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~ Previous Chapter ~
Onwards, ever onwards, through fire and fatigue and pfirates? Eh, close enough.
IT HAD BEEN a quiet few days up in the Heights. The Riders were busy shoring up the defences, the wounded were treated, the worst injured were ferried back to the Illuminai and everyone gradually relaxed as they realised the kaz-naghkt weren’t coming back. They were safe. Or as safe as anyone could be camping just inside their enemy’s door.
Despite having a hundred and one chores to keep her hopping, Mhysra felt antsy and impatient, and she wasn’t the only one. Captain Myran’s flight had tasted an unexpected victory – now they wanted more.
“I wish we knew what was happening out there?” Corin sighed, flicking rain away from the brim of her hat as she, Mhysra, Derrain and Dhori took their turn at sentry duty on the roof of the keep. It was a dull, gloomy day and they couldn’t see particularly well since the clouds had drifted down from the peak to shroud the forest in curtains of mist. However, any chance to escape the close confines of the comfortless keep and its tightly-packed flight of restless Riders was always worth taking. Even in the rain.
“Goryal must know,” Mhysra said, looking east to where the sturdy walls of the keep merged with the mountainside. The citadel continued inside, but her view ended in solid stone.
“Of course they do,” Dhori grumbled, standing on the parapet, shoulders hunched, uncharacteristically miserable. He didn’t like being away from the action any more than the rest of them did. Nor did he much appear to relish the extra responsibility that being promoted to Lyrai’s sergeant gained him. Which was a surprise, since it was a natural fit for him. “They know everything.”
“Dragons,” the four friends sighed together, earning a reproachful peep from where Skybreeze was hiding beneath Derrain’s cloak – he’d grown too big to comfortably share Corin’s these days.
“It’s not so much them knowing that I mind,” Corin said, turning her back as a strong gust of wind flung water in all of their faces, “it’s that they never share. I thought dragons were all about good manners?”
“Only when it suits them,” Dhori replied. Lifting his face to the rain and sighing. “I hate spring. There are never any good storms in spring.”
Mhysra exchanged a knowing glance with Derrain, while Corin rolled her eyes. The three of them had taken to reading Lyrai’s book of tales about the gods each night, a time when Dhori tended to make himself noticeably absent. It was almost as if he was daring them to believe the impossible.
“Maegla must be resting,” Derrain said, winking at her.
Mhysra bit her lip against a smile, while Dhori sighed.
“You’d think She could bestir Herself to show some interest,” Corin complained. “Riders are supposed to be Her chosen warriors, after all.”
“The gods aren’t allowed to interfere in human affairs anymore,” Dhori told her, jumping down from the parapet and shrugging his cloak over his shoulders. “They did too much once and we’re still paying it for it.”
Mhysra raised her eyebrows, but before Corin had a chance to ask the question she was clearly desperate to – something along the lines of, “And how would you know?” Mhysra had no doubt – their most-mysterious friend turned towards the door to the keep.
“At last,” he said, as Lieutenants Lyrai and Stirla stepped out into the rain to join them. “Well?” Dhori really was acting most unlike himself. The restlessness was getting to all of them, it seemed.
Lyrai smiled and Stirla – now fully recovered thanks to Goryal’s healing – rubbed his hands together. “Pack your bags and kiss your miryhls goodbye, my lambs, we’re finally on the move.”
“Without the miryhls?” Corin asked. “Why aren’t we taking them?”
“Because we won’t need them,” Stirla said, grinning. “And they wouldn’t thank us for taking them along. Miryhls don’t make good walkers.”
“We’re entering the citadel?” Mhysra whispered, a mixture of excitement and trepidation swirling in her stomach. Finally some action, but did it have to be such a suicidal one?
“We’re entering the citadel,” Lyrai agreed. “Pack your bags, sharpen your swords and get ready. We’re going home.”
* * *
BURNING. JAYMES COULD smell burning. Memories of pain and helplessness, sickness and agony shot through him and he sat up. Fire surrounded him, devouring the streets of Aquila Town, sending smoke and ash spiralling up into the sky.
Lightning cracked and rain fell, hissing against the flames. A vast shadow passed over, making the fires flicker and dance – and spread.
“Rhiddyl,” Jaymes whispered, watching the firelight play on the dragon’s pale underbelly. “Sweet Maegla.” When Imaino had asked for a distraction, this wasn’t what he’d meant! What use was saving a place if they ended up burning the whole lot down in the process?
Jaymes leapt to his feet and ran. Imaino. The others. Pirates. It was all coming back to him. He needed to – he needed – His feet hit something solid and he fell.
Groaning, he pushed up on stinging hands and glanced over his shoulder.
Oh. Well, that explained where the pirate who’d been about to kill him went. The man was lying stretched out on his back, the sword knocked from his hand, fire making short work of what was left of him.
Jaymes crawled quickly away, realising as he did that the fire was bending away from him. He stopped and held a shaking hand towards the nearest patch of flames. They curled away, like a field of wheat bowing beneath the wind. Then, with a soft purr, they wrapped around his wrist and tracked up his arm.
