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~ Previous Chapter ~
Flying again. Finally!
WILLYM WOKE AND had no idea where he was. This was not an unusual occurrence. Over the last few days he had been growing increasingly familiar with moments of blankness, followed by confusion. He felt no surprise to find himself standing in the middle of a room, when the last thing he remembered was lying down on his bed in the tower for a rest. All he felt was a weary anger.
Why was this happening to him?
A futile question, one he doubted would ever get answered. According to the captain twins he had Yullik to blame for his continued survival, but Willym hadn’t seen that cowardly bastard since he’d returned to his full wits. Well, half full wits. Half wits? He shook his head and brought his focus back to the room around him. Where was he?
It was gloomy, but thanks to whatever Yullik had done, Willym’s night-sight was now excellent. So despite the lack of light he could still make out the step up out of the disused storeroom, still recognise the metal rings bolted into the floor and high on the walls. The chains were familiar too, just like the stains on the walls. He knew this room. With the recognition came the blankness, wiping out thought, sensation and consciousness.
He woke to find himself licking the walls, trailing his tongue over the darkest blood stains.
Snarling and cursing, he wrenched himself away, spitting the taste of mildewed plaster, damp rock and blood from his mouth. The last was the worst, faint though it was, because he only wanted more of it. Monster stirred inside, but Willym growled it back down.
“I am not an animal,” he told the dark memories of this room. “I am civilised.”
“Tell that to your victims.”
Willym whipped his head around and scrambled to his feet, facing Yullik down. A wave of fear washed over him, but he dug deep, encouraging Monster to rise for the first time. But Monster would not come. It was Monster who was frightened, terrified by this frail man standing before them. He could smell him, Monster could smell him, and he smelled… strange.
Willym had always wondered if Yullik was human. Now he knew he wasn’t.
Smiling, Yullik stepped into the storeroom and even though this put him at a height disadvantage, he lost none of his presence. Willym wondered how he’d missed it before. How could he not have known what horrors raged beneath this man’s skin? He’d thought him a contemptuous coward; he knew better now.
Monster cowered, and it was all Willym could do not to do the same.
“At last,” Yullik chuckled as he approached, backing Willym into the corner. He reached to pat Willym’s cheek, but Monster made him flinch away. Yullik smiled. “Yes, at last.”
“What?” Willym demanded, forcing his voice not to quiver, searching for the cocksure young lord who’d feared nothing and no one, and had been so very sure of his place in the world.
Yullik narrowed his pale gold eyes, and Willym could have sworn they were glowing. “You’ve grown up, Lord Willym. You are almost worthy of the name now.”
“Lord Willym is dead,” he growled.
Yullik grinned. “All the better. I can use you now.”
Willym clenched his fist against the trembling Monster inside him. “I am not a toy, Lord Yullik. I am not to be played with.”
His defiance almost broke his nerve, but Yullik only laughed. “So the boy still lives, but as always he is wrong.” The laughter stopped and Yullik stepped in front of Willym, close enough to reveal a glimpse of the thing that lived beneath his unprepossessing skin. “I saved your life. I made you what you are. I own you. You are my creation. My Monster.”
And just like that, the horror inside Willym succumbed to the greater power. But not Willym, never Willym. He might have lowered his eyes, he might not have dared voice his dissent, but he felt it. The rebellion that stirred the oldest parts of his soul. He belonged to no one.
The man before him gave a half smile, but what he saw Willym could not tell. He just nodded slowly and turned on his heel. “You will brighten the last of these winter days, Willym. But if you don’t stop eating my kaz-naghkt, I will eat you myself.” A threat delivered in the most neutral and careless of tones – and was all the more chilling because of it. “Now come along. We have work to do. My kaz-naghkt must awaken. The citadel needs tending.”
He paused and looked over his shoulder into Willym’s dazed eyes. “Company is coming. We must prepare a warm welcome.”
