Fog took the lead, creeping along the moss-clothed stones and small creeks that wound throughout the rocky and mist-shrouded landscape.
Fendrel held onto her leash, keeping it from dragging on the ground. His feet slipped and his eyes were squinted, not being able to see well. The leash jingled slightly as they went along.
Thank the stars that mist can muffle sound.
She felt a lot safer now that she was away from Daichi, but she still felt uneasy. She looked behind to see Fendrel had a troubled face.
He must be upset about Venom.
“Are you okay?” Fog kept her voice soft. She nudged Fendrel with one of her wings.
“Hm? Uh, yeah…I think I’m fine.” Fendrel looked down.
Fog shook her head. “No, you’re not.”
Fendrel’s lips pressed into a thin line. “I’m afraid of Beast-Hunt finding everyone else. I hope Frederick and Mar made it to the camp safely.”
Oh dear, I wish I hadn’t heard that.
“Me too.” Fog let out a small sigh. “If what your brother said about the Scattered Ones is true, I hope they don’t find them either. I just thought of something. We Freelanders called it The War Across the Sea, but I wonder what they call it here.”
Fendrel gave a slight chuckle. “I wonder.”
Fog listened to Fendrel’s uneven steps, the scrape of her claws on the stone, and the metal wire’s chime. She could just barely make out the rumbling of the carts and trotting gemstone hybrids ahead, and if she squinted hard enough, she could see their outlines. She’d have to get closer to hear them with more clarity, but then they’d risk being heard themselves.
“They’re still ahead of us. I think we can pass them safely if we speed up and go around them.” Fog glanced back at Fendrel.
He nodded. “We have to make sure to make an arc around them, so we don’t travel side-by-side.”
“Absolutely.” Fog picked up her pace and steered away from the Beast-Hunt carts.
“Wait.” Fendrel placed a sloppy hand on Fog’s shoulder while their pace quickened. “What if we come across another ravine that forces us to merge with them?”
Fog made a thoughtful humming noise. “Hopefully by then, we’ll be far enough away to still see but so they won’t also notice us when we fly over.”
“It’s riskier than I’d like, but I guess that works.” Fendrel had his head tilted to hear her voice better.
The vapor dragon smiled and continued forward. “You know, whenever I’ve seen you make plans you always try to be so precise and work out every little detail. But when I make plans, I just hope that certain things will happen. I think you need a little more hope, and then you won’t be as uptight.”
“Am I really that uptight? First Cassius mentions it and now you.” Fendrel shook his head. “And hope in what?”
“I guess just optimism. A little optimism goes a long way.” Fog smiled. “I don’t think I would have been emotionally stable if I didn’t think on the bright side while we were searching for Mist.”
Fog looked toward where she thought the Beast-Hunt carts might be. She stared at a single spot until she saw movement.
A cart traveled by on the unsteady ground.
The longer she stared, the more she could make out.
Her wings lifted a bit, as if levitated by a feeling of accomplishment, as she saw that they had already passed a few carts. “Hey, Fendrel.”
“Is there trouble?” Fendrel reached for his bag.
“Nope. Guess what? We’re making good progress!” Fog did her best to stay quiet despite her elated feeling. She glanced back at Fendrel.
A small smile breached his typically indifferent expression. “Good to know. Anything else?”
“Yeah, I think I can sense something else.” Fog’s tail swished.
“Mhm. What is it?” Fendrel nodded.
“It’s you becoming more open to optimism.”
With a sigh, Fendrel shook his head, but the smile stayed.
Yes! Good mood: achieved.
Fog checked the carts again. They were a bit farther along than before.
“Is it just me or is it getting easier to walk?” Fendrel sped up.
“The ground is flattening.” Fog paid more attention to the ground. “I don’t see as many streams or moss.”
Fendrel nodded. “I’m not slipping as much.”
As Fog turned her attention back to the farther landscape, she saw trees. A deep sigh escaped her.
“What happened?” Fendrel raised his head.
“I miss home. The trees in there were so tall and their branches linked together in some places.” Fog found herself wanting to take to the sky. “These trees are like the ones at Fresh Grove. They’re all short and you can’t climb them without feeling like you’re still near the ground. And they have weird leaves instead of pine needles.”
“Yeah, I liked the Hazy Woods a lot better than Fresh Grove.” Fendrel smirked.
I can’t believe I never saw how awful Fragrance was before then.
She shook her head and returned her thoughts to home.
“I miss hanging from my tail the most, I think.” Fog smiled. “Even though I was upside and hanging from just my tail, I still felt safe. Maybe it’s because I was holding onto something.”
After a beat of silence, Fendrel stuck out his arm. “Here.”
Fog wrapped the end of her tail around his arm as they walked. “Thank you.”
“Anything for a friend.” Fendrel grinned.
The two continued into the forest, where the vapor seemed to thicken. Now Fog could only scarcely see the carts rolling by, but her grip on Fendrel’s arm kept her from getting anxious.
I’ve always been able to see well through mist, so why am I struggling now? Maybe I’m just tired…
Fog began to speed up. “I think I see light ahead.”
