Darel had always wanted to be a Kulipari. After stopping the scorpions and killing Lord Marmoo, he was one step closer to that goal. The Kulipari had settled into the Amphibilands, helping to train the frogs. One of the them was out in the Outback Hills as often as possible, as there was still a hole in the Veil, after all, and they needed to be vigilant for attacks. Darel was added to the rotation by the others, which made him happy, and probably made them happy to not be stuck out there as often. There had also been weeks of hard work rebuilding the villages that had been damaged or destroyed by the invading scorpions and spiders. Darel had plenty to keep himself busy, and his dream was coming true.
Burnu and Arabanoo got on like a house on fire, much to Darel's dismay. Coorah was all but glued to Ponto's side, an eager student bent on learning everything the huge healer knew. Dingo was happy to be drafted to train the archers and found an excellent student in Chief Olba. Darel tried to spend time individually with each of the Kulipari, learning from them and honing his skills, though he'd primarily drifted towards Quoba. He told himself that it was because he needed the most practice with tracking and scouting. The ever-enigmatic Quoba hadn't voiced an opinion either way, but she didn't appear to mind.
Darel's favorite part of the Kulipari staying in the Amphibilands, though, was sitting around a campfire with them after a long day, listening to their stories of shared adventures. He found himself gravitating to sitting between Ponto and Quoba those nights, if only to avoid Burnu's snark and Dingo's constant assault of puns. He was slowly being accepted as a member of the team, proving himself capable in every area but one. Burnu liked to remind him that he didn't have any poison and thus couldn't truly be Kulipari, but comments about it seemed to be dwindling, and were mostly thrown at him when Darel had showed the taller frog up somehow.
Darel was running late to the fire tonight. He'd been helping rebuild stalls in the marketplace, finding it ironic to finally be doing the same work he'd been ordered to do back before everything went sideways. He'd stayed late finishing a thatched roof. He then had trouble finding the fire; why did Burnu keep moving camp? After checking three different dry patches in the marsh, Darel finally spotted the flickering fire in the distance and decided to practice his stealth, creeping through the trees as Quoba had instructed.
Dingo was avidly telling a story Darel hadn't heard before, about some sort of mission gone awry. “So that's when Burnu calls the retreat-”
“-it was a strategic advance in the opposite direction,” Burnu interrupted, arms crossed over his chest. “I don't call retreats.”
“Sure sounded like one to me,” Dingo grinned at him. Distracted, Darel suddenly found himself literally out on a limb, not sure how to reach another as soundlessly as he needed to in order to avoid detection.
“You need to go up a branch. See where it's touching the other tree? That's where you need to go so you can get across silently,” Quoba said, appearing behind him. She was casually leaning against the tree trunk, smirking at him. Darel very nearly lost his balance, but he managed to keep a grip on the branch.
“Don't do that,” he whispered, glancing down at the fire to see if the others had noticed. Dingo was still animatedly telling her story, though both Burnu and Ponto were protesting various details along the way.
“Why are you sneaking up on us?” Quoba wondered.
“Just... practicing,” Darel replied with a shrug, trying (and likely failing) to be casual.
“You need more practice,” Dingo called from below. Darel groaned. So they had noticed. Quoba vanished, reappearing next to the fire. Darel worked his way down from the tree, joining them.
“Quoba heard you coming from a mile away,” Burnu bragged.
“But none of the rest of you did,” Quoba pointed out. She sat down, patting the space next to her. Darel sheepishly took the spot, his usual one between Quoba and Ponto. “They didn't notice until I startled you just now,” she said, giving him an approving look. “We need to work on that part.”
“Is it even possible to work on that?” Ponto asked. “I've known you forever and you still get the drop on me all the time.”
“It's the best when she gets the drop on Burnu,” Dingo said, grinning. “Especially when he's being all serious. Oh! Oh, man, you guys remember the time she snuck up on him in the-”
“Dingo!” Burnu chucked a rock at her. Dingo dodged and it pinged off one of Ponto's bracers. Darel grinned, pleased to know that he'd gotten past at least three of the four Kulipari. He felt more like he belonged already.
Like all good things, the peace and quiet inevitably had to end. After losing King Sergu, Yabber had become the strongest Dreamcaster, a title that worried him. He went on a self-imposed mission to further hone his powers. Sergu had once suggested he go to the Yarrangobilly caves to “dream deeper,” whatever that meant, and Yabber was finally following the old king's advice, and he had been gone a little over a month. Slowly, word was filtering in from various sources of Marmoo's survival and plans for another attack, and Chief Olba had sent the Kulipari on their current mission into the mountains to find Yabber. Thus far it had been... memorable.
Although he was now a member of the squad, Darel frequently felt more like a tag-along than a proper warrior. He'd already embarrassed himself by freezing solid. He wished he'd been awake to see Burnu half frozen in the snowstorm before they'd been found by the pygmy possums, but of course he didn't have that kind of luck; he'd completely frozen on his mount before he got the chance to see it. Burnu had done nothing but tease him for being a wood frog ever since he'd thawed out. Ponto had initially been concerned, but even he settled into teasing once it was clear Darel was okay. Only Quoba abstained from making fun, though he noticed the scout was watching him more closely.
Quoba. Darel had long noticed that of all the Kulipari, she'd had more faith in him than the others from the start, and took his side more often than not. She had never looked down on him for being a wood frog. Most noticeable, though, was how frequently she defended him and his ideas. She even asked Darel's opinion on things and listened. For the entire trip, she had quietly looked after him in the mountains, remembering he didn't have poison to tap to defend himself from the elements, but she never doubted his abilities in a fight. Darel thought back to the taipan attack in the cave, when Quoba had tasked him with protecting Yabber. Out of frustration, he'd thought she was writing him off, thinking him as useless in battle as the Dreamcaster.
"She just wants to keep me out of the fight," he'd said, and now he cringed at his own words, as her response echoed in his head. "Not true," she'd challenged. "You might not have a Kulipari's poison, but you have a Kulipari's heart." Quoba had saved them all with a Komodo stampede in the cave, and then prevented him from falling to his death in the avalanche. Once back on solid ground, Darel had been alarmed to see just how dramatically the geography had changed.
“The cave's gone,” she told him, rubbing her jaw. “We're lucky to be alive.”
“The drawings are gone. My father's drawings. Yabber said we need them to bring peace to the outback.”
“Maybe he's wrong,” Quoba said. “We don't know that for sure.”
“And now we never will.” Darel had lapsed into silence as they organized their belongings and pressed their Komodos onward. Quoba simply went back to quietly scouting ahead without another word. It wasn't long before Darel spotted the rainbow arcing across the sky, stopping on the mount of Targangil. They had a new destination, and Darel hoped that what they'd lost in the cave-in might somehow be communicated anyway. Quoba changed the direction they were heading in, and she kept the group going at a grueling pace until she'd found their current campsite.
Just when everyone had finally relaxed and it seemed that Jarrah's attacks were over, the bees had come, and that had been its own special hell, hadn't it? Dinner and a show, really; if the show's climax hadn't been their Komodo mounts charging down the mountain and disappearing, harried by blue-banded bees, it might've been entertaining.
Now their dragons were gone, along with all chance of getting to Targangil by mid-morning tomorrow. It was still dark, and growing ever colder. Their group was quiet, nursing bee stings and dings to their pride at being outsmarted by a swarm of angry (albeit delicious) bees. Dingo had disappeared into the darkness to finish her watch at the top of her rock. Ponto was fussing over the unconscious Burnu's taipan bite, again, and Yabber was either asleep or Dreamcasting. Darel still hadn't figured out how to tell the difference. Quoba was sitting silently by the fire, occasionally poking at it with her staff, staring off at nothing. Darel fidgeted in his spot between Quoba and Yabber, wanting to say something, but completely unsure what.
“How much of our gear did we lose?” Ponto asked as he returned to the fire, momentarily satisfied with Burnu's status.
“Enough,” Quoba replied. “We only offloaded what we needed for the night. We lost over half of our food, all the extra blankets, and spare weapons. Dingo lost three quivers' worth of arrows. Had you unpacked all of your supplies?” Her voice took on a hopeful cant as she asked, wanting good news.
Ponto shook his head sadly. “No, I only got out what I needed to treat Burnu,” he admitted. “So hopefully the only wounds anyone gets from here on out, is something I can fix with bandages.” The group fell silent again. The only sounds were Burnu's occasional moan and the crackling of the fire, which Quoba was determinedly poking at it with her staff. It was clear she was frustrated.
“Who's taking second watch?” Darel finally asked Quoba softly, voice warbling a little with uncertainty.
Quoba glanced at him briefly, before she went back to nudging one particular log in the fire for reasons known only to herself. “I am.”
“Then you should-” he started, but she quickly spoke over him.
“-but it's already more than halfway through Dingo's watch,” she said, anticipating his suggestion that she try to sleep for a while before taking her turn. “I'll be fine. You should try to get some sleep, though, you're third.” Quoba's voice was as soft as always, but firm. “And Ponto has fourth. That means stop poking Burnu and go to sleep, Ponto,” she added, voice pitched a little louder to cross their campsite and earning a harrumph from their large healer. Somehow Burnu had managed to sleep through the whole commotion with the bees, including the dragon stampede. This was evidently still worrying Ponto, who had gotten up yet again to check on him. Darel was only surprised that Burnu hadn't woken up to say something snarky about wood frogs before passing out again.
“Oh. Um. Okay then,” Darel replied, not entirely sure what to say. He'd known the Kulipari for a few months now, and he still felt like he was blundering around in the dark half the time, afraid to say something stupid. “Thanks,” he added as he settled down under his blanket.
“For...?” Quoba sounded curious.
“For, well, everything.” That had Quoba's attention, and she simply stared at him, waiting for him to stop being obtuse about things. “Mostly for saving me in the avalanche.” Quoba's head turned in the direction of Ponto and Burnu, glancing over them briefly before returning to staring at him.
“That's a strange thing to thank someone for,” she said after a while, and returned her attention to the fire, firmly jabbing at her preferred log, clearly ending the conversation. Darel let himself fall asleep, though his troubled mind made it hard to rest.
“Darel.” He woke with a start as he was prodded in the side with what could only be Quoba's staff. “Your watch.” It took him a moment to remember what that phrase even meant, which earned him a second, more determined, poke. He grimaced up at her, and she simply looked at him with her same neutral expression, though she was holding her staff at the ready to jab him in the ribs again if needed.
“I'm up, I'm up,” he grumbled, getting to his feet. Quoba immediately relaxed her stance, and Darel wondered if she was disappointed that she didn't get to continue poking him with a stick. Burnu definitely would've been.
“I put some more logs on the fire but keep an eye on it,” Quoba told him, tone businesslike as she eyed his warm spot as if contemplating stealing it for the residual heat, before ultimately going to her own blankets. “And stay close to it. The rock is too cold for you to stay on for two hours. We don't need you freezing again.”
“That only happened once,” Darel complained.
“There's only been one opportunity for it to happen,” Quoba countered, setting her staff within easy reach but away from the fire before shaking out and arranging her fire-warmed blanket around herself. “Don't take advantage of this second opportunity.”
Darel rolled his eyes but went to take his turn, checking the fire periodically in what he assured himself was simply to make sure it was keeping everyone warm, and had absolutely nothing to do with thawing himself out. However, he was extremely grateful to hand watch over to Ponto and return to his own blankets. He sat down, glancing around their camp as Ponto stretched and immediately checked on Burnu's snake bite before starting his watch. 'Healers,' he thought with a shake of his head and a grin. 'Coorah would've done the same thing.'
