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Dragon Fool

 

 

Dragon Fool

 

Written by

Delaney Walnofer

 

 

 

 

The Dragon Slave Trilogy

 

 

Book One . . . Dragon Slave

 

Book Two . . . Dragon Clutch

 

Book Three . . . Dragon Fool

 

 

 

 

Cover illustrated by Delaney Walnofer

Cover formatted by Tony Huang

 

Copyright © 2016 by Delaney Walnofer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1523208201
ISBN-13: 978-1523208203

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoy this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their preferred authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

 

For the Grove High School

Prologue

 

 

“Can I have a beetle from your beard?” young Rib asked Damon, scrambling onto the wizard’s lap and placing both foreclaws upon his chest. On the old man’s chin, an abundance of long, steely hairs grew, forming a mass so knotted and thick, no insect guest could escape it. Even now, Rib could see a bug with legs curled, collecting dust within the depths of its matted tomb.

Rib stuck his snout in to sniff it.

Two, three days old?

The beetle’s shell was still intact, but the scent of rotting insides was unmistakable. Rib wanted to disentangle the treat himself, but such a delicate operation as that required hands.

Taking pointers from the pups he’d met under Tyrone’s supper table, Rib lifted his head and gazed into the Wizard’s eyes. The wagon they were in shook, but Rib’s talons were fastened tight in the old man’s tunic and he held his position adamantly.

“I’m saving that one,” the Wizard mumbled, nudging the little dragon off his legs onto the wooden seat beside him. “For a potion.”

“Aren’t there any others?” Rib complained, sitting up as the bumpy ride jostled him. Damon always had at least two beetles on his person.

“Ask me again when bog beetles are in season,” the Wizard answered, snapping the reins to make the horse trot faster.

Rib gave an unhappy puff of air through his nostrils before leaping over the backrest to join his sister. The cart jolted and Rib flailed his wings to keep from tumbling out the far end.

His sister, however, unexperienced with flying as of yet, was left clinging to the edge, her eyes wide. Rib rushed to help her, but she fell and hit the puddled road with a splat.

Nonetheless, she picked herself up and went bounding after them. One second she had her haunches gathered, and the next she was back in the cart, flecking Rib with mud as she landed in the bed.

Rib laughed and batted her dirty, lavender-grey muzzle, inviting her to scuffle. They tussled about, nearly throwing each other off at times, until, tired, they dragged themselves over to Damon. Rib crouched on the crooked bench, smiling when his sister curled up with her head against his wing.

Atop the Wizard’s head, a female wyvern gave a short whistle. She was a small dragon-like creature with a long tail, two leathery wings and taloned hind legs, but no forelegs. She was, in essence, the reptilian version of a hunting falcon with the habit of parroting whatever she heard, keeping certain things in memory to repeat even years later.

“Welcome to our castle, my bride,” she said in the voice of Tyrone, followed by a woman’s merry laugh.

Rib looked at the marble-white wyvern, intrigued by how the light caught in her red eyes.

“Why does Ivory imitate everyone all the time?” he asked as the wyvern took flight ahead of the cart.

“It’s what she does,” Damon mumbled.

They rode on over grassy slopes for a while in silence. At some point, Rib nosed a bag tied to the Wizard’s waist, but was told to stop.

He sighed. This is taking so long. How far back was it when we crossed the Swaine? A feeling of apprehension came over Rib and he looked at his sister, remembering their mentor’s words, ‘Don’t wander into the kingdom alone.’

“Tide wouldn’t be mad at us for coming along with Damon, would he?” he whispered. “No one stopped us from getting into the cart…”

His little sister just gazed back at him. Speaking was a skill she still hadn’t mastered, but Tide said there was plenty of time for her to do that and choose a name for herself in the seasons to come. Rib cocked his head at her.

What name will she choose? he wondered. Maybe she’ll hear one she likes today!

“Where are we going?” Rib asked the Wizard.

“Cliffport.”

“What’s that?”

“A place where humans from all over the world go.”

That’s sounds exciting!

“Why are we going there?” Rib inquired further.

“I need a special ingredient.”

A place where people all over the world go to buy ingredients…

Rib stared up the road, excitement building as they neared the crest of a hill. A quiet sound met his ears, like a crash and a whoosh repeating, one after the other. In the distance, birds made a raucous.

“Sister, look!” Rib exclaimed the moment he could see over the hill. Far off, green land led into a deep stripe of blue that stretched all the way into the sky. “The ocean!”

At one spot where land met the sea, Rib saw a collection of houses. Small and crammed together, they reminded him of nothing like Tyrone’s hunting lodge in the forest. Beyond them, a number of objects, large and small, floated in the ocean with bare tree trunks sticking high up.

“What are those things swimming in the water?” Rib asked Damon.

“Ships.”

Ships.

Noises of people and activity grew ever louder as they drew near. Rib’s claws dug up splinters in the wood as excitement came over him. By the time they entered town, he was clambering in circles, trying to see in every direction at once. Everything was so lively! Humans by the dozens streamed past, some of them starting in surprise when they noticed him springing about in the cart.

Smells of meat and smoke and muck graced Rib’s snout. The air of festivities got under his scales, thrilling him like the moment he’d snag a bird, or leap from a boulder.

His sister flinched when he returned to her side, laughing breathlessly.

A dog came barking alongside the cart and both of them retreated a little, peering down at the loud animal. His sister looked especially frightened and Rib nuzzled her with the crown of his head, reassuring.

“Someday,” he promised, “we’ll be big and nothing will scare us.”

To his relief, the dog loped away at the sound of a man’s whistle, disappearing into the crowds.

Rib peered up at each face they passed.

Everyone here looks so different from each other, he observed. Their manes, their mouths, the color of their hides…

A group of dusky-skinned men caught his attention and he admired their black hair and muscular builds. Among them, a tall boy with shoulders so broad they made his hips look narrow in comparison looked right back at Rib, stepping out into the street to stare after him. Rib thought it an appropriate time to wave as humans did, if only he had the hands to do so.

Reaching the heart of the town, Damon reined in the horse to bring the cart to a halt where people lined the street, holding up items and calling out offers.

Rib watched attentively as the Wizard climbed down from the cart and pulled a rolled piece of parchment from his pocket to show a nearby merchant.

“Do you sell these?”

Rib saw something drawn on the unraveled scroll. Pictures often confused Rib, but this one he thought looked like a plant of sorts.

The merchant gave it one look and sneered. “I’m no Huskhn. Go ask them.”

The next person Damon asked was little more help than the first. “That comes at a high price,” she said. “Get crowned as King and then we’ll talk.”

“He’s leaving us!” Rib told his sister as the Wizard traveled further down the street, talking to one merchant after another. “Come on!”

Standing up on the edge of the cart and spreading his bat-like wings, Rib stared after Damon and launched off. It took him a moment to get his wings beating hard enough, but he did so with determination.

Is she coming?

Looking back, Rib saw that his sister had made no move to join him, but was watching anxiously from the cart.

“I’ll be right back!” he called to her, then brought his eyes forward to see where he was going. People stopped and stared as he flew past low to the ground. Just when he came up to hover beside Damon, Ivory, the wyvern, came and alighted on the Wizard’s arm.

“Do you know that person, good sir?” she said in the voice of a young man. “Him, with the dragons?”

Who’s she mimicking now? Rib thought.

Damon seemed to be wondering the same thing, for he peered at Ivory and then at the people all around. His eyes landed on someone and Rib followed his gaze to see the tall boy from earlier heading their way.

What does he want? Rib became uneasy when he noticed three big men following behind the adolescent like personal guards. Landing on Damon’s back, the little dragon peered over the Wizard’s shoulder as the strangers stopped in front of them. The face of one of the guards, he noticed, drooped on one side, framed by black twisted locks of hair. Rib ran his wide eyes over both the other full grown men, unnerved by their brutish features.

“What’s this, old man?” the adolescent asked, taking the scroll from Damon’s hands to see the drawing. “Looking to buy the Royal Well? Don’t you know they’re native to Husk?”

Damon cleared his throat. “Yes, I know.”

The Wizard straighten up a bit, which reminded Rib of how his prey would try to make itself look bigger right before he pounced on it.

The boy smiled. “They’re rare, too. I should know.” He stuck out his hand to the Wizard. “I’m Zheal, nephew of the Huskhn Chief and Heir to the Throne.”

Damon shook Zheal’s hand silently. Rib took note of the boy’s white, splotched leather gloves.

What’s the ‘Huskhn Chief’? And why is his nephew so interested in Damon?

“Well,” said Zheal, still holding Damon’s scroll as he stared him hard in the face, “I couldn’t help but notice you have the Eyes of Kings. Of course, you can see I do too.”

Still, Damon said nothing. Rib was starting to get the feel that something was very wrong.

Zheal didn’t seem to mind the Wizard’s silence. He just turned the scroll over in his hands, appearing taken aback when he saw the other side of blank parchment. At least, to Rib it looked blank.

Why does he keep staring at it like that? he wondered. He can’t be reading, can he? Didn’t Tyrone say there have to be little marks on the page for that?

“This…” Zheal murmured, scanning the parchment with increasing interest. He looked up. “This is how you get dragons to follow you?”

Suddenly, the tall boy’s eyes were fixed on Rib, whose scales raised in alarm. Damon flexed his shoulders slightly, prickled by the dragon’s bristling hide.

“What an interesting color that one is,” said Zheal, a strange note in his voice. “I wonder, how big will he grow? No doubt he’ll be strong someday.”

“Get Tyrone,” the Wizard spoke low to Ivory, sending her off with a thrust of his arm.

Zheal lifted his head to watch the wyvern fly away. “They obey you?” With a grin, he glanced down at the scroll once more before rolling it up and sticking it under his vest. Then he spoke to his guards, who stepped towards Damon.

The Wizard backed away towards the cart.

At this, Zheal gave a loud command in a language Rib didn’t understand and a cry sounded behind them.

What?! Rib swiveled his head around just in time to see his sister be snatched up from the cart by two men.

Sister!

He barely glimpsed her terrified face before she was shoved into a sack.

“Fly home!” Damon wrenched Rib off his back and propelled him into the air, just as Zheal’s guards lunged for him.

“Damon!” Rib cried.

Jumping back from the men, Damon threw something on the ground. With a crack like thunder, the object blinded Rib in a succession of flashes and he pointed his snout for home, flying away quick as he could.

In a few moments, his sight had recovered and he looked back to see that Damon was gone and Zheal’s men were chasing after him instead.

The droopy faced one had just stolen a horse. He now galloped ahead of the group, gaining on Rib, who rose higher into the air to avoid collision with a house. It strained his wings to beat them so hard, but Rib pressed on faster still.

What do I do? he panicked. They took my sister! Damon’s gone!

I need help!

Speeding over pointed roofs and busy people in the streets, Rib soon escaped the town. Looking below, he saw no one except the horse thief still coming after him, racing across the green fields.

The horse was swift and brought its rider directly underneath Rib at times. All Rib had to do was look down and there was the man, fifteen feet below him, dark locks jouncing about, determined eyes fixed on him. Though half of the Huskhn’s face remained limp, the other half glowered up at the terrified dragon.

Using his flight to his advantage, Rib took the direct route, over big hills and bouldered areas. In this way, he was able to get ahead, but his chest and wings ached so much he had to stop and rest, heaving for breath until the man on the horse came into view again.

Almost there, Rib thought, his strength waning as he took to the air once more. He felt like he was going to be sick.

At last, Swaine River appeared on the horizon and Rib fixed his wings for what he hoped to be the last stretch.

He won’t follow me over the bridge! Rib determined, soaring over the large obstacle. Strangers never cross it.

But to his dismay, the rider pursued without pause, clattering over the stone structure in seconds. Rib stared wildly ahead of him at the fields and forests, searching for safety. He felt himself losing elevation as he headed for a tall tree in the distance.

“Help,” he cried. “Tide! Tyrone!”

He could barely raise his wings for another beat, let alone bring them down with enough force to hold him up. He was just now spending the last of his energy and it was time to choose what to put it towards- another beat higher or another beat farther.

But then, he noticed something.

The ground…

It looked strange. White and fluffy.

What?!

Right as the horse’s hooves came battering over, a giant cloud of tiny bodies rose up, spooking the steed. Rearing, the horse threw off its rider and fled.

Muffle moths!

Rib recognized the living mass of powdery insects that engulfed him and the man. He clamped his mouth shut and tried to hold his breath, but the motion of his wings forced air in and out of his flaring nostrils as the moths flocked around him.

Through the flux of insects, he saw the man try to get up, cough, and fall back to the ground.

Oh no…

Again and again Rib was forced to breathe in the thick, magical moth dust, growing all the while sluggish in his frenzy to get away. Eventually, the most he could do was fix his wings open to glide. But even in doing this, his muscles began to relax and his body went limp.

The insects cleared and Rib watched the ground come up to meet him. He barely managed to tuck in his wings and turn his head to the side before impact.

Grass, pebbles, and dirt all went flying as he crashed and tumbled to a stop. There he lay, utterly numb, his head having ended up tucked under his wing. All Rib could see was the soft turf before his eyes and sunlight bleeding through the leather of his wing.

Am I hurt?

He couldn’t tell; there was no feeling in his body whatsoever. His neck strained as he tried to look himself over, but he didn’t have the strength. He couldn’t move. Even his heart was too languorous to race as fast as it had been moments before the moth’s dust filled his lungs.

Help, he cried inside as his eyes slid involuntarily closed. He imagined his sister, suffocating in the sack she’d been put in.

The most he could do was inhale, exhale. Inhale, and exhale. Steady breaths that passed through his teeth and slightly parted lips.

He kept this up until finally, “Little one…”

A female spoke, sounding muffled as though Rib were submerged in water, but he recognized it was Tyrone’s wife, Theora.

“You’re alright, you’re alright.”

Am I? Rib had the distant sensation of being picked up…perhaps held close. He couldn’t be sure. His heavy eyelids refused to lift, even as the woman asked him to respond.

My sister! Rib wanted to tell her, but his tongue was dead in his mouth.

They took her…

Chapter 1

 

 

“She’s alive?” Rib swayed dangerously on his feet, breath coming in short.

“Whoa, hey,” Gavin, a young Eristad man, stood in front of him, hands up as though to steady the dragon. “Yes, she’s alive. Everyone’s talking about her.”

My sister…alive after all this time…my little sister…

“Where is she?” Rib croaked.

Gavin leaned against the wall of the Salten Gust Inn, arms folded. “I can’t be sure,” he answered. “But recently sailors have been saying they’ve seen her with Zheal at ports all across the seas. Say she’s big, too. Some call her twice the size of a horse, but I’m guessing that’s just some bard’s inflated tale. Should be about the same size as you, shouldn’t she?”

Rib couldn’t answer. He hadn’t heard a thing about his sister since she was stolen away from him five years ago. Now, a hundred questions of his own built up inside his throat, choking his words.

What has she been doing?

Will she come here[_?_]

Could I see her?

“Hey, you with me?” Gavin asked, waving to him.

Rib blinked, focusing his eyes on the twenty-two year old man, who laughed lightly at him. Tight curly hair, dark grey skin, winning smile. This was the friend that so often made Rib feel like life was good, even when people ran from him in fear or when hunting conditions were poor.

But with this sudden news of his sister, he felt as though his entire world had changed.

“What- what have you heard about her?” he barely managed to get out.

Gavin sighed. “They say Zheal takes her around the world, searching for a wizard.”

“He takes her everywhere with him?” Rib blurted, increasingly disturbed.

His friend shrugged. “By the sound of it.”

It’s like she’s Zheal’s slave.

Slowly, Rib’s shock withered away, replaced with something far heavier. It was the sick feeling he got whenever he remembered his sister’s face as she was shoved into a sack. Except now he knew she was still out there. Too big for a sack, no doubt, but still the captive of wicked men. This state of old pain blossomed afresh, like reopening a wound.

“Have you heard any mention of chains?” he asked, sensing his emotions ready to flood. “Do they say she has to drag around a weighted yoke with shackles around her feet? Do they say her mouth is bound shut? Do they say-” He stopped, realizing he didn’t even want to know the answers to his questions. It was just his way of imagining the worst out loud, so others could feel as he felt.

“Rib,” Gavin said, reaching out to rest his hand on Rib’s muzzle. “They haven’t said any of those things. There was only talk of a saddle. She carries Zheal on her back.”

“She carries him?!” Rib burst out.

Gavin nodded, his expression grim. “He calls her Tairg, the name of a legendary Huskhn warrior woman.”

“What?” Rib cried. “He can’t choose her name!”

My sister…she didn’t even get to name herself before she was taken.

And now Zheal’s done it for her.

Rib fell silent, miserable as he studied the cold ground. His eyes fell on small rock dislodged from its hole in the dirt.

“I left her in the cart,” he grieved. “Alone…so easy for those men to take.”

Rib had spoken this fear before, the fear that his sister’s capture was his fault. People usually gave him the same type of response. ‘There was nothing you could do.’ ‘Don’t blame yourself.’

Gavin just stayed quiet.

“There was another thing,” he said after a while.

Rib lifted his weary head.

“There have been Huskhns looking for the Wizard Damon.”

“Damon?” Rib echoed, his voice hollow. “What do they want from him?”

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling Zheal sent them.”

That’s right, Rib realized, eyes opening wider. If Zheal’s looking for a wizard then…

“Do you think he might bring my sister here?” he asked with his heart pattering. “In search of Damon?”

The corner of Gavin’s mouth pulled to the side in an expression of uncertainty. “Wouldn’t he have come here immediately if he were planning to at all? I almost wonder if he’s avoiding Wystil.”

“But why?” Rib implored. “He knows a wizard lives here. What’s keeping him away?”

Gavin shrugged. “Maybe he’s afraid.” The young man laughed. “There are a number of rumors that could be keeping him away.”

Rib gave a groan. His sister was alive, but out of reach. He had no way of getting to her.

And no name to call her by, he lamented, his eyes returning to the pointless, displaced rock again. Not Tairg. Never Tairg.

At that moment, five dog-like dragon beasts came tearing around the corner, pressing in on them and leaping up in excitement. Gavin’s laugh as he tried to calm the monigons did little to lift Rib’s spirits.

A monigon voiced its raspy bark at Rib, but he refused its invitation to play, irritated when it nipped at his legs and tail.

“Gavin, your lumpish hounds got into the zikkerwheat loft!”

Jasper, a boy of about twelve, came around the same bend as the monigons to jab a finger at the young man’s chest. The top of his head, covered with black tousled locks, barely reached Gavin’s shoulder, but he stood erect and bold, as though unaware of his small size.

“They scattered it all over the ground!”

“Aw.” Gavin grinned at the boy, then crouched down to scratch an expectant monigon’s chin and spoke to it fondly. “Sounds like I have a mess to clean up because of you.”

“It could be ruined!”

Gavin stood back up and headed towards the stables, waving his hand dismissively. “A little dust never hurt.”

Jasper shut his mouth in a scowl, watching Gavin disappear through the doorway with his monigons bounding after him. Rib couldn’t help but let his eyes wander over Jasper’s undeveloped right hand, all five of its fingers short and curled, when suddenly the child turned to look at him.

“When are you going to take me flying?” he demanded. “Let’s go now. Father doesn’t have to know.”

Rib turned his head from the boy’s challenging stare. “No, Jasper.”

“Come on,” the boy insisted, grabbing a hold of Rib’s wing as though to drag him to the coast. “I don’t need a saddle.”

Shed it. Rib became annoyed. I don’t want to put up with this. Not with the news of my sister.

He tried to tug his wing out of Jasper’s grasp but the child held on so tight that Rib’s tugging nearly made him fall over.

As if somehow alerted by his son’s sudden mischief, Mortaug emerged from the inn, the drooping side of his face adding to his stern expression.

Good. Rib was relieved at the sight of his Huskhn friend. Let him deal with Jasper.

Mortaug’s rough, grey locks swept over his shoulders as he approached his son with a series of hand motions. Rib always had trouble understanding the man’s silent language, unable to distinguish each gesture of his hands, but he could tell Jasper was being scolded.

“I can ride him just fine, Father!” the boy protested, still holding onto Rib’s wing. “I know I can!”

Jasper’s confidence was admirable, made even more impressive when considering his deformed hand.

Enough of this. Rib pulled his wing from the boy’s other hand’s grasp and began to walk away. I don’t want to be here anymore.

Jasper turned to him immediately. “Wait, Rib! We’ll fly over the port for everyone to see.”

Mortaug turned the boy roughly by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. Rib took the opportunity to leave.

If only Mortaug hadn’t lost his voice to the moths, he thought grievously, moving far up a hill and towards the coastline. Then he’d still be a captain and he could take me to my sister.

But if the moths never swarmed us, then Damon would never have saved his life, Rib processed. So Mortaug wouldn’t have had the heart to help me at all.

The irony was harrowing.

. . .

The coast looked beautiful in the light of the morn, but Rib barely took notice of it, once again wading through murky thoughts and memories of his little sister stolen away from him at such a young age.

The ships that morning were docked at Cliffport, all except for one vessel that braved the choppy waters. Rib studied it from a distance as it passed.

Huskhn craft.

Gavin had taught him how to identify such boats by their long, shallow bodies and decorative prows. This one’s wing, or sail as humans called them, billowed with the wind, the picture on it seemingly expanding. Pain jabbed through Rib’s heart as he recognized the illustration was one of a dragon.

Did they put my sister on a ship like that when they took her? They must have…she was gone by the time Tyrone got to the port.

The Huskhn ship was just now sailing around a bend in the cliffs, escaping Rib’s somber gaze. With a heavy sigh, he rested his chin on the lumpy rock underneath him.

It didn’t take long for sadness to lull him to sleep, and he dreamt of creeping into a bright marble hall. He wasn’t even sure how he knew what it was, for he had never been in such a room. A great number of pillars, smooth all around, surrounded him and on the spotless floor he noticed a pattern of crevices.

Each crevice was a hard line cut into stone filled to the brim with water, not one overflowing. Gazing ahead, he saw that the chiseled cracks all led to something. The light in his dream was too glaring for him to see, and so he looked down at his foreclaws and followed a crevice towards it.

He became aware of a pleasant sound, like that of a small waterfall. Finally, he stopped before a basin at the far end of the hall with notches in its rim. Spilling out the notches, water dribbled down the side of the basin to feed into each and every crevice in the floor.

Streaming into the basin was a small flow of water that fell from the top of a stout wall. Over this wall was a stone arch through which Rib could see the outside. But he did not focus so much on this, for, crouching inside the opening was his sister. With one foreclaw, she batted at the falling water as playfully as a frisk, the same size as he remembered her.

It’s you, Rib breathed and she looked up at him. Where have you been? I’ve missed you.

The lavender grey dragon said nothing, though she blinked curiously at him.

Whether the outside began to brighten or the hall darken, Rib could not tell, but his sister was fading from his sight.

Wait! he cried. What can I call you by?

His sister’s mouth did not move, but like a melody from the dream world came the answer:

Memory.

Rib stirred as a wintry wind hit him head on, splitting over his wings, and he opened his eyes slowly. Though his vision was blurred from sleep, he could see a form gliding in the air. Rib tried to get his eyes to focus, hopes of realized dreams taking over him when he realized it was a dragon soaring over the ocean.

Sister?!

Rib leapt to his feet. Now he could see the sky was stunningly brilliant, its bounteous clouds bursting with light. The dragon flew about in the distance and sun beams illuminated the true color of its hide.

No, it’s…

Tide. Rib was disappointed to identify the dragon as his old mentor. The somewhat small, teal colored dragon searched below him like a falcon, until he pulled his wings in for a dive. Rib watched as Tide penetrated the water with a splash only to ascend again with a silvery pink fish in his jaws.

On any other day, Rib would be tempted to join him, but sorrow, like mortar, fixed him to the spot where he lay.

It appeared that Tide had spotted him there, for the dragon now headed for him, beating his colorful wings lightly on the easy draft.

“Hey, Rib,” he greeted him. With calculated precision, he alighted beside him on the scarp. “I could spot you anywhere with that vibrant hide of yours.”

“Yeah,” Rib exhaled, half-closed eyes still staring out over the horizon. “You and the few other dragons here.”

“Hmm.”

Rib could hear Tide scratch out a hollow for himself and then lie down.

“I’ve known that tone since you were a pupil. What’s wrong?”

Not bothering to lift his head, but shifting to face his mentor, Rib told him everything he’d heard about his sister. Just speaking the words made him feel worse.

Like Gavin, Tide liked to stay quiet for a while before responding. Often times, Rib had trouble waiting patiently, but now he just turned his gaze back to the ocean and stewed in returned misery.

“I suspected she was still out there,” Tide finally spoke. “But to hear it for certain is a relief all the same.”

“Relief?” Rib echoed. “What relief is there to know my sister’s a slave?”

Tide gave a sigh. “You’re right,” he said. “How foolish of me to think your sister could ever be helped.”

“What?” Rib’s eyes opened wider and he looked to his mentor. “How can you say that?”

“I’m only agreeing with you,” Tide pointed out. “Feels good to give in, doesn’t it?”

Rib became flustered as he tried to defend himself. “I’m not giving in! There’s just nothing I can do.”

“Perhaps not yet, but don’t think it will always be that way. Otherwise, chances will pass you by like fish under the ice.”

Tide’s words made Rib remember the frustration he once felt as a young frisk, skidding over a frozen lake as he tried to catch the shapes darting just beneath the surface.

I could smash through that ice now, he grumbled inwardly. What small problems I had back then.

“Speaking of fish,” Tide said, standing up and shaking himself of the moss bits that clung to his scales. “Right now is a great time to go diving for some. Come join me. I think you’ll enjoy yourself.”

“How could I?” Rib questioned, bitter. “My sister has nothing to enjoy.”

“Rib…” Tide shook his head. “Base your happiness on the happiness of others and you’ll never smile again. There’s a time to mourn together and a time to live. Now come, I insist.”

“Fine.” Rib gave a disgruntled blast of air out his nostrils and launched off the cliff after Tide. He let himself plummet, watching as the churning dark waves below rose rapidly to meet him. Only when his snout touched water did he slide his see-through second eyelids closed for protection as he hit full force. For a moment, he was submerged, pulled by the hungry current before he broke the surface and lifted himself back into the air with a few mighty wing beats.

“Remember to pull your wings in tighter for the dive!” Tide called out to him from above, plunging down to demonstrate. His gleaming teal head popped up out of the water and he opened his mouth to show Rib the couple of fish flopping inside.

It looks like he has three tongues. Rib couldn’t help but smile.

Maybe Tide is right. I can have fun and wait for chances at the same time.

Ascending higher into the sky, Rib circled a spot of ocean, searching for prey. He preferred fishing over hunting, largely because he could rely on his keen eyesight and not have to worry about his lacking sense of smell.

He’d lost his sense of smell five years ago, when he and Mortaug were caught in the living mass of muffle moths. Both he and the Huskhn would have died had Damon not saved them with a specially crafted cure. Only that which the dust made first contact with could not be recovered, thus the loss of Mortaug’s voice and Rib’s sense of smell.

Searching the waters, Rib’s body tensed as he saw movement below, but it was only a sea wyvern after a gull.

Then an especially big shape moved in the water and he plunged for it, tucking his wings close to his flanks. Wind whistled in his ears before he reached the waves, extending his claws for the fish.

The moment his body hit, he felt his talons catch flesh and he peered through his second eyelids to see the large, thrashing fish. It took him but a few moments to clamp his teeth around it and end its life with a jerk of his head.

What a catch! He was delighted by the effort it took him to rise from the waters with the heavy fish. I could choke trying to swallow this one whole.

“Well done,” Tide laughed as Rib heaved the fish up onto the grey pebbled beach at the foot of a great cliff. “You look just about as proud as you did with that minnow years back.”

“Hey,” Rib had trouble pronouncing his words with his mouth still full of fish, “for my first catch, that minnow was a tricky one. But thanks.”

Relieved of his burden, Rib invited Tide to eat with him and together they stripped the fish clean, surrounded by sheer cliffs and sea stacks. Rib grinned as what remained of the fish’s skeleton was pulled back by the greedy ocean. He could still taste the salt on his tongue.

“Well,” Tide said, flexing his wings. “I’ll have to let Damon know that Huskhns are looking for him. He was planning on getting something at the port soon, so I suppose we ought to accompany him for that.”

“Alright,” Rib agreed. “What do you think they want with him anyway?”

Tide shook his head.

“A wizard has a lot to offer,” was all he said.

I suppose. Rib thought back on all the potions Damon made over the years, like the one that helped the old wizard’s memory.

Memory! The dream of his sister suddenly came flooding back to him. It filled him with a sense of love. He looked to Tide, considering telling him about it, but his mentor was already headed back up the cliff.

Maybe I’ll just keep this inside, Rib thought. It felt like a secret, and there was pleasure in holding it to himself.

She’s my sister. My little Memory.

Chapter 2

 

 

“What is Damon getting here?” Rib asked Tide as they followed behind the Wizard at a leisurely pace.

“A rare ingredient,” the dragon answered in a low voice.

“For what?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”

As Cliffport came into view, people from the outskirts of town began to turn and stare, as they always did when Rib drew near.

“You’d think that the humans would begin to trust us after all these years,” he complained quietly, assuming his ‘Don’t fear me; I’m nice’ posture as they approached.

“Well, it’s hard for them,” Tide replied, eyes lowered to the ground. “But keep being gentle and I’m sure they’ll see you for who you are eventually. Besides, haven’t things gotten better? When’s the last time someone screamed at the sight of you?”

“Yesterday morning,” Rib admitted sheepishly. “The goose girl didn’t notice me by Mortaug’s inn until I sneezed. She went running and her geese came hissing.”

“Ah,” Tide chuckled softly. “The noble geese.”

Rib thought it strange that he and Tide were acting as Damon’s personal guards, while trying to look as unintimidating as possible. Yet, clearly it was enough, for people quickly moved out of the streets for them, whispering to one another. They probably thought he couldn’t hear them, but his ears picked up their hushed tones with ease.

“The Dragon Knight’s beasts,” he heard a woman murmur to her child.

Rib knew the Wystilians went Tyrone when they said the Dragon Knight, but he still didn’t understand why. Whenever he’d ask Tide or Tyrone, they’d answer with, ‘It’s a long story.’

A boy, rather loudly for a whisper, said, “I’ll bet they could burn this whole place down with a single breath.”

The dragons exchanged looks. Tide appeared amused, but Rib was bothered by the child’s statement.

Why would we want to do that? he thought. And why does everyone assume we breathe fire? Lynx is the only one who does.

Venturing farther into the town, down dirty streets lined with wide eyed people, Rib began wondering how close they were to this special ingredient. Cautiously, he let his eyes run over the humans, taking note of the few that didn’t wear the same startled expression as everyone else.

There was a woman preoccupied with trying not to touch the filthy man beside her, a baby that babbled to the sky, a boy who gaped at them with obvious delight…

Rib gave that boy an appreciative smile as he passed, but immediately lost it when his eyes met those of a gnarled old man.

Standing foremost in the crowd, the man challenged Rib with an abrasive stare.

Whoa, Rib thought, returning his gaze to the ground. No one’s ever looked at me like that before.

He could still feel the man’s glare as he walked on by and heard him grunt, “Nasty black devil.”

Devil. Rib wasn’t sure what it meant, but knew it was considered an insult among humans. What have I done?

And my scales are firebloom, not black. Rib wished that people could perceive the true color of his hide, but only dragons and magic seers could.

There’s a lot these humans don’t know about me, he grumbled to himself.

At last, Damon sought out a Huskhn merchant from the crowds and had a word with him. Rib could see the man swallow nervously at the sight of the dragons before he took a chest from his booth. The man’s trembling fingers struggled to put a key into the lock, but he finally got it open and handed a flask inside it to the Wizard.

Damon merely looked at the flask in his hand before dropping a heavy, jangling sack into the chest and turning back the way he’d come. Rib and Tide took their place behind him as he passed and walked all the way out of town.

Well, that wasn’t hard, Rib thought. The only Huskhn I even saw was the merchant.

But still…I’ll bet Zheal will hear about this. Is he really avoiding coming to Wystil? Or would he come once he’s heard Damon was still here? What if Memory just showed up with him one day?

What if they came to the hunting lodge looking for Damon?

Rib felt jittery at the thought of it. The two places he ever actually stayed at were near the hunting lodge and by Cliffport, and his sister could appear at either one of them. He mulled over this for a while, recalling Tide’s advice.

I’ll just have to wait and see, he decided. There’s nothing I can do but that.

When they were well on their way back home, Rib asked Damon, “What’s this ingredient you got?”

“Liquid of the Royal Well,” the Wizard muttered, slinging the flask’s strap over his shoulder.

The Royal Well? Haven’t I heard of that before?

Oh. Rib let the tip of his tail drag on the ground in sorrow. It’s the same ingredient he went for when the Huskhns stole Memory.

“So…what’s it for?” he questioned further.

What could be so important you still want it after five years?

“Firesap cure,” Damon coughed. “For Lynx.”

“You’re going to save him?” Rib said, a spark of happiness perking his head up. “Damon, that’s great!”

The Wizard just cleared his throat and swept more hair into his eyes.

Lynx won’t go mad like Tyrone always warned us he could, Rib thought cheerfully.

Maybe now he’ll be allowed around the hunting lodge!

. . .

“Do we even know where Lynx is?” Rib asked, watching with his head in the doorway as Damon busied himself with crafting the cure.

The Wizard shrugged, setting out a few tiny bones on the table. In the middle of his cluttered hut was a lit brazier. Thin smoke rose from the bright unfurling fire, funneling out a hole in the roof, and Rib remembered when Lynx had ignited the brazier with his breath. Damon was always sure to keep the flame alive, as dragon fire was a vital element in potion making.

It became loud when the Wizard began crushing the bones inside a roughly hollowed out rock. Rib crinkled his snout at the unpleasant repetition of crrck! crrck! crrck! and was about to leave, when Damon asked him to stay.

What does he need me for? Rib wondered, but didn’t bother asking over the continued pounding of rock against bone.

When Damon finished, he brushed most the fine powder into the opened flask he’d gotten from the Huskhn merchant. Corking it again, he shook the leather container. Rib could hear its contents sloshing around.

Is the cure done?

He observed as Damon set the flask aside. It took the man a few minutes of rummaging around his workspace before he found his handkerchief, into which he neatly folded the rest of the bone dust. This, he placed in the bottom of a satchel and dropped the flask in as well.

So many things hands can do, Rib admired as he watched. So many things they create.

“For Tyrone,” Damon told him, hanging the satchel over the Rib’s head. “He’s expecting these.”

“Isn’t Tyrone home?” Rib asked.

The Wizard shrugged. “Probably.”

“As in, right over there?”

“Go on,” Damon said hoarsely. “My bones ache. Need to find a potion to stop it…”

Alright then. Rib backed out of the hut, happy to help even if only to walk a few steps over to the hunting lodge. Crossing the short distance, he enjoyed crunching frosty grass under his feet and smiled at children’s laughter coming from inside the house ahead.

What are those boys doing now?

Rib stopped before a window and pushed up the inward-swinging board with his muzzle to stick his head in. The house was warmly lit and well furnished with a number of things Rib couldn’t imagine ever needing as a dragon.

Two children hid behind chairs, reaching out to poke at their mother as she helped her husband suit up. These were the boys Rib grew up with, although they hardly seemed to grow at all compared to him. Rib liked to think of their parents, Tyrone and Theora, as his parents too, since he’d never met his real ones.

Why is Tyrone getting his armor on? Rib wondered, forgetting to announce his presence.

“Lynx won’t be happy when he finds out the cure takes away his firebreath,” Tyrone was muttering, looking down to readjust his breast plate.

His wife gave one boy a playful smack on the hand and he withdrew, giggling. “I’m sure he already suspects it,” Theora said. “Have you thought of what you’re going to say to him?”

Tyrone snorted. “No. You know how he is…Oh, hello Rib.” The man glanced up at the dragon in the window. “I was hoping you’d be here.”

“You were?” Rib broke into a grin as the children rushed over to him, roaring like he had taught them. “Well, Damon asked me to bring you something.”

Tyrone beckoned him to the doorway and Rib came over, the wooden flap knocking against the window sill in his absence.

“I sent Ivory for Lynx, asking him to meet me at the Great Chimney Shaft,” Tyrone told him and lifted the satchel from the dragon’s neck. “Will you take me there?” He peered into the bag before slinging it over his shoulder.

“Me?” Rib hesitated as he eyed the long sheathed knife attached to the man’s leather belt. “But why do you have that on?”

Tyrone had metal plates over his chest and back. A chainmail shirt was visible beneath, with sleeves that ended around his elbows. Dark leather padded his shoulders and lay in flaps over his thighs. Chainmail also covered his legs and heavy boots were on his feet. He was clearly well protected, but with enough room to move swiftly. He looked ready for a battle.

And yet his simple answer was, “Just a precaution.”

Precaution?

“Please, I would appreciate your help,” Tyrone said.

By the looks of it, any of Rib’s other siblings wandering Wystil’s wilderness would be better for the job, as they were tougher and happier to meet a challenge head on. It was for that reason Rib could hardly relate to them.

But Tyrone was asking for his help, and however nervous that made him, Rib was flattered.

“Alright,” he agreed.

Lynx isn’t going to be happy with me…

“Thank you.” Tyrone took a breath before turning to face his wife, who wrapped her arms around him and kissed him lightly.

“Do you want your helmet?” she asked, but he declined.

Patting his boys goodbye, Tyrone exited the building and Rib fell into step beside him.

“I get to wear a saddle?” Rib perked up on their way to the stablehouse, passing the frozen garden and the grove.

“Riding bareback isn’t quite my favorite,” Tyrone replied in dry humor.

Rib glanced at him, concerned by the grim line of his mouth and the crease on his forehead.

“Ty?” he asked tentatively.

“Hmm?”

“You don’t seem very confident about this…”

Reaching the wide stable doorway, Tyrone stopped and heaved a sigh. “I know. I’m sorry, Rib. I don’t mean to worry you.” He stepped inside, lifting a leather dragon saddle from the wall.

Does he think Lynx will fight us?

Rib crouched and tried to hold still as the man went about securing the saddle onto his back. The burden was a sort of comfort to him, and by the time Tyrone had fastened all the straps around his plated chest, Rib was simpering.

It feels like when Theo could still hold me.

He exhaled, missing the days when he was small.

Tyrone stood in front of him when he had finished with the saddle, eyes studying the dragon’s face. As Rib focused in on him, the woodsmen gave a sober smile.

“Alright.” The man heaved himself up into the saddle. Rib could feel by the distribution of weight that Tyrone had settled himself.

“So…” Rib let his voice die out.

“To the Chimney Shaft,” Tyrone said. Then, with a partial laugh, “Let’s go ruin Lynx’s day.”

Lynx is really going to hate us for this…Even if it is for his own good.

Rib faced the direction of their destination and took off. It took him a moment to adjust to the added weight on his back, but as soon as he did, his wings had no trouble taking him and his rider over the forest towards the bouldered fields.

Hundreds of leafless trees passed below him, looking like sticks stuck in the cold frozen ground. Their thatching of branches were only broken by the occasional tall, green pine.

It wasn’t long before Rib was soaring over the vast rolling grasslands dotted all over with rocks, large and small. Everything below looked the same, but Rib’s sense of direction was impeccable and he kept his gaze fastened ahead.

There he is. Rib spotted him. Lynx!

The large, marine green dragon stared up at him as he swooped low to land. Behind him was the Great Chimney Shaft entrance, a massive hole in the ground Rib and his siblings were always warned away from before they could fly. Now, the vertical tunnel dropping far into the ground was a joy to dive down. Rib knew well the caverns it opened up to at the bottom.

As Rib alighted on the icy turf before Lynx, he could see that the firebreather was already bothered. Tyrone dismounted and Ivory flew from a tall boulder to his gloved hand, mimicking one of his boy’s delighted laughs.

“Came to tell me to leave the kingdom entirely?” Lynx asked the woodsman irritably, narrowing his eyes at him. “I see you’ve dressed yourself in armor, like old times. Am I your new enemy?”

Tyrone cleared his throat. “Don’t be so bitter, Lynx. I had to take Damon’s warning seriously. I can’t allow my wife and children to be put at risk with the firesap ready to thrust you into madness at any moment.”

Lynx took on a sardonic smile. “Who’s to say I’m not mad already?”

Rib felt uncomfortable as the dragon turned his gaze on him, looking him up and down.

I’d forgotten how abrasive he is…

“Look how big you’ve gotten,” Lynx praised mockingly with a flick of his tail. “Come as Tyrone’s trusty support?”

Before Rib could say anything, Tyrone held up the flask.

“I have the cure for you.”

The firebreather cocked his head at it.

Is there a cure for the mad?” he inquired.

“Lynx,” Tyrone’s tone was hardening, “we don’t have time for this.”

“I’m glad we agree,” Lynx replied, spreading his wings. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go catch myself a fat, furry animal to eat.”

What?! Rib panicked. But the-

“Lynx!” Tyrone snapped.

The dragon paused, breaking into a grin.

“My, Tyrone,” he purred. “Do you bite at your children like that?”

Listen to me,” the man said. “Take this cure.”

Lynx flicked his tongue, causing a shower of sparks to fall over Tyrone. Ivory flitted to her master’s shoulder with a short whistle.

“Will I lose my fire?” Lynx asked flatly.

“No,” Tyrone answered and Rib widened his eyes.

Did he just lie?

Tyrone actually lies?

Lynx glanced at Rib and smirked.

“Your support just gave you away,” he told Tyrone. “What have you to say now?”

Oh…Rib felt terrible.

Tyrone did not glare at him, but passed a hand over his face.

“What have you to say, thinking of no one but yourself and your foolish pleasures?” the man turned the question on Lynx.

Lynx grinned at this sudden change of tactics. “I would say that I’m just like everyone else, except forthright about it.”

“Not everyone else can go mad at any moment and kill everyone around them,” Tyrone responded.

Lynx narrowed his eyes. “I’ve known it to happen.”

“And you would gladly take part in it?”

“Not gladly. I would be mad.”

“Afterward?” Tyrone asked, casually extracting the folded handkerchief from his satchel. “When you came to realize what you’ve done?”

“I like to believe that there would be no afterward,” Lynx answered. “That you’d put an end to my madness, like the hero you’ve always been.”

“Is that not what I’m trying to do now?”

“True, but what valor is there in administering a cure?”

“I never asked for valor. I only want what’s necessary.”

“How incredibly boring,” Lynx drawled. “I’ll see you when things get exciting.”

Just as the dragon gathered his haunches to take off, Tyrone whipped the handkerchief into his face. A small amount of dust swirled from the cloth into Lynx’s nostrils and he snorted in surprise. Then, relaxing his expression and poised body, the firebreather stood idle, simply breathing.

What just happened? Rib wondered.

Tyrone wasted no time uncorking the flask and stepping forward.

“Open your mouth,” he told Lynx and, to Rib’s astonishment, the firebreather obeyed. Tyrone poured the potion down Lynx’s throat, ordering him to swallow, which he did.

He took the cure!

Rib waited apprehensively for whatever would happen next. It seemed a couple minutes that he stood there with Tyrone, watching Lynx. Suddenly, the large dragon shuddered, his hide quivering with the spasms of his muscles underneath.

What is it doing to him?

Although little could be seen on the outside, Rib got the feeling that major things were happening inside the firebreather.

Will he be alright?

As the shivering subsided, Lynx began to blink, as if clearing his head of confusion. His eyes focused in on Tyrone holding the uncorked flask and he jerked back, lifting his head away.

“You humans never give up, do you?” he said. “My answer is no.”

Wait, Rib thought. He doesn’t realize he just took it?

“Forgive me.” Tyrone slung the empty flask over his shoulder. “I would have given it to you either way.”

“What…” A muddled expression crossed over Lynx’s face, then a dawning of alarm. Taking air into his lungs, the dragon held his breath a moment, then blew.

Whoa.

Not flames, nor even sparks left the dragon’s jaws, but a surge of little flecks of ice. They spread out, frosting Tyrone’s hair and sweeping into Rib’s face. Rib blinked away the flakes that caught in his eyes.

He’s an icebreather now?!

As the miniature whiteout cleared, each snowflake whisked away by the breeze, Lynx curled his lip back in a distasteful sneer.

“There,” he growled. “Satisfied?”

Almost as if accidentally, the dragon let himself fall backwards into the massive hole without another sound except for the pinging of pebbles that followed him. Rib peered down the Great Chimney Shaft to see him open his wings just in time to catch himself and disappear inside the caverns below.

That went better than expected, thought Rib.

With Lynx gone, Tyrone exhaled, turning to pull himself back up into Rib’s saddle.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re done here.”

Chapter 3

 

 

“He actually breathed ice,” Rib told Gavin yet again. “It was the strangest thing I’ve witnessed come out of his mouth- and that’s saying something.”

His friend smiled distractedly, closing the inn’s stable doors for the evening before any of his monigons came racing out. “He sounds interesting.”

“Yeah…”

I wonder where he’s gone now.

Rib looked at the lowering sun, an idea striking him. Grinning, he turned to Gavin.

“Let’s find him,” he said. “Right now. You’ll never meet anyone like him.”

Gavin leaned against the stable wall, an amused smile on his lips. “That’s a terrible idea.”

“No, it’s not!” Rib protested, growing excited. “You could get on my back and we’d fly out-”

“Fly?” Gavin laughed as he shook his head. “You’re just making it worse.”

He always turns me down. What does he have against flying?

“Why won’t you trust me?” Rib complained. “You know I’d never let you fall. Come on.”

“It’s getting dark.”

“Then we’ll go tomorrow.”

“Mortaug has more work for me to do then.”

“Oh, come on.” Rib was relentless. “Have fun with me.”

Gavin rapped his knuckles on the wooden siding to a beat. “You wouldn’t fare well as a human, my friend,” he commented. “Be glad you can live your life so frivolously as to hunt and play your days away.”

“Hey, I do more than that.” Rib felt the sudden need to defend himself. “I just told you how I helped cure Lynx.”

His friend didn’t say anything, but pulled a small flute from his vest and put it to his lips.

Rib watched him, slightly irritated. Usually he loved when Gavin’s music formed a new atmosphere around them, except for times like these when his friend used it to drop a conversation.

Fine, Rib thought. So he doesn’t want to go anywhere.

What’s something else we can do?

Rib tried to think of anything fun Gavin might be willing to try with him, but his friend’s melody was distracting him.

How does he just make up songs like this? If I could do that, I’d never be bored…

Shutting his eyes, he focused on the soft melancholy notes. Right as he did so, a vision of his lost sister blossomed in his mind.

Memory?

How breathtakingly clear she was, as if he’d been staring at her for hours. Rib couldn’t tell if he was still holding his mouth shut or if it was gaping open as he stared into the darkness of his closed eyelids.

So real…

Memory looked just as she had in his dream. Every scale, every speck of light caught in her eyes, that same curious expression.

Rib swallowed nervously. He’d had vivid pictures like this in his mind before, but never of his sister. He wanted to open his eyes and see her in front of him, actually there. He wanted to speak to her.

But what would I say?

As Gavin changed his melody to something happier, the vision of Memory faded from Rib’s imagination.

Wait! he thought, feeling frantic. He tried to bring her face back to mind, but nothing so vivid as before would come. All he could conjure up was the ghostly image of her eyes, and even that only lasted a moment.

I’m sorry, he formed the words in his head, wishing Memory could hear them. If I had just stayed with you that day…They’d have taken me too, and then we’d be together.

At least then I wouldn’t have to struggle to picture your face.

Gavin’s new music sounded fit for a festival. Rib studied the intricate dance his friend’s fingers did to plug the right holes of the flute at the right time.

It was like she was right in front of me when I had my eyes closed.

“Can’t you play that other song you were playing?” he asked.

His friend shook his head, pausing between notes to say, “Forgot it already.”

Rib sighed in disappointment and studied the woodgrain of the stable doors. He could hear Gavin’s monigons scratching and whimpering inside the building as Gavin’s song drew to an end.

They want to be out here with us, Rib thought, reminded yet again of his sister.

Poor Memory…She must be so sad…so lonely.

The young man lowered the flute from his mouth, lightly thumping it against his pant leg.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Huh?” Rib looked at him.

“You look thoughtful. What’s on your mind?”

“Oh.” Rib hesitated. He hadn’t told Gavin about his dream yet. It was one of those things that felt real and important, until he considered speaking it out loud. Then it just sounded daft.

Gavin shifted his weight from one foot to the other, still leaning against the building. “If you don’t want to tell me, don’t worry about it.”

“No,” Rib said quickly, the desire to tell his secret suddenly flaring up at the fear of his friend losing interest. “I want to.”

His eyes focused on an indent in the ground where a dislodged stone lay not far away, as he wondered how to word his thoughts. He often found interest in unremarkable things whenever he endeavored to discuss a sensitive topic like this.

“Have you…” he began, “ever dreamt of something you thought was real?”

“Sure I have. That’s what dreams are like.”

“Yeah, but. It was- I mean…can people ever share dreams?”

Gavin closed one eye contemplatively.

“I’m not sure. I’ve heard of stories like that. Why?”

Rib told him of his dream about his sister, and how he heard the name Memory just before he woke up. Not once did Gavin interrupt. Only his monigons made noise, whining like dogs.

“Do you think that could be her real name?” Rib implored his friend when he’d finished telling him everything. “Like she somehow relayed it to me through our dreams?”

Gavin frowned slightly, scratching his head with the end of his flute.

“I highly doubt it,” he answered. “But then again, can’t say that I know what dragonkind is capable of. Either way, it’s good you have a name for her now, right?”

Memory.

Rib anxiously ran his tongue over the sharp points of his teeth. “I don’t know,” he said. “What if I really did just imagine it? I can’t name her anything.”

His friend gave him a funny look. “Rib, from what you’ve told me, it sounds like no one was closer to her than you. You need a name to know her by. It’s not scandalous if you’re the one who thought of it.”

Blowing a bit of dirt off his instrument, Gavin brought the flute back to his mouth and started up a gentle tune. Rib considered his words, reluctant though he saw the reasoning behind them.

It’s just not the way it’s done…

Right then, Jasper came running up to them, doubling over with hands on knees.

“Rib!” the boy panted. “I just saw a man and- a dragon- looking for Wizard Damon.”

“What?!” Rib stared at Jasper. “Was it my sister? Where’d they go?”

Finally catching his breath, the boy straightened, a cunning look in his eye. “Let me ride on your back,” he proposed, “and then I’ll tell you.”

“There’s no time for that!” Rib cried. “Tell me where they went! Was it my sister or not?”

Jasper crossed his arms and clamped his mouth shut.

“Gavin!” Rib swiveled his eyes to his friend for help. The young man had already started for the inn.

“Did you talk to them?” Rib begged the stubborn child.

Squinting his eyes, Jasper nodded his head.

“I was the only one brave enough to talk to them!” he boasted, then sealed his lips again.

Where’s Mortaug? Rib thought desperately. Memory could be leaving right this moment!

Back from the inn, Gavin arrived with the boy’s father, who knelt down in front of Jasper and made a series of forceful hand motions.

The boy objected at first, but eventually lowered his head and scuffed at the dirt, pointing in a direction with his ordinary hand.

Mortaug turned around and waved Rib in the same direction.

“They’re headed for the Wizard,” Gavin told Rib. “Go!”

“Thank you!” Rib exclaimed as he took off for home, eyes sweeping the ground below as he went.

Could it be Memory? With Zheal?

What should I do if it is?

He beat his wings frantically. Realizing they could just as easily be in the air, he swung his head around in all directions, searching for movement.

Why would Zheal want to come to Damon with my sister?

Could he be good now? Like Mortaug?

Rib was flying just as hard as he had when Mortaug chased him years ago. Except now with his wings large and his energy abundant, he was able to go much faster.

Still, he spotted no one.

Where are they?!

He was just now approaching the Swaine, fearing he might have passed them in his rush.

Should I turn back? Could they have gone the long way?

Then he spotted something ahead. Flying low and towards the distant forest, a dark shape pumped its wings. Focusing his eyes, Rib was able to see a smaller figure riding on its back.

That must be them!

Not caring whether he should be stealthy or not, Rib pressed forward and positioned himself to swoop towards them. But as he came up behind them, he studied the black, white, and yellow pattern of the dragon’s hide and knew it wasn’t his sister.

Hefty disappointment weighed down on him, but curiosity still made him fly up beside them and ask, “Who are you?”

With a yelp, the dragon jerked away from him, nearly throwing her rider off. Quickly, the newcomer peeled away from Rib and landed on the ground, spinning to face him.

“Sorry!” Rib called out, collapsing his wings against his side to alight before her.

As the dragon peered at him, her wide eyes softened and she relaxed her body.

“I’m sorry,” Rib repeated, now taking a look at her rider, an adult man. His hair was red and wavy, stopping at his shoulders. He had a mustache that ended on each side with an upward curve, and his chin bore a meager beard.

“I say!” the rider exclaimed, jumping down from his seat. Rib was intrigued by his kilt designed with a multitude of greens and dark yellows. A matching sash crossed over his large belly and chest. Pinned to it was a golden broach with the engraving of a unicorn.

“What a fantastic color you are!” the strange man said. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“You…” Rib blinked, taken aback. “You can see firebloom?”

“Is that what it’s called?” The man was clearly delighted. “Fascinating.”

“Excuse me, but,” Rib shook his head in confusion, “who are you?”

“Ah,” the man placed a hand flat against his chest in pride, “I am Prince Griffith of Crageria, and this is my good companion, Oriole.”

The dragon grinned broadly, dipping her head. “Hello.”

Hello? Isn’t she shocked to see me, another dragon? Doesn’t she know how rare we are?!

“Hello,” Rib answered hesitantly. “Um, I thought Crageria was in ruins near Cliffport. Have you been…living there all this time?”

Prince Griffith looked shocked. “Why, no!” he said, offended. “That castle was little more than a speck of my kingdom. The true magnificence of Crageria remains across seas from here.”

“Oh.” Rib widened his eyes in surprise. “You flew all the way here?”

Both the Prince and Oriole laughed heartily at this and Rib took it as a ‘no’.

“And what is your name?” Prince Griffith asked, beaming behind his ruddy facial hair.

“Rib.”

“Oh, what a lovely name,” Oriole sighed dreamily. “That’s my favorite part of a deer…”

“Well, Rib, I’ll tell you this,” Prince Griffith said, casually leaning against his dragon companion’s side. “I find it positively dreadful that you thought my kingdom to be a mere pile of rocks on the coast. You simply must visit Crageria some time.”

“Could I?” Rib asked, surprised. “How kind of you to offer.”

“Indeed.” The man nodded, a satisfied expression on his face. “Perhaps you’ll even decide to stay, as Oriole did!”

What?

Rib cocked his head, looking to the female. “Where were you before?”

Oriole opened her mouth, but Prince Griffith placed a hand on her snout and interrupted, “That, she would be glad to tell you. But first, can you tell us where the Great Wizard Damon lives?”

“Yes,” Rib agreed, happy that the Wizard had visitors. “Right this way.”

“Splendid!” Prince Griffith mounted the colorful saddle strapped to Oriole’s back and Rib took off, checking to make sure they were following.

What strangers! he marveled, heading over the spring green forest.

A tinge of sadness haunted him, though, as he thought again of his sister.

Someday, he promised himself. Someday.

. . .

Rib lay around the fire with Tyrone’s family and the two visitors. Night had long ago fallen and they were waiting for Damon to come home, meanwhile listening to Oriole’s story of what had happened to the colony of dragons after they left Wystil over fifteen years ago.

“So the Colony landed on the ship before it reached the Island?” Theora asked with much interest, hugging her sleeping youngest child close. Rib hadn’t expected her to be so familiar with Oriole, but apparently they’d known each other in the past, when the Colony still lived in the area.

The white features of Oriole’s face glowed orange by the brazier’s fire and she nodded. “We were all so tired flying over those waters, we just had to land. But the Huskhns on the ship were terrified of us! Some even jumped overboard before they climbed into their boats and rowed away. A good thing, too, because then all their captives were free.”

“How many captives were there?” Tyrone inquired, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, two dozen, maybe? Poor them, they’re children had all been taken away before we arrived. The youngest person there must have been little more than a striker.”

Rib saw Tyrone lean over to whisper something to his son, who giggled and continued digging a stick into the soft ground.

The Huskhns take everyone! Rib thought. My sister, those poor people…

Why doesn’t anyone stop them?

“Must have been a bad storm that hit,” Theora prompted Oriole.

“Oh, it was dreadful!” the dragon cried loud enough to wake the child on Theora’s lap. “And since the captain and the crew had all been killed, no one could do anything about it. We were thrown around for days until the ship crashed.”

“What about the Huskhns that came to the Island?” Rib changed the subject from where he lay, both foreclaws in front of him. “Why did they show up?”

“That was a long time after we landed,” Oriole clarified. “Not much happened. Just, men came and demanded something of the Islanders. A potion, I think.”

What about Memory? Rib pulled his tail around his body in nervous energy.

“Was a dragon with them?” he urged.

Oriole looked thoughtful, gazing at the treetops. “No, I don’t recall one.”

Rib settled back in disappointment.

“What potion did the Huskhns want?” Tyrone asked, leaning back with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Oriole simpered. “I’m not even sure that’s what they wanted.”

Tyrone whispered something to Theora that Rib didn’t catch.

Griffith, who had been rather quiet throughout this conversation, now said, “Do tell them how we came to meet, Oriole,” and clapped her on the shoulder wing.

Oriole’s face split into a grin. “Well, I had been flying through the vapor fields when I found some lost Cragerians. They had come to the Island for the Royal Well as their Queen requested and got lost on their way back to their ships.

“So I helped them and they invited me to come meet the royal family, such an honor! They insisted the Queen would be glad to meet me.”

“Mother always favored me over my elder brother,” Prince Griffith interrupted. “So she gave me the Royal Well instead.

“They say the Royal Well enables kings to look into the hearts of their subjects and know whether they are faithful or not. And my, is it fascinating! Ever since I acquired the Eyes of Kings, I’ve been seeing things entirely differently.”

Prince Griffith leaned forward and smugly looked each one of them in the eye, as though proving a point. A beetle flew into his face and he smacked it down.

“That’s when Oriole told me of the Great Wizard Damon, and so here I am. Here to- Damon!” the man exclaimed suddenly, jumping up in his kilt. “You must be him!”

Rib looked to where the Prince was now headed to see the Wizard come from the woods. With a book held to his chest, Damon stopped in his tracks and watched the stranger running up to meet him.

“Hello, Great Wizard,” Griffith wheezed, though he hadn’t run very far at all. “I am Prince Griffith of Crageria, here to learn the ways of magic under your wise guidance. Legends have been told of the Cragerian man who came to you, offering the Royal Well so there would be peace between our kingdoms when you became king. They say you disappeared, but now I’ve found you. As you can see, I have both a firebreather and the Eyes of Kings. So please, Great Wizard! Accept me as your apprentice.”

The man stood straight up, red mustache ruffled by the breeze as he held out his hand to Damon. Another beetle flew into Griffith’s eye and he cursed, smashing it in his fist.

Damon stared silently at the man for a few seconds. Rib drew a little closer.

What will he say?

Twice, the Wizard’s mouth opened and closed.

Then, with a single shake of his hairy head, he began striding towards his hut.

“Sir, please reconsider!” Griffith cried, trailing after him. “I am a man of great potential!”

There was a small laugh behind Rib and he turned to see Theora struggling to hide her amusement. Both her sons, wide awake now after all the man’s yelling, burst out giggling but Tyrone hushed them.

Rib saw Oriole staring after the two men, wings and tail drooping.

He approached her cautiously.

“I thought Damon would accept,” Oriole uttered as Rib pulled up beside her. “I told Griffith he would!”

“Maybe he’ll change his mind,” Rib whispered, stalking closer to Damon’s shelter. “Let’s see.”

The two dragons came close to the shabby construction and peered through the doorway at the scene inside. Damon had set his book down on the table and was now moving around the cramped area, rearranging a number of dead things, both plants and animals. Prince Griffith had both hands flat on the table as he leaned over and pleaded with the Wizard.

“I know you don’t have a firebreather anymore, so think! Think what I have to offer. With Oriole and I, you have no need to worry!”

“A firebreather on these grounds is no consolation to me,” Damon said, finally facing the prince. “I ask you both to leave immediately.”

