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~ Previous Chapter ~
More dragons? Well, isn’t that what every perilous situation needs?
(Oh, and if you’ve been reading the Dragonlands series, you might recognise a few faces…)
THE FORCE OF the explosion knocked Cumulo tail over top. Mhysra barely had time to gasp as she was buried beneath him. He twisted to shield her with his wing, but the impact had knocked the wind from her. Ribs protesting, she gulped for air, stunned and staring as lightning struck the rocky wall off to their left. Stony shards fell like rain. The other miryhls and Riders lay in heaps about her, while the cool moisture of the wet grass soaked into her back. Panting against her cheek, Cumulo twitched as a shadow fell over them.
The air hummed and the world paused.
Thunder boomed across the meadow in a sharp, explosive burst. The lightning stuttered and went out. The wind dropped into silence.
A drum roll of a chuckle broke the sudden silence. “I’ve told you before, young Tempestfury, not so close to the Archives.”
“I recall now why she was sent so far out,” another voice added; a sweet, clear tone like glass chimes. “They grow so fast these days.”
“Indeed,” the deeper voice throbbed, and a huge, shadowy head appeared upside down in Mhysra’s vision. Golden eyes peered at her from a face the same shape as Rhiddyl’s, except bigger. Much bigger. She sat up quickly.
The black dragon chuckled again. “Why are these Rift Riders all in a heap, Rhiddyl?”
The other one hummed and Mhysra blinked in astonishment. They didn’t just sound like glass, they looked like it too. Slender, delicate and barely larger than a horsat, the dragon was a pale translucent blue, visible mainly because of the black dragon behind them. Unlike the huge dragon – who seemed obviously male – it was impossible to tell if the smaller one was male or female, and some long distant account Mhysra had once read had mentioned that sometimes dragons could be both – or neither. Mindful of Rhiddyl’s mind-reading ability and not wanting to offend, Mhysra kept her thoughts carefully neutral.
“You must take better care of your human friends, Rhiddyl. They are fragile.”
A reedy cough dragged Mhysra’s attention away from the glass dragon and she pushed past Cumulo’s wing to see Rhiddyl. The youngster was decidedly singed, her pearly scales smeared with mud and soot. She lay draped over the unconscious boulder dragon, crest down, eyes cloudy.
“Your pardon, Elder Goryal, Archivist Reglian. I did not intend to bring any trouble here. These dragons dropped in unannounced. I do not believe their intentions were friendly.”
“Hmm,” the black dragon growled with disapproval. “Tarvenn kin Stoneskin Clan Stoneheart, what have you and your companions to say for yourselves?”
The pebbly dragon Mhysra had helped defeat cowered and rumbled something in a language of rocks and avalanches. He – she guessed – coiled up in an attempt to make himself smaller, as if such a thing was possible for a forty-foot long creature.
The glass dragon held up a slender forefoot. “Enough. You should speak in a human tongue, out of courtesy to our guests. It is only polite.”
“Polite,” snapped a sharp, sibilant voice, as the emerald dragon rose. There was a scale missing on their brow and a nostril had been torn. They looked ragged and angry, yellow eyes aglow. “Why should we be polite to humans? What need have we to befriend such as them?”
“Good manners should be adhered to regardless of species, Jarvenerald kin Jewelwing Clan Stoneheart. I would think your fresh scars might have taught you such.” The glass dragon turned back to Rhiddyl. “You did well, young Rhidystel. Your time on the border has been good for you.”
Tired though she was, Rhiddyl flushed pink beneath the soot. “You are too kind, Elder Goryal. This victory was only partially mine. My friends, the Rift Riders and miryhls, took care of themselves while I fought with this one.” She tapped a silver claw on the boulder dragon’s back. “It is lucky they are so capable or there would be a great tragedy sullying our lands.”
“Indeed,” the black dragon, Archivist Reglian, rumbled. The look he sent the two conscious earth dragons made both cower. “A record will be made of this. It will be up to the Elders to determine whether to punish Clan Stoneheart or merely issue a warning. It’s a dark day in the Cleansed Lands when guests cannot pass unmolested.”
