IT STARTED OFF well. After the first ecstatic soar, Mouse and Onyx soon settled with the others, Silveo and Vehro adopting the lead position, while the rest arranged themselves protectively around Greig and Jupi. Mouse picked the position beside his friend’s left, from where he could keep an anxious watch over his patient. Thunder placed herself directly overhead, roaming freely across the entire flock, eyes open and searching for danger. Everyone was tense.
The narrow valley lay in shadow below them, the sun having already passed into the west to descend towards the clouds. It still shone on Mouse and his friends and the ridges and mountainside above, but the cold below made him nervous. Anything could be hiding down there, particularly a large female miryhl with feathers so dark as to be almost black. For anyone looking up from those depths, Mouse and his friends would be perfectly silhouetted against the bright sky. Easy targets.
Trying not to think such things, Mouse watched over Greig and Jupi, but the miryhl was flying with extra care, barely flapping her wings. The Rider on her back lay motionless and quiet; Mouse hoped he was sleeping. The shadow of Thunder drifted overhead, bringing a momentary chill, and Mouse looked up at her dark shape. Broad wings spread wide, almost blocking out the sky, her beak curved into a predatory point, her feet tucked up but not quite enough to hide her lethal talons. She could so easily have been Mercata, except that Thunder was truly black and despite her unfriendliness, there was a core of honour in her that still held firm, even after everything. Mouse wasn’t sure they would ever be friends, but he certainly admired her.
The sight of Thunder reminded him of her missing Rider, and Mouse wondered how Haelle and Nightriver were getting along. With the valley below all in shadow, he hadn’t a hope of seeing the dark dragon. He could feel his presence in the back of his mind, always there, never fading, but didn’t reach out. For all he knew, Nightriver might be crawling headfirst down a sheer cliff face; the last thing he wanted to do was distract him.
A soft chuckle bubbled up in answer, though no words followed: Nightriver was fine.
Mouse glanced to his right. Jupi and Greig were fine too. He looked around at his flight companions. The three pack miryhls were positioned to Jupi’s right, behind and below her, while the other two free miryhls roamed as Thunder did, watchful and waiting. Looking ahead, Mouse smiled as Silveo and Vehro flapped to lift themselves up and over the sharp spurs that marked the end of the valley. The forest where Mercata first attacked streamed by below and Mouse held tight as Onyx lifted them up, up and over.
He sighed with relief as they left the narrow valley and swooped down into the pass beyond. The miryhls banked heavily to the right, avoiding a jut of the mountain as their way turned due west towards the sinking sun. Welcoming the warmth, Mouse closed his eyes and smiled.
And Mercata attacked.
* * *
On board the Illuminai
MHYSRA SAT ON the edge of the landing platform, feet dangling over emptiness, staring back over the clouds they’d already crossed. A flock of miryhls kept pace on either side, partly for protection, but mainly to provide exercise and ease from the cramped quarters below. The Illuminai was a big ship, the largest in the Kilpapan fleet, but even its hold struggled to contain two hundred miryhls in comfort. Which was why two flurries were always in the air during daylight, leaving fifty less birds below.
As much as Mhysra loved miryhls, especially in flight, they weren’t what held her attention as she sat on the platform and gazed into the east.
A low whistle sounded beside her. “I always thought Cumulo was a show off.”
She smiled at Derrain’s words, even as her heart clenched to see the distant but unmistakable pale form of Hurricane climb higher and higher until he came almost to a stop. Wings slack, he turned on his back and began to fall. Mhysra’s stomach swooped with memories of such flights and falls of her own, but it had always been more exciting and less terrifying when it was her and Cumulo.
“Dear gods,” Corin whispered as Hurricane tumbled, wings still loose, rolling over and over, the Cloud Sea getting closer, closer. Too close!
The three friends grunted in unison as Hurricane finally opened his wings and glided, safe and easy, over the turbulent seas.
Maegla, Mhysra felt as if she’d been kicked in the chest. For a moment there she’d thought Hurricane wouldn’t make it, that he couldn’t pull up, that they were truly falling. Even though she and Cumulo had performed the exact same stunt countless times before – and likely would again because it was exhilarating beyond compare, and as Derrain said her miryhl was a show off. However, watching someone else take the fall was something she never wished to see again.
