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~ Prologue ~
In which Cumulo grumbles, preparations are made, and a rather curious gift is given.
Leaving the Cleansed Lands
Surge Heights, Cleansed Lands
LESS THAN A month ago, if someone had told Lady Mhysra Kilpapan she would cross the tempestuous Storm Wash and fly over a landscape free of clouds, she would have laughed in their face. She came from the Overworld, a place cursed by the gods to be covered in a roiling Cloud Sea, where only mountains poked above the endless white, creating islands in a worldwide ocean.
If that same person had said she would converse with dragons, even befriend some, she would have suggested they have a lie down. Then again, a lot could happen in a month. Although that was nothing compared to what a half-year could do.
“Is that everything?” Archivist Reglian asked, an enormous black dragon over fifty-feet in length, who was currently striding around in his far less imposing human form.
“If we take much more I will not be able to fly,” grumbled Rhiddyl, the first dragon Mhysra had ever met. Her pearly underbelly was almost obscured by the boxes and parcels Reglian had piled into her carry net. Despite being a mere thirty-feet long, and several centuries younger than her mentor, Rhiddyl still made an impressive sight. Usually. The thick brown straps currently running across her shoulders and lower back were rather spoiling her shimmery effect.
The young dragon cast a wary eye over the crates of books, scrolls, clothing and food piled underneath her belly. “Are you certain this will hold?”
“It will hold.” Reglian tugged on the straps. “If you do nothing foolish.”
Rhiddyl sighed, her silvery wings drooping. “Why must I carry everything?”
“Because it’s best not to alarm the natives too much,” said Dhori, Mhysra’s friend and fellow Rift Rider student. “The fewer dragons seen crossing the Storm Surge, the better.”
“Is it too late to change my mind?” Rhiddyl asked. “No one said I would be the packhorse.”
“Oh, stop whinging.” A bear of a woman strode across the sparse plateau overlooking the great barrier. “Would you really pass up this opportunity over a few bits of luggage?” She added her own bulging bags to Rhiddyl’s belly net.
“Estenarix,” she whined, and the dragon-woman patted her neck.
“It’s all very well to cross in human shape, but how will they get there?”
Mhysra turned to her Wingborn miryhl eagle and smiled. She’d been thinking the same thing. Sometimes their Wingborn bond, formed when Cumulo hatched at the exact moment she was born, showed itself in the strangest of ways. Running her fingers through his feathers, she shrugged. “Who knows with this lot?”
“I won’t carry them,” he grumbled, preening the haphazard curls that had escaped her braid.
Corin, another friend and fellow student, laughed. “I don’t think any of them are foolish enough to expect it, Cue. Not after the fuss Wisp and Argon put up over our dragonets.” As she spoke, their reason for coming to the Cleansed Lands woke. Pale blue with a silver iridescence that flashed beneath the winter sun, Skybreeze was a lesser dragon breed with a difference. As a Dragongift his connection to Corin went every bit as deep as a Wingborn bond. It didn’t start from birth, but once formed there was no breaking it, short of death.
Yawning, Skybreeze showed off his teeth and lifted his head from Corin’s shoulder. He chirruped in her ear: hungry again. He was rarely anything else. Pulling a face, Corin stomped off in search of Jaymes, her fellow Dragongifted, who was probably already feeding his own dragonet, Emberbright.
“Makes you happy you were already claimed, doesn’t it?” Cumulo murmured.
“More than you can ever know, Cue,” Mhysra admitted. Cute as the dragonets were, they were far too demanding. She might have spent most of her childhood raising miryhls and other winged creatures, but the dragonets were something else.
“Ready to go home?”
Looking back at the dusky landscape they’d flown over the day before, with the ocean glistening in the distance, Mhysra smiled. “Yes,” she said, searching the endless blue sky for the merest hint of a cloud but finding none. “Yes, I am.”
“Then hop on, chickling. There’s nothing left for us here.” Cumulo dipped a wing invitingly and Mhysra jumped into his saddle. Tired of waiting for the others, he took to the sky with a bound and a flap of his great wings. Soaring on the rich thermals, Mhysra lay against her miryhl’s back and knew the world didn’t get much better than this.
LYRAI LOOKED UP as a miryhl launched, and smiled. Trust Cumulo to grow impatient, he thought, glancing at his own feathered partner and wishing they could do the same. The placid Hurricane bobbed his head in acknowledgement but made no offers of flight, conserving his energy for later. They were both still weak after their fight at the Dragon Moot. Hurricane had been near death, and Lyrai hadn’t faired much better. Thinking about that day, and the cold rage that had made him take on a twenty-five foot dragon single-handed, made Lyrai shudder. He might have thought he’d dreamt it all, except for the poison burns on his arms and face.
“How many times have I told you to leave it alone.” The commanding tone had him dropping his hand before it even reached his face. “Better. If you want to heal, you must leave it be.” A small, silvery woman appeared in front of him, arms folded, face stern.
“I wanted to scratch,” Lyrai sighed. “All the time.”
Healer Litha wrinkled her nose, unimpressed. “Don’t. Unless you wish to be scarred for life.” She looked him over with bright silver eyes and smiled. “Which would be a shame. You’re far too pretty to scar.”
“Still here?” a disgruntled Dhori demanded, stopping before the woman and eyeing her like a baleful cat.
Only the knowledge that Dhori behaved like this to all dragons prevented Lyrai from scolding his student. That and a strange encounter with a dragon artefact, whose resulting vision implied that the Goddess Maegla knew the lad by name. A different name, perhaps, but Lyrai had never quite known what to make of supposed-Student Dhori.
