CHAPTERS 40-49 - FOR SECRET SOCIETY MEMBERS ONLY!
In a kingdom where women have been banned from using magic—punishable by death—Jena has been blessed (or cursed?) with the most powerful magic in centuries. When her master is murdered by assassins, she embarks on a journey of revenge.
Nate has the opposite problem to Jena. In a family packed with powerful mages, he’s a failed mage with very little traditional magic at all. A disgrace to his grandfather, he’s living in the dangerous salt mines of the volcano region, when he’s targeted by the same assassins who killed Jena’s master.
Turns out, there’s a secret plot underway to overthrow the Kingdom, and Jena and Nate are the only ones standing in the way. Together, they must try to save their kingdom and return the crown to its rightful owner…
Nate stared down at Argus’s peaceful face. The mercenary lay on the ground behind their mud barrier, his eyes closed and his face slack. He wondered if Argus was going to be annoyed about being part of the plan like this. He didn’t think so; the big man wasn’t afraid of anything.
They were far enough back from the mud puddle that they wouldn’t touch the Riders when they were in the trap, but were close enough that the creatures wouldn’t just ride around the mud to get to them. It was closer than Nate wanted to be, but they had no choice.
He had narrowed his whole focus into making it out of this situation alive. Damned if he’d survived this far, only to be taken out by rotting meat.
Bree sat down next to Argus and put his head in her lap. She placed her hand over his shoulder and closed her eyes. She had regained her control and now exuded complete calm in the face of their oncoming storm; Nate couldn’t replicate it. His hands were clenched, and his heart was beating at twice its normal speed. The Riders were close enough now that their constant buzzing whine jarred Nate’s whole body. He remembered the arrow that had landed in the ground as he raced into the Forest of Ghosts. It had seethed with maggots and a rotten black infestation that hungered to attach itself to something—or someone.
He shook his head, trying to think of something else while they waited. Lothar had pulled the Riders from some dark hole to hunt him down. Not only the Riders, but also the lavaen, the wolvans, and even the mercenaries who’d captured him. Who knew what other creatures he would have to fend off in the future? He was beginning to realize he’d never get any rest until he faced up to the king-in-waiting; he no longer believed Lothar was going to let him disappear into the backcountry.
“Quickly, Nate. Change it to honey. They’re almost here.” Jena stood beside Nate, her hands clasped together in front of her. She glanced every so often at the approaching Riders. The dead eyes of the horses were almost visible, and Nate could just about smell the rotting meat that still clung to their bones.
“Yes, you better get started,” said the mage ghost. Nate jumped, startled by the cold whisper across his neck. He glared at the ghost.
“I’m doing it.”
“They’re almost here,” added the whispery voice, his tone mocking.
Nate took a deep breath, trying to ignore the ghost mage. He reached into the fiery core that was becoming so familiar, and searched for the patterns to create the spell. The flames burned within him, but he couldn’t find anything to help him with a basic mage spell. His connection to the earth’s energy was gone.
Starting to panic, he searched again, trying to understand the boiling core that had taken over his body. How did he use it to turn mud into honey?
He had no idea.
His palms were sweating, and he closed his eyes to focus on the mage power he had always been able to count on, no matter how weak it was. But he couldn’t do it. He felt empty, as if his magic was gone. But he knew that was false, the burning fiery core held more power and magic than he’d ever been able to access before.
“For the record, I don’t think you can do it anymore.”
Nate jumped again, this time facing the ghost. He didn’t care if Jena thought he was crazy. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked in frustration.
“You’re a Fire Mage. You’ve moved past this kind of spell. You can create rips between this existence and the next, produce fire out of nothing, and control creatures like the lavaen, but I don’t think you can change mud to honey.” The ghost mage’s eyes glinted. “But don’t worry, Jena can do it for you.”
“Jena can...” Nate trailed off. He glanced at Jena, who was staring at him with an expression somewhere between anger and fear.
“Nate, you have to hurry,” she said. “They’re almost here! Stop whatever it is you’re doing and cast the spell.”
The Riders were racing down the road, two putrid horses and their riders made from a mindless swarm of flies and rotting meat and bones. The very nature of their hive mind was what made them so terrifying. There was no thought, no soul, no mercy. Jena clenched her hands at her side. The Riders would reach them in a matter of minutes. In the air above them, the raven cawed and swooped low around Jena’s head.
“She’s an expert spell caster. She can do it.” The mage ghost’s voice was urgent now. “Tell her to do it.”
Nate’s mind rebelled at the idea of a woman casting a spell. It was against all the old mage laws. The penalty could only be death. But the old laws also said that his new fire skills were impossible. And his grandfather had condemned him as a young boy, based on the old laws. What did the old laws know?
Nate took a deep breath, casting inside himself again, one last time. The thundering of horses’ hooves filled the air, and the rotting smell of meat made him gag. Nothing. Only fire and brimstone; nothing that would help.
“I can’t do it, Jena. You have to cast the spell,” he said in a rush, trying not to think about what he was saying, the mage laws he was breaking alongside her.
“What are you talking about?” Jena’s face was suddenly blank.
“I know you can do it. I can still burn them, but you need to change the mud to honey. Do it now!” He put everything into the last statement, trying to get her to understand he was serious.
They had no more time.
The first of the Riders was only a few hundred strides away. Nate pulled the burning fire into his hands, willing Jena to do her bit.
Jena hesitated. She glanced at Bree, then all of a sudden, her hands moved over the spell, and she murmured the words under her breath. As he watched, the mud turned into a yellowish liquid swirling sluggishly across the road. She really could do the spell, and with greater ease than he would ever have been able to do it. He hadn’t thought it was possible.
One of the bloodless Riders gave a high-pitched screaming whinny as they bore down on them. The two horses slowed only fractionally before they plunged into the pool of honey. They were going so fast, the second horse couldn’t pull back when it saw the first horse falter and disappear into the sticky mess.
Nate stepped back instinctively, catching their foul rotting smell and tasting the bitter flavor of their scent on his tongue.
Time slowed down. The horses’ legs disappeared into the honey as if it was a deep pool, and the individual flies spread out into the honey, the bones they’d been clinging to falling as if they’d been cut from the body. The flies hadn’t been able to correct the forward motion and were spreading out over the surface, buzzing angrily.
The creatures were thrown face forward, as if tripping over hooves suddenly cut off. The pool of honey was soon covered in the bodies of flies, floating alongside the bones, rotting flesh and maggots that made up the body of the horses.
The buzzing increased in pitch, this time enraged. The flies caught in the honey began straining and screaming, their wings useless against the pull of the sweet liquid. Some tried to form a shape, attempting to join and pull their way out of the sticky mess. All they could manage was strange, distorted shapes on the surface.
Nate drew in a breath, holding his hands high. He found the fiery magic inside him and then let loose a stream of fire that blazed through the honey, burning all in its path.
The inferno inside him rose, pulsing the flames over the trapped flies, making sure they were all dead. At first, his only thoughts were of destroying the Riders, burning them into dust so they could never rise again.
Then the fire rose up inside him, curling into every crevice, and beating alongside his heart. He became a fire creature, and he ached to let it all loose, to let everything around him become one with the flames. It was a glorious feeling, knowing he was part of a greater whole; the burning flames that ruled over the other elements. Who could beat the fire that burned all it found?
Certainly not the measly humans.
“Nate!” a voice screamed nearby.
It seemed familiar.
“Nate, you have to come back. You have to let the fire go. You’re going to destroy us all.”
He shook his head, the flames dancing along his arms. Why would he do that?
“Nate, you can do it. You can control the flames. Don’t let it tell you what to do.”
A small spark of memory pierced into his consciousness. It cooled him a little.
Another voice pierced into his mind. “Son, let the flames go. Push them back down into your centre.” The words were accompanied by a cold hand on his shoulder. The fire flickered inside him.
He turned to stare at the humans in front of him. One of the women stood close to him, her dark eyes intent on his face. He recognised her. Jena. He let out a shaky breath, and the flames died down a little more. He pushed them back inside him, forcing them down through sheer determination, until they were churning back inside the fiery core that held his new magic.
Soon there was only the sound Nate’s deep gasping breaths as he attempted to calm his feverishly pumping heart and a few surviving flies buzzing overhead.
He grimaced. They had done it. Beside him, Jena stared at his face, her brows lowered in a frown. “Thank you,” he said.
She didn’t reply immediately. “It was like you weren’t even inside your own head,” she said. “I was looking in your eyes, and I couldn’t see you.”
“I’m not in control when I let the fire magic out.”
She nodded. “You did try to warn me. I just didn’t understand.”
“You called me back.”
“I thought you were going to incinerate me where I stood,” she whispered.
“I did too,” he replied. He turned from Jena and crouched down beside Bree, who was sitting with Argus’s head in her lap. “How is he?”
Bree looked up, tears in her eyes. “He’s still not awake. I thought...” she glanced to where the remains of the Riders smoldered in the honey.
“Tell her he’ll wake soon,” whispered a voice in his ear. “It takes it out of a person, having a connection to beasts like the Riders.” The old mage put a hand on his shoulder, creating a chilly patch on Nate’s skin. “Don’t worry, son; he’s free of the taint now.”
“He’ll be fine, Bree. You just have to be patient. Stay with him.” He smiled at Bree and then looked around again for Jena.
She was crouched beside the honey, examining what was left of the individual flies. She reached out a finger, only to draw it back.
Nate let out a breath and stood up. Jena could cast spells. She was actually rather good at it. The thought sent a shiver up his spine. What would his grandfather say? He knew, without even having to think about it. Her head would be gone before any more words were spoken, sliced through the neck with a sword made of forged steel.
The Mage Council fiercely protected their traditions, and he knew they would hold fast. The thought of his grandfather and his inflexible ways was enough to make Nate stiffen in anger, even after all these years.
She was better than he had ever been. It had been a simple spell, yes, but she had done it easily, with speed and accuracy. What did that mean? That perhaps the Mage Council didn’t know everything? That their word wasn’t law? The idea appealed to Nate, and he grinned again.
Jena glanced up at that moment, and her grim face pondered his upturned features. “It worked,” she said, as he walked over to her.
“It did. You cast an excellent spell.”
She looked at him through narrowed eyes. “I was taught by the best.”
He raised his eyebrows. “And who was that?”
Jena continued to watch him with suspicious eyes. Then she shrugged. “Thornal.”
Nate felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. “The Guardian? But—” He couldn’t even come up with anything to say. That the Guardian would have dared to break a law such as this was unthinkable.
“I only tell you because he’s dead. They can’t put him to death if he’s already gone.” Jena’s half grimace showed that she knew the consequences as well as he did.
