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~ Previous Chapter ~
Penultimate update! The end is nigh!
A SCREAM OF triumph sounded behind, answered by an agonised cry, and Mouse felt sick.
“We must not linger, sir,” Silveo said, reaching down to drag Mouse back to his feet, both gagging at the rotten scent filling the air. “We must move on.”
“May the dead forgive us and the gods grant us victories to avenge them,” the lieutenant whispered, fumbling a hand up Mouse’s arm before looping it over his own shoulder. “Let’s go.”
They ran on, painfully aware that the kaz-naghkt had fallen quiet. It wouldn’t be long before the hunt resumed.
Gritting his teeth and dragging up what small reserves of strength he had left, Mouse braced himself, so that whenever one or other of his carriers fell, he didn’t drag them all down to the corpses below. He had to stay awake, had to be strong, not for himself but his friends. They’d chosen to stay with him; it would be a fine reward if he brought about their deaths.
“My name is Mouse,” he growled, and felt Imaino twitch.
“No one is denying that,” Silveo puffed. “We know who you are.”
“Not you,” Mouse muttered. “I’m talking to the voice. Can’t you hear it?”
“There is no voice,” Silveo said gently, bouncing off the wall as the ground crumbled.
“Yes, there is,” Mouse insisted, hissing as Silveo dropped him on his bad leg, but he managed to hobble along for a few paces until his friend took up the strain again. “I hear it all the time.”
Yes, you hear me.
“There. Can’t you hear it?”
No, the voice whispered, even as his friends muttered worried denials, no doubt wondering if more than his body had been damaged during his imprisonment. You are the only one who hears my sleep. The time to wake has passed, Morri. Now it is time to rise.
“My name is Mouse,” he gritted out between clenched teeth.
A cackle rose from the blackness behind, the tunnel shook and they stumbled into the wall.
Do they hear me now?
The ground trembled, dust trickling from the roof. The kaz-naghkt screeched.
“Gods,” Mouse whispered, as another tremor shuddered through the tunnel, cracking rock and shaking their bones.
Now do they hear my voice?
“We hear you!” Mouse screamed into the groaning mountain. “We hear you! Stop!”
Come to me, Morri! the voice ordered in an imperious boom. Come, and I will cease.
“I don’t know where you are!”
Yes, the voice rumbled, the growl thrumming through Mouse’s bones even as it shivered through the mountain. You know precisely where I am.
Another tremor, more screams from the kaz-naghkt, getting closer. Then a crack overhead like breaking thunder.
“Run!” Imaino shouted, shoving Mouse forward down the tunnel.
They tripped, stumbled, fell and rolled amongst the bodies and the bones, but for once Mouse didn’t mind. Not when boulders were crashing through the tunnel ceiling. Unable to move, he could only cover his head with his arms, hoping that when the shaking stopped he wouldn’t be buried alive.
The thunder went on forever, booming and cracking, filling the air with dust. Then it stopped, bringing a silence broken only by a last few falling pebbles.
One pebble bounced down from the pile, glowing a ghostly pale blue.
A dragongift globe. Probably the last in all the tunnels of Aquila. It was weak and damaged, but it still had enough light to reveal a wall of tumbled rocks wedged across the tunnel so tightly that not even a kaz-naghkt claw could pick through it.
“Maegla.” Imaino emerged from the gloom, coated head to toe in thick dust, like the ghost of so many of the fallen laid out around them. “That should hold them for a while.” Lifting the globe, Imaino traced the rough surface with his free hand, shaking his head. “We were so nearly under this. Maegla must be watching us closely.”
Coughing as he freed himself from his nest of bodies, Mouse wiped the dust from his eyes and shook his head. He didn’t know anything about what Maegla was up to, but something else certainly was.
I am waiting.
As Silveo came to help him, Mouse blinked at a fresh crack in the tunnel wall. The drop beyond was steep but not unmanageable. At the bottom water glistened, reflecting the glow of their lone little light.
