Nightriver is not a happy ancient water dragon.
RHIDDYL LIKED NIGHTRIVER. The Dragongift was old, even by Clan dragon standards, but unlike old Clan dragons he didn’t lecture or pick apart everything Rhiddyl did, simply because he was older and therefore knew best. Mostly the water dragon was quiet, which was restful, and he was far more likely to laugh at Rhiddyl than criticise her – and since Nightriver laughed at almost everything, she didn’t take offence.
He wasn’t laughing now. “We have searched the whole length, my Morri, and found nothing.”
Following the dark dragon out of the lake, Rhiddyl politely wandered a little way along the shore before shaking herself dry. Then she returned to where Nightriver towered over the slender human with whom he was bound.
Head Healer Morri gave his dragon’s chest a comforting pat. “Perhaps whatever it was has gone. Perhaps Rhiddyl killed it.” He shot her a smile, but didn’t sound convinced.
Rhiddyl wasn’t convinced either. Nor was Nightriver. “It does not feel gone.” The great Dragongift shifted his weight from one short leg to another, water streaming down his sides as he reduced from his largest size – which was almost equal to Rhiddyl’s dragon form and much bulkier – to near-human length. Now he looked more like a lizard than dragon. A cousin, perhaps, of the great river hunters of the Cleansed lands that had been thought long-lost beneath the Curse, until the clouds rolled back and revealed the ancient creatures surviving much as they always had even in the perpetual mists.
Wondering amusedly if Nightriver would feel insulted or complimented by the comparison, Rhiddyl changed too, shrinking from her first form to the human shape that was becoming ever more familiar and comfortable.
“Do you feel anything, Rhiddyl?” Morri asked, once she was settled inside her skin.
She shook her head. “I am a Skystorm, a dragon of the air. Water does not speak to me.”
Nightriver growled and dug at the muddy ground, turning over stones with his curved claws. “It does not speak to me either, not as it used to.”
Morri’s expression turned pensive. “What does this mean? Are we under attack? Is it confined to the upper lake or should we worry about the lower one as well?”
Feeling worse than useless, Rhiddyl could only shrug, while Nightriver paced back to the waterline and paddled into the shallows. “The mountain is uneasy,” the old dragon rumbled. “But the waters are calm. There is nothing hiding in even the deepest depths. I should be able to feel it.”
And yet until the creature struck, Nightriver had clearly not known it was there.
“We searched the whole lake and didn’t find anything,” Rhiddyl said, wishing there was more she could say, more help she could give. But they had already spent fourteen days in the water, diving into the darkest depths, searching, always searching for answers that were no longer there to find. “There’s nothing down there.”
Morri ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I’ll tell the dean and advise him to place restrictions on coming up here. If whatever it was does come back, perhaps it will stay quiet as long as we leave it alone.”
Rhiddyl wrinkled her nose and Nightriver lashed his tail, sending up a spray of water to sparkle in the sunlight.
“I am the protector of this mountain,” the Dragongift snarled, turning to face them, green eyes aglow. “I will not be left in the dark.” With another swish of his tail, Nightriver vanished into the lake, spreading ripples and a line of bubbles the only signs of his passing.
Wiping water from his face, Morri shot Rhiddyl a wry smile. “You can’t fault him for trying.”
She smiled weakly back. Nightriver was definitely trying, but she had little confidence he would find anything new. Whatever the thing that had attacked the students was, it clearly didn’t want to be found. Even if Rhiddyl had managed to kill the creature, some remains should have been left behind, but there was nothing. Only darkness and the silt of ages. There was no trace of anything else, but the uneasiness that prickled against her skin and scales assured Rhiddyl that it wasn’t over yet. Even if the creature had left the lake, she doubted it had left the mountain, and if Nightriver – who could sense each and everything that moved on this mountain, should he so wish – couldn’t find it, no one would.
If only they knew what they were facing. All Rhiddyl knew was that it wasn’t human, and she didn’t think it was a dragon either. Then again, Nightriver was unlike any other dragon in history, changed and enhanced by his long bond with this mountain. Was it possible another dragon could have been altered too? Was the creature in the lake perhaps a Clan dragon who sought the long last sleep in centuries past, freshly awoken by some strange stirring deep beneath the lake?
She wrinkled her nose again and shook her head. No. If it had been a dragon she would have sensed it. Nightriver would have sensed it. They were dragons, and no matter how changed another dragon might be, it would still feel like a dragon. The creature in the water had lacked that familiar sense, that strange spark, the essence that instantly whispered kin to other kin. It hadn’t had that. It hadn’t had anything much, except cold. Such a deep, bone aching cold, like the empty space between stars.
The memory of it made her shiver and Morri rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Are you ready to come back to the citadel? Your friends have missed you.”
A different sort of cold settled in Rhiddyl’s stomach; the memory of the bodies laid along the shore and the accusation in people’s eyes. Guilt gnawed like acid in her bones and she shook her head.
“You’re not to blame,” Morri said gently. “You know that, don’t you? Your power saved lives, it didn’t take any. The dead were burned, not shocked.”
She knew that; she’d been told it before, and yet…
“I can’t go back,” she whispered, looking across the lake to where an enormous black head broke the water as Nightriver took a breath, then dived deep again, the long line of his back taking several heartbeats to crest and slide away, finishing with a flick of his tail. “We haven’t finished searching yet.”
Morri’s lips twisted, but he thankfully swallowed whatever words of advice or protest he was considering. He patted her shoulder instead. “Very well, come back when you’re ready. I’ve already spoken to the dean for you and he knows you weren’t to blame. You’re still a Rider, Rhiddyl. You still belong.”
Rhiddyl’s view of the lake turned blurry and she sniffled, determined not to cry as Morri walked to the water and scooped up a handful. Slinging drops across the lake, he turned to the miryhl waiting patiently off to one side. The Head Healer of Aquila had no miryhl of his own these days, but he and this particular bird were very old friends.
“The eyries know the truth,” Thunder told Rhiddyl, as Morri climbed into her saddle. “If you need our help, you only have to ask.”
More tears made Rhiddyl’s eyes feel hot and she pulled in a shaky breath, returning the great miryhl’s bow. “Thank you.”
Out across the water, Nightriver broke the surface, leaping more like a whale than the lizard he resembled. His landing boomed around the forested valleys, rolling like thunder across the water. The farewells finished, the miryhl spread her broad wings and leapt into the sky, carrying Morri back to where he was needed. Leaving Rhiddyl behind, alone, unwanted and useless. Again. As always.
The lake surface rippled and parted a few paces from the shore, revealing bright green eyes glinting above a long, tooth-filled snout. “Come,” Nightriver growled in his most monstrous shape. “Nothing on this mountain hides from me. Let us find it.”
~ Next ~
Thanks for reading!