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~ Previous Chapter ~
THERE WERE NO days in the darkness, no way of counting the passage of time. Only cold and pain and despair. Light became the enemy, carried in by Willym’s brutal hand. The rest of the time they were alone, surviving on pitiful portions of dirty bread and sparse cups of water. There was no way to treat their wounds, no way to monitor their progress. All they could do was sit together – when Willym loosened their chains enough – shivering in the darkness, fending off rats.
Mouse felt broken, shattered by Willym’s tactics of physical torture – whip, fists and the threat of fire – followed by watching his companion suffer the same treatment. He wasn’t sure which was worse, but it hardly mattered. Betraying his fellow survivors no longer seemed such an impossible dishonour. How could it be when he had to watch his mentor die a little more with each whiplash?
Already injured in the attack that had made them prisoners, and worn out by months of worry and poor rations, Nehtl simply couldn’t sustain the constant torture. Every time Willym left them to the pitiless dark, Mouse found himself counting Nehtl’s slowing, weakening breaths, fearing each would be the healer’s last.
“Not long now,” Nehtl whispered in the blackness. “Hold tight, Mouse.”
Finding the older man’s hand, Mouse squeezed tightly, worried by the weak response and the heat beneath his sweating skin. “We’ll get through this,” he promised, or perhaps pleaded, though there were no Gods listening here. “Imaino will come.”
“No surrender,” Nehtl wheezed. “No matter what. Willym won’t keep his word. Don’t forget. Don’t give in. Promise?” When Mouse didn’t reply, Nehtl gripped his hand with surprising strength. “Promise.”
“No surrender. I promise.”
Sighing, Nehtl sagged against the cold wall, resting his head on Mouse’s shoulder. “No surrender,” he whispered, slipping into sleep.
Leaving Mouse alone, listening to his breathing slowing in the dark.
* * *
“ARE YOU STRAPPED in? Please be strapped in,” Cumulo chanted, soaring above Rhiddyl as the biggest dragon hit her hard enough for something to crack. Lightning flashes made Mhysra wince, shifting her weight in her saddle.
“Don’t fall!” her Wingborn shrieked.
“I have no intention of falling!” she snapped. “You do your job, I’ll do mine.”
“As if that comforts me.”
“Cue!” she screamed – and the rock hit them.
HURRICANE DIVED LOW and Lyrai didn’t argue, since the larger dragon would have more trouble manoeuvring down there. Until the ground leapt up in a shower of mud and stones.
Giving an undignified squawk, Hurricane shook off the dirt and lifted higher, while Lyrai twisted in desperate search of their attacker.
It came from beneath, an unexpected strike of jewelled green, like the charmed snakes of Sutherall. It hissed in the same manner, releasing a spray of glistening liquid.
Back-winging frantically, Hurricane managed to keep away from the dangerous drops. Once the air was clear, he dove shrieking towards the dragon’s smug face.
It recoiled, but not fast enough. An armoured eyelid deflected the furious eagle’s talons, which curled around its crest instead. Scrabbling and scratching, Hurricane caught hold of something and wrenched, a fist-sized scale breaking free as he powered upwards.
Yipping with surprise, the dragon touched the bare patch. Amber liquid pooled against its black claws and it turned, whiplash quick, spearing Hurricane with a red-eyed glare.
“Cane,” Lyrai warned. “Drop the scale.”
“Never,” his miryhl growled, soaring past where Rhiddyl was wrapped around a mossy boulder of a dragon, throwing out electrical sparks like creeper vines. “It’s mine.”
Seeing the emerald dragon coiling, ready to spring, Lyrai gulped. “I think it wants it back.”
“Then it will have to take it!” Hurricane screamed in defiance, tipping into another dive.
The emerald dragon leapt.
BOULDERS AND ROCKS showered from the sky, some the size of Corin’s fist, others as big as a miryhl. Wisp darted about, avoiding the worst, but she was tiring. No, Corin thought, she was already exhausted. Now poor Wisp was straining to keep them alive.
“Dhori!” Corin screamed, as a flash of silver darted past. “Do something!”
Quite what she expected her fellow student to do, when both of their exhausted miryhls were frantically dodging rocks thrown from the sky by a pebble-dark dragon, she didn’t know. But she expected something. He was Dhori. The unexpected was his stock-in-trade.
Which was why when the rocks stopped raining down, she turned to him and asked, “What did you do?”
He smiled and pointed up. “Ask Cumulo.”
THE EMERALD DRAGON’S mouth gaped, fangs glinting as it breathed in, ready to spray its poison.
A flash of brown barrelled in from the left as Jaymes and Argon managed to knock the dragon’s head aside. Pouncing gleefully, Hurricane caught a flaring nostril with his talons. Lyrai grabbed his saddle as they jolted, almost stopping before Hurricane shot free, tumbling through the air.
The dragon squealed, amber blood gushing from its fresh wound, and Argon flapped swiftly away. There was a crack as the dragon’s head smacked the ground, but by then the miryhls were soaring.
“That was close,” Jaymes shouted, wiping an amber smear off his reddened face.
Lyrai glanced at the dazed dragon stirring below and knew it wasn’t over yet.
“NO ONE. TOUCHES. My. Wingborn,” Cumulo shrieked, battering the pebbly dragon with his body and wings as he took short, sharp dives at the monster’s head. On his back Mhysra peppered the dragon’s muzzle, ears and eyes with rocks. She hadn’t expected it to work after Cumulo caught the first stone, but he’d been so furious she hadn’t dared argue when he’d ordered her to catch more while he took care of things.
Yet, surprisingly, considering its colouring and seemingly endless supply of ammunition, the pebbly dragon had a soft nose. Its eyes were armoured, but since it had to close them every time anything came close, it wasn’t a huge loss. The best targets, however, were its small ears. Whenever she hit them the dragon shook its head and moaned.
Which was why Cumulo was battering them now, talons sunk into the dragon’s crest, wings beating hard around its ears. “No one,” her miryhl growled. “She’s mine. No one touches her.”
While she was flattered at this staggering show of possession, Mhysra worried about his fervour. If he hit the dragon any harder he was going to damage his wings, and then where would they be?
“Good work, Cue!” a voice shouted, and a flash of silver caught Mhysra’s eye. “Keep it up!”
The pebbly dragon yipped and dived for the ground as Dhori and Corin bombarded its muzzle with stones. Cumulo tightened his grip and battered the dragon’s ears all the harder. Stomach lurching at the swift and sudden dive, Mhysra laughed.
DIVIDING HIS ATTENTION between the dazed emerald dragon and the crackling black ball of Rhiddyl’s fight, Lyrai was astonished to hear a laugh. He turned just as the third dragon ploughed nose-first into the dirt, sending up a shower of mud and rocks as it burrowed frantically underground. Three miryhls kicked free, diving and shrieking at its back like magpies mobbing a fox.
“That looks like fun,” Jaymes called, and Argon darted away to join in.
Hurricane huffed but followed, while Lyrai glanced back at Rhiddyl. The ball was swelling, the thick black coating thinning to reveal the wild, unruly lashes of lightning within. As he watched, the ball became a bubble and the black turned clear.
“Move!” he screamed, urging Hurricane faster. “Everybody down!”
Four Riders and four miryhls stared at him, eyes widening as they saw what he fled from. They dropped.
The explosion punched into Lyrai’s back, knocking Hurricane from the sky with a bone-shaking boom. Lightning lashed as Lyrai hit the earth, put his arms over his head and prayed to Maegla.
~ Next Chapter ~
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