Fendrel hurried after her with his arm outstretched for Fog’s tail to hold.
They had been creeping through the forest for what seemed like hours.
After a few more feet of tripping over roots, Fendrel stumbled out of the woods. Trails of mist clung to his feet as he exited.
The lip of a steep cliff was just paces in front of them, dropping down into a valley where trees nary grew but grass flourished. In the center of the massive, bowl-like valley was a tranquil lake framed by three-stepped stairs. The stairs were cracked in person, unlike the polished perfectness shown in the tapestry. To their left was a road that led into the valley.
That must be how Beast-Hunt gets down there.
Though the lake was completely still, Fendrel was unnerved by how dark it was, like the water had been dyed.
Fendrel looked around. No one was coming.
Where is this being they wanted me to meet?
“Fog?” Fendrel looked up at her.
Fog’s focus was wholly trained on the valley, her eyes searching for something, or someone. One of her ears twitched toward Fendrel’s voice. “Yes?”
“We have to fly down there if we want to avoid Daichi as long as possible. It will be faster than walking to the road and taking that down.” Fendrel neared the cliff. “Do you want to fly just to the bottom and walk the rest of the way, or do you want to try flying all the way to the lake?”
“I want to fly as far as I can. I won’t get stronger if I don’t push myself, right?” Fog opened her wings and loosened her tail from Fendrel’s arm.
“All right.” Fendrel climbed onto Fog’s back and bundled the leash up in one arm with his other hand holding on to the collar. “Are you sure this is okay?”
Fog nodded with a smile. “The collar is loose enough. Just don’t fall.” She hooked her talons over the valley’s lip and tipped forward to glide lower and lower. She flapped her wings every now and then, then moved her legs as if she were running to make a smoother landing.
Fendrel released a breath. He chuckled. “That was a lot easier than the other times we flew together.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” Fog laughed with him as she came to a stop before the stairs.
“I didn’t notice that rock before. The lake’s darkness must have obscured it.” Fendrel slid off Fog’s back and walked up the steps.
There was a huge, pointy black rock with two holes sticking out of the middle of the lake. Wind whistled in and out of the holes.
“That’s…weird.” Fendrel looked back at Fog, who was moving to join him. “Now where is this Poison?”
Over the top of the valley, Fendrel could see the sun starting to sink.
A loud, hissing sound came from the rock. The holes expanded and air was sucked into them. And then the rock moved.
“Whoa!” Fendrel backed away in tandem with Fog.
The rock rose out of the water, showing itself to be longer and wider.
Fendrel fell on his back when the ground started to shake. “Is that a dragon head?” He could barely hear his own voice over the sound of rushing water and scales sliding on rock.
Water fled from the lake, soaking Fog and Fendrel as they continued to back away.
Fog grabbed onto Fendrel to keep him from being swept away.
The massive black dragon’s head and neck had reached open air, but she kept emerging until she had squeezed her forelegs and the fronts of her wings out of the lake’s confines and sunk her claws into the grassy earth. Her expanding chest as she breathed further cracked the already damaged stairs.
Buckets-worth of water dumped onto Fog and Fendrel and the dragon shook herself.
Opening her eyes, the dusk dragon within the lake lowered her head toward the two.
Fendrel stayed crouched. His knees refused to work for him. Shaking, he held onto Fog, and she held onto him as well.
The ground shook as the dragon began to laugh, causing Fendrel and Fog to cover their ears. Her laugh reverberated throughout the valley.
“Calm yourself, little ones. You are safe within my presence. I am Poison, the current overseer of Trí’edan’s fate.” The giant dusk dragon spoke just above a whisper, but her voice still carried far.
Fendrel opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. His arm began to throb. He looked over to see Fog, flattening herself to the ground, with her tail curled tightly around his arm.
“Y-you’re Poison?” Fog was still rooted to the sopping-wet ground.
Poison’s ears swiveled toward them and she gave a slight frown. “You will have to speak up, dear. My hearing is not what it used to be.”
“You’re Poison? How are you still alive?” The water slipped off Fog’s waterproof feathers.
“Simply put, I have chosen not to pass on yet.” Poison’s voice was slow and punctuated. “I have been placing myself under a temporary stasis for centuries.”
“Like a hibernation? You can do that?” Fendrel shivered from his soaked clothes.
“Of course, Liberator. All dusk dragons can put themselves under a stasis.” Poison smiled.
Fendrel blinked in surprise. His legs felt strong enough to stand just a little. “Why did you call me that?”
Poison gazed at Fendrel with an uninterpretable expression on her face. “I have been alive for much longer than you may expect. I have been blessed with visions of the future. I saw what you would become before you were even born. Would you prefer I call you Fendrel?”
Questions flooded Fendrel’s head to the point he couldn’t speak.
“You have visions?” Fog began to stand and loosen her tail from Fendrel’s arm.
“You should already know that, Fog.” Poison chuckled.
Fendrel looked between the two dragons. “What is happening?”
“I know you two have many questions. Unfortunately…well I suppose it is not unfortunate, as this needs to happen, but you are about to be interrupted.” Poison nodded her head at something behind the two.
