He left Ni-Yana the next evening and began following the Ra-Lin back to Ni-Mytaa. Never did the idea of crossing the desert for a second time enter his mind. His voice had only just recovered from the last journey. With any luck, a passing barge or ship may pause along its route and take him to Ni-Mytaa. If so, it would be the most luck that would have come his way since he had left Ni-Horia two moons ago.
His feet scuffed angrily in the red sand as he walked along the river. He was tempted to throw the stone to the depths of the Ra-Lin in his frustration, but something made him fit it into the necklace he had bought especially for its keeping. Maybe he felt he needed something to prove that he had indeed seen an yrae, maybe he still had some small ray of hope that the stone would come to life, maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to throw away something that had almost killed him in his search for it. Whatever the reason, the yrae stone hung around his neck for the rest of his journey.
A week after leaving Ni-Yana, he reached the southernmost curve of the Ra-Lin. From that point, it curved back north to meet Ni-Mytaa and finally the hills from which it originated.
That was when Raqif noticed the itchy feeling along his arms. At first it was nothing more than a slight nuisance, but as the day wore on it became more and more of a distraction before he finally decided to strip down and dive into the Ra-Lin, hoping the cool waters would somehow relieve the irritation.
As he lay his shirt and desert cloak down on the sand, every joint in his fingers cracked and gave way, making him cry out more with shock than pain and shake his hands out. He flexed his fingers a few times then shook them once more, looking down at them with a puzzled look on his face, then shrugged and dismissed the strange sensation.
The yrae magic finally chose its time to show itself, and Raqif’s fingers sprung out from his hands, each one stretching to fifty times its normal length and taking with it a thin membrane of skin that ran along his arm and formed a pair of wings not dissimilar to those of a bat.
Raqif simply stood and stared at the strange new wings, barely realising what had happened. Slowly though, a grin crept its way onto his face, and he flapped his arms experimentally in front of him, stepping back to catch himself when the wind gust he created almost blew him over.
He tried flapping a few more times, this time to take him into the sky he had been longing to touch, but the gust wasn’t quite strong enough. Instead, he folded the wings against his side and sprinted alongside the river before extending them and leaping up, flapping hard to clear the ground.
He watched, laughing ecstatically as the Ra-Lin and its surrounding desert pulled away from him. The hot air that rose from the bright orange sands caught under the wide membrane of skin, allowing him to just ride on the wind without having to flap at all.
He closed his eyes briefly to feel the wind on his face, a sensation he had felt many times as he imagined himself flying on the wings of an yrae, but never before had he been able to open his eyes and not have to let go of the dream. He delighted in spilling the air delicately from his wings, dipping down towards the desert and catching himself just before he hit, giggling hysterically all the while.
“That’s quite an acquisition you’ve made there.”
Raqif spun around in the air, almost plummeting uncontrolled back to the earth, but he could not see the source of the voice. Maybe it had just been in his mind.
“I felt the same way as you do when I first took to the skies.”
He spun around again, but still the strongly accented speaker did not make himself clear. Only then did he look up, seeing a tall man wearing black clothing and held aloft by a pair of wide black bat’s wings that grew from his shoulders.
The shock of seeing Raykin’s first king hovering above him was too much for Raqif to handle, and he dropped back to the sand, landing rather less elegantly than he had intended. Involuntarily, his wings shrunk back into his hands and arms, though Raqif was concentrating more on the man floating down behind him.
“King Yan?” The weakness in Raqif’s voice was through no fault of the desert or sun.
The king nodded and strode towards him, his strong black wings now folded against his back. “I am indeed,” he said, his strange accent even thicker than that of the desert people. “Very nice to meet you, Master…”
“Raqif,” the highlander finished. “But you died four thousand years ago!”
“Four thousand and twenty six, if you wish to be precise,” Yan corrected, examining his fingernails. “Most unpleasant business, that.” He clenched his hand into a fist before relaxing it by his side again. Raqif spotted the silver ring on his index finger that held the king’s own yrae stone, and he raised his hand protectively over his necklace. “Yrae magic is not the only variety in this kingdom. It was the magic of my family, bless them, that brought me back.”
“Why have you come to meet me?” Raqif asked, annoyed with the timidness shown in his voice.
“I will be blunt with you, Raqif,” Yan answered in the same bored but threatening tone. “I have come for your yrae stone.” He laughed softly when Raqif’s fingers gripped tightly around the jewel at his neck. “Do not try to protect it from me, it shall only bring you pain. You may feel you have been searching for this stone for longer than you can remember, but I have been waiting for that very stone to show itself for two thousand years.”
Raqif took a step back and gripped his stone harder. “What purpose would this stone serve you? You already have one of your own, what good will a second do?”
Kin Yan held up three fingers. “Third. You have heard of Haela, have you not?”
Raqif nodded but remained silent.
“She too tried foolishly to resist, tried to keep the stone herself, but inevitably her protectiveness brought about her demise. Quite a disagreeable affair, if my memory serves me correctly.”
“You killed her.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Indeed.” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver chain with the second yrae stone strung onto it. “Know this, Raqif; I have had many millennia more experience with yrae magic than yourself. Your single choice now is whether you die quickly and painlessly by magic, or slowly by the sword.”
Raqif could hear himself breathing heavily. His heartbeat thumped vigorously in his ears as his eyes and mind searched frantically for some escape. No matter what he did, Yan would be able to counter his actions almost before he had carried them out.
Gulping and closing his eyes in defeat, he undid the clasp on his necklace and glanced down at his dream. “What do you intend to use it for?” he whispered, not taking his eyes from the jewel.
“Quite simply, to regain the throne.”
Raqif’s head snapped up. “You know Raykin would never take you for their king, not when you abused them so ruthlessly the first time. It may be four thousand years since you reigned, but the people despise you even more now than they did then.”
An evil grin played on the lips of the former king. “Fear not, Raqif. My plans have been laid down for many a century. I know exactly which course I plan to take.”
Raqif closed his eyes again and held out the yrae stone. As Yan had said, the stone would be taken from his possession whether he let it go freely or not. A single tear rolled down his cheek as he felt the king’s bony fingers take hold of the yrae stone, but somehow he felt strangely calm about the whole matter, as if he had almost expected this to happen.
He opened his eyes to see Yan towering over him, a satisfied smile on his face. “Thank you,” he said simply, laying his hands together in thanks. “You have done well.” He raised his right hand, fingers pointing loosely towards Raqif.
“Wait,” Raqif said suddenly.
Yan paused and raised his eyebrows questioningly at the highlander.
“A girl in the desert… Elinya… could you let her know I succeeded?”
Raykin’s first king smiled and gave that same light laugh before spreading his fingers again. “No.”