They left the city behind before the morning light reached the base of the main tower. It was nearly half an hour before the air cleared completely and the grey clouds made way for blue sky. Saenni folded her new cloak under her head and lied down on Kau as soon as the air cleared, enjoying the sun on her person. Meriall rode beside her on her new horse, occasionally making comments about their slowly shifting surroundings, while the other two rode further ahead, talking amongst themselves.
They followed the foot of the mountains for several hours, the scenery changing from dry and rocky to soft green. Fields of grass spread out from the edge of Redagan, reaching for the horizon in the east and the trees to the west. They followed the main road to a crossroads, where they headed towards the west, leaving the mountain range behind them.
'This is the main road that goes straight from the capital of Trouver, Yares, to the border of Ardling,' Meriall said.
'Ardling is another country?'
'Yes, it's the elven country. It's furthest to the east, connected to Trouver by only a small piece of land that is behind a mountain range, otherwise, it's surrounded by water.'
'Have you been there?'
Before Saenni was able to ask more, Armant called for Meriall. She gave a brief nod to the reclining dragon before spurring on her horse, leaving Kau to follow the rest at his own calm pace. Saenni studied the clouds moving across the sky, following the currents pushing and pulling them around. She tore her gaze from the sky when she felt the horse tense-a minuscule shift, but she felt it easily. She sat up and looked around, eyes trailing over the sparse collection trees.
When she didn't spot anything that could be the reason, Saenni shrugged and stretched her arms with a yawn. Her right arm made contact with something. Looking down, it was covered in a sticky red substance and not a second later, Kau jumped to the side and kicked with his hind legs. Following the direction of his kick, Saenni saw the bloodied body of a man lie on the ground, hands still twitching.
She shook the blood off her hand and called out to the people ahead. 'This wasn't one of your friends, was it?'
Meriall was next to her a moment later, dismounting her horse to get a closer look. 'No. This is a mercenary. You can see it here,' she said and indicated the black mark on his sleeve. 'It's the mark of the Steelbane mercenaries.'
'Why did they attack me?'
'They've been hired to attack Linette before so probably just attacked you because you're travelling with us. How did you kill him? He's got a hole in his head but you don't have any weapons.'
'I don't need weapons,' Saenni said and raised her still bloody hand. 'It was an accident. I didn't even see him there.'
'Okay,' she said slowly and stood. 'I guess that's good. Armant, we should probably expect more any moment.'
He drew his sword as the two joined them. 'They're already here. Get ready.'
'I'll wait over here,' Saenni said and steered Kau away to a nearby tree. 'Have fun.'
'Wait-' Meriall said but was cut short as she was forced to block an arrow aimed at her face.
Saenni watched as Meriall and Armant defended Linette from the attackers. Where Armant was strong and decisive in his movements, Meriall was swift and agile, moving around her attackers faster than they could react. Kau grazed around the tree calmly and Saenni patted him gently. When two mercenaries moved towards them, raising their weapons to attack, Saenni sighed. The moment one of them got close enough for her to grab him, she took a firm grasp of his collar and flung him in the direction of Redagan. His companion froze in mid-step when the mercenary disappeared over the treetops.
'Go fight them,' Saenni said flatly. 'I'm not part of this.'
The mercenary nodded slowly as he backed away. Saenni leaned back against the tree trunk and watched him join his companions instead, only to be taken down by Armant within minutes. When all of the attackers had been taken care of, Linette stepped over to Saenni with a tight smile.
'How come you didn't help us?'
'What?' Linette said, frowning.
Saenni chuckled. 'Nothing. It's not my fight. I dealt with two of them for you, either way.'
'You are not going to help us when we are attacked?'
'You seem to handle it well enough on your own. My purpose here isn't to help you fight, so no. I don't see a point with getting involved with this part.'
'What is your purpose then?' Linette asked as the other two joined them.
'To see this world unified.'
'That is our goal as well, so-'
'Your goal is to stop the magi,' Saenni corrected. 'Unifying the world is just a byproduct of that. My mission here is to unify, not to stop the magi.'
Meriall nodded slowly. 'So for you to fulfil your mission, it doesn't matter if the magi win or not?'
'Would you have followed him if he had summoned you?'
'Probably. But it's irrelevant since I'm here with you now. Shall we keep going or are we staying here for the rest of the day?' Saenni asked.
'We have some distance left before we will stop for the evening,' Armant said, wiping off the blood from his sword before sheeting it again.
'I think we should talk about this properly,' Linette said. 'If you aren't going to help us, why are you with us?'
'You asked me to come with you,' Saenni said simply and nudged Kau to rejoin the other horses. 'I don't see the issue.'
'We need to know we can trust you, after all.'
'I don't see what trust has to do with our arrangement. You asked me to join you and I did, I never said I'd fight for you.'
'But you're the great dragon of prophecy, it's written that you will aid the chosen one in their quest.'
'And does it specify what quest that is?'
'To unify the lands in the face of great evil.'
Saenni nodded slowly as Linette stared at her. She glanced at Meriall who simply shrugged and shook her head. 'Well, there's your answer. I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I've told you how to quickly resolve this as well.'
'Yes, your test,' Linette said with a curt nod.
Saenni sighed. 'Yes, yes, my test. Shall we?'
