CHAPTERS 50-55 - 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…
Inside the cave it was shadowed, the blue glow from the water demon lighting only the facing section of the rocks, creating strange dark shadows over the rest. Nate could feel the water demon through a link to his fiery center.
The water demon seemed less threatening now as it curled around the gap in the rocks where the stream entered the cave, bubbles running through its transparent body. Jena and Nate had both been in and out of the cave earlier in the morning, talking with the demon to find out what they needed for the journey.
Currently, Nate was behind Jena, having had to almost drag Argus back into the cave and the water demon. Bree was last, standing quietly at the back.
Eldrin had left at first light after Bree had placed a healing hand on him. He was as strong as they could make him for his journey. The farewell was emotional, the brothers clasping each other in a bear hug that seemed to last forever.
“Demon, we’re ready,” said Nate, moving to the front of the cave. He hoped this was the right decision.
The demon uncurled from its position, rising up to flow in a complex yet beautiful pattern of rushing water. “Yes, Fire Mage. Follow me.” The creature disappeared down the narrow tunnel where the stream flowed out of the cave.
Nate led the way, stepping through into the small tunnel, with a single glance back at the cave where they’d met the demon only the day before. Beside him, the small stream surged over loose rocks and stones before gurgling away into the murky darkness ahead. He had to bend down to avoid bumping his head on the low ceiling of the tunnel, and walked stooped over along the track.
Argus was following just behind him, a dark expression on his face. Bree had run up and grabbed one of Argus’s large hands in her own small one, keeping close beside him. Jena followed at the back.
The glow from the water demon was the only light, but it spread out its muted blue glow in the stream flowing beside them so they could all see. Nate had to stop himself several times from gazing into the blue for too long. The warmth and comfort of being enclosed in the demon’s watery arms seemed tantalizingly close. He shook his head and snapped out of it. “Leave me alone,” he whispered to the water demon. “You will lose.”
It shimmered in the air ahead of him. He sent a burst of heat along his connection to it, and the demon whimpered, its color dying off.
“We have to step into the water up here,” Nate said gruffly. He’d walked the trail with the demon earlier. “I’ve told the demon it must leave you all alone.” His voice echoed down the chamber, a warning to the demon to obey him.
Nate watched as the others stepped into the water beside him, one by one, at the point where the narrow trail started to disappear into the rocky walls. There was no sound other than the splashing of their feet in the stream. Argus and Bree moved ahead along the stream.
He saw Jena hesitate over the water, but she tightened her lips and stepped toward the stream. It moved up to meet her, the blue light of the demon glowing on her leg. The water wrapped itself around her foot, and tugged gently, pulling the leg down into the water.
Nate frowned, sending another warning along his connection to the demon. It moved reluctantly away from her, splashing gently at the edges of the stream.
Nate stepped fully into the stream, and the cold struck his leg, shocking him into moving quickly along the waterway. Ahead, Bree slipped on a rock; Argus steadied her, and they continued.
Nate looked down at the uneven surface, making sure he stepped carefully; he didn’t trust the demon to look after him.
The trail wound downward, taking them into the depths of the rock one slow step at a time. They didn’t always have to walk in the water, but often enough to make it a shock whenever they put their boots back into the freezing stream. The demon lit their way, its blue glow becoming a beacon in the dark tunnel.
They seemed to have been walking for hours when the demon told them to halt. By the time Nate arrived, the others were all looking through a hole in the rocky wall down to the view below.
Nate leaned over Jena’s shoulder. Far below them, a river pounded through the rocks, white foam dancing on the current as it sped past. Slick wet rocks hugged each side of the river, while long pointed rocks dripped down from the roof of the cave.
“This is it, master.” The water demon was swirling around in the stream, its blue light pulsing in time with the rolling currents.
“How do we get down there?” Nate looked from the water demon to the river visible in the cave far below. There didn’t seem to be any way down, and there was no boat waiting calmly on the side of the river.
“Where’s the boat?” he added.
“The boat is in the next cave,” replied the demon. “We must hurry. Rain on the other side of the mountains is causing the river to rise.”
The demon led them to a narrow tunnel, almost entirely taken up by the downward flow of the stream. They would have to go fully into the water to get down the tunnel. Watching its blue light flickering in the darkness, Nate started to doubt his ability to control such a wild creature.
“Down here, master. We are almost there.” Blue flickered in the dark space.