The lake. Memories of a dream drifted through Mouse’s mind as he stared into the dark.
“Is that the lake?” Imaino appeared at his shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind washing my face.” He scrubbed a hand across his lips and spat out a mouthful of dust.
“Not just my face,” Silveo agreed, dropping through the hole and skidding on the rough slope. “It’s steep, but I think we can manage it. What say you?”
“Yes,” Mouse answered, without thinking. “The water is waiting.” Ignoring the odd looks of the others, he scrambled over the drop and skidded down the slope.
The still black surface loomed ahead of him, but he didn’t even try to stop himself. Ignoring the others’ cries, Mouse took a deep breath and plunged into the liquid dark.
* * *
FACE EXPRESSIONLESS, REGLIAN bowed deeply three times, turning to include the full curve of both terraces and Starshines. “Elders, we thank you for your time, and your decision.” Without another look or a word, he stalked away, leaving Mhysra and her friends scurrying to follow.
At the cliff wall, he passed the impressively large dragon-form of Estenarix to where Rhiddyl was anxiously watching over Lyrai and Hurricane. The silvery woman sat between them, her eyes closed, meditating.
As the business of the Moot continued behind them, Reglian’s shoulders sagged and his lips flattened in an apologetic grimace. “It is so much less than you might have wished, much less than I anticipated.”
“And much more than we expected,” Mhysra assured him, rubbing her chest against the crushing weight of disappointment. “Our trip here was more accident than design. We’d never considered asking the dragons for help. Even if no dragons choose to cross the barriers, we’ve lost nothing.”
“You are gracious, Lady Mhysra. More so than many of our so called elders deserve.”
“And you will not be alone,” Rhiddyl fluted eagerly. “There will be at least one dragon by your side when you retake Aquila.”
“Two,” Reglian rumbled.
“Three,” Estenarix added. “I would welcome the entertainment.”
“Four, at least.” Elder Goryal walked into their huddle, much to everyone’s surprise. Mhysra had hoped Reglian and Rhiddyl would go with them, but an elder? Never.
“Likely more,” the elder continued in the stunned silence. “I know Clan Sunlord in particular feel their responsibilities most keenly in letting Yullik ses-Khennik get away.”
“Clan Skystorm too, I shouldn’t wonder,” the silvery stranger said, opening her bright eyes. “Justice is their duty. He was always one of their greatest failings.”
“Indeed,” Goryal murmured, shaking their lowered head. “They should not have made such a law if they were unwilling to carry it out. A bad business, I always thought, and see the end it has brought upon us.”
“It is not finished,” Dhori countered, apparently keeping up with this confusing maze of a conversation. Beyond recognising the name Yullik as belonging to the man who had killed her brother and invaded her dreams in the months that followed, Mhysra was hopelessly lost. “Let us hope that we can find a better end before too long.”
“Gods witness that,” chorused the dragons.
Mhysra caught Corin’s eye, but her friend looked equally mystified.
“What happens now?” Jaymes asked, cradling the sleeping Emberbright in his arms.
“We leave.” It was Hurricane who spoke, sitting on the cold pebbles, watching his unconscious Rider anxiously. “As soon as possible. Whether any dragons choose to support us or not, we have been away too long. Whatever gains we have or have not made here, the Overworld needs us. The Rift Riders need us.”
Filled with a sudden desire to see clouds again, Mhysra nodded and stood, wondering how her friends and family were faring in her absence. Were they safe? Threatened? Wondering where she had gone? As fascinating as this diversion had been, they couldn’t stay here forever. She stood beside Cumulo and felt his trembling eagerness to be gone.
“The Archives can provide you with provisions,” Reglian said, looking at his fellow dragons, who gave firm nods. “We will lose little time by returning there first.”
“And I will stay with you until then,” said the silvery woman, still an unnamed stranger. “I would like to keep an eye on my patients a little longer.”
When no one objected, Dhori gave a firm nod, falling easily into the role of leader while Lyrai was indisposed. “It’s time to go home.”
~ Last Chapter ~
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