Deserts of the Dragons: Maiden to the Dragon, Book 6 - Mac Flynn - ebook
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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 Maiden to the Dragon books are part of a dragon shifter romance series set in a fantastical world that mirrors our own.

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Deserts of the Dragons

Maiden to the Dragon, Book6

Mac Flynn

Copyright © 2017 by Mac Flynn

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Continue the adventure

Other series by Mac Flynn

1

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 remindedme.

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 meover?"

"That is an exception."

"Uh-huh. How about we make another teensy-weensy exception and I get a privatejet?"

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 twodays."

I cringed and rubbed my posterior. "Goodbye, soft butt cheeks."

He slyly grinned at me. "I might offer to massage them foryou."

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 assuredhim.

I raised an eyebrow at my dragon lord. "Don't I get a say inthis?"

"No."

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 forthat."

"Why?"

"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 passersby.

"Fish! Get your fish! Caught in Alexandria only five daysago!"

"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. "Shallwe?"

I grinned. "Let's dothis."

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 itsways."

"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 befallyou?"

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 lookedaway.

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 pointedout.

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 ofwood.

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 theirarms.

"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 say 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 toldhim.

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 spokeup.

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 aroundhere."

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 toldme.

"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 downhere?"

Xander arched an eyebrow. "You are referring to the incident at BearBay?"

I blinked at them. "BearBay?"

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."

"Suchas?"

"What happened at Bear Bay?" I askedthem.

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 BearBay."

"What happened?" I spokeup.

"Tell us what you can," Xander orderedhim.

Tillit grinned and jerked his head down a narrow alley. "If you'll just step into my shop I'll answer both your questions."

2

Tillit led us into the narrow alley and out through the other side. We were on a smaller side street to the busy thoroughfare that led to the main square. Smaller, grimier shops without open fronts lined both sides of the streets. An occasional blacksmith shop with their dirty work bellowed on the street corners. The clientele of the street walked quickly and with their narrowed eyes ever on everyoneelse.

Tillit guided us to a small establishment that was two floors. The lower floor was a tavern without windows. Candles on the walls lit the few round tables in the place, but the corners were shrouded in darkness. A short bar ran the length of the back wall. The bartender didn't even look up from cleaning a glass when we entered. We plopped ourselves down at the table farthest from the door. The tavern was empty besides us and the unaware bartender.

Tillit set his arms on the table and leaned forward. His voice was low and his eyes flickered over all of our expectant faces. "Bear Bay lies in the far northeast of the continent. It's a nice trading city, but-" he wrapped his arms around himself and shuddered, "-they can keep that cold weather."

"What of the portal?" Xander insisted.

Tillit's face fell. "I didn't actually see it myself. A woman-" his eyes flickered to me, "-a human woman foundit."

I raised an eyebrow. "A Maiden?"

Tillit shook his head. "Nope. She was just a normal human who stumbled into our world through a portal."

"Did she know how the portal came to be created?" Xander askedhim.

He leaned back and clasped his hands together over his ample stomach. "Nope. All she knew was she was in the human world one moment and then ours the next. She told me where the portal dropped her into our world, but when I went looking for it I couldn't find a trace of it. It was like it was never there."

Xander pursed his lips. "Were any Bestia Draconis or portal priests spotted in thearea?"

Tillit arched an eyebrow. "No, but you think there should've been, don'tyou?"

My dragon lord nodded. "Yes. Only a Bestia Draconis or a reckless priest would risk both our worlds to open a portal."

I frowned at him. "My dad-" Xander shot me a warning glare, but it was toolate.

Both of Tillit's eyebrows raised as his eyes fell on me. "What's this about yourdad?"

I shrank beneath Xander's hard glare. "Maybe. . ." I squeakedout.

Tillit leaned toward me and studied me with his sharp eyes. "How'd you happen to find out about your dad? I heard you were orphaned pretty young."

Darda leaned forward to block Tillit's view of me. She glared at the sus. "You pry too much into the affairs of others, youngman."

Tillit grinned. "That's my job, ma'am, and I do itwell."

The feet of Xander's chair clattered across the floor as he stood. "If that is all the information you can give us about the incident, we really must be going."

