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VHEN LINED UP with the rest of the students, everyone jostling and crowding against the prow rail. It was cramped and uncomfortable, and he felt more than one sharp elbow dig into his ribs, but as the rain clouds parted up ahead, Vhen knew it was worth it.
“There it is!” someone shouted, and the students craned forward like one creature. “Aquila!”
Gripping the rail, Vhen gazed at this place of legend. Once it had consisted of two tall towers and a magnificent bridge over a roaring waterfall. Now only one tower remained, while the falls were broken into a myriad of tumbling white streams, spread across the cliff like tattered scraps of lace. There wasn’t just one bridge now but many, crisscrossing the water from one side of the citadel to the other.
It wasn’t the clean, bold, imposing Aquila of old, as depicted in a thousand paintings, but the sight still caught inside Vhen’s chest.
Aquila, home of the Rift Riders, battle-scarred and wounded, but never broken.
A cloud of miryhls spread over the choppy Cloud Sea, fanning out across the grey day, a sight to lift even the lowest of spirits. Sunlight speared through the clouds above, pouring golden light over the many shades of brown, black, cream and gold, and hitting the white tower behind.
A loud horn call echoed against the mountain, then more miryhls flooded forth from the citadel.
The Rift Riders were coming to welcome them home.
“I will never get tired of this sight,” Rhiddyl murmured beside him.
Turning his head, Vhen caught her eye and grinned. “I bet you’ve never seen it from this angle before.”
She wrinkled her nose at him, making him laugh.
“I can’t believe we’re here, actually here, approaching Aquila.” Tenzi was as excited as the rest of them, and a little bit more so if the high pitch of her voice was anything to judge by.
“It’s so beautiful. I can’t wait to explore,” Keiva agreed.
“That’s all well and good,” Guto muttered. “But how do we get over there in the first place?”
An excellent point. Vhen wasn’t the only one to scan the view ahead. An open expanse of Cloud Sea was all that lay between them and the citadel, with no mooring facilities in sight.
How did they get over there?
Rhiddyl gave a low chuckle and backed away. “If you’ll excuse me, I think Captain Stirla said something about taking me to the dean’s office.”
“Oh no.” Keiva grabbed the dragon’s arm. “Whatever we’re about to suffer, you’re coming too.”
“You’ve come too far to reveal yourself now,” Tenzi agreed, taking her other arm.
Rhiddyl looked at Vhen, seeking assistance. He smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. “What they said.”
“Some friends you are,” the dragon grumbled.
“You should have offered to take us with you,” Guto pointed out, ever reasonable.
Rhiddyl harrumphed, and when the bullwing boats arrived to transport students to shore, Vhen could only wish that she had.
* * *
“I AM SO glad I got to fly a miryhl before we did that,” Taryn groaned, as she crawled out of the bullwing boat onto the shore of Aquila’s lake. Orla offered her friend a hand up and silently agreed. Whatever fears she’d once had about flying on miryhl-back should have been saved for this unexpected trip.
Ten students had been crammed into each narrow boat, while four bullwings, harnessed in pairs, carried them from the wonderfully sturdy deck of the Miryhl Heart across the gusty Cloud Sea.
There had been swaying. Lots and lots of swaying. The creak of the ropes and the strained grunts of the bullwings would haunt Orla’s nightmares for years. Taryn had gripped Orla’s hand so hard she might almost think it was broken, except she’d been clinging as equally hard in return. They would have matching bruises.
“Land. My favourite, favourite thing!” One of the Storm Peaks girls staggered out of the boat and into the arms of a rather startled boy.
Orla recognised him as the unfortunate student who’d been dumped on his head by his miryhl during the test flight. He recovered from his shock long enough to pat the girl on the back and settle her onto her own feet.
“At least we’re here now, Tenzi,” he told his friend, reaching into the boat to help another girl alight.
“We are indeed.” The next Storm Peaks passenger was the tall girl with lilac hair. She looked around the shore with bright blue eyes, caught Orla watching her and smiled. “I can’t wait to explore. So much has changed since I was here last.”
“You’ve been here before?” Newen, one of the Nimbys students asked, before Orla could pluck up the courage and the girl turned away, happy to answer his questions.
Taryn slung an arm over Orla’s shoulders and sighed. “We made it.” “We did,” Orla agreed, hefting her bag onto her shoulder and following her friend into the legendary home of the Rift Riders.
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