Peacekeeper Nari woke up with a jolt. She rolled over and shook Trianna awake.
«We must leave,» she urged, picking her coat off the floor where she had folded it together to use as a pillow. «Right away.»
«Right,» Trianna said sleepily, sitting up and stretching. White forest was already alive with the chattering of animals. It was early, but the birds woke up before the sun even had a chance to rise.
They wiped out the last traces of their campfire, burying the ashes under some loose dirt from a small anthill a few paces away. The ants were upset and began crawling around irately, but the two women were far away by the time the bugs orientated themselves enough to try and attack their supposed assailants.
Nari and Trianna had ventured deep into the forest the previous day. They had to stop eventually and hunched down between the trees, in a tiny clearing just big enough for them and a small campfire. They were not yet out of the White side of the forest, but Nari could tell they were getting close to the border. Some of the trees seemed darker than others, nearly gray in the morning light. Still, it took them about an hour to reach the truly black trees.
It was an odd sight. It always was. The border between Black and White affected even the forest's trees. On one side the trees were pure white, on the other, black as night. Even the animals were affected by it. If they crossbred, it didn't show in the least.
Another hour of silent walking later they came upon a clearing, much bigger than the one they had spent the night in. Trianna suggested taking a quick break there and getting a bit of food, and Nari agreed, sitting down with her back against one of the sturdy trees. Trianna set the bag she carried down on the floor and started rummaging in it. They hadn't brought much in the way of food, really, just enough for a few days. That is, if they supplemented it with game from the forest.
For breakfast, they ate round, filled bread buns – panem -, a White specialty. Nari wasn't sure what was inside hers, but it tasted decent. Not her favorite at all, but it was passable. The downside to panem was that the filling tended to go bad and rot on long journeys, so they had not brought many of the buns. The bread was usually fine. The worst that could happen to it was getting dry and hard. A little bit of chewing resistance, Nari's father used to say, only makes your bite stronger. Man up and eat your bread.
Nari's peaceful meal was interrupted by a loud swear. She frowned and looked up. Trees didn't tend to swear. The leaves obscured anything from view, but she was pretty sure the voice had come from somewhere up in the tree she sat by.
«Did you hear that, Trianna?»
«I did, Madam.»
Nari looked back down to see Trianna already standing ready with a knife.
«Don't do anything until I give the word,» she warned, and the maid nodded, lowering the weapon slightly.
A skittering noise alerted her to the presence of a small animal. It was darting down the trunk of the tree, its body completely vertical. It made Nari slightly dizzy to imagine being in that position. She quickly removed herself from the tree in case the animal was hostile.
It plodded onto the flat ground and shook itself. A fine layer of dew made the creature's scales look slick and glossy, almost like gemstones. The water didn't come off easily, but the animal didn't really seem to mind. It didn't seem to mind the Peacekeeper and the maid, either. It tread around the clearing a while, sniffing things and crooning hoarsely at interesting smells and insects. Nari hadn't ever seen anything like it before. It had a slim, long body and four legs. The head resembled a snake's. Actually, the entire creature resembled some sort of reptile, like a snake with legs. It had startlingly yellow eyes with small slits for pupils and a row of small spikes running across from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. The spikes were not very menacing, but Nari guessed that the animal would grow and they would become more impressive. Two tiny, leathery wings sat on the creature's back and flapped idly whenever it found something interesting to examine.
Someone cursed again. Nari looked back up the tree, seeing movements and hearing the rustling of leaves. A butt was moving towards her.
«Who's there?» she called. She didn't get any reply. Nari took her bow off her shoulder slowly and reached for an arrow.
«Who's there?» she repeated as she pulled the bowstring back.
«Don't shoot,» the butt pleaded. «Don't shoot.»
«Give me four reasons not to shoot you on the spot.»
«Well, firstly, you've no authority to shoot without reason outside of White grounds,» the butt said. There was still a good distance to go before the sliding behind would be at ground level. Nari raised an eyebrow. «Secondly, the arse isn't a very good place to shoot, I mean, only fat there, won't kill me. Also, thirdly, I might be on some important mission here to save the world. You don't want to mess with that.»
The person jumped off the tree about a meter off the ground. They landed firmly and straightened.
«Fourth, you're way too happy to see me.»
Captain Flint spread her hands with a grin. Her warmly tanned skin seemed to glow in the bright morning sun and her jet black hair caught the light nicely. It was chopped short in the back to free her neck from the warmth of the beating sun, but left to grow right by her ears. Her thick, luxurious hair hung over her shoulders and over her chest, giving an idea of what she would have looked with long hair.
«Flesh 'n blood,» the pirate smiled.
«As manly as ever,» Nari remarked. «How have you been, Lintra? Or, should I say, Captain Flint?»
The pirate shrugged. «I'd normally say Flint, but since it's you, you get to choose.»
«Well then, Lintra. We don't have time to linger, but let's walk and you tell me how you've been.»
The pirate agreed and they began to walk. The dragon and the maid fell behind, Trianna keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings. The dragon stopped periodically to smell interesting things or chase bugs, but kept up nicely. When it fell too far behind, it would cry and start flapping its wings to propel itself faster towards them. Nari loved it. It was adorable.
