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…
Read on for Chapter One
South Isnessen Desert
12th Nesting Month
ANOTHER SUNRISE IN the desert and Lieutenant Nera of the Rift Riders was still no wiser about where she was going or what she was doing. Not that she could truly call herself a lieutenant or Rift Rider now. Not after what she’d done: abandoned her post, deserted her flurry, left her flight. Nera was in big trouble, and that was before she opened her eyes and remembered just how lost they were.
“This is hopeless.” Tarro, one of Nera’s most reliable Riders – and currently pregnant with a half-dragon child, which was the reason for this ill-planned death flight in the first place – stood beside her as they stared out over miles upon miles of dry, dusty nothing. The sun squatted low on the horizon, red and angry, already burning.
The ridge they’d landed on for a brief rest was the only distinctive feature in sight. The ground below yawned in all directions, the craggy surface casting jagged shadows that stretched desperately away from the rising sun. It didn’t look good, but nothing had since the moment they’d fled from Fierensfar, the palace of the Sunlords, blindly setting forth into the desert.
“Anything of in-interest?” their dragon companion, Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight asked, from where he sat slumped on the ground, his silk robe spread across his lap, the better to cradle his clutch of rocky eggs.
Nera caught Tarro’s eye and shook her head. “We’ll find some water soon,” she promised, sounding more confident that she felt. Which wouldn’t be hard. Tarro was right – this journey was hopeless. Nera had known almost from the start that she’d made an enormous mistake. She only hoped Mastekh wouldn’t be the one to pay for it.
The desert was no place for a water dragon, and Mastekh had been struggling ever since the embassy’s skyship had entered these dry lands. In choosing to follow Nera and Tarro into the wastes with no plan, no route and no shelter, Mastekh had shown extraordinary courage. More than Nera had expected. It was far too easy to write Mastekh off as weak, with his stutter, anxious nature and propensity to drip when uncomfortable, but Nera had always known there was more to the dragon than that.
Even when she barely knew the Rainstorm, she’d seen Mastekh risk his life to protect Vish from the lightning of a power-crazed dragon. She’d seen him bounce back from a terrible beating and dare to fall in love. Nera knew her friend could be brave, but embarking on a journey into the heart of the desert was beyond any of that. Momentary acts of courage were one thing, but this was a feat of endurance that even she was thinking better of. Mastekh was made of water, his power, his very life force was bound up in it – yet there wasn’t a single drop of it to be seen in all the miles that surrounded them.
Nera was extremely worried about him. Normally pale in his human shape, Mastekh seemed to have lost all colour entirely over recent days. Where hints of green often tinged his cheeks and forehead, now he was bone white, his skin pulled tight over his slender frame. His wispy fluff of green-blond hair was frail and colourless, his eyes appearing huge in the sunken lines of his face.
Mastekh was dying and there wasn’t anything Nera could do about it. They were three days from Fierensfar, two from the last watering hole, and even if they did turn around now, Nera wasn’t certain they could find their way back to either.
She wasn’t used to such broad landscapes entirely devoid of features. There were no clouds here, no mountain islands, no strangely shaped trees or moss covered rocks to remember and aim for. All they had was the cracked ground, the occasional ridge and beautiful wind-sculpted rock stacks that looked different from every angle and were impossible to pinpoint once passed.
There was beauty in the emptiness, but it was a harsh, dry and barren kind. Nera licked her cracked lips and watched the sky turn from deep blue to vibrant pink, blood red to the colour of dust and feared they wouldn’t last much longer.
“We should find shelter,” Teka, Nera’s long suffering and entirely too loyal miryhl eagle said, from where she’d positioned herself behind Mastekh, raising a great wing to shade the wilting Rainstorm from the growing heat of the sun.
Mastekh rested his hands over the eggs on his lap, opened his eyes and sighed. “We sh-should,” he agreed wearily. “We also n-n-need to find somewhere to b-bury these. I think they’re a-almost ready to h-hatch.”
