The Dragon Liberator: Freelander

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-6-

POV: Fendrel

Fendrel tried his best to keep his breaths from sounding labored. His injured ribs prevented him from walking as fast as he usually did, and the countless flights of stairs he traveled down weren’t helping.

The guards marching on either side of him were so silent Fendrel wouldn’t have been surprised if they were mute.

How long have we been walking?

The stairs flattened onto solid ground. Fendrel breathed a sigh of relief. They turned a corner and Fendrel’s heart sank at the sight of more stairs.

He didn’t realize he had stopped until one of his guards halted beside him. “Keep moving.”

Fendrel held his tongue and continued down the stairs. He shivered from the cold despite the parade of torches lining the walls. He tried to focus his mind on where he was to get the cold out of his thoughts.

The palace’s windows showed we were up high somewhere, and these stairs must lead somewhere outside, and we’re surrounded by rock. Are we inside a mountain right now?

“Yes.” One of the guards nodded.

Fendrel jumped a little, realizing he had said that out loud.

The stairs flattened again, and instead of a corner to turn there was a straight path toward sunlight from a cave mouth.

One guard took the lead while the other stayed behind Fendrel.

When Fendrel’s eyes adjusted, he saw crop fields stretching for miles until they reached a massive wall. At the top of the wall were chains, all reaching up to join together at the peak of the palace.

The whole kingdom is shielded by a net. No one can fly in or out…

His eyes traveled back to the wall where a portcullis, almost unnoticeable from this distance, was the only way out.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Daichi’s voice came from behind Fendrel.

Fendrel looked toward the prince and saw him walking out from a different cave mouth.

“We haven’t been attacked by dragons, effectively at least, in centuries thanks to our sky shield.” Daichi spread his arms in awe. “I would say ‘don’t get any ideas about escaping,’ but while you’re here there’s nothing you can do.”

Trying to keep from lunging at the prince, Fendrel turned away. He observed the fields.

Fendrel winced when Daichi began speaking again. “Our crops take up around two thirds of our kingdom. The last third is mostly city, but we also have some open land in case we need to expand. Our fields, always fruitful, I must add, separate the cities from each other, but each city has a clear road to the capitol and to each other.”

If I don’t die from you or your guard’s weapons, I’m going to die from your gloating.

“Ah! Here they finally are.” Daichi turned toward the tunnel path he emerged from.

A cart was being pulled out, with Venom strapped down to it with a muzzle. His legs were tucked underneath him, and his partially severed tail was pinned to his side.

Venom’s eyes were half-closed, but when they finally landed on Fendrel they sprung to life. His ears perked up.

Daichi chuckled. “He sure looks happy to see you.”

Fendrel ignored the prince and approached the cart once the guards stopped pulling the chains. He opened his mouth to speak but didn’t know what to say. He swallowed as if that would suppress the tears blurring his vision.

Venom whined through the muzzle.

The jingle of more chains came from the same tunnel. A guard holding a wire rope pulling Fog along him.

Instead of a muzzle, she now had a metal collar. Her rope was handed to Daichi.

“Where is Father?” Daichi looked to the guard.

“King Ren is staying here while you venture to Poison’s Lake, my prince.” The guard bowed his head. “He has ordered peasants to transport the freshest of our current crops alongside you.”

Daichi frowned. “I see.” He waited for the guard to leave before sighing. “Well that’s just grand. Stay here out of her reach and send me to bear the bad news.”

Fendrel blinked away his tears and stared at Daichi.

“Bring me my horse.” Daichi pointed at another guard.

Fog sidled closer to Venom’s cart and stretched her neck out toward Fendrel.

“Are you okay?” Fendrel leaned toward them.

You idiot, that was the dumbest question you’ve ever asked.

Venom gave a long, tired sigh and Fog cowered.

Daichi attached Fog’s leash to the cart. He looked at Fendrel. “You’ll have to ride up here. There’s no way I’m letting you control one of the beasts.”

