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~ Previous Chapter ~
Facing demons in the dark.
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STIRLA HAD NO weapons, only the wounded strength of the man at his back, while five half-sized kaz-naghkt circled them with all the intent and hunger of their full-grown brethren. As he waited, feet firmly planted, poised to kick or strike at the first lunge, he silently lamented the loss of his sword back when Yullik first appeared. Then his belt knife, again lost thanks to Yullik, after he’d fled from the man’s crushing attack.
Now he had nothing but his feet, fists and wits, none of which felt as reliable as he would like, especially as his life depended on them.
The kaz-naghkt paused, tilting their heads to one side in that eerie, birdlike way they sometimes had. The biggest one whistled, a sharp pitched note that ran shivers all across Stirla’s body. Derrain pressed harder against his back, likewise affected by the noise.
A second whistle echoed out of the dark, rising and falling in a long, low wave.
The kaz-naghkt twisted to face the sound. They emitted a series a quick peeps and were answered by a loud, sharp blast. Shrieking, the five little monsters flew off, scuffling with each other over who would go first.
“Maegla have mercy,” Derrain groaned, sagging his full weight against Stirla and slipping to the floor. Stirla staggered and almost followed him down, only keeping his feet with gritted teeth and a stubborn will.
“Got a sword, Derry?” he asked, once he was secure.
The lad shook his head and offered up a blunt knife. “This is all I’ve got.”
It was better than nothing. Possibly. Stirla examined it in the silvery light and grimaced. Possibly not. However, it wasn’t as if he had much choice. Gripping the knife, he stepped over Derrain’s prone form and prepared to defend them both from whatever came out of the dark.
A light glimmered up ahead, shrouded by flickering forms. Kaz-naghkt shrieks echoed off the tunnel walls, mixed in with chittering and whistles until it almost sounded like voices. A loud scream made him flinch and the light ahead was blocked by a huge shadow that rushed towards him.
Stirla braced the knife and whispered a prayer to all the gods, certain his death was upon him.
“Stirla!” A mass of feathers and joy bowled him over, his knife passing harmless between ribs and wing as he tripped, cursing, and fell onto poor Derrain. Which made a change.
“Atyrn?” he tried to say through a mouthful of feathers as his miryhl attempted to smother him to death.
“Derry, Derry, Derry!” a second frantic voice broke through Atyrn’s ecstatic cries, and he was ruthlessly shoved aside as Derrain was dragged out from beneath him.
Then others were there, slapping him on the back, helping Derrain up, checking them both over for injuries. Stirla’s miryhl was never far away, preening his hair, tucking him under her wing, rubbing her beak across his chest and face. He didn’t protest. He was just as happy to see her. To see them all, having expected everyone to have perished in the rock fall.
Except… “Lyrai?” he asked, once they’d all been looked over and Atyrn had been persuaded to back off enough to let him breathe. “Hurricane?”
“We haven’t found them yet,” Mhysra said, shaking her head – Mhysra! Here, at last. They’d found her. Stirla still couldn’t quite believe it, as he reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. She squeezed back, her smile strained. Which could have been because of the way Jaymes was having to prop her up. Or perhaps it was because she had two half-sized kaz-naghkt clinging to her legs, two more jumping happily around her, while a fifth perched on her shoulder. Clearly the last few months had been even more eventful for her than they had been for her rescuers.
“We should do something about that,” Dhori said, eyes glinting as he boosted Derrain onto Zephyr’s back and shifted to help Mhysra stand again, shooing the kaz-naghkt away. They snapped at him, until he zapped the closest one on the nose with a tiny bolt of lightning.
Stirla’s eyes widened.
Derrain chuckled sleepily from Zephyr’s back. “Gods, we can’t leave you lot alone can we? Last time you came home with dragons. This time Mhysra has her own flock of mini kaz-naghkt and Dhori’s using magic. Whatever next?”
“Yullik next,” Dhori said, cutting through the humour with cold truth.
“And after that home,” Jaymes said firmly, denying anyone the chance to say anything pessimistic or gloomy. Picking Emberbright up from where she was facing off with two of the kaz-naghkt, the redheaded student strode determinedly into the dark. “Let’s go.”
Stirla looked at the others, a little surprised to find Jaymes – of all people – taking the initiative. Shrugs answered him as Dhori and Mhysra followed, the little kaz-naghkt squabbling in their wake, then Zephyr, Argon and Latinym, leaving Stirla and Atyrn to bring up the rear.
“Friendly kaz-naghkt,” his miryhl snorted, strutting after the others. “Only a Wingborn.” Chuckling, Stirla patted her on the neck and followed his friends into the dark.
~ Next Chapter ~
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