Juniper sat down next to Sigthyme on the patch of cold, dead grass which Tak had created when he unleashed that blast of dark magic. She looked over at the tree line, but there was nobody there. Grace flapped her wings and landed gently next to Tak. Then her large, black feathered wings quickly vanished in a flash of light leaving behind a few black feathers.
“Glad you two are alright,” She said.
“Yeah you too,” Juniper said.
Now it was safe, Riffen hobbled over, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Is everyone alright?” He asked.
Shadow came over and sniffed at Tak, who was passed out on the ground.
“Yeah I think so,” Juniper said.
“All sunshine and rainbows,” Sightyme said, still winded from the spell he just cast.
“I tried to keep an eye out for those archers in the woods, but after Tak erupted in black energy, they both took off,” Riffen said. “I lost them once they got deep into the woods.”
“It’s alright,” Juniper said. “I’m sure that’s not the last we’ll see of them.”
“What about their communicator?” Grace asked as she walked over to Romair’s dead body.
She quickly searched the body and pulled out the small medallion he had used to speak to the other Elves. However Grace noticed that it was badly damaged and partially melted. Any magic it had was someone dispelled.
“Whatever Tak did really messed this thing up,” Grace said.
“What about the other guy?” Sigthyme asked.
“I killed him,” Grace said.
“Does he have one of those magic communicators?” Sigthyme asked.
“Oh yeah,” Grace ran over and searched the other Elf’s dead body.
“Looks like his is destroyed too,” Grace said. “But I did find this.”
She held up a ring which just looked like a simple, metallic band.
“I think this is how he snuck up on us. It must make you invisible if you wear it,” Grace said.
“That sounds super helpful,” Juniper said.
“Especially if you are trying to sneak up on somebody and steal their dragon,” Sigthyme said.
“Or hide a Prince,” Grace said looking over at Riffen.
“Or that,” Sigthyme said with a nod. “Good idea.”
“Speaking of dragon, is Piakol all right?” Riffen asked.
Juniper reached down and felt for her bag.
She quickly searched around.
“They didn’t get him, did they?” Sigthyme asked as he stood up and also began to search.
“Not unless there was another invisible person,” Grace said.
“There!” Juniper spotted the leather bag that had been tossed from the circle about thirty feet. She ran over and grabbed at it.
“Piakol, are you in there?” Juniper asked.
She tore open the bag and the leather bag basically fell apart. It was burned with acid.
Grace ran over to her.
“He’s not here. He’s gone,” Juniper said.
“All the fighting must have just scared him off. Come on, he must be close. We can find him,” Grace said.
“Right,” Juniper nodded and got to her feet.
Both women looked over at the rest of their group.
“Piakol is gone,” Juniper said.
“But we’re going to find him,” Grace said.
“Do you need our help?” Riffen asked.
“Yeah we can help look for him,” Sigthyme suggested.
“No. You two stay here with Tak. Make sure he is alright,” Juniper said.
“You two can’t just go by yourselves,” Sigthyme said.
“And why not?” Grace asked, folding her arms.
“Uh, because we were just attacked and there may be more of those Elvish freedom fighters out in the woods. I should at least go with you,” Sigthyme said.
“You can’t just leave Riffen here by himself,” Juniper said. “What if those rangers come back and try to collect their friends? Or Tak wakes up and tries to attack him.”
“I think I can handle myself,” Riffen said.
“We have to make sure Riffen stays safe,” Juniper said to Sightyme. “Just stay here. Grace and I will be right back. Maybe start on burying these bodies.”
“We’re going to bury them?” Riffen asked.
“Well it’s going to be suspicious if someone finds them,” Juniper said. “Plus what if they can somehow tie their deaths back to Tak. We don’t want that.”
“Good point,” Riffen said.
“Just give us twenty minutes. We’ll go find Piakol. If we’re not back by then, then you can come running,” Juniper said.
“Twenty minutes. I’ll be counting,” Sightyme said.
