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~ Previous Chapter ~
We’ve reached the mountain! Hurray!
Plan in Action
On board the Illuminai
SQUEEZING INTO THE cabin assigned to both Captain Myran and Captain Huro, Lyrai looked around at the other seven lieutenants and realised this was it. The moment had come. Aquila wasn’t yet in sight, but it very soon would be. All day the Illuminai’s landing deck had been busy with the arrivals and departures of captains and commanders from all over the fleet. The far scouts and sentries had returned. General Keipen had as much information as it was possible to get.
It was time to begin.
With Stirla on one side and Honra on the other, Lyrai stood in line with the lieutenants, hands behind his back, shoulders firm as he waited to receive his orders. Captain Myran sat leaning against the desk in front of them, expression grim.
“According to the latest scout reports, all pirate activity remains centred on the cove. The citadel itself seems quiet and there’s little sign of the kaz-naghkt on the open mountainside. General Keipen is going to split the fleet, sending the bulk of the ships south to continue to monitor the situation while the two smallest, fastest ships will head west in search of General Dreffen’s forces.” He nodded at Stirla, who had carried that news all the way across the Heighlen in the depths of winter. “A small force will remain here to the east. In the morning, General Keipen will depart for the Dawnskipper, which will become his new command ship. We will remain on the Illuminai and head north.”
Lyrai tilted his head curiously at this, but it was Fleik – the most senior lieutenant – who dared to ask, “North, sir?”
Captain Myran nodded, short and sharp and clearly unhappy at the development. “The watch points along Aquila’s entire eastern ridge appear to be deserted. It is the general’s wish that we reclaim them for the Riders and set up encampments to ease the pressure on the ships.”
It seemed like a sound idea to Lyrai’s ears, so why was the captain so clearly unhappy?
“Once that has been achieved, we are to surrender the watch points to the care of Captain Huro and his lieutenants and push on westwards until we reach the Heights.”
The Heights. Lyrai swallowed hard, memories of his final day there returning in a rush. The quiet in the halls, the tense waiting as they listened to the faint but determined scratching against the doors and walls, the sudden shouts and screams. Rider Canno’s betrayal. Dragging Kilai away as the woman he loved was taken by the kaz-naghkt. Kaz-naghkt crawling through the cramped hallways. Slashing, biting, pouncing. Barricading the doors and fleeing down through the deserted citadel, while always behind came the constant, inescapable sound of scratching, scrabbling and digging.
Maegla, he didn’t want to go back there.
“Gods, sir, is he trying to get us killed?” Fleik spluttered in disbelief. “One flight against who knows how many kaz-naghkt?”
“One of the scouts claims he made it all the way to the Heights. He says they are deserted,” Myran replied steadily, not reprimanding his lieutenant for questioning orders. “The general thinks it worthy of further investigation.”
Fleik threw up his hands in disgust. “Well, let’s hope our bones and corpses tell a decent enough story for whatever poor bastards he sends along next!”
“Enough, Fleik,” Myran warned. “We have our orders.”
“But, sir,” Stirla asked softly, “what can we do alone?”
The captain smiled, but it was wry and lacking humour. “Did I fail to mention we’ll be taking company?”
Even as he spoke, Lyrai became aware that someone else had entered the room. He turned and spotted Elder Goryal, hands clasped in front of them, a smile on their face. “I believe this is the moment when I ask, when do we leave?”
* * *
EVEN WITH THE assistance of Nightriver’s watery glow, it was still dark and cramped and difficult in the tunnels. The way wove ever downwards, splitting occasionally and sometimes involving a bit of digging where the tunnels were partially blocked. Eventually, though, the way widened out, the floor became smooth and Silveo realised they had reached the original passage that he’d once taken from Aquila to Buteo and back again.
The deeper they walked, the colder it became, until their breaths turned into clouds before their faces.
“How much further?” Thunder grumbled.
“Not too far now,” Haelle replied cheerfully. “Don’t you think, Silveo?”
Remembering the chill of the lake as he’d sat beside it with Imaino, waiting and waiting for Mouse to reappear, Silveo nodded. “It’s just down here.”
“Good.” Thunder ruffled her wings. “Unlike you humans, I am not used to using my legs to walk so far.”
Silveo considered pointing out that the miryhls had invited themselves along on a journey he’d never intended them to take, but knew it was pointless. So he said nothing.
“I’ll be glad to stop too,” Haelle said, once again sounding far too cheerful for their cold and gloomy surroundings. “This new design of Gedanon’s is very good, but my own legs aren’t used to walking this way and I’m ready to rest.”
That faint hint of a complaint, merry as it was, had Silveo stopping in his tracks, while Thunder hunched over her Rider, nuzzling her worriedly. “You should have said,” the miryhl muttered. “You shouldn’t have pushed so far. Here, the tunnel is high enough now for me to carry you. Ride on my back.”
“No, no,” Haelle laughed, waving her miryhl’s concern away. “It’s not that bad. I can walk a little longer yet.”
“Are you sure?” Silveo asked, because although they had been taking regular rest stops along the way, Haelle’s merry perseverance had made him forget all about her false leg. “We can rest a while if you need to. There’s no rush.”
“I’m fine,” Haelle said, and though her voice was light the firm line of her jaw was fierce. As was the look she settled on him. “Keep going. We’re almost there now.”
Silveo bowed his head apologetically and started walking again. For a moment there he’d almost forgotten – why they were there, what they were searching for, why Nightriver had come underground in the first place. As with Haelle’s deceptive cheer, the drawn-out journey had made his own original urgency fade from his mind.
