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~ Previous Chapter ~
What Corin and Jaymes did next…
“ALL RIGHT, CONFESS,” Corin sighed, sinking wearily on a wind-blasted rock and refusing to move any further. “You have no idea where we’re going, do you?”
With an annoying amount of energy that seemed never-ending, Jaymes jumped behind her onto the same rock to survey the ragged cliff top and churning sea far below. Corin watched him as while a cool breeze tossed her hair into her eyes and coated her tongue with salt. It was a welcome break from the relentless heat of the day, but its relief was fleeting in the face of her frustration.
He looked down, face reddened by the breeze and winter sun, and shrugged. “Why should I know where we’re going?”
“Because I’ve been following you all day, you ginger idiot,” she growled, thumping his leg. “Now we’re lost and it’s your fault.”
Chuckling, he hopped down to sit beside her. “Hardly. I’m not the reason you’re here.”
“Speaking of which, where is that little voice when we could use some directions?” Corin grumbled, picking at the sole of her flying boot and wondering if it had been designed for long-distance walking. The blisters forming on her heel suggested not.
Corin’s head shot up and Jaymes grinned. “You did ask.”
Indeed she had and, since it had been silent from the moment they’d left the Archive walls and started into the woods – which was before the meadow, the stream, the steep upward climb and the scrubby headland – she couldn’t help also asking, “Where have you been?” If she happened to sound frighteningly like her own mother it was purely coincidental, and her glare at Jaymes warned him against ever telling anyone of it.
Here, the voice repeated.
“Useful as always,” Corin sighed, getting to her aching feet. “Where next?”
She looked at Jaymes, hoping he might have heard something different, something that didn’t mean what she dreaded it might. Except he was already heading towards the cliff edge to peer over the long and most likely fatal drop.
Down. Come, Jaymes. Come, Corin.
“There’s a path,” Jaymes called over his shoulder.
“Isn’t there always?” Corin sighed, resigned to her fate.
Pushing his hair out of his face, Jaymes smiled. “Ladies first.”
“Walk, laughing boy,” she ordered, having no interest in manners as she prodded him between the shoulder blades. “This way if I fall, you can do you gentlemanly duty and catch me.” When he opened his mouth, she smiled sweetly. “Or give me something soft to land on.”
“We’re coming.” Shaking his head at both her and the voice, Jaymes jumped, landing on the path a couple of feet below. Pebbles and dirt puffed from the edge and tumbled into the rocky sea far below.
Corin eyed the cracks riddling the narrow strip of earth with a dubious eye, then shrugged and hopped down. If she was going to die here at least it would be dramatic. “Lead on, good Jaymes. If we’re lucky we might find a cave at the end of it.”
“With pirate treasure,” he agreed. “Though hopefully no pirates.”
For a voice that had kept quiet for most of the day, it was suddenly very pushy. “Maybe some mermen,” Corin suggested, watching her feet and the grass-tufted edge less than half a pace away. “With thick biceps and beautiful bare chests.”
“What about mermaids?” Jaymes asked.
“I’d rather their chests weren’t bare, if it’s all the same to you.” Corin walked a few more paces and couldn’t resist adding, “Which it probably is.”
He stopped and she walked into him. They both tottered precariously for a stomach-churning moment, rattling more dirt loose from the cracks in the path.
Grabbing her wildly flailing arm, Jaymes’ threw their combined weight back against the cliff wall and scowled. “I have no idea what you mean.”
Smiling, she patted his cheek. “Your secret is safe with me, sweetheart.” Winking, she wriggled past him and hopped down a steep section of the path.
Here. Corin, Jaymes. Down.
“Coming,” she called merrily. “And I hope you have lots of hunky mermen awaiting us. We deserve a reward. Although Jaymes might prefer a skinnier version. Preferably with silvery hair and a general know-it-all air? Am I right?” Glancing teasingly over her shoulder, she tripped over a tree root and almost shot head-first off the path.
Jaymes caught her with a sigh. “Save the jokes until we’re somewhere flat, if you please.” It was his turn to wriggle past her. “And let me go first. That way next time you fall it’ll be easier to catch you.”
She scowled at his back. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
He winked over his shoulder. “Funnier than you.” He tripped over a root.
Corin was laughing so hard she almost missed her chance to catch him. “Save the jokes until we’re somewhere flat, if you please,” she mocked.
He shook his head and walked on – but he didn’t get far.
“Just what I was thinking,” Corin murmured, standing on tiptoe to peer over Jaymes’ shoulder at where the path ended. Sharply, suddenly, definitively. There was no evidence of erosion or a landslip, the ground simply ran out, the solid cliff they had been following turning into a gaping hole where a cathedral arch of a cave cut into the rocks. The only thing that stood between them and the surging sea, more than fifty feet below, was three feet of cracked earth and an awful lot of air.
“I think this might be a good time to turn back,” Jaymes recommended, shuffling nervously away from the edge. “How about you?”
“Good plan,” Corin agreed, looking at the top of the cliffs, about three body lengths away and wondering if a straight climb would be safer than retracing the path.
No! the voice protested shrilly. Stop. Down. Here. Now.
They exchanged a disbelieving look and peered over the edge. The cave yawned to their left, scooped perfectly out of the slick granite, offering no foot or handholds or possibility of hope. It looked too perfect to be natural.
“Not a chance,” Corin declared.
“Unless you have some wings we can borrow,” Jaymes added, stroking the smooth stone just inside the cave entrance. “I don’t think we can get down any other way. Unless you’re trying to kill us?”
