Spring Forth!

A little later than planned, spring is finally springing up all around me, and I’ve at last compiled the first three Wingborn books into one handy box set! Which I’ve rather snappily titled Wingborn Series Volume 1: Wingborn, Rift Riders and Dragongift.

Wingborn Boxset 2If you haven’t bought them yet, or you just prefer to have them all rounded up in one easy to find file, then this is for you, my friend.

It’s available at – or soon will be – all the usual places, and there’s a bit of a discount on the individual list prices, so hopefully someone will find it a bargain.

Smashwords || B&N || iBooks || Kobo
Amazon: US || UK || AUS || CAN || DE 

I’ve also updated the individual books. Mostly typo-catching and tidying up a few mistakes here and there. Like the massive mistake I’d been writing with for years and hadn’t even noticed – that Half-Year wasn’t actually at the half year point because I had my months mixed up *headdesk* But I’ve fixed it now and the year ends a month later than it used to. Possibly no one would ever have noticed, but I did and it’s been bugging me ever since.

The uploads went nice and smooth until the last one, when I really should have remembered that uploading anything to Smashwords is usually best done in the morning. Otherwise it seems to take ages and weird little errors creep in here and there for no apparent reason. Particularly in Rift Riders. I don’t know what it is with that book, but by the time I called it a night, I was pretty much sobbing like Gollum.

Gollum I hate you gifAnd when I checked my email a little later to find that it had already started shipping to all the other non-Smashwords sites in the fastest approval I’ve ever had… let’s just say I wasn’t exactly gleeful.

Thankfully it was a pretty easy fix, so no hobbits needed to be harmed. This time.

Anyway that’s another thing ticked off the list. Next up will be finishing the Wingborn Aftermath novella, then a return to the Dragonlands to write book 4, edit 1-3, relaunch the series and release book 3. I’m also getting vague ideas for a foundation of Aquila tale, but I think I already have enough on my plate so it might have to stay vague a little while longer. It might also be nice to write something away from the Overworld for a change.

Plus there are dogs to walk, cats to cuddle, orchids to rescue, gardens to revive and the usual mix of real life worries and dramas to deal with. Which means life is pretty much continuing as usual really.

I hope that, wherever you are in the world, life is treating you kindly and the seasons are turning in expected and manageable ways. Have a good weekend, everyone!

Bru + Mu Greator Rocks

 

 

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Storm Wings: Chapter 16, Part 2

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Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
You can also visit the frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Ack attack!


IN A MATTER of moments they were back, Corin in the lead, her bow raised and ready, an arrow on the string. “All right,” she murmured, nudging the door open the merest crack with her foot. “Show us your ugly faces.” Arrow first, she peered outside and saw nothing.

“Is it there?” Mhysra whispered, pressing against Corin’s back and looking over her shoulder. “Can you see it?”

“It must have moved,” she muttered, elbowing Mhysra aside to give her room to draw. “We’ll have to go out. Everybody ready?”

Kicking open the door with a defiant yell, Corin raised her bow, ready to loose in an instant.

Mhysra and Jaymes leapt out on either side of her, swords bristling, the two dragonets at their feet, hissing menacingly.

Nothing. There was nothing there.

Mhysra charged with a bloodcurdling roar, sword swinging through the empty air as she attacked her unseen foe. “Don’t just stand there,” she shouted over her shoulder, thrusting her sword forward and twisting hard. “Shoot them!”

“Shoot what?” Corin questioned, looking at Jaymes who could only shake his head. There was nothing to shoot, not even a tree or a bush. The ground was a flat field of emptiness ending in a sharp edge that dropped down to the Cloud Sea. On either side steep rocky peaks rose, but there was nothing hiding up there. Except a couple of vultures and some vulardis.

“Kill them!”

“There’s nothing there!” Corin shouted, darting forward as her friend got closer to the edge of the cliff. “Mhysra, listen to me. There are no kaz-naghkt.”

She whirled, eyes wide, breathless and aggressive. “They’re everywhere,” she growled, raising her sword again. “Look out!”

Corin could only stare as her best friend ran towards her, sword raised, ready to kill. Except there was nothing in front of her but Corin. And all she had was a bow and arrow to defend herself with. Her fingers flexed, but she couldn’t do it – she couldn’t shoot her friend.

“Stop!”

Metal clashed as Jaymes jumped in front of Corin, his sword catching Mhysra’s before it could fall. Corin stumbled back as the pair started to fight. Mhysra was cursing and crying, babbling about the kaz-naghkt and how she had to save them, save Corin, that they were eating her. She had to save them.

Jaymes fought in grim silence, countering every move and trying not to let either of them get hurt. But it was hard when Mhysra thought she was fighting for her life, determined to kill her monstrous opponent. Especially when they had always been evenly matched.

“Fetch the others!” Jaymes shouted, as an overhead blow sent him stumbling back, Mhysra leaping after him with a triumphant yell. “Now!”

“Corin!” Mhysra screamed, as Corin turned and sprinted past the eyries, already wondering where the others might be, how long it would take to find them and bring them back.

And whether Jaymes could last that long.

“Corin!”

She didn’t allow herself to listen, she just ran.

*

EXITING THE OFFICE of yet another falsely regretful merchant, Lyrai stretched his arms over his head and groaned about his aching back. He’d leant over too many map tables today, arguing the reasons why these civilian captains should risk everything to fly through some of the worst skies on the Overworld, in search of a place most people didn’t even believe existed. It was exhausting work. Even Dhori looked strained.

“Seven down,” Honra said, slapping Lyrai consolingly on the shoulder. “Another twenty-odd to go.”

Lyrai shot him a flat stare. “If that was supposed to make me feel better, you failed.”

“Dismally,” Honra agreed, with his never-relenting cheer. “Except I wasn’t trying to cheer you up, I was just stating the truth. Don’t get too downhearted yet, Lyrai. Even Captain Myran has trouble with merchants. They just don’t see why they should risk their livelihoods for next to nothing, in the hope of some misty glory which the Rift Riders will keep all to themselves. When you put it like that, you can hardly blame them, really. Still, we’re not done yet, and if the worst happens we can always bring Mhysra down. Her family name will have them tripping over themselves to help.”

Lyrai grimaced at the prospect of using Mhysra that way, even if it was their only option for finding safe travel to Sanctuary. “What do you think, Dhori? Who should we try next?”

The silver-eyed student was frowning. “Mhysra,” he murmured, staring up the cobbled main street at the craggy cliffs overhanging the town. The eyries were barely visible at the very top. “We left her alone!”

About to argue that Corin and Jaymes were with her, Lyrai found himself looking at empty space. Dhori was sprinting like a horde of flaming pyreflies were after him, straight up the steep road. It took only half a heartbeat for Lyrai to follow. If Dhori was worried about Mhysra, then he wasn’t going to wait around for further news.

“Where are you going?” Honra called, as his companions deserted him.

“Back to the eyries,” Lyrai shouted over his shoulder. “I think there’s trouble.”

Not bothering to check if his fellow lieutenant was following, Lyrai kept his eyes on Dhori and wondered where he got his energy from. Lyrai would never have considered himself unfit, but as the way grew steeper and his breath grew shorter, he found himself slowing up. Not Dhori, he powered up the climb as if it were flat. Determined not to be outdone, Lyrai pushed on.

By the time they reached the top, even Dhori was struggling. Which was when Corin found them.

“Quick,” she demanded, breathless and sobbing. “You have to. Jaymes. She’ll kill him. Hurry. Please.”

Dhori nodded, and bolted down the path to the eyries. Lyrai paused to catch his breath, but Corin wouldn’t let him, dragging at his arm.

“Please, sir, please. She’s gone mad. You have to help.”

Dreading what he would find, he nodded and the pair of them ran in Dhori’s footsteps. As they rounded the corner of the eyries, he stopped in shock.

Mhysra was fighting Jaymes. Even from this distance he could see that it was no friendly sparring match. There was real force behind her blows, every move filled with rage. Jaymes was struggling to hold her off, trying not to let either of them get hurt. Except he was losing. Tired and frightened for his friend, he just didn’t have the strength to match his opponent.

“Maegla,” Lyrai whispered, just as Dhori deftly slid his sword between Mhysra and Jaymes.

With a firm jerk of his head, he ordered the younger student to back off while he drew Mhysra’s focus onto himself. Jaymes stumbled away a few paces before collapsing.

The sight broke Lyrai’s inertia and he sprinted across the field to the fallen boy, now covered by two concerned, cheeping dragonets.

“Jaymes.” He dropped to his knees beside the redhead, shoving Emberbright and Skybreeze out of the way to check for injuries. “Are you all right? What happened?”

“Kaz-naghkt,” Jaymes wheezed, breathing in deep, ragged gasps, soothing the distressed Emberbright with one hand, while the other still held his sword. “She saw kaz-naghkt.”

“We ran to fetch our weapons,” Corin took over the explanation, hugging Skybreeze close, “but when we came out there was nothing there.”

“She saw them,” Jaymes muttered.

Corin nodded, looking close to tears. “She can still see them.” Her eyes met Lyrai’s, full of confusion. “She was fighting, but there was nothing there. But she could see them. She ran towards me, sword up. I-I thought she was going to kill me. Jaymes stepped in and they’ve been fighting ever since.”

“Gods.” Lyrai raked a hand through his hair, not knowing what to say. He squeezed Jaymes gratefully on the shoulder and looked at where Dhori was trying to calm Mhysra down.

Except she wasn’t listening to him. Every word he said earned a head shake, a wild sword slash or an angry hiss. “Lies. All lies. I won’t let you kill my friends.”

A touch on his arm made him turn. He’d never seen Corin so frightened before. “You have to help her, sir. You’re the only one she’ll listen to.”

