The thick odor of dead fish gave way to the scent of salt and seafoam, and Syra nearly forgot about Fin when the breeze from the city's port hit her full force. She stretched her arms wide, catching the warm air in her flared fingers. Her chest filled with the sea mist and her back muscles ached to spread her wings and hover above the breaking waves.
“Alright, that's enough sight-seeing,” Aidan turned away from the boardwalk to continue down the street, “Weldon's shop should be down this way.”
Fish and tourism, that's what drew the crowds to Dairos. The temperate waters offered a bounty of seafood, and the city-on-stilts buzzed with music and people from all over. Even now, Syra could see a ship unloading passengers from across the sea to revel in its warm beaches, eclectic food, and the lighthouse that stood proudly on the neighboring island.
The map led them down a channel lined with boutiques of food and fashion—all of the fanciful kind—and away from the horns and the dancing, and the call of vendors. Away from the creaking wood of the stilted tourist sector, and into the more solid part of town, where the streets were carved from the rocky bed. At the bottom of a small hill, where the cobbled street wound up to the main road, sat a brick cottage. Its shutters were drawn and no smoke graced its wide chimney, but the gold metal work above the door gleaned memories of a better time.
“Is this it?” Petra poked her nose over the map. “Looks abandoned.”
“Let’s hope not.” Aidan tucked the map back into its pocket and gave the door a hard rapping, “Excuse me? Is this where we can find a Mr. Weldon?”
There was no answer. So, he knocked again.
“Please, pardon any interruption,” Syra chimed in, “perhaps we are a bit lost. We were told to find a smith named, Weldon. Would you happen to know—”
The door swung open and a square man with ruddy face scowled from under a protruding brow.
“It’s Weldon. Not Mr. Weldon, just Weldon will do. And you’ve come to the right place. Though you caught me napping, so beg pardon.”
“Oh.” He was well-spoken and a hair taller than her—quite normal for a halfling—but from his temple to his jaw was wrinkled and leathery, and she caught herself staring. “Well, that’s good to hear. Am I correct to assume you’re still in business?”
“Aye. What can I do you for?” He gave the party a look-about, noticing their weapons, “Needing some maintenance, are you?”
“Yes, and no,” Aidan said, stepping forward. “Could we talk inside?”
“By all means, come in. Mind the mess, though. I haven’t gotten to cleaning yet.”
They filed inside and Weldon threw open the shutters to let the light and breeze fill the roomy cabin.
“Oh, my,” Petra halted as the sunlight woke the hilts and blades and shields from their dim slumber, and the walls of display shone in every color of metal. There was even a cute window where delicate jewelry perched and waited for the next bare hand and lined pocket.
“Looks like you’ve been busy,” Aidan offered an impressed nod to the storefront before following Weldon back into his workshop.
“Yes, and no. If I were, those walls would be bare. But, Spring’s here, so folks’ll be drunk on warm weather and ale, and I’ll be right here waiting.”
He pulled up some chairs to a bench for them to sit and hopped up on his own stool, “So, what is it exactly you’d be needing?”
Aidan took the bundle from his back and laid it on the bench, throwing back his cloak to reveal the silver-blue pieces, “I need this fixed.”
The halfling was stunned a moment. “Well, would you look at that. Haven't seen that color in quite some time. Where'd you get your hands on these?”
“Does it matter?”
He chuckled. “No. Just being nosy, is all. But, how in the world did you manage to break it? 'Cause that took some ingenuity.”
“Got into a fight with a morakii. I lost.”
Weldon nodded with grin, “Yeah, that would do the trick.”
“Any more questions?” Aidan leaned on the benchtop. “We're kind of in a hurry.”
“Kind of in a hurry? Well, doesn't that sound a might suspicious? Coming in here with a rare metal saying you're kind of in a hurry?”
“Please, Weldon,” Syra looked over at him with big doe eyes, “Viivida said you could help. Was she wrong to send us here?”
At this he was truly surprised, “You know Viivida, do you?” He sighed and rubbed a temple as the years caught up with him. “Haven't seen her in many years. How's the kria doing?”
“It's Viilah, now,” Petra butted in.