Tillit stood and smiled at Xander. "I'm in a bit of a hurry myself to get to the Temple, so how about I tag along with you, MyLord?"

Xander's narrowed eyes flickered to me and his tone was tense. "You may so long as you ask no questions."

The sus placed his hand over his heart. "I promise on the grave of Humble Hubert I will not ask any questions."

I frowned, but Xander nodded. "I will accept your promise. Now we shouldgo."

Xander led the other two out of the tavern. I stayed behind with Tillit and glanced at him. A sly smile graced his lips. "Herbert really isn't dead, isshe?"

He leaned toward me and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Let's just say that Herbert's decided to go on a long vacation away from the attention her name evokes."

I jerked my head at Xander's back. "Does he knowthat?"

Tillit straightened and shrugged. "I don't know, but he took it and I won't betray his trust. I'm honest, and honesty is Tillit."

I raised an eyebrow. "So you're not going to ask me any questions?"

He shook his head. "Nope. However-" his eyes flickered to me. He leaned in close and winked. "-that doesn't mean you can't tell old Tillit what youknow."

"Tillit."

The color drained from Tillit's face. He straightened and cleared his throat as he looked ahead of us. Xander had stopped and stared at us over his shoulder. "Yes, MyLord?"

"I would appreciate if you didn't encourage my Maiden to betray herself to the authorities, should they overhear you," Xander toldhim.

Tillit bowed his head. "As you wish, MyLord."

Xander continued onward. I followed, but my curiosity was aroused. I glanced at Tillit. "What's he mean bythat?"

The humor in Tillit's face had vanished. He pursed his lips and shook his head, though his eyes never wavered from the back of Xander's head. "I can only guess, My Lady, but when Tillit finds out you'll be the first toknow."

I frowned, but didn't purse the matter further. That's because the houses thinned and the street opened. The shadows of the narrow roads vanished and were replaced by the scorching orange light of the sun. A pair of men leaned against the base of a cluster of tall palm trees, and behind them in the leafy shade were a half dozen large animals.

They were a cross between a camel and a jackal, a combination I never would have thought possible if I hadn't seen them with my own two eyes. The beasts were smaller than a camel but larger than a jackal. The creatures had the same tan and brown short fur of the jackal, but a single short hump rose from its body. A short, bushy tail whacked at the flies that agitated its rear. The long-snouted heads were attached via a long neck. One of the things yawned and I saw two rows of sharp teeth. They pulled at their ropes and dug into the sand with hard hoofs in the shape ofpaws.

Xander approached the men. They stood and bowed to him with wide smiles on their faces.

One of them stepped forward. "Good morning to you, Your Lordship. We hope your journey waswell."

Xander nodded before he looked past him at the beasts. "Very well, thank you, my dear friends Tajir and Tabie." The men's smiles widened at the familiarity. "I assume you received my message?"

Tajir bobbed his head. "I did, Your Lordship. The animals have been packed as you requested." He stepped aside and gestured to four of the beasts. They had leather bags slung over their rears just behind the hump. Two skeins of water connected by rope hung around the animals' necks. "You shall not have any problems crossing the desert, but-" his eyes flickered to Xander and he held out his hand to the dragon lord, "-there is the matter of payment."

Xander drew out a small purse and plopped the bag into the man's palm. The bag jingled with the sound of many coins.

Tabie hurried over as his leader opened the purse. They were all smiles as they admired the payment. Tajir tucked the purse into his pocket and bowed. "It is always a pleasure doing business with you, Your Lordship."

"And with Tillit," Tillit spoke up. He wound through our group and bowed to the beast merchants. "I hope you haven't forgotten about my request."

The merchant gestured to a fifth animal. It, too, was outfitted for the long desert ride. "Your beast is ready as well. On payment, of course."

"Of course," Tillit agreed as he drew out a few coins and gave the man the money. The sus turned to us and smiled. "It seems we're destined to be together, my friends."

I looked back to the animals. "Together with what exactly?"

"They are alkalb muhadab, the beasts of the deserts," Tajir toldme.

"And that means?" I wondered.

He smiled. "That is 'humped dog' in your tongue, My Lady, but you may call them hadab if that so pleasesyou."