Personally, Lyrai would have put his money on Dhori, but he knew he had to try. He patted Corin’s hand and stood, drawing his sword as he went. “Stand aside, Dhori.”

With the smallest of nods, Dhori knocked Mhysra’s sword wide and stepped back, leaving Lyrai in his place. As if they’d practised such manoeuvres every day, Lyrai raised his sword to meet Mhysra’s ferocious back swing. He almost staggered, unused to such power from her, though they’d sparred many times.

“Mhysra,” he said, deflecting her next pattern of movement, easing himself into her frantic rhythm. “It’s me, Lyrai. Are you listening?”

“Lies,” she growled, aiming for his head, then dropping down to try and sweep his feet out from underneath him.

He’d taught her that move, so couldn’t help grinning even as he jumped to avoid it. Flashy and impressive though it looked, and provided excellent results when it worked, the fact that Lyrai knew her well enough to avoid it meant that by the time she stood up again he had the upper hand. Time to stop defending and launch an attack.

“You’ve done well,” he praised in a soft, soothing tone, even as he forced her backwards. “You’ve defended your friends. No one can doubt your bravery.”

“Don’t patronise me,” she snapped, sidestepping and trying to counter.

He stepped with her, relieved to turn her away from the cliff. Forcing her to sidestep again, he drove her back with renewed purpose, aiming for the eyries behind her.

“I’m not patronising you,” he murmured, even though he was. It was as good a way as any of redirecting her anger. “You’ve fought strongly. You do your teachers proud.”

“Dead,” she growled. “All dead. Thanks to you.”

“I’m not dead,” he replied. “I’m right here.”

“Blood,” she said, almost sobbing, exhaustion catching up with her. “So much blood. How can you stand it? How can you bear it, walking around when they’re all there, rotting in the darkness?” Her next attack lacked strength, her co-ordination failing. “And Kilai, poor brave Kilai, alone in the dark.”

Sensing she was about to break, Lyrai stepped up his attack, managing to slide his sword down the length of hers. The eagle heads on his hilt locked onto her blade. A deft twist of his wrist sent her sword flying, along with his own as he threw them both to one side.

“No!”

When she lunged to retrieve them, Lyrai slammed her back against the eyries with his body.

“Look at me,” he ordered, pinning her face between his hands. “Look me in the eye, Mhysra. See me. Know me. Who am I?”

Her eyes were wide, frightened and stormy as they flickered between his. “Lyrai,” she whispered, the fight draining out of her. “You’re Lyrai.”

“Thank Maegla,” he breathed, and kissed her.

All the aggression, fury and passion that had moments before fuelled their battled transferred into their kiss. Mhysra’s hands speared through his hair, clenching into tight fist that hurt as much as they pleasured, while his hands dropped to her hips, pulling her hard against him.

Tears poured down her face, washing against his cheeks and trailing into their mouths as she clutched at his back with one hand. Her legs tangled with his as though she was trying to climb him, crawl into him, never to be separated again.

Sensing her desperation, Lyrai tried to gentle her, pulling away to nuzzle her neck. “Shush,” he soothed, running a hand up and down her back. “It’s all right. You’re safe. I’ve got you.”

But she just shook her head and pulled his mouth back to hers. “Don’t let me go, Lyrai,” she begged against his lips. “Don’t let go.”

“Never,” he promised, kissing her hard before wrapping her tightly in his arms, tucking her head beneath his chin. “Never.”


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading!

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Storm Wings: Chapter 16, Part 1

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Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
You can also visit the frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Trouble, trouble, trouble.

Oh, and a cliffhanger warning. Sorry, this chapter is a real pain to split.


Sixteen
Madness

 Aquila
24th Cold

HE WAS UNCLEAN. Even before he woke Willym could smell the foulness in the room, on the floor, on his skin. Then he could feel it too; the crusty, flaky dirt of dried blood, like when he’d been battling kaz-naghkt in the skies above the Overworld.

Oh.

Memory returned like a swift punch in the gut. The mirror, his face, the kaz-naghkt at the door. The hunger that blinded him to everything else. Except the taste. It had tasted so good, so fresh, so powerful. The surge of overheated blood in his mouth, the crunch of bones between his teeth. How he’d revelled in it.

Willym rolled over and vomited. Black, black, oily black. It was all black like the colour of kaz-naghkt blood. Like the colour of his heavily coated skin.

“Gods, oh, gods,” he whispered – he who never prayed and only ever took the gods’ names in vain. “Maegla, Heirayk, Lithaen, help me. Help me, please.” Even as he begged he started scratching, peeling not just the dried blood smears from his body, but the skin beneath.

More blood, more blackness.

“No,” he hissed, scratching harder. “No. My blood is red, my blood is human. I am human. I am not a monster.”

But the harder he scratched, the darker it became. “I am not a monster!”

“There now, there, there,” a soothing voice whispered in his ear, as strong arms wrapped around his trembling body. “It’s not so bad.”

“Get away from me!” he screamed, wrenching free and scrabbling back into the corner, eyes fixed on the perfect pair standing before him. Their heads were tilted at the same compassionate angle, their eyes containing the same avid glow. “Don’t touch me!”

They smiled, a gentle expression so at odds with the glee in their eyes. “As you wish,” they replied with one voice.

“What have you done to me?” he whispered, huddling in his corner and scratching his arms again. “What did you do?”

“We have done nothing,” Rion said, skirting the mess on the floor and opening the window, letting in both light and air.

His sister, however, walked straight through the blood to crouch before him. She reached out slowly and ran a finger down his scar-ruined cheek. Then she smiled. “You did this to yourself, Willym. There is no one else to blame.”

“That’s not my name,” he shot back, feeling as dirtied by her touch as by the blood smearing his skin. “That man is dead.”

“Yes,” the captain twins agreed. “Lord Willym fra Wrellen, third son of Jarl Yurrayn of Scudia is no more.”

Riame smiled again, and this time the wicked grin matched the light in her eyes as she slid her fingers beneath his chin and forced him to meet her eyes. “Now you are Monster.”

* * *

Storm Peaks
25th Cold

“YOU KNOW, AFTER you started smooching with the lieutenant I really thought things might change around here.” Lying on her back, staring out the window of the small Rider barracks, Corin stroked a snoozing Skybreeze while waiting for a hint of blue to appear amidst the grey clouds above. The Storm Peaks had not earned their name by accident.

Sitting on the floor beside Corin’s bed, Mhysra tilted her head and grimaced. “I am not smooching with the lieutenant.”

“Not for lack of trying,” Corin said, turning to her with a grin. “It’s not safe to leave you two alone for a moment.”

“Maegla forbid you lot would ever allow us that,” her friend grumbled, and returned to cleaning Cumulo’s tack. “You’re worse than a nakhound on a hunt.”

“Just doing my duty,” Corin chuckled, making Skybreeze mutter in his sleep. “But seriously, since you and Lyrai have grown friendlier,” – She held up a hand to ward off Mhysra’s indignant thump – “he’s become a lot more relaxed. Yet here we are, our first full day in Meros, one of the liveliest, most exciting cities in the Storm Peaks, nay the whole Overworld – not to mention the first sign of human civilisation we’ve had in months – and we’re stuck in the barracks, keeping out of the way while our officers run around having all the fun.”

“Not just the officers,” Jaymes murmured from the other side of the room, where he was checking Emberbright over, scale by scale. “Dhori’s gone too.”

“Dhori doesn’t count,” the girls replied.

Jaymes smiled. “True, but they didn’t take the dragons either.”

“If they had it would have rather ruined the point of the exercise,” Corin grumbled, not appeased by Jaymes’ all-too-reasonable tone. “Besides, if theyd gone along then Lyrai and Honra wouldn’t have been able to leave us behind.”

“Reglian can pass for human when he really wants to,” Mhysra said, putting down her bridle in favour of Cumulo’s saddle.

“He just prefers to unsettle people with all the little things about himself that are not quite right to human eyes,” Jaymes agreed.

“Goryal’s a lost cause, though,” Mhysra continued. “I think they’re too old to bother with the pretence. If they ever did.”

“I doubt it,” Corin muttered, tickling Skybreeze’s sensitive ears. “But I wasn’t asking why they left the dragons behind, because that makes sense. I can even understand why they left Jaymes and me, since we come with unmistakable baggage.” She wrinkled her nose at Skybreeze and tilted her head in Mhysra’s direction. “But what’s your excuse?”

Her friend shrugged and started rubbing soap into her saddle with renewed vigour. “Despite what you assume, Lyrai doesn’t tell me everything.”

Corin glanced at Jaymes and raised her eyebrows. He shook his head, warning her off, but Corin had never been faint-hearted. “No one ever tells anyone everything, no matter how close they are,” she persisted. “Still, he must have had a reason for leaving you here. Especially with your family contacts. Just the mention of the mighty Kilpapans would get you a meeting with any captain in this port.”

Although now that Corin thought about it that might have been a good reason not to take her. Especially if the lieutenants were trying to keep things quiet. Except something about that explanation, as reasonable as it might seem, didn’t sit quite right. Something else was going on. Tickling her dragonet into moving, Corin rolled onto her side, the better to watch Mhysra’s bowed head as she focused on cleaning her tack with all her might.

“You know,” Corin began lightly, “despite frequent evidence to the contrary, I’m not completely stupid.” The snorts from Skybreeze and Jaymes were not complimentary, but she would deal with them later. “And having spent the last few years with you, Mhysra, I’d say I know you almost as well as anyone.”

Her friend sighed, hands stilling as if anticipating what would follow.

“You’ve been having nightmares again, haven’t you?”

