On Monday, April 20th, the fifth Dragonlands adventure is let loose into the world.
Fleeing the Sunlord’s palace, Lieutenant Nera of the Rift Riders has no plan in mind beyond getting away. She needs to keep her pregnant Rider safe and take care of her companion, Mastekh kin Rainstorm. But the desert is dry and desolate, and none of them know where they are going.
Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn has dedicated his long life to protecting others. His kin, his Clan, all dragonkind, he always knew where his priorities lay. Until his young dragon aide ran off with two humans, leaving Khennik no choice but to follow. He will do anything to get them back and keep them safe. Even against the rest of the Riders.
Deep in the desert, far from the Curse, some might think themselves safe from the clouds. Yet out here the smallest mistake could mean the difference between survival and disaster…
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Read on for the Prologue.
Fierensfar, Sunlord Clanlands
10th Nesting Month
“ANCIENT GODS OF Sun and Sky, ancestors from far away, we stand before you today and offer remembrance and thanks for the life of Fhenari Benan Marnara, of the Lowlands and Aquila, child of the earth and Rift Rider of the air. Look back over her life, raise her up and remember her.”
Lieutenant Anhardyne stood solemnly in the first row of the mourning circle, watching dry-eyed as a collection of Lowland Riders performed the funeral rites of their land, bidding their fellow Rider and compatriot well as she passed beyond the world. A world that had given her little but sorrow and grief, ending her life too swiftly in defence of her unborn child.
Captain Wellswen stood stoic and strong on one side of Anhardyne, while Vish was steadfast on the other. They were dressed in their finest uniforms – the travel creases freshly pressed out by the dracos that morning – buffed and shining, doing Fhenari proud.
Anhardyne had failed her Rider in life, but she would do all she could to see that she was honoured appropriately in death.
The body of the once-quiet woman was wrapped in a beautiful red silk shroud, a gift from Elder Sunlord and his Clan. As was the timber piled beneath the body and, when the time came, likely the flame that would release her spirit as well. Gifts of guilt as much as honour, for they too had failed to protect their guests from murder and heartbreak, even if the guests had brought the murderer with them.
The six remaining Lowlanders from Captain Wellswen’s flight began to dance, slow and stately, drumming the rhythm with hands and bare feet. For a ritual borne out of rich northern pastures and rolling green hills, it seemed strangely at home in the desert dawn, their feet shushing over cool sands as their hands threw glittering grains into the air. When they began to sing, their song was melancholic and slow, but sped up with their dance into something euphoric and filled with hope. The end had already come, now something new could begin.
Anhardyne drew in a shivering breath as the six Riders stopped, arms stretched towards the sky, surrounding Fhenari with their mingled grief and joy. She was gone, but she was not forgotten. It made Anhardyne sad to think that her Rider had more friends in death than she’d ever had in life. Poor Fhenari.
Yhulla, a Lowland Rider from Vish’s flurry, began to sing, her voice as high and clear as a lark. Her wordless song climbed, soaring into the brightening sky. Then, between her upraised hands, the sun pierced the horizon, a spear of brilliant light that shot across the desert, through Yhulla’s hands and onto Fhenari’s pyre.
Fire ignited. Fierce, bold and brilliant. It leapt upwards, wrapping the fallen Rider in warmth.
The dancers stumbled back, surprised by the sudden explosion of heat.
Anhardyne didn’t move. She blinked against the glowing light and caught the gaze of the man opposite. Eiryah, flamboyant friend of Elder Dyrrenes and occasionally known as Heirayk, Human Sun God. No wonder the flames spread so quickly, wrapping Fhenari tenderly in their burning coils and releasing her spirit to the blue sky above.
Anhardyne inclined her head in thanks. Eiryah nodded solemn acknowledgement, for once foregoing his exuberant grin.
The ceremony didn’t last long after that. The Lowlanders pulled Anhardyne and the captain into their circle, joining hands while the pyre burned. There was one last song of release and then only ashes remained.
When Joran, one of Nera’s Riders, crouched with an urn to gather Fhenari’s final remains, a brisk little whirlwind stirred up out of nowhere. Small and turning tightly, the wind swept through the ashes and bone shards, lifting and depositing them in the jar.
The Rider’s wide eyes met Anhardyne’s and she turned to where Healer Litha watched them with a sad smile.
“Thank you,” Captain Wellswen said.
