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~ Previous Chapter ~
Cliffhangers ahead! More than one!
Also, this chapter contains Willym being Willym, which is about as unpleasant as you might expect, so be prepared.
AFTER THE RIDERS’ ordeal inside the Storm Wash, Rhiddyl wouldn’t hear of setting off the next day, preferring them to have a proper rest. After all, the dragon said, there was no rush. Their petition must be placed before all of the Clan elders, and they could rarely be called on to meet outside of the midsummer and midwinter. Since Midwinter had passed only days earlier, messengers would have to be dispatched to bring them all back again. Since few elder would be happy about that, the longer they could leave their request, the better for all involved.
Instead Rhiddyl entertained them by drawing a map of the Dragonlands on the floor of her cave, pointing out the relevant places they would see along their journey.
Cleansed Lands, Lyrai corrected himself, yawning as he tightened Hurricane’s girths. He must remember to use the name the dragons did. It would be disrespectful to do otherwise while in their territory.
“Long night?” Hurricane asked, when his lieutenant crawled into the saddle.
“Is it my fault that Rhiddyl tells remarkable stories?” he grumbled, collapsing against his neck.
“As a storyteller my skills are indifferent,” Rhiddyl remarked from her perch above the cave mouth. “It is the subject that fascinates you.”
Pushing his hair back, Lyrai looked up at the dragon clinging to the steep rock as effortlessly as one of her small lizard cousins. The muted blue-grey of her scales would have blended in perfectly on the slopes of Nimbys or Aquila. Here the red-yellow rock made her dark colours stand out as exotic and beautiful.
Rhiddyl raised her head and drew the scent of morning deep into her lungs. “Rain is coming,” she said, opening her eyes, the stormy orbs swirling with lighter shades. “We should go.” The dragon dropped down the sheer cliff before opening her wings and swooping out into the dawn.
“Show off,” Dhori muttered.
The others looked at him in surprise, but Lyrai smiled. “You don’t like dragons, do you?”
Circling around the mountain, Rhiddyl laughed, a series of long, rippling notes. “He knows us too well. Come along, Rift Riders, the day grows no younger.”
“True enough,” Hurricane remarked, bounding to the edge of the mountain. “Shall we?” he called to his Rider, then without waiting for a reply leapt into the day, the others close behind.
* * *
STONE. I AM stone. Strong, enduring, silent.
The lash bit deep into Mouse’s back, and though his whole body arched in agony, he made no sound. His mouth tasted of blood where he’d bitten his lip, but he said nothing. He sagged in his chains, the metal pulling tight against where it was secured to the ring in the centre of the floor, his wrists stretched painfully high above his head. Even in the chill of the underground cell, his body dripped sweat as he shivered and gasped.
“Impressive.” Mouse cracked open a swollen eye and watched over his shoulder as Willym lazily coil the whip again. “You’ve almost made something of him, Nehtl. So pathetic before, but now…” He paused, running the leather through his fingers and smiled at the healer, chained cruelly tight opposite Mouse, unable to even flinch. “You might even have made a man out of him one day. Given more time.”
In a flash the genial man was gone, his expression gleeful as he uncoiled the whip in a swift, strong strike. It cracked right across the centre of Mouse’s back, directly atop the last stripe. For a moment the world blinked out, and he choked on a scream.
“Good,” Willym purred. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Every Mouse squeaks eventually.” He traced a gentle finger over the fresh lash, then pushed with his whole hand. “Tell me where the others are.”
The pain, combined with the shock of his bare chest meeting the icy wall, left Mouse speechless, unable to even breathe, let alone speak.
“Stop!” Nehtl shouted, struggling against his restraints. “Leave him be.”
“Hm?” Willym murmured absently, releasing the pressure and tracing Mouse’s spine with a fingertip. “What was that? I didn’t quite hear you.” He shoved Mouse back into the wall with both hands, lighting beacons of pain all over his body.
“I’ll tell you!” Nehtl cried. “Leave him alone, let me tend him and I’ll tell you.”
“Promise?” Willym asked, stepping back and leaving Mouse to swing from his wrists.
Nehtl let out a shuddering breath. “I promise.”
“No,” Mouse tried to say, but his mouth was too dry. “Don’t.”
Willym coiled his whip with a slow smile. “Good of you to offer, Nehtl,” he said, wheeling and striking Mouse across the back again. “But I don’t believe you.”
“You’re hardly in a position to make demands, healer,” Willym chuckled, crossing the cell, whip trailing behind him. “So why don’t we change that?”
He wrenched the holding pin for both their chains from the floor and Mouse collapsed like a rag doll. Nehtl managed to keep his feet, but the rasp of his pained breathing told its own story as his arms curled inwards.
“Oh, come now,” Willym tutted, hefting Mouse to his feet and turning him about so that he faced the room. “What ever happened to Rift Riders brave and true?” On the last world he yanked Mouse’s chains taut, making him jerk upright like a puppet. The traitor laughed delightedly. “I could do this all day.”
Working a tiny bit of moisture into his mouth, Mouse managed to spit at him.
“Watch you manners,” Willym said, casually backhanding him across the face, twisting Mouse’s dangling body to the side. “The youth of today, so disgusting. Not like in your day, eh, healer?” Leaving Mouse hanging, wincing at the fresh pain in his face, the former lieutenant moved his attention to Nehtl.
