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~ Previous Chapter ~
Here there be dragons (sitting on the margins, like always. Thanks, Goryal!).
RHIDDYL DIDN’T KNOW what to do with herself. She’d paced and fretted and growled from her watch point on the cliffs above Aquila while the miryhls went to war with the kaz-naghkt, but Goryal’s power had held her back. She’d known the sense of it then; this was a fight the Riders had to win for themselves. Only then would it matter.
But when the tower fell. Oh, then she’d fought against the restraints. Because wasn’t Yullik ses-Khennik the whole reason they had come here? Wasn’t getting rid of him the only reason the Moot had relaxed the barriers? He had been right there, right there, destroying the citadel and breaking everything, but still Goryal held her back.
Only when Yullik took to the wings no one had expected him to have and leapt into the sky with a cloud of kaz-naghkt swirling around him, had Goryal relaxed their hold and let the dragons move.
But not after Yullik, no, they had gone to the ruins of Aquila.
This time Rhiddyl hadn’t fought, because what did she care for beastly half-dragon creatures when her friends were in danger?
By the Family, Rhiddyl wasn’t certain she would ever be able to forgive Goryal for holding her back so long, not when she saw what Yullik’s cruelty had wrought. Not only had Corin and Skybreeze been killed, but everyone – everyone – else was broken.
It took her almost all night to dig out the bodies, even with Reglian’s help and the assistance of a strange new dragon who claimed to be a dragongift to one of the Riders, yet was clearly far older than any human. But Rhiddyl didn’t have time to ponder the mystery of Nightriver, because time was running out and even Goryal only had so much strength with which to heal the survivors.
As sunlight crept cautiously back into the Overworld, poking inquisitive fingers at the jagged ruins of Aquila, Rhiddyl perched on the remains of the once-glorious bridge and stared at the scene with tears in her eyes.
Lieutenant Lyrai’s beautiful bright gold hair was matted with blood, the wound on his head one from which he had yet to wake. Strong Lieutenant Stirla was laid out beside him, sleeping under the influence of some strange herbal mix Nightriver’s human had poured down his throat. The big man’s right leg was wrapped and splinted from ankle to thigh and several ribs had been broken. A silver-haired friend of Jaymes leant exhaustedly against the red-head’s shoulder, his shattered arm splinted and bound across his chest. More breaks and cuts and sprains spread all across Rhiddyl’s field of view, and even the great Dhoriaen Aure had not come through unscathed. No, even he had taken a knock to the head and had broken both wrist and ankle on his left side.
Worst of all, and the one over whom Goryal had been crouched almost all night, was Derrain. He’d landed flat on his back across a pile of rocks, stuck there like a barbarian sacrifice of old. His spine was broken in more places than Rhiddyl cared to count and Goryal was running out of both time and strength to heal him.
All around them all was the dead. Kaz-naghkt carcasses had been piled up to be thrown over the falls, but many, many Riders had been laid out as far from them as possible. Faces and names and legends that Rhiddyl had never known and never heard, but each one a life, each one a promise, each one a dream, a wish, a hope. She’d never seen so much death and she hoped never to see the like again.
There were miryhls too, among the dead and the wounded or perched as she was amongst the wreckage. They had survived the night in better numbers than their human counterparts, but were equally stunned and grief-stricken by the sight the dawn brought.
A wash of wings and a prickle of power was the only warning Rhiddyl had before Reglian dropped down beside her, shifting at the last moment so that he landed in human form, sitting on the rubble beside her right foot. He said nothing, simply watched as Nightriver and his small human scurried from one injured Rider to the next, trailing a stream of healers in their wake, while Goryal worked and worked and worked on putting Derrain’s shattered spine back together.
What a mess. What a Family blighted, miserable, stinking, awful mess. Rhiddyl dipped her head, ashamed that she had played any part in it. Was it her lightning that had weakened the tower enough to fall? Had it been Reglian’s roar that had done the damage? Or was it all down to some horrible, monstrous design of Yullik ses-Khennik? It was probable that she would never know, but in her heart she would always blame herself for at least some of the horror that had unfolded here. She would certainly always blame Goryal for not letting her act sooner. If they hadn’t held her back for so long, could she had saved her friends from harm? Could she have saved Corin and Skybreeze? She would never know. She had never been given the chance.
“Are you happy now?” an angry voice growled and she jumped, startled out of a nap she’d had no intention of taking.
Dhori had somehow scrambled, crawled and dragged his injured body over the wreckage to join them, but his eyes were fixed on Reglian. Probably because Goryal was too busy to be disturbed.
“Are you satisfied? You came to the Overworld for Yullik and you found him. But you let him go. Again. What is the point of you dragons and your pathetic justice if you do not have the guts to see it done?”