“If it’s the madness you are thinking of,” Griffith protested, “surely you have some way of preventing it. No Sir, we will not leave!”

Damon turned his back on the man.

Rib could hear Prince Griffith grind his teeth in frustration. The sound stopped, however, when the large man’s eyes fell on Damon’s book. With meaty hands, he slid it towards himself and flipped through a few pages, all the while bringing it closer and closer to his face in clear amazement. He shut it silently, apparently unnoticed by Damon.

“Fine,” the prince declared, shoving the book under his arm as he stepped further into the hut. “But I cannot be repressed! If you will not have me as your apprentice-” he kicked the cauldron above the dragon fire, causing the liquid inside it to slosh out and drown the flame, “then I will be the only wizard!”

Rib gaped as Griffith pushed past him to jump on Oriole’s back and Damon yelled.

What did he just do?!

“Fly, Oriole!” Prince Griffith demanded, brutally clacking his heels against her sides. “Now!”

“Oh!” the dragon exclaimed and leapt away just as Damon burst from his hut. She cast everyone a panicked look before taking off and flying head long into newly appeared fog, Griffith still commanding her to hurry.

“Wait!” the Wizard shouted after them, spittle flying from his mouth and into his fraying beard. “They stole my potion book!”

He stared wildly at Rib. “Go after them!”

“What?!” Rib cried. “What if they fight me?”

Damon exclaimed something under his breath and he darted back into his hut, kneeling at the brazier to burrow his bare hands into the sodden firewood. “Gone…not an ember!”

“Damon?” Tyrone entered the hut.

The Wizard turned to him, a crazed look in his eye.

“Can’t you see?” he rasped. “Now anything can happen and I’ll have no defense against it!”

Tyrone looked at Rib. “Please just go after them. Try and convince them to come back. Tell them Damon accepts their request after all.”

“Alright,” Rib consented, backing up. “But I don’t know if-”

“Go!” Damon yelled at him, and so he took off without another word.

I’ve never seen the Wizard like this!

Rib went in the direction he’d seen Oriole go, rising into the fog that smothered the forest.

Oh! He spotted the dragon through the low clouds with her rider hunched over. But as he pursued, his attention was swiveled to another dragon, running along the ground with its own rider.

What?!

Rib halted, beating his wings to hover in place as his eyes flicked from one dragon to the other. He could tell by the large size of the flying one’s rider that it was Oriole and Griffith.

So who was that?_] Rib peered through the fog where he’d glimpsed the second dragon. [_Could it be…

Memory?

Hope and longing taking over, Rib dove after the place he’d seen the stranger and its mysterious rider, landing on the ground. Desperately, he stared into the dark woods but saw nothing. He ran in the direction he thought they’d gone but soon realized it was too late. The fog was too thick and he hadn’t the sense of smell to track them with.

I missed them!

Rib trembled where he stood, breath shuddering from his lungs. The dark shapes of trees all around him were barely even visible. He strived to think of whomever else it could have been that’d just escaped him, but no one came to mind. There was only one possibility he could imagine.

Was it her[_?_]

Chapter 4

 

 

“They were right here!” Rib said, circling the place he’d stood just last night. “Running away. A dragon and a rider.”

Tyrone stepped forward and stopped Rib’s restless pacing. “I’ll take a look around.”

Rib waited anxiously as the man searched the forest floor. It was only after he and Tyrone went to Cliffport to learn that Prince Griffith had already sailed away with Oriole and Damon’s book that Tyrone agreed to help look for the strangers Rib glimpsed last night.

There was a light mist in the air, nothing compared to the heavy fog hours earlier. Birds warbled in the newly leafing canopy above, not at all reflecting the high-strung energy vibrating inside Rib.

Looking down at the ground, Rib gasped.

“Tyrone, look! Here’s a trail.”

The man barely glanced up before continuing his search, saying, “That’s yours.”

Oh. Rib felt embarrassed. Tyrone had tried to teach him tracking by sight once Rib lost his sense of smell, but he never had enough patience to learn.

“Here’s something,” Tyrone mentioned a ways away and crouched down, moving some snapped underbrush aside to reveal a few dislodged rocks. “Yes, this is what we’re looking for.”

Rib followed right behind the man as he moved further into the trees. Soon, Tyrone seemed to have picked up a clear trail, for he headed on without a word. Rib also kept his mouth shut, afraid to break the man’s concentration.

Whose trail is it? Where does it lead? Questions rattled inside his brain like the twigs he brushed past.

But what really made his muscles tense was when he considered the possibility of finding the strangers.

“Have you actually seen any tracks?” he asked, his voice low.

Tyrone pointed down at the soft turf he stepped over and Rib gawked at it. The perfect print of a dragon’s foot was pressed into the ground.

Memory?

Rib silently held his foreclaw up to it. His was only slightly bigger.

His heart pounded a little harder.

Just as Rib thought there’d be no end to the trail, the trees petered out and land opened up to green, bouldered fields. Thunder rumbled in the distance and Rib could see dark clouds far upland. It looked like a smear of grey on the horizon.

“Here’s where they took flight,” Tyrone said and halted at a certain spot in the mud. “The prints are deeper and you can see where the tail struck.”

“So…” Rib droned.

“So the trail ends.”

“That’s it?” he gasped. “We’ll never know who it was?”

“Well,” Tyrone scratched his chin as he thought, “it’s possible that they landed somewhere nearby. Among those rocks, maybe. Or farther down.”

“We have to see,” Rib implored. “Couldn’t this be…my sister?”

The man gazed steadily at him, his expression solemn.

“I think it could be, yes.”

Rib’s heart fluttered like a little bird caged inside his chest.

“I’m willing to split up and search the area, but you must be careful. Remember, even if by some small chance you come across your sister, she is still with a very dangerous man.”

“Yes, but…” Rib said. “What if he’s changed? You know, like Mortaug?”

Tyrone gave him a slight, grim smile. “That may be, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s avoiding us. And that’s reason enough to make me wary of him.”

Rib nodded. “I’ll be careful.”

“Good.” Tyrone set off in the direction of the lower kingdom, saying, “You check up there, then. Look for prints, disturbances, stray items, any sign there might be.”

The dragon did exactly as the man said, soaring low over the land with eyes flicking back and forth. What if I found my other siblings’ tracks instead? he thought. Or Tide or Lynx’s. I might get excited over nothing.

The storm approaching grumbled again. Rib could feel the warm dampness in the air.

What if the rain comes to wash all our clues away? His worries increased and he glanced up to see how close the dark clouds were now. One bolt of lightning streaked across them with a flicker.

I need to hurry, thought Rib, beating his wings for a faster glide. He aimed for the group of boulders Tyrone had indicated, but continued staring at the ground in hopes that he might spot something on his way.

But when he reached the large rocks, he found that nothing was there. Rib alighted on the tallest one, disheartened as he looked over the fields, more rolling thunder behind him. He could see Tyrone headed along a slope, too far away to hear Rib if he called.

It’s hopeless, Rib told himself bleakly. If it was Memory, we’ll never find her. She flew off.

There was some movement in the corner of his eye and he looked to it. Fluttering past him was a solitary muffle moth, practically harmless on its own. Rib narrowed his eyes at it.

Don’t those fly in swarms?

At the sound of another crack of lightning, he turned again to see the storm, but instead stared in horror at what approached.

A billowing mass of white glided over the fields, stretching the entire length of the vast fields as far as Rib could tell. The tremendous cloud was nearly upon him, like a silent avalanche.

Muffle moths!

Hundreds of thousands of them!

They’re going to reach me and then-

Tyrone!

Immediately, Rib jumped into the air and sped for the distant man. As he did, he saw more moths around him, leading the swarm. Rib flew as fast as he could, memories of his past burning in his mind. He was a young pupil again, about to be swallowed by a deadly mass of insects. Except this time, without his book and dragon fire, Damon didn’t have the means to cure him.

“Tyrone!” Rib roared as he came. The man turned to see him, visibly stiffening at the sight of the moths. The fray of the swarm was up to his tail, Rib knew.

There’s no time!

“Get down!” Rib cried. “Hold your breath!”

Tyrone did so just as Rib and the moths reached him. Clamping his own mouth shut, Rib threw himself over the man the moment the swarm had them engulfed.

So many. Rib watched in terror through his clear set of eyelids, innumerable moths flying at him, above him, all passing by. He had managed to curl his body around Tyrone, his wings acting as a barricade to keep the insects out. But nothing was there to protect him.

With the seemingly endless moths fluttering into his face, Rib couldn’t help but breathe in their thick dust. It swirled all around him, blown about by hundreds of little wings. His vision was turning white. He squeezed his outer lids shut, sobbing in fear, and lowered his head to the ground.

He knew that with every breath, he’d grow a little weaker, until he could move no more, breathe no longer.

I’m going to die, he cried inside. Damon can’t save me this time!

Scared for Tyrone, he peeked at the shelter he’d formed with his body. All the moths that ran into his wings simply glanced up and over his body. He didn’t see any get inside.

They’re clearing away now, Rib recognized the thinning of the mass. Sky was beginning to show through. And I don’t even feel like they’ve affected me…

It perplexed him how well his body responded to his mind. He wasn’t limp at all.

“Tyrone?” Rib dared open his mouth to speak, amazed that his own voice came out so clear. He was sure he had gotten dust in his mouth. He could taste it on his tongue.

“Rib!” Tyrone responded from under the dragon’s wing. “Are you alright?”

“I…I think I am. I breathed in dust but it didn’t do anything to me!”

Above, Rib heard the great roar of thunder and the sound of nearing rain. Now the moths had almost completely passed. Only a dozen or so were left behind the swarm, and Rib watched as fat raindrops pummeled them down. The dust still drifting in the air was soon weighed down by water, which dripped from Rib’s snout and ran down his wings. Blinking, Rib looked back at the immense mass of insects quickly moving down land.

They’re fleeing the storm, he realized.

“Tyrone, it looks safe now.” Rib opened himself up to let the man out. “The rain is washing everything away.”

Tyrone stared around and stood up. Water quickly soaked his hair, his tunic, everything. Checking himself over, the man turned to Rib and looked him in the eye.

“I would have died just then,” he said. “Thank you.”

Rib ducked his head. “I, um…you’re welcome.”

Together, they peered after the swarm, fast disappearing.

“This is bad,” Tyrone spoke. “If they go any farther than the Swaine, Wystil will be in trouble.”

“I’ll follow them,” Rib volunteered. “Their dust can’t hurt me anymore. You make sure your family’s alright.”

Tyrone gazed through the rain at him a moment before nodding.

Rib ascended just as a dash of lightning cracked overhead, blanching his eyesight for a startling moment. He flew low to avoid the storm clouds, looking back to make sure Tyrone was headed home. He was.

Good, Rib sighed and flew faster to escape the rain, as the moths were. It was still shocking to see how far the swarm stretched, end to end. Soon, he was leaving the storm behind and he twisted in midair to send a dazzling array of sparkling water from his vibrant hide.

He beat his wings for a long time, growing concerned as to how far the moths were migrating.

They’re passing over all the abandoned towns, Rib worried, glancing at the shabby villages and old settlements below. We’ll be reaching the Swaine soon!

No…Rib saw the curving river in the distance, saw the deathly moths pass over it. No, no, no!

Rib also soared over the Swaine, panicking. What do I do?! People live down here!

He could think of no possible way for him to stop the gigantic mass. There was no rain here. All the clouds above were a mix of brilliant white and light, light grey. Sunbeams cascaded down to shine on the abundant fields of grain and Rib watched in awe as the moths began to descend upon them. They dispersed. Each little insect hid away into the crops.

This has got to be bad, Rib knew, seeing the expansive area turn white. Great clouds of dust were left hanging in the air, swept towards villages in the distance by the breeze.

There’s nothing I can do.

Rib felt as though he were going to be sick.

I can’t stop the dust…

Chapter 5

 

 

All this death…

Rib lay alone on the sheer cliffs of the coast, on the other side of the narrow mountain range from Cliffport. Beside him was a trickle of a waterfall that leaked off the land all the way down to the ocean below.

Seems nothing can stop the plague.

It’d been two months since Rib watched helplessly as the muffle moths descended on Wystil’s largest zikkerwheat crops, the kingdom’s main source of grain. Clouds of the moths’ dust also blew into the surrounding towns and villages. Those who breathed it in or ate of the contaminated zikkerwheat lost their voices in minor cases, but continued exposure to the dust would lead to the crippling of their bodies and even death.

When people realized their precious grain could not be saved, they burned the moth infested crops. But this only made things worse. The ash of the incinerated moths that clouded over the kingdom proved just as perilous as their dust, and it settled over the land, entering the lungs of not only the Wystilians, but their animals as well.

With so many people unable to farm and tend to their livestock, famine was beginning to cause just as many deaths as the plague itself. Rib couldn’t bear to ask how many were dead already. He only had to remember the moment he saw a cart of dead bodies being dumped down a large pit near Cliffport to be silenced with grief.

The poor goose girl that used to run from me…The old couple that would help each other carry pails of water…

The streets are so much emptier now.

No one close to Rib had been badly touched by the dust yet, but there was always a chance for it to happen. Especially with the recent lack of rain, which left the air dry and perfect for the harmful particles to be picked up by a breeze.

Rib had been anxious to get Gavin with Mortaug and his son to a safer place, but it soon turned out that the location of the Salten Gust Inn was as ideal as anywhere in the lower kingdom could get. Due to the frequent ocean mist, the Wystilian coast was cleared of almost all the ash and dust.

Out on the horizon, the sky was light orange as the sun sank. The ocean was calmer than usual, coming close to lulling Rib to sleep in his sadness. He was lying on the very edge of the ocean cliff, tail drooping over, head on a clump of wet moss.

A tiny, insect-like monigon flitted towards him, undoubtedly attracted to his firebloom hide. Humorlessly, he watched it land on his nose and circle about, barely able to feel its long tongue that tasted his scales.

His eyes were nearly closed when he noticed strange movement behind the little creature, out across the ocean. With a blink, he shook his head a bit and the monigon flew away, giving him a clear view.

In the distance, something long, tall, and thin pushed through the water. Rib stared at it without moving from his resting place, baffled by the vine-like thing.

Am I really seeing this?

Whatever it was, it appeared to be coming closer. And, as it did, he realized it was even bigger and taller than he could imagine.

Sea serpent!

Rib felt his muscles tighten. He wanted to fly away from the cliff, but his body seemed as immobile as the rock he lay upon.

As the massive water beast approached, it blocked out the falling sun, casting shadow over Rib. Its narrow head, adorned with a vast webbing of frills, towered at an indescribable height, supported by a long slender body that trailed behind in a number of arcs. Its scales, in all shades of greens, blues, and purples, were easily half as big as Rib, some even bigger.

Rib gaped in awe, hoping the serpent might turn and glide in its elegant ways along the coast. But instead the serpent stopped.

Heart pounding in his chest, Rib had to crane his long neck back to see it. Its skull must have been the size of a house.

Somehow, the beast didn’t seem threatening. All it did was poise there in the water, swaying slightly, gazing out at the land as others gazed out at sea.

But still, its colossal figure was terrifying.

Something told Rib this was what the humans’ fear of him felt like.

What’s that on its head?

Standing on the serpent’s dome was what looked like the silhouette of a dragon.

It was a dragon! Rib gawked as it spread its wings and began gliding down from the impressive height.

When the dragon did, the sea serpent flattened back its frills and dipped its graceful snout into the water, slipping into the ocean as though it had never been. Rib was suddenly blinded by the sun without the beast there to block it, and struggled to watch the mysterious dragon above, who swooped towards him.

The stranger, Rib came to realize, was larger than him, though before it had looked miniscule atop the serpent’s head.

Who is this?!

Rib was speechless when the dragon alighted before him. Sunlight glinted off his silvery white scales, making him almost painful to look at as he folded his wings against his body with a radiant smile.

“Greetings!” the stranger said. “I am Clyde- heard from the distance!

Clyde…Rib gawked at the dragon, finally recognizing him. They’d met before, but never had Clyde arrived on a sea serpent.

“Ah.” The newcomer grinned. “I know you. How could I forget the one dragon that bears the memorable hue of the firesap flower? How are you, Rib?”

“I, uh…” Rib choked out. “Fine, thank you. Was that a- a sea serpent?”

The brilliant dragon beamed. “Impressive, isn’t she?” he said. “The Great She-Serpent of the Sea! I’ve had the honor of traveling the world with her, far and wide.”

“But…” Rib stuttered. “How? What do you eat? What do you drink?”

Clyde straightened.

“Icebergs and fish are my life!” he answered with pride. “Although,” he bent his head, “I do miss a fresh bite of venison at times, I will admit.”

“Where- where did you just come from?”

“The splendid kingdom of Crageria!” Clyde declared. “Say, have you heard of what happened there? Of how Lord Griffith cunningly usurped the throne from his older brother?”

Usurped…?

“The usurper himself told me his story,” the dragon said before Rib could respond. “When the Great She-Serpent of the Sea brought me to Crageria, I was soon invited to Lord Griffith’s Fairy Realm. And, my! What a sight to behold! There was a towering cliff, against which a castle wall was built. Inside was the royal forest of wonders beyond imagination. I shan’t tell you of the many trees and creatures and servants…To describe them would be to draw a sunset in sand. How could one convey the sheer beauty, the splendor? But ah, how they dazzled mine eyes!”

How different could a forest be from here? Rib wondered, though declined to ask.

“When I arrived, Lord Griffith met me with his companion, Oriole. This dragon I already knew, and I dare not fail to mention the intriguing pattern of her hide. Truly I tell you, no night has been darker and no light has been brighter than the black and white of her scales. And oh, how the canaries must weep in envy of her yellows. But I digress…

“Over the finest of feasts a king could ever throw, Lord Griffith showed me his book of potions. Its pages appeared blank to me, but he assured me they were filled with potion formulas all written in magic, by his very hand.”

No, that must be Damon’s book, Rib thought. Griffith’s a thief and a liar!

Still Rib did not speak up, wanting to hear the rest of the story. Any distraction to get his mind off the plague was like a blessing.

Clyde grinned mischievously as he went on. “It was from that book he crafted a potion that would forever change his kingdom. A potion he so slyly slipped into his king brother’s goblet. The poor man! One sip of his wine and he fell to the floor.”

Griffith poisoned his own brother?!

But Clyde was not finished. “His servants could do nothing as he writhed in agony. The king’s legs changed, growing bonier while his knees turned backwards. Coarse red fur soon coated his lower body, tufted at the tip of his new, short tail. His feet were compacted into sharp hooves that scratched and clacked against the marble floors of his dining hall. As a final touch, his ears lengthened with pointed tips. At last, his transformation was complete and he was able to stand, half-man and half-goat.”

What?!

“A faun, a faun!” Clyde declared in delighted shouts. “Lord Griffith laughed at his brother’s shame. Not another day passed before the king went into hiding, unfit to rule in his new body. Immediately taking the throne, Lord Griffith ordered for a castle wall to be built at the foot of the cliff, so he could begin on his Fairy Realm forest. He drove his people mercilessly until they at last had the curtain wall finished, with a moat dug around it and filled by the water of heavenly falls.”

Clyde finally fell silent, smiling broadly, but Rib was too stunned to say anything.

All that happened since Griffith and Oriole stole Damon’s book?

Why did Damon even make up such a potion? The thought was disturbing to him. He’d always believed that Damon’s potions were meant to help people, like the cure for the muffle moth dust.

Griffith must have twisted the potion somehow.

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” Clyde said as Rib failed to give him an audible response. The sinking sun flashed on his wings when he flexed them.

“It’s horrible,” Rib breathed, realizing some of the blame fell on him.

If I had gotten the book back, none of it would have ever happened.

But now? Now someone has goat legs because of me.

“One could see it that way,” the silvery dragon agreed. “Oh, but I’ve almost forgotten! How much dragonkind owes to His Majesty!”

“What?” Rib screwed up his face.

What could we ever owe him[_?_]

Clyde inhaled with emphasis. “Not long after his castle wall was built and his forest secured, Lord Griffith went about crafting much of one potion. It took him days, he told me, but in time he finally had enough powder to send with his servants to the Island, where the Colony lives. When they reached there, the servants searched for the precious Royal Wells growing in the bogs. And after weeks of tireless hunting, they found two dozen or so and were able to carry out their lord’s commands.”

Two dozen? It took Damon years to get even just one!

“Carefully combining the powder His Majesty gave them and the liquid of the Royal Wells, the servants at last held the firesap cure in their hands- enough to heal all the firebreathers on the Island. Swift on wing, Lord Griffith’s head servant made quick work of distributing it and the servants left, a fleet of grateful icebreathers bidding them farewell. Indeed, dragons have Lord Griffith to thank.”

He really healed all those firebreathers? Rib couldn’t help but be filled with a sudden appreciation for him. Maybe he’s not so bad, willing to make cures for…

Wait!

“That’s it!” Rib gasped. “I can ask Griffith to craft the cure!”

Clyde cocked his head. “Oh? What cure?”

Rib told him of the plague that seized Wystil. The facts, usually so heavy on Rib’s heart when he spoke them, now bathed in his new found hope for a solution. His spirits were almost as high as though Griffith had just handed him the cure in person.

“My,” the strange dragon said when Rib finished giving him the details. “That sounds dreadful!”

Rib nodded adamantly. “But Griffith can craft the cure, I’m sure of it! And he’s already invited me to his kingdom so all I need is to get there and ask.”

Clyde closed his eyes with a chuckle. “Sounds like everyone wants a potion from him,” he said humorously. “First Zheal, and now-”

“Wait, what?” Rib’s spirits were yanked back down to the ground. “Zheal? He’s in Crageria?!”

“Oh, yes,” Clyde responded. “Was recently made the ambassador for Husk there, I believe.”

“Was my sister with him?” Rib’s mouth felt numb with anticipation. “My size, lavender grey…known as Tairg?”

“Ah, so she’s your sister, is she?” Clyde grinned. “Yes, she was there. Sported a stunning white saddle, lucky one. Positively lovely! Never heard her speak a word, though.”

My sister…in Crageria. Rib’s head swam. He saw her.

“What was she doing?” Rib stammered. “Why was she there? What was she like?”

Clyde laughed heartily. “My, aren’t you inquisitive! I wish I could tell you, but Lord Griffith requested that I leave as soon as Zheal came asking for help in making a potion.”

“So you don’t know what happened to her, my sister?”

“Afraid not.” Clyde gave him a sympathetic smile.

Rib could only whisper, “Could she still be there?”

“I should think so!”

Rib was dumbstruck.

My sister could be in Crageria right now.

“Alright, then!” Clyde said suddenly, gazing out at the land with a look of expectancy. “I think I will go and catch myself a deer. I’d hate to stay the She-Serpent for long.”

“She’s waiting for you?” Rib perked up as a thought came to him.

Clyde beamed. “All I must do is sing for her and she surfaces. She is very attentive to my voice.”

“Could…” Rib tried to figure out what he was about to ask. “Could she take me to Crageria?”

“Oh, no!” the odd dragon laughed. “She doesn’t take requests. But I am happy to go wherever she may take me.”

Rib blinked, his mind still racing with thoughts of his sister. If the serpent could not take him, he’d need some other form of transportation. Without a moment’s hesitation, he took to the air.

“Farewell, Rib!” Clyde called after him, but Rib didn’t respond.

He could hardly compose himself as he flew with Cliffport as his destination. He hadn’t a plan or even an idea, though one thing was prominent in his head.

I have to get to Crageria.

. . .

Rib stared at the boat, amazed.

“You bought it?” he repeated just to be sure. “It’s yours?”

Mortaug gave his typical half smile and nodded. He looked significantly thinner now, because of the famine. Everyone did.

“He sold the inn for it,” Gavin said. “I know this is hard for you to hear, Rib, but we’re leaving Wystil.”

Leaving Wystil?

Rib stared at Gavin’s deep blue eyes sunken slightly in his gaunt face.

“Where…where are you going?”

“It’s more the question of where we won’t be going. This is a cargo ship. We’ll be travelling from port to port.”

Rib blinked at the boat rocking softly in the waves. It was about seven times his length, with ribbed wooden sides that bulged outward for a wide interior. At both ends of the boat, platforms formed the deck under which supplies could be stored. In the middle there was an open space apart from the two beams dividing it that Rib would have to step over if he wished to cross.

Also in the center was the boat’s mast with a single sail bunched along a pole at the top. Many ropes ran from it to the edges of the boat, but they were confusing for Rib to look at so he simply peered past them.

Carved into the detailed shape of a sea serpent’s head, the prow reached for the dawn with every swell of water beneath it.

Altogether, the vessel appeared both sturdy and charming.

This is what I need, Rib processed slowly. Right here. Everything I need.

He turned to Mortaug. “You have to take me to Crageria,” he said. “Griffith can give me the cure for the plague and we can save Wystil.”

And free my sister, he added silently to himself.

“What?!” Jasper exclaimed from where he stood with back against the mast. “What doltish idea is that?”

Mortaug looked likewise perplexed and he signed something to Gavin.

“He asks why you think King Griffith would do that for you,” Gavin interpreted, peering at Rib just as curiously.

“Because I’m a dragon,” Rib answered. “He adores dragons! And I know him. He said I must visit his kingdom. It’s at least worth a try asking him for the cure.”

Mortaug’s forehead wrinkled in concern.

“He wants to know if you’re sure he can make it.”

Rib nodded adamantly. “He has the book that Damon wrote all his potions into. That and a firebreather. He can craft the same cure that Damon used to heal us, Mortaug.”

He waited with bated breath as the man took a while to think. A breeze ruffled Mortaug’s tunic and picked at his grey, rope-like hair.

“All I’m asking is that you take me to Crageria,” Rib begged. “Please, Mortaug. People are dying here!”

The expressive side of Mortaug’s face softened and he nodded. Rib watched his hands fly, wishing he could understand the beautiful language, hope mounting in his chest.

“Alright,” Gavin interpreted. “We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. Just know that the way to Crageria is long. It will take us a number of stops along the way.”

Rib felt as though he could catch a hundred stags.

“Thank you!” he blustered, unfolding his wings in fervent energy. “I’ll be here at dawn!”

The dragon soared for home to tell the good news, every beat of his wings effortless and joyous.

We’ll save the kingdom!

We’ll save my sister.

Chapter 6

 

 

What’s this?

Entering into the upper kingdom on his way home, Rib was amazed to see a woman of twenty-two or so crossing over the great Swaine Bridge.

A Wystilian?! Rib could hardly believe it.

What if I scare her away?

He was about to turn back and take a different route when he accidentally ran his shadow over her. He winced as she turned around and looked up at him.

Please don’t panic!

To his surprise, the woman did not scream and run. Instead, she pulled at the scarf tied around her face and called to him, “Hey, come here!”

Come here’? Rib obeyed, utterly baffled as he swooped to land on the stone bridge with her.

The woman looked about Gavin’s age, with light brown hair cropped unusually short. She was of an average height and skinny at the waist. Her dress was simple, the bridge of her nose freckled, half her face covered with dark cloth to keep out harmful particles. She had a belt with a sheathed knife on it. Most uncomfortable of all to Rib was how she peered at him with her pale blue eyes, studying him with an expression of stern criticism.

No one’s ever stared at me like this. Rib wasn’t sure how to react. It’s as though facing dragons is an everyday experience for her!

“Can you fly with a human on your back?” she demanded from behind her scarf, still scrutinizing him.

“Well yeah, I mean, I have,” Rib stammered.

“Good. I need you to take me to the Wizard, Damon.” The woman came to his side and reached to grab ahold of him. “This is urgent.”

“What- I don’t even have a saddle on!” Rib protested, baffled by her boldness as she hoisted herself up onto his back. He was used to Tyrone’s children taking the same liberty of climbing all over him, but this was no five year old boy.

“Doesn’t matter,” she replied bluntly. “Just go.”

How can she be so overbearing? This woman I could throw off in an instant?

I suppose it’s better than if she were terrified of me like all the rest…

Well, alright then. Rib stopped hesitating and took off with a gentle bound, readying himself to catch her in his talons when she fell off.

But she didn’t.

Who is this woman? Rib was confounded. He could feel her balancing herself with every transition of his flight, firm and steady. No one’s ever ridden me without gear before!

Rib flew her all the way to Tyrone’s lodge, where Damon’s hut stood close by. Thankfully, not a single moth had ventured here, perhaps deterred by the rain or the woods. Landing in the grass clearing, Rib was about to tell his rider what housing was the Wizard’s, but she was off his back and heading towards the hut before he could speak a word.

“Damon.” The woman tugged her scarf down to hang around her neck, stepping into the crooked doorway. “I need your help.”

“Damara,” Rib heard the Wizard respond and drew nearer to see over the woman’s shoulder. The old man had stood to meet her, knotted hair hanging in front of his eyes as always.

So that’s her name.

“My brother’s wife is plagued,” the woman, Damara, told the Wizard. “I know you must have something to heal her-”

“No,” the Wizard interrupted hoarsely.

No?” Damara sounded incredulous. Rib saw her hand grip the doorframe tighter.

“I did until someone stole my potion book.”

“Well,” the woman said haltingly, “surely you can craft a cure without the book.”

“No,” he said again. “I don’t have dragon fire.”

“But Lynx?”

“No.”

Damara’s shoulders slackened a little.

How does she know Lynx too? Rib wondered.

“Those two dragons in the mountains,” Damara pursued. “The ones that took me to you.”

“Liah and Dare,” the Wizard provided their names. “Both found dead.”

Am I the only one who’s never met this woman?!

“Could…the phoenixes have dragon fire somehow?”

“Yes, but not now.”

“Then when?”

“Never again, unless a firebreather comes.”

“So…there’s nothing you can do.”

The Wizard answered her with silence. Rib could see her narrow frame tremor with a shaky intake of breath.

“Catherine will die?”

Her voice sounds hollow, Rib thought, comparing it to how strong and commanding it was before.

“It’ll be alright,” he told her from behind. “I’m going to get the cure!”

Damara shifted in the doorway to see him, head turned downwards with pale eyes glaring from under her brow.

How?” she growled.

“My captain friend has agreed to sail me to Crageria,” Rib answered. “The King there has everything he would need to craft the cure for us!”

He beamed at her.

Damara sneered. “And why would he do that?”

“Well- because I’d ask him to!” Rib stammered, put off by her negative response. “We’ve met before and he’s nice and-”

“And he stole my potion book,” the Wizard grumbled.

At this, Damara straightened, looking to the Wizard.

“So…” she said. “The King of Crageria has your book and a firebreather?”

The Wizard nodded, his expression bleak.

Damara turned to face Rib.

“Other kingdoms won’t even let Wystilian ships dock at their ports. What makes your friend’s any exception?”

Rib was stalled for a moment, ignorant of this fact. Then, sudden realization restored his optimism and he answered, “Because it’s Huskhn craft. No one on board looks Wystilian, so they won’t suspect where we came from.”

Damara was clearly considering this with the utmost seriousness now. Rib could feel her eyes run over his muscular shoulder wings and chest.

“Can you fight?”

Her question took him by surprise.

“Uh, yeah bu-” he began, and was promptly cut off.

“Then this is what we’re going to do,” she declared. “I will go with you to Crageria, we will bring back the book and the firebreather, and Damon will craft the cure for us.”

“Yes,” the Wizard agreed immediately. “Enough for the whole kingdom.”

What?!

“But, wait!” Rib protested. “You’re talking about stealing from a king. A wizard king!”

“People are dying here!” Damara said sharply. “And I don’t trust some regal lunatic to do us a favor and give us the cure. All we have to do is slip in and disappear with what is rightfully ours.”

“Yes,” the Wizard agreed again.

“But-” Rib stuttered. “With a dragon?”

Damara’s stare didn’t falter. Rib felt intimidated by her eyes which flashed in the morning sun.

This…he slowly came to realize. This is who I need to help free Memory.

“Fine,” Rib said, holding his head a little higher. “I will ask if you can come with us. But only if you agree to aid me in something else while we’re there.”

“And what is that?”

Rib took a deep breath. “My sister was taken by Huskhns when we were young,” he explained. “But she’s in Crageria now. Help me get her, and we can leave. All of us, with the book.”

Damara’s jaw tightened.

“This sister of yours…” she spoke. “Do the Huskhns still have her?”

Slowly, Rib nodded.

“And the boat we’ll be in,” she said. “Can it hold two additional dragons?”

Could it?

Rib tried to mimic her confident gaze. “Yes.”

We’ll make it work.

The woman took another moment assessing him before giving a curt nod. She turned back to the Wizard. “We’ll get what you need, Damon.”

“I can give you something!” he told her, and circled the inside of his hut, pushing aside heaps of dead plants, animal parts, random containers that clattered against each other. He mumbled to himself, pulling on a crusty curl of his beard as he glanced around him, shaking his head.

“Oh.” His eyes focused in on the skull of a dog on his table and he picked it up, turning it over to Damara. “Here.”

The young woman looked confused, her brow furrowed, until she peered inside the skull and rapped it against the wall. Into the palm of her hand dropped a small vial, which she held up to her face.

Light caught on the little glass container. In the bottom rolled but a single drop of translucent orange liquid.

Damara studied it carefully. “Is this-”

“The last of the firesap fruit magic,” the Wizard answered. “For if someone is mortally wounded. Just remember that if they aren’t a dragon already…” He let his voice peter out.

They’ll turn into one, Rib finished the man’s sentence silently. He knew the stories.

The woman nodded and tucked the vial away in the folds of her dress. Clearly she knew, too.

Damon’s really going to entrust that to her?

The Wizard came out of his hut, motioning for them to follow. Damara was quick to fall into step beside him, but Rib started off slower, gazing at the hunting lodge as they passed it. He couldn’t hear anyone inside.

On his way over, he had been thinking of what he was going to tell the others. But now, with the change of plans, he wasn’t even sure if he’d be able to say goodbye. The thought pained him.

Would Tyrone try to stop us from doing this or not?

No. He can’t.

Rib bounded to catch up to the others, growing anxious to leave. When they reached the stablehouse, the Wizard went in and strained to lift the dragon saddle from a hook.

“What?” Rib backed away as the man, wheezing a little, lugged it over to him. “But that’s Tyrone’s.”

“He’ll be happy you made use of it,” the Wizard replied dryly. “Here, you’re doing this for the kingdom.”

Reluctantly, the dragon stopped resisting and lowered himself so the saddle could be secured to him.

It is a nice reminder of home…

“Is that all?” Damara asked the Wizard, who thought a long time before shrugging.

Rib took a deep breath as he found himself holding eye contact with the woman yet again. At least this time she looked less than annoyed with him.

“We should leave now,” she said. “We’ll discuss details on the coast before dawn.”

Leave…Emotions tied to that word charged at Rib. He imagined Theora’s expression when she heard that he’d left, Tyrone’s heavy-hearted sigh, and the children’s sad whimpers. They would miss him far more than his siblings wandering in the distant woods, he was sure. Those dragons didn’t seem to value family like he did.

Or like I used to, Rib miserably corrected himself. How can I say I care when I’m so willing to leave without a word?

Doubt assailed him to the point he thought of changing his mind, but he knew Gavin would be leaving either way and Damara was clearly growing impatient by his failure to respond.

This is for the kingdom, isn’t it?

Rib opened his mouth to agree to leave.

“Damara?”

At the sound of a voice, he whipped around to see Tyrone walk out of the woods with a couple strung rabbits in his hand.

Oh no! Rib panicked, his claws penetrating the soggy ground beneath his feet as he stiffened. He’ll see what we’re up to! Running away, stealing his saddle…What will he think of me now?

Damara, apparently much calmer than Rib, stepped forward to greet the woodsman whose face broke into a warm smile.

“Hello, Tyrone,” she murmured, dipping her head.

“Damara,” Tyrone laughed lightly, his eyes shining as he looked at her. “Well, you’re certainly not that child I worried about, years ago.”

What is he talking about? Rib’s fear turned to confusion as he saw the young woman smile a little, staring at the ground.

“I hope you can forgive me,” she said, lifting her face. “But I’m off to run away with another dragon…Damon’s already let us borrow things for the trip.”

Another dragon? How often does she do this kind of thing? And with who?!

“Hmm.” Tyrone turned his gaze to Rib, who shrunk, feeling guilty with the man’s saddle strapped to his back. “It’d have been nice to have some warning.”

“I’m sorry, Tyrone!” Rib blurted, but the woodsman held up his hand.

“You are welcome to it,” he said. “Where you are headed?”

“Crageria,” answered Damara.

“Crageria.” Tyrone exhaled. “Well, I needn’t ask why. I trust you’ll be careful?”

Both Rib and Damara nodded.

Tyrone gave a solemn smile.

“Alright,” he said. “I’m not one to stop you. When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Rib answered, still feeling guilty.

“Oh.” Tyrone’s smile grew warmer. “Then, please,” he looked to Damara, “stay here with my family for tonight. I’m sure Theo would be glad to see you.”

Damara nodded, with the quiet response, “I would like that. Thank you.”

We don’t have to leave just yet.

Rib was relieved.

I get to say goodbye.

Chapter 7

 

 

I hate keeping secrets. Rib groaned inwardly yet again as he flew closer to Cliffport with Damara on his back. Especially from Gavin.

Before they left the hunting lodge early that morning, Damara had made him promise not to tell anyone about their agreement. He’d protested at first, but knew she was right. Mortaug probably wouldn’t let them come if he knew what they were planning.

“Land here!”

Rib heard Damara yell at him over the wind.

Fine, fine…

Silently, he spiraled down to land on a hill overlooking the port. Everywhere, slopes were smothered in a lumpy pelt of grass, interspersed with rocks. Thin green blades stroked Rib’s talons, as though admiring their smooth downward curve.

Damara dismounted from his saddle, walking around to face him. Her scarf was hanging loose around her neck, for the dust and ash had all been swept away from here by the coastal winds.

“Remember,” she said, arms crossed, “I only want to come as a passenger. We haven’t met before now, yes?”

“Yes,” Rib sighed. “I know. You’ve made yourself clear as ice.”

And just as cold.

Damara nodded brusquely. “Let’s go then.”

It irritated Rib how she walked on ahead to the port, even when there was no way she could know where exactly they were going. He found he didn’t have to keep a slow pace around her as he usually did when walking with humans. Instead, he quickened his step to come up beside her.

“One thing I forgot to tell you,” he murmured. “Mortaug’s mute. But his son and Gavin can translate for you-”

“I’m not worried about it,” Damara cut him off tersely.

Rib relaxed his wings in exasperation. I’m going to be stuck on a boat with this woman?

What does she hold against me? She’s not rude to Damon or Tyrone or Theo…She was positively loving in that message to her brother.

He remembered seeing Damara with Ivory that morning speaking a message for the wyvern to repeat.

I’m so sorry to do this to you again,’ he had heard her saying behind Tyrone’s stablehouse. ‘I know you’d try to stop me. But I promised I’d get a cure for Cath. I have to…Don’t worry about me, I’ll be back. In time. I love you.’

Rib wondered how her brother would feel when Ivory found him and gave that message to him, telling him his sister had gone off overseas without a proper farewell.

Perhaps she is difficult to everyone after all.

As they cut through the town towards the docks, people parted along the streets and stared, as was usual. Rib thought he saw a number of wary looks cast towards Damara as well, though, as she strode through, slate blue dress and short brown hair ruffled by the breeze. The young woman held herself straight, narrow shoulders squared, hand rested on the pocket of her belt where the precious vial was stored.

It surprised Rib when an old woman stepped from the crowd, walking up to Damara despite Rib’s presence.

“I know you,” the woman creaked. “They called you the Dragon Witch, but you saved my grandson, Baxter.” She took Damara’s free hand and patted it gently, beaming. “I will never forget what you’ve done.”

What is she talking about? Rib was baffled.

Damara appeared likewise surprised, but her expression quickly became neutral again and she nodded silently.

The old woman smiled broader and stepped aside.

“Be careful, dear!” she called after them as they continued down the street.

“What was that about?” Rib whispered to Damara, but she only shook her head. He wasn’t certain whether it was a refusal to answer or a claim of ignorance.

In the streets, children dressed in rags sang to entertain themselves. They didn’t seem to notice as Rib and Damara walked by, but continued to sing their verse.

Quiet, silence

Can’t even move

Let’s not go to sleep yet

We have dust to remove

On the second line they would let themselves collapse on the ground, then got up on the third to brush themselves and each other off for the fourth. Rib watched, charmed by their little game, until an adult rushed over and shooed them into the crowd of wide-eyed people.

Everyone looks so scrawny, Rib thought, letting his gaze run over them. There used to be more people here.

The image of men dumping a cart full of bodies into the mass grave flared up in his mind again but he cursed at it to go away and glanced up at the sun as though to cleanse his eyes.

We’re going to help them, he promised himself. We just need to get the cure.

As they came upon the dock where their boat was tied towards the far end, Rib spotted Mortaug and Gavin around a pile of things.

“That’s them,” he said and approached, trying to read Gavin’s expression as the young man spotted him and Damara.

Damara walked right up to Mortaug and held out her hand, which he took to shake.

“Hello,” she said. “I am Damara. I was told you were headed to Crageria.”

Gavin raised his eyebrows at Rib as Mortaug nodded.

Damara looked down at her hands, removing a white ring from her finger. “I haven’t anything to pay with but this.” She gave the small treasure to Mortaug. “Please accept me on as a passenger.”

The expressive side of Mortaug’s face was surprised as he studied the detailed ring. Looking her up and down as he carefully passed it back to her, he motioned something for Gavin to translate.

Gavin gave a nervous laugh.

“He apologizes for making any wrong assumptions, but must ask…Are you running from some kind of trouble? How did you get your hands on such an expensive ring?”

They think she’s a thief? Rib held his breath. What if she is? What if she’s been fooling me all this time?

No…Tyrone and everyone else trust her.

Damara smiled somewhat. “I didn’t steal it. It’s been passed down in my family for years.”

The Captain shook his head, his rope-like hair dragging over his shoulders.

“He couldn’t rob you of your family’s treasure.”

Damara bit her lip in frustration.

“Treasure is nothing to me when my family’s in jeopardy.”

Gavin blinked in surprise.

“What? What kind of jeopardy?”

Rib could hear Damara grind her teeth as the questions drove deeper. She exhaled, seemingly ready to give up secrets.

Don’t tell them the plan! Rib begged her silently. We might not get to go at all!

“Rib told me he was going for the cure,” she admitted, her hands playing with the ring she held. “I need it…for my family.”

To Rib’s relief, she stopped there.

Gavin frowned. “We can make sure to get it to you. There’s no reason for you to come with us.”

No, Rib wanted to say. Just let her come. She’s my chance to free Memory!

Damara set her mouth at a firm line and held out the ring with even more persistence.

“I’m not the one to wait and worry. Please. You have to let me work towards it myself.”

Reluctantly, the man received the ring, pocketing it in his vest.

“Welcome aboard,” Gavin said with a slow-growing grin. “We just have to finish loading the boat and we’ll be on our way.”

They’ve accepted.

Rib felt anxious as he thought of his and Damara’s secrets.

Only, they don’t know to what…

. . .

“We’re bringing a woman with us?!” Jasper’s shrill voice echoed over the rippling green waters. His small frame sat bolt upright on the bench towards the front of the boat as Damara came down the dock, carrying a crate.

Rib saw the young woman narrow her eyes at the child, passing her heavy container to Gavin.

That’s right,” Gavin answered humorously, bending his legs to set the crate down in the belly of the boat where he stood. “And look! She’s doing even more to help than you are!”

Jasper leapt to his feet at this remark, then gave his deformed hand a self-conscious glance and sat back down, hiding it in the folds of his tunic.

“Where did she come from?” Gavin asked Rib, coming close as they watched Damara stride back up the dock.

Rib shook his head. “I don’t even know.”

This, at least, was not a lie. He’d only found her crossing the bridge. From where she came, he still wasn’t sure.

“My guess is the moon,” Gavin said. “Her skin is just as pale.”

“The moon!” Rib laughed aloud.

“So,” Gavin picked at a strap around Rib’s chest, “you know you’re wearing a saddle, right?”

Rib nodded slowly, his mouth going dry.

It’s for Damara! Do I tell him that?

No, he shouldn’t even know she can ride me…

“Um, yeah…” he droned. “Tyrone let me take it. In case anyone needs to ride me.”

Gavin snorted. “Well, don’t expect me to get any use out of it.”

Rib laughed uneasily, thankful for his friend’s unsuspecting nature.

Gavin gave him a funny look, patting the boat’s side with a grin.

“The person that sold Mortaug this boat told us the name of it,” he said. “You want to know it?”

Somewhat surprised, Rib nodded. Humans like to name everything, don’t they? Their boats, their pets, their children…

Gavin’s grin grew broader. “Blood Serpent.”

“What?” Rib nearly gagged. “That’s what they called it?”

“Sure is.” The young man rubbed his thumb over a small metal plate nailed into the ship’s flank, a series of lines scored into it. “I’m guessing this is it in Huskhn. Not that I can read any language.”

“I don’t like it,” Rib said distastefully. “Can’t we name it something else?”

“No,” Jasper objected. “Its name is Blood Serpent.”

Gavin scratched his chin, a thoughtful look on his face. “How about the Merry May?”

The Merry May,” Rib repeated after him. It sounded nice, cheerful. He smiled. “Perfect!”

“No,” Jasper groaned and let himself slump back into a stuffed burlap sack.

Just then, Mortaug came rolling a barrel.

“Ah, the much needed water,” Gavin said, helping to lower it onto the boat’s floorboards. He stood it up, knocking his knuckles on its side. With his finger pointed at one of his monigons, he said, “You’d better tell me when you need some, Hesper. Don’t go drinking saltwater behind my back.”

“Wasn’t it father that ordered you not to drink the saltwater, Gavin?” Jasper jeered, but Mortaug snapped his fingers at him to be quiet.

Rib looked at the five exquisite monigons sprawled out sunning themselves on the dock. Hesper lifted her head to the sound of her name, then rolled over with a drowsy groan. The reptilian hound was roughly the same size as the rest of them, but her hide was the only one that reminded Rib of a pinecone, reddish brown, each scale containing its own highlight. Tough fringed flaps hung down to her lower jaw as ears, and her tongue, pink and forked, lolled lazily on the dock.

“We’re really bringing them?” Rib questioned. “Won’t they damage things?”

“Nah.” Gavin leaned back on the barrel. “I’ve got some ideas on how to control them.”

“Like what?” Rib inquired, but his friend just grinned. Instead, he asked, “What are you bringing them for?”

“To sell,” Gavin answered simply. “You’d be surprised. Here in Wystil they’re plenty, but out there,” he nodded to the ocean, “there people are really willing to open their purses for them. Especially these special lizards of mine. You know how astounded I was to find their clutch just lying out in the hills?” He gave a long-winded whistle.

Another few barrels were placed into the boat and Rib waited, uselessly watching.

“Is that all?” Damara asked, coming back with a thick coil of rope hung over her shoulder and stepping onto the vessel’s deck.

Mortaug nodded, signing something to Gavin, who called his monigons into the boat. Four of the dog-like creatures lifted themselves up and sprung in as their master commanded, but Hesper remained on the dock.

Hesper,” Gavin grumbled, stepping out of the boat to go to her. The monigon opened her eyes as he blocked out her sun with his broad shoulders. “Come on.”

Hesper wriggled out of his shadow to continue basking.

“Oh no you don’t.” Gavin squatted down and heaved her barrel-chested body up, wrapping his strong arms around her. The monigon growled, kicking her clawed legs, but the man only laughed. “Hesp, you know I can’t leave you here.”

Mortaug cast the riled monigon a misgiving look as Gavin carried her into the boat, then motioned for Rib to join them.

This is it, Rib thought as he crossed over the vessel’s shallow sides to step in. The fore-half of his body bobbed awkwardly with the waves, until he left the dock completely and found himself standing in a boat for the first time.

Whoa.

He thought it strange to feel the water tilt him back and forth. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before.

“One thing,” Gavin said, now standing beside him. “You know not to tell anyone we’re from Wystil, yes? There’s a reason no one ever sails here anymore. They’re afraid of-”

“The plague, I know,” Rib interrupted. “But who do you think I’d tell? It’s not as though anyone will be wanting to talk to me anyway.”

Seemingly sensing Rib’s bitterness, the young man shrugged and walked to where Mortaug now beckoned. As the Captain motioned for Gavin and Jasper, and even Damara at times, to do things, Rib began to feel useless.

“Can I help?” he asked, but Mortaug just gave him a dismissive wave.

“Move!” Jasper snapped at Rib, trying to pull one of the mast’s ropes past him as his father ordered.

Rib pressed to the side and watched everyone working to get the Merry May, out into the open sea.

This is how it’ll be the entire time, Rib told himself, intimidated. I won’t have any idea what’s going on.

He finally found that the best place for him to stand was towards the back, close to where Mortaug sat using a stick to direct the small ship, or at least so it seemed to Rib’s limited knowledge.

Hesper was also back there. Planting her foreclaws on the brim of the boat, she gave a gravelly bark at the quickly disappearing port. Rib, too, watched Wystil with all its blossoming trees and spring green fields begin to shrink away as the sail caught a strong gust of wind.

I can hardly believe we’re doing this, he thought. It gave him a knot in his stomach, but out of anxiety or excitement, he couldn’t be sure. I’ve never even flown this far out at sea before…

And we’ve only just started the journey.

. . .

At some point, when land had long ago vanished and Rib had finished gawking at the ocean expanding in all directions, he and Gavin came up with a game to entertain themselves.

“Honestly, Rib, it’s not fun if you peek,” his friend told him.

“I’m not!” he argued and closed his eyes the rest of the way.

“Alright,” there was a pause, “where do you think?”

Rib flicked his tongue inside his mouth, concentrating hard. But no matter how hard he tried to detect where on his face Gavin was touching, he couldn’t. His scales weren’t sensitive enough for the young man’s feather touch.

“Are you even touching me?” Rib questioned suspiciously.

Yes,” Gavin answered.

With a quick jolt, Rib pushed his face against Gavin’s fingertip to better locate it.

“My nose!” he declared, opening his eyes. “You’re touching my nose.”

Gavin shook his head and withdrew his hand. “Clearly you’ve tired of this game if you won’t even play it fairly.” He leaned back on the inner side of the ship, fingers knit behind his head. “You know, it’s times like these I’m reminded of just how young you are.”

“What does that mean?” Rib protested, but was interrupted by a frisky monigon which tore between them to snap at another monigon’s tail. Those two started squabbling and that got the lot of them riled. Soon all five monigons raced in circles around the deck. Apparently the hours of sailing were finally making them restless.

“Gavin!” Jasper shouted as one nearly clipped him, leaping past. The scrawny boy could hardly keep his balance avoiding the animals.

Gavin sighed and stood up, taking on an authoritative pose as he commanded, “Be still!”

Rib saw how little effect his order had. The monigons didn’t even look at him, but continued on with their game of chasing each other. Towards the back, Damara frowned, tucking her long dress around her legs where she sat. Mortaug didn’t look any more pleased than her, signing something to Gavin, who observed his pets contemplatively.

“I suppose now is a good time to try my idea,” he murmured and crouched down, arms at the ready.

As one monigon came tearing towards him, he snatched it up and, with a great heave, tossed it overboard.

“Gavin!” Rib exclaimed in horror over Jasper’s wild laughter.

The thrown monigon resurfaced, snorting water out of its nostrils with a surprised look.

“What?” Gavin laughed. “He likes swimming. Look.”

Rib wasn’t sure if ‘like’ was the word, but the animal seemed to be paddling alongside the boat well enough. The other monigons had clearly noticed their pack mate in the water, for they stopped their playing and peered over the edge at him.

“How are you going to get him back in?” Rib asked worriedly.

Gavin sat down, resting an arm on the wooden side. “Couldn’t you lift him out?”

“Me?” Rib looked again at the swimming monigon. “Why should I have to?”

“You don’t.” His friend shrugged. “I’ll find a way once he’s good and tired.”

It wasn’t long before the monigon began to lag behind. Gavin stood to see him paddling after them. Four monigons stood at the back of the boat, barking at him.

Rib looked to Gavin, who looked back at him, eye brows raised.

Rib sighed. I suppose this is something I can do.

“I’ll get him…”

He moved out from under the sail and opened his wings. Lifting off from the deck, he flew to the monigon and picked him up as he would a deer carcass, hauling him back into the boat. As soon as the reptilian hound was set down, he shook water from his hide and joined Hesper on the floor, panting slightly.

“There, see?” Gavin grinned when Rib returned to him and lay down. The young man motioned to his monigons, all of which were calm. “Now that was a good idea.”

“You’re not even going to say thanks?” Rib muttered.

“Sure, sure,” Gavin assured, but never actually did. Instead, he took out his flute and blew softly through it.

Rib closed his eyes. I guess music is thanks enough.

After a while of Gavin’s melody, Jasper’s irritable voice interrupted, “Will you play something different for once?”

What?

Rib only just realized that Gavin had been repeating the same tune all this time.

“Sorry,” Gavin apologized, and mumbled, “I’m working on something.”

When Jasper began complaining about hunger cramps, Mortaug had biscuits and dried meats taken out of storage, distributing them to each pair of hands. Rib took one look at the unappealing food and thought it an appropriate time to go fishing.

Flying out over the blue waters, he was able to find a great number of fish and ate until full. With his stomach feeling as though ready to burst, he managed to catch a few more and unloaded them into the boat. Immediately, the monigons stopped pestering the humans for what little food they had and leapt on the pile of fish.

Rib smiled in self-satisfaction, until he saw Jasper hungrily reach for one of the fish as well.

I thought he didn’t like raw fish, he thought, and yet there the boy was, hastily using his fingers to pick meat off the bones. He must be starving…

Even the others, he realized, were eyeing the fish that rapidly disappeared down the monigons’ throats. Their small portions of dried meat and biscuit were long gone and hunger seemed to haunt their gaze, seemingly awakened by the presence of food.

Of course. The famine…

Rib cursed himself for forgetting.

“Anyone else want fish?” he asked, ignoring his uncomfortably full stomach as he splayed his wings. They all nodded dazedly and he took off, determined to fish until they were full.

Now this is something I can do.

They won’t even remember what hunger feels like by the time I’ve finished with them.

. . .

Rib dreamt he was lying on his back, gazing up at the golden canopy. Locks of his dark hair rested on his lashes, moving every time he blinked.

Human, he thought, relishing how he felt, hands clasped over his stomach, legs stretched out with feet pointed to the sky. I love being human.

Rib, Damara spoke and he sat up to see her approaching him from behind a tree, arms full with a small dragon. I found her. Isn’t she what you wanted? Quick, we must hide her.

She knelt beside his dragon saddle on the ground and began stuffing the poor creature into one of its large compartments.

Hey, stop! Rib cried when he recognized the little dragon to be his sister, Memory, no larger than a cat. Hurriedly, he pushed Damara aside and took Memory up in his arms. She looked up at him with big eyes.

Memory! Rib laughed with delight, stroking the top of her head with one gentle finger. He sat down again with her in his lap. It’s you. I finally have you.

Great, Damara said as she picked herself up, eyes glaring. We’re all so happy for you.

As she spoke, the trees around them turned to ghastly-looking people. Memory hid herself inside Rib’s vest when they began applauding him, rotten flesh flinging from their decaying hands.

What’s wrong with them? Rib scrambled back and held Memory close.

The plague, Damara answered. You’ve failed them all.

[_ But no! I’m getting the cure still- I am! _]

Are you? Because you’re headed the wrong way. Tell us, can’t you feel it?

I…I can…

The dream faded as Rib awoke from his nap, aware of a feeling he hadn’t sensed in the several days they’d been sailing. Slowly, he stirred, opening his eyes and blinking to adjust them to the brightness of the overcast sky above. Veiled by clouds, the sun looked like the moon, round and white. Rib appreciated being able to see it without its blazing light assaulting his eyes.

Repositioning himself, he lifted his head and looked around. Blue waves whipped with white splashed against the sides of the boat, sending up spray into his face. Beside him, laying on his back, was Gavin. Rib couldn’t tell whether he was asleep or not, but his eyes were closed, his expression neutral, his arms crossed loosely over his chest. His monigons were also lying around, like lazy dogs.

Across the deck, Damara sat cleaning her nails with the tip of her knife despite the boat’s constant rocking. Mortaug managed the steering oar with Jasper at his side, both looking at a map.

This feeling…

“Why have we changed direction?” Rib asked, standing up to approach the Captain and his son and peer down at the squiggly map.

“What are you talking about?” Jasper asked. “Father’s been following the compass.”

The boy held up a small object. Rib squinted at its tiny parts but didn’t understand.

“What? What does that do?”

“It shows us which way to go,” Jasper retorted, a black curl of hair falling into his face.

Rib lifted his head, looking to see where they were going. Everywhere, the deep blue water reaching out as far as he could see was all the same to his eyes, but his body told him something was different.

“Well, this isn’t the direction we started off at,” Rib said confidently.

Mortaug furrowed half of his brow, signing something.

Jasper looked at his hands, then turned to Rib.

“He says you don’t know what you’re talking about!” the boy announced. “And you should just leave the navigation to him, because he’s the Captain and you’re just a dragon that-”

Mortaug clapped a heavy hand over his son’s shoulder and pushed him over, shaking his head. This wouldn’t be the first time the boy tried putting words in his father’s mouth. Jasper picked himself up again, looking upset. With angry wet eyes, he watched Mortaug’s next gestures and turned obediently to get Gavin.

Gavin got up as the boy prodded him in the side with his foot.

“Alright, alright,” the young man said, brushing Jasper away.

The child went and sat towards the foremost part of the boat, arms crossed as he stared intensely out at sea. A monigon came to nuzzle him in the ear but Jasper snapped at it to go away.

Gavin came over to Mortaug and Rib, rubbing one eye.

“What is it?” he yawned.

Mortaug made another series of hand gestures, motioning to Rib.

Gavin sighed.

“He’s asking why you think we’ve changed direction,” he interpreted.

“Well,” Rib hesitated, “I don’t know. I can feel it.”

Damara scoffed from the side.

Gavin smiled wryly and looked to the Captain.

“He says the compass says otherwise, sorry.”

Rib frowned. “But why would you trust that? I mean, I’m the one with the mind!”

Gavin laughed and punched him in the shoulder wing. “Rib, we’ll get to where we’re going. Don’t worry about it.”

Rib shut his mouth, hurt by his companions’ disbelief.

Tyrone would trust me, if he were here.

We’re sailing the wrong way.

. . .

That night, all the clouds moved away to a stunning display of stars. Rib gazed up at the sky, enchanted by its many colors and bright specks. His eyes could almost get lost in the glitzing dome of lights above.

“What?!” Jasper’s voice cried out. “What do you mean?”

Rib looked to the back of the ship, where the boy was again beside his father at the steering oar. Except this time he was standing up, watching the Captain’s hand motions in clear indignation.

“That cheat sold us a broken compass?!”

Jasper snatched something from the floor and, before Mortaug could stop him, chucked it over the side. Rib watched the small object fly through the air to hit the water with a small plip!

“What’s happening?” Rib asked, crossing over to their end of the boat.

“You were right,” Gavin said, leaning back with fingers knit behind his head. “Mortaug just read the stars. We’ve gone off course.”

“No!” Rib fretted. “What’ll we do?”

Gavin laughed. “Easy, it’s fine. We haven’t gone far.”

Mortaug motioned something with his hands to the young man.

“So,” Gavin said, “he’s asking which direction you think we’re supposed to be going.”

Rib turned his head around, searching. Just as he could sense when he was upside down without having to open his eyes, he could feel where directions were without any landmarks to help him.

“We started in this direction,” he answered, pointing his snout to the left of the prow.

Mortaug checked the skies, then nodded.

“Well,” Gavin grinned broadly, “I guess that means you’re our new compass. Better not break though, else Jasper might try to throw you over too.” He laughed again.

I was right.

Rib smiled, relieved the others’ understood at last.

And now they need me so we don’t get lost again.

He looked to Damara, remembering how she had scoffed at him before, but was disappointed to find that she was curled up with a blanket over her, seemingly asleep.

“You’ll have to work with Mortaug now, alright?” Gavin got Rib’s attention. “You know, if something feels wrong again.”

Rib nodded.

That’s better, he thought as Mortaug changed the direction of the boat.

Memory, we’re coming.

Chapter 8

 

 

“Land!”

Land?!