To both girls’ surprise it was Jaymes who spoke. He smiled wryly in the face of their astonishment. “In a similar way to Corin’s intelligence, just because I don’t speak up regularly doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think any of us are heavy sleepers after Aquila, so whispers in the dead of night are bound to draw attention.”

Corin frowned, because actually her sleep was quite good. Since their time with the dragons the worst of her night-horrors had faded, and she certainly hadn’t been disturbed by any clandestine whispers in the dark. What she’d noticed was that Mhysra had shadows under her eyes again, not to mention the same pinched lines around her mouth that had haunted her across the Heighlen and beyond.

Mhysra gave a heavy sigh. “I know you see more than you speak, Jaymes, and I don’t think I’ve ever made the mistake of thinking you stupid, Corin. It’s just… I can’t talk about them.”

Which was understandable, considering what Mhysra had gone through beneath Aquila. Corin had been unconscious at the time, but she’d heard the tale. She’d shed tears over it; she’d liked Kilai.

“Well, since the last time you had them they left you unable to speak at all, I’d call this progress.”

Mhysra’s smile was faint. “Of a sort.”

Though that didn’t make much sense to her, Corin bit her tongue. She could see the strain the conversation was putting on her friend and didn’t want to make it worse. She still didn’t understand why the return of Mhysra’s nightmares meant she had to stay behind while the others went into the city, but she would accept it. For now. Maybe Dhori could be enticed into explaining later. Stranger things had happened.

“So, as we’ve no idea when the others will be back, I’m going to preen Cumulo.” Clearly longing to escape the awkward atmosphere, Mhysra packed up her cleaning kit and bundled her tack into her arms.

“I’ll join you,” Corin said, draping a grumpy Skybreeze over her shoulder. “If the dragons are back I can leave this little monster with them. Maybe then we could take our own short trip into town.” At Jaymes’ disapproving frown, she widened her eyes in mock innocence. “No one would know.”

“We were told to stay here,” he reminded her.

“They were referring to the dragonets,” she grumbled, before grudgingly adding, “and you could come too.”

“If only to stop me tattling later,” Jaymes chuckled, following them out of the room.

Mhysra shook her head as they descended the stairs. “She’s corrupting you.”

“And I used to be such a nice boy,” he agreed mournfully.

“Boy.” Corin wrinkled her nose. “Stick with me, love, and I’ll turn you into a man.”

Her friends and both dragonets snorted in amused disbelief, and Corin pretended to be offended. “Well, he certainly won’t get there on his own. Not on this trip. He only likes -”

Jaymes slapped a hand over her mouth and scowled.

Mhysra chuckled. “As if I hadn’t noticed. You’re not the only one who sees but doesn’t speak. And I think Silveo’s lovely.”

Blushing so fiercely even his ears turned red, Jaymes shook his head. “Can we talk about something else? Please.

“See,” Corin teased, pinching his cheek. “He’s still a nice boy.”

She was following Mhysra out through the side door when her friend jumped back, slamming both her and Jaymes across the narrow corridor and into the far wall. “Stay inside,” she hissed, hands scrabbling at her waist for the sword she wasn’t wearing.

“What is it?” Jaymes was the first to regain his wits, massaging his shoulder where Corin had bashed it against the wall. “Mhysra?”

“Swords,” she whispered frantically. “Where did we leave our swords?”

“With our kit,” Corin told her, barely jumping aside in time to avoid her friend charging back up the stairs to their room. “But why do you need it?”

“Kaz-naghkt!” Mhysra shouted over her shoulder. “Outside.”

Jaymes and Corin looked at each other and swore, following Mhysra swiftly up the stairs, gripping their dragonets as they ran.


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading!

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Storm Wings: Chapter 15, Part 3

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Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
You can also visit the frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

No prizes for guessing who is the real monster in this update.



23rd Cold

WILLYM WOKE TO sunlight, shining in through the high windows of his room. The angle told him it was a setting sun, sinking slowly. Soon it would be gone. Night was coming.

Something inside him stirred at the thought, but he had no energy to pursue it. Instead he lay perfectly still, staring at the light that glowed against the high ceiling.

He could almost feel the warmth of it, though no part of it touched him, save for what he could see with his eyes. It was strange, muted yet more all at the same time. He’d never seen sunlight like it before. There were colours in it, strange, beautiful colours, that shimmered out of the corner of his eye. When he tried to focus on them they vanished, but he knew they were there. It was all there; the world in a beam of light.

Wonderful, magical. Odd.

He frowned at his uncharacteristically poetic thoughts and scratched idly at his right wrist, then his stomach. There was a faint tickle lying just beneath his skin. Not unpleasant exactly, but not entirely comfortable either. His hand moved to his chest. He stopped.

His skin was different. Where once it had been smooth and hard over the ripples of his muscles, barely touched by a smattering of hair, now it was rough and ridged. Confused, he raised his head and looked at himself in growing horror.

Scarred. He was scarred. Badly.

Shoving the rest of his covers away with a strangled gasp, Willym stared at the wreck of his once perfect body. The scars were deep and livid, still fresh and angry as they tore swathes across his skin, cutting twice across his chest in a series of five parallel lines, then down his midriff and onto his thighs. Yet bad as they were – and they were hideous – the welts that covered the rest of his skin looked worse. Raised lines of pink and white marked him everywhere, from his hands and arms to his hips and pelvis, all the way down to his feet. He ran shaking hands over his shoulders, up his neck to his face, finding more welts and scars. They were everywhere.

Shuddering, he tumbled out of bed, uncaring that he fell straight to the floor, his legs too weak to support him. All that mattered was that he had enough strength to haul himself across the room with his arms, searching for the mirror lying on the desk.

It hurt to move so far, to subject his fragile, wounded skin to the shock of the cold floor and the rough weave of the rugs, but Willym was determined to reach that mirror. He didn’t care how much blood he left behind, he had to see.

On shaking arms, he levered his upper body high enough to reach the desk, scrabbling around with desperate fingers until cool glass met his touch. He pulled it towards him and collapsed onto the floor with the mirror clutched to his chest.

There he lay, panting, wounded, aching, staring up at the sunlight on the ceiling. The colours weren’t so beautiful now. They were a taunt. He couldn’t bear to see such beauty in the world when he knew his own was gone.

So he waited and waited and waited, aching in the dying light, until the sun was almost gone. Then he raised the mirror from his chest and held it above his face.

He stared. What once was bronze, now was grey. His beautiful skin raked by vicious claws, his sharp, aristocratic cheekbones pitted, his proud nose broken. Even his lips were different, slashed, ruined. He stared into the blackness of his eyes, which contained not the slightest touch of white, and felt everything inside him tighten.

A bead of moisture gathered at the corner of his eye, rolling down his cheek.

The glass cracked.

Claws grew from his gripping fingertips as his knuckles turned white from the strain, and the mirror shattered. Roaring his fury, Willym threw the shards across the room and the last of the sunlight fled, as though hiding from his rage.

Rolling up onto his hands and knees, Willym stared at the door and snarled. He was hungry, so very hungry. As he glared the door handle slowly began to turn; the guards coming to see what all the commotion was about.

Feeling his claws grow even longer, Willym gathered himself into a crouch and waited.

The door opened and a monstrous face peered inside. When it found no body on the bed, the kaz-naghkt grumbled and stepped into the room.

Only to be slammed into the wall as Willym struck. Claws and teeth flashed. There were screams, there was pain, and then all he knew was the ecstasy of death and feeding.

* * *

“ARE YOU READY, little Mouse?”

He didn’t know how long he’d spent sitting beside that water, feeding the fire, tending Silveo, then doing the same for Greig when Nightriver finally brought him out. All he knew was the endless round of caring for his friends, poking at the fire and sorting through the food that the dragon brought him. And wondering. Wondering about Haelle, about the others and how they’d fared in the latest rock fall, if they were all right, if they’d made it to Buteo. Wondering how he would get there, if it was even possible now that Nightriver had changed the tunnels so much.

At the touch of that voice, however, everything else fell away and he jumped to his feet. “Greig,” he called. “Silveo.”

Not waiting for either of them, he hurried to the water’s edge, waiting in the shallows. It still wouldn’t let him touch it, but he didn’t care about little things like that anymore. Not when the lake was glowing.

It started out small, a mere pinprick of light that could easily have been Nightriver’s eyes off in the distance. But it grew. Like a stain spreading over silk, the glow rippled out in all directions, growing brighter all the time, until the entire lake was lit with it. The light was so bright it hurt to look at, but Mouse didn’t dare turn away.

“What’s happening?” Silveo asked, when he and Greig arrived, still weak from their time in the water but otherwise whole. No breaks, no injuries, no bruises.

“She’s coming,” Mouse replied, tears in his eyes from the powerful light.

“Haelle,” Greig whispered, then jumped into the water. “Haelle!”

Nightriver’s head crested the surface, swimming towards them, and there, on his back like some water maiden of legend, sat Haelle. Her hair glowed green, but she was smiling.

“Haelle!”

Running through the shallows until the lake floor dropped out from beneath him, Greig swam out to meet them, the tears on his face nothing to do with the light surrounding him.

Crying herself, Haelle laughed as Nightriver rolled out from beneath her, dropping her into Greig’s waiting arms.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered, holding her hard against him, face buried in her hair. “We couldn’t save you. I thought you would die.”

She didn’t answer, just put her hands on his face and kissed him.

Embarrassed yet delighted, Mouse turned away to give them some privacy and caught Silveo’s equally embarrassed eye. They shared a sheepish smile and wiped away their tears – caused by the light, of course – then waited for Nightriver to nudge the oblivious lovers towards the shore.

“Did I not promise to heal your friends, little Mouse?” the dragon asked smugly, as Greig and Silveo helped the one-legged Haelle hop from the shallows.

