The Dragonlands series continues in the heat and heart of the desert.
Those who dance with fire cannot help getting burned…
The delegation is in trouble. Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn is sick, mistrust festers amongst the dragons, yet the Skylark travels onwards, bound by its diplomatic mission. Clan Sunlord is not known for its tolerance of humans, but the Rift Riders have no choice. The journey must go on.
The desert awaits, full of heat and passion and strange wonders, but each smile is tinged with cunning and betrayal is never far away. New dragons, new dangers, fresh troubles and deep prejudice lurk in the shadows of the Sunlord palace. The Dragonlands are changing, but this time even the strong might not survive.
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Read on for the first part of Chapter One.
On board the Skylark
28th Thaw Month, 580 Cloud Era
A HAZE HUNG over the horizon and a sense of anticipation filled the air. After nearly two and a half months of flying west over the Cloud Sea, the Skylark was finally nearing the desert, and no one knew quite what to expect.
Warm sunlight poured down, turning the clouds into a blinding white carpet that shrouded anything lower than a mountain in never-ending whiteness. Lieutenant Nera stood at the skyship’s prow, staring at the view. Until recently she would have ignored the world below, half-believing the legends that to fall through the Cloud Sea was to fall forever, but she knew better now. Nera had been below the clouds. She had passed through the Curse. She knew the old world still existed down there and that some of the lost dragons had survived.
Was there an ocean below them now? Did giant Seadrakes hunt in the pitch-black deeps? Or was it a misty landscape, full of the twisted shapes of ancient trees, struggling to survive on too little light? Did great rivers run beneath her feet, filled with inquisitive Riverstones? Or was it an empty wasteland, filled with nothing but fog and memories?
“All set?” A firm clap on the shoulder made Nera jump.
“Hardy.” She greeted her fellow Rift Rider lieutenant with a wry smile. “I didn’t hear you come up.”
“Too busy admiring the view?” Anhardyne chuckled, leaning over the rail to study the featureless skyscape. Clouds, clouds and more clouds, not a single rocky outcrop disturbed the monotony. Even the sky overhead was a perfect blue without a smudge of white to interrupt it. There was nothing to be seen in any direction – except the haze growing up ahead. “Can’t say I blame you. It’s riveting.”
Nera rolled her eyes. “All packed and ready to go?”
“Finally.” Anhardyne gave a put-upon sigh. “I swear the captain assigns the most disorganised Riders to me. Your lot were ready by first light. Mine are still arguing over who stole the last hair ribbon.”
“And that’s just the men,” Nera chuckled, making Anhardyne snort.
“I wish that was a joke. With the dragons making such a fuss over everyone’s hair, the lot of them primp worse than a bunch of Havian nobles. If I have one more Rider asking to borrow the hair ties I don’t need anymore, I’ll shear them all myself.” At the start of their journey Anhardyne’s waist-length hair had been the envy of many, but after a dragon paid a small fortune for her golden curls, she’d embraced her shorter cut and refused all offers to grow it long again. Which had prompted many a Rider to grow out their own in the hope of making a similar profit.
Nera grinned. “That’s one problem I’ll never have to deal with.” She’d always kept her hair short and practical. Pure black and stick straight, not even the most fashion-obsessed or follicle-challenged dragon had shown an interest in it, but Nera didn’t mind. Long hair was a pain to fly with.
Sharing a smile at the follies of others, the lieutenants fell into a comfortable silence as they leant against the prow rail and watched the haze grow. A smattering of shadows flickered over the clouds as a flock of giant miryhl eagles spread out in front of the Skylark. Nera tilted her head and spotted a pair of pale marble miryhls, telling her even from this distance that she was looking at Gharrik’s flurry. He and Vish were on sentry duty this morning, prepared as always to defend the Skylark from attack in the not always friendly Dragonlands.
Not that there was a lot a flock of miryhls could do should a pack of dragons attack, but that wouldn’t stop them trying. Besides, as spacious as the Skylark was for a skyship, its hull made a cramped and irritable eyrie for a hundred-odd eagles when packed in all at once. Far better to keep both miryhls and Riders busy by having half of them out on patrol at any given time.
Nera watched Gharrik’s twenty-five strong flurry fan out in formation before the Skylark, knowing that Vish’s Riders would be mirroring them behind, and thought they made an impressive sight. Humans and miryhls might be tiny compared to the might of dragons, but they still knew how to put on a show.
“Land ho!” The cry drifted down, passing from Riders to skysailors and across the upper deck.
The lieutenants straightened up, but even on tiptoe Nera could only see the same haze that had been teasing her all morning.
“Anything?” she asked, since Anhardyne was a good foot taller.
“Nothing.” Her friend shook her head and rested back on the rail. When Nera bounced lightly on her toes, Anhardyne laughed. “Settle down, Half-Pint, we’ll see it eventually.”