“Oh, is it?” He laughed. “Well, send my congratulations next time you see her. Was wondering if that upstart would ever settle down.”
He gave his knees a hard pat and nodded to himself. “Yes. She was correct to send you here. Though, I have to tell you, as much as I would love to work with that sword of yours, I can't fix it.”
Aidan flared his nostrils, “What do you mean, you can’t fix it? Why not?”
“And? Viilah said you knew how.”
“I do know how.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I no longer have the supplies.”
“Whatever you need, we’ll pay for.”
Weldon laughed. “You can’t just buy hot rocks. Not anymore.”
Aidan deflated like a sad balloon. He had never worked with hot rocks personally, but his alchemists were always complaining about how rare they had become in last years. Even if they could find a seller, they couldn’t afford them.
“Then we’ll have to go find some,” Petra said, standing.
“You can’t find them, either,” Weldon corrected her. “They’re made. Hot rocks—or firestones as you mages call them—require dragonfire to be activated. And they’re the only kindling that burns hot enough to melt austram. And with no more treaty...”
“There’re no more firestones.” Syra, too, drooped.
The group sat in silence as they wracking theirs brains for another solution.
“We’ll get back to you.” Aidan stood and dragged everyone back into the storefront.
“You have an idea?” Syra's face brightened at the far-off look in his eyes that meant he was onto something.
“Yeah, but we’ll need to get away from all these people. There’s an abandoned mine on the far side of Lighthaven.” He pointed on the map to the island with the lighthouse. “We'll have to take a boat, though.”
“And how are we supposed to pay for a boat?” asked Petra. “It's not like we can dance for money.”
Syra did consider that for a moment. She could put on a magic show—people would certainly love it. But they couldn't risk the exposure, and she was now a known face thanks to her banishment.
Syra returned to Weldon with a grave face, “If we bring you some firestones, can you promise you'll fix his sword?”
Weldon raised a brow and studied her, “Aye. But how are you going to get them?”
“Never you mind that. Just give us some blanks and we'll take care of it.”
“Alright.” He got up and filled a small pouch with small, clear crystals, and handed them to her.
“Oh, and one last thing,” she fiddled with her ear then held out her hand, her gold earring glinting up at him. “How much can I get for this?”
The ferry to Lighthaven was particularly crowded this time of day. Perfect for hiding in plain sight. Syra made sure to remain seated in the busiest section while the others stood around her. She was already shorter than most, so she felt secure in her invisibility. An hour and a near vomit later, they followed the crowd onto the pier and snuck away down the rocky shoreline.
“Okay, so what’s this plan of yours?” Petra asked once they had slipped into the mine.
“Shift,” he commanded Syra.
Syra stopped and blinked. She had to have heard him wrong. “What?”
“Shift,” he repeated. “You’re a dragon. Blast the stones with fire and we’ll be set.”
Cassius and Petra burst out in bittersweet laughter and Syra stiffened. You've got to be kidding me.
Confusion washed over Aidan and Syra just sat with her face in her hands.
“What? It’s a good plan.”
“It would be,” Petra said through snorts, “if she could actually breathe fire.”
Aidan paused for a replay, “What do you mean, if she could?”
“Why didn't you just tell us your plan before we got on the boat?” Syra muffled behind her palms. I sold my earring for nothing. This is great.
“W-wait. You're saying you can't breathe fire?” Aidan stared down at her drooped form with wagging mouth.
“Not. One. Spark.” Petra threw her head back and breathed a groan. “This is just delicious.”
“But...but you're a dragon.”
“I am well aware of that, thank you.” Syra glared up at him, but her anger was more at herself than him.
“Now what do we do?” asked Cassius.
“You could always change me back,” Petra prodded Syra, a little too happy at their situation.
Syra went to wave her away, but stopped, “Maybe.”
“Wait, really?” Her face become serious.
“I said, maybe.” Syra slipped off her pack and rummaged through it. “I know how to make a shapechange spell, but I'm not so sure how to break one.”
She had neared the bottom of her pack when she squealed and threw the bag.
“What? What is it?” Petra grabbed up the bag and immediately put it back down. “Nope. Not touching it.”