The healer – and occasional Sky Goddess – tipped her head. “It was the least I could do.” She knelt beside Joran and draped a familiar charm around the jug’s neck. A small silver cloud on a metal chain: Fhenari’s necklace. The one Elder Leasang had kept after murdering the Rider, putting it in a keepsake box with other small trinkets that no one had yet dared to ask about.
Elder Goryal Starshine was keeping them safe for the Summer Moot when the Cloudflight elder would answer for her crimes. Hopefully. Anhardyne didn’t have much faith in dragon justice, but she hoped that this time the evidence of Leasang’s plots and crimes would be enough to see her punished.
Gods, Anhardyne really wanted the dragon to be punished. Poor Fhenari had been a little foolish in trying to keep her half-dragon baby, but she didn’t deserve to die for it, no matter what dragons believed. Nor did she deserve to be a pawn in a deeper game of Clan politics designed to mess with Sunlord trade. It was one thing for Fhenari to die protecting her child, as awful as that would have been, but it was quite another to be killed simply to increase a Clan’s profits. Such a callous disregard for life deserved to be punished, although Anhardyne feared it would be the diplomatic mess that Leasang had caused amongst the Clans that would get her into the most trouble. Whatever worked. As long as the elder was made to pay, that was all Anhardyne cared about.
“Come, lieutenant.” Ambassador Jesken touched her arm, interrupting her thoughts with a comforting smile. “It is time we returned inside.” Before the sun rose much higher and began to cook them all.
Anhardyne returned the smile with a weak effort and a nod. It was time to go back in, to try and return to some semblance of normality. Perhaps they could even leave soon. Gods, she couldn’t wait to leave this scorched place. She was more than ready to move on.
The sound of Vish’s sigh as he fell into step beside her hinted that he felt the same. “I’m sorry to say goodbye,” her lover murmured, as the sand crunched beneath their feet. “But I’m not sorry it’s over. Maybe now we can get back to normal.”
“Gods, yes please,” she agreed, brushing the back of her hand against his and briefly entwining their fingers. “We haven’t been here even a full year yet and I’m so ready to go home.”
Except they wouldn’t see the Overworld for another four years. Ambassador Jesken’s diplomatic role in the Dragonlands was due to last for five in total. They’d barely even started their stay.
“Home,” Vish agreed with another heartfelt sigh. “I’ve almost forgotten what it looks like.”
Trust Vish to overstate the case. The pair of them were in great danger of becoming maudlin.
“Where’s Nera to annoy us both with all the wonders we’ve yet to see?” Anhardyne asked, looking around the dispersing crowd with a frown. Even though Nera was injured and still staying in the infirmary, it wasn’t like her friend not to be here. Despite being quiet by nature, she was also steadfastly loyal and always nearby when Anhardyne needed her, no matter what. Something Anhardyne had definitely taken for granted, but she vowed to do better.
Still, even without all that, she would have expected Nera to at least make an attempt to sneak out for the funeral. Several of her Riders had been involved and seeing to their emotional well-being was the sort of duty Nera took very seriously.
“Healer Litha is still insisting on perfect silence for her,” Vish reminded her. “No one goes in, no one comes out. She enlisted Zantho to watch the doors and keep us riffraff at bay.”
“Ah.” Anhardyne nodded, hoping her friend would recover soon. Her fight with Elder Rishen had been awful, but the head knock she’d taken afterwards was the real worry. Especially if she was still delicate after so many days. Fortunately, Nera had an excellent healer in Litha and plenty of good Riders who would fuss and take proper care of her.
Anhardyne narrowed her eyes. “If Zantho’s meant to be guarding her door, why is he coming this way?”
The old sergeant was as reliable as the sunrise and devoted to Nera. Well respected amongst the Riders, he was also envied by every other lieutenant who only wished they had such a sergeant. He wouldn’t be here when he should have been guarding Nera unless something was wrong.
“Come on.” She slapped Vish on the arm and pushed through the crowd to where Zantho was closing in on Captain Wellswen.
Please don’t let anything be wrong. Please don’t let Nera be hurt, Anhardyne silently prayed as Zantho reached the captain, looking uncharacteristically shaken.
“What’s the matter, sergeant?” Wellswen asked briskly, clearly eager to get the ambassador back inside. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching your lieutenant’s door, making sure no one sneaks in to see her?”
“Aye,” Zantho said, his gruff voice low. “But captain, Lieutenant Nera…”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” the ambassador asked, her voice soft but urgent. “Has something happened to Nera?” “She’s gone,” Zantho whispered. “Nera’s gone.”