Fendrel once again rode on Fog’s back while she flew.
Venom flapped beside her, though he was grunting with frustration over his inability to fly steadily.
They took cover under the trees and retraced their steps back to the other Freelanders.
Once Fendrel caught sight of a campfire, he rushed toward it.
Thea was still awake, stroking Oliver’s sleeping head.
Cassius sat up, his hands fidgeting, with Sadie sleeping beside him. He kept casting glances at Charles, who was trying to keep Viper from sneaking away.
Frederick was tied to a tree with thick vines. He glared at the other humans and Mar, who laid beside him.
Fendrel pushed ferns aside and entered the camp, a smile overtaking his face. “You’re all safe!”
Fog and Venom came in beside him.
Charles stood with Viper in one of his arms and pointed at them. “You’re all safe!”
“What happened? Did you find any of the missing people?” Thea leaned to see what was behind them.
“We found one dragon…” Fendrel’s shoulders sunk. “But the human kingdom captured him and killed him.”
That reminds me. We need to reclaim his body. I should have added that to my list of demands.
A hush fell over the group.
Fendrel sighed. “We had a really long day.”
Mar cut the vines around Frederick.
As Frederick approached, Fendrel held his arms out for a hug.
Frederick punched Fendrel in the gut.
Fendrel doubled over with a groan, his chest flaring up again. He heard shocked gasps from the others.
“Why would you do that?” Frederick threw his arms up in exasperation. “Don’t pull the ‘I was saving your life’ card. You don’t think I’d want to go with you if you were in danger? I wanted to stay with you, but of course you had to force me to hide.”
Clutching his abdomen, Fendrel grimaced and tried to stand up straight.
Frederick’s eyes widened. “Oh…you were hurt. I’m sorry, I just…You know how mad I get when you go off alone.” He glanced at Fog and Venom. “Well at least this time you weren’t completely alone. Just promise me that when you decide to go on another death mission you let me make my own decisions about seeing it through, not that I want to die, but you know. And I guess, thank you for wanting to save me.”
“I get it.” Fendrel sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry for pushing you away.”
Venom backed up into the bushes but kept his head sticking out. “I shall go tell His Majesty that we have returned. He’ll want to get your account as well.” He looked between Fog and Fendrel, then hobbled away.
Fendrel gave the others an apologetic look. “We’ll fill you in tomorrow.”
Fog followed Fendrel as he joined Venom at the camp where Cloud, Mist, and the other nobility slept.
Cloud flew at the head of the group, leading the other Freelanders to Poison’s Canyon. Some dragons had been tasked with carrying the seafarers and other humans, while others were teaming up to transport the injured dragons.
Venom panted beside Fendrel, who rode on Fog’s back, his wings beating more than Fendrel had ever seen them before.
This is really tiring him out. I hope he’ll be able to get used to it soon.
Fog gasped and almost crashed into a dragon near her.
Fendrel turned to where she had flown away from and saw a dusk dragon with golden bands on his horns flying beside them.
The dragon had golden speckles on his nose, like freckles, but orange spots were mixed in there as well.
“Hello. It’s nice to finally meet you.” The stranger gave them a toothy smile.
…What is wrong with this continent? Dusk dragons don’t have orange, unless he’s a hybrid too.
Cloud turned his head toward the new dragon.
“I would bow if I were on land.” The new dragon nodded at Cloud. “I am Mamba, a resident of these lands, and I request to borrow these three.” Mamba flicked his tail at Fog, Fendrel, and Venom “I give you my word that they will return to you safely.”
Is this one of Poison’s descendants?
Mist who had been watching in silence, whispered in Cloud’s ear.
Cloud seemed to ponder for a moment, then nodded. “Venom, Fendrel, Fog. You may go. Mist will keep watch for a bit and make sure this dragon is not deceiving us.”
“My den is not far from here.” Mamba veered off toward the trees below.
Fog waited for Venom to follow the smaller dusk dragon. She waved goodbye to Mist before swooping down.
