"Wow!" Perda exclaimed. "First City is huge!"
Zann hadn't been back to the capital since he and Boz had moved to Swamp Bottom. He leaned forward, searching for a glimpse of his old neighborhood. But it was hard to get his bearings from way up in the sky, and before he knew it, the dragons were circling lower and lower.
They landed in a clearing outside of town. "This looks like a safe spot for the dragons to rest," Darb said.
Zann's legs felt stiff as he jumped down. The dragons had flown swiftly, but it had taken almost two hours to reach their destination.
"Now what?" Gliss asked. "Does anyone know how to get to the palace?"
Zann reached into his pocket, checking to make sure Boz's diary was still there. "I remember my way around well enough," he said. "I'll find it."
They hiked through the woods. As soon as Zann saw the ramshackle buildings at the city limits, he realized where they were.
"This area is called Wormwood," he told the others. "It's not the best part of town."
"Really?" Gliss said nervously. "What's wrong with it?"
"Everyone says it got its name because there's a wormhole near some gnarled old tree here," Zann explained. "And that the locals figured out how to use it to bring stuff back from other worlds."
"I've read about that," Darb said. "People say there's a thriving black market here for exotic otherworld pets and stuff."
"Sounds cool, but let's remember why we're here, okay?" said Perda. "We need to get that diary to the palace."
Zann knew she was right. Still, he couldn't help watching for the notorious tree as he walked.
"Is that it?" Darb pointed.
Just ahead was a tree so ancient and twisted that it appeared to be carved out of stone. Several huts stood near its massive trunk, their entrances obscured by draped fabric. An old woman was in front of one of the huts, stirring something in a brass pot. She stared at Zann and Gliss with dark, sunken eyes.
"Beware, my young Red friends," she said, her voice coarse and deep. "There are trolls all over town looking for your kind."
"Oh no!" Gliss squeaked. "What if they see us?"
"I can help," the woman said. "I have scarves to cover your hair and a paste to hide your freckles."
"Really?" Gliss sounded relieved. "Thank you!"
"Not so fast." The woman held up a hand. "I am just a poor merchant and cannot afford to give away my wares. What do you have to offer me in trade?"
"Trade?" Zann was confused. Since most people used magic for their daily needs, trading was uncommon except among Voids.
"We have nothing of value," Darb said. "Perhaps we can pay you for the disguises later."
"Nothing of value?" The woman had spotted Zing. "The fire whistler—is it yours?"
"Yes," Zann said. "But he's not for trade at any price!"
"A shame." Her eyes lingered on the dragon. "Then I'm afraid I cannot help you."
"Please!" Perda stepped forward. "If you only knew why we've come here, you'd—"
"Never mind," Zann interrupted quickly. Even though the woman had warned them about the trolls, there was something about her that Zann didn't quite trust. "We'll figure out another way to disguise ourselves."
The old woman shrugged. "Good luck to you then." She turned her attention back to her pot.
Darb and the girls were already moving on, but Zann hesitated. "So is it true?" he asked the woman. "About the wormhole, I mean. Is there really a passage to other worlds near this tree?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she replied. "Though I could try to find out. For a price, of course."
Zann frowned, suddenly certain that she knew much more about the wormhole than she was admitting. "I'd ask my parents," he blurted out angrily, "but they disappeared through a wormhole much like this one four years ago!"
He bit his lip, wishing he hadn't said that out loud. Now the woman was studying his face curiously, a hint of recognition in her eyes. Or was that his imagination?
"Wait here," she commanded.
She disappeared into her hut. Soon she was back, pressing a wad of fabric and a small glass vial into Zann's hands.
"Take these," she said. "It's my gift to you as . . . as a visitor to Wormwood."
She handed the items to Zann and then went back to stirring her pot.
"Zann?" Perda called. "What are you doing?"
"That woman just gave me these." He hurried over to his friends and unfurled a couple of long, gauzy scarves while Gliss grabbed the vial and examined it.
"It's the disguise stuff!" she exclaimed. "Why'd the woman change her mind?"
"Who knows, but I'm glad she did," Perda said. "I'll help you with your scarf, Zann."
While Perda fussed with Zann's hair, Gliss covered her freckles with the liquid from the vial. The whole time Zann couldn't help staring at the woman. What had it meant, that glimmer of recognition he'd seen after mentioning his parents? Could she possibly know something about what had happened to them?
"There!" Perda finished Zann's disguise. "Now nobody will know you're a Red."
"How do I look?" Gliss asked.
Zann barely heard them. He wanted to walk over and demand to know what the woman knew.
But no matter how much he wanted to do that, he knew he couldn't. Not right now. Boz, his friends, and possibly all of Magica were relying on him.
"Let's get moving," he said. "It's still a long walk to the palace."