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~ Previous Chapter ~
Kaz-naghkt: help or hindrance? You decide.
On board the Illuminai
RHIDDYL WOKE UP. Pale wooden beams ran across the ceiling above her. She blinked, frowning, trying to work out where she was and how she had got there.
“Ah, back with us at last.”
She turned her head towards the sound of Elder Goryal’s voice and blinked some more. She was in the eyries, deep in the hull of the Illuminai. Except…
“Where are the miryhls?” The scent of air, dust and meat still clung to the wood, but it was faint as if fading. She wrinkled her nose but barely felt the movement. Reaching up with her claw, she saw only a lilac hand as it bumped into the curved edge of her face.
Eyes wide, she sat up, running her hands over herself. “Where’s my nose? Where are my wings? What’s happening?”
Scrambling onto her knees, she twisted to look at herself, but saw only human limbs and feet. No wings, no scales, but instead of the indigo skin she’d grown almost fond of in her human form, the colour had softened to lilac. She didn’t like it.
“I look like a bruise,” she grumbled, dipping her chin to look down at herself. Her chest was flat, rippling with muscle. She didn’t have any of the curves human women usually possessed, even the tall skinny ones like Mhysra. She patted her chest as if that would somehow make it grow.
She scowled at Goryal. “What’s going on?”
The elder sighed and opened their hands on their crossed knees. “Where do I begin?”
* * *
MHYSRA KEPT HER eyes closed, listening to Riame putter about the kitchen. The woman was very domestic, constantly chopping this or kneading that. She cleaned too and hummed while she worked. The kaz-naghkt babies found her fascinating, watching her every move from the bench by the wall where they’d been banished for getting underfoot. They sat in a long line like crows on a fence, emitting grumbles and whistles and licking their claws.
Riame ignored them, except on the rare occasions when she swapped her hums for whistles and the babies joined in. The thought almost made Mhysra smile, before she remembered she was pretending to be asleep. If Riame knew she was awake, she would fuss. If she didn’t fuss, she would talk, and right then Mhysra wanted to be alone. She thought of her empty cell high up in the fortress, where she’d been wracked by pain and upsetting dreams, and missed the solitude. It wasn’t that she wasn’t grateful to Riame for everything she’d done, nor did she mind lying next to the warmth of the fire, but Maegla, she missed silence.
A serious of loud bangs made the kaz-naghkt babies coo and Mhysra barely stopped herself from flinching, listening to Riame’s hums grow ever more cheerful as she wrapped up her latest batch of dough and put it aside to prove. Mhysra kept her breathing slow and even as she listened to Riame pull a freshly baked loaf from the oven and place it on the table to cool.
“If there’s so much as a crumb out of place when I come back, I’ll know exactly who to blame,” the woman said sternly to the babies.
The kaz-naghkt replied with whistles of scorn – as if they would bother with bread. Meat was all they wanted, the bloodier the better.
“You’ve been warned,” Riame said, as footsteps approached Mhysra’s pallet.
She sensed the woman leaning over her, checking that all was well, before Riame sighed and moved away. “Don’t wake her while I’m gone.”
The kaz-naghkt didn’t bother to answer and Mhysra held her breath as rapid footsteps left the kitchen. Exhaling slowly, Mhysra counted to twenty, then opened her eyes.
Five pairs of glowing red gazed back and she smiled at her babies. “Help me up.”
Hopping off their bench, claws clicked across the stone floor as they gathered around her, sharply taloned hands reaching with care to pull back her blankets and take hold of her arms. They were getting so big now, with tall Ferocity already topping three feet. Their limbs remained sinewy and stringy, but their wings were gaining more muscle by the day and their tails had filled out nicely. They were strong, healthy and eager to help as they pulled Mhysra into a sitting position.
“All right,” she said, a touch breathless, not so much for the twinges in her hips and back – which hurt but were nothing compared to what they had been – more over what was still to come. “Let’s go.”
While Ferocity and Victor stood in front, pulling on her arms, the other three moved behind to push her up. It hurt, Mhysra couldn’t deny that, and her body was horribly stiff, weak and clumsy, but between her and the five kaz-naghkt, she finally regained her feet. Resting against the enormous kitchen table, she took deep breaths and waited for the black spots to clear from her eyes.
“All right,” she whispered, when her babies whistled with concern. “It’s all right.”
It was. She was standing again, and not because of a nightmare or because someone had taken control of her. She was standing under her own power – mostly. Her body ached and her back protested, but her knees weren’t shaking too badly. She wriggled her toes, just to check that she could, and contemplated moving.
It would be difficult. Her legs felt like they were made of lead, her arms were already shaking from the strain of taking her weight on the table and unpleasant shooting sensations were streaking across her lower back and hips. But she refused to be defeated.
“I will do this,” she vowed. “I will walk out of here.” Because while escape had seemed impossible when she’d been trapped in a small room with no windows and no idea where she was, they’d brought her to the kitchens. Not only were there windows letting in light, there was also a door to the outside.
All she had to do was reach it.