For once, Jasper’s voice was cause for celebration. Rib leapt to his feet, facing the front of the boat to see the promising, summer green strip on the horizon.

Rib gazed at it dreamily.

Oh land, how I’ve missed you.

“So which kingdom has the pleasure of hosting us first?” Gavin asked humorously, sweat on his brow as he cleared the deck of monigon dung, flinging each pile overboard. He paused and looked to Mortaug, who answered.

“Ah! Thomdan.” Gavin returned to his work, murmuring, “I’m sure I’ve heard something about it before…Oh.” He straightened and looked at Rib. “Actually, this is one of the places where Memory was seen with Zheal.”

“What?” Rib grew tense. “You mean the people here may have met her before?”

His friend shrugged, then nodded.

“I- I have to ask them about her!” Rib said. “But…” He stared back over the waters, at all the ships and tiny dots of people on them. “Everyone will be too afraid to talk to me.”

Gavin joined him at the front of the boat. “I have an idea for that.”

“What?”

“You’ll see. Look, there’s our port.” Gavin pointed to a point of land where many ships gathered around. “Just in time, too. We’ve run low on supplies. Which means Mortaug wants us to sell monigons.”

Us?” Rib hunkered lower down in the boat as a large ship passed close by. “Gavin, no one’s going to pay any attention to your monigons if I’m around. They’ll just stare at me and leave.”

Unless things are worse here. Rib checked that his wings weren’t sticking up in the air too noticeably. What if they try to drive me away?

Gavin smirked at him and gave him a rough pat on the head in jest. “I told you, I have an idea. Don’t worry about it.”

Now that Rib made an effort to fish for them at least twice a day, everyone on board looked significantly healthier than they had leaving Cliffport. Rib fancied strangers wouldn’t even be able to guess the starvation his companions were faced with only weeks ago.

As they neared, all five monigons crowded to the nose of the boat, barking.

“Hey, quiet!” Gavin ordered and they silenced, all turning their heads to their master. It still impressed Rib how well Gavin had managed to train them over the couple weeks of being stuck in a boat with them. The young man hadn’t needed to send any of them swimming for a long time now.

Finally sailing in to dock, Rib let everyone else embark before him. The monigons were first to leap out of the Merry May, tearing down the wooden path until Gavin called them back. Jasper and Damara both followed Gavin out, and then Mortaug.

Rib peered over the side of the boat at all the sailors and merchants and children. No one seemed to have noticed him hiding there yet. He tried to take comfort in the feeling of his saddle hugging him tight, wished it would grant him courage.

Well, here goes…

Reluctantly, he clambered onto the dock, taken aback by how very stable it was beneath his feet. He felt as though he had suddenly become the waves, swaying uncontrollably.

Gavin laughed at him and took hold of his wing. “How can you be worse off than I am, when you’re the one with four legs?” he asked. “Here, come on.”

Rib followed his friend down the dock. As he teetered, he saw people turn and stare, just as he feared they would. Gavin’s monigons bound around them, barking joyously.

“Hey,” Gavin greeted a stranger who pressed against a post to make way for them.

They passed a group of startled ladies and Gavin nodded to them. “Good day.”

When they reached the end of the dock, Gavin let go of Rib’s wing, stamping the ground with his foot. “You feel that? Real land.”

Rib was distracted, feeling everyone’s stares fixed on him. “Gavin, people are scared of me.”

His friend sighed.

“Here, let’s try my idea,” he said and led Rib away from the port, down to the beach. The monigons seemed to like it there, barreling each other over and into the sand.

“What are you doing?” Rib asked as his friend walked over a rocky area, searching the tide pools with his head down.

“There’s something here we need. Something that will make people look our way.”

“Look our way?” Rib echoed. “People already look my way. Didn’t you just see them staring at me?”

“Yes, but what I’m looking for should…Ah-ha!” The young man stopped at a crevice in the rocks, reaching in to retrieve something. “Here.”

Rib padded over to see Gavin hands holding a round, spiral shell.

“What is it?” he asked, peering over his friend’s shoulder. The shell fit nicely in Gavin’s palm, gleaming in the sun.

Gavin didn’t answer, but smashed it against a jut of rock.

“What are you doing?” Rib objected. “Isn’t there something living in there?”

Gavin grinned back at him. “Relax, O Sensitive One. It’s abandoned. See?” He showed it to Rib. The spiral was caved in, chips of it broken away to reveal some sort of white substance inside. “This is what we want.”

With two fingers, Gavin dipped into the thick liquid and began applying it to his face, peering into a small mirror he’d pulled from his vest.

Rib watched in confusion, hoping he’d understand once his friend had finished.

“There,” Gavin said, and grinned again at Rib.

The substance was already beginning to dry as a pasty white, which stood out against his dark grey skin. With it, Gavin had encircled his eyes and traced his features.

Rib couldn’t help but laugh a little. “You look funny.”

The young man examined his reflection again. “That’s the idea. Now, hold still.” He dipped his fingers again and reached towards Rib’s face.

“What? Why?” Rib lifted his head away. “You’re going to paint me too?”

Gavin gave him a strange look. “Weren’t you just complaining how people are afraid of you?”

Afraid?

“Well, yeah. But what will this do to help that?”

With a mischievous expression, Gavin answered, “It’ll baffle them.”

“Baffle them?”

“Come on, Rib. A little faith in your friend, please?”

Alright…

Hesitantly, he brought his face within Gavin’s reach and felt the young man trace rings with his fingers. Rib waited a while longer for him to finish, all the while wondering what he looked like with each dab and stroke. He couldn’t feel much except the light pressure of Gavin’s fingers on his scales and a hint of coolness from the substance.

“There. Now we match.”

Gavin wiped his hands off and held out the mirror for Rib to see. In his reflection he saw his vibrant face, the color firebloom, patterned with circles and lines. His muzzle was outlined, his eyes encircled, and a selective few of the flat, angular scales atop his head were filled in white.

“It doesn’t appear as well on me as it does you,” Rib commented.

“Doesn’t it?” Gavin looked perplexed. “Oh, but we see you as black, remember? To the normal human eye, you look like the dragon version of me.” He pretended to pose like Rib, chest out, shoulders back.

“Do I?” Rib took on a stupid smile. “Aw, I’m flattered.”

They both laughed and Gavin pulled a small cloth-wrapped item from his vest.

“Here, I have a gift for you,” he said, holding it up.

“A gift?” Rib’s heart leapt in excitement. He’d only ever seen humans give each other presents. Now he stared at the mysterious package with anticipation. “What’s in it?”

Grinning, his friend set it on the beach in front of him. “First, I want to see you try to open it.”

“What?” Rib protested. “I can’t, I’ll break it!”

“No you won’t.”

As Gavin refused to open it for him, Rib inched his foreclaws right up to the package no larger than a chicken’s egg. With gingerly movements, he used his talons to pick at the cloth tightly wound around the item, but it was no use. The package was only pressed deeper into the sand.

“Gavin!” Rib gasped in exasperation.

“Go on.”

Curling his lip back, Rib lowered his muzzle to the package for a different tactic. He couldn’t even see the thing as he tried to get at it with his teeth, but he could hear Gavin laughing at him. He came away with nothing more than a layer of sand in his mouth.

“Gavin,” he complained, his feelings hurt. “You know I don’t have hands like you. Why mock me like this?”

“I’m not. It’s just a little jest, that’s all,” Gavin said. “Here, I’ll do it.”

With a flick of his foot, he kicked the package up into his hand.

“Careful!” Rib yelped, thinking he heard whatever was inside make a muffled clinking sound.

“Honestly, Rib.” Gavin shook his head.

It made Rib jealous to see how swiftly the young man was able to tear off the cloth. There, in the lighter grey palm of his hand, lay a small metal object. After a moment, Rib recognized it as a bell humans tied to their sheep and goats. Half rusted, it looked as though it’d been lost and exposed to the elements for a year, the only new thing on it being the short lace it was strung on.

Rib set his eyes on it and loved it.

Gavin’s giving it to me. As a gift.

“What do I do with it?” he asked eagerly.

Gavin rose his eyebrows. “Well, you’re more excited than I expected. Thought you’d be disappointed until I told you what it’d do for you.”

“I’ve never owned anything before!” Rib said. “What will it do for me?”

His friend gave a smile and picked the bell up by its lace. Free of the cloth wrapping, it made a pleasant clinking sound as he rattled it.

Tying the thing to the saddle strap on Rib’s chest, he said, “I can put it on you every time we enter a port. That way, people won’t be so startled to suddenly see you there, silent as you are. They’ll hear you coming.”

“Won’t that just make them stare at me more?”

“Rib, people are going to stare at you one way or another. What I’m doing for you now is to make them curious, puzzled, humored. Wouldn’t you like that?”

To humor them? Rib looked down at the bell hanging from his strap. He wriggled a little to make it clink, a smile spreading across his face.

Gavin shook his head in amusement. “You are one odd dragon.”

Putting his fingers to his mouth, he gave a sharp whistle for his monigons.

“Now we really ought to go and sell some reptiles,” he said and started back for the port.

Rib started after him, his doubt returning.

“You really think people won’t be afraid of me now?”

Gavin gave him a humorously confident look in the eye.

“Trust me,” he said. “They’ll be far too confused to even think to be intimidated.”

. . .

Well, thought Rib, his bell clinking every step he took. I can’t tell whether they’re scared of me or not.

Everyone was staring at him again as he and Gavin walked into town, but with quizzical expressions this time. Gavin’s five monigons tussled with each other around their master, nearly getting under his feet and tripping him.

“So where are we going?” Rib asked quietly.

Hesper trotted beside Gavin and he patted her on the head. “Somewhere with plenty of room…I suppose here. This is as good a place as any.” The young man came to a stop on the side of the street, where people silently backed up.

Rib watched as his friend stood up on a barrel and cleared his throat.

What is he doing?

“Dragons, dragons!” Gavin called out loudly to the crowd already looking at them. “Here be the dragons!”

Whisking a feather toy attached to twine from his vest, Gavin got his monigons’ attention by swinging it in front of their eyes. All five of them stopped their playing immediately to watch the toy move back and forth.

“Come and see, and you will be amazed by all my dragons!”

Rib pressed up against a wall. “Gavin,” he whispered. “Why are you calling them dragons? I’m the only dragon here.”

Gavin shushed him slyly.

As people formed a half moon around them, Gavin whistled a short tune before singing,

“In Wystil, they were wild,

But now they are quite mild.

They wouldn’t harm a child,

Even when they’re riled.

Out hunting, they will chase.

For you, they’ll win a race.

Besides protect your house,

They’ll catch its every mouse!”

As he sang, he used the dangling feather toy to make his monigons jump and spin. Once and a while, Hesper would perform an especially fancy trick, doing flips off a barrel and jumping onto her master’s back to balance on his shoulders. Soon Gavin had gathered a considerable audience, and every time the animals did something impressive, like leap over each other or walk on their hind legs, everyone would clap and cheer.

Look at that, Rib mused. They really are paying attention to his monigons instead of me.

“Yes indeed, it’s guaranteed,

This is the very finest breed.

All my buyers have agreed

These dragons meet your every need!”

All his buyers? Rib was confused. He hasn’t even sold any monigons yet.

At the end of his song, Gavin got all five of his monigons to line up, flank to flank, and lie down. Then he himself took a bow and jumped down from the barrel as everyone applauded yet again. Rib studied from the distance how they slapped their hands together.

How strange it is, he contemplated. Clapping…

Looking down at his tail, he tried hitting it against the ground and was pleased by the resulting thump.

I can clap! Proudly, he repeated the action, beaming.

By now, people were coming to speak to Gavin. No one seemed to give Rib too much notice, though many knelt to touch the monigons still lying on the ground, voicing their approval.

“Are they trained for Dragon Round?” one man asked Gavin, but was quickly drowned out by the others.

Someone with a clinking sack shoved to the front of the crowd, waving it in front of Gavin. “I have three hundred, forty-five glints right here!” he announced. “I’ll give it all for that one there!”

The man pointed towards one of the monigons, a yellowish one that scratched itself with its hind leg.

Gavin couldn’t look more surprised as the man forced the bag onto him. Staring down into it, he broke into a grin and laughed. “Sold to you, Sir!”

He sold one! He really did!

Rib held still as Gavin stuffed the sack into a large pocket of his saddle.

“Wait until Mortaug sees this,” his friend whispered.

The buyer, obviously delighted, took a rope and tied it around the yellow monigon’s neck. A fine lady, presumably his wife, drew near, hugging the man’s arm as she beamed down at the pet.

“Is he still young?” she questioned, looking up at Gavin. “Will he grow as big as this one here?” She motioned to Rib, giving him an appreciative gaze.

What? Rib was shocked by her ignorance. She think I’m a monigon, too?!

Gavin laughed good-naturedly.

“Oh, no,” he answered the woman. “My friend here is far different than these animals. If you’ll notice, he has wings, as these do not.” He pointed to his reptilian hounds.

“Oh.” The lady began to blush, embarrassed. “Yes, I see now.”

My wings? Rib looked from the woman to Gavin. As if that’s all that separates me from them!

“I can talk too,” he spoke up and everyone silenced.

The woman covered her mouth in surprise. “Oh, my apologies! I just assumed you were like that one Huskhn’s steed…Tairg, I think it was. I never heard that dragon speak a word.”

Wait. Rib froze. She’s seen Memory before?!

“When did you see her?” Rib demanded. “Was she with Zheal?”

“That’s right!” the lady exclaimed. “Zheal was his name. Such a lovely man…I’ve never known a Huskhn to be so admirable. I suppose it must be the royal blood in his veins…”

The man whose arm she clung to cast her a disapproving look.

“What was he doing here with my sister?” Rib urged.

“Your sister? You can’t possibly mean Tairg?”

“Yes!” Rib cried. “She’s my sister! Now, please, what was Zheal doing with her?”

The lady gave him a sympathetic smile. “You really care about your sibling, don’t you? I’d have never guessed that of dragons.”

She’s still not answering my question!

Rib became terribly frustrated, looking to Gavin for help. His friend was leaning against his barrel, a slim smile on his face as he rubbed the back of his neck. No one was paying attention to his monigons anymore now that Rib had begun speaking.

Clearing his throat, Gavin asked the woman, “So, you said Zheal was talking about Tairg? What things did he say?”

The lady brightened. “Oh, he was boasting about how Tairg was only the first of his dragons. That soon he’d have dozens…no, a hundred!”

“What?!” Rib blurted. “How?”

“With the help of a wizard,” someone else said. “That’s what he was looking for here in Thomdan. A wizard.”

“But now Lord Griffith is proclaiming himself the Sole Wizard of the World.”

“That’s right,” a youth spoke up. “And he’s already refused Zheal’s request for help! Soon Husk and Crageria will be at war with each other, just you wait!”

“War?” Rib echoed, aghast.

“Yes,” a man agreed. “What a fight that will be. Between two leaders, both on dragon back. You!” He pointed at Rib. “You say Tairg is your sister? What chance does she have in a battle against Lord Griffith’s beast? Who will win?”

Rib opened his eyes wide.

Memory will have to fight Oriole?!

“I- I- I don’t know!” he stammered. “This is really going to happen? Where? When?!”

I have to save Memory!

“Rib,” Gavin coughed, but he ignored him.

“I’m telling you,” the youth spoke up again. “Soon! Huskhns don’t wait for anything. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zheal had Tairg marching his army onto Lord Griffith’s territory right now!”

“Right now?!” Rib cried, digging his claws into the ground.

“Rib!” Gavin shouted at him.

“What?” He looked to his friend, mouth trembling.

“Come on,” Gavin said, grabbing him by the wing. At the snap of his fingers, all four of his monigons leapt up and followed. The sold one tried to go to Gavin as well, but its buyer held on strong to the rope tied to it.

“But Gavin!” Rib objected. “I need to hear this!”

“No, believe me,” the young man told him. As they strode, he wiped off his face of the paint. “It’s all just talk. Nothing but rumors.”

“How do you know that?” Rib argued.

“Because I can recognize rubbish when I hear it,” Gavin answered firmly. “And you had better learn how too. There’s a lot these townspeople will make up.”

“But-” Rib began to protest again, until his friend stopped to face him and look him in the eye.

Trust me,” Gavin said. “I’ve been hearing things like this for years working in the inn. There’s always some rumor about Huskhns preparing for war against some kingdom or another, but it never happens. People are just afraid of them because they’re fierce at sea. They’ve really only invaded lands once, and that was a long time ago.”

Rib willed his heart to stop beating so fast as he held his friend’s confident gaze.

Maybe he’s right…Those people didn’t seem to know what they were talking about.

That one lady even thought I was a monigon.

He sighed, trying to relax muscles.

Clyde is the one who actually saw my sister. I should trust what he told me…

“I’m sorry,” Rib said, lowering his eyes to the ground. “I’m just so scared for my sister.”

“I know. I’ll help you ask about her, alright? Now, come on. Mortaug isn’t going to believe how much we got for that monigon.”

Chapter 9

 

 

Rib woke up to the sound of Gavin’s flute, but he kept his eyes closed with the intention of going back to sleep. For a few moments it was quiet, then came another long whistle from the instrument.

Rib curled his lip somewhat in irritation.

Is he trying to play that in my face? Why does it sound so close?

From the far end of the boat, Jasper’s stifled laugh could be heard as yet again the note played. Rib felt his scales prick a little when he became aware of someone very close to him.

Fine, if they won’t let me sleep, Rib thought and gave a sigh. To his surprise, the flute gave a fourth whistle at the same time. Lifting his eyelids, he nearly crossed his eyes when he saw the instrument right in front of his left nostril.

What?

Rib jerked his head back in surprise and looked at Gavin, who took back the flute where he lay with his back on the deck, laughing. Jasper also hollered out his laughter, but quieted when his voice cracked.

“Hey Rib, now you can say you’ve played an instrument,” Gavin joked, wiping the mouth of his flute on his tunic while he sat up. “You’ve always said you wanted to.”

“You mean that was actually me?” Rib asked. He stared at the flute in Gavin’s hands. “Here, let me try again.”

His friend shrugged and came closer to hold the flute back up to Rib’s nostril. The dragon took a deep breath, then let it out through his nose with power, causing the instrument to shriek. Gavin took it away quickly, laughing and holding up an open palm to stop him.

“Breathe out calm and evenly,” the young man said, “like when you’re asleep.”

Rib nodded and filled his lungs for another try. He did just as Gavin instructed, exhaling in a drawn out manner. As he did, Gavin plugged certain holes with his fingertips to turn it into a little song.

A smile spread across Rib’s face and he looked around at everyone, feeling rather proud. They were all clearly amused. Even Damara showed a bit of a humored smirk, though she turned her gaze to the horizon when his eyes fell on her.

I can really play an instrument!

They went on playing more songs until Rib got tired of breathing so deliberately.

As Gavin took care of wiping his instrument clean, Rib noticed him glancing up at Damara. With the soothing lapping of waves against the boat now the only sound to be heard, Damara was looking lost in thought, rather sad.

Is she thinking of her brother? Rib wondered. His wife?

Is she afraid his wife will die? That she won’t get the cure in time?

Rib made a conscious effort to stop guessing her thoughts, but he couldn’t help being curious. He wasn’t used to Damara looking as forlorn as she was now.

“What about you, Damara?” Gavin spoke beside Rib. “Do you play any instruments?”

She looked up from her hands, blinking as if suddenly yanked from her thoughts. With a glance at Gavin, she cleared her throat.

“No,” she said. “I don’t.”

“Have you ever wanted to?” Gavin lifted his flute as an offer.

Damara gave a grimacing smile at it and shook her head.

“No. Thank you.”

The young man grinned.

“It’s the dragon snot, isn’t it? I promise I got it all off.”

I didn’t get snot on it, Rib objected silently.

Did I?

Damara didn’t respond, but let her eyes drop back to her empty hands and blew a lock of hair from her mouth.

“So how is it I hardly know you after all this time?” Gavin asked her, slipping his flute back under his vest. With a heave, he lugged Hesper into his lap and rested his chin on his arms crossed over the monigon’s body. “We’ve been out at sea for weeks and I don’t even know which town you call your own.”

Damara cleared her throat again. “Rookton.”

“Ah.” Gavin leaned back, his arms supporting him from behind as Hesper tried to lick him with her forked tongue. “Damara of Rookton,” he recited, as if just to know how it felt to say. “Have you lived there your whole life?”

The young woman shook her head.

“Well, then where were you born?”

Damara hesitated before replying, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Gavin stopped tracing Hesper’s scales with his finger, raising his eyebrows at her in surprise.

Jasper laughed harshly, but again silenced when his voice cracked a second time.

What does it matter? Rib wondered. I can’t remember where I hatched.

Damara sniffed and repositioned herself, arms around her knees in a guarded manner.

“No. I don’t remember which town I was born in.”

“Your parents must have been travelers,” Gavin guessed. “What was your father? A bard?”

She shook her head again, preoccupying herself with smoothing out the wrinkles of fabric over her legs.

“I hardly knew my parents,” she said, so softly she was hard to hear.

Clearly she doesn’t want to talk about it. Rib turned his head to see if Gavin was catching onto Damara’s resistance.

His friend seemed to be debating whether or not to pursue the topic. He ran his finger up and down the curve of one of Hesper’s claws, a thoughtful expression on his dark grey complexion.

“Did they die in the Dragon War?” Jasper butted in. “Did you live your childhood as an urchin because of it?”

Dragon War? Rib cocked his head.

Mortaug yanked the boy down beside him at the steering oar and boxed him on the ear.

“Ow,” the boy complained, rubbing the side of his head with a scowl.

“What Dragon War?” Rib asked Gavin, but his friend shrugged it off without answering.

Rib figured Jasper didn’t know what he was talking about. Instead, he asked what an urchin was.

“A child that runs around causing trouble,” Gavin answered in hushed tones as he continued tracing Hesper’s scales. “Scrounging for food and all that.”

Oh. Rib imagined a younger version of Damara with wild hair and clothes, picking fights on the streets, hunting rats. That sounds exactly like what she’d be.

Damara didn’t answer Jasper’s questions but leaned back on the boat’s side. Rib took her silence as proof that Jasper was right.

Good guess, he praised the boy inwardly. Damara as an urchin explains so much.

“So you don’t remember your parents so well, but what about siblings?” Gavin spoke up to Damara again. “Do you have any?”

What does it matter to him? Rib wondered, secretly wishing his friend would ask him questions instead. Why is he so eager to talk to her[_?_]

Damara rubbed her knuckles into a monigon’s head, which it seemed to appreciate, closing its eyes and letting its head move back and forth with the motion. “I have a brother.”

“Older or younger?”

“Older. Five years or so.”

“Yeah? I’ve always wanted a brother.”

Damara ran her fingers through her hair, a warm smile touching her lips as she thoughtfully rested her eyes on Hesper.

“His name is Xander,” she said, her voice soft. “Been married for a while now. To my close friend.”

“Oh?” Gavin grinned. “Did you cause any trouble for them?”

Damara simpered. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

The two shared a knowing laugh.

Rib tried to join in, though he didn’t quite understand the humor.

“What does your brother do?” Gavin questioned further.

“Pargeting.”

“Ah.” Gavin raised his eyebrows, clearly impressed. “I should like to see his work sometime.”

“Yeah.” Damara smiled genuinely at him. “Come to think of it, you could be good friends. You and Xander.”

“What about me?” Rib spoke up, wanting to get in on the conversation. “Could he and I be friends?”

Damara glanced his way. “I suppose.”

Rib was disappointed by her clear lack of interest.

Shed it.

Gavin cleared his throat. “Forgive me for asking, but…is your brother the one you need the cure for?”

“No.” Damara shook her head. “But it’s- it’s actually his wife. Catherine. My friend.”

“Oh.” Gavin took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. That’s awful.”

The young woman’s eyes were downcast now.

“My brother’s gone through too much grief as it is, most of it my…” She let her sentence die out, replaced by the sound of water swelling against the sides of the boat.

“I won’t stand to see him a widower,” she finished.

Gavin nodded silently.

Look how easily he got her to hold a conversation with him, Rib thought jealously. Do people just not like to talk to me?

“What about you?”

Rib was taken off guard when Damara spoke to Gavin of her own accord, sitting up a bit to meet the young man’s eyes.

“What was your childhood like?”

All these questions I’ve never thought to ask, Rib contemplated. I didn’t realize these things mattered to humans so much.

He noticed Mortaug stiffen beside Jasper, who opened his mouth, then closed it at a piercing look from his father. Gavin laughed uneasily.

What? What is it?

Damara seemed just as troubled as Rib was, her brow furrowed.

“Forget I asked,” she mumbled, and sunk back against the wooden sides of the boat to rest.

But, no, Rib thought. What could Gavin’s childhood have been like that everyone’s acting so strange?

He wanted to ask, but Gavin suddenly had his flute out and was just putting it to his lips.

Rib pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth in frustration as his friend began to play, the young man’s eyes closed in concentration.

He’s avoiding conversation again, Rib grumbled to himself. Sometimes I wonder if he likes music more than talking.

. . .

“You might want to leave the ship for a while as we come into port,” Gavin told Rib, playfully tugging on Hesper’s ear flap. The monigon looked like she was grinning, opening her mouth and swinging her head around to bite him lightly on the hand.

“Why?” Rib complained. “People are starting to like me, haven’t you noticed? Word is travelling of our performances.”

“Rather quickly, too,” Gavin agreed. He gave Hesper a little shove, for which she quickly retaliated by lunging at him with slobber oozing from her mouth. “I’m only saying you should go so people don’t figure out you’re the one who caught these fish. I don’t think they like you enough yet to eat right out of your paws, or claws, or whatever you call dragon feet.”

On the deck was a net full of rare fish Rib had caught but an hour ago. According to Mortaug, they were considered a delicacy among humans.

“What does it matter?” Rib protested.

His friend now gripped his hand around Hesper’s bottom jaw and she fought him, her tongue arching to get out from under his palm until he let go. They kept on playing, only stopping when Hesper got so frisky as to scratch her master down the arm with her claws.

“Gavin?” Rib tried again. “What does it matter?”

He watched Gavin stand up and stop Hesper’s jumping, frustrated when the young man still declined to answer.

“Fine,” Rib muttered. “But come find me as soon as you’ve sold the fish.”

The fish I caught, he added silently.

“Huh?” Gavin said. “Oh yeah, sure.”

His friend’s behavior reminded Rib of when Damara asked about his childhood, and how Gavin just laughed nervously. He wanted to ask now what made him act like that, but the young man was already walking over to Mortaug.

Forget it, Rib decided. He could see land in the distance.

“Look for me on the beach,” he said aloud to no one in particular and flew off feeling particularly doleful.

. . .

Rib studied the stack of stones before him as he crouched in the sea cave he’d found on the beach. How round and smooth they were, perfectly balanced.

This can’t be natural, he thought. Someone must have set them like this.

He took a rock up in his mouth and tried to set it on top, but the tower fell over and clattered down the barnacle boulder. Rib laid back with a sigh.

Someone with hands.

The sound of a tune being whistled behind him made Rib turn to the mouth of the cave. Hesper appeared first in the opening, her shape framed by light as she stood tall on a rock before giving a raspy bark and bounding towards him. The whistling began echoing around the cave when Gavin followed after her, swinging something on a chain.

“The fishermen were baffled by how Mortaug was able to catch so many fish with such a holey net.” The young man’s laugh layered over the last echoes of his tune. In his hand, he dangled a coin purse, which he dropped in his other palm with a satisfactory clink. “They sold quick.”

“Mortaug gave us all a share of the profit,” Gavin continued. “Twelve glints. What do you want to do with it? After all, you’re the one who caught all those fish.”

Rib was pleased at this little bit of recognition. He took a moment to think, watching Hesper toy with the crab she’d found at the edge of a tide pool.

What do I want to do with twelve glints?

“I don’t know,” he said after his mind turned over the question a few times. “I’ve never bought anything before.”

Light refracting off the pools gleamed on Gavin’s white teeth as he grinned.

“Let’s take the dragon to the market, shall we?” he suggested to someone not there, or so Rib thought.

“Sure.”

Rib jumped when Damara spoke from a darker spot in the cave. How he hadn’t noticed her sitting there taunting a small crab was beyond him.

“When did you get here?” he asked incredulously. “I didn’t see you enter the cave.”

“Didn’t you?” she said, her expression indifferent. Pinched by the crustacean, she crinkled her freckled nose and sent it flying into the balanced stack of rocks, which tumbled apart.

Damara slid down from the boulder she was on and straightened her dress.

“Come on, then.”

Rib watched her exit the cave with Hesper tearing past her. Gavin paused to set the smooth stones back on top of each other, then followed suit. With a jealous glance at the newly stacked rocks, Rib headed after them.

I wish I had hands. There’s so much I can’t do without them.

He saw that Gavin’s other monigons were outside the cave, running up and down the water line. Up ahead, Gavin had caught up to Damara and Rib could almost hear them talking. He looked to where Damara pointed, surprised to see a couple of dolphins leaping just beyond the waves.

The monigons saw them too, barking as they jumped in and out of the water, clearly undecided of whether to confront the water animals or not. Hesper barreled into the ocean, but Gavin called her and the others back to him.

Rib took a couple bounds forward to join him and Damara, just missing something the young woman said, which made Gavin have to stop as he doubled over in laughter. Rib pulled up short in astonishment.

I’ve never seen him laugh so hard.

Rib saw Damara’s own surprise turn to satisfaction and she smirked, saying something else to Gavin when he stood upright and went on walking. Rib decided to hang back, envy haunting his every step.

How can Damara make him laugh like that? Gavin and I have been friends for years now.

As if aware of Rib’ sour thoughts, Gavin turned around and started walking backwards to call out, “Are you coming? With you so slow, you’d think we’re the ones with four legs.”

Rib smiled a little and caught up with ease, but by then their previous conversation had ended. Damara kept silent with her eyes scanning the horizon. Rib noticed her speed up to a clipped pace so that she was soon leaving them behind.

Could she be more obvious? he grumbled inwardly.

Gavin must have noticed it too, for, nudging Rib with his elbow, he jokingly sped up with his arms exaggeratedly stiff. Rib held back his laughter, as Gavin stopped his silly imitation.

“Really doesn’t like you, does she?” the young man whispered in Rib’s ear.

“I guess not.”

Rib laughed it off, but the truth of Gavin’s words sent a pang through his body. He wanted Damara to like him. He wanted everyone to like him.

Maybe if I were human, he thought wistfully. If I were a human, no one would think to treat me any different.

When they reached the town, Gavin wrinkled his nose.

“Ah, smell that?” he said. “Now that’s the stench of a port.”

“Gavin,” Rib complained, “you know I can’t smell.”

His friend grinned. “And right now, I envy you.”

Entering the marketplace, Rib saw people’s faces slacken with shock, then brighten all around.

“They’ve come,” some said. “The Dragon Fools!”

Dragon Fools? Rib and Gavin exchanged looks. Is that what they’re calling us?

It astounded him how quickly news of them was travelling. Somehow it beat them to every port. Rib couldn’t help but smile at the people, though none approached him. He was so focused on hearing their comments that he didn’t realize at first when Gavin was talking to him.

“Or you could get a goat haunch,” the young man was saying. “They roast them, but I’ll wager they have a raw one if you ask for it.”

“Why would I want that when I could hunt instead?” Rib asked, confused.

Gavin shrugged. “Let’s see,” he said, gazing at all the booths along the street. “Hmm, what is a dragon to buy?” He tossed the coin purse from one hand to the other as he looked.

Ahead of them, Damara disappeared into the crowd. Gavin had to call the monigons to his side whenever they strayed too far, bothering the chickens or getting into someone’s merchandise.

“Ah,” the young man said and stopped in front of a stand with a number of things on display Rib couldn’t identify. “Paint! Rib, how would you like real paint to put on our faces? Besides, those white shells aren’t always around.”

Paint?

Rib looked at the container Gavin picked up and cracked open. Inside, there was a pale, thick liquid. The seller at the stand cleared his throat when Gavin took the liberty of dabbing a bit on his wrist to see the contrast.

“Look, Rib,” he said. “Perfect.”

Rib smiled at the substance already drying on his friend’s dark grey skin.

“Real paint. Like professionals have.”

“Let’s buy it,” Rib decided, relishing the words on his tongue.

I sound so human saying that.

“How much?” Gavin asked and paid the man from his coin purse. He turned to secure the container inside Rib’s saddle. As he did, Rib noticed him repeatedly glancing in a direction.

“What is it?” Rib asked, taking a look the same way. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Crowds of people went about their business, seemingly used to being in the presence of a dragon by this time.

“Those Huskhns,” Gavin answered. “I saw them when we first came into port and now they’re just watching us. I think they might be following us.”

Huskhns? Rib scanned the marketplace until he saw who Gavin was talking about. Two dusky-skinned people, one female, the other male, hung back against a tavern wall, peering at them. When Rib met their eyes, they turned to face one another.

“Why would they be following us?” Rib asked Gavin.

“I don’t know, but I don’t like it. Maybe we should get back to the others.”

There was a hint of foreboding in his friend’s voice and Rib wondered if the situation was more serious than he thought. “You don’t think they’d attack us, do you?”

The idea of fighting them made Rib terribly uneasy, but not because he imagined he’d lose. Some other fear whispered possibilities into his ear.

Turning back to the crowds, Gavin looked grim. “I’ve known Huskhns that just might.”

Rib found it impossibly hard not to look behind him for the ominous strangers as he walked beside Gavin on their way to the docks with the monigons. Once, he couldn’t help but glance.

The Huskhn were nowhere to be seen.

Maybe Gavin was wrong.

Why would they be following us anyway?

“There’s Jasper,” Gavin said when the start of their dock came in view. He stopped short and put out his hand to keep Rib from approaching. “Wait.”

“What’s wrong?” Rib’s heart skipped a beat.

Are the Huskhns coming for us, after all? His eyes swept the surrounding people.

“Nothing, it’s just Jasper,” his friend answered. “Looks like we ought to leave him alone right now.”

Why? Rib studied the boy from their short distance. He was sitting on a squat barrel, head bowed to focus on his work. What is he doing?

With an oversized glove on his right hand, Jasper seemed to be having trouble sewing it to his long sleeved tunic, pinching a needle in his left and scowling.

Oh. He’s trying to hide his deformity.

Now Rib understood the importance in giving the child some space. He was about to suggest looking for Mortaug instead when the male Huskhn from earlier walked past Jasper and mockingly pushed him off the barrel with one hand.

Oh no!

The boy sprawled on the ground in surprise for a moment before the fury registered on his face.

“Hey!” Jasper leapt to his feet and Gavin groaned.

The Huskhn man, glancing at Rib, turned to face the child and spoke a few Huskhn words.

“What did he say?” Rib asked, but Gavin appeared to fixated on the scene to translate for him.

Whatever it was the man said, it only seemed to make Jasper angrier, for he pulled the oversized glove on further and shouted something back.

Again glancing at Rib, the stranger advanced on Jasper until the child made a half step backwards. No matter the words he spoke, Rib could tell by the sound of it that the man was ridiculing the boy.

“Don’t, Jasp,” Gavin uttered under his breath to himself as the child’s expression intensified. Balling his left hand, Jasper tried to punch the man in the stomach.

Jasper! Rib watched, horrified, when the stranger easily caught the boy’s fist and held him up off the ground by it, though the boy struggled and cried.

“What’s happening?!” Rib asked Gavin beside him. The monigons were picking up on Jasper’s protests, tensing up.

The Huskhn laughed and appeared to be trying to reason with the bawling child, whose glove now lay on the ground, exposing his deformity. Rib couldn’t understand why the man glanced in his direction yet again.

“He wants Jasper to hit him with his weak hand,” Gavin interpreted, pulling a throw-toy from his vest. “Rib, you can stop this.”

Me? But I…Rib hesitated. I’ve never confronted someone like that before!

As the situation worsened, with the man now snapping at Jasper, Hesper curled her lip back with a growl.

Do that, Rib tried to tell himself, but a snarl just didn’t come naturally to him. Instead, he flexed his claws nervously.

He felt frozen in place. Other people were watching the scene and he feared being interpreted as aggressive if he went to confront the man. He didn’t want the crowds to think of him as a beast to be wary of again.

What if I scare them by interfering?

As Rib still did nothing, Gavin gave a short whistle to his monigons and they snapped their attention to the ball held in his hand. With a well-aimed throw, Gavin sent the ball right between the stranger and Jasper. Rib craned his neck past the crates to watch as the monigons went tearing after it.

The man dropped Jasper as all four monigons barreled towards him for the ball. One knocked into the stranger and he fell back. Jasper, suddenly free, scrambled away crying.

The monigons stopped at the dock’s edge where the ball had gone off, whining. The Huskhn man now jumped to his feet, furious eyes locked on Gavin.

“Playing brave?” he asked, stalking forward but stopping short before him and Rib. “Come on, then. Looks just like my father’s slave, you do. Bet, too, you wail like him.”

What is he talking about?

Rib looked at Gavin with worry. This Huskhn’s behavior had Rib’s scales tingling, ready to stand on end.

Is he threatening to hurt Gavin?

Judging by the man’s body language and Gavin’s posture growing defensive, he was.

A sudden, protective passion made Rib’s entire hide bristle. He planted himself between Gavin and the man, lip drawn back, head low and threatening.

Back off.

Rib was surprised at the anger that surged from the back of his throat in a snarl. This man wanted to hurt Gavin. This man didn’t know what he was asking for.

The Huskhn lifted his chin and grinned as though this was what he’d been waiting for.

“Isn’t that just like an Eristad?” he sneered seemingly to Gavin, though never once taking his gaze off Rib. “Coward not to fight their own fights.”

The man opened himself wide as a target, slapping his chest.

“Do it, dragon,” he said. “Breathe fire on me. Do it!”

What?

Rib looked back at Gavin in confusion.

His friend was kneeling behind him, holding Hesper back as she now barked beside him, looking ready to fight. “I think he wants you to breathe fire at him.”

But why? Rib stared at the Huskhn in wonder. Why would he want that?

“Do it!” the man began shouting louder. Rib was about to tell him he couldn’t, when Hesper was suddenly leaping past him to lunge at the adversary with jaws snapping. The Huskhn dodged, but was soon assailed by the rest of Gavin’s monigons and he took off running.

“They chased him away!” Rib exhaled in relief as the monigons began coming back, the man now far from sight. “I was afraid I’d have to fight him.”

“Why’d you do that?” Gavin asked from behind.

“Do what?” Rib turned around.

His friend had his arms folded over his chest, an almost judgmental look on his face. He didn’t seem much affected by the fact that someone nearly just attacked him.

“You defended me,” the young man said. “Thank you, but why didn’t you do that for Jasper?”

“I…” Rib tried to think of a good reason, but grew ashamed as he couldn’t.

The watching people now whispered amongst themselves with admiring looks cast towards them. It appeared no one was put off by Rib’s interference after all.

The fact would have warmed Rib, if he weren’t still able to recall the way Jasper bawled as Rib did nothing to help him.

“I don’t know,” Rib said. “I should have.”

Gavin pressed his hands against his hips and arched his back to stretch.

“Well, who knows when Jasper will show up now,” he said. “We’ll probably have to seek him out when it’s time to leave.”

“What should we do in the mean time?” Rib asked.

His friend shrugged, then thumped his chest so Hesper would rear up and stand on her forelegs. Taking her foreclaws in his hands, he pretended to dance with her. Rib blinked at them, still shaken by what had just happened.

“Why do you think that man wanted me to breathe fire for him?” he puzzled out loud. “Don’t humans burn easily?”

“I’ve come to learn there’s no understanding Huskhns, or the vast majority of them anyway,” Gavin replied, letting Hesper drop to all fours again. “Most times it’s just best to avoid them.”

“But Mortaug and Jasper,” Rib pointed out. “They aren’t like that. Well. Mortaug isn’t.”

Gavin snorted and crouched to inspect his monigons’ claws.

“Not anymore, no,” the young man murmured, more to himself than anyone else.

I suppose before…Rib recalled the look on Mortaug’s face when the Huskhn was chasing him on the horse. The look of cold determination.

Are all Huskhns just that way?

An alarming sound met Rib’s ears and he perked up, just as Gavin’s monigons did.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Gavin looked confused.

Rib dug his claws into the ground. There it was again. An unmistakable cry, distant, seemingly carried over the waters.

“It’s Jasper!” Without another moment’s hesitation, Rib launched into the air in pursuit of the sound.

It led him sailing over the docks and the masts of ships until he reached an open space of sea where one boat of Huskhn craft waited in the water. With his keen eyesight, Rib could see Jasper restrained in the arms of the Huskhn man, a loosened gag partly in his mouth. The boy cried again from behind the soggy cloth.

Jasper! Rib saw his chance to do what he failed to do before and help the child. He would not hesitate, he told himself determinedly.

In seconds, he was before the boat, facing a dozen Huskhns all armed with weapons. The man holding Jasper kept behind the others, though his captive fought to get to Rib.

What are they doing with him?!

“Rib!” Jasper shouted. “You have to help me! They took me but I don’t know what they want!” As he continued to make a raucous, the man holding him yanked the gag back in his mouth.

“Hey,” Rib finally found his own voice. “Give him back!”

Although the crew was armed, each person seemed to hold their weapon out of defense more than anything. One of them, the woman from earlier, stood out among the rest, the head of her mace resting on her shield. She surveyed Rib hovering there. Her harsh eyes reminded him of Damara’s, though with long dark hair and dusky skin she bore no other resemblance to the young woman.

“We don’t want your rotten boy,” the female spoke in a surprisingly beautiful voice. “Just light our torch and we’ll let you have him.” She nodded to an unlit torch held up by an unarmed, dark grey boy older than Jasper. Rib hadn’t noticed him trembling there until now.

They want me to light their torch?

“I can’t,” Rib protested. “I don’t breathe fire!”

The woman spat a Huskhn word at him and the wrinkles deepened around her squinting eyes.

“Do it or your boy gets a strangling from my man,” she snarled.

With a shove of her shield, she sent the torch-holder fumbling closer to Rib. The scrawny boy reeled back to not fall overboard, then lifted his head to gaze upon Rib, terror in his eyes. Rib kept beating his wings over the rolling waves and watched the frightening scenario, unsure of what to do.

I hesitated too long the first time, and now they’re going to hurt Jasper!

Again, passionate anger built up inside him. It started as a growl in his throat and grew until, with a roar, he heavily landed on the boat. This caused the vessel to rock violently back and forth, which threw everyone off balance. The boy in front of him screamed and threw the torch at Rib’s face, turning to run through the Huskhns who tried their best to brandish their weapons on the reeling deck.

Rib saw someone fall on her blade that then pierced her through the arm and caused a scream of agony to rip from her lips. Immediately, sympathy and concern snapped Rib out of his anger. But that did not matter, for the boy that had fled him was sent careening into the Huskhn man at the back, creating an opportunity for Jasper to escape.

Can he swim?! Rib gasped as the child jumped overboard.

There was a splash and Rib moved to go after him, but Huskhns blocked his way with their weapons. The woman with the mace swung at him, yelling, “Give us your flame! Your flame!”

“I told you!” Rib jerked away. “I can’t!”

A weapon jabbed at him came alarmingly close to his face and he took to the air with a leap. Again the boat lurched side to side, again the crew was thrown off balance.

Having escaped the Huskhns, Rib fought his way through the ropes of the mast and sail that caught on him and went to rescue Jasper from the water.

He found, however, that the boy was now out of the water, having swam to a tiny strip of island off the coast. Jasper stood watching the scene, undone gag clenched in one hand.

“Jasper!” Rib cried in relief to see he was alright. He landed on the sliver of rock, turning to look at the Huskhns as he did.

The boat had stopped rocking violently and its crew now worked to get it sailing. Within minutes, the Huskhns were far out at sea. Rib and Jasper watched them go in silence, only broken by when the boy sniffed after all his crying.

What do I say? Rib wondered. People just tried to snatch him and I can hardly call what I did a rescue.

Before he could think of anything, Jasper threw the wet gag from his hand into the sea, where it disappeared amongst the sea foam, and sat down.

“You’re lucky.”

Rib was surprised to hear him talk first.

“Me? Why’s that?”

The boy sniffed again and raked his sleeve over his nose.

“You’re a dragon. You can do whatever you want.”

“Well, that’s not true…” Rib said. “There are a lot of things I wish I could do that I can’t. A lot of things.”

Jasper cast him a sidelong glare.

“Name one.”

Just one?

Rib thought, if he could do anything someone like Jasper could, what would he want to do?

“Uh, touching things,” he said, lying down to relax. “People are always talking about how rough things are, or smooth, or soft…My scales don’t feel all that. I wish they would.”

Jasper kicked some water as the waves swelled over his feet.

“What else?”

“Well…”

Rib was frustrated by how blank his mind was. There were so many things he wish he could do.

Why can’t I think of them now?

“I wish I could play an instrument,” Rib finally remembered another. “Like Gavin does. Or create something. Anything.”

Jasper continued staring at the lapping saltwater.

“I can’t play an instrument either.” He moved his deformed hand out from under his thigh, where he’d been hiding it.

Rib was sure not to get caught looking at it. “Do you like music?” he asked.

The boy nodded.

I’d have never guessed…

“I’m sure there must be some instrument you can play,” Rib encouraged him.

“I’m not talking about blowing through a flute with your nose,” Jasper spoke hotly. “That’s not playing an instrument.”

Oh. Rib remembered earlier that day and laughed a little. I suppose Gavin was the one choosing the notes.

“No, I guess it’s not, is it? But still, there must be something for you to play. Ask Gavin. He probably knows a lot of instruments that would work for you.”

Jasper shrugged and picked at a barnacle on the rock.

“I don’t think Gavin likes me. I’m no friend to anybody.”

“What makes you say that?” Rib forced himself to ask, though he knew very well how difficult the boy was to get along with. “I mean, sure you are! Aren’t we friends?”

Rib tried not to cringe at the fakeness of his words as Jasper finally turned to face him, a skeptical look on his face.

He can see through me, I know he can.

“Us?” Jasper questioned. “What makes us friends?”

Oh, help me, Rib thought.

“Well, we’ve known each other for what, five years?” he said. “That’s a long time to not be friends.”

So very long.

Jasper scowled, looking away again.

“You never let me ride you. Still, you beg Gavin to. He’s your friend, not me. I’m no one’s friend.”

This isn’t right.

“You know what?” Rib said decidedly, standing. “You’re going to fly with me right now.”

Jasper was quick to light up. “Really?” He swept tousled hair out of his face with his small hand.

“Yeah, come on.”

I’ll fly low over the sea, Rib thought as Jasper clambered up his back in a flash, take him back to the dock. Everything will be fine.

“Alright, let’s go!” Jasper said.

Rib could feel the boy’s small legs against his sides.

“Do you have a good hold?”

“Yes, let’s go!”

Here we go, then.

Rib unfolded his wings and took an easy lift off, hardly beating his wings when he found a low draft to glide on. Jasper didn’t seem to mind the lack of elevation; he just exclaimed things from Rib’s back.

“I’m flying!” the boy cried out in pure delight, though his voice cracked.

Sure, Rib thought humorously. Look how well you fly. You’re doing all the work here.

He banked long to the left for the boy’s enjoyment, let his foreclaws skim the waves, dared to fly a little higher, but not much. When Jasper finally quieted down, he held onto Rib’s neck like a bear cub to a tree branch.

“You can land now,” he said, just loud enough for Rib to hear. He sounded happy. Content.

Thanks for the permission. Rib couldn’t help but smile.

Oh. As he turned to land back on the dock, he was caught off guard to see crowds gathered on the docks, watching them. Mortaug, Gavin, and Damara were among them, waiting. The boy’s father stood with arms crossed, his thick grey locks hanging down like rope. Rib found the expressive half of Mortaug’s face hard to read.

What is he thinking right now? Is he mad at me for giving Jasper a ride even after what happened?

“Father!” Jasper said, leaping down from Rib’s back as soon as the dragon had landed. “Did you see me? I was fine, just like I told you I’d be!”

Mortaug knelt in front of his son and communicated something with his hands. Rib stood by Gavin, seeing how calm the man looked.

“Does he know people just tried to snatch Jasper?” he whispered to Gavin, who shook his head.

“He spotted you both only a moment ago,” the young man replied. “Must think you were giving Jasper a ride just for the fun of it.”

Then is he mad? Rib was surprised to see the Captain didn’t look upset at all. He merely messed up the child’s hair and walked down the dock they were standing on. Jasper beamed after him and the crowds, then faced Gavin.

“Did you see me?”

Gavin smiled, trying to bite a hangnail off his finger.

“Sure did,” he said between his teeth. “You’re braver than me, flying like that.”

Jasper couldn’t look happier, Rib thought, until the boy’s eyes fell on Damara.

“What did you see?” he demanded, seemingly afraid she knew more of what happened than his father.

Yeah, what did she see? Rib wondered and studied the young woman’s face. Does she know I saved him from the Huskhns? Or…did she see what little I actually did?

Damara rose her eyebrows at the child. “I saw just as everyone else did.”

Jasper looked at her suspiciously.

“I flew on Rib,” he said, testing.

“You did,” she agreed with a steadiness and patience Rib didn’t know her for. “And everyone saw it, too.”

Satisfied with her answer, Jasper raked back his curly hair. “I bet you wish you could fly like me.”

She can. Rib looked at Damara to see if she would tell him so. She even knows how to ride me without a saddle.

The young woman didn’t say anything, but the boy persisted.

“I could show you how.”

Rib suppressed a laugh at Jasper’s offer.

Damara gave a slight smile back at the child. “How nice of you.”

The bunch of them began to follow after Mortaug, Gavin and Rib falling into step beside each other to discuss in hushed voices what had happened.

The Huskhns wanted fire from me so badly they snatched Jasper for it. But why?

Do they know it’s necessary for potion-making? What else could they possibly have wanted it for?

Chapter 10

 

 

This was Rib’s favorite noise.

Laughter.

And not just the random peals of an individual, but the chuckles and giggles and gasps of hundreds.

Rib soaked it in as he and Gavin carried through the performance they’d perfected over the past supply stops they’d taken on their way to Crageria. Now they had finally made it to the kingdom and had only one short sailing trip left to make before reaching the port nearest Griffith, or Lord Griffith as people called him.

Everything’s perfect. Rib beamed, looking at all the delighted faces tilted up at him. He loved their shining eyes, the flash of teeth as they laughed.

In addition to his first bell, little bronze ones were strung across his chest with the thick strap of his saddle, etched with petals and sunbursts. They tinked as he crouched for Gavin’s two monigons to leap over him, as the dance went.

Gavin couldn’t look happier, Rib thought, watching the young man make his monigons weave through his legs and leap for the toy dangling from his hand.

Within the past month, their popularity had grown immensely. Instead of staring fearfully at Rib, now people came rushing down the docks to greet him and Gavin, cheering, ‘The Dragon Fools! The Dragon Fools have come!’

The past two monigons sold had earned them a small fortune. Now they performed in the towns because people begged them too, not because they needed the money from it. By this time, only the highest of nobles could afford their monigons.

The two left, Hesper and a male named Galilaeus, Gavin planned to breed. There were, of course, competing monigon breeders, but none could come at all close to the fame Rib and Gavin had built up for themselves.

And now for the bow, Rib thought as Gavin ended his song. Together, they stooped low with the monigons lying on either side of them, barking as the audience cheered. Rib watched in amusement as people stormed the stage to talk to him and Gavin.

“Come stay at my inn for the night!” a man offered hopefully. “Free of charge!”

Gavin laughed. “Oh, thank you, but we really must be going. Come on, Hesp! Gal!” As his monigons bounded to his side, the young man mounted Rib’s back and they began wading through the excited crowd.

“Sir!” a girl exclaimed to Gavin. “You’re even more handsome than I imagined.”

“Tell us what it’s like to be a dragon!” someone else implored Rib.

“Where are you headed next?”

I’d have never believed people would love me so suddenly, marveled Rib, finally breaking through the masses. He could hear Gavin still laughing from his back.

“This is getting absurd,” the young man chuckled. “By now, I don’t see any way King Griffith could say no to giving you the cure!”

That’s true, Rib realized, eyes opening wide. Why would we have to take the book and Oriole when we really could just ask for it?

I need to talk to Damara.

As they reached the docks, Gavin slipped back down to the ground. Ahead, their boat was tied, and standing beside it was Mortaug with a finely dressed man. On the stranger’s shoulder perched a big, violet wyvern.

“What’s this?” Gavin asked, approaching.

Rib could see that Mortaug looked pleased, signing something to Gavin before the stranger beside him opened up a scroll and read:

By Lord Griffith of Crageria,

The Dragon Fools, Rib and Gavin,

Are hereby invited to attend

The tournament, Dragon Round,

On Saint Madison’s Day

At His Lordship’s arena.

Seeing as it is a sport of man and pet,

Fool Gavin is welcome to compete

With his finest dragon hound,

While Fool Rib is asked to watch

Alongside of Lord Griffith

And his companion, Oriole,

From the royal booths.

The prize offered to the winner

Shall be a visit to the Fairy Realm

And a potion of Lord Griffith’s making.

A potion! Rib curled his tail in amazement. Gavin could ask him for the cure!

He looked to Gavin, who raised his eyebrows at him, then smiled at the messenger to say, “How could we refuse?”

The man closed his scroll with a nod. “I will notify Lord Griffith of your confirmation.”

Jotting down something on the scroll, he transferred the wyvern from his shoulder to his forearm and attached the parchment to its leg.

Griffith uses a wyvern as his messenger too? Rib was reminded of Tyrone and Ivory back home in Wystil. Looks like this one doesn’t repeat things, though.

With a thrust of his arm, the man sent the wyvern off. Rib gawked as the creature was there one moment and gone the next, having taken off at an incredible speed.

Like an arrow! Must use some kind of magic.

Gavin gave an impressed whistle.

“I see how the King got news of us so quickly,” he said.

. . .

“This is perfect!” Rib exclaimed, delighted as they set sail for their destination. People lined the docks, waving handkerchiefs and calling out their farewells to the famous Dragon Fools.

Gavin nodded, lying back once he’d finished removing all Rib’s ornamentation. “And exhausting. At least we’ll have time to rest before the tournament.”

“No,” Jasper objected, his voice cracking. “You have to train for Dragon Round. Do you even know the rules to it?”

“Sure I do,” Gavin answered, closing his eyes. “Although, I suppose the monigons could do with some training.” He sighed.

Rib looked to Damara, who was sitting silently by herself on the deck, staring out at the warm, summer sea.

Discreetly, he approached and stopped beside her.

“Damara,” he whispered, “I don’t think we’ll have to take from Griffith at all. If Gavin wins this tournament, he can request the cure as his prize.”

Damara didn’t face him, but said, “If he wins.”

Please,” Rib begged quietly with her. “Let him compete before we try anything else.”

The woman was silent.

Well, thought Rib. That’s better than refusal.

“What about your sister?” Damara then queried, looking him in the eye.

Memory?

“We can still get her,” he said.

We’re headed for her now. Rib’s heart quickened as he thought of it.

“Fine, but we get the cure first.” Damara said. “That, or the book and the firebreather. Your sister comes second, understand?”

Second? Rib held Damara’s harsh gaze, not sure how to feel.

“Alright,” he gave in, convinced by her flinty, blue eyes.

It won’t be a problem.

. . .

“So here’s how this game works,” Gavin said, tracing a circle in the sand, then walking a ways across the beach to draw one just like it. Rib lay upright, listening as his friend explained Dragon Round to Damara, who stood with arms crossed.

They had made it to their destination, a short flight away from where the tournament would take place the next day. Rib had wanted to go searching for Memory the moment they disembarked, but Damara told him not to be so obvious.

The cure first, your sister second, remember?’ she had hissed at him. ‘Your sister will probably be at the tournament anyway, so focus on that.’

Gavin had only one day to practice Dragon Round, and to Rib’s surprise, Damara had offered to help.

“Each of us has a goal,” Gavin said, pointing to both circles. “And we have to start in the ring opposite of ours. So go stand in that one and I’ll be in this one.”

Damara went to do as he said, waiting for more instructions. As the two humans faced each other, Rib was struck by the contrast between them, one a fair-skinned woman with lean body and curved figure, the other a dark grey man with stocky build.

They’re nearly opposites, Rib thought, reflecting also on how laid back Gavin was compared to Damara’s intense demeanor. And yet they make good friends…

“Now, from what I heard, it’s a pretty simple game, until you add more players. But seeing as there are only two of us playing, we should be fine.” Gavin picked up a leather ball and, tossing it to Rib, called, “Catch!”

Catch?! Instinctively, Rib closed his mouth around the flying object as he would a bird or a bat.

“Wha’ do I do wif dis?” he asked, cocking his head. Gavin’s monigons, having just seen the ball thrown, were leaping around Rib, barking excitedly.

“Hold on,” Gavin said, and whistled for Hesper, who went to his side. Damara called for the other monigon, as Gavin requested, and held tight to its collar.

“When I say,” Gavin told Rib, “I want you to drop the ball in right between me and Damara and then get out of the way, alright?”

Rib nodded, embarrassed as slobber began to string from his mouth. He had the ball clamped between his jaws, afraid that he’d swallow it otherwise.

“Now, Damara,” Gavin called. “We can touch the ball, but we can’t move with it. Only the monigons can do that. So, to put it short, your goal is to stand in the circle I’m in now, and have your monigon bring the ball to you. Whoever gets the ball from their monigon’s mouth while standing within their goal wins. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, Rib…Drop the ball in the middle and go!”

Rib did as he said, spitting out the toy and taking to the air. At that same moment, Gavin and Damara let go of their monigons, running towards their goal as the animals dashed for the ball. Beating his wings, Rib had an overhead view of both monigons ramming into each other, squabbling before Hesper got a hold of the ball and went bounding to her master.

But before she reached him, Damara’s monigon caught up and tackled her, snatching the toy back and heading for where Damara called.

This struggle continued on, neither monigons succeeding in getting the ball to their human before they tired themselves out, flopping onto the sand.

“Come on, Hesp!” Gavin laughed, bending over to pat his knees.

Exhaustedly, Hesper lifted her head, panting as she got up, took the ball in her mouth, and trotted to her owner’s goal.

“Good girl!” Gavin praised her, taking the toy to claim victory. “Alright, Damara, there was something else I forgot to tell you. We can’t move with the ball, but we can throw it.”

Damara put a hand on her hip, surprising Rib with a sportive smile on her face.

“Well, that changes things,” she said. “Can we wrestle it from each other, too?”

“I-” Gavin was stalled by this. “I don’t actually know. What do you think?”

Damara smirked. “I think it would give me a better chance.”

“Oh?” Gavin raised his eyebrows. “Alright, then. Let’s try it. Soon as the monigons are ready.”

How could it give her a better chance? Rib wondered, looking from her to Gavin. Damara was tall, but delicately thin. Though she held herself confidently, it was obvious her strength didn’t compare to Gavin’s. The young man was in his prime, with broad shoulders and muscles everywhere, laid thick from his neck to his calves. How can she hope to win at all?!

Rib picked out a rock where he decided he would go soon as he started the second round, growing eager to watch it play out.

“I think the monigons are ready now,” Gavin said, nodding to Rib. “Will you do the honors?”

The ball was now thoroughly coated with sand and slobber. Rib cast it a distasteful look before picking it back up in his own mouth and flying to the middle of Damara and Gavin, who stood ready with their reptilian partners.

“Go!” Rib shouted, dropping the ball and retreating to his rock.

This time, instead of running straight for their goals, the humans chased after their monigons, encouraging them with yells and whistles. As Hesper got the ball, she brought it to Gavin, who took it quickly and aimed to throw it towards his goal.

But, just then, coming from behind, Damara swung her leg at the back of his knees, causing him to double backwards and drop the ball.

What?!

Actually laughing now, Damara picked up the toy before Hesper could get it and threw it to her goal, where her monigon was already headed.

Gavin was just standing up as Damara reached her monigon, planting her feet inside the ring of sand before retrieving the slimy ball and declaring her victory with arms raised.

She’s happy. Rib was baffled. Damara looks happy.

“That wasn’t wrestling from my hands; that was assault!” Gavin laughed, shaking out the sand from the folds of his clothes.

Damara grinned. “Sorry, but your monigon’s better than mine. I had to do something to even the odds.”

