By the next day, things had pretty much gone back to normal. Levi shook his somber bout, and donned the cloak of self-confidence once more. I returned to less open means of expressing myself. We made plans on what we intended to do next.
We had to keep our heads down because there was still no knowing whether there were Invaders in the area. So, flying around as Dragons, especially during the day, was right out.
Levi had a map — a fascinating document that detailed locations and so many names — where he noted places he thought Invaders had built settlements. He had a rough estimate of where we were currently located, and we used this to decide on a path towards the domain of the Dragons.
I also only had a rough idea of where the Dragons usually gathered. It was hard to say now, since I’d been gone for as long as I had, if they’d stuck to that location, or had moved on. It was a place to start, which was better than nothing.
We picked a set of trails that was somewhat out in the open, in hopes to keep watch for any Dragons passing in the sky. This mostly kept us in the green, hilly highlands, and out of forests. On the other hand, there were enough smaller groves along the way to take shelter at night, when we needed to find cover.
The weather was good, so hunting and fishing was plentiful. Fishing was a skill I wasn’t very familiar with, and Levi was more than happy to teach me the basics. If it wasn’t for his previous discussion with Grandma, I’d think he was actually enjoying himself on this trip. But I knew better.
Any time I brought up the topic of Dragons, I sensed his ambivalence. It wasn’t that he disliked the whole deal. It was more the case that he didn’t have it sorted for himself. Considering I was the only other Dragon he knew of, I guess I can’t blame him for his doubt.
We knew that our plan needed to be flexible and that the unknown would probably happen. Still, we didn’t anticipate things to go so wildly off track. This happened after a week or so of traveling, as we got deeper into the Invader’s domain. It started with smoke and flame.
“You see that,” I indicated a wavering line of smoke that rose above the sparse treeline on the horizon.
“Yep.” Levi didn’t hesitate to let me know I was slow on the draw. “Been watching it for a little while.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, I just figured you knew about it.” The words had a smirky sound to them.
Anything else I said would just prove that I wasn’t as quick as he was, or would be a lie. So I just grumbled and kept walking.
We adjusted our path to avoid it. Where there was smoke, there was flame. Where there was flame, there were likely people.
“Or Dragons,” I pointed out.
“I guess it could be. But how likely would Dragons keep their flame so small. Or use fire for much at all,” Levi asked.
I mused. “That’s true.”
Keeping a healthy distance seemed the best course. It didn’t help us much in the end.
I felt the presence of someone watching us before I heard the motion of a body in the trees. I kept walking, trying not to give an outward sign that I knew we were being followed. I let my steps casually move me closer to Levi, whom I nudged ever so slightly in the arm.
His eyes flicked over to me in a way that told me he also knew. Now that was a given, we just had to decide what to do with our unwanted guest.
The day was winding down, and it would be soon time to dig out a camp for the night. I decided to take the lead, making a great, loud showing of stretching and groaning.
“Hey, my feet are killing me,” I told Levi, even though they weren’t. “What do you say we make camp for the night?”
If we stopped and put the pressure on our follower, they might give themselves away.
Levi didn’t seem so sure about this. “We have at least an hour of light left. We should probably make the best of the day we have.”
“Shouldn’t we at least see what game’s in this area?” I suggested.
It was an excuse for us splitting up. So far, I’d only heard one set of footsteps behind us. Whoever it was, it couldn’t watch us both if we went different ways. It might even encourage them to be more bold and foolish in trying to take one of us alone.
Levi knew where I was going with this and appeared to find it sound. “Yeah, I guess fresh meat sounds good tonight.”
This gave me an excuse to pull out my make-shift spear. It was nowhere near as fancy as Levi’s nice sword, being nothing but a couple pieces of sharpened metal that I scavenged along the way and put together. It did its job for crude hunting, but wouldn’t hold up against a trained warrior.
I could always fall back on my Dragon form if I really needed to. I wasn’t too afraid of just one creature in the forest. The footfalls were light-weight, so I knew it wasn’t a fully armored Invader. Even if it was, we could handle it.
Levi took my cue and drew his sword, then we walked separate ways, under the ruse of hunting. For a while, I heard nothing from the forest that indicated I’d been followed. I wondered if maybe we’d made a misstep. If this was an Invader scout checking us out, it may have gone back to the main camp to call for reinforcements. We could be in over our heads real fast.
