Chapter Fourty - The Gates Race
As we plummeted, I risked a quick glance forward. Quaro-Deryn had used the confusion to take a commanding lead into the Dai gate. But Carodoc was just a couple of places in front of me.
We were closing up on the next dragons as they slowed to shoot the gates one at a time. At least we’d be able to take the thing at full speed. “Ready, boy,” I called to Liberty. “Sheer Climb,” and I felt him easing us down into the lower line we needed.
We shot through the Dai gate, pretty much skimming across the sand. “Ready now…” I said with my eyes fixed on the Kuthbar gate… “ready… let’s go!”
“Pace it, boy!” I shouted at him as he threw himself into that first climb. I jumped onto his mind and forced him to reign in his wild enthusiasm as I fed in my own will. We ripped past a back-marker and, towards the top of the climb, drove on past Carodoc.
“First flutes now, boy, get ready… Kuthbar…”
We flashed into the darkness of the first flute then burst out into sunshine, taking a high, arcing line so as not to lose speed. As we rolled over in the air and dropped towards the Quaro flute, I sensed Taloon’s looming green bulk below and behind us and a plan, of sorts, came to me.
“I want you to lose a bit of speed through the Quaro flute,” I told Liberty. “Trust me. We’ve got plenty of time to catch up with the others. You’ve got to make it look natural though.”
I closed my eyes, trusting him to take us through. And, as we plunged into the flute, I felt him opening his wings a touch and leaning his body back, quietly shedding speed.
As we exploded out into the Edifice in a tucked wing dive, Carodoc had Taloon right on our tail and, as the heavier dragon edged past us, I slipped Liberty into her slipstream.
“You’re going to have to take us through Quaro on your own…” I told my black dragon as the gate flashed up towards us… “and you’re to stay low to keep out of trouble.”
He might have been a bit puzzled by my orders but he understood what I wanted.
As Taloon approached the gate, I flipped into the cerebral domain. There was Taloon, flooded with rage, as ever. Carodoc was right there, surrounding the feisty dragon in his all encompassing grip.
I eased my most delicate probe between the two and gently, gently slipped my will into Taloon’s mind. Then I eased the angle of her wings back by the tiniest fraction.
My touch was so beautifully subtle that Carodoc’s cloud didn’t show the slightest hint that he’d noticed.
Until it blinked out of existence.
Like… totally vanished.
And I was ripped out of the cloud world by a resounding crack. I just knew it was Carodoc’s head hitting the gate’s stone lintel.
Time seemed to slow as he was ripped from Taloon’s back. I watched in pure horror as he cartwheeled backwards through the air. He landed in a crumpled heap on the Henge sands. He didn’t even twitch. I felt a wave of cold emptiness sweep through me as the implanted node swallowed up my horror and guilt.
But I didn’t have time to think as Liberty attacked the gate, as low as he could. Above us, Taloon, released from Carodoc’s grip, exploded in a green flurry of wings and fury. I threw myself flat on Liberty’s back as Taloon’s claws flashed inches above my head. Dust flew up as Liberty’s belly skimmed the Henge sand.
A blast of disapproval flashed up from my dragon. He’d been surprised by the manœuvre and lost speed.
“Concentrate!” I barked, as much at myself as at him. “Dom’s next… circle climb!”
We flashed through the Dom gate and Liberty’s wings bit into the air as I drove him into a viciously steep spiral. He didn’t need much help for this so I could glance round to see how things stood.
Back at the Quaro gate, there was still chaos as Zalibar fought to get a grip on Taloon. The last rider still hadn’t made it through.
Looking ahead, Quaro-Deryn was leading the field. He was already lining himself up for the Dom flute. A group of about six dragons was close behind him. They’d eased away from me when I’d lost speed at the Quaro gate.
But there was a rider wearing the Erin mark just within range. “Come on, let’s take him!” I yelled out loud to Liberty, feeding a little bit of will across to him. We eased past the Erin rider as he made a clumsy adjustment to his line into the Dom flute.
“Rhian’s next,” I shouted to Liberty. “We know Rhian.” I took him up high into the bright sunlight, twisting as we passed over the main opening of the Edifice. Though this line was a bit longer, it meant we hit the flute at full speed.
