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~ Previous Chapter ~
MHYSRA RAN SO fast down the steps to the Lawn that she almost fell flat on her face. There were miryhls everywhere. Not only on the grassy areas either side of the river, but perched on the rooftops and cliff edges and filling the sky above. So many brown and gold-tipped feathers, with only an occasional splash of cream and marble to lighten the effect.
“Cumulo!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, certain that her Wingborn would be close. He would have flown down to join the fight and wait for her. He wouldn’t have stayed at the Heights; she hadn’t asked him to. “Cumulo!”
A high scream answered as an eagle, followed by another and another, detached from the circling flock. He plummeted, wings folded, always reckless, scattering the miryhls already settled on the ground.
With a flick of his wings and a final flourish with his tail, Cumulo landed in the spot directly in front of Mhysra, chest puffed, feathers gleaming.
He looked her over, no doubt cataloguing all the scraps and bruises and blood spots that now covered her. Thanks to Destevan’s armour, none of it was fatal. Her Wingborn ruffled his feathers and snorted. “Took you long enough.”
Clearly he was still annoyed with her. She kissed his beak, on a tiny spot not splattered with gore. “It’s good to see you too, Cue.”
He huffed and gruffed and shuffled aside as Hurricane dropped down behind him, followed by Atyrn and Wisp and Zephyr and Latinym. They knew their Riders far too well. As was shown when each of their bonded humans came rattling down the steps to greet them.
As they quickly tightened straps and checked tack before mounting, Mhysra noticed a new miryhl amongst them. Or, rather, an old but long-absent friend. She might not have recognised Vehro on his own, since he’d bulked up quite a bit during the winter, but the Rider on his back was unmistakable.
“Welcome back, Mhysra.” The smile he gave her was small, the look in his eyes haunted. Which was to be expected for a man who’d watched friends and comrades die right in front of him only moments before.
Before she could say anything else, Stirla’s voice boomed through the air. “Riders,” he called, drawing the attention of all the miryhls, “to wing!”
Cumulo leapt alongside Hurricane and Atyrn, with the four other miryhls right behind them. It felt just like old times, except Jaymes wasn’t with them. Mhysra spared their missing friend a brief thought and hoped he was recovering swiftly in Nimbys, then she set her eyes on the smoking top of the east tower as Cumulo and the others turned up the valley, riding the wind and gaining lift, before they swung back around. Gliding swiftly over the bridge and eyries, they soared over the town, beating their wings as the world dropped sharply away beneath them. The falls roared and foamed past the burning town, plunging thousands of feet into the Cloud Sea below.
Mhysra blinked at the ruined town as Cumulo banked once more, his wingtip brushing Hurricane’s, then her eyes lifted to the tower. Golden light blazed from the windows of the topmost room and screams filled the floors below.
As the seven miryhls circled back towards the citadel, Mhysra caught a glimpse of Goryal, Reglian and Rhiddyl sitting on a ridge overlooking the cove. Clearly the dragons weren’t about to interfere. Whatever happened next, it was up to the Riders to reclaim their home.
So be it.
Leaning against her miryhl’s back, she urged Cumulo on as the eagles swung around the tower, lifting up and up and up until they reached the roof. Scorched and blackened, the timbers around the door frame smoked gently in the gathering twilight, but any fire that had once burned there was now out. It was safe to land.
Taking a second pass, just to make sure, the flock dropped down, Atyrn leading, followed by Hurricane and Cumulo, then Latinym and Zephyr, finally Vehro and Wisp. Their Riders slid from their saddles and paused.
No one attacked, which considering how fiercely the kaz-naghkt were defending the stairs seemed surprising and slightly disappointing.
“Wait here,” Lyrai told Hurricane, looking at the other miryhls to include them in the order. “Don’t do anything foolish.”
“Do as I say, not as I do,” Cumulo grumbled.
“Exactly.” Mhysra kissed his beak again and followed the lieutenants toward the charred doorway. Golden light flared up from the room below, warm and almost welcoming.
Stirla and Lyrai looked at each other, likely debating over who would go first.
