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~ Previous Chapter ~
Catching up with Cue.
CUMULO HAD BEEN alone in the dark for a long time. Too long. He’d had far too much time to think, fret, pace and worry. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid. After all this time, having come all this way, he’d walked straight into a trap, leaving him as far away from Mhysra as ever.
Just let that dragon-blooded bastard Yullik ses-whatever return and Cumulo would pop his head off with one savage twist.
Imagining various creative and painful ways to greet their enemy became Cumulo’s best form of solace as he paced around the darkness, mapping the extent of his prison. The cavern was big, with a roof higher than Cumulo could leap – without using his wings, since he didn’t fancy knocking himself out on any low-hanging rocks. The length from where he’d entered to the far side was over fifty paces long, while the width extended to thirty or so, ending in a soggy wall on one side and a freezing pool of water on the other. He became grateful for that water as he paced and growled and fretted. He’d been wary of it at first, but thirst eventually overcame his fears and he found it to be sweetly refreshing, unlike anything he’d expected to find inside the enemy’s fortress.
Maybe he would simply pounce on Yullik, pinning him to the ground with a talon through the heart.
No, too quick.
There was a slight rise that led to the centre of the cavern, and Cumulo most often found himself striding to the top and roosting there until restlessness drove him on again, when he would circle around, stop by the pool for a drink and to dip his sore feet in the water, before returning to roost again. The monotonous repetition soothed him, and he tried not to let his thoughts drift too far from this cavern and the various ways in which he would kill his enemy, if and when he got the chance.
He was standing on the edge of the pool, paddling his toes, when something fell into it with a deep splash.
He tensed, waiting for any follow up rumbles that would suggest a cave in. Every feather bristled with the need to flee, even though he had no idea where he would go. Running blindly in the dark would only end up with him knocking himself out on a rock, although that might be a kinder end than waiting for the roof to fall in.
Splashing sounded, followed by gasping, desperate breaths.
Cumulo crouched. It was highly unlikely Yullik had entered this way, but his enemy was cunning and not above playing tricks. Or perhaps it was the hooded stranger, caught out by his own mischief and sent to join Cumulo in the depths. Whoever it was, they splashed about in the darkness, clearly having no idea where they were.
Cumulo decided to let it play out, reminding himself to be wary for tricks and betrayal at any moment. “Is someone there?” he called.
The splashing came nearer, drawn to his voice. Cumulo stepped back and tilted his head to follow the sounds, bunching his muscles in readiness.
The swimmer reached the shore, dripping and grunting as they hauled themselves into the shallows. “Cumulo, is that you?”
He straightened up sharply, unable to believe what he was hearing.
“Cumulo?” Shallow splashes indicated that the swimmer had stood up, staggering footsteps suggesting he was making his way up the shore. “Cue?”
He worked his beak in stunned silence, before croaking, “Lieutenant Lyrai?”
“Ai, Maegla,” the lieutenant whispered, sounding equally as stunned. “Am I dreaming again?”
“If you are, then so am I!” Cumulo pounced towards the voice, collided with something solid and hooked his beak over the human’s shoulder. Lyrai stumbled against him, soggy, wet and warm, with arms that wrapped around his neck and held on just as hard.
He wasn’t Mhysra, but right then the lieutenant was almost as good. Cumulo had been alone for so long, he’d forgotten what company felt like. What Riders felt like. Gods, he had missed his friends.
“Maegla’s bolts, Cue,” Lyrai laughed, running his fingers through his feathers in a way that made all the tension in Cumulo’s body melt. He sagged against the Rider, chest tight and voice strangled. Miryhls couldn’t cry, but if he was human, Cumulo knew he’d be sobbing like a child. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Cumulo had done a pretty good job of losing himself. Unable to speak, he rubbed his beak against the Rider’s back, wishing it was Mhysra he held.
“How long have you been down here?” Lyrai asked, pulling free from Cumulo’s hug and running his hands over his wing instead.
