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~ Previous Chapter ~
It’s an articulate kind of chapter.
LYRAI LED THE way for Captain Myran’s flight as they left the Heights and descended through the echoing hallways towards the heart of the citadel. Boots tromped all around him, so very different from the last time he’d passed this way. Then had been a haze of desperation and grief, now he was determined and ready. As with the last time, a pack of nakhound fanned out ahead, bodies tense, noses testing the air. They’d been a final gift from General Keipen and Captain Huro – a little assistance at last.
Pausing at a cross passage, Lyrai shifted his shoulders while he waited for the hound handlers to give the all clear. It reminded him starkly of Jynese, former head kennel worker at Aquila, whose death was just one of many he was forced to mourn on his last march along these halls. The handlers gave the all clear and Lyrai marched on, rolling his shoulders again, uncertain if he would ever grow used to the weight of metal armour.
There was no denying that Destevan was a genius, and her armour was as remarkable for its light weight as for its strength, but after years of wearing creaky, musty leather, the metallic scent and jingling mail was taking a lot of getting used to.
“Not sure I like it,” he heard Corin grumbling a short way behind him, he and Stirla having opted to keep all their students together for this fight.
“You don’t have to like it,” Mhysra told her, with more than a hint of exasperation. “You just have to wear it so it can save your life.”
“It’s stiff and it smells,” Corin continued to complain. “See, Skybreeze agrees with me. He’s says it’s hard and cold and he doesn’t like lying on it.”
“He could always try walking,” Derrain chuckled, since he was the poor unfortunate whom Skybreeze had decided to ride on today. “It might warm him up a bit too.”
Corin and her dragonet issued identical snorts of derision.
Even then, marching down through the citadel to almost certain danger and a high chance of death, they could still make him smile. And to think Lyrai had been worried about letting women back in the Riders. Not because he didn’t think they were capable, but because he didn’t want things to change too much. How wrong he’d been. Of all the huge changes that had happened in his life over the last few years, allowing women back into the Riders had only resulted in positive ones. For him and the Overworld.
Now, as the nakhound began to tense, one by one, raising their noses in the air as they finally picked up their quarry’s scent, Lyrai couldn’t imagine fighting without them. There were few people he trusted at his back more than Corin and Mhysra, and luckily for him, those others were also close by.
“Ready?” he asked, glancing back and catching Dhori’s eye.
The student-turned-sergeant nodded. Behind him, Stirla raised a hand in salute.
It was finally time. Tightening his grip around the pommel of his sword, Lyrai took a deep breath and issued the order: “Release the hounds.”
A soft whistle echoed along the hallway. The nakhounds threw back their heads and howled. Kaz-naghkt screams answered and, running in the midst of the hounds, Lyrai charged around the corner, straight into the knot of enemy that awaited him.
* * *
AS SILVEO TOOK off in the centre of Hylan’s group, he was astonished to see other flights emerging from the trees. All around the great lake, Rider flurries and flights launched to form an enormous flock, pouring through the spurs of rock and sweeping along the river.
Beyond the citadel, out in the cove, streams of miryhls flowed from the skyships moored out there. All of them with the same destination and goal in mind: Aquila.
Greig whooped. “Have you ever seen such a glorious sight?”
Silveo shook his head. Thousands of Riders had come, more than he’d realised even existed. He’d read the numbers, he’d heard the stories, but nothing could prepare him for this. An army of miryhls in flight.
Blessed Maegla, they were magnificent.
Sunlight streamed through the broken storm clouds, glinting off armour and weapons and glossy, glossy feathers. It also picked out a strange cluster high on the western spur of the cove. Silveo squinted against the light and swore.
Dragons. Three dragons. Not Nightriver-type dragons either, but real dragons. Winged. Legendary. What in the Overworld were they doing here? And why weren’t they joining the flocks and the fight?
“Eyes front, Rider,” Thunder called, jerking Silveo’s attention back to the citadel – and the black tide of kaz-naghkt seeping out of doors, windows and walkways. If he’d found the miryhl display impressive, this sight brought back all the old terrors. He’d never fought in the air before, had never really fought on the ground either. While his fellow students had been waging the losing battle to defend the citadel, Silveo had been tucked up in the infirmary, dealing with the fallout. He was good at following orders, excellent at organising things, but he was not a natural fighter.