Dhori made the decision for them, walking between them and taking the stairs without a backward glance. “Allow me,” he said, and despite his obvious discomfort at being made into Lyrai’s sergeant, he truly was perfect for the role.
Shrugging, Lyrai followed his sergeant, leaving the other lieutenant to bring up the rear. Mhysra went straight after Lyrai, aware of Corin and Derrain falling in behind her. Charcoal crunched beneath their boots as they crossed the ruined threshold and descended the ash-smeared steps. The scent of burning stung Mhysra’s nostrils, making her want to sneeze, but she held it in as the golden light made their shadows dance across the walls.
Dhori reached the bottom of the steps and paused, Lyrai standing at his shoulder. Mhysra rested a hand against her lieutenant’s back as they stared into the room beyond.
Yullik ses-Khennik was waiting for them.
She knew that face, had seen it many times in her dreams. She had seen it all those months ago in a cavern far beneath Aquila, the place where her brother died. She knew those pale barley eyes and that handsome face.
But the bronze scales that covered half of it were new. As were the claws that glinted from every finger. He was taller too, the feet poking out from beneath his trousers curved backwards and scaled like those of a kaz-naghkt.
Most shocking of all were the wings. Vast, black, leathery wings that arched up above his head, emerging from the ruins of his shirt. Mhysra had heard the rumours and stories. She knew he was half dragon. But knowing the truth and seeing the reality were very different things.
Yullik grinned at them with sharp teeth and licked his lips with a black tongue. “Have you come to fight me, little Riders?”
“No,” Dhori said. “We’ve come to kill you.”
Yullik threw back his head and laughed, the scales on his face rippling and vanishing as he feet shifted back into human shape, shrinking his size. The claws and wings remained as he stepped forward and opened his arms wide, revealing his chest through the shreds of his shirt.
“Go ahead,” he invited. “I dare you. But I must warn you against spilling any blood in this room. If it happens to be mine, there will be consequences.”
Mhysra’s hands clenched around her sword as her friends looked at each other, shifting uncertainly. She didn’t know about them, but she wasn’t too bothered by the threat. There was another far more pressing question to answer first: how did you kill a dragon? In all their travels, only one of them had come close to finding out, but Mhysra could guess the method anyway.
Pierce the heart and rip it out. Just like with a kaz-naghkt.
“For Kilai,” she whispered softly, and charged forward, sword raised to strike.
“Mhysra!” Lyrai shouted, running after her, but she didn’t stop, she couldn’t stop. She owed it to her brother. To herself. To her family. Yullik had stolen Kilai, stolen her voice, stolen her sister’s choices. He had ruined so many lives, caused so many deaths. He deserved this. He’d earned it.
Barley eyes gleamed as she ran right up to him, her sword sliding into that bared chest as easily as a hot knife through butter. So easy, in fact, that she ended up face to face, close enough to kiss.
“Oh, Wingborn,” Yullik whispered against her cheek, his hands settling gently on her shoulders. “How fitting that it would be you.” Smiling, he shoved her back, right into Lyrai, sending the pair of them tumbling to the ground.
She could only stare as Yullik looked at the sword sticking out of his chest and sighed. “So predictable, so messy.” Then he wrapped his hands around the hilt – and pulled.
Black blood coated the blade as it slid wetly free. The wound pulsed angrily for a heartbeat, two, three, then closed before their eyes. Yullik rubbed his thumb over the pale scar and licked it clean.
Lyrai’s hand gripped Mhysra’s shoulder, dragging her backwards as he got to his feet, trying to get her behind him, to protect her, to move them back with the others.
Mhysra couldn’t move. Her eyes were transfixed on her sword, now held in Yullik’s right hand, pointing down towards the floor. A black trickle of blood slid slowly down the blade. A droplet gathered on the tip, hanging silently for a moment as it fattened and swelled, then, fell onto the stones.
A single silent splash and the tower trembled.
Yullik looked down. “Oops,” he said mockingly. “How clumsy. I did warn you, and now there will be consequences.” With a golden gleam in his eyes, he stamped his foot.
And the east tower of Aquila rocked, shuddered and collapsed onto the eyries below.
~ Next Chapter ~
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