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Swordplay and rage.
MHYSRA’S STOMACH GROWLED as she headed to the kitchen, expecting to find the others nearby. The sun was bright and high when she’d finally woken, but since they’d talked so late last night she didn’t think anyone would accuse her of being lazy. Although the fact that Corin was already up surprised her. Her friend liked to claim as much sleep as and when she could.
The kitchens were empty when Mhysra found them, although food had been left out by the mysterious lizard servants – more politely known as dracos. She tucked into a sweet pastry filled with stewed apples and wished she could thank the cook. They were clearly a genius, whoever and whatever they were.
Taking a second pastry, she headed towards the backdoor and the noises coming from outside. After passing through a kitchen garden of meticulously arranged vegetables, growing well despite the winter season, Mhysra followed the sound of swordplay into a pretty orchard.
“If he keeps his guard too high,” – Lyrai’s voice rang out clearly between clashes of metal – “it leaves his lower body exposed.” A flurry of blows ended in breathless laughter and staggering footsteps. “But only if you’re quick.”
Wandering through the leafless trees, picking at her pastry, Mhysra spotted figures on the wide field beyond. Stretched out on the far side, Rhiddyl’s silvery wings shimmered as she watched the swordplay with rapt attention.
“And if he concentrates too much on trying to get beneath my guard,” Dhori said, backing away from Lyrai’s onslaught, “the next thing he knows –”
Mhysra didn’t see quite how he did it, but somehow the student slipped his sword beneath the lieutenant’s and spun past him, taking Lyrai’s weapon with him. Sunlight flashed on steel as the lieutenant’s sword was flung onto the grass.
“Oh, marvellous!” Rhiddyl praised, patting the ground with appreciation. “Can you do it again? More slowly?”
“Indeed. I too would like to see how you did that, but more slowly.” Lyrai smiled ruefully as he retrieved his sword. “It’s been a while since I was so summarily disarmed, I’d hate for it to become a habit.”
Dhori saluted him with the tip of his blade and smiled. “We’ve all been guilty of complacency a time or two, sir. Better it happen in practise than elsewhere, and it never hurts to be reminded that we’ve all still got things to learn.”
“Consider me your student then,” Lyrai chuckled, shifting back into the position just before Dhori had disarmed him.
Licking pastry crumbs from her fingers, Mhysra crossed the grass while Dhori took Lyrai and Rhiddyl through the move, falling so naturally into the role of instructor that Mhysra had to wonder whether he’d done it before. Then again there were a lot of things Dhori was so good at that he could have done them before. Surely no one could be born so naturally competent. Yet he looked as young as the other students. A real mystery that.
“Now you try,” Dhori offered, as Lyrai retrieved his sword for the second time.
While Dhori talked the lieutenant through the move, Rhiddyl looked up and saw her. “Good morning, Mhysra,” she greeted cheerfully. “How are you this fine day?”
She smiled at the dragon, marvelling at how quickly Rhiddyl had become familiar. “Better for the rest, thank you. And you? I hope you’re feeling no ill effects after our adventures.”
“No indeed. I feel quite refreshed by all the exercise,” she agreed, then spoiled it with a wide yawn. “Or at least I will, once I have enjoyed this delicious sunshine a little longer.” She flexed her shimmering wings and swished her tail over the short grass. “Your friends have been teaching me the finer points of swordplay. It is quite fascinating. Almost makes me wish I were human-shaped.” Her talons tolled like a bell as Dhori’s sword clattered against them.
“Sorry!” Lyrai called.
“A fine disarm,” Rhiddyl fluted, daintily pinching the blade between two sharp claws. “It takes more than a spinning sword to harm me, though you should be more careful of your friends.” She dropped the hilt into Dhori’s waiting hand.
“Decided to rejoin the world at last?” Lyrai smiled at Mhysra, spinning his sword in his grip and flexing his fingers. “Is Corin coming? Or is she still sleeping?”
“I thought she was with you,” Mhysra said, raising her voice to be heard as the men resumed their sparring. “Her bed was empty when I woke.”
“As was Jaymes’.” Dhori frowned, parrying Lyrai’s attack before countering. “I haven’t seen either of them and I was up early. Perhaps they’re in the eyries.”
“They weren’t when I visited Hurricane,” Lyrai replied, blocking a flurry of blows and side-stepping Dhori’s attack. He ducked an overhead swipe and kicked out at the student’s legs.
Caught by surprise, Dhori stumbled back a pace and tripped over some loose ground, ending up flat on his back. Before Lyrai could press his advantage, Dhori rolled, flipped to his feet and knocked Lyrai’s attack high enough to kick his lieutenant in the chest.
