Pick ‘n’ mix time.
RHIDDYL HAD MISSED something. It must have happened after she’d left her friends that morning, after overhearing a passing Rider talking about one of her old friends. While she’d spent a fruitless morning trying to track down Jaymes, all her student friends appeared to have fallen out. When she met them all at lunch, the atmosphere was strained. Zett was quiet, but he normally was, although it was unusual to see him without Caelo attached to his side. Instead he and Vhen sat together, while Caelo frowned at them from across the room. Taryn and Orla were missing altogether and Guto was obviously in a mood. Since he was normally quiet and withdrawn Rhiddyl didn’t even notice until she was halfway through her meal. At which point an older student ran into the hall shouting that two skyships had been spotted coming from the north and south-east.
The final students had arrived.
There was no chance after that to talk, because everyone was too interested in watching the North Point and Sutherall students arrive. Such was the chaos caused by the addition of twenty-one more students that it wasn’t until the next morning that Rhiddyl managed to speak to Vhen.
“What happened?” she whispered over breakfast, while Tenzi and Keiva took turns cajoling Zett into eating. The poor lad looked like he hadn’t slept a wink. His usually pristine appearance was sadly dishevelled and his eyes were puffy. Once again Caelo wasn’t with them; she sat on the far side of the room, laughing loudly with a group of Etherian students.
Vhen looked rather rough himself, yawning so widely his jaw cracked. “Caelo gave us a fright yesterday and Zett hasn’t got over it yet.”
Rhiddyl wrinkled her nose, thinking that was a silly thing to lose sleep over. “What -?” she started to ask, but was interrupted by the arrival of Dean Myran and his Rider officers.
Benches scraped all over the hall as students and Riders alike all got to their feet. The dean was already waving them at ease before they all managed to get upright.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” the former Rider captain said, smiling around the room. “I know how important a meal breakfast is.”
“All meals are important, sir!” one of the Riders called from the back of the room.
“They are when you’re on patrol,” the dean agreed amiably. “But since what I have to say is of no interest to you lot, eat in peace. You too, older students, I’m here for our newest friends.”
Benches scraped again as the Riders and older students resumed their seats, leaving just the newcomers on their feet.
“Now everyone has arrived safely, it’s time to get to work. Come with me.” As he turned and left the room, the captains falling into step behind him, Rhiddyl looked around and found her fellow students standing still in confusion.
“Today, students!” one of the lieutenants barked, startling them all into life.
Rhiddyl scrambled over the bench and caught Tenzi’s arm as she tripped, then they were all filing out of the dining hall, down the broad corridor that led to the intricately carved double doors of Maegla’s Hall. Rhiddyl had only ever been here when it was ruined, the ceiling broken, the walls defaced, the doors thrown down.
Now it was resplendent. The doors themselves were a mixture of dark and pale woods, inlaid with coloured chips of stones and glass that picked out scenes from the myths of Maegla. There She was harnessing the power of the sky and sea to create the first storm; there She was gifting the first miryhl to the first Rider; there She was passing a blessing over Aquila. The Sky Gods of the Overworld had long been the most revered and powerful of the human gods, but while Heiryak, God of the Sun, held sway over most of the Overworld, in Aquila Maegla reigned supreme.
The doors creaked open as the dean approached. Rhiddyl followed him into the grand hall and looked up, gasping. The ceiling was covered with glorious miryhls, painted in every possible shade of feather, flying, preening and soaring. The background was blue sky and clouds, storms and mountains, all swirling slowly inwards towards the centre. In the heart of the masterpiece was Maegla, again, beautiful, benevolent and smiling down at the students who craned their heads back to stare at Her. She had storm in Her eyes and lightning in Her hand, but Her smile was welcoming and warm.
Rhiddyl shivered. Dragons had their own gods, the Divine Family, who had brought them to life on this world. Yet standing here, a storm dragon beneath a Storm Goddess’ smile, she almost believed. Almost. It was hard to believe in the mighty power of a goddess when she’d actually met her and seen the deity dancing reels and jigs to celebrate another successful clutch hatching for the Skystorm Clan, but still.
