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~ Previous Chapter ~
THE LANSBRIG RIFT Rider base of Avatol was perched high on a crag jutting out over the forest basin and was surrounded on all sides, above as well as below, by trees, foliage and mist. As the last echoes of the noon bell faded in the distance, Lyrai stood at the east window staring in awe. High though Avatol was, the walls of the crater still towered above it, the jagged top clawing at the sky. Yet all the way up to the steepest heights, barely a foot of bare stone could be seen. Instead all was green, bright and alive, while below the ever-present mists lapped like an impatient sea.
Lifting his face towards the clear sunlight, Lyrai shut his eyes and sighed, revelling in the warmth. After a month of the Cleansed Lands’ gentle climate, he’d wondered if he would ever feel warm in the Overworld again. Living at such altitude, with the ever turbulent clouds below, Lyrai had never noticed how cool it was, even in midsummer. Yet standing here before the window in Avatol’s common room, everything was perfect.
“I have yet to decide whether I am grateful or not for your suggestion this morning.”
Blinking, Lyrai turned to find he wasn’t the only one basking in the midday sun. Made lazy by the warmth and with no energy left for idle curiosity, he arched an eyebrow at Reglian.
“I understand your reasoning in sending the dragonets away,” the dragon continued, his human form an exotic mixture of elegance and the unexpected. His bulky form and bald head were unremarkable in a land so close to the Storm Peaks, although his golden eyebrows might cause comment. Until one looked at his hands, or the back of his neck, and realised there was plenty more to remark upon. Just because they sometimes assumed human shapes, the dragons had no intention of being regarded as human. It would be an insult. And spoil their fun.
What, after all, was the point of being a dragon amongst humans if they didn’t even know you were there?
“And of course, where you send the dragonets, their Dragongift partners must go.” Reglian’s voice deepened to a low rumble as he leant on the windowsill to study the view. “And sending Corin away while Mhysra and Dhori remained behind for the talks would have been impossible. I understand this. That girl is nothing if not stubborn.”
“Jaymes has his moments,” Lyrai felt compelled to add in the interests of fairness. Though Reglian was correct; the dragonets were the reason he’d sent the students off this morning. Despite their unique differences, Goryal and Reglian looked essentially human and mostly unalarming. To those unused to dragons, they were the easiest to swallow. Two rampant dragonets galloping about the room, shrieking in play were a little hard to miss. Add in Emberbright’s all too obvious fiery colouring and people grew nervous, which was the last thing Lyrai and his friends needed.
None of which explained what Reglian was meandering towards. “You think I should have kept them all at the base?” Lyrai asked. Though how was a mystery. With such a glorious world outside, there was no way any of them would have sat still while their lieutenants talked. Eavesdropping would have been the least of their crimes.
Reglian gave a regal snort. “I should have liked to see you try,” he rumbled, amused. “One whiff of that forest and the dragonets would have gone regardless of what you commanded. No, you were right to send them away.”
“Rhiddyl,” Reglian growled. “You sent her out with only vulardis and miryhls for company.”
Ah. Lyrai had forgotten. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, since he couldn’t count on the young miryhls not to stray, ably led by Cumulo no doubt. Like their Riders, the miryhls had a healthy sense of curiosity, which had only been increased by their recent adventures. Since it was better to give permission than be disobeyed, Lyrai hadn’t thought twice about suggesting that Hurricane and the others go out while he was busy inside. That Rhiddyl had been close by and leapt at the chance wasn’t something he could have avoided. Besides if the dragonets made the inhabitants of Avatol nervous, it was nothing compared to the effect the full-sized version was having.
“She’ll be fine,” Lyrai assured the dragon beside him. “She’s sensible, and Hurricane won’t let them get lost.” At least he hoped not. Surely they wouldn’t go far enough for that to be a problem. Surely.
Reglian arched a golden eyebrow, his mouth taking on a sardonic curve as if he could read Lyrai’s mind and thought him a naïve fool. Before he could speak, however, the door opened.
