Liam's eyes shot open. He lay wrapped in his blanket, tense with expectation. It was dark, and the chilling wind had picked up since they'd bedded down for the night. Something had woken him. He listened intently, but heard nothing. Silently, Liam extracted himself from the warm blanket and stood. He remained still while his eyes adjusted to the dark, listening for any out-of-place sounds. The wind howled. Insects chirped. Leaves and branches rustled. An owl hooted. Someone cursed nearby.
Liam crept over to Jolither, placed one hand over his mouth and shook him awake with the other. Jolither sat up with a muffled cry, and Liam bent to whisper in his ear. "It's me. Someone's here."
Liam removed his hand from Jolither's mouth, and the Ilanenorian threw his blanket off and reached for his spear. "Who?" he whispered. "And how many?"
"I don't know. They're somewhere there." Liam pointed.
The two men moved to the camp's edge, then stopped to listen. Something metallic scraped against rock. They stole towards the sound with Liam in the lead, and rounded a large rock formation just a few paces from their camp, beyond which a small fire reached hot fingers to the moonless sky. Three men in Sah's uniforms sat around the fire, drinking from steaming mugs. Jolither and Liam exchanged glances. Surely these soldiers weren't after them? Sah had no way of knowing they had travelled this far ryokin would never let unworthy men ride them, so Sah probably didn't even know they existed
unless Toman had told him, Liam thought, and now they were being tracked. How the soldiers had caught up so quickly, though, was a mystery. If only they knew how close they were to their prey. The thought made Liam smile.
At the far edge of the enemy camp, something big shifted. Liam froze, straining to see past the fire. He motioned to Jolither to wait for him, then made his way halfway around the camp to get a better look. A putrid stench reached his nostrils and he gagged. Then he saw them. Huge double the size of the average ryokin scaly, fearsome and reeking of evil. Liam crept back to Jolither and motioned him away. When they were out of earshot, Liam puffed out his cheeks, then asked, "What do you know about scaly creatures that smell like they're rotting?"
Jolither's eyes widened and he whispered, "Is that what you saw?"
Jolither whispered, "Dragons."
That was the first word that had come to Liam's mind to describe the loathsome creatures he'd just seen sleeping, although he had always thought of dragons as majestic and noble, not foul smelling and evil.
Jolither grasped Liam's arm. "We must leave. Now." He started back towards their camp.
"Do they breathe fire, too?"
Jolither looked surprised. "No. Why would you think that?"
"Legends on our Earth."
Jolither said ominously, "They do much worse."
They reached their camp as Liam asked, "What's worse than breathing fire?"
"Breathing death." Jolither went over to Shalise and shook her awake. He whispered, "Dragons."
She shot upright and began rolling up her blanket without a word.
Liam stared at Jolither. Breathe death? What the hell? Jolither gave him no time to ask questions he already had Arthean awake, too, and the ryokin were shuffling about nervously. Liam noticed that Arthean's leg was practically healed, at least, and now sported a raw red scar that would likely be gone by sunrise. Liam sensed fear from Nairel and it infected him. If the powerful ryokin was afraid, he would be wise to feel the same. He helped the others to pack up their belongings, and they were just about to mount the ryokin when a shot rang through the air and Shalise cried out.
Liam spun to see Shalise fall and two of Sah's soldiers standing at the opposite end of their camp, pointing pistols at them. Jolither's face went white. Liam shoved him to the ground and pushed Arthean behind him. "Give me your dagger, then take Noka and go."
Arthean handed the weapon to Liam, who turned to the soldiers. From the corner of his eye, he saw Arthean make a beeline for Shalise, where Jolither was already kneeling. Shitting monk is going to get himself killed!
The soldiers laughed. "My, isn't this a nice surprise."
Liam sneered, "'Nice' isn't the word I'd use."
Nairel stamped his feet in discontent and padded after Liam as he advanced on Sah's men. One of the soldiers squeezed off a shot at Liam, but missed. Liam spun as the thought struck him that the bullet may have hit Nairel or one of the others. It hadn't. He restrained himself from taunting the soldier about his bad marksmanship. He didn't want to give him more reasons than he already had to shoot him.
"You'd better come with us," the tall, blond, bearded soldier said.
"Your ruler requests your presence."
So the men wanted Liam alive
and the others? Liam gritted his teeth. "My ruler? My ruler isn't on this planet!"
The short, black-haired soldier said, "Sah rules all who walk this land. You're here, so he's your ruler now."
Liam sneered. "I don't fucking think so!"
The men laughed and the bearded soldier said, "You have no choice."
Next to Liam, Jolither said, "There is always a choice."
Jolither's ryokin stood behind his rider, next to Nairel, their hackles raised and teeth bared. Shalise was conscious and just taking off on her ryokin. Arthean, on Noka, already hovered above shooting range. Good. Liam turned back to the soldiers, more confident with the formidable ryokin behind him and Jolither at his side.
He whispered to Jolither, "Got any quick fix magic for this?"
"These men are not our problem, and there is no magic that will fix our problem."
"What is-?" Liam's mouth snapped shut as three dark green-grey dragons flew down to hover behind the soldiers.
Jolither said, "That is our problem. We have to go. Now. If we're lucky, we can out fly them."
Liam stared at Jolither. "It's a bit late to run."
The bearded soldier snarled, "Have your little chat on your own time. You're coming with us. We can do this the easy way or
" He gestured to the dragons. "
The hard way."
The short soldier said, "Sah would prefer you alive, but it's not a necessity. Dead will do just fine."
