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~ Previous Chapter ~
In some circles, I believe this might be called a comeuppance. And it really couldn’t happen to a more deserving chap.
IMAINO COLLIDED WITH the kaz-naghkt in a flurry of movement, screams, a shower of blood and the satisfying crack of steel breaking through scales. Growling, the lieutenant wrenched his sword into a twist even as the larger creature’s momentum carried him backwards into the snow.
“Greig!” Silveo yelled, even as Mouse lunged to pull the thrashing monster off his officer.
The sorry remains of Imaino’s shirt smoked under the flood of toxic kaz-naghkt blood, but Mouse was more interested in the fresh scores across his lieutenant’s jaw and neck. “Are you hurt? Can you talk?”
Groaning, Silveo and Greig shoved the rest of the kaz-naghkt off Imaino’s body, and Mouse seized his weakly waving hand to haul him into a sitting position.
Once upright, Imaino gasped in great gulps of air and placed a shaking hand over his bloodied neck. “Heavy… bastard,” he wheezed. “Thank… Gods… for snow.”
Helping him climb out of the crater he’d so recently created, Mouse snorted. “While you’re at it thank them for not hitting any trees on your way backwards.”
The lieutenant grimaced and gingerly tested his ribs for damage. “Gratitude.”
“If you wanted thanks, sir, you’re in the wrong profession.” Greig rolled the kaz-naghkt down the slope with a shove of his boot and cleaned Imaino’s sword in the snow. “You should have stayed at home and learned to cook.”
Huffing a painful laugh, Imaino accepted Silveo’s support and took back his sword. “Much you’d know about it, farm boy.”
“You should meet my mother,” Greig retorted, walking at the front with Mouse and the glow globe. “She ruled our whole district with a wooden spoon.”
Silveo and Imaino exchanged a glance. “Westerners.”
“Says the boy from North Point and the man from Mistrune. Could you get any more bumpkin than you?”
Even as they bickered, they continued deeper into the thickest trees, alert every moment for another attack from above. But none came.
In fact… “The screaming’s stopped,” Mouse murmured into a pause between insults.
The others stopped, angling their heads to listen. Nothing but the groan of snow-laden trees and creak of forming ice, deadened by the shifting fog.
“Are they gone?” Silveo asked, his scepticism clear.
“I’m not willing to bank on it,” Imaino replied, easing himself away from his support and flexing his arms. “Any of you?”
They shook their heads and hurried down the dark slope, all the while waiting for an attack that never came.
It was only when they stumbled across the half-eaten remains of Neshal, one of the regular folk left behind by the evacuation, that they realised something worse was going on. What could possibly scare the kaz-naghkt off their food?
And where was it now?
Bending down to cover the remains of his former friend with snow, Mouse gritted his teeth against the rush of bile in his throat.
Sharp agony lanced across his brain and he sank to his knees in a rush of black heat. His gloved hands sank into the snow and throwing up became the least of his worries.
Morri, I hunger.
“My name… is… Mouse,” he whispered, and sank into the cold.
WHATEVER WAS COMING through the trees, Willym thought as he swung his sword in loose circles, idly warming up his wrist, was taking its time about it.
Nor was it human, as he’d first assumed.
The heavy footsteps crunched too far apart for that and the slithering in between sounded like something large was being dragged. He might have hoped for a band of Riders carrying some of their injured comrades between them, but in that case the footsteps would have been quick and staggering, and more plentiful. These were slow, even, deliberate. And headed straight for him.
Willym had a passing acquaintance with fear – he saw it often in others eyes when they looked at him – but he rarely allowed himself to acknowledge such weakness in himself. Earlier, at the mercy of the kaz-naghkt, he may have felt a twinge or two, but he’d buried it beneath cold, hard anger.
Now he smothered it with anticipation. Whatever was coming for him through the trees had frightened off the kaz-naghkt, but it would not see him afraid. He was Lord Willym fra Wrellen, son of Jarl Yurrayn of Scudia, the third most important family in the kingdom. He had the blood of conquerors pumping through his veins. His ancestors had mined World’s End long before the kaz-naghkt claimed those desolate peaks for their own. His house was full of the relics of long past dragon duels. His mother’s coronet was carved from dragon bone and set with blood rubies, gained only from the cooling bodies of dying fire dragons. There was little a Yurrayn of Scudia had to fear.
His boots slipped on the cold ground, and he stared at his feet in confusion as water ran swiftly past them. The very snow beneath him melted as he watched, sinking him into the boggy ground beneath and tilting him off balance.
Darkness struck. Slick, slimy and so very, very hungry. It swept over him, dragging him down into a world of fear and pain and panic.
Lord Willym fra Wrellen, third son of Jarl Yurrayn of Scudia, screamed.
HUNGER. SO MUCH hunger. It gnawed through Yullik’s mind, wrenching his senses from their wide search and dragging it far too close to home. He couldn’t escape it. For once there was something on the mountain in the grips a power even more potent than himself.
It shot a bolt of ecstasy straight through him, enough to arch his body and wrench a moan from his lips. Pain flared. The slice of his own flesh beneath his claws, as his fists curled in upon themselves, was enough to wrench him free. Yullik tore his mind loose, uncaring for the damage he might be causing.
