A year and a day after Storm Rising, may I present to you…
After five hundred years of drowning the Overworld, the Cloud Curse is changing. In their arrogance and complacency many dragons thought they were safe, but no longer. The Curse has shifted course and is attacking each dragon Clan in different and insidious ways. Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn is determined to stop it, but in the vast libraries of Spire Heights it’s hard to know where to begin – or who to trust.
Spire Heights offers the Rift Riders a different threat: boredom. With no trade treaties to negotiate and few feasts to attend, the ambassador doesn’t really need them, leaving the humans with far too much time on their hands. Still, Lieutenant Nera is confident that for once she can keep out of trouble, because surely nothing dangerous ever happens in a library…
Return to the Dragonlands as curses, conspiracies, friends and foes combine in the Riders’ most mysterious adventure yet.
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Read on for the first part of Chapter One.
On board the Skylark
22nd Blizzard Month, 579 Cloud Era
“I CAN’T BE in here,” Lieutenant Nera of the Rift Riders protested, looking around in a panic. “This is Elder Blazeborn’s cabin!”
“He’s flying,” Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart said simply, looking utterly unconcerned at the prospect of his elder returning to find that his aide had installed a human inside his precious private space. “And when he stops, he’ll resume his watch at Kalaha’s door. He won’t even notice you’re here.”
Nera could think up plenty of refutations to that, since Khennik kin Blazeborn Clan Sunlord was well known for spending every evening in his cabin watching the sunset before joining the other dragon elders for dinner with the captains and ambassador. It was a well-established routine, which Nera understood because her life was often full of routine too.
Life in the Rift Riders was an active one that led to a lot of travel all across the Overworld, but each day was usually the same as the last, ready to echo on through the ones that followed. It could be dull, it was often boring, but always familiar. Oh, how Nera missed it. The moon had waxed full and begun to wane since they’d left the Winter Moot, and she’d spent the whole time stuck inside the Skylark, waiting for her chance to fly again.
She understood why, of course, since her ill-planned and poorly executed rescue attempt of Elder Blazeborn had left her with mild burns and badly scratched up legs. Some might think it easy to sit on a miryhl’s back all day, since the giant eagles did all the hard work of flying, but a good Rider was an active Rider, shifting in the saddle to counterbalance their partner, sitting upright or leaning forwards as necessary. All of which involved flexing and stretching her legs, and since the injury on her right thigh was big and had removed a good deal of skin, Nera knew her best hope of recovery was to stay out of the saddle.
That didn’t mean she had to like it.
“Better you sit still now and heal up properly,” Captain Wellswen had said, two days into their southward journey when Nera’s constant presence in the cabin her commander shared with Ambassador Jesken was just starting to irritate them all equally. “That way we won’t show any weakness when we make out next stop.”
The dragons already thought humans were weak, so Nera could appreciate the captain not wanting to further confirm such things with an injured lieutenant. Still, when Estenarven barged into the ambassador’s cabin on the eighth morning of their trip, picked her up and carried her off, Nera thought her salvation had arrived. A quarter-moon under Wellswen’s constant scrutiny had been more than enough. The ambassador had been kind – she always was – but the cabin was barely big enough for two women who actually liked spending time together. Adding a third to the mix had left the atmosphere strained.
Nera’s relief was short-lived as Estenarven took her into the next-door cabin and dropped her on the only chair in the cramped room.
“Of course he’ll notice. I’m right in front of the window!”
“You won’t sleep here,” the stone-stubborn Boulderforce assured her. “It’s just during the day. We thought you’d enjoy the view.”
Which was very sweet of him, since Nera’s leg was too stiff and heavily bandaged for her to be able to climb easily up and down between the decks, leaving her mostly stuck inside. But that didn’t mean Elder Blazeborn wouldn’t noticed she’d been there and object to having his sanctuary invaded by one of the many humans he had – until very recently – despised.
“I can’t stay here, Esten. He’ll smell me!”
Everyone knew dragons had better senses than humans. According to the dragons they had better everything than humans. Khennik would know she’d been here – and he’d resent it. Especially since her injuries had come about in a foolish attempt to rescue him, when he hadn’t needed her help at all. Most embarrassing of all, it had ended with him carrying her away from the scene.
The mere memory had her burying her head in her hands and groaning.
“Stop it, P-p-pebble.” The cabin door swung open to admit Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight, the second of Khennik’s young aides, carrying one of his ever-present trays of tea. “D-don’t worry, Nera, it was Elder B-blazeborn’s idea.”
“He knows you’re here,” Estenarven agreed, smiling slyly.
It was a stretch to reach him from her seat, but Nera managed to smack him in the ribs anyway, making Mastekh chuckle and herself feel better.
3rd Cold Month
SITTING BEFORE THE great window inside Elder Blazeborn’s cabin, Nera propped her elbows on the narrow sill and peered through one of the small lead-framed panes. The view beyond was predominantly white as the Cloud Sea stretched out in a constant reminder of the Curse that had struck their world.
If anyone had ever known the true reason why the gods had sent the clouds, no one remembered it now, neither dragon nor human. There had been so much chaos back in the days when the world first drowned that it had always made sense to Nera that humans had forgotten what had caused it.
Five hundred years was a lot of human lives, especially when so many had been lost in the desperate rush to reach higher ground and learn how to adapt to their shrunken world. It made a lot less sense for the dragons, since they lived so much longer. Although she’d learnt that dragonkind too had paid a high price beneath the Curse, so many individuals had been alive both before and afterwards that surely they should know what had made the clouds first fall.
