“These aren’t pine trees, but they’re a lot taller than the others we saw on the way to Poison’s Canyon.” Fendrel peered down over Fog’s shoulder at the towering trees below.
“I know! I want to dive down there so bad.” Fog’s eyes were glued to the trees. “But I don’t want you to get scratched up.”
Fendrel chuckled. “Well, thank you for your consideration. Let’s look for a clearing—”
This jungle is pretty dense, though.
“—or at least an opening big enough to squeeze through.”
“I don’t see any…” Fog’s head moved side-to-side as they searched.
“I guess I’m getting scratched either way, then.” Fendrel shrugged.
Fog nodded. “I’ll try to be careful.” She swooped lower and waited for an opening. It wasn’t big enough to enter without getting wacked by a few branches, but it was the only visible option. Fog dove beneath the canopy of leaves, landing on a cluster of thick tree limbs. She peered down.
Fendrel held on tighter as Fog began to tip forward to get a better view.
The vapor dragon stepped down to a lower branch. They were still very high up.
I can’t even see the ground, it’s so overgrown.
Each branch Fog landed on was stronger than the last, but they were becoming few and far between. Once there was enough space below, aside from the massive tree trunks, Fog descended to the damp, leaf-laden floor.
Fendrel dismounted and made a slow turn, taking in his surroundings.
Birds chirped and hooted to each other, butterflies flitted about the flowers and fruits, and small creatures Fendrel had never seen nor heard of stepped out of cover only to dive back to safety in the shadows.
“So, were you actually planning on helping to map, or was volunteering just an excuse to explore?” Fendrel turned his attention to his travel companion.
Fog gave him a slightly embarrassed look. “I don’t see you complaining.”
Fendrel nodded in agreement. “True…It’s nice here, but it is really humid.”
“Yeah, look at my feathers! I guess they just attract water. See all the little drops?” Fog held her wings out in front of her to show Fendrel the accumulation of moisture.
“So—” Fendrel put his hands on his hips “—I don’t know much about what plants are used to heal, especially not from a jungle. Do you see anything we might be able to bring back when we’re done mapping?”
Fog surveyed the foliage around. “Mhm! Those can be used as bandages, and if we grind that up and put it in warm water it becomes an infection-repelling paste for surface wounds, and those berries can be eaten to reduce pain.”
“Is there anything that can seal wounds like your magic, or Venom’s…venom?” Fendrel furrowed his brow.
“Actually, since my healing powers were discovered at a young age, they never taught me to use plants since I could rely on my breath.” Fog’s ears lowered.
“Ah, well it’s probably fine.” Fendrel shrugged.
With a sigh, Fog grabbed a paw-full of some plant Fendrel didn’t recognize. “I’ve seen these in the clinics back home, though. I’ll bring these back and get them identified.”
Fendrel nodded. “I’ll just grab…whatever I find.”
“Me too.” Fog headed off into the dense vegetation.
With his hand coming out of his bag empty after searching for any unoccupied pouches, Fendrel gathered the plants Fog had pointed out and some others. He stuffed them in his bag, hoping he’d remember what they looked like so he could retrieve them later.
“Did you find any more, Fog?” Fendrel looked over his shoulder.
There was no response besides the sounds of the wildlife.
“Fog?” Fendrel felt panic rising in him.
Oh no…Did Daichi lie about not capturing anymore dragons? Did the Scattered Ones find her?
A faint trail of leaves crushed and punctured by dragon claws led away from Fendrel. He followed the path, only stepping in Fog’s footprints, his hand reaching into his bag for a dagger.
He picked up his pace at the sound of faint sobbing, pushing ferns aside as he ran.
Fog laid on the ground with her wings askew. A small object was cradled in her front paws.
Fendrel walked up to Fog and knelt down in front of her.
The object was a seashell earring, identical to Fog’s. It was bloodstained and a bit chipped.
She said her mother had given it to her. Did she and her mother share a pair?
