“RIDERS!” A VOICE cried on the wind. “Riders, your lieutenant needs you!”
Stirla bent low over Atyrn’s neck and squinted against the wind as he led his flurry down through the ravine towards the shrieking, screaming mass that had so recently been deserted and silent. The Heights were boiling with kaz-naghkt and miryhls and Riders, and somewhere in the middle of it all, was Lyrai.
“Riders! Riders for Aquila!” Captain Myran’s voice carried over the shriek of battle, drawing the attention of the kaz-naghkt and within moments the swooping miryhls crashed into a tide of black.
All was confusion, all was madness as Stirla stabbed and struck and twisted, trying to make sense of the battlefield. Moments before all had been fine. Nerve-wracking and tense, but otherwise fine. Lyrai and Honra were scouting, he was waiting with his Riders and Captain Myran on the far side of the ridge. All was silent, all was well.
Then the explosion, followed by screams, followed by movement and the rush of wind.
As he swept over the bare ground in front of the keep, he saw the once great gates hanging loose on their hinges. Which explained the explosion. There was Honra, diving into the courtyard with his Riders at his back. Stirla saw Sergeant Bheneo leading Lyrai’s men over the wreck of the gates, their miryhls flying loose above them, tearing kaz-naghkt down.
There was no sign of Lyrai, no sign of the unmistakable pale form of Hurricane anywhere in the sky. No sign of Cumulo’s huge cocky form either, or the flash of Dhori and Latinym’s silver-edged forms.
Maegla, where were they?
Shrieking, Atyrn swept upright, catching a kaz-naghkt in the face with her talons. Stirla struck out on instinct, impaling a kaz-naghkt that was coming in on his right. His twisted his wrist as Atyrn did likewise with her catch and they both shook off their latest kills before drifting over the wall above the writhing courtyard below.
“Maegla bless,” Stirla whispered, even as Atyrn croaked with distress and dropped, feet first into the fray.
Hurricane fought like a rabid beast, snarling and lashing and snapping as if he’d forgotten he ever had wings, his pale form streaked and caked with black gore. All around him, bodies piled up, while behind him Lyrai and Mhysra fought in tandem to keep the miryhl safe.
Atyrn swept down, catching two kaz-naghkt by surprise and bowling them off Hurricane’s back. They hit the ground, one in each foot and Atyrn lifted up ever so slightly before slamming down again. Shaking the bodies off her feet, she spun around, wings out and hissing, while Stirla likewise surveyed the scene, trying to make sense of it all.
Cumulo. Cumulo was down, lying half-trampled beneath Hurricane. Stirla raised his sword and roared.
And the Riders answered. First Zephyr, then Wisp, then Latinym and more. Soon a ring of talons and steel surrounded Hurricane, the downed Wingborn and their exhausted Riders, driving the vicious kaz-naghkt back. The space around the grew wider and wider, until finally, Stirla could raise his head.
Just in time to see Hurricane, with Lyrai on his back, leap over the worst of the fighting, directly down on the figure watching over it all.
“Lyrai, no!” Stirla hauled on the reins to get Atyrn’s attention and urged her to follow.
Then the figure looked up and he realised it wasn’t Yullik. It was worse.
“Traitor,” he snarled, jumping straight off Atyrn’s back and shoving Lyrai aside to thrust with his sword.
“You!” Willym cursed, turning just enough so that the sword caught him in the side rather than the chest. “Don’t any of you ever die?”
Stirla hauled his sword free, panting. “No. But you soon will.” He staggered back, thinking he should have felt something more. He’d known Willym for over a decade, had hated him just as long. Yet all he felt was weary. He wanted this to end, all of it. Starting with this traitor.
Willym laughed, hand pressed over the gaping hole in his side, a fatal if not entirely merciful strike. “You really think so?” he chuckled, but it was bitter and cold. Much as Stirla’s blood ran when he realised there were claws at the ends of Willym’s fingers, as he gripped the ruins of his shirt and tore it free, revealing a grey-skinned torso covered in a hideous array of scars. “You really think it’s that easy to kill me?”
His blood… merciful Gods. His blood was black, and the wound in his side was closing. Stirla could see it happening right before his horror-struck eyes.
“Blessed Maegla,” Lyrai whispered beside him. “What have you done, Willym? What have you become?”
The creature with Willym’s scarred and bloodied face smiled, his eyes lit with a glowing hint of red. “I survived,” he told them calmly. “But I’m not Willym now. I am Monster and I’m hungry.”
Baring sharp serrated teeth, Monster leapt, knocking Stirla to his back. Tangling his claws in Stirla’s hair, the creature jerked back his head, baring his neck and grinned. “Feeding time,” he chortled, and bit down hard.
* * *
LYRAI COULD ONLY stare in horror as the monster knocked Stirla down and bit into his neck. The sound of his friend’s scream snapped his paralysis and he lunged, sword first, plunging his blade right through Willym’s side. The man - monster - thing keened as he was shoved away from his meal and driven into the ground.
Atyrn was waiting for him, talons and beak stamping and stabbing with murderous intent. But even wounded, the Willym-monster was fast, dodging around and beneath the miryhl’s attack to scuttle back into the shadows of the keep.
