"A dragon?" said Rodrigo. He scoffed at the mention. "Dragons aren't real."
"They might not be, but that's what some Humans just said. They call themselves the Grandsome Glories." I said.
Rodrigo shook his head. "He named the group now?"
"You know them?" I asked.
"Yeah, I was the Human representative until a few days ago," said Rodrigo. "I was in charge of representing and hearing out all of the Humans here in this colony, Geralt Grandsome included."
"What's his deal?" asked Tigala. "Why's he so... grand?"
"I don't know. He's delusional. He thinks he's the greatest warrior to ever live. At least he tells himself that. It's no wonder that talk of a dragon came from him. He probably thinks he slew the creature too."
"No. They seemed pretty shaken up," said Zef. "I'm no mind reader, but it seemed like they at least think they saw a dragon. Maybe it was something resembling one, like a large wyvern or something."
"They said it breathed fire though," said Lolan.
"I'll believe it when I see it," said Rodrigo. "What did they say the storm mages wanted with a dragon?" He said mockingly.
"Geralt said they were trying to tame it," I said. "He said there were several of the storm mages holding it down with chains. They got interrupted though, so it may not have worked," I said.
"Hmm, interesting. Well, good luck following the crazy ideas of Geralt," said Rodrigo.
"So you're not going to come? It may help you find your friend," I said. "And we're not exactly strong enough to take on a dragon."
"Or multiple storm mages," added Lolan.
"No," said Rodrigo. "I need information, but Geralt isn't someone I look to for reliable information. And besides, my people are already unsure about me after helping the two of you out of the colony." He nudged his head at Zef and Lolan. "I'm interested to hear if you find anything, but I won't be risking my reputation any more by going out on the search with you." Rodrigo moved his mouth in a weird way after saying it like he didn't mean for it to come off as harsh as it was. I guess that was progress at least.
"Can you do me a favor then?" I asked. "We'll tell you what we find. We'll keep this conversation open, but we want something in return."
"I'm listening," said Rodrigo.
"Can you look around the colony for signs of storm mages?" I asked. "We are pretty sure that among the other attention we have attracted as a group, we have also attracted the attention of them. There are probably some that live here in the colony that are just biding their time."
Rodrigo thought for a moment. "I suppose I can do that, though I don't know what I'll be able to come up with. I'm not exactly in with the Elves in the community. The closest ally I had among them was Tallesia and it seemed like she got some satisfaction out of demoting me from my role as a representative."
"Anything you can do will help," I said. "Do we have your word that you'll look and tell us what you find?"
Rodrigo nodded. "In exchange for the information you come across, yes. But this agreement is not common knowledge. I do not want people knowing that we're talking."
"Should we meet somewhere more discrete next time then?" asked Zef.
"I think that would be wise," said Rodrigo. "You know the large oak tree that was split in two during the hydra attack? It's just past the farms to the north of the colony."
"The one you led us to when you helped us escape?" asked Zef.
"Yes. We'll meet there. How does two days sound, at sunset?" Rodrigo asked.
"Deal," said Zef.
With everyone in agreeance, I poked my head out the flap of the tent and made sure no one was looking our way or walking the nearby path. We crept out into the colony.
We walked through the forest in midday. Birds chirped around us and reminded me of Chipry. I missed him and kept instinctively looking to the trees in hopes of seeing his colorful feathers. But no. There were some colorful birds, but none like Chipry.
"You think he's trustworthy?" asked Lolan. "He seems like a pretty brash guy."
"I don't think brash is the right word," said Zef. "I think he just has a temper. He seems fairly calculated in his decision making when he is level-headed."
"Yeah, I agree," I said. "And besides, we didn't tell him anything about us—about you. For all he knows, the storm mages are after me. Who isn't?" I huffed out a laugh.
"I don't know," said Tigala. "I don't like the idea of working with him. He told you he was going to kill you."
"You tried to kill me," I said.
"Fair point," she said.
"I don't know what will come of all of this, but it's one more person that is kind of on our side. I don't want to pick sides, but because the rest of the world is going to, having him in our corner might be helpful."
