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~ Previous Chapter ~
All aboard the Catch-Up Express!
IT WAS LONG after dark by the time Lyrai rejoined the rest of his companions in their room. Unsurprisingly, Dhori had beaten him back, bringing along vital supplies like food, drink and lamp light. As welcome as they all were, Lyrai was more heartened by the sight of Derrain sitting up and joining his friends at the feast.
“Learn anything interesting?” Dhori asked, as Lyrai settled amongst them and accepted a mug of cider from Jaymes with a smile.
“Not much. Everyone was more interested in hearing about Aquila and how the repairs are progressing to tell me much about what they’ve been up to.” He sipped the cider and shrugged, both at the lack of decent information and the tart taste. Cider wasn’t his favourite, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially at Kaskad.
“That’s because they haven’t done much,” Stirla said, arriving in his usual fashion – loudly enough to claim all the attention in the room. “A few patrols here and there, but as there’s been no sign of kaz-naghkt since before our last stand at Aquila, no one’s bestirring themselves too much. Bringing in the harvest is more important.”
They all raised their glasses to that. Even when the kaz-naghkt were attacking, bringing in the harvest was more important – and a task that plenty of Riders right across the Overworld would be engaging in right now. Elite, miryhl-flying soldiers they might be most of the time, but they also had to eat; so when harvest rolled around, they also helped.
“No kaz-naghkt?” Jaymes asked quietly, while Lyrai and Stirla picked at the food Dhori had gathered. “None at all?”
Stirla shook his head. “None reported around here, at least.”
“Maybe Keipen was right,” Derrain murmured.
Lyrai wrinkled his nose. The General of the East was a great man and a respected Rider, but that didn’t mean he was always right. In the case of the last of the kaz-naghkt simply crawling away to die in some remote cave somewhere, he was almost certainly wrong.
“Maybe, but I’ll not go counting my villages until they’re left unraided, thanks,” Stirla retorted, making them all smile.
“I’m more interested in dragons anyway,” Lyrai said, turning the conversation back to its original purpose. “Did anyone hear anything of them?”
They all looked at Dhori, who raised an eyebrow. “I’ve not been talking to dragons,” he said, as if it would somehow be surprising if he had.
Lyrai smirked. “No one said you had. I only asked if you’d heard anything about them.”
Dhori tipped his cup in a mocking concession of the point. “True enough.” He heaved a put upon sigh. “I don’t know why you’re all looking at me. Maybe Stirla heard something.”
“Nope,” the big lieutenant said, cheerfully biting into a fruit scone. “I knew I could count on you to gather all of that in. Just as I could count on Lyrai to answer everyone’s questions about Aquila. He’s so scrawny, everyone thinks he’s a pushover, so they always ask him first.”
“Funny,” Lyrai said, voice dry as dust. “I always thought they had to ask me, since you never shut up for long enough for people to ask you anything.”
Stirla grinned. “And that’s a bad thing because…?”
Rolling his eyes at his unrepentant friend, Lyrai turned back to Dhori. “Nice try, by the way, but you might as well tell us what you know.” When Dhori looked about to protest his innocence again, Lyrai shook his head. “Don’t bother. We all know you know something, because you’re Dhori and that’s what you do. Stirla is loud and annoying, I’m cold and aloof, Derrain’s the friendly one, Jaymes is the quiet one, and you’re the know-it-all who usually speaks in riddles just to prove how clever you are. Now that we’ve got that sorted out, stop dancing about and spill.”
“Know-it-all?” Dhori asked after a long pause.
“Yes,” they all replied firmly.
“Fair enough.” Dhori shrugged. “And I don’t have much to say. The dragons showed up about two moons ago, smelling of smoke and seeming very, very pleased with themselves. They don’t mingle with the humans much, but one of them – my money’s on Estenarix since she’s bound to be here – dropped enough hints to imply they destroyed Yullik ses-Khennik’s stronghold around the same time he wrecked Aquila.”
Lyrai wasn’t the only one to sit back, blinking with surprise. Even though he knew the dragons had come to the Overworld with the express purpose of dealing with Yullik, after spending so much time with Goryal, Reglian and Rhiddyl, Lyrai hadn’t really expected the dragons to actually do anything. They might have helped at Nimbys, but they’d done nothing to stop Aquila falling. Lyrai had begun to believe that watching was all they intended to do, leaving him and his friends to get on with the real work.
