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Sweet dreams are not made of this.
MHYSRA STOOD ON the edge of the world. The land sheered off directly before her feet, plunging hundreds – perhaps thousands – of feet into the white blanket below. The Cloud Sea stretched endlessly before her, the Curse that had formed the Overworld.
It wasn’t an unusual view. There were plenty of places in every land where you could stand somewhere high and look out over the expanse of clouds that seemed to stretch forever. The Overworld was like that – made up of mountainous islands adrift in a white, white sea.
Yet this felt different – higher, colder, lonelier. The edge before her didn’t just fall away, it sliced, as if some long-ago god had chopped the land off with a giant axe, leaving behind a clean, perfect edge. One that was black and glistening, still sharp despite centuries of dampening weather. Rivers of red ran through the black, like the enormous veins of some slumbering stone dragon.
It made her shiver. Mhysra rubbed her arms and glanced back over her shoulder, but there was no comfort there. More black rock shot through with red, just as sharp and gleaming, but jagged too. Vicious spires clawed at the sky, ripping fresh clouds above to mirror the ones below. Somewhere far away the sun must have been rising because the clouds overhead were blood red, as if the sky itself was bleeding.
Mhysra stood in shadow and shivered again, turning her eyes away from the disturbing images. She looked over the Cloud Sea and wondered what was out there. Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything. It was hard to know, because even though such a view was common enough across the Overworld, Mhysra had no doubt where she was.
These mountains were famous, infamous, and though she’d never set foot upon them, she couldn’t mistake them now.
“Have you ever wondered what else is out there?” a voice mused from her left.
Surprised to hear her thoughts echoed aloud, Mhysra tilted her head. The man was the same height as she was, with skin a shade darker and more bronze than earthy brown, his hair was as black as her own but without any hint of curl. His features were sharp, his smile warm and his eyes… his eyes were gold.
“Beneath the clouds, I mean,” he continued before she could respond. “Have you ever wondered what lies in the world below?”
Fear washed over her, ice filled her chest and sweat broke out across her forehead. Her heart sped up and it became hard to breathe. She looked into those eyes and every muscle in her body locked with terror.
“No?” he asked mildly, and thankfully turned away. “I guess not. You are too tied to this world. To the skies and the clouds and the flying winds.”
Mhysra pulled deep, heaving breaths into her lungs as though she had just run up the mountainside. The air was as cold and sharp as the rocks she stood on, but she welcomed the bite of pain inside her chest. It helped to break through her fear and clear her mind.
“Yullik,” she whispered, remembering the name of the man beside her, who he was, what he was. What he had done. “Yullik.”
He smiled. “Indeed. Is there something you wished to ask me, Lady Mhysra Kilpapan? Any requests you wish to make?”
She shook her head, words building up inside her, gathering into a roar, a scream. Because there was nothing she wanted from him – except his death. Her chest heaved with the effort of holding it all back.
“No?” He watched her, smiling, smiling, smiling. “A pity. I had hoped we might become friends, you and I. One Wingborn to another.”
Wingborn. The word sent a twinned flash of panic and pain through her and she doubled over under the force.
Cumulo. Where was Cumulo? What had he done with her Wingborn?
A warm hand rested against her back and Yullik chuckled smugly. “Do you have a question for me now?”
Straightening, she spun to face him, hand rising, ready to strike. “Don’t touch me!” she spat.
Yullik tilted his head and clucked his tongue in disappointment. “Waste not, want not,” he murmured, taking a step towards her. “If you won’t ask me, then perhaps you can answer one of mine?”
Mhysra stepped back, desperate to keep a safe distance between them.
Or not so safe, she realised, arms wheeling as her foot stepped off the edge of the cliff into nothing. Momentum carried her backwards and she teetered on the precipice, stretching her arms out towards her enemy, pleading for a saviour.
Yullik reached towards her, then stopped and smiled. “You told me not to touch you.”
He stepped back and she fell.
“Send my regards to the world below!” he shouted over the wind.
Then there was only screaming, falling and the inescapable whiteness of the endless Cloud Sea.
She woke with a gasp, heart thumping painfully hard in her chest. For a moment she listened to her panicked breaths pulling in and out through her gaping mouth, still able to feel herself falling through so much nothing, waiting to hit something, to stop, to die.
There was no death. There was only pain. It swept in to replace her panic and left her weeping alone in the dark.
* * *
“NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. I forbid it, Myran, and that’s my final word on the matter.” General Keipen leant on the desk top and glared at the gathered officers to further reinforce his order. “Under no circumstances will you send any of your Riders west on some fool’s errand to rescue a girl likely already dead and destroy the pitiful remains of the kaz-naghkt. Which, may I remind you, are entirely the dragons’ problem. Let them deal with them, since they claim this Yullik person is why they are here.”
When the general looked at Lyrai to underline his point, Lyrai stared straight ahead, letting nothing of his thoughts show on his face. Allowing the general to know exactly what he was thinking at that moment would not improve the situation. Especially as this display was mostly aimed at him.
“You will stay here, gentlemen,” – Keipen turned back to where Myran was sitting behind the desk, with the newly-promoted Captain Imaino standing behind his shoulder – “and rebuild Aquila. Countess Kilpapan has sent word that three skyships are on their way from Nimbys, bringing builders and materials, with more yet to come from South Imercian, the Lowlands and even Sutherall. The Wing Marshall is doing all he can to secure funds and assistance the Overworld over. It is your duty to oversee the work and get this citadel back into useable shape as swiftly as possible. Take care of the wounded and repair our home, Myran, nothing more. So few kaz-naghkt managed to escape the last battle that I doubt we will be troubled overmuch by them in the future. They are no longer your concern. Rebuild the bridge, shore up the towers and raise Aquila from her ruins. There is no worthier task that any Rider could perform.”
Wrapping his knuckles twice on the desk to seal his rousing words, the general nodded curtly at the two captains, swept his eyes over the six lieutenants and stormed out of the room. The tramp of marching feet filled the corridor beyond as Keipen’s Riders fell in around him, escorting him the short distance to where their miryhls waited to take them to the Sunchaser. Within the next bell, the skyship would depart for Nimbys, carrying the general, Captain Huro and their Rift Riders far away. All that would then remain at Aquila would be a raggedy collection of wounded and tired men and students who barely formed a complete flight beneath Captain Myran’s command.
No, not captain anymore, dean. The walls of Aquila might still be broken, but the citadel had a dean again. One who would soon resurrect it to its former glory. Because no matter what happened, life went on, miryhls still flew and Riders needed to be trained. There was no better place on the Overworld for that than Aquila, so the sooner the citadel was running again, the better.
Lyrai had no arguments with that as he stared at the opposite wall, waiting for the tramp of Keipen’s entourage to fade away. He wanted to see the glory of Aquila restored as much as any Rider. He was willing to put his back into the effort, to haul stones and hammer nails wherever needed. Just… not yet.
Not while Mhysra was missing and Yullik still lived. They had unfinished business in the west and he could not rest until something was done about it.
~ Next Chapter ~
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