The next morning, we headed out to the yard in front of the guildhall as soon as we finished breakfast. We were told that we were going pretty far and that it would probably take us a few days to complete the quest, so Darius had packed some tents and other supplies. He was carrying them when we walked outside to see that the other guild members who had taken on the dragon-slaying quests were also there with Nesryn. She was passing out supplies to one of the other parties when she noticed us.
“Oh, there you guys are. I have something for you.” She handed Vixia a rolled-up map and walked by us. “You guys have quite a lot of gear and a ways to go, so I figured you could use this.”
She leaned against a wooden wagon.
“Thank you, but . . .” My voice trailed off and Darius finished my thought.
“What are we supposed to use to pull it?”
“Well, there’s a stable not far from here. You could always request a horse there. I would recommend loading everything up as soon as you can, though. Your box of rations is by the porch. I wish you luck.” And with that, she left.
I tilted my head and looked to the porch, seeing a large crate there with our names scribbled on a note stuck to the top. Darius set down the tents and began walking toward it.
“I’m not sure they’ll be able to give us a horse on such short notice.” I thought for a moment, looking at the wagon. That was when Puff’s stirred a little in the pouch on my belt and I got an idea.
“Puff, could you pull it?” I asked. The tiny dragon nodded and seemed to smile at me from the pouch on my belt.
“All right, let’s get everything secured in the wagon and then we’ll head out.” After Darius got the crate and the tents in the wagon, we pulled the wagon to the outer edge of the city, away from any guards. Puff grew again, but stayed just a bit smaller than he had last time, and I fastened the wagon to him. We all climbed in and he began to pull it along, and so we started out on our quest.
By the time that evening rolled around, we were a little more than halfway to our destination. We found ourselves in the fields beyond the farmlands by the time the sun began to set and decided to set up camp. We pitched our tents and ate a ration of our food together around the fire, laughing and telling stories from before Vixia and I joined the guild. We were winding down from laughing at one of them when Vixia asked a question.
“Darius, what did you do before you joined the guild?” Darius seemed to think about it for a moment, tapping his fork against his plate. He straightened out his back and then hunched forward again.
“Well, I did a lot of combat training. Then I was a guard.”
“Really?” There was a tone of awe in Vixia’s voice.
“Yeah. Then the dragon attacks began. The queen put together the guild and sent me to work there instead.”
“Was it like that for everyone?” I inquired. Darius shook his head.
“It was in the beginning, but then we started getting volunteers, like Sparrow’s crew. You guys are the only recruits we’ve had sent to us by the queen since the first wave of members.”
“How’d Nesryn become guild master then?” Vixia asked. “Did the queen pick her?”
“Yeah. She was actually a high-ranking officer in Zaledrid’s military before the guild was formed.” I was thinking about that when a shiver went through me. I then realized that the fire was starting to die out.
“We should clean up and get to bed. We still have quite a ways to go.”
Vixia and Darius agreed and we got everything put away before we went to bed. Even though I was now cozy and warm in my sleeping bag, I couldn’t sleep. The night continued on while I watched silently as Vixia slept peacefully with Puff curled up on her chest. I let out a quiet sigh and rolled onto my back, now staring at the ceiling of the tent.
Maybe I should get some fresh air.
I crawled out of my sleeping bag and opened the entrance to the tent. I slipped my boots on as quietly as I could and stepped out onto the grass. I wandered over to one of the logs that surrounded what remained of our fire and sat down on it. Unsure of what else to do, I looked up.
The stars twinkled against the pitch-black sky and the moon’s light illuminated everything around me. I was still looking at it all when I felt something climbing up my back. I recognized the feeling and looked at my shoulder to see that Puff was now perched there. I was looking into his eyes when a question popped into my head.
Why are you different?
He trilled at me and rubbed the rough scales on his face into the side of my neck.
“All right, let’s go back to bed.” I gently scratched the underside of his chin and stood. We went back into the tent and went to sleep.
