Copyright © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Tylor Kranyak
Author of Legacy of Krazatan
     The weather in the steppes was clear and pleasant and had remained that way for the past few days. There had been one particularly nasty rain storm before then that forced their group to spend most of the day in their tents, but there hadn't been a single cloud in the sky since. The sun beamed warmly down on them, giving them a reprieve from the usually cold winter winds.
     Kai and Kim played a game to help pass the time. Looking over his shoulder, Kai asked, "Is it a thing?"
     Kim nodded. "Yes."
     "Is it big?"
     She shook her head. "No."
     "Is it man-made?"
     "Is it made of wood?"
     "Is it made of metal?"
     "Is it a weapon?"
     Kim seemed to think for a moment, but shook her head. "Under normal circumstances, no."
     Kai frowned. "What the heck is that supposed to mean?"
     The girl poked him in the back. "Yes or no questions only, mister."
     He rolled his eyes and continued, "Is it an object you use every day?"
     "Am I carrying it right now?"
     Kai scratched his stubbly cheek as he thought. If it was an everyday object then why wouldn't he be carrying it? Then again, he really didn't carry all that much on his person. Lukan was the one who held onto most of their valuables, like their money. Kai perked up at that thought, and glancing over at Kim again he asked, "Is Lukan carrying it right now?"
     Kim looked over at the older angel for a moment before saying, "Yes."
     "Is it round?"
     "Can it fit in the palm of my hand?"
     Kai smiled triumphantly. "Is it a coin?"
     Kim grinned back at him. "Not bad, you're smarter than you look."
     Snidely, Kai replied, "Gee that means so much coming from you. Now, what was the deal with it being a weapon? You see a lot of people chucking coins at each other back home? I know Hurita is the economic center of Horagothien, but I didn't think you had that much money to spare over there."
     "Funny," she said in a tone almost as bland as Kai's. "Some people will do anything for money, and there are a lot of people out there who will take advantage of that."
     "Like the Crimson Cartel."
     Kim nodded. "Without the leadership of Arik Tidas the Crimson Army threw away their morals to the allure of gold. It's really sad that they became what they are now, especially after all the good they did in Arik and Lenard's time."
     "What about your people?" Kai asked. "Doesn't the Merchant's Guild do everything it does in the name of coin, too?"
     "Yeah, but that's different. We make our coin within the confines of the law. What the Cartel does is cheating, which takes all the fun out of making money." She poked Kai's back again. "Your turn to think of something."
     Kai took a few moments to think of something for Kim to guess. When he had something in his mind he said, "Okay, ready."
     "Is it a thing?" Kim started.
     "Is it an animal?"
     "Is it big?"
     Kim chewed her lip for a moment before asking, "Can it fly?"
     "Does it live in the water?"
     "Does it live in a city or town?"
     "These ones do, yes."
     "Is it green?"
     "Most of them are."
     Kim frowned. "What do you mean? The only ones I've ever seen are green."
     "You haven't even guessed what it is yet."
     Annoyed, Kim said, "It's a skyle, duh. What colours of skyles have you seen?"
     "I've seen a couple of yellow ones here and there. Don't you have any in Hurita City?"
     "Yeah, but they sure as heck aren't yellow. All the ones I've ever seen are green, and when you live in a place with as much people as Hurita you see skyles everywhere scavenging their garbage."
     "Well, I've seen them in Bahn and Nethric City, so they can't be that uncommon," Kai reasoned. "Maybe the yellow ones only live in the eastern region of Horagothien."
     "I've been to Nethric City and every major stop to there from Traghaven, and I didn't see any damn yellow skyles. Maybe the sun just hit their scales at the right angle to make them look yellow."
     "I was in an alley both times I saw them, and the sun sure as heck wasn't gleaming off their scales" Kai argued. "I know what I saw, and what I saw were yellow skyles."
     "Well I think you're crazy, and colour-blind."
     Kai frowned. "Well I think you're-" Before he could finish his statement he was cut off by a loud cry that echoed from above moments before a large shadow passed over them. Kai yanked on Trak's reigns to bring him to a stop. Expecting an encounter with another dragon Kai readied his mana link, but when he looked up it wasn't a dragon he saw. The creature's body shape was different, more bird-like than dragon. Its feathers were a wash of reds and oranges as vibrant as the setting sun. It had large wings which were composed of a thick membrane similar to the yellow dragon they had encountered, except this creature's wings were stretched between its legs and arms before reaching out from the ends of its forearms to form the tips. To his surprise he saw someone riding on the creature in a saddle secured at the crook of its neck. The creature turned and began to circle toward the ground, and as it did Kai realized he was looking at a dragonkin.