“You did,” Mouse agreed, dropping to his knees and wrapping his arms around the dragon’s neck, no longer caring about the big teeth, the scales or the clawed feet. “You surely did.”

“Oh.” For once Nightriver sounded surprised, then rested his head against Mouse and patted his back with a gentle touch. “Well. You are my dragongifted. I prefer you to be happy.”

“Thank you,” Mouse whispered, wishing he could have met him earlier, before he’d ever entered the darkness beneath the citadel.

“I wish that too,” the dragon murmured into his mind. “I wish I could have saved all your friends, Morri. But you could not wake me until afterwards.”

“Sorry,” Mouse muttered, letting his real name pass for once as he pulled away and rubbed his eyes again. “I didn’t mean -”

“I know,” Nightriver rumbled, nudging Mouse gently in the ribs. “Go and join your friends a moment. I need to grow and then we shall find our way clear of this place. You have other friends who are worried about you. I would hate for their frantic digging to bring the mountain down upon their heads.”

Rather inclined to agree, Mouse scampered up the slope to his friends and hurriedly kicked the fire out. “All right, everyone,” he said, smiling as he bundled their things into the packs, handing them out amongst the boys. “Time to move on, I think.”


~ Next Chapter ~

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Storm Wings: Chapter 15, Part 2

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Previous Chapter ~

Derry in the Deeps.



The Heighlen
21st Cold

TWO DAYS AFTER arriving in the Heighlen Range, Derrain doubted he’d ever been so cold. The month was more than living up to its name, as he paced restlessly around their camp in the gloomy pre-dawn light, slapping his fleece-lined gloves together and breathing through the wool of his scarf. He had no idea how the miryhls were coping, but they did look fluffier than usual.

On the other side of the fire, Stirla was obsessively checking his maps and searching the surrounding peaks for familiar landmarks, while absently giving Neryth a lesson in cooking. It was difficult to say whether the princess’ attempts were improving, or if the worsening conditions had made them too hungry to care.

“Where are you from, Derry?” Stirla asked, putting aside his maps for a moment in order to replace the sugar pot in Neryth’s hand with the salt.

“Kevian,” he mumbled, voice distorted by the layers over his face.

“Really?” Neryth looked up, eyebrows raised. “Then aren’t you used to the cold?”

“Yes,” Derrain agreed. “I was also a skysailor for twelve years.”

Stirla rolled his eyes and returned to his maps. “Then why are you making such a fuss?”

“Because I’m used to being too busy to feel my fingers falling off,” Derrain growled, remembering with fondness the number of times he’d scurried about the rigging, flexing his fingers to dislodge the ice that had formed across his knuckles. Or sucking his fingers after a shift on deck in an ice storm, trying to restore feeling where his fingerless gloves hadn’t provided protection. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d slipped on an icy deck, saving himself from going over the rails with a last minute grab. Yes, he was used to the cold and all its hazards, but he wasn’t used to being idle. Plus winter in the Heighlen was something else.

“Go see to the miryhls then,” Stirla said. “We’re almost done here.” Folding his maps, he nudged Neryth aside and pulled the pot off the fire, prodding its contents dubiously with a wooden spoon.

Unwilling to go through the torment of being this morning’s taster, Derrain ducked into the shelter they’d rigged up to keep the worst of the wind away from the miryhls.

“She’s burnt the doelyn again,” Atyrn greeted, lifting her head so Derrain could walk past her.

“Great,” Derrain grumbled. He’d almost forgotten the taste of uncharred meat.

“The potatoes smell all right, though,” Zephyr consoled him, ruffling her feathers as he pulled off his gloves with his teeth and buried his hands beneath the warmth of her wings. “Brr. You’re cold this morning.” Though it was a complaint, she used her beak to tuck him closer. Just one of the many reasons why he loved her.

“It’s the wind. Nasty.”

“We’re in the Deeps,” Birch muttered, almost too softly to be heard. He was still struggling with the idea of talking to humans other than his Rider, but clearly couldn’t help himself at times. Especially when it came to showing off his knowledge. “The lowest part of the Heighlens, where the peaks form a natural bowl with only two passes out, one at either end. The worst weather gets trapped in here, making it colder, windier and more unpleasant than anywhere else.”

“Lovely.” Derrain was starting to wish he hadn’t got out of his bedroll this morning. “How long will we have this delightful weather then?”

“Five days, maybe as much as eight, depending on which way the wind blows.”

“Or four, if it should blow hard in our favour,” Atyrn corrected, no happier with Birch’s unrelenting pessimism than Derrain was. “You can never tell with the Deeps.”

Feeling worse and worse, Derrain rested his head against Zephyr’s wing and sighed. “I thought the journey across from Kevian would be the worst we’d face for a while.” Two days and a night of wide open Cloud Sea, with nothing to shelter or hide behind. The tricky, unpredictable winds had made them lose track of Birch and Neryth more than once. Still, at least it hadn’t snowed. Or rained. Or sleeted. Maybe there were kind gods out there after all.

All three miryhls snorted, the two older ones shaking their heads. “Poor Derry,” Atyrn crooned. “You have so much to learn.”

“Can’t wait,” he grumbled. “Crossing the Heighlens in the Storm Season was hard enough.”

“It was,” Birch agreed. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse.”

“Cheerful as always.” Stirla shoved his way through the flap, bringing a steaming bowl with him. “Eat up, Derry. If all this optimism doesn’t give you indigestion, tack up after, would you? We’ll break down the camp.”

Derrain eyed the warm broth worriedly. “Is it edible?”

“It’s warm. And not all of it’s burnt.” Stirla shrugged and vanished through the flap again.

In terms of Neryth’s cookery skills that was practically praise. Derrain tucked in, welcoming the inner warmth. Who knew when he’d eat his next hot meal? He swallowed the first spoonful with a pondering tilt of his head, and chuckled to see the miryhls watching him expectantly.

“Better than yesterday,” he announced, spooning up some more.

“Yesterday she got distracted and charred the pheasant to a crisp,” Atyrn reminded him. “You had to sprinkle the results on your trail biscuits.” It had worked surprisingly well, but then not much could make trail biscuits taste worse.

Smiling, Derrain scooped out a lump of potato and enjoyed the heat of it, taking away a little of his chill. “Stirla might make a Rider cook out of her yet.”

Birch snorted. “High praise indeed.” After all, a Rift Rider cook had to be the one member of the flurry who wouldn’t poison the rest.

“She’ll get there,” Derrain said, licking the last of his breakfast off his spoon. It could have been worse, and he was starting to like the taste of charcoal.

“We all will,” Zephyr agreed. “Eventually.”

“Well, she’ll have plenty of time to practise before we reach Nimbys,” Birch agreed.

“I doubt Stirla will put up with her for that long,” Atyrn predicted. “Such strapping boys as you two need a proper meal on occasion or you’ll fall out of the saddle.”

“Which is something to look forward to,” Derrain chuckled, and started sorting out bridles from the tangle on the ground. “Hopefully not today, though. I think we’ve all got more than enough to be dealing with without adding that.”

The miryhls grunted their assent and settled down to conserve as much heat as possible before being forced to face the elements once again.

* * *

Aquila

IT WAS A lonely time, sitting in the darkness by the edge of the lake. All alone. Mouse toyed with the woodpile Nightriver had collected for him, adding the bare minimum he needed to keep his little fire alive. Though it was dark and eerie beside the lake, he didn’t feel cold. Perhaps it was because the last time he was here he’d been so very, very cold. Now it hardly seemed to touch him.

Like the water. Several times he’d tried to fill his canteen in the lake or wash his face, but the water simply moved away from him. Once he would have found that strange, possibly even scary, but Mouse was beyond being scared. All that mattered to him were his friends, who had vanished into the dark depths and had yet to return.

“The lake will take care of them.”

He didn’t even twitch as the voice rippled out of the dark. Not even when Nightriver padded across to sit beside him. The dragon had changed again. He was still small, barely longer than Mouse was tall, but the elongated snout full of teeth had changed. It was snubbed now and slightly rounded, with enough of a lip to hide the sharp weapons within. He would never look human, but Mouse appreciated the effort.

“They are mending.”

Mouse threw a handful of twigs on the fire. “Was I in there this long?”

“Longer,” his companion rumbled, the emotion in his voice causing rocks to fall in the far-off dark. “There was much more work on you to do and I was out of practice. Your friends are broken on the surface, you were shaken in the mind.”

He couldn’t argue with that, though shaken seemed a curiously polite way of putting it. “Why didn’t you fix my limp?”

Nightriver hummed beside him, as if deciding what to say.

“Tell me the truth,” Mouse demanded.

The dragon sighed. “I did not fix it because it is part of you now, though most of it remains in your mind. Oh,” he continued when Mouse would have interrupted, “there is still some damage to the muscles, but it is all but healed now and will continue to get better. I could do little to help that along. The rest is in your head. Your thoughts are a tangle of confusion, my little Mouse, but I always did like a challenge.”

Uncertain how to respond to that, Mouse frowned, not liking the possibility that his limp might be his own doing, or that it had become such an important part of who he was now. So he said nothing, just sat in silence, pondering.

“I have upset you.”

“Not really,” Mouse murmured, and to his surprise it was the truth. He wasn’t happy thinking that he was to blame for his limp, but it didn’t upset him. It made sense. The person he had become after his fall from his miryhl was far different to the one he would have been without it. On reflection he preferred who he was now to who he could have been. He wouldn’t have changed his time with Nehtl for all the Overworld, except to have kept him alive through Willym’s torment.

A new thought occurred. “What about Haelle? Can you heal her leg?”

Nightriver shifted his weight, sighed and shook his heavy head. “I cannot put back what is already dead,” he admitted sadly. “I can only stop the infection from spreading.”