Gavin also grinned, looking down at Hesper, who nosed him in the leg. “She is good, isn’t she? I think I ought to use her for the tournament. But hey, do you want to switch hounds and play again?”

Damara accepted and Rib watched in awe as she and Gavin continued playing their game. Now that the man was prepared for Damara’s attacks, he dodged them slyly, and soon began to win each round, no matter which monigon helped him.

Look how much fun they’re having, Rib thought. And all I get to do is start the round with a nasty ball in my mouth.

It began to make him sad, though Damara was finally showing her light side.

By the time Damara and Gavin were too tired for another round, both were panting just as much as the monigons, but still grinning.

“I’m going to cool off in the water,” Gavin said, his brow now glistening with sweat. Damara sat on a large piece of driftwood as Gavin rolled up his pant legs and waded into the ocean up to his knees.

Rib studied Damara, noticing how the summery light caught the perspiration on the nape of her neck. The color of her dress reminded him of a dreary, drizzling day, but the expression on her face remained pleasant. Rib could see her blink a bead of sweat out of her eye as she watched Gavin splash water into his face.

If she can be friends with Gavin, he determined, then surely she can be friends with me.

I’ve been ignored long enough.

Descending his rock as graceful as a mountain lion, Rib sidled up to her, letting himself down by her seat of driftwood. Sand half buried his foreclaws set in front of him.

“I think you’ve helped prepare him,” he said, also looking out at Gavin. “He could actually win tomorrow.”

Rib glanced at Damara, happy to see her eyes also flutter in his direction, her manner less than irritated.

“Maybe so,” she answered.

“You’ll be watching, right?” Rib asked. “When he competes?”

He heard the young woman breathe out, before replying, “I should think so.”

He smiled. We’re actually having a real, pleasant conversation right now.

“Rib!”

Jasper’s voice cracked behind them and they both turned. The boy was running down the beach towards them, sand kicked up behind him. He put his hands on his head when he reached them to catch his breath.

“Father was just talking to another Huskhn down at the docks,” the boy gulped. “He said your sister was here, until Zheal fled with her on a ship!”

Memory! She…

“Fled?” Rib repeated in exasperation. “Where is she now?!”

Jasper shook his head, long curls of hair swinging loose. “The man didn’t know.”

Rib was devastated.

Swiveling his eyes to Damara, he saw that she was studying him silently.

Now what do we do?!

“What’s happened?” Gavin asked, running up to meet them.

“My sister was here,” Rib cried. “But she left with Zheal and no one knows where she went!”

“Oh.” Gavin looked shocked. “Rib, I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.”

He doesn’t even know. I had a plan. Rib trembled all over and hung his head. Memory was supposed to be here…

I was finally going to save her.

Chapter 11

 

 

“So, what if I don’t win?” Gavin queried, penning Hesper into the stablehouse where all Dragon Round competitors now gathered before the start of the tournament. “Then asking for the cure is up to you again, right Rib?”

Rib nodded his head. He’d been awake throughout the night, wondering about Memory and where she was. It put him in such a dispirited mood, he’d even declined to wear his bells that morning and asked Gavin to keep them stored in the saddle.

Why did Zheal have to flee with her?

“Do you think you will win?” Damara asked.

Gavin shrugged. “I only practiced this game yesterday. And besides, look at these other competitors.”

At each stall, nobles and dukes were getting ready, stretching and pampering their monigons. All of them looked as though they’d been preparing for this tournament for months on end. Gavin, however, just stood in the corner with Rib and Damara, plainly dressed with a flask in hand. He grinned, taking a swig of his water.

“I look like a joke,” he said. “Although, I suppose that’s why they call us Dragon Fools, eh Rib?”

“Huh?” Rib blinked. His dreams of Memory were just beginning to flood back into his mind and he struggled to focus as Damara stared him harshly in the eye.

Don’t forget what we’re here for,” she told him.

“The cure, I know!” Rib grew angry.

That’s all she cares about.

[_ What of my sister? The plague started just this year, and it’s horrible- but Memory’s been a slave most her ] life[!_]

At that moment, Griffith burst in, a gold and purple robe stretched over his large middle with a matching crown to trap his wild red hair. Rib dipped his head in confusion as everyone around him bowed.

“Gentlemen!” the King boomed. “It is with great joy that I welcome you! Now, let us see what fine dragon hounds you’ve brought.”

Rib could hear the King going from stall to stall, greeting competitors and commenting on each monigon. Coming down the line, the man’s voice only grew louder and more enthusiastic.

“Ah, the Dragon Fools!” Griffith declared, spreading his arms wide to behold Rib and Gavin. “So splendid that you could come. When I heard of your fame, I knew it was only fitting that you should attend my tournament.”

“Thank you for inviting us, Your Majesty,” responded Gavin. “Will you be competing?”

“No, I will not.” Griffith brushed stable dust off his robe. “Oriole and I will be watching from the royal booths. Rib, I trust you will be joining us?”

“Yes,” Rib answered hollowly.

The King frowned at him. “What troubles you, my friend? Are you not eager for the games?”

This is my chance to ask about Memory, Rib realized. He sensed Damara draw nearer to him, clearly pressuring him not to.

But I must.

“No, I am,” he said hesitantly. “Only…I was expecting someone else to be here as well.”

There was a pain in the leather of his folded wing as Damara dug her nails into him, but he ignored it.

“Oh?” Griffith asked, stroking his meager beard. “Who?”

Damara’s sharp grip tightened.

“My sister…known as Tairg,” Rib answered. “I was told Zheal fled with her some days ago.”

“Tairg!” the King exclaimed. “Why, I had no idea she was your sister!”

“What were they fleeing from?” urged Rib. “Where did they go?”

The pain in his wing went away, as Damara seemingly gave up.

“Ah,” Griffith sneered. “Wherever Zheal has gone, he’d better stay away from here. I’d have had him executed if Tairg hadn’t saved him.”

“What?! My sister saved him?”

“Yes, and I had no quarrel with her until then. It was Zheal who went behind my back, challenging my title of Sole Wizard of the World.” The King bared his teeth. “Never trust a Huskhn. They’re thieves and backstabbers, every one of them.”

Rib swiveled his eyes to Gavin, then to Damara, but neither said a word.

“The arena is ready, My Lord,” a herald said, bowing his head as he approached the King.

Griffith clapped his hands together. “Come, Rib. Everyone, I wish you luck!”

Rib hesitated before padding after him, glancing again at his companions. Gavin nodded, while Damara refused to even look at him.

But my sister! Why did she save Zheal when she could have escaped alone?

Is there something I don’t know?

“Oriole should be waiting for us,” Griffith told Rib, striding forth. “There’s room for you both in my royal booth.”

Oriole! She must have met Memory!

I have to speak to her.

. . .

“Hello, Rib!”

Rib stared at Oriole, dumbfounded.

“Wha- what happened to you?” he asked. “You’re…feathery!”

The dragon fluffed herself in pride. “Aren’t they lovely? Lord Griffith gave them to me. The finest feathers of the finest songbirds, he said.”

So it’s not just his brother that he turned into a freak? That faun was just the start of it?

Rib couldn’t help but gape. The female still had a hide patterned white, black, and yellow, but now feathers of many colors crowned her head, downed her chest, and even layered her wings.

Who could call her a dragon now? Rib was utterly baffled.

“How long have you…been like this?”

“Oh, soon after Lord Griffith assumed the throne.” Oriole simpered. “He’s been making more wonderful potions ever since!”

The King stood back, nodding agreeably. “You’ll have to come see my Fairy Realm, Rib,” he declared. “That is where all of my creations reside.”

“Uh…”

Like what?! Rib was disturbed. I’d never seen Damon make such things! Was this really in his book of potions?

“Really, I insist.” Griffith pressed. “The Fairies are always pleased by dragon visitors.”

“Alright,” he consented, smiling timorously in response to the King’s grin.

Gavin had better win…I don’t want to go there alone.

“Lords and ladies!” a herald announced from the middle of the arena. “Lord Griffith welcomes you to his tournament of Dragon Round. Long live Lord Griffith!”

Griffith took his place on his throne and people chorused back the chant. Rib watched as Oriole swept over to the King’s left, leaving him no place to stand but the other side.

I’ll have to question her about Memory later, in the Fairy Realm.

“Will Sir Yaxen, Duke Wetsy,” the herald went on listing names, “please come to the field!”

Rib peered curiously at the competitors filing in, their monigons bounding at their heels

There’s Gavin!

From the King’s raised platform, Rib recognized his friend striding to the far side of the field with Hesper padding after him, forked tongue lolling.

The arena was circular and grassy with tiny white flowers blooming in patches all over it. Not a stick or stone could be seen on the ground. Evenly spaced around the perimeter of the arena were eight traced rings, and behind each was a tall structure stacked with benches for the audience to sit. It amazed Rib how many people there were, waving flags and cheering as the six competitors stepped inside their ring.

Rib saw Gavin look up at him in the royal booth and wave, as though nothing about the tournament made him anxious. Hesitantly, Rib flexed his wings in response.

Focus on your goal! Rib silently pleaded with him, glancing at the ring directly across from Gavin where a tall noble stood proud, a beige monigon curled around his feet. You must win!

“Gentlemen!” the herald addressed the competitors. “Salute the Crown!”

All eight men raised their right hands to Griffith.

“Salute the one whose favor you bear!”

Over half of them looked to the sky, but Gavin simply patted Hesper on the head.

“Salute each other!”

They bowed vaguely in their opponents’ direction.

“By your honor and the sound of the horn, you may begin!”

With that, the herald marched off the field and ascended the level just below the King’s booth. Rib peered down as a man also on the platform gave his large scarlet wyvern a ball, which it gripped in its talons and flew over the clearing with.

All eight competitors held tight to their monigons’ collars, watching the wyvern release the ball over the center of the field. The moment the ball hit, a horn blared and every man sent his monigon after it.

Rib kept his eyes on Hesper as she arrived to the center too late, forced to the edge of the fight that erupted among those who didn’t. It horrified him to see one animal clamp its jaws around the throat of another, causing it to drop the ball in its mouth. Rib saw a little blood spattered over the ground before a monigon actually managed to escape with the ball, chased by all the rest as it ran for its owner.

Oh no! Rib was dismayed as the stranger got the ball from his monigon’s mouth while standing in his goal. That person won!

There were cheers from the audience, but none of the other competitors stopped what they were doing. Instead, they ran to the center of the field, where the scarlet wyvern was just about to drop a second ball.

Gavin still has a chance?

Rib found himself leaning forward in anticipation. All the monigons were still jumping at the man with the first ball while their owners jumped for the second that fell.

While the fight among monigons had been gruesome, this was even worse. Rib gawked as the men threw elbows, shoved, and hit each other in the face. Every time one got a hold of the ball, they planted their feet and called their monigon, but by that time another would have wrestled it from their hands.

“Yes!” Griffith hollered. “Yes! Yes!”

Humans are violent, Rib thought, digging his claws into the wood, his body tense. And all for a ball!

He watched a thin man snatch the ball up in his hands, then gasped as Gavin ran up behind and swung his leg at the back of the man’s knees, doubling him backwards.

That’s what Damara did to him!

Before Gavin could get the ball that hit the ground, however, Hesper dashed in and got it.

“Here, Hesp!” Gavin’s call echoed around the arena as he ran for his goal and stepped inside.

Go, Hesper! Rib urged the monigon silently, eyes wide. The animal streaked towards her master, leaping over another monigon before jumping into Gavin’s arms. The young man reeled back with the weight of Hesper, but he got the ball out of her mouth and kept both feet inside the ring.

“Yeah!” Rib cheered along with everyone else. “He did it!”

“Now he just has six more rounds to win,” Griffith shouted over the crowd.

Six?! Rib was exasperated. How can he manage that?

Gavin moved to the platform below Rib with Hesper, as the first winner had done. The rest of the monigons were now running for the third ball which had just been dropped, but Rib was distracted by Gavin.

“Hey!” Rib half-shouted, half-laughed to his friend, who turned. “You copied Damara.”

Gavin grinned up at him. Light seemed to dance in his ocean blue eyes. “Worked well, didn’t it?” he replied, but was hushed by the herald.

Where is Damara, anyway? Rib thought suddenly, searching the stands. On a lower bench of the stand closest to the royal booth, he saw Mortaug and Jasper, who cheered incessantly, but Damara wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere.

She said she’d come watch! Rib became irritated. Gavin won with her trick and she didn’t even see.

Then, he glimpsed something in the corner of his eye and looked to see Damara watching from the top of a tall tree just behind one of the stands. Rib gawked at her, seeing how smooth and branchless the trunk of the tree was.

How did she climb up there? Has she been there the whole time?

Judging by the entertained grin on her freckled face, she had.

Rib shook his head in astonishment, turning his attention back to the game that went on.

When someone finally got the seventh and last ball released, his sole opponent left was recognized as the first loser of the tournament. Baring his teeth in anger, the loser stalked out of the arena and out of sight, kicking his monigon.

The seven remaining competitors were allowed a short break while servants rushed to retrace the necessary goal rings and smooth the terrain.

“I’ll wager Duke Wetsy shall be joining us in the Fairy Realm tomorrow,” Griffith said to Oriole. “Look how fierce his dragon hound is.”

“I know,” Oriole agreed. “I thought it was going to kill Sir Yaxen’s!”

“It still might,” Griffith replied, a wicked smile on his face.

“Wait, that can’t be allowed,” Rib protested. “Can it?”

The King split into a grin. “The crowds would riot if I forbade it.”

“That’s awful,” Rib cried, but only got a sympathetic gaze from Oriole.

What if Hesper got killed?!

“Gavin!” Rib shouted down again. “Gavin, don’t let Hesper die!”

What?” his friend asked, but was again shushed by the herald.

Hesper panted at Gavin’s feet with a gaping, dog-like smile. Rib studied the monigon from where he perched.

She looks alright so far…

Soon, the herald called the competitors back to the field and each stood in a ring, the loser’s left empty.

This time, when the horn was sounded, Hesper was of the first to reach the ball. With a quick snag, she caught it up in her mouth and escaped the others, bolting through the audience stands to disappear with the rest chasing after her.

Gavin slowed to a halt, staring after the direction she’d disappeared. The people watching stood up on their benches to also see where the animals had gone.

“They left the arena!” Rib exclaimed the obvious. “Is that allowed?”

“Of course,” Griffith retorted. “But they’re bound to get tired on their way back.”

“I once fell asleep waiting for them,” Oriole admitted sheepishly. “I do hope these ones are quicker…”

Rib watched anxiously as one of the competitors, Duke Wetsy he thought, stalked over to Gavin. With his keen hearing, he was able to listen in on what was being said.

“This is your fault,” the man accused. “Your scut of a hound put a halt to everything!”

“Yeah,” Gavin laughed breathlessly, placing his hands on his knees. “And right when I needed a break, too.”

Leaving the man scowling behind him, Gavin went over to his goal and sat down to catch his breath.

Then, from behind, Hesper crept out from beneath a nearby seating structure and nuzzled him, the ball still in her mouth.

She hid with it!

Rib laughed at Gavin’s shocked expression.

Most everyone else was still looking around for the runaway monigons and hadn’t noticed Hesper there. Silently glancing around him, Gavin accepted the ball offered to him and stood, announcing, “Found it!”

Found it? Rib laughed again when everyone turned in amazement to see Gavin, in his goal, the missing ball raised in his hand.

Immediately, the scarlet wyvern was sent out with another ball and the men went for it, their monigons still gone. As Gavin waltzed back to the platform below Rib, the game proceeded with one man throwing the ball towards his goal, then another kicking it towards his, and so on.

And when the competitors’ monigons finally returned, panting and sluggish, the round was drawn out until the second loser was determined.

So it went that Gavin continued passing each round. As one after another loser was singled out and made to leave, Rib found it easier to watch his friend and his tactics. He admired how Gavin and Hesper worked together, like the perfect pair.

It was likewise amusing to see how careless Gavin appeared as he dodged and weaved around man and monigon to get to Hesper. Sometimes Rib thought he heard the young man whistling his market tune while jaunting alongside Hesper for the goal.

Why, he’s casually excellent! Rib marveled.

At last, six rounds had gone by and Gavin was left to face his last opponent, Duke Wetsy.

“What a match we have here!” Griffith proclaimed, looking at Rib. “Your friend head to head with my wager. Who do you think it will be, Rib? Who will join us in the Fairy Realm tomorrow morn?”

Rib stared out at Gavin and Duke Wetsy, comparing them and their monigons.

Gavin was stockier, but proven to be light on his feet and quick to respond, while his opponent was slightly taller and had a long reach. Rib had also observed the Duke’s throw was very fast and precise.

Of the two monigons, Hesper was the taller one but, like her master, she was swift and cunning. Her rival was frightful to look at, almost hunchbacked with its head always low. Its features were blocky, its hide beige with the occasional dark scale. Rib couldn’t be sure from his distance, but he thought he glimpsed a snaggletooth popping over its upper lip.

That’s the monigon that could kill Hesper! Rib felt the urge to glide down and take his friend’s monigon up in his talons. Gavin needs her!

Rib watched as both contenders took their places one last time. It reminded him of Gavin and Damara, when they’d practiced on the beach. Only now, fear seeped in through Rib’s scales.

With a screech, the scarlet wyvern released the final ball. At the blast of the horn, Hesper and her rival charged for the middle. Hesper skid to a halt and took the ball, but in that moment, the other monigon rammed into her, sending her flying back. With a yelp, she dropped the ball, but her rival didn’t go for it. Instead, he champed down on Hesper’s throat and threw her in a rage.

No! Rib panicked, wings unfolding. No, no, no!

He was just about to fly to Hesper’s rescue as the brute advanced on her, snarling, but Gavin dove over her, protecting her from the monigon that lunged.

“Gavin!” Rib wailed, horrified when the brute went for his friend’s arm.

Gavin screamed in agony as the animal sank its teeth in and tore at his flesh.

Rib was off the platform in an instant. Everyone was hollering. Griffith demanded for everything to stop.

Before Rib reached his friend, though, Hesper had picked herself up and now tackled the brute. With awful shrieks and yowls, the monigons fought each other.

“Are you alright?” Rib cried as he landed in front of Gavin, who clutched his bleeding arm.

The young man nodded, heaving for breath, his eyes wide. Damara was suddenly with them and already tearing fabric from her dress to wrap Gavin’s arm in. Rib could still hear the battling of monigons happening behind him and he turned to see.

I have to help Hesper! he thought, but could hardly single either of them out, glimpsing the flash of fangs and claws. Stepping closer, he tried to intervene. At once, the brute broke away to snap at Rib. With a pounce, Rib pinned the monigon to the ground, easily overpowering it.

Rib stared down at the maddened beast, then looked to Hesper, who could barely hold herself up, bloody and ragged. Gavin came to her, hushing her as she whimpered and fell into him.

“For attack against a human,” Griffith’s commanding voice rang out, “Duke Wetsy’s dragon hound is to be executed immediately! Would the victim like to deal the death blow?”

Rib gazed at Gavin, but before the young man could reply, Duke Wetsy came forward, knife in hand.

“I’ll do it,” the Duke snarled. “I’ll kill the damn beast. He cost me my victory!”

What?! Rib scrambled back just as the man plunged his blade into the monigon’s throat. There was a sickening sound and a squeal from the animal, then all was quiet.

Rib watched blood ooze from the monigon’s neck, stunned. Soldiers came to restrain the Duke and take his knife, though the man yelled at them to release him. Rib felt his scales begin to lie flat as the man was dragged away. He hadn’t even realized he was bristling.

Rib stared around at Gavin, Damara, Hesper. Jasper and Mortaug only just managed to push their way through the benches and ran to meet them. They all exchanged glances.

What now?

Tentatively, the herald sidled up to Gavin, who still crouched with Hesper.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the herald announced, his voice cracking, “I present to you your winner, Fool Gavin.”

Chapter 12

 

 

“Well done, Gavin!” Griffith praised from Oriole’s back as she alighted on the field before them. “You must come to my Fairy Realm immediately. There, my naiads can heal you.”

Naiads? Rib looked at Gavin’s injured arm, still alarmed by the sight of blood soaking through the fabric Damara tied around it.

“What shall we do with Duke Wetsy’s beast, Your Majesty?” a servant asked, approaching Griffith.

“Ah.” Griffith peered over at the dead monigon. “Take it to my Fairy Realm.”

What does he want it for? Rib wondered in disgust, watching two servants heave the animal up into a cart.

“Sir,” Gavin spoke up. “Please, can you help my dragon hound?” He sat on the ground with Hesper heaving for air in his lap. Many of her scales had been torn away from her hide, leaving gaping wounds to ooze blood over the rest of her. Rib feared she was dying.

“Certainly!” The King regarded Hesper’s feeble body. “Load her into the cart with the other,” he ordered his servants.

Tenderly, the men lifted Hesper from Gavin’s lap and set her in the bed atop a folded blanket. The monigon whimpered, rolling her head to see her master stand up. Rib recognized the worry in Gavin’s face as he stroked Hesper’s head before the cart was wheeled away.

“Now,” Griffith said. “We must make haste. Can you fly with that arm?” He peered at Gavin, nodding to his injury.

“Fly?” Gavin repeated, his face ashen.

He’s never flown before, Rib thought. He’s terrified to!

“It’ll be fine.” Damara stepped up and placed a hand on Gavin’s shoulder. “I’ll go with you.”

The young man swallowed nervously, but did not protest.

“Excellent,” Griffith said, straightening on Oriole’s back. “Hurry, then.”

Rib crouched down low so Gavin could get into the saddle. He felt his friend’s legs trembling against his scales as the human straddled the base of his neck. Then Damara mounted the same saddle behind him and Rib stood.

“Gavin,” Jasper said from the ground, his voice deeper now. “Father and I will take care of your other monigon at the port.” Only now Rib noticed how much the boy had grown since they left Wystil, his body and his hair, which fell down to his shoulders in tar black waves.

Craning his head back, Rib saw Gavin nod to Jasper silently. Damara held the young man around the waist to keep him steady, but Rib was doubtful of her ability. Gavin looked almost ready to faint, and there was no way Damara could keep his dead weight in the saddle while flying. Rib would suggest walking instead, if Gavin weren’t still bleeding through his poor bandages.

I need to be ready to catch him.

“Let us fly!” Griffith declared and Oriole beat her feathery wings. The plumed tip of the dragon’s tail swished as she rose into the air, graceful as a bird.

Rib felt Gavin’s knees dig into him when he struck the ground, ascending after Oriole. Looking down, he saw Jasper squint up at them and Mortaug raise his hand in farewell.

Soon they passed over the cart where Hesper still lay, headed in the same direction. Rib focused on the weight on his back, trying to determine how Gavin and Damara were doing. Both seemed to be in place still.

Peering ahead, Rib wondered, Is that it?

Oriole was headed toward a castle-like structure built up against the base of a steep cliff. On the higher land ran a stream that descended in a beautiful waterfall, pouring someplace inside the castle wall. Built into the stone partition was a grate, through which the stream gushed to continue its way over the land. Rib tried to see more inside the curtain wall, but could only glimpse the tops of trees before following Oriole down to the ground.

They landed before a moat surrounding the castle-like structure, across from a large board that covered what appeared to be the wall’s gate. As soon as Rib’s feet touched the ground, Gavin stumbled off his back, barely catching himself before falling on his injured arm. Damara leapt after him to help.

Strange animal calls Rib could not identify came from the castle-like structure.

“Lower the drawbridge!” Griffith ordered and the board was let down across the moat.

Monigons and mock dragons…

Rib gawked at the archway it led to, or rather what was inside, but was distracted as Griffith turned to Damara and said, “You stay out here.”

“What?!” Damara objected.

“Please, Sir,” Gavin panted, still swaying on his feet. “She’s with us.”

The King studied Damara with cold eyes. Rib was worried as the young woman glared right back.

Why won’t he let her come? She’ll probably force her way inside no matter what.

“I cannot allow just anyone into my forest,” Griffith said. “The Fairies would not be pleased. She may earn passage this coming dawn, but for now we will address your arm, Gavin.”

With that, he and Oriole entered the Fairy Realm. Gavin held onto Rib as they crossed the drawbridge after them, leaving Damara behind. Rib glanced back at her where she stood alone, arms at her sides, soon blocked from sight by the drawbridge that was lifted.

“Welcome to my Fairy Realm!” Griffith declared, jumping down from Oriole’s back and sweeping his outstretched hand to the scene before them. “Come, I will take you to the naiads!”

Rib stared, dumbfounded by the sight of freakish things all around him. They walked down a path lined with plants and trees, if that is what they could be called. One tree appeared to be made of whale blubber, rubbery and kept slick by squat bearded men that dutifully ran wet rags over it. Another plant had leaves like whiskers, housing a light grey creature Rib guessed to be part snake, squirrel, and dove all at once.

“I don’t understand,” Rib groaned to Gavin, who stumbled along looking just as stunned as he was. “Why? Why any of this?”

“What’s that fragrance?” the young man whispered, his voice scratchy. “It’s so heavy I can taste it.”

Despite his lack of smell, Rib thought he could detect it too, his mouth slightly agape as he breathed in. He also noticed how peacefully quiet the forest was considering how many unusual beasts inhabited it. It was rather eerie.

Soon, their path came alongside a stream, which they followed a ways up to where the waterfall created a great pool at the foot of the cliff. On the banks was a meadow covered with rings of mushrooms. In each circle was a miniscule girl with wings. Rib watched as one passionately defended her mushrooms from a hungry bird, which hopped around the ring and refused to leave though the girl assailed it with thorns. Another winged girl came to help the first, snapping what appeared to be a tiny whip.

Griffith reminded Rib of a delighted child as he sprang to the water’s edge and called, “Ladies, we have need of you!”

Rib narrowed his eyes to peer through the waterfall’s mist, trying to make out the faces that turned towards them. At the King’s call, the heads disappeared underwater. Rib drew closer, waiting for whatever would happen next.

Lilies rested on the water in front of them, and Rib was just studying their fox ear petals when a woman, bare and pale green, appeared just under the surface. Rib started. The water nymph peered up at him before silently breaking through the water, rising with dark hair dripping, lips slightly parted. Gills striped her graceful neck on either side.

Blinking, she turned her attention to Griffith, soon joined by half a dozen other women. All of them stayed mostly submerged, smooth skin gleaming in the light.

“Here, Gavin,” the King said, reaching out to the young man. “Come close.”

Gavin exchanged a dubious look with Rib before moving forward, still holding his injured arm. The naiads reached out, wordlessly convincing him to kneel on the bank and let them remove the blood soaked cloth from his forearm.

All seven of them crowded around, mewling in pity over the mangled flesh. The one closest to Gavin ran her fingers through her sopping hair, taking the glistening film that transferred to her hand close to the man’s wound.

“Uh-” Gavin began to object, but the nymph gripped his arm by the injury and held tight, even when he gasped in pain. Two other naiads did the same, until every inch of his wound was covered by their glimmering hands.

Gavin looked back at Rib, grimacing. Rib opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t think of what.

“There, see?” the King gloated as the nymphs let go of Gavin’s arm. “Fresh as a newborn!”

Both Rib and Gavin stared down at the injury once there, now gone. All that was left was the shiny film coating his dark grey skin.

“Will they do this for Hesper?” Gavin mumbled incredulously.

“No, they will not,” the King answered. “Your dragon hound is in need of a special potion, which I shall happily craft this instant.”

Straightening up, he gave a sharp, long whistle through his fingers and Rib shook his head in discomfort of its shrill pitch. Suddenly, a winged girl no bigger than a man’s open hand zipped towards them.

“Yes, Lord Griffith?” the tiny woman said. “You called?” Rib marveled at her shock of blue hair, whirring hummingbird wings, and bright dress. Slung over her head, with its string across her breasts, was a bow. On her belt was a quiver full of tiny arrows, as well as a sheathed knife, a couple drawstring bags, and a whip.

What does she need all that for? Rib was mystified.

“Fetch me my book,” Griffith ordered, “and bring it to my workplace.”

“Certainly, Sir!” she agreed, curtsying in midair before speeding away again.

“Who was that?” Rib asked, staring in the direction she so quickly disappeared.

“My head fae servant, Spryte,” Griffith breathed. “Never have I been happier with the work of a woman. Something about her keeps all the others focused on their labor and nothing else, just as it should be.”

Gavin frowned. “So where is this ‘workplace’ of yours?”

“Come and I will show you,” Griffith said, waving them on, towards the looming cliff.

“Thank you,” Gavin talked to the nymphs still standing in the water, but they simply hummed a melody and slipped away. The young man looked from the pool to Rib and shrugged.

Together, they followed after the King and Oriole.

“When will you request the cure?” Rib asked his friend quietly.

Gavin rubbed the back of his neck with his miraculously healed arm. “My victory was rather glanced over, wasn’t it? Whenever he mentions the prize, I suppose.”

But what if he doesn’t? Rib worried. And I still have to ask Oriole about Memory…

Griffith led them all the way to the base of the towering cliff, where rocks formed a flat, raised platform. The King took the steps that led up to it two by two, smoothing out his kilt as he reached the top.

This is my workplace,” he announced soon as Gavin and Rib joined him.

Really? Rib was surprised by the simplicity of it. Besides the fine mist that blew from the waterfall, there was nothing there except a ring of rocks with a cauldron hung over it by a three-legged stand. That, and a stout column of rock with cooking utensils set on top of it.

“Your book, Sir,” Spryte said, returning from the direction of the waterfall.

Rib gawked as he saw the tiny woman heaving a large book through the air.

That’s Damon’s book! How does she fly with it?

“Very good, give it here.” Griffith held his hands out, palms up, and the fae servant set the heavy object down.

“Anything else?” she asked, hovering in front of him.

“Yes, make sure the gnomes are prepared to carry two dragon hounds here,” the King said. “A cart should be arriving with them soon.”

“I will see to it,” Spryte promised and zipped away.

“Now, let’s see,” Griffith murmured to himself, opening the book and flipping through the leaves. Rib peered at the seemingly blank pages and remembered Clyde telling him that the recipes were written in magic.

How few people must be able to read them, then.

With a spark in his eye, the King asked Gavin, “Now, do you want your dragon hound to have long fur, or hare ears, or I could give her a venomous bite-”

“No,” Gavin groaned. “Please, I just want you to heal her.”

Just heal her?” the King snorted. “Oh, very well then. Let’s see, that should be…Ah-ha! Here it is.” The man kept the book open at a certain place and set it down on the thick rock column, running one finger down the right page. “Yes, yes, I have all these. And look! Here comes your dragon hound now, Gavin.”

Hesper. Rib looked anxiously to where the King pointed.

What?!

Down the same path they’d come, two monigon bodies seemed to roll over the land. As he narrowed his eyes on them, he saw that they were being carried by little bearded men with pointed hats. Each gnome held his hands high to support the heavy burden, marching in unison with his fellow laborers.

Without a word to the King, Gavin rushed down to Hesper. Rib watched his friend’s body language, relieved when he noticed Gavin relax.

She’s still alive.

“Hmm. Do join me as I gather the magics, Rib,” Griffith told him. “It should be but a short walk.”

As the King requested, Rib followed the man that strolled through the meadow as he pointed at individual mushrooms for the fae servants to retrieve. Oriole kept close by, explaining things in Rib’s ear.

“Each mushroom has a special type of magic inside it,” she hushed. “Only those with the Eyes of Kings can see the difference between them.”

“Why are the gnomes placing that dead monigon there?” Rib asked, watching the little strange men drop Duke Wetsy’s brute in the middle of a circle.

“Lord Griffith wants the mushrooms to feed on it. Once they take the magics inside it, then he can use them in his potions,” Oriole answered. “And even when he picks a mushroom with a certain type of magic in it, another mushroom with the same magic is sure to appear soon after. He says the magics live in the ground, held inside whatever connects each mushroom to its ring.”

Rib cocked his head, not quite understanding, but not bothering to question further.

“No, not that one!” Griffith growled at an especially flustered fae servant. “I meant the one next to it!”

“Sorry, Your Highness,” the winged girl gasped, moving to the mushroom he indicated and straining her back against it. All at once, the mushroom popped out of the ground, causing the tiny servant to fall backwards. “Sorry!” she panted again and gripped it by the stem.

Griffith did not crouch to make her job any easier, but simply held out his hand as she heaved the mushroom up to him.

How can she have such trouble carrying a mushroom when Spryte was able to carry an entire book? Rib wondered.

When at last the King had gathered all the mushrooms he needed for the potion, they returned to his workplace, where Gavin knelt with Hesper. Rib took one look at the hurting monigon and feared the worst would soon be upon her.

“How long should this take you?” Rib asked the King fretfully as Oriole lit the kindling beneath his cauldron with her breath.

Griffith waggled a finger at him, saying, “Art cannot be rushed.”

Rib watched as gnomes fetched the King buckets of water, which was poured into the cauldron. Griffith followed along the invisible recipe, dropping in one mushroom after another and stirring the liquid with relish.

“Smell that?” the King asked, a grin across his ruddy-haired face. “Ah, magic…”

What does it smell like? Is it almost done? Is Hesper still alive?

Finally, Griffith peered into his cauldron and nodded his head. “That looks right,” he said.

At his whistle, Spryte reappeared to take the potion book back, heading towards the waterfall.

Come on, come on! Rib begged Griffith silently as the man dipped a ladle into the simmering potion and carried it over to Hesper. The monigon was too weary to even lift her eyelids, until Griffith poured the scalding liquid over her wounds. Then she screeched in agony, eyes flying open, claws scratching at the stone floor.

“You’re hurting her!” Rib cried.

“I know what I’m doing,” Griffith answered simply, going back to his cauldron for another ladle-full.

Poor Hesper!

By the third or fourth time, the monigon just whimpered, gazing up at her master kneeling worriedly over her.

“Hush, girl,” Gavin comforted her. “Sweet Hesp…”

“There!” the King proclaimed, throwing aside the ladle and looking down at the monigon, his hands on hips. “Give her a few days and she’ll be perky as a pup!”

She will? Rib gazed at Hesper, doubtful, though the monigon was quiet now and breathing evenly.

“Here’s to winning Dragon Round!” the King congratulated Gavin. “Cheers!”

Gavin creased his brow, looking up from his monigon. “Thank you…and about that, Sir,” he paused, “I know what I would like to request.”

“Request?” the King echoed.

“Yes, for the potion,” Gavin said. “For my prize.”

“Why, I just made you your potion,” the King replied. “I healed your dragon hound!”

“What?” Gavin’s face slackened in shock. “But that’s because she was dying!”

“That’s the excitement of Dragon Round!” the King said. “They fight, they die. I only saved yours because you requested it as your prize.”

No…Rib was aghast.

Gavin slowly rose to his feet. “Sir, I didn’t know that would be considered my reward,” he answered, voice steady and low. “Please, I need something else. Something very important.”

“What?” the King scoffed. “A love potion?”

“No, Sir,” Gavin said. “A cure, for the plague in Wystil. Hundreds are dying there and no one can save them but you.”

“You expect me to help the Wystilians?” the King laughed spitefully. “What do I owe them?”

You stole Damon’s book! Rib wanted to yell at the man. It’s your fault he can’t craft the cure himself. You at least owe us this much!

“Couldn’t you just make it for them?” Oriole put in hopefully. “I’m sure they’d all be so grateful.”

No.”

An idea struck Rib and he perked up. “We can trade you rare magic for it!” he said. “The last magic of the firesap fruit.”

At this, Gavin cast him a perplexed look, and Rib realized that his friend must have no idea what he was talking about.

“Damara has it,” Rib whispered to him.

“I don’t need that,” the King sneered. “I can create dragon creatures with a stir of my cauldron.”

Gavin took a deep breath. “Please reconsider. We-”

“No!” the King snapped. “I won’t hear another word of it. Now enjoy my Fairy Realm in peace, or get out.”

Gavin bowed his head. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

What? Rib was shocked. He’s giving in? But we need this cure!

As though knowing Rib was about to object, Gavin met his eyes and shook his head definitively.

Rib shut his mouth.

What is he thinking?

Straightening his crown, the King left them, long robe sweeping over the stone steps as he went. Rib watched angrily until the man undressed on the bank and dove into the pool for a swim.

“I’m so sorry,” Oriole lamented from where she’d been standing all this time, feathers lying flat over her breast in sadness. “He never likes to help other kingdoms. Not Wystil, not Husk-”

“Zheal!” Rib blurted out, suddenly reminded of what he’d wanted to ask her about. “Why was he going to be executed? Did you meet the dragon with him? Do you know where they went?”

“Oh!” Oriole blinked in surprise. “Well…um…”

“Can you just tell us what happened?” Gavin made things simpler for her.

Oriole nodded, a stray plume bobbing over her eyes. “A few weeks ago, Zheal came asking for His Majesty’s aid in crafting a potion, but got turned down. I felt bad for him, so I helped him try to make it while Lord Griffith was away…But he was caught in the process and Tairg had to fly away with him before His Majesty had him executed…” The dragon let her voice die out.

“Do you know where they went?” Rib begged.

Oriole glanced at Griffith now swimming under the waterfall. “I’m not sure,” she whispered, “but I think he went to the Island.”

“The Island?”

Oriole nodded again. “Where the Colonists are. Lord Griffith sent servants there with the firesap cure, but one firebreather wasn’t given it because he was too dangerous to go near. I told Zheal about him when he exclaimed that dragon fire was what he’d been missing all this time. Zheal wanted to know more, but that’s when Spryte sent for the guards.”

“And so those Huskhns took Jasper in effort to get dragon fire from Rib,” Gavin murmured.

Rib hardly heard Gavin’s words, itching to hear about Memory. “Where is the Island?”

“Oh, somewhere near Husk, I think…He seemed to know of it.” Oriole crouched down. “But don’t tell His Majesty about this, alright? He wants to be the Sole Wizard of the World, you know…makes him awfully angry when he thinks he might not be.”

“We won’t tell him,” Gavin promised, and the feathery female simpered.

“Did you meet Tairg?” Rib asked, forcing himself to speak the name his sister would be recognized by.

“Of course!” Oriole said, her face splitting into a smile.

“What was she like?!”

Oriole cocked her head, thinking.

“Quiet,” she said after a moment. “But sweet. I don’t think she understood a word I said. Just followed Zheal around. It was nice to see how happy they were together.”

“Happy?” Rib repeated, blinking.

Oriole gave another nod.

No, Rib thought. She’s wrong.

My sister can’t be happy as a slave. It doesn’t make any sense…

A soft whine came from the ground as Hesper awoke, lifting her weary head. Gavin went to her immediately, crouching down.

“Hey Hesp, my girl…Are you alright?”

The monigon rasped her forked tongue over his hand. Rib was amazed to see that her wounds had already sealed and her hide was beginning to mend.

The potion really is working. Relief touched Rib, until he thought again about the cure and his sister.

What are we going to do?

Chapter 13

 

 

“Ah, so you’ve decided to stay the night!”

At the sound of Griffith’s voice, Rib willed his eyes to open. They took a moment to focus, but soon his vision of blurred colors sharpened into a clear view of the forest.

There, before him, he saw the king coming up the stone steps in a big purple robe.

“Tell me, is my Fairy Realm not enchanting under the moon?”

Rib blinked, looking to Gavin, who got up from the blankets given to him the day before by a couple of gnomes. Hesper lay on her side right by him, opening her eyes at the sound of Griffith’s booming voice. Her wounds were now completely healed, but she was clearly still too weak to travel.

“Yes, it was grand,” Gavin answered. “Thank you.”

“When the mushrooms glitz in the moonlight, you can almost see the Fairies dancing among them.” The King sighed dreamily, staring out over the meadow. “If only my mother could see what I’ve done to please them.”

“The fairies?” Rib was confused. “You mean the fae servants? I didn’t see them dancing.”

“The fae servants? Oh, no!” Griffith laughed, hands on his stomach. “I mean the Fairies, entities of another world. Mother told me of them when I was young. Everything I’ve done, everything I do, is in honor of them.”

This man is insane, Rib thought. How will we ever convince him to make us the cure?

“Well! I shall have a breakfast feast set out for us this instant,” Griffith decided, and whistled through his fingers.

“Yes, Your Majesty?” Spryte amazed Rib yet again by how quick she was to arrive.

Doesn’t she get exhausted flying everywhere like that? he wondered. Maybe Griffith gave her a potion to make her so tireless…and strong.

“The guests and I wish to dine in Favor Glade this morning,” said the King.

“I will notify the cooks at once,” Spryte replied. “The guards also asked me to tell you that there is someone outside requesting entrance. A young woman by the name Damara.”

Damara! Rib had nearly forgotten about her. Has she been waiting all this time?

“Please let her in,” Gavin said to the King. “I’m sure your forest would charm her.”

Charm her? I doubt it.

The King sighed. “Very well. Let us see if the Fairies are pleased by her.”

Rib and Gavin glanced at each other before following after the royal robed man, leaving Hesper to rest alone. Through the troubling forest they walked until they reached the iron gate, which was lifted for the King.

“Lower the drawbridge!” Griffith ordered, and it was done.

There’s Damara! Rib looked at the young woman standing just on the other side of the moat, arms crossed, short hair ruffled by the breeze. What will she say when we tell her Griffith refused to make us the cure?

The moment the drawbridge touched the ground, Damara began to cross, but the King stopped her halfway.

If you wish to enter my Fairy Realm,” he said, standing in the stone archway. “You must first perform art.”

Damara planted her feet. “Art?”

“Yes,” the King said. “Art is what the Fairies enjoy. Please them and I will grant you passage.”

What will she do? Rib wondered as Damara stared at Griffith, looking both furious and disbelieving. I’ve never seen her perform art before…

With an irritable sigh, the young woman searched the sky with her eyes. “Does poetry please the fairies?” she asked flatly.

“Aye, if it’s good.”

Poetry? Rib looked at Gavin, but his friend was focused on Damara as she opened her mouth and began.

“Hunting a fox, me and my son,

Dragon hounds have her on the run.

Chasing that vixen’s all I know,

Come now, arrow, nock on the bow.”

Damara stopped there, making eye contact with the King.

“Is that it?” Griffith asked, incredulous. “No, no, no. That was barely a taste! The Fairies demand more.”

Even from where Rib stood, he could see Damara clench her jaw. Again, she looked up at the clouds overhead and continued on haltingly, as though coming up with each line as she went.

“Let it fly, hit her in the eye,

But alas! my son gives a cry.

I turn around to see him there,

Before a rearing, night-black bear.

My dragon hounds leap on its back,

But the beast shakes off the attack.

Nine arrows I loose in its coat.

God, it has my son by the throat.

It’s too late now, my boy is dead.

Why’d I hunt the fox, and not the bear instead?”

Did she just make that up? Rib was aghast. What a terrible story!

He could hear the King grinding his teeth as he considered it. A gust of wind swept over everyone, whistling through the stone archway of the castle gate.

Reluctantly, Griffith stepped aside. “The Fairies accept your poem. Enter and dine with us, if you wish.”

Damara barely dipped her head to the man, stalking past to join Rib and Gavin.

She hardly even glanced around at their freakish surroundings before targeting the young man.

“Well?” she hissed. “Where’s the cure? Did you ask for it?”

Gavin scratched his ear, the corner of his mouth pulled up in a dour smile. “He refused,” he answered quietly.

What?” Damara stood bolt upright.

“Come!” the King interrupted them. “We have breakfast to attend!”

Rib hushed Damara, though she glared at him, and followed Griffith where he led down another path into the forest. On their way, many creatures crossed in front of them, including a red winged deer and a small beast that looked part-owl, part-lynx.

All these animals with wings! Rib thought. Why don’t they fly away?

When they came upon a small opening in the forest, Rib saw that there was a stone table set with food in the center. Griffith went straight to the head of the table, seating himself down.

“Please,” he said, motioning to the side with chairs, then the other. “Humans here, dragons there.”

Dragons[_?_] Rib wondered, then started as Oriole flew in through the fluffy canopy above.

“Good morning!” she said, alighting where there were no chairs. “Oh, what a lovely feast!”

Hesitantly, Rib joined her as Gavin and Damara took their seats across from him. All looked down at the spread before them. Human food always confused Rib, but this utterly baffled him.

In the middle of the table was a smoked boar with antlers for tusks and twisted horns running down the ridge of its back. Set around it were dishes of sliced meats, breads, unusual fruits and vegetables.

Rib goggled at all this and wondered what such a feast must smell like.

From the treetops descended a number of fae servants. They alighted on the table top, their hair put up in buns and what looked to be a handkerchief tied around their waist.

“Hello,” one greeted Rib. “What may I get for you?”

“Uh…” Rib blinked, gazing around the table to see the others with their own servants.

Lord Griffith was already ordering three of them around, pointing at every dish in sight. Gavin rolled a spoon between his fingers, his expression dubious as a winged girl waited upon him. Damara simply refused everything, lips sealed, hands in her lap.

Beside Rib, Oriole opened her mouth wide for a servant to drop a hunk of bluish meat in.

“Can I offer you a torg heart?” Rib’s attendant prompted, fluttering over to a plate of dark red things sitting in a pool of blood. “Slightly peppery and garnished with a little squirrel kelp. It was the favorite of our previous dragon guest, Sir Clyde.”

Clyde liked it?

“Alright,” Rib said hesitantly.

Picking up a wicked-looking metal fork, the little female speared a heart and lugged it into the air towards Rib’s partially opened mouth. Another fae servant flew directly below her, catching each drop of blood from the morsel with a cloth.

The girl struggling to carry the heart gave Rib a tentative smile and he stretched his jaws wider for her, fearful of what his tongue was about to encounter.

The moment the heart was dropped into his gaping maw, he instinctively swallowed, only beginning to taste the juices after the morsel itself had traveled down his throat.

That’s…disturbingly sweet.

Rib looked across the table to see Gavin and Damara watching him, clearly waiting for his reaction. He wished he could shrug at them, but could only flex his wings and tilt his head.

“I’ll try a blackberry apple,” Gavin told his fae servant decidedly and bit into the fruit with a crunch, looking surprised as dark juice flooded down his chin like a waterfall. The servant holding a cloth rushed to him, saving Gavin’s tunic from the sure-to-stain liquid.

“Let the boar be carved!” the King declared, nodding to two fae servants wielding a thin saw. With faces set and determined, the girls each gripped an end of the tool and flew back and forth, cutting off one slice of meat after another.

At one point during the feast, Lord Griffith pointed down the table, exclaiming, “Look! There’s my precious pegasus!”

Everyone looked to where the man pointed. Through the brush, a tawny horse with striped falcon wings emerged, head lowered to graze on the silver grass of the glade. It paid them little attention as the King went on to boast of it.

“She’s just as the tales describe her. Elegant, beautiful, strong.” Griffith gazed at the winged horse adoringly. “Ah, how I wish to give her a unicorn mate. Only, I can’t find an animal with the right horn…Such a shame. Their alicorn foals would be positively fetching.”

“Don’t your animals fight?” Gavin asked.

“Of course not!” the King answered. “They’re peaceful creatures, every last one of them.”

When their breakfast at last was drawn to an end and the fae servants dabbed Rib’s reptilian lips with a napkin, Rib and his companions excused themselves from the table.

“We would like to show Damara the wonders of your forest, Your Highness,” Gavin said, standing after the King.

“Do so,” the King agreed. “And, Oriole, take me to my workplace. Inspiration has struck me!”

“Yes Sir!” the feathery dragon replied with nearly as much enthusiasm.

Rib, Gavin, and Damara all watched him fly away on Oriole’s back, then left the glade where dwarves and gnomes now came to clear the stone table. Rib walked behind his two companions, listening as Gavin told Damara of what had happened since they were separated.

“You’re telling me now the kingdom will die because Griffith healed your pet monigon?” Damara asked dryly, shoving aside brambles tipped with seashells to get past.

“He never told me that would be my reward!” Gavin defended himself.

“Damara,” Rib spoke, a thought just occurring to him. “You should have healed Hesper with the firesap fruit mag-”

Damara spun around and clamped her hands over his jaws, staring him in the eye.

Think before you speak,” she warned.

“Why?” Rib pulled away from her grasp. “I already told Griffith about it. He wasn’t interested. All I’m saying is then we could have asked him for the cure instead.”

“No.” Gavin shook his head. “Nothing would get him to help Wystil. He made that clear.”

“So what do we do?” Rib asked, stopping as Damara halted him and Gavin.

The young woman motioned them closer, until their heads nearly touched. Rib had to look down to the ground so as not to bump them with his muzzle.

“What we need to do is take Oriole and the potion book back to Wystil,” Damara whispered. “Damon will craft enough cure for the kingdom and this ludicrous king won’t be able to turn any more of his poor servants into freaks.”

Our original agreement, Rib thought, lifting his eyes to see Gavin’s reaction. His friend looked uneasy, which only increased Rib’s doubt.

“Damara, I don’t know,” Rib spoke quietly. “Now that we’re here, it looks even harder than I thought.” He glanced up to see that she was glaring at him.

“Wait, you’ve been planning this?” Gavin asked, looking at the both of them. “How did you- how do you expect us to escape on our little boat with a firebreather and the King’s property?”

“We’ll create a distraction,” Damara answered in all confidence. “Just think. We’re inside the King’s walls. We could do anything.”

“That sounds like a good way to die,” replied Gavin.

“Doing what we can to save our people?” Damara questioned. “It is.”

“It’ll never work!” Rib blurted, relieved when Gavin nodded his head in agreement.

“Fine.” Damara broke out of the circle, stepping back into the underbrush of feathered twigs. “You two go on making people laugh while Wystilians die back home. I know I’ll get killed trying to save them alone, but at least I’ll pass with a good conscience.”

She turned to disappear off the trail, until Gavin caught her by the hand.

“Please,” he said, pulling her out of the underbrush. “Let’s just think about this first, alright?”

Damara set her lips at a thin line, taking back her hand to cross her arms and wait.

Gavin looked to Rib, thinking.

“Oriole seems nice,” he said after a moment. “I think we could convince her to help us.”

Rib nodded hesitantly. “She did help Zheal…”

“And she tried to convince Griffith to make us the cure when we asked,” Gavin added. “So we can count on her compliance. I wonder if she knows where the book is.”

“We’ll ask,” Rib said.

The young man nodded. “Yes, but first we should think of a distraction. What would turn everyone’s heads the other way while we escape?”

“Fire,” Damara answered. “We burn the forest down.”

“What?” Rib gaped at her, horrified. “No! The animals!”

“It would devastate Griffith,” Damara pointed out. “We could burn down his ships, too, so no one could follow us.”

She looked serious.

She’s gone mad…

Gavin shook his head. “A flawless plan,” he said, a hint of humor emerging in his voice, “but let’s keep thinking, I wonder if there’s something in this forest that could help us. Maybe we can get all these animals to revolt.”

“Griffith said they’re all peaceful,” Rib started to object, but his friend’s laugh proved he was joking.

“Gavin’s right,” Damara murmured, gazing around them. “There’s no telling what we might find here. Let’s split up,” she decided out loud. “Meet me in the glade when the sun touches the far side of that cliff.”

She pointed up at what she was talking about, then slipped away, the peacock feathered bushes waving in her absence. Rib stared after her.

“Well,” Gavin sighed. “Hope I don’t get lost in this place…”

“Wait!” Rib turned to him. “You’re leaving me too?”

His friend shrugged. “Cover more ground that way.”

Rib let his wings droop, but didn’t protest as Gavin gave him a short farewell wave and ventured off the path, heading the opposite direction as Damara.

He listened to his friend’s footsteps fade away, and found himself alone.

I don’t even know what to look for! he grumbled inwardly, wandering his own course.

His eyes constantly scanning, Rib brushed through fishtail grass, a couple pear conifers, an entire slough squirming with furry tadpoles, and just kept on.

At one point, he came upon a clearing where small sheep, seemingly made of plant matter, trod in sluggish circles around the shrub they were attached to by a limp stem. Pink worms clung to some of them like scraps. Rib could see bare ground where they’d eaten all the greenery in reach.

What are these? Disturbed, Rib quickly padded across, avoiding the plant animals as best he could. Vegetable…lambs?

Still meandering through the woods, he witnessed a bounty of oddities, but none sparked any ideas of how he and the others could escape with Oriole and the book. When he found a field where countless animals gathered to be fed by gnomes and dwarves, he carved around, only to find himself back by the pool where mushrooms rings grew nearby.

Oh, there’s Griffith. Rib spotted the King up on his rock platform, happily throwing things into his cauldron. I had better leave before he calls me over…

Just then, a cry of distress sounded from the grassy banks and Rib stared in the direction, his hide bristling. Who was that?!

Knee-deep in the water, a green eight-legged cow with a sea kelp mane fed on pond scum. Staring at the ground beside it, Rib focused his eyes to see a fae servant struggling with something among her mushrooms. Concerned, he went to her and crouched down.

The small girl was fretting over a large slug that leisurely champed on a mushroom cap, seemingly unaware when the fae servant attempted to grip it around the middle and heave it away. The girl failed each time she tried, losing her grip on the slippery creature and coming away with the entire front of her dress slimed.

“I can’t stop it!” she shrieked, picking up a leaf and batting it over the slug’s antennae-like eyes with no effect. Each bite the slug took, it seemed to grow a little bigger, as though by some magic in the mushroom.

“Here, let me help you,” Rib offered as he extended one talon to move the oozing vermin.

But before he could do anything, Spryte zipped over, reaching into a small sack tied to her belt.

“Daenilei!” Spryte shouted, shoving the smaller girl out of the way.

From the bag, she drew a handful of white stuff and threw it on the slug, which soon began to bubble. Drawing back, the frothing vermin arched and rolled itself over, trying to rub off the harmful substance. As it did, Spryte flung it with a stick into the water and turned on the other girl.

“Where is your salt?” the head fae servant demanded, taking the girl by her insect wing and bending it so she squalled in pain.

“I gave it to Grythuey!” the girl blubbered. “Slugs were overrunning her fairy circle and I hadn’t had a problem with them until now!”

Sneering, Spryte bent the girl’s wing farther.

“Stop!” Rib said as the girl shrieked again. “I- I order you to!”

Immediately, Spryte let go of the girl, alighting atop Rib’s snout with an arrow suddenly nocked on her bow. Rib raised his head and crossed his eyes to look at her, pink and blue dress shimmering, her wings lying flat against her back.

“You dare order me?” she asked, pointing her weapon at him. “I am Spryte- head of the fae servants! I answer to no one but Lord Griffith.”

Something like pride rose in Rib as he gathered the courage to tell the tiny female, “That’s no reason to hurt people! Now tell her you’re sorry or I’ll have you removed from your position!”

Sorry?!” Spryte drew the string of her bow back in a flash, but Rib was prepared. Ducking right before the fae woman took flight and let loose, he heard the needle-thin arrow whistle over his head.

A loud, agonized sound erupted behind him and Rib whisked around to see the sea cow, its eye squeezed shut with the tiny arrow protruding from it. Still lowing, the large eight-legged animal charged blindly forward over the meadow, trampling mushrooms as it went.

“What!” Griffith’s thunderous roar came from the rocks. He watched the cow reach the other end of the clearing, then spun around, facing Rib and the fae servants as he came hurtling towards them.

“Who’s responsible for this?” he demanded, eyes wide with madness. “Was it you?” The King jabbed a finger at Rib.

“N-no!” Rib stammered. “It was Spryte! She hit the cow’s eye with an arrow!”

“It’s true, Your Highness!” the smaller girl said from the ground.

Spryte hovered in the air, face pale.

“Spryte!” Griffith bellowed, seizing the fae woman. “You anger the Fairies!”

“Please, Sir!” Spryte beseeched, but the man snapped her hummingbird wings between his fingers and she screamed in pain.

Firesap! Rib watched, horrified, as Griffith hurled her into the pool. What do I do?!

“Where will the Fairies dance tonight?” the King demanded and spun on his heels to stride over the newly treaded path across the meadow.

Spryte resurfaced, sputtering water and gasping. Rib was about to stretch out his neck to help her, but a fish or a frog, he couldn’t tell which, flashed up from the depths and swallowed the fae woman whole.

“Spryte!” Rib stared at the rippling surface in shock.

The small winged girl beside him, however, laughed delightedly and sped away, cheering, “Spryte’s dead! Spryte’s dead!”

No. Rib couldn’t believe it. I was going to save her!

Then, from the depths appeared something else. A nymph, hair flowing around her face as she lifted up a kicking, writhing fish-frog out of the water.

That’s the thing that ate Spryte! he realized, gaping at the creature offered up to him. Could she still be alive?

The slippery fish-frog opened its mouth to croak as a sharp point rose under the skin of its exposed belly. All at once, a bright and shining blade pierced through the creature’s flesh and slid down its body.

What?

Rib couldn’t stop gawking as Spryte emerged, wet and covered in half-digested insects. She gripped the red knife in her hand, heaving for air with a savage look on her face.

“I’ll ruin him!” she swore. “I’ll ruin that man’s life!”

Rib stepped back, stunned into silence as the nymph set the fae woman down on the grassy banks.

What just happened?

Unsure of what else to do, he turned and padded back towards the forest, the sun now touching the cliff Damara had indicated.

I guess I’ll meet the others at the glade?

. . .

Rib found Damara and Gavin waiting for him by the stone table.

“There you are,” the young man said, grinning. “How is it that the one with the compass in his head took the longest to get back? Did you actually get lost?”

Rib shook his head, still dumbfounded, until he glimpsed something horrifying.

“What happened to your foot?!” he cried, staring below the tattered hem of Damara’s dress. The foreparts of her foot, including all her toes, were gone. He gawked at the muscle and bone of the rest, staggered by the lack of blood that should have been gushing from it and onto the flattened grass.

Damara lifted her foot off the ground with a smirk.

“It’s there,” she said, and stepped on Rib’s foreclaw with the seemingly missing part of her foot. He felt it like an invisible force pressing down on him.

“I stepped in a strange pool that soaked through my flesh. The other foot,” Damara lifted her skirt enough for him to see, “was also invisible until I bathed it in the stream.”

Rib blinked in amazement.

“Strange, isn’t it?” Gavin laughed. “And look, it even affected her sandal.”

Damara kicked her shoe off, which looked likewise cut in half.

“We decided this was perfect for us,” the young woman said. “Seeing as I can turn invisible in the pond and then steal the potion book unnoticed. I would take some of the liquid to turn the book invisible too, but that might damage it.”

“Yeah…” Gavin droned. “So, I didn’t get anything. Did you, Rib?”

Rib tilted his head uncertainly. “I think I got Spryte removed from her position…?”

“You did?” Damara straightened up, staring at him. “How?”

In quiet tones, Rib told them both what had happened. By the time he finished, Damara was grinning and Gavin had a quizzically amused look on his face.

“That’s perfect,” the young woman spoke with her hands on her hips. “She’s one problem I was concerned about. But not anymore.” Damara laughed a little to herself.

She’s happy. Rib felt good, having made Damara grin so genuinely.

And then her smile dropped, as though something suddenly occurred to her. “Please tell me you asked her where the book is kept,” she said.

Ask where…oh.

Embarrassed, he shook his head. “I didn’t think to.”

Damara looked less pleased now. “Even after she said she wanted to ruin Griffith’s life?”

Shed it, Rib cursed silently. She’s disappointed in me again. And so soon.

Blowing a lock of hair out of her face, Damara crossed her arms. “Well, there’s no way we could find that insect of a woman now. We’ll just have to carry on with what we planned.”

“Remind me what that is, exactly?” Gavin requested, scratching his face.

Damara motioned them closer so she could speak softly as she told them, “We convince Oriole to come with us, we locate the potion book ourselves, I turn invisible to steal it, and we all escape without anyone knowing the better.”

This sounds like it might actually work, Rib thought, his heart quickening. Can we save the Wystilians after all?

“Hold on,” Gavin murmured. “Is there any reason why we shouldn’t all turn ourselves invisible?”

Damara furrowed her brow, then smoothed her expression. “Yes,” she replied. “You at least need to be visible so Mortaug doesn’t think we’ve become ghosts. And Rib might as well be visible too.”

“Why?” Rib complained. The idea of being invisible for some time excited him.

“Because that way if someone sees Gavin, it won’t look like he’s riding through the air with nothing underneath him. Besides, no one should suspect you, so long as you don’t have the book.”

“But Oriole should definitely be invisible,” Gavin clarified.

“Yes.” Damara nodded her head.

“So that’s all?” asked Rib. “We can escape soon as we get Oriole with us?”

“Tomorrow, I think,” Gavin said. “Hesper should be at full health by then.”

