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~ Previous Chapter ~
In which Yullik is rather busy… Unfortunately.
Blood and Belligerence
FATIGUE WEIGHED ON Yullik’s brain like a lump of Worlds End iron, freshly scarred from being savagely hewn from the mountains. It was all he could do to sit upright, balancing his heavy head upon his shoulders. He hadn’t suffered such exhaustion for half a hundred years, when he last bred a new strain into his kaz-naghkt.
The only difference was that that time it had been worth it. Then he’d had bigger, faster, hungrier kaz-naghkt to show for his efforts. This time he had Willym.
Of a sort. As deep and disfiguring as the many cuts to Willym’s once pretty face and torso had been, Yullik had been able to fix them without too much trouble. Especially since he didn’t bother going to the extra effort of removing the scars. The former Rift Rider had relied too much on his beauty to mask his depravities for too long. Learning how to cope without it would be character building. Probably.
Yet as bad as those scratches had looked, each on their own had not been a problem for Yullik. What had really worn him out was the amount of blood Willym had lost. Whatever attacked him on the mountain – and as yet Yullik only had suspicions – had a particularly nasty property in its claws. One he’d tried to breed into his kaz-naghkt without success. This creature’s claws were not only sharp and strong, but coated in a substance that prevented the blood from clotting, meaning the wounds remained open far longer than they should have. Which meant Willym lost far more blood than he could afford.
Since most of the pirates had now fled to Aquila town, in the hope that they would be safe from being eaten there, it left Yullik with a dilemma. Having already wasted so much time and effort on Willym, did he let him die? Or should he replace the lost blood with the only ready supply he had to hand?
Tempting as it was to let the foolish boy go, Yullik knew he couldn’t. The captain twins still had plans for him, and Yullik himself had to admit to a certain curiosity about where that would end. And when one was as old as he, curiosity was hard to come by, so had to be savoured wherever it was found.
So he called his kaz-naghkt to him and set about transferring their blood into the body of the former Rift Rider, using just enough to replace what had been lost. Unfortunately for Willym kaz-naghkt blood is poisonous to humans, which meant Yullik had a very tedious night keeping the idiot alive, while filling his veins with molten agony.
Yullik’s only solace was that as exhausting as it was for him, it hurt Willym far more, and his screams had been shrill and desperate enough to make even the kaz-naghkt cower. Before Yullik was even halfway done he’d had to force the creatures to remain still so that he could take their blood, so terrified were they of the man’s screams.
Truly, there were times when Yullik wished he’d not bothered at all. Or used his own blood. Which would have made it all a very short operation, since it would have killed Willym outright.
Sighing, Yullik closed his memory against those long, agonising hours and studied the body on the bed. He looked dead. Where once Willym’s skin had glowed a dusky gold, rich with the vitality of youth and health, now it was pallid and slightly grey. His scars stuck out in quintets of red welts. His face was marked by the heavy lines of pain. Overnight his weight had dropped to almost skeletal levels, his bones creating stark angles against his tight skin. His hair was sweat-matted, his nails cracked and blackened where he’d tried to claw the burning blood from his own veins. In all it was a very different picture to the one Lord Willym fra Wrellen, son of Jarl Yurrayn, normally presented.
The slight rise and fall of the blanket was the only evidence he still lived, and with that Yullik was satisfied. If only he wasn’t so tired.
Sinking into the cushioned support of his chair, he let his head fall back and his eyes close, the lure of sleep beckoning him closer. An attractive proposition. He knew he should remain awake a little longer to ensure Willym suffered no set-backs, but in truth he didn’t much care.
Sighing, he released a little more of his tension, drifting further away from the cold tower room at the top of Aquila. And felt a familiar touch against his wearied brain.
He struggled to regain consciousness, already groping with his mind for that same connection, so sweet, so fleeting, so quickly gone.
She was back in the Overworld, and yet even as he reached for her, static, storms and heavy shadows pushed her beyond his reach once more.
Too tired to fight against them, he growled with frustration and was silenced beneath the heavy weight of sleep.
* * *
“I AM REALLY not comfortable with this.”
“I know, Cumulo,” Mhysra sighed. It would have been almost impossible for her not to have realised this by now, as he’d spent almost every moment since they’d landed the night before complaining about it. Combined with the thankless bleak conditions of this distant outcropping of Lansbrig rocks, with nothing left between them and the Storm Surge just beyond the horizon, hadn’t left Mhysra with much time nor chance for sleeping. “But you know it makes sense.”
Her Wingborn gave a disdainful huff. “I know of no such thing,” he grumbled. “For eighteen years my wings have been perfectly sufficient for your needs. I do not see why that should change now.”
Rubbing her head against the insistent ache building there, Mhysra sighed and tried once more to reason with her brash young miryhl. “This isn’t a personal reflection on your skills and abilities, Cue,” she said with weary patience, having been kept up half the night with his ceaseless fretting. “Why are you taking this so personally?”
He huffed again, shuffling his wings. “I just don’t see why I can’t fly us across. I managed perfectly well when we travelled down from the Heighlen, and when we left Etheria. You certainly had no complaints when I was crossing those four stretches of open Cloud Sea.”
“Cumulo, I have no complaints about you now,” she shot back, tone rising with impatience. “Stop making this all about you. You know full well that we’re pressed for time, and who knows how long it will take us to negotiate our way into Sanctuary – if it’ll even be possible. It would take you more than three days to cross between Lansbrig and Storm Peaks. Nor can we guarantee we’d find places to roost at night, and you know how bad it is for you to sleep in such awful conditions.”