     "I'm surprised to see a courier passing through this area," Lukan said, obviously calm now that he, too, knew it wasn't a threat.
     "How do you know it's a courier?" Kai asked.
     "It's too small to carry more than one, maybe two people."
     Behind Kai, Kim placed a hand on his shoulder to balance herself as she leaned forward and pointed at the descending creature. "Also, you see those brown sacks hooked to the sides of its saddle?"
     Kai strained his eyes to see, but at this distance he could only make out the rough shape of a couple round objects as the giant bird continued to circle. "Barely," he said.
     "One of them is for the rider's supplies, the other one is for carrying packages and messages. If it was a transport dragonkin then there'd only be one pack, and it'd be strapped to the animal's back instead of dangling off the side of the saddle."
     "If it's just one bag then why does it matter where it goes?" Kai asked.
     "Because even the slightest difference in weight on either side of a dragonkin can affect its flight."
     The dragonkin flapped its wings to slow its forward momentum before touching down some distance away. The ends of its wings folded back before it lurched forward to stand on both its arms and legs. Its rider hopped out of the saddle, and once the man was out of the way the large bird began wandering around with its eyes and beak to the ground. The rider waved at their group, as if beckoning them over. Kai felt Kim shift behind him as she turned to face Lukan. "Hey, Lukan, is it okay if I-"
     "Out of the question," the angel said, immediately cutting her off. "We can't leave any evidence of our whereabouts until you're safely within the walls of Hurita City."
     "But, I was just going to-"
     "No," Lukan said again, sounding just like a parent telling his child she couldn't have any sweets before dinner.
     Confused, Kai asked, "What are you two talking about?"
     "Kim wants to have that courier deliver a letter for her," Lukan said.
     Kim huffed dramatically. "I just wanted to send a message to my dad letting him know I was fine. That courier will have paper and ink, and they give discounts for travellers this far out so it's not like it's going to burn a hole in your pocket."
     "That's not the point," Lukan argued as they approached said courier. "We can't afford to give the Crimson Cartel any leads as to where we are."
     "I won't say where I am, I'm not stupid."
     "The courier will remember your face. If the Cartel somehow intercepts your letter all they'll need to do is pry the information out of him. If that happens they'll know where we were, and since they know our destination they'll be able to catch us out on the road like they did with your uncle's caravan."
     "Geez, you're way too strict." She nudged Kai's shoulder and asked, "How do you put up with him?"
     "Actually, Kim, I have to side with Lukan on this," Kai told her. "As soon as they find out you're not with your uncle they're going to be scouring Horagothien for you. I think we'd all feel safer if we left as little trace of our location as possible."
     Kim looked off to the side and said, "Fine," in a tone that clearly stated she thought the decision was anything but.
     The courier smiled as their group approached. He sported a pair of goggles on his forehead and a leather harness over his thick jacket. Kai assumed the harness was used to hold him in place so he wouldn't fall out of his saddle during flight. He had a friendly face and sharp looking eyes. His tone was just as pleasant as his smile when he said, "Afternoon, folks. It's a surprise to see anyone travelling this far into the wilds, especially with such a small party."
     "I could say the same about you," Lukan said. "If I'm not mistaken you're pretty far off from any of the main city sky routes."
     The man nodded. "That you're not. I'm on my way to Draton from Drakestead. Since the start of the war Hanrick, the nearby village, has been seeing a lot of naval traffic from the ships up north mobilizing to the front lines, which means a lot more letters from sailors to deliver to their families."
     "I suppose couriering is one of the few professions that seem to benefit from wartimes. We're on our way to visit some family in Draton City ourselves. We thought we might save a few days of travel by cutting through the steppes."
     "You seem pretty well armed for a group travelling to visit family. Expecting to find any trouble along the way?" the man asked while eyeing Kai's armour.
     "You can never be too careful when travelling, we figured at the very least the sight of weapons and armour might dissuade attacks from highwaymen during the short time we spend on the roads."