Oh, right, Rib remembered. We can’t leave without her.

“No,” Damara said suddenly. “Here’s the better plan. You two say goodbye to Griffith, thank him for healing your monigon, and walk out with Hesper. That way, when Oriole and I steal off with his book, it’ll have been after you left. Griffith would have no reason to suspect you at all.”

“But what about you?” Gavin pointed out. “He knows you’re with us.”

“Right…” Damara bit her lip, thinking. “I’ll leave with you, then Rib can sneak me back in.”

“Are you sure it will be that easy?” Rib was doubtful.

Damara cast him an irritable look.

“All agreed?” she asked, refusing to answer his question.

“Yes,” Gavin said.

“Yes…” echoed Rib.

It’ll all be fine…It has to be.

. . .

“Hey, Oriole, can I talk to you?” Rib asked, alighting next to the feathery dragon basking in the sun.

“Certainly!” she agreed, rolling over and facing him. “What is it?”

“Well…” He hesitated. “I was actually hoping to talk to you somewhere else.”

“Oh.” Oriole lay upright. “Where?”

“Would you follow me?”

Rib sighed in relief as the dragon flew into the air after him and left the clearing behind. They didn’t come across any trouble soaring over the forest to where Damara and Gavin were waiting, by the magical pond.

“Hello,” Oriole greeted the humans cheerfully. “You found the Pool of Mirrors!”

“You know of it already?” Gavin asked her, glancing back at the small but deep body of water.

“Of course,” she replied. “I was here when Lord Griffith put a special potion in it.”

He’ll regret that, Rib thought.

“So what did you want to talk about, Rib?” Oriole turned to him, cocking her plumed head with a smile.

Rib hesitated before answering, “The plague in Wystil…you see, there are hundreds of people dying there and we really need the cure.”

“And Wizard Damon can’t craft it for us since Griffith stole his book and stamped out his fire,” Damara said in an accusing tone from the crook of a tree where she perched.

Rib looked at her warily, silently begging her to let him do the talking.

“I didn’t know His Majesty was going to do that, I promise!” Oriole said, her eyes big and soft. “Only, I was scared when he did, so I fled with him…I’m sorry, I really am.”

Her expression was the same as that of a human about to cry, Rib thought, but naturally dragons couldn’t shed tears.

“I understand,” he reassured her. “But now we need you, Oriole. People will only continue to die unless you come with us.”

“Go with you?” Oriole’s eyes widened. “Why, Lord Griffith would never allow it!”

“I know,” Rib agreed. “But we have a plan. We only have to sneak out of here, with the potion book, and get to Wystil so Damon can save the kingdom. Then you can return here, simple as that!”

Oriole shook her head, fearful. “His Highness would be furious with me.”

Please, Oriole,” he begged. “We would be so grateful towards you. All of Wystil would be grateful towards you!”

The female ducked her head. “Sorry…”

She won’t help us? Rib stared at her, trying to understand what was going on in her head. But we need her! Without her we’ll-

“Do you know what the firesap does to dragons, Oriole?” Damara cut Rib’s thought short, her voice condescending.

The dragon’s eyes looked up at her. “You mean…”

“It takes hold of them and drives them mad.” Damara suddenly leapt down from her tree in front of Oriole, causing her to flinch.

Rib wanted to tell Damara to soften up, but he was too afraid that her anger might turn on him. Instead, he watched as the young woman bent over the now cowering Oriole.

“I know Griffith hasn’t any solution for it,” Damara went on. “I know because the true wizard- Wizard Damon, whom His So-Called Majesty stole the potion book from, had no way to stop it without likewise taking away the firebreather’s flame. And Griffith wouldn’t dare do that, now would he?”

Oriole crept backwards a couple steps until the tips of some of her tail feathers disappeared in the Pool of Mirrors. It was strange to see the dragon tremble beneath Damara’s narrow frame.

She really needn’t be so harsh…

“Now would he?” Damara repeated in demand of an answer.

“N-no,” Oriole stammered. “But he told me not to worry about it!”

“Because he’s selfish,” the woman hissed. “And foolish. But who will he blame when the day comes that you prove too weak under the firesap’s power and go on to wreak death and destruction on his precious forest?”

Oriole gave a small sob. Rib was filled with pity for the poor, sensitive firebreather.

“No one but you,” Damara answered her own question, now speaking in Oriole’s ear. “And you know it, too.”

“Alright, alright!” the dragon burst out. She scrambled out from under Damara’s looming shape and actually cried on the banks of the Pool of Mirrors. Rib stared in astonishment at the real tears that spilled from her eyes.

Griffith must have made it so she could do that!

“I know it’s true,” Oriole whimpered. “But what can I do?”

“Stop crying,” Damara snarled. “I’ll tell you what to do, but you have to shut up.”

She’s never even talked to me that harsh before, Rib thought.

Oriole tried to compose herself, though her mouth trembled and tears still leaked from her dewy eyes. Gavin took a handkerchief out from under his vest, then made a face as he apparently reconsidered offering it to her and stuffed it away again.

“The only thing you can do,” Damara said, now speaking somewhat gentler, “is help us so Damon can heal you. Whether you come back here after that or not, I don’t care. But you can’t go on acting as though you aren’t a volcano ready to burst.”

Voice of reason. Rib was amazed by how logical Damara’s argument came across. She may have just saved us all.

Everyone watched Oriole as she closed her eyes, taking in one more gasping breath before she opened them again and answered, “Alright…What’s your plan?”

Yes! Delight filled Rib. Damara did it! We’re going to save Wystil!

Only…what of Memory?

Chapter 14

 

 

“Where is she?” Damara hissed, peering around.

Rib stuck his head out of the underbrush to look along the wall. Oriole wasn’t there. From the corner of his eye, he saw movement at the top and quickly pulled his head back, fearful the guard might spot him.

“What should we do?” Rib asked. “Gavin’s still waiting for me outside.”

Damara’s lip curled in displeasure. Early that morning, they’d all thanked Griffith and bade him farewell, leaving through the gates. Now it was nightfall and Rib had snuck with Damara over the wall, but Oriole wasn’t waiting for them there as they’d agreed upon.

“We’re changing the plan,” Damara decided. “You have to come with me to the pond. We’ll find Oriole and steal the book at the same time.”

“Does that mean I get to turn myself invisible too?” Rib’s heart skipped in excitement.

“Maybe. Let’s go.”

“But wait,” Rib objected. “We have to tell Gavin.”

“There’s no time for that. You’ll only risk being seen. Come on.”

Rib followed reluctantly, keeping his eyes on the back of her dress. It bothered him that she felt the need to keep her knife out of its sheath and at the ready in her hand, but he didn’t say anything. Besides, he could see that it was helping her cut her way through the woods. When a pine-needled branch with curved, black talon thorns caught on her, she silently cut herself free and moved on.

Creatures of the night hid among the trees, blinking at them with large eyes. A few glowing bat-moths fluttered past. Damara held out a hand behind her to stop Rib when a blue wolf appeared on their path, gazing at the young woman and her knife before padding away.

At last, they reached the Pool of Mirrors and found that Oriole was not here, either.

Damara narrowed her eyes, looking to Rib.

“Did she betray us?” she thought aloud. “What if she told Griffith what we were planning?”

“Oriole?” Rib shook his head confidently. “No, she wouldn’t. Griffith probably wanted her for something so she couldn’t sneak away. She might be looking for us now.”

Damara ground her teeth.

“Even so,” she said, sheathing her knife, “I’m getting into the pond. Keep a look out.”

Without another word, she stepped down into the shimmering water, clothes and all. Turning, she laid herself back until her body was completely submerged.

Rib forgot to keep watch as he stared at her. Her dress, hair, and skin were the first to go, revealing her muscles and bones below.

She looks like she’s been flayed! Rib thought, horrified.

She had her eyes closed, but that soon didn’t appear to be the case as the liquid turned her eyelids invisible. Steadily, the magical water seeped deeper into the young woman’s body, seemingly eating away at her muscle, down to the bone. Rib could see the organs encased in her ribcage until they, too, disappeared.

Now she was only a skeleton, but fading fast. The smaller bones of her body vanished, then bigger ones, and finally her skull.

She’s gone! Rib gawked at the place where she’d just been.

Then, the sound of her resurfacing startled him back. Damara’s body was still invisible, but Rib could see the liquid running down her, dripping from her soaked hair. She looked like a woman made of water. Below, where the rest of her body remained waist deep, Rib saw the water encasing her, absent where her dress flowed, where her legs curved. He peered down to look through to where she stood, amazed to see the pebbles at the bottom of the pond as though nothing were covering them at all.

“Damara?” he uttered. “Are- are you alright?”

The woman’s wet face turned towards him. Drops of water dripped from her eyelashes as she clearly blinked.

She was quiet for a moment, then, “I can’t see.”

“You can’t see?” Rib echoed, taken aback. “What do you mean you can’t see?”

“I mean,” she repeated irritably, “I can’t see.”

“N-not at all?” Rib stammered.

“No. My sight left me when the liquid soaked through my eyes.”

“What?!” Rib cried, though she hissed at him to be quiet. “What are we going to do?”

“We’re not going to draw attention to ourselves by shouting out like fools,” she growled. “Now tell me, what do I look like?”

“All…all I can see is the water on you,” Rib answered. “It’s like you’re a fluid…glass figure or something.”

Damara’s watery expression crinkled, vexed. “Then I’ll have to dry off before we go for the book.” Liquid flowed around her invisible form as she waded to the shore. The ground pressed in beneath her, forming two perfect footprints. Rib thought her fluid dress intriguing, the way it creased and trickled from the hem.

“You look like you’re wearing a waterfall,” he commented.

“Isn’t that nice,” came the young woman’s biting response. “Listen, you have to go find Oriole while I’m drying off. Bring her back here so she can turn invisible once I’ve stolen the book. Then you’ll have to lead her out of here with me on your back.”

“So…I don’t get to turn invisible?” Rib asked.

No,” Damara retorted. “We can’t have the three of us stumbling around blind.”

“How are you going to steal the book if you can’t see?”

“I’ll figure it out. But the book won’t be any good to us if we don’t get Oriole, so go.”

“Alright, alright.” Rib took one last glance at the glassy woman before sneaking through the woods towards the fairy ring meadow, where he hoped to find Oriole.

Where could she be if not there? Rib worried. Maybe now she’s waiting at the wall for us like we planned.

I’ll have to check after this.

Rib could hear the waterfall in the distance growing louder as he approached. There was a time when a whole pack of blue wolves came padding alongside him, tongues lolling and ears alert as though out on a hunt with him. But then they left, soon as he reached the tree line.

Hiding amongst bushes with tiny melon-like berries, Rib peered across the mushroom meadow in search of Oriole. The path tread by the eight-legged cow was still visible in the moonlight, as well as each fairy ring it had trampled over.

There’s Oriole! Rib perked up as he saw the feathery dragon lying on the stone level of Griffith’s workplace. No one else appeared to be there, not Griffith, not a single fae servant.

I should still be careful, he thought and slunk along the edge of the forest to the stream. Stealthily, he stepped into the water and lowered himself until he was nearly submerged in whole. Then, working against the flow, he walked up the stream and into the pool.

Fox ear lilies caught on his folded wings and brushed into his eyes, which he kept just above the water as he plod silently towards the cliff. In the pool, he passed the meadow, reaching the side of the natural rock platform where Oriole lay above him. Rib tilted his head back to see the top. The female’s plumed tail hung over the brink, looking damp from all the mist of the crashing waterfall behind him.

This is good, he thought. Hooking his foreclaws on the broken stone columns rising up from the water, Rib lifted himself out of the water and scaled the rock face, until he found himself hanging onto the edge and peering over at Oriole. She was curled towards him, seemingly asleep.

Hey,” he said in hushed tones. “Oriole.”

The female’s eyelids lifted and she blinked, taking a moment to focus on him looking over the brink at her.

“Oh, Rib!” she whispered. “I meant to come find you, but I guess I fell asleep.” The dragon gave him a sheepish smile.

She fell asleep?! Doesn’t she know how urgent this is?

“Where’s Griffith?” Rib asked as he got a better grip on the vertical rocks.

“He should be in his tree-bed by now,” Oriole answered. Coming closer, she grinned. “You won’t believe this…The potion book is up here with me!”

“Really?” Rib raised himself up a little higher to see the book laid out on the thick column beside the cauldron.

Oriole nodded. “His Majesty asked me to guard it since he didn’t have Spryte to store it away for him. He’s still trying to find a new head fae servant he can trust.”

“That’s perfect!” Rib exclaimed quietly. “I’ll get Damara so she can grab the book, and then you can bathe in the pond and we’ll all sneak out together, completely unnoticed.”

Oriole swallowed, now looking nervous.

“I’ll be right back, alright?” said Rib. “Make sure no one is around.”

Slow and steady, he climbed back down into the water and made his way across the pool, down the stream. He hastened back to where Damara would be waiting for him, dripping wet.

Could she be dry by now? he wondered. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

“Damara?” he whispered loud when he reached the Pool of Mirrors. He couldn’t see her on the banks where he’d left her.

“I’m here.”

Rib looked in the direction of her voice, surprised to see how little water was left on her. With her hair and dress far from dripping and only a slight dampness on her face, she looked more like a ghost now than anything else. Indeed, his eyes had passed over her at first glance.

“Can you still not see?” he asked anxiously.

“Yeah,” she answered. “Tell me Oriole’s with you.”

Rib grinned. “No, but listen to this…”

Damara stood quiet as he told her what Oriole had said.

“I don’t like it,” she said when he had finished. “It’s too simple. It must be a trap.”

Damara,” Rib groaned. “It’s not a trap. It all makes sense. We should go now while it’s still this way.”

“Fine.” The grass flattened beneath the hardly-visible woman’s feet as she sightlessly came towards him, hands outstretched. Rib crouched when she touched him, letting her climb into the saddle. “But I still don’t like it. Be alert.”

“Yes, I know,” Rib sighed and began walking to their destination. It was strange how he could feel the weight of such a ghost-like woman on his back.

Soon we’ll be on our way back to Wystil.

When Rib returned to the meadow, he did not enter the water again in fear of washing away Damara’s invisibility. Instead, he slunk along the bank and up the stone steps to meet Oriole. The female was awake this time and she stood, smiling at Rib.

“The book is right here,” Rib told Damara just above the sound of the waterfall. He felt the young woman slip off him and guided her to the stone column with his tail.

Then, a sudden powder cloud was thrown up before them and Rib staggered back, alarmed. Oriole gave a yelp behind him and he looked back at her. She was also surrounded by the fine dust, her face relaxing as she breathed in.

“Hey!” Damara shouted and Rib stared in her direction, unable to keep himself from inhaling the powder. “Unhand me! Rib, fight him!”

Rib blinked slowly. He heard her voice, but saw neither her nor anyone else. With another breath of dust, his thoughts seemingly died out, leaving him a simple onlooker as the sound of invisible scuffling feet moved past him.

“You thought you could steal from me?” Rib heard Griffith boom from the same direction and listened, heedful of his every word. “I have ears in the forest. I see magic. I know all!”

“Rib!” the woman by the name Damara shouted. “Help me!”

“Foolish, ungrateful witch!” Griffith roared.

There was a gasp and the sound of someone being pushed off the cliff, followed by a splash.

“Come here, Rib,” Griffith commanded from where he stood.

Go there.

Rib obeyed immediately, halting before the invisible man.

“I should have you executed for this betrayal,” the voice told him. “And after all the generosity I’ve shown you!”

Below, Rib heard Damara resurface, sputtering and splashing, but did not look. His gaze remained fastened on the place where Griffith stood in front of him.

“Help,” the woman choked. “I can’t swim!”

There was a snort of derision from Griffith. “Get her,” he ordered.

Get her.

Rib turned to the edge of the cliff, peering down. The woman, Damara, was now becoming visible as she fought to stay above water. Nymphs were just arriving to help her as Rib opened his wings and glided down to fetch the woman, taking her up in his talons so he could bring her back to Griffith.

“Rib!” the woman coughed. “What are you doing?!”

Guards of half-men and half-beast were there when he reached the top, taking orders from Griffith, who was just now becoming visible as fae servants wiped him down with wet towels.

“Take this wretch and her dragon to the dungeon,” he demanded of the guards, pointing his finger at Rib holding Damara. “And have Oriole shackled here. This is the last time she betrays me.”

“Yes, Sir!” the guards chanted.

“Rib,” Griffith demanded and glared at the dragon. “Give her to these men.”

Rib did just as he said, releasing the woman from his talons into the arms of the guards. She shouted and struggled, reaching for her knife, but the men yanked off her belt and threw it to the ground.

“Go with them,” Griffith growled, nodding to the guards.

Go with them.

Rib alighted on the ground and followed the men as they wrestled Damara towards the cliff looming over them. Turning towards the waterfall, they moved along a narrow path chiseled into the rock face, Rib’s folded wings brushing against the wet stone.

They traveled behind the cascading waters until they reached a hollowed out space leading into the cliff. Cells with thick metal-grated doors lined each side of the damp corridor. The one closest to the entrance on the right was opened and the guards shoved Damara inside, ordering Rib to follow after her.

He did.

Behind, he heard the gate being shut and locked after them, followed by the echoing of the guards’ footsteps which soon disappeared among the sound of the ever-crashing water.

Rib stood where he was, waiting.

The young woman in front of him picked herself up from the floor, eyes widened, chest heaving. She stared past him, then at him.

He remained passive.

The fear on her face was just beginning to make way to anger.

In the next moment, her expression crinkled to one of absolute fury.

“What have you done!” she yelled at Rib, getting in his face. “Why did you help him, you traitor?!” She searched him with biting eyes, teeth bared in a snarl, fists clenched. Water dripped from her short, soaked hair and the fabric of her sodden dress still clung to her.

Rib stared back blankly.

Damara held her stance against him for a while longer, then pushed past to the door. He could hear her kick the metal grate and swear under her breath.

All the while, Rib did not move.

He stood there, facing the wall until morning light flooded through the crashing waterfall and filled the dungeon. By then, the woman with him had gone to sit on a crumbling stone in the corner, quiet as she glowered straight ahead of her. A glinting streak ran down her cheek, and something inside Rib turned his attention to it.

Tear.

His mind slowly began to churn inside his head, formulating thoughts.

Tear on her face.

Damara is crying.

Rib blinked, processing why Damara would be crying, where they were, what had happened. As he finally came to understand their situation, he was seized by fear and collapsed on the stone floor.

We’ve been caught! His breath came, short and rapid. Griffith said he wants us executed!

What do we do?!

“Good morning,” Damara’s caustic voice cut through the noise of the waterfall.

Rib stared up at her from the ground. She had tears down both sides of her pale freckled face, but she glared right back at him, through the water brimming over her eyelashes.

“Damara,” Rib heaved. “Damara, what did he do to me? I couldn’t think!”

The young woman did not answer, but flicked her eyes back towards the door. Rib turned and dragged himself over to it, peering through the heavy metal grate to see the outside. The light was brilliant from the dungeon entrance, but only cascading water could be seen through it.

“Oriole!” Rib yelled. “Oriole, help us!”

“Shut up!” Damara snapped at him. “Didn’t you hear Griffith tell the guards to shackle her? She’s useless to us.”

“What do we do?” Rib begged the young woman, facing her. “We have to escape!”

Damara gave him a scornful sneer. “Better start thinking, then.”

She doesn’t know what to do?

No…she always has a plan!

But as he stared back at her, he could see it in her eyes. There was no way out. She had no plans because there were none to have. They were hopeless.

Devastated, he lay back down.

No escape, no cure, nothing…

He settled in this thoughts like a sinking stone.

Now I’ll never see Memory again. How could I save her when I can’t save myself?

The moisture was heavy in their prison cell. Rib breathed in yet another lung-full of wet, dense air, utterly miserable.

“It’s my fault we’re in here,” he groaned from the puddled floor. “I could have saved us…but instead I gave us over to that man.”

Damara sat against a damp wall, head leaned back, eyes closed.

“He bewitched you,” she uttered.

Bewitched me? With that awful cloud of dust…

I could have held my breath. I could have flown away with Damara.

Rib blinked as something occurred to him.

Maybe…maybe that’s why my sister saved Zheal when she could have escaped.

Rib lifted his head as he thought about it.

“That must be it!” he exclaimed out of nowhere. “Memory never runs away because Zheal uses that powder on her! He bewitches my sister!”

Agitated, he got up and paced their cell.

“What are you talking about?” Damara asked, furrowing her brow.

Mind racing, Rib told her what Oriole had said about his sister. How Memory saved Zheal when she could have fled on her own.

“Don’t you see?” he said, claws scratching the stone floor as he paced. “It makes total sense.”

Damara, however, didn’t look so convinced. “If Zheal didn’t learn until then that he needed dragon fire to craft potions, then how could he have bewitched her before?”

How…how could he have…

Rib was stalled by her question.

That powder…he could have gotten a hold of it, not made it.

Or maybe he doesn’t need the fire to make it.

“There must be an explanation,” he responded adamantly. “Zheal enslaves her with magic, I’m sure of it.”

Damara didn’t say anything, but leaned her head back again.

That’s it?

Doesn’t she care at all?

This is important!

But…she’s right, Rib realized, slowing his restless movement. There’s nothing we can do about it.

The sinking feeling returned, weighing down on his head, his tail, his entire body.

I’ve failed Memory.

Just then, a couple of guards came in, holding another prisoner.

“Gavin!” Rib exclaimed, horrified to see his friend be pushed and locked into the cell across from him.

“Gavin,” Rib repeated, staring through the cell doors as the guards left again. The young man’s tunic was torn and half of it hung at his waist, revealing a strange scar on his chest Rib had never seen before. But he paid little attention to the mark as Gavin sat on the ground with a heavy sigh.

“Hey,” he said.

“What happened?” Rib beseeched. “Why did they catch you too?”

Gavin took off his ripped tunic and tossed it aside. “I tried to come for you both when I knew something was wrong. Lot of help that did.” He flicked a pebble at the wall, its pinging echoing around the chamber. “I’m sorry. There are so many better ways I could have helped. I guess this is what I get for trying on bravery.” He snorted.

But he came for us, all the same. Rib thought the attempt profound. He must have known it was impossible, and yet he tried.

“Did Griffith speak to you?” Damara asked from her seat, voice cool and steady.

He shrugged. “Sure he did. Called me a traitor and had the guards throw me in here. That was all. I saw Oriole, too. She’s chained up. Begged me to tell you she was sorry.”

Oriole…she’s just as helpless as we are now.

As helpless as the Wystilians dying from plague.

As helpless as Memory.

I’ve failed everyone.

. . .

By what must have been noon, Damara and Gavin had come as close as they could to each other, speaking through their metal grated doors. Rib only half listened to them, wallowing in his misery, emptily studying the rust on the bars.

“Gavin,” Damara said after a while. “Can I ask you a…bold question?”

The hesitance in her voice made Rib pay closer attention, turning his heavy head to them.

The young man grinned just as he used to, though locked in a dungeon with no plan of escape. “Well, you have to- now that you’ve got me curious,” he answered.

Damara was quiet a moment longer, then, “Were you a slave?”

The question took Rib by surprise.

“What?” he scorned, looking to his cell mate. “What gives you that idea?”

Damara nodded in Gavin’s direction.

“He has a brand on his chest.”

A brand? Rib focused his eyes on what she indicated.

It was the scar he’d noticed before, pale and so perfectly round and clean that no accident he could think of would explain it. About the size of Gavin’s fist, the mark was a full circle with the outline of an opened-mouth sea serpent inside it.

That was done by human hands, Rib could tell, growing increasingly disturbed.

“Gavin,” he said. “What does that mean?”

His friend’s face had become weary and resigned. Silently, he gazed down at his empty hands in his lap, then met Rib’s eyes.

“It means what Damara thinks it means,” he answered. “I was a slave.”

No…

“But-” Rib stammered. “But when? How?”

“Huskhns,” Gavin murmured. “They invaded my family’s land and took me as a child… Branded me. Sold me in the market place.”

Rib stared at his friend. “I don’t understand! Mortaug’s a Huskhn. He-”

“Bought me.” Gavin’s expression was wry.

Mortaug…bought Gavin as a slave[_?_]

The words hardly made any sense to Rib. “I- I can’t believe it…”

Gavin sighed. “He pleaded my forgiveness as soon as I could understand his hands,” he went on. “Being saved by the ones he’d wronged is what changed him. That day he came back, healed from the moth dust. He told me I was a free man. But I didn’t have any other life to go to…so I stayed.”

Rib was shocked into silence.

“Gavin,” Damara said, “I am so sorry.”

She’s sorry? What should she care?

I’m the one who’s been his friend all this time!

“How could you not tell me this?!” Rib burst suddenly, angry with Gavin. “We’ve been friends for years and now you mention it?”

The young man’s eyes darkened and he glared at Rib. “You think I like to remember this? The worst years of my life?”

“No, but…” Rib’s heart sank inside his chest. “I thought I knew you…”

Gavin folded his arms through the grate to lean on his door. “You do,” he said. “You know who I am now. The person I want you to know me as.”

Rib held his friend’s gaze, barely knowing how to feel. Only sadness made itself clear to him, pulling at him, telling him to lay down his head, lay down to rest.

He followed sadness’ bidding, and closed his eyes.

Gavin was a slave…

A slave like my sister is now.

Chapter 15

 

 

Rib peered around at the plagued Wystilian skeletons forming a cage around him. There was no escape. He was going to die in here.

But outside, out in the fog of his dream. There was Memory. Chained to rocks. So far away.

There would be no saving her now.

“Wake up.”

Rib jerked his head away from the one that hissed in his ear and opened his eyes. It was Damara, crouching on the damp ground, now staring out towards the dungeon entrance. Rib followed her line of view to see Griffith come inside.

He’s here.

Rib’s heart stopped. This was their second day trapped in the dungeon, and the king had not made an appearance since the time he bewitched Rib.

What does he want? Is he going to execute us?!

The king spoke not a word, but beckoned for a line of gnomes to come forward with their load of strange items. He took something from one of them. A pair of antlers.

Gavin met Rib’s uneasy gaze from across the stone chamber as the king held up the antlers and studied Rib from behind them.

What is he doing? Why is he looking at me like that?

Griffith’s lip curled in distaste and he tossed the antlers aside, which clattered before a gnome retrieved them. A lion’s mane, walrus tusks, tree branches. The king held each one up to Rib, clearly thinking about something. Rib didn’t understand until the man gave a satisfied smile through what appeared to be the jaws of a shark.

He…wants to turn me into a freak!

The moment Rib realized this, he cowered away from Griffith, hiding his face in the corner of his cell.

“Please, no,” he cried. “Don’t make me an abomination.”

“Turn around,” the king ordered.

“No, you can’t do this!” Rib protested.

“Give him those jaws,” Damara said from behind bars. “He’ll shred your innards with them.”

“No he won’t,” Griffith growled. “I am the Master of Magics. There’s no beast in my forest I haven’t tamed.”

What does that mean? Rib tried to make himself as small as possible. He has a potion that will make me like the rest of his creatures? Will it stop me from thinking?

“Soon, you’ll all find,” the king spoke, “that I can make anything a wonder to gawk at. Even traitorous scum like you.”

No. Rib squeezed his eyes shut. He can’t.

It was a while before he realized that Griffith had taken his leave. When silence ensued, he glanced back to see no one but Damara and Gavin in the dungeon, then slumped to the ground with a despairing groan.

What will become of us?

. . .

The ringing of glass being dragged across the floor roused Rib from his thoughts and he looked for the source. His first thought was of Griffith returning with some abominable potion, but that did not appear to be so. Damara, beside him, sat up from where she lay and also peered out the metal grate.

Where is that sound coming from? Rib was very confused, until he spotted a small creature walking down the stone corridor to stand before them. Spryte! She has our vial!

The tiny woman let the glass container fall on its side, setting one foot on it as she leaned forward to peer at him and Damara with a smirk. Her short blue hair clung to her forehead, damp from the mist, and her green hummingbird wings refused to lay flat against her back, sticking out in the places Griffith had broken them.

“Hey, fools,” she said. “Look what I found.” The fae woman rolled the vial back and forth under her foot, causing the drop of orange liquid to roll around inside.

What does she want with it? Rib was stunned into silence. What does she want with us[_?_]

Could she have some way to help us? Or would she even want to? Even now, she hardly seems friendly…

Behind Spryte, Gavin moved closer to the door of his cell, sitting down with a quizzical look on his face. Damara stared back at the fae woman with a calculating expression, eyes narrowed.

“I want to know what it does,” Spryte declared, picking up one end of the vial and uncorking it. “You.” She pointed at Damara. “Answer me.”

“This is my first time seeing it,” Damara lied.

“Really?” Spryte casually crossed her arms over the open lip and gazed at the woman. “Then how come I got it from your belt?”

She’s good at this, Rib thought.

Damara answered with icy silence. The two women held each other’s challenging stares for so long Rib thought they might never speak again.

Then, Spryte lifted the vial up off the ground, proving she still had her supernatural strength, and gave them a smug expression.

“I know what it does,” she announced. “Griffith will regret having not taken your offer for it, when I pin him to the ground and crush his head between my jaws.”

With that, she upturned the vial and downed the entire drop inside, tossing the glass aside and standing tall, an expectant look on her face.

She actually drank it!

Rib waited with bated breath.

At first nothing happened. Then, the fae woman cried out, seizures taking hold of her, pulling her down to her knees, to her hands, to her stomach. Writhing on the floor with dress flickering, it looked as though lightning bolted through her entire body.

Is it killing her?!

Rib gawked at the sight, alarm turning to amazement as the tiny woman’s form began to change. Her spine extended, growing her a long arched neck and whip-like tail. The dress stretched over her until it tore off, revealing bright green scales underneath. Her arms and legs were sucked farther into her body and bent with new joints, while her wings were realigned and sharpened at the tips like feather daggers.

When the female turned her face upward with another gasp of pain, Rib saw that it too had changed. Her eyes, once human, where now solid blue, set among exquisitely detailed, turquoise scales. She had keen features about her dragonish muzzle, jaws lined with teeth, her long pointed ears.

The last alteration to happen was along the ridge of her curved back, where jagged fire-blue feathers grew out, starting at her head and finishing at the tip of her tail with a fan of quills.

As all changes came to an end, the newly formed fae dragon wheezed on the floor for a while. Rib met Gavin’s shocked gaze with his own. Damara just leaned back with an expression of smug irritation on her face.

“I don’t know about you being able to crush Griffith’s head,” the young woman said, “but you could give him a nasty bite on the nose.”

Blinking, the fae dragon looked up at them, then stood bolt upright on her hind legs like a tiny bear. With a gasp, she stared down at her skinny, serpentine body.

“No!” she cried, taking to the air, twisting herself around to examine every inch of her shimmering hide. Pomegranate pink splashed her chest, crystal white blanched her stomach, metallic greens and blues took over the rest. “I’m supposed to be huge!”

“Why so distraught?” Damara ridiculed. “That tail makes you look quite long.”

“You knew this would happen!” Spryte screamed accusations at her. “You didn’t stop me!”

Damara laughed, wrapping her fingers around the metal bars locking her in. “And how could I?”

The fae dragon glowered, flashing her thin forked tongue and pearly sharp teeth. Rib could barely make out the shape of her wings, which created a faded color on either side of her body as they whirred. He saw her give him a short, perplexed look and realized she must see the true color of his hide now, but soon her expression harshened again.

Without another word, Spryte zipped out of the cavern.

What is she going to do now? Rib thought, staring after her.

“Rotten thief,” Damara muttered, and lay back down again, her back turned to Rib.

Across the floor from them, Gavin gave a breathy laugh. “We had that with us?” he asked, looking at the empty glass vial. “Makes for one potent drink.”

“That was the last of it,” Rib murmured. “The firesap’s extinct.”

“Well, that’s one less thing I have to worry about mixing with my prison food, I suppose.”

To joke at a time like this…with no hope of escape.

How can he laugh?

. . .

“I’m back!”

Rib was amazed to see Spryte come flying in.

“And this time, you won’t be laughing at me.” The fae dragon showed them a piece of metal in her talons.

Is that the dungeon key? Rib gaped at it.

Beside him, Damara moved closer to the bars. “How did you get that?” she asked, her voice calm and collected.

“Lifted it off His Lunacy’s guards,” Spryte answered smugly. “I have a proposal for you.”

“And we have ears,” Gavin spoke from behind her.

A proposal! Does it include getting us out?

The fae dragon grinned, still hovering in midair between their cells. “I just destroyed all the plants whose fragrance keeps His Lunacy’s animals at peace with one another,” she said. “By tonight, the forest will be in chaos. Beasts will turn on one another; the guards will fight for their lives. That is when we’ll escape with the potion book.”

She wants to help us, it’s true! Rib’s heart quickened in his chest. Even after Damara laughed at her.

“Why would you want that?” Damara questioned the fae dragon, seemingly unconvinced.

“Because you are going to take me to the Island,” Spryte answered. “Where firebreathers once lived until I was sent to cure them.”

The Island! Rib thought, his heart pounding even harder now. That’s where Oriole thinks Memory went!

“There is a wizard there in debt to me for not making him known to His Lunacy,” Spryte told them further. “We will have him craft the potions we want and sail back the way we came.”

“The man has dragon fire?” Damara spoke in low tones.

“Kept alive in his hearth.”

Perfect! Rib was convinced. We have to go.

“What is the potion you want?” Damara queried.

An evil smile spread across Spryte’s face, but she did not answer.

This is really going to happen, Rib thought. We’re actually going to escape!

But, wait…

“What about Oriole?” he asked. “She’s being held prisoner, too. We can’t leave without her.”

“No, we must,” Spryte responded. “She’d ruin our chances of escape.”

“She wouldn’t!” Rib protested.

“She would . First thing Griffith will do when his forest turns on itself is make sure the guards have Oriole protected. She’s his only way of crafting potions. We try to break her free- we all get caught.”

“But…” Rib couldn’t imagine leaving without her. “She agreed to help us when we needed her.”

“Rib,” Damara looked him in the eye, “we have no choice.”

It just isn’t right…

“I swear,” Spryte said, “by the time I’m through with Griffith, Oriole won’t have anything to worry about.”

Rib peered at the fae dragon to see if she was serious. She met his gaze with a vivacious, confident spark in the eye and he knew that she was.

“Alright,” he agreed reluctantly.

“Who is he?” Gavin spoke up. “The wizard.”

Spryte turned to him.

“Looks a lot like you,” she said. “Lives with a group of people, all shipwrecked on the Island after Huskhns killed their captain and crew.”

“Huskhns?” Gavin gripped the bars of his cell door. “What’s the wizard’s name?”

“Brock.”

Gavin’s face slackened in shock.

“Do you know him?” Damara inquired.

The young man blinked slowly. “Brock was…the name of my father.”

“What?!” Rib exclaimed. “Could it be him?”

Gavin was quiet. Everyone, even Spryte, waited for his answer.

“I was just a child when my parents’ lands were invaded,” he spoke in a daze. “We all boarded a ship, us and a dozen other families. We thought we’d gotten away until the Huskhns took over our vessel and killed everyone who fought back. They took me away with the other children, onto a different boat to be sold as slaves.”

“That’s the story Oriole told me!” Rib said. “Huskhns fled the ship when she and the Colony landed on it. Gavin, your parents are on the Island!”

His friend looked like he could barely believe it.

“Good then,” Spryte declared over the sound of falling water outside. “It’s decided. We escape tonight!”

We’re getting out of here! Rib got up and began to pace, his mind racing. Gavin will see his parents again, we’ll get the cure…

And I might…just might, find Memory there.

. . .

Rib was alerted by a terrible screech outside.

“Is it starting?” he asked, but Damara shushed him. She was crouched by the door, listening. As was Gavin, on the other side.

Through the crashing waterfall, the night air was filled with a wolf’s howl, followed by a dozen more. Some sort of braying was heard, a yelp, another screech.

Then total mayhem.

“It’s happening!” Rib cried over the blood-curdling commotion of what must have been hundreds of animals. His ears rang with the sounds of unfathomable creatures fighting and killing one another. The clamor echoed inside the dungeon, bouncing off stone walls, overtaking the din of the waterfall.

Rib watched with wide eyes as Spryte flew in, laughing delightedly.

“I’ll be back with the book!” she yelled, presenting Damara the key before zipping away again.

Hurriedly, the young woman reached through the metal grate, turning the key and pushing the heavy door open. Rib stepped out of the cell cautiously while Damara went on to unlock Gavin’s door.

When all three of them were free, they gathered close together, watching the exit.

A few minutes passed.

Come on, come on, Rib begged Spryte silently. Where are you?

He could hear the yells of guards, guttural screams. A horned squirrel came scampering into the dungeon for refuge, but nothing followed it.

Finally, Spryte reappeared, gripping the oversized book in her claws. Damara rushed to grab it from her, but the fae dragon flew out of her reach with a glare.

“What are you doing?” Spryte demanded. “Get on the dragon and let’s go!”

Rib crouched as Damara pulled Gavin by the hand to the saddle, urging them to go faster. The moment they were on his back, he stood and Spryte snapped at him to follow. As he moved to the open archway, he looked past the waterfall to see Oriole down below, cowering against the cliff with feathers trembling. Just as Spryte had predicted, twenty-some guards defended her against the pack of blue wolves he’d seen just the other night. Beyond them, the meadow was writhing with battling beasts and creatures of all kinds.

“Hey!” Spryte hissed at him and he turned to see her beckoning him the other way.

Heart pounding in his chest, he ran along the stone ledge until it ran out. He stared at Spryte moving up the cliff, a vertical ascent.

Can Gavin and Damara hold on for that?! Rib panicked, opening his wings.

Instead of flying headfirst for the top, he beat his wings heavily, keeping his body level for his riders. As he did, he was able to glance back at the forest. Animals flew from the trees, dark shapes in the night. Moonlight reflected off the pool underneath him, where the nymphs swam in agitated circles, touching each other, diving under.

Reaching the top of the cliff, he looked for Spryte, who hovered with the book still gripping in her talons. Now that they had escaped the walls, he knew exactly where to go and pointed his snout for the port.

With the weight of Gavin and Damara there on his back to assure him, he flew as fast as he could beside Spryte. The chaos could still be heard, despite the distance they rapidly put behind them. Soon Rib could see the beach, and the port where their boat was docked.

People with lanterns and torches stood on the outskirts of the town, peering in the direction of the clamoring Fairy Realm. Rib didn’t pay them any attention as he soared over the rooftops and streets to find their boat. Alighting on the dock beside it, he felt Damara and Gavin dismount.

“Where’s Mortaug?” he asked.

Gavin glanced at their boat, then put his hand to his mouth and gave an ear-piercing whistle, facing the town. He waited a minute, then whistled again.

Nothing’s happening, Rib just began to think when a bark sounded across the waters. All of them looked towards the sound. The shape of a monigon appeared between houses.

Gavin’s pet!

The animal began bounding towards them, and Rib opened his eyes wide in surprise.

Hesper?

“Hesp!” Gavin laughed, catching the monigon as she jumped into his arms.

From the same direction she had come, three more forms appeared, two human, one monigon.

It’s them!

“What happened to you?” Jasper demanded, his and Mortaug’s feet pounding on wooden planks as they came. “You’ve been gone for days! Hesper came and found us this morning. And what is this?”

The boy looked at Spryte, who sneered at him.

“Mortaug,” Damara said. She scrounged around the back of the Merry May to retrieve the Captain’s map. “We need to get out of here immediately. We’ll explain later, but we need to go to an island somewhere on here…Spryte?”

The fae dragon went to where Damara and Mortaug had their heads bent over the map, but she clearly had trouble seeing it past the large book she was carrying.

“Give me that!” Damara snapped and took it from Spryte, though she snarled. “Just show us where we’re going.”

Does she know? Rib worried as Spryte alighted on Damara’s shoulder to look.

“There,” the fae dragon said, pointing at a place on the map with the tip of her tail. “That’s where the wizard is.”

Chapter 16

 

 

Rib stared out at the sea between them and Crageria. The horrible lands had long ago disappeared, and now the sun rose to bless them with its morning light. Mortaug sat at the steering oar with Jasper and Gavin, dressed in a new tunic, beside him. Damara rested on a blanket with the two monigons and Spryte perched on the sail above, staring down at the potion book nestled safe and dry between crates.

We’ve done it. We’ve escaped.

Rib could hardly believe it. How drastically their hopeless situation had changed in one night.

Please let Memory be there, he thought, facing the way they were headed. Nothing but open ocean could be seen, but he trusted the Captain’s direction. He, Gavin, and Damara had already told Mortaug all that had happened. And though Mortaug was displeased by their previous agreement to try and flee with a firebreather along with the book, he was understanding. It amazed Rib that this was the same man who once owned Gavin as a slave.

It made him think of Zheal with Memory.

Could he change too?

Rib wasn’t sure what he’d do if he found them at the Island. All he knew was that he had to get Memory away from Zheal.

I won’t let him bewitch her again. She won’t be his slave any longer.

“Hey.” Gavin joined him, leaning against the side of the boat to also look ahead of them. “Mortaug was just telling me about this island we’re going to.”

Rib looked at his friend in surprise. “He knows of it?”

Gavin nodded. “Huskhns once lived on it,” he said. “Until a huge volcano erupted and forced the survivors out.”

“That’s where we’re going now?” Rib was alarmed.

“They call it Rtycush,” Gavin ignored his question, “which translates to ‘hurling fire’.”

Hurling Fire?” Rib repeated. “What about all the dragons and humans living there? Are they in danger?”

Gavin laughed. “Relax. Mortaug says the only reasons Huskhns didn’t move back was because it was stripped of most its trees and the grazing and farming was poor. It wasn’t of any value to them.”

That doesn’t sound very good.

“What is that?” Jasper’s voice spoke up and they turned to look at what he was talking about.

A considerable length behind them, a thin creature rose, eyes seemingly set on them as it carved through the water.

That’s a…

“Sea serpent!” Rib exclaimed.

It was much smaller than the Great She-Serpent of the Sea that Clyde rode on, but still it was huge. The water beast’s scales were orange like the sunset and spines ridged its back. As it followed them, it kept its head low and its webbed crown flattened back. Rib got the apprehensive feeling it was stalking them.

“It’s giant!” Jasper yelled. “Rib, kill it!”

“I can’t kill that!” Rib protested. “I wouldn’t!”

The monigons began barking at the distant serpent. At all their noise, Damara awoke and sat up. Rib watched her to see what her reaction would be. Something like fear registered on her face as she stared at the water beast, then turned to Mortaug.

“I know this serpent,” she voiced urgently. “And unless it’s changed…we’re in danger.”

“What?” Rib sputtered. “What do you mean you know it?”

Damara looked at him, but didn’t answer. Instead, she hastened to climb up onto his back, saying, “We need to distract it away from the boat. Spryte, you too!”

“No!” Spryte refused from above them.

“Distract it?” Rib repeated, planting his feet on the deck. “How?”

“Wait,” Gavin said. “Look.”

The sea serpent appeared to have its eyes locked on something else now, its frilled head turning. Rib looked in the same direction as it and saw dark shapes break the surface at a distance.

Whales!

Lowering its head closer to the water, the sea serpent peered at them a moment longer before diving under, every arc of its body disappearing beneath the bright waves.

Damara gasped and leapt off Rib to rush to the end of the boat. She gripped the edge, staring down into the water.

“Where’d it go?” Jasper asked nervously.

Rib wondered the same thing.

Is it beneath us? His hide bristled at the thought.

But as everyone waited, no one stirring, no one breathing, nothing happened. Slowly, Rib’s scales began to lie flat again. Even the whales appeared to be gone.

“I think it’s gone,” he said. “After those whales.”

Damara remained at the edge, seemingly unconvinced. Everyone else returned to what they were doing, but Rib could see them frequently glancing at the waters.

“How have you seen that serpent before?” Rib asked Damara, coming up beside her.

The young woman stayed quiet and never looked away from the depths.

Tell me,” Rib pressed.

Damara settled herself against the boat, her chin rested on her arms before her. “It used to live in a sunken pond in Wystil.” she answered finally.

The Earthen Cauldron? Rib knew the place she spoke of.

“What were you doing there?” he pursued the topic.

“I…found Tide guarding you and the clutch you hatched from near it. He was afraid you would wander too close to the serpent.”

“Wait,” Rib interrupted, taken aback. “You met me when I was a hatchling? Why did you never tell me this?”

“What does it matter?” Damara shrugged his question off.

She just doesn’t care. Rib became frustrated.

“It does matter,” Rib growled. “We’ve been together this entire journey. We’ve even shared a dungeon cell together! Yet only now I hear you’ve known me since I left the egg. Why do you make yourself such a stranger?”

“I have my mind on other things.”

“Saving your brother’s wife, I know!” Rib said. “But I want us to get the cure, too. We have our minds on the same things.”

Damara didn’t reply and Rib gave up.

It’s almost as though she’s hiding something, he grumbled inwardly. I’ll never understand her.

. . .

After many days of sailing, they began to pass icebergs. The first floating mountain of ice, Rib had gawked at, but now they were a normal sight to him. He’d even started eating chunks of ice off them, so the others’ supply of drinking water would last longer.

The closer they got, the more icebergs appeared, which Mortaug was always careful to steer clear of. Rib wondered at how they formed. He asked Gavin once, but his friend hardly shrugged. It was obvious Gavin was getting anxious as they neared the place of his parents.

Rib felt the same anxiety whenever he thought of Memory.

“What do you remember about them?” he asked Gavin, knowing he needn’t clarify who he was talking about.

Gavin shook his head slowly. “I was just so young…” With a sigh, he rested his chin on his arms as he leaned against the edge of the boat. Rib thought he meant he had no memories of them, until his friend spoke again, his voice distant. “My mother used to sing for the entire town, my father on the flute. Other Eristads beat the drums. Maybe they were my uncles, I’m not sure. One of them gave me a drum, with its batter skin so loose it hardly made a noise when I hit it.” Gavin gave a half-laugh. “Good way to entertain a rhythm-less child, I suppose.”

His whole family played instruments? No wonder he’s so good at the flute.

“What had you thought happened to them?” Rib asked, somewhat brash. “Before Spryte told us they were on the Island?”

Gavin gave him a look. “Same as you thought happened to Memory before word spread about her and Zheal,” he answered, matching Rib’s tone. “I thought they were gone.”

With the conversation having turned to his own personal life, Rib turned his head away and became quiet for a while.

At least he knows they’re at the Island now, he reflected, unable to keep the bitterness from his mind. I still can’t say the same for Memory.

. . .

At long last, when Rib went out flying for fish, he spotted land and returned to the ship declaring it joyously. Everyone stood to see except for Spryte, who broke away from her restless circles around the top of the mast to join him.

“That’s it!” she declared, though it was little more than a streak in the distance. “Finally!”

As they neared, they found that the icebergs were far too clustered ahead for them to proceed without a route identified. And so, Rib flew forward to look for a clear passage to the Island.

Memory could be here…

Memory could be here!

Rib had trouble paying attention to the icebergs below and not just staring at the land in front of him. He could see mountainous terrain closest to him, but could tell it was much flatter beyond. As he forced his head down, he noticed the icebergs were much less dense along the path he soared. Looking further, he saw that strips of land and a couple of curving peninsulas formed a bay free of ice and perfect for their boat.

Giving the Island one more glance, Rib was about to turn back when he spotted something. Five long boats were pulled up to the black beach blocked in by mountains.

Islanders? Rib wondered and flew closer, alighting on a tall icy peak to spy. Peering at the camp full of tents and men, realization dawned on him. No…these are…

Huskhns!

Rib fought the urge to glide straight in calling for Memory. With his claws digging into the ice, he searched the area meticulously with his eyes. He saw no dragon among them.

But she could be behind a tent, or further inland with Zheal, or…

Raising his gaze, he scanned the mountain ridge that curved around the warriors’ camp. At first he saw nothing, but then his heart skipped a beat. Dragon silhouettes, a dozen or so of them, lined the mountain tops.

They enslaved more?!

Is one of them Memory?

“Hey.”

Rib arched his back and scrabbled to the side at the sound of a female voice beside him.

“Hey, it’s alright!” the female laughed lightly and Rib opened his eyes wider at the sight of her.

She was a dragon, light blue and white, tall and elegant. Having landed on the ice, she wrapped her thin tail around herself, with stunning wings folded against her sides. Rib was soothed by her amiable smile.

“Hello,” she greeted him. “I’m Sky.”

Sky?

Rib blinked. “Uh…hello,” he replied. “I’m Rib.”

“Nice to meet you, Rib.” Sky dipped her head. “Where did you come from? You have a saddle on your back.” She lowered her eyes down to his chest strapped with leather and buckles.

“Y-yeah, I…” Rib couldn’t think of what to answer. All he could think of was questions to ask her.

Where did she come from?

Is she with the Huskhns?

Does she know Memory?

As he struggled, Sky cocked her head at him, her eyes soft. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Rib forced out the word. “Please, I’m…I’m not sure who you are. Are you with the Huskhns? Have you met a dragon by the name Tairg?”

Sky smiled. “No, I’m afraid not. I’m a Colonist. I thought you might be with the Huskhns.”

“No!” Rib blurted. “But my sister…lavender grey, my size…She’s been enslaved by them. Have you seen her?”

“Enslaved?” Sky’s eyes were filled with pity. “That’s terrible. I have seen a dragon of that description, but-”

“Is she here now?!” Rib interrupted.

Sky shook her head. “Sorry. I saw her leave with a ship of other Huskhns a week or so ago.”

No…Rib let his wings fall open, devastated. I’m too late…again.

“I had no idea she was their slave,” Sky murmured. “She looked like she was with them of her own will.”

“She’s bewitched,” groaned Rib. “I was going to help her…but now…” A sick feeling clutched at his insides and he pressed his head into the ice.

“Hey,” Sky hushed. “Don’t worry. She’ll probably come back.”

“What?” Rib lifted his eyes to see her. “Really?”

Sky nodded softly. “The Huskhns keep coming here. They want something from us, but we’ve been holding them back like the Islanders asked us to.”

“The Islanders?” Rib perked up a little. “Is there someone named Brock with them?”

“Yes!” Sky brightened. “You know him?”

Rib told her of Gavin and the people they came with. As he did, Sky’s eyes widened.

“Brock’s lost son?” she repeated after him. “And Damara? She’s here?”

She knows Damara, too? Rib couldn’t believe how many knew such a withdrawn woman as her. Opening his wings, he jerked his head towards the direction of their boat.

“I’ll show you.”

Immediately, Sky was in the air next to him. He was distracted as he noticed the flawless shape of her bat-like wings, how perfectly they struck the air. Together, they soared over the icebergs and a thought occurred to Rib.

“Do you breathe fire?” he asked.

The female flying beside him grinned.

“No, not I!” Blowing a whirlwind of snowflakes in front of them, she said, “First icebreather of the Island.”

“Do you know any firebreathers?”

“I used to,” Sky murmured. “But they all live in isolation, if any are left.”

Hmm…

“Does Wizard Brock keep a dragon flame alive with him?” he questioned further.

“He does. Mine, in fact…Oh!” The icebreather looked ahead. “Is that your boat?”

Without waiting for an answer, she sped forward the last stretch and descended on the Merry May, where everyone stood in shock. Rib was quick to follow.

“Damara!” Sky exclaimed the moment she alighted on the deck before her. The weight of the dragon pitched the boat from side to side and the humans clutched the railing to stay upright. “Look how you’ve grown!”

Damara had a troubled look on her face as she stared up at the friendly dragon.

“I’m sorry?” she asked.

“Oh, you were so young.” Sky beamed. “No wonder you don’t remember me. I’m Sky, a friend of Princess Theora.”

“Sky…” Damara echoed. “You were a part of the Colony?”

“I still am,” Sky answered. “This is where we live now.”

“And the Islanders?” Gavin spoke up, standing beside Damara. “Is there a man by the name Brock here?”

“Oh, how rude of me!” Sky said. “Yes, yes, your father is here. Come, I’ll take you to the Islanders at once.”

Immediately, the ship was readied again and they followed after the graceful dragon, taking the clearest route they could to enter the bay. As they did, Rib took another look at the Huskhn camp, uneasy by their many weapons glinting in the light. But it was a comfort to know that the dragons on the mountains were keeping the men there. None of the waiting warriors seemed to notice Rib and his companions on their little ship passing between the great mountains of ice.

A couple of other Colonists came to speak to Sky before the Merry May was allowed into the bay. Sailing between two strips of land, Rib and his companion were soon hidden from the Huskhns by a large, ridged peninsula jutting out between them.

Exhaling in relief, Rib looked around at the bay they had entered. Here, the mountains flattened out to reveal a vast expanse of ground. Rushing from the inland, a wide river fed into the sea, creating currents that pushed their boat away. But the wind eventually got them over to the other side, where Rib could see trees donning their fall colors in the distance.

“Come!” Sky said when they reached the land. “The Islanders are this way!”

Rib looked at Gavin, who walked forward, his face pale.

“Are you alright?” Rib asked him, grinning knowingly.

The young man moistened his dry lips and nodded.

He’s going to see his parents again! After all these years.

Rib glanced at his friend again, understanding how he must feel.

It’d be like if I were about to see Memory again…

Reminded of the weight of the situation, Rib couldn’t laugh at Gavin for looking so frightened. He was impressed the man could even walk right.

Over grassy slopes they went, where a great many sheep grazed. Rib tried not to look at them, sensing his stomach’s desire for something other than fish. Shepherds called out to them but did not approach. Rib was intrigued by how similar their dark grey skin was to Gavin’s.

We’re getting closer.

Tension grew the longer it took them to cross the pastures, but finally they peaked a hill that overlooked a sight to behold.

Whoa. Rib gawked at the view.

Below was a cove dotted with little fishing boats. A little ways away from the water’s black beaches stood a small village of green-rooved sod houses, and past those were steaming, vibrantly colored pools. In the foreground lay crops where people bent over to work.

But what amazed Rib was the massive mound of ice that towered beyond it all, starting in the surrounding mountains and reaching out into the ocean, beside the cove. It was white and blue, bigger than the Great She-Serpent, frozen ripples of ice. On the other side, from the mountains and ice flowed a river that cut between the glacier and the sod house village to feed into the sea.

Rib started as a thundering groan rumbled from the frozen mass. At the sheer end of the glacier, a large cliff of ice broke away and fell heavily into the ocean, sending waves out around it.

Iceberg, Rib identified, staring at the newly floating mound. Among the other icebergs he spotted a huge shipwreck. That must be what the Colonists arrived on.

“This way!” Sky urged everyone, gliding down to the village. Spryte, once again carrying the potion book, zipped after her. Rib wanted to follow on wing as well, but decided to stay with Gavin, who kept his eyes fixed on the houses and marched on. Fisherman and farmers looked their way as they passed, all of them the same color as Gavin. True Eristads.

At last, as they neared the houses, Sky appeared with a man and a woman, followed by three little girls.

There was a moment when the family froze as they spotted Gavin.

Then the adults ran to him, and he to them.

Rib marveled at the way they collided lovingly into each other, hugging and kissing. He didn’t even come closer to hear what they said, but simply watched as the three girls were beckoned over.

Gavin has sisters now. Rib found himself smiling.

Beside him, Damara began heading over, and Rib after her. As he did, he saw the tears on Gavin’s face, and the faces of his parents. Gavin’s three little sisters just gaped up at their brother wondrously.

At some point, Gavin turned to motion to Mortaug and Jasper, who hung back with uneasy expressions. Cautiously they approached, meeting Gavin’s parents and shaking hands as Gavin spoke well of them.

Observing all this, Rib found himself overwhelmed.

This is what I want, he thought. Reunion.

Memory.

Chapter 17

 

 

“Make me the potion that will make him age to death in a day,” demanded Spryte, vibrant body erect where she perched upon a shelf.

Gavin’s father, Brock, sat on low bed planks, flipping through the potion book. He shook his head as he turned to another seemingly blank page.

“No, I don’t have these ingredients,” he answered.

“What?!” Spryte burst out with an aggravated flittering of her wings. “Why not?”

Gavin laughed silently beside his father, who gave the fae dragon a look.

“I told you. Very few things grow on this island. Even the crops that do have to be treated with potions and special magic.” Brock continued looking at the book, his expression serious.

That doesn’t sound good, Rib thought, his head inside the doorway. What about what we need?

The sod house he peered into was simple but homey. On either side lay a couple beds laden with sheep skins. At the center was a fire, Sky’s flame he assumed, with a pot hanging over it. Other such household items lay about, including a couple instruments that reminded Rib of Gavin.

“Here,” Brock said. “This is one I can craft. The cure for the firesap.”

“What would I want that for?” Spryte hissed. “I’m trying to ruin Griffith’s life!”

Brock sighed. “The man has a passion for wizardry, does he not? If you cure his firebreather, he may never be able to craft potions again.”

Grudgingly considering it at first, the fae dragon’s face slowly began to brighten as she thought more about it.

“Yes…” she uttered. “Without his wizardry he’d be heartbroken. No one would fear him. We could dethrone him at once!”

“Very well,” Brock said, and stood. “We will need to find the Royal Well.”

“Sir, wait,” Damara spoke up from a corner. She’d been so quiet all this time, Rib had forgotten she was even there. “Please, will you look at the recipe for the muffle moth cure?”

It’s in there, Rib thought. I know it is.

Brock frowned slightly. “Ah, yes. I think I saw it in here.” He appeared to find the page, then dismayed Rib with a shake of his head. “I’m sorry. Half of these magics I’ve never seen in my life. I can’t craft this.”

No…Rib swiveled his gaze to see Damara’s reaction. This was our last hope for the Wystilians.

The young woman closed her eyes and swallowed. “Do you have any other solution?” Her voice was impressively steady.

Could there even be one?

Brock looked to his son, whose expression reflected Rib’s concern.

“Perhaps,” the man responded carefully. “But you must confirm it with your Captain. It could be very dangerous.”

Damara nodded. “I’ll talk to him. Just tell me.”

Brock cleared his throat, leaning back against a wooden post. “When Lord Griffith sent his servants here, there was one firebreather that was never cured. Wycker. He’d already entered the phases of madness and no one could come near him.”

“So if I brought him and the book to Wystil, Damon could craft the cure,” Damara connected immediately.

“Yes, but you can’t simply bring Wycker to Wystil,” Brock said. “You’d be dead before you reached the shores. No, what you need is bewitchment powder.”

“What?!” Rib cried, but everyone ignored him.

That’s what Griffith used on me! That’s what Zheal uses on Memory!

“And you can make that?” Damara asked, clearly interested.

Brock nodded and flipped back to a spot in the book. “It’s actually the same recipe as the firesap cure, only without the last step. It says here to boil gull bones in a potion, let them dry, and crush them into a fine dust. That’s the bewitchment powder. To make the firesap cure, you just mix it into the liquid of the Royal Well.”

“I’ll take it,” Damara said. “Enough powder to last the trip.”

Brock rubbed the back of his neck, as Rib had seen Gavin do countless times before. “I’m afraid I don’t have a surplus of ingredients even for this, but I will craft as much as I can.”

“The firesap cure first,” Spryte dictated from the shelf, her tail curled around a little clay pot.

“Yes.” Gavin’s father headed for the door and Rib moved out of his way. “For that, we must go to the bogs.”

Everyone filed out of the sod house, Spryte leading, then Gavin and Damara. This was their third day with the Islanders, their first two having consisted of nothing but celebration over the return of Brock’s son. Now, Spryte wouldn’t wait any longer for what she came for, and Damara seemed just as restless except quieter.

Suddenly wondering where Mortaug and Jasper were, Rib glanced around the small village. He saw Jasper making Hesper do tricks for Gavin’s little sisters, who laughed and clapped their hands. Damara had already found Mortaug, and appeared to telling him of the new plan.

Will he agree to it? Rib worried. It’s risky but it’s Wystil’s last hope.

Thankfully, the Captain nodded, setting a hand on Damara’s shoulder. Rib could just barely hear the young woman murmur, “Thank you,” before turning back to Brock.

“Alright,” Gavin’s father said as she stopped before him. “The Royal Well is a rare plant, but the more of us searching for it, the sooner we’ll find one.”

Everyone agreed to come, including Mortaug and Jasper. Gavin’s three sisters wanted to follow too, but Brock refused, reminding them, “The bogs are dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Rib echoed, coming up beside Gavin’s father as they headed out of the village.