He hummed and hawed, crackling his beak as he considered the wisdom of her words. “Why can’t we take a skyship?”
Since it was a half-reasonable suggestion, she didn’t snap at him, simply sighed again and rubbed her aching forehead. “You know why, Cue. We don’t have time to wait around for one, nor the money to pay for it, even if we could find one that would agree to carry us all. Then there’s the issue of time again. If it would take you three days, it would take a skyship almost double that, thanks to the contrary winds coming off the Storm Surge. As well you know.” Feeling her patience coming to an end, she placed both hands on her miryhl’s beak and forced his gaze to meet hers. “Please, Cumulo, can’t you just accept it? All the others have agreed, why not you?”
Jerking his head free, he fluffed up in affront. “The others may have agreed, but I am Wingborn. I will not be carried by anyone!”
Mhysra was tired, cranky and more than a little nervous about what lay ahead on this fresh journey into the unknown. For once, it would have been nice if her Wingborn could drop his arrogance and just go along with everyone else. Just once. Was it too much to ask?
Eying his rigid stance, his firmly clenched beak and the glint in his golden eyes, every bit as tempestuous as the storm brooding on the horizon, Mhysra knew it was. Cumulo never did anything just because everyone else already was. In fact he often kicked out just on principle. For the most part she was content to rebel alongside him, but right now all she wanted to do was cry. Why was he doing this to her?
Before she could give into her tiredness, a comforting arm rested across her shoulders, pulling her against a familiar chest. She rested her forehead against Lyrai’s neck with a sigh. It was so good to have someone to lean on sometimes. Even if it did remind her how much she missed Derrain.
“Is this how you care for your Wingborn, Cumulo?” Lyrai said over her head, wrapping her securely in both of his arms, even as the cool tone of his voice made her shiver. It was the dreaded Ice Lieutenant voice again.
Not that her brash miryhl cared. He simply snorted. “Much you would know about it.”
Lifting her head, Mhysra turned to frown at him. “Cumulo.”
The little feathers on his crest prickled, but he didn’t back down. “I am taking care of my Wingborn,” he growled, glaring at both Lyrai and Dhori, who had also appeared, arms crossed over his chest in clear disapproval.
“By driving her to tears with your intransigent stubbornness?” Dhori inquired, sounding deceptively mild.
Cumulo narrowed his eyes. “I am her Wingborn. If anyone is to carry her, it will be me.”
“Ah.” Dhori nodded, enlightened, while Mhysra rested her head against Lyrai again, sighing in defeat. They had been over this, again and again. Cumulo wouldn’t listen to her.
“Hurricane is my blood-bonded miryhl,” Lyrai said, stroking soothing fingers through Mhysra’s curls, making her melt just that little bit more. “He does not feel lessened because he’s agreed to be carried by dragons, and to let them take me at the same time. He knows it has nothing to do with him, but is simply a way to save valuable time and energy by making our journey that little bit shorter.”
“He would,” Cumulo grumbled.
Feeling Lyrai stiffen with indignation, Mhysra squeezed his waist, silently begging him not to bite. Cumulo was in one of his most obnoxious moods. Allowing him to argue his way off the main topic did nothing but waste even more time.
“No one would think less of you for agreeing to this, Cumulo,” Dhori said softly. “In fact we would applaud your good sense. I am no fan of dragons, as you are well aware, but even I can acknowledge that while they’re here we would do well to take advantage of their strengths. The stretch between Lansbrig and Storm Peaks is the most contrary and dangerous across the Overworld. Why tire yourself out and risk the life of your Wingborn on a three-day flight into the unknown, when the dragons can take you over in a day?”
Knowing he was running out of decent arguments, Cumulo glared at the ground and stirred the dirty pebbles with his talons. “It is undignified,” he muttered. “I am a miryhl. I have two perfectly good wings of my own.”
“And we people have a decent set of legs,” Dhori agreed, “but we’ll still use horses to cross wide distances. There’s no shame in getting a little help every now and then. Besides, you let them carry you across from Mistrune.”
Cumulo huffed again. “I didn’t like it.”
“I think you’ll find none of the miryhls did,” Dhori pointed out. “You were all uncomfortable, but you can’t deny that it saved us time.”
“Don’t you want to help us win back Aquila?” Lyrai had to ask.
In the silence that followed, Mhysra turned to face her miryhl, meeting his miserable eyes. “Oh, Cue,” she whispered, and stepped up to put her arms about his neck.
He lowered his beak to rest against her chest. “I can carry you,” he muttered stubbornly.
“I know.” She riffled her fingers through his neck feathers, wishing she could soothe his pride so easily.
“You’re my Wingborn.”
“And you’re mine,” she promised.
“Stupid show-off dragons. I wish we’d never met them.”
Smiling against him, knowing they’d won, she tilted her head and caught Dhori’s wink. She suppressed her chuckles and pulled away, kissing her miryhl on the beak. “Thanks, Cue.”
He stirred more pebbles with a surly grunt. “The things I do for you,” he muttered.
“I know. I’m terribly spoiled and don’t deserve you.”
He harrumphed, and Mhysra seized her chance to escape, pressing a kiss to both Dhori’s and Lyrai’s cheek as she went. “My heroes.”
“I’d save the celebrations, if I were you.” Reglian appeared before her, golden eyes glinting with the reflected flash of distant lightning. “At least until we reach the other side.”
At which point the sky opened and dumped an entire cloud of rain onto their heads.
Thunder grumbled from afar and Dhori laughed. “Well, they’re not called the Storm Peaks for nothing. Maegla will be pleased.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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