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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time to catch up with Mouse and co.
Shaking his head, Mouse stumbled into Silveo. They were barely out of sight of the citadel, but the tunnel was already pitch dark and dropping steeply downwards. Where were the glow globes when he really needed one?
Morri, are you coming?
He twitched his head and tripped over something in the dark. More than one thing. The once smooth floor of the tunnel was riddled with debris, some wedge firmly, others lurking loose and ready to turn an unsuspecting ankle. His boot hit something and sent it careening into the wall with a clang. All around him the others were making a similar racket, trying to jog as swiftly as they dared over the perilous ground with no light to see by.
No matter the cacophony, it still wasn’t enough to cover the skittering in the shadows behind them. The kaz-naghkt were coming.
Morri, come to me.
“We need to split up,” Imaino said to the dean at the back of their pitiful group. “The more trails they have to follow the better.”
“Agreed,” Dean Marshall replied. “I need a sword.”
“Silveo,” Imaino called. “Can I have your sword?”
Mouse swayed as his friend stopped and clumsily drew his blade. “Aye, sir. Take it, I’ve little skill for it.”
Imaino patted his shoulder and Silveo helped Mouse hurry on. Haelle, Greig and Ieryth were already far ahead, leaving Imaino, the dean and Rider Mallow at the back, pacing steadily behind Mouse’s slow progress.
“You should leave me,” he grunted, stumbling over yet another pocket of loose ground.
“No.” Silveo didn’t bother arguing, just tightened his grip and repeated, “No.”
“I’ll stay with Mouse and Silveo,” Imaino told the dean. “You go on and lead the rest.”
Mouse cringed, hating that he was so obviously a liability. Even if he had a sword, he was too weak to use it. Just struggling along at this pitiful pace was nearly beyond him. His body was beaten, his mind tired, and even the threat of the kaz-naghkt was nothing compared to the sheer weariness that weighed him down.
Weak. Useless. He’d be back in the tower before nightfall. If the kaz-naghkt didn’t eat him first.
“Go,” the dean urged. “Take the boys. Mallow and I will hold them off.”
“Leave me,” Mouse said again, raising his voice with an effort. “You should leave me. Tripping over me will slow them down a little.”
“No!” It was a unanimous growl.
“I won’t leave you behind.” Imaino.
“You stay, I stay. We’re as useless as each other in a fight, and I haven’t been beaten half dead.” Silveo.
“I won’t let them take you.” The dean. “Just because he healed you once, doesn’t mean he will again.”
“There’s not enough meat on you to interest them for long,” Mallow added, once the others had had their say. “Might as well keep you with us.”
Come to me, Morri.
“My name is Mouse!” he shouted, unable to bear the whisper in his thoughts any longer.
His cry echoed around the tunnel, all the more noticeable in the uneasy silence that followed.
A cackle answered, followed by skittering claws clacking over the detritus on the tunnel floor.
“Run!” Arguments over, Imaino crashed into Mouse’s right shoulder. “Damn it, Silveo, run!”
Feet lifted clear of the floor, Mouse hung between the two men as they half-ran, half-tumbled down the increasingly steep slope.
A scream behind was greeted with a defiant shout. “Never!” Dean Marshall cried. “I will not be retaken.”
Battle was joined and Imaino cursed, his stumble sending Mouse’s feet back to the floor.
The jolt buckled his knees and their unruly trio broke apart, Silveo still running, while Mouse and Imaino hit the ground.
It was soft. His cheek landed on something wet that burst with the stench of rotting meat.
“Bodies,” Imaino whispered in horror. “Great Gods, we’re walking on the dead.”
* * *
IT TOOK A while to tell their story. Dhori took the bulk of the narrative, with ample help from Corin and additions from Mhysra, Jaymes and even the miryhls, but since she was more than a little familiar with it all, Mhysra’s attention wandered. She wasn’t the only one. Pebbles shifted and crunched beneath Corin’s feet as she turned, staring at the dragons on the terraces and their brethren in the waves. Jaymes darted wide-eyed glances at the elders, while Dhori talked in calm, slightly bored tones. Behind them, the miryhls looked for all the world as if they were sleeping. Strange creatures.
For herself, Mhysra didn’t know where to look or what to do. As fascinating as the dragons on the terraces were, in all their varying shapes and sizes, with glittering scales and amazing wings, the shape-shifted elders around her were of equal fascination.
Why had they chosen such shapes? How old were they? How long had they been able to change? Did it hurt? Did they prefer them to their dragon forms?
