Trouble stirs in the Dragonlands and Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn seems trapped at the very heart of it. After a disastrous stay with the Stormdrake kin, it’s time for the human delegation to visit the Skystorm Clan, yet their welcome is less friendly than anticipated.
Whispers and accusations fly, but something is definitely not right inside the Clan. And with the Dragon Moot fast approaching, can the Rift Riders and dragons sort things out swiftly enough to save the Khennik from another catastrophe?
The Cloud Curse is changing – but is anyone willing to listen to reason? Or will politics and arrogance combine to bring down all the kins and Clans for good?
Read on for the first part of Chapter One.
21st Gale Month, 579 Cloud Era
IT WAS ANOTHER beautiful day in the Dragonlands. Winter might have started to creep in around the edges of each morning, but for now the sun remained bright and the sky clear. The weather was a marked contrast to a month earlier, when the Storm Season had been in full blow. Despite attempting to push on through the unfriendly conditions, with a skyship and the human ambassador to protect, the Rift Riders had had no choice but to seek refuge. Which was why Nera and her companions had spent the last moon enjoying the hospitality of the Tempestfury kin court.
Now the storms were over and they were on the move again. The wind had a chilly nip to it as Nera snuggled down against her miryhl eagle’s back. Drifting high above the Cloud Sea, with her flurry and the bulky Skylark for company, Nera relished the freedom of flying again, even if her hands were wrapped in heavy gloves and her coat was buttoned up to the neck. Anything was better than being trapped, day after day, inside the well-built but austere fortress of kin Tempestfury.
Not that she or her friends had complained. After spending half a moon flying flat out to escape their disastrous visit to the Stormdrake lands, it had been an unexpected delight to be warmly welcomed by a different Skystorm kin. However, even the nicest hosts on the Overworld could do little to soften the stony interior of their court. Dragons were sturdy creatures who built their homes to last, but stone was rather less forgiving on softer human forms.
Still, that was behind them now. Nera had passed through the courts of two exceedingly different dragon kins and survived with all of her friends intact. It had felt like a close run thing at times, thanks to the Stormdrake elder’s cruel ways and the attempts by various Tempestfury dragons to seduce members of their party away, but they were all still together and heading onwards once more.
Beneath Nera, Teka beat her powerful wings, keeping them aloft for a little while longer. Though cold, the air here was peaceful – an unexpected boon considering the kinlands they were in. Nera and her flurry of twenty-five Rift Riders had been patrolling since dawn, but other than a noisy flock of geese passing overhead, there had been little worth noting in the day so far.
Giving into a jaw-cracking yawn, she rubbed her eyes and sat up with a shake. Wrapped up so warmly against the chill and with a bright sun on her back, she was in danger of falling asleep if she didn’t do something to distract herself.
“Wake me up, Tek,” she called to her miryhl, shaking the reins to gain her bonded’s attention.
Tilting her head, the giant eagle glanced back with one dark eye. “Oh?” she murmured, in the goddess-given voice that she shared only with her Rider. “Boring you back there, am I?”
“Just a little,” Nera agreed, unable to resist another yawn.
Sighing, Teka turning to face forwards again. “So sorry,” she cooed with false concern. “Why don’t you count miryhls and see if that’ll keep you awake?”
Grinning, Nera looked ahead past the sails and vast gasbag of the Skylark to where a second flurry was in the air. Lieutenant Gharrik, Captain Wellswen’s second-in-command, had his own Riders neatly spaced out to escort and protect the passage of the skyship. It was up to Nera and her flurry to ensure that all stayed well behind.
“Count them off, Tek,” she called to her miryhl, twisting in the saddle to check on her Riders and scan the sky.
“One,” her eagle called slowly.
Nera caught the eye of her sergeant, Zantho, flying steadily at the back of the group and waved.
Zantho waved back and Nera moved on, scanning the seemingly endless blue horizon stretching unbroken all the way around, with the shining Cloud Sea below. Nothing stirred out there beyond the clouds and the breeze.
Without warning, Teka folded her wings and dropped.