He quietly surveyed the rest of the group. Dingo was in her usual completely undignified heap, all knees and elbows, snoring softly. Burnu was still out cold, and Yabber was definitely sleeping this time, no two ways about it. He'd thought Quoba was asleep as well, but he startled when he realized she was watching him. “I'm sorry, did I wake you?” he asked softly.
Quoba nodded a little. “I'm a scout. I sleep lightly,” she replied, and then, in what probably was an attempt to reassure him, “everything wakes me up.”
Darel thought over the multiple times he'd paced closely around the campsite during his watch, stirring the fire and making it crackle, accidentally dropping a new log in a bit more loudly than he'd intended... He winced. “Sorry.”
Quoba simply shrugged and closed her eyes once Ponto had lumbered off, the campsite quiet once more. Darel tried to be as quiet as possible after that, and slept.
“Darel.” He groaned as Quoba managed to jab him in the exact same place in the ribs as earlier in the night. “We're breaking camp. Help Yabber.” She strode off while Darel rubbed sleep from his eyes. How was she already awake? And stabbing him in the side with her staff again? Ponto and Dingo were both up, bickering between themselves as always, Dingo being an annoyance while Ponto tried to get Burnu ready for the day's walk. After losing the Komodos, the group was going to be on foot for the rest of the trip. Burnu was going to be a delight and a joy today, Darel was sure, but he still gamely offered to help him, and as per usual, was rebuffed with a comment about his species.
Darel took care of his belongings and walked with Yabber, only partially listening to the turtle's ramblings along the way. Dingo and Quoba had disappeared ahead of the slow-moving group, Quoba to scout and Dingo, well... After Ponto winged her with a thrown chunk of ice after a particularly terrible joke, Dingo had decided Quoba needed help. Quoba had given her a blank look in response and vanished, reappearing far ahead of the group. The disgruntled archer complained about Quoba's obvious dismissal and creepy habit for at least an hour afterward while bouncing from perch to perch. Not as much complaining as Burnu was doing, of course, but Burnu had raised complaining to an art form.
Without the Komodos, it would take at least two and a half days to reach Targangil. Two more nights of camping in the mountains. Two more days of Burnu insisting he was fine, Dingo's terrible jokes, Quoba inexplicably appearing and disappearing at will, Ponto fussing, and Yabber's yammering. Darel had wanted to be a Kulipari his whole life, but this trip was starting to make him rethink his life choices.
Darel called first watch for the night, not wanting to be the reason Quoba didn't get enough sleep, though he wisely kept that thought to himself. He didn't want Quoba to get the wrong idea, that he was trying to be overprotective or something. Everyone needed to be at their best, and she was probably used to the rest of her team and their overall level of noise. Surely she was able to sleep through most of their usual antics, wasn't she? Besides, Quoba would probably hit him with her staff, or worse, jab him in the ribs with it, if she thought he was trying to coddle her, and Serpent save them all if Dingo got wind of it.
Dingo had second watch, with Ponto as third, and Quoba called fourth. Earlier in the day, Burnu had demanded to be added to the watch list, but Ponto threatened to sit on him if he tried. Now that night was falling and they'd traveled for a full day, Burnu didn't seem quite as inclined to fight for a spot on the watch, and he was snoring almost immediately after laying down. Ponto had simply shaken his head and tended to Burnu's wound in blessed silence. The constant cold found the whole group huddled closer to the fire, built as large as they dared. Even chatty Dingo was fairly quiet, only calling out the occasional comment as they came to her. Ponto couldn't even be bothered to throw things at her, instead staring into the fire as if it held the answers to their problems. They all had started checking on Darel more frequently, not wanting him to freeze again.
“What do you get when you thaw a hopsicle?” Dingo asked as they dug into their food, absently flinging hers into the air and spearing it all on a sharpened stick that she quickly held into the fire.
Ponto heaved a long-suffering sigh. “A Darel,” he replied, voice laden with exhaustion.
“You're not supposed to know the answer to a joke,” Dingo pouted.
“You usually don't reuse the same joke twenty times in a day,” Ponto said tiredly. “He's kept up the whole time anyway, and the rest of us didn't fare much better in that snowstorm, if you recall.”
Dingo pssh'ed at that, poking at her food once it was sufficiently warm. She offered to spear everyone else's, but nobody took her up on the offer of bugkebobs. “Only one more day, right?” she said brightly, mouth full of warmed moth. “Until we all get disappointed on top of a mountain even further from home?”
“The Rainbow Serpent is leading us there,” Darel said firmly.
“And she'll hopefully have some answers about your father's drawings,” Quoba added. She was huddled so far into her cloak that only the tip of her nose was visible, and had drawn her blankets over her shoulders. Darel followed her example, slowly thawing out from their trek. If they'd been moving faster, he might not be so cold, but he'd been stuck with Yabber all day, trying to keep the turtle moving at a reasonable pace. They'd been passed by Ponto and Burnu early on and Burnu didn't drop that for the rest of the day, smug that even with Ponto 'slowing him down' he was still faster than a wood frog.
Thankfully, Darel had developed thicker skin against the Kulipari team leader, and the words stung less. That, or he was too cold to care.
“Are you sure you want first watch?” Quoba asked him quietly, voice low enough the others wouldn't hear. “Maybe you should warm up first.”
“Still gonna get cold for two hours no matter what,” Darel replied matter-of-factly, shrugging. At least he'd get six uninterrupted hours of sleep afterward.
“Burnu woke back up, maybe he should take a shift.” Quoba nodded at their leader, who was having a grumbling argument with Ponto about exactly the same thing. “Most of us are still awake through first anyway. If he goes back in the rotation, one of us will get a full night's sleep every five days.”
“And it should be me first because...?”
“Burnu will think he's won something. It'll make him happy,” Quoba replied with a shrug. Then, softer, “and me, too.”
Darel tried to think of something to say as Quoba huddled more tightly in her blanket. Quoba soon lay down to rest, as close to the fire as she dared. She was either asleep or rather convincingly pretending in order to avoid further conversation, and Darel didn't want to call her bluff if she really was sleeping. He decided to follow her example, and catch a few minutes' sleep before his watch. If Burnu got his way and pulled first shift, the Kulipari would be mercilessly grumpy tomorrow, but some decent sleep sounded worth it.
“Darel.” Even barely awake, he snapped a hand out, catching Quoba's staff before it made contact with yesterday's bruises. She smiled. “Good, you must be feeling better,” she said, enigmatic as always, and she left before Darel was even sitting up, off to poke at Dingo. The archer had some choice words for Quoba after being mercilessly jabbed awake. The scout completely ignored her in favor of stalking silently towards her next target. Darel was pleased to see he wasn't the only victim of that staff in the morning, watching avidly as Quoba circled the camp. She managed to get Ponto, too, if the healer's angry roaring was any indication. She took some amount of pity on Burnu, shaking him awake instead.
“That's it, Quoba doesn't get fourth shift anymore,” Dingo complained, rubbing the spot where Quoba's staff had hit.
“Bunch of whiny tadpoles, all of you,” Quoba replied without any heat, as she targeted Yabber. He didn't respond to several pokes in the side, so Quoba settled for whacking him across the head with a loud crack. Everyone else winced at the sound, but Yabber was still slow to wake. Quoba then silently prowled the camp, making sure everyone was up and starting to pack before she packed her own bedroll and supplies. “We'll eat on our way. We can possibly make it today, if we go a little faster. Yabber, that also means you. Darel, you're in Yabber duty.”
“Yay, just what I wanted, another day with Yabber,” Darel muttered sarcastically, rolling his blankets and tying them tightly before throwing them over his back. “Didn't see that one coming or anything.”
“Hey, I'm the leader, I get to give the orders,” Burnu said crankily, trying to swat the ever-determined Ponto away. Quoba shrugged as she worked on putting out their fire and removing any trace of their overnight presence. Burnu jabbed a finger in Darel's direction. “Darel, you're on Yabber duty.” Darel merely sighed rather than argue over how that was exactly what Quoba had just said. “Dingo, Quoba, scout ahead for anything Jarrah might be throwing at us today.”
“And Ponto, you're on Burnu duty,” Quoba added. “Keep the numbskull from hurting himself worse.”
“I will not,” Burnu said petulantly. “He was slowing me down yesterday, I can do this myself.”
This time it was Ponto who rolled his eyes, and stayed in Burnu's wake until their leader finally gave in and accepted his help a half-hour later.
'At least today was quiet,' Darel mused as the group made camp for the night. No attacks from Jarrah, at least, though Dingo was a bit put out by that. Darel had quickly learned that a bored Dingo was an extremely annoying Dingo. She'd been trying to bait her favorite target- Ponto- all day, with terrible jokes and puns abound, but Ponto was busy with Burnu. Burnu had far less tolerance for Dingo's jokes and had thrown a boomerang at her at least three times before Ponto threatened to confiscate them.
The group's overall speed hadn't improved as Quoba had hoped, as today had been even colder than the last. The Kulipari were not in any shape to tap their poison all day for speed, and even if they had been, they still would have had to carry Darel and Yabber if they wanted to go faster. The cold's sapping effect on the frog and turtle was brutal. Darel was struggling to put one foot in front of the other, and it was more than a little frustrating when the Kulipari noticed his stumbles. Quoba had appeared from nowhere several times to catch him before he fell. How did she always know? Darel could've sworn she was too far ahead to notice.
Darel didn't think he'd ever been so grateful to see the sun going down. Quoba had already staked out a good spot for camp and was organizing supplies by the time the rest of the group stumbled to a halt around her. She had wisely sent the far too energetic Dingo off to find firewood already.
“How can I help?” Darel asked Quoba as she rummaged through their food supply, working out rations in her head.
“Clear a spot for the fire,” she suggested without looking up. Darel nodded and got to work.
“I'm fine, Ponto,” Burnu was insisting as the healer eased him down on a rock. Ponto snorted and handed Burnu both of their packs and blankets to organize.
“You are not,” the big healer declared as he walked away, shaking his head as he went to confer with Yabber. “Is there anything you can do with your Dreamcasting? He's not healing well, and I'm running low on herbs,” Ponto said softly, frowning at his pack. “And we're not exactly in a position to get more.”
“I'll do what I can,” Yabber agreed, “but you realize I've been Dreamcasting whenever we've stopped, I mean to say, he's lucky he'd already tapped his poison when he got bitten, it's what kept him alive, but taipan venom is powerful stuff, and the cold isn't helping, either, none of you are healing well after that attack-”
Ponto quickly cut him off. “Just do what you can,” he said reasonably. “That's all we need.” The turtle nodded and settled down, Dreamcasting right away. Ponto sighed in what was probably relief that he'd managed to head Yabber's talking off, though now he had to do something about Burnu before he strangled him. “Now you,” he said to the stubborn frog, “need to stop complaining and start sleeping. We humored you yesterday with first watch and you fell asleep a half hour in, and fell off the rock you insisted on sitting on, and probably set yourself back in your recovery to boot.” Burnu opened his mouth to argue but Ponto glared him down. “Now settle down and sleep, and if you complain again I swear I will sew your mouth shut.”
“I haven't been complain-”
“Yes, you have,” chorused the rest of the Kulipari, including Dingo, who was just returning from gathering firewood and had missed the entire conversation. Quoba hadn't even looked up or given any indication that she'd been listening, though Darel knew better. Quoba heard everything.
Burnu grumped to himself about mutiny but did as he was told once he'd gotten his bedroll untangled. He was visibly shivering under the blankets despite the fever that was still refusing to break. Darel helped Dingo start the fire, worried about Burnu. He kept glancing over at the sleeping Kulipari leader, which caught Ponto's attention.
“Don't worry about him,” Ponto said, which quite possibly made him the biggest hypocrite of all time. The healer joined them at the now-roaring fire. “He's too stubborn to die.”