Closing my own eyes again, I trusted Liberty to take us through Rhian in a perfect wing-tucked dive, performing Rhiannas’s roll as we went. As we burst out of the flute, I had to use Liberty’s eyes to look ahead. I was basically flat on his back to reduce drag. The next rider, who was from Sharfroi, had lost heaps of speed through the Rhian flute. We’d easily take him on the descent.
“Coming through!” I called out to the Sharfroi rider with my voice and mind. I didn’t want him cutting across my path and crashing into us. We passed underneath him and moved onto the racing line for the Rhian gate.
We’d practiced the line out of that gate so many times that I could risk another glance around as we flashed across the Henge. There was no danger from behind; the Sharfroi rider had got the line into the gate hopelessly wrong and was going to lose even more distance. Ahead, we were closing on Siân and Dan dragons and I could see that, with a Sheer Climb, we’d take both.
“Hendon now, then sheer all the way to the top,” I shouted to Liberty, easing us into the slightly lower approach to the gate we needed for the Sheer Climb. “Let me help you right from the start. I don’t want to have to carry you at the end this time. Ready now… and climb…”
I didn’t bother looking at the other dragons but just gritted my teeth and drove with Liberty into the climb. “Keep your length,” I barked at him as he started to clip his wingstroke under the massive workload. Keep it going now! Thirty more strokes. Driving all the way.”
Through watering eyes, I risked a glance around. “Come on now,” I urged Liberty, “We’ve got Siân and we’re taking Dan now. Ten more. Full length”
His pain through those last strokes was flashed back to me. I tried to push it from my mind as I fed even more of my will through to him.
“We’ve got Dan,” I shouted to him. “Watch that hang.” Now the pressure was on, he’d slipped back into doing his wing-hang thing, just as Rhiannas had predicted. We needed perfect balance for the tricky Hendon to Sharfroi turn. “Stay with it over the top and through Sharfroi,” I urged him, “then you can rest.”
We powered into the Hendon flute only a few yards ahead of the Dan rider but our extra speed, combined with a stupidly tight turn… basically a halfway controlled stall… meant that, by the time we popped out of the Sharfroi flute, we’d opened up the four length lead we needed for the Sharfroi gate. Sharfroi to Cinder was the tricky adjacent gate pair and we needed that much space for the wild line that Rhiannas had taught us.
As we dived, I used a touch of will to shape the air round us into an aerodynamic bubble. “Relax now,” I told Liberty as I adjusted our line a touch. I tried to relax too as we dropped, forcing myself to breathe deeply as we flashed past the spectator rings.
“Remember, we need to lose speed before we hit Sharfroi,” I reminded him as I let the bubble collapse. “Ready now and… brake!”
I could feel the dragon behind us closing in alarmingly as we shed speed but I knew I could trust Rhiannas on this. As we emerged from the Sharfroi gate, I threw us into the spectacularly high tumbling turn that he had taught us.
For a moment, in the middle of the turn, we were completely upside down. I felt my mother’s spurs bite true and, as we plunged back down to shoot the Cindar gate, I silently thanked Psion for making me collect them.
Our amazing turn opened up a ten length lead on the Dan rider and we’d made the same sort of jump on the four still ahead. “Nobody to take this time,” I told Liberty as he drove us upwards in a tight, circling climb. Next time we take one or two and, on your last, record breaking Sheer Climb, we deal with the rest.
“Length and… catch…” I said, easing a bit of will across to him, concentrating on shaping his wingstroke which was, of course, slipping again. “Length… catch…” I repeated, in time with our stroke… “Length… catch…” as he dragged us on up… “Length… catch…”
By the time we reached Cindar, we’d halved the distance to the two riders in front of us. “We take them next time,” I said, as much for myself as for Liberty. As we flashed into the open sky, Quaro-Deryn, who was still in the lead, was visible for the first time across the mouth of the Edifice.
“I hope you’re feeling strong,” I said to Liberty as we transitioned back into the Edifice through the Jera flute, three lengths behind the next rider who was wearing the Han mark. “Relax now!” I told him as I formed our aerodynamic bubble and we dropped. He automatically slipped in behind the Han rider in front of us and, by the time we were lining ourselves up for the Jera gate, the slipstream had closed the gap to just two lengths.
