Chapter 2 – Fire in the Clouds
A pillar of flames erupted up out of the clouds, accompanied by a deep rumbling roar. It rose high into the sky before fountaining back down again as a spray of droplets of flame that fell into the clouds. An endless sea of grey spread out beneath Kathri, clouds that billowed and piled and roiled about though no winds disturbed them. Deep within the clouds at certain places there were ominous patches that gave off a baleful deep red glow, marking regions of hidden flame that threatened to burst forth at any moment with a rain of fire.
High above the clouds floated shards of rock, small islands in the sky. Some hung still while other rotated this way or that. There was no rhyme or reason to them, no discernible patterns in their size or shape or height. Some clustered together while other stood alone.
Flowing mats of vines clung to their sides, bedecked with tiny purple flowers of such a vivid hue that they almost shone. From many flows of water cascaded, dissipating into a fine mist that drifted down towards the clouds. Rainbows sparkled and danced in the mists, shimmering into existence and then fading out again.
Kathri stood on one of the largest of the islands. Thick green grass swayed beneath her feet, festooned with a carpet of wild flowers, comprised of a multitude of hues, from the brightest of yellows, through the deepest of purples and all the shades between. A heady, alluring scent rose from them, a sweet perfume that suffused the air and brought balm and comfort. Kathri felt the weariness slough away from her as the perfume washed over her.
This is not real. It can not be.
A ring of trees surrounded her, willowy and swaying to a hidden song. Silver bark shone upon their slender trunks and branches. They were laden with long leaves of green edged with silver and festooned with blossoms of red. From them a gentle rain of blossoms fell, landing softly upon the grass, and upon her head, settling like a crown in her copper hair.
A pool of water, crystal clear, bubbled away nearby in the centre of water, accompanied by a gentle laughing gurgle as it leapt and splashed. A stream ran out from the pool, weaving to the edge of the island from where it tumbled away into the sky. She knelt down upon the cushioning grass alongside it, scooping up a handful to drink. It tasted impossibly sweet, her thirst assuaged by just the small amount as if she had drunk her full.
It is not real, she told herself. It is a cruel deception and my thirst will remain when I awake.
Around the islands fluttered small creatures, lizards of a long and sinuous shape. About the length of an arm, their scales glistened golden while broad wings kept them aloft, wings of feathers that were of rainbow hues. From flower to flower they darted, diving and wheeling as they went. Their calls were like the ringing of crystals, clear and perfect.
A feather from one of the winged lizards lay among the grass at Kathri’s feet. Wondering, she leant down and picked it up. As she studied it, the colours seemed to shift and flow across the feather before her, never still.
She turned about slowly, looking at the impossible landscape around her, the islands that floated and the life that grew upon them. The sky above, while a brilliant blue, was devoid of clouds and, most curiously, a sun. Yet despite its absence, the islands were lit up as if one shone, and she could feel warmth upon her face.
I am dreaming, surely, a dream brought on by thirst and hunger and fatigue.
Part of her, deep within, remained unconvinced of the protestations of her thoughts. It was too vivid for a mere dream, the feather in her hand as real as any in the waking world.
From far below came a long clarion call, as if from a deep horn, one that echoed through the islands. Kathri walked across to the edge and looked down, beyond the falling water and swaying vines, to the distant clouds that swirled. Even accustomed and untroubled by heights, her head swam at the vast plunge down to them. She held on to one of the trees and watched as the horn call sounded again.
The clouds were brushed aside as a behemoth of a creature burst forth from them, torn apart as the beat of wings struck them. In form it appeared serpentine, with a head as larger as any of the floating islands. Opalescent fire rippled down its sides as it undulated through the air, sparks of blue and red and green flashing along it. Legs were ducked up against its body as it flew. A long head ended with a bony crest crowned with horns as white as ivory. It came snaking through the air, weaving in amongst the islands.
Dragon. Kathri’s grip on tree tree almost slipped as she saw the creature. The dragons were no more though, reduced to bones buried beneath the sands and hills or deep waters of the oceans, being the subjects of myths and legends across many a culture and the subjects of songs by bards and wandering minstrels. It only confirmed to her that she indeed was dreaming.
Around it a dark cloud swirled, like drifting smoke that twisted this way and that, at times splitting apart only to merge again. Only as the dragon swam ever closer did she realise that the cloud was in fact a swarm of ravens, an indication of the sheer size of the dragon.
The beat of its wings swept it upwards, the sound of it reaching her as the drumming of the hooves of horses. At first Kathri had not noticed the man upon its back, being so mesmerised by the creature itself. He sat between the wings, back from the head, crossed legged and holding a fiery lance, the butt of which was propped against a broad scale beside him. The vast size of the dragon rendered him insignificant in comparison.
The man was Hajanri as evidenced by his black skin, though hair like molten metal marked him as fireborn as well. He wore a long robe of rich red, but the detail Kathri could not make out due to the distance between them. As the dragon drew closer, he appeared to be calling out to her and gesturing with his free hand. The words were drowned out by the sweep of the wings.
The ravens came swarming in across the island, settling in the trees around her. Such was the chorus of their cries that not even the dragon’s wings could mask them. The cacophony of their cries rupture the tranquillity of the place.
The dragon came to a halt level with the island Kathri stood on, hovering in place as its wings beat at the air. It eyes, larger than she was, gazed upon her. They were bottomless pools of night within which stars flared and faded, only to flare again, pinpricks of bright light. The passing of the ages swirled in them, the weight of long years that trapped Kathri’s gaze and dragged her down into it. She felt herself falling, tumbling head long into eternity while the stars wheeled around, begin born and dying it an instant both.
Then the dragon blinked and the gaze broke. Kathri shook her head, gripping tight to the tree, as she steadied herself. From the dragon came a sound like the rumbling of distant thunder. It took a moment for Kathri to realise it was laughing, or at least she gathered it was. The length of its body shook as it did so and the ravens lifted from the trees at the sound.
She felt the laugh as much as heard it, for the air and the island reverberated from it, the vibration running through her body. When the dragon finished laughing, it opened its mouth, revealing teeth almost of the size she was. She shrank back from it, but rather than lunge at her, the dragon breathed out, sending a mist swirling towards her, one in which flashes of starlight sparked.
It swept over her like a gentle caress, cool upon her face, refreshing as if water had been splashed upon her. She looked up into the face of the Hajanri, seeing him point towards her with the spear and call out again words that she could not hear. Then she sank backwards into sleep once more.
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