“He's only gonna die when it's the most inconvenient for the rest of us,” Dingo added, trying to sneak something out of the rations Quoba was consolidating. Quoba smacked her on the hand without even looking up and Dingo quickly retreated, pouting. “Oh, hey, Ponto! What do you-”
“Nope,” Ponto replied, shutting her down. “Not listening anymore.”
“But this one's funny,” Dingo insisted.
“Here,” Quoba said, shoving a plate of food into Dingo's hands as a distraction. She handed plates out to everyone else, before sitting down on her blankets and poking at her own. Ponto frowned at just how little was on his plate.
“Oh, c'mon, Quoba, don't be stingy.”
“We have to stretch things out,” Quoba said firmly. “Our travel time tripled when we lost the dragons, we lost a lot of supplies with them, and now we're heading further away from anything edible. So unless someone has a secret stash of food hidden somewhere...” She trailed off, glancing around the fire with a serious look. “This is it. We were lucky to have caught extra bees the other day.”
The mood was somber after that. Darel quietly gave Ponto some of his food, taking pity on the large frog. “You need it more than me,” Darel insisted when Ponto opened his mouth to argue. “All of you used a lot of poison in the cave, plus you've been hauling Burnu's sorry butt and all of his stuff on top of yours.” Quoba gave him a knowing look the next time he glanced her way.
“Okay, I'm tired. Quoba, you take first watch,” Dingo said abruptly, trying to brighten things up in the only way she knew how- via talking. “And I'll take third. I'm not getting whacked in the ribs with your staff again.” Quoba shrugged, but Darel saw the smallest hint of a smile. Darel volunteered for second, and Ponto took fourth.
“What about Burnu?” Dingo asked. “He'd wanted to be in the roster.”
“No way,” Ponto declared. “He just needs to focus on healing and not trying to be the heroic leader for a while.”
“Such a numbskull,” Dingo agreed sagely. Darel chuckled but decided not to say something that would come back to bite him later. With his luck, Burnu would wake up just in time to hear it.
Quoba set out two more plates, one for Yabber and one for Burnu. “Someone make sure those two eat. I'll start watch,” she said, standing and disappearing into the dark.
“Not it,” Dingo said quickly, flopping down and hiding under her blankets. She was snoring within minutes. Ponto shook his head at her antics and took one, turning to Burnu. Darel took the second and focused on Yabber. He managed to distract the turtle from Dreamcasting long enough to make sure he ate something. Ponto settled down to sleep once he'd gotten food into the feverish Burnu, leaving Darel the only one awake. He gathered the plates and tucked things away, tidying around the camp without making too much noise, though everyone but Quoba seemed to be able to sleep through anything. Shivering, Darel curled up by the fire, wrapping himself tightly in his blankets and staring off into space.
“You're supposed to be asleep,” Quoba said, materializing next to Darel about halfway into her watch. He managed to not yelp, though he did jump a bit.
“Enh,” Darel replied, trying to sound casual even though she'd just about given him a heart attack. He stirred the fire with a stick he'd pulled out of the pile of firewood. “Can't sleep.” He paused, glancing around the camp to confirm that nobody else was awake. “I'm sort of still trying to thaw out,” he admitted quietly.
Quoba looked concerned, crouching down next to him. “Are you that cold?” she asked, voice taking on a slight edge of worry. “You can use my blankets if you need to.”
“That won't help once I'm done with my watch and you're using them,” he pointed out. Quoba simply looked thoughtful for a moment, and vanished again. Darel sighed and went back to staring into the fire, wondering if Quoba saw answers in it when she did the same thing. All he saw were embers and swirling ash.
Quoba looked unhappy about Darel still being awake when she traded with him, though she didn't say anything. Darel stayed close to the camp and in motion to keep himself warm. He tried to keep some distance so he wasn't waking Quoba up constantly, but he had to return to the fire more than he wanted to, far too cold to resist. He managed to finish his shift and went to wake Dingo, shaking her shoulder.
“That's not funny,” Dingo complained before opening her eyes. “No using snow!” She tried to brush what she thought was snow off her arm, only to catch Darel's icy hand instead. That woke her up immediately.
“I wasn't,” Darel said defensively. “I'm just cold.”
Dingo sat up and started at him in shock. “You're not cold, you're half frozen,” she said, seizing his arm and shoving him towards the fire.
Darel stumbled, numb feet sluggish and slow, and he pinwheeled frantically as he very nearly fell into the flames from Dingo's unhelpful push. In a blink he found himself on the opposite side of it, Quoba's steadying hand on his arm. “Why didn't you say something?” Quoba demanded in an angry hiss, looking as surprised at his skin temperature as Dingo had been.
“About what? We all know it's cold,” Darel said, annoyed.
“But you're not Kulipari, you can't tap your poison to keep from freezing like we can! You've already frozen once before.”
“Thanks for reminding me.” Darel felt himself flush with embarrassment.
Quoba fixed him with a stern look, sitting him down on her own still-warm mat to warm up by the fire. She collected all of his blankets and layered them over his shoulders, sitting down beside him and glaring, as if he would magically thaw out through the power of her frustration. Dingo chuckled to herself and left to patrol the perimeter of their camp, seeing that Darel was in good hands.
“What about you?” Darel asked after Dingo walked away.
“I'm not going back to sleep while you're half frozen,” she replied. “You should've woken one of us up to take your place. I swear you have less sense than Burnu sometimes. You can't out-stubborn the weather, Darel. Now lie down,” she ordered, and once he'd settled, she carefully tucked him in, making sure he was entirely covered. Darel felt a flash of embarrassment at being treated like a child, but he didn't dare voice it. Satisfied at her handiwork, Quoba spread her own blankets over the both of them, wrapping her arms around his tightly cocooned body and curling against his back.
Well, that was unexpected. Darel stiffened, surprised.
“I will not let you freeze again,” she said firmly. “And apparently the only way to keep you from doing something stupid is to not give you the chance. Relax, I'm not going to bite.” Darel let himself relax fractionally, but he was acutely aware of every point of contact between their bodies. Even through multiple layers, he felt Quoba shiver, and draw her blanket more closely around her shoulders.
“You okay?” he asked, resisting the urge to turn around and look.
“Fine. It's like I'm cuddling an icicle,” she replied.
“You sort of are,” Darel admitted. “A hopsicle, anyway.”
“Of all of Dingo's dumb jokes to stick...”
Darel smiled and relaxed still further, letting himself fall asleep. It was far too easy, but Darel blamed the cold.
Dingo's hoot of laughter woke him up, and he blinked, surprised to see it was already dawn. His arms were pinned down, and he belatedly realized Quoba was still holding him tightly. Overnight she had somehow managed to work her way under all of the blankets and was curled up against him, only the top of her head visible. He immediately blushed, which resulted in another peal of laughter from the archer.
“If you two are done cuddling,” Burnu said wryly, watching them from his spot across the campsite, “we've got a rainbow to chase.”
Quoba huffed and let go, standing up. “Darel almost froze again last night,” she loudly told the others, much to Darel's dismay. She straightened her clothes with a few businesslike flicks, composed as always. “He can't stay on the watch roster until we're out of the cold since he apparently doesn't have the sense to ask for help.”
Ponto eyed him, disapproval flowing off of him in waves. “That true, Darel?”
“Um, yeah,” he admitted sheepishly. The healer narrowed his eyes and looked ready to launch into a tirade of his own, before Dingo bounced in front of him.
“Aww, you two aren't cuddling because you're in love?” she teased. Darel started to splutter a denial, blinking when Dingo was hit with a snowball thrown from somewhere behind him. He quickly glanced over his shoulder.
“We've got to get moving,” Quoba said as she brushed snow off of her hands. “So that's quite enough from the peanut gallery.”
Dingo just laughed again, and oh, but the teasing was merciless .
“At least it's warmer here,” Darel offered hopefully to the grumbling party as they set up camp, halfway to the platypus village. They were all battered and bruised, and everything was soaked after Yabber's weather control washed them to the foot of the mountain, but at least it was warm, and there was food.
“Aww, but then what'll your excuse be to snuggle with Quoba?” Dingo replied, nimbly dodging Quoba's staff only to run straight into Ponto's extended fist. The two Kulipari smirked at each other once Dingo was down, exchanging polite nods before returning to what they'd been doing. Ponto finished getting Burnu settled on his (rather damp) bedroll. The feverish Kulipari leader mumbled something, but quickly passed back out once he was fully horizontal.
“Can we please focus?” Ponto asked, straightening and wincing a little as broken ribs caught. “I'm going to look for herbs before it's dark. You three behave,” He ordered as he lumbered off into the woods. Darel was blushing too hard to dare look up from his fire starting.
“You know she just wants to get a rise out of you,” Quoba murmured from beside him. One of these days, Darel was sure he was going to keel over dead from Quoba's sudden appearances. “Her and Burnu.”
“I know,” Darel replied. “Doesn't make it less embarrassing, though.”
“You got over the comments about being a wood frog.” Quoba voice was matter-of-fact. She threw a few stray sticks into the fire. “Or at least stopped responding to them.”
“That's a little different,” Darel protested.
Dingo, already recovered from being hit in the head, perked up, wide-eyed with interest. “How?” she asked chirpily. 'She is far too excited about this,' Darel thought uncharitably.
“He's not a Kulipari.” Quoba held out a hand to forestall any protests from Darel. “I'm not holding that against you, it's just a fact. He already froze once, and we couldn't afford to lose more time defrosting him again. Dingo, you felt how cold he was last night, you just about threw him into the fire. I made sure he thawed and and stayed warm. That's all. Nothing to be embarrassed about, nothing to fuss over.” She shook her head and stood up. “Not that it really ever stops you, of course.”
“Nope,” Dingo agreed cheerfully. “I'm gonna go catch dinner.” She slung her bow and quiver over her back and went in the opposite direction as Ponto, towards the water. For all she was trying to act normal, her usually bouncy step was slowed and somewhat pained. Darel watched her with concern, but still sighed in relief once she was out of earshot.
“How are any of you still functioning?” he wondered quietly.
“Stubbornness and spite, mostly,” Quoba answered with a smirk. “We should keep going overnight, there's a lot of ground to cover before we get to the platypus village, but... we need to rest and heal, too.” She sighed. “They'll need us able to fight tomorrow.” Unspoken was the thought that they might not be able to.
Darel nodded. Burnu was doing a little better now that they were out of the cold, but he was still a feverish mess. Yabber had settled back into Dreamcasting as soon as they'd stopped for the night, still working on the venom that was refusing to leave Burnu's system. Ponto was out of herbs to treat the bite. The rest of his dwindling supplies had been ruined by the unexpected flood. He had wanted to go searching for herbs right away, but the team agreed on the need to put some distance between themselves and the mountain, rather than risking staying where Jarrah had last seen them. Much to Ponto's dismay, Burnu was burning up with fever by the time Quoba decided they'd walked far enough and had sufficient cover for the night.
Dingo triumphantly returned with fish within a half-hour, and Ponto reappeared not long after that. The healer looked relieved to have found what he needed to bring Burnu's fever down, and doubly so once he got a decent meal into their stubborn leader. Everyone perked up a bit after eating, though by far no one was anywhere near recovered. The watch was divvied up shortly after. Darel took first watch, and Quoba second. He hated waking her up for her turn, but Quoba didn't complain. The scout stared at him until he lay down before she moved on to find a good vantage point. He had been deeply asleep when he suddenly felt the weight of additional blankets being spread over him, and then the whole pile shifted as someone climbed in behind him. He groggily turned to find Quoba pressed against his back, curled into a tight ball. “...are you okay?” he asked softly.