Nate nodded slowly. Not only was she able to cast spells, but she had been taught by Thornal. No wonder she was so good. “So did the next Guardian take the Book of Spells before you left?”
Jena shook her head, flicking her gaze away from Nate. “I left before they realized what had happened.”
A sense of foreboding ran down his spine. “Who holds the Book of Spells, Jena?”
“Lothar killed Thornal because he was after the Book of Spells,” she whispered, still not meeting his gaze. “My master destroyed the Book to prevent Lothar from taking it.”
Nate stepped back as if he’d been physically attacked. The Book of Spells had been destroyed? It felt like a boulder had been dumped on his chest. He was having trouble breathing. The Book of Spells held the accumulated knowledge of centuries of mages. Its loss was a devastating tragedy, something they couldn’t possibly hope to recover from.
“But surely, part of his oath... He couldn’t have destroyed the Book.” He grasped at the one thing that stood out in his head.
“It was a trick to fool the Hashishin. He made a copy and I have it. That’s why Miara told us to come with Argus to find you. There’s a blocking spell on the Book of Spells. While you travel with me, Lothar can’t find you.” She glanced down at the burned mess in front of them, pushing at the charred remains with one booted foot. “Through the Flames, at least.”
Nate struggled to make sense of what she was telling him. “I think you should give me the Book of Spells. It’s not right for someone who isn’t a mage to carry it.” He held out his hand.
Jena backed away. “I can’t give it to you. It’s my burden to carry.”
“But you’re not a mage. If they find you with it, you’ll be killed. I don’t even think they’d give you a chance to explain.”
Jena shook her head. “It’s not as easy as that. I promised Thornal.”
“You don’t understand—”
“I understand plenty,” Jena interrupted, her eyes flashing. “But I can’t give it to you. Don’t ask me again.”
At the look on her face, Nate lifted his own hands palm up. “Keep the Book of Spells, then. But you understand that you must give it back to the Mage Council? It’s the accumulated history of the mages, our source of all knowledge. It’s also immensely powerful.”
Jena blinked at that description, but didn’t say anything.
“It truly is priceless. We cannot let it fall into the wrong hands.”
Jena nodded. “I promised Thornal I would not let Lothar get it.”
Nate smiled. “Then we better make sure he doesn’t. I think—”
“He’s awake!” Bree’s voice was a shout. They both looked to where she sat, holding Argus clutched against her breast, tears running down her face.
“We’ll go to the next village on the horses. Bree, you can wait here with Argus, make sure he’s okay.” Jena reached out and touched her sister’s arm, but Bree didn’t argue with the plan, just put her hand up to cover her sister’s. Bree was tired and upset. She’d suffered more in the last day than she had in her entire life.
Argus opened his mouth to speak, but Nate lifted his hand to cut him off. “Don’t try to deny it, Argus. We can all tell you’re still weak.” It was less than an hour since they’d defeated the Riders and they were all reeling from the experience. But they needed to keep moving forward.
“It’s decided,” Jena agreed. “You both need to rest, and waiting here by the spring is as good a place as any. We’ll buy horses and be back before you even miss us.”
“I don’t like splitting up.” Bree’s voice was uncertain.
“It’s not for long. We’ll be as fast as we can.”
Argus spoke for the first time. “Who’s going to ride the stallion?” he said.
“Maybe we could both ride the mare?” said Nate, glancing at Jena.
She shook her head. “No. We need the extra distance we’ll get from two horses.”
Nate hesitated. “I suppose I...”
“No. Jena was raised with Utugani. She knows horses. She can ride him.” Argus’s voice had waves of anger flowing through it, but he didn’t say anything more.
Jena raised her eyebrows. She knew how hard it was for Argus to admit he wasn’t strong enough to go with them. Let alone allow someone else to ride his horse. “I’ll take good care of him. But we need to leave now. There’s no time to waste.”
Argus’s stallion fought her every step of the way. The stupid animal seemed to know the exact things to do to make her most tired. Her whole body ached from the effort of controlling the stupid beast. She was dying to climb off the horse, look him in the eyes, and give him a piece of her mind.
As they rode, she watched Nate out of the corner of her eye. Somehow, he’d known her biggest secret, that she could cast spells. He’d looked shocked when she actually cast the spell, but since then, he seemed to have accustomed himself to it; he wasn’t giving her strange looks, and he hadn’t tried to cut off her head or even take the Book from her after that first time.
Her fingers twitched and a small burst of white flame flickered in her palm. The stallion nickered with displeasure, and she cut the flame.
Up ahead the small village they’d spotted earlier came into view. Thank the Flames.
“Do you think they’ll have horses to sell?” she asked dubiously.
Nate lifted one shoulder. “We have to try. It’s the only settlement we’ve seen so far.”
They rode on in silence, until Nate slowed his horse beside her. “Let’s walk the horses from here,” he said as they approached the small main street. “Makes us seem friendlier.”
Stone and wood houses lined up neatly, flowers and vegetables fought for pride of place in the gardens. It was a small hamlet; the houses were tucked in close to each other, and smoke curled out of several chimneys.
In the middle of the paved town square was the Flame Echo, its marble surface immaculate. The flame that smoldered in the central basin was small, but bright.
Jena shivered, wondering just how much Lothar could see through the tiny Flames that sat in the middle of every village and town in Ignisia. It gave him power beyond anything she or Nate could muster.
The Book of Spells was protecting them from his searches. But were they putting themselves into his hands by going into a village with a Flame Echo? The Riders and the lavaen had both found them despite their supposed protection. If they didn’t desperately need horses, she’d have turned around right then.
As they progressed slowly toward the square, the few people visible from the street stopped what they were doing and stared. Jena flicked her hair down over her face and kept her eyes in front. A prickly hot flush started up her spine. She straightened her shoulders.
Beside her, Nate didn’t even seem to notice the people around them. She tightened her lips and kept walking, holding hard to the stallion’s reins.
A forge was smoking on the far side of the town square. If anyone would know where they could buy horses, it would be the local blacksmith.
She gestured and Nate nodded.
In front of the forge, Jena kept a firm hold on the stallion, tying him to the post outside. Nate followed suit, keeping far enough away from Argus’s horse to show he was still wary of the animal. She smiled slightly. There were definitely some advantages to being raised Utugani.
Walking into the dark interior, the heat hit her full force. She inhaled, and it was like sucking liquid heat into her lungs. Jena brushed a cool hand against the burn marks on her face, trying to calm the sensitive skin. Beside her, she felt Nate engulf the heat, a small power surge that made the hairs on her arms stand on end.
A large man emerged from one side of the darkened room, the glowing fire behind him making it difficult to see his features until he was directly in front of them. Solid and craggy, he had lines around his eyes and mouth that said he’d been used to laughing at some point in his life. He didn’t smile now.
“What do you want?” he said. His eyes were dark brown, and it was impossible to see what he was thinking. His gaze flickered between them, taking in everything, including the mage tattoo on Nate’s face.
“We’re in need of two strong horses. Do you know of anyone who would be willing to part with a pair?” said Nate.
The smithy reached up to rub a rough hand over his chin. “We’ve had a run of bad luck. I don’t know that you’ll find any in our village with a horse to spare.”
Jena’s shoulders sagged in disappointment.
“Is there somewhere nearby where we might find horses for sale?” Nate’s voice was polite, but Jena could feel his tension.
The smith paused a moment, but shook his head. “The only horses you’ll find around here are ones you’d wish you’d never seen.”
Jena raised her eyebrows at that. “Perhaps if you showed us these horses, we might be able to see if there are any that would suit us?”
The smith snorted, but it was a grim and sparse amusement. “This is not a horse you’d ever want to ride.” He glanced out to where they’d left their horses. “In fact, you’ll need to hide your own horses if you want them to survive what’s coming.”
Jena frowned, trying to understand. “What’s coming?” Her mind pictured the Riders. Had this village received the attentions of another set of the creatures? Nate looked just as confused as she was.
“Every day for the last week, we’ve been attacked. A great black horse with a terrible demon riding it.” The large man shuddered, and for the first time Jena realized the man wasn’t stern, he was just consumed by fear.
“What happens? What does it want?” Jena was afraid of the answer. Was it another terrible beast set free by Lothar?
“Each time it visits, it demands a sacrifice. It—” The sound of hooves pounding over a hard surface made the blacksmith pause. “Too late. You say you need two more horses? Now you will lose those you already have.”
Without thinking, Jena raced outside to where their horses were nervously stomping and shaking their heads. Nate swore and followed her. The whites of the horses’ eyes were showing, and their nostrils were flared.
Jena could see why.
In the middle of the town square stood a winged horse-like beast, its black coat glinting in the sun like steel. Great black wings stretched out each side, past twice its length. The creature’s eyes glowed red and flames licked out of its nostrils and hooves. Burn marks scorched the earth where it paced across the town square.
On the back of the massive winged horse sat a woman. Small and delicate, she had hair the exact color of the animal she was riding. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and she wore a black silk dress, which seemed to merge into the horse she rode. Her eyes were startling: large golden orbs that glittered in the late afternoon light. She sat easily on the back of the beast she rode.
Argus’s black stallion bucked and tried to pull himself free of the rope that linked him to the edge of the forge. Nate appeared at the horse’s side, and made sure the leather held strong, while attempting to calm the animal
“Oh no, dear villagers,” spoke the woman, a cold smile on her face. “A horse, no matter how strong, will not do this time. I wish for something more... substantial.”
“The horse isn’t for you.” The words were out of Jena’s mouth before she could stop herself. She stepped nearer the creature, not sure what she intended to do, just knowing that she needed to keep their horses away from this new threat.
A metallic laugh echoed around her. “If not the horse, then perhaps you, little human?” The woman’s voice started on a purr, the words rolling around on her tongue, but ended in a growl.
Almost without thinking about it, Jena flicked through the Book of Spells, and found a picture that reflected the creature she saw before her. It was a murghah: a flying creature of the night, it usually dwelled in the darkest corners of the earth during daylight hours. Two minds working as one, the woman on the horse’s back was connected to her beast, as much a part of the murghah as its wings.
The Book of Spells did not do the murghah justice. In real life, it was far more terrifying. It was a creature of fire and darkness; she could feel ripples of its shadowy energy hitting the square all around her. Beside her, Nate shifted.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“A murghah,” Jena replied, keeping her voice as low as possible. She heard Nate’s intake of breath. At least he’d heard of them.
“I thought they hated the sunlight?”
Jena raised her eyebrows at him, impressed at his casual knowledge of the beast. “Lothar,” she said, shrugging. “It can only be him.”