“Hardly sporting,” Rhiddyl exclaimed, as they broke apart, circling, breathless and grinning.
Mhysra shrugged. “They seem to be enjoying themselves.”
“Yes, but they are human. Fragile, foolish, strange.”
“Not just human,” Mhysra corrected, smiling. “Men. Human women aren’t nearly so silly.”
Lyrai straightened up with a snort. “Says the girl who fought the kaz-naghkt after only a few moons’ training and shouted at me when I tried to reprimand her.”
When she opened her mouth to defend herself, Dhori offered her his sword. “Show don’t tell.”
She took his sword with a raised eyebrow, surprised to find that the balance wasn’t much different to her own, despite Dhori being a few inches taller and much better skilled.
“Nothing to say?” Lyrai taunted. “Perhaps you agree with me.”
“Hardly,” she retorted, swinging an inelegant attack at his head.
“Is this fair?” Rhiddyl murmured, as Mhysra backed away from a series of strong, linked attacks. Lyrai was at full speed and she was struggling to keep up. “She is much younger, is she not?”
“They are close in height,” Dhori assured the dragon. “Which means their reach is fairly equal, and the lieutenant is only six years older, though he has been training for longer.”
“He is stronger,” Rhiddyl said worriedly. “And more skilled.”
Gritting her teeth, Mhysra knocked aside a throat thrust and followed with a jab towards Lyrai’s stomach, driving him back a step. She managed to get in a couple of wild swipes, before he got her on the back foot again. Her arms ached and she’d hardly done anything.
“We all have to learn some time,” Dhori said, just as Lyrai slid his sword down her blade, catching it in the grip of his eagle-headed hilt and, with a deft twist, sent it flying. At the same moment he hooked a foot around her ankle.
She hit the ground moments after her sword, flat on her back, staring at the clouds drifting slowly apart in the endless blue sky above.
Then Rhiddyl was peering down at her, pearly scales almost pewter with concern. “Is she well?”
“She’s fine,” Dhori assured the dragon.
“She’s out of practise,” Lyrai said, seizing her wrist and hauling her to her feet.
Rubbing her back, she narrowed her eyes and looked for Dhori’s sword. “I’d been doing well until everything went wrong,” she grumbled, holding in a groan as she bent to pick up the discarded blade. “You can hardly blame me for getting distracted.”
“Blame, no.” Lyrai shook his head, shifting his sword to his left hand and warming up his wrist. “But I can and will still punish you. Rift Riders should never be caught napping.”
“Is she not just a student?” Rhiddyl asked, crest rising protectively. She’d already shifted her weight forward, ready to intervene.
“She is, but the kaz-naghkt and their allies make no allowances for age or inexperience,” Lyrai said. “And neither can we. All Riders need to be able to defend themselves, students included. The Overworld is too dangerous for tender considerations.”
“It’s my own fault,” Mhysra reassured Rhiddyl, thinking her sweet, if a little misguided. “That’s why I’m so annoyed.”
The dragon flattened her crest and scratched the edge of her nose. “You are all so strange.”
“They are human, Rhidystel, and thus incapable of being anything else.”
Mhysra was relieved to lower her sword as Reglian walked out of the orchard in his human form, golden eyes glinting in the sun. Smiling, he patted the young dragon’s claw and studied the Riders. “It is good to see you all up and about after your recent travels.”
“All?” Mhysra asked. “Have you seen Jaymes and Corin then?”
“Indeed.” His smile showed his teeth. “They left quite early. Do not fret,” he added, seeing the worried look Mhysra exchanged with the others. “They had their own reason for coming through the Veil. It is time for them to meet it.”
Mhysra didn’t like the sound of that, but Lyrai beat her to the question. “Where are they?”
“Nearby,” Reglian replied, his smile like his answer infuriatingly vague. “There is no reason to worry. They are safe and will be back soon. It is important that they do this.”
Dhori folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “They will come to know harm? Your word on this?”
Reglian raised his golden eyebrows. “You have my word that no harm will come to your friends. This happened in the times before, and as the circle turns ever onwards, it is right that it should happen again. Need is what guides them, regardless of borders. All will be well.”
When none of them looked convinced, Reglian frowned, resting against Rhiddyl’s foot and tapping his fingers against her silver claw. “I had forgotten the scepticism of humans. It is not an endearing trait.”
Lyrai stared flatly back. “If you expect an apology, you will have a long wait.”
Almost without thinking, Mhysra moved closer to her lieutenant, the sword heavy in her hand. Dhori stood just in front of her, the three of them tense and ready.