Quoba nodded far too quickly. “I figured out yesterday that it's easier to conserve heat like this,” she said pragmatically, refusing to voice whatever was bothering her, or even turn her head to make eye contact. She was trying to sound nonchalant, but her voice was troubled.
Darel snorted. “Whatever you want to call it.” He rolled over, rearranging the blankets to make sure Quoba was covered. He wrapped his arms around her, feeling a slight tremor quake through her. “Are you cold, or...?”
“Let's just say cold and move on,” she said firmly. “Go back to sleep, Darel.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Darel replied, tired enough that he was sort of satisfied with that answer. Sleep seemed to come more easily tonight, but he blamed it on his exhaustion.
Darel woke again before dawn, as Quoba squirmed out of his embrace. “No point in giving Dingo ammunition,” she said when she saw Darel's slightly confused expression. He nodded in understanding and got up, starting to pack up before Dingo returned from watch. If Dingo had noticed their sleeping arrangements over the night, she hadn't said anything, but her usual frenetic energy was gone. It was entirely possible she simply hadn't noticed. All of them were exhausted, and there was still much more to do. They still had to get to the platypus village and somehow stop Marmoo. Grimly determined, the party set out.
'I'm leading the saddest parade in history,' Darel realized hours later as they finally reached vegetation again, after traversing a dry stretch of terrain during the hottest time of day. Ponto's ribs were more badly broken than he'd been willing to admit, so Yabber had been conscripted to carry Burnu. None of the Kulipari were walking much faster than the turtle. Dingo had somehow run dry what Darel had initially assumed was a bottomless well of energy and was simply walking, slumped over a bit. Quoba seemed okay, but she was walking next to Darel, rather than scouting ahead, and she hadn't vanished in hours.
“Are you okay?” Darel asked her softly, worried. He had a strange sense of deja vu, as if he'd been asking that question a lot recently.
“Just don't want to use my poison if I don't have to,” Quoba replied with a tired shrug. “Those three are tapped out. It's going to be just the two of us against Marmoo, so I'm not going to waste it.” Darel nodded. She was sensible as always.
“I heard that,” Dingo protested. “I can too fight!”
“You haven't cracked a joke all day, and you're tripping over your own feet, Dingo.” Quoba sounded resigned. “Don't think I haven't noticed.”
“Well, I've got big feet and it's been rocky,” Dingo insisted petulantly, but in a move Darel never anticipated, she let it drop. The group continued their slow trek, until Darel spotted motion behind a cypress tree. He scouted ahead and all but tackled his best friend. He was thrilled to see Gee again, although Gee did not have good news- Marmoo was on his way, and had a head start. Darel and Quoba followed Gee to the platypus village. Despite knowing she was at her limit, Quoba still was tapping her poison to stay ahead of them.
“Quoba,” he called, and called again more loudly when she didn't react. She stopped, waiting for him. Darel frowned once he'd caught up. “Are you sure you should be tapping into-”
“Shh! Can you smell something?”
“...is that smoke?” Darel sniffed, worry curling in his gut.
“We're too late,” she said, as a panting Gee caught up. “He set the village on fire.” They all sped up, hoping they would make it in time to help.
Marmoo's head start gave his army time to completely destroy the village and kill as many platypuses and frogs as they could get their pincers on, and they didn't appreciate Darel and Quoba's intervention. Gee split off to help with the evacuation, leaving Darel and Quoba to fight through the army to get to the rampaging Marmoo. Quoba tapped her poison again in a blaze of color, leaping into the fray. She was immediately the center of the scorpion army's attention and was soon mopping the floor with them. Darel took advantage of an opening, creeping up from behind to attack them unawares. A flash of motion in his peripheral vision, and Quoba's staff was thrust in front of him, catching a scorpion's stinger before it hit Darel. She was brilliantly glowing, and almost painful to look at, as she finished off the remaining scorpions.
“Thanks,” Darel said.
“No problem.” Quoba coughed, wobbling. “Well, one problem. I've got nothing left.” Her glow was steadily fading, and then her skin itself, the usually vivid green paling. “I... I can barely stand.”
“Don't worry about that,” Marmoo sneered, having finally taking notice of them and approaching. “I'd just knock you down anyway.”
“I've got.. enough poison... to handle... you,” Quoba hissed, but Darel knew that for the lie it was.
“I was hoping to wipe out all of the Kulipari today. Then lead my horde through the tear in the Veil without anyone to stop me. No matter- after I finish you, I'll track down your little friends...”
“Get out of here,” Darel murmured to Quoba as Marmoo monologued. “I'll keep Marmoo busy.”
“He's too strong,” she whispered in response.
“He's strong, but I'm fast. At least I can distract him until the platypuses are safe.”
“Go!” Darel stood, blocking Quoba from Marmoo's view. “Hey, Marmoo! Remember me?” He continued to taunt the huge scorpion lord and was relieved when he finally saw Quoba hobbling into the woods from the corner of his eye. He didn't dare turn to look, wanting Marmoo to focus on him. And focus on him Marmoo did. The scorpion lord's increased strength and speed quickly overwhelmed Darel. He was pretty sure he was going to die, until Chief Olba intervened and tricked Marmoo into swallowing some of Coorah's caustic pepperbush acid, but it came with a price. As Marmoo retreated, bellowing incoherently, Darel held the chief as she died from Marmoo's sting. “Take care of them,” she'd requested, though Darel wasn't sure how he could do that. The others approached, and he realized they were much too close; they had turned around- to come back and help, to save him, even though they'd surely lose.
One of the other frogs gently took Olba's body from Darel, and he slumped back on his heels, overwhelmed. Quoba was soon at his side, though she was barely standing. Only her staff seemed to be keeping her upright.
“Quoba,” Darel said anxiously, rising and reaching out to offer her a hand.
“I'm fine,” she replied, even though they both knew she was not. “Just used a lot of poison, that's all.”
Darel nodded, letting her keep her pride, but anxiety ate at him. He watched her closely as they walked, noticing how hard she was leaning on her staff. She stubbornly refused to accept any of Darel's offers of help so he settled for walking next to her, not minding their slow pace. It was early evening when the large group of warriors and refugees finally stopped.
'Halfway home, now,' Darel thought as he looked around, watching his fellow frogs. Nobody had the emotional energy to keep going, and there were far too many wounded who needed attention. He spotted a decent-sized nook in the roots of a tree ahead, and guided Quoba over to it. “Here's as good a place as any to stay for the night,” he said, and she simply nodded, wearily sitting down and relaxing against the tree roots. Darel gathered firewood and built a fire, watching Quoba rest. Now that the battle was over, shock was starting to set in. She was pale and quaking slightly. “Quoba?” he asked softly, once the fire had crackled to life. She didn't respond, expression somewhat glazed over. “I'm going to get both of us something to eat,” he said, earning the slightest dip of her head. Darel wondered if she'd been injured more severely than she was telling. He planned to grab Coorah on his way back.
Coorah had left the other healers in favor of going from fire to fire to check in with everyone else, just in case someone was hiding something. After checking on a few other groups, she homed in on Darel, who was returning to his fire with food and a couple of mugs full of hot cider. Darel saw her coming and stopped to wait.
“I'm fine,” Darel assured her immediately, juggling plates and mugs. “I mean, I'm bruised and might have a broken rib or two, but otherwise I'm okay.”
“What about Quoba?”
Darel looked troubled. “I was just about to come to find you to check on her. She keeps telling me she's okay, but the Kulipari seem to think serious injuries aren't worth mentioning.” He thought about Burnu's snakebite and how he'd not admitted he had been bitten until after he collapsed, and he'd still insisted he was fine for three days. He was probably still arguing about it with Ponto, come to think of it. Coorah nodded and walked beside Darel the rest of the way.
“Quoba?” Coorah tried to coax a response from the scout as she knelt next to her, medical supplies in hand. After a pause, Quoba glanced up, but was silent as Coorah looked her over. Darel sat down the food and drink he'd brought, watching as Coorah worked. The healer bandaged her up in a few places before standing again. “Well, you're low on poison and completely exhausted, but that's nothing some food and rest can't fix,” Coorah told her brightly. Darel offered one of the mugs he'd been holding to Quoba, who wrapped her hands tightly around it to soak in the warmth. Coorah pulled Darel aside, tugging him a few steps out of earshot. “She's in shock,” she told him. Darel was not surprised.
“I thought she might be,” Darel said softly. “What can I do?”
“For now? Keep her warm, and try to get some food into her,” Coorah suggested. “Come get me if you need to.” She glanced over when she saw someone approaching. Arabanoo walked up, crossing his arms.
“You said 'this is my last group' three groups ago,” the tree frog said, clearly worried for her. “You need to come eat something before you pass out.”
“Fine, I'm coming,” Coorah replied, grabbing her bag and following him. Darel smiled a little. As much as he and Arabanoo were rivals and often battled one another, the tree frog clearly cared for Coorah, who was one of Darel's closest friends. That made him alright in Darel's book.
Bright colors caught Darel's eye, and he turned to see Yabber and the other Kulipari finally trudging into camp. Coorah must have seen them too, as she darted over in that direction. Arabanoo stopped in his tracks, surprised at her abrupt change in course, before shaking his head and following in her wake. Darel chuckled to himself. So much for convincing her to rest for a while.
Darel sat back down at the fire and poked at his own food, waiting a little while before he got up to check on the other Kulipari. He was immediately chased off by Coorah and an apologetic Arabanoo. He quickly gave up, instead simply claiming his and Quoba's packs from Yabber, glad for the blankets. He stopped and grabbed another two mugs of warm cider on his way back.
“Here,” Darel murmured, unpacking one of their blankets and settling it over Quoba's shoulders. She drew it close and some of the tension she was carrying lessened. Darel sat back down at her side, offering her a second mug. She was clutching her previous one tightly and he thought it was empty, until he tried to take it from her. “Quoba, you need to drink something,” he said once he realized she'd been holding a full mug, which was likely cold by now. “Here, this one's warmer.” He offered the fresh one, holding it out for a moment before Quoba finally switched without a word. He noted her untouched plate. “Are you hungry yet?” Quoba shook her head. Darel lapsed into silence, out of things to check on for the time being.
“Stop fussing over me,” Quoba said after a long while, soft voice laden with exhaustion. “You're worse than Ponto.” She finally turned to look at him, making eye contact for the first time in hours.
“Sorry.” Darel was nursing his own mug of cider and offered her a smile when she looked at him. “I just want to make sure you're okay, that's all. We had a close call today.” Quoba nodded a little, and finally sipped her drink. Emboldened by that small win, Darel nudged her plate of food closer, feeling victorious when she took a few bites.
Yabber was fine and quickly cleared, and he slowly wandered over, leaning against a different tree root and falling asleep. Darel watched as the other Kulipari migrated one by one over to their fire after escaping Coorah's clutches. Dingo pointedly ignored any questions, completely focused on making her bed. She passed out in a heap and was snoring softly in minutes. Darel was surprised to see Burnu approaching next, and he turned to see what was holding Ponto up. Although he couldn't hear it from this distance, Coorah appeared to be giving him an earful as she bandaged his chest. He turned back to Burnu. “Burnu? You okay?” The Kulipari leader looked better than he had in days.
“The taipan venom was no match for my poison,” Burnu bragged, as if the last three days he'd spent nearly dead hadn't happened. He spread out his blankets but didn't lie down yet, opting to instead poke at the fire with a stick. He flagged Ponto down once the large frog was finally let go.
“...So the Amphibilands frogs have the watch all set up, right? We don't need to do anything?” Ponto asked tiredly as he approached, absolutely covered in bandages.
“Yeah,” Darel agreed. “What happened?”
Ponto snorted. “Coorah didn't agree with me that my ribs would heal just fine by themselves. I was too tired to argue.”