     "Sound reasoning. I could deliver a message to your family in Draton for you if you'd like, let them know you're on your way."
     Lukan smiled but shook his head. "Thanks, but we want to surprise them."
     "Fair enough."
     "Sorry if you were looking forward to making a little extra business on your way back to Draton."
     "It's fine," the courier said, waving the thought away before turning to his dragonkin. "We had to stop for lunch anyway." As if on cue, the large animal jabbed its long beak into the tall grass. There was a tiny shrill screech as the dragonkin lifted a skyle up by its neck. The bird clamped its beak tight until there was a sharp snap, then the skyle's body went limp. The creature angled its head skyward and opened its beak to let the dead rodent slide into its mouth. The bird didn't bother to chew, instead swallowing its prey whole. It bobbed its head back and forth, working its throat to push its meal down into its stomach. Once it was done, the dragonkin brought its beak back down to the ground and started searching for its next snack.
     Looking back at them, the courier said, "The name's Ian, by the way."
     "I'm Lukan." Motioning toward Kai and Kim, he added, "These are my grandchildren, Kai and Kim."
     Kai couldn't help but glance at the older angel. That's a new one, he thought, and wondered if he and Kim actually looked similar enough to pass as siblings. Their names both started with the same letter so at the very least that would help make the story more believable, he hoped anyway.
     Ian inclined his head. "Pleasure to meet you all. If you're not in too much of a hurry, why don't we all have our lunches together? I don't get many chances to eat with company while on the job, and I'm sure it's been a while since any of you have seen another soul out here."
     "I don't see why not," Lukan said as he swung his leg over his saddle and dropped to the ground.
     Ian turned toward his dragonkin and, placing two fingers in his mouth, gave a sharp whistle. The large bird pulled its beak out from the grass to look at its rider. A skyle was wriggling violently in the animal's beak trying desperately to free its neck from the larger creature's grasp. The struggle was short lived as the bird snapped the skyle's neck, causing the prey to dangle limply from its mouth. The bird stalked over to Ian, eyeing Rana and Trak suspiciously as it approached. Its body tensed a little as Trak let out a low growl and stared straight back at it. Kai kept a tighter grip on the reins just to be safe.
     "Come on, Red, quit being so scared all your life," Ian said as he gave the animal an affectionate pat on the arm. Smiling, he shook his head and said, "Dragonkin... Despite their size they're some of the most timid creatures you'll ever come across in Pangaea, though whether that's a good or bad thing depends on the kind of job they're bred to do. Their temperament is perfect for courier work, they'll let you know when danger is approaching and won't waste time getting back into the air for safety."
     "It's big, there's no argument there," Kai agreed as he marvelled at the animal's size. Though its body mass seemed slightly less than Trak or Rana's, the dragonkin stood with its head almost twice as high as the therasi. How such a large creature was able to get into the air was nothing short of a wonder.
     Ian reached up to tug at the bag strapped to the side of his bird's saddle. The dragonkin lowered its head in response, giving its rider easier access to the bag's contents. Ian pulled out a flask and some dried meat wrapped in parchment. A low almost agitated rumble rolled up from the dragonkin's throat. Ian gave the bird another pat on the arm and said, "All right, no need to get grouchy. Go find the rest of your lunch, you big oaf." The dragonkin let out a snort before finally tossing the skyle it was still holding in its beak down its throat, swallowing it whole. The bird then turned away and continued its search for the rest of its lunch.
     Lukan and Kai brought out some of their rations while Kim laid out a blanket so they'd have a somewhere to sit and put their food other than in the dirt and grass. "So, where are you based, Ian?" Lukan asked as they all sat down to eat.
     "Hurita City, born and raised actually. Got a wife and daughter waiting for me back home."
     "It must be tough for them not being able to see you for weeks on end."
     "Yeah, but I've got to feed them. I stay off of the more dangerous and out of country routes when I can for their sake, though." Ian's gaze settled on Kim. He frowned and tilted his head a little in thought.
     "What, do I have something on my face?" Kim asked as she lowered the bread she had been nibbling on to wipe a hand across her mouth.
     Ian shook his head. "No, it's just... have you ever been to Hurita before? I swear I recognize your face from somewhere."
