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~ Previous Chapter ~
ARE YOU AWAKE?
Mouse stirred in the cold, straining against the hard bands surrounding him. He couldn’t move, but he didn’t panic. Not even when he opened his eyes and saw nothing but darkness. It engulfed him, cradled him, sucked him under. He wanted to drown in it.
Are you awake? repeated the voice that came from inside and all around.
There is nothing left to wake for, he replied, though his mouth didn’t move and his voice didn’t sound. It came from deep inside, where his thoughts stirred lethargically, reluctant to wake, reluctant to think. He didn’t want to think, nor wake, nor even sleep. He wanted an end. To everything.
A sigh stirred the darkness, sending cold ripples across Mouse’s body, before the bands constricting him shifted. He spun in the gloom, weightless, until the unseen force took him up again. Instead of wrapping around him this time, it bore him along, pushing him somewhere he was not certain he wanted to go.
No, his sluggish thoughts moaned. Let me be. I do not want this.
We are not always able to choose, Morri.
My name is Mouse, he thought, things beginning to stir inside him, to wake, to rage and remember.
Mouse is dead.
He grit his teeth in the darkness and felt his body respond, cold fingers clenching into fists against something hard and slick. I am not dead.
The force thrust him upwards, surging through the weightless mass and into cold, chilly life.
He gasped, breathing for the first time in forever, and struggled to stay afloat as his support vanished, leaving him stranded and drowning. He kicked his legs, but the heavy water barely stirred, already starting to suck him down again.
Yet now that he was awake, sinking slowly into the dark no longer appealed. He didn’t want to die. Not here, not now, not like this. So he kicked again, sweeping his arms through the thick water and coughing as he swallowed a mouthful.
“Help,” he gasped and sloshed. “Help, please!”
A light shone from the gloom, shadows of figures on a distant shore, and voices, wonderful voices. Mouse tried to swim towards them, wanting to hear what they were saying, but the water was too thick. His body was too heavy. He was sinking.
“No,” he begged the unfeeling darkness.
Something shoved him forward. Welcome back, Mouse.
With the last of his strength, he clawed at the water and stumbled into the shallows. Falling to his knees, he held out his arms to the figures in the light and toppled face-first into the lake.
* * *
IT WAS THE cold that woke her, Mhysra decided as she pulled on her boots in the room she was sharing with Corin. Everything was swathed in shadows, but she could make out the lump of her friend lying facedown in the bed opposite, Skybreeze curled up on her back. They must have been sharing their body heat, Mhysra thought, suppressing a shiver. Even this close to the equator the Overworld was rarely warm in the predawn twilight, especially when compared to the sultry Cleansed Lands. Yet another thing to thank the clouds for.
Smiling, she crept along the stone passage until she found a door leading outside. Only then did she take a deep breath. Cool air, scented with freedom and a touch of moisture. Clouds. The twilight held a distinct sheen, telling her she was home at last.
Somewhere overhead someone was snoring. Loudly. She looked up at the open window on the upper floor of the Rider barracks – an officer’s room – and wondered whether it was Lieutenant Lyrai or Honra. They’d stayed up late the night before, catching up on all that had happened since they’d last seen each other. Goryal and Reglian had remained with them while everyone else was sent to bed. Tilting her head to listen, she smirked as she caught a distinct rumble amongst the heavy breathing; perhaps even Reglian wasn’t immune to the vagaries of a deep human sleep.
Amused, she strode past the shadow of the eyries and headed up the hill. Shoreditch, as its name suggested, was built in a gully tucked between two rocky hills, with a skinny brook dribbling down the centre. It hadn’t looked like much the evening before and didn’t look any better now, but Mhysra wasn’t interested in bad Rider architecture. Her goal was the top of the hill and its view to the east.
It was a steep climb, using all kinds of muscles she had forgotten about in recent months. Before she was halfway up she was promising to take daily runs again, up hills or even stairs if she had to. Apparently flying and weapons-practise were not enough to keep her in shape, and by the time she reached the top she felt mildly ashamed of herself. What her Ihran instructors – Hethanon Armsmaster, Gedanon Swordsmaster and Derneon Weaponsmith – would say, she dreaded to think.
“Some Rider student I am,” she grunted, once she’d gotten her breath back and pulled herself onto the largest granite outcrop atop the hill. “Send me off to play with the dragons for a month and I turn soft. Or maybe it was the kaz-naghkt that did it.”
Shaking her head, she pulled her knees against her chest and propped her chin on top, wrapping her cloak around herself to combat the cold. There wasn’t much of a wind up here, but it was enough to make her glad she’d brought the extra layer. With everything settled, she stared at the view and sighed.
