Duty and curiosity call Miriam and Xander away from their tranquility and into a new storm of troubles. The road they travel is a dusty one as their new adventure leads them to the southern deserts of the dragon world. There they find a world of wind riders, ancient secrets, and feuds as old as the lords of dragons.
Among the secrets is a darkness that lurks from the edges of the desert to the far corners of the sand city of Hadia where the Priests of the Portal hold sway. Their arrival triggers a movement of shadows that leaves them at the whim of their foes and leaves Miriam with questions about her origins. She must begin to know herself before she can help her friends, or they will all end up as skeletons in the sand.
The beautiful sky above me. The green forest and fields below me. A handsome dragon lord behind me. Everything was perfect.
Well, almost perfect.
"Do we have to fly all the way to the desert!" I yelped.
Xander winced. My arms were wrapped tightly around his neck and my body was pressed close against his chest. "You did not wish to ride," he reminded me.
I glared at him. "I have a tender bottom, okay? It wouldn’t have taken a two-week trip. Besides-" I leaned back and admired his chest, "-not all the view is a terrifying death."
Xander smiled. "I am glad I could be of service."
I caught a peek over my shoulder at the woods far below us. They were the outlying forest of Thorontur, King of the Arbor Fae. There was also a little bit of green plains that represented Xander’s dragon territory.
I cringed and looked back up into Xander’s face. "You know, have you ever thought about bringing over a plane or car from my old world?"
Xander shook his head. "It is forbidden to bring any mechanical devices through the Portal."
My eyes narrowed at him. "What about that truck that drove me over?"
"That is an exception."
"Uh-huh. How about we make another teensy-weensy exception and I get a private jet?"
He blinked at me. "A ‘jet?’"
I rolled my eyes and settled into his arms with my own crossed over my chest. "Never mind. So where are we going again?"
"To the outpost city of Almukhafar where we will travel by land over the desert to the city of Hadia wherein lies the Temple of the Priests of the Portal."
I arched an eyebrow. "Why don’t we just fly across the desert?"
"You just expressed dissatisfaction in flying."
I shrugged. "Yeah, but I hate sand in my shoes more than I hate heights."
Xander looked ahead and pursed his lips. "The wings of dragons are incapable of withstanding the heat of Rimal Almawt al’Abyad. From Almukhafar we must travel by beast of burden to the Temple. Fortunately, it is only a journey of two days."
I cringed and rubbed my posterior. "Goodbye, soft butt cheeks."
He slyly grinned at me. "I might offer to massage them for you."
I snorted. "And I might take you up on that offer."
Spiros flew up beside us. His eyes twinkled with mischief. "I will gladly do my part to bring you comfort, My Lady, and offer to massage one of your cheeks."
"Captain Spiros!" Darda scolded him as she flew up behind we three.
"I will be the comfort for my Maiden," Xander assured him.
I raised an eyebrow at my dragon lord. "Don’t I get a say in this?"
My eyes narrowed. "Listen, partner, on the rest of this steerage-class trip I will be the only one to massage my derriere."
Xander lifted his head and looked out over the horizon. A small smile crept onto his lips. "There is no need for that."
"Because we have arrived."
I whipped my head around to face forward. The green horizon abruptly stopped, and beyond the straight line was an endless stretch of white. The midday day sun illuminated the white sands and created a near-blinding display of light.
I blinked hard against the brilliance. "Please tell me you guys have invented sun glasses."
Xander chuckled. "You will grow accustomed to the sun’s bright light, but let us continue."
We flew the few short miles to the vast expanse of sand and touched down on the edge of a small city. The small metropolis was laid out in a grid pattern with narrow dirt streets between large blocks of buildings. Most of the city lay in the green grass of the straggling plains, but a few blocks stretched into the desert. The structures closest to us were built from the trees of Thorontur and rose two stories over the grassy plains. The houses in the desert were simple single-story buildings made of mud bricks.
People crowded the streets. Their skin was the color of soft brown maple leaves in the fall, and their attire was light and airy to handle the hot winds that blew off the desert. Many wore broad-brimmed hats of dried grass and carried fans of wood to cool themselves.
Many peddlers pushed narrow carts through the streets and shouted their wares to passers by.
"Fish! Get your fish! Caught in Alexandria only five days ago!"
"Pots! Pans! All that you could ever desire!"
"I have here the finest merchandise this side of the Potami. On sale today! Do not miss what I have to offer!"
Xander grasped my hand and smiled down at me. "Shall we?"