“Give me that,” Aidan went to grab it, but Syra shooed him away.
“It's okay, it just startled me, is all.”
She reached into the bag and pulled out the little blue bookworm, “How in the world did you make it all this way?” She cooed to the worm that wiggled its pincers up at her.
“What the hell is that thing?” Aidan scrunched his face at the grub.
“A bookworm. It—”
Pain shot through Syra's arms and her body jolted.
“Whathehe...” Her speech slurred and her vision went fuzzy. A warm tingling flowed from her arm down her body and she looked down to see the worm's pincers dung into the meat of her forearm.
“I thought you said they didn't bite,” Petra held a laugh at Syra's drunken expression.
All feeling was gone and she couldn't tell if she was sitting or standing. Light and colors blurred together until her vision was nothing but a gray fog.
“Petra? Cassius?” She called out, but her voice was faint and echoed into the mist.
The light dimmed and she was left in a sea of dark blues and grays. Then there came the sound of waves, and wind through grass, then pale light reflecting of the mist. Beyond the mist she could pick out a shoreline. And, if she squinted, she could see two figures standing some ways from the waterline.
Her voice was swallowed by the waves and mist, so she walked closer.
Caught in the moonlight, she made the figures out to be a man and a serpent having what looked to be an argument.
“Here's where I make the deal.”
Syra jumped at the voice so close beside her. She looked all around but saw no one.
“Big mistake, I found out.”
Then she looked down. Sitting comfortable on her arm was the bookworm, its big eyes watching the scene play out like an old man watching re-runs.
The worm looked up at her, “That's me—the serpent about to get his tail beat. Can't you tell? Come, let's get closer.”
Syra moved further ashore and she could hear them boast and challenge each other.
“Are you sure you're up to this?” The man, Talian from what Syra could see, stood nose-to-snout with a long, frilled serpent on short legs. “I won't go easy on you.”
“This is my territory. I will not be frightened off by you or your fancy books.”
“It is not the books themselves that make me strong,” the Tal warned, “but what is inside them. You'd be wise not to dismiss them.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
The serpent hissed and flared its fins, and the Tal's hands began to glow. Back and forth the battle went: brute strength and fire meeting barriers and calculated spells, until the serpent lied gasping and bloodied on the beach.
“Do you admit defeat?”
The serpent hissed and puffed its throat in protest, but could not rise.
“I should have just swam off and left him,” the worm said, “but I was too proud.”
The serpent turned its head to the Tal's bag of books and supplies farther inland and craned its head. Its jaws gaped open and flames shot from its mouth, igniting the pile.
“So powerful, your books, yet so frail,” it sneered.
The Tal fumed, but remained still, “As you wish.” He held out two glowing hands and swept them through the air. Lines of all colors followed his fingers and wrapped around the serpent.
“He's a weaver.” Syra watched wide-eyed as the Tal bound the serpent like a spider with its prey. As the threads tightened, light enveloped the serpent until it lost all definition. Then it shrank, wiggled, and shrank more. When the light faded, Syra stood over a tiny blue worm that writhed angrily.
“To live off the books you so detest, that shall be your punishment,” said the bookworm from Syra's arm. “That's what he said before he stuffed me in his bag and dumped me in that library.”
“Why are you showing me this?” Syra asked as the visage faded.
“You're a mage, correct? You made that locator spell with my...” he cleaned his mandibles from awkwardness, “with my help. I only ask that you repay the favor by changing me back.”
“Changing you back? I can't even change my own sister back, and I've seen that spell before. I'm clueless as to yours.”
“That's fine. I'll show you.”
“You'll show me?”
“I didn't spend my imprisonment sleeping under rugs. If you provide the power, I'll guide you. I'll even activate those firestones of yours as a thank you. Deal?”
The worm stretched itself upwards and waved its pincers, as if asking for a hand shake. I don’t have much of a choice. She tapped it with a fingertip and the mist evaporated, leaving her to stare up into Cassius nostrils.
“She's up!” Cassius helped her to sit up and Syra winced from the ache in her arm.
“Did you really have to bite me?” she asked the grub now curled up in her lap.