“A record will be made,” agreed Elder Goryal, looking at the Riders and miryhls, all now on their feet, clothing straightened and feathers ruffled back into alignment. The tinge of blue deepened, making the Elder seem more solid as they settled on their hindquarters and bowed their head. “But first, formalities. Greetings, travellers from beyond the Veil and be welcome in the Cleansed Lands. Long has it been since humans were last within our borders. I, Elder Goryal Clan Starshine, on behalf of all Clans, greet you with friendship and curiosity.
“Normally I would also invite you to the next Moot, but since the winter meeting has only just passed, I am not yet certain when it will be. Still, you will be invited nonetheless.”
“They’ll all have to be called again,” Reglian sighed, his voice like distant thunder. “Wonderful.”
Goryal chuckled. “I shall take care of that, don’t you worry.”
“Rather you than me,” the big black dragon said, perking up. “In the meantime, I do believe our unexpected guests will do best with me.” Turning to the Riders and miryhls, Reglian smiled, revealing sharp white teeth. “Excellent.”
Mhysra wasn’t the only one to shift nervously, her slight back step pressing her up against Cumulo’s feathery bulk.
“And what of me?” Rhiddyl asked, raising her head hopefully. “I know our arrival was not all it could have been, but I had hoped…”
Glancing over at the dragon who had guided them every flap of the way so far, Mhysra caught Lyrai giving Rhiddyl’s silvery paw a reassuring pat.
Elder Goryal must have seen the gesture too because they hummed happily. “I do believe it best if you remain with your new friends, Rhidystel. The other elders will wish to hear your account as well as that of the Riders.” Their glassy scales took on a milky, pearlescent hue as they looked at all the Riders and miryhls in turn. “Until then, I shall commend you to the care of Archivist Reglian kin Thunderwing Clan Skystorm. I believe he has many questions to ask you, and it will save everyone a lot of bother if he can get them all out in one go.”
The black dragon chuckled thunderously deep, his golden eyes bright with amusement. “Many indeed. And with so few days in which to ask them, perhaps we should retire to the Archives. Rhiddyl, leave your conquest and show your friends to the springs. No doubt they would all enjoy a soak before joining me. But be quick, the day is already old and I have much to ask.”
“Yes, go. Relax, enjoy yourselves,” Elder Goryal urged, flexing their glistening wings. “Meanwhile I shall speak with these three. Manners in the Cleansed Lands are not taken lightly. It would appear some new lessons need to be learned.”
For a light, clear voice, the Elder could project a lot of menace. Mhysra wasn’t the only one to scramble onto her miryhl’s back, grateful to get away. Though tired, ragged, bruised and worn, the miryhls struggled back into the sky for the last leg of their journey. It was amazing what the promise of a bath and a rest could do. Not to mention the last, lingering euphoria of beating two oversized bullies. Smiling, Mhysra rested against Cumulo’s dusty back and dreamt of steaming water.
* * *
“WAKEY, WAKEY.” COOL water splashed against Mouse’s flushed face and he opened his aching eyes to the blinding pain of light. “Time to get up.”
Chains scraped across the floor, sending the rats scrabbling back to their shadows. In their place was a far bigger piece of vermin. Whistling cheerfully, Willym placed his torch in the bracket beside the door and dragged a glowing brazier into the room.
Mouse stared at the orange and red coals and swallowed. Somehow he doubted Willym had brought them here to provide warmth for his prisoners. He shot a worried glance at Healer Nehtl, but his mentor was curled up in an unresponsive heap, his skin pallid and damp. Every part of him was locked tight, from his eyelids to his joints. His lips were white, the scars and bruises from Willym’s recent games unnaturally dark.
“Oh, he really doesn’t look very well, does he, little Mouse?”
Mouse wanted to reach for Nehtl and find some way to help him, but Willym yanked his chains, forcing his wrists painfully behind his back.
Hauling Mouse upright, he whispered against his ear, “I don’t think he can play today, do you?” With a swing of the chains, he sent Mouse stumbling clumsily into the far wall and wrenched the loose links into place, securing them to the floor. “Not to worry. That’s why I kept two of you. What little secrets will you offer me today, little mouse?”
“N-no s-s-sur…render,” stammered Nehtl, sighing and shaking in his fever.
“No surrender,” Mouse agreed softly.
“Excellent,” Willym laughed, and pulled a poker from the brazier. He studied the glowing end for a long, thoughtful moment, then smiled at Mouse. “We wouldn’t want this to end too quickly, would we? Hold tight to your honour, little Mouse. Let’s see how much comfort it brings.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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