After that, well, she needed to reach the door first.
“Come on,” she urged her babies, and they surged back around her, putting supportive hands against her hips and thighs. With a determined breath, she lifted one foot, then the other. Gods, how she ached. Her knees and ankles simply did not want to bend the way they were supposed to, but she wouldn’t give up. She paced slowly on the spot until her body moved more easily. Her legs grew heavier with each round, but she tried to ignore that too.
“It’s not far,” she said, mostly to herself, as the babies whistled their own form of encouragement. Nodding, Mhysra slowly turned towards the door.
Fifteen paces, maybe twenty. It was nothing, barely any distance at all. All her life she’d made such journeys without any idea how miraculous it was to move under her own power, to have full control of her body. She’d taken it all for granted. Not now. Never again. Even if she regained full control of herself tomorrow, she would never forget moments like these and all the pain that had led up to it.
“Come on,” she said again, taking the first step.
The kaz-naghkt whistled sharply, little Tenacity diving under Mhysra’s buckled knee and holding her up as she collapsed sideways into the table. She winced as the babies chattered and scolded her. Not the best start.
Clawing her nails into the wood, she tried again. One step, two, a little propping up from her kaz-naghkt, three, four. She made it another three steps before her knees gave out. One moment they held her up, the next they were gone. Only the quick reactions of the babies stopped her from crashing to the cold, hard ground. They tried to hold her upright again, but Mhysra’s strength was gone, so they lowered her slowly to sit beneath the table.
Triumph chattered sharply, sending Glory and Tenacity skittering away. Mhysra dreaded to think what they were up to but was too busy sagging against Ferocity’s strong back, waiting for her dizziness to pass.
When it did, she opened her eyes to find a warm bread loaf in her lap. Tenacity held a dripping pat of butter clenched within her claws. Under her blinking gaze, Glory ripped the loaf down the middle and the smaller kaz-naghkt dumped the butter inside, smearing it around before they squeezed the two halves together in an enormous sandwich. They shoved it at Mhysra’s face.
“Uh, thank you?”
Two kaz-naghkt squatted in front of her, eyes avid, waiting for her to eat the meal they had brought her.
Mhysra looked at the mangled bread, with butter leaking out of the cracks, and sighed. Riame was not going to be happy about this.
Still supporting her back, Ferocity reached over her shoulder, ripped off a chunk and smacked it against Mhysra’s lips. The other two whistled approvingly, so Mhysra retrieved the chunk from Ferocity’s claws and reluctantly put it in her mouth. Trying not to think about where the claws had been, Mhysra focused on the flavours – which wasn’t hard as the warm bread filled her mouth with deliciousness. She knew nothing about baking, but it was impossible to deny that Riame was excellent at it. Fragrant herbs burst over her tongue, enriched by a hint of doelyn butter. She broke off the next piece herself, peeling open the centre of the loaf to gather more butter.
Her stomach rumbled appreciatively as she devoured half the loaf. After that, despite the urgings of her babies, Mhysra stretched her sore body and placed the remains on the table. Wiping her sticky hands on her oversized sleep shirt, she looked longingly towards the door. So close, and yet she knew it would be impossible to reach today. Even with her impromptu meal, her body wasn’t used to being upright anymore, let alone moving under its own power.
Sighing, she looked back at her pallet by the fire, which seemed equally out of reach. However, if she wanted to keep her experiments a secret from Riame – and her strange brother, not to mention Yullik – she needed to get back into bed before anyone else entered the kitchen.
Mhysra looked at her babies. They quivered eagerly, awaiting her next command. “Back to bed,” she said, trying not to wince as Ferocity moved from behind her and she sat forward, pushing herself to her knees. No more walking for her today. She’d be lucky if she could even crawl. Head down, she shifted slowly, painfully slowly, while her kaz-naghkt chattered, whistled and fluttered about her. Just as she was on the edge of collapse, Glory returned and spread a blanket out in front of her, while Triumph patted her shoulders until she lay down. Taking a handful of wool each, her babies dragged her back to her pallet and rolled her into bed.
“Thank you,” she whispered, eyes too heavy to remain open.
Clawed fingers stroked her hair, careful hands tucked her in and clicking claws tapped away.
Mhysra snuggled deeper into her pillow, a little disappointed that she hadn’t reached the door, but also proud that she’d walked – no matter how small a distance – on her own two feet. It was a start. Tomorrow she would do better, tomorrow she would go further, and soon she’d make it outside. After that… she would see.
Ready for sleep, she yawned – and almost choked as a chunk of bread was shoved into her mouth.
Coughing, she glared at her babies, once more lined up to watch her eat.
Tenacity scolded her with a sharp whistle, picked up the spat-out morsel and stuck it up Mhysra’s nose.
Deciding she had to have a few standards, Mhysra took the chunk – now coated in a layer of dirt – and threw it over her shoulder into the fire. The kaz-naghkt shrieked, Mhysra smiled, and Riame returned to shout at them all for stealing her bread.
~ Next Chapter ~
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