     Kai's heart gave a hard thump at the thought of this courier figuring out who Kim really was. "I doubt it," he answered for Kim, though the words came out a little more hurried than he meant them to. "None of us have been out that far west before."
     "I'm sure you've had a lot of interesting experiences while travelling the country," Lukan said, picking up the ball and distracting Ian. "Got any stories to tell?"
     Smiling, and seemingly forgetting about recognizing Kim, Ian said, "You wouldn't be an experienced courier if you didn't have a few good tales to tell." He ran a hand through his hair as he turned his thoughtful gaze skyward. "There was this one time me and Red got caught in a thunder storm."
     "How did that happen?" Kim asked. "It's pretty hard to miss a storm, especially when you're high enough to see for miles on end."
     "We saw it coming all right, but I was young and stupid. Around that time my wife was expecting our girl. I was on my way home after finishing a job and I was trying to make it back in time to be there for my daughter's birth, which according to the midwife when I left was going to be within the week. The only reason I took that job in the first place was because I thought I could make it a quick thing, fly out to Galathi to deliver a package and a few messages then be back in Hurita in time for the birth. I figured it would only take three days at the most to get the job done, but on our way back I spotted some thick clouds forming over Hurita Bay. At the time that's all I thought they were and that they'd just clear out. Any other rider would have rerouted or hung back to wait for them to pass, but I had my mind set on getting home that night." Ian took a swig from his flask. "Almost immediately after flying into those clouds the storm closed in around us."
     "You're lucky you weren't struck by lightning, otherwise you wouldn't be here now," Lukan pointed out.
     Ian nodded. "We got damn close to getting hit, though, and that wasn't even the most dangerous part of the storm either. I still remember how terrified I was when the sky suddenly went pitch black around us and the thunder started. My heart sank so far in my chest that it felt like I had just eaten it. I could barely see where we were going, the only light we had came from the lighting that flashed around us. I couldn't even tell up from down it was so bad. We were pounded on all sides by the rain, it's a good thing all riders have to wear goggles otherwise the rain would have taken away what little vision I had. One lightning bolt came so close to us that it singed some of Red's feathers. It scared him so bad that he threw me out of my saddle hard enough to snap one of the safety straps hooked to my harness."
     "How did you make it out of there?" Kai asked, amazed that the courier hadn't fallen to his death right there and then.
     "I almost didn't. I heard the other strap starting to go while I was dangling off the side, and all that offset weight had Red spinning. The wind was throwing me around so much that I barely managed to grab onto the saddle before the second strap gave out. I had to ride out the rest of that storm with nothing but my own grip keeping me in place, and I clung to that saddle for my damn life the entire way. We managed to make it through the storm in an hour, but that was the longest damn hour of my life." Ian shook his head. "I swear, every time I think back to that night and realise how close a call it was I wonder if Raijaku himself started that storm just to play some cruel joke on us."
     "Did you make it back home in time?" Kai asked.
     He smiled and nodded. "My wife was already going into labour the moment I walked through the front door. She was happy that I made it back in time to be there for her, but in the end she tore me a new one for taking such a huge risk in the first place. Despite all of that, though, after being able to hold my daughter for the first time I don't regret a damn thing. Of course, first thing I did afterwards was go out and buy the strongest harness straps I could afford, and you can bet I checked them over and maintained them every single day after that incident, even on the days I wasn't scheduled for deliveries."
     As they ate their lunch Ian told a few more stories from his early days as a courier, though none of them could compare to his one about surviving the storm. Kai's attention drifted back to the dragonkin that wandered around in the tall grass still looking for skyles. He still couldn't quite wrap his head around it, how could something that large get into the air? Then again, the gold dragon he and Lukan encountered their first day on the road together was around the same body size. If a dragon of that size was able to fly, then surely a bird with a much greater wingspan should have no problem either. Still, the fact that this particular one was one of the smaller ones of its species was something to consider. The ones he had seen coming and going with passengers at Nethric City were at least twice the size of this one. How big could a creature get and still be able to fly? How heavy could a creature be before no amount of wingspan would keep it in the air?
     "I take it you've never seen a dragonkin before?" Ian asked after finishing up his last story.
     It took Kai a moment to realize that the courier was talking to him. "No I haven't, not this close anyway."
     "So that means you've never ridden one before either, have you?" the man asked with a particular gleam in his eye.