“You would've lost anyway,” Darel assured him. “Whether you're a healer or not, Coorah always wins.”
Ponto nodded and spread his mat, all but collapsing onto it. Burnu shook his head and tossed Ponto's forgotten blankets on top of him. Darel stood and finished unpacking both his and Quoba's bedrolls. He lay Quoba's mat next to her. She didn't say anything in response to a gentle nudge towards it, but she lay down and curled up with a tired sigh. Darel started to set up his own mat, but a glance towards Quoba reminded him of what Coorah had said. He officially didn't care what anyone else might think. He lay down behind her, back against the tree, covered them both with their combined blankets and carefully gathered her close. Burnu was silently watching them from across the fire. Darel wanted to say something, challenge Burnu's expression, but he couldn't think of anything. Darel stayed awake until Quoba's shivering subsided. He was sure it was because of the fire's warmth.
A scant few hours later, Darel gasped awake after a nightmare of the moment Marmoo stabbed the chief, once again powerless to save her. He drew long breaths to slow his racing heart and cracked an eye open, checking his surroundings. The other Kulipari were still asleep, even though there was stirring in other parts of the larger camp. Darel was pretty sure even an ambush wouldn't wake up his squad, though. He glanced down, finding Quoba had turned in the night and was cuddled into his chest, head resting on his arm. She was, as usual, almost completely buried under the blankets. She hadn't stirred when he'd woken, which Darel found a little concerning, but she was extremely tired. At least her coloring was better. He smiled fondly down at her and decided his sleeping arrangements were just fine... for Quoba's sake, of course. There was no way he could get loose without waking her.
“Hey, lovebirds,” Dingo called much too loudly from much too close. Despite the sun's position in the sky having changed dramatically since the last time he'd opened his eyes, Darel was confident it had only been five minutes. Rather than responding, Quoba buried herself further under the blankets to escape the noise. “Time to get up, we're heading back to the Amphibilands,” Dingo continued, grinning down at them. “You can cuddle there.”
“Shut up, Dingo,” Quoba's voice was muffled by blankets, but her annoyance was clear. “You didn't get beaten to a pulp by scorpions yesterday.”
“Not sure what scorpions have to do with you two snuggling, and I'm not sure I wanna know,” Dingo replied gleefully and danced out of reach. “Up and at 'em! Even Burnu's awake!”
“Wish I wasn't,” Burnu muttered. “Didn't want to wake up to your smug mug this morning, Dingo.”
“Aww, didn't know you cared,” Dingo cooed. It was clear she was feeling better. “Hey, Ponto! Whaddya call a- Hey, wait, Ponto!” Dingo ran off, chasing after the healer, much to everyone's relief. ...Well, maybe not Ponto's.
“The sooner we get back to the Amphibilands, the sooner we can pretend Dingo doesn't exist,” Darel suggested to Quoba, who was still hiding in her small but Dingo-free blanket fort. She nodded and reluctantly got up. She swayed a little on her feet but shrugged off Darel's hand on her arm, not accepting his help this morning. Darel took the hint and busied himself with packing their gear, glad that it would get put to rest for a while once they got home. “It'll be nice to sleep in a real bed again,” he mused out loud. Quoba nodded a little before snatching back one of the blankets Darel was trying to roll up and draping it over her shoulders.
“Still cold?” Darel asked, trying but completely failing to keep concern out of his voice.
“Yeah. I hate it when I run out of poison,” she grumbled. “I'm always cold.” She tugged the corners of the blanket through the clasp of her cloak to free her hands so she could finish tucking things away in her bag. While everyone was packing up, Arabanoo and another of the tree frogs walked up to their camp with a wagon in tow. They set it down nearby, and Arabanoo approached their campsite.
“Here, let me get that,” he offered, picking up a few things still on the ground and setting them into the wagon.
“Hey, that's my stuff,” Dingo protested, trying to reclaim her pack. Arabanoo blocked her, holding up a hand.
“Look, it's Coorah's orders,” the tree frog replied with a shrug. “None of you guys are cleared to carry anything.” That drew the attention of the rest of the Kulipari.
“We're fine,” Burnu growled, eyes narrowing.
“Coorah doesn't think so. Just be glad she's letting all of you walk on their own,” Arabanoo soothed. “I had to talk her out of putting all of you in wagons. Twice. And don't bother trying to talk to Old Jir about it. He's taking Coorah's side.”
“That wood frog can't boss us around,” Burnu said hotly. Arabanoo looked ready to respond but Darel quickly hopped in between them.
“Can you please just humor her?” Darel pleaded. “She's the lead healer. She might not be as big as Ponto, but she can be just as terrifying.”
“Ugh, fine.” Burnu shook his head and dropped his stuff into the wagon. He proudly strode off, walking under his own power for the first time in days. Ponto and Dingo glanced at one another, shrugging, before dumping their own gear and falling into step behind him. Darel sighed in relief- Coorah was actually more terrifying than Ponto when she wanted to be, poison or not- and waited for Quoba.
“I can carry this just fine,” she insisted, refusing to give up her bag when Arabanoo offered a hand to take it. The tree frog looked over to Darel for help.
Quoba still looked ragged, but she was every bit as stubborn as the rest of the Kulipari. “Of course you can,” Darel assured her. “But you don't have to.” The scout narrowed her eyes at him, but finally gave Arabanoo her pack. Darel was happy to leave his own things in the wagon, and vaguely contemplated throwing in a few rocks for good measure. Darel probably been cleared to carry his own stuff, but if Arabanoo was hauling the wagon, well... what were a few more pounds? He smirked at Arabanoo's dirty look. He had definitely been cleared to carry things. Wisely, Arabanoo let it drop.
Darel had to run to catch up with the Kulipari, falling in at Quoba's side. Within an hour or two, he found himself caught in a strange role reversal from their time in the mountains; he was catching her when she stumbled, and as the day wore on, she was having more and more trouble keeping her feet under her, just like he had in the cold. She tripped over something with a gasp, falling forward, but Darel caught her before she completely hit the ground. He wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her as he helped her back to her feet.
“I'm fine, Darel,” she grumbled, leaning heavily on her staff as she tried to twist from his grip.
“I know, but you didn't let me fall when I was freezing, so I won't let you fall when you're exhausted,” he explained. Quoba favored him with a scrutinizing look before she nodded and leaned into his side, finally taking advantage of his help. Darel felt her slowly relax as they walked, trusting him to not let her fall, and he smiled a little.
“Okay, seriously, is this a thing?” Darel blinked as Dingo was suddenly in the way. She had hopped back to check on them, as Quoba's absence must have started to concern the other Kulipari. The archer stopped short when she saw Darel supporting Quoba. Dingo cocked her head to the side, for once genuinely curious, rather than setting up for a joke. “Quoba?”
The scout barely looked up, and simply shrugged.
“She burned through almost all of her poison yesterday,” Darel said when Dingo looked at him for answers. “And she doesn't do that very often, right?” Quoba seemed to be the only one with the sense to always hold poison in reserve.
“Yeah, it's pretty rare,” Dingo agreed slowly, still watching them suspiciously. “Still.... this is weird.”
“You're weird,” Quoba said flatly.
“Okay, now that's the Quoba I know.” Dingo sounded reassured, and she bounced back to the front of the group, rejoining the other Kulipari. They talked in hushed voices, and occasionally one would glance back at them, though they seemed more concerned than gossipy today. Either Quoba didn't notice or didn't care. Darel was pretty sure it was the latter. Quoba was a quiet presence at his side, too stubborn to stop, but she was accepting enough of Darel's help.
Darel let himself think about it for a minute. Was this a thing?
When they finally reached the main village in the Amphibilands, Darel almost immediately spotted his mother standing among the other village frogs, all waiting to greet the returning fighters and the platypus refugees. “Hey, we're here,” he said, smiling in relief that they'd finally made it back, and in one piece, no less. Quoba seemed asleep on her feet and didn't seem to have really noticed they'd arrived. Darel fully expected Quoba to pull away and rejoin the other Kulipari, and was honestly surprised when she didn't budge.
“Do you need help back to... wherever you guys are staying in the salt marsh?” The Kulipari had set up camp somewhere out there, as it was the sort of environment they were used to, but they frequently moved around. Burnu said something about character building, but Quoba had confided that it was more about avoiding everyone else. She hadn't clarified who “everyone else” was but Darel was reasonably confident that he was in that category.
Acala reached them before Quoba made a decision. “Well, come along,” his mother said firmly, guiding them both back towards her family's home. “What happened to you two out there?” she asked once they were away from the the noise of the crowd, deeply concerned as she took in just how exhausted, battered and bruised they were. Quoba didn't respond, either not noticing the question or not caring to answer it.
“Um... it's... involved,” Darel said, glancing at Quoba, not sure where to start summarizing.
“Quoba, dear, are you okay?”
“Yes,” Quoba answered, not sounding okay whatsoever. Acala opened the door to their home and ushered them inside. “Used too much poison yesterday, that's all.”
Acala understood immediately. “Let's get you washed up and tucked into bed, then. Apari always needed to sleep for days.” She took Quoba by the hand and whisked her away before Darel could blink. He numbly sat on the couch, feeling extremely confused for a moment before it dawned on him. Of course his mother would know how to take care of an exhausted Kulipari. He suddenly had a lot of questions. He held his tongue until his mother reappeared in the sitting room, and then wasn't quite sure how to ask.
“Poor dear. She must not run herself so low very often,” she mused. Darel shook his head in confirmation. “She's more than welcome to stay here until she's feeling better, of course.”
“I should probably let the rest of the Kulipari know that,” Darel said, knowing it was the responsible thing to do, despite not particularly wanting to do it. Acala gave him a knowing smile.
“They already do,” she said, a twinkle of amusement in her eye. “Or didn't you see them watching when we headed this way?” Darel felt a flash of embarrassment. Of course he hadn't. He'd been too worried about Quoba, and too relieved to be home, to notice anything else. “You should go get to bed yourself,” she said gently. Darel nodded and went to do just that, taking the fastest bath in the history of hygiene before he collapsed into his bed with a sigh. Something felt off, but he was too tired to think about it.
Darel woke with a start after another nightmare. This time, Quoba had taken Chief Olba's place and been killed by Marmoo instead. He woke with her name on his lips, before realizing he was in his own room. Something was different, and he wasn't sure what it was. He glanced around, relieved to see nothing lurking in the shadows. It took him another moment to put a finger on what was out of place. A warm lump was curled up against him, completely hidden under the blankets. He sighed. Quoba definitely had not been there when he'd fallen asleep. Waking up with her in his arms had happened enough over the last few days that he was starting to not even notice, which sent a little thrill through him. Until he remembered where he was, and who might wander in at any moment.
“Um,” he said softly, panicking a little. Quoba made an unhappy sound, stirring. He'd forgotten again just how lightly she slept, and winced. “Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you, I had a nightmare, and I'm just-”
“Stop worrying and go back to sleep,” Quoba mumbled against his chest. “Everything's okay and you're warm.”
“We have extra blankets, if you're cold,” Darel offered, only slightly hysterical.
“Brought 'em with me,” Quoba replied. “I'm serious, go back to sleep.”
“But what about my mom-”
“She didn't say anything a couple hours ago. It's fine.”
Oh, good. Darel relaxed for a moment until Quoba's words caught up with him.
“She came in here a couple hours ago?!” He bolted upright, much to Quoba's dismay as she was dragged along. She glowered up at him as he sheepishly settled back down.
“Came to see if you wanted breakfast. Then asked if I wanted breakfast. Said I was cold, she brought another blanket. She didn't sound mad. Please go back to sleep.” To more clearly indicate the conversation was over, Quoba yanked the blankets back over her head and made herself comfortable again.