“We have to swim down the tunnel?” said Nate.
“It is the only way,” said the demon. “I will help.”
Nate hesitated, shifting his bag on his shoulder. “What do we do with our travel bags?”
“I will take them down for you.”
Nate nodded, motioning to everyone that they should take their gear off their backs. Jena shrugged out of her bag, piling it next to Bree’s.
Once the bags were sitting next to the stream, the creature pulled them all into the water, one after the other like a wagon train. It looped its body around them so they were protected from the water.
“I will travel the tunnel one more time, to ensure it is clear. Then I will come back and take you one by one,” said the demon.
Nate watched it leave, wondering if the creature really was doing all this to his command. It wouldn’t be out of character for a demon to lure people deeper into a cave system. He tugged on his connection to the water demon; the water parted and its gleaming body rose up out of the water like an inverted waterfall. He let out the breath he’d been holding.
Nate stepped forward. He walked into the river and was about to dive in when Bree interrupted him.
“No! Wait. I can’t do it. We have to go back.” Bree was tugging on Argus’s arm. Her eyes were wide and her face pale as she stared at the small gap where the demon had just returned.
Jena was about to reach out and comfort Bree, when Argus put an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said, brushing a soothing hand up and down her arm. “You can do this.”
Bree buried her head in his shoulder, and they all heard the muffled, “I can’t.”
“You have to, there’s no other way,” Argus replied firmly. “You’re stronger than this, Bree. We’ll all be here to help you, including the demon.” He glared over her head at Nate. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Argus squeezed Bree’s hand, and moved toward the tunnel, dragging her behind him. “I’ll go first, and I’ll be waiting for you to come through right behind me.” He glanced back at Jena. “And Jena will be here with you on this side. You can go down next, once I’ve made sure it’s safe.”
Bree nodded brokenly, her breath coming in short little gasps.
“You will be fine. You can do this, my love.” He kissed her on the lips, right in front of them all.
Jena looked away. It was the first time she had heard Argus proclaim his love for Bree. The words sounded rusty on his lips, but it was obvious he was sincere.
Jena moved forward and took her sister’s hand. Bree clung to Jena as Argus stepped forward.
He lowered himself onto on his hands and knees, crawling along the stream, the blue light of the demon surrounding him. He took a deep breath and then entered the low, narrow gap the stream gushed down. In a moment, he was gone, along with the demon. The cave around them darkened abruptly. Jena held up her other hand and the white flame appeared in her palm.
“How long do we wait?” Bree’s voice shook slightly.
“The demon will tell us.” Nate smiled reassuringly at Bree, and Jena squeezed her sister’s hand.
Blue light reemerged from the narrow entrance. “Fire Mage, bring the next traveler forward.” The water demon’s voice sounded like a river bubbling over rocks, sparkling and eager.
Bree’s eyes widened. “I don’t know if I can do this. What if I need to swim?”
Jena extinguished her flame and then grasped Bree’s arms. She held her sister firmly in front of her. “You don’t have to swim. Just keep going and hold your breath the whole time. Argus will be waiting for you at the other end.”
“I will help you, friend of the Fire Mage,” said the demon, waiting patiently in the water.
Bree’s eyes stayed wide, but she nodded.
Jena pulled her sister into a tight hug. “You’ll be fine. Argus will be waiting.”
Bree stepped up to the gap. She took a deep breath then went down on her hands and knees. Cautiously she moved forward, keeping her head above the water until the very last moment.
“Remember to keep your head as high as you can. And don’t breathe in once you get past the rocks,” said Nate.
Bree dove into the gap, her hair flying out behind her as the water claimed her body. She disappeared from view almost immediately. The blue light again disappeared and they were left in semi-darkness.
Jena lifted a small white flame into the darkness, her heart beating a fast tattoo in her chest. She concentrated on the gap where her sister had just disappeared. “How cold do you think it will be?” Now that it was her turn, Jena was having second thoughts.
Nate grinned at her. “I’m glad you waited until after she’d gone to ask that.”
“I can’t believe you don’t know!” Jena gestured to where her sister had just disappeared.
Nate held up his hands in protest. “The demon says this is the way to go, so we go this way. That’s all we can do.” He glanced at the rising waters around them. “Especially if he’s right about the rain forcing the waters up.”
Just then the water demon surged to the surface again, water rushing from its blue glowing face. “She has arrived, master. Send the next person through.” It looked like a strange watery boulder in the otherwise sensible flow of the stream.