“And Yullik?” Derrain asked softly.
Dhori shook his head. “He wasn’t there.” As they all knew, to their cost. “As far as I know, they haven’t seen him since.”
“Then he’s not at World’s End?” Lyrai asked, a tightness growing in his chest at the thought they’d been chasing the wrong trail all this time. By now Yullik could be anywhere on the Overworld. Mhysra could be anywhere.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Dhori hedged carefully. “It sounds like the dragons went in, made a mess, and left again confident that their work was done.”
“Leaving Yullik free and more angry than ever,” Stirla said grimly.
Lyrai’s hands clenched, because once again the dragons had promised to help but likely only made things worse.
“Angry, yes,” the chiming tones of Elder Goryal announced their return. Lyrai turned to see them standing in the doorway, Reglian looming behind them. “But also diminished and in desperate need of rebuilding his strength.”
“The only kaz-naghkt he has left are those few that escaped the fall of Aquila,” Dhori said slowly, as if only just working it out for himself. “He hasn’t been that weak in a century.”
“Not since he first started breeding them from captured Rider women,” Goryal agreed.
“What?” Lyrai croaked in horror. “He bred what?”
Goryal looked at him with their head at a quizzical tilt, confusion in their rainbow coloured eyes. “Kaz-naghkt are called man-dragons for a reason, lieutenant. I thought you knew this.”
In theory, yes, of course. But in reality… No. He didn’t even want to think about it.
“That was why women were removed from Rider duty. For the safety of the Overworld as well as themselves.” Unlike Goryal, Reglian seemed to grasp just how horrified the Riders were by this news. “I sometimes think the shortness of human memory is a blessing, but it is foolish to forget the origins of such horrors. Yullik ses-Khennik only needed them to create the first generation, then he could breed as many kaz-naghkt as he liked, with or without fresh human blood.”
Dear gods, Lyrai was going to be sick.
“Now he has Mhysra,” Derrain whispered.
Sweet merciful Maegla. “We have to find her,” Lyrai said, eyes closed, concentrating on breathing rather than screaming and tearing down to the eyries to order Hurricane to fly west right now. It wouldn’t help. He wouldn’t save her that way. But the effort of holding back left him shaking as he opened his eyes to glare at the dragons. “We have to.”
Goryal nodded, expression grave. “We will,” they promised. “The others have told me where to look for him.”
“Yullik is loyal,” Reglian said, before Lyrai or anyone else could protest that their quarry might have moved on. “He holds onto everything he can – memories, power, grudges. World’s End has been his home for two centuries. He will return.”
“He cannot help himself,” Goryal agreed, somewhat sadly. “He is what he was made to be.”
Reglian glanced oddly at the elder, but it was Dhori who asked, “Regrets, old one? Isn’t it a little late for that?”
Goryal’s rainbow eyes flashed pure white, but they shook their head and turned their face aside as if ashamed. “It is never too late for regrets, Dhoriaen Aure. We who live so long find we have plenty of time for them.”
“And not enough time for everything else,” Reglian agreed, his own tone sad.
Which was just about as much self-pity as Lyrai could stand. “Mhysra won’t be another one.”
The two dragons and Dhori stared at him, wearing identical blank expressions, as if they’d forgotten anyone else had been in the room with them.
“What?” It was Reglian who voiced their confusion.
“Regrets,” Stirla said, having apparently followed Lyrai’s thoughts perfectly well. “Mhysra isn’t going to be another one of yours.”
“There’s still time to save her,” Derrain agreed. “If we move quickly.”
“Tomorrow,” Lyrai said firmly. “We leave tomorrow.”
Goryal glanced at Reglian, who nodded, and looked across at where Dhori sat opposite them. Their eyes flashed white once more. “No more regrets,” they said, in a voice as deep and dark as a well, and as far from their usual chimes as it was possible to get.
To the astonishment of all, Dhori bowed his head. “No more,” he agreed, as lightning split the sky outside and the wind and rain arrived in a crash of thunder.
“Tomorrow then.” Reglian broke the odd moment with a clap as he rubbed his hands rather gleefully together. “Who gets to tell the Countess?”
~ Next Chapter ~
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