And then there were the dragons in the water. Could they fly? Did they want to? Were they all seawater dwellers, or did some prefer the freshness of mountain rivers, lakes and streams?
“A difficult journey you have had, Storm Wing Riders,” the giant desert cat purred from Yulunan’s side, also using a voice that spoke directly inside Mhysra’s mind. “A half-year as hard as it has been long.”
“We sympathise with your trials,” the willowy Starshine, Bavadh, said from one end of the half-circle. It wasn’t just their height and slenderness that brought to mind a young tree, but the slightly silvery sheen on their skin, coupled with leaf green eyes and hair like a ripple of thin leaves. “It is the worst pain imaginable to lose one’s home. Yet what is this to us?”
“Our cleansed world is no longer yours, nor your cursed one ours,” agreed the dark Starshine with the whisper-voice. “This fight is not for us.”
“Once it was.” This new Starshine speaker seemed utterly ordinary and unobtrusive. Of middling height and build, there was nothing much of note about their dark brown skin and bald head. Until they looked up and met Mhysra’s curious gaze with eyes like molten copper. “Once all the doings of the Overworld were part of ours.”
“And all of ours, part of them,” agreed the desert cat, head lowered sadly, ears pressed down.
“Our actions have led to this.” The copper-eyed dragon raised their head, broadening their stance like a commander at war. “Our carelessness and cowardice stayed our hands once – and now it has come to this.”
“Humans can take care of themselves,” Elder Stoneheart said dismissively, waving a thick hand. Mhysra blinked, having forgotten his presence – and that of the other Stoneheart kin – until that moment, so focused had she been on the Starshines.
The wolf coughed a hoarse laugh, “One would think you have said quite enough this day, Wharrol Stoneheart.”
“Your unruly tongue is troublesome,” agreed the desert cat, eyes narrowed, chest purring. “Perhaps you should hold it.”
The Stoneheart Elders shifted uncomfortably, the enormous Wharrol shifting his jaw as if trying to move his tongue. And finding that he couldn’t.
The wolf winked at the Rift Riders. “Some never learn,” Yulunan murmured, and Mhysra thought they spoke to the humans alone.
“Aid is owed,” the copper-eyed Starshine said, several of the Clan and others on the terraces nodding in agreement. “This debt is ours to repay.”
“When we withdrew from the world, we swore never to return. Never to meddle,” whispered the starlight-flecked dragon, drawing supporting nods of their own.
“This is our mess,” the copper-eyed one insisted, a touch of rumble in their voice like echoes of distant thunder. “We are duty bound to assist.”
Muttering broke out amidst the dragons, some nodding together while others argued. Even down on the beach in the semi-circle of Starshines, different viewpoints seemed destined to never quite meet.
“The Moot is split.” announced Goryal, to the surprise of no one.
The wolf beside him nodded. “We have heard your voice, and we understand your need.”
“And yet we simply cannot decide what to do.” Goryal smiled apologetically at the Riders. “We elders have held many discussions since your arrival, but there are still several points to consider. As you may guess, your presence has stirred up many things within the Clans. We have not had such debates since the creation of the Veils. It was past time we turned our attention to more pressing matters than the tracing of kin lines and futile border disputes. For this I thank you.” The diminutive dragon bowed, their smile warm.
“However, while there have been many views,” continued Yulunan, “arguments and debates, in truth we can see no reason for sending aid to the humans of the Overworld. While we acknowledge the loss of Aquila, and sympathise greatly with the dispossessed Rift Riders, your world is no longer our concern. It is not our place to interfere at this time and so we will send no dragons back with you. No armies will fly through the Veil.”
“But,” the copper-eyed Starshine held up a sturdy dark finger before the disappointment could crush all the air from Mhysra’s chest, “in the matter of Yullik ses-Khennik, we do acknowledge a debt. There are those amongst the Clans who wish to repay it, for when he was our matter to deal with there were those who turned aside.” They ran their bright, knowing eyes over the terraces. “Whether from mercy or cowardice, it matters not now. We let him roam free, and from him your troubles stem. So, while we, elders of all Clans, send no dragons with you, nor will we restrain those who wish to help. For one lunar turn the Barrier Veils, also known as the Stormwash and Stormsurge, will be relaxed, permitting all those who wish to cross into the Overworld to do so, on the understanding that they will aid the Rift Riders in the fight ahead.”
“These are the words of the Clan elders,” the Moot spoke as one, from the beach and the terraces both. “This is the decision of the dragons.”
“Go in peace, Storm Wing friends,” Goryal said, smiling gently. “Do us no harm within our borders and no harm will come to you. The Clans have spoken.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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