Almost immediately after we got up, we were on the road again. We managed to make a small breakfast from our rations and pack everything back into the wagon by the time it was 9:00. We ate along the way, but we were still pretty far from the forest. Even though it was winter, the sun’s light bore down on us like weights as it continued to climb up higher in the sky. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and shielded my eyes to find what appeared to be buildings on the horizon.
“Is that Centrum City?” I asked.
“I think so,” Darius confirmed, also staring at the buildings. “Should we stop by there and get lunch? I’m starving.”
“Same!” Vixia piped up from the back of the wagon. She was leaning against the folded tents, keeping them in place.
“Then it’s decided. Puff, head for that city.” Puff nodded and began to pick up the pace, dragging the wagon eagerly.
After Puff picked up speed, it didn’t take long to reach Centrum City. We had to stop our wagon a short distance from the city’s outer walls because there was no way that they would let us through with Puff. We parked the wagon in a place where it was hidden by shrubs and trees and Puff shrunk back down to his usual size after I unhooked him from the reins. He climbed into the hood of the cloak that Vixia was wearing and hid underneath her hair. We were able to pass through the gates without a problem and I was amazed by what was on the other side.
The city was busy, much like Tidalsong City, but there was a different atmosphere to it. Shops and homes lined the brick streets, smoke rising from their chimneys. Snow blanketed just about everything and children were playing in it, throwing snowballs at each other and building forts. I witnessed one kid get nailed in the face with a snowball when Darius’ voice brought my attention back to my party.
“Should we stop here?” he asked, pointing to a crowded restaurant.
“Would we be able to feed Puff without anyone seeing?” Vixia asked.
“As long as he stays in your hood, it shouldn’t be a problem. Plus, we can feed him some leftovers later.”
Puff trilled from under Vixia’s hair and I laughed. We headed into the restaurant and it was surprisingly calm for how packed it was. We were seated quickly as soon as the staff realized that we were wearing badges from the IronScale Hunters guild. We also received our food very quickly and the sound of other customers chatting and eating hid our conversation from the others.
“All right, let’s come up with a strategy for when we get to the forest,” Darius began. “Vixia, do you still have the map?”
She nodded and retrieved it from the bag strapped to her hip. She passed it across the table as she brushed her hair away from the side of her neck. Darius began to unroll the map on the table while Vixia ripped a chunk of meat off of a dish that we ordered for Puff. The tiny dragon poked his head just barely into view and eagerly took the piece of food.
“Don’t make a mess, okay?” Vixia pleaded to Puff. He trilled back at her in response and disappeared again. I laughed a little and took up my fork to begin eating just as Darius pointed at a spot on the map.
“If we start here, we should be able to walk in a circle around the whole forest so we can search most of it in one go.”
“Can we visit somewhere along the way?” Vixia asked.
“In the forest?”
“Yeah, I think it’s about here.” Vixia leaned forward, pressing her fingertip against a specific point on the map.
“Why? What’s there?”
“Zelora’s shrine,” Vixia answered. “Actually, let me mark it.” She grabbed a pencil from her bag and marked an x on the spot that she was pointing to. Darius raised an eyebrow at her as I swallowed my bite of food.
“Ah, you don’t know about Zelora, do you?” I asked. Darius shook his head. Vixia sat back in her seat again and was about to pass Puff another scrap of meat when someone came up to our table.
“Are you from the IronScale Hunters?”
I looked over to see a kid, who couldn’t be any older than 15, standing by our table. There was a nervous look on his face as he waited for an answer.
“Yeah, we are,” I answered.
“Really?” The kid’s eyes looked like they were about to start sparkling because they widened so much. “You guys are so cool!”
Vixia and I exchanged unsure glances and Darius spoke up.
“Do you need something?”
“Oh, um . . .” The kid fidgeted for a second and stepped back a little. “Usually when the dragon-slaying guild is out here, there’s something going on so I wanted to wish you luck.” Vixia was the first one to respond this time.
“Thank you.” She smiled at the kid and he nodded before he left. I watched silently as he returned to his table.Maybe we did do the right thing by joining the guild.