Consider it pay back for making me vomit, its voice echoed in her head. Now can we get to work? I'd hate to be eaten by one of the damned sea birds after all this time.
“Alright, alright. Let me get my supplies.”
“Who are you talking to?” Petra asked as Syra grabbed parchment and quill from her bag.
“Him.” She pointed at the worm.
Hello. The worm waved its hindend.
“He says, hi.”
“Don't ask. Just bear with me.”
Syra laid out the parchment and readied her quill, “Alright, so how do I do this?”
You're going to have to reveal the spell before you can unravel it. So, it should look something like this.
The worm wriggled in the dirt and sand, using his body and pincers to draw out the correct symbols—as best a worm could do anyways—and Syra followed along with her quill. She held the tag above the worm, preparing to activate it, but voices made her stop.
From outside the cave mouth, boots scuffed and two men's voices grew louder as they argued.
“Are you sure they went this way? I sure didn't see anybody.”
“That's what the ferryman said: the woman in a blue cloak went this way.”
“That could be anyone. Do you know how popular a color that is?”
“Yeah, but Fin said she had other people with her. And so did the ferryman.”
“Shit.” Aidan waved frantic arms at Syra as the men's shadows crept into the cave. “Go. Hide.”
Syra grabbed her pack and the bookworm, “What about you?”
“I'll take care of it. Just stay quiet.”
She dashed on light feet further down the mine and hid behind a large boulder. From her shelter, she heard shuffling and then Petra's muffled yelp. She peeked between the boulder and the wall to see Cassius' shirt undone and hanging, with Aidan laying on top of Petra, his face in her neck.
“What the hell are you doing?” Petra hushed, her face flushing.
“Just go with it.”
“Is that them?” One man whispered as they entered and spotted the three teenagers.
“We're gonna find out.”
Sure-footed and huffing from their hike, the men strode into the mine. Men garbed in brown capes and silver banners. Guards. And both wore bronze coins.
“Hey!” One called, “What do you folks think you're doing? This place is private property.”
Aidan lifted his head from Petra's neck and turned a glare to them, “Not private enough, apparently. Ever hear of knocking?”
Good thinking, Aidan. Though Syra wasn't too delighted to see him in such a position with her sister, it was quick thinking on his part.
Hey! Now's your chance, said the worm, bobbing in her hands. Break the spell while they're distracted. Hurry.
She could hear Petra snapping back at the men, now, too. Good. It'll be a while before she shuts up.
Pricking her thumb on her blade, Syra pressed it to the paper she had wrapped around the worm. Let's hope this works. The writing shimmered and the parchment glowed, tightening around the worm. Tears frayed from the paper's edges and it began to crinkle and twist.
This…doesn't not feel so good.
“Just hold on. Almost got it.” Syra pinched at the glowing script as the letters wriggled and lifted off the page. As she pulled them from the paper, threads came with them. String after string, they hovered in the air and the paper twisted into tube, until they looked like filaments from some deep-sea cnidarian.
Any day, now. The worm squeaked, losing breath from the paper's grip.
“Last one,” Syra searched the paper for the final rune and plucked it.
The paper unfurled and broke apart, as if dissolving in water. Left behind, the threads waved, twisted, and wove together, until a tapestry of light hovered above the worm.
“Hey, what's that?” One guard looked to the back of the cave where light reflected off the walls.
“What?” Aidan feigned ignorance.
“That light over there.”
Aidan scoffed, “The ocean's right there, dumbass. It's a reflection.”
But the man would not be fooled that easy, “Oh, no. That's no reflection. I know weaving when I see it.”
“Worth a shot.” Aidan dropped the act and jumped to his feet.
The twins drew their weapons and Aidan slid two daggers from his vest, all three blocking the men from continuing down the mine.
“Well, if that's how you want it.”
The guards took up their own arms and the sound of clanging metal echoed down into the cave.
Syra itched to run and fight, but her fingers were busy plucking and untangling the knot of threads from around the worm.
“This thing is huge.” She bit into her cheek and cursed the strings waving in her face.
Keep going. You're halfway done.