“People can easily get stuck in the mud there,” Brock explained. “You need to be prepared to pull someone out if they call.”

“Oh.”

Even mud can kill humans? Rib shook his head. That’s saddening.

The small group made their way past steaming, brilliantly colored pools and icy mountains to where the beginnings of a forest grew. Entering the yellowish brown tree line, Rib suddenly thought of something.

Oriole once told me Huskhns came to the Islanders before they were chased out. Maybe Brock saw Memory!

“Have you met Zheal?” Rib asked, padding alongside Gavin’s father.

The man cast him a glance before stepping over a fallen log.

“Quite some years ago,” Brock answered. “He appeared with a dozen men and demanded a magic mixture from me, since I had the Eyes of Kings. Bewitchment powder, actually.”

“Bewitchment powder?” Rib repeated after him, stiffening. “Did you give him any?”

“Of course not,” the man said. “I asked the Colony to chase them away.”

Where did he get the powder to bewitch Memory with, then?

“So they’ve been camping on the beach ever since?”

“Oh, no,” Brock replied. “Those men only arrived a few weeks ago.”

“Did you ever see a dragon with them?” Rib urged. “Lavender grey? My size?”

Gavin’s father creased his brow. “The one Zheal rides? I’ve always wondered about her.”

“She’s my sister! Zheal enslaves her with bewitchment powder.”

“Hmm.” Brock ducked under a low hanging branch. “No, that can’t be right. I never saw the bewitchment magic inside her body.”

“What?” Rib blinked in confusion. “Would you have been able to?”

“Yes.”

“W-well…Where did you see her? What was she doing?”

“I only glimpsed her when the Colony showed me the Huskhns’ camp. She was flying away with Zheal on her back, to scout the Island it seemed.”

No. Rib refused to believe it. She must have been bewitched. It’s the only explanation.

“Here we are,” Brock told the group and they all halted before the sodden green field stretched in front of them, encircled by trees. “The first bog of many. Careful where you step. If you get stuck, call for Rib.”

“I’ll go with you, Father,” Jasper told Mortaug. “In case you need me to call for help.”

The Captain gave his son a half smile.

Everyone began to head forward, when Damara asked, “What does the Royal Well look like?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” Brock answered, smacking a bog beetle away from his face, though it was persistent. “It has liquid puddled inside it.”

“What doesn’t?” Gavin joked as he squelched in the mud. “I didn’t know my boots were what we were looking for.”

Brock gave a thin smile to his son’s humor, nothing at all like Gavin’s broad grin. But other than that and their difference in age, both men looked very similar, stocky and dark with short black hair.

The group spread out, eyes to the ground. Rib had trouble not watching the humans take big, funny steps to avoid puddles, while he simply glided over to the nearest dry spot.

It startled him when he came across a drowned sheep, with only its horns and part of its back out of the water. The most disturbing thing about it was that its spine and ribcage, where they broke the surface, were totally visible, the flesh having decayed away from the bone. But everything else submerged looked almost as though the sheep had just gone under, fluffy and complete.

Like something I’d find in Griffith’s Fairy Realm, Rib thought. He could almost imagine the ghoulish animal coming to life and paddling away.

Rib searched for a long time, not once having to come to someone’s rescue. Neither did anyone call out victory in their hunt. He was beginning to wonder whether they should move on to another bog, when something caught his eye. It was a plant with pitcher-like leaves no bigger than a chicken egg. Each round leaf bulged towards the bottom and opened at the top with a lid of sorts looming over the gap. Both the rim of the pitcher and the edge of its lid had clear, jagged teeth.

Gaping jaws, thought Rib. It’s almost menacing.

The outside of it was verdant, but icy blue veins spread across like cracks in ice. Springing up from the center of three or so of these leaves, was a banded stalk topped with a flower. Rib gazed at the unique petals that composed it, vaguely reminded of a wyvern with spread wings.

Rib was just now remembering a drawing he’d seen of this plant.

This must be the Royal Well!

He was just about to get Brock when a bog beetle flew towards the plant, buzzing into one of the opened bulb-shaped leaves. The insect headed for the beads of bluish liquid sticking to the inner walls, but soon got caught in the fluid puddled at the bottom of the pitcher.

It’s stuck, Rib observed, almost pitying it as it waggled all six of its legs inside the liquid. I better tell Brock I found his plant…

. . .

“Yes, very good,” Brock said, crouching over the plant as everyone else crowded around. Carefully plucking one of the bulb-shaped leaves, he tipped it over an open flask to let the fluid inside pour in. He did this to each, flicking out the beetle trapped in the third.

When he had finished, the man corked the flask and handed it to Gavin.

“Damara,” Brock said, standing up with the empty leaves. “Consider this.” He held out the picked apart plant and pointed to the bluish liquid beads sticking on the inner walls. “This nectar is what grants people the Eyes of Kings. Rub it in your eyes and you will see magic the rest of your life.

“I’ll admit it’s overwhelming at times, but for you it should prove quite useful. Should the bewitchment wear off Wycker, you will know ahead of time. Act accordingly, and it may be the difference between life and death.”

As Damara silently considered it, something occurred to Rib.

I could see whether Memory is bewitched or not! I’d know how to help her.

“What about me?” he asked. “I’ll be with Wycker, too.”

Unless I stay here to wait for Memory, he realized, but pushed the thought away.

Brock gave him a funny look. “I’ve never heard of a dragon with the Eyes of Kings.”

“I don’t care,” Rib replied. “I want it.”

Damara cast him a glance before telling Brock, “We’ll both take it.”

She’s actually accepting? Rib was surprised. What will that make her, a witch?

He watched intently as Brock handed a leaf to Damara. The young woman ran her finger along the inside of the leaves, gathering the bluish nectar.

“One more warning,” Brock said just as she was about to apply it. “Beetles will have an infinite interest in you.”

So that’s why Damon’s always got bugs on him…

Damara merely smirked before touching the nectar to her right eye. Surprise registered on her face and she squeezed her eye shut, quickly applying nectar to her left.

Everyone waited as she blinked, rapidly at first, then slowly, as though hardly believing what she saw.

What is it like? Rib yearned to know.

“Here, do it for me!” he said, eagerly crouching down and readying himself.

I’m going to be the first magic-seeing dragon in the world!

To his delight, Gavin volunteered and took the next largest leaf from his father. Rib tried his best to stay still as the young man reached his nectar-coated fingertip towards his face. But right at the last moment, Rib’s second eyelids snapped involuntarily shut and Gavin touched his left one.

Oh no!

Wait…

Rib was amazed to see that it was still working, the liquid spreading over his inner eyelid while he blinked. He kept his other inner eyelid shut for Gavin to do the same to it, then closed his eyes completely as Damara had done.

What? He could feel the nectar soak in, perplexed when he almost began to see through his outer eyelids.

When he opened them, a vivid sight to behold met his eyes. With his second lids shut, it was as though the world had changed. Stunning new colors revealed themselves to him. The air had thin hues wafting in whichever direction the breeze took it. Plants no longer blended into a spread of green, but stood out drastically from one another, only matching those of its own kind.

But what astounded him the most was everyone around.

He gawked at Gavin standing directly in front of him. His friend no longer appeared to him as flesh, but a whole system of magics working and moving inside him.

Rib could see Gavin’s skeleton, his heart pumping blood into his veins, the breath filling his lungs. It was like when Damara disappeared layer by layer of flesh to bone, except this time everything was in a baffling array of colors and he could see everything at once. When he tried, he was even able to see through Gavin’s entire body and focus in on the magics behind him.

It was all so overwhelming, he opened his inner eyelids to again view the world as he remembered it, plain and simple.

Gavin grinned at him.

“You look stunned,” the young man laughed. “Well? Am I handsome in magic?”

“You’re bewildering,” Rib croaked.

“Ah.” Gavin smirked. “It’s part of being a fool, I suppose. Hey, what was it that happened right before I touched your eyes? There was some sort of movement, I think.”

“My inner eyelids closed,” Rib mumbled.

“That’s interesting,” Brock commented, stepping up beside his son. “I see you’ve chosen to stop looking through them.”

Rib nodded. “I can’t believe you see like that all the time.”

The corner of the man’s mouth lifted in good humor. “I’ve gotten used to it. How is it, Damara?”

Oh, right. Rib turned to the young woman rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands. I’d forgotten she’s taken it too.

Damara furrowed her brow, gazing up at Brock. “How do you sleep?” she asked. “I can see even when my eyes are closed.”

The man sighed. “Yes, I failed to mention that. But you’ll find that some magics are not as easy to see through, like the parchment of that potion book you’ve brought. You may want to cover your face with something similar so there’s not as much to look at when you try to rest.”

Damara clenched her jaw but gave a curt nod.

Rib glanced through his second lids once more to see her eyes, colored with the same magic as Brock’s, and no one else’s. Jasper came up to Damara, peering into her face.

“I can’t even tell the difference,” he said. “Father, look.”

“Are we ready?” Spryte spoke up, hovering over everyone’s heads. “Let’s go.”

Rib followed after everyone else, thankful to still be able to see things as he was used to them.

I suppose I was a little too eager for these Eyes of Kings, he thought. It’s a good thing my second eyelids closed when they did.

But now I’ll be able to see when Wycker’s bewitched…

Or Memory.

The decision of whether to return to Wystil or stay on the Island and wait for his sister in case she ever came back weighed down on him. He looked ahead at Gavin, who walked with his father, but turned to offer Damara help across a large puddle.

He has the same options as I do, Rib realized. Stay for family or go back.

His friend gave him a surprised grin as Damara accepted his offer, getting her over the water before heading on.

What will he choose?

. . .

So this is what wizardry looks like to the wizard, Rib thought, tentatively peering through his magic lenses. The dragon flame Brock worked with was clearly different from normal fire, ever unfurling with its inexplicable color.

Rib observed the different hues of each ingredient Brock put into his pot. Every once in a while, the man would stir it and Rib could see the multiple magics fuse into one. When Brock had finished with the bubbling blend, he dropped tiny bones inside and moved on to a second pot hanging beside it.

The man prepared the second potion the same, but waited on the bones. Rib looked again at the potion book Brock referred to, still amazed by how neatly Damon had written with magic onto each page. Rib never learned to read, but he knew the Wizard could have done a far messier job.

How long must it have taken him? No wonder he was upset when Griffith stole it.

“It says here that I need to add the blood of the bewitcher,” Brock said.

Rib saw Damara’s hand fly to her waist, but hover as it found nothing. With an irritated expression, she replied, “I need a knife.”

Wait, Rib thought as one was handed to her. She’s just going to-

Without hesitation, the young woman slit open her palm and let the blood run into the pot Brock indicated.

“That’s plenty,” the man said. “Son, will you get her something to wrap that with?”

Gavin was already taking Damara’s hand, a clean strip of cloth at the ready.

Rib watched them both, growing ever doubtful about what Gavin would choose, and what he himself would choose.

Stay or go?

. . .

“Wycker lives on the Mangled Islands,” Brock told Damara, handing her the sack of powder he’d crafted. “Just follow the coast that way and you’ll see them. When you find Wycker, you’ll be able to see the firesap if it’s flaring up inside of him or not. Either way, don’t wait to bewitch him.”

The young woman nodded. Behind her, Mortaug and Jasper were setting up the boat for sailing. Waves lapped the black beach of the bay everyone else stood on as they waited to bid them farewell.

Rib looked from them to the Merry May, stressed as he knew it was time to make his decision.

They all think I’m leaving. I probably should…

But what about Memory?

Spryte zipped past him, carrying the flask of firesap cure to the boat. Not once had the fae dragon let go of it since Brock gave it to her.

“And here is more of the firesap cure,” Gavin’s father said and gave Damara a similar flask. “For when Wycker has served your purpose. It won’t extend his life, just keep him from going mad again. Although, from what I heard about him, he still won’t be too pleasant.”

“Thank you,” Damara murmured, slinging the flask over her shoulder. Tucked under her arm was the precious potion book, and in her hand the sack of powder. Looking to Rib, she asked, “Are you ready?”

This is it! Rib panicked, tense as she moved to get in the saddle on his back. Do I decline?!

“Wait,” Gavin spoke up, and stepped from his family. He rubbed the back of his neck hesitantly. “I think…maybe I should go, too.”

“What?” Rib stared at his friend. “But your family-”

“No, it’s alright,” Brock interrupted, clapping a hand over his son’s shoulder and looking him in the eye. “I’m proud that you’ve made a life for yourself out there. You’re a free man. There’s nothing that makes me happier.”

Gavin looked as though he were about to cry. He faced his mother, who nodded, crying herself.

“I love you,” she told him as he embraced her. “Just please be safe.”

Gavin’s three little sisters began to wail, saying, “Don’t go, brother!” He knelt and hugged them each.

“I’ll come and visit,” he promised. “I will.”

Rib watched all this, feeling as though he could cry too if he had tears.

I have to go, now that Gavin is, he thought. I have to see this through…

But I’ll still find Memory.

I will.

Chapter 18

 

 

“Why are they called Mangled Islands?” Jasper whispered to no one in particular, peering out at the small pieces of land before them. The largest was in the shape of a stout mountain, its center concaved, the entire thing covered in pale vegetation. A few tiny islands speckled around it, but with one glance Rib could see that there was no dragon on them.

Wycker must be there, he knew, staring at the ocean surrounded mount ahead.

Gavin stroked Hesper on the head, his other monigon curled up beside him. Everyone waited as Damara prepared herself in the belly of the boat.

Rib looked to see how she was doing. They’d already agreed that he and Damara should go get Wycker alone, since they could be swift and not have to worry about anyone else’s safety. The plan was simple, bewitch Wycker and take him on the ship, but Rib still felt uneasy.

Damara’s cut hand had already begun to bleed through the new bandage she wrapped around it that morning. But she didn’t even wince, using it to hang a coil of rope over her head and one arm like a sash. Tied to her waist was the sack of bewitchment powder. Other than that, she had little on her person. She looked down at herself, clearly displeased.

“Here,” Gavin said, handing her his knife sheathed with a strap to go across her chest. “I don’t know what a dagger could do for you against a dragon, but still.”

Damara smirked a little as she took it from him. “Thank you.” She turned to Rib and hoisted herself up into the saddle, saying, “We shouldn’t take long.”

Rib glanced around at Gavin, Mortaug, and Jasper. Spryte had gone to scout out the island, in hopes of leaving for Crageria as soon as possible.

“Remember to hold your breath, Rib,” Gavin told him with a grin. “It’d be a shame to waste powder on you.”

Rib smiled nervously. “I will.”

With that, he took off from the boat and flew for the island. It felt like the time he took Tyrone to cure Lynx of the firesap, except this was worse.

We’re actually going to bewitch someone, he processed the thought. Just like Zheal does to my sister.

But this is to save Wystil…and we’ll give Wycker the cure right after.

“Hey,” Spryte startled him as she suddenly came zipping around his head, “you’ll want to see this. Come on.”

“What is it?” Rib asked, but the fae dragon sped away towards the island and he struggled to keep his eyes on her as he followed.

When he reached the concave mountain, he gazed around, wary of Wycker.

Maybe Spryte found him, he thought and pressed on harder to reach her. But wouldn’t she have said so?

The foliage below was short but thick, a whitish green color. Soaring all the way to the other side of the island, Rib at last got to where Spryte circled as a fly would around something on the black beach.

Is that him?! Rib was appalled, landing a short distance away from the corpse of a stocky, midnight blue dragon curled up like a dead spider. He didn’t want to go any closer, but Damara leapt from his back and rushed forward.

With one close look at the dragon, she cursed out loud and kicked the dark sand.

No. Rib stared in shock. He was our last chance.

What are we going to do now[_?_]

“Must have been a fight,” Spryte said, now hovering about his head. “My guess is the Huskhns.”

Forcing himself to draw nearer, Rib saw that the fae dragon was right. The ground was scuffed, plants were uprooted and burnt, and caught on one of the dragon’s foreclaws were the scorched remnants of a net. The head of a broken battle axe lay nearby.

Oriole thought the Huskhns would come for the firebreather here, Rib recalled. But why would they kill him?

Deeply disturbed, he ran his eyes over Wycker’s corpse. Surprisingly, the only damage that could be seen was on the dragon’s wings, where his membrane was slashed to the point of no recovery. However, the shreds were far from raw, the rough edges scarred over as though inflicted on Wycker before his fight with the Huskhns.

Taking a quick look through his inner eyelids, he saw that the magics inside Wycker had all stilled. They appeared to be slowly leaking out of him as thin vapors, dissipating into the air.

What happened here? Rib couldn’t wrap his mind around it. It looks as though he just fell over and died. As though the Huskhns didn’t even touch him.

His heart jolted as he thought of Memory. Did she have to fight him? Is she alright?

Should I stay here in case she comes back?

Rib watched as Damara paced the beach where water washed up to her feet.

What is she going to do? This is all she came on the journey for.

She could try taking a flame from Brock’s dragon fire to Wystil…

No, that would never work.

He remembered the Huskhns that tried taking Jasper so Rib would breathe a flame for them. That crew seemed to have had the same plan to take bare dragon fire overseas.

It sounds like an absurd idea, Rib knew. But now that we’re desperate…

He straightened when he saw the young woman stalking towards him. “Let’s return to the ship,” she growled, mounting the saddle on his back.

“Shouldn’t we bury Wycker?”

“There’s no time.”

“But why? What are we doing?”

“We’re going back to Crageria.”

“Yes!” Spryte butted in. “Finally.”

“What?!” Rib exclaimed. “Griffith’s probably got people looking everywhere for us there.”

“I don’t care,” Damara said. “Oriole’s the last firebreather there is and she’s coming with us.”

“No!” Spryte protested. Rib felt her alight on his head to face the young woman. “She’s going to take the firesap cure.”

“She can do that afterward!” Damara snapped. “Rib, the ship.”

“Why don’t we just find the ingredients and bring them back for Brock to make the cure here?” Rib asked, perking up.

Then I’d have another chance to find Memory.

“We don’t have time for all that,” Damara shot his idea down. “Now, the ship!”

Alright, alright. Rib could still hear the two females arguing behind him as he left Wycker’s body and flew back over the small island. But I don’t know what Mortaug will say to this…

When they reached the Merry May, it surprised Rib to see Mortaug, Jasper, and Gavin all looking the other way, out over the sea. There, he saw a large mysterious ship drawing nearer.

“What is that?” he asked, landing on the deck.

Gavin turned to him, eyebrows raised. “You didn’t find him?”

“He’s dead,” Damara stated flatly, sliding off Rib’s back.

“What?” Jasper spun on his heel. “How?”

Rib stayed quiet as Damara told them what they’d found, but interrupted before she could propose her new plan.

“What ship is that?” he repeated his question.

Gavin peered back at it. “We’re not sure. But it looks as though it’s headed straight for us.”

Rib squinted his eyes at it. There were too many sails for it to be Huskhn craft, he thought, but strange shapes moved along it and his heart fluttered with hope.

Could Memory be there?

“I’ll take a look,” he said, opening his wings. As he left the boat, he heard Spryte strike up her argument with Damara again, this time getting the others involved.

Approaching the mysterious ship, Rib glanced through his inner eyelids and saw that it was positively thriving with magics.

Oh no.

Rib gawked, finally able to discern the crew. Not Huskhns, or even humans stood on board, but warriors of half-man, half-beast. Men with bull heads, others with horse bodies, more still with wildcat forearms.

Griffith’s soldiers! They found us!

I have to warn the others!

He began to wheel around, but something took to the air from the ship’s sails and sped towards him- a hag with boney wings, shrieking, “You have Lord Griffith’s book! Give it back! Give it back!”

“No, I don’t!” Rib cried, ducking his head as the horrid woman batted around him, clawing at his scales and getting in his face. “Get off of me!”

In effort to escape her, he swiped with his foreclaw, appalled when his talons tore into her side and made her scream.

“I’m sorry!” he gasped, then, ripping himself away from the flying hag, raced for the boat. He could hear the woman screeching behind him in pursuit.

“Griffith sent freaks after us!” he blurted out, landing on the deck. “They want the book!”

Immediately, Damara snatched the potion book and jumped on Rib’s back. “We’ll lead them away,” she told Mortaug. “Get to safety.”

“But the hag!” Rib exclaimed; the flying woman was getting closer. “What about the hag?”

“Kill her,” Damara snarled.

“What?!” Rib took to the air. “No!”

Just then, something orange and spiny broke the surface, causing waves to violently rock the boat as the sea serpent from earlier arose with a deathly hiss. Rib stared up at it in horror. Water ran from the beast’s chin like a waterfall down on him and Damara.

Spreading its frills, the huge serpent screeched ear-piercingly at them. Rib fought the urge to plunge into the water just to escape the painful sound.

Griffith sent a sea serpent after us? he panicked.

But the moment the beast silenced, he saw the hag flee, calling to her ship, “Go back! Go back!”

“Rib!” Damara yelled at him. “Distract it!”

Distract it?!

Rib saw the serpent flick its eyes from him to their boat, where Gavin and the others rushed to catch the wind in their sail. As it stretched its jaws and came crashing down, Rib swooped, throwing Gavin and Jasper overboard before the beast clamped down on the vessel.

“Mortaug!” Rib cried when the serpent lifted the Merry May up high, but the man had already taken a dive, followed by the monigons. Spryte zipped past, clutching her potion flask.

Their boat looked like a mere toy in the sea serpent’s mouth as it thrashed its head from side to side before letting go. With broken mast and billowing sail, the little ship flew through the air, smashing onto the beach of the mountain island.

“No!” Damara’s voice rang out over the churning waves.

What do we do now?

Rib froze up when the serpent fastened its gaze on him and lunged.

The moment he dodged, a giant powder cloud blew up in the sea serpent’s face, sucked in as the great beast inhaled. Then, the serpent paused, eyes glossing over, mouth softly closing.

With a calm turn of its head, it gazed in Rib’s direction, perfectly docile.

Damara bewitched it! Rib realized, peering through his magic lenses to see the magic clouding inside its head. The powder works on sea serpents!

“Hey!” Jasper sputtered from below. At once, Rib swept the boy up in his talons and brought him to shore, unnerved as the sea serpent’s head followed him after him expectantly.

“Let me off!” Damara demanded, jumping down from Rib’s back and running for the ship wreck farther inland. The sea serpent drew as close to the coast as it could, staring after her like a loyal dog.

“What is going on?” Jasper asked as he gaped at the great water beast, but Rib rushed to help the others. When Gavin, Mortaug, and both monigons had all gotten to the beach, unharmed but shaken, they headed for where Damara stood alone before the grounded ship.

It’s been smashed to splinters! Rib thought, seeing how the boat’s ribbed sides were snapped where the serpent had bitten it. The bottom was broken in by the jutting rock it had landed on. The mast leaned like a felled tree.

Jasper stood up on it and swore loudly. Mortaug’s face darkened. Gavin sat down and wrestled Hesper in his arms, while Spryte was nowhere to be seen.

“How bad is it?” Damara whispered, her voice dry.

Mortaug shook his head, giving a few dispirited hand motions.

“It would take months to repair,” Gavin translated, quiet. “And we don’t have the men or the trees to do it.”

“So we’re stranded.”

Damara’s statement hung over their silence.

Stranded. Rib turned the word over in his head. In one way, it relieved him. Now he could only wait in expectation of Memory.

But at the same time, Damara’s hollow tone awoke in him the reality of their situation. It was the same tone that’d urged Rib to tell her of this trip in the first place. They were back where they started.

The Wystilians will only continue to die.

We have no plan of saving them.

Rib strived to think of some solution, some way to at least give Damara hope. He looked back and saw that the sea serpent still waited on the young woman and thought of Clyde on the Great She-Serpent of the Sea.

“We aren’t stranded, Damara,” he told her. “The sea serpent can take you to Crageria and you can get Oriole, just like you wanted.”

Damara did not even look at him, but moved up the slope. Rib watched her trembling form disappear over the ledge of the concave mountain, muddled.

“Why doesn’t she want to?”

“Witless idea,” muttered Jasper, kicking a plank of wood.

“Didn’t you see Spryte leave for that ship of freaks?” Gavin asked Rib without facing him. He traced the flat rounded scales on Hesper’s face. “She stowed away with the firesap cure. Oriole will be an icebreather before any of us could hope to reach Crageria.”

Oh no…Rib stared back at the ocean to see that the ship was, indeed, gone from sight.

“B-but,” he stammered, “I could get Damara on that ship.”

Gavin snorted.

“Yeah, and hide?” Jasper’s voice was laced with sarcasm. “Or fight them like you did that hag?”

Rib recalled how the flying woman screamed in pain when his talons accidentally ripped into her flesh. I don’t want to fight anyone…

He stared down at himself, the size of a horse and just as muscular. But I can’t hide away on a ship, either.

If we rode the sea serpent to get ingredients at the ports, then we could still bring them back to Brock. But who knows how long that bewitchment powder will last? It would kill us the moment it wore off.

Rib closed his eyes drearily.

Damara’s right…They’re all right.

We can’t get the cure for Wystil.

It’s hopeless.

“What now?” he groaned.

“Well,” Gavin could be heard standing up, “what else to do but return to the Islanders? I guess I’ll be fulfilling my promise to my sisters sooner than I thought.”

And Memory might come back here, Rib remembered, hope sparking inside of him.

“Father thinks we should leave immediately,” Jasper said. “Since we lost all our food and drinking water.”

It should be a long walk…

“I’ll get Damara,” Rib sighed, looking to where she’d disappeared.

“Hmm.” Gavin stepped to his side. “Maybe I should go with you.”

Together, they trekked up the way Damara had gone, then froze at the top.

What? Rib couldn’t believe his eyes. Who is that?!

Below, Damara was embracing a deep red dragon with wings nearly stripped to the frame. The stranger leaned into the young woman familiarly, as though reunited with her at long last.

“Rib,” Gavin uttered. “Firebreather?”

Rib peered through his inner eyelids and saw a magic, bright and energetic, held within the dragon’s body.

Firesap. He couldn’t imagine it was anything else.

“Yes,” he breathed. “Damara found a firebreather.”

Chapter 19

 

 

“Who are you?” Rib asked, approaching with Gavin as Damara let go of the stranger. “Where did you come from?”

Damara turned around, tears streaked down her face, a smile on her lips. “This is Jacinth,” she answered for the dragon. “She took care of my brother and me when we lived with the Colony in Wystil.”

When was this?_] Rib wondered, but had too many other questions to ask. [_Why are Jacinth’s wings shredded? How has she not been given the firesap cure?

“Have you been here this whole time?” he chose to ask, meeting Jacinth’s eyes. The flat scales around the dragon’s face were rounded, as a female’s always were. Rib detected sadness inside her expression.

“Yes,” she replied. “I was hiding from you because I could go mad at any moment. You shouldn’t be around me even now.” Growing somber, Jacinth began to back away.

“Jacinth,” Damara grabbed her wing, “I need you.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Jacinth grieved. “I’m too dangerous. I…I killed my own pupil.”

What?! Rib glanced in horror at Gavin, who remained calm.

Damara dropped her grasp and Jacinth bowed her head.

“I was too eager to be a mentor,” the firebreather moaned. “I accepted him, even though I knew what could happen. He had just caught his first goat when he came to show me…I’d gone mad. I couldn’t even think. I just…killed him.”

Jacinth collapsed on the ground, hiding her face among the short, pale plants with a sob.

“That’s when I came here. I told Wycker to shred my wings so I couldn’t fly back. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone mad since then…You have to go.”

Damara went down on her knees and touched the despairing firebreather. “I can see the firesap in you,” she murmured. “I’ll know when it overwhelms you…Please, Jacinth, you’re the only one who can save my brother’s wife.”

Jacinth’s eyes peered up from the whitish leaves as Damara told her of the plague and their quest for the cure, how Jacinth would soon be the last firebreather left. Both Rib and Gavin kept silent.

New sorrow filled the dragon’s expression. “I can’t help you,” she replied. “We have no way of getting to Wystil.”

“Well…” Rib piped up. “Why not ride the sea serpent?”

Damara cast him a scornful glare. “And if the bewitchment powder wears off? I have none left.”

Oh, right. Rib imagined them in the middle of the ocean in the company of an enraged serpent. Even if he was there to save Damara, he wouldn’t be able to help Jacinth with her mutilated wings.

“This is what we must do,” the young woman said. “There are Huskhns camping on just the other side of the Island. We go to them and force them to take us to Wystil. I’ll threaten them with the sea serpent. It follows me. They’ll believe me if I say that it’ll destroy them at my word.”

Threaten the Huskhns?! Rib’s eyes grew wide. Could that really work?

Jacinth’s face became stony. “No,” she answered. “It’s too dangerous. You can’t put yourself in that position.”

“I can,” Damara argued. “I know how to defend myself.”

“Damara,” Jacinth sighed. “I saw those Huskhns fight Wycker before the firesap defeated him. They know what they’re doing. They could kill dragons if they wanted to.”

“So could I,” Damara contended, standing up straight with shoulders squared.

She must be kidding. Rib couldn’t help but think of all the different ways he could overpower her narrow frame if she were to attack him. Is she really that confident in herself?

Jacinth gave the young woman a small, sad smile.

“You still have the spirit of that tiny girl I knew so long ago,” the dragon murmured. “Just don’t let it convince you of a strength you don’t have.”

Rib studied Jacinth’s solemn expression and sought to learn from her wisdom. The way she knew to speak to Damara was admirable, or so he thought.

Damara, however, was looking increasingly aggravated. She ground her teeth as if struggling to think of something to say.

“What are you wanting to say?” Gavin spoke up for once, his intent gaze on her.

Wanting to say?

Rib looked at how fiercely Damara bit down on her lip and reconsidered.

She’s struggling not to say something?

When has she ever declined to speak her mind?

Rib’s curiosity grew stronger at the taste of secrets in the air.

What could she be thinking of?

“Say it,” he pressed.

It surprised him to see her eyes lock and narrow in on him the moment he spoke.

“No one understands,” she voiced her thoughts icily. “You see me as weak. You’re all mistaken.”

Jacinth shook her head. “I would be mistaken to think of you as weak,” she said. “You’re far from it. But you have to believe me when I say-”

“No,” Damara interrupted her. “You have to believe me.”

“That you could kill a dragon?” Rib blurted. “Why would we?”

Jacinth cast him a look that told him he’d gone too far.

“Not that I could kill a dragon,” the young woman snapped. She was giving up all self-restraint; he could see it in her eyes. “That I did kill a dragon. Because nothing can stop me when I decide I’m going home.”

What is she talking about? Rib was astonished. She’s gone mad!

“Damara,” Gavin said in soft tones. “You need rest.”

“Stressful day,” Jacinth agreed.

“Maybe you’ll feel better tomorrow,” Rib put in.

“Shut up!” Damara yelled. “He was going to kill Tide! I stopped him.”

“Kill Tide?” Rib’s mind was wrenched in a whole new direction. “Who?”

“You mean-” Something seemed to dawn on Gavin. He stared at Damara with an expression that told Rib he knew something. “You’re the one that…”

Damara met Gavin’s gaze. “You know?”

Gavin swallowed. “Tide told me about…but not who…It was you?”

She nodded once, her mouth a firm line.

“What are you talking about?” Rib pleaded. It felt awful to be left in the dark like this. “Gavin, what did Tide tell you?”

His friend looked at him.

“He really doesn’t know anything, does he?” Damara asked, still speaking to Gavin, though she now studied Rib with cold eyes.

“What don’t I know?” Rib cringed under both their gaze.

“Tide asked me not to tell him,” Gavin responded. “Too young. Not even six yet.”

“Tell me now!” Rib cried, agonized by their vague commentary.

“Please,” Jacinth said, “I don’t understand any more than Rib does.”

Gavin and Damara caught each other’s eyes once more before the latter crossed her arms and nodded. Gavin rubbed the back of his neck.

Rib stayed dead silent, anticipating whatever he was preparing to say.

“Before Rib,” the young man began, “there were dragons, four I think, that were terrorizing the upper kingdom. I was an adolescent at the time. I lived far enough away that I wasn’t really afraid for my own life. But I still heard about the death. And the girl that was always with them.”

He glanced at Damara, who looked as though she were reliving something, her expression dark, her body tense.

Dragons terrorizing Wystil?

They sounded like nothing but words to Rib.

It can’t be true.

“There was another group of dragons that would come and fight the initial ones,” Gavin went on. “They had a human with them, too. A man that hid his identity in a full suit of armor. Rumors surrounded who he was and what he wanted, but everyone called him the Dragon Knight. No one around me really knew what was going on. They thought it was some kind of territorial war. Wystil’s army wasn’t even strong enough to stop it.”

The Dragon Knight…that’s what people call…

“The first pack was defeated when they attacked the Wystilian castle. Only one dragon got away, with the girl on his back, they said. And that was all. That’s the last we heard about them.”

And Damara was the girl? Then who was the dragon?

It was like Gavin was making up some strange tale.

Where’s the proof for all this?

“We knew the Dragon Knight still lived on the other side of the river. King Chadwick married his sister to him as a peace offering.”

His sister married off…Theora and Tyrone?

“The King tried to convince people to move back into the upper kingdom and farm the land, but no one would dare cross over. We were alarmed at the occasional sight of dragons. Called for help whenever they ventured into our lands.”

All those frightened stares…

A twitching discomfort grew inside Rib as the tale hit the core of one of his long-lived vexations. He had never understood why people were so adverse to him in Wystil.

Rib found himself watching Gavin’s lips form the last of his story.

“But the dragons never did anything to harm us, and the King never sent any troops to confront them. As hard as it was to believe, we really were at peace.”

Peace?

Rib saw Gavin’s lips seal together. His friend was looking at him now, waiting for a reaction, it seemed. Rib was waiting for his own reaction, too.

There was a dragon war. Right before my time.

Such news was to shake his foundation, he thought. Everything lined up. It all made sense. If someone were to ask him if he believed it, he’d answer yes.

And yet, clearly the reality had not fully hit him, because he felt normal. Utterly normal. As though the war had happened centuries ago, or in some other land, some other world.

But it didn’t. It happened in Wystil, and Gavin lived through it.

Tyrone was even a part of it! Suited in armor, fighting. The Dragon Knight.

And Damara…What was she doing with those beasts?

It was easy for him to believe that she’d keep something like this secret from him. That was no surprise at all.

But everyone else?

Tide? Tyrone? Gavin?

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Rib asked.

Gavin cleared his throat, his eyes cast to the ground.

“When we started spending time together, Tide had a private talk with me. He asked me not to mention these things to you.”

Tide asked that of him? Now Rib felt something. Did he not trust me?

He asked, “Why?”

“Because you’re just a child,” Damara’s jarring voice cut in.

“I’m not.”

“Jasper’s twice your age.”

“I’m still- It’s different for dragons! You should have told me.”

Gavin avoided his gaze, but Damara looked at him with light, criticizing eyes.

Rib stared back at her, anger slowly growing in his chest.

She’s kept the most secrets of all. Dangerous secrets.

“What were you doing on the back of that dragon? Watching people die?”

“You think I wanted to be there?”

Her voice was heavy with resentment.

“I don’t know,” Rib answered accusingly. “Did you?”

Damara bared her teeth like a fierce wolf.

“He made me his slave,” she hissed. “I was weak. I hate myself for not stopping him sooner.”

A slave? The word struck Rib in the face. He thought of Gavin. Of Memory.

“Who was it?” Jacinth’s growl rumbled from her throat. Rib had forgotten she was there, but now that she spoke, he saw how passion lit the red of her face like glowing embers. “Who dared take you?”

The young woman relaxed her face to near-neutral.

“Chasm.”

Chasm?

Who is-

Rib’s thoughts were cut off by the short blast of white-hot flames that escaped Jacinth’s jaws. Gavin leaned away from the heat, but Damara neared the dragon and laid a calming hand on her. Jacinth’s snarl died on her lips and the creases around her mouth smoothed out to veil her gleaming teeth, though her eyes remained intense with hate.

“That snaking, vile creature,” Jacinth cursed. “Never anything to him but lies and trickery. Had I known what he’d grow up to do…” The dragon’s tail lashed behind her, scraping the earth.

“Who’s Chasm?” Rib asked. “Does everyone know but me?”

He looked to Gavin. “Do you know?”

Gavin’s dark blue eyes told him he did. Rib held their gaze, feeling further apart from the young man than ever. It felt like the time he’d learned just how far away the moon really was, and that he’d never be able to touch it like he’d dreamed when he was small.

“Who was he?” Rib repeated quietly.

His friend looked uncomfortable. He clenched his jaw and turned his head.

“Gavin,” Rib begged. “Why won’t you tell me?”

The pain in his voice must have been too much for Gavin, because he parted his lips and said, “Because…because he was your father.”

Father?

The concept didn’t register in Rib’s mind at first. He forgot what a father was, or that he ever had one. When he remembered, he could only think of Tyrone. Tyrone was a father. Tyrone was like Rib’s father.

But in reality…

Chasm?

The air was pressed from his lungs as crushing truth overwhelmed him. He couldn’t breathe.

This dragon they curse…

My father?

He was barely aware of Jacinth advancing to peer into his dumb stricken face.

“I see it now,” she said. “He has the same jaw.”

“What?” Rib found his voice again and stepped back, tail curling. “How…how can you be so sure? How do you know that he’s my…”

“You were the last thing he made me search for,” Damara answered dryly. “Your mother lied to him about where she laid her clutch. He realized it after she died. That’s when we found Tide guarding you from the sea serpent in the sunken pond.”

That was when…

Rib felt dizzy.

“What happened then?” He was hardly conscious of the question exiting his mouth.

Damara’s fingers traced the hilt of Gavin’s knife still hanging at her side. Her hair fell into her face and covered most of her eyes, but she didn’t move her hand to fix it.

“I pleaded with Chasm not to hurt Tide,” she spoke, sounding hollow. “But he just told me to watch.”

Rib could see where the story was going. It was how this conversation even started. He didn’t want to believe it.

“Tide was feeble. He wasn’t even awake to know when Chasm dove for him. It was all I could do to watch…until I was granted the strength to stop it.”

Rib’s eyes stared blankly at Damara’s hand, her knuckles white as she now gripped the handle of the sheathed knife.

“You killed him? Actually killed him?”

It sounded impossible.

“Drove a dagger through his skull.”

It can’t be.

Rib lifted his eyes to Damara’s and knew she spoke the truth.

She killed my father.

The emotions stacking up inside of him made his throat throb and his chest restrict even more. His wing shoulders twitched, his mouth moved slightly. There was a silent roar building in his ears, filling his head. Without another word, he walked past Damara and the others to a tall ridge well away from them.

There, he stood with all four legs quavering. His eyes consumed the horizon of ocean and distant land, but his mind processed none of it. He couldn’t take in all that he’d just heard. So many things to grasp. As he focused on one, the others would start to slip until he caught them by the tail and pulled them back into his conscience.

My father was a treacherous dragon.

Chasm.

No one told me.

My father…

And Damara killed him!

Chasm.

Rib shook his head repeatedly, violently, softly. Nothing helped to clear it.

He wanted to both dive off the ridge and crumple where he stood. His body urged him to scream, but his throat locked it all inside.

No one told me.

And Chasm!

Killer…killed.

Chasm.

Rib found his lungs burning for air and he forced himself to inhale. His breath was shaky and he choked.

My siblings, me…we’re half Chasm.

Memory. Half Chasm.

Never knew…never told.

Rib blinked.

Never knew? I never knew him.

Said to be a liar, a killer.

But how?

He couldn’t imagine himself being related to such a monster as that. The monster they said he was. The monster Damara said he was.

How can she be so sure?

How can I be sure she knew what he was?

Rib pictured his father, pictured him like a larger, grimmer version of himself. His imagination set Damara on his back. She drew a knife and thrust it through the back of his skull. No warning. No eye contact as he convulsed and died.

No, Rib told himself. She said she was saving Tide.

She was saving Tide.

He placed his mentor in the picture, beneath Chasm, unconscious. The imaginary Damara kicked Chasm’s bloody body and knelt over Tide, who awoke. He was fine. Perfectly fine.

But Chasm. Rib’s father.

Couldn’t he have changed?

If he was just given the chance…

Everything except the image of Chasm’s corpse faded from his mind.

Did he really have to die?

The fact that Rib never met his father made him even less sure. He could only base his thoughts on the accounts that Damara and her friend, Jacinth, had to give on Chasm. And he hardly knew either of them.

If Damara’s kept secrets all this time…how can I trust her word now?

I’ve seen her tell lies before. I’ve even helped her lie to Mortaug and Gavin.

Rib wished he could have met his father before he died.

Before Damara killed him.

He thought if only he could talk to him, reason with him, show him what it meant to be a friend to everyone, then maybe his father could have changed.

But I’ll never get that chance. Because Damara took away his chance.

Damara killed my father.

Rib swallowed past the knot in his throat. He needed to know more. He needed to hear Damara’s justification for it all.

The feeling was lost in his limbs as he turned and walked back to the small group that watched him approach. Everything felt so distant. He wondered at how he was even able to control his movements.

Damara. He faced her with face lacking expression. Why did she do it?

“What made you so sure?” he asked, his voice sounding empty.

“Of what?” she replied. Her gaze was questioning, as though she intended to read his every thought.

“That he couldn’t change. That he had to die.”

Damara scoffed. “If you knew him, you’d know it too.”

“But I didn’t know him,” Rib responded on point, a spark of anger flashing in his heart. “Because you killed him before I could. How can I know you were in the right?”

Damara stared him dead in the eye.

“If I hadn’t killed Chasm right then,” she laid out plainly, “he would have murdered Tide, and raised you and your siblings to be murderers just like him.”

Murderers?

The concept was abstract, absurd. And yet, here was Damara, telling him that his whole family had the potential of becoming beasts of violence and chaos.

Us?

Rib shook his head slow in disbelief. Her words were an accusation.

Me?

“No,” he spoke in a daze. “Nothing could ever have made me a murderer. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I do. More than you.”

Anger sparked again. “No, you don’t! You’re wrong. My family isn’t what you say. My father could have changed.”

Damara surprised him with a bitter laugh.

She finds that funny? Rib’s anger was a tangible thing now. It balled up in his heart and threatened to burst through.

“Perhaps it’s true,” Damara said, “when you say nothing could make you a murderer. You’re a coward like your mother. But believe me when I tell you- nothing could have changed your father.”

Rib stared at her.

How.

How can she be so bold?

So bold as to tell me that.

“Chasm wasn’t the type that could be reasoned with,” Jacinth broke into the conversation, her voice steady. “He set his mind on things and refused to compromise for anything else.”

Rib didn’t look at the dragon, but his gaze hardened.

What does she know?

“Rib,” Gavin also spoke up. “Some people don’t change.”

Gavin. Rib’s heart jolted. He’s siding with them[_?_]

“But they do,” Rib protested. His voice grew louder as he thought of something more to support his case. “And you should know! Look at Mortaug. He kept you as a slave. What makes my father any different?”

“Murder,” Damara hissed.

Rib couldn’t keep from baring his teeth.

“Accusing my father of a crime you’re just as guilty of…? This is it. Get the Huskhns to take you to Wystil if you can. I’m staying here.”

“It’s just as well,” she answered, ice cold. “You aren’t needed.”

Good.

Rib turned around, headed back for the shipwreck where he would find Mortaug and Jasper waiting.

“No, Damara,” Jacinth spoke up behind him. “He’s the only one that can keep you safe. If he doesn’t come, we aren’t going at all.”

“Jacinth!” Damara gasped.

Oh, how she begs, Rib thought, listening to the young woman plea with the firebreather as he stalked out of the mountain’s depression. As if innocent.

He heard feet running to catch up. Gavin appeared in front of him.

“Rib,” the man said. “We need to talk.”

Chapter 20

 

 

“How can you side with her?” Rib questioned the young man in front of him. “My own father’s murderer.”

“Rib…” Gavin folded his arms. “Consider this.”

Rib waited for him to continue.

The young man sighed. “Look at yourself,” he said. “You’re big as a horse, armored with scales and plates, able to run, fly, and climb. With a whip of your tail you could fell an ox, with a bite of your jaws you could crush a skull…You don’t know what it’s like to be vulnerable.”

“What are you saying?” Rib asked.

“I’m saying…for you, not having to use lethal force is a luxury. Think of when you stopped the fight between Hesper and that other monigon. All you had to do was pin the brute to the ground. Could Damara or I have done that?”

Rib’s eyes wandered over the place where the monigon had bit Gavin’s arm. The nymphs’ magic had healed every trace of it, but he could still picture the bleeding, torn flesh.

“No…”

“So it’s only natural that you wouldn’t understand why Damara did what she did.”

“But,” Rib protested, “you’ve never killed anyone. And you’re just fine!”

Gavin held his gaze. “I’ve never been put in a situation like that before.”

“Would you have killed my father then?” Rib asked, incredulous.

Gavin showed him his open palms then dropped his hands back down to his sides with a sigh. “It’s hard to say what I’d have done. I wasn’t there.”

“But you think you might have?”

The young man’s lips became taut. “He killed hundreds of people, Rib. You’ve seen the dozens of empty broken towns in upper Wystil. That was all his doing.”

“What?” Rib’s talons dug into the ground in alarm. “What do you mean?”

Gavin gave him a queer look. “Did you think they were abandoned for no reason at all?”

“Well,” he stammered, “birds desert their nests!”

Gavin shook his head. “People don’t just leave their homes like that. Why do you think no one ever dares cross the Swaine? They’re terrified of what happened there.”

Rib remembered the surprise he felt when he first saw Damara on the bridge in the upper kingdom. She’d known there was nothing to be afraid of there. She’d killed the last one to fear.

And I only hear of it now…

“You should have told me,” Rib said, wounded. “You’re my greatest friend. How could you withhold a secret like this from me?”

“Tide knew what was best,” Gavin replied. “I see it now. We told you too early. You’re too sensitive still.”

Sensitive?” Rib echoed, incredulous. “Should this not be upsetting to me?”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Gavin passed a hand over his face. “Look, we’re getting off my point. I think you should help Damara.”

Help Damara…

The most secretive one of them all?

“How could I trust her?”

“Because, Rib, she’s trying to save her brother’s wife from dying. She’s trying to save half the kingdom from dying. Why would you give up on that?”

“I-” Rib began, but reconsidered.

Is that really what I’ve been working towards? All this time?

Was I thinking of the cure or…?

No.

His heart unfolded like a cloth, revealing truth to him in its purest form.

The plague cure was only ever a secondary goal in his mind. It was not the thing that conquered his dreams, his thoughts, his deepest desires.

But now that Rib found himself in the loneliest of all positions, untrusted, kept in the dark by even his closest friends- now he knew what he wanted most. What he would give anything for.

Memory.

She used to follow me everywhere.

She never kept secrets.

I’ve never had a better friend than her.

In realizing this, Rib recognized his own isolation like never before. Loneliness was a wounded animal forsaken by its kind, crying from his innermost being for consolation. Only Memory could feel the same way as him, he thought, a lonely slave.

And she was out of reach.

Always.

A heavy groan escaped his mouth.

“Rib?”

Gavin was looking at him in this moment of heart-sickening clarity. His dark blue eyes were full of concern, but Rib recognized their gaze to be the same as one turned to an injured child, a crying pup.

All these years we’ve known each other and still…

Still no one can be who my sister was to me.

Rib found no words to express the emotions plaguing his heart. He could only speak his desire.

“I want to find Memory.”

“Your sister?” Gavin looked taken aback by the change of subject. “But isn’t she in Husk? How would you even get there?”

I can’t. It’s hopeless. I’ll never…

Wait.

Rib raised his head as an idea dawned on him.

I’d have to…but it would be worth it.

This is my chance.

“I know how,” he told Gavin, and turned to meet Damara and Jacinth without another word.

The two were just as he left them, except now they were silent. Both faced him, a loathing expression on one, a look of expectancy on the other.

“I’ll come,” he said. “But only if you agree to my plan.”

“What plan?” Damara growled.

Rib ignored her, and instead looked to Jacinth. “The Huskhns want a firebreather, right? They tried to get Wycker but that didn’t work. Have they ever seen you?”

The firebreather shook her head. “I kept hidden.”

“Then we don’t have to force the Huskhns into anything. They’ll do what we want. We just have to fool them.”

“How?” Damara sneered.

Rib met her challenging stare. “Simple. Jacinth and I act bewitched. You act as our bewitcher. The sea serpent follows. You tell the Huskhns you’ll craft them however much powder they want, just so long as they take us to their homeland.”

Husk? Never. Why should I?”

“Because that’s the only way I’ll agree to help you.”

“But why do you want to go to Husk?”

“To look for my sister. Meanwhile, you craft the powder like you saw Brock do. The Huskhns will think you’re making it for them, but as soon as I free Memory, you bewitch the sea serpent and we escape to Wystil on it. Husk is closer to Wystil than we are now. Just ask Mortaug.”

Both Damara and Jacinth were quiet as they considered his plan.

Seeing the firebreather’s doubtful expression, Rib said, “This way, the Huskhns wouldn’t have any reason to harm Damara. She’d be the answer to their prayers. A divine gift.”

As if she could be anything of the sort, he added silently.

“Very well,” Damara decided, jutting out her chin. “I can do that.”

Jacinth looked at her, then studied Rib’s face.

“You must stay beside Damara at all times,” she told him. “I won’t agree unless you’re prepared to fight for her. You’re the only one who can protect her. Can we trust you?”

Rib looked her dead in the eye.

“I’m doing this for my sister and the Wystilians,” he answered. “So long as I can trust her, I’ll do whatever I can to keep her safe and see this through.”

Even though she killed my father.

Jacinth held his gaze a moment longer, then nodded.

Good.

Rib had no urge to smile, but relief flooded his veins.

“Tomorrow, we fool the Huskhns,” he said.

Tomorrow, I go for Memory.

Chapter 21

 

 

“So this is it,” Gavin said, the heavy sail they’d salvaged from the shipwreck folded in his arms. “Time we part ways.”

“I guess so.”

Rib held his friend’s gaze with a mixed sense of resignation and something else he couldn’t identify. Now that he saw his and Gavin’s relationship for what it was, he didn’t feel as devastated to be leaving as he would have felt even yesterday.

He’s still been good to me, Rib reminded himself. Few Wystilians were willing to get to know me like he was. And we made great Dragon Fools together.

Behind them flowed the wide river that fed into the bay where they first reached the Island. Mortaug and Jasper were up ahead, saying goodbye to Damara before heading back to the Islanders. It had taken them a long time to get here from the Mangled Islands, especially since Rib had to fly each human and monigon across the major bodies of water, but this departure still seemed so sudden.

“Hey, look lively.” Gavin must have read Rib’s expression as downcast because he punched him in the shoulder wing with a reassuring grin. “You have courageous work to do. Just think. Next time I see you, I’ll finally get to meet Memory.”

Will there really be a next time?

Rib was doubtful. Nonetheless, he responded with a compliant smile.

“She’ll like you,” he said.

Who knows…Once I’m back with Memory, maybe people won’t think of me as such a child anymore. Maybe then they’ll open up to me, not feel like they have to keep secrets from me.

“Are you coming, Gavin?” Jasper called and the young man raised his hand.

Gavin turned his feet as though to leave, but paused and waited still. Rib could read in his eyes that he was put off by how easily this was going.

Am I being cold? Shouldn’t I be heartbroken?

Rib cleared his throat and avoided Gavin’s gaze, which lingered on his face. He wasn’t sure how to feel. His mind was already on other things. Pressing things.

“Rib,” Gavin spoke, hesitating. “I feel the need to apologize, but I’m not sure what…” He dropped his sentence with a sigh and adjusted the sail in his arms.

“Forget it,” Rib said.

Gavin nodded.

“I admire what you’re doing.”

“Thanks.”

They both looked in the others’ direction as Jasper could be heard laughing in response to something Damara apparently said. The young woman boxed his ear, surprisingly affectionate.

“Just trust her,” Gavin entreated after a moment of silence. “For me?”

It was Rib’s turn to nod.

I’ll have to.

“Alright then…farewell, friend.” Gavin placed a hesitant hand on Rib’s muzzle, then turned to join Mortaug and Jasper, his monigons trotting at his heels.

“Bye,” Rib replied a little late.

He observed how much warmer Damara was to Gavin as she bade him farewell, smiling and even hugging him when he told her to keep his knife.

Even they had the better friendship, Rib thought. But that doesn’t matter now.

He watched his friend walk away, knowing he’d probably never even see him again.

Because if everything goes according to plan…I’ll be left in Wystil and he’ll still be here.

Mortaug and Jasper waved to him. He nodded in acknowledgment and they too went on their way without him.

I suppose this is it, he thought when Damara reached him. They hardly looked at each other before she got on his back and reported that the saddle was safely packed with everything, including the potion book and the firesap cure.

I’m finally coming for Memory.

Slowly, Rib turned around and flew over the gushing river to the other side. Now that it was just Damara on his back, he kept having to relax his muscles as he thought of her knife, the back of his head, what she had done. Her words ‘Drove a dagger through his skull’ weighed heavily on his mind.

Gavin asked me to trust her, he reminded himself, but that didn’t stop his body from slowly growing tenser all the same.

He soared along the mountain ridge where the Huskhns were camping on just the other side. At the far end was where Jacinth and the sea serpent were waiting on the coast.

Wordlessly, Rib landed on the black sand before Jacinth. She caught his eye as though to speak to him through her gaze, her muzzle bound with rope as she had insisted. Rib held eye contact with her and knew that she was questioning him on his promise.

He hardened his expression.

I won’t let anything happen to Damara.

“Well?” the young woman said from Rib’s back. “Shall we go?” Her voice was cool and determined.

Jacinth nodded, her eyes still on Rib.

“I think we should appear to them on the sea serpent,” he said.

“Why is that?” Damara asked.

He thought it too much effort to crank his neck around to look at Damara, so instead he scanned the horizon as he answered, “You’ll look most intimidating that way. They should like that.”

“The Colony shouldn’t give us any trouble that way, either,” he heard Damara murmur. “Alright.”

Upon their agreement, Jacinth waded into the frigid ocean that slapped the shore and Rib took off, flying towards the sea serpent.

It was unnerving to head straight for such an animal, but it simply waited on them, frills partially laid back, eyes set on its bewitcher. Rib refused to show any hesitation, landing on the crown of its giant head. Below, Jacinth scaled the serpent’s body and joined them.

As Damara slipped out of the saddle, Rib gazed around. The creature’s webbing of frills rose like sails on either side of him to the sky, intricately patterned in an almost mesmerizing way. Each scale beneath his feet was at least the size of his chest, and varied in color from dirty yellow to bloody orange.

Next to Rib, Jacinth sighed through her muzzle restraints and stared out in the distance.

It must be a while since she’s seen a view from this height, Rib realized, glancing at her stripped wings.

Damara strode steadily down the serpent’s level head. She walked all the way down the bridge of its snout, then turned to look it in the eyes.

How does she expect to get it to move? Rib wondered suddenly. It’s only ever followed her.

He checked through his inner eyelids that the serpent’s mind was still clouded by the magic. It was. The magic didn’t seemed to have cleared at all in the slightest.

She used a lot of powder on it.

Rib watched as Damara pointed towards their destination and stomped her foot on the sea serpent’s scales, commanding, “Go.”

It can’t understand ‘go’, Rib scorned, but was amazed as the creature moved forward, gliding through the water without even tilting its head, which surely would have thrown them off balance.

Damara smirked and sat down on the serpent’s snout, her dress neatly tucked around her, her short hair ruffled by the breeze. As the great water beast brought them around the mountain ridge between icebergs that reached nearly as high as them, reality began to dawn on Rib.

We’re about to meet an entire camp of Huskhn warriors.

If we aren’t careful…if we don’t support each other…we could be killed.

Rib looked again at his companions, growing an appreciation for their strength.

This isn’t about the past. We can’t focus on that now.

They rounded another great floating mountain of ice and suddenly, there it was. The Huskhn’s camp. Among tents, warriors had already begun to notice them, shouting things Rib couldn’t understand and picking up weapons. Soon, the entire troop was gathered on the black beach, watching, waiting.

Rib couldn’t make out their expressions from his height, but saw in their body language that they were nowhere close to fleeing. To his surprise, among the men were a considerable number of women, all suited for battle. Each warrior held a metal-studded shield with a sword, battle axe, or spear in the other hand. Rib was relieved to see no archer among them.

Glancing at Jacinth, he assumed his ‘bewitched’ demeanor, forcing his body to relax and fixing his eyes on Damara. The young woman was just now standing to face the Huskhns, narrow shoulders squared. It impressed him to see how confident she appeared even now, as she commanded the sea serpent to lower its head to the beach with a point of her finger.

Rib noticed the warriors back up defensively while the water beast brought its snout down low. He and Jacinth leapt into the shallow waters when Damara disembarked onto the beach in a single, pompous step. As if on second thought, she leaned casually against the bow of one of their ships pulled up onto the beach beside her.

“Which of you speaks my language?” she asked, loud and clear. Rib and Jacinth drew nearer, like mindless bodyguards.

Rib tried not to be too obvious as he scanned the crowd, trying to keep a dead look in his eye. The Huskhns peered at Damara, their gaze sometimes flicking to Rib or the serpent still behind.

Do any of them understand her? He began to worry, but then one stepped into the foreground.

He was dusky-skinned, as all Huskhns were. His head was shaved and he had short black facial hair, his beard reaching no further than halfway down his neck. He was clad in beige leather with white fur lining the sleeves and dark cord lacing his jerkin.

Loosely holding an axe down at his side, he grinned surprisingly genuinely and answered, “Me.”

Damara shifted her body to face him directly, one hand on her sheathed dagger, the other still touching their war ship.

“And who are you?” she inquired.

The Huskhn’s grin only broadened.

“Sprague. Captain of that ship there.”

He gestured to the boat next to Damara with his axe.

“Hmm.” The young woman advanced on him, snapping her fingers at Rib and Jacinth to come, which they did immediately.

She’s getting daring, Rib thought uneasily as the Huskhns tensed. Their shields raised a little higher, their weapons showed a little better.

Stopping but a dragon’s length from Captain Sprague, Damara stroked Jacinth’s neck like Rib had seen humans stroke a horse. Jacinth gave no response, gazing straight ahead.

“You want a firebreather, no?” Damara said. “To craft magic that will grant you power over dragons?”

Sprague did not answer, but wore an expression of interest, his eyes fixed on her, a contemplative smile on his lips.

Gracefully, Damara reached up and undid the binding around Jacinth’s muzzle. The rope fell to the sand like a dead snake.

“Breathe for them,” she ordered in a sweet voice.

Rib closed his inner eyelids to watch the firesap build in Jacinth’s lungs, then unfold from the dragon’s jaws in bright flames. It was clearly not Jacinth’s strongest blow, but the Huskhns lifted their shields higher in alarm, until realization began to dawn on their faces.

“I think you can see what I offer,” Damara spoke up over the people’s comments to one another. “I am the power over dragons.”

“A dragon witch?” Sprague said.

“So I’ve been called.”

“Why do you come to us?” the Huskhn Captain questioned.

“I’ve heard of your ambitions to take every dragon on the Island,” Damara answered. “And I share them. But I am lacking in ingredients for such a scheme, so I come to you with a proposal. Take me and my beasts to your homeland, where I can craft enough magic to bewitch a hundred dragons, and together we will take the Island with ease.”

She’s convincing, Rib thought. Almost as though she means it…

Sprague laughed, almost merrily, his battle axe brushing his thigh.

“And what is your name, Tamer of Beasts?” he asked.

The young woman planted her feet, bold and proud.

“Damara.”

Sprague’s facial features shone with pleasure as he began calling out something to the crowd. The only thing Rib could understand was ‘Damara’, but he could tell the Huskhns were reacting positively to his words. When the Captain finished, a number of them actually cheered, while most others nodded and grunted their approval. A couple women stomped their feet in celebration.

They agree? Rib’s heart jolted with hope.

Sprague hung his axe in his belt and came forward with hand outstretched. Rib was surprised when Damara shook the Huskhn’s hand without hesitation, though Jacinth drew nearer.

“We accept,” Sprague affirmed.

It worked! Rib felt something loosen in his chest. We fooled them!

And Memory couldn’t be anywhere else than where we’re going…

Chapter 22

 

 

Why aren’t we on the sea serpent? Rib thought, finding it difficult to keep his body lax, surrounded by a dozen Huskhns on each side of the long war ship. They rowed with intimidating strength behind each stroke, all in unison. Right behind them, the sea serpent followed, its head still cloudy with magic.