“Turn around, sir healer. Let’s show the boy how it’s really done.”
“No…” Mouse croaked as his mentor turned his back and Willym tightened the chains. “No.” The shirt was ripped from Nehtl’s back as Willym began coiling his whip. “No!” Leather cracked as it bit into flesh and the dark cell echoed with Mouse’s screams.
* * *
FROM THE FIRST bell of their flight through the Cleansed Lands, both miryhls and Riders were silent. Strung out on either side of Rhiddyl, they kept an easy pace with the gliding dragon, all the better to stare.
The world below dropped in steep gorges, rose in smooth hills and meandered in river valleys, deep, broad, shallow and narrow. Scrubby heath and rippling forests gave way to open meadows and swaying grasslands. Though there were no towns or cities, hedges and fences showed that at least some of the land was cultivated. Especially where herds of animals were gathered. Some were familiar, some had unexpected wings, but many more were unknown to the travellers. And that was just the beginning.
All too soon the land dropped and the green fields were replaced by sparkling waters and flat yellow sand, rolling in grass-spotted dunes on one side of a broad river estuary. Then they were over the sea, and there were no words to describe their wonder at the sparkling water and surging waves. Rhiddyl let them dip low enough for the cool air frisking over the surface to tickle the miryhls’ bellies before she urged them all up and away from the dangers of becoming waterlogged.
The sea was a blue like nothing Mhysra had ever seen, darker sections revealing depth or cool currents, while other parts were almost green. There were islands amongst the magnificent shallows, stretching as far as her eye could see. The Barrier Archipelago, Rhiddyl called it, but that name didn’t do the place justice.
Over the next two days, Rhiddyl sunned herself contentedly on sand bars and beaches, while the Riders pulled off their boots and frolicked in the waves, or wriggled their toes in the sand, while the miryhls explored the thick tropical forests and its strange hairy fruit. Pebbles were collected, unusual shells examined, and odd creatures with curved claws and a sideways scuttle were poked with sticks and beaks and discussed at great length. Rhiddyl said such creatures were perfectly edible and instructed them in cooking their first seafood meal.
If the Riders were in wonderment of the new world they had stumbled into, it was nothing to Rhiddyl’s enjoyment at showing it to them. Which probably explained why they were all so reluctant to move on each morning, encouraging Rhiddyl to let the sun warm her up before they ventured into the skies again.
Shortly after noon on their third day, when they had been flying for about two bells over familiar rocky landscapes, Rhiddyl let out a deep growl. “We tarried too long,” she said in response to their stares. “Quickly now. We still have a way to go.”
The surge of her wings buffeted the unprepared miryhls, and by the time they all recovered, Rhiddyl had pushed their gentle glide to a pace more often used by emergency couriers. The miryhls were too breathless to protest, while their Riders only had to see the flickers of lightning in the dragon’s eyes to hold their tongues. Yet it was another two bells before they understood her sudden urgency.
Dragons. Three of them. Big, solid and fast upon their tails.
“Maegla,” Mhysra whispered, staring over her shoulder. Judging by Rhiddyl’s response, and the way these strangers were gaining on them, she didn’t think this was a welcoming committee. With that in mind, she settled against Cumulo and urged her tiring Wingborn to keep going.
“They will try to outflank us,” Rhiddyl shouted. “If I were alone they would never catch me.” She flexed her claws with an angry snort. “Clan Stoneheart. They overreach themselves.” She darted a look over his shoulder and rumbled another growl. “At least they are not Clan Sunlord or else we would be in real trouble.”
After suffering a siege of pyreflies, Mhysra could imagine how devastating an unfriendly fire dragon could be.
Lifting her head, Rhiddyl checked the flagging miryhls and trilled with concern. “I am sorry for this hard pace, but we still have several leagues to go. If we can get within calling distance of the Archives, we will have help, I know it.” She glanced over her shoulder again, sparks of lightning flashing not just in her eyes, but also over her scales. “Try to keep up. Help will come.”
Knowing there was nothing else they could do, miryhls and Riders pressed on. A glance to her left told Mhysra that Argon was struggling. Hurricane and Cumulo were large enough to maintain this pace for a short while, but although the other three miryhls were lighter and faster, they were better over short distances. Though she couldn’t see the others, Mhysra knew that if Argon was failing, poor Wisp must be near spent.
“A little further, little further,” Rhiddyl urged constantly as they flew, glancing over her shoulders and sweeping them forward with long flaps of her wings. But it wasn’t enough. No matter how much heavier the chasing dragons were, they were still dragons, and no miryhl could match even the stockiest one’s pace. They were simply too small. Within another bell the dragons were closing around them, drawing inexorably inwards to trap their prey.
Snarling, Rhiddyl scooped the miryhls up with her wings, bringing them in close. “Scatter,” she whispered, and when her wings opened, the tired eagles darted in five different directions.
Rhiddyl twisted herself into a spiral, her scales glowing a bright angry white and throwing off sparks. Once the miryhls were out of her immediate vicinity, she took a deep breath and roared.
Thunder boomed out of a cloudless sky, then the biggest earth dragon hit Rhiddyl like an avalanche. They’d been caught.
~ Next Chapter ~
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