Not knowing what to do, Fendrel held his hand out to her.
Fog shut her eyes, her body shaking with sobs. She pressed her head against his chest.
Tears sank into Fendrel’s shirt. Surprised, Fendrel wrapped his arms around her head and rested his chin on her.
“We can wash it if you want.” He kept his voice soft and gingerly took the earring from her paws. He put it in a pouch he used for memorabilia. “I’ll keep it safe for you.”
Fog shivered every now and then, not making a sound besides her heavy breathing.
“You’re brave. Do you know that?”
The dragon’s ears lifted a little. She pulled her head back.
“You have enough courage to cry in front of someone without worrying what they’ll think.” Fendrel failed to give her a smile.
“Do you feel like this often?” Fog sniffed.
“Sometimes.” Fendrel nodded. “For my mother and adoptive parents. I used to feel like that about Frederick, too.”
Fog took a few deep breaths. “You’re exactly the kind of human my mom always hoped she’d meet.”
Fendrel blinked in surprise. “I am?”
With a slight smile, Fog folded her paws over each other. “She tried to use her position as an advisor of Cloud’s parents in order to try to reach friendly contact with humans. I think her biggest wish was to live long enough to see us get along. And then you came along. You would have been the perfect human in her eyes.”
I’m not so sure about that.
Fendrel pressed his lips into a thin line. “She sounded great.”
“She was.” After a moment of silence, Fog stood and shook out her wings. She took a long, shaky breath.
“Are you okay?” Fendrel got up and dusted himself off.
“…I don’t know.” Fog’s wings hung like she was tired. “But let’s get back to what we’re here for. I think I need a distraction.”
The former dragon hunter stood tall with his hands clasped behind his back.
Cassius was rigid before him, his arms stuck straight down at his sides.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve trained anyone.” Charles looked Cassius in the eyes. “Those were scary times, but I miss interacting with my students.”
The ex-prince didn’t respond.
“…You’re quiet, but at least you’re not disruptive, like Frederick was.” Charles sighed. “You don’t have to be so reserved. Just behave so we can show up the Beast-Hunt knights tomorrow.”
Cassius’ shoulders relaxed.
“I’m only going to focus on human-human combat rather than dragon hunting, for obvious reasons.” Charles gestured at Cassius. “You will get the same combat experience my previous students had. That includes working with swords, spears, shields, bows, crossbows, axes, knives, the environment you fight in, on horseback, and I might introduce fighting while on dragonback, if the dragons are okay with that. I only require you master one of these weapons, but you should still practice with each to see what you’re comfortable with. Any questions?”
Cassius shook his head no.
“Okay.” Charles nodded at the not-so-far-off dragons. “Since the other trainees will be coming tomorrow, why don’t you go help build those temporary shelters. Get some callouses, work up a sweat, and relax. I’m not going to bite you.”
“Yes, sir!” Cassius gave a flimsy salute.
Charles shook his head and waved away at him. “You don’t have to do that.”
With embarrassment, Cassius mumbled something under his breath and jogged off.
Sighing heavily, Charles went toward the shade of a tree at one edge of the canyon. Oliver and Viper chased each other under and over a mossy fallen tree trunk beneath the tree.
Viper leapt on the log. When she spotted Charles, she flung herself toward him with her wings flapping out of sync.
“Whoa!” Charles knelt to catch her, his eyes widening. “You’re trying to fly already?”
The hatchling gave him a toothy smile and hung on Charles with her claws and tail.
Oliver hoisted himself over the log as Charles sat on it. His hair was full of sticks and leaves. His hands and clothes were stained with dirt.
Charles smiled wide.
I’ve never seen him this happy before.
He hugged Oliver with his other arm. “You two are having fun, aren’t you?”
Oliver nodded with exuberance. “Viper is really fast! We were playing tag and I was it the whole time because she kept climbing the tree. Can you tell her she’s cheating?”
Charles looked down at Viper with slight sternness. “Viper, were you cheating?”