Nera barely, just barely, stopped herself from groaning aloud, because a clutch of freshly-hatched fire salamanders was the last thing she needed. But it was hardly Mastekh’s fault they were almost ready. It was just another challenge to be met on this foolhardy expedition that had started out as a bid to save her Rider and would likely end up killing them all. Two humans, two miryhls, a dragon and an overlarge egg, which even now Teka was brooding over. What a waste of life. At least the fire salamanders would survive. Unlike everyone else, this empty desert was their home. They would faire just fine.
In fact, having them hatch might be the best thing that could happen to all of them.
“Let’s go,” she said, clapping her hands and startling Mastekh out of a light doze. “Shelter first, then somewhere to bury the eggs.” If they could find some water while they were at it, even better.
Nudging her miryhl off her egg, Nera swung into Teka’s saddle, already sweating inside her flying boots. Strapping herself in, she waited for Tarro and Mastekh to get ready.
The Rider took no time climbing into her saddle, but Mastekh’s shift from human to full dragon was painfully slow. The Rainstorm’s scales looked as delicate as porcelain, with only the faintest wash of green still lingering. Despite clearly suffering, Mastekh made no sound of complaint as he settled the salamander eggs inside the pouch beneath his tongue and rolled Teka’s larger egg into his arms.
“Ready?” Nera asked, urging her miryhl towards the edge of the ridge.
Clutching the egg to his chest, Mastekh nodded and shuffled after them. Tarro brought up the rear.
“Let’s find some shade.” Opening her wings, Teka tipped forward and kicked off, gliding over the shortening shadows and spiralling up into the burning day.
* * *
ANOTHER SUNRISE IN the desert and Khennik kin Blazeborn Clan Sunlord was torn between delight and despair. What was he doing? Had the Cloud Curse finally eaten through his last defences and made him lose his mind.
Alas, he didn’t think he could blame any of this on the Curse, as convenient as that would have been. This was all him. Him, a love-struck Boulderforce dragon and the meddling of a pesky human god.
There was plenty of blame to go round, and more than enough to spill over onto a certain human lieutenant and the Rainstorm dragon keeping her company. Father Sun, Nera and Mastekh would be the death of him. He wished he could say he was surprised by this latest start, but he wasn’t. He knew all about Nera’s heroic streak, having experienced it firsthand on several occasions, when she’d tried to rescue him regardless of her own safety. He should have expected something like this. Especially after the tragedy of Rider Fhenari, the fury of Leasang’s unmasking and the brutal actions of Rishen, Elder Rainstorm.
Nera was almost as protective of her Riders as Khennik was of his kin. If something was wrong with one of them – say an unplanned half-dragon pregnancy – then of course she would run. At least that was what Khennik suspected had happened, after having too many worry-filled days to think about it.
The only thing that really surprised him was that Mastekh had gone too. Estenarven he would definitely have expected it of, since it wouldn’t be the first time he and Nera had led each other into trouble. However, while his Rainstorm might be a lot quieter about showing it, Mastekh was every bit as brave in his own way. If Khennik wasn’t so worried about the pair of them, he would almost be proud.
Instead he was terrified. The inner desert was a hostile place that even the strongest Sunlords were wary of crossing. Two humans, two miryhls and a very watery Rainstorm stood absolutely no chance. Even if they had supplies with them, Khennik doubted they were fit for this environment. What kind of shelter did they have? Did they have any maps? How were they navigating? Where were they going? What, by the Family, did they imagine they would achieve through any of this foolishness?
Khennik didn’t know and he wasn’t entirely sure he cared. He just wanted to find them, roar in their foolhardy faces and tuck them under his wing where he could best keep them safe.
“Where now?” Estenarven, his Boulderforce aide and Mastekh’s lover, glided alongside him, bulky and stoic.
He’d done well over the last three days, sticking with Khennik’s relentless pace without complaint, although the Stoneheart had to be thirsty. His rocky exterior provided him with some protection from the ruthless heat, but as the dusty land below proved even stone was not impervious to the rigours of the desert.
Gliding high above the jagged wasteland, the rising sun sending their shadows racing out ahead of them, Khennik stared over leagues of nothing and sighed. It was impossible to know where to go next when they had no idea where their quarry was heading. There was no way to track them through the air and they left very little evidence of themselves on the ground. So far, Khennik’s only hope had been to travel from waterhole to waterhole and hope the others were doing the same. But it had been over a day since they’d last spotted human and dragon tracks, making Khennik increasingly worried for Mastekh’s health.
