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~ Previous Chapter ~
(Cliffhanger warning. There’s a lot going on in this chapter, so prepare to be cut off right in the middle of things. Sorry!)
SURROUNDED BY THE early morning darkness, Yullik sat in his chair by the window and smiled. Excitement and bloodlust licked through his veins – the thrill of his kaz-naghkt on a hunt.
Except they’d forgotten something. With a flick of his fingers, he dispatched a small squad back to fetch it.
After all, it would be a shame if their patrol leader missed the action.
SO MANY FACES, so many smiles, so many greetings. Mouse couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in the midst of such happiness, such joy. All of it hectic, all of it tinged with a slight edge of hysteria. There was a rising sense of desperation as he looked into each of the fever-bright faces of friends he’d thought long lost.
Then looked for the missing others, and knew he would never see them again.
“Gods, Mouse, you are so well named.” Greig’s hug was comfortingly firm, for all he could only use one arm. The other was heavily strapped across his body, the wooden splints telling their own tale. “Only you could find a way out of those tunnels. Maegla, when the ground started shaking I thought we were all lost.”
“Is that what happened to your arm?” Silveo asked, taking his own turn in being hugged.
Belatedly, Mouse’s healer instincts kicked in and he grabbed Greig’s shoulder before he could turn away. “Who did this for you?” he wanted to know, tracing his gloved hands over the well-wrapped limb, searching for the break even through the thick layers. “Does it hurt? Can you move it at all? Are your fingers all right?”
Greig’s happy smile dimmed. “Haelle’s been taking care of me.”
“Haelle?” Silveo questioned, looking around for the girl’s distinctive height and blonde hair. “Why isn’t she with you? She’s one of the best hunters we have.”
“Had,” Greig said softly, his words almost lost beneath the continued cheer of the others as they finished packing up the dead deer. “I wasn’t the only one injured in the rock fall. I was lucky to get off with just this.” He shrugged his injured arm and grimaced.
Mouse opened his mouth to ask more, to question how they’d bandaged it, if they’d reset it properly, what herbs they’d been using, the whereabouts of the other healers – and then he remembered. Nehtl was dead. Healers Lehno and Symal had been killed when Mouse and Nehtl had been taken. Another healer had been amongst the wounded so callously dispatched that day. Where the other two were, Mouse no longer wished to know.
So many dead.
Heavy of heart, he rested his hand on Greig’s uninjured arm. “I’ll take a look at you both later.”
Greig shivered. “Treat Haelle first. She puts on a brave face, but, Mouse -” He stopped and looked away. “She was so tall and beautiful. The way she moved through the wood, so silent. Now she’ll never walk again.” He took a shuddering breath and swiped at his face. “Gods, I really hate this place.”
Thumping his weak leg, thankful that he could still walk, even if he couldn’t walk well, Mouse squeezed his friend’s arm again, sharing his grief. “You’re not the only one.”
A cackling shriek splintered the night. It was over the lake, and drawing nearer.
The excited group fell silent and looked up. Dark shapes swept across the moon.
“Time to go.” Lieutenant Imaino shouldered his pack and nodded at the only other adult Rider present. “Lead on, Rechar. Downhill if you can.”
ONCE THE INITIAL rush of the kaz-naghkt leaving to chase other prey wore off, Willym quickly realised the downside to hunting with the monsters without his own set of wings. Yes, he could hear the sounds of a pursuit in progress – and very blood-thirsty and glorious it sounded too – but he couldn’t see it.
The damned vultures were on the other side of the lake, while he was stuck halfway up a mountain, surrounded by snowdrifts and pine trees.
Frustration didn’t even begin to cover it.
Until four kaz-naghkt returned to surround him, a strange contraption of leather and webbing stretched between them. They looked at him with red-glowing eyes, identical grins on their savage faces, and Willym wondered if it might not be best to just walk the distance himself.
When his hand flexed on his sword hilt, the largest beast slowly shook its head.
“Maaaaasster,” it growled.
Willym’s grip relaxed at this sign of respect where it was due. He could even handle being sprayed with specks of rotten meat and engulfed in a cloud of fetid breath for the power such a word offered him.
Hm. Then again, perhaps not. He gripped his sword again.
Or at least he tried. Two razor-taloned hands gripped his upper arms, holding him immobile as the biggest kaz-naghkt approached.
“Come,” the others whispered, with the faintest of cackles.
“Come with usss, kaz.”
“Kaz. Kaz. Kaz.”
Every muscle in Willym’s body locked as those vile hands crept over his body. The sharp pricks of their talons was nothing compared to their intentions, or the strength shown in the casual ease with which they held him still. His jaw locked against the screams in his throat as they trussed him up like a game bird, cackling to themselves as they worked, stroking his flesh with oddly careful hands.