The group nodded and Grace and Juniper made their way toward the woods.
Juniper thought it would be pretty easy to find Piakol. She was a very good tracker and she shared a bond with the small, red dragon. However it was harder to track a flying creature than one that walked on the ground. There were no footprints to follow. Plust Juniper couldn’t just shout for her companion. She was still worried that those two Elvish archers were still lingering around. She didn’t want to shout and draw their attention to her and Grace. Plus yelling for Piakol would let them know that the dragon was not with her. Juniper was unsure if those other Elves would even still want Piakol, but this was not a risk she was willing to take. Grace and her had to slink their way through the woods as quickly but as stealthily as possible. They just kept their eyes out at the canopy of the trees hoping to see a flash of red scales.
“And I thought my secret was bad,” Grace said.
“Huh?” Juniper asked.
“My secret. The wings. I thought I had the biggest secret of the group. At least I don’t become a monstrous murder machine,” Grace said.
“We knew Tak had some sort of curse. We saw it back at the Titan’s League,” Juniper said.
“That was just a small burst of magic. What we just saw was something else entirely. It was like Tak was possessed and hellbent on killing all of us,” Grace said.
“Yeah,” Juniper nodded. “It was honestly terrifying. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t happen again.”
“And what if it does?”
Both of them stopped for a moment.
“Ms. Zaffre told us about that woman in Frost Haven named Helena Gnash. She knows occult stuff. Curses and stuff. Maybe she can help both me and Tak,” Juniper said.
“Yeah I really hope so,” Grace said.
“And between now and then, we’ll just have to keep an eye on him. Try to keep him from getting mad.”
“Yeah that will be easy.”
“Nothing about this is easy,” Juniper said. “But it’s what we got to do.”
Grace placed a hand on Juniper’s arm and tried to reassure her.
“We’ll be ok,” Grace said. “We’re tough.”
Juniper nodded and wiped some tears from the corner of her eyes.
“Of course,” Juniper said. “You’re the toughest one of us all.”
The two wandered a bit further into the woods, but it wasn’t long before they stopped again. This time it was because they heard another voice from deeper in the woods.
“Calm down, little thing. Stop struggling and I can help you,” A deep feminie voice said.
Grace tugged on Juniper’s sleeve.
“Is it more Elves?” Grace asked.
“I’m not sure,” Juniper whispered back. “But we need to approach stealthily.”
Moving through the woods unnoticed was second nature to Juniper and Grace was able to move without drawing any attention to herself. Both of them moved almost silently as they came upon a scene.
Standing before them was something Juniper first suspected was a woman on horseback, but at a second glance, Juniper knew that the horse and woman were the same. It was a creature called a Centaur. Half humanoid, half horse. Juniper had heard about them before and knew that they sometimes roamed the woods. The centaur was reaching up into the trees where some sort of creature was struggling and wiggling in a net.
“It’s Piakol,” Grace said.
Juniper narrowed her eyes and she could tell that Grace was right. The creature in the net was a small, red dragon. It had to be Piakoi.
“It would be much easier if you would stop trying to bite at my fingertips,” The Centaur said. “All I want to do is free you.”
Juniper took another step toward the tree where Piakol was trapped. However as she moved, she accidentally stepped on a dried branch and there was a distinct snap sound. The centaur turned quickly and reached for a spear along her back.
“Wait! Wait!” Juniper held up her hands. “I’m a friend.”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” The Centaur asked.
“The creature in your net. It’s my…It’s my dragon. His name is Piakol. We are companions,” Juniper explained.
The Centaur looked skeptical. Then she turned her attention to the tree where Juniper and Grace were hiding.
“And what about the other one behind the tree?” The Centaur asked.
“Uh. That’s Grace. Also my friend,” Juniper said. “We were attacked by these Elvish fighters -”
“Are you not Elvish yourself?” The Centaur raised an eyebrow.
“I am. But these were different Elves,” Juniper said.
