c'mon Phil play nice, please let this through
Chapter 10: Sanctuary
Two days later, neither the squirrels nor the dragons had turned up anything. The snow had melted nearly away already, obscuring any trace that the assassins had been there, and nobody had seen a sign of anything remotely secret base-like. The Avengers had spent their days searching the woods and their nights switching off guard duty with the MudWings, although the Shadow Claws had not made any further assassination attempts.
Everyone seemed to be coping fairly well with being trapped on a different planet, although nobody was happy about it. Bucky had borrowed a blanket from the tavern and was using it like a sling around his missing arm, saying that it helped with the phantom limb pain. Natasha’s injuries had mostly healed, and the two of them had taken to sparring with each other and with Steve when they weren’t searching for Taggart. Doreen had already befriended several of the tavern’s patrons.
Tony had somehow convinced Quagmire to let him use the workshop in the tavern’s back room, and now he spent nearly all his free time there. When asked about it, he’d told them that what he was building didn’t matter—”I don’t have a power source,” he’d said, “and despite my reputation, I can’t actually make one from nothing.”
The afternoon of their fourth day in Pyrrhia, Mesa gathered the Avengers and her siblings in the tavern’s back room and announced, “As some of you already know, I’ve gotten a letter from the Blazing Initiative.”
“Word on Taggart?” Tony asked immediately.
“Unfortunately, no. The Director did say he’ll have everyone keep an eye out, but it’s too early for any reports to have come in. And he said he’ll look into your situation,” Mesa said. “But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.” She ruffled her wings. “The Blazing Initiative hasn’t received reports from our agents in the town of Sanctuary for nearly a cycle of the smallest moon. In fact, the whole town seems to have gone completely silent, which is...unusual, to say the least.”
“Was it the Shadow Claws?” asked Doreen.
“Maybe. It seems likely, but we don’t know. Which is why, as the nearest available operative, I’ve been assigned to investigate.”
“Just you?” Natasha questioned.
Mesa hesitated. “Well, theoretically the five of you are coming with me. There’s...someone there the Director thinks you should meet.” She shrugged slightly.
“I still don’t trust them,” Mallow muttered.
“They saved our lives,” Karst pointed out. “They didn’t have to do that.”
Mallow seemed unconvinced. Quagmire didn’t say anything, but he looked as if he agreed with Mallow.
Mesa flicked a wing at her siblings. “Shush, you two. We already decided that you need to stay here.” Turning to address the Avengers, she added, “Alpine can’t leave her kids, so she definitely can’t come with me. But one of Pyrrhia’s leading experts on scavengers lives in Sanctuary, and if the Shadow Claws are behind this then there’s a possibility our weaponsmith NightWing is there, so the Director thought you might be willing to come.”
“I’ll have to discuss it with my team,” Steve said.
Mesa nodded as if that was the expected response. “Let me know what you decide some time today. I’d like to leave at first light.”
“How far away is it?” Bucky asked.
“What’ll you do if we can’t come?” Doreen asked.
“It’s about two days’ flight north of here. And I’ll figure something out if you don’t come--any one of my sibs would be willing to go if I asked.”
“Darn right,” growled Mallow.
“Any other questions?” Mesa asked. Everyone shook their heads. “Then we’ll leave you to it.” She stood up and led her siblings from the room.
“So what do you think?” Steve asked as soon as the kitchen door closed. His own immediate reaction was Yes, go, absolutely do this, but that came more from a desire to be doing something that felt productive than from honest evaluation.
“Risky,” Natasha assessed, sitting back against one of the room’s tables. “If it’s not them, or if they don’t have Taggart, then we’ve wasted time we should have been searching for them here.”
“If it is them,” countered Tony, “we’ve missed several opportunities at once. I say we do it.”
“The squirrel network will still be here,” Doreen volunteered. “If they’re looking here, and we’re in Sanctuary, we’ll cover twice the ground we would otherwise.”
“That’s reasonable,” Natasha conceded. “And what about Mesa? Are we just going along with whatever she says?”
“We’re already at her mercy. Following her somewhere else can’t make it any worse,” Bucky said.
Doreen looked between the two of them, taken aback. “But...Mesa’s nice.”
Natasha gave her a look that clearly read, Oh, you poor, naive child.
“Nice doesn’t always mean safe,” Tony said. “Everyone’s got an agenda. Get between someone and something they care about, and it doesn’t matter how well you think you know them.” His gaze flickered over Steve, and their eyes met for a brief moment.
Doreen sat back, orange and purple swirling in her scales. She looked skeptical of what Tony had said, but for once, she didn’t say anything further.
“What do you think, Cap?” Natasha asked, looking over at Steve.