     "No, I haven't."
     "Well, I've just finished my lunch. I've got a spare harness, so if you want I can take you for a ride while Lukan and Kim are finishing up their meals."
     Kai's heart jumped with excitement at the thought of flying. "Seriously?"
     "If it's okay with your grandfather, of course," Ian said as he turned to glance at Lukan.
     Lukan smiled. "Of course. It will give Kim and I time to pack up and get ready to leave."
     Looking toward the dragonkin again, Kai asked, "Will he be able to carry us both?"
     Ian nodded. "Red's carried two people at a time before. As long as you leave behind your armour and sword we'll be fine."
     Kai wasted no time taking off his armour and sheathed sword. He left his gauntlet on, no point in freaking Ian out with his injury and having him ask more questions. He'd have to remember to buy a pair of gloves the next time they stopped at a town. He knew they couldn't stop at Draton or Galathi City since they needed to keep their heads low, but there'd be other towns on the Central Highway along the way to Hurita.
     The dragonkin didn't seem too pleased about being called away from its search for lunch when Ian whistled, but the animal didn't put up a fuss as it came over. The courier first reached into his supply bag for the spare harness, which he helped Kai slip into. The straps dug into his shoulders and chest as Ian tightened them to fit snuggly around his body, but he didn't complain. Better to have them too tight than too loose and falling off of the saddle mid-flight. Even with the bird leaning down Kai still needed help to climb onto its neck. The saddle was large enough for two people with a low hump in the middle to help separate the rider from the passenger. Knowing Ian needed the front spot to fly, Kai shifted back to the second seat.
     Ian reached up and handed Kai a long strap with a metal hook on the end. "There's a metal ring under your arm, do me a favour and hook this to it." Kai took the strap and hooked it to the piece of the harness that wrapped around the side of his body. Ian moved to the other side and handed Kai the next strap, which he secured to the same spot on the other side of his body. With everything hooked into place, Ian climbed up into the saddle and sat backwards so he could tighten the straps until Kai's body felt like it was being held in place by a vice.
     "That should do it," Ian said before turning to face forward and strapping himself in. As he waited for the courier to finish his own preparations, Kai turned to see Lukan and Kim watching them. In the time it took to finish the flight preparations the two of them had already packed everything up. Kim and Lukan both smiled with amusement as they watched and waited for lift-off.
     "All set." With his goggles already in place, Ian looked over his shoulder and asked, "Ready to fly, kid?"
     "Shouldn't I have something to hold on to?" Kai asked as his sense of caution started to war with his excitement.
     Ian patted a spot on the side of the saddle just below the hump that separated them. "You've got handles on the sides here. The harness will keep you in the saddle, but it won't stop your upper body from whipping around while we're up there."
     Kai nodded and leaned forward to grip the handles, then braced himself when Ian kicked his legs to get the dragonkin moving. The bird started off at a trot that quickly turned into a run. Its legs and arms padded across the ground is it gained speed, and its uneven gait had Kai bouncing up and down. Just as Kai began to wonder how they were going to get off the ground, the dragonkin lifted its arms in mid-stride and extended its wings. For a moment only its legs kept it moving forward, but when its mighty wings beat down they were thrust upwards. Kai felt his stomach lurch down into the pit of his gut from the momentum, and for a brief moment he hoped his lunch wouldn't come with it when it came back up. The bird brought its wings back up again, and for a moment Kai feared they would fall back to the ground, but as the wings came down once more they were propelled even further up into the air. The animal continued to beat its wings, moving them higher and higher with each downward stroke until finally levelling out and gliding through the air currents. As Ian turned them around, Kai looked down to see Lukan and Kim were nothing more than dark spots amidst the vast rolling greens of the steppes.
     Kai's heart bounded with thrill and wonder. Never in his life had he experienced anything as amazing as they soared hundreds of feet above the ground. From this high he could see for miles on end, and it was like looking across vast, unending ocean of green. When the bird occasionally dived to gain momentum Kai's body felt almost weightless, as if he would simply float away if he hadn't been strapped into place. When the dragonkin swooped back up all his weight came back until it felt like he would sink through the saddle. It reminded him of riding a boat while the waves of the ocean continuously lifted it up and pulled it down, only this time the feeling was tenfold yet somehow smoother and gentler at the same time.
