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~ Previous Chapter ~
Stuff happens. At last. Stuff. Much stuff. Happening. Now.
Also: cliffhanger warning!
IT WAS A short flight, but one of the hardest Lyrai had ever made as they hopped across the ridge and down into the cleave beyond. The Heights lay quiet and watchful as Lyrai circled his flurry above the dark walls. The woods were tightly packed here, offering no convenient clearings to put down in. There were only two choices: inside the wall, or outside it.
It would probably be safer outside, but the gates were shut and the postern door the kaz-naghkt had once broken through had been bricked over entirely. The flat roof wasn’t big enough to fit all the miryhls, although it was another option if necessary.
Undecided, he glanced around until he located Honra circling his own flurry just above Lyrai’s. Elder Goryal hovered watchfully in the space between and Lyrai wondered what they were thinking.
“Hurricane, up,” he urged his miryhl, catching Honra’s eye and soaring to meet him as the other lieutenant dropped down. They joined the elder in the narrow strip of empty air.
“Well?” Honra asked.
Lyrai grimaced, having wanted to ask that himself. “The gates are a problem.”
“I cannot sense any life within the keep, if that helps,” Goryal offered, flittering their wings like the hummingbirds of the Lansbrig forests. “Of course, the stone does have a muting effect and kaz-naghkt are able to lower their heartbeats when in a resting state, but even with all these things considered, I cannot sense anything.”
Which provided Lyrai with absolutely no reassurance whatsoever. He raised his eyebrows at Honra.
His old sergeant sighed. “I’ll put some archers on the roof,” he offered, reading Lyrai’s intentions after five long years of working together. “Don’t get killed.”
“After all the work I’ve put into him,” Hurricane replied cheekily before his Rider had a chance, “I should hope not.”
Honra flicked them both a wry salute and urged his miryhl up to rejoin his flurry. Thinking the other man had the right idea, Lyrai dropped back down towards his own Riders. “Archers,” he called, circling around again and waiting for his scant handful of qualifying men to rise up. “I want you on the roof. Dhori, Mhysra, you’re with me. Sergeant, take everyone else down outside the wall.”
His new sergeant didn’t look happy with the plan, but Bheneo was never happy so it was hard to tell whether he was disapproving or not. Lyrai didn’t care. Like Bheneo, most of these Riders were new and untested beneath his command. Dhori and Mhysra had been his since their first day of selection school training. He trusted them at his back. So while the archers headed for the roof, and the rest of the flurry landed beyond the wall, Lyrai looked both of his Riders in the eye and pointed down at the darkness awaiting them in the cleared space of the outer defences.
“Open the gate,” he ordered, holding on as Hurricane folded his wings and dropped to the ground.
MHYSRA’S HEART POUNDED and her stomach swooped as Cumulo followed Hurricane down. Dhori and Latinym were right alongside them. The moment talons hit stone, metal rang as the three Riders drew their swords and swung out of their saddles in one smooth movement.
“Watch the keep,” Lyrai ordered the miryhls. Cumulo gave her a last supportive nod and turned his back alongside the others. Mhysra glanced at the glowering keep. It gave her the shivers. Black stone in the shadows, with only narrow slits for windows. Anything could be hiding behind them, watching their every move. Even now a battalion of archers could be lining up shots, ready to take them all down.
Shivering, she turned her back to the keep, the skin between her shoulder blades itching, waiting any moment to be taken down.
Everything was silent.
“Quickly,” Lyrai urged, and the three of them ran across the empty stones. Their footsteps echoed, making Mhysra wince with every footfall, but speed was more important than stealth so she ran faster. The gates loomed above them, heavy and sturdy and strong, barricaded with a collection of rocks and broken furniture.
“Of course,” Lyrai sighed, and put his sword on the narrow stone stairway that to the top of the wall. “Mhysra, keep watch.” As Dhori’s sword joined the lieutenant’s, and they set about shifting the heavy stones, Mhysra turned on her heel.
The feathered wall of the miryhls waited motionlessly at their back, while on top of the keep a line of ten Riders watched, bows reassuringly at the ready. She looked at the sword in her hand, then up at where Honra and the rest of his flurry still circled.
Her blade clattered as it joined the others and she bent to help Dhori heft his side of a boulder. Lyrai glared at her. She glared back. Ever since they’d returned to Aquila, and especially since they’d left again, things had been different between them. Or, perhaps, they had gone back to what they should always have been – student and lieutenant. But now it was just the three of them again, all friends together, trying to get a difficult task done without anyone dying. He wasn’t her lieutenant here. He wasn’t her officer. He was Lyrai.
