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~ Previous Chapter ~
In which everyone drinks tea, eats biscuits and has a lovely time*.
LYRAI WAS RUNNING. Trees flashed by, making him realise he was in the woods above the Heights. Jumping a fallen trunk and slipping on exposed roots, he barely kept his footing as he slithered down a short, steep slope.
Something crashed along behind him. Something big. Something dangerous. His heart pounded in his ears; his breath came tight in his chest. He had to run, run, run. It was coming, it was coming for him, and if it caught him —
His toe hooked under a tangle of roots, throwing him down. He hit the ground hard, sliding through the mud, faster and faster as the path crashed downhill. Rolling over his shoulder, he tried to protect his face and head, but that was as much control as he had.
The ground dropped away beneath him and Lyrai fell, flailing —
He landed in deep water with a splash. Clawing his way to the surface, he pulled desperate gasping gulps into his lungs and treaded water, casting around for a sign, a hint, any indication of light.
All was dark, wet and cold, and he had no idea where he was or what to do.
“Is someone there?” a familiar but entirely unexpected voice called.
Lyrai struck out towards it, pulling four long strokes before he hit something solid and pulled himself dripping from the water. “Cumulo?”
* * *
A SHUDDER RAN through the room, shivering up through the desks and knocking ink pots onto the floor. Derrain reached out, grabbing Corin’s before it could fall and smash. He lifted his head.
Everyone else seemed calm, even Fredkhen paused only briefly in his lecture to hold onto his desk and wait for the shaking to pass.
A shadow swiped across the window. Derrain was the only one to notice.
“…your thoughts, Derry?”
The sound of his name snapped his attention back to Fredkhen, but another tremor struck before he could try and answer. A great crack opened in the middle of the floor, but the Riders didn’t cry out or panic. They simply stood and moved aside.
Corin rolled her eyes. “Not again,” she grumbled. “We’ll run out of rooms at this rate.” She and the others grabbed their notes and filed out through the door.
Derrain tried to follow, but the crack in the floor chased him, crumbling beneath his feet, tripping him up.
Healer Nehtl crouched in front of him.
“Pull me up,” Derrain begged, starting to slide into the hole, hands scrabbling for a decent hold. “Please.”
The healer smiled and shook his head. “You don’t belong here, Derry. You arrived too soon. Good luck.” He shoved Derrain into the growing hole. “And don’t hurry back,” he called, turning on his heel and walking away.
Shocked, Derry tried to find a fresh hold, searching desperately for purchase, but there was none to be found. He fell —
And landed flat on his back once more, feeling something unpleasant and familiar crack all over again.
He gasped, eyes clenched tightly shut against the pain.
Skittering noises had him opening them again, but all was dark. He was cold, blind and paralysed, lying flat on the hard ground, utterly unable to move as the skittering came closer.
It stopped. Derrain tried to quiet his sobbing breaths, but he could do nothing about the thunder of blood in his ears.
A high giggle tickled his ear, followed by the prick of claws against his belly.
A kaz-naghkt screeched over his prone body – and the sound of skittering increased as more converged to join the feast.
* * *
“I GUESS THAT answers all those questions then.” The murmur of Jaymes’ voice drew Mhysra out of her protective crouch. Loosening her arms just enough to raise her head, she peered at him through one eye, wincing as bright lightning flashed again, searing the air and burning her nose.
Crack, boom. Crack, boom. Each strike removed yet another massive boulder from their path – filling it instead with more dust and debris, but Dhori seemed too angry to notice.
Or should that be Auriaen?
“I guess it does,” she whispered, sharing a grim smile with her friend.
It was one thing to have gathered enough clues to assume their secretive friend was related to Maegla in someway, probably the long-lost son of story and legend. It was quite another entirely to see Auriaen, son of Maegla, God of Lightning in action. He was incredible, awe-inspiring and pretty terrifying.
Which was why she’d never asked him for the truth, Mhysra thought, burying her head beneath her arms again. She’d been happier not knowing. Dhoriaen Aure was her friend, a man she could pretend she knew and liked, who’d been with her through many dangers. They’d crossed half the Overworld together.
She had no idea what to make of Auriaen, son of Maegla.
“This isn’t working,” Atyrn growled, from where the miryhls had huddled together for protection. “He’s making things worse.”
Thanks to Auriaen’s constant blasting of the boulders, their shelter was rapidly shrinking under a fresh wash of pebbles and dirt.
“Feel free to tell him so,” Zephyr said, coughing as another boulder turned to dust.
“No, Latinym should,” the oldest miryhl said, fixing a beady eye on the silver-tipped eagle.
Latinym shuffled his wings and cracked his beak. “Because we all saw how well that went last time,” he grumbled sarcastically.
“If not you, who?” Argon growled.
The following silence sent prickles down Mhysra’s aching spine. After the latest pulse of Auriaen’s power, she looked up, finding all four miryhls looking at her and Jaymes.
“Oh no.” The redhead raised his hands. “Definitely not. Dhori never listens to me.”
They stared at Mhysra. She grimaced. “He won’t listen to me either.”
“Perhaps not,” Latinym agreed softly. “But you’ve a better chance than most. You’ve been friends since the first day of selection school. You were born on Maegla’s Day. You’re devoted to the goddess. You’re Wingborn.”
Mhysra blinked, unaware that the miryhl knew so much about her, that anyone knew so much about her beside Cumulo. “But…”
“Try, Mhysra, please,” Atyrn said in her gruff voice. “Before he buries us alive.”
Another flash, another shattered boulder and a fresh wash of pebbles and dirt gathered around her feet. “All right,” she said, gathering her courage before holding out her hand to Jaymes. “Help me up.”
He did, pulling strongly until she stood on shaking legs. When her first step faltered, he slung her arm across his shoulders and helped hold her up. She smiled at him, feeling a little better. Not just because she was borrowing his strength, but this way he would have to come with her.
“All right,” she said again. “Let’s talk to a god.”
* * *
STIRLA FOUGHT LONG and hard, but the kaz-naghkt kept coming. They swarmed over him in an unrelenting horde, but he was alone, completely alone, and his sword was blunt and rusted.
He fell to one knee, sharp claws digging into his tendons. Screaming, he thrashed and slashed, but they kept coming. He was losing, losing badly, and somewhere out there he could hear screaming.
“No!” he shouted, his sword snapping against a scaled back. “No!”
They swarmed him, knocking him down, pinning him to the ground, claws digging into the thick muscles of his arms and legs. But they didn’t kill him.
They dragged him instead, towing him across the carnage of the battlefield, smearing him through the blood of his fallen comrades. He tried to struggle, tried to fight, but they’d cut his tendons and punctured his muscles, leaving him nothing but his voice to battle with.
He screamed, he swore, he cursed – he even begged. They ignored him, dragging him on, until his voice was broken, his body limp, his strength drained.
Then they finally let him go, dumping him at the feet of their lord and master.
A boot struck his shoulder, rolling Stirla onto his back, snapping him out of his daze.
“We meet again, lieutenant,” greeted Yullik ses-Khennik, a haze of red eyes glowing behind his back. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”
More on Sunday.
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