“Now fly, kaz,” the leader whispered in his ear, and before Willym could protest the four monsters launched into the night, dangling him like a spider’s prize beneath them.
ALONE IN HIS darkness, Yullik laughed.
Until a slick shadow slithered across his mind and he choked on his own amusement.
THE LOWER THEY ran, the deeper the snow, the thicker the fog. It didn’t take long for Mouse to lose sight of his companions, and all belief in luck or hope.
A shuddering cackle sounded somewhere over his left shoulder and he dived face-first into the snow, expecting to feel the piercing kiss of death’s claws at any moment.
Instead there were screams, but not the pain and panic-filled ones he anticipated. Rather they were thick with frustration, followed by angry snarls as branches thrashed.
Mouse dared to look back, only to find a kaz-naghkt hanging in the sky above him, not two body-lengths away, its enormous wings splayed across two fir trees. Spiked holly leaves and bramble thorns, slick with black gore, winked in the moonlight.
Keening, the kaz-naghkt twisted and thrashed, tearing great rents in its leathery wings. Oblivious to the pain, it only wanted to be free and to feed. With food it could heal easily.
Its blood-red eyes locked on Mouse and it screamed.
“Time to go.”
A firm hand circled his upper arm and dragged him from the snow drift. Lieutenant Imaino looked him over briefly, checking for damage, before ushering him on again, deeper under the trees where the branches were packed tightest. Here both darkness and snow was thick, piled up in drifts against the thick trunks, sheltered by the low-slung, heavy branches. Yet it was those same qualities that made it the best place to hide, even if moving beneath them was nearly impossible. At least here the kaz-naghkt had no chance of swooping down from above.
Silveo and Greig were waiting a little way ahead, two swords between them.
“That was close,” Imaino said, stopping by Silveo to exchange Mouse for his sword. “Let’s not do that again. If you fall behind, Mouse, shout. We’ve come too far to lose you now.”
Behind them something heavy fell to the ground with a crack.
“Greig, you’re on point,” Imaino commanded, taking his place at the rear and pulling the glow globe from Mouse’s unresisting hand. “Don’t dawdle boys, it’s a long way yet till dawn.” He raised the light – and met the glitter of a starving kaz-naghkt’s eyes.
Tossing the globe to Mouse, Imaino raised his sword and hit the monster mid-lunge.
THE WORLD WAS a whirling, white blanket beneath him as Willym was hauled across the freezing lake. The unbroken snow beneath seemed to drain all the warmth from his bones as the kaz-naghkt swooped over the dark forests and the scurrying prey beneath.
Screams, cackles and the sounds of battle filled the trees, and his four bearers banked in a broad circle around the action before dipping down to release him.
A moment of weightlessness stopped his heart, then the snow slapped the last breath from his lungs. Dark Jarquais, he never wanted to do that again.
The four kaz-naghkt landed beside him in wary crouches. The largest crawled across to him, tongue flicking over its stained teeth. “Kaz?”
“Naghkt,” he snarled back, fighting his way out of the harness restraints.
The four monsters reared back into identical statues. Their bright eyes fixed on nothing, nostrils slits gaping wide with deep, savouring breaths, their heads tilted as if to capture some distant sound.
All Willym could hear was the sound of hunting, and the frustration of thwarted predators. A triumphant shriek ululated into the night. But while other kaz-naghkt rushed to be in on the successful kill, his four remained silent and still.
So very still. They might almost have been frozen.
Struggling to his feet, Willym approached the nearest, and prodded a finger into the rigid muscles of its overdeveloped chest.
Red-eyes snapped to him with a guttural growl, “Naghkt.”
“Naghkt,” snarled the others.
Then with a burst of movement, they launched back into the night, leaving Willym stranded, frozen and alone once more.
Except he wasn’t complaining this time.
Heavy footsteps in the snow made him turn, unsheathing his sword with a grim smile on his lips. Not all the fun tonight was going to be had at kaz-naghkt claws. Gripping his blade, he found some firmer ground beneath his boots and waited for his victim to come to closer.
“NAGHKT.” YULLIK’S EYES opened unseeing in the tower room, his fingers turning to claws upon the arms of his chair. Wood splintered and groaned beneath his grip, but he heard nothing. He saw nothing. He sensed nothing. Except what was happening on the mountain.
“Naghkt.” The word came from deep in his throat. The familiar sensations from deep within his memories.
It shouldn’t have been here. It wasn’t possible.
Yet it was.
And, as he poured all his power into recalling his kaz-naghkt, his ever-widening senses knew that he was not alone.
“What have they done?”
~ Next Chapter ~
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