“I told you to watch,” he growled breathlessly, as they all staggered sideways to drop the boulder out of the way.
“The miryhls are watching,” she replied. “As are the archers, and Lieutenant Honra’s flurry.”
Dhori chuckled and patted her on the shoulder as he passed on his way to clear more debris from the gate.
Lyrai glared at her. She glared back. Dhori carried a broken chair between them.
Her lips twitched first. Dhori marched back, whistling softly. Lyrai’s glower cracked.
Grinning, he grabbed her wrist and hauled her into the shadows around the gate. There, momentarily hidden from all eyes – friendly and otherwise – he stole a swift kiss. “Obey your officer,” he grumbled.
“Only when he’s making sense,” she chuckled, brushing her nose affectionately against his.
Sighing, he pressed their foreheads together. “I’ve missed you.”
“Little help?” Dhori called, sounding strained.
Lyrai snatched another kiss before grabbing the other side of a splintered table and helping Dhori carry it clear. Pressing her fingers against her tingling lips, Mhysra smiled, straightened her jacket and marched back to work. She’d put her sword down for a reason – and it hadn’t been to provoke a kiss, as nice as that had been. Putting her boot against a boulder the size of her head, she rolled it out of the way. It wasn’t quiet, but it was quicker than carrying it.
A shimmer of rainbow sparkles appeared beside her as Elder Goryal appeared in their human form, eyes pure white.
Energy crackled. The fluff of pale hair on the elder’s head stood straight up. Prickles raced across Mhysra’s skin, nipping and biting just enough to hurt. Then Dhori shoved Lyrai down and leapt to tackle Mhysra to the ground.
The gates exploded.
Miryhls shrieked. Bows twanged. Voices shouted.
And kaz-naghkt screamed.
Coughing, Mhysra looked up, eyes streaming as a tall figure strode through the open doors of the keep, a host of kaz-naghkt at his back.
Familiar, yet hideously unfamiliar. What had once been a beautiful face was now marred and scarred, the bronze skin almost grey. Yet the sneer was the same as it had always been. As was the drawl that followed.
“Crawled back at last, have you, Lyrai? I’ve been waiting for this.”
“Willym,” Lyrai snarled, pushing off the ground and grabbing his sword from the steps. “You should be dead.”
The horror that was once a handsome but disdainful lieutenant, grinned, the scars on his face distorting it into a monstrous grimace. “Wishful thinking, little prince.”
“Draw your sword,” Lyrai shouted, sprinting across the stones separating them. “Let’s finish this.”
“Sword?” Willym laughed. “I don’t need a sword.” He ran towards Lyrai, teeth bared.
Three miryhls stood between them, but while Hurricane and Latinym stepped aside, acknowledging the men’s right to fight each other, preparing to meet the kaz-naghkt crawling out of the keep, Cumulo held his ground.
“Cue, move!” Lyrai ordered.
Mhysra’s Wingborn lowered his head and growled at Willym.
The former lieutenant laughed and leapt. Barefoot, open-mouthed, like a feral beast, he jumped onto Cumulo’s back.
Surprised, the big miryhl stumbled sideways, opened his wings to take off – and screamed.
“Cumulo!” Mhysra sprinted towards him, sword and kaz-naghkt forgotten as feathers flew into the air.
“Cue, drop!” Lyrai shouted, so much closer.
For once her Wingborn did as he was told, falling to one side and rolling onto his back. Willym rolled with him, snarling as the full weight of the miryhl pressed on top of him. Then Hurricane arrived, his great beak hooking around Willym’s leg and throwing him across the courtyard.
“Cue, Cue, Cue,” Mhysra panted, skidding to her knees as she finally reached her Wingborn. He lay on his side, gasping and growling, humiliated and furious and hurt.
He looked up, hissing, but Willym was on the other side of the courtyard. Lyrai and Hurricane stood midway between, fierce and ready to fight.
“Here.” Dhori arrived and shoved Mhysra’s sword into her hand. “You’ll need this.”
Mhysra hardly noticed, she was too busy staring at the scratches that had shredded the seat of her saddle and ripped clumps of feathers straight from her Wingborn’s back. She thanked Maegla that the tack had been there, providing protection, and stared across the courtyard at the man who had done this.
No. Not a man, she realised, as former-lieutenant Willym raised his arms, revealing inch long, vicious claws and threw back his head. He screamed. The kaz-naghkt answered.
Mhysra tightened her grip on her sword as the kaz-naghkt poured from the keep and swept her away on their tide.
~ Next Chapter ~
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