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~ Previous Chapter ~
THE KAZ-NAGHKT FLED. One moment all was a fury of fighting, the next the enemy turned tail and ran screaming back the way they came. The nakhounds gave chase, but the handlers recalled them on Myran’s orders. The last seven hounds came limping and whining back, clearly wanting to go after their prey but obedient nevertheless.
Lyrai knew how they felt. Wiping blood from his eyes, part of him longed to run after the creatures and make sure every last one of them was dead. But the rest of him was exhausted and grateful for the respite.
“What now?” Corin groaned, tickling Skybreeze on the chin while Derrain bandaged up a nasty cut that had split her left bicep almost down to the bone.
“Now,” Dhori said, his face looking grim and determined thanks to the bloody slice a kaz-naghkt had carved out of his cheek, “we follow them.”
And despite their exhaustion and injuries, the Riders got back to their feet and trudged on through the gathering dusk, down into the centre of the citadel. The heart of Aquila. They were home.
* * *
AFTER THUNDER HIT the water and sank beneath the surface, all the fight went out of Vehro. Having never had any fight of his own in the first place, Silveo guided his miryhl down onto the Lawn. He remembered sitting here in happier times, laughing and relaxing with his friends, practising his sword-work on the far bank, hoping he would never have a cause to use it. Well, there he was in the middle of his first battle, and he hadn’t drawn his sword once. Gedanon would be ashamed of him.
Moaning, Vehro stood on the riverbank, staring into the frothing waters, but there was no sign of Thunder. There was no sign of anyone or anything. Only shadows.
Feeling defeated and heart sore, Silveo slithered out of his shadow and stood by his miryhl’s shoulder, resting a comforting hand on his wing. He couldn’t bear to look at the river, so instead turned his eyes to the sky where the battle raged on.
Yet, even as he looked up, almost as one creature, the remaining kaz-naghkt folded their wings and dropped.
Silveo flinched, crouching beside Vehro and groping for his sword. Perhaps he would draw it after all.
Kaz-naghkt fell from the sky, retreating to the citadel through any window, door or walkway they could find. Despite landing all around Silveo, they showed no interest in him or his miryhl. Their only focus was on getting back inside. Even when Riders physically got in their way, the creatures merely batted them aside. Killing held no interest for them now, only the citadel did.
“That’s not natural,” Silveo muttered, watching the beasts scramble up the steps and force their way in through the small door that led to the bridge. He could see more shapes crossing to join them, all of them aiming for the eastern side of the citadel.
Or, more likely, he thought, tilting his head back and looking up, the east tower.
Many times over the last few months, sentries had reported back – and Silveo had seen it for himself – the strange lights and activity that had shown through the windows of the topmost room. While Dean Marshall – and later Mouse – had been held prisoner in the top of the west tower, the east had been claimed by the enemy.
Now the kaz-naghkt were flocking towards it. To defend it. The last stand.
“About time,” Silveo said, pulling his sword from Vehro’s saddle and stalking towards the steps. He might not be much of a fighter, or a flyer, or any kind of Rider, but he could be present for this. He could stand there at the last. As witness, if nothing else. For Nehtl and Greig, Onyx and Thunder, Dean Marshall and all who had died since the pirates attacked and Aquila fell. By some strange collection of coincidences, good fortune and miracles, Silveo had come through it all without a scratch. He would be there at the end.
With the unfamiliar weight of the sword in his hand, he ran up the steps, ignoring the shouts of Riders landing behind him, and entered the citadel. Kaz-naghkt rushed across the bridge towards him, but even as he lifted his trembling sword, they shoved him aside in their rush to reach the tower.
Wincing as his shoulder hit the wall, Silveo shook off the indignity, tightened his grip on his sword and followed the desperate creatures. It wasn’t a long walk, but it was full of blood and memories. Silveo wished he wasn’t quite so alone, but as the last kaz-naghkt scurried past him through the shadows and his boots made hollow thuds on the old stones, he realised he wasn’t alone. All the ghosts of Aquila, past and so very present, were with him – and they wanted justice.
He might not be the one who could give it to them, but by Maegla, he would be there to see it done.
Stopping at the base of the tower stairs, he looked up.
The red glow of hundreds of kaz-naghkt eyes glared back.
Silveo swallowed. The creatures might not have had any interest in killing him when they’d been so keen to reach their destination, but he had a sinking feeling that wouldn’t be the case now. He stepped closer.
The kaz-naghkt hissed.
He paused, debating the wisdom of his previous plan. It was all very well to want to be at the end to see justice done, but that would be difficult if he did something suicidal first.
A thunder of boots echoed around him and a hand slapped him firmly on the shoulder. “We’ll take it from here, lad,” Captain Hylan told him, roaring as he and his Riders flowed around Silveo and charged up the steps towards the tower.
Shrieking, the kaz-naghkt attacked.
And more ghosts gathered at Silveo’s back.
* * *
THEY HEARD THE commotion long before they reached it. Although weary from the fighting they’d already done and the long march down from the Heights, Stirla’s heart rate picked up and he caught Lyrai’s eye with a grin. “Again?” he asked his friend.
Lyrai nodded. “Again.”
They raised their swords and ran down the last slope that led towards the bridge. Nakhounds bounded ahead, baying for blood, the small pack parting around the pile of bodies at the base of the stairs and scurrying up the east tower.
A group of Riders were fighting to follow them, but in the midst of them all, a silver-haired young man knelt on the stones, a large and familiar figure laid across his lap.
“Hylan?” Stirla whispered, sword dropping as he fell to his knees beside the great captain, a man many had flatteringly compared Stirla to over the years. A man he could only dream of emulating.
He was dead.
“He led the charge,” the silver-haired youngster said, who Stirla now recognised as Student Silveo, a bloodied hand resting over the gaping wound in the captain’s chest. “But the stairs are so narrow.”
Stirla looked up through swimming eyes towards the tower stairs. They were narrow, and half-blocked by bodies – human and kaz-naghkt. It would take many, many lives to reach the top. More lives than should be spent. But Yullik was up there. He had to be, there was no other reason for the kaz-naghkt to defend it so viciously.
Touching his hand to his heart and then his forehead, he bid Hylan a respectful, silent salute, then slowly stood. His hand tightened around his sword. No more. No more death, no more blood, no more fighting. This ended, here, now, today.
He looked at Lyrai and saw equal determination staring back. They would end this together.
“Wait,” Dhori’s voice was soft, but still audible amongst the commotion. “There is another way.”
Stirla stared at him and the student tipped his head with a wry smile. “We’re Rift Riders. There is always another way.”
“Miryhls,” Mhysra said, as she turned and ran for the nearest door to the outside. Corin, Derrain and even Silveo hurried after her. Stirla looked at Lyrai.
His friend looked at the slaughter on the stairs and raised his eyebrows, leaving it up to Stirla to decide.
Staring down at Hylan, cold and lifeless on the ground, Stirla gripped his sword and nodded. “Miryhls,” he agreed, and followed the others outside.
~ Next Chapter ~
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