This month's short fiction comes in the form of the opening chapter of Burning Sky (Dragonlands 4). It's quite a long chapter, and all one scene, so the second part will follow tomorrow.
This is from the second draft, so it might not fully match the final version.
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 nearing its next destination - and no one knew quite what to expect next.
Warm sunlight poured down, turning the clouds below into a blinding white carpet that shrouded anything lower than a mountain in never-ending whiteness. Lieutenant Nera stood at the skyship’s prow and stared at the view. Until recently she would have ignored the world below, half-believing in 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 that 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 the 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 grimace. “I didn’t hear you come up.”
“Too busy admiring the view?” her friend chuckled, leaning over the rail to better study the featureless skyscape. Clouds, clouds and more clouds without a single rocky outcrop to disturb the monotony. Even the sky overhead was a perfect blue with not even a smudge of white to interrupt it. There was nothing to be seen in any direction - except for the haze growing up ahead. “Can’t say I blame you. It’s riveting.”
Nera rolled her eyes at the sarcasm. “All packed up and ready to go?”
“Finally,” Anhardyne said, with a put upon sigh. “I swear the captain assigns all the most disorganised Riders to me. Your lot were ready by first light. Mine are still arguing over who stole their last hair ribbon.”
“And that’s just the men,” Nera chuckled, making Anhardyne snort.
“I wish that was a joke. Since the dragons have been making such a fuss over everyone’s hair, the whole 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 take a pair of shears to the lot of them.” At the start of their journey Anhardyne’s hair had been waist-length and the envy of many, but after a dragon had paid a small fortune for her golden curls, she had embraced her shorter cut and refused all offers to grow it long again. Prompting many of the other Riders to grow out theirs in the hopes of making a similar profit.
Nera grinned and ran her fingers through her own short hair. “At least that’s one problem I’ll never have to deal with.” She’d always kept her hair short and practical. Being 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 two lieutenants fell into a comfortable silence as they leant against the prow rail, watching the haze grow. A smattering of shadows flickered over the clouds below as a flock of miryhl eagles spread out in front of the Skylark. Nera tilted her head and spotted the two marble miryhls that told her, even from this distance, that she was looking at Gharrik’s flurry. He and Vish had been given sentry duty this morning, prepared as always to defend the Skylark from attack in the not always friendly Dragonlands.
Not that there would be 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 miryhls 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 from above, passing from Riders to skysailors and onto the upper deck.
Nera and Anhardyne both straightened up, but even on tiptoe Nera could only see the same haze that had been teasing her all morning.
“Anything?” she asked her friend, since Anhardyne was a good foot taller.
“Nothing.” Her fellow lieutenant shook her head and rested her elbows back on the rail. When Nera bounced lightly on her toes, her friend 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 just 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 old ones had long been covered by the Curse. She’d read about them in books and heard stories from the dragons aboard, though, and 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. Yet here they were, about to sail right into the heart of their territory.
Nera’s fingers tapped against 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 on the raised rear deck. Dressed in a pearly silk robe bordered with pale gold, their white hair bound in a long, intricate braid, Elder Goryal Clan Starshine looked frail and harmless as they smiled at something the Skylark’s captain, Hornvel 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 they were 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 firmly 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 slender pale Starshine elder. Also keeping them company was Korija, Elder Thunderwing, and Leasang, Elder Cloudflight. Another two dragons who were rarely found outside of each other’s company these days.
“Hey, Ni, look.” Anhardyne nudged her, causing Nera to turn back around. “Our first view of the desert.”
Following the line of her friend’s arm, Nera’s excitement 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 and bounced on her toes.
Nera scowled and shoved Anhardyne against the rail. “Just because you’re a jaded old hag who’s grown bored of life, Hardy, no need to make fun of those still young enough to enjoy it.”
“Jaded old hag!” That brought a swift end to the teasing. “I’m barely five years older than you, you wretched Half-Pint.”
Nera grinned. “You don’t look it.”
Sniffing, Anhardyne smoothed a hand over her fluffy golden curls, which skimmed her shoulders. “Of course I don’t.”
“You look as if you’ve got ten years on me at least.” Nera barely ducked in time to avoid a clip around the ear. “You’re practically ancient. Over thirty even. Everyone knows it’s all downhill from there.”
Growling, Anhardyne swiped for Nera again and missed. “You won’t even make it to thirty if I get my hands on you.” With her golden hair, brown eyes and tawny-tanned skin, 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.
And collided with a Rider coming the other way.
“Lieutenant!” The woman reached out and managed to grab Nera before she landed on her arse. “I’m so sorry, are you all right?”
“Ha!” Anhardyne pounced and grabbed Nera’s shoulder while she was still off-balance. “She might be now, but that won’t last long.”
The Rider gave them a funny look, not that it was entirely unusual for Anhardyne to be caught behaving in a manner that was less than dignified. After all, this was the lieutenant whose flurry was currently in the midst of an all-out prank war with Vish’s Riders. Still, it was less common for Nera to be caught up in the silliness. When she realised she was the one the Rider was watching bemusedly, she straightened her jacket and smoothed her ruffled hair.
“May we help you?” Nera asked, trying to get the woman to stop staring. She recognised her vaguely as one of Anhardyne’s flurry, but couldn’t remember exactly what her name was - Nharri or Jharri, something like that.
“Are you all finally ready for me, Fhenari?”
Oh, well, close enough. Nera rubbed her nose.
Rider Fhenari glanced between the two of them uncertainly. “Um, almost, lieutenant. But I, er, well, I…”
“Spit it out, Fhen,” Anhardyne encouraged, loosening her grip on Nera’s shoulder and resting her elbow there instead. “It’s almost time for us to get in the air, so if you’ve got something to say, do it now. Don’t mind the lieutenant, she’ll keep any sordid secrets.”