“I don’t like supporting a monarchy,” he said. “But right now, going along with this seems like the best course of action. Any--”
“You don’t have a problem with Wakanda’s monarchy,” Tony interrupted.
“T’Challa has proven himself to be a fair and just leader, but monarchy as a system is inherently flawed.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky and Natasha shoot each other dismayed looks--both of them had heard him rant on that topic more than once, he suspected. “Regardless, we’re going to Sanctuary. Any objections?”
Even Natasha, after all her misgivings, had none.
Travel preparations went faster than Steve expected. Dragons, it turned out, generally traveled extremely light, so most of them ended up carrying nothing. “We’ll hunt on the way, and I’ve got money and basic medical supplies,” Mesa explained, “and what else would we need?” Steve couldn’t think of anything that was actually necessary for dragons, so he let it drop. Ultimately, besides Mesa, only Tony and Doreen ended up bringing anything (metal scraps for Tony, and a supply of vegetarian-compatible food for Doreen).
They left at first light and traveled over the mountains for the better part of a day, sleeping that night at the base of a short cliff that blocked the wind. The next day they were up and moving early, and before twilight they had reached Sanctuary.
The picturesque town nestled into the mountain range’s foothills at the edge of a frozen lake, more closely spaced than Cloud Valley, but probably a bit larger. Most of the buildings were stone or brickwork; only few rose above two stories, and none were more than three. Several of them were still under construction.
As they got closer, a chilly breeze whisking around their wings, Steve could make out a scattering of dragons in the town’s streets. Most of them were moving quickly, like they had places to be. A handful stood still, or walked like they were patrolling--guards of some kind.
And there, in the trees at the edge of town...was that a flash of blue scales? Yes, it was...and scanning the treeline, Steve could see hints of several other dragons, concealed all around the town.
Bucky swooped over to within easy talking distance of Steve, a little below him to avoid being hit by his wings. “Dragons concealed in the trees,” he reported. “At least twenty, probably more.”
“I see them. Guards or ambush, do you think?”
“Can’t tell at this distance. We’d have to go in closer.”
Steve frowned and called out, “Mesa? Does Sanctuary normally have a border guard?”
Mesa started. “A border guard? What do you…” She trailed off, eyes flicking over the town below, and her wingbeats faltered. “Oh. That is...very not normal.” She took a deep breath. “Alright. They’ll have seen us by now, so we might as well head in and hope for the best. How are your confused tourist impressions?”
Nobody stopped them as they descended cautiously toward the town.
Mesa led them to a low, circular stone platform that looked to be designed for landing, and then along a cobbled path leading from there into the town. “Wait here,” she murmured, and trotted over to a NightWing with dark rose underbelly scales, who had just stepped out of one of the houses. “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know the way to the scavenger sanctuary?”
Mesa had explained about the scavenger sanctuary on the flight there. Steve still wasn’t sure how he felt about it.
The NightWing blinked at her in surprise. “Um. Yes. I can take you there, if you want,” she offered. She glanced at the Avengers, looking them over briskly.
“That would be great,” Mesa said. “Thank you.”
Beckoning them with her tail, the NightWing jumped into the air. She led them low over the rooftops, starry wings glittering in the late afternoon light.
“Most of you are a little old to be a Jade Mountain group,” she noted skeptically as they flew, glancing over her shoulder, “and you don’t normally see IceWings in the same group as NightWings and SkyWings. What’s the story there?”
“Oh, it’s a very long one, and rather complicated,” Mesa said. “I don’t know almost anyone very well, but we’re all friends of Spider over there. She’s the one who proposed we come here.” That was another thing they’d talked about during the flight: what cover story to use if asked why they were there.
The NightWing dropped out of the sky, landing in front of a small stone house close to the lake, with a big porch and some large garden boxes. One of the guards stood not far away, a green and gold dragon with four wings instead of two.
SilkWing, Steve remembered--Quagmire had told the Avengers about them and the other Pantalan tribes. According to Mesa, a considerable number of Pantalans had emigrated to Pyrrhia, and to Sanctuary in particular, after a series of disasters about ten years before.
“Here you are,” the NightWing said, sweeping a wing towards the building. “I’ll be going now, unless you need anything else.”
“We’ll be fine,” Mesa assured her. “Thank you for your help.”
The NightWing nodded and flew off.
Eyeing the SilkWing guard nervously, Mesa stepped up to the house’s door and knocked.
It was only a few seconds before the door was pulled open by another NightWing, this one with hints of green in her underbelly and eyes. “Can I help you with something?” she asked, voice friendly but edged with wariness.
“We’re looking for the scavenger sanctuary,” Mesa explained.
