Fendrel didn’t notice how far down the sun had slipped until he sat before Poison. The sky was now purple, and it was getting harder to differentiate Poison’s scales from the sky.
Daichi, Conch, and the carts had gone. Fog was gathering sticks in the forests above the canyon, free of her collar which Poison had destroyed with just a pinch of her claws.
Poison’s bright purple eyes penetrated the darkness. “I know you are curious as to how Fog knew of me, and Venom as well. Surely, Fendrel, you have at least my name.”
Fendrel wracked his brain for any mention of the ancient dragon. “My adoptive parents told my brother and I a bedtime story about a dusk dragon queen named Poison. They said she kidnapped a human princess and fled.”
Why would they tell that to little kids?
“Oh dear.” Poison sighed. The force of her breath nearly knocked Fendrel back. “I see my abrupt departure sparked some rather unsavory retellings.”
Fog flapped down behind Fendrel with a bundle of sticks held in her forelegs. She sat on her haunches and kept her wings out for balance as she set the wood down. “Did I miss anything?”
Fendrel found a patch of grass not far from the dragons and built a fire.
“I was about to tell my story.” Poison nodded in acknowledgment at Fog.
The vapor dragon’s eyes lit up.
With the fire now stable, Fendrel sat beside it and looked to Poison with anticipation.
“I should give context to my situation before setting the record straight.” Poison began digging a trench in the earth with a single claw. “When I hatched, the clan you now know as the dusk dragons was split due to a difference in ideals. After I ascended to rule my clan, I reunited them by modifying some of our older traditions while keeping others intact. One of the traditions I fought to keep was that of protecting humans from wild animals and other factions who may wish to harm them. In order to keep all the humans safe, I figured I would have to control all the factions. I made a series of offers to the other factions in exchange for their demotion of power to those of nobility to serve me.”
She lived back when the factions weren’t united under a single rule? Just how long ago was that?
“I felt that now I could keep the humans safe from other dragons. Unfortunately, I did not see that some of the factions had agreed to kill me for my fondness of humans and use the excuse of ‘getting along with each other’ to throw me off the scent. So, they swore allegiance to me while planning to overthrow me that whole time.” The trench they dug went deeper and deeper the more Poison talked.
Fog leaned toward the larger dragon, her eyes widening.
“At this time there were actually three human kingdoms in the Freelands. Beast-Hunt actually ruled in the space you know as Sharpdagger City, and the actual kingdom of Sharpdagger was set in Fresh Grove back then. The third kingdom ruled the Stronghold in the deserts.” Poison had a sad smile now. “I became friends with the Sharpdagger princess, though no one else knew. After I announced that I would try to gain friendly connections with the humans, those who planned to double-cross me attacked the Stronghold, killing any humans they found.”
Is she being serious?
It would have been impossible to see Poison had it not been for her luminous eyes and the stars above outlining her frame. “Beast-Hunt became frightened and fled to the Newlands, which may have started their animosity for dragons. Now that Sharpdagger was the only remaining human kingdom, they would be the next target. In my selfishness, I took my human friend and my children, and I fled as well. I knew the princess would not be safe in the Freelands, so I denounced my title as the queen.”
Fendrel and Fog stared in silence.
What happened next?
“I knew I was a mage, and I kept having visions of myself in this current age communicating with you.” Poison’s voice was quieter. “I knew I had to stay alive until you no longer needed me. My friend passed away centuries ago, and then humans from Beast-Hunt found me and became so frightful of me that they brought me food offerings to keep me from attacking them. Now, I am here.”
Fendrel nodded slowly. “Uh-huh…”
“If you would like to know more about what the Freelands were like when I was young, I am sure Venom would be more than happy to take you on a tour of all the murals in the Black-Brick Ruins once this is all over.” Poison smiled down at them. “I am sorry my clan can be so secretive.”
“Speaking of secretive—” Fendrel crossed his arms “—is there a secret language dragons speak that I don’t know about?”
Poison gave an earth-vibrating chuckle. “You are a keen one. That is something dragons have always kept from humans, even before I was alive. However, the Beast-Hunt humans have found a way around it?”
“They have?” Fog began to tremble. “But they can’t hear it…”
“Yes.” Poison’s claw dug even deeper into the ground. “This ‘secret’ language operates on a level humans physically cannot hear. However, dogs can. Beast-Hunt has trained dogs for the specific purpose of listening to dragons when they use this language. Now even our ‘silence’ is too loud for our survival.”
