personally.” He snared Willym’s gaze and raised his eyebrows to make sure the boy understood that he meant it. “If you are lucky, no one will be there to catch you.”
Having seen what happened to the unlucky ones, Willym swallowed hard and bowed more respectfully. “Yes, my lord.”
“Carry on.” Smiling, Yullik left his minions to their work and went in search of an invigorating meal of his own. The Wingborn girl would stay unconscious for the rest of the night, but by tomorrow evening it would be time for her to dream again. He’d worked too hard to lose track of her progress now. With such things in mind, he searched for something to replenish his depleted energy and turned up the stairs towards the open roof.
~ Next Chapter ~
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