"You think he's in our corner?" asked Lolan.
"No. Not yet. I don't know. He may never be. But at least he's cooperating with us. Maybe he'll know one day for sure that we were only ever trying to help," I said.
We were getting close to the swamp now. I could smell the pungent stink of swamp mud and the sound of bullfrog croaks pattered about in the distance.
Lolan drew in a deep breath and then let it out. "You okay?" I asked.
"Just nervous," he said. "It's one thing that the storm mages or the Arcus are on Daegal. It's another thing entirely that we're going to look for them."
"Yeah. I can imagine that would be hard," I said. "Do you know any more about them than what you told me?"
"They have my brother," he said.
"What?" I asked. "Why didn't you tell me that before?"
"I don't know. It didn't come up. I was still figuring out if I could trust you," said Lolan.
"Is he still alive?" I asked. "What did they do with him?"
"I don't know," said Lolan. "It's part of the reason I'm here though."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "They brought your brother here?"
"No," said Lolan. He opened his mouth like he was going to speak, but paused instead. "He's my cousin, really. His name is Brendnell. But I was raised with him and his sister, Ashlynn. I never thought of Brendell as a brother then. It wasn't until I left. He showed me to the Arcus. He pulled my hood down in front of them, and they were going to kill me then and there. He always teased me for being half Human, and I think that was just another mean prank. I don't think he expected them to try and kill me, though."
"So, what happened?" I asked.
"He volunteered to kill me. But at the last second, he fought for me to get away," said Lolan. "I ran and told my aunt and uncle, but they were so furious that I didn't feel right staying. They had hidden me long enough, and they didn't deserve the burden of it any longer. So I came here."
"Geez. I'm sorry," I said. "Have you heard anything of him since?"
Lolan shook his head. "I hope he got away too. He was always a fighter, but I didn't get the chance to see if he made it out."
We walked in silence for a bit. Then Lolan spoke up again. "Why do you want to find the Arcus?" he asked.
"They're doing a lot of strange things, and they sound dangerous. Maybe they can shed some light on all of the crazy stuff going on here," I said. "Besides, I don't even know where to start looking for mind-controlling Gnomes, if that's what they were."
"Yeah," he said. "I'd say thanks, but I guess this is what we do now. I'm sure I'll pay you back someday soon."
"I'm sure you will."
We entered the swamp without too much trouble. The air was thick and damp and the sour smell now clung to the air. It was an eerie place, but we didn't have to spend much time in it. After walking through it for about an hour, we saw a trail of blood leading into the brush, and the trees framed the lost city ahead of us.
The city was old, much like the other structures we had seen on Daegal. Houses were crumbling stone and rotting wood. Doors hung open where they were still connected to hinges and each structure was left completely bare. There was nothing inside aside from cobwebs and heavy layers of dust and dirt.
"Welcome to Bridsbane," said Zef. I looked over at the little old man and found him with a boot resting atop the body of a massive flightless bird. It's severed head lay a few feet beyond them. So that's how it got its name. Maybe the Grandsome Glories were decent fighters after all. I would hope so with how much that golden armor must have cost.
"Where did he say it was?" I asked again.
Zef stepped down from the bird carcass and his hands began stirring. An image of the map appeared in front of us, floating in mid-air.
"Woah, that's a cool trick. Did you just learn that?" said Lolan.
Zef smiled wide. "Yup. Well, I knew how to make illusions like this. But I just memorized the map well enough to do this."
"That's helpful," I said. "Nice work."
Zef pulled a hand toward himself and the image shifted, closer to the map and only showing our current location. An 'X' appeared on the map just ahead of where we stood. "From what I could tell, the dragon was somewhere around here." He gestured at the 'X' on the map.
We followed Zef's new illusory map to the location, and almost missed what I think the Glories were talking about. There was an open town square. There were no chains, and there definitely wasn't a dragon, but there were scorch marks. A row of wooden homes was entirely burned down, and pockmarks of lightning strikes were scattered about the square. That must be the place.