“No cheat!” Viper’s tail lashed as she giggled. “No cheat no cheat no cheat!”
“Lies!” Oliver crossed his arms.
“Viper, no climbing trees, okay? Especially not while you’re still learning to fly. Both of you play fair.” Charles set on the other side of the log. He leaned over to Oliver. “Just remember she’s still learning.”
Out of the corner of his eyes, Charles saw dragons building huts out of mud, leaves, and branches. Further away, the dusk clan was guarding eggs of all kinds and entertaining hatchlings.
“Oliver, I’m going to help the others build today, so I need you to take care of Viper—” he pointed at the guarding dragons “—until I come back for you, okay?”
“Mhm.” Oliver went to pick up Viper. “When is Auntie Thea coming back?”
“Uh…She might be gone for a few days, buddy. But, do you need me to walk you over there?” Charles stood up.
“I’m okay.” Oliver hugged Viper against his chest.
“I’ll be back for you before sundown.” Charles raised his voice as Oliver began to run toward the dusk clan.
The seafarers must be keeping their children close to them. I hope Oliver won’t feel lonely being the only human there.
He waited to help build until Oliver was welcomed into the group of black dragons.
He took a deep breath through his nose. It was a bit of an unwelcome shock to wake up without sea air, so far from the hut he shared with Mar, but he was getting used to it now.
Frederick gripped the metallic neck spikes on the spark dragon he was riding, his smile widening with every gust of wind that blew in his face and tousled his hair.
Beside him flew Ember, leading a small group of fire dragons for extra protection.
The group agreed that Frederick and Thea would ride spark dragons since they were already faster than other elements, that way the fire dragons could keep pace more easily. But even with the burden of carrying a human, Frederick’s ride still had to be mindful of his speed.
On Frederick’s other side was Thea with her volunteered ride. Her hands were glued to the dragon’s spikes and her teeth were clenched.
Fendrel told me spark dragons see eavesdropping as rude and learn to block out conversations that didn’t involve them, so I can say what I want to her, right? Unless Fendrel was lying. Nah, Fendrel wouldn’t pull something like that.
Frederick smiled at Thea. “I thought you had experience riding dragons. You look like you’ve never left the ground before.”
“The dragon king was fast, and so was Venom. This? This is way faster.” Thea gave him a smile as if to reassure herself that everything was good and safe.
“You’ll get used to it.” Frederick nodded. “Every element flies a bit differently, so it can be a bit jarring for every first time.”
“Oh yeah?” Thea sat up, but not by much. “Have you flown with spark dragons before?”
“Nope.” Frederick laughed.
“You seem really comfortable, though.” Thea eyed him up and down with suspicion. “You’re not even sitting, you’re crouching…on slippery scales, and spark dragons are small compared to most other elements.”
Frederick shrugged. “I’m a thrill-seeker.”
“Reckless is more like it.” Ember scoffed, flicking her tail at his shoulder. “Fendrel is a bit of a free spirit too, but at least he knows not to sky dive off a dragon during his first flight.”
“Oh, come o-o-on.” Frederick shook his head. “It wasn’t that bad, and to be fair it’s your fault for flying me while I was drunk. You know it’s impossible to bridle me once you’ve taken the reins off. And, wait, you were there to witness Fendrel’s first flight?”
“Uh, yeah, I took him on his first flight.” Ember’s smile was filled to the rim with smugness. “And he was a very responsible passenger.”
Frederick snorted. “First, ouch. Second, when did Fendrel finally get out of his comfort zone enough to actually have fun?”
Ember hummed as she thought. “I think it was when you two were eighteen.”
That must have been when he deserted the dragon hunters.
“Now, Frederick, it’s rude to exclude people from conversations.” Ember looked past him. “Hi, Thea. We didn’t get to talk much the last time. I’m sorry my friend can be a bit of a diva.”