Jolither leapt onto Sor's back and urged Liam to mount Nairel. Liam was indecisive. The dragons would be upon them before they'd even lifted off, the ryokin had bad night vision and the dragons' wings looked much more powerful, which meant they had a slim chance, if any at all, of out flying them even if they did manage to initially get away. Already, the three vile creatures were flapping their wings and eyeing the ryokin maliciously.
A thought hit Liam and he asked the soldiers, "Where's your friend?"
They looked surprised. The bearded one asked, "What friend?"
"Don't play dumb with me. We saw three of you."
The short soldier asked, "You already knew we were here?"
Jolither shouted, "Why did you think we were leaving in the middle of the night in such a hurry?"
The soldiers glanced at each other, and Liam could tell they hadn't considered that. Idiots.
A shriek tore the air, cut off by a thump and a strangled gasp that startled the dragons, one of which snorted smoke as it spun towards the sound. Liam grinned the third soldier had found one of his traps. If he could just lead the other two to a trap, they'd only have the dragons to deal with. Without their riders, there was surely a chance they wouldn't attack or pursue
Liam took a casual step back, noticing the blue mist that rose from the earth, blanketing everything at ankle height. It felt like Ilanenorian Earth Magic, though he had no way of knowing for sure.
The short soldier scowled and asked, "What are you smiling for? You're coming with us dead or alive. Your choice." He clicked his tongue and one of the dragons came to him. He pulled a coil of rope from its leather saddle, then turned back to Liam and Jolither. "Get on your knees and put your hands behind your back."
Liam edged towards the bush behind them and Nairel growled, but didn't move. Jolither's ryokin reared and hissed, its eyes wild. The ryokin eyed the soldiers with an expression Liam could swear was hate, its eyes darting between them and their dragons. Jolither's face displayed the expected fear and uncertainty there really was nothing they could do to save themselves at this point. At least, without the traps there wasn't. Either Jolither hadn't thought of the traps, or he knew something Liam didn't. Liam hoped it was the former as he took another step back towards the shrubs.
"So, it's going to be dead, is it?" the soldier snarled. "Get him!" he commanded the dragons.
Liam turned and ran. He ducked behind a large boulder as wind created by large wings fanned the back of his neck, making his flesh tingle unpleasantly. Nairel snarled and Liam turned to find the ryokin barring the dragons from pursuing him. He's going to die for me. The thought tightened Liam's stomach into a burning knot. First Zac, now Nairel. He would die before he let that happen. Clutching Arthean's dagger, as pathetic a weapon against a dragon as it was, he raced back the way he'd come.
Already, a dragon had its teeth in Nairel's side, and the ryokin flapped wildly in an attempt to free himself. The second dragon snapped at Nairel, unable to do more than nip, since the ryokin moved too fast for it to get a firm grip on. Thankfully, the third dragon was somewhere else possibly trying to get its rider out of the hole Liam had dug when he'd set the traps. His heart in his throat, Liam leapt onto a rock to gain height, then onto the dragon's back just as it got a firm grip on Nairel.
The second Liam was in the saddle, the dragon released Nairel and bucked in the air, trying to dislodge its unwanted rider. Liam clung to the saddle and clenched his thighs, thankful for years of horse riding if not for that, he would have fallen and probably broken his back or neck from this height. The dragon twisted its neck, trying to reach him. Nairel and the second dragon danced around each other, each trying to gain an advantage. The smaller Nairel was quicker and darted out of the dragon's reach almost every time it went for him, although the dragon was fast too, despite its great size, and managed to get a few more nips in.
Jolither had taken to the air, and his ryokin hovered above the battle. The Ilanenorian waved his arms. The blue mist had risen to waist height. The dragon Liam rode snarled, its eyes turning from black to red as they glazed. Icy dread filled him as it fixed him with its eyes, opened its mouth and breathed decay on him. It felt as if his life force was being sucked from every pore. The world dimmed as Liam clung with fierce resolve to the saddle. Sah's soldiers shouted, and he thought Arthean and Jolither yelled too, but his head was fuzzy and he just wanted to sleep
Somewhere in the muddle, Liam remembered he had to keep hold of something. He wasn't sure what, but he knew he had the something in his grasp and all he had to do was keep holding on. A green flash blinded him through closed eyes, and he grasped the saddle even harder, ignoring the pain in his fingers. He would sleep when
When what? The thought jolted him out of the haziness. Nairel
Liam sent an urgent thought to Nairel. Lead him behind that rock. But be careful you don't step on the scattered twigs they're booby trapped.
He hoped dragons couldn't read thoughts like Ilanenorians and ryokin could.
Nairel sprang sideways towards the rock he'd got the message. The dragon Liam rode reared again, then took to the air, its anger frenzied now. Fear emanated from it, but Liam had no time to wonder why as the creature spiralled and he lost his grip.
In that moment, as wind-whipped hair struck his eyes and face, Liam recalled the pouch Vareck had given him. He would be too dead to use it in the future if he didn't now
Liam jerked the pouch from his belt, thankful he'd been too lazy to take it off when he'd gone to bed. The drawstring seemed to open of its own accord at least, he didn't recall opening it and he stuck two fingers inside to grasp whatever was in there.
A shockwave of calmness coursed through him and the world spun.
A hand grasped his.
Liam jolted to a stop, agony flashing from his wrists and up his arm to his elbow and shoulders, spreading down his spine.
Something warm and furry pressed against his cheek.
Welcome oblivion stole his consciousness.