     Ian glanced over his shoulder. "Enjoying yourself back there?" he asked, raising his voice a little to be heard over the wind.
     Kai nodded, and even though he knew he was grinning like an idiot he couldn't stop smiling. "This is amazing! I wish I could have your job."
     The courier laughed at Kai's statement, then, pointing off to the south, said, "You see that speck on the horizon?" Kai looked in the direction Ian was pointing. He spotted a distant mass that stood over the endless steppes like a beacon on the edge of the world. At Kai's nod Ian said, "That right there is Draton City. You've still got about a day or so ahead of you. If you keep a good pace I reckon you'll be there in time to have lunch with your family."
     "A day?" Kai asked, astounded that he was able to see across such a great distance. Instinctively, he turned to look in the opposite direction to try and spot Rebachec or even Nethric City, though he knew that even from this height he wouldn't see anything. Both places were much too far to spot, and Rebachec itself would have been too small to distinguish among the patches of woodlands and the occasional dips of hills and valleys they had left behind them.
     Ian chuckled, and as if knowing what Kai was looking for said, "We're too far to see any other settlements from here. The next closest place is Lillinos to the north-west, though even that's too far away to see." Smiling, he asked, “Want to see something cool?”
     “Hold on tight.” Kai barely had enough time to readjust his grip on the saddle’s handles when Ian lurched hard to the right. His dragonkin tucked its wings against its body and rolled, and Kai swore sharply from the sudden movement as the entire world spun upside-down. His heart sank into the pit of his stomach as they went around, the force of their movement so great that he was eternally grateful for the harness holding him in place. When Red spread his wings back out and resumed his gliding Kai felt like his eyes would roll out of their sockets.
     “For the love of Terralus, give me a little more warning than that!” Kai shouted as his heart throbbed in his chest.
     Still smiling, Ian said, “Sorry about that. Hold on tight, we’re about to roll.”
     “What?” was all Kai managed to say before Ian lurched to the left this time and had his dragonkin rolling again.
     A colourful arrangement of curses spilled out of Kai’s mouth as Red righted himself once more. Ian looked over his shoulder again and asked, “Was that enough warning for you?”
     “Screw you,” Kai said, even as he fought back the laughter that tried to bubble up from his chest. Even after the unexpected aerial maneuvers, or maybe because of them, Kai’s heart raced with even more excitement. Nothing he had experienced before in his life could compare to the thrill, the sense of freedom he felt as he soared through the skies where even the bonds of gravity could no longer hold him down. They flew around a little while longer until Ian decided the others had waited long enough, though Kai felt the experience had ended for too soon. They landed next to the therasi with a bit of thump that had Kai rocking forward in his seat. The moment Ian helped him out of the harness Kai all but jumped from the saddle to join the others.
     "So, how was it?" Kim asked, amused by Kai's childlike excitement.
     "It was unbelievable. Why doesn't everyone travel by dragonkin?"
     Lukan chuckled and said, "I hope you've had your fill, Kai. I doubt you'll get the chance to ride another one for a very long time. Get onto Trak with Kim, I need to speak with Ian for a moment and then we're leaving."
     Kai nodded. Turning to the courier, he said, "Thanks for the ride, Ian. It was nice meeting you."
     Ian smiled and inclined his head. "Likewise."
     As Lukan led Ian a few feet away, Kai climbed into Trak's saddle before grabbing Kim's hand and pulling her up behind him. "You're such a kid, you know that?" the girl said as she poked him in the back.
     "You should have tried it, it was amazing."
     "I've ridden them before. When I was younger my dad would sometimes take me with him on trips to other cities to discuss trade deals and we'd always travel by dragonkin."
     Kai looked toward Lukan to see if he was done with Ian yet. They were too far to hear what they were talking about. Lukan said something to the courier, then Kai saw the feint glint of silver pass between the two men's hands. Ian nodded and said something else before dropping whatever it was into his coin purse and turning to head back to his dragonkin. When Lukan returned and climbed into Rana's saddle he said, "All right, let's get going."
     They waved Ian good-bye one last time before riding off. Kai didn't bother to ask what Lukan had given Ian, he already knew. He just hoped Ian was as honest a man as he looked so that word of their whereabouts didn't find its way to the Crimson Cartel.