“I don’t know. It feels like forever, but probably not that long.” Cumulo dutifully opened his wing for an inspection, having badly missed the touch of a human hand. Lyrai was more brisk and businesslike than Mhysra, but still, it felt good to have someone looking after him again. “It took longer than I would have liked to reach the West, then these mountains. I’ve been stuck outside for ages, trying to find a way in.”
“Now you have,” Lyrai said, running his hands over the muscles where Cumulo’s wing joined his body, before trailing across his chest to check the other wing. “You feel exceptionally fine, Cue. I bet you’re in better shape than you’ve ever been.”
For the first time in his life, praise made Cumulo feel a little shy and he ducked his head, twitching his wings in a self-deprecating shrug. “It’s been hard, but I’ve learned a lot. It’s not a training exercise I recommend or am willing to repeat, though.”
“No,” Lyrai agreed, pressing both hands against Cumulo’s wing. One of them was trembling – perhaps they both were. “I saw her, Cue.”
Cumulo tilted his head, suddenly alert. “Mhysra?” he whispered, longing filling his voice.
“We fell through a hole in the forest floor, Riders, miryhls, all, and were trying to find a way out. Yullik appeared, leading us on until we reached a wide cavern with a low roof. She was at the far end. She called to us. Derry and I jumped down to run to her – and the roof fell in.”
Cumulo looked up into the darkness, wondering if Lyrai did the same. “The ceiling here is exceptionally high. I can’t reach it when I jump, though I haven’t risked flying yet.”
Lyrai released a shaky breath and patted Cumulo’s wing, more likely in search of comfort than providing it. “We ran. The miryhls bounded ahead, half-running, half-flying. Hurricane fell behind.”
The name sent a fresh bolt of longing through Cumulo, different to Mhysra, but no less potent. “Hurricane is with you?”
Lyrai pressed his head against Cumulo’s neck and shook it slowly from side to side. “I don’t know where he is. I stopped and ran back to him. Stirla followed. The others were almost to safety, but we couldn’t reach them. We made for the side of the cavern and took shelter in a shallow scrape. The cave in sealed us in with barely enough space for Hurricane to stand. He… he was hurt. His wing. He said… he said it was broken.”
Cumulo’s breath caught and he tightened his own wings in a defensive flinch. “Goryal will fix him.”
“That’s what Stirla said,” Lyrai chuckled, but it sounded wet as if he was crying. Cumulo bent his head to nuzzle the Rider, receiving a stroke on the beak in return. “It was the last thing he said, because we were running out of air. I felt them both collapse, the air tight and stale inside my lungs. It wasn’t long before I joined them. I dreamed I was running through the forests of Aquila, up above the Heights. Something was following. I tripped, fell and landed here. Wherever here is.”
Lyrai’s hands tightened into fists, clenching in Cumulo’s feathers. “Please tell me this isn’t another dream,” he begged, voice soft and frantic. “Please tell me this is real.”
“It’s as real to you as it is to me.” Cumulo opened a wing and hustled the shaking lieutenant underneath it, aware that he was still soaking wet after his dip in the pool and that humans were fragile creatures. “If we’re dreaming, we’re dreaming together.”
“Together,” Lyrai agreed, sounding sleepy as he slid down Cumulo’s side.
Worried for him, Cumulo nestled on the hard ground, tucking the lieutenant more firmly against his warmth. It wasn’t comfortable, with Lyrai being wet and cold and all, but it was better than pacing around the empty dark, waiting for his enemy to return so that he could rip his head off.
“Sleep, Lyrai,” he crooned, turning his head until he found Lyrai’s, and gently preening his hair. “You’re safe here. I have you. I will keep watch.”
“Safe,” the lieutenant sighed, resting his head against Cumulo’s shoulder, the rest of his body tucked beneath his wing. “None of us will be safe until Yullik is dead.”
Cumulo curled his head around the lieutenant and chuckled softly. “Let him appear before me, and I’ll soon take care of that.”
The Rider didn’t answer, his breathing turned deep and slow with sleep. Cumulo didn’t mind, he just hugged the human close and contemplated ten more ways to make their enemy suffer.
~ Next Chapter ~
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