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~ Previous Chapter ~
Here we go!
(No, really, I mean it this time.)
IT WAS PAST noon by the time Lyrai and Stirla were called to the eyries. The students had been sent off in the first burst early that morning, then the captains had dispatched their lieutenants and flurries each in turn. With around three thousand Rider pairs now in Nimbys, with thirty captains and one hundred and twenty lieutenants, this had taken some time. Since they had been selected to travel on the Illuminai with General Keipen – attempting to keep Lyrai and the dragons under his eye, no doubt – Captain Myran’s Riders were the last to leave.
“Spacious in here all of a sudden,” Hurricane greeted him in the almost empty eyries. In truth, with Myran’s hundred miryhls and the flurries being left behind to maintain Nimbys’ defence while they were gone, the big barn was about as full as it should usually be. However, after several months of ever-increasing numbers roosting both here and in the temporary shelters put up all over the flying field, it did seem rather roomy for a change.
“Don’t get too used to it,” Lyrai advised, placing the saddle on his marble miryhl’s back.
Hurricane lowered his head with a chuckle. “The Illuminai looks like a big ship.”
Except with two hundred miryhls about to be loaded into its hull, it was unlikely to feel like it.
“We’ll go flying often,” Lyrai promised, since that was the only possible way so many miryhls would be able to cope being in such close proximity for so long. He wasn’t looking forward to seeing his own quarters himself.
“I think we’ll all be doing that,” Atyrn predicted, as Stirla buckled her bridle straps.
“Let’s hope the weather treats us fair along the way then,” her Rider said, slapping her saddle to send her outside to wait for him.
“We might be able to do something about that.” Arms folded across his chest, Reglian blended perfectly into the shadows, with only a few hints of gold to lighten his appearance.
Sending Hurricane outside ahead of him, Lyrai raised his eyebrows at the dragon. “I don’t think storms will help us much.”
Reglian’s teeth glinted as he sauntered out of the door into the grey, rainy day. “On the contrary, lieutenant, I think a couple of storms will be exactly what you need. See you on the Illuminai.” Hopping onto the back of a waiting vulardi, the big black dragon took off, presumably to fetch Rhiddyl and bring her to join the rest of them.
“I don’t think I trust him,” Stirla mused, as they tilted their heads back to watch the great vulture and its mysterious cargo wheel out of sight.
“Don’t,” Hurricane and Lyrai said together, making Atyrn chuckle.
“Dragons and storms and skyships and war, we are living in legendary times, my friends.”
“That we are, Atyrn-girl,” Stirla agreed, hopping into the saddle. “And we’ll look right foolish if we’re late and miss the final send off.”
“It wouldn’t make for the most auspicious start,” Lyrai said, swinging up into the saddle and looking around to check that all of his Riders – most of whom had been assigned to him since reaching Nimbys, and still didn’t feel quite his – were mounted up and ready. Catching his new sergeant’s eye, he gave Bheneo a nod and received one in return. “Riders, to wing!”
Hurricane sprang into the sky and, with a powerful thrust of his cream and brown marbled wings, lifted them up as a host of miryhls launched behind him.
“You heard the lieutenant,” Stirla shouted to his own flurry. “Riders, take flight!”
With Fleik already airborne, all that remained was for Honra to join them and they circled over the eyries to wait for Captain Myran to take off. Swirling over the Stratys’ palace, Lyrai couldn’t help but glance down.
Three figures watched. Nataryn held his mother’s hand and pointed him out amongst the crowd from the balcony outside her room. Further along, Princess Demolie stood at the window of Henryn’s chambers. She raised her hand. He saluted.
“Captain’s up,” Hurricane called, drawing Lyrai’s attention away from his family. “Ready to go?”
Taking one last glance back at the palace, he shoved aside the tangled, bitter knot of his emotions, gathered up his reins and nodded. “Aye, Cane. Let’s go.”
MHYSRA STOOD ON the top deck alongside her mother, watching as the last cloud of miryhls swept down from the city. Even from the edge of the cove she could hear the crowds cheering as the heroes of Nimbys streamed overhead. Music was playing, ribbons and banners hung from every window, and high up on a crag overlooking the city, her sister would be watching.
Mhysra’s heart went out to Milluqua, but she only had eyes for the pale miryhl leading the charge as Hurricane and Lyrai swooped down on the Illuminai.
“Such an impressive sight,” her mother murmured.
Mhysra eyed her sideways, uncertain whether the Countess was talking to her – and just what or who she was referring to.
“Indeed,” General Keipen rumbled. “A Flight of Rift Riders on the wing is one of the Overworld’s greatest spectacles.”
Lunrai glanced sideways at her daughter, the corner of her mouth quirking up. If Mhysra didn’t know better, she would have said it was mischievous – but her mother didn’t have a sense of humour, and she certainly didn’t know that a certain marble-miryhl riding lieutenant had spent the night in her youngest daughter’s bedroom.
At least, she hoped not.
Whatever her mother knew or was thinking, Mhysra was unlikely to ever know, because at that moment Lunrai looked forward and gasped, “Great Mother Lithaen!”
A boom echoed over the valley of Nimbys and Mhysra’s own eyes widened.
The miryhls divided on either side of the Illuminai to sweep around and enter through the hatch below, but no one was watching them now. Not when a vast black shadow raced over the city, ruffling and tangling the ribbons and banners, as he rushed towards them.
“Ah, at last.” Elder Goryal appeared beside Mhysra, making her jump – she hadn’t even known they were onboard. “I was beginning to think he wouldn’t show.”
The crowds of Nimbys were silent now as Reglian, in all his Thunderwing glory, looped around Maegla’s cathedral and powered straight up into the sky. Remembering the force of his roar and the way he’d battered a fleet of pirate ships to splinters, Mhysra tensed as the dragon folded in on himself, tucking his wings to dive fast and furious over the top of the fleet, heading straight for them.
“Gods preserve us,” General Keipen murmured, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the railing. Mhysra’s breath caught in her lungs as Reglian, gold eyes narrowed to the merest glimmer, opened his mouth —
He reappeared with a pop, human-shaped and sized, standing between Mhysra and her mother. “Countess,” he purred, lifting Lunrai’s limp hand and giving it a courtly kiss. “A pleasure, as always, to see you again.”
For a moment the Countess swayed and Mhysra thought her mother was going to faint.
But Lady Kilpapan was made of sterner stuff. She shut her gaping mouth, pulled her shoulders straight and eyed the dragon up and down. “Pleased with yourself?” she snapped, every inch the disapproving mother.
Reglian grinned, delighted. “Immeasurably.”
General Keipen scowled, Elder Goryal sighed and Mhysra was able to breathe again.
“All aboard, Captain Jesketh?” the Countess called, eyes locked with Reglian’s golden gaze.
“Aye, my lady.”
With a sharp nod, Lunrai turned on her heel and strode across the top deck towards the wheelhouse. “Then take us to sea.”
“Aye, my lady!” The captain saluted sharply and nodded to his first mate.
The tall woman strode to the rail above the main deck and bellowed, “Sailors, raise the sails, loosen the ties, cast off and rise! Next stop Aquila!”
“Cast off and rise!” The call spread out across the deck as the crew leapt into action.
“Next stop Aquila,” Mhysra echoed, a thrill racing through her as the gasbag rippled overhead and the Illuminai lifted. Taking one last look back at Nimbys, she raised her hand in silent farewell to her watching sister, then hurried forward to join her friends at the prow rail as the fleet set forth over the billowing expanse of the Cloud Sea.
~ Next Chapter ~
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