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~ Previous Chapter ~
Yay, the band’s back together!
STIRLA RAN, CLUTCHING his ribs, breath sawing painfully in and out of his lungs. He’d cracked something – or, rather, Yullik had. He’d felt it, when the man was leaning over him, bearing down with far more weight than such a skinny figure should possess. His bones had groaned at the pressure, starting to crack and break. All it would have taken was one, hard stamp and he’d have been immobilised, possibly for good.
Thank the gods for whatever had shaken the mountain. That distraction, small and brief though it had been, was enough to allow Stirla free. He’d taken his chance, no question. He hadn’t bothered wasting time on an attack, not this time. He’d had his opportunity and been unable to finish it. After all these years as a Rider, particularly this last one, when he’d killed countless kaz-naghkt and even a pirate or two along the way, he’d found it difficult to cut the throat of someone who was looking him in the eye. Even Yullik ses-Khennik, author of so many of their woes, creator of kaz-naghkt, destroyer of Aquila, murderer of friends and fellow Riders. Turned out Stirla wasn’t quite as ruthless as he’d thought he could be.
“Next time,” he vowed, hugging his ribs with his arm and forcing himself to keep running. “I’ll do it next time. Next time he won’t escape.” Except there wouldn’t be a next time. Yullik would never let Stirla take him by surprise again. Next time Stirla would be dead. He had no illusions about that.
The ground shook, the mountain groaning around him, and Stirla stumbled into the wall. Wheezing, he paused to glance back, seeing only darkness and shadows behind him. No pursuit, at least not yet. He forced himself on anyway, not trusting his luck to last. Dhori had been right, there was no luck in this place, only curses.
The pain in his ribs jabbed into his lungs and he slowed to a walk, one arm around his middle, the other supporting him against the wall. Another tremor, which he rode out with legs braced wide and gritted teeth.
Dust showered from above and he hissed, forcing himself to keep moving before the ceiling came down. Again. A pebble bounced off his shoulder and he looked up —
And swore as a body dropped on top of him.
* * *
DERRAIN COULDN’T MOVE. He wanted to, gods, how he wanted to, as claws pricked him all over, squeezing his flesh as if looking for the most tender bits. He couldn’t even cry out or scream, the breath having been knocked from him in his fall, leaving him gasping and winded.
All he could do was lie there while the kaz-naghkt chattered over his body. A nip of teeth, sharp enough to make him twitch, but not quite enough to break the skin.
The kaz-naghkt chuckled.
Torture and torment. It wasn’t to be a quick death then. Derrain shut his eyes and set his teeth to endure.
A tremor shuddered through the mountain, making his aching body shake and the kaz-naghkt shriek. Claws dug into him, piercing the skin for the first time, letting his blood flow.
A low whistle sounded, followed by the sounds of a lapping tongue, as if one of the creature’s was cleaning its claws. Of blood. His blood.
Another whistle, and Derrain twitched again as a warm tongue tickled his arm, licking over the blood trickling there. Another tongue. A sharp whistle, a brief squabble, then a vicious snarl as his attackers started to scrap and fight over his body. Derrain gasped as a heavy weight rolled over him, claws catching on his clothes and snagging against his skin, but the kaz-naghkt were oblivious to him, too caught up in their own battle to care about the prize.
The ground shook and the fight broke into fresh screams. They screamed again as the floor shuddered, then Derrain dropped, slipping and sliding, falling again, down through a jagged gap, tilting until he was feet first. Then out into empty air.
He collided with something solid, warm and swearing.
Derrain flopped to the ground, face down, while a familiar voice cursed beneath him.
“Heirayk’s fiery balls,” Stirla groaned. “My blasted ribs.”
A sharp whistle bounced off the walls and Derrain really wished he’d landed the other way. Unable to turn to look up, he could only gasp in short, shallow breaths as the sound of scrabbling came closer.
“Derry?” Stirla placed a warm hand against his aching back. “I’m really hoping you’re just stunned and will be able to move again any moment soon, because we need to get out of here. Now.”
The lieutenant balled his fist in Derrain’s shirt and hauled him up.
Derrain gasped in the first lungful of air since landing on his back, and to his infinite relief, found that he could move. Painfully, stiffly and not particularly well, but it was better than nothing as he hitched up his knees and staggered to his feet, pressing his back firmly against his lieutenant’s.
They faced five kaz-naghkt, barely half the size of their normal enemies, but with the same red eyes, wicked teeth and claws. The hungry look in their eyes was identical to all the rest.
“Ideas?” he panted, patting his belt in search of his sword. He must have left it attached to Zephyr’s saddle, because all he could find was a knife, more suited to whittling kindling for the evening fire than taking down kaz-naghkt.
“Stay alive,” Stirla said, equally breathless.
Excellent advice. Derrain braced himself against Stirla’s strength and jabbed out with his knife, trying his best to follow it.
~ Next Chapter ~
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