“So why is it that your firebreather’s wings are stripped?” Captain Sprague asked Damara. The Huskhn was sitting at the back, leaning forward in interest.

“I only had so much rope,” she answered, casually tucking her dress under where she knelt.

Sprague laughed. “Yes, but why do you need to disable it at all? It’s under your power.”

“She wasn’t at first. I had to earn her obedience before I could make what little bewitchment magic I had the ingredients for.”

“Because dragon fire is required,” Sprague connected.

How does he know that? Rib wondered.

“Yes,” Damara said. “Even now, I’m not sure how long the bewitchment will last, which is why I keep her jaws bound as well.”

Damara’s good at thinking of these things.

“Oh, I see.” The Captain glanced at Jacinth on the ship beside them. She was lying down, skeleton wings folded against her sides. “And what if the magic wears off all your beasts?” Sprague raised his eyebrows.

Damara snorted. “That won’t happen. Trust me.”

She expects him to trust her? Rib was doubtful, but the man smiled and nodded.

“Of course,” he replied. “I know I’m not one to understand magic. But you- you are like our Chief’s nephew, Zheal. He understands magic as you do.”

Zheal? Rib tried not to be too obvious as he perked up at the name. Silently, he begged Damara to ask about him. Does Sprague know anything about Memory? Are she and Zheal at Husk?

Rib fought the urge to speak. Damara seemed to sense this, for she reached out to Rib, beckoning him closer. He inched forward.

“Lie down,” she ordered, and he did. With one gentle finger, she traced the scales atop his head, as he’d seen Gavin do with his monigons.

Ask Sprague about my sister! he tried to tell her with his eyes. Or at least about Zheal.

The young woman barely even looked at him before facing Sprague again.

“What magic does Zheal craft?” she questioned.

“Oh, none,” the Captain admitted. “He has no access to dragon fire, you see.” Sprague grinned. “But he’ll be happy to see you. You have exactly what he needs.”

“He’s in Husk, then?” asked Damara.

Please, please, please, please…

“Yes,” Sprague confirmed, his face beaming. “I think you’ll get on with him quite well. He is very fond of his own dragon steed, as I see you are with yours.”

Memory! Rib nearly jerked his head up, but refrained himself as he felt Damara’s hand rest on him firmly. Ask him more!

To his disappointment, Damara stood. “Well, I look forward to meeting him. If you will excuse me, I’d like to take my steed out for a flight. He’s getting restless.”

“Certainly.” Sprague smiled.

No! Rib thought as Damara mounted his saddle. Now’s the perfect time to ask about Memory.

“Come on,” the young woman said with a clap of her heels against his scales.

He dared not hesitate long with Sprague watching. Bitterly, he obeyed and leapt off the ship before beating his wings to carry them far enough away from the Huskhns.

As soon as they were out of earshot, he turned his head to the side and asked, “How can you do this to me? You should have asked more about my sister!”

From the corner of his eye, he could see Damara’s unsympathetic expression.

“I won’t go pressing him for information,” she answered. “And you need to better control your body language. You were looking far too interested in that conversation. They’ll be suspicious of us.”

Rib clenched his jaw in frustration. “I’m doing all this for my sister,” he growled. “I need to know what I can about her.”

“We’ll meet her with Zheal,” Damara replied. “That’s all you need.”

Who is she to tell me what I need?

“You can’t try to free her the moment we see her, either,” she said. “Not until I’ve crafted enough powder for the way home. Understand?”

Rib bared his teeth in the ocean mist. Who is she to tell me what to do[_?_]

Thankfully, Damara did not demand a response, but mentioned, “The serpent’s following us.”

Of course it is. The dragon wheeled around and landed atop the serpent’s head.

“Get off,” he muttered to Damara. “So I can fish.”

There was a pause, but she dismounted onto the large scales of the serpent as he said.

“Just don’t get the saddle wet,” she warned him. “The book-”

“I know,” Rib interrupted and took off before she said another word.

When will we reach Husk? he brooded, his eyes scouring the waves. Because I haven’t a friend left on this trip.

. . .

This storm!

Black waves rose beneath the Huskhn ships, tilting them precariously far. Rib had to plant his feet to keep from staggering. Damara leaned into him as she retied the rope around Jacinth’s muzzle after giving the firebreather a drink. The hem of her dress was swept by the miniature current of the water sloshing around on the deck.

How can the Huskhns row in this? Rib was astounded by the men’s hard-set determination. They chanted over the rain and the thunder coursing through the clouds overhead, moving their oars together as one.

“Take me to the sea serpent,” Damara yelled to Rib as the wind howled between them. Her short hair stuck to her forehead and water pelted her bodice. He could feel the difference of weight when she hoisted her soaked form into the saddle.

Skittish of the lightning, Rib flew to the serpent that stuck out in the storm like a wind-bent tree. Though water crashed against its slender body and wind ruffled its frills, the beast appeared little troubled. Rib wondered how it would act if not bewitched and checked through his inner eyelids that its head was still clouded as he ascended.

It was, but Rib could see that the magic had cleared significantly since the serpent was first bewitched. He wasn’t sure what they’d do if the bewitchment completely wore off before they reached Husk.

We should be there soon.

When he alighted on the swaying serpent’s head, Damara got off and curled up at the base of its webbed crown, looking miserable. Rib gazed at her passively, then went to lie down at the base of the frill across from her.

Soon.

. . .

“Land!” Damara exclaimed quietly under her breath.

Only now she sees it?

Rib kept his confusion concealed, having gotten better at acting mindless over the past week of sailing with the Huskhns. He and Damara were back on Sprague’s ship, looking ahead at the distance in front of them. For a while now, he’d been watching with his keen eyesight as land slowly appeared, stretched along the horizon. It started as looking brown, but Rib could recognize the red and orange of autumn colored trees on some crests of the otherwise barren hills.

More Huskhn ships were coming into view as they approached the land. Rib noticed the crew of the nearest one gape at their docile sea serpent passing by.

What are we going to do with it at the port? he began to wonder. Damara can’t just tie it to the dock like a boat, can she?

“Damara,” Sprague said, grinning up from the oar in his hands. “We will be arriving shortly. I’ll send for Zheal and the Chief as soon as we reach shore.”

How long will it take Memory to get here? Rib felt as though a thousand worms squirmed inside him.

“Very good,” the young woman replied. “And the ingredients? I need them quickly.”

“Yes, yes,” the Captain agreed with a nod. “Those as well. I still have written down what you requested.”

As they narrowed in on the port, Rib was reminded of old times when people feared him, seeing how Huskhns now fled the docks, some even crying out and pointing at the sea serpent. The surrounding boats of men stared at the massive serpentine beast that hung behind as the water got too shallow for it to follow.

The moment they had docked, Sprague’s crew and the others began unloading the boat. Huskhns came rushing to meet some of them. Captain Sprague laughed merrily as two young girls ran to him and threw their arms around his waist. A woman missing an arm also came and kissed him.

Rib watched, reminded of Gavin’s reunion with his family.

Except Sprague is our enemy, he reminded himself. He’s friendly now, but only because he’s fallen for our ruse.

“Damara!” Sprague said, turning to the young woman as she stepped onto the dock. “Meet my family.”

Rib noticed the man’s wife grip Damara’s hand roughly.

Sprague introduced the woman, boasting, “Lost her arm to a pack of wolves. Still didn’t stop her from driving them away with her sword. Five dead dogs that night. All her doing.”

She fought off wolves with one arm? Rib could see an intensity in the woman’s eyes and was glad she focused her gaze on Damara instead of him. The same look, however, was replicated in the two girls’ eyes as they stared up at him without fear. One bravely extended her little fist to him but he tried to ignore it, not even sure as to what she wanted.

“And these are my daughters,” Sprague told Damara, resting a hand on the young girls’ shoulders. “They’re going to grow up just as strong as their mother.”

Damara smiled. “No doubt.”

What is it about Huskhns and their fascination with intimidating women? Rib wondered. These girls, their mother, Damara? Huskhns admire them so much, Zheal even named my sister after one-

Rib’s thoughts were cut short when he remembered that he was closer to Memory now than ever.

“Oh, look!” Sprague startled Rib. “Here comes Zheal now!”

What?!

Rib stared in the same direction as the Captain to see a young man of twenty or so striding down the dock towards them, an inquisitive smile frozen on his face. No dragon accompanied him, but his wavy black hair and broad shoulders were all too familiar. A heavy white fur cloak hung around his neck and a close-fitting coat of purple hung to his mid-thighs, fastened by a belt around the waist.

The man who took Memory.

Rib had trouble containing himself. He wanted to leap forward and pin him to the planks. Demand to know where his sister was. Demand that he set her free.

Damara turned to Rib with a startled expression, wordlessly pointing to her own eyes. Rib peered through his inner eyelids to see what she saw, and realization dawned on him as he glimpsed the magic in Zheal’s eyes.

He has the Eyes of Kings too. Which means…he can see that Jacinth and I aren’t bewitched! He can see straight through us!

Zheal stopped when Sprague met him halfway down the dock. The Captain spoke in Huskhn tongue, grinning broadly as he pointed in Rib and Damara’s direction.

Oh no. Rib was tense, prepared to grab Damara in his talons and flee on wing.

Zheal peered at them, then shouted in surprise as he saw Jacinth step off the other ship.

He knows!

All the surrounding men turned on Jacinth at Zheal’s command. She was staring down at her feet, chest heaving.

Then, snarling, the firebreather tore the ropes off her muzzle with her foreclaws.

“She’s going mad!” Damara gasped and jumped up on Rib’s back just as Jacinth erupted with a ground-shaking roar. “Go!”

Rib took to the air when Jacinth rushed for him, flames dashing through her jaws. The moment he was out of reach, the firebreather wheeled on the Huskhns closing in on her and attacked. Rib glimpsed through his inner eyelids the firesap flashing inside of her, coursing through her body.

“Rib!” Damara barked at him.

He started. We have to get out of here!

Wildly, he stared ahead at the land and saw mountains in the near distance.

There! As he sped for them, leaving behind the battle on the dock, he saw Zheal wave his arms at them and yell something else. No, no, no! Don’t call attention to us!

Rib scanned the ground in fear of archers, but saw none. People were running for cover, while others picked up weapons and charged for the battle. They didn’t seem to give Rib much notice with a maddened firebreather on their dock.

What do we do now?! Rib panicked as he headed for the mountains. They could kill Jacinth!

If Damara can’t make more powder then we’ll have no way of escape!

Rib soared over barren hills, struck by the nippy blast of wind that hit him head on. He thought he heard Damara yell something but he didn’t quite hear.

Turning his ear to her, he shouted, “What?”

“We’re being pursued!” she repeated.

We are? Rib glanced back, and saw-

Is that…

Memory?!

A ways behind, a single dragon flew after them with a rider. Rib had to look where he was going, but he kept glancing behind him, trying to make out the pursuer’s color.

Grey, brown…I can’t tell. But it could be her!

A thought occurred to Rib and he closed his inner eyelids. With another look back, he saw that bewitchment magic did not cloud the dragon’s head.

No…then it can’t be her. This must be someone else!

Having determined this, Rib beat his wings faster, locking his gaze on the mountain range. When he got close, he saw that a glacier spilled between two peaks in a dozen icy ridges. It was massive, and down towards the bottom arched an opening.

A cave! We can hide in there, Rib thought and swooped, banking around a cliff in attempt to confuse his pursuer. He ran off the landing and bounded for the ice cave, his feet sending up splashes of melt water that streamed from the opening. If it’s anything like the underground caverns in Wystil, we’ll never be found.

“What are you doing?” Damara objected as he sprung onward with her still on his back, entering the cave to find that an entire tunnel was there. He didn’t answer, but peered into the darkness ahead.

We can’t turn back now, he thought, and hastened further in. He searched the sides of the narrowing tunnel, looking for some off shoot to hide in. Water dripped all around him, rushed past, glistened on his scales. He knew their pursuer would reach the entrance of the cave soon.

Are we trapped?!

Rib found himself staring at an ice wall.

“Turn around!” Damara hissed at him. “We have to fight.”

“But-” Rib stared at a corner of the tunnel, terrified by the thought of fighting.

What if that is my sister? What if I hurt her?!

Shifting his position, he saw that there was a wide gap in the ice at a hidden angle.

“Quick, in there!” He nearly shook her off his back before she slipped out of the saddle and crept into the chink. There was a splash when she dropped in, followed by a small gasp. Rib wasted no time squeezing himself through after her.

He found that it was little more than a pocket of ice, half full of frigid water that reached up to Damara’s ribcage. She was shivering violently, gripping herself with soaked arms. Rib could feel the cold seep through his hide, slowing his movements. The top of their cramped cavern shone blue.

“Damara?”

Rib stiffened as the voice of a man echoed inside the entrance tunnel.

Who is that?

Damara’s eyes were wide and she covered her mouth to stop her teeth from chattering.

“Please, come out!” the man called. “I am Zheal, the Chief’s nephew.”

Zheal! Who was he riding? Where is Memory?

“Captain Sprague told me about you, and I know you lied to him. But I understand that there are other ways of controlling dragons. Truly I tell you, look at my own dragon steed, Tairg. I’ve never used magic on her either.”

Memory? Rib felt his chest tighten. What?!

“Please, Damara,” Zheal continued, his voice growing louder. “My men have caught your firebreather. She’s all I need to execute my plan, but I still want your help on this. We can take the Island together!”

My sister is out there, Rib told himself over and over again. Right outside this hiding place.

He wanted to jump out and escape with her, but his body was slowed by the chill and he couldn’t make sense of what Zheal had said.

She isn’t bewitched? Why does she do what he wants?

Rib looked at Damara, who’d stopped shivering by now. With eyelids fluttering, she was searching the ceiling of their ice pocket endlessly.

“What should we do?” he whispered to her.

“Gavin-nn-n,” she mumbled, “wantsss me t-to sing wi-with him.”

What?!

Rib stared in horror as the young woman’s eyes rolled to the back of her head and she sank deeper into the water, her knees bending.

No! Rib pushed her back up with his muzzle and moved her towards the gap through which they’d gone. He managed to lay her upper body on a ledge. She was unconscious.

What’s happened to her? He looked through his inner eyelids, trying to understand as Zheal went on reasoning with her from outside. Rib could see the magics in Damara’s body growing sluggish. Her heart was beating slower, and she hardly seemed to be breathing.

It must be the cold! Rib feared. Is she going to die like this?

What do I do?!

“Damara, I beg of you,” Zheal spoke, sounding even closer than before.

Rib stared at Damara and knew there was nothing he could do to help her on his own.

I have no choice.

Carefully clamping his teeth around the hood of her dress, he backed out of their hiding place, pulling Damara up after him. As soon as he got her out, he heard the echoing of running feet and turned his head to see Zheal coming up the tunnel towards them.

The man barely glanced at Rib before kneeling beside unconscious Damara. Rib heard Zheal say something under his breath, but was too distracted by the dragon creeping hesitantly closer.

Memory…

She held herself like a fearful fox, with large eyes staring at him. Her body was low to the ground, her chest splashed by water where she crouched. White saddle straps adorned with green and blue gems were clasped over her plates. Her wings, she kept folded close to her flanks. She took another half step nearer.

My sister.

Rib was struck by the sight of her. It felt like his dreams.

Does she recognize me?

Memory seemed captivated by him, at least. She never took her eyes off of him.

He wanted to say something to her, but Zheal was right there and he couldn’t think of anything. Only when the young man picked up Damara was his attention broken away from his sister.

Wait, but he…

Rib watched speechlessly as Zheal took Damara to Memory. He had wrapped the young woman in his thick fur cape and now laid her gently over Memory’s saddle, sitting behind her to hold her upright against his chest.

For a moment, he looked at Rib, then ordered, “Come,” and turned Memory around. Rib followed out of the ice cave right behind them, anxious in a layering of ways.

Is he going to save Damara? What will he do then?

How do I get Memory to remember me? Does she already?

And what about Jacinth? She’s been caught.

How will we all escape?

Chapter 23

 

 

When is she going to wake up?

Rib stared apprehensively at Damara. Servants had dried her off and laid her in a bed heavily downed with blankets and furs, never forcing Rib outside the large hall. Zheal and Memory had long ago disappeared, but Rib knew they’d be back.

Is she ever going to wake up?

He looked through his inner eyelids to check that Damara’s magics were moving at a normal pace. They were. He could also see her heart beating stronger. The blankets piled on top of her rose and fell with her deepened breathing.

She looks alright. No one else seems worried anymore.

A few servants remained in the hall, warming stew over a fire and murmuring Huskhn words amongst each other. Rib saw them cast a few wary glances at him.

How am I supposed to act now? he wondered, recalling what Zheal had said in the glacier. They know I’m not bewitched, but they still think I’m a slave.

And not just a slave…someone without a will.

Like Memory.

Rib squeezed his eyes shut at the thought.

No. Memory has a will. She must.

But why does she do Zheal’s bidding?

Rib heard Damara stir and watched her begin to awaken. Her brow furrowed as she shifted under the blankets, then with a start she opened her eyes. She looked frightened, staring around at the unfamiliar, Huskhn hall. Then her gaze fell on Rib and she relaxed.

She’s relieved to see me. Rib was warmed by the softening of her eyes and he smiled, just barely.

The servants noticed her awake and got a bowl of stew, urging her to take it in their unusual language. Damara sat herself up and looked at the Huskhns mistrustfully, only taking the bowl when they forced it on her.

Nothing seemed suspicious about the chunky broth, Rib thought, and the steam coming off of it appeared friendly enough. With a short whine, he nosed Damara’s hands holding the bowl, like a dog concerned for its master.

Please eat it, he tried to tell her through his eyes. I can tell you’re feeling weak.

Damara pursed her lips at him, then slowly lifted the bowl to her lips and drank from it. She swallowed a mouthful, waited, and soon downed the rest of it. As soon as she had, the servants took the bowl to fill it again, but at that moment the huge hall doors opened.

Damara grew tense and ignored the second bowl of stew offered to her. Both she and Rib stared as Zheal entered, followed by Memory.

Zheal halted in place, Memory peering past him. For a couple seconds they stayed like that, human and dragon regarding each other. Then, with a gratified smile, he motioned to the servants to leave the hall.

The large doors shut behind them, enclosing strange silence around the four left inside.

“Hello, Damara,” Zheal spoke and drew closer to the foot of the bed. “You’re looking better. Do you feel well?”

Beside Rib, Damara took a quiet, calm breath.

“I’m fine,” she answered.

Zheal rested his hand on Memory’s head, which she kept low as she gazed up at Rib. Rib held his sister’s eyes with his own, trying to read the thoughts behind them.

She looks timid, curious, shy…

But what is she thinking?

“I apologize for not being here sooner,” Zheal said to Damara. “I was checking on your firebreather.”

Jacinth.

“Where is she?” Damara asked, clenching the pelts at her sides.

The young man smiled reassuringly. With an agreeable countenance and handsome features, Rib couldn’t deny the Huskhn had a seemingly pleasant air about him.

It’s just his wicked charm, Rib told himself. He’s a horrible, horrible human being.

“My men have her contained. She’s fallen into some sort of unconscious state after her madness. I promise we’ve done her no harm, although, I wonder what it is that happened to her wings.” Zheal paused, apparently waiting for Damara to give an explanation. When she remained silent, he turned his eyes to Rib, an inquisitive expression on his face.

Rib felt frozen, unsure of how to behave.

“I’ve seen this dragon before,” Zheal mentioned.

What?! Fear struck Rib in the heart. How does he recognize me? Does he know I’m pretending?

“He was in Wystil the day I got Tairg,” Zheal went on and stroked Memory’s scales in affection.

Realizing it was just by his unique color that the Huskhn must have recognized him, Rib’s alarm gave way to anger.

The day you stole Tairg, he corrected silently.

“They were a couple little ones then,” the Huskhn went on. “With a wizard. That old man sent this dragon flying home when I took Tairg from him.”

Rib startled as Zheal reached up and touched his muzzle.

“How did you get him?” the young man asked Damara, still peering at Rib.

What should she say? Rib was intimidated by the intelligent spark in Zheal’s eyes. How are we supposed to fool him?

“I caught him,” Damara responded. “Raised him under me.”

“Ah.” Zheal broke into a grin, lifting Rib’s lips to see his white fangs. “Then we are the same. What have you named him?”

“Rib.”

“Rib,” Zheal echoed, his voice cool and admiring.

This is the one who took my sister. And now he regards me as a prized animal.

Rib was so unnerved, it took all his self-control to not recoil from the man.

“And why did you give him the Eyes of Kings?”

Oh no! Rib wanted to squeeze his eyes shut to hide the truth, though he knew it would not matter. How can she explain that?

He wasn’t sure he could handle any more of these well-aimed questions. And he wasn’t even the one who had to make up answers to them.

“Think of it,” Damara said without delay, “as a mark of our bond. He sees things as I do.”

“You’re fond of him, then?” Zheal nodded as though it made perfect sense to him. “Well, he’s certainly got my dragon intrigued. I think Tairg remembers him.”

Really?

Rib flinched when the Huskhn clapped a hand on his neck.

“Go on,” the young man said. “Let’s see how you like each other now.”

He’s talking to me? Rib was astonished, stepping towards Memory as Zheal encouraged him to. It was just like when humans let their monigons meet before the hunt.

Memory drew back a little from Rib, then perked up, stretching forward to sniff him. When she did, she blinked and switched into a rather playful mood, bobbing in front of him and flexing her wings.

Rib stared at her.

She acts like an animal.

Sadness seeped into him as it became clear why his sister never ran away from her captors.

She really can’t think for herself. They took her at too young of an age…

Zheal laughed and Rib looked back at him, something like hatred filling his every bone for the Huskhn Heir. He had to remind himself that if it weren’t for Zheal, Damara would have died in the cold. It was one of few things that kept Rib from breaking character and throwing him to the ground.

I can still help Memory. This horror can be resolved.

“Tairg seems happy enough,” Zheal commented in good-humor. “Perhaps Rib will warm up to her.”

Damara looked highly uncomfortable with the Huskhn Heir so close, her posture stiff. Zheal must have sensed it, for he stood back up and cleared his throat.

“I must ask,” he said, growing serious. “How did you get a firebreather? They’re so rare, I thought Crageria held the last one. Surely you didn’t get her at a young age as well? It wouldn’t make sense.”

How should he know? Rib thought. Oh. Oriole.

She probably told him everything.

Well, now what can Damara say?

He looked to the young woman.

“I found Jacinth on the Island,” Damara answered. “Rib pinned her for me and I won her submission through…harsher methods than I prefer.”

“So that’s what happened to her wings,” Zheal said. “I can see why she’s obeyed you all this time. A shame the firesap’s taken over her.”

He knows of the firesap, too? Oriole!

No, it’s alright. Damara’s still fooling him.

“Zheal,” Damara spoke, pushing the covers off of her. “Take me to Jacinth.”

“I will.” The Huskhn leaned against her bed post, arms folded. “Once you’ve recovered.”

“I’m fine.”

Zheal smiled. “You could do with the rest. Besides, I have more questions for you. What’s your story? How did you learn to craft the bewitchment powder?”

How many lies does she have to come up with?

“That doesn’t matter,” Damara said. “I need to craft more for my sea serpent.”

“My servants are gathering ingredients now,” the young man assured her. “It will take time, but your serpent won’t be going anywhere. Relax.”

She ground her teeth, looking far from relaxed. Rib startled when his sister crept up beside him, nuzzling him with a purr.

Memory…Rib pressed the crown of his head into her. How am I supposed to help you?

Zheal glanced at them and shifted his feet.

“Why did you flee from me, Damara?” he asked.

Damara took a breath. “I thought you would interpret Jacinth’s madness as my attack on your homeland. I’d already lied to the Captain that my dragons were bewitched, because I didn’t think anyone would believe me otherwise.”

Zheal shook his head. “No, you’re proof of what I’ve been telling them. This isn’t a matter of conquering an island of dragons and crafting magic to control them the rest of our lives. We need only bewitch the adults. Their young we can raise like Tairg, like Rib.”

He wants to breed them like monigons? That’s horrible!

“Yes…” Damara met the Huskhn’s eyes. “It will become their nature to do as we say.”

“Precisely.” Zheal grinned broader. “I’d never expect a Wystilian to agree with me, yet here you are. My uncle should be glad to meet you.”

“The Chief?” Damara asked.

Zheal nodded. “Now that we have a firebreather, he’s sure to give his consent. Soon we’ll craft our magic, gather the troops and be off. What an heir I’ll be then, leading Husk’s most successful invasion.” He smirked.

This is bad…How are we going to escape before he uses Jacinth’s fire to craft the powder?

What frightened Rib even more was the shine in Damara’s eyes as she agreed, “It will be as though you’ve already taken the throne.”

How can she act so well? It’s like she’s actually excited for him.

Isn’t she concerned?

We must get to Wystil.

Chapter 24

 

 

“My uncle is just in here,” Zheal said with a smile, holding the door open for Damara.

Rib was about to squeeze in after her, but Zheal held out his hand to stop him.

“No, not you,” the Huskhn said and shut the door after himself.

But Damara! Rib stared at the door. Is she safe in there by herself?

He worried until he remembered her story of how she killed his father, remembered how quick Damara was to draw her knife. Of course she’s safe. She’d sooner fight off an attacker than I would.

But still, what am I supposed to do out here?

He recalled how dogs often whined and scratched at doors to get their owners to let them in. He himself could easily break the door down, but figured that wouldn’t make Damara too happy.

I’ll just have to wait.

He turned around to face Memory, who met his eyes expectantly.

Sister.

Her scales looked especially purple in the morning light and the jewels on her saddle sparkled like colorful dew drops. She held herself cheerfully today, perked, with tail swishing slightly behind her.

I wonder…

Rib took a few bounds towards the barren hills. To his pleasure, she followed him readily. When he dashed for the nearest slope, she raced him there, skipping and leaping as though to celebrate when she beat him to the top.

She’s just as she was when we were younger, Rib thought with an aching heart. But can’t she speak?

Glancing back at the grand building Damara and Zheal had entered, he moved over the hill to where no one could see them. Memory frolicked down after him like a cheerful foal, but stilled and cocked her head when he turned to look at her directly.

“Sister,” he spoke, a feeling of urgency suddenly coming upon him. “Talk to me. Please.”

Memory’s eyes softened at his voice.

Rib waited until it was clear she would not respond.

Maybe she only understands Huskhn tongue.

If only Jasper or Gavin were here. They could speak to her.

Rib gazed into his sister’s eyes, surprised by how naturally she looked back at him, like a child untouched by awkwardness. He wanted to imagine that she was playing the same game he was, only pretending to want nothing more than to please her master.

But her innocence and simplicity were too glaring.

She isn’t acting. This is how she is.

Zheal hasn’t just made her his slave, he’s made her think like one.

“Memory,” Rib cried softly, bowing his head. “I want to help you.”

It comforted him when she nosed him affectionately. Even if she couldn’t understand his words, she at least seemed to understand his emotions.

Maybe I can get her to follow me when we escape. Even if she doesn’t know why.

The idea brought him hope. He thought that if he could get her away from Zheal, then she could begin to think for herself and learn to speak.

Just then, Zheal’s voice called out, “Tairg?”

Memory turned her head towards the direction, opening her wings.

“Here, Tairg!”

Rib watched how faithfully his sister left, dismay again weighing down on him before he went over the hill after her. As he did, he heard Damara call his name as well.

She and Zheal were standing outside of the grand building, both looking pleased. When Memory landed in front of the young man, he rubbed her under the chin, saying, “Romping in the hills, were you?”

Damara only gave Rib a warning look as he alighted, though he wasn’t sure what for.

“Now will you take me to Jacinth?” the young woman asked Zheal. “We had better start crafting.” As she spoke, she took a piece of bread from her sleeve and stuffed it into Rib’s saddle.

The Chief agreed to Zheal’s plan?

“Yes,” Zheal agreed, mounting onto the base of Memory’s neck. “She’s in the port gaol.” With a sporting grin, he leaned forward. “Fancy a race?”

No, Rib thought. I’m in no mood to race.

But to his dismay, he saw Damara smirk before she swung herself up onto his back.

“To the coast?” she said and Rib could feel her adjust her position. “On your word.”

This isn’t the time for games! We don’t even have a plan of escape. Everything we need is about to be in one place, but too much could go wrong.

“Ready?” Zheal crouched low in the saddle. “Go!”

Reluctantly, Rib took off towards the port as Memory shot forward at Zheal’s command.

He flew faster when Damara clapped her heels against his sides, all the while wondering what she could possibly be thinking. Ahead, his sister seemed to be enjoying herself, speeding through the air and dipping to fly through the tops of a few autumn colored trees. From her back, Zheal snatched a handful of red leaves to throw into the wind behind them.

How does it feel to be so lighthearted? Rib questioned himself. It felt like a while since he was as happy as the two in front of him looked right now.

He scorned the fact his sister could look that happy, the slave that she was.

She just doesn’t understand.

The port soon appeared in the distance and, beyond it, the waiting sea serpent.

Memory alighted near the town well before him. As he too landed, Rib could see Zheal moving his long black hair out of his face, grinning at Damara.

“Not much of a racer, is he?” the Huskhn laughed as he dismounted.

Damara snorted, leaping down to the ground and flicking Rib on the snout. “I’ll make him one and then we’ll see.”

She sounds serious, Rib thought, half irked, half worried. Could she be forgetting the danger we’re in? Where is her mind at?

“Well, here’s your firebreather,” Zheal said and walked to a sturdy building with barred windows. Half a dozen guards stood outside it, heavily armed. “I’ve been told she nearly killed one of the men that drove her in here. Not to mention the dock she burnt down.”

Jacinth? Rib crept closer to peer into one of the barred windows, disheartened by the sight of the firebreather curled up inside, eyes closed as she heaved sparks from slightly parted jaws. Her skeleton wings were kinked and twitching. The stone walls around her were scratched and scored by her claws, which now appeared broken and bleeding. How will we ever get her out? Is she even well enough to escape with us? She has to be!

Looking to Damara beside him, he saw that she too was worried.

“The firesap,” she murmured and he peered through his inner eyelids to see.

The lively magic churned inside Jacinth’s body like a caged animal, as though ready to flare up again at any moment. Rib drew away from the window, imagining the firebreather suddenly awakening and leaping at the metal grate that separated them from her.

Damara also turned away from the window, an upset expression plain on her face.

“Jacinth won’t last,” she uttered, letting herself fall against the wall of the gaol.

It surprised Rib that she would be so outspoken about the fear, but saw how Zheal was sympathetic. The Huskhn leaned next to her, his eyes clearly studying her form.

“It happens to every firebreather eventually,” he said. “But we have her flame and that’s what’s important.”

Damara’s expression hardened. “Yes, you’re right. Where can we start crafting the powder?”

Zheal smiled. “My servants should have everything ready by now. It’s just this way.”

Rib took one more glance in at Jacinth before following after them.

Damara has the firesap cure in my saddle, he thought. We could cure Jacinth…but then we couldn’t help the Wystilians…

Or we might not be able to help either one.

Couldn’t Damara craft the plague cure here? The idea suddenly struck him. The recipe’s in our potion book. If she crafted it, then we could heal Jacinth and not have to worry about her going mad while we escape!

Rib wondered why he didn’t think of this before. It was the perfect plan, he thought. He only had to tell Damara.

But how can I, with Zheal always so close?

. . .

“So you have this memorized?” Zheal asked, unrolling a scroll. From the doorway, Rib glimpsed a drawing of the Royal Well on it.

That’s what he stole from Damon years ago!

Damara touched the parchment as Zheal laid it face down on the table in front of her. “Yes.”

Have what memorized?

Rib peered through his inner eyelids to see what had appeared to be a blank side was actually scrawled all over with magic.

Oh. The potion recipe.

A breeze blew in through a window and swept up the scroll, which Damara was quick to catch and place back down on the table.

Zheal watched with a sort of inquisitive smirk on his face.

“You can’t read, can you?”

Damara furrowed her brow. “What makes you think that?”

The young man laughed and turned the scroll. “You put it upside down.”

No, Rib thought, dismay weighing down on him as realization set in. If she can’t read, she can’t make the plague cure.

We really do have to take Jacinth to Wystil the way she is…

Damara grew sour. “What does it matter?” she asked. “I don’t need it anyway.”

Zheal leaned back, gazing at her. “You still haven’t told me how you learned to make the powder,” he mentioned. Turning to grab a handful of herbs, he tossed them into his boiling pot and gave it a stir. As Damara did the same, he grinned. “But I think I know.”

He does? What does he think?

Damara cast him a questioning look before going for a strip of seal skin to add to her own pot.

Zheal pulled up beside her and also cut himself a sliver, saying, “You must have learned from the Wystilian wizard before you stole his dragon.”

She did not answer, but cleared her throat and reached for another ingredient.

Rib found it hard not to be distracted as he felt Memory outside batting at his tail like a kitten.

Please, not now. With a glance, he saw her on her back happily squirming to get under him, wings sticking awkwardly out from beneath her. I can’t play with you, I’m sorry.

Zheal laughed, as though sure of his guess. “He’s easy to steal from,” he said. “And we aren’t the only ones to have done it. I was there when King Griffith took a potion book from him. That old man could only holler in protest.”

So that was Zheal and Memory! Rib remembered seeing the stranger on a dragon running along the ground that night. But then how didn’t they see me[_?_]

“You mean you spied on the Wizard?” Damara faced Zheal, her eyebrows raised.

“Enough to know what had happened,” the Huskhn replied casually. “There was a strange, magical fog that obstructed my vision, but I heard the old man shouting loud and clear. So, I’m right, aren’t I?” Zheal gave a cocky smile. “You got him to teach you and then you stole Rib right out from under his nose.”

Should she tell him he’s right? Rib wondered. Is there any better story?

Damara only smirked at the young man and went on with her potion crafting.

“Tell me, Damara,” Zheal said. “How many dragons are in Wystil? I’ve heard of at least a few. It’s said that they live under the Dragon Knight’s rule.”

Does he mean my siblings? Rib felt his muscles tense involuntarily. And Tide? And Lynx?

Why does he care about them?!

Damara peered at Zheal with pale blue eyes. “I’m not sure how many dragons there are,” she answered. “But you mustn’t challenge the Dragon Knight. Not now. He’s far too dangerous.”

Yes, Rib encouraged her silently. Warn him away.

“Dangerous.” The young man grinned and threw a couple more ingredients into his pot. “What do you know of him? All I’ve heard are doltish myths. Or is it true that he feasts on raw human flesh with his dragons?” Zheal laughed again.

People call Tyrone the Dragon Knight…They think he does that?!

“All I know is he’s powerful,” Damara answered.

“But so will we be,” the Huskhn pointed out, stirring his pot with an arrogant flick of the wrist. “Give him three dragons, give him a dozen- the more he has, the more we take for ourselves. All we need is what we’re making right now.” As he said this, he slit open his palm and let it bleed into his pot.

No, no, no, Rib thought as Zheal tied a cloth around the wound. We have to ruin his magic! But how can we? He has the Eyes of Kings. He would know as soon as we did.

“All the same,” Damara spoke evenly, “let’s conquer the Island first.” Taking her own knife, she too cut her hand without wincing and added blood to her potion. “Then, with a hundred or so dragons-”

“There’d be nothing we couldn’t conquer,” Zheal finished for her, pressing a bandage into her bleeding palm as he met her gaze.

He wants to take the whole world now?!

Damara narrowed her eyes with a sly smile. “I propose a competition,” she told him.

“And what is that?” Zheal carefully wound the bandage around her hand.

“You and I go to the Island with the same amount of powder. Whoever bewitches the most dragons wins. Any that your troops catch count for neither of us.”

What is she talking about? Rib worried, seeing how the two grinned at each other. Could she be serious?

“And for the winner of this competition…” Light danced on Zheal’s perfect smile as he spoke. “What shall be the prize?”

Damara brushed a beetle off the Huskhn Heir’s shoulder with a small frown. “Let the winner herself decide, once she has won.”

Zheal laughed. “You’re confident you will be the victor, then?”

“Oh, I will beat you.” Damara sounded as though surprised he didn’t know yet. “With dozens of dragons parading behind me, I’ll have beaten you.”

No. Rib hated to hear her speak that way. It was revolting.

Zheal, however, appeared much amused. He leaned closer to Damara, smirking, his mouth by her ear, and whispered, “Underestimate me as the dragons do, and you shall find yourself quite surprised.”

This…this is appalling. Rib’s hide crawled. They’re making a game of dragons’ lives!

At that moment, Memory startled him by squeezing her head in the doorway under his. Like an inquisitive cat, she swiveled her eyes around the room.

Zheal and Damara looked at the dragons peering in.

“What would they do without us humans?” the Huskhn said in amusement. “Look, they can’t even entertain themselves. They have nothing better to do than watch us.”

Damara dumped a load of tiny bones into her simmering potion. “We’ll be doing dragonkind a favor, taking them all,” she agreed.

Rib stared at her as she handed the rest of the bones to Zheal.

Was I wrong to trust her?

She looked so bold. So ambitious.

Who has she been fooling all this time?

Chapter 25

 

 

Will they leave? Rib thought angrily as he pretended to nap beside the fire in the room. It was well past sundown and servants were offering Damara a number of things before she got into bed. A brush, a drink, another pelt to block out the cold.

The young woman responded to each of them with a few Huskhn words. Rib had been there when Zheal taught her some basics of the language, but even though he’d listened in hopes of talking with Memory, nothing made sense to him. He couldn’t retain anything like Damara could.

How does she fit in so well here? What else don’t I know about her?

Rib had both sets of eyelids closed, his inner ones allowing him to see the magic around him. He could see the servants finally exit the room and disappear into the jumble of magics outside. When they did, he opened his eyes to look at Damara sitting on the bed, staring into the fire.

He remembered how excited she had looked crafting bewitchment powder with Zheal.

Could she be a traitor?

“Whose side are you on?” Rib asked.

The young woman squinted at him over the flames.

“What do you mean?” she spoke in low tones.

“I mean whose side are you on.”

Damara scoffed and got under the blankets, lying with her back to him. “My act must be convincing if it’s fooled even you.” Her voice came quietly over the crackling of burning wood.

“I’ve been watching you with Zheal,” Rib growled. “I think you’re fond of him.”

Damara turned to him, glaring through the black fur that smothered half her face.

“Then you don’t understand a thing. You think you have it so hard, acting like a dimwit for days on end? I’m the one who has to answer all his clever questions, spinning a story that makes sense, that won’t get us killed.”

So skilled as a deceiver.

Rib curled his lip back. “And how do I know you haven’t been feeding me lies just the same?”

Damara closed her eyes tightly, then stared at him again, her expression stony.

“Do you see that?” she asked, jerking her head to the corner of the room nearest her.

Between the wall and the headboard of her bed was a space filled with extra blankets, or so Rib thought. As he squinted his eyes at it, he thought he saw the mouth of a gourd sticking out from behind the folds of cloth.

“Hidden there, I have food and water saved for the journey back. A few days’ worth.”

She’s been stocking up? Rib wondered how he hadn’t noticed before. If that’s true then…

“Zheal promised the servants would be done pounding the bones by tomorrow,” Damara went on. “As soon as I get that powder, I’m escaping on the serpent with Jacinth. If you don’t trust me, you can stay behind.”

She means it. Rib clenched his teeth. I can’t believe her act even had me fooled.

After a moment of silence, he responded, “We’re still taking my sister.”

As Damara didn’t say anything, he narrowed his eyes at her.

She knows that I won’t be leaving without her, doesn’t she? Was she hoping I’d given up on that?

The young woman frowned.

“Have you ever considered she’s happy here?” she asked.

Happy?!

Rib had to fight to keep his voice down. “As long as she’s that man’s slave, my sister can’t even begin to know happiness.”

But Damara didn’t look so convinced.

“You’re wrong, Rib. You’ve seen her roaming around here, getting pats from Zheal. She is happy. Happier than you are.”

“Happier?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “She can’t be happy, she- she’s a dumb animal!”

Wait.

Rib froze. The anger coursing through his veins turned to ice.

Did I just say that?

Called my sister a dumb animal…

He was ashamed.

“You really believe that?” Damara studied his face. He’d surprised them both with such a statement, and now he wished he could take it back, smite the thought from his head.

“No, that’s…that’s what he’s turning her into, Damara,” Rib spoke with trembling voice. “She can’t think for herself, under him. She can’t know happiness.”

Damara’s eyes dropped to the fur on her pillow.

“Alright,” she said. “I only hope you can get her to come.”

Rib groaned involuntarily. How can I be sure I will? Zheal has his fingers dug into her heart. She thinks she has to do everything he says.

“Rib?”

“How can I, Damara?” Rib beseeched her, having no other to turn to. “What can I do to convince her she needs this?”

“You’re her brother,” Damara answered. “Show her you need it.”

I need it.

For some reason, her words struck him as profound.

I need it.

But what if I still fail?

What if I lose her? Again.

Damara must have read the discouragement on his face, for she propped herself up on one elbow and said, “I know how to get her to come. You won’t like it.”

Won’t I? Rib fixed his eyes on her, hopeful. Anything to help me help her…

“It would only take a pinch to bewitch her. Hardly any powder at all. Just enough to get her far away from him.”

Bewitch her.

Bewitch my sister.

Damara was right. The idea twisted Rib’s stomach in knots. Even though it was sure to work.

After all those days thinking Zheal was bewitching her, and despising him for it.

Now I consider the same method?

“It feels wrong,” he said.

“I know,” was all Damara replied. Slowly, she pulled a pelt over her head and lay still. Rib gazed at her form beneath the blankets, feeling a heavy decision weighed upon him.

It would be so simple, he thought. Just a pinch. For her own good.

But I still have to try. Try to convince her to come.

After all, I’m her brother.

Rib stared somberly into the flames.

Can’t that be enough?

. . .

It was morning when Zheal invited Damara to a trek in the mountains, where he had something to show her. Rib didn’t wait to be beckoned before following after them, pleased when Memory bounded to his side.

The mountain they started at was stout but considerably tricky to climb. Rib stuck close behind Damara in fear that she’d slip on the loose shale, in need of catching.

They hiked for quite a while, with Memory doing laps around them. She seemed to want Rib and Zheal to walk closer together, practically herding them towards each other though Rib resisted. Once, her foot struck a puddle which splattered Zheal’s white pelt with mud, but the Huskhn didn’t seem to mind.

This is taking so long, Rib eventually grew impatient. Why aren’t we flying? He was about to bump Damara in encouragement to get on his back when Zheal struck up a conversation.

“Now, what dragons do we know of aside from those on the island and those in Wystil?” the Huskhn asked. “There’s the one belonging to that bat-brained King Griffith. And a certain Dragon Fool, if I’m not mistaken.”

Me?!

Rib planted his feet, stricken with fear.

He knows of that?

However surprising Zheal’s statement, Damara still managed to appear calm as she asked, “Dragon Fool?”

“Yes. A black-scaled beast known for its performances with a young male Eristad, so I’m told. Have you heard of it?”

That’s right…he sees me as firebloom, but most anyone else would say I’m the color black. Rib couldn’t believe his luck. So Zheal hasn’t caught on that I am the Dragon Fool?

“No, in fact, I haven’t,” Damara lied as though it were second nature to her.

“Well,” Zheal shrugged, “I hardly think it’s worth hunting down at this point. No doubt we’ll have it under our power later, as our plans progress.”

“Indeed.”

The humans continued walking on, casual as can be. Rib made an effort to keep out of Zheal’s sight for a good while, just in case he were to suddenly reconsider the Dragon Fool’s identity.

Even so, Rib grew aggravated as they slowed to such a pace that he had to move painstakingly slow to keep behind them. Memory had long ago grown bored and went off to explore. He was tempted to join her, but feared that might bring attention to himself.

Zheal held his fur cloak around him with one hand and offered the other to help Damara up a shifty patch of shale, which she refused until she nearly lost her footing. The Huskhn laughed good-naturedly, having caught her by the waist. Rib could see the young woman grimace a little before springing up a couple more steps out of his grasp.

“Where is this place you speak of?” she asked, sending a rock clattering down the craggy slope with a light tap of her foot. Memory ran below, perking up to look at them when the shale slid down to meet her. Rib wanted to be with her, drinking from the stream she found, but he sensed that some heavy matter was soon to come up between the humans.

“Not far now,” Zheal answered, grinning when he himself nearly slipped. “I suppose it’d have been easier to fly.”

Why didn’t we? We’d have gotten there so much quicker…What are we looking for, anyway?

“Is that it?” Damara stood at the summit of the mountain they’d been climbing, her hand raised to shield the sun from her face. “It’s beautiful.”

Beautiful? Rib wondered what could earn such a praiseworthy description from Damara and bounded forward to see.

Oh.

Before them, the grass and shale slopes continued on with forest pine growing in the shadowy depths. A number of crests away, dramatic mounts of grey rock rose to the sky, glacier forcing its way through the thick of them. At the base of this impressive mountain ridge stretched a gentle plain of green, on which stood what Rib believed to be a great stone church. Even from their distance, it was clear that the cathedral was abandoned, its proud pointed steeple overtaken by foliage.

“That it is,” Zheal said. He startled Rib with an affectionate pat on the neck as he joined them, dirt clumped at the hem of his white fur cloak. “The Eristads built churches just like it all over the land. Huskhns haven’t much need of this one, but we may soon. Shall we fly over?”

Yes please, Rib thought, relieved to not have to wait on their every step any longer as Damara swung herself up onto his back. It alarmed him, however, when Zheal took the liberty of joining her in the saddle as well.

He wants to ride me? Rib’s hide threatened to bristle under his new rider. But why?

There was an uneasiness lying under Damara’s tone as she asked, “Tired of your own steed?”

“Ah, I glimpsed her venturing a ways away. Besides, I’m sure your brute can handle the extra weight.” With that, the Huskhn Heir clapped Rib on the shoulder wing.

Fine, Rib consented when he realized he’d rather be the one to carry the man than for his sister to have to. It’s not that far of a flight anyway.

In but a couple minutes, Rib closed the gap between them and the church, landing before the great moss-coated cathedral doors. Two large trees with leaves red as blood and roots thick as ship masts stood on either side of the building.

Damara was quick to jump off Rib’s back, followed by Zheal.

“I use to come here with Tairg when she was small,” the young man recalled aloud. He leapt up the staircase and pointed to a large window, its glass long gone. “I would stand there and encourage her to fly from the sill. Took her a few tries, but in time she was sailing down these halls with as much grace as a dove.”

Zheal smiled broadly in the doorway, splitting into a grin as a flock of startled white birds fled through the window he’d just indicated. The clapping sound of their wings sounded louder from within the empty church.

Zheal taught my sister how to fly? Rib’s scales prickled with discomfort. That was supposed to be Tide’s job.

As if alerted by the conversation about her, Memory suddenly appeared, alighting beside Zheal and circling about him a few times before stopping to rub her head against him. The young man laughed as he tried to keep himself from falling backwards with her pressing into him and purring like that.

Rib watched with despair.

Look how fond she is of him.

“Tairg remembers this place well, no doubt,” Zheal said when the dragon finally left him to go exploring inside. “Come, I’ll tell you what I’ve been thinking.” He spoke to Damara, who still stood at the base of the steps. Rib waited for her to reach the top before going through the open doors after them.

Whoa.

The inside of the cathedral was impressive, stretching far from the entrance and supported by a row of thick columns on both sides. Its arched ceiling rose high above, the remains of intricate designs carved into its decaying, wooden beams. The entire building was dark with shadows, except for where the outside light was cast in through tall windows on either side and a pattern of smaller ones at the very front of the church. Towards the wide entrance, symmetrical balconies were built off the inner walls, similar to a third one placed at the far end. A grey brick path down the middle of the floor was the only indication of where the aisle once was, now littered with smashed apart benches.

It nearly feels intimidating. But how? It’s only a structure.

Even to Rib, the cathedral was huge. He could only imagine what it must have been like for Memory when she was a little pupil, taught to fly in this place.

Yet, Memory seemed happy enough here now, weaving between pillars and broken windows. Zheal and Damara were heading for the front of the church, having resumed their discussion. Remembering the plans Zheal had promised to reveal, Rib hastily bound after them with the intention of listening in.

“I’m telling you, this was the perfect place for me to train her,” the Huskhn was saying. He halted before the last standing bench and propped one foot up on it, his keen gaze sweeping the area. “I can’t think of a better building. It’s strong, well-protected. I can have it closed off so there are only a select few openings for them to come in and out of. Don’t you think?”

Them? Who’s them? Rib tried not to let his curiosity show, but instead feigned interest in a rotting plank of wood, scraping at the beetles that crawled on it with his foreclaw. Does Damara even understand what he’s planning?

“You’re right,” Damara said as she took a seat on the questionable bench. She, too, stared around the cathedral as though imagining some grand idea. “This place could easily hold a hundred young ones. Even more if we don’t have them flying all at once. Would we keep the dragons here the whole time?”

Dragons? Rib stiffened. Is that what they’re planning for? A place to train pupils like Zheal did Memory?

“Might be the best option,” Zheal answered. “You like the idea, then? You think it could work?”

No, it’s terrible! You can’t keep a hundred little ones trapped in here!

Damara leaned back. “It’s like you said. Perfect.”

Zheal’s smile grew wider. “Which reminds me,” he began, sitting himself down close to face her. “There’s something else I’ve been thinking about since you’ve come.”

What? What else?

Seemingly all at once, it began pouring. Rib didn’t remember it looking like stormy weather outside, but now the shadows of rain streaked across the floor where light still lit through elongated windows. Across the room, Memory got up from among a pile of wooden planks and ran headlong into the storm with boundless delight.

Zheal stood again to go to the nearest window, peering out at the rain, his frame stark against the strange brightness of the outdoors. Damara met eye contact with Rib for the first time that day in a while, but he couldn’t be sure of what she was thinking. Only, she looked wary.

Will he just talk already? Rib thought impatiently. What serious matter is he bringing up now?

“My uncle has been pressuring me to get a wife for some time,” the Huskhn Heir finally spoke. “But never had I met anyone as worthy as you.”

He must be kidding. Rib stared at the young man, who remained with his back to them. He’s going to ask Damara to marry him?!

Rib saw how Damara swallowed and tucked her dress tighter around her legs. Her hands, she clasped firmly in her lap and fixed her eyes ahead of her.

Now Zheal turned to look back at her.

“I know to someone as strong and as…capable as you, marriage may seem unnecessary.” He crossed his arms and leaned against a pillar. “But there are advantages, I assure you. Considering you are not of royal blood, alone you can only gain power through struggle and strife, dependent on the magics you so skillfully craft. Ingredients will be hard to come by, beasts will be hard to find.”

He paused, taking one glance at Damara before looking out the window again. Rib could see the Huskhn’s breath as the air began to get colder.

“You deserve power, Damara,” he murmured. “You may not have been born unto a king, but your every talent demands praise from the highest order.”

This is bad, Rib fretted. [_ Jacinth’s locked away, Memory doesn’t seem to want to escape- I didn’t think anything could get worse, but now? Now Zheal wants to marry Damara! Poor Damara, what can she say? _]

Forgetting his act in the moment, Rib examined Damara’s face freely. Her mouth was shut, but he could see her grinding her teeth behind sealed lips. Her brow furrowed, only slightly as she clearly fought to remain neutral. Resting on her thighs, her hands now clenched into fists.

She’s distressed! Seeing her inner turmoil only increased Rib’s fears. But how can I help her?

He was so focused on her, that he was caught by surprise when Zheal was suddenly back at the bench, his body language willing Damara to listen. The young woman started a bit in surprise as well, then slowly turned her head in his direction.

“I want to help you get what’s rightfully yours, Damara,” the Huskhn Heir said. “If you were to be my wife, how instantly that power would be yours! Among us, you would become as legendary as Tairg, the warrior queen of whom I named my very own steed after. Please, Damara. Marry me.”

Marry him. He said it.

Rib felt as though time had frozen. All of life seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of Damara’s response. Such complications Rib had never foreseen.

In that passing of unknown time, Damara turned her body to face Zheal, squared her shoulders, brushed a lock of hair from her face, and replied, “I see your point.”

She sees his point? Rib took a short breath in overwhelmed perplexity. What does she mean?

“You…” Zheal appeared just as confused as Rib. “You accept, then?”

Damara got up and went to a column, her fingers brushing its ancient smooth surface. She seemed to have gathered herself in a split second, head high as she took the moment to think. Then, facing the young man with a noble-like air, she answered, “I feel this decision is poorly timed. Would it not be wiser to wait on marriage until after we’ve conquered the island of dragons? How much greater your people would rejoice at our union when they saw the victory we together secured, the promise that runs in your blood and mine.”

How does she do it? Rib dared to breathe fully again. Is it enough?

Realizing his interest in the conversation was too obvious, he forced himself to lie down, only watching Zheal through the corner of his eye. The young man sat slowly on the bench, his hands planted on either side of him.

“Yes, you’re right,” he exhaled, sounding as though mystified. “I suppose I didn’t consider the timing of the matter. But you’re right, Damara. After our triumph at the dragons’ island, the people will be crying to the gods for our union.”

She’s convinced him! Now it will never happen. Rib stared out the window at the rain, wondering at the narrow escape Damara had just cunningly performed.

. . .

Rib moved through the flooded marble hall of his dreams. He found that his wings were of no hindrance to his swimming, and he took full advantage of it, twisting about and flicking his tail to propel himself forward.

The pillars around him were of a sea green and they swayed back and forth, pushed by the current that swept through. From between two columns that overlapped in his point of view, Rib was thrilled to see his sister appear, walking along the floor. She was looking around at everything as though perplexed, until her eyes met Rib’s.

Memory, he called her to join him and swam a little closer.

With intent gaze set on him, she gave a small push off the ground and began floating up to meet him.

But no sooner had all four sets of her claws left the floor did Zheal, in the form of a frightening sea creature, come shooting forward.

Memory! Rib cried, watching as his sister was caught in a tangle of the monster’s tentacles and dragged back down to the bottom. When the dragon’s feet were planted back down on the floor, Zheal unwrapped himself and turned into his human form. With a smile, he patted Memory on the neck and swam away.

Come on, Rib urged his sister to follow, but she stared dejectedly at the ground and did not seem to hear him. Memory…

The entire hall quaked with a distant roar and Rib awoke with a start.

The fire in the room he shared with Damara had gone out, with only a few embers to make the dark room glow orange. He could still hear the roaring over the sound of the ocean waves.

Jacinth, he realized, stiffening. She must be going mad again.

It lasted for a short while and Rib peered at Damara, surprised that she wasn’t awakened by the distant raucous. She was usually a light sleeper.

She’s dreaming, he thought as she gripped the fur bedding in one of her fists. Her expression looked vexed, with her brow creased and eyes closed tight. A nightmare?

Rib was so curious about what Damara was dreaming that he barely noticed when Jacinth’s roaring died out. In time, the young woman relaxed, but her face crumpled in sadness and a tear slipped out from under her lashes.

“I’m sorry, Xander,” she whimpered. “I tried.”

Tried what? Rib slowly let his head back down to the ground.

Damara didn’t look so upset now, but Rib felt as though he’d just glimpsed a whole other side of her.

She’d hate it if I told her, he knew.

I guess I’ll never know what she was dreaming.

. . .

“Damara?”

A knock sounded on the door.

Rib watched as the young woman started awake and sat up in bed, her breath visible in the brisk morning air. He himself stood and dipped down for a stretch, forelimbs splayed before him, then straightened to move his long neck around, loosening it.

“One moment,” Damara spoke, hastening to fasten the belt Huskhns had given her around her waist. It now held Gavin’s dagger, which she was always sure to keep close.

Throwing pelts and blankets back over her bed as though to make it look like she hadn’t slept at all, Damara smoothed down her dress, and finally opened the door.

There stood Zheal in a sharp outfit lined with blotted fleece. Rib had noticed the Huskhn seemed to have a liking for blemished white. Why, he had no idea.

“Good morning.” Zheal cleared his throat. “My uncle invited us to breakfast to discuss preparations, but I think first you should come to the gaol.”

Jacinth! Rib remembered her roaring in the distance last night. Is she alright?

“Rib.” Damara jerked her head towards the doorway. “Come.”

Silently he obeyed, following out the room and down the hall.

Could Jacinth have escaped without our help?

Rib observed the way that Zheal walked through the town with Damara.

No. He’d be frantic if that were the case.

But how are we supposed to get her out? And when?

Memory alighted beside Rib as he walked, purring and nuzzling him in her usual greeting. He looked at her warily.

How can I get you to come with us? You answer Zheal’s every call.

“The servants finished pounding our gull bones,” Rib heard the Huskhn tell Damara when the passed the place they’d been crafting magic yesterday. “I made sure they kept our powder separate.”

“Good,” Damara replied.

At least that’s one thing, Rib thought. All we have to do is bewitch the sea serpent again and we’ll have our ride to Wystil.

Memory snapped playfully at a beetle that came flying towards Rib, nearly stumbling him as she pounced on it in front of him.

And if we have to do the same to her, then…Rib sighed to himself. Then so be it.

He envisioned what it would look like, his sister following Damara around, devoted, without a thought. He still didn’t particularly like it. But it was sure to block Zheal’s command out of her head.

As they approached the gaol, he realized they could even use the powder on Jacinth.

Wouldn’t that stop her from going mad and attacking us? That’s what we were going to do to Wycker before we found him dead.

Rib’s hopes lifted a little. Maybe this will be easier than I imagined.

Suddenly, Damara gasped and ran to the gaol window, gripping its metal grate. Zheal came up next to her, a hand on her shoulder.

What is it? Rib thought, alarmed. He noticed fewer guards surrounded the building now as he peered in.

No.

The inside of the stone cell was scorched black, the floor scored and scuffed.

Lying to the side was Jacinth, head, limbs, and tail tucked in. Her skeleton wings looked like the leafless branches of winter, her body looked as cold as stone.

She…

Rib stared through his inner eyelids and saw that all magics had stilled inside her, the firesap seeping out like vapor to dissipate into thin air.

She’s dead.

It took all his willpower to not stagger on all four. He mustn’t respond. Mustn’t show one hint of horror or grief.

Jacinth…the last firebreather…dead.

In front of him, Damara’s shoulders began shaking and Zheal’s hand tightened reassuringly over them. She sank to her knees, letting her forehead rest against the stone wall with a muted sob.

It’s over, Rib knew. We can’t help the Wystilians.

Our potion book…the firesap cure for Jacinth…they’re useless.

There’s no one we can save now but ourselves.

Zheal stood idly as Memory drew closer to the weeping young woman, eyes soft with childlike concern.

“The firesap took her last night,” the Huskhn told Damara. “I’m sorry. I know you worked hard for her.”

He knows nothing, Rib thought. Jacinth…she was a friend.

Pulling something small from his vest, Zheal said, “For months I’ve been asking for this item.” He crouched down beside Damara and touched her back gently. “But now that I have it, I can only think to give it to you.”

What is it? Rib wondered.

In his palm was a small crystal pendant, reddish around the edges but glowing yellow and orange within. The chain attached to it dangled between Zheal’s white gloved fingers, fine and coppery.

Damara barely turned her gaze at first, then stared at it in disbelief.

Rib peered through his inner eyelids to see what she was seeing. Trapped in the heart of the scarlet crystal was magical heat, pulsing as though alive. Rib had to stop himself from gasping as he recognized it.

Dragon fire!

“How?” Damara whispered, ever so lightly brushing the pendant with her fingertip. “What…”

“Kcrik,” Zheal pronounced the item’s name for her as he clasped the chain around her neck. “In your language, torchstone. I lit it with your firebreather’s flame. Now you can craft magic wherever you like, so long as you have this.”

That means…Rib swallowed, his throat dry. We can still save Wystil after all?

“Just strike it against rock and it will spark,” Zheal said. “Have no worry of it shattering, or losing its flame. The torchstone can endure almost anything. It is, in essence, your own immortal firebreather.”

Damara closed her hand around the little pendant and cried a laugh, or laughed a cry. Another tear dashed down her freckled face, and she bowed her head. Her lips bore an overwhelmed smile, but Rib could still detect grief in her eyes.

She loved Jacinth.

I never got the chance to really know her.