Jena nodded. “My turn.” She stepped up to the gap, and took a deep breath. She wondered how it would be this time. It had felt so safe yesterday, being looked after by the water demon. She knew it was wrong, but a part of her wished she could let the water demon pull her into an embrace and take away her worries and fears.
Feathers ruffled on her stomach, and a sharp peck reminded her of who and what she was. There could be no safe and gentle harbor for her. She was carrying the Book of Spells in her head and the Guardian’s raven on her belly. Something tightened in her chest. She hoped they were going to survive this.
“Come, child of the Book,” murmured the demon. “Under the water. I will hold you.”
“Stay safe, Jena.”
She looked back at Nate’s familiar features. “You be careful too.” Taking another deep breath, she crawled into the murky water. It hit her with a blast of excruciating chill. The feeling rocked Jena, freezing her limbs. Then reality rushed back and she felt the pressure of the water pushing her forward, and the blue pulsing light around her urging her to move. She forced her arms and legs to crawl forward over the slippery rocks.
In the distance, she thought she saw a pinprick of light that was presumably the exit. It seemed too far. She would never be able to hold her breath for that long. The walls seemed to lean in, and the water was pushing down on her. Her heart pounded in her chest, and a panicked sob was building in her chest. The inky darkness was broken only by flashing images of Thornal in her head from the raven. Her hands scraped on a sharp rock and she swore.
Just when she felt she couldn’t stand it any longer, it got worse. The tunnel narrowed down, and the stream pushed forward even faster, building up the pressure on her body. The faint light ahead was the only reason she knew this was the right way.
Jena tried to look behind her, but couldn’t turn her head in the confined space. Her blood pounded in her veins, and she had to control the urge to cast some kind of spell that would blast a hole in the walls around her. She could do this. Bree, who had been terrified and couldn’t swim, had made it through. If her sister could do it, so could she.
Jena closed her eyes and pushed herself forward. Her head was reeling from the fear beating its way through her body, but she focused on moving forward and ignored everything else. She felt a soft pressure around her body and opened one eye. Blue glowed all around her. The demon’s presence soothed her more than it probably should have, but she wasn’t going to be picky in a situation like this.
One hand in front of the other, one knee then another, it seemed to go on forever. Water pushed at her body, propelling her toward the end of the tunnel. After what seemed like hours, she opened her eyes again, trying to gauge how much further, and to make sure she could still see the demon.
The water was too murky to see more than a short distance in front. But the blue glow still surrounded her, holding her together. She continued on, her chest starting to feel painful from lack of air. All she wanted to do was gasp in a breath. Something crawled over one of her hands, and she jerked back, flicking her hand frantically. She had to force herself to move forward again.
Then up ahead she saw the water lightening. She moved even faster, her hands and knees taking the brunt of her desire to be out of the dark water tunnel.
She pushed toward the light, her head spinning with the pressure of holding her breath. As stars started to erupt in her head, she burst through the surface of the water. The warm damp air was the sweetest she’d ever tasted.
Still gasping air into her body, Jena crawled up out of the streambed. On the rocks at the side of the stream, she could just make out Argus and Bree huddling close together. It was dark, the only light from glowworms twinkling in the cave roof over their heads.
They both stood and came forward, Bree offering her a hand. She pulled Jena tight into an embrace, her body shivering uncontrollably.
“You made it,” Bree said.
Jena tried to smile through the cold. “I’d not want to do it again if I had a choice.”
Bree laughed; a brittle sound that echoed around the cave. “No, me either.”
Splashes behind them heralded Nate’s head breaking the surface. Argus held out his hand and helped Nate drag himself out of the water.
“I’m glad that’s over,” gasped Nate, water dripping down his face. “I didn’t think I was going to make it at one point.” He wiped a hand down his front as if trying to get a crease out of the sodden material.
“What now?” asked Argus, looking around.
It was difficult to see inside the murky cave, but the stream they’d traveled along flowed across the cave they were now in and through a large cathedral entrance on the other side. The sound of rushing water in the distance indicated the stream was either widening or meeting up with another stretch of water.
“I’m not sure. Water demon, where do we go now?” Nate glanced around him, looking for the demon. “Water demon?”
Silence greeted the question.
The demon had disappeared.