As they watched, grey spots started to appear on the flank of the horse. Jena realized it was being burned by the sun. Its skin was too sensitive for the midday heat. A murghah would never voluntarily emerge during the day; it had to be under Lothar’s control.
And if the king-in-waiting could command a beast such as this, he was far stronger than she had thought.
“What do you want?” she asked the murghah.
“I want your soul, little one.” The murghah woman pulled out a large glowing red gem from a hidden pocket in her dress. Jena squinted at the jewel. It looked just like the one in the Hashishin knife she had wrapped in her bag, only much bigger and much stronger. The Murghah woman held it high above her head and started chanting.
“Where in the Flames did it get a fire ruby?” said Nate studying the murghah intently.
Jena glanced at Nate. “I don’t know, but it’s not good,” she said.
“But even he couldn’t... could he?” Nate looked at the Murghah again, a new expression on his face. “Fire rubies can be used in a lot of ways. They’re very potent.”
In that moment, Jena felt something pull at her, and took a step forward before she could think about it. She tried to stop, but her feet took another step and then another. She was heading toward the center of the square, where the murghah waited next to the Flame Echo.
“What are you doing, Jena? Get back here,” said Nate from behind her.
“I’m not doing it. It’s dragging me in,” she said, panic making her voice rise.
Nate raced forward and grabbed her arm, pulling at her.
It didn’t make any difference, Jena felt herself being dragged by some unseen force toward the murghah. She dug her heels into the ground, and gritted her teeth, trying to force her body to stay still. She took another step.
“Come here, little human. I want to take your soul,” purred the murghah.
Jena lifted her head, looking to where the woman held the gem in her hand. “It’s definitely a fire ruby?” she said to Nate, who was following just behind her, his hands still on her arm.
“Fire rubies can be used for amplifying power, and holding magic. They’re also used for storing things—like souls.” Despite straining for all she was worth against the pull, Jena took another reluctant step toward the Murghah. “That’s how Lothar is gaining power. He’s forcing this creature to suck people’s souls and then using it to control the Flames.”
Nate let out a choked reply, as horrified as she was by the revelation. “We have to stop it. I’ll use my flames,” he said. Nate made to open his hands, but Jena waved them aside.
“It’s a creature of fire. It won’t care if you send more its way. We have to—” All of a sudden Jena was yanked hard; she set off at a run toward the Murghah, covering the rest of the distance at speed.
When she was almost alongside the winged creature, a white mist began emerging from her body, thickening until she was enveloped in it.
She felt weak, a shadow of herself. Looking up into the eyes of the Murghah, Jena saw the golden orbs glowing alongside the ruby she held.
Nate ran after Jena.
He didn’t know what he could do, but the fire was bubbling inside him and he hoped it would help. They had been successful against the Riders, but this creature was more powerful and it could think for itself. A far more dangerous combination.
Jena had said his flames wouldn’t bother the murghah. So what else was there? He’d always been a mediocre mage, but at least he’d been able to do some tricks. Now he couldn’t even help at all.
“Son, the answer is right in front of you.” As always, the mage ghost appeared from nowhere. “You’re just not seeing it. You can bend fire to your will. You can see through this world to the next. And you can control fire creatures like the lavaen.”
The mage ghost stopped and then said very slowly. “Did you catch the last part, Nate? It’s going to be vital if you are to save Jena. Go!”
Nate raced to where Jena was kneeling in front of the murghah, praying the ghost’s information was right. There was a white mist around her body, steadily streaming toward the ruby. It was the same as seeing ghosts; he could literally see her soul leaving her body.
“Stop!” he yelled, making his voice boom, using the power at his core. The sound echoed around the village much like the murghah’s voice had. The deadly golden eyes looked up from contemplation of the fire ruby to where Nate stood a short distance away.
“Who are you, little man? Do you wish me to take your soul as well?”
“You will put her soul back. Right. Now.” Nate concentrated on his internal flames, the blazing center that was becoming more and more familiar to him. He pulled the power out and pushed it at the Murghah.
It didn’t work. The creature simply laughed; a sound like metal on metal. “I think I will take you as well. My master will be pleased.”
Digging deeper, Nate screwed his eyes shut, drawing out the power that emerged with the burning flames. “You will do as I bid,” he said, his voice hissing and crackling with the energy surrounding him. Sweat trickled down his face, and his body literally creaked with the tension.
The murghah screeched. Nate looked up into the eyes of a creature that had been to the darkest fires of the land. “You will release her soul and you will never come back here again.” His voice burned, and he pulled out everything inside him to add weight to his words.
The woman’s face curled up in fury. She opened her mouth and let out a high-pitched scream. Nate clamped his hands over his ears, trying to block out the painful sound, and fell to his knees. The noise drilled into his head; his brain throbbed and it was as if needles were attacking his ears. Spots appeared in front of his eyes and he thought he might pass out.
It hadn’t worked. Nate’s whole body tensed up, waiting to feel the pain of his soul being extracted.
From deep inside, one last arrow of rage and fire burst out of him, aimed directly at the murghah.
Abruptly, the screaming stopped. A whoosh of hot air and the smell of horse brushed across Nate’s face and then were gone. He blinked. Beside him, Jena blearily rubbed a hand across her face. The murghah had disappeared.
“What happened?” she asked weakly, still on her knees in the dirt.
Nate stared up into the sky. “I think I scared it away,” he said. In the distance, a small black dot raced away from the sun.
“Damn right you scared it away, boy. Well done.” The ghost mage clapped him on the shoulder, sending a chill across his back.
“How?” Jena brushed hair from her face. Her gaze caught and held Nate’s.
“I don’t know. The same powers as last night,” he said, his voice low.
Jena leaned her head to one side, looking at him with considering eyes. “The flames. The demons,” she said eventually. “There is a kind of power that can do that.”
“What would that be?” asked Nate, his body tensing.
Jena paused, her long hair curling around her face. “You have an affinity with fire demons. You managed to turn away a lavaen, and now a murghah. You burned that camp.” The last was said reluctantly. “I think you’re a Fire Mage. Maybe even the Firecaller from the prophecy.”
Nate shook his head as he stood and offered his hand. Jena grasped it and pulled herself up. “I can’t control these new powers,” he said. “A real Fire Mage would be strong enough to wield them properly. Something’s happened; maybe I’ve been given them accidentally.”
“A Fire Mage is born, Nate.” Jena stared at him. “You have abilities you’ve had since you were a child, don’t you? Things that no one else is able to do.”
Nate winced, thinking of the ghosts who’d been keeping him company all his life. And the fire demons who couldn’t say no when he called.
“You know my secrets,” she said, an intense look on her face. “Tell me yours.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Jena’s eyes flashed. “Tell me.”
Taking a deep breath, Nate considered it. He knew about her spell casting and could get her killed just by mentioning it to another mage. Perhaps she deserved to know at least one of his secrets.
He rubbed a hand across his face. “I see ghosts,” he said. “The ones lurking in the Edges who haven’t left for the next world. And there’s currently a ghost mage following me around. He’s the one who helped me last night, and who told me what to do today.”
Jena paused, her eyes getting a vague look. She blinked and looked back at him. “It does say that for a Fire Mage the barriers between this world and the next are very thin. Seeing ghosts would make sense.”
Nate blinked. As easy as that, Jena explained away the secret he’d held to his chest his whole life. “What else do you know?”
Jena opened her mouth to reply and then closed it, gesturing behind Nate with her head. “We can talk later. We’ve got company.”
And with that, the blacksmith swept up to them, pulling Nate into a hearty embrace. “You made it leave! You saved us.” He lifted Nate onto his shoulder as if he weighed nothing, grabbed Jena’s hand, and dragged them both to where a crowd was gathering around the forge.
Cheers and whistles greeted them, and the smithy put Nate down—reluctantly—so he could talk to the other villagers.
“How did you do it?” asked a woman clutching two small children. “How did you make it go away?”
“Will it come back?” asked a man, his eyes darting between Jena and Nate.
“I told it never to return. I believe it will adhere to that.”
A ragged cheer rose up out of the throats of the people gathered around them. Many had tears in their eyes and down their cheeks.
Nate smiled, shook hands, accepted hugs, and nodded when he was thanked. He turned at one point, trying to find Jena in the crowd, and saw her standing off to one side, giving an apple to Argus’s horse.
The blacksmith, who had barely left his side the entire time, saw him glance at Jena, and nudged him in the ribs. “She’s your woman? She’s very brave.”
Nate nodded absently. “Yes, she’s very brave.” She also held so many secrets he couldn’t keep track.
“You’re sure the beast won’t come back?” he asked again.
“I told it not to come back. That’s why it tricked me as it left, I think. It didn’t want me to give it any more orders.”
The blacksmith nodded and then grinned, slapping Nate’s back. “Then in return, we will get you more horses.”
Jena checked the saddle on Argus’s great black stallion, making sure the leather straps were tight. Next to her, Nate did the same for their two new horses. The smith had ensured the horses they’d been given were both in excellent condition. A strong brown stallion, with a blaze of white across his nose and again on his rump, and a pretty, little black mare.
Although she was tempted to ride the black mare, she’d decided to stay on the stallion, just to make sure he didn’t try to run off. She wouldn’t put it past him, and she couldn’t bear the thought of telling Argus she’d lost his horse.
Next to her, the blacksmith’s young apprentice was stuffing extra supplies into Nate’s saddlebag. Nate smiled at the villagers crowded around them; they were so grateful to have been saved from the murghah, they had insisted on a send-off for them. She was glad Nate was good at talking to strangers because it scared her senseless to be surrounded by people she didn’t know.
The blacksmith breathed out heavily. “We can’t thank you enough,” he said, mostly to Nate. He paused, looking at the bulging travel packs. “Are you sure you have sufficient supplies?”
Nate nodded. “Thank you, yes, you’ve been more than generous. We need to be on our way. We must return to our companions.” He clapped the blacksmith on the back and then nodded his head at Jena. As one, they swung up into their saddles. Jena sighed. She was relieved to be leaving.
Nate bowed his head in a salute to the villagers milling around their horses. “Thank you for your help. May the Flames protect you all.” He was very good at being gracious.
Jena tried to smile, but she was afraid it was more of a grimace.
The villagers parted and Nate and Jena rode out the way they had come only a few hours before.
The landscape rolled out in front of them, and they rode in silence for several miles.
Then Nate finally asked the question she had been waiting for. “What else do you know about Fire Mages?”
Jena sighed. “Not much, Nate, truly. Just that the great mage was a Fire Mage. It’s very rare.”
“And me seeing ghosts… that’s part of it?”
“Yes, I think so. Have you always seen ghosts? Even as a child?”
Nate nodded. “They’ve always been around.”