Fendrel looked at Fog. “That’s what it was? You, Venom, and Mar were using that language to talk to the wolfish dragons…” His eyes widened. “And you were scheming our escape at the ravine!”
Fog’s wigs drooped. “Yes…Those dragons were being mean to you and Fren…no, Ferd…”
“Frederick?” Fendrel’s brow scrunched.
“Yes, him.” Fog smiled. “They were talking about bringing you to the Matriarch to be studied and eaten.” She shivered.
A sudden chill came over Fendrel. “We need to get back to the other Freelanders and warn them before the Scattered Ones get a hold of any humans. Maybe they already have some of us. And we need to help Venom, too.”
“Then you’ll be leaving now.” Poison nodded. “I would tell you that you need rest, but you would argue and leave anyway.”
“Their safety is more important than my rest.” Fendrel stood and began to extinguish the fire.
Poison chuckled. She had an amused tone. “Go on, but once you are able, make your way back here. One of my descendants will intercept you, but you should go with him.”
Fog went to Fendrel’s side and breathed a soft stream of vapor on the dying fire, extinguishing it.
“Uh, thank you, Poison.” Fendrel climbed onto Fog’s back. “Enjoy your food.”
“Yes, thank you.” Fog bowed her head.
With a final smile, Poison closed her eyes sunk back into the lake with nothing but her nose sticking out of the water.
The duo flew over the road through the canyon, and toward the ravine where, Fendrel hoped, Venom was safely waiting for them on a rock shelf.
Fendrel dropped to his knees and gripped the ravine’s lip with his hands. He peered down. “Venom?”
Fendrel’s eyes had adjusted to the dark, but he couldn’t make out where Venom was until the dragon opened his eyes.
Venom illuminated the golden scales on his chest. “I’m here, Fendrel. Is Fog with you?”
Fog came up beside Fendrel and stretched her neck down, panting from the flight they just had. “We met Poison!”
“Do you need help to get out?” Fendrel reached out his hand.
“I think I manage.” Venom waited for Fendrel to move aside before he struggled his way up the rock wall. He hauled himself onto flat ground, his mangled paw worked harder than his uninjured one. He nudged Fendrel’s shoulder with his nose. “You two are all right?”
“Of course.” Fendrel wrapped his arms around Venom’s snout in a hug. He cleared his throat and backed away. “And we don’t have to worry about the prince anymore.”
Venom’s eyes widened. “Did you kill him? Fendrel, do you understand the repercussions of that? The whole kingdom will be even more enraged when they find you murdered their prince!”
“Whoa, whoa.” Fendrel held his hands out. “No, we didn’t kill him. Poison dealt with him, and he technically works for us now.”
“So you two really met Poison?” Venom’s ears perked up after a relieved sigh. “What was she like?”
“She was…” Fendrel tried to sum up his experience with the former dragon queen.
Strange? Intimidating? Confusing?
“Interesting.” Fendrel’s response blended with Fog’s.
“Huge!” Fog flung her wings out, then tucked them back in.
Venom nodded. “That makes sense. Dragons grow as long as they live, and she has supposedly been alive for centuries now.”
“Besides that, we need to get back to the other Freelanders.” Fendrel climbed onto Venom’s shoulders so he wouldn’t have to crouch.
And I need to make sure Frederick made it back safe.
Fog sighed. “This was a really long day.”
Venom nodded. “Can you fly?”
“Yes! Let’s go.” Fog leapt into the air and hovered over where she had been standing.
Fendrel felt oddly comfortable where he sat. He smiled, glad the day’s events would soon be over.
The ex-guard speed-walked down the musty, empty corridor that made up one of the secret passages that ran through the palace. The only light was supplied by a stick Zoricus had lit aflame, not wanting anyone to notice a missing torch. He cradled a bowl of fruit in his other arm.
Sadon knows I’m still here, but I really, really don’t want to see him until I have Fendrel.
He cast wide-eyed glances over his shoulders, wary that someone was following him.
No one is behind you…you’re fine. You’re the only one who remembers this passageway exists.
Sighing heavily, Zoricus realized how lucky he was. It was so engraved in his training to never tell anyone below him or outside the royal family that this secret hall existed. And he completely forgot to tell Sadon about it.