The clanging grew louder, panting heavier, and the shuffling more erratic. Even without looking, Syra could tell the fight wasn't easy. With each thread loosened, the closer the fight drew inwards. They're losing.
Focus! It's working.
The skirmish was on the other side of the boulder now and Syra could smell the dust and blood in the air. She heard Petra's huffs and Aidan's grunts, and felt the thud of heavy feet on the ground. She tasted metal at her cheek, but she plucked on, and the glow from the worm expanded and brightened.
“There she is!” A guard shoved Aidan past the boulder and lunged for her. But Petra's hand was quick and it sliced upward, cutting at his cheek and making him flinch away.
Syra forced her eyes downward and her hands shook. One. Last—
The final knot slipped apart and a rush of wind knocked everyone on their asses.
“What the hell was that?” A guard coughed and picked himself up. “Where's the girl?”
“She's right here.”
A deep rumble filled the cave. But what faced them was not a girl, but a glowering serpent with bared teeth mere feet from their faces.
“But you cannot have her.” The fins at the serpents head and neck flared and quivered, creating a hissing noise. A warning. “I, on the other hand, am famished.”
Swords fell from shaking hands and the guards were quick to make an exit. But not quick enough for a hungry Moruleis—particularly one that had not eaten a meal in decades. The flames caught them first. Then the snapping jaws that cut their screams short and filled the cavity with the sound of crunching bone and the smell of a fresh kill.
Pale horror slithered over Aidan's face as he watched the serpent's throat and belly bulge as the men were swallowed in whole chunks, “T-taste good?”
“Not really,” the serpent fastened his jaw back in place, “had better. But beggars can't be choosers.” He paused at their shocked stares, “You did want them gone, correct? Or did I jump to conclusions?”
“No, no,” Aidan waved him away, “That was...that was an appropriate action. I suppose.”
“Good. Now, bring me those firestones. As grateful as I am for your help, I am eager to return home.”
Syra poured the clear crystals from the pouch out onto the cave floor, “A few breaths should be enough.”
They watched from a safe distance as the jet of flames washed over the pile of stones. They glowed with heat at first. Then shone white, and tiny vortexes swirled and sucked the flames into the depths of their cores, turning them a deep orange. When the stones could store no more, the serpent closed his mouth.
Syra knelt by the pile, their warmth radiating like hot coals, “Yes, this should do. Thank you...”
“Pel,” the serpent finished before turning away from the cave.
“Those guards were after you,” Aidan said to Syra as they watched Pel wade into the surf and disappear below the waves, the flick of his tail his final parting. “We have to be more careful. More careful who sees us, and who we help.” He gave her a stern eye and she looked down at the sand.
“You mean who I help.”
He nodded without a word.
By the time they were rested, the stones had cooled enough to be gathered into their pouch, and they made the uphill hike back towards the ferry, and back to Weldon's shop.
Pleasant surprise sprung from the grin on Weldon's face as he peered into the pouch, “Heh-heh, well alright then.”
He stood, grabbed his apron from its hook, and shuffled over to the wide-mouthed furnace without another word.
“You’re not going to ask where we got them?” Aidan asked.
Their mouths clamped shut.
“Now,” Weldon continued, “before I get started, I will need payment upfront.”
“This is my job.”
Aidan sighed, “Of course.” He paused, then unlatched the silver chain from his neck, letting the diamond ring fall into his hand.
Syra’s eyes bulged. He still has it? This whole time? And that sentimental little git had the nerve to call me mopey.
“Is this enough?”
Weldon glanced between the ring and Syra’s shocked face, “You sure about that?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “Now, can you fix it?”
So much for sentimental.
Weldon took the ring and stuffed it into a pocket, “Have a seat.”
Weldon lifted the sword halves from a drawer and set them on a bench. With painstaking accuracy, he measured each side, each curve, going as far as to trace the original design down to the small, round hole near the hilt.
“Can’t you just forge the pieces back together?” asked Syra from her perch atop a stool.
Weldon paused, her question like a bird pecking his ear, “What exactly did you ask me to do?”
“Um, reforge the sword?”
“Yes! Re-forge. As in re-make. Unless you want it to break again the next time you use it, of course.”