“It didn’t scare you?”
“Sometimes. But they also took care of me, played with me. They want me to do things for them, which can be wearying.”
“What kind of things?”
“They’re still in the Edges for a reason. It can be something silly like a lost family locket, or something serious like murder. But they always want me to fix things for them.”
“And do you try?”
Nate didn’t answer for a while. “I used to try, until I realized ghosts don’t always tell the whole truth. They can’t lie, as such, but they can omit important information. They were people, after all. Just because they died, they didn’t suddenly become more honest or have more integrity.”
“So some of them tricked you?”
He nodded. “I tried to help a ghost who said he had been murdered. He knew who was responsible, and he wanted me to tell the local authorities. It was his wife.”
“What was the real story?”
“She’d killed him, but only because he’d been beating her with a fireside poker. She’d been trying to defend herself from him. And she hadn’t even done it on purpose.”
“She was put in jail, and hauled before a Flame Justice.”
“Was she...? Did they find her guilty?”
He swallowed hard, his eyes carefully blank. “She was hanged. Because of me.”
* * *
As they came into sight of the spring, the delicious smell of cooking made Jena’s mouth water. They’d declined a meal with the blacksmith, and now she was starving.
Bree and Argus had set up a small lean-to near the spring, and a fire was burning under a large pot of stew.
“How’d you know when we’d be back?” asked Jena as she dismounted from her horse.
“We were hoping it wouldn’t take you long.” Bree said with a smile. She glanced at Argus and then away again.
“It smells delicious. I can’t wait,” said Jena. She noticed a slight blush up Bree’s cheeks. What had gone on while they were away? “How are you feeling, Argus?”
“I’m fine,” replied Argus, his face impassive. No blushes and certainly no information to be gleaned from the big man.
Nate and Jena took care of the horses, making sure they were all fed and watered before joining Bree and Argus around the fire. Jena sat and warmed her hands and wondered about the strange mood between Bree and Argus.
Bree served up generous portions of meat and vegetable stew, handing the plates around to Jena and Nate. Eating in silence for the first few mouthfuls, Jena sighed with relief as the warm food slid down into her stomach. “Where did you get the meat?” she asked.
Bree grinned. “Turns out, this spring is a popular spot. Argus managed to catch us rabbits for the pot.”
Taking another bite, Jena smiled. “It’s delicious,” she said, lifting her spoon in salute to the cooks. Bree smiled her sweet smile, but Argus just grunted, his attention held by his meal.
“Definitely just what I needed,” agreed Nate.
Throughout the rest of the evening by the campfire, Jena watched Argus. The big man was even more quiet and grim than usual. Was Argus still unwell after his relapse? The mage ghost had said he’d recover after the Riders were killed, but Argus definitely looked pale and unhappy. More so than usual, at least.
If the mercenary weren’t able to travel, they’d be in trouble. As it was, they’d have to race across country for the next two weeks if they were going to make it in the time Argus’s master had set them.
Why it mattered, Jena didn’t know. Perhaps it would save Nate from the wrath of Lothar. Perhaps not.
On the opposite side of the fire, Argus was spooning up stew as though he hadn’t eaten in a year. Bree leaned over and gave Argus more bread, and he hesitated before taking the second helping.
Jena frowned slightly. That was one of the few times she’d ever seen the mercenary hesitate. Not only the hesitation; Argus was generally scrupulous about maintaining rations and not having more than the correct share.
“We better get an early night,” said Nate, standing up. “Argus, will you be ready to ride in the morning?”
Jena had been trying to work out that question since they arrived back.
Bree answered before Argus could open his mouth. “He’s still weak. I was able to do some healing while you were gone, but he’ll have to take it slowly.”
“I’ll go the speed we need,” said Argus, ignoring Bree’s words. “I’ve been worse than this and survived. And I didn’t have a healer on tap last time.”
Nate nodded and silently began gathering his gear together for the night. He had been given new blankets and travel gear from the grateful villagers. “Fine. We should leave at first light.”
“Agreed,” said Argus in a tight voice.
It felt like his brown stallion had somehow been painfully attached to his rear end. He hadn’t been off it for more than a few hours in the last five days, and both he and the animal were sick of it.
They were trotting along yet another almost invisible track in the shadow of the Ember Volcanoes. On either side, cliffs towered over the trail, thick vegetation at the top creating a dark and narrow tunnel. A spotlight of sun came through the gap.
Occasionally a dark red glow would create an artificial blush of color along their path, and the hiss and roar of lava spouting out of the nearby volcanoes would break the silence. It was a strange and dangerous landscape.
It seemed that most other travelers had never heard of this particular trail—or perhaps were too smart to use it—because the only people they had passed in the last couple of days were ghosts.
“We rest here,” said Argus from the front. His injury and illness of a few days ago were seemingly forgotten. Nate glanced at Bree. She looked tired, dark rings under her eyes, pale skin. He was sure her tiredness was related to Argus’s miraculous recovery.
But he wasn’t going to argue with a rest break; there had been few enough of those in the last five days. Nate dismounted from the horse, almost losing his balance when he put his weight on his own legs. He clung to his saddle, pretending to be talking to the horse, while he orientated himself to standing again. If they didn’t arrive at their destination soon, he wasn’t going to be able to walk at all.
Argus had chosen a place near an old tree that provided curling roots and some shade. The highest branches climbed up to the top of the cliffs, and out into the sunshine beyond, making the tree a tall, narrow shape. The sulfurous smell of the volcanoes hung in the air.
Pulling a couple of ration bars out of his pack, Nate handed one to Jena and one to Bree, before sitting down on a rock and chewing on his own. Argus had already expressed a vivid hatred of the hard grain and honey lumps, preferring his own store of dried meat.
“I swear they’re harder today,” said Jena as she chewed on her portion.
Nate grunted. “They’ll only get more like rocks as the days pass. I don’t blame Argus for refusing them.”
“He’s normally so practical about things like that. Rations and such.” Bree was thoughtful as she looked over to where the mercenary was patting down his horse.
“He’s got some quirks all right. It’s probably the Utugani in him. They like to be ornery.” Nate looked over to Jena. Her face gave nothing away. He tried again. “I mean they’re all so unpredictable, right?”
Jena flicked her gaze toward him, then away. “A child is better at getting a rise out of someone, Nate,” she said.
He grinned. “I have to practice.”
“If you have to practice, you’re in trouble.”
Nate shook his head. He was about to disagree when an object shot past his head, the sudden rush of air stirring his hair. Nate jumped back and looked behind him to see an arrow juddering on the tree trunk. He dived for Jena and Bree, pulling them both down beside him.
“Get behind that rock. Stay low!” Argus was already moving around the rocks toward the point on the cliffs above them where the arrow had come from.
“Drop all yer weapons and stan’ back from th’ rock. Do as we says, and we may let yer live,” a rough voice yelled from above.
Argus swore loudly. “You can shove your ambush up your arse!” His voice boomed loud in the enclosed space.
“That’s the right attitude if yer wanta die, traveler!” the voice boomed again.
“Well, Eldrin, you should pick your targets more carefully in the future!” Argus roared back.
“By the Flames—” said the voice. A man emerged from behind the rocks, and looked down. “Sparks, it is you! Argus, what are you doing here?”
“Trying to avoid being ambushed, you imbecile. What are you doing? Surely times aren’t that tough?”
“Ah, well that’s where you’d be wrong. Times are tough. And if you thought a good mercenary could always get a job, you haven’t tried lately.”
Their would-be attacker worked his way down through the rocks, to land on his feet near Argus. He was just as tall as Argus, but less broad, and wearing only a sword and knives. “You’ll appreciate the shyness of my fellows. They don’t know you as I do and fear a trap.” Eldrin looked up into the rocks, pointing vaguely to a couple of different spots.
“Always the trickster, eh, Eldrin?”
“What makes you think I would lie to you?” Eldrin swiped his hand through his scraggly brown hair, looking at Argus with a cheeky grin.
“Perhaps the time you said you weren’t lying about the twins in Herchey? Or the time you said you had just been out in the alleyway in Ormach?” Argus had his hand casually resting on his sword hilt, but he looked more relaxed than Nate had ever seen him.
“Well, those were desperate times. You can’t always expect me to tell the truth. It’s unnatural.” The newcomer punched Argus on the arm.
Nate looked at Jena and Bree, raising his eyebrows. Eldrin seemed to know Argus very well. They hadn’t seen this side of him before.
“What’s unnatural is that a fully trained and highly competent mercenary is in the Wild Pass trying to ambush travelers.” Argus’s voice had taken on a lecturing tone. “Aside from anything else, no one uses this pass but the high country folk, and they’d as soon rip their own tongues out as give in to an ambush.”
Eldrin raised his eyebrows. “Now surely they’re not that proud? I’ll have to remember that.” He looked around as if expecting a high country villager to emerge from behind a boulder. He sighed. “It doesn’t matter anyway, I wasn’t planning an ambush; it was just that you halted directly below me, and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I’ve got nothing but the clothes on my back and my horse to travel with since I left my last posting.”
“And where was that?” Argus asked.
“Outlier. Keeping the border at Long Arm. We were all kicked out about a month ago. No one’s looking to hire either. Lothar’s promising them protection of another sort.” Eldrin gave Argus a long look.
Argus nodded. “Come, sit down, and take a bite with us. We’re moving quickly, but you’re welcome to travel with us.”
Nate had never seen Argus so talkative. He glanced at Bree; she was frowning, but her face cleared when she saw him watching her. At least he wasn’t the only one who thought it was out of character.
“I might just take you up on that offer.” Eldrin looked over at the sisters and Nate, who by this time had emerged from behind their solid protection. “And who are your companions?” he asked.
Bree put a hand out in welcome to Eldrin. “I’m Bree and this is my sister, Jena. This is Nate.” Nate felt Jena tense beside him. He knew she wouldn’t have given their names so easily to a stranger.
“It’s a pleasure to meet such beautiful ladies on the trail. And so unexpected.”
“So unexpected you decided to rob us?” said Nate. Just because Argus knew him, didn’t mean he couldn’t hold a grudge.
“Ah, well that was an accident.” Eldrin shrugged, still grinning. “If I’d realized who you were traveling with, I wouldn’t have bothered you.”
Nate shook his head, unwilling to begin to argue against his reasoning.
“We’ve only got trail rations, but you’re welcome to share.” Bree handed her rock-hard snack to Eldrin. She smiled at the sandy-haired man, and he twinkled back with his blue eyes, laugh lines showing up around the corners.
He looked at the bar a moment, sniffing cautiously, then took a bite. “Just as I remember travel rations. Awful.” He took another bite.