“Poor Haelle.”

“She is strong. A fighter. She will adapt.”

Mouse could only hope so, for Greig’s sake as well as her own. He knew she was a fighter – how else would she have survived this long? – but that didn’t mean she would know how to fight this new battle. “She will need help.”

“Yes.”

They sat in a surprisingly peaceful silence, Mouse lost in his own thoughts. Then the fire snapped, making him blink. “What about the others? When will they return?”

“Soon,” Nightriver hummed, getting up and wading towards the water. “Yes, soon. The silvery one, at least. He had only broken bones to mend. The other will take longer.” He slipped into the water and vanished without a ripple.

“Great,” Mouse sighed, tossing more wood onto the fire, wondering how soon was soon and how he could tell in the unrelenting dark.

“Soon is now.” The words dropped into his mind like pebbles in a deep pool.

The surface of the lake heaved and Mouse jumped to his feet, racing down to the shore as a familiar head of pale hair bobbed into view.

“Silveo.” He knelt in the shallows, not caring that the water still flowed away from him. All that mattered was that his friend needed to get out of the lake as swiftly as possible.

This time Mouse didn’t hesitate to put his hands beneath his friend’s arms and haul backwards, dragging him out of the shallows and up the small slope to the fire. Making sure Silveo was lying safely on his side, Mouse hurriedly built up the blaze.

Then he knelt beside him and tapped his pallid cheek. “Silveo,” he called. “Silveo, it’s me, Mouse. Wake up.”

It took a few moments, but eventually Silveo stirred, eyelids fluttering as he stared at the fire in dazed confusion. Then he looked up, grey eyes slowly focusing. “Mouse.” He smiled.

“Welcome back, Silveo,” Mouse said, almost too choked up to speak.

“Am I… dead?” his friend asked, voice hoarse.

“No.” Mouse shook his head, unable to stop smiling as he ran his hands down Silveo’s legs and arms, across his ribs and down the back of his neck, searching for the breaks he’d been so horrified to discover before. “No, my friend, you’re healed.” He laughed in delighted disbelief as Silveo raised the arm that had been a smashed pulp not so long ago, using it to push his damp hair off his forehead. “You’re completely healed.”

“Oh.” Silveo blinked dazedly. “Good.” He smiled again and fell back to sleep.

Mouse didn’t mind, he simply pulled a blanket from his stockpile of salvaged items and made sure his friend was properly covered. He wasn’t alone anymore. “Thank you,” he whispered to the lake and Nightriver, wishing there was a better way to convey his gratitude.

The surface of the lake bubbled. “You are welcome, little Mouse.”


~ Next Chapter ~

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Storm Wings: Chapter 15, Part 1

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You can also visit the frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Well, hello there, Nightriver. It’s good to finally meet you.


Fifteen
In the Deeps

Aquila
19th Cold

“I KNOW THIS place.” From his position at the front of the group, Mouse stepped out of the tunnel and stared at the low ceiling of the cavern. Though it stretched off into the distance, far beyond the reach of the pale lights, only a small part of it could be walked upon.

They were back at the lake.

A firm hand gripped his shoulder. “Maegla preserve us,” Imaino whispered.

As Mouse turned to look at the still, frozen water, filled with memories of his own time inside it, he saw what was making his friends whisper fervent prayers around him.

Two bright, round eyes loomed above the surface, the same shade of green as the lights that had guided them this far.

Good afternoon, little Mouse. It was about time you joined me.

The monstrous eyes blinked and the water below them surged upwards as the creature they belonged to emerged from the lake.

The Riders at Mouse’s back panicked. This was like nothing they had ever faced before, with its long, narrow nose and enormous sharp teeth. Kaz-naghkt might be vicious and deadly, but they were at least human sized and mostly human shaped. Just the face of this thing was as long as a man. As the head rose clear of the water, the monster might even have been smiling. Or simply showing off its fine array of deadly weapons.

“Back to the tunnels!” Imaino ordered.

The others didn’t need telling twice.

“Wait!” boomed the creature in the water, but the Riders were long past listening, too busy scrabbling back up the crumbling slope.

“You will remain.”

Those bright eyes locked on Mouse, but he wasn’t moving. He couldn’t. This was what had been speaking to him inside his head for months? This was what he had faced in the water? This was what had lit up the tunnels and led them here, promising to heal Haelle? He could understand the hunger now – and the delight in its taste of blood.

It truly was a monster.

“I am not so very different from you, Riders,” the beast rumbled, slithering to the shore and placing an enormous clawed foot upon the stones beyond. “I am merely larger.”

It laughed. A deep, booming chuckle that shook the walls of the cave and brought more rocks showering down from the fragile ceiling.

In the distance Mouse heard panicked cries, even a scream, then others calling his name. Mouse couldn’t move, locked in the predator’s stare.

It slid free of the water in sinuous strides, coming ever closer, long and low, though when it reached him its head was high enough to look him in the eye. “Well met, my little Mouse. I have waited long for this moment.”

Mouse blinked, braced for a wave of fetid breath to wash over him, but all he smelled was the clean scent of spring water and a fresh mountain breeze.

The creature lowered its head and chuckled again, walking past him, its scaly body shimmering in the eerie glow.

“I am no creature, little Mouse, nor a monster. Not to you. I am Nightriver, Guardian of Aquila, your dragongift. Not an it, but a male. And right now your friends have need of me. Come along, little healer. Let us see what the waters of Aquila can do.”

Feeling like a puppet, with Nightriver holding the strings, Mouse turned obediently and looked at the mouth of the tunnel. It was blocked, sealing him inside the cavern once again.

And, like the last time, he was not alone. Haelle’s stretcher had been left behind in the rush, though some had obviously tried to move it. The dust-stained forms of Silveo and Greig lay slumped over her. All three were unconscious.

Tutting like a disapproving old man, Nightriver paced slowly around them. It was a tight fit with his bulk, and Mouse could only stare as with each step water poured out from beneath his scaly paws. As strange as that seemed, it was nothing compared to the sight of the monstrous beast shrinking before Mouse’s disbelieving eyes.

Only when he was the length of a person did Nightriver stop, arching his back and lifting himself onto his back legs, using his thick tail for balance. Stroking his long jaw thoughtfully, he could almost have been a professor or healer. If not for his scales and unusual form. Or the fact that he was dark grey-green and more akin to a lizard than a human.

“Gods,” Mouse whispered, feeling the sudden need to sit down.

Nightriver looked up from his perusal, the slit pupil of his round eyes focusing upon him. “There are no monsters here, Mouse, nor creatures, nor professors, nor lizards, nor gods. But we are healers and your friends are in need. Will you help me help them? I would hate for them to wake and faint again. It seems my manners need improvement.” He smiled, revealing wicked jaws full of sharp, sharp teeth. Even at their reduced size, they remained formidable.

“Well?” Nightriver questioned, his voice the subtle undertow of a deep flowing river.

Mouse felt it tugging at him, making him want to agree. And he did want to help his friends, so he nodded. This was going to be interesting.

“Let’s get them in the water,” Nightriver said. “Once they are there I can heal them. Bring your male friends, I will take the girl.” Going to all fours again he nudged Greig and Silveo gently aside and caressed Haelle’s sweating face with a surprisingly tender touch. “There is much work to do for her. Help me.”

Mouse stared for a moment as Nightriver pushed his long muzzle under Haelle’s unresponsive body. When he lifted his head and shrugged her down his neck onto his shoulders, Mouse realised what he was trying to do and went to help. Between the pair of them they managed to drape her along Nightriver’s length, and the creature ambled into the water.

Not a creature, little Mouse,” he muttered, before sinking into the depths. “I am a dragon.” The words popped inside Mouse’s brain like bubbles of amusement. “Bring your friends. They have bones to heal.”

Mouse rubbed his aching forehead and stared down at his friends. “How?” he murmured, wondering how he could possibly get either of them into the water. He’d never been strong and his limp made it hard enough for him to walk on his own, let alone drag others. Besides, if they had broken bones, he didn’t want to make things so much worse.

“The water will heal them,” Nightriver’s voice bubbled inside his head. “Bring them. However you can. Just get them here.”

Sighing, Mouse knew he had only one choice. With his herbs all but gone and the rest of the resistance survivors beyond reach, there was only him and his two friends, both of which would be in agony when they woke. He could do nothing for them, but Nightriver might. The lake had healed him, after all.

“All right then. Sorry in advance.” He bent and grabbed Silveo beneath his arms, then lurching and dragging, he carried him down to the water.


~ Next Chapter ~

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World’s End is done!

94,954 words down and the book is finished.

Not only is this the end of the book, it’s the end of the Wingborn series! YAY!

This isn’t the end of the Overworld, of course – I haven’t finished the Dragonlands series yet, and I’ve already got a novella idea about what happens with certain characters after World’s End – but this plot arc is done. Done, I say!

Which is pretty big, because I’ve been playing with the Wingborn/Rift Riders stuff since 2003 after I had my first dream about a girl and her dog in a skiff being dragged across a sea of clouds by her giant eagle. Things have certainly changed a lot since then, and there were years when I didn’t touch the books, but still, the ideas and characters have been with me for a while, so it was nice to finally get to the end of it all.

I am exhausted. Although that might have more to do with what I did with my celebratory morning off…

Bru Walk

Serenaded by skylarks, watched over by buzzards, surrounded by primroses and the first budding leaves on the alder trees, with bursts of sunshines overhead, I do believe that spring might actually be here.

I hope your week has been going as well as mine.

Take care, my lovelies!

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Storm Wings: Chapter 14, Part 2

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Previous Chapter ~

Romance and reality.



Aquila
18th Cold

“ARE WE LOST?”

