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~ Previous Chapter ~
Well, at least Yullik’s enjoying himself…
“DHORI!” STIRLA ROARED, urging Atyrn into a dive as Hurricane’s pale form vanished from sight. “Do something!”
Quite what he expected the man to do, and why he didn’t bother shouting for the dragons, Stirla had no idea. But of all their companions, Dhori was the one he trusted to save them in a crisis. A flash of silver streaked by even before he finished shouting, reassuring him that Dhori felt the same.
Then he had to hold on tight as Atyrn hit the canopy herself, struggling to get her great wings and bulky body through the wet, draping branches that looked sparse and gappy from above, but proved to be a lot denser than expected.
“Damn these wretched twigs,” his miryhl snarled, clinging to a bouncing branch with one foot, stamping firmly with the other. Splinters less than half the width of Stirla’s baby finger spread across the gaps between the branches, forming impenetrable lattices that no human, let alone a miryhl, could squeeze through.
“Lieutenant, move!” Jaymes shouted, before a glowing crimson boulder smashed through the branches, burning a swift route to the ground.
Atyrn growled, jerking backwards as Jaymes and Argon quickly followed Emberbright, the smaller miryhl widening the gap enough for the much larger Atyrn and Zephyr to drop through.
Dhori was already on the ground, scrambling up a different tree to where Hurricane dangled precariously by a few claws and an awkwardly bent wing. Lyrai hung unconscious in the saddle, a bright red slash across his forehead showing where he’d once again taken an impact on his skull.
“Thank goodness for thick heads,” Stirla muttered, unbuckling and sliding off Atyrn’s back to follow the silver-haired man into the trees.
“All right, Hurricane,” Dhori soothed, as Stirla drew level, Jaymes and Derrain close behind. “It’s all right. We’re here to help.”
The marble miryhl rolled dazed eyes towards them, clearly too confused to recognise them, the jostling of his body making both tree and Rider groan.
“Steady, Cane,” Stirla murmured gently. “Steady old fellow. We’re going to move Lyrai now. Stand firm.”
Something must have registered – whether he recognised Stirla’s voice, or just the name of his Rider – because the miryhl closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Every feather trembled as Stirla rested a comforting hand on Hurricane’s loose wing, hanging half-folded at his side. Reaching across to the saddle, Stirla looped an arm around Lyrai’s waist and started releasing the buckles. The straps holding his friend in place were twisted and slick with the rain, but Stirla was well practiced at such things and soon had Lyrai slumped over his shoulder so he could descend to where the other miryhls watched anxiously.
“We’re down!” he called to both his friends and the dragons perched high above, as he carefully lowered Lyrai from his shoulder onto the needle-strewn ground.
“All right, Cane,” Dhori said to the marble miryhl. “You can let go now.”
Huffing with stress, Hurricane nodded, flexing the foot that held the branch, then tried to draw in his out-flung wing. It snagged on a branch and he screamed.
“Hurricane!” Lyrai woke, frantic and struggling, blood streaming into one eye. He tried to sit up, nearly punching Stirla in the face, just as his miryhl crashed into the mud beside them.
“Well,” Atyrn said in the silence that followed, “that was dignified.”
Stirla shot his miryhl an appreciative smile – and fell across Lyrai as the ground lurched.
“Uh… Dhori?” Derrain whispered as they all held very still, waiting to see if more trees would fall and crush them. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” the other man replied softly, eyes glinting silver in the gloom. “But don’t -”
The forest shuddered as an enormous crack split the ground and they fell into the darkness without any chance to scream.
* * *
YULLIK CLOSED HIS other fist, opened his eyes and laughed. “Let the games begin.”
* * *
“NOW.” AFTER DAYS of silence, gliding high above the peaceful world, Goryal’s voice clanged inside Rhiddyl’s head, along with a swell of power that squeezed her body down to her bones —
And popped her out over a dark forest, where Estenarix was ripping up trees and Reglian roared at the ground.
“It’s not possible. It’s not possible,” Estenarix snarled. “Open, open, open!”
Rhiddyl touched down and flinched as the punch of Estenarix’s power zapped through the earth, making it almost too hot to touch. Reglian roared again, making Rhiddyl wince as her recently squeezed bones rang with thunder.
