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~ Previous Chapter ~
A dragon, at last!
AFTER A LIFETIME of viewing dragons in books, Lyrai struggled to adjust his ideas to the reality of being faced with a real one. It wasn’t that the dragon was so different from the paintings, she was just more. In every way.
A horse-like head with forward-facing eyes smoothed down into a long nose and a soft muzzle. The ridge of her eyebrows encircled the top of her head like a crown, rising to three horns that fanned out into a crest. The scales on her face shimmered midnight blue at her nose, rising to silver and pewter between her eyes and turning black by the end of her crest. Her eyes were a shining, stormy grey.
With her head held high to study the Riders, her long neck and body curled into a lazy S. The scales on her back faded from black in the centre to medium blue at the edges, while her underside was a delicate shade of pearl. Her fragile-looking, silver wings folded surprisingly small against her sides and her whole body glittered like stardust.
In spite of her enormous size, Lyrai couldn’t help comparing the dragon’s build to a nakhound. She had the same strong but slender appearance. Yet the slender front foot she raised to scratch her foot was more like a hand than a paw. Lyrai’s preconceived ideas vanished.
She wasn’t like anything he had ever seen. She was a dragon, and thus, entirely herself.
Flattening her crest, the dragon lowered her head for a closer look at them all. “Now here’s something I never thought I’d see this side of petrifaction,” she mused in a musical tone, more whistle than roar. Lyrai had exceeded his capacity for surprise, but he still had enough thought left to liken the dragon’s voice to songbirds in spring.
The midnight blue nose turned in his direction and the dragon’s crest rose. “Thank you.”
Lyrai blinked, perhaps capable of a little more surprise, even if he had lost the ability to speak.
“Once dragons reach a certain age, they become able to pick up the thoughts of others.” Dhori moved to stand between Lyrai and the dragon, his tone disapproving. “Though it’s considered impolite to do so in mixed company.”
The dragon jerked her head back and, to Lyrai’s astonishment, her pearly underside turned pink. “Oh, goodness, I am sorry. I’ve never managed it before. This is my first time in mixed company.” With her head tucked into her chest, she gripped the tip of her tail, looking young and chastened. “It was not on purpose.” She peeked sheepishly at Lyrai, picking fretfully at her tail. “Please accept my most humble apologies. I meant no offence.”
With the vulardis glaring at him like angry parents, Lyrai croaked, “It’s fine. No harm done.” When the vultures nodded approvingly, he relaxed. “Your voice is very beautiful.”
The pink deepened to rose and the dragon turned her head shyly away. “You are all kindness.”
Arms folded across his chest, Dhori tapped an impatient foot and coughed pointedly.
The dragon snapped her head up, the colour fading from her pearly scales. “Oh, of course. Forgive me.” She cleared her throat delicately and straightened her neck. “Greetings, Rift Rider Storm Wings, survivors of the Veil. Such bravery is not without rewards, and thus, I welcome you. I am Rhidystel kin Tempestfury Clan Skystorm,” she announced, and Lyrai almost expected a fanfare, until she lowered her head and winked. “You may call me Rhiddyl.”
“It is an honour to meet you, Rhiddyl,” he said, smiling. “I am Lyrai, and these are my friends: Corin, Mhysra, Jaymes and Dhori.”
“Dhoriaen Aure is known to us,” Rhiddyl replied, looking eagerly at each Rider as Lyrai introduced them. Her crest rose again and she hummed with pleasure. “It is wonderful to meet you. I have never seen real humans before. And what marvellous miryhls!”
“Cumulo, Hurricane, Latinym, Wisp and Argon,” Dhori said, before anyone could ask any curious questions.
“Lovely to meet you,” Rhiddyl said, bobbing her head at the miryhls – who bobbed back. “What an exciting day this is turning out to be. And to think I contemplated hiding when I saw Chee-Gah coming. What a fool I would have felt!” Her laugh was a like a flourish on a flute. Lyrai smiled at the sound. There was a lot about Rhiddyl that made him want to smile, which made Dhori’s disapproval all the more baffling.
The student in question gave an impatient huff and tapped his foot. Rhiddyl hunched her wings and a faint wash of rose touched her underside again. “What, umm, brings you through the Veil?” Avoiding Dhori’s stern eye, Rhiddyl turned back to Lyrai.
“Ah…” It was a good question. One which had taken on a different meaning after they’d survived the Stormwash and unexpectedly arrived in the Dragonlands. With the dragons. Surely they, if anyone, were capable of getting Aquila back. It would be a wasted opportunity and a failure as a lieutenant if he didn’t use this chance to ask for assistance. “We need help.”
“Tell me about it,” Dhori muttered.
Frowning momentarily at Dhori, Rhiddyl tilted her head in confusion. “What kind of aid do you seek?”
“Any you can give us,” Hurricane said, drawing the dragon’s attention.
“The Rift Riders are in trouble?” Rhiddyl asked, her disbelief as clear as the fact that Overworld stories had survived on this side of the Stormwash too. “But how can this be?” She glanced between Lyrai and Dhori. “You are Riders.”
