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With family about to descend this weekend, I thought I’d bring the updates forward this week. Happy reading!
NIGHT SKULKED ABOVE Aquila, spreading its black wings and hiding the stars behind a screen of snow. Winter dragged on, malingering with cold and ice and sleet, with no hope yet of spring or warmer times to come. Yullik sat in the dark and brooded over failures, past, present and future. They all seemed so close now, interconnected, stacked and jumbled together like the stones that made up Aquila’s walls. One push and he could bring them all down.
It was his right, he thought with a smile, the first he’d managed for days. There wasn’t much to smile about in Aquila anymore. His victory had turned to ashes. He knew what was coming.
That didn’t mean he had to accept it. He would not go down without a fight. He never had and he never would. It was a lesson he had learned from too young an age.
Let the fools and future come. He would disappoint them all. He had no other choice.
MOUSE SLEPT. THE firelight flickered over his face, showing pale skin clinging to fragile bones. Even in repose there were lines etched around his mouth and eyes and between his brows that spoke of pain. He wasn’t old enough to be so marked.
Silveo sat in the darkness, idly rubbing Mouse’s feet to keep the blood flowing. They’d managed to save all his fingers and toes, though Silveo never wanted to go through that again. He could still hear Mouse’s moans and pleas for mercy, even as Imaino sat on him and Silveo worked. It didn’t matter that it was for Mouse’s own good, Silveo still felt brutal.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, not wanting to wake his exhausted friend, but needing to say it.
There were many things Silveo was sorry for these days, like leaving Mouse to be captured in the first place. Faint bruises still shadowed his face, evidence of rough handling, with the rest covered by his clothing. There would be deeper scars too, invisible to the eye.
Silveo had a few of his own, chafing beneath the skin, creating a heavy weight in the centre of his chest. So many had vanished in the chaos of the kaz-naghkt attack, but he missed Jaymes most of all. Was he still alive or had he perished in the tunnels along with so many others? Then came the raid on their hidden quarters on Aquila’s mountainside.
Where now was Healer Nehtl? What had happened to his remains? What about the others: Halle, Greig, Dean Marshall, Riders Ieryth and Mallow? He’d lost them in tunnels, even before the ground shook.
At least he’d found Mouse again, after his unexpected tumble into the lake. Where had he been since his disappearance? What had prompted his emergence from the shallows? He had to have been somewhere to still be alive. Though time passed strangely in the darkness, Silveo knew they’d been here for days, lost, battered and waiting.
Putting his friend’s foot down and tucking it as close to the fire as he dared, Silveo stood and stretched. The gloom yawned around him, barely penetrated by the fading firelight. Imaino had taken the dragongift globe in search of fuel, but Silveo didn’t hold out much hope for success. They needed to move soon. Now that they had Mouse back there was no need to linger near the lake. It was colder here, for one thing, and it felt so strange.
“What are you?” he murmured, crouching by the shore and poking a finger into the thick water. It slid off like treacle, but less sticky. Whatever it was, he doubted it was natural. No water was this viscous.
As the last long blob dropped back into the water, the cavern shook. The lake surface shivered as though something had exploded beneath. In the distance rocks and pebbles skipped and trickled down the cave walls. Faint echoes whispered of disturbances in the deep.
Silveo rubbed his hands on his thighs, trying to remove the unnatural chill of the water. It seemed to have sunk into both hands, creeping up his arms and sending shivers through him.
More stones rattled in the far off dark.
The question, followed by the scuff of a boot on rock, made Silveo jump. He spun around and almost toppled into the water. “Don’t do that!”
Imaino raised his eyebrows and bent to check on Mouse. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” He looked at him quizzically. “Your thoughts must have been deep.”
Silveo stepped away from the water’s edge and cast a glance over his shoulder into the fathomless dark. “Something like that,” he agreed, then noticed the lack of offerings the lieutenant had brought. “No luck?”
“None.” Imaino shook his head, frowning at the oblivious Mouse. “It’s time to move.”
“Yes,” Silveo agreed readily, feeling as though something was watching him from the water. The more space between him and that gloom the better. “How about now?”
The lieutenant looked surprised by his enthusiasm. “I need to pack.”
“Already done,” Silveo assured him, not that there had been much between the two of them. In fact there was so little he’d shoved it all into one bag. Some ragged spare clothes, the last of their scanty food rations and the invaluable cook pot and two bowls.
Eyebrows raised again, Imaino smiled. “Afraid of the dark, Silveo?”
“Of this dark, yes,” he said without rancour. “It watches.”
“Hm.” Imaino looked at the water and twitched his shoulders as if trying to throw off unwelcome thoughts. “If you’ll help lift him, I’ll carry Mouse. Which leaves you with the pack, the light and the path finding.”
“I’ll manage,” Silveo assured him, eager to be gone. The sensation of being watched kept growing as if the unseen observer was coming closer. “Let’s go.”
The lieutenant frowned, but Silveo was in no mood for delays. Shrugging the pack onto his shoulders, he kicked out the dying embers and scattered the remaining wood. With the glow globe by his feet, he crouched next to Mouse.
“Should I wake him?”
“Can you?” Imaino asked, and Silveo grimaced.
“Probably not. I think we knocked all the strength out of him.”
There was an uncomfortable silence before Imaino grabbed the small student’s wrist. “Come on. If we’re leaving, let’s do it. The sooner we find somewhere to rest, the better.”
HE DRIFTED IN the heavy water, his body bobbing just below the surface, with only his eyes above. Two figures moved in the weak globe light. They looked like they were dancing, lifting a third between them and upending it over the stockier one’s shoulder. They staggered and swayed, but eventually succeeded.
He swam a little closer.
Picking the glow globe off the floor, the tallest figure did one last sweep of their campsite, then led the way out of the cavern. The second figure followed with the third dangling over his shoulder like a doll, arms swaying as the carrier walked away.
None of them looked back.
As the bobbing light faded, darkness swept in. The lake absorbed the cold into its depths, breathing out blackness to fill the gloom. Silence descended; a heavy blanket over heavier water.
He swam to the shore with steady strokes. Rock firmed beneath him for the first time in too many years. He flexed his fingers – toes? – and scratched the hard surface with his nails – claws? The water swallowed the sound, but it was too late. He could feel again, he had seen. With a last push his head emerged from the lake and he breathed.
The cavern echoed with his breath and he reached for the shore. Claws dug into dry rock as he slid from the heavy grip of the water. It let him go with great reluctance, sliding over his slick sides – scales? – and coating him protectively with a sad sigh. It dragged behind him, settling into half-forgotten shapes as the level of the lake dropped. They had been together too long to part entirely, but the time had come to move on.
To breathe. To wake.
There was need of him again. He took his first step on dry land and the tunnels shuddered beneath his weight. Subterranean thunder rolled as the mountain acknowledged him and welcomed him home.
His mouth opened in a fierce smile and he filled his lungs with the scent he sought. Morri, he thought into the echoing darkness. I am awake.
Hanging head first over Imaino’s shoulder, Mouse shuddered in his dreams. The mountain echoed around him with its welcoming growl. And behind, in the darkness, something stirred.
~ Next Chapter ~
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