At the edge of the sloppy torch’s light was a wooden door. Zoricus set the torch on the cobblestone floor and cracked the door open, pressing his ear to the door that led to where the yellow dragon was being kept.
There was a muffled voice coming from the room beyond.
A chill traveled down his spine. He felt as if someone was watching him.
“Hello, Zoricus.” A voice chimed from behind him.
Zoricus whirled around, eyes wide. His torch’s light landed on Raaldin, casting shadows across his face that made him look as eerie as his arrival.
“What are you doing here?” Zoricus kept his voice at a whisper.
Raaldin didn’t bother quieting himself. “I saw you enter and followed. This is quite the secret hideout. I’d say I’m jealous but—”
“Why are you here?” Zoricus pointed the torch at him.
The mage’s eye seemed to twitch. “That was rude.”
Zoricus didn’t realize he was shaking until a fruit fell from his bowl and thumped on the floor.
“Why don’t we say hello to whoever is on the other side of the door.” Raaldin approached Zoricus.
Sucking in a breath, Zoricus jumped out of the way.
Raaldin kicked the door open and walked into the lemon dragon’s room.
Zoricus shoved himself against the hall’s wall and bit his lip to keep from groaning at the door slamming into him.
“Sadon! Hello. I’m sorry I’m late. I was just catching up with someone.” Raaldin walked into the room.
There was a long pause.
Zoricus peeked out of the crack between the door and the wall.
Sadon pointed at the door, which was painted to look like the rest of the room’s wall. “How long has that been there?”
“I presume since the palace’s construction, but it may have been added later.” Raaldin clasped his hands behind his back. “Not very fun to walk through, but I am glad I found out about it.”
“Do you have any news yet?” Sadon had his back turned to the yellow dragon, who was still strapped to the cart he had been brought in.
“On Fendrel or Zoricus?” Raaldin tilted his head to the side.
“Fendrel. I don’t care what Zoricus is doing as long he’s getting ready to find Fendrel.” Sadon crossed his arms. “So?”
There was another beat of silence.
“Fendrel is in a jungle somewhere with a few dragons, but I don’t know where.” Raaldin shrugged. “Jungles all pretty much look the same to me.”
Sadon stared at the mage. He gave an annoyed sigh.
“You could send Zoricus after him, but you would need to provide him with all the resources he needs rather than leaving him to his own devices.” Raaldin held his hands out as if offering something up.
The king nodded. “Where is he, so I can send him?”
“Well, he’s right here.” Raaldin turned toward the passage. He pulled Zoricus out of his hiding place and stood him in front of Sadon.
Sadon looked too tired to get angry. “Beast, you speak as if I have a boat to send Zoricus on. I don’t.”
“He doesn’t need a boat.” Raaldin grabbed Zoricus’ shoulders. “If only there was a dragon here who hated Fendrel and was capable of protecting Zoricus with enough incentive. That would make such a wonderful team, wouldn’t it?”
“I get it.” Sadon rolled his eyes. “Was this your plan the whole time? You wanted me to keep this dragon alive and healthy so he could accompany Zoricus?”
Raaldin let go of Zoricus and walked toward the dragon. “I can give him the motivation he needs, so don’t even worry about that.”
“Fine.” Sadon looked at Zoricus with his chilling blue eyes. “If you bring him back dead, I want indisputable proof it’s him. Don’t bring me clothes, or hair, or something that could be confused as belonging to someone else. I want his head.” He left the room through its normal door.
Once the door closed, Raaldin laughed. He leaned down toward the dragon and spoke in its language.
The dragon lashed around madly. He screamed his replies.
Before Zoricus could blink, the mage disappeared right before his eyes in a swirl of gray sand that dissipated as it hit the floor.
Zoricus stood still for a while and only left his stupor when the dragon began to howl and whine. He set the bowl of fruit on a bit of space by the dragon’s head and removed its muzzle.
The dragon gave him a surprised look.
“Yeah, I didn’t get you meat this time, so eat.” Zoricus put his hands on his hips.
What did Raaldin call him back in the throne room? Fragrance?
Fragrance glared at Zoricus and began to eat from the bowl.
“So your name is Fragrance…” Zoricus gave a breathy chuckle. “You seem to really like those oranges.”
When Fragrance finished the food, he shoved it at Zoricus with his nose and snorted.
“You bossy beast.” Zoricus retrieved the bowl and left with a heavy sigh.