The kaz-naghkt still in the courtyard turned and fled with him, screaming and hissing and licking their lips. A last few were slain as they tried to feast on the bodies, not just of their enemies but of their own dead. Until finally, as swiftly as they’d arrived, the kaz-naghkt were gone, leaving chaos, blood and horror in their wake.
Lyrai looked at the wreckage of the Heights, his sword heavy in his hand, and fell exhausted to his knees.
“Stirla, Stirla,” Atyrn moaned, nuzzling her Rider and crooning with worry.
Lyrai crawled towards his friend, wishing he had something, anything, to cover the gaping wound in his fellow lieutenant’s neck. Stirla pressed his own hand against the ragged hole and hissed as he sat up, shooing Atyrn away with his other arm.
Bloodied, battered and panting, the two friends stared at each other in the middle of the carnage - and smiled.
“Riders one,” Stirla chuckled. “Aquila Invaders nil.”
Lyrai chuckled and turned around to sit beside his friend, their filthy miryhls standing at their backs. “Well,” he said, staring at the piles of kaz-naghkt bodies and the mercifully few fallen mounds of their own side, “it’s a start.”
The sun finally climbed high enough to peer down at them around the high sides of the cleave and Hurricane flapped above their heads, gliding across the carnage to where Mhysra and Derrain were carefully easing Cumulo to his feet. Both miryhls were covered head to tail in black kaz-naghkt gore, almost unrecognisable as they stared intently at each other. Wings half-mantled, they puffed up their chests and for a horrible moment Lyrai thought they were going to fight.
Cumulo cocked his head one way, Hurricane tilted his the other. They looked each other up and down.
“Well?” Hurricane demanded gruffly.
Cumulo ruffled his sticky feathers. At least he tried, although it was more of a gloopy slide, but he still managed to raise his beak to a haughty angle. “Mine?” he sneered, bouncing on his feet in a mocking impersonation of Hurricane’s former fury. “Mine? Is that all you could think of to say?”
Eyes narrowed, Hurricane stepped right up to him, putting them chest to chest, eye to eye.
Lyrai struggled to his feet, unsure how he was going to make it across the courtyard in time, but determined to do something to pull them apart. They couldn’t have a dominance battle now. They couldn’t have one ever. It would destroy the morale of the entire flight. Not to mention end any chance he had of a relationship with Mhysra.
Cumulo moved, and Lyrai wasn’t the only one to wince, but the big Wingborn just lowered his head and nibbled, ever so gently, at the tiny feathers at the edge of Hurricane’s beak.
“Well, all right then.”
And Hurricane nuzzled him right back, the pair of them suddenly cooing like a loved up couple of doves.
Lyrai fell onto his arse, mouth agape, utterly astonished.
“Now that,” Atyrn said, ruffling her own sticky feathers, “I didn’t see coming.” With a deep rolling chuckle, she flapped over to congratulate the happy couple.
Stirla slapped him on the shoulder. “That’ll make things easier with your lady.”
Lyrai blinked some more, seeing the lady in question leaning rather heavily on Derrain’s shoulder, as if her knees too were suddenly too weak to hold her at this unexpected turn of events.
Then Stirla hit his shoulder again, holding on this time and giving him a shake. “Sorry to interrupt your haze of disbelief, old friend, but do you think you could rustle me up a healer? I think I may have lost a bit too much blood.” And he collapsed backwards, dragging Lyrai down into the dirt alongside him.
* * * * *
MOUSE BROKE THE surface and took a deep breath, feeling the cold of the cavern bite into his lungs. That was the difference between there and here: here was cold and pain and panic. There all was calm and quiet. Nehtl had been there, but he would never be here again. Aching in more than just his body, Mouse paddled the thick surface and reached out as Nightriver surfaced beside him, Greig resting across his broad back.
Ready, my Mouse? the familiar voice murmured inside his head.
Feeling weary down to his bones, Mouse rested briefly against the great dragon and nodded. “Ready.” He’d made his choice. It was too late to go back now, not that he would even if he could. There had been no other option, not really. Not for Greig, not for Nightriver, not even for himself.
He gripped the edge of Nightriver’s elbow and hauled himself out of the thick water, scrambling up the dragon’s side to sit behind Greig’s slumped form. The water slid away, slow and reluctant as if it didn’t want to lose him. It didn’t need to worry. He would be back. He’d made his choice. He belonged to Aquila now.
Beneath him, Nightriver sighed deeply. He’d made his choice too and the pair of them swam out of the darkness towards the light shining on the shore. There was no Nehtl waiting for him this time, instead there were two very flustered Riders and a couple of rumpled miryhls.
That made him blink, and for the first time in longer than he could remember, Mouse smiled.
He’d made his choice, and the happy tears Haelle cried as he lowered Greig into Silveo’s waiting arms confirmed it had been the right one.
Ready, my Mouse? Nightriver asked again.
Sliding down from the dragon’s back, Mouse rested a hand and his forehead against Nightriver’s cheek and smiled. “I’m ready,” he promised, and knew that it was true.
~ Next Chapter ~