No, the voice sounded disgruntled. Wait.
“As if we’d dream of doing anything else,” Jaymes muttered and sat down, his feet dangling over the drop.
“This is stupid,” Corin said. “We don’t even know why we’re out here.”
Wait, the voice repeated, and since her curiosity left her no choice, Corin sat behind Jaymes.
“Hurry up then,” she grumbled, even though she knew that no matter how long the voice took, she wasn’t going anywhere. They’d come too far to turn back now.
* * *
Very little could surprise Yullik these days. He’d seen too much, knew the inner workings of people’s minds too well. And yet, the one thing about humans that remained forever interesting was their infinite capacity for change. So while it came as no surprise to find Willym lurking in the bowels of Aquila, delighting in another poor unfortunate’s agony, the reaction of his victim was unexpected.
Such anger, such pain, such rage. So small a boy, so young. Yullik descended Aquila’s stairways and shadows, studying the child who wasn’t yet a man as his fury filled the citadel. A mouse, the pain whispered, a harmless little mouse… with the roar of a lion. How could he not be intrigued?
“What happened to the miryhls? Where have they been hidden?”
The scent of hot metal filled the air, a jingling of chains and a wordless snarl. Willym tsked sharply behind a locked door, his footsteps heavy and firm across the stone floor.
“You grow tiresome, boy. Is there still a tongue in your witless head, or have you bitten it off?”
A sizzle, the rank stench of burning skin and fat, a pained hiss.
“Speak, Mouse, or you’ll lose something more precious than your tongue. How many? Who are they? Where are the miryhls? Tell me or join your dear Nehtl. You know the kaz-naghkt are always hungry, while my patience grows thin.”
“And it is such a virtue,” Yullik interrupted, finding no joy in this scene. “Those who lay claim to so few should cultivate the ones still within reach.”
The brand clattered to the floor as Willym spun around. His eyes flew to the door, no longer locked, then to the man he had clearly never expected to find down here in the bowels of the citadel. Foolish and so very arrogant.
“Lord Yullik.” Uncertainty replaced his mocking sneer, but Yullik had no time for him.
Instead he studied the boy, barely more than skin and bone. And bruises, burns and welts. He’d been used hard in recent days, Yullik noted, seeing the over-bright, wild glaze in his eyes. His cracked lips parted but no words emerged as he stared unseeing at his unexpected rescuer.
Yullik narrowed his eyes. “What do you do here, Willym?”
Willym licked his lips, uncharacteristically hesitant. “He’s a Rider, found on the mountain.”
“Ah.” Yullik stepped close to the boy. “Interesting. So you brought him here for questioning. Have you had much success?”
At his approach, Willym stepped nervously back. The boy, by contrast, had closed his eyes. His head hung loose and heavy between his bound arms, while his breathing was rapid and shallow. Yullik marvelled that so undersized a body could contain so much pain. It stirred old, unwanted memories.
Yullik pinned his servant with a glare. “Well?” he demanded. “Have your crude methods borne fruit? Or are you simply enjoying yourself instead of serving me?”
Dark eyes flashed, and Willym took a step forward before remembering where he was – and who he was talking to.
“Yes, Lord Willym?” Yullik mocked. “Is there something you wished to say?”
The disgraced lieutenant’s nostrils flared with affront and his chin rose to a haughty height, but he was here on sufferance and they both knew it. His life had worth only as long as Yullik found a reason for it. He amused and was vaguely useful on occasion but was also straying perilously close to pointless.
“I thought not.” Yullik turned back to the battered boy. “I will take over now.”
A frustrated growl escaped Willym’s clenched teeth. “He won’t talk. He has nothing to tell.”
Yullik arched an eyebrow at him. “And yet you persisted with your methods anyway.” The corner of his mouth quirked upwards in a half smile. “One might wonder about you, Willym, and the enjoyments you seek.” His smile turned into a sneer. “Half your size, yet you must chain him up to beat him. Weak, Willym. I have no use for weak servants, and even less for disobedient fools. Go. I will deal with you later.”
He turned his back to further the insult and waited. The former Rift Rider’s knuckles cracked as he clenched his hands and shifted his weight uncertainly. Finally, Willym growled again, spun on his heel and marched out, slamming the door behind him.
Yullik smiled and looked into the bruised gaze of the boy. It stirred old memories best left forgotten, but that was no fault of his and Yullik wouldn’t leave him to suffer because of it. For one thing it wasn’t always clever to kill one’s prisoners.
“Well, Morri Sorenran,” he said, savouring the name and tasting its full of history, “also known as Mouse, let’s see what we can do about these bruises.” Golden light coated his hands and he touched his fingertips to the prisoner’s chest.
A panicked gasp escaped the boy as cool light poured over his skin, coalescing around the worst of his wounds. He gasped again when the light burrowed inside, his head falling back with a choked sob.
“Sleep,” Yullik murmured, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder and flattening the other on his chest. His fingers twitched and his palm tingled from the pain coursing through Mouse’s body. Yet there was resistance there, waves of suspicion pushing back against the healing. So much will, surprisingly strong and still willing to fight despite everything.
Yullik gave a grim smile and a small mental push. “Sleep. Healing is better in the dark.”
Defeated by exhaustion as much as anything, the boy shuddered and shut his eyes. The tension dropped from his body and the pulse of his pain made Yullik’s arms numb to the elbows. Gritting his teeth, he pressed deeper and turned the world to gold.
~ Next Chapter ~
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