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~ Previous Chapter ~
Oh, hey, there are dragons in this? Now I remember…
“IT’S JUST UP here. At least, it was.” Estenarix sounded far from happy as the dragons trudged through the undergrowth. She, Reglian and Goryal were all in their human shapes, while Rhiddyl had shifted into her lynx form. She’d tried to opt for human too, but her control was still shaky. It was an excellent second choice. Not just because lynxes were perfectly at home in forests such as these, but also because it wasn’t the chicken. Anything was better than the chicken.
“I am sure the entrance has not changed,” Goryal said in their most soothing tones. “You destroyed what was inside the mountain, not outside.” They sounded a little puffed for breath, struggling up the steep mountainside. The path was slick in places, snow banked in others. All the older dragons were struggling, despite the claws on their toes. They had to pull themselves up with tree branches more often than not. Rhiddyl bounded easily around them, her padded paws and strong claws making light work of the tricky terrain. And when the way became too difficult even for her, she took to the trees, shinning up the bark to pace along the branches.
Whenever she started having too much fun, she reminded herself why they were actually there. Their friends were in danger and Yullik ses-Khennik was nearby. Else she might simply have run off into the forest to play for days.
Pausing on a branch overlooking the almost-sheer slope that Estenarix was leading the others up, Rhiddyl lay down, tufted ears twitching. Her companions continued to grumble, Reglian cursing Estenarix for picking the straightest possible route, but Rhiddyl’s attention was drawn elsewhere.
Voices. There was someone else in the forest.
She sat up, suddenly alert, and the dragons below fell silent.
“What is it?” Goryal asked inside her mind.
Her right ear twitched and she looked over towards where Estenarix had been leading them. “Voices,” she thought back.
Goryal must have shared her findings with the others because they all stopped messing around and dug in with clawed hands and feet to climb the slope. They crouched on the edge directly below Rhiddyl, peering into the gloom.
“We’re not supposed to interfere. Remember the rules.”
“Hah, since when have we cared for the rules?”
Two distinct voices argued, coming closer as footsteps crackled through the undergrowth.
“True, but I thought after last time we were going to be more careful. Father won’t care, but you know what Aunt can be like.” The first voice was human male, a light tenor that softened as he made his case to his companion.
“And the twins. Urgh. I don’t think I could survive another lecture.” That was female, yet deeper than the other in a mellow alto. Rhiddyl wondered if either of them sang and how they sounded together.
“Let’s not give them the opportunity then, hm? Besides, Yullik is already doing what we wanted. Chaos and destruction galore. Isn’t that what we’re here for?”
The woman sniffed. “Perhaps.”
“We don’t get attached, sister. We are not our cousins.”
Two figures walked into view, human shaped, tall and slender, with near-identical features. Rhiddyl’s nose twitched. They smelled familiar, if not entirely human. A strong earthen scent that reminded her of peat bogs and heather on a windswept moor, and something else that made her want to sneeze. She screwed up her face, fighting the urge, not wanting to give herself away.
“You!” Estenarix jumped up from the undergrowth.
The strangers whirled around, each falling into a half-crouch, reaching for the weapons at their waists. When they saw the three dragons climbing to their feet, they relaxed and took on lazy, smug smiles.
“Well, well, looks like things just grew even more interesting around here,” the male said, tossing a glance towards his sister. “How deliciously unexpected.”
“You’re late,” the woman said, rather sharply. “We’d almost given up on you.”
Estenarix sneered at her; the woman sneered back. “Now it all begins to make sense. You’re the ones holding the mountain closed.”
The pair raised their eyebrows. “Us? We have nothing to do with the mountain. This is Yullik’s domain.”
While Reglian and Estenarix both scoffed loudly, making Rhiddyl curious as to how her friends knew these strangers so well, Goryal frowned. “The mountain is Yullik’s domain,” they repeated slowly, drawing everyone’s attention. “But how can that be? His father was a Blazeborn, his mother was a human.”
“Ah.” The strangers looked at each other with wry little smiles.
“They don’t know,” the man murmured, not quite under his breath.
“Should we enlighten them?” the woman replied, equally soft but not quite soft enough.
They shared a long, knowing look, then grinned. “Nah.”
Estenarix growled and Reglian huffed, which made the strangers chuckle, as if their reactions were precisely what they’d been aiming for. Rhiddyl shimmied on the branch, wondering which sibling to pounce on first.
Goryal sighed. “What do you know?”
The twins smiled identical smiles. Smug and pleased, giving absolutely nothing away.
“Tell us,” Estenarix snapped, her voice cracking through the trees and echoing off the mountain side. The noise was the perfect distraction, allowing Rhiddyl to shift forward until she was directly above the strangers.
The woman laughed, while her brother tucked his hands into his pockets. “That would count as interfering.”
“And we’re not allowed to do that,” his sister agreed, with false piety.
“As if that ever stopped you,” Goryal said, their voice flat and lacking their usual chimes.
The strangers smirked. “You would know.”
The bickering looked set to carry on all day and was getting them precisely nowhere, so while Estenarix began a litany of insults, Rhiddyl rose from her crouch —
And dropped onto the woman’s back, shoving her face-first into the mud.
* * *
STIRLA SURGED UP with a roar. He hadn’t expected it to work, could feel the puncture marks in his legs and arms, but no, it had been a dream, nothing but a dream. His tendons worked, his muscles flexed, and he managed to grab Yullik around the knees, throwing him onto his back.
Startled by the sudden move, the man didn’t react as he went down hard. The kaz-naghkt flinched and hesitated, unsure of what to do, allowing Stirla time to draw his belt knife and crouch over their master.
He shoved the knife point under Yullik’s chin, glaring into pale gold eyes gone wide with surprise. “And I,” Stirla growled, wrapping both hands over his knife hilt and pressing steadily downwards, “have been looking forward to this.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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