Nate held out his hand, his mind whirling with possibilities. He did the first thing that occurred to him, and a fire demon appeared before him, lighting up the rocky cave with its bright glow, allowing them all to see the cave. Through the cathedral-domed entranceway on the far side of the cave, they could hear the sound of rushing water.
“What happened to the water demon?” Nate asked.
The fire demon flicked between orange and red flames. “It scuttled away while you were underwater. The creature is not very smart. Simply call it again; it must return,” the demon said dismissively.
Nate closed his eyes, and looked along his connect to the water demon. He pulled the truant creature to him.
It rose up out of the water, straining and stretching as if trying to use the water to avoid surfacing. “Yes, master?” it said reluctantly.
“Do not attempt to leave again. You will stay with us until I say you may go.”
“Yes, master.” The demon nodded its head, water cascading down its body and into the stream. Its blue glow dimmed.
“Where is the boat you spoke of?”
“This way, master. It is where the stream meets the river.”
Nate looked over the four of them. They were still drenched from the water they’d just crawled through. “Fire demon, is there anything you can do to dry us off?” he asked.
“As you wish, master,” it said.
A sudden hot draft swept over each of them. Nate let out a sigh of relief as the hot air seeped into his body and warmed him from the inside out. Moments later, his clothes were dry and his skin was warm again.
“How did I not know you could do that before now?” asked Nate, thinking of all the cold nights he’d spent traveling with Argus.
“You didn’t ask, master.”
Nate sighed. That was the trouble with demons. They weren’t really on your side. “You may go now, fire demon,” he said and almost before the words left his mouth, the creature disappeared.
“So where to now?” asked Argus.
Nate shrugged. “We go to the boat and down the river. Water demon, show us the way.”
The water demon led them across the cave and into another domed enclosure, this one even bigger than the last one. There was a river churning briskly over the rocks, and a small wooden boat bounced in the waves. Nate looked warily at the fast-flowing river, wondering, again, how much he trusted the water demon. The creature seemed fickle at best. But they had made it this far, and it wasn’t as if they had much of an option for turning back.
“Are you sure this is safe for us to travel on, demon?” he asked. He stood next to where the small boat was tethered to a nearby rock.
“How does this boat come to be here?” asked Argus.
“It was left here by one that I called. He no longer needs it.”
A chill went along Nate’s skin. He had a dangerous creature reluctantly tied to him. He needed to be wary at all times.
Nate crouched down and held the boat while Jena and Bree climbed on board. Argus passed their travel bags in and then positioned himself in the middle of the boat, next to Bree.
Nate untied the rope and leaped in to the front of the boat. “Hold on tight. This will probably be rough,” he said.
The water demon slid under the water, and they sped off down the river, water splashing into the boat from all sides. Nate felt the demon’s wild power pulling the boat down the river in its rush to get to them to their destination. The boat felt like a piece of flotsam on the open water, with no control of where it was going. Nate clung to the edge, his knuckles white, trying to stay in the boat. The creature took them too close to an overhanging rock face, and Nate only just managed to duck in time to avoid being knocked out of the boat. “Duck,” he yelled desperately to the others, then looked back to make sure they were okay.
Everyone was clinging on tight, their faces white with fear. Nate ground his teeth. He’d had enough of the demon playing with them. “Demon! Calm our speed or I will curse you to spend the rest of your days in the Edges,” Nate yelled over the rushing of the water. Their pace slowed immediately.
Nate sat back in his seat and held on to the front of the boat. He kept his eyes fixed on the river ahead, determined to make sure the demon didn’t try any further tricks to unseat him.
The river, helped by the demon, carried them through the caves alongside the volcanoes. It became hot, the air thick and damp. Often the blue glow from the water demon under them was the only light.
Nate decided it was better not to see too much of their surroundings and didn’t offer to light their way. He’d seen the inside of enough volcanoes to know that they might be better off in the dark. As long as they were in the water, they would be protected from the worst of the heat. He hoped.
He glanced back to the others. Argus and Bree sat together, Argus holding Bree close. From the back, Jena watched the sides of the river, as if trying to spot creatures just outside of their sight. No one talked. The only sound was the rushing water, echoing around the wider caverns on either side of the river.
Eventually the boat slowed. “We are almost there, master.” The water demon sounded petulant. Perhaps disappointed they’d survived their river trip. This water demon was more like a child; wild and unpredictable, rather than dark and dangerous like the fire demons. Nate decided he preferred dealing with fire than water.