Xander glanced around the area. Other than our group and the two traders, there was no one else around. "It appears there are fewer hadab merchants than I have seen in thepast."

Tajir's smile wavered. A shadow crossed over his bow. "You are correct, Your Lordship. Many of the hadab have already been taken for the Jame, but many of my brothers will not sell our beasts to lone travelers who are unfamiliar to us because of the rumors."

Xander arched an eyebrow. "What rumors?"

The merchant pursed his lips. "There are rumors of raids upon the caravans where the bandits appear from beneath the sands. For that reason we will not trade our beasts to strangers for any amount ofgold."

"Can no one describe what happened?" Xander askedthem.

Tajir shook his head. "No, Your Lordship. There have been no survivors."

Tabie leaned toward his comrade and whispered into his ear. "The lights."

Tajir glared at him. "Do not be so foolish as to believe those stories, Tabie."

"What lights?" Xander wondered.

Tajir sighed and shook his head. "My companion has heard stories of small suns that roam the high mountain of Hadia after dark. For that reason, many in the city will not go up there after the sun hasset."

Xander bowed his head. "I see. Thank you for the information." He turned to me. "Are you prepared?"

I glanced at the creatures. They moved with the grace of an arthritic calf. I winced and rubbed my derriere as I looked to Xander. "So more riding?"

He nodded. "More riding."

My shoulders slumped and my face fell. "Oh goody. . ."

3

"Ow. Ow. Ow."

My assessment of the hadab's movements wasn't far off. The beast I rode rocked me in four different directions, and sometimes all at the same time. My posterior was sore from the hard saddle, and the hump at my back was as comfortable as a bag of bricks.

My mantra made my dragon lord smile. "I still offer you my lap if you wish for greater comfort."

I glared at him and tightened my grip on the reins. "I said I was going to ride one of these things on my own, and I meanit."

The said creature added its comment with a heavy spit as it rocked back and forth in its quick trot. I glared down at the strange beast that I burdened. It leisurely looked ahead of us with its sharp canineeyes.

Spiros laughed. "It is said the hadab keeps its friends and remembers its enemies. Perhaps it considers you an enemy."

I looked ahead and raised my chin in the air. "Maybe the spitting means the opposite." The animal snorted. The party laughed. I shrank down in my saddle and glared at the beast. "Thanks a bunch. . ."

Tillit followed behind our group. He leaned forward in his saddle and raised his jolly voice. "So, My Lord, you know what brings me to the Temple, but what of you and your merryband?"

Xander didn't look around when he replied. "Miriam must see the world."

The sus snorted. "You're more secretive than usual, My Lord." His eyes flickered to Spiros. "What say you, captain? Do you need to see the world, too?"

Spiros smiled and shook his head. "No, Master Merchant, the world needs to see me. I cannot hide this wonderful face from the world forever." Darda and I rolled oureyes.

Tillit laughed and slapped the horn of his saddle. "I applaud you, captain. That's at least a better lie than the one your lord gaveme."

"What I said was not a lie," Xander insisted.

Tillit wagged his finger at Xander. "Then you should know better than to tell half a truth, My Lord. What will your Maiden think?"

I frowned at Xander. "I think he needs to tell his Maiden why she can't talk about certain things."

The sus leaned to one side to catch Xander's gaze. "We are out in the desert. No one can hear you but us and the desert scorpions."

I glanced down at the sand. A breeze swept over the small grains and shifted them. "And maybe the thieves. . ." I murmured.

Xander pursed his lips and I noticed his hands clenched his reins until the knuckles were white. Finally he sighed. "Very well, since we are alone."

Tillit grinned. "That's the lord I know! Now what have you got for Tillit?"

Xander stopped his hadab and half-turned so he could look Tillit in the eyes. "Miriam visited Valtameri in his ocean domain and he allowed her to glimpse her earliest memories."

Tillit grinned and winked at me. "Good foryou!"

"One of them was of her father creating a portal."

Tillit's eyes widened and his face drooped. He whipped his head back to Xander. "You're pulling mytail!"

Xander closed his eyes and shook his head. "If only that were true, but you see why this must be kept a secret."