He spread his wings and soared higher, waiting for Estenarven to follow him as they angled southwest towards the next speck of water, the warmth of the morning sun sending a rush of life and determination through his veins. It was a stark contrast to the barren ground below, where broken shadows hid any signs of possible life. They also hid a few scarce spots of water, and Khennik hoped the others knew that and were making use of the pools formed beneath the deeper cracks to refresh themselves. It would be near impossible to track them if so, since not even Khennik could find and check them all, but at least they would be alive.
Catching a change in the scent of the dust-dry wind, Khennik angled his wings and banked around before dropping swiftly to the ground. Surely Mastekh was able to sense the same thing. Surely any Flowflight could. Even the merest hint of water should scream across his senses in such a place. With any luck he would find one of the wider cracks that was almost a cave, leading beneath the broken surface to the cooler world below.
Khennik consoled himself with such thoughts as he crawled into the cramped confines of one such crack. Shrinking to his human form, he urged Estenarven to go down first and drink his fill, then get some rest as the sun blazed overhead. While his companion prepared a meal from their dwindling supplies, Khennik scrambled to the top of the tallest stack of rocks and let sunlight pour over his head. He closed his eyes and sent his power far and wide, racing through the desert that was blood and life to him.
Except his home desert was far to the east, beyond this broken land, over the shimmering sand sea towards the edge of the continent, where deep canyons had been carved by once roaring rivers that had long ago slowed to a trickle. A land where lines of unexpected green spread below the scorched surface like veins of copper ore. Crumbling mountains formed the borders of his kinlands, a weary barrier barely keeping the Cloud Curse at bay. He should have been there fighting against the Curse, forcing back the tide, keeping the canyons safe. It had been such a long time since he’d last seen home.
Khennik pushed his power into the dusty earth, but try as he might to spread his senses west, everything in him continually pulled east, back towards home. How he missed the place. His homesickness had been a constant ache all through this journey with the human ambassador, but he’d grown used to it, could cope with it. Yet here, now, back in the desert, which wasn’t quite his desert, the ache had grown to an unavoidable pain. A small but fierce part of him – the bit most wounded by the Curse – desperately wanted to go home. The larger part of him resisted.
He had a duty to his kin. Of course he did, and he would do everything in his power to find a way to turn back the Curse and keep them safe. But he also had a duty to Mastekh and Nera. They were his too and they were in danger. He would find them, no matter how homesick he was. He would find them and make them safe.
“Anything?” Estenarven called, and Khennik drew back his power with a sigh.
“Nothing,” he said, jumping off the pile of rocks to where his aide was waiting for him at the cave mouth. “As usual.”
The Boulderforce looked pensive, rubbing his fingers across his thumb. “Maybe I should -”
“No.” Khennik shook his head sharply. “Not again. Not after the last time.” When they’d made their first stop on this journey and Khennik hadn’t been able to sense anything except his far distant home, Estenarven had tried his own magic. The desert was full of rocks, after all. Who better to trace their friends than a Stoneheart?
Except the rocks in this desert were more than just weatherworn, they were broken, tortured by the ferocious sun and scouring wind. The pain had been enough to knock Estenarven unconscious for half a day. Khennik would not put him through that again. It would get them nowhere.
“No,” Estenarven agreed with a sigh. “I suppose not.” He rubbed his fingers against his thumb again, shook his head and turned back towards their shelter. “Breakfast is ready.”
Khennik followed him into the coolness, even though he wasn’t hungry. Out here the blazing sun was enough to keep him going if needed and his growing anxiety over the others kept his appetite at bay. But he sat down and ate the meagre offering anyway. To do otherwise would worry Estenarven and he had more than enough to be concerned about.
“I’m sorry it isn’t better,” the Boulderforce muttered, poking his own bowl of cold porridge with as much enthusiasm as Khennik felt. “We’re low on supplies.”
Khennik grunted and forced himself to shovel the lumpy oats into his mouth. It wasn’t pleasant, but it could have been made with the finest milk and honey and he still wouldn’t have enjoyed it. “We’re not far from kin Firestorm territory. We can restock there once we find the others.”
