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10.2 Dahlia

# 2041 10 - 14 mins. 7

"But first, what did you find?" said Rodrigo.

"Ah, come on. You can't just leave us hanging like that. What did you find?" I said.

"No, we made a deal, and I need to know that you're fulfilling your end of it," said Rodrigo.

"What if we say the same to you?" I asked, folding my arms.

"Then I guess we're at an impasse, but I think I have the better information, so I'm less willing to budge," he said.

I looked at the others. "Oh, I don't know about that," I said. "We've got some pretty good information." I smiled. I guess Zef got me in a mood to be tricky. Rodrigo was probably the last person I should be toying with though.

"Well, I guess we have nothing to discuss then," said Rodrigo. He turned to leave through the woods he had come out of.

"Wait, okay. We'll go first," I said.

Rodrigo stopped and turned back to the forest clearing where we had our sparring match. As he stepped in further, he saw my plant creature. A green glow still radiated from its chest but it stood there unmoving without me controlling it.

"Don't worry," I said. "It's harmless. We were just training."

Rodrigo narrowed his eyes. "What have you found then?"

"Well, they have a dragon," said Zef. I had a feeling he took the liberty of saying it because he knew it would be less believable from him.

"Dragons aren't real," said Rodrigo, plainly. "It must have been something else."

"No, I'm pretty sure it was a dragon," I said. Rodrigo rolled his eyes. "About the size of a large house. A lizard that flies on massive wings. It breathes fire."

That got a reaction from Rodrigo. "You saw it do those things?"

I nodded. "Yup."

"What happened? How close were you?" asked Rodrigo. He still looked skeptical, but also a bit intrigued.

"I got pretty close. Maybe a hundred feet away," I said. "We saw one of the Arcus go after it. I ended up pretty close when he confronted the dragon. They fought, and by the end of it, the dragon had a pink glow on its temples and the storm mage rode off on it."

"A pink glow? Like the hydra?" said Rodrigo.

"Exactly," said Zef. "It was the same pink glow that is still on some of the Dwarves. So if those were truly Gnomes that abducted the Dwarves, they are probably working with or for the Arcus in some way."

"And the storm mage rode off on it? Did you see where it went?" asked Rodrigo.

"Yeah," said Tigala. "There's a valley past that ruined town. They went that way."

"Deeper into Dageal?" asked Rodrigo. Tigala nodded.

Rodrigo stood there pondering the discoveries for a moment.

"I told you it was good," I said.

"Yes, I guess so," said Rodrigo.

"So what did you find out?" asked Lolan. I had almost forgotten he said he had news because I was so excited to spill the beans about a dragon.

"Well, one of my contacts informed me that they think she knows where some of the storm mages met," said Rodrigo. "She found footprints from heavy boots in a part of Daegal that had not been explored yet. At first, she thought that she had just crossed over a section that someone else was exploring, but no one else had said they were going that direction."

"Hmm, interesting. It's worth checking out," said Zef. "We need all of the information we can get before we go visit them and their pet dragon."

"Yes, I'd agree," said Rodrigo.

"So where was it?" I asked.

Rodrigo looked us over. "Have you seen the waterfall drawn on the communal map in the tavern?" I nodded. "She said she found the footprints at the base of that waterfall, along the river bank."

"So we're going to a waterfall then?" I was excited. I couldn't remember the last time I had been to a waterfall. I didn't get to enjoy natural wonders like that back in Brighton unless my occasional forays past the underground rivers of sewage counted. I didn't count them.

"Will you come with us?" asked Zef. "We could use some extra firepower in case it goes poorly."

Rodrigo studied us again. "I don't think that would be a good idea," he said.

"You can meet us partway there. No one has to know that we're working together," said Zef. I let him handle the talking because I didn't think it would come off as well from me.

"I'm still not sure about you," said Rodrigo. "I don't understand you or why you're doing all of this. And I don't know if I can trust you."

"What would make you trust us," I asked.

"I'm not sure," he said. "But or the time being, I don't, so I don't plan on venturing into the woods outnumbered by you."

"Like right now?" asked Tigala.

"We're close enough now that I could hold my own until I get within view of the colony guards," said Rodrigo. He spoke with confidence, but I knew Tigala probably saw that as a challenge. I gave her a look to tell her to leave it be. She stayed silent.

"Did you hear anything else?" I asked.

"Not yet," he said. "It's a slow process, talking to all of the Humans without raising suspicion. Plus, many of them aren't sure if they can trust me after I let you two free." He looked at Zef and Lolan.

"Okay, well keep us in the loop," I said.

"Should we meet back here in a couple of days?" asked Zef.

"I think that would be wise," said Rodrigo. With that, he turned and began his march back to the colony.