As Fendrel turned he felt a jolt of fear. Daichi, Conch, and the Beast-Hunt carts were approaching.
Daichi looked pale, and Fendrel couldn’t tell if he was quaking or if Conch’s trot was making him bounce more than if they were just walking. Once they were close enough, Daichi dismounted and approached Poison.
Fog hid behind Fendrel and peeked over his shoulder.
Fendrel stuck his hand in his bag and felt the hilt of a dagger appear in his palm.
Tears sprung to Daichi’s eyes. He dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the ground.
Poison growled. Though it was gentle, and she barely showed her teeth, Daichi still cowered further.
“M-my dearest apologies, oh grand one. I meant to bring these two to you, but they made it here before we could.” Daichi lifted his head a bit.
The giant dragon hissed at the prince.
Daichi lowered his head again. “We didn’t anticipate your arrival so soon, great dragon, but we gathered what food we could spare. Although, if it isn’t enough, we can gather more from the peasants.”
Poison pulled herself farther out of the water so she could flare out her wings. She cast them all in shadow with her towering figure.
Water fell on them once again.
The livestock in the farther carts stirred in chaos.
Daichi yelped and crawled backwards. He managed to stand but stooped over and held his hands up in surrender. His tears fell more. “Please! Please, we’ll do what you want, just don’t destroy our kingdom.”
Fendrel stared at the previously arrogant prince.
Poison could break down Beast-Hunt’s surrounding wall with ease and tear down that sky net. Fendrel’s smile turned to a frown. But not all the humans in Beast-Hunt are like Daichi, right? Surely there are some who disagree with him…
Sinking back into her lake a bit, Poison lowered her head, so her chin rested near Fog and Fendrel.
Now that she was closer, Fendrel noticed she had more spines than a normal dusk dragon should have.
Maybe she’s a hybrid? But those types of spines are exclusive to dusk dragons. When she was talking, her fangs looked longer than they should have been, too.
Fendrel looked closer. Poison had ridges above her nostrils. Stricken with surprise, Fendrel froze.
Cloud also has those ridges. Poison is royalty!
Even more questions competed for space in his mind.
“Fendrel.” Poison’s giant eye caught him. “Tell him to leave the food here and not to take any more from his subjects. Then, give him your demands.”
“Wait, wait.” Fendrel pointed at Poison. “You’re a queen? Are you the queen of the Newlands? I was told the monarchs here were killed by humans.”
Fog gasped. “Fendrel, you can’t just point at dragons like Poison!”
“He’s fine, dear.” Poison grinned. “Yes, I am of royal blood, but I am no longer a queen.”
“Then you should be able to speak draekonik and the humans’ language, right?” Fendrel gestured at Daichi. “So why aren’t you talking to him?”
“Even though they speak to me, they do not fully believe I understand everything they say. Really, they only talk to me out of not knowing what else to do. Daichi thinks you are the only human capable of communicating with us. They think you are irreplaceable. As long as you have that leverage, you have them under your thumb.” Poison glanced over at the prince.
Before Fendrel could ask “how did you know that?” Poison sighed through her nose.
“I am a mage, Fendrel. And because I am a mage, and I am a dragon, I can see more visions than human mages can. I have seen snippets of the future and know what needs to happen in order for this war to work out in your favor.” Poison gave a sad look as if to say that war was unavoidable. “Believe me when I say you want Beast-Hunt on your side, even if you despise each other in the darkest depths of your souls. You don’t have to like them, but please cooperate for your own sake.”
Fendrel swallowed but nodded. He turned to look at the cowering prince of Beast-Hunt. “Daichi.”
Daichi grimaced, but eyed Fendrel.
“She wants you to leave the food you brought and not to take more from your kingdom.”
With a nod, Daichi waved at the carts, which were directed in a certain fashion near Poison. Oranges spilled out of the now-opened carts while stakes were placed in the ground to tie the livestock to.
“She also wants you to meet my demands.” Fendrel smiled. As he continued, he slowly walked toward Daichi. “You will not question why I need supplies when I ask for them. You will not harm any more dragons. You will heal any injured dragons you have and release them. You will meet peacefully with whomever I introduce to you. And—” Fendrel stopped mere inches from Daichi “—you will teach my acquaintance how to fight with a spear.”
Poison snorted with laughter behind Fendrel, but Daichi seemed to take it as a sign of aggression and flinched.
“Oh! One more thing.” Fendrel held up an index finger. “I can change these rules and add to them whenever I want.”
Sighing, Daichi nodded.
Fendrel heard Poison recite his words to Fog in draekonik. He turned toward them. “Is that all?”
“They may go, but I know you have many questions.” Poison lifted her head.
“You can go back and tell your father about what happened here.” Fendrel looked over his shoulder at Daichi. “Announce to your kingdom that things are going to be different. And don’t try to outsmart us. I’ve been told this lovely dragon here has ways of seeing into peoples’ lives without their noticing.”
“Well done.” Poison rested her chin on her paws. “Now, you two have some inquiries?”