Garth glanced at the ruins behind him, and the teenagers trying to stand up.
“Yes. This is one of my dragon traps.” The massive compound eyes shimmered in front of him, fifteen feet in the air, while tower-shield sized mandibles clacked together in front of him, punctuating Carnifax’s sentence.
Garth’s bones were stronger than steel, but looking at those huge, sharp plates coming together, Garth was fairly sure this thing could pinch him in half with minimal effort.
Dragon traps. What do dragons like? Treasure. Perhaps Carnifax was using this place as a lure.
“Would I be correct in assuming the treasure here was to lure in young dragons?”
Garth glanced at the kids carrying packs.
Time to bow and scrape and promise anything if it got him out of here alive.
“We’re deeply sorry for any disrespect. We didn’t realize the treasure already had an owner, and took some. Would it smooth things over a bit, were we to replace what has been taken?”
Carnifax moved faster than Garth could blink, slamming a tree-sized hairy leg in front of him. Right in front of his feet were two foot-long claws, flexing into the soft ground.
“As you can see, I lack the manual dexterity to do it myself, so that would be most appreciated.”
Garth glanced backwards.
“You heard him.”
“Her. Go put that stuff back.”
In the meantime, Garth thought, pulling his backpack closer and dumping the contents out into the grass.
“May I buy these things from you?” Garth asked as the teens and their bodyguards retreated back into the fort. “You seem to have been around long enough to know that trade often benefits both parties.”
Carnifax watched him with the stillness of an insect. Debating.
“What can you offer?”
“Goods and services.” Garth said. “If your only use for this treasure is luring dragons, I can simply exchange these baubles for gold at a two to one ratio.”
“But,” Garth held up his hand, “If you perhaps need infrastructure built, such as shelter big enough for you, or perhaps a gold windmill to spread the smell of gold on the wind that much better.”
“How do dragons sense gold anyway?” Garth mused to himself.
“sight and smell work well.” Carnifax spoke. “Yes, a gold, glittering lure that moves by itself and puts its scent in the wind. I see possibilities.”
“But.” Carnifax interrupted her own musing with a clack.
“What guarantee have I that you will follow through with your side of the deal with a monster? Do you have…what is it called…permission from the ruler monkeys to build here?”
“Been around the block a couple times, huh?”
“Then it might interest you to know that the Bergstrom family, which I represent, owns the rights to the lands west of the city.” Garth pointed toward the outpost to the east. “I could build anywhere in this forested mountain range with minimal red tape.”
“Seems a terrible coincidence, you owning these lands.”
“It does, huh?” Garth said. “How about I trade you gold for this?” Garth said picking up the amulet. “Then come back with more representatives of the Bergstrom family to verify my claim and discuss taxes?”
“Taxes?” the voice sounded almost amused.
“I don’t see why not. If we go ahead and industrialize your dragon hunting scheme we could quadruple your dragon meat income, and all this would be done on Bergstrom land, with Bergstrom infrastructure. I would think a tax of say… one quarter of the meat and Heartstones you catch on our land would be reasonable.”
Carnifax’s massive claws tapped the pile of heartstones in front of Garth. “Yes, I can see you like Heartstones, human, more than gold.”
Garth felt her voice sounded a little suspicious, but there was no way to tell with her unblinking, stare and complete lack of expression.
At that point, the teens took the opportunity to leap from the upper levels of the rear of the fort, their backpacks laden with gold as they used their superhuman strength to clear the wall. The two watched them fly through the air, flailing their arms as they dropped down on the other side. A moment later they disappeared into the forest, their retreat covered by the thick woods.
Carnifax’s huge head tilted back toward Garth, and he didn’t know whether she was going to eat him or not. Insect body language was hard.
“I could kill you now…but it seems as if I have already paid for your services.” Carnifax said, laying a claw over Garth’s pile of way-more-valuable-than-gold loot.
A massive, hairy leg settled in front of him.
“Grab on, I wish to show you where you will be working. Impress me.”
Garth muscled down revulsion and got a foothold on some of the enormous hairs, whisking the amulet back into his pocket moments before Carnifax leapt into the air, flying at speeds that forced Garth to put a Force Shield in front of his face. Land, red-tinted by the evening sun, slid away under him, and in a matter of minutes, he was far away from the mountain and beyond another.
Finally, Carnifax went into her descent, a gut-wrenching fall only slightly better than terminal velocity.
The impact with the ground shook Garth loose, and he fell into roughly three feet of water, gasping as he resurfaced.
“I want this pond three times my length, radius. And I’m not asking much…maybe fifteen feet deep, so my tail can get a good soak.”
Garth came to his feet, spitting out pond water. He glanced around. The pond was ten feet around, and shallow enough to stand in. He surveyed the land, spotting the marshy, non-river that fed into it.
“I’m not gonna lie, this is gonna take a lot of man-hours, I’m probably going to have to hire a lot of independent contractors to redirect and upgrade the flow of water while the others dig your pond out. Could take months.”