Thea cackled and tilted her head back. The wind played with her hair in a way that made Frederick’s lips quirk up in a smile. “You say that as if I’m not one too.”
Frederick clapped. “Hey, that makes three of us! But, yeah, sorry for leaving you out. How long have you been friends with my brother? Where are you from? What are your hobbies? What’s your favorite color?”
Thea shook her head. “Are you sure you’re related to Fendrel?”
“Same father, different mothers.” Frederick tapped his fingers on the spark dragon’s spikes. “Technically we’re also cousins because our father was the human equivalent of an on-fire cart of horse manure who married the sister of the girl he got pregnant after banishing her.”
“…Way to put everything out there, Frederick. What are we even supposed to say to that?” Ember’s eyes were wide with surprise. She shook her head. “Anyway, we should land now and chart what we’ve seen so far. I hope you’ve been paying attention.”
“Relax, I’ve been all over this continent. We’ll be fine.” Frederick leaned toward Thea, making sure to hold on to his ride’s spikes. “We’ll finish this conversation later.”
“Yes, let’s land, please.” Thea grinned. “You sound like you have good stories.”
Frederick kneeled in the moss, sheltered from behind by a boulder. His fingertips were stained with ink. He waved at the partially drawn map in front of him to dry it.
He leaned back against the boulder with a sigh. A new shadow cooled him from the sun, beaming down through the smaller jungle trees.
Tilting his head up, Frederick saw Thea peering over him at the map.
She noticed his blackened fingers and smirked. “The map looks good, but I guess you haven’t had much practice with ink. Did you even use the quill?”
Frederick snickered. “Fendrel was always the tidier of us. I would’ve used a charcoal pen, but that probably would have stained me just as bad.”
Thea sat beside him. “That’s a bit hard to believe.”
Nodding, Frederick tilted the map toward her. “Did you want to see it? There’s still a lot I have to add in from memory, but it looks readable enough now, right?”
“Um.” Thea stared at the paper. “I’m not that great with reading maps, but I’m sure it’s legible to someone here.”
After making sure the ink was dry, Frederick rolled up the map.
“I’m sorry about your father.” Thea looked down. “He sounds awful.”
“Yeah, well, I never have to see him again.” Frederick stood and turned toward Thea. “How about your old man?”
Thea sighed. “He was better than my mother…She thought I was a witch and kicked me out of the house before anyone from our city could find out about my powers.”
Frederick kept holding her hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you, welcome to the Crappy Parents Club.”
Returning the shake, Thea giggled. “Thank you for having me.”
Frederick reluctantly let go of her hand and started walking toward the dragons in their group. “I just remembered something! If we get back to the Settlement on time, we’ll make it just in time for a fire dragon festival. Those parties will make every other day of your life seem boring.”
Thea crossed her arms. “I’m not sure I believe you, but I’d like for you to prove me wrong.”
“Let’s make a deal.” Frederick began to walk backwards so he could face her. “If we do hold a fire dragon festival at the Settlement and you find yourself starved for entertainment afterwards, I’ll take you somewhere fun. But if you’re underwhelmed and I’ve overexaggerated the Festival…we can do something of your choice. Deal?”
“Both of those outcomes sound more friendly than ‘friendly.’” Thea gave him a suspicious look. “Are you being serious?”
“All right.” Frederick sighed. “No deal then?”
Thea gazed at him a moment, then stuck her hand out. “Deal, on one condition.”
“I don’t care what your terms are, the answer is yes.” Frederick shook her hand.
With a scoff of laughter, Thea shook her head. “My condition is you have to show me what it’s like to get Fendrel to have fun. I’ve known him for a couple years, but I’ve never seen him without worries.”
Frederick raised his eyebrows. “I was already thinking about that.”
“I can hold on to that if you want.” Thea took the map, ink bottle, and quill. “I’m the one who brought it anyway. And I hope you weren’t making that festival sound better than it is.”
Yes! Frederick inwardly congratulated himself. “You won’t regret it.”