«Where did you get that?» she asked. Flint looked at her, puzzled, and she pointed at the dragon.
«Oh, that. It's a long story.»
«We have a long journey ahead.»
«Where are we even going?»
«Wherever you're going. None of the kingdoms are safe for any of us. I've left my position and you're, well, a pirate. I was given orders to hunt and kill you with my fellow Peacekeepers.»
Nari stopped for a moment. «As you can probably tell, I refused the order.»
«Why? I'm a pirate. Peacekeepers like you would jump eagerly at the chance of putting me down,» Flint hummed.
«You know why.»
«Sure. No, I don't. But sure.»
«So anyway, the dragon?»
As if it knew it was being talked about, the baby dragon flapped its way up to them and climbed up Flint's leg. She grimaced at the way it hooked its claws into her on its way up but smiled at it when it settled on her shoulder. The dragon closed its eyes and let out a low trilling sound when Flint scratched its chin. Nari suppressed a fond smile.
«I got it as an egg,» Flint said. «Was a nice green egg. I wanted to make a delicious meal with it, but the person who gave it to me didn't approve.» She winked at Nari. «I had to carry it around under my shirt for weeks. It was the most awkward-looking thing. I usually hid because people kept thinking I was pregnant.»
«It was that big?»
«No, I had wrapped it in blankets to keep it as warm as possible. It was horrible. Luckily, it wasn't that far from hatching, only a few weeks. I had been instructed on everything I had to do. When it hatched I dried it off on the blankets and let it stay under my shirt until it peeked out on its own.»
«That's pretty cute,» Nari said. «I didn't think you even had any maternal instincts.»
«But come on, he's too cute,» Flint smiled. «He thinks I'm his mom. Which is a shame, because dragons are pretty rough to their mothers, especially when they're teething.»
As if to prove her point, the dragon stopped trilling and bit into Flint's finger. She hissed back and pulled her hand away.
«Does it bite hard?»
«Yes. And it's not an adult yet, even. It's gonna get worse. Right, you li'l bastard?»
She gave the dragon a nudge and it trilled cheerfully.
«It chews on things constantly.»
«Like a baby?»
«Yep. It is a baby.»
«I guess.» Nari smiled, looking ahead. She was pleased now. She had found Flint before the Peacekeepers had. Of course, she would have to explain the whole situation to Flint, but for now, she was happy talking about the dragon or anything else Flint had on her mind.
«I got the egg from…a friend,» she said slowly, then frowned. «Wait, not a friend at all. Disregard that bit. I've not met 'im anywhere before. Real weirdo.»
«Did you get a name?»
«Nope. Was a kid, tho, just a wee lad. Talked like an adult. Had a smug sense o' superiority 'round 'im.»
«Never heard of. Is there any chance we can seek him out?»
«We could, but it'd be a horrible…wait, not a detour. We don't even have a goal, do we.»
«Well, I'm going wherever you're going,» Nari said. «And you're going where I'm going.»
«Heh, true. But, lady mine, 's like the babe's got this idea that we hafta head off to somewhere, don't even know where.»
«I thought we could head off down the pirate path to the ruins of Reon.»
«If you wanna visit the man-boy we'd hafta head nearby and take the airpath to the Skyseers up in the mountains. We can head to Reon for now, and see where we end.»
«Sure. Even with the pirate path it'll take at least a fortnight.»
Flint nodded, ending the conversation and letting them fall into a silent walk. The dragon jumped off her shoulder to rejoin Trianna in the back. The maid seemed slightly wary of the creature and kept a watchful eye on it for the several hours it took for them to reach the end of the forest. Once they were there, the pirate stopped abruptly.
«We should rest here for the night.»
«You can't decide that,» Nari, said, but smiled crookedly. «If you think it's for the best, we'll stop here.»
«The pirate path's not far away. We'll enter tomorrow and make our way through Black Kingdom unseen.»
«What if we meet pirates?» Trianna asked, sitting down against a tree. «Will they make trouble for us?»
«They might,» Flint shrugged. «We don't know until we meet them. You guys stand out though; we're not in White anymore.»
Peacekeeper Nari sighed. «You're right. We're dressed in white.»
«I'll be okay,» Trianna said. «You can adjust your cape a little.»
Nari nodded and did her best to cover up her uniform with her cape. She was part of the black division of Peacekeepers; they wore black capes, and their uniforms had black trimmings and details. If she kept her cape close around her, she would probably be okay.
«If we run into anyone that wants to make trouble, I'll try to put in a good word for you,» Flint said. «But I can't promise it'll work.»
«That's good enough for me,» Nari said, smiling as the baby dragon started climbing all over Flint, trying to find a comfortable place to sit. Eventually, it slipped under her shirt, snout just barely peeking out under her collar. The dragon trilled softly as it settled to sleep, and Flint frowned, displeased, looking up at Nari.
«I wish he would just sleep in my bag. He usually does, but some nights he just gets clingy.»