Nate wondered how Argus knew Eldrin. They’d obviously met up soldiering somewhere; he just hoped Argus knew what he was doing allowing the man into their campsite.
“Don’t worry about Eldrin,” said Argus, seeming to read Nate’s thoughts. “He’s as slippery as an eel, but it’s impossible to take offence.”
Nate thought he might just be able to, considering how close that arrow had come to his head. Every sense Nate had was screaming that something was very wrong.
“Where’s your horse?” Argus asked Eldrin.
“Just up the trail.” Eldrin gestured up. “I’ll go get it, if we’re to travel together.”
“Be quick, we’re in a hurry.”
“Some things don’t change. Still ordering everyone around.” Eldrin loped off up the rocks on one side, climbing as if he was born in the mountains. Nate looked over at Argus.
“What—” Nate started to ask Argus, but the big man shook his head sharply, putting one finger to his lips, and giving Nate a stern look. Nate blinked.
When Eldrin returned with a large black and white horse, they reluctantly climbed back on their horses and continued their journey. Nate’s stallion picked its way slowly through the rolling rocks and uneven surfaces. He was at the rear of the group, watching everyone’s back.
He could feel more about his surroundings than he ever had in the past, and his senses felt widened, more opened up. Using the flames inside him changed the way he viewed things. He could feel the heat in everything around him, including flowing through his own veins.
Differing levels of red were visible to him in the rocks, the trees, and even the people around him. Jena was a glowing scarlet beacon compared to the others, although Bree was a strong cherry color. Argus and Eldrin were both a weaker hue, more like a pale pink, but in both men, it seemed out of kilter, off somehow.
In Argus, it must be the result of whatever was binding him to his master. In Eldrin, it just confirmed his negative reaction to the man.
Pulling back into the normal world, everything lost the red glow, and Nate shook his head to ward off a disorientating dizziness. He tried to clear his thoughts and concentrate on what was happening around him.
Up ahead he could hear Argus and Eldrin chatting. Literally chatting. It was clear that Argus was up to something, but he seemed so friendly with this man, it was hard to understand what it could be. Why would he encourage Eldrin to come with them if he thought he was dangerous? Perhaps he thought the man could help them?
Previously Argus had been a known quantity, someone Nate felt he knew and could count on to act a certain way. Now he wondered if he really did know Argus.
Jena slowed up, and edged her horse in beside Nate. “How long now?”
“Only slightly less than last time you asked.”
Jena glowered at him.
He gestured with his head up to where Argus and Eldrin were discussing a battle in a foreign land. “What do you think that is about?”
Jena shrugged. “I don’t know. Bree thinks he’s up to something. She’s got her suspicions, but she’s being cagey.”
“Won’t she tell you?”
“She’s not used to telling me everything yet.”
“It’s a strange thing, to find you have family you didn’t know you had.” Nate thought of Argus’s stories about Lothar, and his parents.
“But in your case, your family is crazy.”
He shook his head. “He’s been killing off every relative I had, if Argus is right. I’m losing people I never even had the chance to know.” Nate felt an ache in his chest. His life could have been so different. He could have had someone other than an old pride-filled and stiff grandfather who had seen him as a disgrace to be hidden from the world.
“I’m sorry, Nate.” Jena reached out a hand, and touched his arm quickly. “I’m sure there will still be people who can claim family ties.”
“What happens if I have to kill him? What if the prophecy is right?” Nate said quietly.
“We’ll help you. That’s what we’re here for, right? You can enlist Argus. He’ll protect us. Just listen to those tales he’s sharing with Eldrin.”
Nate paused to listen a moment and then laughed. “They’re both pretty bloodthirsty. I just can’t believe it’s the same person.”
“He’ll be back, once he has what he wants.”
There was a burst of raucous laughter from Argus and Eldrin. “I hope it’s soon. This version is creepy.”
“We stop here for the night,” said Argus, halting in front of a small rocky clearing. “Eldrin says it’s the best place along this track.” Beside him, Eldrin nodded in agreement.
Jena slid from her horse, landing on shaky legs. There were aches and pains in places on her body she hadn’t known existed. She had blisters on her hands, and there were others emerging in places she didn’t even want to think about. They’d been riding all day, and she knew she wasn’t the only one suffering.
She stood with her head leaning against the saddle for a moment, getting her bearings. When she lifted her head, Bree was standing beside her. Silently Bree touched Jena’s hands where they still grasped the saddle ridge. She felt a familiar cooling through her fingers straight away.
Jena sighed. “Thank you.”
“I’m not finished yet. Just stay still.” Bree put her hand on Jena’s heart, holding it there and closing her eyes.
Jena felt a cooling breeze flow from Bree’s hands through her body. The hurts from the day seemed to slide into the distance, leaving behind a calm and easy feeling.
“If this is what you do for Argus, no wonder he’s feeling so much better.”
“He’s not better. I mean he’s getting better, but slowly. He’s just really good at hiding his pain.”
“Trust me. I know what I’m talking about.”
“What about him?” Jena jerked her head in the direction of Eldrin, who was entering the nearby cave, ducking his head as he went through the low entrance.
“Argus won’t thank us for discussing it. Whatever it is, it’s dangerous.”
Jena raised her eyebrows.
“I’m not being dramatic.”
“I wish I knew what you were talking about.”
“I don’t know what he’s doing; I just know he’s up to something.” Bree leaned forward and gave Jena a kiss on her cheek. “Watch yourself. Don’t give anything away,” she whispered into her sister’s ear and then strode off to where Argus was starting a fire.
Jena looked around at the campsite. It was as good as any of the camps they had made over the last few nights. Mostly flat, a few bushes hugging the rocks, and even a scattering of dead wood. From the inside the cave, an underground stream could be heard gushing against the rocks. Hopefully, Eldrin was filling up a water bag with fresh water right this moment.
Off to one side, Nate was collecting wood for Argus. Jena wandered over to help him, still absently trying to understand what was going on.
“Help! Argus! Someone! Help!” Eldrin’s panicked yell came from the cave.
Jena froze, her first instinct to run to Eldrin’s aid warring with an instinct that something wasn’t right.
Bree and Nate stood waiting as well, watching for Argus’s reaction. But Argus went running straight toward the entrance. “Come on. I’ll need you all to save him,” he yelled before bending down and disappearing through the entrance.
Jena hesitated only a moment longer before running to catch up. She had to stoop to enter, but went determinedly into the darkness beyond, and down the short passage.
The moment she entered the cave proper, the light changed. A bluish hue filled the natural cavern and created strange flickering shadows over the rocks. Jena stopped right behind Argus, who stood with his hands on his hips, staring in front of him.
Peering past him, Jena froze and her heart skipped a beat. Eldrin was being held in the transparent grasp of a water demon, his sword slashing through the creature’s flowing water body as if through nothing. The blue glow of the demon illuminated the small space and the stream from which it was flowing. The creature was sucking on Eldrin’s neck, visibly draining his life force.
Nate and Bree stormed into the cave behind them. Their gasps echoed around the dark cave as they came to grips with the scene before them.
“Does anyone know how to fight one of these?” asked Nate, his face a ghostly blue in the strange light of the cave.
Jena desperately tried to find the answer in the Book of Spells, but Argus answered first. “It won’t kill him. This is a trick. He’s the demon’s toy.”
As soon as Argus spoke, Eldrin’s thrashing stopped, and he gazed blankly around the room. His eyes glowed blue, reflecting the water demon’s light. Argus was right; Eldrin was somehow connected to the demon.
“Help me...” This time Eldrin’s voice was weak, unlike the sturdy call of a moment ago.
“How do you know he’s the demon’s toy?” asked Nate. “What if this is real?” He was watching Eldrin with fierce attention.
Jena shook her head, but again, Argus answered.
“Eldrin hasn’t been acting like the man I know.” His voice was harsh. “It was obvious he was under a spell of some kind.”
Argus had just been biding his time until he found the creature responsible.
Who was Eldrin to Argus that he would put their whole journey in jeopardy to save him? That he could disobey the master he’d been following so religiously?
Narrowing her eyes, Jena considered Argus’s face for a moment, but his face was as stern and blank as it had ever been. Sighing, she focused her attention on the demon. The creature gushed out of the underground river that flowed across the back of the cave, standing taller than any of them.
It stopped sucking on Eldrin’s neck; flowing tentacles of water surrounded his body, caressing him.
“It’s changing,” said Bree. “It understands what we’re saying.” The back of the cave filled with rushing water, moving to its own mesmerizing pattern.
“Of course. It’s been listening to us since Eldrin joined our group,” replied Argus impatiently.
“We have to do something,” Bree said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s under its spell. We have to help him.”
Jena hesitated, thinking it through, turning pages in her head. “It needs a source of water. If we can take away its source of water, we might be able to do something.”
The water flowing around the cave started moving faster, rushing up and out of the normal flow of the stream, creating winding watery paths along the walls and through the very air in the darkened space. It seemed the water demon was daring them to cut off its water supply.
“We can’t cut off an underground stream,” said Nate. “What else have you got in that head of yours?”
“I don’t know. I’m thinking.” Jena’s voice echoed around the room, and she put one hand to her cheek, trying to speed up her thoughts. “Eldrin himself could be another way to get to the water demon,” she said slowly.
There was a whoosh of water, and then Eldrin was no longer being held upside down. He had been placed behind a rushing wall of water. The demon now looked like crashing waves at a beach, all white foam and angry water.
“We’re not going to get a chance there. What else?” asked Nate.
Jena held her breath, flicking away from the water demon pages, and trying to think where else to go for help. “There’s a spell for calming waters in a storm. It might work,” she said slowly, almost thinking aloud.
Argus looked from Jena to Nate, who shrugged.
“It can’t hurt,” said Nate.
Argus’s face was still impassive. He knew Jena had been the one to do the spell when they’d been fighting off the Riders, but he hadn’t actually seen her cast a spell. Nate had seen the one spell in action, but it had all happened so fast, she hadn’t had time to think about it. She had been careful not to cast anything else in front of either of them since.
Stepping to one side, Argus gestured to Jena to move forward.
She took a couple of cautious steps. Shaking out her hands, she raised them up to focus her energy, gathering it from the earth around them. Starting the spell in her head, she focused on the water in front of her. As she repeated the words in her head, she moved forward again, a couple of bigger steps, then leaned down and dipped her fingers into the icy cold stream.
“No!” she heard Nate yell behind her.
For a moment, she felt nothing. Then a sense of serenity, a simple and easy happiness flowed through her entire body. She smiled, and for once didn’t mind the stiffness she felt from her burns. In fact, she could barely feel them anymore; a watery coolness had taken over her whole body. Looking down she realized she was in the air, floating above the stream with water flowing over her skin like a silken blanket. Instead of being cold or threatening, it was pleasant and comforting, rich and luxurious.