“No!” he screamed into the night, with his voice, his mind, his blood.
Out on the mountainside, twenty-two kaz-naghkt shrieked.
“Don’t let it feed!”
It was one thing to let the thing exist inside his territory, quite another to provide it with meals. Besides, Yullik still had plans for that one.
Feeling the triumph and hunger beginning to shred the edges of his control, Yullik relinquished the majority of his kaz-naghkt and forced his will upon just five. Then, digging his nails so deep inside his palms he felt them grate against bone, he sent them back. Back up the mountain, towards the heart of the darkness. Back to where the snow was melting and a former Rift Rider lieutenant screamed.
“SWEET MAEGLA, MERCIFUL Gods, blessed Lithaen, holy Heirayk…”
The litany of deities flowed into Mouse’s mind like a gentle tide as he shuddered awake – and quickly wished he hadn’t.
“Gods,” he whispered through his burning throat. “What is that?”
It was a scream unlike any he’d ever heard before: shrill, piercing, so very desperate. The last wail of some tormented creature. It shot through him, rousing memories of a time he wished he could forget. Whatever poor soul was making such noises, Mouse could empathise, and wished it swift release. He’d been to that same dark place, and though he had survived, he’d emerged from the horror no longer whole.
Yet at the same time something else was seeping through his mind: triumph, joy, a thrill that made his stomach roil and his body tighten. There was still hunger in him, but it was rapidly being replaced with deepest satisfaction.
I have not eaten in centuries, Morri. This is a moment to savour. The heat, the warmth, the texture of blood and raw, pulsing meat.
Mouse lurched forward and vomited, not caring that he missed his own boots by the narrowest of margins.
Sweet. So very sweet. Will you not savour it with me, Morri?
Something warm and slippery slithered down his throat, and Mouse heaved again.
“Sweet Maegla, what’s wrong with him?” someone whispered above his head, clumsy gloves stroking over his shoulders to pull his scarf more firmly away from his mouth.
“Only the Gods can know what happened to him in Aquila,” someone else muttered. “We still don’t know how Nehtl died.”
The screams cut off with a low wail, and Mouse collapsed against his friends with a sob.
Are you not hungry, Morri?
“My name is Mouse,” he whispered.
“We know,” his friends promised. “We know who you are.”
I only wished to shar – Who dares interrupt my meal?
The roar burst through his mind, sweeping over his senses in an obliterating tide, and Mouse surrendered to unconsciousness with a thankful sigh.
THE FIRST LIGHT of dawn shivered into the world as Yullik stood atop the east tower of Aquila, awaiting the return of his kaz-naghkt. Fifteen sorry creatures had already been sent below, ordered to feed wherever they could find meat. Two were lost, taken down by Riders during the start of the hunt. Five more were missing.
As the sun crept cautiously over the edge of the world, almost too wary of reprisals to shine its light upon him, Yullik waited, eyes fixed on the spurs leading to the valley above Aquila. There, as golden light slid caressingly across his shoulders, three dark forms crawled through the gap in the stones.
Weary, clumsy, wounded and starving, the last three kaz-naghkt took to staggering flight. With their wide leathery-wings at full span, they cupped the contrary wind and allowed it to bear them high. They reached his perch moments before collapse, one of their number bleeding out the last of its precious blood across his feet. But they had returned, and with them they had brought a very sorry mess.
More blood than flesh, unconscious and pale as death, Lord Willym’s once-pretty face wouldn’t be seducing anyone soon, Yullik thought, shoving the useless whelp onto his back with a nudge of his boot. Or ever again, perhaps. He was lucky he hadn’t lost any limbs. Instead his tormentor had simply slashed its way across his body, lapping up the blood that flowed so richly from his wounds.
Such a bright shade. So vivid. Yullik studied the contrast between the crimson and the black of his departed kaz-naghkt.
Three kaz-naghkt had died to bring this one human back to him. Three of his finest creations, two of which were no doubt currently being digested somewhere up on the mountain.
Anger simmered beneath Yullik’s sun-kissed skin, but he did not regret. Better the creature ate two kaz-naghkt than one – albeit worthless – human. There was power in blood, but little for the beast to find in so much so similar to its own. The meat too would be tough, stringy and mostly unsatisfying. Nor were scales particularly digestible. Unlike soft, fleshy humans.
With a heavy sigh for the clothes he was about to ruin, he bent and hefted Willym over his shoulder before turning to his exhausted kaz-naghkt pair. “You did well,” he praised, wishing he could acquiesce to the pleading in those bright eyes.
But he was not done with Lord Willym yet. So instead of feeding them the ready meal, he shook his head and nodded towards the dead kaz-naghkt behind them.
“Clean up this mess. You may feed again afterwards. If you must enter the town to do so, you have my permission.”
They barely waited for his back to turn before they tore into the remains of their former companion. Yullik shrugged it off. They were kaz-naghkt; kaz-naghkt were always hungry.
As he soon would be himself, once he’d finished putting Lord Willym back together. He would have to think long and hard about how to make sure it didn’t turn out to be a monumental waste of time and energy.
Entering his rooms at the top of the tower, he almost smiled. If the beast had made Willym scream in terror, he had no idea what still awaited him.
~ Next Chapter ~
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