Was it any wonder then that many of them hated humans so much? Especially when recent events and tensions amongst the Clans had shown that the clouds were the least of the Curse’s plans for the Dragonlands. Shrinking territories, intolerant Clans, cruel elders – everywhere they looked the Curse was spreading in unexpected ways. Nera feared what evidence they might turn up next.
Her heavy sigh fogged up the glass. While she waited for it to clear, her gaze drifted over the thick panes. Sitting this close to the window, she could see tiny bubbles within the glass, small imperfections that were unnoticeable at a distance. Her eyes crossed as she focused on them, allowing the view to swim into a haze of white and grey. Above it all the sky was blue and cloudless, with nothing but the wind to move them along.
It was thanks to that wind that they’d made such good time heading south. After half a day of drifting anxiously away from Onalen’s Cove and the disastrous Dragon Moot, relying on their Thunderwing friends to keep the Skylark moving, a strong wind had been waiting for them at the border. Crossing out of the Flowflight lands had brought a relief of its own, since that Clan was notorious for its dislike of humans. Clan Swiftwing wasn’t well known for liking them much either, but they were also dragons who valued knowledge above all things.
Perhaps they were speeding the Skylark’s journey because they were curious to speak to the Riders and gain fresh stories for their libraries. Or maybe they were eager to meet with Elder Blazeborn and discuss his efforts to find cures for the Curse.
Most likely of all was the Clan’s collective wish to bring Kalaha home. Kalaha kin Windheart Clan Swiftwing was part of the delegation assigned to guide the humans through the Dragonlands. Personal aide to Elder Rainstorm, Kalaha had mostly kept to herself so far throughout their journey, seeming to place herself far above not just the humans but the other young dragon aides who should have been her equals. Or so they had all thought until, for no clear reason, she had risked her life to save Mastekh during a showdown with Elder Boulderforce. Buried in a landslide, Kalaha’s injuries were grave. While those onboard the Skylark were doing everything possible to help the young dragon heal, it was understandable that her own Clan was keen to bring her home where they could take care of her themselves.
Nera sympathised. Her own lesser injuries had left her too much time to think and miss the home she had left behind. Not just Aquila, which all Riders called home and where she had first learnt to fly and fight, but back with her mother, travelling the courts and rich homes of the Overworld. Nera missed watching her mother dance, missed curling up with her in the early morning hours, sharing stories of their day and other things that were on their minds. She missed the soothing touch of her mother’s hand on her brow, the kiss against her temple, the low hum of a lullaby.
Nera hadn’t missed those things for years. Remembering them now made her heart ache.
It would be five years or more before she was back in the human lands of the Overworld. Five years before she could see her mother again. They hadn’t even spent two full seasons here yet.
Another sigh fogged up the glass and Nera drew a small heart with a star inside it – the symbol she and her mother always signed their letters with.
“I miss you, mama,” she murmured, brushing her picture away with her thumb.
The view smeared beneath her touch and she frowned, pulling back for a better look.
The world was still mostly white with a perfect blue sky above, but something was taking shape in the centre. At first it was nothing but a smudge of grey and brown. Until the sun emerged from a distant cloud and cast a warm glow over it all.
Nera’s breath caught.
Spire Heights. The ancient Clanhome of Swiftwing.
“Maegla,” she breathed, rising slowly to her feet and backing away from the window to where the imperfect panes didn’t distort the view so much.
In four full moons of travel across the Dragonlands, Nera had seen marvels and wonders to fulfil a thousand childhood dreams. She’d thought the gorgeous green lands of the Skystorm Clanlands had been beautiful and Onalen’s Cove had been astonishing.
Spire Heights was breathtaking.
A row of jagged rock spikes rose out of the swirling maelstrom of the Cloud Sea, like clawed fingers of two monstrous hands. Nine spikes in all, between which clouds flowed and frothed to form a permanent misty stream.
The top of each extended into a tower built from weathered grey-blue stone and glimmering glass, with arching bridges connecting them in fine webs. Below those bridges, strange round structures dangled, glittering like dewdrops over the swirling Sea below.
“Impressive, is it not?”
Nera jumped, unaware that she had company. Her bad thigh twinged as she half-turned to glance behind.
Elder Blazeborn stood a few paces inside his cabin, arms folded across his chest as he too stared at the view. He was a tall, dark statue wrapped in bronze silk, with golden eyes and a forbidding countenance. He wasn’t frowning, nor was he smiling. He simply stared at the view as the Skylark was swept inexorably closer to Spire Heights and the home of Clan Swiftwing.
It was the first time Nera had seen him since he’d carried her away from the tunnels at the feet of Onalen’s Cove, after she’d attempted to rescue him and needed rescuing in return. He’d placed her carefully in her miryhl’s saddle and swept off into the night. Since then he’d been busy above decks, watching over Kalaha and flying, while Nera had lurked in his cabin during the day and slept on a pallet in the ambassador’s room at night.
The time for rest and recovery was now over, she suspected, and sidled away from the window towards the door with only the slightest limp to slow her down.
“You don’t have to leave,” Elder Blazeborn said, not taking his eyes from the view. “Not yet.”
Nera paused to study the way the sunlight poured through the south-facing window, the light clinging to his skin, revealing a slightly metallic shimmer and highlighting the golden tones beneath the bronze. He was warmth and heat, a true Sunlord. She had invaded his sanctuary for long enough.
“It is past time,” she told him, and slipped as quietly as possible through the door. She had duties to attend to and a miryhl she was overdue to fly once more.
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~ Chapter 1, Part 2 ~
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