“The Elves of Ohn’ Nalore. The outcast in the woods,” The Centaur said.
“Yes. Them. Have you met them?” Juniper asked.
“They tried to recruit me and my brethren to their cause,” The Centaur said.
“They tried? And failed?”
The Centaur nodded.
“We have no interest in the political struggles of the Elvish Kingdom. Or any kingdom for that matter. But we pledged our neutrality. We would let them travel through the woods without intervention. As long as they respect the fey realm.”
“What exactly is this fey realm?” Grace asked, now emerging from her hiding spot.
The Centaur looked her up and down.
“The forest here is filled with all sorts of beasts, fey, and spirits. There is a deep connection to nature magic and there are even doorways between here and the Feywild. Unlucky travelers may wander through one of these doorways and be unable to get back. Fortunately me and my brethren have lived in these woods for generations and we know the best way to travel. We have no interest in wars, but we guard these woods from those who would seek to destroy it or try to control the power of the forest.”
Grace gave a nervous nod.
“Right. Stay out of the woods. Got it,” She said.
The Centaur looked back at Juniper.
“This one is like us. A hunter and tracker. A caretaker of nature. She will be able to lead you through these woods,” The Centaur said.
“Thank you. I appreciate that. My name is Juniper,” Juniper said.
“Nikope,” The Centaur said.
“Nice to meet you, Nikope. My name is Grace,” Grace said. “I really like your whole thing. You seem cool.”
Nikope gave a slight smile, breaking her serious facade.
“Thank you, Grace. I can tell that you walk with a delicacy. Like a walking shadow,” Nikope said.
“Heh thanks,” Grace said.
“Nikope. Please if I may. Piakol is still stuck in your net.”
“Right, right. The little dragon. It tried to bite me and breathe fire whenever I got close to free it. It is very frightened,” Nikope said.
“Yes. We were attacked by those Elvish fighters. They tried to kidnap Piakol. He must have flown here and got stuck.”
“Many beasts hide here in the woods where they are safe. These nets are usually for catching large birds. Hawks. Falcons. That sort of thing.”
“What do you do with them after you catch them?” Grace asked.
“Centaurs have to eat too,” Nikope smiled again.
“Oh, I thought you all ate grass and stuff. You know, like horses,” Grace said.
“Grace, don’t be rude!”
“I wasn’t trying to be rude. I legitimately thought that,” Grace said.
“Well you have lots to learn, Grace,” Nikope said. “We are omnivores like yourself. We hunt for our food as well as collect berries, wild carrots, and other vegetation.”
“May I try to retrieve Piakol?” Juniper asked.
Juniper then approached the tree and at the sight of her, Piakol stopped thrashing about.
“It’s ok, Pickle. It’s ok. Promise. I won’t let them take you. I won’t let anyone hurt you,” Juniper said. “Let me get you down.”
Juniper climbed up the tree and sat on the branch where the net was set. She swiftly but carefully undid the contraction holding the net together and freed Piakol. The small, red dragon curled up on her lap and let out a few heavy breaths.
“Do not worry, Pickle. You are safe now,” Juniper said, running her hands across Piakol’s scales.
“Amazing,” Nikope said. “I can tell that your bond is true.”
“Yeah I’d like to think so,” Juniper said.
“Well then, Juniper and Grace. I must go back to my people and tell them they will not be having dragon stew tonight. Good luck with your journey.”
“Thank you, Nikope,” Juniper said.
“Maybe we’ll see you again,” Grace said.
“Yes, maybe our paths will cross again,” Nikope said. “Just remember to step lightly in the woods and watch where you walk.”
“Kind of creepy, Nikope,” Grace said.
Nikope smiled before turning and galloping deep into the woods.
“Right. Well. We need to get back before the boys come searching for us,” Juniper said.
“Yeah let’s go,” Grace said.
Juniper held Piakol in her arms as Grace and Juniper started to make their way back out of the woods to meet up with the others.
Header Photo Credit to The Dice Will Roll Fandom Wiki