Dhori unfolded his arms and sighed, suddenly weary. “Aquila is lost. The kaz-naghkt have taken over the entire mountain. The Riders are homeless and in dire need of whatever aid you can give.”
The dragon blinked rapidly, making her look young again, especially when she nibbled on a silver talon. “The troubles of the Overworld are no longer the concern of the Clans,” she muttered, seemingly to herself. “Yet they were allowed through the Veil. It must mean something.” She turned to the vulardis. “What think you?”
“They came through,” the largest vulture replied. “The Veils found them worthy.”
“So they did,” Rhiddyl agreed softly.
“Vulardis guard,” another said. “We watch where we are told.” Which sounded like the worst kind of evasion to Lyrai. Rhiddyl twitched her tail, as though annoyed with this lack of an answer.
“Dragons made us, dragons rule us. Beyond our territory our word carries no weight,” a third vulardi explained apologetically.
The dragon’s tail stilled and she sighed. “True. Young as I am, my own carries little more. Still, this came to me and so I shall deal with it. With you.” She turned to the Riders and miryhls with a rueful bob of her head. “Forgive me. This is a new situation for me. I do not mean to be rude.”
“It’s new for us too,” Corin said. “And we’re hard to offend. Trust me, we just came from Misthome.”
A frown appeared on the dragon’s brow. “Have they no manners in Havia?”
“Not as far as Rift Riders are concerned,” Corin said, confusing the poor dragon further.
“We’ll discuss this later.” Surprisingly, it was Dhori who took pity on Rhiddyl. “It’s a long tale, best told under cover.”
“Oh… Oh!” The dragon flushed pink again. “Sorry, after all my waiting I am proving not to be very good at this. You must be tired after your trial and here I am keeping you all out under the sun. My humble apologies. Please, if it will suffice, I shall lead you to my lair. There we can discuss our plans under cover, if not, alas, in much comfort. My home is not built with humans in mind.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Dhori soothed, back in his role of the benevolent knower of all.
“It would be an honour to visit your home,” Lyrai added, when Rhiddyl glanced at him. He couldn’t help feeling pleased that his approval mattered. He liked this dragon, though she was probably more than ten times Lyrai’s age. It was like talking to a young student.
“Then if your miryhls would be so kind, perhaps we should depart? I have kept my good friends from their duties long enough.”
The vulardis chuckled and Lyrai wondered just how often they had anything to do guarding the Stormwash; a more desolate and deserted place he had yet to patrol.
Bidding the vulardis farewell, Rhiddyl shuffled backwards, leaving the Riders plenty of room to check their miryhls, mount up and take off. Once they were all airborne, she crawled to the edge of the cliff. Since the ledge wasn’t large enough for her to directly launch from, she gripped the top with her hind feet and stretched the front half of her body down the mountainside. Once she was at full extension, she uncurled her wings, fluttered them twice and dropped.
Each wing was as long as two full miryhl wingspans and as broad as a skyship sail. Yet with only the slightest adjustment, the dragon swooped away from the mountain and up to join the waiting Riders.
Gliding alongside Hurricane, Rhiddyl’s head was bigger than the whole miryhl, and Lyrai swallowed as he stared into an eye he could curl up in. Teeth the length of his forearm peeked out below those closed jaws and the dragon whistled softly as she flew. It was an incongruously lovely touch to the frightening presence. Lyrai felt Hurricane relax beneath him and was glad someone could.
“We should reach my home shortly after dark,” Rhiddyl fluted, beating her giant wings.
A squawk made Lyrai glance over his shoulder at where Jaymes and Argon had been buffeted by the downdraft. Muttering grumbles, the little miryhl sped up to draw level with Hurricane and Cumulo. If a hint of pink touched the dragon’s scales, Lyrai chose not to mention it, nor did Rhiddyl say anything. However, she did call out a warning before her next flap. Lyrai felt sorry for the youngster and wondered if she was regretting her earlier excitement about meeting real humans.
Relaxing into the flight rhythm, as familiar to him as breathing, he rested against Hurricane’s back as evening drew in. As the sun sank behind the Stormwash and distant stars came out to stare at them, Rhiddyl stretched her wings and soared above the miryhls. Up ahead, a solitary spike rose up from the jagged cliffs.
“My home,” the dragon called. “Head for the cavern. The entrance is on the east side, you can’t miss it. I shall go on ahead and make things ready.” And with that she left, unleashing a breathtaking turn of speed that would made a fast-flapping miryhl look like a wallowing duck.
Alone, the five miryhls drifted into a protective huddle. After all, no matter how friendly Rhiddyl had been, they were still about to enter a dragon’s lair. The cavern entrance loomed before them like a gaping mouth. Complete with stalactite and stalagmite teeth.
Turning to meet the eyes of the others, Lyrai took a deep breath. “Onwards, my friends. Rift Riders brave and true. Maegla will protect us.”
“Brave and true,” Hurricane echoed and, with a final flap, carried them into the dark.
~ Next Chapter ~
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