Beasts? Does he mean horses?

Wordlessly, Fendrel climbed onto Venom’s cart and sat beside his neck. He glanced at the latch that held the muzzle and restraints together. A small hole was set in the latch. A keyhole. Also attached to the latch was Fendrel’s bag, though there was another set of chains and a lock wrapped around the bag to keep it from opening.

Daichi whistled, drawing Fendrel’s attention. He reached into his shirt and pulled out a key on a leather necklace. He wiggled it back and forth. “Don’t try it.”

Fendrel rolled his shoulders. Anger boiled within him.

“Tell your vapor dragon she can fly if her legs get tired on the way there.” Daichi had a bored tone.

“She doesn’t belong to me.” Fendrel crossed his arms.

“Mhm. You mentioned that.” Daichi rolled his eyes.

Fendrel shook his head and looked at Fog. “He says you can fly if you get tired on the way.”

Venom snorted at Fendrel’s words while Fog nodded silently.

A strange sadness settled in Fendrel’s stomach. “I’ve never seen you this quiet before.”

“I just don’t feel like talking right now.” Fog’s ears seemed to be perpetually pinned back.

Fendrel froze, thinking about Mist. “They didn’t put a spell on you, did they?”

Fog shook her head and kept her eyes low.

“Come on, we don’t have all day.” Daichi slapped his thigh.

A few guards approached with stone dragons wearing bridles, reins, and blinders. All of them had stunted tails and wings, and their claws were filed almost to the quick. The stone hybrids were hooked up to the carts.

Conch was brought out too, wearing a medal-adorned saddle and bridle.

Daichi smiled at Conch and patted his neck. “There’s my handsome boy.” He got on the saddle and grabbed the reins.

Fendrel grimaced. He shuddered.

The prince glared at the guards. “What took you all so long?”

“Our apologies, my prince.” A guard bowed his head. “We were in the middle of switching stations when we were ordered to come here.”

Daichi gave them a fake smile. “Oh of course. I’m sure Poison will be very accommodating of us wasting her time and patience.”

At this remark, the guards finished hooking the stone hybrids up to Venom’s cart, bowing.

Fog drug her paws at first but kept pace with the cart, which gained speed as the hybrids moved to a canter, and then to a gallop.

Venom’s eyes moved around uneasily.

Fendrel inwardly cursed himself for not catching Venom and Fog up to speed. “I don’t know where we’re going, but apparently they need me to communicate with someone named Poison.”

Recognition flashed in Venom’s eyes, but he blinked it away.

The portcullis of Beast-Hunt’s wall made Fendrel want to plan an escape as they drew nearer.

What aren’t you telling me, Venom? I know you can’t speak to me now, but you could at least make some kind of vocal sign that you know something. And you never told me what was going on with those wolfish dragons. Why am I not supposed to know?

<~><~><~>

Fendrel’s eyes felt like lead, but he kept them fixed on Daichi’s back. His head began to lull with the threat of sleep. The jingle of metal grabbed his attention.

Fog was drifting above Venom’s cart, her leash keeping her from going too high.

The air smelled like citrus.

Fendrel gagged, thinking of Fragrance’s outrageous ego.

Carts full of oranges were at the back of the group, each one manned by a farmer controlling more stone hybrids. Other carts carried antsy, noisy livestock.

The walls of Beast-Hunt faded away behind them.

Amidst the almost flat landscape of short grass and mossy foot-high stone ledges were small silvery streams that wound around like snakes. A clear path of trampled grass and hoof-imprinted mud led the way further.

Just on the edge of the right side of the road, the land dropped away into a wide ravine, while the land on the left rose up like a wall. Tiny streams of water trickled down from the road into the ravine, making the mud more slippery.

Daichi turned his torso around and gave Fendrel a taunting smile. “Be glad we aren’t traveling in the rainy season.”