“Oh. Well, then continue…please.” Syra grew small on her pedestal. Way to embarrass yourself, dumbass.
Syra tried to keep from squirming as Weldon stacked the pieces into a brick, then fired and folded the metal again and again. But the room grew hot and the sky dark, and her tailbone lost its feeling to the hard seat.
Weldon let his hammer fall with a heavy thud before he groaned back at them, “You know, you don’t have to stay and watch. I prefer you not, actually. You might as well get yourselves a room next door and come back in the morning. I should have it ready by then. Just tell them I sent you, and they’ll take care of you.”
Aidan could have waiting there silently all night, but the siblings were quick to leave their seats.
“Oi, boy with the necklace!” Weldon called Aidan over as they went to leave. “I can’t be taking this,” he handed the ring back over to him, “my old lady would beat me silly.”
“But you need some sort of payment.”
“That would be preferable, but if that’s all you got—”
“Here,” Aidan took the daggers from his vest and set them on the bench, “how about these?”
“Ooh, I like those,” Weldon’s eyes lit from the daggers’ intricate hilts and fine engravings, “I’ll take those.”
Aidan gave him a pat on the shoulder and gripped the ring, “Thank you.”
“Don’t be thanking me, you just take care of her, you hear? No sense in wasting a good thing. Or you’ll end up like me, alone, in a…barn, somewhere—I don’t know, just don’t be stupid. And get out. Go to bed. I’m busy.”
Aidan stifled a laugh and left the old halfling to his hammer and his rods, and his grumblings of youngins today. But he kept the ring tight in his hand, and Weldon's words—however misspoken—tight in his chest.
"Here you go! Just like new." Weldon spun the hilt in his hand before handing it over to Aidan. "Hope you don't mind that I shined it up a bit. Such a beauty deserves the extra care."
"Not at all." Aidan's flat face crinkled from the excitement he reigned in, but it fooled no one. The boy was absolutely giddy.
"Now, you take better care of that, sir. Can't have your crazy antics giving my work a bad rep."
"Yes, sir." Aidan took some practice swings then dipped his head low, "Thank you, again. I won't forget it."
"So, now that you've got your trusty sword back, where're you heading off to? If you don't mind more questions, of course."
"North," Aidan said, sheathing the blade, "we're heading north."
"Still vague, I see," he smirked. "No, that's good. That's careful—heavens know you can't afford not to be these days." He puffed his chest and stretched his back which had tightened over the hours tending the bench, "Best be off with you, then. The Manarail leaves at sunhigh, so you better scurry if you don't want to walk the whole way."
They turned to exit but Weldon waved Syra back over, "Oi, magical girl."
"Yes?" she muffled through her last bite of her second muffin.
He drew close and turned a serious eye to her, "You best be careful out there, you hear? I don't know where you got them hot rocks, but there are some shady people around here that I wouldn't be messing around with."
"Shady people?" Is he talking about...
He pointed to the scar on his face, "People who will burn your face for disagreeing with them."
"People did that to you?" She had thought it an accidental wound—a fight lost to hot metal due to a loose grip or unsteady footing. Now standing closer, she noticed the imprint of a coin at his jaw. "The Black Thorn?"
"Aye, you heard of them?"
"In that case I advise you keep a low head. Some of them have a peculiar interest in you magic folk, and they are not to be trifled with. Got their hands in many pockets and birds in every ear. And if you're heading north, then you're only going to find more of them."
"I see." They had just entered into human territory, and already they were being hunted. Just wonderful. "Well, thank you. I'll certainly keep it in mind."
Along Dairos’ northern border was the city’s business district—with its narrow roads, sky bridges, and people whose mouths were as fast as their feet—and at its heart lied the Manarail. A gleaming beauty of engineering and alchemical ingenuity, the train hovered above its austram railing, humming and waiting amidst the exchange of boxes and bodies.
“There’s so many,” Cassius scanned the crowded station of passengers filing into the cars. “How are we going to get by unnoticed?”
“We don’t. Not up here.” Aidan turned away from the crowd and motioned for them to follow.