“Um, sure,” Darel agreed. His worry about what his mother might be thinking quickly gave way as he relaxed, reminding himself that he was warm and comfortable and safe for the first time in more than a week. He soon fell asleep as ordered, and everything felt right.
Darel woke again hours later, surprised to find Quoba was still asleep in his arms. He wasn't sure what had woken him until a soft ahem drew his attention outwards, and he realized his mother was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, fingers tapping a soft staccato as she waited. Darel gulped, and tried to extract himself from Quoba's grip, but her arms were locked like a vise around his chest. He absently wondered how he hadn't suffocated as he tried to figure out how to escape. He abruptly stopped squirming as he realized there was another layer to his current predicament. Or, rather, there wasn't a layer that should've been; Quoba wasn't wearing a single stitch of clothing. Blushing furiously, he shook Quoba's shoulder and desperately avoided making eye contact with his mother.
“Quoba,” he murmured softly, which earned him a sleepy grumble. “I need to get up,” he continued. Quoba made an unhappy noise, but relaxed her grip enough that Darel was able to wriggle loose and get up without uncovering her. He really didn't want to add that to the list of things his mother was inevitably going to ask him about. The scout mumbled nonsense before burrowing down into the spot Darel had vacated, disappearing back under the blankets. Darel crept across the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
“So, um, good morn-...wait... is it morning?” Darel asked, blushing still and trying to avoid his mother's gaze.
“Mid afternoon, actually,” Acala replied serenely, taking him by the arm and all but dragging him down to the sitting room. Arranging herself on the sofa with all the grace of a queen, she waited for Darel to sit down. He did, uneasy and unwilling to meet her eyes. “So. When did this-” she gestured in the general direction of Darel's room- “all start?”
'Is everyone going to ask that question?' Darel thought uncharitably, remembering Dingo's curiosity as well. “There isn't a this,” he said, though some part of him was unhappy with that answer. “I mean, not a formal this, we haven't talked about anything, why would we, when there isn't a this, it's just...” As much as he didn't want to tell her, Darel had to explain how he'd frozen in the snowstorm, and how Quoba made it her mission afterward to not let that happen again. “...And after that first night, I don't know,” he admitted.
He was slowly realizing his current discomfort about the topic was more related to his conversation partner than the subject matter itself. It was a strange feeling, one he'd been doing his best to ignore for weeks. “Quoba said she was cold the next night, and then after the battle in the platypus village, she was in shock, so I was trying to keep her warm. And you saw her yesterday, she was barely able to stand up. I was just helping her.”
Acala nodded sagely. “I see,” she said softly. “Just helping. So that's how she ended up in your bed this morning, then? Were you helping her with something else?”
Darel blushed furiously. “No! I didn't- she was just there when I woke up, mom, I swear.” He was mortified, afraid his mother had gotten the wrong idea. “I don't know why she was there, or even when she came in.”
“Hmm.” Acala smiled at her son, trying to hide her amusement and failing. “So there's absolutely no feelings in this at all? Just helping a teammate?”
“Well we've both been pretty busy trying to save the Amphibilands lately,” he dodged.
“I... have no idea how to answer any of your questions,” he finally admitted. “I don't know. We haven't exactly sat down and had a conversation.” He huffed. “And c'mon, Dingo was there, you don't have deep conversations in front of Dingo.”
“Now would be a great opportunity to talk,” Acala pointed out. “Once she's up and about. It's quiet here, and I won't let the other Kulipari snatch her away before you get a chance to talk with her.”
Darel nodded, knowing she had a point, and he really did want to talk to Quoba. “I think it's less the other Kulipari coming here, and more Quoba sneaking out,” he said. “If she wants to avoid something...”
“I don't think she wants to avoid you.” She smiled, standing. “I asked her about breakfast earlier and she said no, but it is about time the both of you have something to eat.”
“I'll go get her,” Darel promised, heading back upstairs. He crept back into his room, and sighed. Quoba was gone. He checked the rest of the bedrooms, but she had vanished.
Chief Olba's funeral was packed. Everyone was there, which was heartening, but was making Darel's mission of finding the Kulipari far, far more difficult. He finally spotted Quoba leaning against a banyan tree on the far side of the crowd. He managed to weave through the crowd to claim a spot next to her. Before he had a chance to even open his mouth to say hello, Burnu appeared, and sat down on Darel's other side. He offered a smug smirk when Darel glanced his way.
Both Kulipari looked dramatically better. Quoba's coloring was approaching normal. As the ceremony started, Darel caught himself watching her out of the corner of his eye, and he hoped he could get a chance to talk with her after the funeral, preferably without Burnu present.
“How are you feeling?” he asked softly.
“Better,” she replied with a quick smile. Too quick. Darel didn't believe her, but he could tell she didn't want to talk about it. He talked with Burnu quietly about tearing down the Veil, and was lost in his own thoughts when Old Jir was suddenly looking at him.
“Darel, why don't you say a few words?”
What? No way. “I- I'm not-”
Quoba elbowed him. “Stand up,” she hissed.
“Why don't you stand up?” Darel grumbled back, before Burnu kneed him hard enough to launch him to his feet. He barely heard his own words, and felt increasingly smaller as the crowd argued with him about his plan. Burnu apparently had enough. He suddenly lit up, glowing with poison behind Darel.
“If not for Darel, there would be no Amphibilands, not anymore,” he said loudly.
Quoba stepped up as well, laying a hand on Darel's shoulder. “The chief trusted Darel,” she said. “The turtle king trusted Darel. And the Kulipari trust Darel.” Darel stood a bit straighter, emboldened by their support, and continued to plead his case. After what felt like hours, the frogs all came to a consensus, deciding to trust the Serpent and lower the Veil. Darel sighed, feeling the huge weight of responsibility falling on his shoulders. He wasn't sure it was a burden he could carry, but he would try. He needed to talk to Yabber. The Veil needed to fall, and the frogs needed a plan.
By the time he'd thought up said plan, and then hunted down the Kulipari in the salt marsh to discuss it, he'd stopped worrying about talking to Quoba. He was too busy worrying about everything else. So of course she'd surprised him by appearing out of nowhere once he reached the marsh, and then he'd been knocked completely off-balance by how casual the Kulipari were behaving, grilling shrimp and holding a small party at Old Jir's house. They'd all nearly died in the mountains a few short days ago, but you wouldn't know it by looking at them. Dingo was wielding tiny toothpick weapons, for Serpent's sake. According to Burnu, he and Quoba were still recovering, but Ponto and Dingo had already completely bounced back after a few days of rest. Stupid poison. Darel was still bruised and tender all over.
Darel laid out his plan, explaining how they would need allies once the Veil fell, but the Amphibilands frogs didn't know anyone, having been isolated inside for so long. “Do any of you know anyone?” he asked.
Quoba shook her head. “We mostly stayed to the swamp and coves,” she replied. “But Ponto has gone further than any of us, looking for herbs and medicines.”
“I'll come along,” Ponto agreed amiably. “It'll be a good opportunity to gather things we're running low on, at least.”
“Oooh, I'll come too!” Dingo volunteered.
“No!” Darel yelped, louder than he intended. He rapidly backtracked as everyone turned to stare at him. “Uh, no. I mean... if Burnu and Quoba are still healing, and the Veil could come down at any time, you should stay here, so there's one Kulipari at full strength, just in case.”
“Well, yeah,” Dingo agreed, and her expression turned sly. She elbowed him in the side. “I can't believe you're not asking Quoba to go, though.” She laughed when Darel blushed hotly and tried to splutter a response. “Oooh, watch out, Darel's glowing! Is that poison you're tapping? Are you finally a real Kulipari?” She pressed in close, inspecting his face while Darel tried to shove her away. “Oh, wait, nope, false alarm. You're just blushing.” Darel took a swipe at her and she merrily danced out of his range, only to trip over Quoba's staff.
“Let it rest,” the scout said firmly. Dingo frowned up at her as she stood back up, and crowded into Quoba's space.
“Seriously? C'mon, Quoba, now it's just getting sad,” Dingo protested. “We all know-”
Ponto and Burnu simultaneously clapped a hand over Dingo's mouth. “We don't know nothin',” Ponto said firmly. “That's Quoba's business.” He dragged a protesting Dingo away, and Darel realized Old Jir and Burnu had also taken advantage of the distraction to beat a hasty retreat, leaving Darel and Quoba alone at the table. Darel sighed, shaking his head, while Quoba switched seats to sit next to him.
“I'm sorry about Dingo,” Quoba said quietly. “She doesn't know when to quit.”
“That's something I already knew,” Darel replied. He fidgeted a little. “...Why did you leave the other morning?” he asked. “I came back upstairs and you were gone.”
“You were upset about your mother finding me there. I thought it would be better if I left.”
Darel shook his head. “After the week we'd had, I just wanted to talk to you. You keep vanishing before I have a chance to do that, though.” More fidgeting. “What is it that Dingo thinks she knows?” Movement caught his eye, and he spotted Dingo trying to be sneaky, peeking at them from one of the windows overlooking the patio. Darel sighed. “Never mind,” he said, glaring in Dingo's direction. The archer quickly ducked out of sight but Darel doubted she was going to leave them alone. “I should go. I need to make sure Gee and Coorah know to be ready in the morning.”
“That's a good idea,” Quoba said, her own eyes narrowed at the window Dingo had been spying from. “Be careful. We'll keep the Amphibilands safe while you're gone.” Darel nodded and left, returning to the village.
Darel's entire search felt completely pointless. He found no allies among those they met, none who would join the battle. Trapdoor spiders. Possums. An empty gecko village. The harrier hawks, although while they also refused to actively join the fight, they were at least willing to carry the group back to the Amphibilands.
Darel was horrified. Around him, everything burned. All of the defenses they'd built were crushed and broken, and scorpions just kept coming. Ponto was out cold after falling on Marmoo like a meteor. Dingo was sprawled out beside Ponto's crater. Burnu and Quoba were collapsed inside after facing Marmoo. They'd battled him fiercely, but every wound inflicted on him healed and made him stronger. Marmoo was readying the killing strike when Darel intervened. He'd tried his hardest to finish Marmoo off, but had also failed. Rather than doom them all, Darel surrendered. Marmoo was simply too strong, his army too vast, and Darel couldn't bear to see any more of his people fall.
He led the disheartened group from the Amphibilands into the desert wastes, from village to village in a vain search for sanctuary. None was forthcoming; all they found were water sources run dry, and more refugees. Commander Pigo and the remaining injured scorpions and spiders. Geckos. Trapdoor spiders. Possums. It felt never ending, as more and more fell in behind him, blindly following the Blue Sky King, despite him having no idea what he was doing.
It was a hard day's march out of the Amphibilands into the outback. Darel wanted to put as much distance between his people and the scorpion army as possible, in case Marmoo changed his mind. They finally settled in a ravine to protect everyone from the wind. Quoba and Burnu were dead on their feet, shambling along mostly out of stubbornness by the end of the day. Dingo and Ponto were still unconscious, both badly injured. Darel had been helping with Dingo's stretcher for most of the day and was more than happy to finally put her down. The two conscious Kulipari settled down by Dingo and Ponto, clearly concerned for their teammates despite their own injuries.
“Do you two need anything?” he asked, concerned. Burnu shook his head, leaning back against Ponto and listing a bit to the left. Quoba wasn't faring much better. Darel sighed softly and started helping them unpack their bed rolls and get settled. He straightened, glancing back towards the rest of the refugees, already thinking of other things he needed to check.
“Where do you think you're going?” Quoba asked him. “You need to sleep, too.”
“I'm just going to make sure everybody made it here, and everyone's okay,” Darel said. Guilt was already eating him alive and he didn't think he could rest until he'd done everything he could to help. “Set up a watch, that sort of thing.”