Rhiddyl blinked, unused to having such venom directed towards her, especially from Dhori. No, the man had never made any secret of the contempt he held Clan dragons in, but he was normally more polite about it than this. Then again, Rhiddyl thought as she looked over the sorry scene before her, perhaps he had a point…
“Justice will be done,” Reglian sighed wearily, rubbing an eye. “But it’s been centuries since his birth. Would you have us condemn him unnecessarily?”
“That never stopped you before. He was condemned from the moment he was conceived. You do not allow the half-dragons to live, yet he does. Here was your chance to correct that, but again you held back. How can dragons be so eager to kill innocent babies, but so squeamish about punishing deserving adults? What is wrong with you?”
Rhiddyl blinked again, having never heard things laid out so plainly. With humans kept out of the Cleansed Lands by the Barrier Veils for the last two hundred years, half-dragon children had not been a problem in Rhiddyl’s lifetime so she’d barely paid the law any heed. Now, when she really thought about it, it did seem unnaturally cruel. What child ever asked to be born? How were they to blame for what parents formed them? Yet dragon law stated that any half-dragon child was to be put to death within days of their birth, if they did not die themselves. Rhiddyl had never bothered to question why.
Perhaps Yullik ses-Khennik was the only answer any of them would ever need.
“We are not to interfere,” Reglian told Dhori quietly, the sadness in his voice weighing every word down. “You should know all about that, Dhoriaen Aure.”
The silver-eyed Rider snorted his derision. “As if that ever stops any of you. Not when it suits you, and Goryal is the worst of all the rule breakers.”
“Maybe so,” Reglian agreed. “But this time they stuck to them.”
“Of all the times, they picked a fine one to start,” Dhori said bitterly, as well he might. His friends were all injured or dead.
“I know,” Reglian agreed sadly. “It was not my choice.”
“No, you would have brought down the towers earlier,” Dhori pointed out, but he sounded less angry and even, possibly, faintly amused. Groaning, he sat down beside the Thunderwing and buried his head in his hands. “What a mess.”
Rhiddyl and Reglian both heaved equally deep sighs of agreement.
Which was when Cumulo finally realised his Wingborn was missing. His screams of fury woke Lieutenant Lyrai, and word must have swiftly reached the Illuminai because Countess Kilpapan arrived, shouting and demanding answers. Any peace the citadel might have earned was firmly shattered.
Because while the lands of Aquila and the remains of the citadel might be back in Rift Rider hands once more, the fight was far from over.
“So it continues,” Dhori sighed, pushing to his feet and wincing as he tried to put some weight on his heavily-bound ankle. “Rest while you can. You’ll be needed again soon.” With a sad shake of his head, he limped over the wreckage, back to where his friends were stirring and the commotion was at its thickest.
Watching him go, Rhiddyl lowered her chin to rest on Reglian’s broad shoulder. “Will justice be done?” she asked.
Reglian reached up and stroked her cheek. “Yes,” he promised, as they watched Lyrai stagger to his feet and try to clamber onto Hurricane’s back, despite the fact his miryhl wasn’t wearing any tack and the blood-stained bandage had slipped down to cover the lieutenant’s eyes. “Justice will most definitely be done. Yullik ses-Khennik can run, but this time he cannot hide. Only death can separate the Wingborn. And only death will satisfy Cumulo once he finds a way back to Mhysra.”
Rhiddyl blinked as Cumulo broke free of the miryhls trying to restrain him and flapped furiously into the bright morning light. He passed over their heads, grunting with effort, talons clenched tight.
“I almost pity Yullik,” she said, tilting her head to watch the eagle fly by, wondering if she should follow.
“Don’t,” Reglian said grimly. “He has it coming, and if he’s anything as smart as he likes to think he is, he’ll know it too.”
Turning, they watched Cumulo circle to gain height before he arrowed away to the west, out over the open expanse of the Cloud Sea, where the sky stretched on and on, seemingly forever, until it yawned over the Greater West and onwards to the bitter, black talons of the World’s End mountains.
Only there would he find his Wingborn again. Only there would they all find Yullik once more.
Only there would justice be done. Goryal, gods and the Family willing.
Rhiddyl shifted on her pile of wreckage and curled around Reglian. Yawning, she rested her head on his lap and closed her eyes. It had been a long, exhausting and emotional night and she had little doubt that it was only the start of what was to come. Time to take Dhori’s advice and rest while she could.
With Reglian’s hand stroking soothing lines across her brow ridge, the prickle of Goryal’s power hard at work, and the raised voices of Riders on the flooded banks below, Rhiddyl drifted off in search of whatever sleep she could find.
The time for action would come again soon, and she would be ready for whatever the Overworld threw at them next.
~ Next Chapter ~