I grinned. "Let’s do this."
We joined the throngs of people in the streets with Darda and Spiros at our backs. I was hit by a variety of pleasant smells that bespoke spicy food and roasted meat. Other smells weren’t pleasant, and I found out what those were when someone leaned out an open second-floor window. They placed a pot on the sill and tipped it. The contents of a day’s worth of waste dropped splattered onto the streets.
I cringed and pressed closer to Xander. "Lovely place. Remind me to book a vacation house sometime."
Xander swept his eyes over the area. "Do not think the less of the city. The outpost of Almukhafar is a very ancient city that has found it difficult to change some of its ways."
"Anything else I should be worried about?" I wondered.
He pursed his lips. "One cannot be too careful in such a place. There are many foreign travelers, and a simple matter of murder could be overlooked."
I felt the color drain from my face. "M-murder?"
Xander smiled down at me. "Do you believe I or any of us would allow such a fate to befall you?"
Spiros glanced to our right. The ground floor of some of the buildings opened into shops and taverns. Some unscrupulous characters leered at me. The captain laid his hand on the hilt of his sword and the men looked away.
I frowned at Xander. "I can protect myself, too. You’re not the only dragon I’ve got, remember?"
"Your water abilities are limited here," he pointed out.
I looked around. There wasn’t a drop of liquid. My shoulders fell. "What I wouldn’t do for a fire hydrant. . ."
Darda set a hand on my shoulder and smiled at me. "Let us pray to the gods you will not need our protection."
We reached a large square. Stalls were set up around the perimeter, and in the center was a large well. The vendors sold everything imaginable. Fruits, vegetables, animals of various sizes from mice to horses. Spices hung from long ropes, and tradesman advertised their clothing on thick pieces of wood.
The local women in their brightly-colored garb gathered around the well to exchange gossip. Men bartered and haggled at the stalls. Apprentices and shop boys scurried to and fro with delivery bundles under their arms.
"My Lord! Miriam!" The familiar voice came from the thick crowd of women gathered around the well, and soon a familiar sus emerged. It was Tillit. He strode over to us with his usual sly smile on his lips. Tillit took one of my hands in his and pecked a light kiss on the back of my hand before he raised his eyes to mine. "Might I saw you have grown lovelier than last I saw you, My Lady." Xander cleared his throat. Tillit released my hand and straightened. "Have you only just arrived?"
"We have, but we do not intend to stay long," Xander told him.
The sus looked from me to Xander and back. "Looks like I caught you just in time. You’re headed for the Temple, right?"
Xander nodded. "We are, but what brings you to the Temple? I was not aware you traded in pilgrimage goods."
Tillit snorted and waved a hand at Xander. "I’ve never touched the stuff, especially around that place. You can never tell when a dissatisfied customer would come back asking for a-" he paused and shuddered, "-refund."
"What are pilgrimage goods?" I spoke up.
The sus jerked his head over his shoulder at a line of six stalls. They all sold small figurines of naked women in dervish-style poses or seated like a Buddha. The women wore wreaths of grass around their heads and their expressions were friendly.
"Those are statues of the Alumu Aleazima, or Great Mother for those who don’t speak Altinin," he told me. "She’s the protector of merchants and desert wanderers, so you can see why she’s so popular around here."
I swept my eyes over the busy trading area. "Why are there so many merchants this close to the desert?"
"Almukhafar is the last city before the desert, but beyond the sands in the southern part of the continent are many ports," Xander told me.
"And there’s also the Temple," Tillit reminded him. "They run a pretty good business supplying the pilgrims who go there looking for blessings and to get a look at some of those books in that library the priests have." His eyes flickered to Xander. "But I’m sure you’re not here to be bamboozled out of some of your gold, My Lord. Did something north of here get you down here?"
Xander arched an eyebrow. "You are referring to the incident at Bear Bay?"
I blinked at them. "Bear Bay?"
Tillit grinned. "Nothing gets past you, does it, My Lord? Anyway, you’re right. I was there when it happened, and it’s left me with a couple of questions I want answered."
"What happened at Bear Bay?" I asked them.
The sus glanced around before he lowered his voice and leaned toward us. "Such as how a human was able to get into our world without using the Portal." Xander frowned. Tillit studied him. "You look like you’ve heard this before, but not from Bear Bay."
"What happened?" I spoke up.
"Tell us what you can," Xander ordered him.
Tillit grinned and jerked his head down a narrow alley. "If you’ll just step into my shop I’ll answer both your questions."