“Dear gods, what am I doing here?” he whispered, as the horror settled in.
Then the kaz-naghkt took to the air and, with a scream of rage, crashed right through the heart of Hylan’s Riders.
* * *
FIRE CONTINUED TO rage through the town, even as it fizzled out on the top of the towers. Jaymes tried not to flinch every time he looked down, realising the amount of damage he and Emberbright had caused. The houses had been ransacked, windows had been smashed and lots of things had been defaced in the months since the pirates had moved into the town, but at least most of the houses still stood.
Until now. Jaymes tried not to listen to the grumbling regulars as they waited their turn to climb up to the next ledge. He wished Emberbright wasn’t as big or conspicuous as she was, a great red beacon wrapped around his upper body, her colour a constant reminder of what she was, what she could do – and what she had already done.
Imaino nudged him to get him moving again, since Rechar had finished with the rope and was shaking it impatiently for the next person to begin climbing. “Don’t let it get to you,” the lieutenant advised. “We were all in a tight spot, but thanks to your little dragon, the miryhls and Rhiddyl, we get to live to fight another day. Homes can be rebuilt, people can’t.”
Grimacing, Jaymes grabbed the rope and scurried up as swiftly as he could to the next ledge, where Bumble was waiting to lick his face. The falls roared and hissed alongside him, covering him in spray and making Emberbright shiver. Jaymes made his way to the top of the rope and used his sleeve to wipe the droplets from his dragonet’s hide.
“Rope’s run out,” Rechar grunted, pacing back and forth along the narrow ledge between panting nakhounds. “Now what do we do?”
“Take the stairs,” Jaymes suggested. When the Rider glared at him for being flippant, Jaymes stepped into the shadows concealing the hidden steps. “See?”
The Rider grunted at him again, leaning down to haul Imaino onto the ledge.
“Are those the stairs at last?” the lieutenant sighed wearily. “Thank the gods. I’m done with rope. Lead on, Jaymes.”
Happy to get out of sight for a little bit, Jaymes followed the nakhounds up the steps as the path cut through the narrow chimney of rock between the falls and the mountain side. Overhead, the citadel loomed ever closer. Not far now.
Pausing at the next ledge to make sure the others were following, Jaymes hurried on again, twisting and turning this way and that up the slippery stairwell, glad for the narrow walls that helped him keep his footing. Eventually he reached the top, and the wider steps that led to the door tucked unobtrusively beneath the bridge.
Aquila. At last.
Catching his breath, Jaymes waited for the others to join him, cringing from the narrow-eyed glares of the regulars until, finally, Imaino emerged.
“Anyone got a key?” the lieutenant joked, wading through the nakhounds to mount the steps and rest his hand above the lock.
“Who needs a key when yon dragon can burn the whole door down?” Baxe pointed out gruffly.
Although it came from a place of bitterness more than humour, Jaymes couldn’t deny that the man had a point. “Lieutenant?” he asked, tickling Emberbright under the chin to wake her.
“Have at it,” Imaino invited, waving his hand towards the door.
With Emberbright stirring reluctantly against his neck, muttering, “Wet. Cold,” inside his head, Jaymes put a hand against the wooden door and studied the lock. Then he studied his dragonet’s long golden claws. Perhaps she could pick it?
Before he could try, the door was wrenched sharply open, sending Jaymes stumbling forward onto his knees. A man stood over him, dressed in Rider black, his face in shadow.
“Well now, my friends, what do we have here?”
Any hope Jaymes might have had of a friend in an unexpected place, died at the sound of that voice, that unmistakable sneer. A shaft of sunlight revealed a once-familiar face now ruined with vicious scars. Yet the eyes contained the same disdain they always had.
Metal rang as Imaino drew his sword. “Willym,” he snarled in greeting. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
“Sorry, can’t say the same.” The former lieutenant smirked but didn’t bother drawing any weapons of his own, he simply stepped back and revealed the darkness behind him to be so much more than shadows.
“Kill them,” he told the kaz-naghkt. “Kill them all.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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