They drew away from the lines of impatient passengers and followed the train further down the line. While paying passengers enjoyed the luxury of the front cabins, cargo—and the occasional hitchhiker—found their seats in the tail cars at the back. Luckily, the buzzing patrons were too preoccupied with themselves and their pressing timetables to even notice the figures ducking behind stacks of crates and through back alleys.
"This way." Aidan scampered around the rear of the train when the loading crews had retreated back to their docks.
Keeping to the brush and treeline, they crept car by car until they found one with open bay doors. Standing outside the crate-filled car was a guard with his nose to a tally sheet.
"I'll distract him while you climb on." Aidan slunk from the bushes and padded up behind the guard. When he was close, he made a loud dash for the car.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?" The guard dropped his tally sheet and grabbed Aidan by the cloak, dragging him off the car. "No stowaways!"
He threw Aidan to the ground where he rolled to his feet and drew his sword.
"I'm getting on that train." Aidan smirked and taunted the guard to close in on him, giving the others space to sneak past.
"Like hell you are." The guard drew a small, shiny object from the chord under his shirt. A whistle.
"Shit." Aidan dashed for it, but the whistle met his lips first.
A whisper of air made the whistle chirp, but it soon whined and died as the guard's eyes rolled back and his body sagged.
Aidan stopped dead, then laughed. Smirking up at him from behind the guard, Syra stood with shimmering fingers wrapped around his head. She released him and let him fall with a thud.
"Sleeps like a rock, that one."
The Manarail blew a loud, long warning whistle, making them all jump.
"We need to get on quick. Let's put him over there." Aidan helped Syra drag the guard to a tree.
"His officer isn't going to be happy about this." Syra propped him up with his head back and mouth open.
"His fault for sleeping on the job."
They left the guard to his slumber and hopped into the car, closed the door and hid in a small nook behind stacked crates that smelled like dirt and onions. There was another whistle and the humming grew louder as faint vibrations ran through the floor. With a slight jerk, the image outside the window began to change as they pulled away from the station.
Their muscles relaxed as the trees outside became blurred, and Syra rested her head back against the wooden pallets, "Well, we made it."
"Now, where are we going?" Petra asked as she slid to a seat.
"Obviously," Petra stretched out her legs, claiming her section of the nook. "But Koth is even further north than our territory. I doubt this human machine goes that far."
"It won’t," Aidan said, "But it will get us close. Close enough to walk, at least. If we ride it all the way up, it’ll take us to Crescent Bay, which is right on the border of the Nordlands. Until then," he plopped his pack into his lap, "we wait."
Petra let out a long sigh and squirmed, "My rump is going to be so sore after this."
The Manarail made short stops at the towns of Tryst and Stone Grove, but only to exchange passengers it seemed. The gentle rocking and whir beneath them settled their nerves, and a ration later—or two in Petra’s case—sent them all nodding.
It was the low rumble and hard braking that jolted them awake as the Manarail slowed.
"Are we there?" asked Petra.
"No," Aidan rose to peek out the window. "No, it’s too soon. We must be stopping again."
But they did not stop. There was a clacking of gears and the shift of weight as the train changed course to the right. To the left, past rolling hills in the distance, the city of Cree sat by its wide river, and burned.
Aidan and Syra sprung to the window to see the plumes of smoke paint the skyline a sick gray.
"So much for going north." Syra whimpered as the smoking city and their track north disappeared behind hill and forest.
"They're probably just taking a detour." Aidan sat back down. "I can't imagine it being safe for passengers right now."
"What could've happened? Cree's a big city. How can it just catch on fire like that?"
"I'll give you one guess."
Syra huddled into her spot in the corner and they went quiet. Cree's a big city, she repeated to herself. Next to Dairos, it's the largest on the whole west coast. Yet, it was taken out like a Flameweaver to a hay stack. Her hands began to shake in her lap. Marrak really is that strong. He took out Altaira, now Cree. Not even Rozenfall could stand up to him. Her hands froze.
"Aidan," Syra spoke upon a realization, "you said they were taking a detour, right?"
"Most likely, yes. Why?"
"Remind me, what city is east of Cree?"
Aidan's jaw tensed and his shoulders drooped, "Rozenfall."