* * *
On board the Thorncrest
EVEN WITH THE sun sitting high over the Cloud Sea and a completely clear sky above them, the wind to the north of the Storm Peaks was a capricious beast. What had started out as a mere exercise flight, was rapidly turning into serious training for Cumulo and Mhysra. Not that anyone would know, since Cumulo was riding the winds with a whoop and a laugh.
Tucked on his back, her face protected by a hat and a scarf, Mhysra smiled to hear her Wingborn so happy. It was almost like the old days, when they still lived in the Lowlands, or just after they joined the Riders in Nimbys. For the first time in ages, they were flying for the sake of flying and it was glorious.
A shrill cry to their left let them know they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the brisk conditions, and her miryhl banked in that direction. Half-expecting to see Hurricane, Mhysra was surprised to recognise a flash of silver on the newcomer’s wings.
“Latinym,” Cumulo called in surprise, racing to meet the other miryhl.
They’d left the silver-tipped eagle in Meros – at his own request – two days ago. It had been seven days since she’d last seen the man hunched upon his back. But, after a long sulk in the wilderness, Dhori had returned.
“Where have you been?” she shouted, as her Wingborn swept around the weary pair. “We had to leave you behind!”
A decision that no one had wanted to take, but after Mhysra had led her lieutenants to an agreeable skyship captain – and the ship had taken two days for restocking – they could hardly delay their departure date because of one errant member of their band. Especially when they were paying the captain a mere pittance.
“I needed time to calm down,” Dhori called in reply, waving towards the ship. “Latinym needs to rest.”
Mhysra and Cumulo snorted. Dhori had needed to calm down? It was Mhysra who’d suffered from the dragons’ neglect. If anyone had needed time alone, surely it had been her. She could have done with Dhori’s quiet wisdom in those days of doubt, before Lyrai dragged her from her self-pity and forced her back out into the world. Then again, Dhori had always been and would always be his own person, mystery, sulking and unexpected temper and all.
So she held her tongue, because poor Latinym did look exhausted. As well he might, covering a day and a half’s sailing distance across these wild winds on just his wings. Dhori was lucky to have such a miryhl.
Running a soothing hand over Cumulo’s neck feathers, she urged him to return the skyship drifting a short way ahead. The Thorncrest was an impressive sight in the glinting sun. Dark and thin, it cut through the air like a finely honed blade, its long deck curving beneath a red and black gasbag. Mhysra adjusted her weight as Cumulo dived past the five tiers and swooped under the hull to the doors on the lowest level.
The rest of their miryhl friends were inside the eyries. They barely stirred at Cumulo’s showy entrance. Until they realised that he had not returned alone. As the chattering miryhls gathered around Latinym, Mhysra rushed through untacking Cumulo and hopped impatiently from foot to foot, waiting for Dhori to do the same. The moment the last trace of leather left Latinym’s feathers, she grabbed her friend’s arm and dragged him from the eyries.
If she didn’t take charge, the miryhls would soon turn their attention from their fellow eagle to the Rider who directed their strange activities. Once a miryhl interrogation started it was almost impossible to stop, and she had too many questions of her own for Dhori to wait for them to finish.
“Where have you been?” she repeated, letting him go long enough to hang their tack in the store room, before heading for the ladders that led up to the decks above.
“I told you,” Dhori sighed. “I was calming down.”
Coming from the most even-tempered person she’d ever met, Mhysra could only raise her eyebrows. True, Dhori had been very upset with the dragons, but even so… “For seven days?”
He conceded her point with a half-shrug. “I had some thinking to do. And when I returned to the eyries you were gone.” Before she could argue why they’d had to go, he held up a hand. “I expected as much. We all know how short time is, and there’s no room for self-indulgence. Not even my own.”
Hearing the wry amusement in his voice, Mhysra stopped on the third deck and waited for him to join her. “Is everything all right?” she had to ask, because he was acting very out of character. Even for Dhori.
He gave her an enigmatic smile. “As much as it ever is,” he evaded, ducking ahead of her on the ladder and scrambling up the last two flights to the top deck.
~ Next Chapter ~
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