“I don’t like the feel of these woods,” Darcy said offhandedly.
She said it more to cut the tension than anything, because they were walking along, single file and silent, between foreboding trees laced with dark moss that made what light could struggle through very dim. Darien rolled his eyes at her, because they had walked far worse paths before without flinching, but Miaela gave her a grateful look for saying what they were all thinking.
“It’s not far now,” Morgan told them defensively.
“And we’re supposed to trust whoever we find at the end of this path?” Darien asked, skeptical.
“If we’re really going to go after it, we need a guide,” Morgan answered curtly.
“If we’re really going after it, we need to be able to trust every member of the group absolutely,” Darien retorted.
“And how close have you and Darcy gotten to it alone?” Morgan shot back. “Or even after Miaela and I joined you? Face it,” he added, when Darien didn’t answer immediately, “setting our people free is what you’ve been aiming at the whole time you’ve cast yourselves in role of adventurers, but you’ve never managed to get close. If you’re ever going to do this, you need someone who knows the secrets of the Darkling Woods.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to trust a man like that,” Darien grumbled, but he said it under his breath, low enough that Morgan couldn’t hear all the words. Given the dark look Morgan promptly shot him, he guessed most of them, but he chose not to retort.
A moment later all chance at conversation was cut off when they stepped into a small clearing. Even when the trees were pushed back, the light was dim, as if the sun was continually covered with smog. The only thing in the clearing was a thatched hut, dilapidated and tumbledown.
All four of them blinked, adjusting to the open space, and Darien’s eyebrows nearly shot off his face at its dismal appearance, but before any of them could say anything a young man abruptly materialized in front of them. Darcy couldn’t for the life of her tell how none of them had seen him before he was suddenly there. She felt Darien jump beside her, but he managed to control his startled reaction except for an instinctive reach for his knife hilt.
“What do you want with me?” the newcomer demanded curtly.
“Is that any way to greet a friend?” Morgan scolded him gently.
The young stranger’s eyes widened, and Darcy repressed a shudder, for they were unrelieved black. Not the bright, shining black that the strongest of the Flying Fairies used to be, but the deadened, ruined black of those who had lost all the talents they had. No wonder he lived alone!
But he seemed to know Morgan, for his stern face broke into a small smile, and he stepped forward to not-quite-hug Morgan. “I’m glad to see you,” he said earnestly, softly enough that it was meant for Morgan’s ears alone. Darcy couldn’t help it if she had been born with very strong hearing.
“Who are the strangers, though?” he asked, as he stepped back.
“You know Miaela,” Morgan said conversationally, waving to his sister. “These are the group once known as the Dynamic Duo. Lukien, meet Darien and Darcy!” He stepped back, dramatically sweeping his hand to one side at the brother and sister.
Darien scowled at the dramatic introduction; Darcy was merely growing intrigued with meeting one of the Talentless for the first time. But Lukien took a quick step back, as if he half-feared them.
“And what would such fearless adventurers want from me?” he demanded.
“Morgan told us you could help us,” Darien said curtly. “He hinted you knew the secrets of the Darkling Wood.”
“You seek the Tourmaline of Old,” Lukien said shortly. “And you expect me to run all the risks and break all my secrets to bring you to it.”
“It would set us free,” Darcy said softly, yearningly. She wondered if the sky would look smoggy here without contacts.
Lukien stared at her for a long second, the blackness of his eyes almost unsettling, except that when Darcy met his eyes she could see the deep yearning hidden there.
“Alright,” he said shortly. “We leave at dawn.”