"Fire beetle? Never heard of..." He turned his back on me, starting to do something with his rake and the field we were standing on. He lied. I knew it and he knew I knew. This was just a little game we had to play.
He was a member of Nah'shha clan – proud people, once powerful, owning vast land with a strong army and rich domain. But then the war came. And another. And another. Nah'shha lost their land and were pushed back here, on the edge of a wild unfriendly woodland where no one lived.
I was an outlander for them. An adventurer hired to steal their one and only remaining secret: how to herd fire beetles.
It was maybe fifty years after the last war when fire beetles emerged. They appeared in few places at the same time and soon everyone wanted them: gladiator arenas owners, armies, gangs of thieves... Those beetles were a game-changer. They were huge, with strong carapace and they used fire, born somewhere under their unused wings, as a weapon. They usually fought to the death, never fled. Fierce creatures every warring party needed.
Soon enough people realised they come from Nah'shha forest when they probably found them and trained to be sold in markets all over the world. There was only one problem: those fire beetles never bred in captivity and this was the only place from which new ones came.
I wasn't the first neither the last who was sent to try to steal the secret of breeding. But the Nah'shha clan was persistent in protecting their secret and their only source of wealth. I knew we would need to wander the woods, trying to find someplace where beetles were kept. That's why I hired my reptile helper.
"Let's move, there's nothing for us here", I told him. Lizard people were not the best fighters so they were rarely hired as squires, but I was betting on his other skills, especially sneaking and tracking. We bought some very overpriced food and went into the forest. We wandered it for few days, looking for animals paths, traces of smoke or basically anything that could lead us to our goals. But the forest was thick and unfriendly. Soon I lost my orientation, but it seemed that Jixx, my reptile friend, still knew what he was doing.
At the dusk of day five, he sniffed the air and said: "there". We started to go there and he insisted we continue even after it became dark. It was maybe around midnight when we found ourselves on the edge of a clearing. It was round and a small stream cut it in half. Jixx told me to stop and wait. I decided to trust him one last time, but if nothing happens, to start going home the next day. We were slowly running out of the supplies.
But Jixx was right. About a quarter later we noticed some movement. A small figure appeared from between the trees on the other side of the glade. It was a Nah'shha girl, maybe eight years old. She stopped in the clearing and started to play some instrument I could not recognize, but similar to a flute. She played a calm song and after repeating it twice we noticed fire beetles coming out from the woods. There were three of them: one big and two smaller. She changed the song to more lively one. Beetles started to circle her and then two smaller prepared to fight one another. They stood motionless for a while and then rose on hind legs. They began to screech and I could easily see ember lights firing up under their chitin wings. Then the first one cast a fireball. The other dodged easily and the fireball, instead of burning the forest, disappeared few feet behind it. The real fight broke out. Firebolts flew in every possible direction, but the beetles were probably just playing because none of them hit the target. I was so enchanted by looking at this, that I stood up to see better.
Huge mistake. Big fire beetle that did not take part in the fight must have noticed me. It screeched rapidly and loudly and the fight stopped instantaneously. Then it began to charge in my direction, with its wings glowing with the fire that looked really hot. I was sure I was lost. But then something happened. The beetle stopped.
I looked transfixed as a little girl, who apparently put herself between me and the charging beetle slowly turned to me.
"Why are you here?", she asked with a cold voice. "For the beetles, right?"
I nodded. There was no point in lying. Why else would I be here?
"You just don't get it, do you?", she asked. "You can't just steal the beetles from us. It's their sacred grounds. The only mate here and won't do it anywhere else. They only train to fight here. It's a way of their nature. Leaving the forest is their rite of passage."
I didn't know whether to believe her. After all, this could be another Nah'shha trick. Jixx probably noticed my hesitation.
"If it'ssss a trick, why wouldn't sssshe just let the bug kill ussss, huh?" He had a point.
"What should we do then, leave?", I asked.
"That would be a good choice", I heard the voice of the girl. While we were talking, she climbed big beetle's back and now was sitting there, her eyes glowing. She might have been eight, but she sure looked determined and dangerous now. "I stopped her once, but I won't do it again if you insist on trespassing in our forest."
The beetle screeched. The girl didn't handle it well, because a second later it fired a fireball in our direction. We both managed to dodge it but the parlay was clearly over. I yelled to Jixx and we started to run away.
After what I saw I decided it's a smart move to convince my patrons to abandon the idea stealing the breeding secret of fire beetles. Not only it would probably not work but the army of proud and determined Nah'shha riding fire beetles was not something anyone would like to see outside their city walls.