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~ Previous Chapter ~
Enter the dragons.
IT WAS A childish move, Rhiddyl knew, but also deeply satisfying as she sprang from the downed woman’s back to hit the man in the chest, sending him stumbling backwards. While Rhiddyl used him as a springboard to leap clear of them both, the man’s heels caught on a raised root and landed him splat in the mud on his backside.
That should wipe the smirks off their faces, she thought, sauntering over to join the others. Estenarix was laughing, bent double and slapping her thigh, while Reglian scratched Rhiddyl behind the ears with an appreciative grin.
Goryal raised their eyes to the sky. “If you have all quite finished, children,” they said, with strained patience.
The woman pushed up to her knees, eyes glowing bright green as she bared her teeth in a snarl. She spat a sharp word in an unknown language, and Rhiddyl leapt straight up in the air as the ground exploded beneath her feet.
Another word, from the man this time, and Rhiddyl bounded up into the trees as the ground turned into a sucking bog. Which turned out to be a mistake as the trees themselves started to bend and groan, grabbing at her with claw-fingered branches. A heavy fir branch swung towards her and she jumped onto it, digging in with her claws as it whipped from side to side, trying to shake her loose.
“Enough!” Goryal roared, their voice booming across the forest in a way even a Thunderwing might envy.
The branch gave one last desultory flick, sending Rhiddyl flying – straight into the secure arms of Estenarix.
“This helps no one,” the elder snarled, standing twice as tall as they normally did, glowing bright white, their hair forming a crackling halo around their head. “Control yourselves, all of you. You are old enough to know better.”
Rhiddyl hunched in Estenarix’s arms, while the two older dragons looked down at their feet. Even the strangers looked slightly chagrined.
“We are not allies,” the man said, somewhat defiantly. “We are not here to help.”
Goryal glared at him, white eyes aglow.
“Oh, very well,” the woman sighed. “Perhaps just this once.”
“Riame,” her brother hissed.
She shrugged. “The rules have changed, brother. Besides, you know I’ve grown fond of the Wingborn.”
Her brother shook his head in disgust. “Next you’ll be turning into one of them, and then where will I be?”
“By my side as always, brother,” she said placidly, patting him on the shoulder. “Where you were born to be.” She turned to the dragons, eyed them all up and down, and spun on her heel. “Come along then. The front doors are just up here, but you’ll need our help to open them.”
“He’s sealed them against us?” Estenarix growled, dropping Rhiddyl and stalking after the woman.
“No.” The man shook his head, falling into step with Reglian as they headed up the hill. “It just sticks when you try to open it, because the floor isn’t level anymore after your little visit. You have to lift and shove and add a bit of a twist if you want to get inside.”
“There’s a knack to it,” his sister agreed, as the four of them trudged out of sight.
Rhiddyl took a step to follow, paused, and looked back at Goryal. They’d stopped glowing and had shrunk to their more usual size, looking as pale, ethereal and fragile as ever. Their eyes shimmered with rainbow shades as they ran a hand through their wispy white hair and sighed.
“Shall we?” they invited Rhiddyl, gesturing ahead.
Twitching her tufted ears, Rhiddyl padded alongside the elder as they followed the others up the slope, out of the trees and through the double doors into the mountain.
Stepping over the threshold, Goryal stared up at the shadowy ceiling and smiled, the white glow overtaking their eyes once more. “Time to knock, my friends. It is, after all, the polite thing to do.”
The Starshine unleashed their power in a ferocious beat, pulsing three times and making the walls groan and the floor shake.
The siblings smiled. “That should get his attention.”
* * *
YULLIK LAUGHED. IT wasn’t every day he was taken by enough surprise to end up flat on his back with a knife at his throat. He couldn’t actually remember the last time it had happened. He laughed again, relishing the surge of battle as it pulsed through his veins, raising his heartbeat above its usual steady beat. The scent of his blood filled the air, crackling with power, and he savoured the moment as he stared into his opponent’s angry eyes.
What was it about this lieutenant? He seemed destined to thwart Yullik at every turn. First, he freed the Rider prisoners from the deck of a pirate ship. Then he drove Yullik out of the sky and stole the Wingborn from right under his nose. And again, he’d been present when Kilai Kilpapan defied him, sacrificing himself to save his Wingborn sister. The lieutenant had also been there at the collapse of the tower, when Yullik surrendered control of Aquila. Now, finally, Yullik had dragged him into his nest of kaz-naghkt, intending to end him in a brief but bloody way. Yet still, the man thwarted him, rising up to slam him onto his back.
Irritating, yes, but invigorating too. So much of Yullik’s life followed a predictable plan, but this lieutenant – and his Rider friends – did make things interesting.
Such a shame he had to kill him.
The knife pressed harder against his skin, searching out the right spot to drop him dead in heartbeats. But the Rider was hesitating, no doubt unused to killing in such a personal way. He was the sort who swiped with a sword, chopping down enemies like firewood as they attacked him. Crouched over Yullik’s chest, looking his enemy in the eye, the big lieutenant was finding murder a more difficult prospect than simple defence.
Rotten luck for him.
Excellent luck for Yullik, as usual, because he had no problems with murder at all.
He slammed his hands upwards, gripping the lieutenant’s wrists, catching him by surprise with the sudden movement. Yullik shoved him away, pausing only to run a thumb over the cut on his neck. Fire burned as he sealed the wound, licking his thumb clean with a smile. Delicious. The spark of his power tingled on his tongue.
The Rider stumbled, falling to his back, bloodied knife still gripped in his hand. The kaz-naghkt stirred, but Yullik held them off. This was his kill and he intended to enjoy it.
He stalked the fallen Rider, who scrambled back on his hands, eyes darting left and right, searching for an escape. There was none.
Yullik planted his foot on the big man’s chest, leaning forward just enough to pin him down. The Rider’s hands wrapped around his ankle, biceps straining as he tried to push him away. Judging by looks alone, Yullik would never be heavy or strong enough to subdue such an opponent, but looks could be ever so deceiving, especially when one fighter was so very human and the other, well, wasn’t.
“Nice try, lieutenant,” Yullik said, leaning further forward, bearing down with more of his weight. “You almost had me. If you’d been a touch more ruthless…” He allowed his words to trail off into a regretful shrug. “Too late now.” He smiled.
The mountain shuddered.
Power pulsed in three sharp bursts, making the air hum and the kaz-naghkt scream.
Yullik stumbled, his foot slipping off the Rider’s chest. The man wasted no time in shoving him away, scrambling to his feet and fleeing while his enemy was distracted.
Clutching his head, Yullik let him go, certain he would catch up with him later. This was his mountain, after all, his fortress. He controlled everything that went on inside it. Including who could and could not enter.
A haze of gold filled his vision as he stared upwards and growled. He knew that power, had tasted a hint of it before. Dragon. More than one, he realised, licking his lips and scenting the air. Four dragons.
His smile was more of a snarl as he stormed from the kaz-naghkt den.
They dared to enter his domain. He would teach them to regret it.
~ Next Chapter ~
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