Shaking herself, she looked around the room and caught Lieutenant Dhori’s eye. He winked.
Dean Myran cleared his throat, drawing the wondering students’ attention back to the task at hand. The two captains stood on either side of him, a brace of lieutenants beside each.
Rhiddyl swallowed. Now they came to it. The most important part of a Rider student’s life, after Choosing their miryhl: being chosen by their captain.
Although she was fairly confident Stirla would want her in his flight, she was still nervous. Not least because she wanted him to pick all of her friends too. She didn’t know what she’d do if she didn’t have at least Vhen with her. She glanced at him and he smiled reassuringly back.
Would it be all right to hold his hand? Probably not. Rift Riders didn’t hold hands. Tenzi might cling to Vhen’s arm, but she knew Vhen didn’t really like it when she did. Rhiddyl clasped her hands together and waited for the dean to make his speech.
It took a while for the students to settle down, stop staring at the artwork and realise the importance of the moment. Dean Myran didn’t seem to mind. He stood patiently at the front of the room, calmly waiting for everyone to acknowledge him.
Rhiddyl was less sanguine, allowing her attention to roam to the men on either side of him. There was Stirla, tall and broad in his bright red jacket, an imposing captain with his hair cropped short enough to seem bald and the patch that covered his eye. Even with his scars he was still handsome, perhaps made even more so by his dangerous air and heroic reputation. Dhori stood next to him, slender and silver-tipped, eyeing the students with watchful interest. Rhiddyl had little doubt that if Stirla forgot to choose her, Dhori wouldn’t. He wasn’t always fond of dragons, but he preferred to keep them close whenever he encountered them.
The lieutenant beside him was one Rhiddyl had never met before, although she knew him by reputation. At one point Honra had been Lyrai’s sergeant, until war and necessity had seen him promoted. According to Rhiddyl’s friends he could have been a captain too, but he hadn’t wanted it. Honra liked to be with his Riders and lieutenant was as high as he was willing to go.
The figures lined up on Dean Myran left were all strangers to Rhiddyl. The captain was an older man, somewhat grizzled by life. He didn’t have as many scars as Stirla or Myran, but there was plenty of grey in his tight black curls and his face had its share of wrinkles. Few of which had come from smiling, Rhiddyl feared, as he eyed the gathering with a solemn face.
The two lieutenants beside him were as different as it was possible to be. One older, one younger; a man and a woman; tall and stringy, short and stocky. The tall man had tawny hair and lightly-tanned skin, while the woman’s hair was shockingly white against her dark complexion.
As a dragon, Rhiddyl was used to surprising features that didn’t always match what people expected, but she’d heard that human’s hair only turned white with age. The lieutenant didn’t look much older than the oldest of the new students – Rhiddyl not included, of course – and considering the proclamation allowing women back into the Riders again was barely eight years old, Rhiddyl knew the woman couldn’t be much older than those she was about to teach.
Human ages made Rhiddyl’s head spin. Why couldn’t they sort themselves into neat little decades, since they didn’t have centuries to play with? Why did everyone have to bunch up together, getting all their important things done in a handful of years? Didn’t they know they had entire lifetimes to play with?
Dean Myran clapped his hands, startling Rhiddyl out of her thoughts. “Good morning, students,” he greeted, his voice soft in the expectant hush. “Welcome to Maegla’s Hall.”
“Good morning, sir,” about half the students replied, shuffling their feet self-consciously, unsure if anything else was expected of them.
“Welcome to Aquila.” Myran smiled and linked his hands behind his back. “Today is Half-Year, the day when a new year and a new life in the Rift Riders traditionally begins. There is much you have to learn this year, your first with us, and much we have to teach you. But before any of that can take place, first you must be assigned to a captain. Not only will a captain give you a place in the Riders, it will also give you a family. With a captain, you’ll not only have fellow students to study with, you’ll have flurry-mates of all ages, ready to help and guide you, all of you united under your captain’s command. Your captain is the head of your flight and your flight is your home, in the Riders, in the Overworld and in history.