The three dragons skimmed the treetops until Mamba dove into an opening in the leaves.
Venom looked over his shoulder at Fendrel. “Duck your head.”
Fendrel pressed himself as flat as he could on Fog’s back.
The dragons wove through the branches and leaves.
On the way down, Venom broke through places too small for him to squeeze and bumped into tree trunks.
Fog stumbled in the landing but caught herself while Venom landed with a heavy thud.
“Are you okay?” Fendrel got off of Fog and approached the older dusk dragon.
Venom nodded and straightened himself. “I am fine.”
“I apologize for the denseness of the jungle. It can be a pain to fly through if you don’t know the area.” Mamba sat a few paces ahead of them. Just behind him was a large above-ground den where thick vines served as a hanging door. The trees surrounding the den housed lit lanterns hanging from their branches. “Let us head in.”
Fendrel rolled his shoulders and tried to keep his expression indifferent. Despite his skepticism, he felt oddly calm here, even as he followed a complete stranger to his house.
Mamba pulled aside the curtain of vines for the other three and followed them in. The wide hallway allowed him to squeeze past his guests into the main room. Dirt shelves were carved from the inside of the den where jars full of different liquids, and some more lanterns, sat. Rugs of different sizes, colors, and shapes covered the floor, starting at a half-buried log that marked the doorway into the main room. A small window framed by two crossing sticks had been carved out of the den’s side, allowing a small patch of natural light to shine down on a rug.
Mamba pointed at Fendrel. “Could you wipe your feet on that log? We recently had a rainstorm and human shoes track in more mud than dragon paws do.”
Fendrel scraped the bottom of his feet on the log and walked in.
Does that mean he’s had human guests before?
Mamba took a sealed glass bottle full of a golden liquid and handed it to Fendrel. “For your broken ribs.”
Venom peered over Fendrel’s shoulder at the bottle. He sniffed the contents when Fendrel removed the cork.
“Don’t worry.” Mamba pointed at his fangs. “It’s from me. It’s safe.”
Venom would be protesting right now if he thought it was dangerous, so Mamba must be telling the truth. This must be the same type of healing Venom can produce, since Mamba has golden markings too.
Fendrel took a sip of the bottle’s contents. He took a deep breath and felt the pain in his chest diminishing until it had completely faded. “Thank you. Do you need this back?”
Mamba retrieved the bottle and cork. His wings lifted in a shrug and placed it on a shelf. “I can keep this safe for you if you want to use it later.” He grabbed a tag and scratched Fendrel’s name into it, then tied the tag to the bottle’s rim.
“Poison said that the next time we go to see her we’d be intercepted by a descendant of hers and we should join him. Is that you?” Fog sat beside Fendrel.
“Yes, I am.” Mamba took down a different bottle full of a brown liquid. “You all may sit if you want, though you won’t be here for long. The rugs might not look it, but they’re very comfortable.”
Venom and Fendrel took their seats.
“I have a meeting soon, so I will keep this brief.” Mamba took a sip from his jar. “As long as you are within Poison’s Canyon or in a dusk dragon’s den here in the Newlands, you will be safe from anything pursuing you.”
“I don’t want to seem rude, sir—” Fog looked at the Newlander with hesitation in her voice “—but how could you protect us all when you look so young. You seem to be around my age.”
Mamba pointed at her. “Magic. Sorry, I should specify. I am not a mage, but I have magical items gifted to me that keep me young indefinitely.”
Steam began to rise from the bottle Mamba held.
The younger dusk dragon noticed Fendrel’s gaze and grinned. “So you’ve noticed.”
“You did that?” Fendrel pointed at the steam.
“With a fraction of the power I possess, yes. You see my markings, how some of them are orange?” Mamba tapped his snout with his other paw. “I’m part fire dragon, but my markings are here for a different reason, which, again, I do not have time to explain. Just trust me when I say it makes sense. I can conjure and control fire, with the help of my horn bands.”
