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~ Previous Chapter ~
Farewell, old friends.
LYRAI HATED FUNERALS. Which was a stupid thing to think, he knew. Was there anyone who actually enjoyed them? His thoughts wandered aimlessly along those paths for a moment, before he finally managed to rein them back in. He found himself doing that often these days, wandering away from the point, in speech as well as thought. He found it hard to focus.
Surviving being inside a falling tower and emerging with a serious head wound could do that to a person. Still, he didn’t have much to complain about. A single glance around the edge of the lake that had once been the Lawn swiftly told him that. Broken limbs, missing limbs, deep scars, vicious burns and bite marks were only the start of the price winning back Aquila had inflicted upon its Riders. Most costly of all, of course, was the reason why they were gathered here in the first place.
It had been almost a month since the battle for Aquila had been fought, but there had been so much to do to shore up the citadel and treat the survivors, that the deeply necessary ceremonies to respect and honour the dead had been temporarily postponed. The bodies of the fallen had been dealt with already, of course, but interment was only the first of the ways the Riders honoured their dead. Which, again, was why they had gathered together today on the burst banks of the river.
The first of Sun month, high summer across all the Overworld, where people would be enjoying the fine weather as the bright sun reached its largest, hottest size. It hung directly overhead now, blazing down and making the surface of the waters glint and shimmer.
There would be no enjoyment here. Though considered the greatest and most beloved of the gods across the Overworld, neither Heirayk nor his season held much power at Aquila. But even if it had been Maegla’s own feast day in the heart of the Storm Season, it still would have been met with sombre dress and sad smiles. How could they do anything else when so much had been lost? Aquila was in ruins, the Riders were traumatised, the miryhls in shock. Even if there had been food enough in Buteo’s meagre stores, no one had much of an appetite for feasting or celebrating.
Instead they gathered in silence to watch the shimmering waters, waiting for General Keipen to start speaking. Even that small detail made Lyrai’s heart ache. This wasn’t the first funeral he had attended at Aquila, but it was the first not to be led by the dean. Dean Marshall was among the dead, and even though no body had been found to inter in the caverns, a small paper boat with his name on was waiting amongst the many, many others.
No dean. No bridge. No eyrie. Only one tower. Aquila was in a pitiful state.
Head and heart both hurting at the thought of it all, Lyrai bowed his head and closed his eyes, waiting for the general to step forward and speak. Alongside him, Stirla shifted with a grunt, his broken leg healing rapidly – thanks to the combined efforts of Goryal, Nightriver and Mouse – but was still sore when he had to stand for prolonged periods of time. As officers, both he and Stirla had turned out early this morning, dressed up in the fine uniforms they’d left secure on the Illuminai before heading off to war. They didn’t fit so well now, both having lost a lot of weight during their recoveries. It didn’t suit Stirla. His big frame was made to be bulky, not haggard and pinched. Lyrai likely didn’t look much better himself, but he didn’t care. None of them did.
“There is no higher service to Aquila, the Overworld, Maegla and the gods than that given by those we remember today.” The familiar words washed over Lyrai, and it took him a moment to realise that it wasn’t General Keipen speaking. It was Myran; the last surviving captain from the fall of Aquila. With a fresh facial scar and an arm-sling to match his old limp, Lyrai’s captain had gone fully grey overnight. Yet despite his gaunt and wounded appearance, Myran’s shoulders were straight, his chin firm and his dark eyes determined as he looked around the shining waters at each and every one of Aquila’s survivors. “Think well of them.”
Normally it would now be the turn of the lieutenants to step forward and say something poignant about each of their lost Riders and miryhls, but the numbers of paper boats and swans piled carefully at the water’s edge were simply too great. Instead Captain Myran opened his hands. Honra, Fleik and Imaino stepped forward, the least injured of Myran’s lieutenants.
Honra seemed much the same as he ever was, showing little sign of the claw marks that had almost taken his right leg. Fleik had a patch covering his left eye and was missing several fingers, but Mouse had said he should recover his sight in time. Imaino, too, had much to thank Mouse for, if Jaymes’ stories of that dark night could be believed. The last lieutenant’s scarlet jacket hid all sign of the bandages wrapping his torso, where a kaz-naghkt had almost ripped his heart out.
All had suffered in the battle, but their recoveries had been swifter than Lyrai’s and Stirla’s. Still, Lyrai couldn’t help feeling a little left out as the three lieutenants stepped forward on their captain’s orders, having obviously been briefed before the ceremony began. No one had mentioned any of this to Lyrai, and a glimpse of his friend’s tight jaw, told him no one had spoken to Stirla either.
However, now wasn’t the time to quibble over such things, Lyrai reminded himself, watching the three older men bend down at the water’s edge, carefully lifting a basket of boats and swans each. Just the idea of bending down made Lyrai’s head swim, so it was probably for the best that he hadn’t been included in the captain’s plans as the lieutenants handed their baskets of special folded papers to others around the circle, telling them to take one and pass the rest on.
The Riders performed the task in sombre silence, holding their paper memories with the care and reverence they deserved. Some only held one, others had two, sometimes more. Eventually, though, everyone held at least something with which to remember Aquila’s fallen.
Only then did Captain Myran step forward. Holding a paper boat in one hand and a paper swan in the other, he knelt at the edge of the lake. “Go in peace, defenders of Aquila. May the gods grant you bright sun and clear skies, with the wind at your backs and the clouds beneath you. Aquila is proud.”