Memory pranced about in a sudden burst of energy as Zheal helped Damara to her feet.

Rib watched how the Huskhn grinned charmingly, thinking, You have no idea what you’ve just done. Now we can escape without a sound. Without a worry.

He stole another look into the gaol cell, renewed hope intermingling with sorrow.

And Jacinth’s flame will still save lives, even though she won’t be there to see it.

. . .

This feels wrong, Rib thought as a rope tied around Jacinth’s body was attached to him. Damara secured the knot on his saddle strap with a hollow expression, only putting on a slight smile when Zheal joined them.

The Huskhn studied her face a moment. “You look just as I did when my horse died,” he said, stroking her hair. “But soon we’ll have more dragons than our ships can hold, just wait. You can have first pick.”

Rib’s hide nearly bristled at the promise and Damara quickly turned back to her knot-tying, eyes narrowing in on the rope that she roughly pulled tight.

Zheal took back his hand with a good-natured smile.

“Tairg,” he spoke to Memory, who nosed Jacinth uneasily. Zheal took the end of a rope from Damara’s grasp, saying, “Let my dragon help. She and Rib will be rid of this body in no time.”

Rib clenched his jaw.

Be rid of? Jacinth deserves a proper burial.

Damara folded her arms and leaned against his chest plates.

“Tai,” the Huskhn beckoned Memory, backing out the wide gaol door.

Rib tromped alongside his sister, inwardly grimacing as their ropes pulled taut and began to drag Jacinth’s body behind them. Memory appeared confused at first, turning and tripping over her tether until Zheal barked an order at her.

Thankfully, hauling the dead dragon out of the building went smoothly and Rib marched on towards the shore where Damara gestured silently. Huskhns lined their course, watching.

Rib glanced back at Jacinth scraping a path in the ground as she was pulled. Mud mounted against her limp body, dirtying her deep red hide.

He faced the way he was going again, feeling sick at the disgrace.

Rib read the same emotion in Damara’s eyes.

Down a dock, he and Memory dragged Jacinth, the sound of scales scraping against wood as they went. A number of muscular servants helped to load the dead dragon onto a boat before freeing Rib and Memory of their tethers.

Rib watched from the dock as the men rowed Jacinth far out over the ocean.

Farewell, he thought somberly when she was pushed into the water. It was distant, but Rib could see her body sink like a stone.

I’m sorry we couldn’t help you too.

Chapter 26

 

 

We need to go.

Rib stared out at the sea serpent lingering in the water. He could see that the magic inside its head was wearing dangerously thin. It surprised him that the bewitchment had even lasted this far.

How long is this going to take?

After Jacinth’s body was dumped into the ocean, Zheal had urged Damara to come and discuss Island invasion plans with the Huskhn Chief. Rib had found himself once again shut out of the building, forced to wait and wonder what was happening inside.

He wouldn’t have wandered far, except for that Memory encouraged him to, nipping playfully and herding him all the way to the coast. Now she was doing fancy tricks in the air, diving every once in a while for fish.

Rib watched her, cherishing the lighthearted spirit behind all her actions.

He remembered when he first heard that she was living as Zheal’s slave. It’d felt awful. He’d thought it immoral to ever enjoy himself as long as she was the captive of men.

Base your happiness on the happiness of others and you’ll never smile again,’ his mentor had told him. ‘There’s a time to mourn together and a time to live.’

Rib saw how delighted Memory was in the thrill of her games, how she let herself spiral out of control as she plummeted for the water. He couldn’t help but smile.

Just look how happy she is, he thought. Soon it will always be like this.

I don’t think anything could make me happier than that.

. . .

“I’m sorry,” Damara spoke quietly in their room that night. “I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t slip away.” From the folds of her clothes, she pulled some bread and a slab of tough meat to add to her secret stock pile in the corner of the room. Rib wondered if she even ate anything, or if she just hid all the food she could get her hands on for their trip.

“What were they deciding?” Rib asked from the floor.

“So many things,” she groaned, rubbing her hands over her face. “There came a point when Zheal just talked to the Chief and stopped translating for me. I was utterly lost.”

“Well…when are we going to escape? The sea serpent’s about to start thinking for itself again. It might leave. Or worse.”

“I know,” Damara answered dryly. She sat on her bed for a moment, brooding. Then, with a grimace, she stood. “We should go now. While its dark.”

“What?” Rib blinked in surprise. “No, Damara, you need to rest.”

Damara touched the glowing pendant on the chain around her neck as she appeared to consider his argument. He could see dark circles under her eyes. Even in the way she held herself, it was clear she was exhausted.

We lost Jacinth today. That can’t be easy on her.

“Alright,” Damara consented, sitting back down. “But we need to leave early in the morning. Before the sun shows itself.”

“I’ll wake you then,” Rib offered. “Just get some sleep.”

She gave him a slight, grim smile before slipping under the blankets and facing the wall. Rib could hear her breathing deepen as sleep soon claimed her.

He looked at the food and gourds of water still hidden in the corner of the room. Damara had gathered so much, now the pile rose above the headboard, with only a blanket draped over the top to cover it. Rib had assured her there’d be icebergs and that he’d catch them both fish, but she seemed to be bent on depriving herself, saving all that the Huskhns gave her for later.

Rib ran his eyes over Damara’s narrow frame lying under pelts and fabrics.

It will be good for her when all this is over.

. . .

When it came time for Rib to wake Damara, he drew near and nudged her in the back. To his surprise, she barely stirred in response. Still facing the wall, she was curled up like a feeble creature, arms held in close, legs tucked towards her chest.

“Damara?” he whispered, peering over at her face. Her eyes remained closed, her breath sounding strange and uneven.

No, no, no. Anxiety champed on his insides. She can’t be getting ill now! Why’d she have to starve herself like this?

“Damara,” he tried again, nosing her shoulder.

This time, he saw one of her sickly eyes slide open a little and look at him. But before either of them could say anything, she was thrown into a coughing fit. Rib saw how she shook and knew she wasn’t well enough to leave.

She needs help, he feared. But what can I do?

Damara turned her head into her pillow as she coughed even more, the torchstone trembling against her neck.

She needs help.

He knew he should get someone, but the door to their room was closed. If he knocked it down he would only draw attention away from the real problem.

Come on, someone!

Rib whined as a dog would, louder, louder.

Soon there was knocking on the door, followed by urgent Huskhn words. When Damara only continued to cough, the servants came in, shooing Rib out of the room so they could crowd around the young woman.

He paced the hall, wondering what could be done. Even if Damara could get into his saddle, there was no way she could hold onto him flying, let alone bewitch the sea serpent and Memory.

We were so close!

He felt like cursing.

We’ve had too many failures. This must work.

Damara has to get better.

. . .

Rib watched from the floor as the servant stood from her chair, felt Damara’s forehead, and left the room. As usual, the door was left open for Rib to pass through as he pleased.

Is she better yet?

He peered at Damara half buried in bedding where she lay on her back. The color of her face had returned significantly in comparison to how pale she’d been a few days ago. Rib thought she could just as well be napping, judging by her smooth and even breathing.

Should I wake her?

Rib hated to disturb her rest after such a frightful sickness, but they were running out of time.

Maybe I should look for Memory first. We can’t leave without her.

But where haven’t I looked already? It’s like she disappeared with Zheal.

Since Damara had fallen ill, Rib hadn’t seen either one of them. He wasn’t even sure the Huskhn knew she’d been sick.

Maybe Damara knows where they could’ve gone.

Rib was about to nose her, but he hesitated. She just looked so peaceful.

Suddenly, a ghastly hiss sounded outside, distant but loud enough to carry through the room’s well insulated walls. Rib jerked his head back as Damara sat bolt upright, her light blue eyes wide open.

“The serpent,” she gasped, wasting no time to slip on her sandals and stand up. “How long has it been? We have to go now!”

“What- but,” Rib sputtered, taken aback by how quickly she awoke.

The screams of multiple people rose, followed by a terrible smashing sound.

It’s actually happening! The sea serpent’s attacking the port!

Damara pulled Rib over to her hidden stock pile and started emptying his saddle of nearly everything to make room for the necessities.

“Don’t take out the potion book!” Rib whispered, scared she would discard it in her haste.

“I know that,” she hissed back without pause.

Worn-out clothes, a purse of money, the firesap cure given to them by Gavin’s father…all were cast onto the bed.

Rib stared at the potion now useless to them, sadness slowing his fast-beating heart.

That was meant for Jacinth. For when everything was over.

We should have just cured her. Then she could have died in peace.

He only felt worse when he heard the sound of bells being extracted and discarded as well. They clinked as they hit the ground and Rib gazed down at them, remembering the time Gavin gave the first one to him so many months ago.

You are one odd dragon,’ his old friend’s humorous words echoed in his head. Rib had the impulse to pick the rusted bell up in his mouth and take it with him, but knew it’d only cause him trouble.

I won’t ever forget, he promised himself. And someday I will see Gavin again.

The feeling of Damara aggressively shoving food and gourds into the large compartments of his saddle aroused him from his gloomy state. The pile was soon packed away, topped with a large blanket from the bed. The young woman was just fumbling to fasten her belt around her waist when Captain Sprague burst in.

“Damara, you’re awake!” he exclaimed. “Hurry, your serpent’s gone out of control!”

“Where’s Zheal?” she demanded, pushing past him and into the hall. “Why didn’t he see this coming?”

“He left days ago,” Sprague stammered as he tripped after her. “To gather troops.”

What? Rib followed them out the room. And he took Memory with him?!

“Rib,” Damara ordered the moment she stepped outside. He sprang forward, letting her mount his saddle. As soon as he felt that she was ready, he flew towards the place where Damara and Zheal had crafted their magic, abandoning Sprague.

Rising over the surrounding houses, Rib could see the sea serpent tearing apart a large ship, its spiny body twisting grotesquely. People were swimming through the floating debris in a panic.

We should help them! Rib thought and began to go off course.

“Focus!” Damara yelled at him over the commotion.

Right, he remembered, correcting himself. We need to stop its attack.

Rib landed in front of the building and Damara rushed in. He stuck his head into the doorway, peering through his inner eyelids to see the magic inside. The hearth where dragon fire once burned was dead. Damara swept past it, straight to a sack full of magic.

“Wait!” Rib said as she came back with the bag in hand. “Take Zheal’s too so we can dump it.”

“It’s not here,” she answered. “Move.”

“What?” Rib stared around the room and saw that she was right. “Where’d it go?!”

“Don’t you see?” Damara growled, pushing against him until he moved out of the doorway. “He’s gone for the dragons in Wystil.”

No. Rib froze as she swung herself up into the saddle. Tide, Lynx, my siblings…He’s going to bewitch them all!

“But you told him not to!” he cried.

“Yes.” Damara sounded grim. “I told him it was too dangerous and now he’s stolen away to impress me.”

But why…he can’t…

The serpent gave another loud hiss, snapping Rib out of his shock.

We have to get to Wystil.

Without another moment’s hesitation, he flew directly for the shore, where archers loosed arrows on the water beast that wrecked the docks. Each arrow just glanced off the serpent’s ruddy orange scales.

Rib was careful to avoid them as he headed towards the great beast’s head. Straightening with a shipwreck in its jaws, the serpent locked its eyes on him and dropped the mess of wood and metal to the waves. Every one of its sharp teeth gleamed white in the morning sun, some with rope caught on them. Its tongue unfurled inside its gaping mouth.

Rib thought he glimpsed a body in the back of its throat before Damara threw her magic right at the beast. Rib held his breath, watching the large powder cloud billow between him and the sea serpent that inhaled just as it had before.

When it did, the serpent relaxed and stared expectantly at them. Rib wasted no time to land on its head so Damara could direct it away from Husk. The water surrounding them was littered with debris. Huskhns helped their fellow people out and away from the beach. The archers now held their bows loosely, staring up at Rib and Damara on the docile water beast.

“Which way?” Damara asked, hurrying down the bridge of the serpent’s nose for it to see her.

Rib concentrated on what direction Wystil should be and told her. Damara pointed the serpent in the same direction and it obeyed, swimming forward.

“Damara!” Sprague called from the port, but they quickly left him and everyone else behind.

Rib watched Husk and all its rocky mountains and red-leaved trees get smaller and smaller as the serpent glided swiftly through the waters. Damara moved back up to the crown of the beast’s head and sat against its webbed frill with a heavy sigh. The torchstone cast a fiery glow, like an ember on her pale skin.

We’ve done it, Rib thought. Dragon fire and the potion book…we have all we need for Wystil.

Except…Anxiety prickled his insides as he thought of Memory.

And Zheal, with his sack of powder.

What will we find when we get there?

Chapter 27

 

 

Rib paced the sea serpent’s crown.

It’s been a week. How long does it take to get from Husk to Wystil?

Is Zheal already there?

“Rib,” Damara said from the tip of the water beast’s snout as he peered past the webbing at her. With a blanket bunched over her shoulders, she pointed to the horizon. “Iceberg?”

Rib glided down to join her. In the distance, a peak of white poked out of the ocean like a single, misplaced mountain. Squinting, he could just barely make out the bluish shadows of the sides not facing the sun.

Water.

“It is,” he said.

Damara exhaled in relief. As the sea serpent approached the mound of floating ice, she turned to Rib and began untying all the empty gourds from his saddle.

“Would you fish for us?” she asked. “That biscuit was my last.”

“Yes,” Rib responded. “Of course.”

When they reached the iceberg, he glided Damara down to it, where she immediately began chipping away pieces with her knife to cram into her gourds. Rib watched her put shavings of ice in her mouth before gnawing at the frozen mound himself.

How refreshing the slow trickle of melt water was down his throat. He relished it, glad to have the taste of salty ocean mist washed from his tongue.

Alright, he sighed. I should fish.

He left Damara to her work and caught a few fish for himself, then brought one back to her. She sat on the iceberg with her blanket under her, waiting for him.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the freshly killed fish from his jaws. It impressed him how quickly she flayed it with her blade and picked out a bit of raw meat. She grimaced as she swallowed it, but continued eating, occasionally drawing a translucent bone from her mouth.

Humans eat so slow, Rib thought. Do they have to chew everything?

Watching her, he kneaded his claws into the ice and fought the urge to rush her.

“You’re anxious to leave,” Damara commented and tossed the half eaten fish to him, which he instinctively snapped up. She stood to stuff her gourds into his saddle. “You’re right, we should go.”

The serpent hovering right by them lowered its snout for Damara to climb up. Rib alighted on its dome, relieved as they headed on their way again.

“Rib.” Damara came to sit in front of him, looking him in the eye. “I don’t know what to expect when we get there. You have how many siblings? Six?”

“Yes.”

“So that’s five living in Wystil,” Damara calculated, “with Tide, Lynx, and Rosefinch. There are seven dragons in the upper kingdom, then?”

He nodded, fear tightening over his guts.

“Damara, what if Zheal takes my whole family?” he whispered hoarsely. “What if he takes everyone?”

She looked down, fiddling with her knife as she thought. Rib looked at the crystal pendant, their precious torchstone, on her neck and remembered how Zheal had smiled as he put it on her.

Would he…Rib wondered, a thought occurring to him. If she…

“You have to tell him to stop.”

Damara met his eyes. “He wouldn’t.”

“But he’s in love with you!” Rib blurted. “He wants you to marry him.”

The young woman snorted. “He’s in love with a lie, Rib. We’ve made a fool out of him. As soon as he realizes that, he’ll turn on us.”

“How can you be so sure? What if he changed for you?”

Damara laughed bitterly. Rib’s gaze fell on the glinting tip of her dagger, which she felt the sharp edge of with her thumb.

Right…She doesn’t think people can change.

Rib lay down wearily, seeing no use in arguing.

“Then what are you going to do?”

Damara gave a sigh and sheathed her knife.

“I just want to heal Catherine,” she murmured.

“You promised me…” Rib said. “Before we even left Wystil, you promised to help get my sister back.”

Damara closed her eyes.

“I know. But it might not be just your sister anymore.”

Rib stared at her, the downward turn of her lips, the remorse on her face.

She doesn’t think she can help me.

And if it’s true…If Zheal gets what he wants…

What can I even do?

. . .

“Why has it stopped? I didn’t order it to stop.”

Damara stood on the serpent’s snout, glaring into its eyes. The water beast’s head was still clouded with magic, Rib could tell, but it no longer looked at the young woman expectantly. Rather, it stared right through her, focusing on nothing at all. Rib flew a little ways away to gaze at it from a distance, just now realizing how gaunt its hunched body was.

“We’ve starved it!” he exclaimed. “It can’t go any further. We have to feed it now.”

“Feed it what?” Damara said. “It could eat a whale for every fish you catch.”

“We have to try.”

Rib circled over the waters until he spotted a fish, and dove for it. But when he brought it over, the sea serpent wouldn’t open its mouth. Even when Damara tried to get it to, it just didn’t seem to understand the command. Slowly, it slumped forward and Rib rushed to get Damara on his back.

The young woman cursed as the serpent began to fall forward, sinking head first.

No, no, no. Rib watched first its muzzle disappear, then its dulled eyes, followed by its withered frills. One by one, the spiny arches of its body relaxed completely, flattening out before slipping under. We drove it to death!

Rib stared at the place it had just been, horrified to be left with nowhere to land. His wings beat frantically at the thought of it.

“We’ll have to fly the rest of the way,” Damara growled. “We’ve been traveling for over two weeks. It can’t be far now.”

But what if it is? Rib feared. Will I be driven to death too?!

“Come on!” his rider urged.

Swallowing, he turned for Wystil’s direction and flew at a steady pace, eyes straining for any sort of speck in the distance. The waves rolling below looked hungry to swallow him and Damara and everything they’ve worked for.

Please, he thought. Let us be close…

. . .

This is amazing.

Rib stared around at the thousands of stars spattered across the night sky as he flew. Mysterious light streams of green and pink swirled above him, distracting him from his monotonous labor.

Hours ago, when his vision was red with the setting sun, he’d been struggling to keep on, the idea of giving into exhaustion making rounds in his head. Then, it was as though his body had clicked into some sort of survival endurance, matching his actions to a natural rhythm.

Beat one, two, three, glide…Beat one, two, three, glide…

Every time he threw his wings down, the air was pushed from his lungs. And every time he lifted them up for another stroke, his lungs were filled. He could feel his heart pounding faithfully inside his chest, giving him a sense of wonder and gratitude.

I never knew I could fly for this long.

Rib gazed up at the pure white moon occasionally swept over by the strange colorful glow. It was so round and perfect, he thought. It inspired him.

This was the first time on this trip that he knew exactly what he was doing. On his back, he carried the highly anticipated cure, and in his head, he carried the knowledge of which way to go. Everyone was depending on him.

He felt like a hero.

All the while that he flew, Damara remained silent, but that was just as well. He was afraid that talking might break his pattern anyway.

She must be impressed, though, he took pride in himself.

Rib thought he should try and formulate a plan, except he had no idea what was happening in Wystil. All he knew was that he should first give Damon the torchstone and potion book, so he could craft the plague cure. Then he would find out what Tyrone was doing, if Zheal had already captured more dragons, how he should save them.

Despite the many things left unknown, Rib felt optimistic. Something in the crisp, night air gave him the hope that all would be well.

This spirited mood lasted him a while, until the winds picked up and Rib was able to simply soar in the direction he needed to go. With this change, he found himself growing drowsy, wings fixed open, breath slow and deep.

The mystical streams of light had gone from the sky and a fog rolled in to blot out all the stars and even the moon. Rib’s eyes became half-hooded and unfocused as there was nothing left to engage them. He entered into a kind of trance, heading onward without thinking about it. He was barely aware of the black waves beneath him, the thick fog he sliced through, the sound of far-off thunder. He was, in fact, dozing on wing.

You’ve come a long way, Rib. In his open-eyed dream state, he saw Gavin running swiftly over the pitch dark water. Taking a casual, twisting leap whenever the waves sent up a spray before him, his friend spoke in a melodic voice. I hope you know that.

Gleaming celestial pink and green, an infinite number of monigon hounds raced with him in sailing bounds. They summersaulted over the furl of waves and sprung from transparent icebergs that rose to the surface.

They continued this for an indeterminate period of time, then dove under and disappeared, leaving Gavin alone to sprint his last stretch across the ocean.

I’m proud of you, old friend. With a fleeting wave, the young man took his own dive into the water.

Rib’s bizarre hallucinations dimmed to form a shadowy tunnel around him, leaving nothing but a soft white opening for him to fly towards.

Only when the screech of a sea wyvern pierced through the thinning fog did Rib start awake and lose the tunnel vision.

I’ve been flying all this time? He stared around in wonder at himself. How long has it been?

Peering through the mist, he saw that the stars had paled and the sky was now lightening up.

Morning already! I flew through the night!

Another sea wyvern screeched nearby, followed by the squabbling of a gull.

Wait. Rib blinked as the two winged creatures went sparring past him, feather against scale. If they’re here, then…we must be near land!

As the sun began to show its bright and burning dome, the last of the mist was cleared away and Rib gawked at the sight of Wystil ahead, hearteningly close.

“Damara!” he exclaimed. “We made it!”

She must have been asleep, for he felt her stir in the saddle before her legs grew tense against his sides.

“We did?” Her voice sounded disbelieving at first, then with a laugh, she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Rib, you saved us.”

Saved us? Rib was taken aback. Is she actually embracing me?

It was so unexpected, he didn’t even know how to respond.

Above Wystil hung a massive storm that flickered with lightning bolts. Dark grey appeared to be smeared from the clouds to the land, a tell-tale sign of heavy rain.

Rib beat his wings hard when a strong wind suddenly assaulted him from the side, as if to throw him. The ocean below was licked into restless glassy waves, spitting up foam.

Whoa, Rib thought as he fought to stay on course for the very last stretch. It’s a good thing this weather hit us so close to shore!

The more he had to wrestle with the wind, the more aware he became of the terrible aching in his muscle and bones. But at last he reached land, now subject to the impressive downpour of the storm. Immediately, he alighted on the edge of the sheer cliffs, which shook with the waves smashing against their bases.

The ache in his body was now almost unbearable. He collapsed on the sodden ground, watching through the rain while Damara leapt off his back and stood with head raised to the sky. The torchstone glowed a healthy orange around her neck. Her clothes and hair were already soaked through, but she didn’t seem to care. She just laughed, teeth flashing white in the hefty shower.

To Rib’s right were the mountains separating them from Cliffport and the rest of the kingdom. He’d decided to land here in case the Huskhns were by the docks. On the other side of him was a creek that flooded right off the cliff to descend in a waterfall, bent and swept up by the coastal wind.

I’m so sore, he groaned inwardly, letting his head roll on its side where he lay like a heavy piece of driftwood. How was I able to fly so far?

Damara came and crouched before him, her face now serious. Water dripped off her freckled nose and sharp chin. With blue eyes as pale as the rain, she studied him.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes,” he moaned. “But I could lie here for days…”

The young woman furrowed her brow.

“Rib, we need to get to Damon.”

“In this weather?”

“We’ve been gone for months. If you want, I’ll take the book and go. You need rest.”

“No…” Rib’s limbs trembled as he tried to lift himself up off the ground. He barely got halfway before a throbbing pang forced him back down. Crumpling into the mud, Rib felt almost as useless as he had when the muffle moths’ dust crippled him. He looked up at Damara, who now took the potion book from his saddle and shielded it from the rain.

“Wait,” he whimpered. “I don’t want you to go alone. The Huskhns could be there.”

“Which is why you should stay.” She gave him a slight smile. “I’ll be fine.”

“Damara!” he called after her as she turned and began heading up along the surging creek. The unyielding ache of his body wouldn’t even allow him to lift his head to watch her disappear into the downpour.

Soon she was gone and Rib turned his face into the puddled ground, angry at himself for not being able to follow her, fearful as he thought of Zheal somewhere out there.

Now I’m utterly alone, he cried into the mud and leaf litter. And too weak to do anything.

Chapter 28

 

 

Rib slowly awoke to the continued sound of rain. Water drops drummed on the leather of his wings and tapped his scales. It plopped in the puddles surrounding him and hit him square in the eyes as he opened them.

Blinking away the blurriness, he gazed at the ever gushing creek before him, his mind beginning to clear up from his sleep.

So sore…

His limbs were tucked under him, tingling terribly. He had to roll his entire body over to move them, and even then they felt like dead, useless appendages. It took him a great deal of effort to flex his foreclaws in experimentation.

Damara! he thought suddenly. With a heave, he forced his legs to work and stood up in the fall shower. Slick, reddish leaves from the nearby forest stuck to his chin, but he shook them off.

She went for Damon. How long have I been lying here?

Rib squinted up at the storm clouds still stewing overhead, rain pattering his face. He couldn’t tell where the sun was, although it was apparent that some time had passed, considering how much the coastal winds and waves crashing against the cliffs had died down.

I need to get to the hunting lodge, he determined. His wings almost seemed to groan as he lifted them up from the mud. Water that had been pooling in the folds of their membrane now dribbled off them like rain from roofs.

With exhaustion dogging his every move, Rib managed to lug himself into the air and beat his wings over the creek that raced through the autumn woods below. When he reached the mountain range ahead, he followed a valley all the way to the other side, into the upper kingdom of Wystil.

Here, he was alert for any humans or dragons that may be near, keeping his eyes and ears tuned past the rain. No one appeared to be around as he glided over fields and more forest towards the hunting lodge.

Zheal knows where Damon lives, Rib reminded himself anxiously. He’s been here before.

Though he flew at a slow pace, it was not long before he saw the clearing where Tyrone and Damon’s homes stood, and he proceeded as silently as possible. Alighting on the hunting lodge’s roof without a sound, he was relieved to see no warriors or bewitched dragons about.

In fact, there in the hut, he spotted Damara and the Wizard, busily at work crafting the plague cure, no doubt. Also inside was a healthy flame of dragon fire, Rib’s inner eyelids confirmed.

He was just about to swoop down to join them when someone called his name.

Rib turned his head to see Tide fly in and land beside him.

“I was just about to come for you,” the teal dragon said. “Damara says you flew all night?”

Rib barely nodded, too stirred by the sight of his mentor to speak.

He’s alright…Maybe Zheal hasn’t even come yet.

Then where is Memory?

Rib opened his mouth to ask what was happening, but Tide interrupted him, saying, “Come into the stablehouse so Tyrone can get that saddle off your back.”

He followed without protest, knowing there he could get answers for the questions beginning to blossom inside his head.

Did Damara tell them everything that’s happened? Do they know there are Huskhns after them with powder that can bewitch dragons? What should we do?

“Rib’s here!” Tide called as he entered the stablehouse with Rib close behind. Here, the rain was blocked out by the roof and Rib was heartened to see Tyrone feeding the horses, which ate, indifferent to the appearance of two dragons.

The woodsman turned to them and smiled warmly.

“Rib,” he said, approaching. “Damara tells me she abandoned you on the coast. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Rib answered quickly. “What else did she tell you?”

“Everything,” Tyrone assured as he lifted his hands to the straps clasped over the dragon’s chest. “But we were already well aware of the Huskhns’ being here.”

So they are here!

“Where?” Rib sputtered. “What are they doing?”

There was a sudden release of pressure when Tyrone undid the saddle’s main belt buckle and its leather straps dangled at Rib’s sides. Even after months of wearing the gear, his hide wasn’t at all chafed, his scales tough and uniform. With the saddle he’d grown so used to then lifted off his back, Rib felt as though a part of him had been removed. But at the same time, it was a liberating sensation to be freed of the thing.

“Hiding in ghost towns near the Swaine,” Tyrone replied, hanging the well-worn saddle on its hook. “Apparently they’re waiting to challenge us once this storm clears. The rain has been here since they’ve arrived, so they can’t send up any powder clouds.”

Good. Rib exhaled. So no one’s been bewitched.

But Memory…

“My sister?” he urged. “Is she there too?”

“Yes.” Tide stepped into the conversation. “I spied her with Zheal in the camp.”

“We have to go save her!” Rib blurted. “While the rain’s still coming down.”

“I know,” Tyrone said, crossing his arms. “But there are well over two dozen warriors there. I’ve already sent Ivory for Lynx and your brother’s gone for your other siblings. We must wait for them.”

“What if it’s too late by then?” Rib objected. “Once the rain ends, Zheal will just bewitch us all!”

“These autumn downpours last for weeks,” the man replied. “It’d be wiser to trust in that than our ability to defeat an entire troop alone.”

“Damon could craft us something to help us win,” Rib argued.

“Wystil needs him to craft the cure,” Tyrone said. “As soon as he’s finished with the one for Damara, he’s going to the castle where he can make enough for the whole kingdom. The plague can’t be ignored.”

Rib clenched his teeth.

But Memory…

“We won’t let your sister down, Rib,” Tide promised him, and Tyrone nodded.

He met their firm gaze. Outside, the rain picked up, battering the roof above their heads. It didn’t sound like it would be stopping anytime soon.

With a deep breath, Rib nodded as well.

“I believe you.”

Memory’s too close to be lost now.

Chapter 29

 

 

“Rib?”

Rib stirred on the stablehouse floor where he had fallen asleep, sheltered by the ongoing rain. Somewhere behind him, a horse whinnied in its stall. He opened his eyes to see Damara standing in the doorway, soaked with a flask in her hands.

“Damara!” he said and stood to meet her. His body was feeling better rested now, though the soreness was still very much present.

The young woman didn’t meet his gaze. “I’m sorry I left you. We’d have drowned if you hadn’t flown us here. Thank you for that.”

Rib didn’t reply, but was grateful for her words. Peering through his inner eyelids, he saw that the flask in her hands contained a sort of magic he’d never seen before.

“Is that the cure?” he asked.

Damara bit her lip and nodded. “Do you think you could give me one more ride? I understand if you’re too tired from the other night…”

“I’d be happy to,” Rib answered.

It’s time you get home and heal your brother’s wife.

Damara gave him a small smile, but a look of worry hid behind her eyes. Rib wondered if they were watery from the rain or tears.

“I live in Rookton,” she said, not bothering with the saddle on the wall before hoisting herself up onto him. “It’s somewhat near the castle. I’ll direct you there.”

Bareback, just like when I first gave her a ride, he thought, exiting the stablehouse and taking flight once more. So much has happened since then.

Rib mulled over all they’d gone through together over the past seasons. So many plans they’d made to replace the failed ones. Schemes and proposals gone awry. Now they were finally back and Rib didn’t know how to feel.

He supposed if they both got what they’d been working for in the end, it’d be alright.

Damara guided him into lower Wystil over wet towns and villages full of weary-looking people that didn’t seem to see them flying in the rain overhead. Not a muffle moth could be seen in the crops below or anywhere else, just as Tyrone had told him earlier. The insects themselves were gone, but the number of people they left plagued was serious.

Soon Damon will have them all cured.

Rib descended on a small town by a forest of yellow and red. Landing on the outskirts, he watched Damara dismount and step before a house, flask in hand. She stood slightly trembling, staring at the building exquisitely detailed around the borders with moulded designs. The windows were dark. There was no light inside.

Instead of entering, Damara’s fingers tightened over the flask and with a faltering voice, she called, “Xander?”

Is anyone there?

A clattering came from within, followed by staggering footsteps towards the door, which opened. There appeared a man somewhat older than Damara, dark brown hair disheveled, eyes staring back at the young woman as though she were a ghost. He took no notice of Rib, but lurched forward to embrace her tight.

“Damara, thank God!” he sobbed into her shoulder. His hands gripped the young woman so firmly, it was like he was afraid she’d disappear in his arms. “I thought I lost you both…”

Both.

The word set in Rib’s mind like a heavy stone.

No. It can’t be…

Damara’s narrow frame was still a moment, then she dropped the cure to the puddled ground and let out a strained, wavering note. Xander was the only one left holding her up as her knees gave way beneath her.

“Cath,” Damara cried. “I’m too late. I’ve failed!”

Failed.

This is what she set out for…

And she’s failed.

Rib turned away. He couldn’t watch any longer. The despair in her voice, the sight of brother and sister weeping in one another’s clutch…It was unbearable.

How can so much work and devotion be in vain?

Her one ambition gone to dust?

Without a glance back, he took flight and left them to their grieving, thinking of nothing else now but his own ambition.

Memory. I have to see her.

I won’t let her be my failure.

. . .

Where is she?

Rib crouched on the banks of the Swaine, mostly hidden by the grassy slope which he peered from at the Huskhn camp close by. Through the rain, he saw the broken, black buildings of the ghost town and warriors moving about between them, but not Memory. Not even Zheal could be seen.

With heart pounding, Rib slunk along the river for a better view point.

She must be here.

I can’t lose her.

Growing ever more anxious, he crept up the bank towards the town, where a half-crumbled house would conceal him as he got a closer look. His feet pressed into the sodden ground, leaving clear prints, but Rib didn’t care. He just wanted to be sure his sister was alright.

“Rib?”

Nearly jumping out of his scales, the dragon wheeled around to see Zheal suddenly behind him on Memory. With ashen face, the Huskhn dismounted and gaped at him.

“What are you doing here?” Zheal breathed, almost to himself.

Memory looked delighted to see Rib, bounding forward to skip around him in the puddles. But his relief to see her was shrouded by the dread of being caught.

What have I done?!

Zheal came closer and stared up at Rib, eyes widened in undeniable fear.

“Where’s Damara?”

Chapter 30

 

 

I shouldn’t have come here, Rib thought over and over. I should have just waited!

Zheal paced feverishly in front of him, muttering Huskhn words to himself. He pulled at his white leather gloves and scraped wet black locks out of his face every time they got dragged down by the rain.

How could I sneak away? I’d sooner lead them straight to Tyrone than escape.

I really shouldn’t have come here!

Memory, clearly unaware of the anxiety Rib tried so hard to conceal, purred as she often did, rubbing her flanks against him like a cat. Huskhn warriors were gathering to see their leader in such turmoil. Once, they said something to him, but he yelled in response and they fell silent.

For the third or so time, Zheal collected himself before advancing on Rib and ordering with carefully controlled voice, “Take me to Damara.”

His love is tormenting him.

Yet again, Rib gazed back at the young man with his best face of ignorance, though he felt the fear in Zheal’s eyes reflected his own.

He has powder with him.

How am I supposed to get away with Memory?

“Dumb beast!” the Huskhn cursed under his breath and turned back to his pacing. Rib took the chance to use his inner eyelids and stare around for the bewitchment magic, wherever it may be.

If I could just ruin it, then-

Oh, no…

There, he saw the powder inside a drawstring purse that hung from Zheal’s belt, safely sheltered under the man’s thick fur cloak.

How am I supposed to spill that[_?_]

He’ll bewitch me as soon as he realizes what I’m doing!

Even in the rain, Rib had no doubt the powder could be forced on him at such close quarters.

Memory now begged for his attention, butting him in the shoulder and dipping down in a pup-like invitation to play with tail swishing behind her.

Maybe I can get her to chase me out of here, Rib thought suddenly. Would she ignore Zheal’s call if for a game? So long as he isn’t on her back, the Huskhns would never be able to catch us.

But they’d still have the powder…

Rib deemed it worth a try, nonetheless, batting back at his sister, who sprung up in excitement and began tearing around him. Twice, she slipped in the mud but leapt to her feet again. Three times, her scurrying sent a spray of puddle water up to drench the nearby Huskhns.

“Tairg!” Zheal yelled at her and she skid to a halt.

No! Don’t listen to him.

Rib playfully nipped and tugged on Memory’s wing.

Come with me…

His sister hesitated until Zheal ordered her to his side, then crept over, peering apologetically at Rib from behind the man who stepped forward.

“So you’ve come to play, have you?” Zheal asked in a low voice, glaring at Rib. “Abandoned your master for a little game?”

The Huskhn picked up a rock the size of his hand.

Rib jumped back right when the man hurled it at him.

What?!

The stone flew past him to hit a crumbling wall with a loud crack.

“Go on!” Zheal shouted, taking up another rock. “Find Damara!”

Memory made a series of distressed sounds as more Huskhns began throwing rocks at Rib, who leapt behind a broken house.

They’re stoning me!

The rocks that hit him did little to hurt his tough scaled hide, but the malice behind the Huskhns’ actions frightened him.

What should I do?!

Rib stared around through the downpour.

If I fly away, Zheal will follow me on Memory.

But if I stay here, who knows what they’ll do to me!

Then, perched on a wall beside him, Rib spotted a marble white wyvern peering at him with scarlet eyes.

“Ivory!” he gasped. “Get Tyrone! The Huskhns are after me!”

To his relief, the winged monigon spread her wings and took off to disappear in the rain.

“You talk?”

Rib wheeled about to see Zheal mounted on Memory, staring at him in shock.

Oh no. Rib couldn’t keep the alarm off his face now. He’s found me out!

The Huskhn’s expression then changed from disbelief to dread.

“What have you done with Damara?” he uttered, touching the bag of magic at his side. Soon, his warriors came around the bend behind him, axe, spear, shield in hand.

Oh no, Rib thought again and backed away. [_ They’ll bewitch me- or worse! _]

“What have you done with her?!” Zheal thundered and delved his hand into his bag. A fistful of powder he drew out, but when he cast it towards Rib, the rain immediately doused it out of the air.

Nonetheless, Rib turned and retreated down the street. He wanted to flee the town, but knew Memory would be made to follow after him and didn’t think he could fight Zheal alone. That would require close contact- exactly what Zheal needed to bewitch him.

This is where Tyrone and the others will come, Rib thought, the shouts of Huskhns behind him. I need help!

He assumed since Ivory had just been here, she must’ve found Lynx already. Hopefully by now Rib’s brother was back with the rest of their siblings, too. Rib was sure once they found out he was at the Huskhns’ camp, they’d agree it was time to act.

Together, we can stop these Huskhns, Rib thought for sure, dodging between buildings as he was chased. He found it easy to evade the warriors that charged and yelled after him.

Zheal was the real problem. Carrying him, Memory looked timid in the pursuit, but the man drove her mercilessly and she leapt after Rib with speed and agility.

Rib slid his inner lids over his eyes so he could better react, should the Huskhn try to use his magic again.

I need to ruin his powder. If I could just put a hole through that bag, it would all pour out and turn to muck.

But how do I get so close to him?

Rib tried to think of ways to avoid being bewitched as he continued to race around the town. Holding his breath sounded too risky on its own.

Memory, if only you understood what’s happening!

You could throw him off your back and pin him to the ground.

Rib cleared a wall, an idea suddenly striking him.

I should just snatch him up in my talons, keep my head well away, and drop him in the river!

He saw no flaw in the plan, and so he changed direction, thinking he would draw Memory to the town square where he would have plenty of room to turn on Zheal. But the moment he rounded a corner, a warrior caught him by surprise with a heavy mace to the head.

The blow was solid and Rib staggered to the side, his skull throbbing, his sight blurred. He may have heard Memory give a cry before the warrior bashed him with his shield and he buckled to the ground, his muzzle submerged in the puddle before him.

Rib watched through unfocused eyes as his attacker standing over him was shoved aside by Zheal, now dismounted. He could feel something prodding him, perhaps Memory. It was hard for him to think. Little bubbles rose in the water from his nostrils while his lungs ever so slowly compressed beneath his weight.

Need to breathe…

Leering above him, Zheal gave some sort of command to the assembling Huskhns, reaching his hand into his bag. Rib felt someone straddle his neck and grip him under the jaw line to lift his snout from the puddle.

Wait…the powder…

Just then, an enlivened roar reverberated through the town and the men lifted their heads to the stormy sky as none other than Lynx swooped towards them. On his back was a man fully suited in armor with a long lance at the ready. The visor of the knight helm he wore covered his face, but it was obviously Tyrone.

They’ve come! Rib’s mind finally found itself again.

With a great outward breath of freezing air, Lynx turned rain drops to ice shards that struck the Huskhns like stinging wasps. Shouting, the warriors lifted their shields and ran for cover. Zheal commanded Memory to his side and mounted her saddle, quickly surrounded by protective guards as he himself drew his fine sword.

Rib couldn’t see any of his siblings other than Memory, but his mentor came and landed before him, taking a fighting stance against the warriors that advanced.

“Rib, are you alright?” Tide asked, mouth muffled by the spear shaft he bit down on and snapped with a jerk of his head. The Huskhn whose weapon it was dropped his broken end and retreated.

“Yes!” Rib exclaimed in exasperation, jumping back as warriors now thrust their blades and metal tips at him. “But my sister!”

Memory was shrinking back from all the fighting, though from atop her back Zheal looked like he wanted to kill someone. With fierce expression, he glared at Rib especially, sword held still and prepared.

“We aren’t leaving without her,” Tide assured Rib and bowled a Huskhn over with a whip of his tail. Still more men surrounded him, but Rib’s mentor could clearly hold his own, dodging their attacks and getting past their defenses to take them out.

Rib beat his wings and hovered above to figure out how he should help. Warriors grouped in three places, some around Tide, others guarding Zheal, and the rest trying to strike down Lynx and Tyrone.

The icebreather was still assailing Huskhns from the air, blasting them with ice splinters before clawing and biting them when he was closest to the ground. At the same time, Tyrone thrust his lance at the men that targeted Lynx’s wings and flanks.

“Lynx!” Tyrone shouted from behind his metal visor. “You’ve wounded him enough!”

Lynx spat out the Huskhn unhappily. “But look,” the dragon complained as the injured man dragged himself away. “He’s still moving!”

This is gruesome! Rib was appalled, seeing how more and more puddles turned red from the blood of grounded Huskhns. Some warriors got back up when they were knocked down, while others tried to get out from under the boots of their comrades and escape Lynx’s ice attacks.

Rib watched with the one desire for it all to stop. But the Huskhns were still putting up a good fight and it was clear the only way to stop them would be to defeat them.

But if we just get Memory, we can leave the fight.

Looking at his sister, his heart flipped inside his chest when he saw that Zheal was forcing her through the crowd to Tide. The teal dragon was so focused on his battling that Rib feared he would accidentally hurt Memory if she was driven too close.

Though Zheal had his sword out, its blade splashed by the rain, the Huskhn appeared more preoccupied with grabbing magic from his bag. Rib stared at the man whose eyes fixed on the teal dragon.

He’s going to bewitch Tide!

Immediately, Rib dove towards Zheal, barreling through a couple warriors in the process. Just as the Huskhn looked ready to make his move on Tide, Rib slammed into him and tore him out of Memory’s saddle to pin him to the ground.

The young man dropped his sword before his back slapped against the mud.

I did it!

Rib saw the bag of magic on Zheal’s belt soaked through by a puddle and met the Huskhn’s eyes. Zheal stared up at him in fear for a split second, then threw his free arm at Rib’s face, opening his fist to release a handful of powder.

What?!

Rib’s first reaction was to gasp when the dust enveloped his snout before the rain even touched it.

He took in a breath of the magic and slowly relaxed, fastening his gaze expectantly on Zheal beneath him.

“Let me up,” the Huskhn ordered.

Let him up.

Rib stepped back and watched Zheal stand.

Throwing off his sopping fur cloak, the man called for his dragon steed, Tairg. Zheal recovered his sword and sheathed it before mounting the beast.

The sounds of fighting still rang out around them, but Rib kept his eyes on his bewitcher, who now stared intensely at him from the saddle.

“Take me to Damara,” Zheal demanded. “And by my sword, she’d better be alive.”

Take him to Damara.

Rib turned his body for the town Rookton and took to the air without another thought. Zheal came beside him on his dragon and they soared over Swaine River.

A voice called after them, but was abruptly cut off.

Take him to Damara.

Rib led on into the lower kingdom, stopped by nothing and no one.

Rookton would soon be on the horizon, and there, his target would be.

Damara.

Chapter 31

 

 

Damara’s house.

Damara was here.

Rib stood in front of the dark detailed building, waiting for Zheal who’d went inside. The Huskhn’s dragon steed was nudging Rib with her muzzle, but he didn’t look at her. When she put her face in front of his, eyes soft, he moved and continued to watch the doorway as Zheal had commanded.

Soon the Huskhn came out, empty handed.

“If you’ve killed her, I swear I’ll thrust my sword down your throat,” he snarled, stalking up to Rib with a maddened look in his eye. “Where is she?”

Damara is not here.

Where is she?

Rib stood still, unable to think of possibilities, unable to answer.

Zheal cursed.

“Find her,” he ordered, and mounted his beast’s saddle.

Find her.

Rib had no sense of smell to track her with, but listened attentively and swept his eyes through the outskirts of town. No one else could be seen. The streets were muddy. Hail began to pelt down on them.

In the distance, through the fall of a million ice pellets, Rib picked up a voice. It sounded like the man he had left Damara with. Her brother, calling her name.

Damara.

Rib flew after the voice with Zheal and his dragon. It led him into the nearby forest of red and yellow, past a tall white pine, to a sheer rock cliff. At the base of it was the man speaking up to Damara, who lay cradled in the notch of a boulder, face turned towards the oncoming hail with eyes closed.

“Damara,” her brother called to her. “Stop punishing yoursel- What?!” He cut off as Rib glided to the top of the cliff where Damara was. “Hey!”

At this, the young woman opened her eyes to Rib standing over her. Little spheres of ice were caught in her hair, whiter than the parts of her eyes reddened from crying. One glimpse of him and she jerked herself upright, exclaiming, “Xander!”

But it was too late. Zheal already stood behind her brother and struck him on the head with the hilt of his sword. It was a brutal blow. Xander was knocked to the ground, where Zheal stepped on his chest, holding the tip of his blade to the man’s throat.

“Who are you?” the Huskhn demanded.

“Zheal!” Damara leapt to her feet with dagger drawn. “Get off my brother!”

Zheal looked up at her.

“Damara.” He let his arm slacken a little, bringing his sword farther away from her brother’s throat. As soon as he had, Xander tried to thrust him off, but Zheal kicked him in the face.

Damara screamed in fury and moved as if to jump down, but Zheal ordered Rib to catch her. Rib quickly had the young woman in his clutch and the Huskhn below mounted his dragon steed, who quivered with fear.

“Damara!” Xander cried out as Rib carried her away, following Zheal as he was ordered to.

The young woman shouted and struggled, but even with a dagger her fight was ineffective. Once, she stabbed at Rib’s foreclaw, but it glanced off his talon and fell from her hand, lost to the ground below. Rib took her all the way to Cliffport, where people stared in horror and cleared from the dock as the two dragons descended.

Zheal had his steed land on a large Huskhn ship. Another Huskhn met him on the deck as he dismounted, exchanging words. Rib brought Damara close but did not set her down until his bewitcher told him to.

When he did, Damara threw herself at Zheal with fists clenched, yelling, “You struck my brother, you cur!”

Zheal stepped back for the other man to catch her. Though she cursed and kicked, the Huskhn wrestled her arms behind her back without much trouble.

In time, she gave up the struggle, slumping in the stranger’s grasp, her string of curses now melting into sobs.

Zheal stared at her a moment longer, then ordered Rib to land where shackles lay attached to the deck. When Rib did so, the young man quickly fastened chained metal clasps around the dragon’s legs and tail, bound his wings with rope, and locked his head in a wooden framework stand.

Having finished this, Zheal stood back and studied him.

Rib returned his gaze with a slow blink.

The Huskhn’s expression hardened as his dragon steed crept forward to nose Rib with a whine.

“Tairg!” Zheal barked at her and she cowered away.

Leaning in with his hands against the wooden brace around Rib’s neck, the young man glared into the dragon’s eyes.

“I don’t know what you did to make Damara like this,” he hissed. “But I promise I’ll wait until you can understand exactly what I’m doing when I punish you.”

He tapped a finger hard on Rib’s temple. “Won’t be long now.”

Rib gave another slow blink.

“Let me go,” Damara wept from behind and Rib saw Zheal’s eyes soften before he turned back to her.

“I don’t understand,” the young man said, approaching her carefully. “How did you get here from Husk? Why are you behaving like this?”

Damara didn’t answer but hung her head in the drizzle with another soft cry.

“Do you even know?” Zheal asked, kneeling to stroke her hair comfortingly.

She jerked herself away, though the other man still held tight to her arms.

Zheal took his hand back, and stood again, shoulders slackening.

“Where is your torchstone?” he murmured. “Rib made you get rid of it, didn’t he?”

Rib saw how the young woman hardly kept herself up, with knees bent and upper body slouched. If the stranger behind her were to let go, she’d probably drop on the deck. As she choked on another wave of tears, Rib felt a touch of sympathy stir inside of him.

“Hey, it’s alright,” Zheal hushed her and touched her sleeve. “Look, he soiled my powder too. This is what he’d been scheming. Him and that heinous Dragon Knight. He fooled us both, Damara.”

What…?

Rib’s eyes grew as he began to gain his thoughts back. With a gasp, he came to realize what trouble he was in, shackled to a ship with his head in a frame. The most he could do was squirm and jangle his chains.

Zheal peered back at him, a loathsome flash in his eyes.

“But he’ll pay,” the Huskhn uttered.

What?! Rib tried in vain to pull his head from the brace.

Beside Zheal, Damara looked up just barely. Wet, brown hair hung in front of her freckled face, but Rib could see her expression full of anguish. He stared back at her in fear.

What’s going to happen to us?

Then, something changed in her eyes and she looked past him. Rib startled at the sound of small talons taking hold of the wood next to his ear. He strained to see a white wyvern perched there, peering at him.

Ivory!

“Rib,” the wyvern spoke in Tyrone’s hushed voice. “Where are you? Do you need help?”

Tyrone’s alright!

“Yes!” Rib exclaimed as footsteps quickened towards him. “Zheal has me at Cliffport with my sister and Da-”

The words stuck in his throat when Zheal was suddenly there, seizing Ivory before she could fly away. The wyvern lashed her thin tail, pecked and nipped at the young man’s gloved hand, but he only gripped her tighter.

“Stop!” Rib cried as the wyvern screeched in pain, a cry of her own.

But with one quick motion, Zheal wrung her neck and dropped her to the floor.

“No!” Rib stared at Ivory’s lifeless body, stark white against the damp wood of the deck. A few sun beams now poked through the clouds overhead, making her beady eyes glint like fallen rubies.

“Not this time,” Zheal growled and scuffed the dead wyvern aside with his boot. “No Dragon Knight. No allies.”

Memory crouched down before Ivory with a mournful sniff.

Damara’s gave another choked and muffled sob.

Zheal took one glance back at her, then glowered at Rib, drawing his sword from its scabbard with a frightful shing.

“Hear how you make her cry?” the Huskhn muttered. “You betrayed her love for you.”

Rib gaped at the glaring metal of the blade as Zheal turned it expertly in his hand.

“Frankly I wouldn’t keep you even if I had the powder to control you.”

The Huskhn brought the tip of his sword up to Rib’s face, so close that it blurred in Rib’s vision.

He’s going to kill me!

“No,” Rib rasped, trying desperately now to pull his head from the framework, but it only strained his muscles. “No…”

“Zheal,” Damara wept and struggled against the stranger holding her. “Don’t!”

The Huskhn’s expression was grim. He did not lower his sword.

“He’s not what we thought he was,” Zheal told Damara. “Soon we’ll be back in Husk and we can forget about all that’s happened here.”

“You’re wrong!” Damara shouted. “I’m not who you thought I was. I made a fool of you, Zheal!”

She’s telling him that?!

Rib couldn’t see the young woman behind Zheal, but he saw the Huskhn Heir blink twice, troubled. His grip on his sword slackened somewhat.

Is it working? Will he stop? For her?

“It was all a ruse!” Damara kept on. “My ruse. I was never going to marry you.”

At this, Zheal’s eyes narrowed and he clenched the hilt of his sword tighter still.

What has she done?! Now he’s going to kill us both!

Again, Zheal fixed his fierce gaze on Rib.

“What have you threatened her with to make her lie so desperately?” he hissed. “You’re cleverer than I thought. No matter. You have no hold on her I can’t break, serpent.”

“No,” Rib tried to protest once more, but fear twisted his tongue in knots. “Nnn…”

Though the young woman cried again for him to stop, Zheal brought his sword back, readying to thrust Rib through.

I’m going to die!

Rib nearly snapped something in his neck in one last attempt to wrench himself free.

It was no use. He watched the blade come.

And then-

In a flash, Zheal disappeared from in front of his eyes.

What…

It was Memory. She’d tackled the Huskhn Heir, throwing him to the floor.

There was a sound of hard impact when the back of his skull hit a piece of iron bolted to the deck. The young man made not a sound himself, staring blindly up at Memory, his motionless body pinned beneath her claws.

Rib blinked at the empty space before him, the place where Zheal and his sword had just been.

Memory…saved me…

The Huskhn holding Damara dropped her in a rush to help Zheal, but Damara slammed all her weight into him from the side. With a simultaneous tilt of the ship from the waves, the man was sent overboard.

Actually saved me…

Damara peered past the sides of the ship at the man who splashed and shouted below, then hurried to where Zheal lay.

Memory lifted her foreclaws off the young man and nudged his stricken, unresponsive face. Long black hair stuck to his dusky skin. The hands once so close to ending Rib’s life now rested on chains of empty shackles, useless.

Is he dead?

Did Memory kill him?

When Damara knelt beside Zheal and shooed Rib’s uneasy sister away, she did not check for his pulse or listen for his breathing, but took a key from his vest and stood.

The other Huskhn found a way to climb up on the dock, but Damara picked up Zheal’s sword in warning and with one glance at her, Memory, and Zheal’s motionless body, the stranger hurried away. All the staring bystanders Rib hadn’t noticed until now made way for him without a word.

This is it, Rib thought. We’re safe…

Sighing, Damara dropped the sword and crouched beside Rib, unlocking each of his shackles. He felt her loosen the rope around his body to free his wings. Coming around to his front, she worked on the brace around his neck.

Rib looked at her face as she fiddled with the latch holding both pieces of the frame in place. She kept her light, serious eyes on her hands, with which she undid another lock. Her lips formed a thin line.

This is the second time someone bewitched me and had me snatch her…

It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have gone to the Huskhn camp alone.

Rib recalled the battle he’d left Lynx, Tide, and Tyrone in when Zheal threw powder in his face. They seemed to be have been doing fine. And now that there was no more bewitchment magic, there wasn’t much to worry about.

Damara finally got the frame apart and Rib lifted his head out, his neck hurting.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

The young woman nodded, but avoided his gaze.

“I need to get home to my brother,” was all she said.

“Of course…” he thought of how frantic the man must be after Rib took Damara away. “I’ll fly you back.”

It’s the least I can do.

Memory came to him and pressed the crown of her head into his chest with a whimper. A fresh wave of love for her washed over him as he imagined what he’d look like, collapsed with a sword through his eye, had she not stopped Zheal.

She saved my life.

Rib rested his chin on her shoulder wing in gratitude and relief.

She acted on her own.

Chapter 32

 

 

Gavin? Rib watched his old friend coming down the bright marble hall. He looked prosperous, dressed in rich blue attire, a dozen instruments floating about his presence.

Hello, Rib, the young man said with a grin. I see victory is yours. This is Memory, then?

Yes! Rib answered as his sister swam through the air to meet them. This is her.

At long last, Memory, Gavin greeted the merry dragon, plucking his flute from the air. Cheers to you and your newfound freedom.

With his lips to the mouth of the instrument, he began to play a happy tune, the prettiest Rib had ever heard, and they danced like the days they were Dragon Fools. The air was filled with song. The whole marble hall reverberated with jubilee.

And then it changed.

Where once there were columns, now dangled thick blackened chains. Where once there was Gavin, now stood Zheal. With long black locks draped over broad shoulders and white gloved hand clenching a bright shining sword, the Huskhn heir appeared in full health.

You took everything from me, the young man snarled. By my sword I’ll make you suffer for it.

Just as before, Rib found himself helpless as not one, but a hundred swords came thrusting towards him.

No! he cried. Please!

Someone pawed him gently on the face and he started awake.

It was Memory, crouched in front of him, lightly dusted with snow. Icy plants surrounded them in the garden, the place where Ivory had been buried that past fall. On the wyvern’s grave lay a bundle of dried flowers gathered by Tyrone and his family.

I was dreaming again. Rib buried his head under his foreclaws. When will it stop?

His sister pawed at him again, this time purring, “Rib.”

He relaxed a little, the pleasure he felt whenever she spoke his name fighting down the stress of his reoccurring nightmares.

With a slight smile, he met her gaze.

“I’m better now,” he assured her. “Thank you.”

After all this time, you’re still saving me.

First from death and now from the dreams.

A hushing wind picked up through the trees. More snowflakes began to fall, swept by a gust into the dragons’ faces. Rib blinked the frozen flecks out of his eyes and saw Memory do the same.

It’d been months since Tyrone came back from Cliffport announcing that the defeated Huskhns had left on their ships with Zheal’s body. After that, Rib was really able to let go of his worries that Memory might get confused and return to them.

It was a foolish fear, anyway, he told himself. She never likes to go far from where I am.

The fact she actually killed Zheal that day still astonished him. It was clear she hadn’t meant to; the placement of that bolted iron was purely coincidental.

But the truth was, Rib was relieved about what had happened.

He’ll never trouble us again.

He would never have expected himself to be comforted by someone else’s death. Yet, he only had to recall the look in the young man’s eyes to know that there was no other way Zheal would’ve stopped. No words could have kept him from slaying Rib then and there. Nothing could have made him change.

Rib finally understood why Damara killed his father all those years ago. Perhaps he would tell her so someday, find her in Rookton again and thank her for her loyalty on their quest.

But for now he was giving her and her brother some space, time to grieve their beloved Catherine.

They deserve that much.

In the distance, Tyrone whistled for his horse and Rib saw how Memory perked up at the sound. He wondered if she was reminded of Zheal, when he would whistle for her to give her treats or a fond pat on the neck.

He wondered if she missed him.

That doesn’t matter, he told himself with an angry shake of his head as Memory rolled over on the ground, batting at the snowflakes that fluttered downwards. Whatever kindness Zheal may have given her, she gets from us ten times over.

Seemingly sensing his lingering concerns, Memory twisted and turned on her back until she brought herself right in front of him, and stopped to hold his gaze.

Sister. Rib’s mind was quieted by the sight of her. Free. Forever free.

“Hello there,” he whispered, slowly smiling at the wonder and joy that sparked in her eyes. “There’s so much we can do together now.”

Memory put her foreclaw on his face and he laughed. With a burst of energy, he jumped up, soon copied by her.

“There’s so much!” he repeated. “We can be frisks again. Why not? There are caves to explore, fish to catch. And you…you can finally choose your own name.”

The idea flooded Rib with the sense of endless, new possibilities. The two of them- they were faced with the future now. His sister could lead whatever life she wished, and he couldn’t wait to watch where she went with it.

I’ll always be there for you, he promised her silently, pressing his head against hers in affection. At all times, without fail. We’ll share this life, together.

You don’t have to be a memory anymore.

 

As always,

Special Thanks to

Mom

Dear Readers,

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to leave me a review at your preferred retailer. I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Delaney Walnofer

 

About the Author

 

 

As she planned to, Delaney Walnofer wrote this third and final book of The Dragon Slave Trilogy over the summer break just before her senior year at the Grove High School in Redlands. It counted as her senior project and took her over 500 hours. She started with heavy doubts, even to the point of tears, but yet again her mother was right in telling her everything would turn out fine. Delaney recalls the most memorable time of her endeavors writing Dragon Fool, when she wrote the climax and was instantly rewarded by the skies with a loud and thunderous rainstorm. The rest of her time writing involved much vinyl listening and typing with the sole goal to finish her chapter of the day, which she most often did.

Born in 1998, Delaney has always been a storyteller. At eleven years of age, she began planning her first book, Dragon Slave, which she finished writing four years later. The sequel, Dragon Clutch, she completed in 2015.

Dragon Fool is dedicated to the Grove School, which managed to make Delaney’s high school experience enjoyable. She thanks her friends, family, and teachers for encouraging and inspiring her throughout the years to do well in both her schoolwork and her passions alike.

 

Please Note:

 

This book is the third volume of the Dragon Slave Trilogy. Though connected through world, characters, and conflict, each book may stand alone. Therefore, if you enjoyed this one, please consider reading the first, Dragon Slave, and the second, Dragon Clutch. Thank you.

 

 

Connect with Me:

 

Like The Dragon Slave Trilogy facebook page:

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Visit my website:

http://delaneywalnofer.weebly.com/

 

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Dragon Fool

  • ISBN: 9781310154003
  • Author: Delaney Walnofer
  • Published: 2016-03-25 23:35:24
  • Words: 98621
Dragon Fool Dragon Fool