She didn’t want it to end.
“How do we get her out of there?” said Bree. She didn’t take her eyes off her sister. “Nate, you have to get her away from the demon.”
Jena was floating behind the glowing liquid protection of the water demon’s body. She was smiling dreamily out at them, not a care in the world.
It was one of the oldest rules of controlling demons and being controlled by them. Don’t touch the substance they’re made of until you have them in your power. For fire demons it wasn’t much of a problem, no one was usually that keen to put their hand in fire. But for water demons, it was how they found their prey.
Nate thought through his options. What other rules applied to both water and fire? This water demon appeared to be wild, capturing people and using them to gain enough power to stay out of the Edges. Not all demons could do it. The fire demons he called usually didn’t bother with this world, unless called to his side. It was why they tended to be so annoyed at being forced through.
This demon liked spending time with the living. How could that help them?
A chill went down his back, and the hairs lifted on the back of his neck. “Son, the answer is right in front of you, yet again. While it’s here, in this state, it can be controlled.” The mage ghost was beside him, his arms crossed, and a stern expression on his face. He nodded toward Jena. “I leave for a while, and you let her get into trouble.” He shook his head. “You’re really going to have to figure this out much faster if you’re going to battle Lothar. Both of you.”
“How do I control a water demon? My power is over fire,” Nate said.
“When they’re in our world, a water demon can be controlled by a fire demon. It’s a hierarchy. Fire sits at the top, and other demons must obey.” The ghost made motions with his hands, indicating that Nate should hurry up and get on with it.
Nate closed his eyes, trying to calm the pounding in his head, and drilled down into the fire yet again. He felt the power blazing inside, and for a moment trembled against the onslaught. Then he stiffened and moved down into the core.
He pulled a demon from the Edges and into the air above them with an ease that shocked him. It was a glowing ball of flame, beautiful in the small interior space.
It changed the color of the cave from blue to a reddish purple, casting strange shadows around the craggy walls.
Nate let out his breath slowly.
“Yes, master?” The demon focused on Nate for a moment and then seemed to notice its surroundings. “Where have you brought me?”
“We need your help, demon.”
The demon’s light dimmed a moment and then came back strong. “You need help with the water demon and its toys?”
“Yes. How do we set Eldrin and Jena free?”
“You must take the water demon as your slave. I assume you’ll be happy to have a water demon at your beck and call, master?” Behind them, the wall of water rushed and gurgled, spitting water and foam at Nate and the fire demon.
Nate stepped back, making sure he was out of range of the water. “What do we have to do?” He glanced from the agitated water demon to the fire demon.
“I need a supporting chant, and the help of the Big One to pull the toys away from the water.” The fire demon fizzed and sparked as it spoke, zigzagging around in front of Nate.
“And what will you be doing, demon?”
“What I must. Just start the chant, master.”
Nate turned to Bree. “I’ll lead it, but I need you to join me when you pick up the words.”
Her face solemn, Bree nodded.
In front of them, Argus was watching the water demon as it dripped and flowed, holding Eldrin and Jena behind its wall of water. The fire demon moved to hover just before the point where the water demon rose up out of the stream.
“Why doesn’t it leave?” asked Argus.
Nate paused, then leaned in, keeping his voice low. “I don’t think it believes it will lose against the fire demon. It’s unusual for them to fight and I don’t think a fire demon would normally exert its dominance over a water demon.”
Nate started the slow chant, saying the words over and over again. Soon Bree joined in, and the room seemed to echo with the power of the words. The sound ran around the room, leaping from rock to crevice, finding no place to finish quietly. In front of them, the fire demon began to glow brighter, its sparks flashing bright and strong. It expanded, glowing larger and brighter in the small space of the cave.
Argus stood ready in front of the water demon, waiting for the moment when his help would be needed.
The demon’s watery limbs began flowing in complex circles, faster and faster, until the water was just a dull blur of color. Jena and Eldrin disappeared behind an almost solid wall, only a faint shadow visible in the background.
“Brother water, hold thyself still. You are called to serve the fire realm. My master demands your skills as his own.”
The sound of water rushing over jagged rocks filled the cave as the water demon struggled against the fire demon. It dripped and splashed and rained and poured, spitting and hissing in anger at the request it realized—too late—that it couldn’t refuse.
“So brother fire, you have betrayed us?” The demon’s voice was like rain falling on rotting leaves.
“I am not in charge of my own destiny, demon. We are both caught up in a greater fire. I command you to the will of my master. You must touch him to complete the bonding.”
“Why should I touch him? He is less than nothing to me. I am water. You are fire. Why do we meddle in the affairs of men?”
“We have no choice. The great fire has begun.” The fire demon buzzed brighter for a moment. “Come, master, meet another who is under your power.”
Nate walked forward, slow and steady, stopping next to the fire demon.
“Water cousin, meet the Fire Mage.” The fire demon buzzed brighter. “Fire Mage, reach out and make final the connection with your water servant.”
Thinking that this was exactly how Jena had been trapped, Nate reached out, his arm trembling, and put his hand into the flow of water. It hit and splashed around his fingers, spitting water over his arm; a small amount pooled in his palm. A hiss sounded deep inside the water, and drops sprayed in all directions.
“Live by my commands and you will not be harmed.” Nate didn’t know where the words came from; it felt as if he were possessed. He shivered. “How may I serve you, Fire Mage?” The water demon’s voice was soft and smooth.
“Release your prisoners, demon.”
There was a gushing sound and Eldrin came flying out through the wall of water. He landed heavily in a heap on the rocky floor, his head knocking on the hard surface. His eyes were closed, and his face was an ashen grey.
Argus hoisted him over his shoulder, his muscles bulging as he struggled with the weight of the unconscious warrior, and carried Eldrin out of the cave.
Bree and Nate waited, watching Jena where she was still being held in the demon’s watery grasp.
“Let the woman go, demon.”
“Let her go. Now. And do it gently.” Nate’s voice was as hard as the rocks he was standing on.
Slowly, with obvious reluctance, the water demon pulled Jena to the front of the stream and then dropped her carefully onto the rock that Eldrin had just vacated.
Bree raced forward, touching her sister’s pale face. Jena opened her eyes and gazed blearily around her. Nate crouched down on the other side, grabbing Jena’s hand. He allowed some of his heat to flow into her body through the touch, and color appeared in her face almost straight away.
“I’ll look after her, Bree. Go and see if you can help Eldrin. I think he might need your help more than Jena.”
Bree gave him a fierce glare. “She’s more to me than Eldrin. I’m staying here.”
Nate put his hand on Bree’s arm. “Don’t worry, I can help her. But Eldrin doesn’t have anyone helping him.”
“If she needs anything, you call me immediately.” Bree was stern.
Nate nodded. “I’ll bring her out as soon as she can walk.”
Bree stood and left the cave, just as Jena opened her eyes again.
“You okay?” asked Nate.
She blinked, then shook her head slowly. “It felt really good, Nate. It felt so good to be in there.” Jena started to cry, her face blotching up, white patches appearing on her burns.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, and Nate gathered her up into his arms. “It’s okay. That’s part of the spell, Jena. It feels good, but you would have died in there.”
“I know, I know. But I can’t help wanting to go back.” She sobbed even harder on his arm.
Nate narrowed his eyes at the water demon when it started moving toward them, flowing water around Jena suggestively.
“I would look after her, master. She is very powerful. I would let no one hurt her.”
“Get away,” said Nate. “You can’t have her back.” He looked down into Jena’s face. “You’re not going back. It’s not real.”
Sighing, Jena sat up, and Nate moved back to let her.
“You’re right, I guess.” She looked up to where the fire demon still buzzed in the air above them. “You called another fire demon?”
“Yes.” Nate glanced back at the stream where the water demon was splashing and bubbling, entertaining itself now that it had lost its toys. Jena followed his gaze.
“Water travel,” she said suddenly, snapping her fingers. “Some water demons have access to underground streams and rivers. Can it take us by water to Remus?”
Nate turned his head to look at the demon, his eyebrows raised.
“Yes, master,” it said. “I can take you by boat, along an underground river to the other side of the Ember Volcanoes. The mage they call Remus lives not far from there.”
“Will it be faster than travel by horse?”
“Then that’s what we’ll do. Demon, wait for us here.”
“And what of me, Fire Mage? Do you require me as well?” The fire demon hovered in the air near Nate’s face.
“Will I need you? You seem to know more about me than I do, demon.” The back of Nate’s neck itched, and he rubbed a hand through his hair.
The fire demon cackled, sparks flying and spitting around its glowing body. “You are the Fire Mage, and I must do your bidding.”
“So tell me true, should I make you stay?” Nate watched the creature, wondering at his ability to keep something so frighteningly beautiful by his side.
“You can call me at any time. When you need me, I will come.” It disappeared without fuss.
Nate took a deep breath and looked back over at Jena. She was gazing at the place the fire demon had just evacuated. She turned her head and smiled at him. “You know, Thornal could summon demons. But he could never convince them to do what he wanted. It was a great source of annoyance for him.”
She slowly stood up, went over to Nate, and placed a hand on his arm. “Come on, let’s go get some food. We have a long journey ahead of us. We need to be prepared.”
He followed her lead, turning only once to look back at the water demon still flowing round the back of the cave.
Jena walked over to where Argus was starting a fire, Nate following close behind her. Her body was lethargic and heavy. She struggled to concentrate on what was happening around her.
The horses were huddling under the trees, still with their saddles on their backs. Bree sat next to Eldrin, who was lying on the earth near the fire, eyes closed and his face still ashen.
“How is he?” asked Jena.
“He’s recovering. I don’t think it intended to hurt him, just make us think it was going to hurt him,” said Bree.
“Well, he’s out of its power now.”
Argus looked up from his fire. “And the water demon? What of it?”
“It has agreed to take us to Remus by water,” said Nate.
“What?” said Argus, his scowl deepening.
Jena answered, glancing at Nate. “There’s an underground river. The demon said it would help us use the river to get close to our destination.”
“I can’t swim,” said Bree, her eyes widening in panic.
“You don’t need to swim. We’ll be in a boat.” Jena went over to sit next to Bree, and put a hand on her arm. “It’s safe. The demon will take us where we need to go, much easier and faster than if we rode.”
“We can’t trust that thing! Look what it did to Eldrin.” Argus gestured to his friend, who still had not woken up. “And what are we to do with the horses? You can’t tell me they’ll go down that hole in the ground.”