They turned a corner in the river and the rushing water flowed through another entranceway. On the other side was the murky expanse of an underground lake, steam and bubbles visible in the distance. High domed ceilings with rock formations hung down, and glowworms twinkled in the darkness. Their glow was reflected in the water, and it was like looking at two night skies, glowing back at each other. A long shape broke the surface of the lake ahead of them and then dived back under, disturbing the perfection of the smooth surface.
The water demon drew the boat up to a sandy beach by the lakeside. “The water is warm here, but you will be able to climb out over this side,” it said.
“Is there anything in the water we should be wary of?” asked Nate. “Anything that can walk on land?”
The water demon paused. “They will leave you alone if you are with me.”
Nate climbed out, splashing in the warm water. “I’ll pull the boat to shore.”
“Wait for me. I’m too heavy to pull,” said Argus, leaping out the side. Jena and Bree stayed in the boat and waited as they pulled it up onto the sandy shore of the internal lake.
They all sank to the ground near the boat. Nate let out a sigh. “I never want to do that again,” he said.
“I always thought I might like boats,” said Jena. “I was wrong.”
Bree had curled herself into Argus’s side, but she laughed a little at Jena’s comment. “I knew I wasn’t going to like it... And I was right.”
They sat in silence for a while. Nate stared at the lake, the beautiful twinkling lights, and the reflection in the water. It seemed a place of perfection and harmony. He wondered what would happen, if they just stayed here for a while. Would Lothar find them? Surely, half consumed by the Ember Volcanoes as they were, they might be safe.
“What happens now?” asked Jena.
Nate shook himself. There was no such thing as hiding away. Lothar would always find him; he’d shown that already. “I think we eat and then rest,” he said.
He pulled himself to his feet, and brushed off the sand. He pulled his travel bag out of the boat, and handed around the travel rations. Argus just glared at him when he offered the rock-hard treat, but Jena and Bree took one gratefully.
Instead of sitting back down, Nate walked along the small beach line, taking slow bites of his food. The sand soon turned into rocks under his feet. He kept going and was soon climbing up a rocky incline. In the distance, he saw a tiny light that might be a cave entrance.
They were almost at their destination, so close he could taste it. He kept climbing, hands and feet in just the right position, until the tiny spot of light became a large cave entrance. Nate climbed up and over the rocky incline, and stood looking out at the world beyond.
Blinking at the bright light, Nate gazed around, trying to get a sense of where they were. Behind him, the Ember volcanoes smoldered, now on their other side.
In the rocky landscape in front of him, a flame burned up out of a crevice in the ground. It was abnormally bright, the reds and oranges of the fire sending heat along Nate’s veins. He recognised the fire at once. It was a Flame Echo, joined to the Royal Flames.
What was it doing hidden out here?
“Hello, Nate,” said a voice.
Nate jumped, quickly scanning the area for the speaker. His gaze eventually landed back on the Flames. There was an outline of a face in the flickering light.
He took a step forward then stopped. He didn’t want to be too close to whatever this was.
“Who are you?” he asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
“I am your cousin, Lothar. The next King of Ignisia.” He paused. “And you, my boy, are nothing if not predictable.”
“Where did Nate go?” asked Jena, squinting along the beach where he’d disappeared. “Should we be concerned about him?”
“Nate can take care of himself,” said Argus. “At least for a little while.”
Argus was sitting next to Bree, making sure she was okay. Her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be falling asleep on Argus’s shoulder.
Jena shifted sand between her fingers for a few more moments, but she couldn’t stop the feeling that Nate was in trouble. “I’m going to find him,” she said abruptly, shaking the sand from between her fingers. “If we’re not back in fifteen minutes, come looking for us.”
Argus nodded absently, his attention on Bree.
Jena shook her head and strode up the beach. If that’s what love did to a perfectly reasonable person, they could have it. She climbed over the rocks and up to the cave entrance when she saw it, sure this must be the way Nate had come.
As she emerged from the darkness of the cave into the light, she was blinded momentarily by the bright sunlight outside. She heard the voices first, before being able to see who was talking.
“What makes you so sure I’m your cousin?” Nate was saying. “It’s all a little too convenient.”
“Believe me, your appearance in the Royal Flames is anything but convenient,” said a cultured voice.
“How did you find us in the Flames? We have protection,” Nate said.
“I recognised Remus’s servant. It was a simple matter to assume the shrinking mage was meddling in this. Another predictable creature.”