General Keipen, Rift Rider General of the South was not a man who tolerated disagreements. In his mid-fifties, his hair was iron grey, dusted with white and cropped close to his skull. Which only emphasised the sharp features not weighed down by a single ounce of fat. Tall, wiry and fierce, his nose was as sharp as a hawk’s beak, his eyes as keen as an eagle. He could have been a miryhl in human form.
“Lieutenant Lyrai?” he said, voice clipped with displeasure as he stalked into the room, a flurry of Riders in his wake. Lyrai pulled himself to attention and nodded as the general eyed him. “You’re lucky the continuance of your life is marginally less troublesome than your death would prove. Dragon.” He turned his piercing gaze in Reglian’s direction.
Reglian regarded the general through half-closed eyes, a lazy twitch of a golden eyebrow the only response to such a brusque greeting.
Keipen turned back to Lyrai. “As if the fall of Aquila was not bad enough, do you plan to panic the entire population of the Overworld out of their tiny minds? Dragons, lieutenant? Do you not think the Rift Riders have worries enough?”
“I believe the lieutenant intended us to be useful.”
Unnoticed until now, Goryal emerged from the shadows, looking ethereal and fragile, their skin so pale Lyrai could see the bones and veins beneath. With their pearl white hair and large dark eyes, Goryal was not as good as Reglian at pretending to be human, even with their telltale hands hidden inside the voluminous sleeves of their silk robe. Though their smile was sweet as they walked towards them, there was no denying the power that crackled about their slight form.
Keipen’s eyes widened the smallest fraction and he drew himself up even taller. “Intentions, dragon, can be the most dangerous things of all. Particularly when they are good.”
Lyrai winced as the two powerful figures faced each other over barely five feet of empty floor. On first glance one would expect the advantage to go all Keipen’s way. The general was taller, younger, fitter and looked far more robust despite his wiry slenderness. He held himself like a soldier. Goryal was like a birch sapling beside a sturdy, young oak, but like a birch they would bend and flex in the wind without breaking. Then they removed their hands from their sleeves, extra long fingers cracking as they flexed them from knuckle to claw, and the balance shifted. Fragile or not, Goryal was a dragon.
“All our intentions are dangerous, general,” the elder said with deceptive mildness. “Just be thankful you are not our enemy.” They flexed their fingers again, drawing everyone’s attention to the silver claws at the tip of each, like tiny, well-sharpened blades. They glinted in the sunlight, bright and strong as steel.
The general’s eyes flicked down and the corner of his mouth curled, acknowledging the hit. “You are smaller than I expected. I’ve heard many tales of dragons, so to at last meet one in the flesh…” He paused. “I’m disappointed.”
The Riders drew in a sharp collective breath.
Goryal laughed, a high chime of genuine amusement. “Ah, General, how correct you are. Even in my true form I disappoint so many expectations. Size is not a gift of my Clan. For that I refer you to my good friend, Archivist Reglian kin Thunderwing Clan Skystorm here.” He indicated Reglian, who was leaning against the wall, arms crossed nonchalantly over his chest. “Though I advise against goading him about such things while indoors.”
A flurry of speculation whispered through the general’s Riders, while Reglian smiled lazily and used a golden talon to pick his far-too-sharp teeth. The whispers died with a strangled whimper.
The general watched Reglian’s performance with a small, appreciative smile, before turning back to Goryal. “Perhaps some other time you would both grace us with your true forms. For now I would prefer things to remain as they are. The better to contain panic where possible. One-full sized dragon and two baby ones are quite enough to go on with.”
Goryal’s eyebrows rose and Reglian straightened away from the wall, even as Lyrai winced. Someone had been a little short on details when reporting to the general if he thought these five were the only dragons outside the Cleansed Lands.
Leaning closer, Reglian whispered in Lyrai’s ear, “Are you going to tell him, or should I?”
As if Lyrai would be stupid enough to volunteer for that duty. “By all means.”
The dragon smiled and stepped forward. “About that panic, General. I believe there’s a something you should know…”
~ Next Chapter ~
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