"Should we look for bodies?" said Tigala. "I'm not sure how the Elves deal with their dead."
"They usually cremate them," said Lolan.
"Which might have happened anyway," I said, looking at the burn scars.
"We can look," said Lolan. "Just in case."
We looked around the ruins and didn't find any bodies. We didn't find much at all. Just more empty buildings. In the distance, the setting sun reflected pinks and oranges off of a series of tall cliffs sticking out above the rooftops. They stood there like giants looming over the city. I stared at them, inspecting the oddly shaped mountains, then I heard someone yell.
"Hey, look at this!" said Lolan.
I ran over to his location and saw him holding a medallion. Etched into the golden yellow surface were three clouds surrounding an eye. "They were here," he said.
The others took a look too, and then Zef said, "Why don't we stay here tonight? The houses aren't in terrible shape and maybe we can find more in the morning."
I hardly realized how late in the day it must be. It had taken all day to get there and we would never make it back before nightfall.
"You think we should stay out here?" asked Lolan. "What if they come back?"
"We'll stay in the same house," said Zef. "They were after a dragon. I doubt they'd come back here if they didn't expect one to be here. Besides, weren't some of them killed when it got free?"
"We'll be fine," said Tigala. "We stayed in the tower for a few days, and that didn't have a roof."
"Yeah, I'm okay with it," I said. "I'll work on the dinner."
"I've already picked out our house," said Zef. He pointed at one that was on the small side and still had some of its color on it. It was shaped oddly in a way that made it look like it shouldn't still be standing.
"I'm not going to fit in there," said Tigala, folding her arms.
"Just give it a shot," said Zef. "You might be surprised."
Zef held open the door and I walked in first. The interior was surprisingly roomy, and it seemed to extend far further than what should have been possible from the size of the house on the outside. The ceilings were tall enough for Tigala to stand and the rooms, although colorful, were larger and more plentiful than should fit in that small home I had just walked through the front door of.
"Is this what all Gnome houses look like?" I asked.
Zef laughed. "Heh heh, not all of them. Just the ones with some money or a lot of time on their hands. They enchant the outside to look smaller than it is."
"That's pretty cool," said Lolan.
The house was still dirty, as was everything else in the town, but it seemed to be one of the cleaner places, with the door still working and all. We searched the rooms to make sure nothing else was sharing the place with us and then set up our sleeping arrangements in the common room. I got to work growing us some corn, asparagus, and potatoes for the meal and strawberries for dessert.
"So, can we talk about us," I said while growing another patch of asparagus from a small grassy hill that had formed in the living room.
"What do you mean?" asked Zef.
"I mean our group. This group. Can we just talk about our goals?" I said.
"Sure. Go ahead," said Zef.
The group looked at me expectantly. I hadn't thought about how this conversation would go, but I felt like it needed to happen nonetheless. I gulped.
"I'm with you guys, no matter what," I said. Then I took a moment to gather my thoughts as the group waited for more.
"I mean, well, I'm not just doing this stuff because I want to find my people anymore," I said. "I still want to find the Treeks, but I'm with you guys. You're the closest thing to family I have had since I lost my parents." I swallowed, as an excuse to think some more and gauge their reactions. I was talking slowly, and they seemed to know I had more to get out of me. They waited patiently.
"I want to help you reach your goals, but I also kind of like you, if that makes sense. And, I guess I hope that you feel the same way. I don't want us to all forget about each other when we find what we're looking for." I made eye contact with each of them and realized I had stopped halfway through growing the asparagus. I fed more magic into the plants nervously and then looked back up. I shrugged. "That's it I guess."
They hadn't said anything the whole time, but that could have just as easily been because they didn't want to upset me by saying they didn't feel the same way. Then Lolan chimed in. "I'm with you. I know what you mean, and however this group came together, I'm glad it did. I'm with you no matter what."
"Yeah, I'm in too," said Tigala. "I need to find my pack, but I'm with you no matter what." She gave a slightly scary, but still endearing grin.
I looked at Zef. He was smiling, as always. "I had a hunch we would get along," he said. "I'm with you no matter what."