Nate looked up. “Time is still a concern, isn’t it, Argus? If we stay on the horses, what chance do we have of getting to your master’s house in time?” Nate clenched his fist at his side. Sometime between leaving the forest and now, it had become important to him that they make it to Remus.
Argus pushed at a log on the fire with his foot, causing sparks to fly up into the air. He placed his hands on his thighs and stood up. “This is a stupid idea, Nate. We have no control over that thing in there,” he said, gesturing to the cave. “It will suck us in and then spit out our dead bodies without so much as a second thought.”
“No, it won’t, Argus. It will do anything I say. It’s in my power.”
Argus halted, and spun to look down on Nate. “That’s just as bad. That’s a hair’s breadth from being in its power.” He threw down the stick he’d been using to nurse the fire and stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at Nate.
“Argus, we have no choice. You’ve been pushing us all along to get back to Remus. If we’re going to make it in time, this is how we have to do it.”
Argus seemed about to argue, then abruptly sat down on a nearby rock. “Fine. You’re right, we need to get there.” As Jena watched, Argus transferred his gaze to Bree. His eyes softened, and then he turned away, his hand balled into a fist on his leg. He stood and went to his horse, busying himself by taking off the saddle, and rubbing down the stallion, ignoring the rest of the group. Silently, Bree followed him and started wiping down the other horses.
By the time they had finished looking after the horses, Nate had prepared dinner. He had baked the last of their potatoes, heated in the fire, to be eaten along with some of their dried rations.
No one said much. Jena chewed on her meat jerky, glad of its sustenance after the earlier action. Across from her, Nate was gauging out a potato with a spoon. The fire blazing in front of them reflected in his eyes, reminding her of when they’d first found him after he ran.
What did being a Fire Mage mean for Nate? It certainly seemed to give him more power, but if he were going to face Lothar, he’d need every bit he could get. She felt the raven on her belly move for the first time all day, and put her hand to her stomach. Images popped into her head of Thornal, attempting to get the fire demon he’d managed to call to do his bidding. The creature had laughed in his face.
It made her smile, to be reminded of his frustration.
She was just beginning to realize how potent Nate’s ability was. Even a small part of her was thinking Nate might be able to take on Lothar and win. If she were there helping him, perhaps it would mean that she didn’t need to use her own mage skills to kill Lothar. Perhaps she wouldn’t be sentenced to death. For the first time since they’d left the forest, Jena felt a flicker of hope that she might survive this journey.
Eldrin groaned, and then moved his head. His eyes opened, and darted left and right. He looked more like a frightened rabbit than a mercenary.
“What...? Where am I? Who are you?” He looked at the group around him, blinking and struggling to focus. He saw the biggest shape. “Argus? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me. How did you get yourself mixed up with a water demon?” Argus spoke roughly, but he was grinning.
Eldrin put his hand up to his face, rubbing it across his forehead. “I... I don’t know.” He looked around. “Where are we now? I don’t recognize this place.”
“We’re on the back pass of the Ember Volcanoes. About a quarter of the way through.”
Eldrin frowned. “The back pass? How did I get here?”
“You don’t remember?” said Bree, leaning forward.
“Last I recall was a cave at the entrance to a valley up north. Taking refuge from a thunderstorm. Who are you? How did I get here?”
Bree leaned forward, and put a hand on his arm. “My name is Bree. This is Jena and Nate. We’re traveling with Argus.”
Eldrin nodded his head at each of them in turn. “So how did I get here?”
“You don’t remember meeting up with the water demon?” said Argus.
“No. That is, I don’t think so. I remember a voice.” He rubbed his face with his hands, scratching at the stubble on his face and closing his eyes for a second. “How much time has passed since then do you think?” His voice was soft, a plea. Jena felt goosebumps on her arms.
“When were you at the cave?”
“Spring. Ash Eve was just about to pass.”
Argus looked up at Bree, then the others. “That’s a while ago, Eldrin.”
“How long?” Eldrin’s expression suggested he didn’t really want the answer.
“It’s now autumn, rolling toward winter.” Argus put his hand on Eldrin’s shoulder. “You’ve lost about half a year.”
“Half a year! That can’t be right.” Eldrin looked around him, taking in the yellow and red leaves on the trees, the cold wind blowing through the camp, the fire in the hearth.
He tried to sit up, pushing himself off the ground with one arm. Argus leaned down to stop him, but Eldrin jerked out of his grasp, and sat up. “I have to go. I was supposed to be at Summer Hearth.” Eldrin’s face was a mask of pain, but he didn’t lie back down again. He had the same determination Jena had seen on Argus’s face so often.
Jena frowned. Eldrin was Utugani; that much had just become obvious. Argus had told her that Summer Hearth was the annual gathering of all the hearths. She looked carefully at Eldrin’s face. He didn’t have the same square jaw, and his eyes were blue instead of Argus’s brown.
But there was something about the way he held his head.
“Eldrin, you’re too late. I’m sorry. Summer Hearth will be well over by now.”
“I can’t be too late, Argus. I promised the Utugan. I can’t break my promise to him; you know that as well as I do.”
“He’ll survive. We all do.”
Eldrin’s face went still. “I would argue over your survival.”
“I’ve survived well enough. Mind yourself, not me.” Argus’s voice was sharp.
“I can’t help minding you. The Utugan gives me no choice.”
“He should stay out of it. You should both leave me be.” Argus stood up, leaning over Eldrin threateningly.
“What are you talking about, Argus?” Bree entered the conversation, looking anxiously between the two men. Both looked at her in surprise.
Eldrin looked back at Argus. “Yes, Argus, what are we talking about?”
Argus sighed, and shook his head. “You always were a stubborn bastard.” He glanced at Bree, his expression grim.
Looking from Argus to Bree, Eldrin began to grin. “As were you, my brother.”
It was hard to listen to the fight that erupted between Argus and Bree with the ghost mage sitting next to him. “Oh no, he’ll never be able to argue his way out of that.” A chilly hand clapped onto Nate’s shoulder. “Ouch! Did you hear that? She’s one annoyed young woman. Only one reason for a woman to be that annoyed with a man.”
Nate attempted to block the ghost out and concentrate on what was happening in front of him.
“Your brother! I can’t believe you didn’t tell us. When were you going to say something?” Bree was pacing in front of Argus, who had his hands out and was trying to soothe her.
“It isn’t something I could talk about. I no longer live that life.”
“What does that mean? Is he no longer your brother?” She whirled toward Eldrin. “How does that make you feel, Eldrin? You’re no longer important enough for him to mention.”
Argus looked over at his brother with a pleading look in his eyes. “Eldrin understands what I mean. I don’t mean he’s not my brother. It’s just that I’m not the same as when Eldrin and I were younger.”
“Who are you, then, Argus? Do we even know you?” Bree pushed off Argus’s hand and continued pacing in front of him, battering at his hands whenever he tried to get her to stop in front of him.
“You know me, Bree.” The big mercenary looked down into her eyes, his face solemn. Nate looked away, feeling like he was intruding on a very personal moment.
“Then why didn’t you tell me Eldrin was your brother?” Bree whispered through her angry tears. Nate wasn’t sure he understood exactly why she was reacting so badly to the news. Except that perhaps, the ghost mage was right.
“She’s thinking to herself that maybe he doesn’t trust her,” the ghost mage added. “Ah, women. They’re complicated creatures, are they not?” The ghost seemed to be enjoying the awkward scene.
Argus was still trying to placate Bree. “He didn’t recognize me; that’s how I knew something was wrong. He treated me like just another soldier he’d met. Telling everyone would have let whatever was controlling him know I wasn’t fooled. I couldn’t do that.” Argus reached out and grabbed Bree’s arm, and this time she allowed him to stop her pacing. She came to a halt in front of him.
“What about the rest of your family? Who are they?”
Argus sighed. “I have a mother and a father, just like anyone else. Plus a younger sister. And Eldrin.”
It was hard to imagine the big mercenary with a family. He’d always seemed solitary. The man he’d first met and this man in front of them today seemed far distant from each other.
Bree paused, and looked down at Eldrin, who was grinning up at his brother. “There’s no need to take enjoyment from this, Eldrin,” she said. “You’re as bad as he is.”
Eldrin’s grin spread even further.
“Listen, Bree, I didn’t want to lie to you. I’ve been living a certain way for a long time. I had no control over it. But now, I do. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
Nate saw tears well in Bree’s eyes, and she nodded her head. Argus leaned forward and took her in his arms, stroking one hand over her long hair.
At Nate’s side, the ghost mage crowed his delight. “I told you! It’s taken me two hundred years, but I can pick a woman in love. And a man in love, come to that.”
Nate looked over at Jena and she lifted one shoulder. He cleared his throat. “Perhaps you two should go look for firewood?” he said, ignoring the large pile he had already collected.
Argus nodded. “Yes, that’s what we’ll do. Firewood.” Without looking at the others, he took Bree’s hand and led her along the nearest trail, disappearing around a rocky corner. Before they disappeared completely from sight, Argus put his arm around Bree’s shoulders.
Beside Nate, the ghost mage shifted position. The old man walked around to where Eldrin lay, crouched beside him, and covered Eldrin’s forehead with his wrinkled hand. Nate’s hand twitched as he controlled the urge to leap up and tell the ghost to get away from the living.
But this was no ordinary ghost, and these weren’t ordinary times. Even as he watched, the old man looked up and nodded at him. Nate nodded back, then realized it would look like he was nodding at the patient.
“Now what?” he said to make sense of his mistake.
Eldrin didn’t answer. It was as if he knew the old man was still standing over him and was waiting for him to finish.
Jena answered, “We wait for them to get back. We can’t make any plans without them.” She gestured toward the trail Argus and Bree had just disappeared down.
“I’ve never seen him so besotted. Not even when we were young,” said Eldrin.
“Besotted? He barely even blinked differently.” Nate snorted at him disbelief.
“He’s had a hard life. He doesn’t show emotion easily. But it’s there if you look for it.” Eldrin gave a brief scowl in Nate’s direction. “Just the fact that he told Bree about our family shows he cares.”
“Fine, so he cares.” Jena leaned forward, her arms resting on her legs. “Tell us instead, why you had to get back for the Summer Hearth so urgently.”
Eldrin sighed. “I promised my father I would be back before the Summer Hearth. He gave me leave to go wandering, but it is my duty to go back and take my place beside him.”
“Surely he’d understand?”
“I promised him I would be there, on pain of death. He’ll think I’m dead.”
“Or he might just think something happened to delay you.” Jena raised her brows at him.
Eldrin shook his head. “Our older brother died when we were younger, and it has been a very long time since Argus has been at the hearth. My father worries when I don’t come home.”
“What happened? How is it you haven’t seen Argus in so long?” asked Jena.