“But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he added, making the awed students chuckle as they were brought back down to earth from the wondrous images he’d evoked. “Captains?” He waved the two men either side of him forward.
Hands in his pockets, Stirla ambled away from his lieutenants. The man on Myran’s left did the same, although his back was straight, defying the way his dragging right foot made him limp.
“This is Captain Jyuto,” Stirla introduced his fellow officer, evoking an awed murmur from several students. Rhiddyl had never heard of him, but her grasp of Overworld history wasn’t as strong as it could have been and the stern-faced captain certainly looked like he should be legendary.
“This is Captain Stirla,” Jyuto said, his voice surprisingly mellow and pleasant, like warm honey. “You might have heard of him.”
The wry drawl was in response to the excited babble that rippled through the crowd. Rhiddyl didn’t need to have learned this bit of history when she’d lived the most exciting events of Stirla’s life alongside him. He was one of the Six, those who had walked into World’s End and defeated the kaz-naghkt for good, saving the Overworld.
“Ancient history.” Stirla waved away the admiration. “Today is about the future. Your future.” The students hung on his every word. “Some captains take it in turn to choose students.”
Jyuto nodded and took up the speech, “Others stick with those they have already encountered in the selection schools.”
“Not us,” Stirla said, smiling.
“Some choices we have already made,” Jyuto agreed, his eyes settling on certain students in the crowd, none Rhiddyl knew, but Jyuto had come from the Greater West. “Others are yet to be decided.”
“And for that I put my trust in my lieutenants,” Stirla said, stepping back and waving for Dhori and Honra to come forward.
“As do I.” Jyuto also stepped back, his lieutenants coming forward. He turned to them and nodded. “Choose wisely.”
“Aye, captain.” All four lieutenants saluted their captains and the dean, before turning to face the students once more.
Rhiddyl reached out and found Vhen’s hand reaching back. As the students huddled into nervous groups, she clung to her friend and stared at Dhori, daring him to separate them.
Smirking, the silver-tipped lieutenant sauntered straight towards her. “Settle your scales, Tempestfury, you know Stirla would have my head if I let you escape.”
“And Vhen?” she asked, careful not to grip her friend’s hand too hard, always aware of the sharpness of her claws.
Dhori turned his bright eyes on the Sutheralli boy and smiled. “Of course. We couldn’t have this little adventure without him. Believe in me.” Winking, he nodded at the rest of Rhiddyl’s friends, inviting them into the flight as well.
Rhiddyl didn’t pay attention; she was too relieved.
Vhen looked puzzled. “Believe in me?”
“Of course I do,” Rhiddyl agreed happily. “I believe in us both.”
“No.” Vhen shook his head. “I mean, thank you, but no. That’s what he said. He said believe in me.”
“Did he? I didn’t notice. He probably meant believe me. I don’t think Imercish is his mother tongue.” Rhiddyl didn’t much care what had been said, although Dhori rarely got things wrong. He was annoying that way. But she was too relieved to care about it, especially when Keiva grabbed her arm.
“Is it true? Is our captain one of the Six?”
“It’s true,” Rhiddyl agreed, wondering whether she should let them know their new lieutenant was another, as had been the captain whose skyship had brought them here. Not to mention two of their new instructors. They’d probably meet the final member too before long. If Rhiddyl ever managed to track Jaymes down.
While her friends gasped and broke into happy babbles about how the people back home would never believe this, she decided to stay quiet. They would find out for themselves soon enough and Rhiddyl didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Watching Dhori pause beside Taryn and Orla, no doubt inviting them to join both Stirla’s flight and his own personal flurry, Rhiddyl grinned at the goddess on the ceiling and sent up a happy little prayer for the exciting year to come.
~ Next Chapter ~
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