Nera laughed as her miryhl plummeted out of formation. Luckily, for once, she was securely strapped in. She’d also been relaxed in the saddle, ready for the slightest change in air currents or pressure. Years of flight experience with Teka had also alerted her to the momentary stiffening in her miryhl’s body before they dropped out of the sky.
As they fell, Teka rolled over slowly until both were on their backs, staring up at the sky. From there they tilted forward, heading beak-first towards the turbulent Cloud Sea below. White wisps swirled and frothed, breaking against a jagged shoal of rocks barely visible above the surface.
Down there entire countries had been drowned in the flood that had once cursed the old world and left it awash with clouds. Seas had been shrouded and flatlands had been lost, until all that remained were mountaintop islands, marooned in an ethereal ocean.
Nera couldn’t imagine what the world had been like before the Curse. The idea that people had once been able to look down and see nothing but the ground or water, while clouds only ever scudded across the sky above, seemed utterly alien to her. Probably as strange as the Overworld would have appeared to those poor souls who hadn’t known what was coming when the Cloud Curse fell.
All thoughts of the long ago disaster fled from Nera’s mind as Teka swooped into the violent air of the Cloud Sea. The surface was colder than the harshest winter, with winds to rival any Storm Season gale. Teka skipped and surfed the turbulence with the natural ease of her kind, not seeming to notice as cloud frost gathered on her beak and feathers and Nera’s gloves and coat. Instead she tilted and jinked from one gust to the next before finally snatching a fierce updraft that threw them back into the sunlit winter sky.
Whooping, Nera urged her miryhl on and on and up as Teka beat her powerful wings, scooping wave after wave of air under and behind them. They flapped up above the rest of Nera’s flurry before Teka looped all the way over and shot downwards once more.
This time they did not fall alone.
A dark shadow swept over them, followed by a powerful buffet of air, as a gigantic dragon rushed past.
Well used to such interruptions after two months of travelling together, Teka showed no surprise as the monstrous beast passed them. Instead she lunged to snag the dragon’s tail.
“Ha!” Nera crowed. “Got you, Pebble!”
Roaring with mock-affront, the great stone dragon opened his wings to brake. Rider and miryhl dangled precariously below him.
“You dare?” Estenarven rumbled, flicking his tail up and over his back to send Teka zipping through the air.
Nera tucked herself in tight against her miryhl’s back as the eagle corkscrewed along the dragon’s length, waiting for her moment, and reached out just as Teka straightened up. The leather of her gloves rasped as it brushed over the rough scales of Estenarven’s nose.
“You’re it!” she shouted, and Teka shrieked in triumph as the pair of them darted back up to the safety of their flurry.
Estenarven’s answering roar was curtailed by an explosive sneeze.
“Gets him every time,” Teka chortled, rolling over midair to allow the upside-down Nera to grin at her sergeant.
Zantho raised his hand with a weary sigh, connecting with her victory slap. “Go hide,” he ordered, entirely unnecessarily since Teka was already beating double-time back to the Skylark to swoop out of sight beneath the skyship’s hull.
With the chase now on, Estenarven roared in challenge and powered after them. As a lieutenant in charge of escorting the ship through the Dragonlands, it wasn’t strictly within the rules for Nera to break off and play tag with a young, and far too large, Boulderforce dragon while on duty. However, since she’d caught a glimpse of her captain slapping hands with another dragon on the upper deck of the Skylark, Nera thought they could get away with it.
“Quick, Nera, he’s coming!” Ambassador Jesken called over the rail, moments before Estenarven came roaring around the side of the ship.
For such a vast creature, he could be surprisingly nimble, managing to twist his bulk about and come in close against the Skylark’s hull without knocking the entire ship off course. Chortling in triumph, the stone dragon swept out a paw – but Teka was already gone.
Just because Estenarven was enormous and had to be careful where he flew in relation to the Skylark, didn’t mean Teka did. And, since the dragon had a huge advantage in size and speed, Nera felt no regrets when her miryhl shrieked defiantly and swept over the Skylark’s main deck.
