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~ Previous Chapter ~
Fight and fury.
Blood and Monsters
THERE WAS NO time for thought or conscious decisions, Mhysra fell back on instinct and muscle memory as she raced after Lyrai. The kaz-naghkt swarmed over them. There were so many. They filled the hallway like living shadows, shrieking and screaming and cackling. The nakhounds were already lost from view, their snarling, snapping and baying cries the only proof that they were still alive.
As the first attack washed over and around them, Mhysra and her friends fell into a formation they’d never practised, yet felt entirely natural. Lyrai and Stirla fought side-by-side at the front, the way they always had despite both being officers in charge of their own men. Dhori fought just behind them, guarding their backs. Mhysra and Corin were behind him, facing out to the sides and guarding against attacks from above, while Derrain took up the rear, protecting everyone as best he could.
It was difficult, because kaz-naghkt were agile and tricky and the hall was wide enough for five men to walk abreast. The enemy was so numerous and they had enough space to charge from the front, leap over the Riders heads and crawl along both the ceiling and the walls. The Riders needed eyes everywhere, but having good friends to guard your back was almost as good.
A sharp gust roared down the hallway, knocking kaz-naghkt from the ceiling. Some fell shrieking amongst their fellows, but others landed on Riders, some with more fatal consequences than others. One particularly large creature tumbled down over Mhysra’s head, narrowly missing landing on Lyrai. Its flailing claws caught Dhori’s face as he lunged, killing the beast before it could do any further damage.
“Dhori?” Mhysra shouted over the cacophony, using the momentum from spinning her sword in a kaz-naghkt’s chest to turn and face her friend.
A silvery shimmer glinted on his face before he wiped his sleeve across his cheek, leaving a red smear behind. He nodded that he was well. “At your back!” he called, and she whirled just in time to duck a leaping kaz-naghkt.
Slash, stab, twist, kick, crack, pull. It was a mess of movement, no time to think, no time to plan. As soon as one was dealt with, the next was already there. More swarmed overhead, falling upon the Riders clumped at their back.
Mhysra tried to block out the screams, unable to tell what was kaz-naghkt and what was human. She didn’t want to know. All she wanted to do was breathe and survive.
Another blast of wind sent her staggering out of formation, straight into the cackling embrace of a kaz-naghkt.
Claws bit into her shoulder, striking sparks off her armour, while more scraped through her hair as the creature hauled her head back, exposing her neck.
Screaming, Mhysra tried to get her sword up between them, tried to pull away, tried to do something, but she was too close and the kaz-naghkt was surprisingly strong for such a skinny, wiry thing.
“Mhysra!” Derrain ploughed into them, knocking her and her attacker onto their sides. Her friend jabbed his sword in and up through the kaz-naghkt’s ribs, while strong hands seized her arm and hauled her to her feet.
Panting, she had a moment’s eye contact with Lyrai, silent questions asked and answered, then all three of them were back in formation and back in the fight.
“Corin!” Dhori shouted, as another gust of wind sent them all staggering. “Stop him!”
Mhysra glanced over her shoulder, surprised to see Corin grimace with apology. “Skybreeze, enough,” she called.
The dragonet, half-forgotten until now, crouched in the middle of their square and shook his head. His eyes glowed bright silver and his scales shimmered with power and effort as he tried to summon more wind to aid them.
“Stop him!” Dhori almost howled, as another blast pushed them all forward several paces. Fortunately, it also knocked the kaz-naghkt back. Unfortunately, it dislodged another clump from the ceiling, who fell upon them like an avalanche.
Skybreeze shrieked as humans and kaz-naghkt crashed down on him. Claws slashed, teeth bit and the dragonet emerged, blood-smeared and victorious atop his first kill. The rest of them dispatched their attackers as swiftly as they could and climbed much more wearily to their own feet.
“He can’t keep doing that,” Stirla panted in a momentary lull, as they flexed their aching bodies and winced at fresh cuts and bruises. “He’ll bring us all down.”
Gasping for breath, Corin could only nod, but the way she fixed her eyes on her dragongift suggested the two of them were holding a fierce private conversation.
Accepting a sip from Derrain’s offered water flask, Mhysra watched her friend and her dragon, grateful her bond with Cumulo wasn’t like that. Her miryhl had been furious that they were leaving without him, but once she was inside the citadel there wasn’t much he could say or do about it. Poor Corin would never be able to escape Skybreeze’s displeasure. The dragongift bond might not be as deep as the Wingborn one, but it was far more intrusive.
“Come on,” Lyrai said, passing Derrain’s flask back after they’d all taken a drink. The kaz-naghkt had withdrawn to the next cross-section of corridors to regroup, preparing for another assault. The nakhound pack stood in front of the Riders, snapping and snarling, their numbers diminished but not defeated. The fight was far from over yet, and the Riders had a long way to go before they reached the most familiar parts of the citadel.
