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~ Previous Chapter ~
So… anybody else know what’s going on?
THE BODY BENEATH him groaned and Jaymes mustered enough strength to roll away. “Heirayk’s fiery balls,” he moaned, feeling frazzled and pounded. “I think I was struck by lightning.”
Taking tentative breaths, Mhysra snorted. “Can’t be any worse than getting struck by you.”
He eyed her sideways in disbelief, thought about it for a moment – then stuck out his tongue.
She laughed. Not even her breathless wince could dull the sound.
“No!” a voice screamed in the distance, and Mhysra pushed up on her hands with a groan.
“Did you hear that?”
Jaymes nodded, letting her pull him up to standing, his body tingling with residual energy. “Lieutenant?” he called, then winced and rubbed his throat. “Ow.” Gods, it felt like he’d swallowed hot coals.
The gentle patter of rain answered, followed by a cloud of whispering mists.
“Don’t listen to it,” Mhysra advised. “It lies.”
He blinked at her, then at the mists, then back at her again. Much as he liked Mhysra, he still wasn’t entirely used to her sense of humour and couldn’t always tell when she was joking. “The mist lies?”
“It told me I was dead,” she said. “Lies. Unless you’re dead too?” She raised her eyebrows.
Jaymes’ head hurt too much for this. “I don’t think so, though I was just struck by lightning.”
They both paused, seeming to notice for the first time that not all the curling grey tendrils around them were mist. There was a definite scorched scent in the air, particularly around the new, steaming hole in his shirt over the centre of his chest.
He really had been hit by lightning.
“Huh.” Mhysra touched the charred and smoking linen tentatively. “This day only gets stranger. I don’t think we’re dead yet, but I can’t guarantee that if we stay here much longer.”
He chuckled and rubbed his soaked hair. “Where are we anyway?”
“You tell me,” she retorted, “since I got here by following you.”
It all came back then. Flying into the Stormwash – when was that ever a good idea? “That’ll teach you,” he murmured. When she rolled her eyes, he grinned. “The things we do for our friends, eh?”
Mhysra snorted and wedged her shoulder beneath his arm when his legs turned to water and he stumbled. “Speaking of which, what made you and Corin come here in the first place?”
“Something called me. Us. We had to come.”
“What kind of something?” she asked, frowning.
He didn’t know and hated not knowing, so shrugged miserably. “Just a call.”
“Hm.” She didn’t sound convinced, and he didn’t blame her. All he could remember was a voice that tugged on something deep inside, leaving him with no choice but to obey. And it came from the Stormwash.
“Odd,” she concluded, before giving a philosophical shrug. “Well, we’re here now. Best stop thinking about how we got here and start considering how to get out.”
An excellent plan. “I’ll let you lead, since nothing good happens when you follow me.”
“Indeed,” she chuckled, and put an arm around his waist to support him as the last tingles faded from his body and left him limp and weak. “Let’s find the others. Maybe between us we can figure a way out of this place.”
“YOU SHOULD BE dead.” Lieutenant Lyrai looked down at Corin, white-faced, eyes wide, lips barely moving as he repeated the disbelieving words. “You should be dead.”
Now that he mentioned it, she was feeling a little less than alive. Rather than admit it, she forced her aching body upright. “Excuse me for being grateful that I’m not.”
“Gods, Corin,” he muttered, pulling her into a painfully tight hug. “I saw you fall and there was nothing I could do. I thought you were dead.”
As nice as it was to get so much attention from one of her favourite lieutenants, Corin felt a bit tender, so despite enjoying the bonding moment, when he squeezed her even tighter she yelped.
“Sorry, sorry,” he babbled, holding his hands in the air as if afraid of damaging her again.
“It’s fine,” she muttered, pressing both hands to the small of her back and wincing. “Really.”
“You should be -”
“Dead?” she interrupted, easing her neck from side to side. “I know. You’ve said.”
“Sorry,” he repeated, staring at her as if she were a miracle made flesh. “I saw you fall.”
“I didn’t, thank Maegla. I had my eyes shut.”
He watched in silence as she stretched the rest of her body, wincing with every creak, crack and snap her much abused bones made. The small discomfort was a relief as nothing seemed to be broken. Bad enough that she could remember the long fall, outlasting her voice which had cracked from the screams. She didn’t remember the impact, but even so she could imagine. Being constantly told she should be dead was not helping. So it was nice to finish her check up in peace.
“No damage,” she told him once she was satisfied. “Just bruises and some aches.”
He nodded, a lot calmer now, eyes narrowed rather than wide. The tightening of his lips should have warned her that something was amiss, but by then he was shouting at her. “What in the names of all the Gods were you playing at? What kind of idiot flies into the Stormwash? How dare you risk your lives and your miryhls like that!”
And that was just the beginning.
Corin’s head was already spinning from the fall, but the force of the lieutenant’s anger at such short range was enough to make her go cross-eyed. Lyrai’s bellow was nothing compared to Stirla’s, but for such a slender man he could produce quite a volume. After the first five hysterical sentences his voice began to crack, adding husky and higher pitched moments to the never-ending tirade. It shouldn’t have been funny, but she struggled to keep a straight face. That wouldn’t help. So, concealing a yawn, she stopped listening, put her head on her drawn up knees and wondered when she might next get to sleep in a bed. A real one, with a nicely stuffed mattress, instead of a bedroll on a hard floor. She was knackered.
Lyrai roared on, oblivious to his inattentive audience. “… and furthermore, you – mmmph.”
