On board the Illuminai
UNDER IDEAL CONDITIONS the journey between Aquila and Etheria could take as little as a half-moon, but the tail end of summer and beginning of autumn were not those conditions. Instead a relentless westerly wind meant the Illuminai had to fight almost every league of the way to make progress, often forced to tack north or south, travelling west at an angle. Which wasn’t unexpected, nor difficult for a crew as experienced as the Illuminai’s, but the creeping progress chafed.
Lyrai wasn’t the only one counting off the days as each one was another that Mhysra remained in Yullik’s hands. He also tried not to consider what would happen should General Keipen make an unscheduled return to the citadel and find his most troublesome lieutenants missing on the mission he explicitly ordered them not to undertake. Normally Lyrai wouldn’t have wasted any time on such an unlikely discovery, but he’d learnt that General Keipen enjoyed doing the unexpected – if only to keep his Riders on their toes.
However, there was nothing he could do about that. Just as there was nothing he could do about their slow progress. His only options were to fly his miryhl, practise his sword work, discuss strategy with the dragons, his fellow Riders and the Countess, and wait.
He hated waiting.
“It won’t be long now,” Hurricane attempted to console him as they took their usual afternoon flight, gliding swift and easy ahead of the Illuminai, the miryhl’s broad wings beautifully adapted to ride even the most difficult westerly wind. “Can’t you feel the change coming?”
Before Lyrai could answer, a loud shriek rent the air and the vast Thunderwing form of Reglian plunged down right in front of them. The cry cut off as the archivist saved Rhiddyl from her latest ill-timed change. Reglian drifted back up, shaking his head.
“What is she this time?” Lyrai called, as a chuckling Hurricane flew closer for a look.
Huffing with exasperation, Reglian uncurled his golden claws to reveal Rhiddyl’s blue and purple form. Hunched up as she was, it took a moment for Lyrai to pick out limbs and feathers, then Rhiddyl sat up.
She was human. It was the first time since she began changing fourteen odd days ago that she’d assumed such a shape. From the way she was grinning and prodding her face, she seemed pretty pleased with herself too.
“It’s so strange,” she called, and laughed, a hand covering her mouth at the sound of her voice, still light and airy but without her customary whistles and fluting overtones. Until now her most common changes had been into various birds – eagles, chickens, an exceedingly bright vulardi, and several species none of the Riders had ever seen before – with an occasional big cat and giant lizard thrown in for variety. This was the first form she’d assumed that also had the ability to talk, and from the way she was trilling and singing, Lyrai expected the newest novelty would not fade for quite some time.
He was less certain about her appearance. Although in theory she looked human, it wasn’t like any human he’d ever encountered before – and only partly because her skin was indigo. Her limbs were smooth and long, as was the rest of her. The chest that she patted as she explored her lung capacity, was completely flat, without breasts or nipples, her skin curiously sleek and uniform, closer to her dragon form where any vulnerabilities were safely tucked away. Then there was her face, which also wasn’t quite right. Her eyes were more akin to a cat – or a dragon – and set a little too wide apart on her round face. She also had no nose. Her whole face bulged slightly forward instead, forming a little bump, with only a couple of slits for nostrils. Her lips were thin and her teeth pointed. Seeing her like this, it was easy to see where the kaz-naghkt came from.
Not that he would ever say that. Rhiddyl was far too pleased with herself as she cooed over her silver-clawed fingers and toes, laughing as she reached back to pat her shoulder blades, searching for her missing wings.
“How do I look?” she asked, tipping her head to address both Reglian and Lyrai.
The big black dragon eyed Lyrai with amusement and rumbled, “You’ve a little way to go before you can fit in, but not bad for a first attempt.”
Rhiddyl stroked a silver-tipped hand along her indigo arm and chuckled with a hint of her chiming laugh. “You don’t think I’ll start a new craze? You could say I fell into a dye vat as a baby and haven’t been clean since.”
“We could,” Reglian rumbled. “But what will we tell them about your nose?”
Rhiddyl slapped her hands to her face, rubbing her palm across the bulge and squinting as she studied Lyrai’s face for a comparison. She traced her thin lips and fingered her sharp teeth.
Her shoulders slumped. “I’m hideous.”
Reglian rolled his eyes while Hurricane flapped his wings and laughed. “All humans are hideous,” he told her. “You’re not nearly so ugly as most.”
“Not helping,” Lyrai muttered, as Rhiddyl buried her face in her hands.
“Don’t look at me, I can’t bear it.”
“If you’re going to be vain, I’ll drop you,” Reglian warned.
She tipped her head back to glare at him, then blinked. “Oh…” Silver light flashed and Reglian shook out his claws with a curse.
Hurricane jinked aside as Rhiddyl – full-sized and beautiful – re-emerged directly beneath them.
“You have got to improve your control,” Reglian growled.
“Improve my control, improve my looks, change my colours, change my form!” Rhiddyl snapped back, sounding all out of patience. “Do this, do that. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Improve, improve, improve. I am trying, Reglian, but neither you nor Goryal have said a single word about how I’m supposed to do all of these things. I don’t know how to improve or gain control. I. Don’t. Know. And it hurts. It hurts with every change. Don’t you think I’d stop shifting so much if I could? I don’t like hurting. I don’t like -” With another pop and flash of silver, Rhiddyl turned into a black and purple eagle big enough to pass for a colourful miryhl.
“You were saying?” Reglian drawled sarcastically.
The Rhiddyl-miryhl screamed at him, raked her talons across his face and flapped indignantly back to the Illuminai.
“Youngsters,” the Thunderwing sighed, stretching his vast wings to soar and leaving Hurricane and Lyrai drifting awkwardly alone.
The miryhl tilted his head and looked back at his Rider. “That went well.”
Lyrai leant against Hurricane’s back, shaking his head. “Dragons.”
“Land ho!” a distant call went up from the skyship and Lyrai sat up again, holding on as Hurricane flared his wings and rose level with the Illuminai, then higher.
There it was: a shadow on the horizon, swiftly resolving into peaks, forests and farmsteads. Etheria at last.
~ Next Chapter ~