Fendrel looked at the hybrid’s jewelry. It seemed to glow. Now that Fendrel was paying more attention, the orange speckles were glowing as well while the gold ones weren’t.
“Sometimes when it gets cold during storms, I’ll heat up blankets or the rugs.”
“How do you not burn it, if you’re using fire?” Fog’s pupils had grown.
“With a lot of patience and control.” Mamba sighed. “It took way too long for me to master that. Most of the covered rugs here have scorch marks, but please don’t look at them. It’s quite embarrassing. Besides that, do you have any questions before I give you what I brought you here for?”
“You said we could trust any Newlander dusk dragons, but what if some are among the Scattered Ones?” Venom leaned his head forward.
Mamba chuckled. “No dusk dragons exist among those psychos. Their morals go completely against ours, that would make family gatherings quite awkward. All they care about is the annihilation of humans and lin—” Mamba’s eyes widened. He cleared his throat. “They don’t like anyone who isn’t a dragon.”
Venom shifted as if uncomfortable.
So both of you are keeping secrets.
“Oh! I almost forgot.” Mamba raised his voice a bit. “My siblings will be here soon to discuss an attack plan on the Scattered Ones.”
Plants shuffled outside Mamba’s den and large footsteps moved away in a rush.
The younger-looking dusk dragon winked. “Those were some of the Scattered Ones. Sometimes they try to spy on me from the jungle. My siblings aren’t actually visiting today, but I can’t risk those dragons hearing us. Listen to me very carefully. There is one clan among the Scattered Ones who are on our side, but we pretend to hate each other so the other clans won’t attack them. Their leader is the Matriarch. If you meet dragons claiming to be serving her, go with them. They will keep you safe.”
“But…we did meet two dragons like that, and—” Fog stared sheepishly at Mamba “—they were saying they wanted to bring Fendrel and his brother back to be eaten.”
Mamba waved his paw dismissively. “All a ruse. You need not worry. If their words were truthful, my siblings and I will deal with them personally, but I assure you the Matriarch is too professional to turn her back on us without at least telling me her ideals had changed.”
Fog sighed in relief.
That means if the Matriarch was the one who got her paws on the missing humans, they’ll be safe.
“I should warn you, most of my family is reclusive, and we are few and far between, spread throughout the Newlands. And they move often, so I don’t know where they live.” Mamba swirled his bottle and drank some more. He grabbed a new bottle, this one containing an inky-purple substance, and handed it to Fendrel. “Don’t drink this yet, don’t lose it, and do not let dragons have it.”
Fendrel eyed him with skepticism but put the bottle in his bag.
“Now, I should be leaving for my meeting and you should rejoin your people.” Mamba gestured at his vine-door.
Venom stood and nodded. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Fog and Fendrel followed his lead.
As they left the den, Fendrel looked up at Venom. “You’re hiding something.”
“We will discuss this later.” Venom didn’t look at him.
“We will.” Fendrel got on Fog’s back as the dragons spread their wings. “Tonight. Don’t try to back out.”
The sky began to transition from blue to hues of pink and orange as the sun set behind the lip of Poison’s Canyon.
Venom and Fendrel sat near one of the canyon’s walls, far from any sneaking ears.
Poison’s Lake was surrounded by the other Freelanders, and Poison herself was nowhere to be found.
I wonder if she’s hiding somewhere else or if there’s an air pocket down there.
Cloud and Mist had agreed a meeting with Daichi was inevitable, and tomorrow would be a good day to start friendly relations.
Charles, Thea, Oliver, Cassius, Sadie, and Frederick were all caught up with the previous day’s events and were among the dragons.
“So, what’s the big secret?” Fendrel’s finger tapped on his bag in irritation.
“…There is a language only dragons can hear—”
“I already know about that.” Fendrel crossed his arms. “Poison told me. What was Mamba hiding? He started to say something about humans then cut himself off.”
The dusk noble’s ears flicked back, then returned to their normal position. “I suppose it’s only right you know. You did technically become a member of the dusk clan when you defeated Fragrance in the Hazy Woods…”
Why does that seem like it was so long ago?