Wiping her sleeve over her sweating, blood-streaked face, Mhysra took a deep breath and followed her lieutenants back into the fray.
* * *
FIGHTING, FIGHTING EVERYWHERE. Yullik stood at the window of his tower and gritted his teeth. His kaz-naghkt were dying. The skies above Aquila were filled with miryhls, more miryhls than he’d believed possible. The Rift Riders had come to reclaim their home, and they’d done so with force.
He was rather proud that his actions had resulted in the largest gathering of Riders the Overworld had probably ever seen, but he was also furious. How dare they. How dare they throw so many numbers at him and his. How dare they slaughter his kaz-naghkt like so much meat. The Riders prided themselves on their honour and nobility, but they were nothing but butchers.
His kaz-naghkt were dying and all Yullik could do was watch.
Stone screeched as his left hand closed into a fist, golden claws gouging deep grooves through the windowsill. He stared at it, knowing it was no thought of his that had caused the movement. The skin on the back of his hand bubbled, breaking out in a shimmer of metallic scales.
No. Not here. Not now.
If not now, when? a voice whispered from the deepest recesses of his memory. His mother. His mother had said such a thing, long, long ago and half the world away, in the darkness of a lonely cave, sitting beside a crackling fire, speaking to his father.
Sometimes the best defence is to attack.
Yullik knew all about that. He had learnt it the hard way as a very small boy. His mother had shown it to him, when she had gone on the attack to defend him. And he’d never seen her again.
His left hand flexed, claws shooting out even longer, the scales rippling down his fingers, over the back of his hand and up his arm as far as his elbow. At first they tickled, a pleasant, warm sensation. Then they burned.
Yullik’s legs buckled as they tried to shift and change beneath him. His spine bowed and he dropped to his hands and knees, the skin around his shoulders bulging and jutting outward in sharp, agonising spikes.
Golden claws burst from his fingers and toes, digging deep, deep into the stones around him.
Yullik shivered and shook and screamed.
And his kaz-naghkt answered.
* * *
JAYMES WOULD HAVE died immediately after Willym’s order, if Imaino hadn’t leapt over his crouched form and stabbed the first kaz-naghkt in the chest. The lieutenant’s reward was to be knocked back, tripping over Jaymes and having his chest ripped open.
Trapped beneath him, Jaymes could only lie pinned in horror as the creatures swarmed over the snarling nakhounds and gaping regulars.
Then Emberbright struck.
Screaming, slashing and blazing, his fierce little dragonet, ignited in the narrow stairway and immolated the kaz-naghkt who bent over Imaino, teeth bared and bloody. In two heartbeats it was ash. Three heartbeats later, five more were on fire, the rest either fleeing back up the stairs where Willym had disappeared, or pushing past the regulars into the safety of the night and the protection of the falls.
“Oh, gods, oh, gods,” someone sobbed in the stunned quiet that followed. Then Imaino’s crushing weight was pulled aside and Jaymes wriggled free.
“The blood. So much blood.”
Jaymes cast a quick look over his shoulder and saw three of the regulars lying unmoving on the floor. Another four were clutching bleeding wounds on their limbs and torsos. The others were stunned into stillness. Only the Riders were capable of moving. Or, at least, Gunlo was. Rechar lay crumpled at the bottom of the steps, his neck facing entirely the wrong way, likely mown down when the kaz-naghkt fled.
“Sir? Lieutenant? Can you hear me?” Gunlo said, tapping Imaino’s cheek.
Jaymes stared, unsure why the man was bothering. Imaino’s chest was blood and pulp. He could see bone. Yet, somehow, Gunlo’s tapping bore fruit.
Imaino opened his eyes and wheezed a desperate breath. Alive. Great gods, he was still alive. Jaymes stared at the horrified mess of the lieutenant’s chest and didn’t think it would be for long.
“Oh, gods, oh, gods, oh, gods,” one of the regular’s wept. “Heiryak have mercy. Lithaen aid us. Typhaestus take pity on our souls. Oh, gods, oh, gods, oh, gods.” The piteous sound put Jaymes’ nerves on edge and he whirled to tell whoever it was to shut up, just as the man screamed.
Jaymes turned, sword out, wondering what more they could possibly face. But it was only Emberbright, glowing and beautiful, flying back from the darkness in short little glides. Her light brought comfort – then horror as it revealed the true devastation the short kaz-naghkt attack had caused.
Sweet Maegla, he’d never seen anything like it. There was so much blood.
Then Emberbright was in his arms and her fire was smothered, returning them to the soothing protection of the gloomy stairway. He’d never been so thankful for a loss of light. Until a thick shadow blocked the door and sent them back into darkness.
~ Next Chapter ~
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