It was a risky manoeuvre at the best of times, with the side rail to clear, numerous sailors and spectators to avoid, not to mention the ropes and chains and the gasbag itself, but Teka was small for a miryhl and exceedingly agile. With a flap and a swoop, she hopped the rail, avoided smacking into the ambassador, put down her feet to bounce once, twice, thrice, across the open deck, tucking in her wings to avoid the chains holding the gasbag in place, then with a final bound and a crack as she unfurled her wings, they were over the other side and in the sky again.
Teka whooped with triumph as they dove down the ship’s side. Cheers and whistles followed them, along with a highly inappropriate shout of, “That’s my lieutenant!” from Captain Wellswen.
Nera’s heart was pounding so fiercely she could hardly breathe as she clung to her reins and glanced frantically from one side to the other. Estenarven wouldn’t have given up yet, and surely there were only so many places the dragon could spring from.
“Hold on,” Teka warned, dropping once more.
The hull of the Skylark zipped past so close that Nera could have reached out and touched it. Tucked into the cool shadow of the ship, all she could hear was the pounding of her heart and the roar of the wind as they fell faster, faster, faster.
Whoosh! Estenarven swept beneath them.
As the long and very solid length of the stone dragon rushed by, Nera squeezed her eyes shut, fearing at any moment to feel the crunch of impact as Teka and she collided with the dragon. He was too big and they were going too fast for them to avoid him.
Her stomach dipped and she opened her eyes to find Estenarven gone and the world passing swiftly along beneath her. Sunlight blazed as they emerged from the shadow of the ship and Teka darted back up to the scant protection of the Skylark’s hull.
“Did… he… suh… see… us?” the miryhl panted, gasping between wing beats as she kept pace alongside the great ship.
“Not sure,” Nera gasped back. “I didn’t see us pass him.”
“Me neither!” Teka laughed. “Too close!”
Nera snorted, too breathless and giddy to worry that even her miryhl had closed her eyes at the end.
“In here, quick!”
Miryhl and Rider snapped their heads to the right. The hull hatch was open and a hand was beckoning them inside.
“Isn’t this cheating?” Nera wondered, as Teka spread her wings to slow them down and twisted to land.
“Nah!” The grinning face of Lieutenant Vish greeted her as he and fellow lieutenant Anhardyne shoved the doors shut moments before the dark shadow of Estenarven swept past. “You can’t cheat a dragon. They never play by the rules.”
Which was true enough, Nera had to concede and, since poor Teka was puffing like a blacksmith’s bellows, she was more than happy to give her miryhl a rest. Kicking her feet out of the stirrups, she hopped out of the saddle and stroked her bonded’s face.
“I think that was our best run yet.”
Resting her beak against Nera’s chest, Teka gave a weary hum of agreement.
“He couldn’t get near you!” Anhardyne crowed, slapping Nera on the back and dislodging a shower of cloud frost. “He could barely catch sight of you!”
“And when you went over the deck…” Vish whistled in admiration. “Teka, you are one in a million. I don’t know another miryhl who would have dared.”
“I thought Hornvel would explode!” Anhardyne laughed, while Nera grimaced at the thought of what the Skylark’s captain had made of their stunt. She’d have to keep her head down for the next few days or receive a roaring earful.
The hull doors shuddered as Estenarven swept around the ship again, growling with frustration at having lost his prey.
With her breathing having settled back to normal, Teka pushed Nera lightly away and tilted her head. Even though miryhls were fully capable of talking in any number of human tongues, tradition stated that they only ever spoke directly to their Rider. Since Anhardyne and Vish were so close, Nera understood her bonded’s silence. She needed no words to understand anyway: Teka had recovered and was ready to finish their game. Hiding in the hull was fun, but it wasn’t a victory.
Nera grinned and bounded back into the saddle. “Doors,” she ordered her fellow lieutenants, who leapt to obey. Leaning down, she ran her gloved fingers through Teka’s abundant neck feathers.
The Skylark shuddered as Estenarven approached once more.
“Let’s get ‘im, Tek,” she whispered.
The doors opened just as a dark tail flicked past and her miryhl leapt out to chase it.
Want to read some more?
~ Chapter 1, Part 2 ~
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