Eldrin pushed one hand through his hair. “It’s not a happy fireside story.”
“He’s just disappeared into the night with my sister. You need to tell us.”
Eldrin sat up a bit more, leaning into the fire. He put his hands out in front of him, soaking up the warmth of the burning logs. His face was pinker, back to a more natural hue, and he seemed more alert.
The ghost mage was sitting on a log just down from Jena. The old man winked at Nate, then turned to Eldrin. Nate had questions he wanted to ask the ghost mage, but he couldn’t do it while Eldrin was awake. He half hoped their patient would suddenly feel worse and he could suggest Jena give him a sleeping spell.
Instead, Eldrin started to speak. “Argus missed the Summer Hearth, the year he turned fifteen. On the way, he’d gone hunting with our older brother and his friends.” Eldrin cleared his throat. “They got into trouble. Big trouble. They ran into a hive of Graffen, in the middle of a mating.” Eldrin paused.
Nate’s mind couldn’t even picture what might happen to anyone unlucky enough to interrupt a mating graffen. The large cat-like animals were vicious at the best of times.
“Of the five members of the group, only one survived—Argus. Our older brother was the only reason Argus made it out alive.”
Nate took a deep breath. “His brother was killed saving him?”
Eldrin nodded. “Argus idolized our brother. We both did. Argus barely survived, and I think he’s regretted it ever since.”
“He must have been devastated,” said Jena.
“He was. He barely spoke afterward. We were all in shock; it was a huge blow to all of us.”
“He stayed with the hearth for a while, but I think the pain of being around family was too much. So he left.” Eldrin paused, and looked at them for a moment, his expressive face sad. “He blames himself, and he’s been trying to kill himself in an honorable way ever since. When he left the hearth he joined the Flame Guards.”
Nate let out a slow breath. It explained a lot; the knowledge Argus seemed to have of certain things around Lothar and the Royal Flames, his fierce ability to fight.
“How did he end up working for a mage?”
“I don’t know. Last time I saw Argus was when we were both part of the Flame Guard. About three years ago, he disappeared. Just vanished. I tried to find him, but couldn’t. Until this day, I didn’t know if my brother still lived.”
“You said that you had to get back because of the Utugan and your father?” Jena said.
Eldrin rubbed one hand over his stubbled chin. “Our father is the Utugan.”
“The gypsy king?” Nate sat back, stunned. Argus was from the royal gypsy line? No wonder his brother and father searched for him.
“You’re the next Utugan?”
Eldrin nodded. “I wasn’t supposed to be. Our brother Petra was groomed for leadership. The whole hearth felt the pain when he died.”
“I’m surprised your father let you follow Argus as long as he did,” said Nate.
Eldrin shrugged. “I can be very persuasive.”
“But eventually you had to take Petra’s place, and try to live up to expectations?” Nate’s voice was soft.
“It’s not so bad. Argus suffers more than I ever will.”
“Your father is still worried about Argus?” Jena leaned toward Eldrin, a soft expression on her face.
“Our father lost one son, and he wasn’t prepared to lose another. But to be honest, he believes Argus to be dead.”
“So you can tell him otherwise?” Jena gave a small half smile.
Eldrin raised his eyebrows. “I hadn’t thought about it. But yes, I will.” He smiled back at Jena.
Nate cleared his throat. “How are you going to get back, Eldrin? Or do you travel to Remus with us?” Nate wasn’t sure he wanted Eldrin to join them; he was too much of an unknown quantity. But he knew that Argus would ask his brother to come with them.
“Thank you for your offer.” Eldrin bowed his head, almost ironically, as if he knew Nate was asking reluctantly. “But I cannot go with you. I must continue my journey home.”
“But if the Summer Hearth is over, how will you know where to go?” Nate knew enough about the Utugani to know they would have moved on.
“There is a winter hearth, in a valley near a river that flows for most of the winter. They will be there.”
“Is it far from here? Are you up to traveling?” Jena was playing the healer in Bree’s absence.
“I’ll be fine. It won’t take more than a couple days.” Eldrin grinned with his easy charm, but Nate saw the determined chin clench down. Eldrin was just as good at hiding his pain as Argus.
“We’re traveling a different route from here. The water demon is taking us on the underground river.” Nate hesitated. “We can’t take our horses.”
Eldrin nodded. “And you’d like me to take them?”
“Yes. Otherwise, we’d have to set them free, which wouldn’t be ideal. But if you’re going to be riding anyway, you could perhaps take them with you?”
Eldrin looked over to where the horses grazed. “They shouldn’t be too much trouble.” He grinned. “I suppose you’ll want them back.”
“Yes, we want them back,” said Nate dryly, unable to completely resist the charm of the Utugani prince. “Perhaps we can meet you at your winter hearth?”
Eldrin nodded. “The least I can do for my brother. And for the people who saved my life.” He tried again to lever himself to a sitting position and failed.
Jena went over to him, picking up a blanket on the way, and draped it over his legs. “You’re not going anywhere until morning. Bree will do some more healing work with you, but you have to give yourself a chance to get over being used by the demon. You’re just like Argus.”
“Don’t confuse me with him. I’m the easy-going brother.”
Jena smiled. “I doubt that very much.”
Eldrin grinned back at Jena, and Nate frowned. They were getting friendly very fast. He narrowed his eyes, watching Eldrin’s face closely.
“Now what can you tell me about your sister?” said Eldrin to Jena, a twinkle in his eye. He winked at her.
Jena glanced over at Nate. “Bree is sweet and kind and strong,” she said.
“She’s a healer and will go to great lengths to heal those in her care,” added Nate. “She’s a good person, worthy of Argus.”
Eldrin grinned back, and nodded. “Ach, the Utugani are a casual lot. As long as she has a ready smile and can cook a meal, they don’t care about the rest.”
When Argus and Bree eventually came back to the campsite, Argus looked like a weight had fallen from his shoulders. Bree’s face glowed. They came up the path holding hands and at first avoided the gaze of the three they’d left in the campsite. Jena watched them closely, not sure what to make of this latest development.
Argus let go of Bree’s hand and went straight to his brother. He crouched down beside Eldrin and put a hand on his shoulder. “How are you feeling, Eldrin?”
“Not as good as you are, Argus.” Eldrin grinned as Argus’s ears went red.
Bree was by the fire, adding a few of the logs they had gathered earlier to build it up. Jena moved over to crouch next to her and put one hand on her arm. Bree looked back at her, her eyes shining in the firelight. She put one hand over Jena’s. “I’m fine, Jena. Truly I am,” she whispered.
Jena nodded, relieved that her sister was back with the group again.
“It’s late, we all need to get some rest before traveling again,” said Nate, his eyes on Argus.
Argus turned. “We don’t have the same rush as we had before, Nate,” he said.
Nate frowned. “Why not?”
“Things have... changed. I don’t have to go back as urgently to my master.”
Bree shifted uneasily where she was crouched by the fire. Jena thought she understood why. They’d been a team now for a while. It was strange to hear Argus talking about breaking them up so easily.
Nate’s face fell. “But have they changed for me?” he said. “The coronation date is getting closer and Lothar still needs to sit on the Flame Throne to take full control. I’m still in the way of that.”
“I don’t know if Remus was telling the truth. He’s unscrupulous and selfish. He’ll not stop until he gets what he wants.” Argus seemed to take great pleasure in his words, relishing every syllable. Jena narrowed her eyes at him. Something was different about Argus, and she wasn’t sure what it was. He seemed lighter, freer somehow.
“And he wants me?” said Nate, his face showing some of his anger.
“He wants what he thinks you can do for him.”
“What if you’re wrong? What if Remus isn’t lying?” said Nate. “What if he can help me against Lothar?”
Argus hesitated, watching Nate with a cautious expression. “You’re right. I don’t know if he was lying. You might still need to go to him.”
It was the most that Jena had ever heard Argus speak in one conversation. His words seemed to have loosened. She stared at him some more. Was it simply because he’d proclaimed himself to Bree? That they’d found they cared for each other? Or was it something more?
She remembered the seething mist that had been inside his body when they’d done the Seeking. She focused her magic and searched for any traces of a mage spell on Argus now. She wasn’t sure, but she thought it was gone. Something to do with Bree had broken the spell that was tying Argus to Remus.
“Eldrin has agreed to look after the horses,” said Nate. “He’ll take them to the Utugani Winter Hearth. We can meet him there once we’ve met with Remus.”
Argus hesitated, and glanced at Bree. “I would prefer to take Bree straight to the Winter Hearth and meet you there. You don’t need me to visit Remus with you.”
Jena felt like her heart was being ripped out of her chest. Was he trying to split her up from Bree? And what about helping Nate?
On the other side, Eldrin let out a yell of excitement. “You’re serious? It will be a momentous occasion, my brother. I will have finally managed to achieve what our father has been asking me to do for almost seven years.” He clapped his brother on the arm.
“I don’t know the way to Remus’s house,” said Nate softly. “I need your help.”
Argus shook his head. “I can give you a map. Tell you the way to go. It will be fine.”
Bree stood up, shaking her head. “No. We all go to Remus. We’re not going to break up out group just yet,” she said, looking sternly at Argus.
“But—” Argus tried to interrupt, but Bree put one hand on his arm.
“We promised Miara that we would find Nate and take him to your master. We must finish what we started.”
Argus turned to her fully. “I don’t know what Remus has planned.” He put both hands on her shoulders. “I don’t want you to be in any danger from him.”
Jena held her breath. She could appreciate his argument. She would prefer that Bree stayed safe as well.
“I’m not a child to be protected. We’ve survived this far by working together, protecting each other. This is important enough that we should all be part of it.”
There was a moment of silence, as everyone absorbed Bree’s words.
“I can manage the horses by myself,” said Eldrin, his expression somber. “I’m sure our father can wait a little longer to get you home. The whole Utugani clan can.”
Argus narrowed his eyes at his brother and his lips tightened into a thin line. “I don’t need you messing in my business, Eldrin.”
“Bree will only find out from elsewhere if you don’t tell her. I’ll tell her if need be.”
“No need to worry, Eldrin. Your brother told me who he is, and who your family is,” Bree spoke up from her position next to the fire, a concerned look on her face. “No need to get angry with each other. You’ve only just found each other again.”
“Angry? I’m not angry. I’m the easygoing brother.” Eldrin grinned at Argus and reached out to slap him on the arm.
Argus snorted, shaking his head. “Easily influenced maybe. Easily led into trouble. Not easygoing.”
“So we’re all agreed?” Bree interrupted. “Eldrin takes the horses, and we travel tomorrow morning on the underground river.”
Everyone nodded. But not everyone looked happy.