Fendrel stared across the bay at the island Frederick had mentioned living on with Mar. The sun was crawling up in the sky.
I guess I was so focused on getting here that I blocked it from my mind, but now I do remember passing by it.
A branch snapped behind him. He looked back but saw nothing, then moved his hand to his bag.
Something tapped his shoulder. Fendrel whipped around with a knife in his hand, stopping at the approacher’s throat.
With a squeak, Cassius flinched away.
Fendrel felt his shoulders relax. He took the knife away from the ex-prince. “Sorry.”
Cassius rubbed his neck. “How did you grab it so fast? Are there knife pockets in your bag?”
“Uh, no.” Fendrel returned the knife to his bag. “It’s enchanted so whatever I want will appear in my hand if I reach in, but only if I’ve placed it in my bag.”
“Can I see?” Cassius stepped toward Fendrel.
Fendrel instinctively shielded his bag with his hand. “You can’t see anything if you look in. It just looks like a dark, empty pit.”
“Mhm.” Cassius nodded and folded his hands behind his back.
“Did you need something?” Fendrel gave Cassius a quizzical look.
“…Yes.” Cassius pointed at the bag. “Do you have a spear in there?”
Fendrel nodded. “Yeah, but you’ll have to ask Charles to use it. It’s his spear. Wait, why do you even want a spear?”
“I want to train.” Cassius stepped forward and opened his palms before Fendrel. “Zoricus has always bested me in everything, even in things I thought I was good at. What if we run into him again? He’s already tried to kill both of us. I have no training! And then Sadie would be…”
“Zoricus is probably dead.” Fendrel shrugged.
Hope seemed to flash in Cassius’ eyes.
“Sadon must have gotten rid of him in a sudden rage.” Fendrel returned his eyes to the sea.
“What does he have to be angry about?” Cassius scoffed. “He got the kingdom. Zoricus is under his thumb. His enemies are far away from him.”
Fendrel shook his head. “Sadon wants the dragons gone, and most of them are with us, and I’m still alive.”
Cassius swallowed. “Well, I still want to train. I would just feel safer if I had a weapon and knew how to use it. If Charles lets me use his spear, will you teach me?”
With a cough, Fendrel tried not to laugh. “Just because I almost graduated at the top of my class doesn’t mean I’m proficient in every style of fighting. I’m good with knives and my surroundings. That’s pretty much it.”
“So Charles will have to teach me.” Cassius sighed.
Fendrel raised an eyebrow. “Are you afraid of him?”
“He has abandoned the dragon hunters, wants to live a peaceful life, and is raising a dragon hatchling, and you’re still afraid of him?” Fendrel couldn’t help but smile.
“Wait, I thought he was just taking care of Viper temporarily.” Cassius glanced back to where their camp was.
Fendrel shook his head. “He might be claiming that, but I can tell he wants to keep her. He used to have a daughter, maybe she reminds him of her.”
After a few moments of silence, Fendrel turned and began to head back into the jungle toward their camp. “Why don’t you go ask him right now?”
“Are you coming with me?” Cassius caught up with Fendrel.
“No.” Fendrel glanced at him. “You can talk to him yourself. I’m just going to join the others.”
The jungle was silent.
The dragons’ presence must be quieting the animals’ usual noises. And the dragons are pretty quiet too.
Some of the dragons were pacing, while others laid down and stared up through the trees.
Weaving around the dragons, Fendrel and Cassius made their way to their human camp, apart from the seafarer’s camp. Frederick, Mar, Cassius, Sadie, Thea, and Oliver were there. Fog sat beside them, gushing over Viper. Sitting in the roots of a tree, Charles held a sleepy, cozy Viper against his chest.
It took both of Charles’ arms to keep her from flopping over.
Fendrel chuckled. “She seems fond of you.”
Charles nodded. “I, er, we have been like this all morning.”
“If you prop her head on your shoulder and let her wings droop instead of pinning them, it should be easier to hold her.” Fendrel anchored the hatchling’s chin to the back of Charles’ head.
“Thank you.” Charles made a thoughtful face.
Venom tramped in from somewhere in the jungle. His gaze landed on Fendrel. “Oh, good. You’re okay.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Fendrel stood up from when he helped reposition Viper.
