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~ Previous Chapter ~
We interrupt the previous cliffhanger to bring you… another one!
YULLIK WAS FEELING restless again. Power prickled across his skin, tugging and stretching, making it feel both too big and too small for his body. He sat in his workroom, staring at his collected bowls of merged blood, and realised he was tapping his fingers on the table. He stared at his hand and shifted his weight.
Fidgeting. He was fidgeting. He never fidgeted.
Baring his teeth in frustration, he stood up and left. His work was at a delicate stage, the last thing he needed to do was wreck everything by being restless. He stalked down the corridor, arms flexing and stretching, bones lengthening, claws piercing his fingertips. He needed to get outside. Quickly.
Yullik jogged up the first flight of stairs he came to, his feet already starting to shift. It was a good thing he no longer bothered with boots, since his whole lower leg soon changed, raising him up onto clawed toes and curving his knee forward. It took a moment to adjust to his new centre of balance, then he moved faster, leaping up the stairs with barely any effort.
A smile hovered on his lips as he bounced to the top and ran on, light and easy, claws scratching against the stone floors. He pressed a hand to the wall, digging in as he turned the corner, searching for a way out.
Pain seared his spine, twisting him around and almost to his knees. He hissed, trying to hold back the change, but he’d already gone too far, welcoming each new addition. Now the rest of him wanted out, and he wasn’t certain he had to the strength to hold back.
Panting, he pressed his hands against the wall and looked down the hallway. Stone, pure stone, no doors, no windows. He was in a part of the keep buried deep within the mountain. No escape here. Gritting his teeth, he pushed away from the wall and staggered on, no longer feeling light and swift and deadly. His new legs wobbled, his claws screeched against the stone and his back was on fire. The skin around his shoulders bulged and stretched, but Yullik refused to fully shift. Not yet.
He hit the wall at the end of the corridor, breathless, cheek pressed against the cold rock. It was no good, he couldn’t stay here. He had to get out.
Power punched forwards, parting the rock and forming a tunnel for him to fall into. The way sealed behind him, leaving him trapped in a tiny bubble that moved through the solid mountainside until it final popped, leaving him outside at last.
Sleet splattered against his burning skin, surrounding him with steam as he dropped to his knees and surrendered to the change.
* * *
CUMULO HUDDLED INSIDE a shelter formed where two boulders had fallen against one another and glared out at the rain. Ice cold and torrential, the sleet storm showed no signs of stopping. It had begun before dawn, making him glad he’d sought shelter the night before, and had only grown in intensity as the day progressed. Far off thunder snarled, but Cumulo ignored it. Only the rain mattered here, that and the cold.
Maegla, he hated this accursed place. Everything about it was grim, bleak and hopeless. Even the bargains.
Just thinking about the hooded stranger and his sister made Cumulo growl, talons digging into the soggy dirt piled up inside his shelter. He should have known better than to listen to a stranger promising him what he wanted most, but he’d been searching for so long and made so little progress, it was no wonder he’d fallen straight into the trap. If it even was a trap. He was so angry about what he’d overheard, but even more confused. He wanted to see the stranger again, and this time pounce on the man and scream at him until he confessed everything, but there was little chance of that while the sleet continued. This shelter had been the best Cumulo could find after hunting the day before, and since it was good enough to keep him dry, he wasn’t about to abandon it. Not on the slim hope that the hooded stranger would return for a chat. That cave was halfway around the mountain and Cumulo wasn’t in the mood to get wet and chilled for no good reason.
He sat in his shelter and stared broodingly at the weather, wondering again where his Wingborn was and how she was faring. Was she missing him as much as he missed her? Was she waiting for him to rescue her or already on the verge of rescuing herself? He was half-surprised he hadn’t seen her already, fighting her way out of captivity. But then he didn’t know how she was. She might be injured. She might be unconscious. She might be chained. He didn’t know and he hated that he didn’t.
Yet these thoughts were nothing new. Sighing, Cumulo stuck his beak out of his shelter and peered up at the sky beyond the trees. Still grey, still soggy, still empty —
A skinny silhouette drifted across his field of view.
Cumulo narrowed his eyes. Kaz-naghkt. Enemy. He’d seen sentries passing by with reasonable frequency and always managed to avoid them. Crackling his beak, he tracked the creature’s movements – and saw it wobble in a gust of wind. The predator in Cumulo snapped to attention. Forgetting all about the sleet and staying hidden, he slipped out of his shelter and launched in silence to stalk his prey.
* * *
FIRE WASHED THROUGH Yullik’s veins, the kind of pain so bright it almost felt good. Fire was in his blood, inside the very heart of him; he had nothing to fear from heat. So he embraced the burning and rose in the steam, refreshed, renewed. Reborn.
He looked down at himself and smiled. Still mostly human in shape, his skin was a ripple of pewter grey scales with a faint golden shine that was almost bronze in some lights. Just like his father had been.
Yullik drew his shoulders back and felt his wings flex. Spreading them out and forwards, he studied the fragile grey membrane between long black struts and practised opening and closing them a few times. Golden claws tipped each end, more kaz-naghkt than Clan dragon and he grinned. How fitting that he changed into the best version of his creations. He hadn’t known that when he first created them, hadn’t known if he would ever shift at all, but it made perfect sense. He was the ultimate kaz-naghkt, the purest man-dragon to ever exist.
Chuckling, he flexed his wings and stepped to the edge of the scrape his power had carved from the mountain. The drop beyond his claw-tips was sheer, plunging hundreds of feet to the forest below. A grey and miserable day spread out before him, with clouds the colour of his scales, hiding both sun and sky from view. Sleet hissed wherever it touched him and Yullik raised his face into the chill.
He stepped forwards into the emptiness and dropped.
The wind howled in his ears, sleet spat in his face and Yullik laughed as he unfolded his vast wings to cup the sky. The pull on his tendons was unpleasantly strong, burning muscles unused to such strain, but Yullik poured power and heat into them, healing any tears – and flapped.
The surge of movement, the rush of blood, was so intoxicating Yullik laughed again, flapping up and up, away from the gloomy forests below. The sky was cold and unwelcoming, spitting cold fury at him, but Yullik shrugged it off. He was airborne. He was flying under his own power. He was glorious. He was free. He —
— saw the miryhl at the last moment, rolling clumsily aside as talons scraped across his ribs.
Yullik tangled in his own wings as he tried to turn around, finding his glorious great skin sails rather less elegant than he’d hoped. The miryhl had no such trouble, banking on a wingtip and coming straight back, deadly feet first.
“No!” he shouted, pulling his wings in tight and dropping, reaching out to snag the miryhl’s foot in passing.
The bird shrieked in surprise as he was dragged off balance, the pair of them tumbling in a clumsy, screaming, scrapping mess.
Lashing out with his other foot, the Wingborn stabbed at Yullik with his beak, eyes blazing, growling and cursing. Yullik bared his teeth in reply, keeping a firm grip on that deadly leg, doing his best to avoid injury as the forest grew nearer and nearer.
The scream made Yullik flinch, pulling back as the shrill sound pierced through his brain. The Wingborn’s eyes widened in shock and he lunged, talons closing tight around Yullik’s arm.
They hit the trees, something cracked and everything went black.
~ Next Chapter ~
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