“Enough!” Goryal shouted, throwing a blanket of power across the destruction, causing Estenarix to throw up her head in affront and Reglian to choke mid-roar. “What is going on here?”
“They’re gone,” Estenarix snarled, slamming her thick tail against the ground. “All of them. He opened the mountain to swallow them. And it won’t. Let. Me. Through.” Each word was punctuated by further slams of her tail, while Reglian rumbled with agreement.
“That’s not possible.” Rhiddyl stepped closer, wanting to dance from foot to burning foot like a dragonling on hot coals. Striving for dignity, she merely clenched her teeth and hoped the pain would fade soon. “Khennik was a Blazeborn.”
“He was,” Elder Goryal agreed, crawling around on their knees in the mud, trailing their delicate hands over the abused ground. Fallen trees littered the immediate area, along with a few others that had already been thrashed and beaten into kindling by two irate dragons.
“Then how?” Rhiddyl asked, staring at the ground in shock. Because this sort of magic belonged to Clan Stoneheart, and clearly even a Boulderforce like Estenarix struggled with it. “His mother was human.”
Goryal was too busy tracing the ground to answer, so she turned to Reglian, who shook his head. “No half-dragon has ever lived this long. There’s no knowing what power he has or what else he might be capable of.”
“But he’s a Blazeborn,” Rhiddyl said, shaking her own head, unable to comprehend how the child of a dragon and a human could end up with powers completely unrelated to either. “I’ve seen his fire. He burns gold.”
“Just like Khennik,” Reglian agreed.
Goryal sat back on their knees with a sigh. “Khennik is not the only dragon whose magic burns gold.” They turned a pointed look in Reglian’s direction. The Thunderwing scowled.
“No Stoneheart ever glowed gold,” Estenarix growled, pacing steadily around where Goryal knelt. “No Stoneheart ever had the power to deny me entrance.” She slammed her tail on the ground again, the dark pewter of her magic crackling across the ground. Rhiddyl was slightly comforted to see Reglian wince too as the prickly heat ran beneath his feet. It didn’t touch Goryal, of course, but nor did it reach the line where Rhiddyl assumed the ground had cracked. When the magic reached that point it simply vanished.
Snarling, Estenarix spun around and battered a fallen tree to splinters.
Under the sounds of her rage, Reglian lowered his head to the elder and murmured, “What’s going on, Goryal?”
They looked up with eyes of pure white and shook their head. “I don’t know,” they admitted, much to Rhiddyl’s dismay. “It would seem that our enemy is full of surprises.”
“And he’s lured us into the heart of his power,” Reglian said slowly, as Estenarix stopped savaging the tree to stare at them both.
“There was no power here when we destroyed it,” she said curtly. “I would have felt it. I would have known.”
“He was not here then,” Goryal said, standing up and brushing dirt from their knees.
“Now he is,” Rhiddyl pointed out unnecessarily. “And he has all of the Riders.”
Reglian and Goryal exchanged a pensive glance.
“I won’t leave them this time,” Rhiddyl jumped in, before they could even try to suggest it. “I won’t let them fight alone. Yullik is our problem. We said we would deal with him.”
“We did,” Goryal agreed, eyes still locked with Reglian’s. Rhiddyl had no idea what passed between them, but eventually the archivist looked away as if conceding something.
The elder turned rainbow eyes towards Estenarix. “Can your magic tell you anything about this place?”
Estenarix huffed, closed her eyes and sent out a fresh pulse of dark grey magic. It didn’t burn this time, merely passed beneath Rhiddyl’s feet as a gentle tingle. The Boulderforce sighed. “Nothing. It’s as if the mountain itself is locking me out.”
“Perhaps it remembers your last visit,” Goryal said softly. “Perhaps it resents it.”
“It is World’s End,” Reglian said, shrugging at Estenarix’s glowering expression. “Anything is possible.”
Rhiddyl looked around nervously, feeling absurdly young and small. “What do we do?”
Estenarix scoured her claws through the dirt and Reglian looked at the sky, avoiding both Rhiddyl’s eye and her question. It didn’t matter, she was looking at Goryal anyway.
They smiled. “We get our Riders back. And then we deal with Yullik ses-Khennik once and for all.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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