“You've got an hour,” Burnu said firmly. “You might be the sky blue whatever but I'm still squad leader.”
Darel smirked a bit. “I'll remember that next time you start telling me I'm not a Kulipari,” he said. “I'll try to be back in an hour.”
He made it back in an hour and a half, pleased to see that both of them were asleep, but even though she looked half-dead Quoba was still a light sleeper. She woke with a start when he stumbled over, and rubbed at her eyes. “You're late,” she murmured.
“It's a big camp,” Darel admitted. “Took longer than I thought to do a full circuit, and I checked on my mom and the triplets, too.” He sat down beside her, wincing as various wounds registered their complaints. “I put four people on watch every two hours, so hopefully at least one of them will be awake.”
Quoba nodded. “You've done what you need to do. Now you need to sleep.”
“I have no idea where my pack went,” he admitted.
Quoba shook her head, eyes rolling. “Come here,” she said, scooting over to make space for him on her mat. Darel nodded and climbed in with her, barely horizontal before Quoba was curling up against him. Darel frowned at how fever-warm she was.
“Did you get stung?” She hadn't said so before, but if there was anything he knew about the Kulipari, you had to be extremely specific when asking questions about injuries. They were all far too quick to dismiss wounds that probably should've killed them for Darel's taste.
Quoba nodded. “Marmoo stung me, and he got Burnu. We were both tapping our poison at the time, so it'll be like Burnu's taipan bite, but not quite as bad. Scorpion poison isn't as strong. We'll be fine in a day or two.”
Darel sighed. “I need you guys to tell me this stuff,” he said, unhappy. “How am I supposed to help if I don't know it?”
“Coorah knows,” Quoba replied matter-of-factly. “She or Ponto are the ones who need to know. You have enough on your plate right now.”
“You know I worry,” Darel murmured in response.
“Yeah, well, worry a little less,” Quoba grumbled. “And go to sleep.”
Darel couldn't. After lying there until the watch changed, feeling Quoba's fitful sleep and raging fever as her body fought the poison coursing through her, he finally gave up on trying to sleep and carefully extracted himself from her grip. She barely reacted, which was terrifying in its own way. He paused to watch her a moment, wanting to assure himself that she was okay before moving on. He straightened the blankets a bit and left, planning to make himself useful. He wandered the camp for the rest of the night, offering assistance wherever he could. He didn't return to the Kulipari until morning when they were breaking camp. Quoba narrowed her eyes when he approached.
“Where did you go last night?” she demanded as she packed. “Did you actually get any sleep?”
“Yeah,” Darel lied. “I just went to help with the watch later on, that's all.” Quoba looked skeptical, but didn't push any further.
The first full day of walking was worse than the day before. With so many wounded, the group moved slowly, and Darel settled for stopping early when they found a decent outcropping of rocks for cover. Darel again busied himself by helping around camp, checking in with people.
It was long after dark before Quoba hunted him down. She lay a hand on his shoulder, surprising him. Even burning with fever and injured, she was still stealthy. “Darel, you need to sleep.” Too miserable and guilty to even contemplate sleep, Darel was presently rocking some fussy tadpoles in their watery bassinet so their mother could rest. They had settled a while ago, but he wanted to be sure they would stay asleep before he moved on. He sighed, shaking his head.
“I could say the same thing to you,” he said, looking up at her weary face. “How are you feeling?”
“I think I prefer being beaten up by a scorpion, to being stung by a scorpion,” she replied. “Unfortunately Marmoo didn't let me take my pick.” Darel nodded a little.
“Did Ponto or Dingo wake up yet?”
Quoba shook her head. “No, but I didn't come here to talk about them. I'm going to stand here until you make the right choice and come at least try to get some sleep,” she said firmly, as if she was in a position to make demands and wasn't half-dead on her feet. “I know you were lying to me this morning, by the way.” Darel winced that she'd seen through his lie and nodded sheepishly, getting up and following her across camp to where the Kulipari had settled. Dingo and Ponto were both still asleep in their stretchers, and Burnu was sprawled out beside them on the ground. The ground was still hot from the punishing sun, so there was no need for a fire. There wasn't any wood for one, anyway.
Quoba took his hand, tugging him down to sit on her mat. He lay down and pulled her close, absently tucking them both in. Quoba curled up against him and sighed. “I'm scared,” she admitted in a low voice.
“Me, too.” Darel swallowed. “But we have to trust the Serpent.” Quoba nodded. Darel could feel her skin burning, still fighting the poison from Marmoo's sting. He held her close, wondering why he'd been trying so hard to avoid her. She hadn't done anything but fight as hard as she could. He'd surrendered to save everyone, and then avoided the one he'd wanted to save the most. “You're still burning up,” he murmured, concerned.
“Tell me something I don't know,” Quoba muttered back. “I got stung, remember?”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“You can shut up and let me sleep.” Darel chuckled softly and nodded. Quoba slept fitfully, and Darel was haunted by nightmares whenever he closed his eyes. Neither got much sleep.
The third night was much the same; Quoba hunted him down and half-dragged him back to her mat to sleep. She was no longer burning from poison, but was far from recovered. Darel held her more tightly than he'd ever dared, more afraid than he knew how to explain.
“Tomorrow we'll reach the possum village,” Darel told her quietly, watching the stars, absently rubbing her arm with his thumb. He was hoping he sounded more confident that he felt. “They'll help.”
“I hope so.” She hadn't been impressed with what Darel had reported about the possums when he went in search of allies. “At least they have water.”
Except they didn't. Just like the trapdoor spiders, their water had run dry. The possums shared their remaining food with the refugees, and joined the trek. Darel had figured out where the underground tunnels were leading, in a straight line out of the Amphibilands... and into the desert.
The night after that was more of the same; everyone was a little more exhausted, and Darel felt the burden on his shoulders grow still heavier. Dingo had rejoined them in the waking world, but she was subdued. Darel did his usual circuit of the camp before returning to the Kulipari. He was a bit earlier than usual, as there wasn't much he could do to help. He paused in a shadow when he saw Dingo had Quoba cornered by Ponto's stretcher. The archer looked extremely frustrated.
“Don't even try to tell me there's nothing going on,” Dingo protested.
“I don't believe you. You aren't even trying to be subtle anymore, and that's like, your thing.”
“There is nothing to be subtle about,” Quoba said firmly.
“But have you actually talked about anything?” Dingo asked. Quoba shook her head. “Oh, come on, this is just getting stupid. Burnu, tell her this is getting stupid.”
“What's getting stupid?” Burnu hadn't been paying attention.
“The whole thing with-” Dingo shut up as Darel deliberately scuffed his foot in the dirt and walked up, drawing the attention of all three Kulipari. Burnu laughed.
“Oh. Yeah. That's definitely stupid,” Burnu said with a nod. “Can't expect more from a wood frog, though. Especially not that wood frog. Evening, Darel.”
Darel frowned. “Nice to see you too,” he grumbled. “Look, I know this whole search seems stupid, and I'm probably an idiot and leading us all to our death in the desert, but I'm already telling myself that enough, I don't need your help.”
Burnu glanced at Dingo, and as one they looked to Quoba. The scout sighed. “We don't think you're an idiot, Darel.”
“I beg to differ,” Burnu insisted. “Though it's less idiot, and more hopelessly obtuse.”
Dingo's eye twitched. “That's not even- but-” she paused, frustration evident, and took a breath, starting over. “Alright, fine, sure, that's definitely what we were talking about. Yup. You caught us. Love how much you like to jump to conclusions, Darel. You keep enjoying that guilt trip.” She crossed her arms and flopped back against Ponto's unconscious bulk, muttering to herself.
Darel decided he was going to sleep somewhere else. “Okay, I need to go check on my family,” he lied. He walked away, ignoring the sting of their commentary, and as he trudged the perimeter of the camp, he slowly realized that the scorpions who had been on watch were missing. Upon further scrutiny, Darel realized that they had all disappeared. Pigo had insisted on being in charge of the security of the refugees, and the scorpions and spiders under his command kept watch night after night. Scorpions were better suited to the desert, Pigo had explained, and thus better suited to keeping everyone safe.
Darel felt like he'd been hit in the gut. Pigo was a loyal soldier, and he'd pledged himself to the Blue Sky King. Maybe he felt that Darel no longer deserved the title? Darel sat in silence for the rest of the night, completely unsure of what to do. He was joined by others as they woke, but nobody had anything to say, equally shocked at the abandonment. Darel felt numb. Dingo hopped to the top of a nearby pile of rocks sometime around dawn. If it was available, the archer always headed for higher ground, regardless of what she was doing. High vantage points and perches seemed to calm her.
“Hey,” Dingo called, as the sun's first rays bloomed across the sky. “Why did the scorpions cross the desert-”
“Nobody's in the mood for jokes,” Burnu snapped.
“-dragging logs?” Dingo finished, annoyed at the interruption.
“The scorpions.” Dingo pointed toward the lone tree in the distance. “They're coming back with firewood.”
Darel jumped to his feet, shaded his eyes from the morning glare, and caught sight of Pigo leading his scorpions closer. “Are those... branches?”
“Definitely logs,” Dingo said.
“Why logs?” Coorah asked.
“To get to the other side,” Dingo replied. Nobody laughed, not even Dingo.
They weren't logs. The scorpions had brought roots they'd hacked out of the ground overnight, roots filled with enough water to refill the tadpole bassinets and give everyone enough water to last another day.
That day was the day they reached the red rock, the one Darel had dreamed of, the one surrounded with water and life. The rock was there, looking exactly like it did in his dream, but... there was no water to be found. Once again, the refugees stood in silence, hope flagging as Darel did his level best to figure out what he was supposed to do now.
“The good news,” Dingo announced, “Is that this thing makes an awesome gravestone.” Darel was too busy trying to figure out why there was no water to throw anything at her.
And that's when the end came.
The ghost bats returned with hundreds of paralysis ticks in tow. Marmoo had finally granted them permission to finish everyone off. Apparently he felt they'd suffered enough and wanted confirmation they died a miserable death in the outback. The handful of frogs still able to fight gave everything they had before one by one they fell, paralyzed, to the rocky ground. The Kulipari fought as hard as they could, using just enough poison to burn off paralysis again and again, before Burnu and Dingo ultimately fell, too low on poison to fight off the paralysis. Darel was bitten on the knee, and was trying desperately to reach his mother and siblings when Quoba bounded from the boulders.
Quoba, sensible Quoba, who always held some in reserve, was the last frog left standing. From the rock tower, she blazed like the sun, attacking the remaining ghost bats.
“Don't!” Darel desperately reached for her. “No, Quoba!”
He watched helplessly as she tapped even further into her reserves, saluting him before taking out the rest of the ticks in a brilliant blur.
Darel looked away, unable to watch Quoba's last stand, and realization struck him. The red rock tower, looked at sideways, was the unidentifiable red blob from his father's drawings. With what little strength he had left, he dragged himself to the rocks it rested on. He brought it crashing down, finally, blessedly, finishing the task the Rainbow Serpent had set before him. He watched in awe as water gushed from the dry land and brought with it new life. The Rainbow Serpent was keeping her promise to his people. Where the water touched, plants grew, and a forest was springing up around them.
Then he spotted Quoba. She stood silently in the growing lake with Old Jir. Her skin was ashen white, in stark contrast to her former coloring. She had saved them all, and sacrificed her power forever. Shame burned through him at the sight. Surely he could've done something differently to prevent it.
“Your father would be so proud,” his mother told him, interrupting his thoughts.
“He's not the only one,” Burnu said from where Coorah was bandaging his head. “We all are.” Darel glanced back towards Quoba, chest tightening as he quietly mourned her sacrifice. “Even Quoba,” Burnu added. “Especially her. You made her sacrifice worthwhile.”