“Aquila is proud.” Honra, Fleik, Imaino, General Keipen, Captain Huro and the rest of the officers still gathered at the citadel all stepped forward, following Myran’s lead as they carefully lowered their boats and swans into the water.
“Aquila is proud,” Lyrai, Stirla and the remaining sergeants said, once their officers had moved aside and they could shuffle forward to take their place.
It wasn’t easy. Lyrai had to fight off dizziness and Stirla needed his help to get down to the ground, but they said the words and added their fallen to the waters. Lyrai wasn’t the only one to bow his head in silent prayer, not just for the names on the papers he’d held, but for all written down here today.
“Farewell,” his whispered, getting back up and helping Stirla to retake their place in the crowd.
“Aquila is proud,” the next group said, as they took their own turn to honour the dead.
On it went, and on again, group after group after group. Almost four thousand Rift Rider pairs had fought in the battle of Aquila and over five hundred lives had been lost. It took time to farewell them all, but it was time well spent.
Finally, the last group stepped back, leaving the soggy boats and swans to bobble and float their way along the shores of the small lake.
“Aquila is proud,” Captain Myran said again, and everyone bowed their heads for the final prayer. “Though they are gone, be they never forgotten. For Aquila you died, and at Aquila your memory will live on. We are proud, we are humbled and we thank you. Be at peace, children of Maegla.”
“Be at peace,” the gathering murmured, and Lyrai raised his head, eyes stinging beneath the midday sun as the flotilla made their bumpy way down, down, past the shadowed ruins of the citadel to where a small gap broke through the wreckage of the bridge to pour out over the much reduced falls.
One by one, in clumps and groups, the paper swans and boats trickled through the gap to fall with the waters to the mists of the Cloud Sea below.
Gone, but never forgotten.
It took a while and some of the little paper vessels were fully sunk by the time the current dragged them out of sight, but no one moved until the very last paper craft flopped weakly over the edge. There was no way of knowing whose it was, but Lyrai couldn’t help imagining that it was Dean Marshall’s. It seemed fitting that the man who had tried so very hard to save his students and the citadel that sheltered them, would stay behind to ensure everyone received their just tribute.
“Aquila is proud,” Captain Myran said again, drawing everyone’s attention back from the ruined bridge. More than one Rider scrubbed a hand over their face as they did so, or sniffed back unshed tears, blinking in the harsh sunlight. The captain made no similar move, showing no shame or embarrassment over the tears that shone on his face. “Not just of the fallen, but of you, the survivors. Defenders all. You have earned honour and respect also, for without you, we would not be here today.
“Yes, Aquila may stand in ruins and we here may not epitomise the glory and glamour of the Rift Riders of legend. But we have fought monsters and come through alive. Aquila may be battered, we may all be bruised, but we are not broken. We will rebuild and rise again, stronger and more glorious than ever.”
“Riders, take flight!” Lieutenant Fleik shouted – and was answered with a roar of approval.
The miryhls, perched on rooftops and in courtyards overlooking the lake, shrieked their own agreement and took to their wings. Brown, so many shades of brown, mixed with hints of red and gold and white and silver. The miryhls of Aquila wheeled and danced in the skies above their Riders.
Lyrai watched with tears on his face. Because they were bruised and they were battered, but Myran was right. They were far from broken. Not yet. Not while there were miryhls left to take to the skies, and Riders fit enough to ride them.
Yullik ses-Khennik and his kaz-naghkt had done their best to destroy Aquila and rip out the heart of the Rift Riders, but he had not succeeded. If anything, he’d made a great and very serious mistake.
For over a century the kaz-naghkt had pillaged and terrorised the Overworld, and while the Riders had fought back against them, they had done little to stop them. Everyone knew they came from World’s End, but no one had ever done anything about it.
Because while Yullik had tried to rip out the Riders’ heart, all he’d really done was awaken their fury. They would not rest until Yullik and every last one of his kaz-naghkt monsters were dead.
At least, Lyrai would not, and he knew he wasn’t alone. Tilting his head, he caught Stirla’s determined eye and they shared a nod.
“For Mhysra?” Stirla asked, holding out his arm.
Lyrai clasped his wrist and held on tight. “For Mhysra,” he agreed. And Corin and Skybreeze, and Dean Marshall and Captain Hylan, and all the many, many others who had recently washed away over the falls. “For Aquila.”
Stirla’s smile was small and sharp. “For the Riders.”
For the entire Overworld.
But most of all, Lyrai reminded himself as he and Stirla turned away from the shimmering lake to find their friends and students gathered watchfully behind them. Most of all, what Lyrai was going to World’s End for was Yullik ses-Khennik himself. They had unfinished business.
Stepping into line with the many others now trailing back into the citadel, returning to the never-ending clean-up chores, Lyrai tilted his head to watch the miryhls still wheeling overhead. Then he glanced to his left, past the ruins of the bridge and the eyries, to where the top edge of a distinctive green and silver gasbag was just visible. Because while the Kilpapan fleet had returned to the east, along with most of the Rider army, the Illuminai remained. Along with its strong-willed Countess.
Lyrai smiled and looked at his friends. “Ready for another adventure?”
The End… for now.
The final Wingborn book, World’s End, will start on
Friday 12th July!
If you can’t wait that long, it’s already started on Patreon.
Aquila’s War will be free to read until July 5th,
and the ebook will be out on July 8th.
Thanks for reading along!
I hope to see you back here soon for more Overworld adventures.