“He cut that even finer than you do,” Corin said, sounding a little breathless herself. Although that might have had something to do with the dragonet draped around her neck and slightly restricting her breathing. Skybreeze was getting so big now. It wouldn’t be long before he’d have to start carrying himself around instead of being carried. The long edge of his wings reached halfway down his tail and Mhysra wondered how much longer it would be before he could start learning to fly.
“No one cuts it finer than her and Cue,” Derrain argued, shaking his head. “You should see it when they fall into the Clouds.”
Corin shuddered. “I’d rather not, if it’s all the same.”
Mhysra shivered too, partly at the memory of such falls but mostly at the idea of watching someone she cared about do likewise. She wasn’t sure her heart could take it. Pressing her hand to her chest, she stared at her knees for a moment, trying to get herself back under control. Hurricane and Lyrai were fine. It was just a game. No one was falling or hurt or dying. Not today, anyway.
“Oh, gods, not again.” Derrain’s groan had Mhysra looking up, eyes widening as Hurricane began powering upwards with great, sweeping flaps of his wings. Twisting around above them and angling into a dive on a direct collision course, the second huge miryhl could only have been Atyrn.
“I can’t watch!” Corin squeaked, covering her eyes.
Mhysra wanted to do the same, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the distant miryhls – one dark, one pale – racing towards each other. They were only playing, she reminded herself, they wouldn’t actually crash. That would be stupid and dangerous, and Hurricane would never risk Lyrai like that. Atyrn would never risk —
The miryhls collided. Wings wide, screaming defiance, the pair of them tumbled over and over, falling swiftly down towards the clouds, talons locked together.
“Oh, gods, oh, gods,” Corin chanted beside her, hands pressed hard against her face. “Tell me when it’s over.”
Mhysra couldn’t respond, unable to breath as the two miryhls spiralled over and down and around each other. What were they doing? What were they thinking? What kind of lunacy was this?
The breath rushed out of her in a long sigh as Hurricane and Atyrn released, throwing each other in opposite directions, skimming away across the Cloud Sea. Even from this distance she could hear their triumphant screams.
She wanted to kill them.
“I know,” Derrain soothed, patting her on the back as she bent over double, struggling to breathe. “Trust me, I know. It’s even worse when you’re stuck in the middle of it, only a passenger, while your miryhl tries to kill you and calls it fun.”
“I don’t need that kind of fun in my life,” Corin said, shaking her head and dislodging Skybreeze from her shoulders. The snoozing dragonet came awake with a peep of protest. “I have more than enough as it is.”
Grumbling, Skybreeze stomped across Corin’s lap, dragged himself over Mhysra’s legs and flopped his head onto Derrain’s knee. No one said anything, just lifted their hands to stroke him. Derrain smoothed the ridge over the dragonet’s closed eyes, Mhysra sat back and stroked his wings and Corin played with his toes. Skybreeze sighed with contentment.
Away across the Cloud Sea, the lieutenants met up midair, circling counter to each other as their miryhls soared. Mhysra had little doubt they were laughing and feeling ever-so-pleased with themselves. She wished them well of it. The first chance she had to get Lyrai alone, she was going to punch him. Hard. Didn’t matter where, just so long as he knew she wasn’t happy with him.
“Someone’s in trouble,” Corin sang.
Now that the fright was over and her nerves were being nicely soothed by stroking Skybreeze’s wings, Mhysra could smile. “He has no idea.”
“Poor Lyrai,” Derrain chuckled. “Maybe someone should warn him.”
The three friends watched as the two distant miryhls began a complicated dance of swoops and pounces, rolling each other over in midair. It was impossible to tell what their Riders were doing so far away, but Mhysra had no doubt they were hurling insults and encouragement, just as much a part of the game as their miryhls.
All three students put their heads to one side then looked at each other. “Nah,” they agreed.
Lyrai deserved what was coming to him. Mhysra smiled and looked forward to it.
~ Next Chapter ~