Mouse met Silveo’s eyes over Haelle’s limp body, raising his eyebrows as Lieutenant Imaino drew Rider Rechar to one side during their rest stop. Close by Greig was lying against the tunnel wall, cradling his broken arm, head tipped back, eyes closed. His face was a frown of silent suffering, but it wasn’t his wounds that was hurting him. Mouse looked down at Haelle’s emaciated features and tried not to think.

“I can’t understand how,” Rechar growled. Since he was one of the best trackers in the Riders, not just out of those left at Aquila following the fall, he had every reason to feel disgruntled. “We’ve been following the lights. Not that there’s been any other option. Every other turning we might have taken is blocked.”

Mouse shivered, remembering the falling rocks and the determined voice in his head. They hadn’t spoken since, but Mouse knew it was watching. Leading. Luring them along with those cursed dripping lights.

“We should have reached Buteo by now,” Imaino muttered.

Mouse caught Silveo’s eye again, but his friend just shrugged. It was hard to keep track of the days and nights underground. Here there were no bells to ring out the watches, no sky to provide sunrises, sunsets or stars to follow. No moon to mark the passing months. They were alone in the dark, with only their instincts to guide them.

“It’s a longer road from the lake to the farms,” said Jym, one of the kennel workers, their remaining nakhounds gathered about his feet. “And with the rock falls who knows how long we might be scrabbling about down here.”

Imaino and Rechar exchanged a weary look. They needed encouragement that this plan was going to work, not pessimism.

“Derneon made it through all right,” said Gethyr, another of the regulars. “It just might take us a little extra. We’re not exactly fit, are we?” He self-consciously touched the bandage covering one eye, while others checked their own wounds.

Imaino sighed, perhaps annoyed that his private chat with the Rider had suddenly become public, or maybe he was just tired. They all were. “Then I suppose we’re not lost.”

“I know where we are,” piped up Naelya, hopping across to the main discussion, leaning on Student Rossen’s shoulder.

Everyone looked at her, eyebrows raised in expectation.

She smiled. “Under the mountain, somewhere between Aquila and Buteo.”

Which earned a lot of good-natured groans. Mouse could only shake his head, pleased that the general humour of the group was good enough to put up with such silliness. Then again, maybe a little silliness was what they needed after so many months of grim toil and survival.

Beneath his hands Haelle took a shuddering breath, then another, her body trembling from the force of them. Mouse pressed down on her shoulder and thigh, while Silveo did the same on her other side, forcing her to lie still. The routine was regrettably familiar now, so they worked in silence, not drawing the attention of the others.

Greig lifted his head, saw what they were doing and closed his eyes again. There was a new tightness about his mouth, but keeping Haelle alive was more important for the moment.

“What will we do?” Silveo asked softly, once Haelle had calmed again.

Bring her to me.

Mouse looked at his friend and recognised the hopelessness in his eyes. It was the same he felt inside and glimpsed whenever Greig made eye contact. They’d lost her. They all knew it. There was nothing they could do for her now, just watch and wait and hold her hand.

Time grows short, little Mouse. But the glass is not yet empty. Bring her to me.

Whether the voice wanted to eat her or not was irrelevant now – Haelle was as good as dead.

Hanging his head, he admitted defeat. “All right.”

The glowing on the wall flickered and dimmed as a shudder rippled through the mountain once more. Somewhere deep in the tunnels more rocks groaned and fell.

When the lights returned everyone was braced for disaster. No one dared move or speak.

“We should head on,” Imaino said at last, after no more tremors came.

Come now. Bring her to me.

“Yes.” Mouse stood and handed the stretcher straps to his lieutenant. “We should.”

Decision made, the others swiftly sorted themselves out, gathered their meagre belongings and set out again.

If the lights shone brighter and the way seemed clearer than it had for days, no one seemed to notice. Except Mouse, but then he could hardly fail to miss it when a satisfied purr was thrumming through his mind.

We will meet at last, my little Mouse. Flesh to flesh. Dragongift to Dragongifted. And your friend will live.

“Promises, promises,” he muttered, trudging wearily along in Imaino’s wake, the silent Greig by his side.

Hurry, little Mouse. I grow tired of waiting.

* * *

Storm Peaks

LATE WINTER IN the Storm Peaks was not a fun time to travel. Standing at the mouth of the high mountain cave they’d been forced to shelter in, Lyrai ruffled excess water from his hair and stared out at the drowning landscape beyond. Grey rain dragged across his vision in misty curtains, a ghostly gloom beneath the black clouds scowling above. Thunder growled around the jagged peaks, like a wolf pack circling trapped prey.

Lightning fizzed across the valley and Lyrai shivered, barely able to believe he’d been flying through that just moments before.

“On a day like today it’s hard to imagine why they call this place the Storm Peaks.”

Lyrai turned and smiled as Mhysra sidled up to him, her damp curls flattened against her head. They’d only been in the air for a few miles before they hit this storm, but it had been enough for them all to get thoroughly soaked.

He lifted an arm in invitation and cuddled her close. For warmth, of course. They both glanced over their shoulders to check that everyone else was busy before Lyrai drew her into a shallow pocket of the cave wall just inside the entrance.

“Good morning, Mhysra,” he murmured, easing her back against the rocks and pressing a butterfly kiss to her nose.

“Good morning, Lyrai,” she replied, tipping her face up for a proper kiss.

Despite everyone being aware of the change in their relationship, and the fact that he took every opportunity to sit beside her, touch her or take her in his arms, he could still count the number of kisses they’d shared on one hand. With a couple of fingers to spare. Mhysra was shy and he’d never been an exhibitionist, so finding time away from the others was proving difficult. Which was why he had to make the best of what he could get.

It started sweetly, as all their kisses did. A brief brush of lips, a sharing of breath. Then he had to taste her smile. Before long his hands were buried in her sodden curls, while her own were warming themselves on his back, splayed hungrily across the muscles beneath his shirt.

“Where, oh, where could she possibly be?” Corin’s sing-song voice interrupted their reverie from not quite far enough away.

“When you find her,” Honra called from deeper in the caves, “ask if she’s seen Lyrai. He seems to be missing too.”

“Fancy that, Skybreeze. What in the Overworld could they possibly be up to? All this time alone. Together. I do hope we don’t interrupt anything.”

Reluctantly, Lyrai eased his grip on her hair and freed his lips from hers, though he wasn’t quite ready to pull away yet. Pressing kisses along her jaw, he murmured in her ear, “Chance would be a fine thing.”

Mhysra snickered, sliding her hands out from beneath his shirt with a teasing caress. “She’s just disappointed we haven’t given her an eyeful yet.” Her hand slid downwards and squeezed. “You do have a very fine a – ah!” She arched in to him with a gasp as he bit her ear in retaliation.

“Behave,” he warned, pulling her hand away and stepping out of reach.

“Spoilsport,” she grumbled.

Unable to resist her pout, he swooped in for one last quick kiss before spinning her around and shoving her out into the main cavern. “Until next time, milady.”

She stumbled into Corin. While they were distracted trying to keep their balance without dropping Skybreeze, Lyrai slipped past them and returned to the cave.

Honra awaited him, wearing a knowing smile. “Keeping an eye on the storm, were you?”

“And getting a good feel for it too.” Lyrai couldn’t help but grin. Impossible to imagine that less than a moon ago he would have never considered kissing his student in a thousand years. But things were different now. Mhysra was different; he was different. Life didn’t seem so grim anymore. Even if they were taking things slowly. “You wanted me for something?”

Chuckling, his fellow lieutenant shook his head. “I did. I promise I wasn’t just trying to spoil your fun.”

“We have Corin for that,” Lyrai grumbled, glancing at two girls wandering past. Corin shot him a lewd wink, while Mhysra hunched over in embarrassment. Where once he might have taken offence at the teasing, now he smiled. All this travelling was good for him. His old friends would hardly recognise him.

Honra watched the by-play with a smile. “She’s good for you.”

“I know.” It was a truth he had no intention of denying.

“And she’s of your class. Your mother would approve.”

Lyrai raised an eyebrow. “Putting the boat before the bullwing, aren’t you?”

“We are heading back to Nimbys,” Honra reminded him. “In a round about way. You remember what happened the last time we were there. You know how these things get. Rumour is powerful, as is ambition. Don’t forget that she’s a lady, Lyrai, for all that she’s also a Rider.”

Lyrai grimaced at the reminder. “She’s too young for marriage.”

“She’s eighteen, Lyrai. Plenty of nobles marry their daughters off younger than that. And, for all that you’re a Rider yourself, you’d make a fine catch.”

He felt sick at the prospect. Not of marrying Mhysra, though he found the idea of marrying anyone just yet faintly ludicrous. No, what made him nauseas was the prospect of returning to Nimbys and being paraded on the marriage mart. He’d avoided it last time, mostly thanks to his brother’s betrothal, but if word got out about his relationship with Mhysra he knew that would swiftly change.

“Gods.” He cradled his head in his hands, wishing Honra had never started this conversation. “I’ll talk to her.”

“Gently,” his friend advised. “It’s even less her fault than it would be yours.”

He nodded, though his mind was still busy with other things. Like how to avoid returning to the city of his father. Perhaps he could entice Captain Myran into meeting them all off-shore? That would cut down on potential dragon problems.

“Lyrai?” Honra snapped his fingers in front of his eyes, the impatience in his tone hinting that he’d been trying to attract his attention for a while. “Glad as I am that you’re thinking things through at last, I wanted to talk to you about something else.”