“Why are you so focused on me? I’m nothing to you.”
“Because unfortunately, the Royal Flames don’t lie. And if I am to return Ignisia to its former glory, I must be on the throne.”
Nate shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to kill people to rule.”
Jena’s eyes had adjusted to the light, and she saw Nate directly in front of her, a natural flame in front of him. She couldn’t see the second speaker anywhere.
“You’re too young to remember Ignisia any other way than it is now,” he was saying. “But once upon a time, before King Harad came to power, our land was a bright and glorious place. The lands were bountiful and we didn’t rely on the lava salt scrounged from the volcanoes for our living. You know all about that, don’t you, Nate? How many of your friends died around you while you lived on?”
“It doesn’t give you the right to attack innocent people.”
Jena stepped up beside Nate and glanced at his face to see who he was addressing. There was no one around, except for the flames burning bright. She looked more closely, and realized it was a natural Flame Echo, one that had developed out of the volcanic ground.
There was a face in the flames, a man not much older than they were. There was only one person it could be.
“Sometimes bad things have to happen in order to set things straight. I’ll admit I didn’t realize I would have to take your life, Nate, and I deeply regret the necessity. But it is for the greater good, for the people of this land. I have the ability to turn this nation around again, to make her plentiful again. To make our people happy.”
Jena stepped closer to the Flames. “Like the people of the village we passed by who were being plagued by a Murghah? Is that the kind of happy you mean?”
The face turned to look at her. “Ah, the servant girl who killed my Hashishin. I should have known that Thornal would have no ordinary servant working for him. He was the Guardian after all.”
“What supposed harm did Thornal ever do to you? What rationalisation do you have for his death?”
Lothar shook his head. “Merely that the mages have too much power in this land. They need to be shaken up, to understand they are not the only ones who can wield magic.”
“We know you’re a mage as well,” said Jena.
“Just like I know your secrets, Jena. My spies have been watching you. And I can sense it right now. You’re as powerful a mage as your father ever was.”
Jena felt like she’d been hit by a blast from a fire spell. “What are you talking about?” No one was supposed to know that. Had Miara told him?
“When my creatures reported two women who looked like Dalafine—except for your scars and hair, I suppose—it didn’t take much to understand who you were, Jena. My mother told me the story of Primus and Dalafine, and how your precious Thornal couldn’t stop them. That is why I am going to be king. Because I have all the information and you do not.”
“You know nothing,” Jena spat out. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be using creatures like the Riders to take power.”
“Sometimes the ends justify the means.” Lothar shrugged. “This land has suffered enough for the stupidity of one man. I do not intend to let anyone else who is unfit and unqualified for the position take charge.” His eyes blazed red for a moment inside the Flames. Jena shivered. There was no arguing with Lothar. His ideas were fixed.
Nate stepped forward to stand in front of Jena. “You know, when I first started out on this journey, I would have offered you the throne. I would have left the country, dropped out of sight, done anything—except die—to help you take the throne instead of me. But now I realize that you’re not fit to rule. You’re not the kind of person who can take this nation to the place it needs to be. So I will stand up against you in the fight for our Kingdom. I won’t let you just take it from me.”
“What a pretty little speech. Pity there is no one around to listen in, other than the scarred servant girl.”
“It doesn’t matter who’s listening; I say these words for your benefit and mine. I say it as a vow to you.”
Lothar shook his head. “You’re too emotional, Nate. Too caught up what’s right and wrong.”
Jena took a step forward and stood next to Nate again. She put her hand in his. “You’re wrong. I’m not some dumb servant girl. I’m the daughter of Primus and Dalafine, a child born of a forbidden union. I am the granddaughter of Thornal, the greatest mage of our time, and the Guardian of the Book of Spells.” She took a deep breath. “I also have the talisman of the Guardian on my body to guide my way.” Jena lifted her shirt and the Raven flew off, diving straight for the flames, and only just turning away at last minute. Lothar’s face ducked in the flames and when he came back into view, he was furious.
“I also hold inside my head the Book of Spells, the repository of all mage knowledge for the last thousand years. I hold its power within me. With all this power, with all this might at my disposal, I pledge myself to helping Nate become the next King of Ignisia.” Jena felt the power emanating through her words, and evidently so did Lothar. He drew back in the Flames, his eyes wide.
“No,” he whispered. “No!”
