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~ Previous Chapter ~
Oh, dragons. Remember them?
RHIDDYL WAS NERVOUS. After Goryal’s loud – and rather crude – knock, the strange siblings had insisted on silence. Rhiddyl wasn’t sure what they were doing, because on the surface everything seemed normal, but there was a tingle of power in the air that made every feather on her lynx coat stand up. Estenarix too kept shooting looks at the pair that mingled admiration with annoyance.
Everything was quiet. Her footsteps were soundless, thanks to the thick, cushy pads of her lynx paws, but so were everybody else’s. She might expect that level of stealth from Goryal, because they were slight and liked to creep up on people, but Reglian rarely bothered with such things and Estenarix never did. They were both big and bulky and usually preferred to stamp around as if that somehow proved their strength. Not now. The siblings were soundless too, their leather boots letting out neither creak nor thump.
Combined with the strange magic, Rhiddyl felt twitchy. Her ears flicked restlessly forward and back, searching for some sound, any sound, to break up the heavy silence. It was starting to weigh on her, like the anticipation before a storm, except this explosion was not one she was looking forward to. Something was coming, but she didn’t know what, she didn’t know when and she didn’t know where it would appear.
The skin between her shoulder blades itched and she wrinkled her nose, trying not to think about wings and flying and much bigger, more easily defendable shapes. She was the smallest creature in their strange group; she felt vulnerable.
Perhaps it was this place, this mountain through which they were travelling. Rhiddyl had never really paid much attention to stone. She was kin Tempestfury Clan Skystorm; her interest was in the air around her and the sky above. Rocks and dirt were for Clan Stoneheart to deal with. She didn’t go underground much, except when she slept in her old cave back on the Storm Wash border. Stone was simply there. It had its uses, but mostly it provided secure places for her to land.
Not here. Here the stone was… watching? No, that didn’t feel right. It wasn’t quite listening either. But it was aware. She could feel a presence or a magic that monitored their every move as they slipped silently through the darkness, following the siblings who-knew-where. She didn’t like it. While the awareness was passive, for the moment, it wasn’t friendly. It made her ears twitch and her skin creep, every bit as much as the magic that the siblings were performing.
Rhiddyl didn’t like any of it – not the magic, not the rocks, not the silence nor the darkness, or the fact that she didn’t know anything about what was going on. Yullik ses-Khennik and their friends were inside this mountain somewhere, but she had little faith that these strangers were leading them to the rescue.
She had little faith in these strangers at all.
She sent a probing thought towards Goryal, almost bursting with questions for them. Nothing. Just like every other time she’d tried on this unsettling walk. It wasn’t that they were ignoring her, precisely, more that they’d shut down to the point where they couldn’t hear her. No one could hear her. No one could hear anything. They were all silent.
Rhiddyl wanted to scream, but her lynx shape wouldn’t allow for it. All she could do was pad on alongside Reglian, flexing and tensing her claws, trying to keep her uneasy growl locked inside her throat.
A scrape of claw on rock made them halt.
Rhiddyl froze, staring down at her gloom-shrouded feet, horrified that she’d broken the silence.
Another scrape, and she shivered with relief. It wasn’t her; she wasn’t in trouble.
But if it wasn’t her, and all of her companions had stopped, what was making that noise?
Her nostrils flared and her ears twitched, every muscle tensing in readiness. Because that wasn’t the sound of clawed feet walking on stone.
It was the sound of claws being sharpened.
Scraaaaaaaaaaape. It ended with a clatter, as if a whetstone had been dropped.
Rhiddyl opened her mouth, panting silently as the tension built. Her head turned, searching for something, anything that would give the scraper away.
By the Family, she was a dragon! She was with three of the strongest, most impressive dragons in the whole Cleansed Lands, she shouldn’t be frightened of a scrape in the dark.
But she was. A sense of dread had been building ever since she’d followed the siblings inside the mountain. Now it crept over her entire body, making her shiver and shift around, backing slowly towards Reglian, seeking the reassurance of his bulk.
A hand settled on her back, digging into her plush feather coat.
Golden light flickered – revealing Yullik ses-Khennik’s face grinning down at her.
* * *
IT WAS A weary, filthy bunch who settled beside the pool, huddled around a pile of silver glow stones that made them all seem that much more haggard in their brightness. Dust, mud and blood coated each and every one of them, human and miryhl alike, but they didn’t care. They were together again. Rift Riders brave and true.