Rhiddyl tipped her head down and fluted a chuckle, while Reglian gave an exasperated sigh.
“They are in no danger,” the male dragon growled. “Nor are you. All is well in the Cleansed Lands, which cannot be said of your own cursed Overworld. Put those swords down before you hurt yourselves. A different dragon might take offence.”
“You are keeping secrets,” Dhori said, his own voice close to a growl. “Why should we trust you?”
Reglian laughed, loud and long. “Secrets!” he boomed. “You accuse me of keeping secrets, Dhoriaen Aure? A fine one to talk. How you do not get tangled up in all the lies you weave, I will never know. Why, it’s almost miraculous.”
Mhysra glanced at her mysterious friend and was surprised to see him blush. “We are not speaking of me,” Dhori said between gritted teeth. “But of our friends.”
“Yes, your friends,” Reglian murmured, and shifted away from Rhiddyl’s foot. “You must be so curious about your friends.” He tipped his head as if listening to a far-off voice, then smiled. “Come, I will show you your friends, so that you might put your minds at ease.” He strode into the orchard without looking back.
Lyrai turned to Dhori and sheathed his sword. “Well?”
Mhysra wasn’t certain what the lieutenant was asking. The closed expression on Dhori’s face said that he knew and wasn’t going to answer. He shook his head and turned away. “We should follow.”
“Yes,” Rhiddyl hummed, making them jump. “You will find it enlightening.”
“And you?” Dhori asked, narrowing his eyes.
Rhiddyl chuckled, lay her head on the ground and rolled onto her side. “I am enlightened enough for one day. Anything else the sun will tell me.” Closing her eyes, she fell asleep.
“Dragons.” Dhori shook his head and stalked away.
Mhysra raised her eyebrows at Lyrai, who smiled and offered his arm. “When things get this strange, it’s safer to follow. Shall we?”
Tucking her arm through his, she smiled as he tugged her closer. “I trust you’re not keeping any secrets, sir. I’m not sure I could bear any more surprises.”
As they headed towards the orchard, Lyrai looked at her with a small smile. “Not I,” he said. “There’s nothing surprising about me.”
She laughed, and he spent the rest of the walk back to the Archives trying to find what was so amusing. Not that she was going to tell him. Some secrets were better kept private.
* * *
FIRE RACED ACROSS his body, connecting wounds and injuries, causing the pain to march in a continuous circuit of heat. He didn’t feel it, not as he had before. It still hurt, but he used that to further fuel his flames. He stared into the darkness, half delirious from fever and fatigue but refused to sleep. Instead he hung from his shackles and kept the rats off by shouting, shaking his chains and snarling in wordless fury. With his head stuck out, eyes straining against the darkness, he glared when the key turned in the lock.
His lips peeled back over his teeth and he growled before Willym even stepped inside. The torchlight burned his strained and throbbing eyes, but he didn’t blink. Tears of pain dribbled down his face, but he simply kept on breathing, deep and strong, like a bullwing about to charge.
“What’s this?” Willym entered without a single glance at the boy and crouched beside Nehtl’s rigid form. He prodded his cheek.
“Do not,” the creature in the darkness snarled.
Willym snorted and shoved Nehtl’s shoulder. Chains rattled, the body rocked, but there was no other response.
“Do not touch him again.”
The traitor paused and raised his head. “Little Mouse?” he murmured, turning slowly to look at him.
The creature growled, leaning as far forward as his chains would allow, oblivious to the burn of his abused bones and muscles.
Willym smiled and stood up. “Well, well, what has happened to you?”
“Murderer,” the creature snarled in response.
The disgraced lieutenant sketched a gracious bow. “One does one’s best,” he mocked, and pulled his whip from his belt. “Let’s see what you have to offer this time, shall we?”
The creature bared his teeth at his tormentor, even as the whip lashed and bit deep into the reddened skin of the burn on his side.
“So silent?” Willym sneered. “There’s no one here but me, little Mouse. And I don’t care if you scream.”
The whip cracked again and this time the rage inside the creature rushed to the surface, breaking through with a furious roar.
And Willym laughed.
FAR OVERHEAD, HIGH in the east tower, Yullik opened his eyes and stepped back from the window, retrieving his wandering senses. Something had changed in the citadel, something was different. Something had disturbed the winter tranquillity, breaking his focus.
Frowning, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His senses spread out through the stones and halls of Aquila, searching, testing, tasting.
Yullik smiled. So that was what Willym was up to.
DOWN BELOW, FAR, far beneath the stones of Aquila, the rage seeped into the bones of the mountain, opening a different set of eyes.
A tremor rippled through the rocks and something stirred in the dark.
~ Next Chapter ~
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