But suddenly Liberty let out a savage shriek and lowered his talons from the streamlined dive position into an open attack attitude. I looked up to see the rider ahead of us was coming in at much too steep an angle. She’d have to pull up sharply inside the gate.
As Liberty lowered his line of attack even more, I worked out what he was planning and just threw myself flat on his back.
By the time the Han rider worked out what was going on, our two dragons were already flying, one above the other, into the gate. She tried to pull up but her dragon, sensing the claws directly above his neck, chose, instead, to plough, untidily, into the Henge sands. As we skimmed through the gateway, I felt my smock flapping against the stone lintel.
“Don’t forget I’m here!” I gasped at Liberty. He replied with a stony silence which let me know how little he cared about my wellbeing.
The mess cost us a bit of distance so, as we hurled ourselves into a circling climb up from the Han gate, we had about three lengths to close on the rider in front of us.
“Come on, big boy!” I urged Liberty, adding my strength to his. “We need to take him this time.”
But, as the two dragons approached the Han flute, I could see we were going to arrive at exactly the same time. “Give way, tyro,” the other rider called across to me as the dragons closed to within a wingspan. “I will take the flute first.” His voice had the confident ring of somebody who was used to tyros doing as they were told.
“No,” I told him. “We’re going to take the flute first.” I fought to keep my voice calm though the strain of working with Liberty was making me feel faint.
“Give way or we’ll collide!” the Kuthbar rider called. His voice was getting frantic.
“Leave him!” I hissed as Liberty strained to attack the other dragon. The two were now overlapping wing tips. “Trust me. He’ll give way. Just get us to the flute.”
“You’ve forgotten that I’m subject to a terminal bet,” I told the other rider, trying to sound as cool as I could. “I’ve nothing to lose… I’m dead anyway if I don’t get through first.”
The Kuthbar rider broke away. I knew he would. By that time, he was much too close to make any sort of simple adjustment to his line. So he had to peel off and circle round as we drove on up into the Han flute.
“One more Sheer Climb, two more riders,” I muttered to Liberty as we flashed across the mouth of the Edifice. There was a Hendon rider about two lengths ahead, and Quaro-Deryn a further four. We swung high then plunged down into the Siân flute.
“Now relax, big boy,” I murmured to him as we exploded out of the flute. “You’ve already done really well but today they’re going to have to re-write the books. We’re going to show them three Sheer Climbs. Are you ready to make history?”
Once more, the slipstream on the dive let us close up on the dragon in front and, by the time we were lining up for the Siân gate, we were within a length. The Hendon rider lost a little more time as he adjusted his line for a circling climb and, by the time we reached the Erin gate, he was only a couple of feet in front of us.
“Fifty strokes,” I shouted to Liberty as we threw ourselves into that savage climb. “Fifty strokes and we make history. Let’s go!”
After five strokes, I was starting to feel faint.
After ten, I knew we were never going to make it.
My brain seemed to split into two halves. On one level, there was the toiling, screaming girl, urging and powering Liberty on with every ounce of strength she possessed and more.
But, above this, there was another self, looking down on the other one, desperately hunting for a key that I knew just had to be there.
There had to be a way. I owed it to myself, who’d had to fight and fight but always managed to survive. I owed it to my mother, who’d done everything in her life and beyond to keep me safe. I owed it to Psion, comical, refined, loyal Psion, who’d waited for me all my life… then found me on that first day and kept me sane by telling me that I’d be able to get rid of that hated implanted node…
Or that I could just squeeze it a bit!
I didn’t know whether I was too close to Rhiannas to risk it but it didn’t matter… it was that or die. I touched my hand to my white leather bracelet in the hope it might hide what I was doing then flipped into the cerebral domain.
I wrapped the thing in my will and gently… gently… squeezed it.
And, as the volcano of rage erupted inside me, I fed it across to Liberty as a stream of pure will. He must have worked out where it was coming from because he responded with a burst of his own rage, tearing us on, up towards the Erin flute.