Rather than showing any resentment at Dhori’s rudeness, the healer smiled and patted his cheek. “I will have to speak with your mother about your manners, Dhoriaen Aure.”
Lyrai raised his eyebrows, but Dhori shrugged her off. “Say what you will – she’s angry enough already.” He paused. “You’d better not be coming with us.”
“Dhori!” Lyrai snapped, unable to let this rudeness pass. “Ignore him, my lady. You are more than welcome to accompany us anywhere you wish.”
Luckily, the healer was laughing. “Oh, I don’t mind him, lieutenant. He does so hate it when the family interrupt his games. Fear not, nephew.” She pattied Dhori’s cheek again, “I’m not going to spoil your fun. Just because the dragons have lowered the Veil, doesn’t mean all may pass.”
“Nephew?” Lyrai choked.
“Good.” Dhori nodded, ignoring his lieutenant. “The Overworld is no place for you.”
“But you’re a dragon!” Lyrai spluttered, looking from one to the other. True, he’d never seen her in anything other than human form, but she lived with dragons and the Cleansed Lands had been closed to humans for over a century. He may have made a few assumptions, but they had been logical ones. And if she was a dragon, what did that make Dhori? Aside from more mysterious than ever.
Dhori’s aunt laughed again and shook her head. “Much as I hate to disappoint you, lieutenant, I am no dragon. Your friend’s mystery continues without scales, I’m afraid.”
“But -” Words failed him, and he stared at Dhori in mute confusion.
The secretive student shuffled his feet. “I don’t have to be related to dragons to dislike them.” Which was the sort of family reasoning Lyrai could relate to, but still…
“I don’t understand.”
This time the healer patted Lyrai’s cheek, though extra gently in deference to his fragile skin. “Just as long as you keep healing, that’s all that matters. Leave my nephew to his mysteries. You’ll all be happier that way. Here.” She took a package from her bag and handed it to him. “A gift to remember me by. Good luck, health and fortune, Lieutenant Prince Lyrai. May all your hopes be fulfilled.” Standing on tiptoe, she brushed a kiss across his jaw, leaving a cool tingling behind, not unlike when she healed him.
Embarrassed and confused, Lyrai ducked his head and mumbled his thanks, not just for the gift, but for all she had done for him and Hurricane.
“Lovely manners.” She smiled in satisfaction and raised an eyebrow at Dhori. “Take care of him, and yourself. It was good to see you again, Aurelian.”
He suffered a hug and even a kiss on the cheek before sighing, “And you, Aunt Litha.”
“There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” she cooed, winking at Lyrai and sauntering away before her nephew could retaliate further.
“Aurelian,” Lyrai echoed thoughtfully. “Wasn’t that the name Maegla used in the Seeing Stone?”
Dhori looked at him with stormy grey eyes. “Family,” he growled, stalking off and leaving all of Lyrai’s questions unanswered. As usual.
“That was interesting,” Hurricane murmured, peering over Lyrai’s shoulder at the present.
“Mm,” he agreed, untying the string and parting the paper to reveal a small, leather-bound book. “Tales of the Gods.” Lyrai raised his eyebrows. “I suspect, old friend, that things will get even more interesting yet.”
“Don’t start reading it now,” Hurricane warned. “I think we might be ready to go. At last.”
“Yes, I go apologise, lieutenant,” said the ever-polite Elder Goryal in their high, chiming voice. In dragon form they had the appearance of pale blue glass and sounded like silver bells. As a human they were slight and delicate, but the brightness in their eyes belied any impression of weakness. “Dragons so rarely travel for longer than a few days. Nor spend so long in our secondary forms. Packing and provisions are a new experience.”
Lyrai smiled at the ancient dragon and didn’t bother to point out that they’d already packed when they left the Archives three days ago. He couldn’t see why it was taking so long to transfer all their baggage to poor Rhiddyl, but he’d never claimed to understand dragons.
“Ah, now we are ready,” Goryal announced, though to Lyrai’s eye Reglian and Estenarix were still arguing over the placement of a bag of fruit while Rhiddyl arched her back to keep her laden belly off the ground. “Our transport has arrived.”
Realising the elder wasn’t even looking at their fellow dragons, Lyrai turned and shielded his eyes as five black birds glided into view. Overhead, Cumulo squawked and got out of the way as the enormous vulardis banked and swept in to land. Like miryhls, the vulardis were a result of dragon experimentation. While miryhls were giant eagles, designed to provide transport to humans marooned on mountain peaks, vulardis were great vultures created by the dragons to guard the Storm Wash and Storm Surge barriers that separated the dragonlands from human ones.
Between twelve and fifteen feet tall, the immense birds had a wingspan of over thirty feet, almost double most miryhls. Black on their wings and back, their bodies and heads were a mixture of white, cream, pale browns and russet hues, but their outstanding feature was their eyes. Ringed in red, a circle of white surrounded the black dot of the pupil, making them look like targets inside their black face masks.
They made an imposing and impressive sight, and Lyrai blinked at the thought of one flying across the Overworld. Five of them, he corrected as the human-shaped dragons started loading two vulardis with the last of the baggage. And to think the dragons hadn’t wanted to frighten the natives.
“Well, that should make life exciting,” Jaymes said, watching the proceedings with a critical eye.
Lyrai snorted. “Gods forefend that our lives should ever become boring.”
Corin chuckled and nudged him with her elbow. “That’s what I’ve always liked about you, sir. So eager for adventure.”
Scowling, Lyrai turned back to Hurricane for one last check before the flight.
~ Next Chapter ~
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