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~ Previous Chapter ~
EVERYTHING STOPPED WHEN Hurricane flopped onto the beach. Cumulo’s wings ceased to beat; Mhysra stopped breathing. The Moot was silenced.
Lyrai’s anguished cry was taken up by the distant seabirds, wailing on the winds, and the tide tried to hush him with its sighs.
“No, no, no,” the lieutenant gasped, scrambling over the shale to where his miryhl lay in a heap of cream and brown. “Hurricane, no. Move for me. Look at me. Breathe, please, breathe.”
One by one the miryhls dropped back to the beach. Cumulo even forgot to lower a wing for Mhysra, just sagged where he landed, his strength gone. She tumbled from the saddle, not knowing what to do, desperate to help, but hadn’t staggered more than three steps when Lyrai stood.
Pebbles cracked beneath his boots when he turned, steel singing as his blade was drawn from its sheath.
Behind the stricken miryhls, Jarvenerald hissed, his once beautiful face now a wreck of gouges and golden blood. “Come, little human. Just you and me now.”
Raising his sword, Lyrai narrowed his eyes and charged.
* * *
IT WAS LIKE something from a dream, Mouse decided, still woozy from his head knock. First there was Silveo, saving the day and collapsing in a heap. Then Lieutenant Imaino, Greig, Haelle and two Riders swept into the room, checking for threats, weapons bristling. Blood splattered their clothing, both red and black, but they all seemed whole.
While Haelle and Greig tended to Silveo, the lieutenant stared at the dean. “Sir,” he whispered, wide-eyed and disbelieving. “We thought you were dead.”
Smiling, Dean Marshall gripped Imaino’s forearm. “There were times I wished I was, but by Maegla, it’s good to see you.”
“And you, sir. If we’d known…” He trailed off when the dean shook his head. “We came for Mouse and Nehtl.” Looking around, he frowned. “Where -?”
Mouse hung his head, unable to speak.
“He stayed brave to the end,” Dean Marshall explained briefly.
Their silence was filled with grief, and Mouse felt every moment of it like a knife in the chest.
Imaino cleared his throat and tightened his grip on his sword. “Then we do this for him. Let’s move, before someone comes looking for the source of those screams.”
No one argued, and with the help of an embarrassed but recovered Silveo, Mouse limped from his comfortable prison, wondering and fearing what twist of fate might befall him next.
* * *
“NO!” MHYSRA WASN’T the only one to lunge forward to stop Lyrai, but her friends hit the beach as hard as she did. Sprawled on her chest, she was forced down by an invisible hand.
“The challenge was for single combat,” a voice containing many speakers boomed across the cove; the Elders reacting at last. “And so the fight shall be.”
Struggling against her invisible restraints, Mhysra thrashed, digging great furrows from the pebbles, but to no avail. The pressure remained and there was no getting free.
“Peace, child,” a gentle voice murmured. “Nothing is yet decided.”
Lyrai reached Jarvenerald just as the coiled dragon struck. This time he was ready, and dodged aside with a flash of his blade. The steel hummed against the shining scales, the runes along its length flashing bright.
Jarvenerald hissed, flinching away as the blade sliced across his nose, leaving an oozing gash behind.
Taking advantage of his opponent’s surprise, Lyrai ran beneath the dripping fangs and scored his sword down the length of Jarvenerald’s neck. Golden blood followed his every move, the wounds shallow but undeniable.
Spitting with pain and rage, Jarvenerald twisted, but Lyrai was already beneath his chest. The dragon reared up, using his wings to lift his vulnerable underside out of reach. Craning his head back, he opened his mouth and snapped forward, spraying venom.
Lyrai turned aside, raising his arm to protect his face. The drops burned wherever they landed, singeing holes through his clothes. Jarvenerald pounced, but Lyrai was already moving, dropping and rolling forward. Before the dragon realised his prey had escaped, Lyrai lunged to his feet, leading with his sword.
The blade flashed, blood spurted, and both combatants screamed.
Clothes smoking, Lyrai dropped to the ground, clutching his sword hand, while Jarvenerald whimpered and tottered away. Half-embedded in the dragon’s chest, the sword shuddered with every beat of Jarvenerald’s heart as he sank slowly onto his side. Mewing like a distressed kitten, he rolled onto his back, wings outspread and twitching. He tried to draw the blade out with his claws, but the runes blazed and he stopped with an agonised shriek.
No one dared to move as Jarvenerald dropped his head, defeated and despairing.
No one spoke as the bloodied, battered Lyrai dragged himself to his feet and limped across to the stricken dragon.
Jarvenerald barely even twitched as Lyrai climbed onto his chest and grasped the sword.
“You deserve to die,” the lieutenant growled, voice low and husky. “Those who show no mercy deserve none.”
Jarvenerald shuddered, his body lying battered and unhealed while his heart bled. He mewed.