“Some of us have gone missing since last night. I tried tracking their scents, but they all ended at rivers.” Venom held a low voice. “We all need to be very careful here.”
Especially with what Frederick told us last night.
Frederick stood. He looked even more pale than his usual complexion. “Oh no.”
“That’s…troubling.” Fendrel began to feel cold. “Are we putting a search team together?”
“Are you wanting to participate?” Venom around at the group.
“Of course.” Fendrel stepped forward. “How many have gone missing so far?”
“His Majesty counted around a dozen. There are a few humans gone as well.”
“I’ll come too, just in case you need a healer.” Fog raised her wings and stood.
Venom opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. “Very well. Be careful, and use your claws if you must, even if you left your metal attachments back in the Hazy Woods.”
“We’re coming too.” Frederick got up and raised his hand with Mar following his lead.
“I would join you—” Charles glanced down at Viper “—but I have my hands full.”
“Thank you.” Venom nodded. “Let’s go now so we’ll have as much daylight to search as possible.”
As the group headed into the jungle, Fendrel turned and looked at Charles, Viper, Thea, Cassius, Sadie, and Oliver. “We’ll try to be back at night.”
Fendrel stood before a river, staring at the shoe prints leading into the water from the mud. “Well, they obviously didn’t come back out.”
“Where are they then? They couldn’t have gone up or downstream. None of these river stones look tampered with.” Frederick crouched beside Fendrel. “But the ones directly in the shoe prints’ path look pushed in like they were stepped on.”
“Yes—” Venom stepped through to the other side. “And look at the mud here.” Venom swept his tail behind him, covering his tracks. The mud was now the same pattern as it was before he walked over there.
Fendrel cocked his head to the side. “A dragon must have covered up the human’s tracks.”
Fog leapt over to join Venom. “But why?”
“I don’t know.” Fendrel shivered. “But someone didn’t want this human to be found.”
“You don’t think…” Fog’s feathers puffed out.
“The Scattered Ones.” Frederick sucked air in through his teeth. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get this human back.”
“We’ll follow the tail sweeps.” Venom gestured Fendrel, Mar, and Frederick over with his wing.
When they were side-by-side, Fendrel looked up at Venom. “Are there other search teams out?”
“I believe so, but I don’t know how many.” Venom never lifted his eyes from the ground.
Suddenly, all the dragons halted with their ears perked. The humans stopped after noticing.
Fendrel turned to stare at the dragons curiously while Frederick looked around.
Venom sniffed the air and growled. “Reveal yourselves.”
“Who are you talking to?” Fendrel backed up so he was between the three dragons. Frederick joined him.
A strange dragon stepped out from behind a tree. She was…oddly shaped, with wolfish features and frill-like wings that started above the shoulders and ended midway down the tail. She had mint leaves adorning her body, but it seemed as if they were growing out of her rather than worn as decoration.
Fendrel blinked in surprise.
Is this a floral dragon? What’s with the shape and weird wings?
Another dragon joined the first stranger. He looked identical but had clovers instead of mint leaves.
Fendrel raised his eyebrows and caught himself muttering something unintelligible.
The mint dragon leaned toward the other one. “The human speaks draekonik.”
“But how?” The clover dragon arched his neck.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The mint dragon hissed. “They must have captured our brethren and forced them to teach our language.” She flexed her talons and stepped toward Fendrel and Frederick.
Venom moved in front of the humans. “Who are you?”
The mint dragon cowered but didn’t back away. “How are you not afraid of them after everything they’ve done…”
“What are you talking about?” Fog swiveled her head around Venom. “They haven’t done anything to you.”
“Poor thing.” The clover dragon gave Fog a pitying frown. “They must have caught her as an egg and brainwashed her.”
Venom snorted. “Fendrel has done more for dragons than most of us have done for ourselves.”
Fog nodded. “He’s devoted his life to helping us.”
“And Frederick has a heart of gold.” Mar glared at the strangers.
Frederick was quaking, clutching onto one of Mar’s forelegs. “Th-thanks.”
The mint dragon squinted at them. “There’s something off about you three. What elements are you from?”
Fog and Venom shared a look.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Fog looked at herself. “I’m a vapor dragon, he’s from the dusk clan—” Fog flicked her tail at Venom and then at Mar “—and he’s a water dragon.”