“You have until nightfall. All right, wizard, show me what you can do.”
Garth paused, glancing up at the giant dragonfly. “How?”
“I have very good eyes.” Carnifax said, leaning close. Putting her nightmarishly large mandibles inches away from Garth, dominating his vision. “I can see the amateurish weave of mana over your skin. I can see the lump in your pocket where you used telekinesis to filch the Amulet of Endeavor. I. See. Everything.”
“Fine,” Garth said, rolling up his sleeves. “You’ll get your damn pond.”
By the time Garth dragged himself back to the camp, night had long since fallen, and he was utterly exhausted from reshaping a pond to Carnifax’s liking, along with a lily pad big enough to support her.
And all he had to show for it was the amulet he’d been forced to beg and do extra work for.
He felt like the kid stuck washing dishes when all his friends bailed on the tab.
When Garth entered the circle of firelight, the four Dentons looked up from sorting their ill-gotten loot.
“Hey, I told you he was alive,” Kyle said. “Pay up.” Susie and Alicia sighed and started digging out gold coins from their backpacks.
“Nope,” Garth said, directing mana to tuck all the gold and jewels back into their backpacks.
“Mine.” Garth picked up a backpack.
“Mine,” Garth said, plucking another out of loose fingers.
Garth turned and growled in Benedette’s face, using Clarion Call to convey the depth of his irritation with them. The blonde girl backed away from him, paling in the firelight.
“You ditched me, and I had to pay Carnifax back for everything you stole. Ergo, it’s mine.” Garth carried the four gold-laden backpacks to his tent, grumbling as the canvas snagged on the heavy bags.
He crawled inside, stacked the backpacks along the side of his tent, pulled his blanket up around himself, and passed out.
The four Dentons sat around the campfire, making battle plans now that the heir to the family that they were in a blood feud with had gone to sleep.
“I think we’ve long since established that that is no bastard son of the Bergstroms.” Kyle said, peeling bits of bark off his stick and throwing it into the fire.
“Obviously.” Benedette said.
“The question is what to do about him?” Susie asked. “If he can walk all over us, we should just kill him.”
Kyle hefted his heavy steel crossbow. “Pretty sure this would work. Five hundred and fifty pound draw.” He pulled a special silvery bolt out of his quiver. “And a lead-filled adamantium bolt for good measure. He might be tough, but this would kill a royal, and is therefore incredibly illegal.”
“Not until Aunt Maggie gives us the go-ahead.” Benedette said.
““I could go over there and put him out of our misery right now. He looked exhausted. You heard what he did to Aunt Maggie.” Kyle said, glancing over his shoulder.
“From him. We don’t move at his say-so, do we?”
“’Got a point.” Kyle sighed, twirling the heavy, armor-piercing bolt around his finger before sliding it back into his quiver.
“What about you, Al?” Benedette asked. “We haven’t heard much from you. Any insight?”
“I think he’s older than he lets on.” Alicia said, making herself another S’more. “And using magic to change his appearance.”
“What gave you that idea?” Kyle asked, glancing over at her.
What gave her the idea was the regularity of his skin. Most people’s skin seemed to have random flickers of mana, but Edward’s skin, flickered in a recognizable pattern. She’d had to stare at it for half an hour as they were marching up the size of the mountain, narrowing her vision to the left side of his face, but she’d spotted a pattern to the flickers.
Alicia had compared it to her skin and her sibling’s, and normal skin doesn’t have a pattern.
She couldn’t tell them that, though.
“He doesn’t act like a teen.” She said finally.
“He acts like a loon.” Susie said.
Kyle held out a hand to quiet Susie, brows furrowed. “Go on.”
“Well, you heard his speech about just getting out of prison, right? The wife and kids?”
“Yeah, that was a terrible lie. He’s…way…too…young.” Benedette smacked herself on the forehead.
“So if his appearance is the lie, more pieces fit the puzzle. Any ideas on what he wants, or who he really is?” Kyle asked.
“Just his class, that he can do magic, and that he was locked away for a long time. Long enough for his life to fall apart without him.”
“Any Royals spend any time in prison recently?” Kyle asked.
“Would they tell us?” Susie shot back.
“So he’s older, and emotionally unstable.” Benedette said, tapping her fingers on her knee. “He’s looking for companionship, not to show off like we thought. He’s just so used to using his powers that he comes off as grandiose. I can handle that.”
“mmn, so he feels entitled to his powers. That screams Royal to me.” Susie said.
“I don’t know about that.” Alicia said. “It’s hard to define, but it seems like he hates the Royals, and everything they stand for. He talks about the way the world is now, like he was around to see it before. He defaced the tapestry in the academy.”
Alicia was also confident that he arranged the entire field trip to supply himself with heartstones, and that meant he had set hooks deep into the faculty. Terrifyingly deep. Maybe the only reason we’re able to think for ourselves is because he views us as children.
What invisible barrier stopped him from doing to her whatever he’d done to the faculty? Alicia considered the sheer power at his disposal and a trill of fear shot through her. Fear and a little bit of something warmer. Alicia frowned as she took a moment to identify the sensation: Desire. Is it desire for him, or the power he wields?