Tillit whistled and nodded. "Yeah. If that got out she'd be in big trouble."

I whipped my head from one to the other. "Why would I be in big trouble?"

Xander turned his attention to me and pursed his lips. "If what you glimpsed was true then your father committed the gravest of sins of our world. The justice demanded of such an act would invariably be demanded from his daughter."

I frowned. "But I didn't do anything! I couldn't even talk to tell him not to doit!"

"That's the rub with the portal," Tillit spoke up. His face was tense as he looked at me. "The priests get to be the ones to investigate, and they don't like having competition."

"Or anyone ending the world," Darda spokeup.

Tillit's eyes flickered to her. "If that's what you think would happen, you go on believing that. I'm a pessimist by nature, but that huge portal the lords have used-pardon me for saying, My Lord-it hasn't done a dang thing to destroy our world, and that thing's been around a longtime."

Darda glared at him. "The Portal is well-maintained under the watchful eye of the priests. If anything was to go wrong they would have the ability to close the Portal."

He jerked his head at me. "I'm not saying I don't trust Apuleius with Miriam, but because she's Xander's Maiden he wouldn't get a say in all this. The same might be said of Cayden's guy, so would you trust her to the rest of the big priests and their underlings? Especially the Inquisitors?" Darda pursed her lips, but said nothing. Tillit leaned back and furrowed his brow. "That's my sentiments exactly, so I'm not going to be arguing with My Lord's request to keep my mouth shut aboutit."

I turned to Xander. "What exactly would they do to me if they foundout?"

Xander sighed. "They would investigate the matter, and during the investigation they would capture and use your memories as evidence."

I started back. "They wouldwhat?"

Tillit leaned on his saddle horn to be closer to me. "The priests have a nasty habit of using their magic to delve into peoples' minds for information."

"Without their permission?" I guessed.

He nodded. "Yep, and whatever you felt with Valtameri browsing through you, you wouldn't like it if someone started rummaging around in there-" he nodded at my head, "-without your permission."

"I will not allow such an assault," Darda spoke up. She straightened in her saddle and glowered at Tillit. "They shall not touch MyLady."

He held up his hands and smiled at her. "And I agree with you there. I'm just telling Miriam what they'd do to her if they foundout."

Xander lifted his reins as he looked over our small group. "I do not believe the danger would come from anyone here, but we must all be vigilant. The Bestia Draconis have followed ahead of us through a number of our adventures, and we must assumed that they have already arrived at the Temple."

He turned his hadab forward and we continued onward. The mood was soured by our dour conversation. I would have brooded if it was in my nature, but there was no sense letting possibilities get medown.

I pulled up beside Xander and looked up into his tense face. "So back there with those two guys, one of them said something about a 'jam' thing that was going on right now at the Temple. What's that about?"

"Jame is the pilgrimage of the faithful to the Temple," Xander toldme.

I wrinkled my nose. "Then they're what? Worshiping the portal priests or something?"

Xander smiled and shook his head. "No. They worship a goddess who predates the portal priests."

Tillit lifted one of his water skeins and raised it in a toast to the desert. "Good ol' Alihat Dhahabia. She hasn't failed meyet."

I blinked at him. "Who?"

He winked at me. "She's the big girl around here. Alumu Aleazima rules over the desert, but without Alihat Dhahabia there wouldn't be anybody around here. Her names means the Gold Goddess, and she's the one in charge of water and life. The locals pray to her so their wells never to run dry and they get lots of kids." He drank a little water and poured a few drops out onto the desert floor. "As I always say, a little praying to the local god never hurt anyone."

I turned to Xander. "So is she afae?"

Xander shook his head. "I cannot say. There are tales of the faithful meeting a radiant woman who blesses them with water, but no one I know has personally met her. If she is a fae than she is very ancient for her worship goes back into the times before dragons ruled this area. The humans were said to worship her, aswell."

"And the dragons decided she wasn't so bad and adopted her as their own," Tillit chimed in as he trotted up to myside.

"So how did the priests get the Temple?" I askedthem.

Tillit chuckled. "They didn't ask for it, that's for sure. Apuleius and the rest of 'em are nice guys, but some of their predecessors weren't so polite."