There was a need to rush, a great need, because even if they couldn’t do anything to help, their friends were gravely wounded, perhaps even dying. They needed to reach them as soon as possible. They needed to reach Nightriver and see if they could help after all, even if was just to provide comfort.
So Silveo pressed his hand to the damp, glowing walls and sped up as the path descended ever more steeply into the dark.
* * *
IT FELT STRANGE to be back on Cumulo again and flying over something other than the empty Cloud Sea. Still, as dusk fell and stars began peeping out overhead, Mhysra joined her friends in the eyries and left the Illuminai behind for the first time since Nimbys. Even though her mother had stood by the rail to see them off, here Mhysra was a student once again. With Dhori, Derrain and Corin alongside her, she flew in the middle of two flurries, Lyrai’s on one side, Stirla’s on the other. Despite everything they’d been through, all the miles they’d flown, they were nothing more than students here. Back on the mountain where they all belonged.
Captain Myran led them from the front, dispatching Honra and Fleik to the black shadows of their first target: Wellingdrop. Gods, Mhysra remembered that place, the dull watches, the scant rations and the first time she’d sparred with Lyrai one-to-one. How long ago that seemed. How different the world was.
It wasn’t long before a candle was lit and placed in the window. All was well below.
Leaving Fleik’s men behind to hold the station, Captain Myran’s remaining flurries moved on. It was a strange and eerie sensation to be creeping along the edge of the mountain in the darkness, keeping low and close to the Cloud Sea, waiting for an alarm call or to see the unmistakable silhouette of a kaz-naghkt. There was nothing.
After Wellingdrop they left Honra at Goatscarp, then not long after that Stirla’s men regained the lofty perch of Felltip. Derrain and Corin were left with him and Mhysra tried not to feel too nervous as the final flurry followed Captain Myran on into the darkness. With her senses stretched out, fearing an attack at any moment, it was a positive relief when the Riders in front of her finally dipped down. Nipvale was a dark chimney on the night, its stony watchtower the only part of it that stuck over the edge of the ridge upon which it was built. The rest was squat and low and tucked out of sight amongst some scraggly fir trees.
Tired and cold and stressed, no one said much as they settled down in the forest, waiting while Lyrai, Dhori and a handful of Riders went on ahead, ensuring that all was as empty as it seemed. Clearly it was, because before long a lit candle appeared at the window and the double doors to the eyries creaked as they were opened.
“Oh, how I have missed such fine accommodations as these,” Cumulo grumbled, as he followed Mhysra inside. Torchlight flickered from the walls, the dancing shadows doing little to hide the dust and dirt and rat droppings. Which was pretty much standard for places like these.
“Try to get some sleep,” she advised her miryhl, kissing his beak and leaving him with Hurricane so the pair of them could reminisce about the many dirt holes in which they’d stayed.
“An excellent idea,” Elder Goryal chimed, falling into step with her as she left the eyries and made for the open door of the station. Figures moved back and forth against the candlelight, already preparing something to eat and setting out places for them all to sleep.
Sleep. The very thought sent a shiver through Mhysra as she remembered the main reason why the dragon was likely here – and sticking so close to her side. “Will Yullik know?” she asked. “Will he sense that I’m here?”
Goryal smiled and rested a soothing hand on her arm. “If he searches for you, then yes, he will know you are here. But it hardly matters,” they added, before she could feel too guilty. “He will have been expecting your return since the day he drove you from Aquila, and there is little hope of hiding from him when Reglian flies with us.”
Mhysra raised her eyebrows, because as impressive as Reglian was to look at it was the dragon by her side who held the real power.
Goryal smiled as if reading her thoughts – which they could quite easily have done. “I can conceal myself if I wish, but the moment I set foot on Aquila’s soil he would have known I was here. There is no hiding that.”
“Then the enemy knows we are here,” Captain Myran said from behind them, startling Mhysra as she hadn’t realised he was listening.
Goryal turned their smile in his direction. “He has always known, captain. There is no hiding from Yullik ses-Khennik. Not while he holds Aquila.”
“Then the sooner we take it back,” Lyrai declared, “the better.”
A rumble of agreement sounded amongst the men, most of whom likely had no idea what the dragon was even talking about. Lucky them.
“Indeed,” Captain Myran agreed, closing and bolting the door firmly against the remains of the night. “But before that we should all get some sleep. If the enemy knows we’re here, no doubt we will have company in the morning. Lieutenant, set the watch, the rest of you, settle down. Captain Huro’s flurry will be along to relieve us at first light.”
“If the kaz-naghkt don’t reach us first,” Sergeant Bheneo predicted gloomily.
“Which is an excellent reason to get some rest,” Lyrai said, sending his sergeant a quelling look. “But if the thought keeps you from sleep, Bheneo, then why don’t you take the first watch? Juret, Yhed, Lewen, keep him company. Everyone else, the captain gave you an order.”
“Aye, sirs!” The Riders – Mhysra included – saluted, and before long she was snuggling down inside her bedroll, with Dhori on one side, Elder Goryal on the other. The threat of the kaz-naghkt might once have kept her wide awake past dawn, but she’d grown used to such threats over the last year and her eyes were heavy. Yawning, she blinked sleepily at where Lyrai and the captain were huddled over the rickety kitchen table, then closed her eyes and drifted off. After all, she was only a student now.
~ Next Chapter ~
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