Nera wrinkled her nose and tapped her fingers on the rail. It wasn’t so much impatience that was making her jittery, more the sense of the unknown. “I wish we knew what to expect.”
Part of her was excited about what lay before them. She’d never seen a desert before. The human Overworld didn’t have any, since their own had long been covered by the Curse. She’d read about them in books and heard stories from the dragons aboard, but the landscape sounded so strange and alien that she struggled to imagine what such a place would look like. Now she would finally know.
The rest of her was nervous because, of all the Clans the humans had encountered on their diplomatic trip through the Dragonlands so far, Sunlord was the one they’d been most warned against approaching. Fiery, capricious, territorial and powerful, Sunlord was not a Clan to be trespassed on. Especially by humans. Yet here they were, about to sail right into the heart of those dragons’ territory.
Nera’s fingers tapped the rail again, betraying her nerves.
“We’ll be all right, Ni. Captain Wellswen would never risk the ambassador.”
True enough, but the captain hadn’t been the one to plot such a dangerous course. That had been down to the dragons. One dragon in particular.
Nera glanced over her shoulder at the small figure standing at the rear of the skyship. Dressed in a pearly silk robe bordered with pale gold, their white hair bound in an intricate braid, Elder Goryal Clan Starshine looked frail and harmless as they smiled at something Hornvel, the Skylark’s captain, said. Looks, in Goryal’s case, could be exceedingly deceiving.
Starshine was the smallest and most mysterious of the seven dragon Clans, but all of its members were very old and very powerful. It would be easy to underestimate Goryal, but wise folk listened when they spoke and obeyed when they gave one of their rare orders.
Which was why the delegation was now approaching the edge of Clan Sunlord territory, despite the unease that rippled through the humans on deck and the scowl that had taken up permanent residence on Wellswen’s face.
The Rift Rider captain was on the rear deck too, arms crossed over her chest as she stood guard behind Ambassador Jesken, who was sharing a laughing conversation with Junior Archivist Reglian. The inquisitive dragon was rarely found far from Goryal’s side, though his solid dark form was the complete opposite of the pale and diminutive Starshine elder. Also keeping them company were Korija, Elder Thunderwing, and Leasang, Elder Cloudflight, another two dragons rarely found outside of each other’s company these days.
“Hey, Ni, look.” Anhardyne nudged her. “Our first view of the desert.”
Nera turned eagerly and her surge of excitement immediately fizzled. “It’s a rock.”
“It’s a desert rock.” Anhardyne spread her hands as if revealing something wondrous. “From the rocky desert.”
Nera bumped her with a shoulder. “Shut up.”
“Did I mention it was from the desert?” Anhardyne said with mock seriousness. “The actual desert. With rocks and sand and… desert.”
Nera bumped her again, harder. “Stop it.” Her friends had been teasing her for the last month about her curiosity over all things desert. Honestly, there were times when Anhardyne and Vish acted as though it was a crime to be interested in something new.
“But it’s just so exciting!” Her friend clasped her hands against her chest in mock-rapture.
Nera scowled and shoved Anhardyne against the rail. “Just because you’re a jaded old hag who’s grown bored of life, no need to make fun of those of us still young enough to enjoy it.”
“Old hag!” That brought a swift end to the teasing. “I’ve got barely five years on you, you wretched Half-Pint.”
Nera grinned. “You don’t look it.”
Sniffing, Anhardyne smoothed a hand over her fluffy golden curls. “Of course I don’t.”
“You look ten years older at least.” Nera barely ducked in time to avoid a clip around the ear. “You’re ancient, Hardy. Over thirty. Everyone knows it’s all downhill from there.”
Growling, Anhardyne swiped for her again and missed. “You won’t ever make it to thirty if I get my hands on you.” There wasn’t anything the least bit ancient about Anhardyne. In fact the woman was a towering beauty, and well she knew it. However, it wasn’t often that Nera had a chance to ruffle her composure, so she made the most of it while she could.
“Leaving me forever young,” Nera laughed, ducking another grab and dancing away between ropes and skysailors. “Unlike you. There’s no hope left for you now.” While Nera might not be as tall or as beautiful as Anhardyne, she had inherited her mother’s clear skin and small features, making her look younger than she truly was. Anhardyne really did look ten years older, but only because Nera still looked like a teenager.
Laughing off a fresh round of insults, Nera used another of her gifts from her mother – the light-footed ability to dance – and skipped around a rope chest in the centre of the deck. Distracted by keeping an eye on Anhardyne, she didn’t see the Rider coming the other way until they collided.
“Lieutenant!” The woman, who Nera vaguely recognised, managed to grab her before she landed on her arse. “I’m so sorry, are you all right?”
“Ha!” Anhardyne pounced and seized Nera’s shoulder while she was still off-balance. “She might be now, but that won’t last long.”
Read on, my friends.