“Well, you’ve found it.” Looking back over her shoulder, she called out, “Winter! There’s a group here to see your pets!”
“They’re not pets,” another voice protested, and a moment later an IceWing appeared behind her, frosty blue-white with a glittering black rock on a chain around his neck. He was slightly shorter than the NightWing, and looked several years younger than her--in his mid-twenties, if he were a human, Steve guessed.
The IceWing looked over the NightWing’s shoulder at the travelers. “Hello. You didn’t pick a very good time to vacation here, but come right in.”
“What does that mean?” Tony demanded as they all stepped into the house. The front room had only a few small windows, and was lined with tapestries of snowy forests and charcoal sketches of humans in fur clothing.
“That we’ve been taken over by the Shadow Claws and nobody’s allowed to leave the town,” the IceWing replied. He sat down on a rug of thick, white fur and looked at them seriously. “You could be here for a while, I’m afraid.”
“That explains the border guard, at least,” Natasha said, and Mesa cursed.
The IceWing nodded grimly. “I’m Winter, keeper of the scavenger sanctuary. I assume you’re here to see the scavengers?”
“We’re here on official business, actually. Is she in here for a reason?” Mesa nodded at the NightWing, who was now curled up in one corner with a scroll. She looked back at Mesa innocently.
“She’s an old friend, and she was trapped here when the occupation began,” Winter explained. “She’s trustworthy, I assure you.”
“I’m Hope, the ancient and terrible enemy of the IceWings,” the NightWing volunteered. “I promise I’m not a Shadow Claw, but I can leave if you need me to.”
Mesa nodded briskly. “That would be excellent.”
Hope rolled up her scroll and vanished into the curtained doorway at the back of the room.
“Alright, so who are you and what do you want?” Winter asked as the rest of them sat down.
“I’m Mesa, and this is Eagle, Spider, Metalseeker, Elk, and Squirrel. We’re here from the Blazing Initiative,” Mesa explained. She pulled a small wooden card out of the supply bag strapped to her chest and offered it to Winter.
He took it and studied it, then handed it back to Mesa. “Well, that’s official alright. I’m not part of your organization, though. I’m just a scavenger researcher.”
Mesa put the card back in her bag and dug around for something else. “The Director wrote you a letter. It should explain everything.” She pulled out a folded paper sealed with wax and handed it to Winter.
The IceWing’s eyes grew wider and wider as he read through the letter. Finally, he set it down on the rug next to him and stood up. “This is some kind of prank, right?” he demanded. “Qibli set this up. Or Kinkajou. You’re...you’re not really scavengers...are you?”
“We are,” Tony confirmed. “We’re the real deal.”
Mesa spread her arms helplessly. “As far as I can tell, they are, and the Director seems to agree with me.”
Winter ran a talon over his horns, looking slightly overwhelmed. “Well. Okay then. And you have no idea how you got here?”
“If we knew, we’d already be trying to do it again,” Steve said dryly.
Winter nodded. “That’s fair. Three moons, I have so many questions. You’re practically conclusive evidence that scavengers really are sapient...this could be groundbreaking.”
Bucky tensed visibly, and Doreen shot him a concerned look.
“I wish I could get a message to Cricket,” Winter continued obliviously. “She’d have experiments to run, and--”
“Stop right there,” Steve interrupted, holding up a wing. “We’re not here to be somebody’s science project. We’re trying to get home, and if you can’t help us with that, we’ll find someone who can.”
Winter’s wings drooped slightly, and he nodded, disappointment flashing across his face. “Oh. Of course. We’ll want to get started on that right away.”
“I’ll be leaving, then,” Mesa said. “I need to go find us a place to stay.”
“That’s a good idea,” Steve said. “Will it be a problem if some of us join you?” Mesa shook her head, so he commanded, “Bucky, Spider, go with her. See what you can dig up on the Shadow Claws, and if you can find any trace of Taggart.”
They stood up, and Bucky gave Steve a quick, grateful glance.
“Ask Hope if she’ll go with you,” Winter suggested. “She’s no local, but she should be able to help you find your way around.”
“Wait, are we not going to go see the scavengers?” Doreen objected.
Mesa shook her head. “Not yet, if you want to do it all together. Scavengers can wait until tomorrow, but unless you want to sleep out in the cold again, finding shelter really shouldn’t.”
“Huh. Can’t argue with that,” Doreen said.
Mesa nodded and hurried over to the doorway at the back of the room to find Hope; both of them reappeared a moment later, and the four dragons left.
“Alright,” said Winter, clapping his hands together as the front door creaked shut. “Start at the beginning, and tell me everything you know about what happened.”