Both of my eyebrows shot up and I whipped my head to Xander. "They stoleit?"

The dragon lord pursed his lips as he stared ahead of us. "It is a blemish on our history, but yes, the priests with the aid of their dragon lords took the Temple and thecity."

"But they didn't get their library," Tillit remindedhim.

"Was it that great?" I wondered.

He nodded. "Some of the legends say it was almost as good as the Mallus Library."

I furrowed my brow. "That sounds familiar."

"That is the same library you found in the castle," Darda remindedme.

I looked over my shoulder and grinned at her. "The one you led me to, right?"

She smiled in return. "The verysame."

"Can I finish my story?" Tillit spokeup.

"Continue on with your story of woe, Storyteller," Spiros teasedhim.

Tillit sat straight and cleared his throat. "As I was saying, the dragon lords besieged the Temple. Since neither side could fly it was a war of archers and hadab cavalry. Those in the Temple dug themselves in for a long fight and lasted for a month before their supplies began to run low. They feared the lords would find their water source and thirst them out, so one of them came up with a brilliant plan. They would lose their Temple, but in revenge the priests would never have the books."

I cringed. "Fire?"

Tillit grinned and shook his head. "No, something far more cunning. One of the men, a former sailor in his early youth, devised a-" Xander made a sudden stop. Our party stopped withhim.

We stood at the top of a small sand hill. Below us stretched an endless floor of glistening yellow desert. To the far right and many miles away was a long row of orange cliffs. To our right and in front of us was nothing.

I looked at Xander. "What's wrong?"

He nodded at the distance. I leaned forward and squinted into the distance. Tall shadows skidded across the length of the bowl. I pointed at them. "What'sthat?"

Xander looked past me and at Tillit. There was a devilish grin on the dragon's lips. "The end to Tillit's story." The sus's shoulders drooped and he frowned. Xander returned his attention to me. "Would you like tosee?"

"Does it mean I can get off these things when we get there?"

"Yes."

A grin slid onto my lips as I leaned forward over the animal's neck. "Then let's hurryup."

4

I kicked my heels into the animal's sides and was nearly dismounted. The awkward trot of the camel transformed into the smooth sprint of the jackal. I fell forward and wrapped my arms around the smooth neck of the creature as we careened down the hill. The reins fell from my hands and hung loose in front of the hadab's chest. My hair blew behind me and strands whipped at myface.

"Stop! Stop, you stupid animal!" I yelled.

Xander came up on my side. He sported a wide, devilish smile on his lips. "Would you like some assistance?"

I glared at him. "I'd like to get off this thing!"

He leaned down between us and grabbed my reins. A quick pull back and my beast slowed to its rough trot. I pushed myself into a seated position and wiped away the strands ofhair.

"Why didn't anybody warn me that that button does that?" I growled.

The rest of our group caught up with us. Spiros had the same teasing smile as Xander. "My Lady, I have never seen a riding style such as yours. Do you have a name forit?"

Darda frowned at him. "That is quite enough from you, captain. Do you not know she could have been maimed or killed?"

Spiros chuckled. "Our Lady would not allow such a beast to do her in." His hadab threw its head back and snorted. Our group broke into laughter. Even I cracked a smile. Spiros patted the side of the beast's neck. "I meant no offense, my friend."

Xander trotted a few steps ahead of us and nodded at the dark shapes on the horizon. "Shall we continue?"

We continued our journey across the sand dunes toward the mystery. As we grew closer I could make out that there were a half dozen large shapes some twenty to thirty feet high. They looked like narrow rafts that curved down on either side and were attached to large water skis. Each had a single mast in the center with a large sail attached to it. The flapping cloth seemed to mimic the winding heat waves that arose from the desert floor. A mess of ropes led from the sail to a single upright post in the back. I didn't see a rudder.

A couple dozen men moved around the rafts. Some tightened the ropes, others lashed the posts tighter together with ropes. One of them looked up and turned in our direction. He pointed at us and shouted something unintelligible. The others leapt to their feet and swung around to face us with their hammers and long, curved short swords.

Xander stopped us ten yards from the group and held up his hands. "Tahiati, friends."