The rather undignified halt was caused by Corin slapping her hand across his mouth.
The lieutenant looked furious, but she frowned at him. “Listen!”
“Lieutenant?” a familiar voice called, from not too far away.
“Over here!” Corin hollered back. “We’re over here!”
HAVING BEEN HEADING out of the mists towards a pile of misshapen rocks, Mhysra halted her hobbling run with Jaymes and turned aside. “Corin,” she and Jaymes said together, grinning.
It was at that moment that the rain stopped, the mist lifted and the angry storm drifted quietly away. The ground beneath their feet became smooth and dusty, and the high cliffs that had surrounded them were no longer there. Bright sunlight emerged from the gloom and Mhysra wasn’t the only one squinting as the scattered Riders stumbled towards each other.
“What’s going on?” Lyrai asked, helping Jaymes to remain standing, while Mhysra pulled Corin up into a hug.
“You don’t think the Stormwash lets just anybody in, do you?”
As one the Riders turned and realised that not only had the storm and mists moved away, but they’d been replaced with a far different landscape. And a group of watchers.
“Dhori!” It was part-relief, part-surprise and part-accusation with a hint of anger from all four of them. Because while they might all be bedraggled and bruised with their clothing torn, Dhori looked as fresh as if he’d just washed up and pulled on a clean uniform. Alongside him, smug and gleaming in the sunlight without so much as a feather out of place, stood their errant miryhls.
“You took your time, didn’t you?” a certain brash and cocky eagle chuckled.
Mhysra blinked at Cumulo, who had the audacity to wink. “Typical,” she grumbled, stomping across the cracked ground to poke a finger into his feathery chest. “Just because the Stormwash was kind to you, didn’t mean it was to us. Where were you when I needed you? Were you even worried about…?” Her voice trailed off as the black heap behind Cumulo – which she had thought was a rock – moved.
“Gods,” Corin muttered, but Mhysra could only stare as the rock unfolded, gleaming in the sunlight.
Rising from the glossy black mass was a pale gold neck, fading to white as it straightened. Black wings shuffled against a sloping back and the large head turned, revealing a white face with a dark mask tapering down to a tufty beard beneath a sharply hooked beak. But it was the eye that held her attention: a border of red around a broad circle of white, around a dot of black. Just like an archery target.
The bird was huge, truly enormous. Even the miryhls looked ordinary compared to it, as it shuffled around to reveal a russety-beige chest and superbly tufted legs and feet. Two others emerged from their rock disguises, all with the same startling eyes and thick, warm feathers.
“Welcome,” rasped the one who’d moved first, voice deep and husky, like the scrape of boulders down a mountain. “Welcome children of Aquila, survivors of the Veil.”
“Storm Wings,” intoned another of the great birds, half as big again as the biggest miryhls, yet only the smallest of the three. “We welcome you.”
“Be welcome in the Cleansed Lands.” The last one spoke, the black pupil of its eye dilating and contracting as it studied each newcomer in turn. “Worthy is, as worthy does. We expected two.”
“But five is not so great as to be too many,” the small one murmured.
The three of them tipped their heads to one side, identically thoughtful, then flipped their wings in a shrug. “It will serve,” they said together, and turned their backs.
Stunned, Mhysra and the others could only look hopelessly at Dhori for explanation.
“Vulardis,” he said, as if that explained everything. Apparently their joint bemusement was obvious, because he added, “Border guards, created to watch the Stormwash and Stormsurge. Impressive, no?”
Mhysra thought impressive was too weak a word, but her head was spinning too hard to come up with anything better. “What are – were they?” she corrected herself, frowning as Cumulo chuckled. “You know what I mean. Miryhls were made from eagles, doelyns from deer, bullwings from cattle, horsats from horses and bats, pyreflies from everything under the sun. So what were vulardis?”
“They were vultures.” Dhori took pity on her. “Broad-winged gliders and scavengers. These ones eat bones, which is about all they’re likely to find up here. Perfect guardians for such a remote, out of the way place.”
“And big enough to take on the Stormwash if needs be,” Lyrai murmured, staring at the nearest vulardi. “Astonishing.”
Hurricane wasn’t the only miryhl to give a huffy sniff and twitch his wings. It was Mhysra’s turn to smile: Cumulo wasn’t so smug now.
“Does this mean what I think it means?” Corin asked.
Dhori raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Are we in the Dragonlands?”
Mhysra turned to gape at her, blinked at the implications of the vulardis’ presence and stared at Dhori.
He smiled. “Come and see.” The miryhls moved aside as Dhori walked towards the mountain edge.
“Maegla strike me blind,” Jaymes murmured beside Mhysra as she walked forward, moving without any conscious thought. She was too busy staring. The vulardis had been one thing, but this view was quite another.
There were no clouds.
The rough yellow-red rocks of the mountains dropped down in jagged peaks, then plunged hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet to the undulating world below. Down there, lakes glimmered blue and silver, reflecting the sun-bright sky, and all around lay green. Woods, fields, meadows and open land. It spread into the distance, until it was swallowed by shimmering haze. With not one cloud to be seen, not even up with the sun.
They had passed through the Stormwash to the Dragonlands.
A land without a Curse.
“Sweet Maegla,” Mhysra whispered, as a ribbon of silver rippled down from the sky, heading towards them and causing the vulardis to ruffle their feathers.
“Company coming,” the nearest vulardi rasped. “Storm Wings soon will fly again. Make ready.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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