Keeping the steady pressure on that vile node, I flipped back into the base domain. Quaro-Deryn, on his charcoal grey dragon, was still about two lengths ahead. We were closing on him fast but we weren’t going to reach him before we hit the flute.
“When we get there, you’re going to fold in your wings,” I told Liberty. I had to fight to stay calm as I kept on pouring my will across to him, boiling and churning with my rage. “We’ll throw ourselves through.”
As we hit the Erin flute, he folded in his wings, trusting our weight to our erupting fury. We burst into the open sky only yards behind Quaro-Deryn and with much, much more speed. I threw us up into a high, arcing turn and, below us, Quaro-Deryn hadn’t even noticed we were there.
Reluctantly, I released my grip on that evil node. I desperately… desperately… wanted to give it that last, final squeeze.
But now was really not the time.
And as my head cleared, I realised that I was still gripping my mother’s bracelet.
Which was why Quaro-Deryn hadn’t noticed us.
So, as we plunged down towards the Dai flute, I poured the last ounces of my will into the shields protecting Liberty’s mind and my own.
And, only then, did I release my grip on the bracelet.
Shock flashed across Quaro-Deryn’s mind as we appeared from nowhere, straight in front of him. It was quickly followed by a look of horror as he realised that we were about to fly, two abreast, into the Dai flute. He threw out a savage mental blast towards Liberty’s mind.
Liberty saw the blast coming. And of course he recognised Quaro-Deryn’s mind from the time he’d tried to ride him. I joined my will with his as we bounced that blast back. The savage rage of our response stunned Quaro-Deryn and, for a moment, his dragon’s mind slipped from his grip.
We plunged into the Dai flute ahead of him.
“Concentrate now!” I urged Liberty as I forced my eyes closed, trusting him to take us through. “Keep it together and we win. No silly mistakes.”
And we were through, bursting out into the space of the Edifice.
I glanced back, certain we were safe but wanting to make sure. No sign of Quaro-Deryn as we passed the intermediary spectator ring.
“Control now! We’re safe!” I shouted as we flashed past the superior ring for the last time. I glanced across to see Rhiannas cruising around the ring and, even from here, I could see he was basically about to explode with pride.
I glanced up again, puzzled that Quaro-Deryn had still not appeared. At last he emerged from the flute but you could tell that something wasn’t right. His dragon was having trouble staying in the air. It must have hit a wall or something.
As we passed the inferior spectator ring I glanced back again. He was still fluttering painfully downwards and two more dragons had just emerged from the flute.
As we approached the Henge, I lined Liberty up on the Rhian gate. We didn’t have to but why not? Then I carefully took my mother’s poignard and reversed it. To mark our victory, I reached out and struck the Great Gong with the pommel.
Then I guided Liberty into a circle around the Henge. The vile implanted node still hadn’t got me back totally in its grip and the wild exultation and rage were kind of battling inside me.
And when I couldn’t contain them any more, I fed them down to Liberty and he gave vent to them in the only way he knew how, breathing a churning, billowing wall of flame across the Edifice.
I glanced round as a second rider struck the Great Gong…
And I saw the crumpled figure lying on the ground, near the Quaro gate…
It was covered in a blood-stained blanket.
The elation dropped from me, swept away by horror at the price my friends had to pay for me to stay alive. Images of Megan’s and Carodoc’s bodies tumbled past each other in my mind. I was almost grateful when the node reclaimed its control, covering my raw emotions in a thick blanket of empty numbness.
But, with the collapse of my emotions, the last of my energy was gone. I collapsed forwards onto Liberty’s crenels as, trembling, I tried to guide the pale, exhausted dragon back up the Edifice to the Rhian lair.
Suddenly Zalibar was behind me, holding me so I didn’t fall. Rhiannas was there too, feeding his will across to Liberty, helping the poor, shattered creature to climb upwards in slow, weary circles. At the very edge of my consciousness, I was vaguely aware of the spectator rings exploding with excitement but I was so empty that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. It was as if I was looking in through a stranger’s window.
With a supreme effort, I managed to stay conscious until Liberty touched down on the Rhian veranda then, falling rather than climbing from Liberty’s back, I collapsed into Dee’s arms.
And, for a while at least, the pain went away.