“If you were me, you’d be dead by now.”
The Moot watched as Lyrai wrapped both hands around the pommel, blood-stained fingers flexing over the grip.
He looked over at where Hurricane lay, limp and unmoving – and pulled out his sword.
“I am not you,” he whispered. “Live with this shame.”
The lieutenant jumped off the dragon’s chest and stumbled on the uneven ground. Staggering a few paces away from his defeated foe, the sword dropped from his lax fingers, clanging against the pebbles.
“Hurricane,” he whispered, and collapsed.
* * *
“THINGS CANNOT GO on like this. They will not.”
Admiral Akavia had worked herself up into a fine state, Yullik thought, as he lounged behind the desk in one of the old teaching rooms. If he hadn’t been so bored, he might have been amusing at the sight of so many pirates and captains crammed onto the dusty student benches, watching their leader attempt to berate him. They stared at her with a mixture of awe, impatience, annoyance and fear. And not one of them seemed happy.
As if he cared. “If I might interrupt,” he said softly, cutting through the admiral’s tirade. Not that he was listening; he’d heard it all before. “You are complaining, yes?”
Akavia stopped pacing and narrowed her eyes, but a pirate rose before she could speak.
“Complaining!” the man snarled. “You make us sound like children.”
Yullik raised an eyebrow, staring at the unwashed, scraggly-bearded fool until he sat down again. “I do not make you sound like anything. You are eminently capable of doing that yourselves.”
They fidgeted as the insult spread through the room, but no one dared speak again. Sadly.
He turned back to Akavia. “Have any of your people been taken from the town?”
Her jaw clenched and her nostrils flared, restraining her temper as she shook her head.
“Then it is only in the citadel that these disappearances occur?”
“Disappearances,” she sneered. “You make it sound so innocent. They are murders, each and every one. They have been eaten!”
Yullik tipped his head to one side, studying her curiously. She’d lost weight and looked tired, harassed and worn. The conquest of Aquila hadn’t brought the pirates the ease and riches they’d anticipated. How sad.
He rested his hands on the desk. “We had an arrangement, did we not?”
“To combine our forces to take Aquila,” she agreed with a curt nod. “An alliance against the Rift Riders.”
“And in the event of success…” he began, rolling his hand in an invitation for her to continue.
“We were to be given the town to do with as we willed.”
Though the pirates behind her nodded in firm agreement, Akavia’s jaw remained tight, her eyes narrowing as understanding slowly dawned.
He smiled, teasing out the game. “The town, yes, that was to be yours. And the citadel…?”
“Yours,” she ground out between teeth so tightly clenched he was amazed they didn’t crack.
“Yes,” he agreed, standing slowly and letting his languid air drop. “Mine.”
“But we are allies,” another fool protested from the benches.
“Mine,” Yullik repeated. “To do with as I willed. To house my kaz-naghkt. To keep them as I would.”
“Allies do not eat one another,” Akavia growled, reiterating an old point with the tenacity of a rat terrier.
“We have been through this,” he reminded her, sitting down and regaining his languid mood. “Our agreement was to rid Aquila of those troublesome Riders. Which we have done. There was no alliance regarding the aftermath.”
“So you would turn on us now?” Akavia demanded, pacing again and playing one of her many knives over her fingers. “Now that the task is done our arrangement is over? With no thoughts of what we once achieved together?”
“My dear Akavia, don’t tell me you’re feeling sentimental?”
The knife flew across the room in a flash of silver, heading for his face. Yullik raised his hand and caught the blade through the flat of his palm with a bite of exquisite pain.
Blood dribbled down both sides of his forearm and the whole room stared.
“You’re fast,” he acknowledged, using his right hand to free the knife from his left. The blade smoked, the metal corroding as he tossed it on the desk. “But speed isn’t everything.” Smiling, he staunched the wound on the back of his hand with his tongue. Blood dripped from his palm, hissing as it splashed the desktop. He turned his hand over and licked the dark trail from his elbow to his hand, then closed his fist about the wound. Golden light hummed into life and every last drop of his blood staining the room vanished in a spiral of heat.
“I would think very carefully before crossing me, my friends.” The pirates stared, Akavia’s eyes the widest of all. “You didn’t think just anyone could control the kaz-naghkt, did you?”
“You bleed black.” A fearful whisper from the stunned crowd. “Like them.”
“Of course I do.” Yullik smiled. “I created them.”
The expressions of horror and the scent of fear rising in the room were most gratifying, but that didn’t stop his senses from telling him something was amiss.
He frowned, expanding his awareness and stood so fast his chair clattered to the floor, making the pirates flinch. Ignoring them, he strode to the door and snapped his fingers at the waiting guards.
“The prisoners have escaped.” He said to the leader of his kaz-naghkt horde. “Find them.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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