Fendrel kept his mouth shut and kept his mind from entertaining the thoughts of what would happen here during a rainstorm. He grabbed the chains that restrained Venom as if those would keep him from falling into the ravine.

Fog let out a shriek and flew sideways into the rock wall.

“Control your beast!” Daichi urged Conch to pick up speed to avoid being run off the road by the spooked stone hybrids.

“Fog are you all right? What happened?” Fendrel watched her land on Venom’s cart, stepping on the dusk dragon, who grunted. “Fog?”

Fog quaked, her feathers standing on end. She had her eyes shut and her face was turned away from the ravine.

Is something down there?

Fendrel leaned over and peered into the ravine.

It was a heart-dropping descent to the pit’s bottom. The ravine’s floor was covered in white and yellow shapes, jagged and curving and broken off in some places. It was impossible to see the natural earth underneath them.

Even though he still firmly gripped Venom’s chains, Fendrel felt like he wasn’t holding onto anything, like if he tipped forward one inch, he’d go spiraling down to join the shapes. A cold sweat overtook him. He swallowed, but his throat was dry. “Are those bones?”

He wanted to look away, but his eyes were glued to the dragon graveyard. Fendrel didn’t want to believe it, but he saw the skulls of hatchlings along with adults.

“Oh yes, that. I almost forgot.” Daichi’s voice didn’t draw Fendrel’s attention from the ravine, but Fendrel still listened. “After the war we took the usual valuables, teeth, hides, claws, and shoved the waste down there. Still, of course we missed some things, so we built mines to the bottom to salvage what we could. However, I wish we could have used the bones for something.”

Shut up.” Fendrel’s teeth clenched as if to keep from throwing up.

What Daichi said was true. Torchlight bounced around from tunnels at the bottom of the ravine.

The Freelanders are just sitting ducks here. Have Beast-Hunt knights found them yet?

A mental image of more bones filling up the ravine made Fendrel feel woozy. He leaned back against Venom and tried to look anywhere but the ravine. He focused on his breathing. He caught Venom’s eye.

Venom flicked his ear at the ravine as if to ask what was down there.

Unlike when he saw Venom for the first time since the arena, Fendrel couldn’t stop the tears from falling.

The dusk dragon lashed around in his chains, whining at Fendrel.

“It’s just…it’s full of dragon bones.” Fendrel felt himself shaking.

Venom’s pupils narrowed to almost-unseeable slits. He became more restless.

Making noises of unease, the stone hybrids pulling Venom’s cart picked up speed. They shoved their heads against Conch.

Daichi gasped when Conch slipped, then took a few bounds forward.

Fog had taken to the air once Venom started wiggling. There was a strange glint in her eye as she seemed to focus on Daichi. Her talons flexed.

Please don’t do anything stupid.

Venom growled, wrestling more.

Fendrel placed a hand on his shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do, Venom.”

The stone hybrids became restless again and surged forward.

As their cart neared Conch and Daichi, Fog swooped down and clawed at the prince’s neck.

Fendrel froze with a startled gasp.

Daichi reached for his throat, feeling around it. When his hand came away completely clean, Fendrel’s confusion mounted.

The prince turned his torso in a rage as Fog dropped something in front of Fendrel. The key to the restraints.

Fendrel snatched the key and shoved it into the lock on Venom’s chains.

“Don’t you dare unlock that!”

Ignoring Daichi, Fendrel twisted the key and opened the latch. He did the same with his bag, tearing the chains off.

Venom threw his head to the side and his muzzle flew off into the ravine. With an ear-splitting roar he threw off his chains. He bit down on Fog’s leash, and it cracked.

“No.” Daichi drew a short sword from a scabbard on Conch’s saddle and tried to calm Conch with his other hand.

With a second chomp from Venom, Fog’s leash snapped in half. He leapt over Daichi and Conch, stumbling under his three and a half paws.

Fendrel stood up, his heart racing.