Jaymes yelped and pulled back, but his skin was fine, he was unharmed.
Dear gods, his clothes had all burnt off while he lay unconscious, yet his body was fine.
Still able to remember the agony he’d gone through after the Battle of Nimbys, Jaymes ran shaking hands over himself, expecting pain, heat, stinging and raw sensations at any moment. Nothing. His skin stayed in place. There were no sores, no weeping, no blood. He was only mildly warm.
“Jaymes!” a familiar, but long-silent voice purred inside his mind as a streak of red flashed in the corner of his eye.
This time when he turned, the fleeting glimpse formed into a sinuous dragonet as Emberbright romped out of the nearest burning house to curl against his chest.
“Ember,” he whispered, pulling his scorching dragon in and cuddling her tight. “Thank the gods.” She was awake, she was alive. She was also incredibly destructive, but at least this time he wasn’t the one who was melting.
“Jaymes,” she purred again, wrapping her long body around his waist and neck, rubbing her cheek against his. “Missed you.”
“I missed you too,” he said, stroking along her shimmering scales. He knew she was hot, could feel the heat emanating from her, but it didn’t hurt. She wasn’t hurting him. “I didn’t think you were ever going to wake.”
His dragonet yawned, giving a fine display of her sharp white teeth. “Dreaming,” she said sleepily. “Growing. Learning control. Not hurting my Jaymes again. Not ever.” Tucking her nose behind his ear, she purred as she fell back to sleep.
Stunned, Jaymes sat in the middle of the fire and stroked his precious burden, shaking his head at the destruction around them. Her control might have grown enough not to hurt him anymore – for which he was exceedingly grateful – but they were going to have a lot of explaining to do when this was over. Shame they didn’t have a water dragon around to put all the fires out.
“As if we need more dragons,” Jaymes chuckled, standing up and looking around. So far the fire was only consuming one side of the street, and only a couple of houses. With any luck, the rain and the persistent damp from the nearby falls would stop it from spreading any further. However, since there was little he could do about that now, Jaymes stepped over the charred remains of the pirate and entered the house across the way. He needed clothes before he went in search of the others. The last he could remember was hearing fighting in the street above him.
Hoping that Imaino and co were all still alive and well, Jaymes hurriedly ransacked the deserted row of houses until he cobbled together some ill-fitting replacements for his lost clothes. Finally, he fished his own glowing sword out of the blaze and set off steaming through the rain towards the sounds of fighting. Emberbright lay heavy and warm around his neck and lightning continued to lash the sky as his too-big boots clumped and splashed through the puddles.
He turned the corner and was almost mown down by a pirate in full flight, nakhound on his heels. The man took one look at him, his glowing sword and his dragon scarf, and went screaming back the other way. Straight into Baxe’s sword.
Jaymes looked up and found regulars and Riders staring at him, their pirate attackers either down injured, dead or flown. He’d missed the fight.
“Pity,” Emberbright chuckled sleepily inside his head, reassuring him that she was simply resting this time.
Feeling self-conscious, Jaymes lowered his slowly cooling sword down by his side and climbed the slight incline of the road, passing between the ranks of regulars who shifted nervously away from him. Even the nakhounds seemed wary. He tried not to take it personally, not even when Rechar grimaced and moved back. Only Bumble approached, stiff-legged and uncertain, nose twitching. Gritting his teeth, Jaymes held a hand out for her to sniff, lifted his chin and met Imaino’s eyes.
The lieutenant’s smile was grim. “Ready, student?” he asked.
Jaymes stroked the dragon around his neck and nodded. “Aye, sir.”
“Then lead on. I’m guessing you remember the way.”
“Aye, sir,” Jaymes agreed, ignoring the muttering behind him as he walked the rest of the way along the street, Bumble trotting close behind, until he reached the pump house at the end. Or what remained of it, at least, following his last visit. That had included fire too, he remembered, but from pyreflies. Pirates too. He had little doubt there would kaz-naghkt again before the night was out, although he hoped not to meet them just yet.
Stepping over the shattered remains of the door, Jaymes and Bumble walked through the wreckage that had once sheltered him, Imaino and a group of students as they narrowly escaped from the besieged town. Once again, he stood on the edge of the falls and looked up past the spray to where the bridge spanned the white water.
“Think we can make it?” Imaino asked at his shoulder.
Jaymes smiled at the lieutenant and nodded towards the spur of rock that was just far enough from the falls to remain mostly dry. “I think the gods would like us to give it a try.” Because there, just like last time, was a length of rope.
It might even have been the very same rope they had climbed before. What other reason could it have for being here? This was a route only taken by the desperate, and there had been few enough survivors to clear it away after the kaz-naghkt arrived.
Imaino smiled and raised his arm, sending Bumble and the nakhounds flying on ahead. “After you, student.”
Jaymes gripped the rain-wet rope and gave a strong tug. It held firm. He looked up at where it disappeared amongst the gullies and crags and took it as a good sign. Some luck at last. With a deep breath, he reached up and started to climb.
~ Next Chapter ~
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