Lyrai sat beside Mhysra, gripping her hand tightly. In part, because he feared she might vanish again at any moment, but also because it was the best greeting he could give her considering the company, their surroundings and their injuries. Cumulo was also close by and very attentive to his Wingborn, and no matter how close Lyrai and the miryhl had grown during the darkness, there were still limits. So he gripped Mhysra’s hand and tried not to worry too much about Hurricane.
With the help of Stirla, Dhori and Jaymes, Lyrai and Cumulo had dragged Hurricane all the way out of the water and laid him on the rocky slope. He didn’t know what Dhori had done, but the marble miryhl stayed peacefully asleep throughout the ordeal. He didn’t even stir when Lyrai unbuckled the various straps and pulled off his tack, allowing the miryhl to lie more comfortably on his back. Not that such a position was in anyway natural for him, but with his left wing so clearly damaged, it seemed the best place to leave him. Dhori had spent a lot of time running glowing hands over Lyrai’s bonded, muttering softly to himself. Lyrai didn’t have a clue what any of it meant, but it made him feel better. Especially when Hurricane managed to shift onto his side, still sleeping.
Once Dhori stepped back, the other miryhls stepped in, shifting Hurricane around until he was in a much more natural roosting position, wedged firmly between Cumulo and Atyrn, with his wounded wing spread across Cumulo’s back. His snoozing head was tucked across the back of the Wingborn’s neck, and Lyrai hoped that meant his miryhl would recover in time.
After that, Riders and miryhls gathered around the makeshift glow globe fire and swapped stories of all their adventures. There was much to catch up on – long skyship voyages, painful recoveries, fierce storm battles, kaz-naghkt babies, long searches and unplanned escapes, not to mention everything that had happened since they all fell into the earth. Despite having lived through a good half of it, the story made Lyrai’s head spin. Hearing how Mhysra had suffered made him tighten his grip on her hand. The tale of her strange new babies and the dreams Yullik had been sending her had him reaching his other hand for his sword.
Gods, what he wouldn’t give to have Yullik ses-Khennik right here before him now.
Hearing how Stirla had narrowly escaped the monster with his life – if not all his ribs – intact, only made him tighten his grip around his pommel. Lyrai hadn’t forgotten their enemy’s reaction to his sword back in the tunnels beneath Aquila. He hadn’t forgotten the way the runes lit up at the touch of Yullik’s blood. He had every intention of seeing it happen again. Soon.
They talked for a long time, long enough for Derrain to drop off and Jaymes to lie down. Long enough for Emberbright and the baby kaz-naghkt to reach an accord and curl up together in an untidy pile of claws and wings. Long enough for Lyrai to start yawning and Mhysra to lay her head against his shoulder, snuggling against him.
He met Stirla’s eyes across the silver glow of their circle and his friend smiled. They’d done it. They’d sailed to World’s End, entered their enemy’s lair and got their Wingborn back. Despite everything General Keipen said. They might be battered and bruised by the ordeal, but they were alive. They had done it.
“What do we do now?” Stirla asked what Lyrai had been thinking, both of them looking at where Dhori sat, eyes half-closed, face drawn, looking older in the pale light.
He opened silver-bright eyes and blinked. “We go home.”
Lyrai raised his eyebrows. “But what about Yullik?”
Dhori rolled his head in a slow circle, as if releasing tension, and shrugged. “That’s what the dragons came for. It’s time they dealt with him.”
Considering how well they’d managed last time, Lyrai was sceptical about the wisdom of that plan. From the look on Stirla’s face, his friend felt the same.
“And if they don’t?”
Dhori slumped over, cradling his head in his hands. “Just rest,” he said, with a hint of a groan. “Don’t worry about tomorrow or our next steps, or the dragons or Yullik, all right? Just rest. Please. We’ve come so far and we’re together again. Tired and bruised, but together. Be thankful for that and don’t borrow trouble. Not until tomorrow.”
Stirla glanced at Lyrai, frowning, no doubt as unnerved as Lyrai was to see Dhori so done in. Weren’t they all? Perhaps Dhori’s advice, as desperate as it was, wasn’t so bad after all.
Rest. Yes, Lyrai thought, yawning. He could do that. He would do that.
“Wake me if anything exciting happens,” he said, snuggling his head on top of Mhysra’s and closing his eyes.
Stirla sighed. “I’ll take first watch them, shall I?”
Dhori chuckled wearily. “If you’d be so kind, lieutenant. Wake me for the next one.”
“Aye,” came the soft reply. “I’ll do that.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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