“Know what?” Fendrel leaned toward him.
Venom lay down so he wouldn’t have to put more pressure on his mangled paw. “That liquid you were given by Mamba, it’s a type of venom some dusk dragons possess, those with purple markings.”
“What does it do?” Fendrel glanced at his bag where the bottle rested in safety. “The green venom kills whoever touches it. The golden one can serve as an antivenom, and a healing agent. What does this one do?”
“That venom…we haven’t used it in a long time. Personally, I’ve never even seen it used. It…changes humans.” Venom stared at Fendrel’s bag as well. “This would be much easier to explain if we were visiting the murals.”
Fendrel sat in silence, waiting for Venom to continue.
Venom gave a small chuckle. “This is something even your mother didn’t know. There are beings other than humans and dragons. They used to be as widespread as the rest of us, but the other nine factions worked together to wipe them out, or so they thought. Some still remain within the dusk clan, but you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the dragons. We call them links, though they may have had another name that is now lost to time.”
That is…not what I was expecting.
“Are you a link?” Fendrel couldn’t tell if his voice was too quiet or too loud.
“No, I am a dragon.” Venom smiled. “I thought only the dusk clan knew what links were now that their history has been forgotten by the other factions, but Mamba’s comment about the Scattered Ones makes me think links exist here in the Newlands.”
Fendrel reached into his bag and pulled out the bottle with the purple liquid. “So this—” he swished it “—turns humans into links?”
Venom nodded. He looked toward the Freelanders.
Following his gaze, Fendrel saw what looked to be the whole dusk clan staring at the two of them.
“Do they know what we’re talking about?” Fendrel put the bottle away.
“They might.” Venom looked down at his front paws. “Or maybe they’ve noticed my injuries…or both.”
“What is a link?” Fendrel returned his sight to the dusk noble.
“That is a little hard to explain…” Venom made a thoughtful noise. “Physically, they have a human’s basic shape, but their skin is gray and their fur, er, hair is black. They have enlarged canines like dragons, and their nails are harder and tend to grow pointy, like claws. They’re taller than humans…increased agility, heightened senses”
Fendrel raised his eyebrows.
“They have abilities exclusive to us dusk dragons…I’ll tell you about those later.” Venom tapped his claws against the grassy ground as he thought. “Some of them can disguise themselves as humans, and all of them can turn into dragons, which is why you can’t tell them apart in their dragon forms.”
“Some of them are links?” Fendrel looked to the observing dusk clan.
Venom nodded. “Mhm. It’s a blessing, really. If we hadn’t had links who knew how to raise humans and aid human mothers in childbirth, we might have had some trouble with you and your mother. I’m eternally thankful neither of you were hurt in the process.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Fendrel stared ahead, his eyes not focusing on anything in particular.
“…Why would Mamba give me the liquid then?” Fendrel shook his head. “Does he want me to…”
“I don’t know.” Venom’s wings lifted as he shrugged. “In the end, it should be your decision to make. And I will be by your side if you choose to use it.”
“Why didn’t he want me to give the bottle to any dragons?” Fendrel placed his hand on his bag.
Venom tilted his head to the side. “I am clueless about that. He probably knows something other dusk dragons don’t. Maybe the Newlanders have more information about links than I previously realized.”
“Maybe.” Fendrel took a deep breath. “Thank you for being truthful with me.”
“Of course, young one.” Venom stood. “Please keep this to yourself. Dusk dragons have fought hard to keep links safe and the other factions knowing about them may cause dispute. We have enough on our plates as it is. Oh, and you will not keep any secrets from me as well?”
Fendrel shook his head. “I’ll be upfront, but I can’t think of anything to share right now.”
Venom cleared his throat. “Good, good. Let’s head back. I’ll tell the rest of the clan about your newly-acquired knowledge.”
Though he was still confused, Fendrel gave a toothless smile.
Right, knowledge, like I fully understand everything we said…How am I going to avoid this topic when they ask where I’ve been?