“Oh.” Lyrai rubbed his forehead and tried to push this newest tangle of problems to the back of his mind. They had plenty of other things to deal with before they turned for Nimbys. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, specifically.” Honra sighed, then pulled out their precious maps of the Storm Peaks from their protective waxed envelopes. “Or not yet anyway, but it’s time we started thinking about transport and accommodation. You’ve been here as many times as I have. Where do you think we should charter a skyship from? And how likely is it that we’ll find someone willing to take us to Sanctuary without much profit to show for it.”

With three dragons on board, one of which wasn’t able to shift to anything below thirty feet in length, not to mention the two dragonets and the overlarge vulardi, Lyrai couldn’t blame his fellow officer for thinking about this now. True, they were barely half way across the Storm Peaks, but with such an impossible task ahead of them they could plan for ten times as long and still not come up with any answers.

“I think we’re going to need a miracle,” he answered honestly.

Honra raised his eyebrows; Lyrai grinned. “Dhori,” they both called, and waited for the silver-eyed student to join them.


~ Next Chapter ~

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Storm Wings: Chapter 14, Part 1

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Previous Chapter ~

Dreams. Again. Why can’t this series ever have nice dreams?


Fourteen
Stormy Days

Storm Peaks
17th Cold

MHYSRA WAS DREAMING. She knew that as surely as she knew her own name, but couldnt wake up. The harder she tried, the more deeply ensnared she became in the silken web of sleep.

So she started running, fleeing through the darkness as the walls closed in around her. The ceiling curved over her head, the ground became rough beneath her feet and her breathing grew laboured. But she had to keep running, had to keep going. She had to find it, something shed lost. If only she could remember what.

“I’m coming, Im coming,” she panted into the darkness, a sense of urgency growing inside her. Time was running out, she had to find it.

Her foot caught on a loose stone and she stumbled, tripping over the uneven ground. The tunnel floor dropped away before her and she fell.

Landing hard on her shoulder, she started to roll, unable to stop herself as she tumbled into the darkness. Then, with a jolt and a curse, she slammed into something solid and sprawled to a stop.

Her grazed and burning hands reached out tentatively – cold met her fingertips. She pressed down and it gave beneath the pressure, releasing a fetid burst of air and a slimy, chilly ooze.

Yelping, she scrambled back, feeling more yielding pops beneath her scrabbling hands, releasing more of the foul odour as it clung to her clothes.

Finally she encountered something solid and turned to crawl back up the slope.

Only to run head first into another cold, slimy obstacle.

Breathing hard, she reached up with her hands and felt rotten material flaking away, before she reached something firm and flat. Her fingers slid over the unmistakable shape of a jaw and she drew back with a yelp.

Stone rattled beneath her feet and she looked back over her shoulder. A low, green glow shone from the walls. Light which grew brighter as the bodies on the tunnel floor stirred from their restless slumber.

Fallen Riders, some crushed in the evacuation stampede, others half-eaten by the kaz-naghkt began crawling towards her, maggots and worms falling from their mouths, gaping wounds and empty eye-sockets.

Too panicked to scream, her breathing reduced to gasping shudders, she turned to run only to collide with the first body again. It grabbed her as they fell.

“Mhys-ra,” it wheezed with the air that was forced from its lungs.

She stared into the rotten but still recognisable face of her brother and screamed.

“Where are you, little Wingborn?” the dead whispered, as she scrabbled to free herself, fighting to get away from the ruin of Kilai. “Where have you been hiding?”

His dead arms were strong, clasping her tightly to his decaying chest, pulling her into his disintegrating body. His sunken lips pressed gently against her cheek.

“I’ve got you now.”

She woke with a rush and a choke, her throat too tight to scream, fighting to free herself from the smothering confines of her bedroll and blanket.

“Mhysra?” a soft voice spoke out of the night, and a shadow moved around the campfire. “Are you all right?”

Still stunned by the horror of her dream, Mhysra could only hug her knees and shake her head. No, she was most definitely not all right.

Dhori crouched in front of her and took her hand. “You’re freezing,” he murmured, chafing her fingers between his gloves. “Bad dream?”

She nodded, wriggling closer to the fire, wishing it had the power to warm the ice that had settled inside of her. The blanket that had seemed so restrictive a moment early wasn’t tight enough now.

Dhori gently stroked the tangle of curls off her forehead. “Can you tell me about it?”

She shook her head. She didn’t think she could ever tell anyone about it. It was too horrible. Her brother, her brave, loyal Kilai was rotting away beneath Aquila, with no grave marker to remember him by. Along with so many others.

For once Dhori seemed lost for words as he stroked Mhysra’s bent head and stared around their shelter, hastily rigged the night before during heavy rain. It was still raining, and though the canvas they’d strung between several scrubby thorn trees kept most of the water off, there was little they could do about the bitter wind that brought plenty of moisture in through the open sides. Poor Rhiddyl, too large to fit beneath the canvas, was sheltering the miryhls on the far side of the camp. Everyone else had to put up with soggy bedrolls and a dying fire.

Lightning flickered in the distance and Dhori shivered as though the bolt had danced down his spine. Mhysra glimpsed a small glow in his gaze as he looked back at her, eyes turning dark with worry. He smiled, but she could see his concern. She felt it too.

Was it coming back? The nightmares? The breathlessness? Would she lose her voice again?

“Why don’t you wake Lyrai?”

They both looked up, surprised to find Reglian watching them. Despite his excessive height in his human shape, the dragon could move in near silence when he wished to. “I will stay with her until you return.”

Gold eyes met grey and a long silence ensued. Mhysra wondered what messages passed between them before she shivered again, remembering other glowing eyes that lit up the dark.

“Where are you, little Wingborn? Where have you been hiding?”

The others stared at her as if they too heard the echo from her dream. Frowning, Dhori nodded at Reglian and melted into the darkness around the edge of their camp.

The dragon-man smiled and sat down in front of Mhysra, oblivious to the sodden ground. “Dreams can be troubling things,” he said conversationally.

Mhysra snorted: didn’t she just know it.

“Sometimes they make no sense,” Reglian continued, almost absently. “Other times they appear all too real.” He eyed her speculatively.

Since the lump in her throat was making it painful to even breathe, Mhysra only shrugged. All dreams, real or unreal, were too much for her to face these days. If she never dreamed again, it would be too soon.

The dragon smiled faintly and pulled a dragongift globe from his pocket. It glowed a soft gold as he took her hand from beneath her blanket and placed the globe on her palm. “Hold it tight, little Wingborn, and you need never fear the dark again.”

Before she could find a way to convey her thanks, figures emerged from the night. Dhori stayed long enough to ensure she was awake and that Reglian hadn’t made things worse before returning to sentry duty. Lyrai, however, wasted no time in sitting beside her, pressing against her from shoulder to knee.

In desperate need of more warmth and comfort, Mhysra tipped sideways and rested her head on his shoulder. She sighed with relief as his arms closed around her, sure and strong.

His warm breath filtered through her tangled curls as he pressed a kiss to her head. “Was it bad?” he murmured.

She nodded and closed her eyes, feeling safe at last.

“Does this happen often?” Reglian asked, while she eased open her blanket enough to wrap an arm around Lyrai’s back.

She felt his chin brushing her hair as he shook his head. “Not since we left Misthome.”

“And before that?”

“They started after the fall of Aquila.”

“Little Wingborn, little Wingborn, where are you?”

Hating the voice, the memories and the dreams that had followed, Mhysra buried her face against Lyrai’s chest, pressing her ear against his shirt, searching for the beat of his heart. She needed it to drown out everything else.

“From what I have heard it was enough to give anyone nightmares.” Reglian’s voice was a soothing counterpoint to Lyrai’s heartbeat, but his words made her grip her lieutenant all the tighter.

“Yes,” Lyrai agreed, running a hand through her curls and making her shiver. “A terrible time. We lost so many. Mhysra’s brother, Kilai, sacrificed himself by causing a cave in to keep us safe.”

“Little Wingborn?”

“From the kaz-naghkt?”

“You are far away.”

“No. A man.”

“How did you get so far?”

“A renegade Rider?”

“Silly girl, what have you been up to?”

“No.” Lyrai shook his head again. “A stranger. He knew our names, though.”

“His name?” Reglian sounded suddenly urgent.

“Little Wingborn…?” For once the voice sounded uncertain.

“Something strange. Odd. I’d never heard it before. Yerlly… Youllin… something like that.”

“Yullik ses-Khennik,” Reglian hissed.

The voice inside Mhysra’s head let out a hiss of its own. “What have you done?” it demanded, before vanishing like a wisp of smoke.

“Yes.” Mhysra opened her eyes, finding Reglian golden gaze fixed on her. “Yes, it’s him.”

“Here?” the dragon growled, sounding ready to do battle that very moment.

Mhysra was quick to shake her head. The voice was gone, taking the lump in her throat with it. The horror of her dream remained, along with an ache in her chest over Kilai’s loss, but they were both manageable now. She could breathe again.

“He’s been tracking us through her.” Dhori emerged from the darkness.

“What?” Lyrai and Mhysra both stared, incredulous.

“You dreamt of him often after the fall of Aquila, didn’t you?” Dhori asked her, his eyes a bright glow in the darkness. Thunder snarled, still distant but getting closer. “He’d always ask where you were, leaving you had no choice but to answer. But when you woke you couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t only grief that stopped you from talking.”

“That’s what you said,” Lyrai murmured, his arms loosening as he remembered. He tipped up her chin to meet his eyes. “At Misthome when you started talking again. You said you could breathe there.”

“Ah.” Reglian and Dhori both sighed.

“The Storm Wash,” the dragon rumbled. “We are further from the Storm Surge here. We’ve been muting our presence too, keeping ourselves quiet, which allowed him to find her again.”

“He knows,” Mhysra said, almost dreamily. “He knows you’re here now. He knows you’re coming to find him.” She didn’t know where the words came from, but they felt right. Especially when the anger that burned in the corner of her mind rapidly faded along with Yullik’s presence. “He fears you.”

