The dust of combat settled, and, after an hour of reckless mayhem, it was all over.
The battle for Brickrite ended in an uneasy, abrupt truce. The rats mentally ordered their troops to stand down, and Dragomir, accompanied by his (very confused) wife, spread the same message on foot to the former crew of the Dauphine. As the diary was causing the most trouble through its army of rowdy animals, this message was successful in very short order. The animals, save the diary’s ensorcelled draconic transport, quietly wandered out of Brickrite and returned to their lives in the surrounding wilderness.
Dragomir and his friends reunited on the roof of Brickrite. Jeffrey and Logan, recently engaged in sabotage of enemy arms, inspected each other for wounds. Traveller, as distractable as ever, turned his amorous advances to Nagi, who had spent most of the battle in hiding. She did not appreciate his leering. Fynn sat aside from the rest, pretending to nurse a minor bruise to his shoulder, though in reality wondering if he would ever be able to use his magic again. Libby consoled him, patting her huge son on the knee, but her attention was… elsewhere.
Dragomir stood amid them all, waiting for his crew to gather. He noted each of them as they approached, offering hugs and handshakes but never opening himself. Each person seemed enthusiastic to see him at first - he’d been separated from everyone immediately after the dragons captured the group - but their good cheer died a little when they saw the expression on his face. It was -
- guarded, something so unfamiliar for their leader, and it took everyone by surprise. For the first time, Dragomir seemed less like a leader and more like a boss.
Even the diary noticed. It didn’t care. As soon as it saw Dragomir it tottered over and rubbed itself against his leg. He picked it up, forcing a little smile and shaking his head. It felt safe in his arms, even if they were a little cooler than usual. It could handle cooler.
Once everyone was settled on the ramparts of Brickrite’s eastern wall, either watching the tower for signs of aggression or staring across the plains of Outer Rodentia, Dragomir began.
“Hi, everyone.” He set the diary on the ground, nudging it to one side with his boot. It skittered away and joined LIbby; she cringed as it nuzzled her leg. “First of all, thanks for breakin’ me out. Sort of. That’s much obliged. I guess our teamwork hasn’t suffered from separation.”
A few rowdy voices rose in agreement. Morris, overly-enthusiastic after his release, fired off one of the fortress’s cannons, and everyone watched it smash through a tree in the distance. He pumped the air with one fist, shouting ‘TEAMWORK! TEAMWORK!’
“Settle down,” Dragomir said, rolling his eyes. “We have a lot to get caught up on, there’s no doubt about that, and we’ll all have time to talk. I’ve been out of the loop for a few weeks - I think, anyway - so while we’re headed back home, I want to sit down with each of you and have a chat. Ten, fifteen minutes, no more than that. I need some intel before I make any decisions, ’n you folks are the best source I’ve got. The most reliable, anyway.”
More cheers, though these were slightly subdued, and a little confused. Fynn, his face unusually tense, voiced one of their questions. “Dad, we… there’s not much point going home, the Dauphine is all wrecked.”
Dragomir’s curt smile chilled his son. “Yeah, that’s right. You don’t know what home is, do you, Fynn? You were born on the road. I meant Pubton. We’re done out here. We need to head back east. We’ve got a war waiting for us.”
Most everyone in the crowd wanted, at that point, to ask the obvious question. Not a soul, not even Libby, dared to speak up. They all figured that Dragomir would open himself in due time, that he might still be processing whatever he’d learned from his encounter with Iko. It was a fair assumption - Dragomir was processing what he’d learned, incorporating that horrid knowledge into his sense of self - but only two of them were anywhere near grasping the truth, and a third was lagging somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Logan spoke up, raising a hand. “What about the, uh, rats? They just gonna let us go? We kinda trashed their fort.”
“Yes, they’re letting us go,” Dragomir said, nodding. “We have a deal. They need our help fighting the Non in the east. I don’t know many details, but it sounds like ‘ol Pubton is holding up pretty well out there. They wanna take advantage of that, maybe create a second front of resistance against the Non. I’m going to learn as much as I can on the way back, ‘cause they’re planning on chaperoning us.”
The word ‘chaperone’ dangled dangerously in the air. Considering how long it had taken to move from Pubton to the far west of the Imperium in the first place, most everyone was curious how the rats planned on getting the group back to Pubton any time soon. But one of their count - two, really, but one spoke up - had something else in mind.
“What about my wife?” asked Jeffrey, hands shaking slightly. “She’s… she’s out here, somewhere. Can you ask the rats…?”
Dragomir shook his head a little too quickly. “Sorry, Jeffrey, but we don’t have time to look for her right now. Daena could be anywhere. I’m not caught up on the details of her, uh, flight, but it sounds like she could be sprintin’ across the southern ocean, for all we know. I’ll get the rats to keep an eye out for her, though.”
Blinking, Jeffrey crooked an eyebrow. “‘Keep an eye out for her?’ Dragomir, that’s not good enough.”
“It’ll have to be.” Dragomir shrugged. “Daena can take care of herself. We all know that. There’s an entire town of people waitin’ for news from us; I have to worry about them, first. When we have a chance, we’ll find her.”
Jeffrey bit his lip, but he sat back down, staring at his feet. Logan, sitting nearby, furrowed his brow so dangerously that he looked ready to attack someone. He kept his mouth shut, however, and stewed over his frustration - a mother missing, a sister dead and waiting to be brought back - in silence.
“The rats’re gonna give us supplies and whistle up a ride,” Dragomir concluded. “Your stuff is downstairs, in their storerooms. Go grab what you can, then rest up. We’ve got a long flight ahead. I don’t expect it’ll be too pleasant.”
Cracking his knuckles, nodding to his wife, Dragomir walked briskly away. Libby watched him go, mouth slightly agape, not sure what to think. He’d barely said a word to her since she’d found him in the command tower of Brickrite, barely offered any affection or explanation, and even a mild thrashing to get him in a good mood hadn’t goaded Dragomir out of his… his… phase. Libby couldn’t describe it to herself as anything else.
Staring at her husband’s back as he rounded a corner and disappeared down a set of stairs, his diary following close behind on stubby, frantic legs, Libby hugged her son. He hugged his mother back.
It’s like he stayed in the desert, she thought. I don’t know who this guy is.