Zaj reached the hole in the ceiling of the cavern. The chamber below bloody red, filling with lava so quickly now, pushing upwards a flood of superheated rock, bubbling towards the tiny figures of the climbing Shonri.
Kuli dangled below him. Hanging free. It was quicker this way, no need for handholds. They would leave a rope for the others to climb. Climbing fast, Kuli didn’t see the pack of Turmerix waiting for her in a broken open birthing chamber.
They lunged, throwing themselves out into space, hooking their mandibles into Kuli’s flesh. One reached up to cut the rope. They would all fall, into the lava, and there was nothing Kuli could do.
Zaj finished driving the piton and attaching the rope for the other Shonri to climb.
Zaj looked down. Saw the attack. And let go of his handhold in the roof of the cavern.
Down the two young Shonri plunged, past the others still climbing. Too far away, too quick, nobody could save them, they would splash into the lava like flies into boiling water.
Zaj twisted in the air, dragged the grapple from his belt, triggered the hooks.
They sprang open.
He threw the grapple. It coiled around the broken edge of a Turmerix bridge, hooked into the stone, snapped tight. Zaj waited for the jerk, rode the rope, slammed into the wall.
Some of the Turmerix fell away from Kuli when their fall suddenly jerked to a halt. She swung through the fumes rising from the lava, they hit her throat, her eyes streamed tears, so close, so close, the heat unbearable, but then she was through the clouds of sulphuric stink, beginning to rise, away from the lava. Connected to the grapple, wrapped around a broken bridge, by the rope in Zaj’s hands through his body to the rope around his waist that tied her to him.
The wall of the cavern flashed towards her. She turned her body, placing the last two Turmerix between her and the impact. Their bodies exploded, covering Kuli in gore. Her head struck the rock, darkness rushed in upon her.
She came to, flying upwards on the end of a dangling rope. The lava hot beneath her feet, so very very hot, so very very close. Kuli shook her head, re -gathered her strength, and swarmed up the rope.
‘Good of you to wake up,’ Zaj said. ‘I thought I would have to carry you every bloody inch to the top again.’ He glanced at her backside. ‘Are you putting on weight?’
She slapped him, then hugged him, then kissed him.
Then they climbed with the lava surging up the rock behind them.
Korm sagged to his knees in the ruins of his home. The bellowing roar of the Dragon above him. The flare of light against the stars as the Dragon blew vast gouts of fire from its mouth. The shattered stone around him, scorched, ripped open, smashed asunder by the hunting Dragon,
Hunting for human flesh.
Had she survived? Had she…could she have survived? Did she find a place to hide?
Korm found the broken locket on the floor, smeared with blood, the chain melted by the heat of a Dragon’s flame. ‘Pricilla!’ he screamed into the air. ‘Pricilla.’
The Dragon banked in the sky, turned towards him, it would all be over soon.
‘Dada,’ called Cai, Korm’s youngest son, from beneath the broken trapdoor into the cellar.
Lucina pushed at the minds of the last three Turmerix. She was fragmenting, parts of her being drawn away to the other hive across the oceans. One thought remained, only one, Haram.
She found him lashing ropes together on a rocky ledge.
He heard the sound of the Turmerix claws on the rock. With one movement he scooped up his battleaxe, swept it around, through the carapace of on of Lucina’s porters. He raised the axe again.
‘Haram.’ Her voice soft in his mind. Would he hear it? ‘Haram.’
‘Lucina,’ he said. ‘Lucina.’ His eyes filled with tears. ‘How small you have become.’
Lucina used the mandibles of one of the last free Turmerix on this continent, to lay the claw of a Dragon at his feet.
Zaj and Kuli climbed as fast as they could, but the fall had injured them both and they were finding it difficult to maintain their speed.
‘You should have cut the rope,’ Kuli panted.
‘The Turmerix were already doing that.’ Zaj glanced downwards. The lava seemed to be gaining on them. This was not good.
‘Then you should have let them.’
‘Would that be the crazy thing to do?’
A length of rope dropped down beside them. Then another.
‘Looks like we have a lift,’ Zaj said, and grabbed hold of one of the ropes. Kuli gabbed the other and they swept upwards.
‘Lorak and Trant!’ Kuli yelled, joy in her voice.
‘Lorak is pulling your rope. Because of the weight.’
‘Hunting, hunting, hear the screams,’ Ozandris crowed. ‘Hear them.’
‘Their souls squirm so,’ Cinome giggled. ‘It tickles.‘
Banking through the air, the wind rushing over its wings, the Dragon swooped towards the village.
With is his one good arm, Korm grabbed up his youngest son. ‘Cai, Cai, oh Cai.’ He hugged him close. The roar of the Dragon, coming closer.
‘Kara is in there, she’s hurt,’ Cai said, pointing back into the cellar.
Korm looked up. The Dragon was coming. Coming for him. For his son. For his daughter. It knew they were here. It had heard Korm’s scream.
‘Hide,’ Korm said, setting down his son. ‘Hide, Cai.’
‘Into the cellar, go on. I’m coming too.’
Cai clambered down the broken steps. Korm looked through the gap. Kara, his eldest, her leg a tattered mess. Cilla, named for her mother, furiously sucking her thumb and not looking up at the light. Jakob, his eldest boy, doing what he could for his sisters.
‘Jakob!’ Korm called. ‘Mind me now, boy. Keep your sisters and brother quiet. They are not to make a sound. Mind me.’
And then Korm, screaming at the top of his voice, ran away from his family, out into the open, to draw away the Dragon with his life.
‘There’s one,’ Cinome said. ‘See him run, oh see him run.’
‘First him and then the children he seeks to save by dying in my teeth.’
‘Words flow, liquid gold. In the hive Shonri climb, no more slaves to find. What is this? What is this?’
‘What is it?’ Cinome asked, irritated.
‘The Shonri have the talon,’ said Ozandris.
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