“Not yet,” Reglian corrected, as lightning splintered the darkness above their shelter. “But he will.” Thunder growled its promise. “Soon.”

Beside him, Dhori smiled. “You always were an excellent teacher, Reglian kin Thunderwing.”

The thunder in the sky laughed.


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Storm Wings: Chapter 13, Part 3

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Previous Chapter ~

Will Stirla’s torment ever end?



Aquila

HE WAS BURNING. Fire raged beneath his skin, flaying him from the inside out. He twisted and scratched to evade it, but stern hands reached out to hold him down.

“No,” he screamed. “No. Let go!”

Or at least he tried, but the words wouldn’t form. All that came from his mouth were feral shrieks and cries, more like a hunting hawk than a man. Or like a kaz-naghkt.

The nightmares took him. Flying in the darkness, leather wings at his back, above his head, wrapped around him. A dark forest, a swift descent. A shadow in the night, rushing towards him.

Then pain. So much pain. And burning, always burning.

He woke to find himself scratching, a frantic, desperate scrabble he had no power to stop. If only he could get down to the veins and open them up, he could bleed the fire out. It burned, so hot, so painful. He wanted to make it stop.

“Cease,” a stern voice spoke over him. “I did not exhaust myself for this folly, my Lord Rabbit. Lie back.”

Though he felt no touch against his skin, his body slammed back against the bed, his arms pinned by his sides. The burning grew worse. His fingers twitched, desperate to scratch. He tried to twist free from his invisible restraints, tried to see his torturer through the red haze across his vision, but there was nothing. Nothing but the flames inside him.

He screamed his frustration, his rage, his helplessness and pain, cursing and swearing and vowing vengeance, but there were no words. Only screams.

* * * 

Kevian
16th Cold

IT WAS DARK by the time they emerged from fra Koyl’s warehouse, with only the slightest hint of light in the sky. It came from the east, and Stirla’s weary body knew there wasn’t a chance they’d be leaving Kevian today.

Great Gods, he was exhausted. Who knew watching someone else shop could be so tiring? Especially when Neryth was bouncing as she walked, filled with elation at all her purchases.

As the afternoon had waned into evening, fra Koyl had closed the doors of his treasure trove, called all his assistants and taken the princess in hand. By lamplight, he’d brought out the finest clothes in his possession, then at a discreet cough from Derrain turned to a more practical bent. Which meant about four times as many coats, breeches, boots, shirts, belts, buckles, stockings, jackets, hats, mufflers, scarves, gloves, tunics, jerkins and other items of clothing that Stirla had never seen before, were rained down upon the delighted princess’ head for her perusal.

By this time fra Koyl had sent out for food, and he and Derrain conspired together while the delirious princess tried on outfits and paraded them for approval. Sullenly picking through his, surprisingly good, roasted doelyn, Stirla had annexed a bottle of wine to himself and wondered how much longer the torture could possibly last.

All night, was the answer. But eventually even the cooing, applauding, fawning assistants had started to flag, while Neryth had failed to hide her ever-increasing yawns.

Since by this point she’d already tried on about a third of the shop, it was easy enough for the her to decide what pieces to keep. Well, at least it should have been. Except that ever since Neryth had set foot inside the first shop of the day, she’d revealed a hitherto unforeseen tendency to dither. Big decisions, like leaving everything she’d ever known behind to chase the coattails of Stirla’s Riders, were made in a matter moments. Little ones, like whether to team a pair of black breeches with a brown flying coat, or to keep it all black – maybe all brown? Or what about the dark green coat? The blue one? – could take forever.

Thankfully for Stirla’s sanity Derrain had stepped in, told the princess they would all either darken to black or fade to grey in the end anyway – if she could get the mud stains off – had made the choices very simple. Neryth had stuck to the black and brown items, buying one dark leather flying coat, a very stylish black flight-jacket, several pairs of black and brown breeches, a couple of extra shirts, some very fine black boots, a second more practical brown pair, a couple of spare tunics for when they weren’t flying, and enough scarves, hats, gloves and mufflers to cause an avalanche.

Then, finally, they were done. Even at fra Koyl’s reasonable prices the total cost was enormous, but the princess didn’t bat an eyelid. She simply paid half and left a promissory note to be delivered to the Havian ambassador’s residence in the Kevian capital, Regis, and that was that. Stirla could practically hear the ambassador’s outrage already.

All that remained was to carry her haul back to their rooms beside the eyries. A task which even Neryth had to assist with, though she did so by wearing most of it. Then they had to try to figure out how they were going to pack all the extra weight.

Still, at least now Stirla could press ahead with their journey, mostly content that his royal charge wasn’t about to freeze to death. Not because of her clothes, at any rate. There were plenty of other ways it could all go wrong. Thankfully at that moment Stirla was too tired to think of them all.

“Happy now?” Derrain asked, as they shouldered their way into the large room they’d taken over for their supposedly short stay in town.

“Show me to my bed,” Stirla grumbled, “and I’ll be delirious.”

“Just don’t snore too loudly,” his student chuckled. “You’re not the only exhausted one.”

Stirla eyed him darkly. “If you’d offered to show us your friend’s place right at the start, we could have been back here last night. Or,” he added, when it looked like Derrain was about to protest, “if you’d stepped in at fra Koyl’s earlier, we could have wrapped up this farce before midnight. Don’t tell me you’re tired, Derry, because I don’t believe you.”

The lad rolled his eyes. “I could have done that, yes, but Neryth was enjoying herself.” They turned to watch the princess merrily stuff her new clothes into her pack without any finesse or folding. They winced, and Derry sighed. “I couldn’t take that away from her, sir. I know these next few moons are going to be some of the toughest I’ve ever faced. You know it too. But she hasn’t any idea what we’ll be up against. And I think that scares her. She’s quieter and more thoughtful lately. Not that she’s ever chatty. I wanted her to have some fun. Just one day, before we head into the wilderness.” Derrain turned and looked his lieutenant straight in the eye. “You can’t deny that fun from here on out will be in very short supply.”

Sometimes the boy was so thoughtful it hurt. Students weren’t supposed to be like that. Stirla rubbed his aching head and sighed. “No, Derry, I can’t.” He held up his hand before the lad could protest again. “And no, I guess when you put it like that I can’t deny it was good for her.” Before Derrain could look too pleased with himself, however, Stirla gripped his shoulder. “But next time, ask first. There’s far better fun to be had in any town than shopping.”

Derrain’s grin was wicked. “Ah yes, sir, but at least this way you’ll still remember where you are when you wake up in the morning. And no hangover.”

“Speak for yourself,” Stirla muttered, already feeling the effects of the bottle of wine that had kept him company in the depths of the early morning. “Right now I’m going to bed.”

“Bed?” Neryth looked up from her bulging pack, crumpled shirt in hand. “Now? I thought we were leaving today. Don’t we have to press on?”

Stirla blinked at the princess, scowled at the snickering Derrain and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Maegla preserve me from the enthusiasm of royalty.” He collapsed back onto his bed.

Neryth turned to Derrain, eyebrows raised. “Is that a no?”

“It’s a no,” Derrain agreed, kneeling beside the princess. “And before we both do the sensible thing and get our own sleep, how about I teach you how a proper Rider packs their bags?”

Studying the lumpy, bulging mess she’d created, with half the clothes spilling out the top, Neryth smiled wryly. “Sleep first, pack later?” she offered.

Derrain grinned. “We’ll make a Rider of you yet.”

* * *

Aquila

STANDING ATOP AQUILA’S East Tower in the fading light of the mid-afternoon, Yullik stared over the icy emptiness of the Cloud Sea, silently daring the grey banks of yet another blizzard to approach. He could feel a hesitation in the air, as if the very gods themselves were waiting to see what he would do next.

Down by his side, the fingers of his left hand twitched. Scowling, he narrowed his eyes and placed yet more mental restraints around Willym’s fretting body. By the blood, that fool was definitely more trouble than he was worth. Not that this was news, but somehow Yullik had forgotten it when he’d put so much effort into saving his life.

Who was the fool now?

He smiled wryly, even as the insistent itch grew inside his mind. It was tempting to let the boy loose, to let him scratch as much as he desperately wanted. Except he wouldn’t be content until he’d bled the last of the kaz-naghkt blood out. Which would end in his own death, making everything Yullik had done for him utterly pointless.

Yullik was not used to working so hard for nothing, and he wasn’t about to start. So he tightened his hold and shoved Willym back over the edge into unconsciousness. Everyone was much happier when he was there.

The itching in his head eased and faded, and he let out a deep sigh, feeling the relief flow through his body, relaxing his shoulders and spine. Deep in the citadel his slumbering kaz-naghkt shifted and grumbled, lashing out at each other even as they slept, dreaming of the meat they would consume when they woke.

How simple they were. Almost innocent. The thought pleased him, and he turned his full attention back to the bank of clouds before him. “You are not welcome here.”

A bitter wind punched him, lifting his unbound hair and spreading it like wings behind him. He smiled and leaned into the force of the gale, daring it to try and remove him.

Aquila was his; no mere wind could blow him from his prize.

The tempest eased, showering him with a scattering of snowflakes. Yullik blew out a hot breath, melting them long before they could land.

“You are not welcome,” he repeated.

The grey clouds bubbled and roiled, but they came no closer.

Yullik smiled. The time for winter was over. Aquila was under his rule now. It was time he proved it to the world.

Rolling his head on his shoulders, he stretched out his arms and arched his back before taking in a deep, deep breath. As he breathed out he sent his mind searching into the world. He had a Wingborn to find and Rift Riders to punish.

Oh yes, it was his time now.


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