They were nearing the end of the ravine, which Fendrel now noticed had footholds and rock shelves all along the sides.

Venom spread his wings and glided toward one of the shelves. His wings wobbled and his tail failed to balance himself. He crashed into the side of the ravine, landing heavily on the rock shelf. He raised his head. “Fendrel, Fog! Follow me.”

Fendrel threw his bag over his head and jumped off the cart, grabbing onto the metal wire dangling from Fog’s collar. “I’m sorry!”

Fog lurched sideways with a yelp but stayed airborne. She beat her wings with ferocity and neared the rock shelf.

Daichi sheathed his sword and urged Conch to run to the end of the ravine. He took a bow from the other side of the saddle and an arrow from a saddlebag, notching it. He aimed it at Fendrel.

“I thought you needed my help.” Fendrel gripped the wire tighter. “Put the weapons away and we can talk.”

“By escaping you have forgone our terms!” Daichi was red in the face.

Fog opened her jaws and shot a long stream of mist in Daichi’s face.

Daichi turned away and threw his bow to the ground so he could wave the vapor away with his robes. By the time the mist dissipated, Fog had already lowered Fendrel to the rock shelf and she was landing beside him.

Conch stepped on his bow in his surprised state, snapping it.

“I swear by whatever deities you serve, you filthy beast-lover, that I will find whomever else you came here with and I will make you watch them die by my hand in the arena!” Daichi drew his sword and threw it at them. The sword ricocheted off the wall and narrowly missed Fendrel. “You’re dead, Sharpdaggeran!”

The prince turned to the line of carts still between the wall and the ravine. “What are you looking at? Get your dragons moving again. We’re going to feed Poison and return home.”

“We aren’t going to capture them?” One farmer peeked over his dragons’ heads.

Daichi spat into the ravine. “No. Do you have such little faith in my knights’ abilities in apprehending criminals?”

“No, my prince.”

“Then, let’s go.” Daichi steered Conch back to the front of the line and led the carts away, his hands gripping the reins as if he were strangling something.

Fendrel closed his eyes and didn’t open them until he heard Venom’s voice.

“Are you two all right?”

The rumble of carts and stomping of paws passed by overhead.

“I think I’m okay.” Fendrel pressed himself against the ravine’s wall.

“I’m okay too.” Fog nodded.

All three panted heavily.

“Fendrel, tell us everything you know.” Venom looked Fendrel in the eyes.

Fendrel gulped. “Every few years, something named Poison wakes up and Beast-Hunt feeds it in exchange for its mercy. That’s probably why they have so much land dedicated to agriculture. The royal family said this thing is waking up early and they don’t have enough food, so they wanted my help for some reason.” He shook his head. “And they had a huge tapestry of where this thing is.”

Fog nodded. “I saw it. It’s Poison’s Lake.”

Venom’s ears perked and he stood a little taller. “Poison?”

“Yeah…” Fendrel stared at him. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

The two dragons shared a look.

“You need to get to Poison’s Lake before the humans do.” Venom looked between Fog and Fendrel. “You need to ask for her help, and if—”

“I’m not leaving you.” Fendrel shook his head.

“Listen to me, Fendrel.” Venom’s tone rose. He sighed, and his expression softened. “If they get there before you do, then wait until they leave to talk to Poison.”

Fendrel shivered. “I don’t want to leave you here.”

“You don’t have a choice, young one.” Venom jutted his chin at the top of the ravine. “You both need to go as soon as they’ve passed by.”

Fog sat on her haunches and stared over the ravine’s lip. “The last cart is going by.”

“Good. Now go.” Venom nudged Fendrel with his nose.

Pressing his lips into a thin line, Fendrel climbed into Fog’s back and grabbed the metal wire chain.

Fog hooked her claws in the rock wall and ascended.

“We’ll be back to get you when we’re done.” Fendrel looked down at Venom. “I promise.”

Venom laid down in the rock shelf. His face was forlorn. “Be safe.”

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