“D-d-do you really think so?”
“He knows so,” Ponto said, finally coming around. Dingo stiffly joined them, still fighting the paralysis. She made a joke that found an avid audience in the scorpions, and was thrilled that someone finally appreciated her “high-quality humor.”
“Just when I was learning to like scorps, too,” Burnu muttered.
Even after the others dispersed to enjoy the water, Darel didn't move from his vantage point. He sat on the edge of the red rock and simply watched everyone coming back to life. He occasionally glanced at Quoba and Old Jir, who moved to dry land once the lake was too deep to stand in and were now sitting on its banks, talking.
“Okay, seriously,” Dingo said, flopping down beside Darel, feet dangling over the edge. “Seriously, Darel. You have to go talk to her. Especially now.” There was no teasing in her voice, no hint of a joke. Darel frowned, unsure.
Burnu sat down on his opposite side. “I'll push you off this rock if you don't,” he warned.
“And if he doesn't, I will,” Ponto added from behind them. He stiffly joined them, wincing. “Dingo wasn't kidding when she said we already know.”
“I just...” Darel gestured in Quoba's general direction. “This is my fault. She gave up her power because of me.”
“She did it to save all of us, you idiot,” Dingo said, whacking him upside the head. “She believes in you more than anybody else. She never doubted you, no matter how stupid the rest of us thought you were. And by the way, we thought you were very, very stupid.”
“Go,” Burnu said firmly, shifting so he could make good on his promise if Darel didn't get up immediately. Darel stood, albeit slowly. One leg was still stiff from paralysis poison, and scraped raw on top of it. Coorah had seen to the wounds already, but the paralysis had to wear off on its own, and his weary, battered body was taking its sweet time. He was reasonably confident that he would hurt less right now if the red rock had actually fallen on him. Darel carefully climbed down from his perch, making his way through a rapidly sprouting meadow to where Quoba sat at the water's edge.
Old Jir noticed his approach. “We can talk more later,” Jir said to Quoba, rising. He patted her on the shoulder and favored Darel with a firm nod as they passed each other. Quoba was still looking out at the still-growing lake. She didn't react to Darel's approach, but also didn't seem surprised when he joined her on the bank.
“I was wondering when you'd come down,” she murmured without shifting her gaze. Her hood was drawn, and one of her blankets was wrapped around her shoulders. She was curled into herself, the occasional shiver running through her.
“Burnu threatened to push me off if I didn't,” Darel admitted. “I guess 'Kulipari take care of their own' doesn't extend to shoving the stupid ones off rocks.”
“I think that's the very definition of taking care of their own.” Quoba finally looked at him, giving him one of her small smiles. He hadn't seen one of those in days, and he eagerly returned it. “How else will the stupid ones learn if they don't get a shove now and then?”
Darel glanced up at the three Kulipari on the rock. Ponto and Burnu were talking and not looking their way, but of course the eagle-eyed Dingo was watching. She waved and gave Darel a thumbs-up. He groaned, burying his face in his hands.
“Is that what Dingo's been trying to do? Give me a shove in the right direction?” he wondered, rising back to his feet and offering her a hand. “You look cold. Let's go build a fire.” Quoba accepted the help and didn't go of his hand as they walked. At the very edges of the new growth lay gnarled, dried up husks of long-dead trees. They cut a few branches free and returned to just inside the new forest, far away from anyone else, including well-meaning but meddlesome Kulipari. The fire soon crackled to life and they settled close, absorbing its warmth. Quoba sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder. Darel took a moment to savor the contact before wrapping his arm around her, drawing her close. He absently wished he'd come down sooner.
“So what is it that the other Kulipari know?” he asked, finally able to do so without any of the other Kulipari lurking nearby. Well, at least not that he was aware of. He would feed Dingo her own bow if she suddenly appeared in the rapidly-growing trees, but it remained quiet.
“The night you almost froze in the mountains, I realized that I couldn't bear to lose you,” Quoba finally admitted. “And I had no idea how to tell you that.”
“...but you knew how to tell Dingo?” Darel said flatly.
“No, but I've known those three since we were tadpoles,” Quoba smiled a little. “And we've been training together since practically the instant we grew legs. We know how to read each other. How else do you think we can fight without needing to talk?”
“I'm pretty sure Burnu and Dingo would explode if they didn't talk during a fight,” Darel said, smirking. Quoba elbowed him.
“You know what I mean.” Darel nodded. He did know. It was part of why he felt like such an outsider, not having that ease of familiarity. He knew he'd never completely fit into their unit, no matter how hard he tried.
“Anyway,” Quoba continued, but she paused, thinking. “I just... didn't know what to say, or how to show you, other than sleeping beside you.” She looked sly. “Commandeering your blankets was a bonus.”
“I've noticed you have a thing about blankets,” Darel agreed.
“Usually we have extras, but those went with the Komodos down the mountain. On previous missions, I used to steal one from Ponto. That's when he started packing extras.” She sighed. “And then, at your house, I just... wanted some comfort, I guess. I woke up alone and realized I missed you.”
“I wish you'd said something.” Darel thought back to that morning. He was pretty sure his mother was still disappointed in him.
“I could barely string together a sentence, I was so tired,” Quoba protested. “I probably could've said something, but it wouldn't have been coherent.”
“... And was there any particular reason you had no clothes on?” Darel asked, blushing as he remembered that mortifying detail.
Quoba laughed and shook her head. “I had sort of hoped you hadn't noticed. Acala made off with my clothes and washed them. Took me ages to find them before I left.” She sobered. “I'm sorry that I embarrassed you.”
“Wasn't how I planned to talk to mom about things, that's all,” Darel replied with a shrug. “She figured it out before I did, anyway.”
“I forgot that your dad being a Kulipari meant that your mom knew what I needed. I wish I'd stuck around; getting taken care of was nice.”
“You can stick around now,” Darel offered, blushing furiously.
Quoba smiled up at him. “I'd like that,” she agreed. They lapsed into a comfortable silence, soaking up the heat of the fire and listening to the sounds of life and happiness around them. Darel glanced down at her hands, taking in the details of her new coloring. Her stripes were still present, a soft, light gray against stark white. Her vivid green was gone, and Darel felt guilt eating away at him.
“I'm sorry.” Darel murmured. “I should've-”
“Stop.” Quoba pulled away, eyes narrowed at him. “I made a choice. Don't you dare trivialize that.” Her expression softened. “If you'd had the same choice, you would've made it too.” Darel nodded. “Besides, if there's anything I do know, it's that you can be a Kulipari without poison.”
“Except for during a snowstorm,” Darel said wryly. “Poison's really useful then.”
Quoba laughed and nestled back into his side. “Yeah, snowstorms are an exception.” She was quiet a moment. “This is going to be a hard transition,” she admitted. “Did the others seem mad?”
“Didn't you hear the part about Burnu threatening to push me off the rock? They're worried. They're your family, and they're worried, and they want you to be okay.” He hugged her close, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I want you to be okay.”
“He wants to make poisonous babies with you!” Dingo called from somewhere nearby, and Darel quickly spotted her hanging upside-down by her knees above them, a fraction of a second after Quoba did.
“I swear by everything holy that I will end you, Dingo!” Quoba shouted, leaping to her feet and giving chase. Dingo laughed and took off through the forest, leaping from tree to tree just ahead of the furious scout. Darel simply stared, too surprised to react and not even sure what to think. Ponto and Burnu came crashing through the underbrush a few short seconds later, both livid.
“Did Dingo come this way?” Ponto demanded.
“She managed to get past us,” Burnu fumed.
Darel jerked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the direction of the chase. “Quoba's going to kill her,” he said helpfully. “You might want to save her.”
“Not until after Quoba gets a few good hits in,” Ponto growled as he bounded off.
“What'd she say?” Burnu demanded. “How much does Dingo deserve it?”
“Um... that I wanted to make poisonous babies with Quoba,” Darel replied, face burning.
“And you're just sitting there? Get up, you lazy wood frog, and get your butt in gear!” Darel did as ordered, finding it somewhat surreal to be included in the team's infighting, but also heartening. The rough-and-tumble battle through the trees eventually found everyone collapsed around the same fire Darel had started earlier. While Dingo was faster, Quoba was more agile and also extremely angry, allowing her to easily catch the archer. Quoba did manage to get a few good hits in, and Dingo was nursing some new bruises, but she was grinning widely, as if she hadn't just been chased, attacked, and pummeled by all four of her teammates.
“Totally worth it to see your faces,” Dingo bragged, though she wisely had put the fire between herself and Quoba, and was hidden halfway behind Ponto as an added precaution.
“Sounds like you need a couple more cracks upside the head,” Ponto scowled. “That was a jerk move.”
“Maybe.” Dingo grinned. “But everybody feels better, right?”
There was a pause around the campfire as that sank in. “That sort of depends on your definition of feels better,” Burnu said thoughtfully. “But... yeah.” The rest of the group murmured varying levels of assent, although Quoba's expression was positively venomous. Darel subtly took her hand when he noticed, partly for support, but also out of concern that she would leap over the fire and start the fight back up again.
“There's a lot of work to do,” Darel said, trying to diffuse things. He glanced around at the group. “Lots of homes to build, and it's been a long couple of weeks. Plus we're all still injured, and Coorah will kill us if she finds out we were fighting just now. We all need some rest.” He shot a pointed look in Dingo's direction. “And I think commenting on anybody's sleeping arrangements at this point is a bad idea.”
Dingo held up her hands in surrender, though she was still grinning widely enough that Darel was suspicious.
“Where'd you get the firewood?” Ponto asked abruptly. “I think we need a separate camping spot.” Darel pointed in the right direction, and Ponto stood, seizing Dingo and dragging her along behind. Dingo loudly protested, but allowed herself to be dragged. Burnu smirked and followed them at a distance.
“She got what she wanted and she's still being obnoxious,” Quoba muttered. “She's been after me for two weeks about talking to you and then she has to go and interrupt.”
“It's Dingo,” Darel pointed out. “Did you really expect something different?”
Quoba thought about it for a minute, then shook her head. “You've got a point,” she admitted.
“Hopefully Ponto and Burnu will be able to keep her under control for the rest of the night, and nobody else will come this way.”
“I can't wait until we've got some houses built,” Quoba murmured, slowly relaxing once she could no longer hear the rest of her team arguing in the distance. She returned to leaning into Darel's side, having been uncomfortable doing so in front of the others. “Privacy would be nice.”
“Everyone's probably going to have to share for a bit, until we can build enough,” Darel said.
“As long as I don't have to share with Dingo, I don't care who I live with.” Quoba smiled. “I'm sure you want to get your family settled.”
Darel nodded. “I want to get everybody settled. Just thinking about all that needs to be done is overwhelming.”
“So don't think about it right now. You've got plenty of time to worry tomorrow. And it's not like you'll be building everything yourself, anyway. Everyone wants to rebuild and start fresh.” She smiled at him. “You've never had to carry that burden by yourself, you know.”
Darel nodded. He did know. Quoba had been there supporting him all along. “I didn't lose my pack when we were in the desert,” he admitted sheepishly. “I gave it to one of the families that didn't have anything. It wasn't specifically so you'd share with me, but... commandeering your blankets was a bonus.”
Quoba shoved him, knocking him backwards. “Jerk,” she said, without any heat. She leaned over him, smirking, and kissed him firmly. “There, that ought to teach you.”
“No, I don't think I've learned my lesson,” Darel replied, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. “I'm just a stupid wood frog, after all. Might take me a while to figure out.”
“Very stupid,” Quoba agreed with a laugh. “That's okay, I've got time.”