Estenarven stirred his porridge with a gloomy nod. There was no guarantee they would ever find the others, and certainly not before their own supplies ran out, but Khennik was determined to be optimistic. They’d been through so much since the humans had arrived in the Dragonlands that he refused to believe it would end this way. They had survived worse. They’d survived the Curse itself. They would find Nera and Mastekh and deal with their next set of challenges from there. He would not accept anything less.
“You should rest,” he told Estenarven, scraping the last spoonful of porridge into his mouth and getting to his feet. “I’ll clean up.”
He took the bowl from his aide’s hand and the Boulderforce watched forlornly as Khennik headed to the small puddle tucked deep inside the rocky crack. Despite the building heat of the desert above, the water was cold, its freshness sharp on his tongue when he cupped his hands for a drink. As in other similar spots, it welled up from somewhere deep underground, forming a small but important network that provided little spots of life and hope hidden within the desert. Khennik fervently hoped Mastekh could feel them.
Not wanting to dwell on what would happen if his aide didn’t, Khennik busied himself washing the bowls and spoons and rinsing the pot before taking them outside to dry. He crept past Estenarven, who was lying stretched out in the shadows, too worn out to worry for a while.
A dark shadow eclipsed the light at the cave entrance and Khennik froze. He knew that silhouette, he knew that scent.
“What do you want?” he demanded, his voice a low growl.
A warm laugh answered. “Good morning to you too, Khennik. Have I missed breakfast? What a pity, cold porridge is my favourite.” Eiryah strolled inside, bringing the glow of sunlight with him. “Nice crack you’ve found here. Hullo, Estenarven, I didn’t wake you, did I? No? Excellent.” Oblivious to the glare Khennik was aiming at his back, the meddling god sat beside Estenarven and nudged the Boulderforce until he gave up on sleep with a resigned sigh.
“What do you want?”
Khennik might have laughed to hear his aide ask the same thing he had, if only Estenarven hadn’t sounded so defeated and weary.
“Want, want, want,” Eiryah chuckled, forming a miniature sun glow globe between his fingers and tossing it between his hands. “You dragons are so demanding. Have you no patience?”
“Have you?” Knowing they would get nothing out of the god until he’d finished his little performance, Khennik put the bowls in a patch of sunlight and sat on Estenarven’s other side.
“Of course not!” Eiryah laughed, throwing his little sun in the air and snapping his fingers. It split into three smaller globes, which he began to juggle. “Why else do you think I get on with you all so well?”
Where to even begin with so leading a question? Khennik glowered at the man who’d got them all into this mess. Well, not entirely, but Eiryah had been the one to point him and Estenarven in this direction after Mastekh and Nera had fled Fierensfar, so Khennik opted to blame him for everything else too – all the way back to the Curse. Wasn’t that what gods were for?
Although… “Do you know where they are?” he asked, wondering if he might actually end up feeling grateful to the god for putting in an appearance.
Eiryah opened his hand and caught all three sun globes in his palm. He smiled as they merged into one.
“You do!” Estenarven suddenly came alive, fixing Eiryah with his full attention.
Which of course made the god preen; he did so love to be the centre of attention. “Of course I know. I am the Sun God, am I not? My power travels the world and the skies, seeing all that moves beneath me.”
Unless it was cloudy or if something happened to be inside or underground, but Khennik decided that would be a churlish thing to say. Especially if Eiryah was about to help.
“Where?” Estenarven demanded. “Where are they? Are they close?”
“Close?” Eiryah squinted as if he was trying to focus on something very small or far away. He tilted his head. “Yes, they are close,” he continued dreamily, and Khennik hoped he was the only one who heard an unspoken to death after it. “You should find them quickly.”
The god blinked, no sign of amusement on his face now, no preening, no cockiness. He was all seriousness as he repeated, “You should find them quickly. You really should.”
Estenarven jumped to his feet. “Point us in the right direction and we will.”
Khennik locked eyes with the sun god as Eiryah smiled and clicked his fingers. The little sun globe vanished, plunging them into darkness.
“I am not a compass,” the god laughed. “I can do better than point. I will show you.” His shadow filled the entrance once more as Eiryah rushed outside, Estenarven on his heels. “Come, dragons, let’s fly!”