Alicia cringed a bit internally. Maybe a bit of both?
“He’s the one who did that?” Kyle asked. “Put the little crown on Garth?”
Alicia shrugged. She didn’t know exactly what the significance was there either. Perhaps there was a lineage of royals descended from Garth rather than Jim?
“You can be a Royal and hate the Royal family,” Susie said with a shrug. “If ours is any indication.”
“Hah.” Kyle poked the fire with a stick. “So, our best guess is that he’s a Royal hiding from the rest, sporting some kind of grudge.”
“I can work with that,” Benedette said with a smile.
“We’ll revise our strategies according to what we’ve learned,” Susie said, “In the meantime, I suggest we hold off on the Succession until the outside threat has been dealt with.”
“Agreed.” Alicia lied.
“Sounds good to me,” Kyle lied.
“That would be for the best.” Benedette agreed with no intention of following through.
They all knew the others were lying.
The conversation wound down over the next half hour, and they each said their good-nights, retiring to their individual tents. Alicia stayed up until the other three had retired, eying her tent from a distance.
If Kyle were to try anything, it would be tonight, when their bodyguards were at their most exhausted, and they could see the end of their shift coming.
Not sleeping in there. Her solitary tent was across from Kyle’s but she knew that sleeping there would get her killed. Something about the way he had deliberately not sent her any spite over the course of this camping trip, acting like the amiable brother, had sent chills down her spine. She knew he was planning something, and tonight was the last night. He was going to try to kill her.
Alicia went into her tent, and slid out of her clothes, making a bundle inside her bedroll and allowing her pants to peek out the door of the tent. She took her boots and Guile and set them up against the side of the tent, where they cast an obvious shadow.
Alicia never went anywhere without her sword.
She waited twenty minutes, until all was silent, before silently sneaking out of the back of her tent, crawling through the grass with nothing on but the blade strapped to her forearm. The green blades tickled across her entire body as she quietly circled around to Edward’s tent and slid through a gap in the fabric.
Edward was snoring, spooning their bags of treasure, dead to the world, when her hips caught on the gap and ripped the fabric of the tent. It wasn’t a loud sound, by any means, but it was enough to wake up the Phytomancer.
With a burst of silent speed, Alicia got the rest of the way into the tent, spun around and put the mage in a headlock and pressed a hand over his mouth.
“Quiet.” She whispered, nearly inaudible. “Can you be quiet?”
He nodded solemnly, her elbow around his jugular.
She slowly peeled her hand off his mouth.
“I appreciate the offer Alicia, but I already sai-“
“Shut up,” she whispered.
“Can you make it safe to sleep in here? Prevent anyone from coming inside the tent or getting through the walls? Make it invisible or forgettable or something?”
Edward blinked at her a few times, his gaze rapidly shaking off the stupor of sleep.
“Oh, umm…sure.” He whispered, and motioned with his hand. In front of her eyes, an odd latticework of tiny clear roots sprang out of thin air, coating the inside of the tent with a watery sheen.
They grew over the door to the tent and the gap she’d squirmed through.
“That’s it?” She asked, studying the shiny pebbled surface. It didn’t look like it could resist a strong wind.
“Yeah,” Edward said. “That’ll stand up to a mortar assault, so if you’ll excuse me…”
He turned back over and fell asleep.
Alicia didn’t know exactly what a mortar assault was, but anything with the word assault was likely to be extreme.
Alicia scooted in beside him, and tugged on the covers until he grudgingly gave her a share, before settling down and trying to relax long enough to fall asleep.
The crunch of dirt under boots woke her, causing her to sit up and listen as someone stalked away from the tent to her left. Her tent. Alicia tried to open the tent flap, but the strange clear substance lining the inside was harder than stone, so she couldn’t get a look at them.
Alicia laid back down. She had most likely survived another day, but she couldn’t get complacent.
That was when Edward turned over in his sleep and threw an arm and leg over her.
“I’m gonna write this down.” He murmured beside her ear. “I know, but I gotta try.”
Alicia furrowed her brows as the man started whispering alchemical ingredients and quantities into her ear while his forearm rested on her breasts.
He smells nice. Why did I never notice that before? Alicia thought as she tried to memorize his odd list. It might be worth it to listen to him in his sleep more often.
It vaguely occurred to her how that might be accomplished.
Depends on how useful he is, I guess.
A short while later, he stopped speaking, his dreams moving on to less interesting subjects, and Alicia didn’t hear any more movement outside the tents, so she allowed herself to fall back asleep.
Garth was playing strip golf with Beladia and aiming for a hole in one, when a shrill scream and a vicious impact burst through Garth’s pleasant dreams, and his eyes flew open.
Naked and straddling him, Alicia was shouting at him with her arm raised, her short black hair forming a curtain around her alarmed face. Flickering shadows played across the outside of the tent, and he smelled burning meat.
“Open the tent, or we’re gonna die!”