The wolfish dragons’ pupils dilated in unison. “Freelanders.”
“So the humans must be Freelanders as well, and that’s why they get along.” The clover dragon jutted his chin at them.
“Yes, they must.”
The two strangers whispered to each other with excitement while casting glances at Fendrel’s group.
“Are you going to answer me now? Who are you?” Venom looked between them.
“Are all the Freelander humans like these ones?” The mint dragon pointed at Fendrel and Frederick. “Can they all speak draekonik?”
“Uh…” Fog smiled. “Fendrel and Fern, er, Frid…Fendrel and his brother are special.”
The clover dragon crept closer.
Venom blocked him with his wing. “Who. Are. You?”
Shrinking back, the clover dragon made an annoyed face. “We are among the largest clan of Scattered Ones, ruled by The Matriarch.”
“Have you come back to help us again, Freelanders?” The mint dragon’s tail swished.
Venom shook his head. “We’re here to bring back the humans and dragons who went missing from our camps.”
“The Matriarch won’t like that very much. Any humans we find must be brought to her at all costs.” The mint dragon eyed Fendrel and Frederick. “They must join us as well.”
“They aren’t going anywhere with you.” Venom’s shoulders tensed. “Now return the lost humans to us.”
“If you want them—” the clover’s dragon’s ears flicked back “—you’ll have to come with us to get them.”
Venom glared at the wolfish dragons for a few moments.
Fendrel tapped Venom’s foreleg. “If we go with them, we might be able to convince their leader to have an audience with Cloud and Mist.”
Frederick shook his head fervently. “We do not make deals with the Scattered Ones! Their compromises are never fair to those they deal with.”
“Then we won’t give her the opportunity to compromise. She’ll have to meet our demands.” Venom ignored Frederick’s pleas. “Fine. We will accompany you to your leader, but only under the conditions that all humans be returned to us.”
“We can’t promise anything.” The clover dragon shrugged and turned to walk away. The mint dragon waved Fendrel’s group over and followed the clover dragon.
Venom took the group’s lead with the humans in the middle.
Fendrel noticed Venom’s, Fog’s, and Mar’s paws seemed to stamp with more irritation than the Newlanders’ paws.
“Just because they can’t hear doesn’t give you the right to speak about them as if they are some ignorant beetles.” Venom growled.
The Newlanders flinched but kept walking.
“What are you talking about?” Fendrel looked at Venom.
“That is for another time, young one.” Venom kept his eyes ahead.
Why are you being so weird?
Fendrel looked behind at Fog.
The vapor dragon hung her head. “Sorry, I can’t tell you.”
Frederick looked too nervous to respond or notice the last few moments had just taken place.
Fendrel returned his gaze to the dragon in front of him.
Twin gasps came from the wolfish dragons as they stopped dead in their tracks, stiffening like statues.
Venom craned his neck around to see ahead of them.
“What is it?” Fendrel came forward and pushed ferns aside.
There was what looked to be a ruined campground ahead in a clearing. Charcoal was kicked out of a circle of rocks. Dragon and human tracks were stamped into the dirt haphazardly. Blood sprinkled the ground here and there and scorch marks blackened some of the earth.
“The humans found our travel camp.” The mint dragon gasped.
The clover dragon pulled his friend against him with his wing. “And they took everyone.”
With a cry of despair, the mint dragon threw her friend’s wing off and ran into the clearing.
A javelin hurled out of the trees and tore through her chest. She toppled over. Her body made a heavy thud as it fell. Her seeping blood added to the mess.
Venom pulled Fendrel against his chest just as another javelin skewered the clover dragon mid-scream.
Fendrel grabbed Frederick’s arm and tugged him into the bush cover.
Fog opened her mouth, but Venom clamped it shut with a single paw. They stared at each other as if they were having a telekinetic conversation.
“Don’t speak, we’re going to sneak away.” Venom nudged the humans with his snout.
Something entered Fendrel’s peripheral. He kept his voice at a whisper and shoved Frederick. “Run.”
Before he could do anything else, a hand slammed over Fendrel’s mouth and he was hit hard on the back of the head. His vision blackened as what seemed to be a troop of armed humans charged out of the cover of the jungle.