With those thoughts, I decided it was best to go back and regroup with Levi. As I turned to follow my trail back, something stepped out from behind a tree. Something willowy and thin. It held a weapon in one hand, pointed straight at me.
I knew an Invader when I saw one.
I suppressed the growl that instinctively rose from the back of my throat, fists tightening on my spear. Everything in me bristled, shifting back to the bestial urge to kill on sight. These creatures deserved no mercy. And this one had the guts to shove a weapon in my face.
The Invader was without its machine — just a thin, mud-smeared suit that included a mask over its face and a helmet crowing its head. I noticed the mud wasn’t just haphazard. This creature had actually worked to try to camouflage itself with the natural colors of the earth. The way it snuck up on me when it really wanted to showed that it had some skill.
I made a menacing motion with my spear, indicating that I didn’t plan to back down, even in the face of their weapon. The Invader jabbed their blaster forward, rattling off a long chitter of language I didn’t understand. The tone said it was instructing me to do something. Not that I would have even if I’d know what it was saying.
Then, it stopped. It seemed to realize I couldn’t figure out what it was saying.
It kept one hand with the weapon leveled on me. With the other hand, it thwapped the solid side of its helmet. I heard a crackle of static and noticed that its mask had both a breathing vent and a speaker built into it.
Good to know.
To my surprise, the language that poured from the mask speaker changed. I could understand what the creature was saying. It had some sort of translation device.
“There. There. You can hear me now, right?” The voice, now that it spoke my language, was decisively female.
“I hear you,” I snarled. “Get that weapon out of my face.”
“I can’t do that,” the Invader said. But the tip of the weapon began to quiver. She was afraid. “You’re one of those beast people, aren’t you?”
“You have a lot of nerve to call me that.”
“I have a lot of what?” Light reflected from the goggles that obscured the rest of her face. I could hear the forced courage in her tone. “Your beasts have been rampaging and killing everything that moves. I bet that makes you happy.”
“In fact,” I gave a wicked smile, “It does.”
The Invader looked about ready to retort, but then stood straight and stiff. Levi materialized out of the forest behind her, his blade curving around the front of where her neck should be. It was covered in some sort of suit, but close enough.
“Put it down,” Levi instructed her in a level tone.
“I’ll shoot!” She squawked, hand shaking all the more.
He saw that and said simply, “You’ll miss. And then my angry friend there will have something to say about that.”
“I already do,” I snarled, taking advantage of the Invader’s distraction.
While she looked shaken over one shoulder, I advanced. My weapon had a long reach, and I was fast. It wasn’t difficult to strike her weapon and disarm her. Well, not like dis-ARM disarm her. I left her arm in tact. Levi gave me such a fit for severing that other one’s hand.
This time, I had another target. I wanted to find out what happened when you destroyed an Invader’s mask.
She was already gasping air in gulps of fear, as I bore down on her. When my hand spread across the length of her mask and began to pry it away from her face, she wailed loudly. Even just pulling it an inch away seemed to have terrible consequences for her — she choked on the air that we normally breathed.
“Ahhhhh…” I said, pleased by the discovery and my moment of cruelty. “You need this, don’t you? What if it just happened to break?”
The Invader struggled against me the way a suffocating person would fight for air. “No! No, please!”
Her voice crackled as the rough handling started breaking up the mask’s translation abilities. It felt so good to have one of her kind begging for my mercy.
Levi’s hand was strong and firm as he yanked back on my shoulder. Messing up my fun, as usual. “Don’t do this.”
“Why not,” I hissed back.
“She’s seen the Dragons,” he reasoned. “She might have information we can put to use.”
I glowered back at him, slowly releasing my grip on her mask. I felt her thin form shudder with something that was almost a sob as I took hold of her upper arm instead. “Are you suggesting we capture her?”
Levi took a long, deep breath. He was troubled by this, but he nodded.
“You’re fond of taking prisoners, aren’t you?” I accused.
“Not really. But the more we know about what we face, the better for us.” He’d already retrieved the Invader’s weapon, which he held in the hand opposite of his sword.
I grumbled a bit, but gave in to his suggestion. My pride could settle for making an Invader my terrorized slave rather than killing it. Just for a little while.