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~ Previous Chapter ~
No prizes for guessing who is the real monster in this update.
WILLYM WOKE TO sunlight, shining in through the high windows of his room. The angle told him it was a setting sun, sinking slowly. Soon it would be gone. Night was coming.
Something inside him stirred at the thought, but he had no energy to pursue it. Instead he lay perfectly still, staring at the light that glowed against the high ceiling.
He could almost feel the warmth of it, though no part of it touched him, save for what he could see with his eyes. It was strange, muted yet more all at the same time. He’d never seen sunlight like it before. There were colours in it, strange, beautiful colours, that shimmered out of the corner of his eye. When he tried to focus on them they vanished, but he knew they were there. It was all there; the world in a beam of light.
Wonderful, magical. Odd.
He frowned at his uncharacteristically poetic thoughts and scratched idly at his right wrist, then his stomach. There was a faint tickle lying just beneath his skin. Not unpleasant exactly, but not entirely comfortable either. His hand moved to his chest. He stopped.
His skin was different. Where once it had been smooth and hard over the ripples of his muscles, barely touched by a smattering of hair, now it was rough and ridged. Confused, he raised his head and looked at himself in growing horror.
Scarred. He was scarred. Badly.
Shoving the rest of his covers away with a strangled gasp, Willym stared at the wreck of his once perfect body. The scars were deep and livid, still fresh and angry as they tore swathes across his skin, cutting twice across his chest in a series of five parallel lines, then down his midriff and onto his thighs. Yet bad as they were – and they were hideous – the welts that covered the rest of his skin looked worse. Raised lines of pink and white marked him everywhere, from his hands and arms to his hips and pelvis, all the way down to his feet. He ran shaking hands over his shoulders, up his neck to his face, finding more welts and scars. They were everywhere.
Shuddering, he tumbled out of bed, uncaring that he fell straight to the floor, his legs too weak to support him. All that mattered was that he had enough strength to haul himself across the room with his arms, searching for the mirror lying on the desk.
It hurt to move so far, to subject his fragile, wounded skin to the shock of the cold floor and the rough weave of the rugs, but Willym was determined to reach that mirror. He didn’t care how much blood he left behind, he had to see.
On shaking arms, he levered his upper body high enough to reach the desk, scrabbling around with desperate fingers until cool glass met his touch. He pulled it towards him and collapsed onto the floor with the mirror clutched to his chest.
There he lay, panting, wounded, aching, staring up at the sunlight on the ceiling. The colours weren’t so beautiful now. They were a taunt. He couldn’t bear to see such beauty in the world when he knew his own was gone.
So he waited and waited and waited, aching in the dying light, until the sun was almost gone. Then he raised the mirror from his chest and held it above his face.
He stared. What once was bronze, now was grey. His beautiful skin raked by vicious claws, his sharp, aristocratic cheekbones pitted, his proud nose broken. Even his lips were different, slashed, ruined. He stared into the blackness of his eyes, which contained not the slightest touch of white, and felt everything inside him tighten.
A bead of moisture gathered at the corner of his eye, rolling down his cheek.
The glass cracked.
Claws grew from his gripping fingertips as his knuckles turned white from the strain, and the mirror shattered. Roaring his fury, Willym threw the shards across the room and the last of the sunlight fled, as though hiding from his rage.
Rolling up onto his hands and knees, Willym stared at the door and snarled. He was hungry, so very hungry. As he glared the door handle slowly began to turn; the guards coming to see what all the commotion was about.
Feeling his claws grow even longer, Willym gathered himself into a crouch and waited.
The door opened and a monstrous face peered inside. When it found no body on the bed, the kaz-naghkt grumbled and stepped into the room.
Only to be slammed into the wall as Willym struck. Claws and teeth flashed. There were screams, there was pain, and then all he knew was the ecstasy of death and feeding.
* * *
“ARE YOU READY, little Mouse?”
He didn’t know how long he’d spent sitting beside that water, feeding the fire, tending Silveo, then doing the same for Greig when Nightriver finally brought him out. All he knew was the endless round of caring for his friends, poking at the fire and sorting through the food that the dragon brought him. And wondering. Wondering about Haelle, about the others and how they’d fared in the latest rock fall, if they were all right, if they’d made it to Buteo. Wondering how he would get there, if it was even possible now that Nightriver had changed the tunnels so much.
At the touch of that voice, however, everything else fell away and he jumped to his feet. “Greig,” he called. “Silveo.”
Not waiting for either of them, he hurried to the water’s edge, waiting in the shallows. It still wouldn’t let him touch it, but he didn’t care about little things like that anymore. Not when the lake was glowing.
It started out small, a mere pinprick of light that could easily have been Nightriver’s eyes off in the distance. But it grew. Like a stain spreading over silk, the glow rippled out in all directions, growing brighter all the time, until the entire lake was lit with it. The light was so bright it hurt to look at, but Mouse didn’t dare turn away.
“What’s happening?” Silveo asked, when he and Greig arrived, still weak from their time in the water but otherwise whole. No breaks, no injuries, no bruises.
“She’s coming,” Mouse replied, tears in his eyes from the powerful light.
“Haelle,” Greig whispered, then jumped into the water. “Haelle!”
Nightriver’s head crested the surface, swimming towards them, and there, on his back like some water maiden of legend, sat Haelle. Her hair glowed green, but she was smiling.
Running through the shallows until the lake floor dropped out from beneath him, Greig swam out to meet them, the tears on his face nothing to do with the light surrounding him.
Crying herself, Haelle laughed as Nightriver rolled out from beneath her, dropping her into Greig’s waiting arms.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered, holding her hard against him, face buried in her hair. “We couldn’t save you. I thought you would die.”
She didn’t answer, just put her hands on his face and kissed him.
Embarrassed yet delighted, Mouse turned away to give them some privacy and caught Silveo’s equally embarrassed eye. They shared a sheepish smile and wiped away their tears – caused by the light, of course – then waited for Nightriver to nudge the oblivious lovers towards the shore.
“Did I not promise to heal your friends, little Mouse?” the dragon asked smugly, as Greig and Silveo helped the one-legged Haelle hop from the shallows.
“You did,” Mouse agreed, dropping to his knees and wrapping his arms around the dragon’s neck, no longer caring about the big teeth, the scales or the clawed feet. “You surely did.”
“Oh.” For once Nightriver sounded surprised, then rested his head against Mouse and patted his back with a gentle touch. “Well. You are my dragongifted. I prefer you to be happy.”
“Thank you,” Mouse whispered, wishing he could have met him earlier, before he’d ever entered the darkness beneath the citadel.
“I wish that too,” the dragon murmured into his mind. “I wish I could have saved all your friends, Morri. But you could not wake me until afterwards.”
“Sorry,” Mouse muttered, letting his real name pass for once as he pulled away and rubbed his eyes again. “I didn’t mean -”
“I know,” Nightriver rumbled, nudging Mouse gently in the ribs. “Go and join your friends a moment. I need to grow and then we shall find our way clear of this place. You have other friends who are worried about you. I would hate for their frantic digging to bring the mountain down upon their heads.”
Rather inclined to agree, Mouse scampered up the slope to his friends and hurriedly kicked the fire out. “All right, everyone,” he said, smiling as he bundled their things into the packs, handing them out amongst the boys. “Time to move on, I think.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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