For the next few hours, the party travelled in relative silence, the humans speaking to her only when absolutely needed. It wasn't until they reached another clearing in the forest that Armant announced that they would be stopping for the night. Saenni tied Kau to the tree next to Meriall's mare, patting him gently. Meriall appeared next to her and motioned for her to follow.
'Is there another reason why you didn't help us fight the mercenaries?' she asked lowly.
'I'm not here to help you fight.'
She frowned. 'You could solve this whole thing in a day, considering how strong you are. You could save a lot of people if you just helped us stop him. Innocent people.'
'If I did, I would fail my real purpose here. You have to step up and do the work yourselves if you want this unification to last. Counting on my help will get you nowhere.'
Meriall tossed a nearby branch to Armant, who was constructing a campfire further away from the trees. 'Trust is important to us. We need to know if we can trust you, count on you,' she said. 'If we can expect you to watch our backs as we watch yours.'
'I am a dragon. Whether you trust me or not is irrelevant to me. I won't help you fight as that is not my purpose here, so act accordingly. I will help you unify the lands, what you do beyond that is up to you.'
'It's difficult accepting that.'
'It's what you must do, nonetheless. I will help where it is needed, but I'm not here to save you,' Saenni said. She shrugged off her new shirt as she let her scales return, pulling back the fake skin and releasing her wings. She stretched them ever so slightly, shaking the stiffness out of them. 'I'm going to take a look around.'
She put the shirt where she had left the cloak before stretching her wings properly. She smiled slightly at Meriall's gasp and slack yaw. Saenni allowed them to stare at them for a moment longer before she flapped them harshly and took flight. Wind rushed past her, gliding off her scales as she climbed higher and higher into the evening sky. Her wings carried her easily, turning quickly with the slightest shift in angles, and she rode the currents with minimal effort.
The ground disappeared below the clouds and she was left to soar over a white, fluffy ocean in peace. The stars twinkled above her, and the moon made the clouds glow faintly. She closed her eyes and soaked in the feeling. The silence beyond the rush of the wind was calming, the near weightlessness freeing–the familiar feeling of everything being just right making her very core of her being hum.
She spun in the air, circling back before she went too far. Redagan broke through the clouds to the north-east, and a faded golden light to the north caught her attention. She climbed a bit higher, but the clouds kept her from seeing anything clearly. Where the clouds below her glowed cool silver, the golden tint of the ones to the north made her frown.
Then she folded her wings around herself and dove through the clouds, rushing towards the ground below. Water droplets clung to her scales as she emerged from the clouds, sliding off easily as she plunged downwards. Despite the speed, she could see perfectly. She unfurled her wings and soared above the treetops, smirking as scared birds took flight after she passed. She circled the forest twice before returning to the others, hovering above them for a few beats before touching down gently.
She folded her wings against her back and moulded her energy over them and her scales once again, pulling the shirt over her head as she did. She joined them by the campfire without a word, ignoring their stares and settling herself comfortably next to Meriall.
'That was incredible,' the young woman said.
'Yes, quite the sight,' Armant nodded. 'Did you see anything interesting?'
'What's to the far north? I could see something glowing.'
'Magina, the country of the magi,' Meriall said and tossed another branch onto the fire. 'No one knows for sure, but they say there's some rare magical object up there that give them their powers.'
'Have you been there?'
'No. Only those with magic can pass through the barrier at the border and the magi collect anyone with magical abilities when they are born. Keeps the power within their control.'
Saenni glanced at Linette. 'You have magic.'
'I was hidden when I was born, one of the few that managed to escape capture,' she replied, her tone distant. 'As far as we know, all the others have either been killed or captured over the years.'
'Hidden, by whom?' Saenni asked.
'A group of monks dedicated to the fulfilment of the prophecy, they found my mother as she was giving birth and managed to hide me before the magi picked up on my existence.'
'They have magic themselves?'
'They were magi, yes. A group within the country, able to hide in plain sight so to speak. They put layers of magic on me to keep me hidden and then placed me in a home in Trouver to grow up, hidden from the rest of the magi until I could come into my own power and protect myself, and fulfil the prophecy.'
'You speak of them in past tense.'
'As far as I know, all but one are dead,' Linette sighed. 'In similar fashion how I appear to be the last survivor of the children they managed to save.'
'Do you know what the magi do with the children?'
'The monks never told me. If he's still alive, I'll make sure to introduce you when we get to Normery. Perhaps he'll be more inclined to tell you.'
Saenni nodded. 'Beyond that, I didn't see much. No one appeared to be nearby either.'
'I'll take first watch either way,' Meriall said. She held out a piece of meat to Saenni. 'You should eat something.'
She accepted it but looked at the piece critically, sniffing it before taking a bite. She scrunched up her nose and smacked her tongue against the top of her mouth. 'That's very salty,' she commented.
'It's the only way to make sure it lasts long enough to work for travelling,' Meriall laughed. 'You get used to it.'
'I certainly hope I won't have to. The food at the inn was more pleasant, I think I'll go more for that in the future.'
'Wait until we get to Jadna,' Meriall said. 'It's a port town just south of here, they have great food. We'll cut through the forest tomorrow, and if we make good time we'll reach it within two days, after that we'll have another day or two before we reach Naservo. We changed the route a bit since we got attacked. We don't want to go too close to the capital if we can avoid it.'
'I see. I'll look forward to that town then.'
'Make sure to wake me in a few hours, Meriall,' Armant said and put his sword next to him as he lied down. 'The rest of you, make sure to get some rest.'