Clouds. No matter how many advantages the Cleansed Lands had, she’d missed this sight. Sharp mountain peaks jutted away on both sides, crowding out the sky behind, but in front all was white. As the sky lightened overhead, so the sea brightened, revealing the shifting surface and never-ceasing flow.
Then from the east came the first hint of the sun. The horizon glowed, spears of light reaching upwards, a pale rose blushed on the wispy cirrus clouds drifting by, a touch of gold against the lilac sea. Gradually everything darkened, the colours deepening to richer tones, and Mhysra held her breath. Then a fingernail of white-yellow shimmered over the edge of the world.
Heirayk had returned, ready to bless the Overworld with His gifts.
The warm line became a curve, the edge of the sea glowing as the cirrus clouds shone. With every breath that passed, the sun rose higher and the light shone brighter until it brought tears to her eyes. The Cloud Sea turned to gold and the sky was the lightest of pinks, fading to blue as the sun cleared the sea, bringing the new day.
Mhysra jumped and hurriedly wiped the tears from her face. Lyrai stood watching her from the far end of the rocky outcrop. She’d been so engrossed in the sunrise that she hadn’t heard him approach. At least, she hoped he’d come after and she hadn’t simply missed him in the twilight.
“Good morning, sir.”
He smiled and opened a hand, requesting permission to join her, which she granted with a nod. “Sir,” he murmured, settling beside her with a groan and dangling his legs over the drop. “That sounds so formal after all we’ve been through.”
Turning to look at him, she watched the sunlight slide down the mountain behind his shoulder, transforming it from a jagged rock tooth to a peak covered in forest, life and light. The sun touched Lyrai’s face too, throwing his fresh scars into high relief and reminding her of a few of those things they had suffered through together.
“You’re still my lieutenant,” she said, needing to say something.
It was his turn to study the awakening landscape and her face before staring out over the glowing perfection of the Cloud Sea. “I don’t feel like much of a lieutenant these days.” When she made an enquiring noise, he half shrugged, rubbing his shoulder against his cheek. “None of you are really students anymore either.”
Mimicking his posture, Mhysra rested her elbows against her swaying legs, leaning over the drop. They were only about fifteen feet off the ground, but that was littered with boulders and fell sharply away to a sheer cliff. The next stop after that was the Cloud Sea. Much as she had missed it, she wasn’t quite that eager to reacquaint herself. She linked her hands between her knees and hoped no gust of wind would come to knock her off.
“What?” he asked, noticing her wry half-smile.
Shaking her hair out of her eyes, she stared at the distant mountains and turned her mind away from morbid thoughts of falling and back to their conversation. “I can’t remember when I last thought of Dhori as a student.”
“Ah, Dhori.” Lyrai’s tone was part-bafflement, part-resignation, with a touch of amusement thrown in for good measure. “Now there’s a mystery.”
“And that’s just the way he likes it,” she agreed, chuckling. “He’s lucky Corin’s been too busy with Skybreeze to pick up on all these hints he and the dragons keep dropping. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bad back from picking them all up.”
“You should read the book his aunt gave me.”
“Aunt?” Mhysra repeated incredulously. “When did you meet his aunt?”
“You met her too,” Lyrai told her, clearly amused. “You’re looking at her handiwork.”
What Mhysra had been looking at was his smile and thinking how close he was. She could reach out and touch his laughter, if she dared. Whatever had happened to the austere lieutenant with the frosty eyes she first met in Nimbys two years ago? “I don’t feel like your student,” she was suddenly compelled to blurt out, for some gods-alone-knew reason. Then cursed herself as embarrassment burned through her from head to toe. “Er… I mean, I was thinking. We met two years ago. Things were different then. Dhori, me, you. Everything.” At last her babbling hit on a truth that drained the heat from her face. “Everything.”
The fall of Aquila had changed the world.
“Yes.” All amusement left Lyrai’s face too, the warmth fading from his eyes. “Everything has changed. I don’t think any of you are students now. Not after that.”
“Which makes us what, exactly?” she asked, staring at the rocks below her dangling feet.
“Riders,” Lyrai replied, something in his fervent tone making her look up. He was staring at the horizon, the sun lighting up the determination in his eyes. “My Riders.”
When he turned to her she felt scorched, the ferocity of his expression something she’d never seen before. But it was enough to make her follow him barefoot, wherever he chose to go. He offered her a hand and she placed hers there without hesitation. He gripped it tightly.
“And you are our captain.”
“Lieutenant,” he corrected automatically, his fervency vanishing in a surprised blink.
She smiled, her hand still in his. “For now.”
He studied her in silence, then shook his head and returned to staring at the view. When he wove his fingers through hers, she bit her lip and turned to gaze at the distant mountains too.
~ Next Chapter ~
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