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~ Previous Chapter ~
Wakey, wakey, Mhysra!
“CUMULO?” MHYSRA WOKE with a jolt, which quickly turned into a gasp as agony flared through her midriff. Gods and clouds and storms and fire, it hurt. For a long moment she thought she would pass out again, as black spots swarmed her vision and agony ran up and down her spine. But slowly, eventually, it faded away, leaving her aching and blinking up at the ceiling above her head.
It was dark, but not so dark that she couldn’t make out a little of her surroundings. The ceiling was black, as were the walls, but there must have been some source of light nearby because she could see a faint sheen on the rock above her head.
“Cumulo,” she whispered, remembering her dream, the hollow ache in her chest momentarily outweighing the pain in the rest of her body. She dreamt that her Wingborn was out in the world and all alone, searching desperately to find her. Cumulo. Her brash, brave, bold miryhl. Gods, what she wouldn’t give to have him here with her.
No, her hand fisted on the bed, scrunching up the soft blanket that covered her, not here. Not with him. Not –
Her nails scraped against something hard and smooth. She flexed her hands experimentally and felt it again. On both sides. Gritting her teeth and bracing for pain, she bent her elbows, slowly drawing her hands up over the covers. Her hands slid over two strange shapes, smooth and rounded and…
Not all that strange at all.
She flinched, hands flying out to either side of her. The ricochet effect from the movement had her panting again as pain jolted through her hips and stabbed relentlessly at her lower back, but even through the midst of it all she realised something important.
There were more than two.
As the black spots once more faded from her vision, she cautiously moved her arms back to her sides – and found that she couldn’t quite. Tucked into the bedding from her arm pits to her hips, right down to her ankles, smooth, round weights pressed against her. They were warm and, as she cupped an exploratory hand around the one closest to her right hip, something moved inside.
Eggs. She was surrounded by eggs.
Her heartbeat picked up, her breath starting to gasp, while under her hand she felt the unmistakable sensation of a tap.
Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap.
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, but even that wasn’t loud enough to drown out the cascade of tapping all around her, keeping rhythm with her heart and growing in volume and strength.
They were hatching.
“Blessed Maegla,” she whispered, as a sharp crack sounded against her left palm.
The tapping stopped. She held her breath.
A tiny, cold point scratched at the middle of her palm and liquid trickled down to her wrist. Something wet nuzzled her skin. A questioning mewl. Then a nip of teeth.
Because only one thing hatched in the caverns of World’s End – and they were always hungry.
The kaz-naghkt hatchling bit into the meat of Mhysra’s thumb, licked at the blood and screamed.
The rest of the eggs around her exploded in a flurry of taps and cracks – and it was Mhysra’s turn to scream.
* * *
On board the Illuminai
RETURNING TO THE Greater West always stirred complicated and contradictory emotions for Stirla, and this trip was no exception. However, instead of the usual mix of guilt and longing to see his family, he spared them barely a thought. Normally he spent most of the journey west agonising over whether or not he should pop back home for a visit. Not this time. There would be no chance nor opportunity for such things on this trip and he was profoundly grateful for it – which prompted a little guilt. Although both emotions were quickly subsumed by a wave of grief as he thought of his nephew Greig and how much pain the news of his death must have brought his family.
Not wanting to think about any of that, Stirla kept his mind fixed on their goal. Find Yullik, destroy the kaz-naghkt, rescue Mhysra. Simple and straightforward, and so very, very complicated. Part of him relished the challenge of tracking down their quarry, eagerly anticipating the fight ahead and the chance to avenge their fallen comrades. The rest of him was worried, and perhaps even a little scared. Even if, by some rare chance or miracle, they managed to track down the half-dragon monster who had caused so much misery across the Overworld for a century or more, just what were they going to do with him?
Three dragons was a good start, especially when one could also include Emberbright. Young though the dragonet was, her fire was too potent a weapon to ever be discounted. Four dragons then, which was a fine way to begin any quest to destroy a monster. After that the numbers were less rosy. Along with Lyrai, Stirla was the most senior member of this harebrained scheme. Two lieutenants, half-trained and barely competent enough to lead a bullwing herd in for milking, but they were the ones in charge of the three Rift Rider students who had come with them – Dhori, Derrain and Jaymes.
Others had offered, wanting their own chance to avenge their fallen friends, but neither he nor Lyrai had been comfortable taking along anyone they didn’t know well. They’d invited Morri and Silveo, of course, but neither had come. Morri said he couldn’t leave the mountain, and as Aquila’s head healer, he probably had a point. Silveo simply didn’t have the stomach for any more fighting. Stirla wasn’t sure he could stand much more himself – until he thought of Greig and Corin and Hylan and… No. There was plenty more fight left in him yet.
Which left two lieutenants and three young Riders, all of whom trusted each other beyond words. How could they not when they’d been through so much together? They had their miryhls too, great hearted, bold and brave. When Stirla added them to the tally, he began feeling a little less hopeless about their situation. They also had Countess Kilpapan, the Illuminai and all of her crew, without whom they’d probably still be sat at Aquila, wielding hammers and grumbling with frustration.
In all, it wasn’t such a terrible way to go about their mission, but considering everything Stirla had learnt about Yullik ses-Khennik since the monster had first appeared in their lives, it wasn’t a great way to start either. Then again, when even the largest army of Riders the Overworld had ever seen had failed to put so much as a scratch on the man, perhaps numbers weren’t the right approach anyway. Fortunately, what Stirla and his friends might lack in numbers, they more than made up for in brains, bravery, strength and determination. And magic, he reminded himself, staring forward from the Illuminai’s bow at where Rhiddyl and Reglian were flying, both enormous, both impressive, and neither one as powerful as the slender figure who joined Stirla in leaning against the rail.
“A fine day for flying, do you not agree?” Elder Goryal chimed in their bright voice, lifting their face to the warm breeze gusting beneath the gasbag. Their wispy hair puffed around their head like a cloud, making them seem gentle and harmless. Stirla knew better. He’d seen the damage that had been done to Derrain’s back when the tower fell, and he’d never forget the way Goryal worked through the night to ensure the young Rider not only survived, but was able to walk again.
“Did I ever thank you?” Stirla asked, watching as Rhiddyl soared above Reglian only to drop down on the larger Thunderwing’s back. His roar of outrage boomed across the sky, followed by Rhiddyl’s trilling amusement as she dashed swiftly out of the black dragon’s reach. “For Derrain?”
Smiling at the antics of their fellow dragons, Goryal tipped their head in acknowledgement. “It was the least I could do. I am only sorry I could not have done more. Or acted sooner.”
Their chiming voice turned flat and sad as they lowered their head. Stirla sighed, knowing they meant Corin. Poor Corin. Like many others, Stirla had been furious with the dragons at first, not understanding why they hadn’t intervened and stopped Yullik when they’d had the chance, but in the end it was useless. Whatever their reasons – and Reglian as well as Goryal insisted that they did have them – it made no difference to the outcome. Corin and Skybreeze were dead, along with far too many others, and Mhysra had been taken. Yullik had been allowed to escape and the dragons had done nothing to stop him.
No amount of ranting or raging would change that, so Stirla let Goryal’s words pass uncommented on. He wasn’t certain if he believed the dragon sincere when they apologised, but there was no denying that Goryal had saved Derrain. Nor was there any denying that the Riders would need the dragons to track Yullik down once more, so Stirla kept his thoughts to himself and watched Rhiddyl and Reglian play in the summer afternoon air as the Illuminai drifted ever closer to the Greater West.
~ Next Chapter ~
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