"Same time?" I asked.

He nodded. "Yes."

Once he was gone, I addressed the rest of the group. "So do you want to head there tomorrow?" I asked.

"You sure are ready to challenge these guys, huh?" said Zef.

"They could be why our people are missing," I said. "Yeah, I'm ready. Who knows what the other original colonists could be going through the longer we wait."

"True," said Zef. "I'm not sure we're ready though. They are dangerous, and you keep throwing yourself in harm's way. I'm afraid one of these times it's not going to work out in our favor."

"Yeah. Last time you barely rode a wyvern onto the top of that mountain. Then you barely killed it. Then you barely used it as cover to avoid being burnt to a crisp by that dragon," said Lolan.

"And that was just last time," Tigala added.

"Yeah," I said. "But that wasn't entirely my fault. I didn't want to be on top of that wyvern anymore than you wanted me up there. It just happened and I worked with what I had."

"Right," said Zef. "I'm wondering if we shouldn't have put you in a position to end up on a wyvern's back though. It could have been so easy for it to knock you off of it or for it to have stung you with that tail." He was acting oddly parental.

"Beleive me, I'm well aware," I said. "Another one tried to rip me off of that one's back while we were up there."

"Woah," said Lolan.

"Nice," Tigala said at the same time.

"Exactly," said Zef. "There were a hundred ways that could have gone poorly. And now that we've seen one of those storm mages fight a dragon and win, it makes me reconsider our approach. Should we be going out with an army each time we do? Should we have more people with us in case something goes wrong?" He paused. "I don't want this all to end with one of us getting eaten by some strange monster or zapped with an overpowered bolt of lightning."

He looked like he was starting to get emotional about it. I understood what he meant to a degree. I guess I had been kind of reckless. Thinking back, I wouldn't have done things any other way. It was what needed to be done at the time, but maybe a new approach was worth considering.

"So what do you think we should do?" I asked. "I don't want to just play it safe all of the time. I mean, that's what Marv was doing until we found him in that jail cell. He was hopeless, and rightfully so. I don't want to let people suffer because I'm choosing to be careful."

"That's not what I'm saying," said Zef. He looked at me with a look of worry on his face. "You're right. We need to do something, and I'm afraid if we tell more people in the colony, it will just start a contained war. The last thing we need is more war.

"But I think we could afford to be more careful. Maybe we should do more information gathering before we charge into the next situation. We should focus on stealth and listening in rather than fighting anyone. The more information we have, the better decisions we can make about what to do, and the less likely we get ourselves killed."

"Okay," I said, thinking about his words. "I can do stealth."

"Me too," said Lolan. "I'm much better at that than the charge in approach. I used to provide all of the food for my family. You need to be good at that stuff if you're hunting."

I looked at Tigala. "Not my specialty," she said, "but I'll figure something out."

"And we have my illusions," said Zef. "I think it might even be an approach better suited for our group."

I guess he was right. I had mostly stayed hidden completely or hidden in plain sight in Brighton. I'm not sure why I felt the need to charge into things since I got here. Maybe it was because I had been put in so many fast-paced situations that required a quick reaction. Or maybe it was because, like Marv, I found hope too. For once in my life, I wasn't just surviving. I wasn't just biding my time until I saw another Treek in town or heard of a Treek resistance somewhere. For the first time, it felt like there was more out there—even more than other people like me. This group, the four of us, it was something special in a way. It proved that we could work together, that races didn't have to fight. And although I was fighting to prove the point that we don't need to fight, I was fighting against those who maintained the status quo. We were doing it, together.

"So, do you think we need more people?" asked Lolan. "Just in case something goes wrong?"

"I don't think it would hurt," said Zef. "If we're focusing on subterfuge, we definitely don't want to head into the woods with an army of people, but a few more might help us all stay safe. More magic means more versatility."

"We can ask Raffa," I said.

"No," said Tigala. "He's a rat."

"Yeah," I said. "He put us in a really tough spot, but he has also done a lot to make up for it. He warned us about the Beastfolk coming and even stood with us against them. Maybe it was just the Dwarven colonists that swayed Sungura, but it could have also been the fact that Raffa stood in their way alongside the Dwarves."

"I doubt he is getting along well with the rest of the Beastfolk after that stunt," said Zef. "The colony pushes people away those who try to work with others. And Kaia's right, he did help."

Tigala grumbled and looked away.

"Do you know how he uses his magic?" I asked. "I couldn't get a read on it from the times I've seen him use it. In that living forest all he did was turn into a grizzly bear, and last time he turned into Chipry." Saying Chipry's name out loud was still sad. I pushed away the thought.

Tigala looked back at the group. She sighed and said, "Yeah. I think he'd be able to help."

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