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~ Previous Chapter ~
In which Nightriver is (unusually) loquacious.
A STRANGE MOOD had fallen over their group since Nightriver announced that it was time to leave the lake. Except for Haelle, of course, who was overjoyed that Greig had been returned to her, as healthy as if he’d never encountered Mercata at all. Her happiness often spread to Greig, who seemed equally delighted to be back with her, even if he didn’t remember much about anything after his friends strapped him to Jupi’s back for the flight to Buteo. Which was probably for the best, because when Greig wasn’t smiling at Haelle, he was shedding silent tears for his lost miryhl. He’d taken the news hard. Silveo was just thankful that Haelle had been the one to tell him.
The two miryhls had settled down now that their Riders were no longer so distressed. It also helped that with Nightriver leading the way, not only were the passages lit, but they were large enough for them all – dragon, miryhls and humans – to walk along in comfort. Each bird was prone to the occasional grumble as the walk dragged on or they stubbed a talon, but for the most part they were content enough. With Haelle declining Nightriver’s offer to ride – preferring to use her crutches with Greig’s eager assistance – it wasn’t as if they were moving too swiftly and they regularly stopped for breaks.
All sense of urgency had vanished after Greig and Mouse had returned from the lake. Even Silveo was no longer feeling the strain. He knew big things were happening somewhere over their heads on the surface of the mountain, because Nightriver had said so and that was why they were moving at all, but down here in the cool, dark tunnels, it seemed very far away and little to do with them.
Which brought Silveo’s attention to Mouse. Ever since he’d returned from the lake he’d seemed distant and subdued, as if all the life that had once made him Mouse had drained out inside the lake. He’d taken the news of Onyx’s death with detached calm and the same sad expression that had yet to lift from his face. Even though Nightriver was ostensibly the one leading them back up through the tunnels towards the surface, Mouse walked ahead of their group, silent and alone.
Silveo was worried about him.
“You need not fret,” Nightriver murmured quietly as the dragon trudged alongside him, Mouse ahead of them, Haelle and Greig behind and the miryhls bringing up the rear. “My Mouse is sad, yes, but mostly it is the weight of the mountain settling upon his shoulders. It is no easy thing to be my dragongifted.”
Silveo wrinkled his nose. “I still don’t fully understand what that is.”
The dragon rumbled beside him, chuckling with amusement. “It is a bond, but deeper than the one you share with your miryhls. There is an element of choice to it, but like a Wingborn bond, it begins at birth.”
Silveo eyed the strange creature alongside him, who could change his size as will and seemed as old and deep as the mountain they walked through. “You’re a lot older than Mouse.”
Nightriver’s teeth flashed in a brief smile. “Indeed. Nor was our connection formed at his first birth.” When Silveo frowned, Nightriver grinned again. “I am not an ordinary dragongift.”
Now that was something Silveo could definitely understand. “So if an ordinary dragongift bond is formed at birth, but yours with Mouse was not, how were you bonded?”
Nightriver sighed, his glowing green eyes fixed on Mouse’s lonely figure up ahead. “Normal dragongift bonds form when a human is born. Their first cries as they enter the world stir us in our eggs, even though half the Overworld or more may lie between us. But it takes time for the bond to mature. Only when the human is ready to take care of their dragongift, or there is a need for them both, does the human feel the Call. The dragon pulls on the bond to draw them closer. Only when the human finds the egg will the dragon hatch, and so they meet. That is where the choice comes in. While Wingborn are together from birth, a constant part of each other’s lives, dragongifted are given the choice. It is not much of a choice, since the pull to bond is strong, but it is offered nonetheless.”
Which was all very well, but that wasn’t what Silveo had asked. “So how is yours different?”
A large green eye winked at him. “I hatched long ago.”
Silveo sighed, knowing that Nightriver was toying with him now. “So if neither your hatching nor Mouse’s birth had anything to do with your bond, how are you dragongifted?”
“Because part of me died when Nehtl did,” Mouse suddenly spoke from up ahead, though he didn’t turn to look at them. “I wasn’t a person then, I was only rage and grief and deep, deep anger.”
“And that is what woke me,” Nightriver concluded. “I have been sleeping a long time down here in the dark, waiting for when I would be needed again. Waiting for my new dragongifted to wake me.”
“New dragongifted?” Silveo pounced on the most interesting bit of information, since they had already talked about Nightriver’s failure to save the citadel – all for want of the right person to wake him. “You’ve been bonded before.”
“Of course.” The dragon’s teeth flashed brightly once more. “How else do you think I got here?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it.” In truth, Silveo had begun to believe that Nightriver had been born directly from the mountain. For all that he seemed most affiliated with water, there was something unmistakably solid and stone-like about this dragon.
“All dragongift eggs are kept in the same cavern, deep within the Dragonlands. Like all my brethren, I was laid there and left to wait for my human to awaken to my Call.”
“So how did you get here?” Curiosity firmly stirred, Silveo had so many questions to ask.
Nightriver rumbled another deep chuckle, but it was Mouse who answered, turning around to say, “He was stolen.”
Silveo blinked at his friend, but Mouse was facing forwards again, shoulders hunched, feet scuffing through the tunnel dust.
Nightriver hummed a soothing note that made the glowing walls pulse and the rock around them vibrate. “I was,” he sighed deeply, as if lost in memory. “But I was a very different dragon then. It was a different world.”
Silveo couldn’t even begin to imagine. “How old are you?”
Glowing green eyes narrowed with amusement. “Younger than the mountain, older than the citadel. I saw Aquila rise, and even though I may have slept through her fall, take heart that I will watch her rise again. That, after all, is what I am here for.”
It was comforting to know that, even if Silveo still had his doubts considering how late Nightriver was to wake. “Have you had many dragongifteds over the years then?”
“Two,” Nightriver said, not indicating whether that included Mouse or not.
Silveo considered asking, but doubted the dragon would tell him. Nightriver was enjoying teasing him too much. “Is that unusual? Dragons live so much longer than humans. Do you always outlive your dragongifteds?”
“No.” Nightriver shook his heavy head. “Dragongifts have shorter lifespans. They usually die when their humans do.”
“But not you.”
Nightriver’s eyes and teeth gleamed. “I am unique,” he stated, rather unnecessarily. “My bond runs deep into the roots of this mountain. Here I am bound, here I will stay.”
Silveo swallowed as the full implications of such a bond finally seeped in. “And Mouse?” he asked, staring at his friend’s hunched back and slumped shoulders.
“He’s unique too,” Nightriver murmured. “Our bond is full and strong. Deeper than any I have felt before. He is a true dragongifted.”
“Oh.” The weight of the mountain indeed. No wonder Mouse’s shoulders were so bowed. “I see.”
“Yes,” Nightriver agreed softly. “I believe you do.”
Mouse stopped abruptly, causing the rest of them to likewise halt. Nightriver increased the glow along the walls, but it wasn’t necessary. There was light up ahead. Daylight.
“We’re here,” Mouse announced unnecessarily, and led them the final short distance back to the surface.
~ Next Chapter ~
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