At that moment, two enormous birds swooped down from the sky, their talons directed at Nate and Jena. They each gave the screech of a successful hunter, and then Jena felt the sharp claws dig into her sides as one of the birds grasped her in its claws and swept back into the air.
One of the giant bird’s talons had pierced his side, and Nate could see the blood dripping into the nothingness below him. They were high in the air, heading in a direct line to the nearest open volcano stem. Nate had very little doubt that the eagles were going to drop them both into the bubbling volcano. Below him, all he could see were the clouds and the occasional patch of mountain.
Just a few yards ahead, the second eagle was carrying Jena clutched in its claws, its massive wings beating against the wind currents. The loud swishing of the air and the pain from his wound were combining to turn his brain to mush.
The birds, giant eagles by the looks, weren’t fire creatures, so they weren’t affected by his fire magic. He didn’t think a demon could help him, other than to get him dropped from a terrible height. There seemed to be nothing that might help.
He watched Jena struggling against her bird, and wondered at her bravery. She would fight to the very last moment, to the very last drop of blood.
And she’d just sworn to help him win the Kingdom of Ignisia.
The fact that she had the Book of Spells inside her head was another revelation, but now that he knew her better, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. She was a strong woman, could wield magic as if it was second nature. Her grandfather was apparently the Guardian. So the question became, why shouldn’t she carry the Book?
“Stop gazing over there like a soppy moron and start concentrating on getting yourself out of this mess,” said a familiar voice next to Nate. The mage ghost was flying next to the eagle as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
“And how am I supposed to do that?” asked Nate with heavy sarcasm. What the hell did the ghost think he was?
“There must be something you can do; you’ve got a flaming arsenal of magic at your disposal.” For once, the ghost didn’t look calm and collected.
He kept glancing over at Jena.
In a moment of complete clarity, Nate finally realized what was strange about this ghost. “You’ve never asked me for anything. Not in the whole time you’ve been with me,” he said, a kind of wonder in his voice. “You’ve only ever helped me get out of bad situations. Who are you?”
“We don’t have time for epiphanies, boy. Think hard, or you’re both going to die.”
Nate looked at the mage flying beside him, and thought back to Seamus, the farmer ghost. He’d entered Argus’s body when he wanted him to stop what he was doing. “Can you enter the body of the eagle and get it to stop? To change direction?”
The mage ghost shook his head at first. “I don’t think it can be done,” he said.
“It can. I’ve seen it done. Go. Enter the mind of Jena’s eagle. Take her back down to the ground. I can deal with mine on my own.”
“Are you sure, Fire Mage?” The ghost wavered in front of Nate.
The ghost disappeared, and moments later, Nate watched as the other eagle turned in its direction and headed back down to the ground. His eagle screeched at the other creature, but it kept flying. Nate watched until he saw Jena dropped to the ground. He let out a breath, heavy with relief.
Then he realized he was out of time.
The eagle was directly over the gaping maw of the volcano. Below he could see the bubbling lava inside the crater.
The eagle let him go.
Nate screamed as he fell, closing his eyes against his oncoming death, and falling back on the one thing that always came naturally to him. He called a demon. The demon appeared almost immediately, and without a word, covered Nate in flames.
It should have burned. It should have felt like a million deaths. Instead, it was quiet and cold. Nate opened his eyes again. “Where am I?” he asked.
“You are in the Edges, Fire Mage. It was the only way to save you.”
“Am I dead?”
“No, master. You can survive here for short periods. It is one of your talents.” The demon was more formed here in the edges. It wasn’t just a bright glowing ball; it had eyes and features on its face. It seemed calm and serene. “We must go back now. I can reenter your world in a slightly different place. You will not be burned.”
“Thank you,” said Nate.
“No need, master. I must do your bidding.”
“I didn’t tell you to save me. I couldn’t.” As soon as he said the words, Nate realized they were true.
For the first time ever, a demon had used his own will to save Nate.
The demon bowed its head. “You are the Fire Mage. We must keep you safe; it is our journey.”
Nate blinked and then he was on the side of the mountain, a few hundred yards above where the Flame Echo had been. He could see Bree kneeling over Jena, who was lying prone on the ground. Argus stood over both of them, keeping watch.
The Flame Echo that had been burning so strongly was gone.
Nate let out a breath and started the climb downward.
CHAPTER 55 (EPILOGUE)
The straps on her bag were rubbing against her shoulders on both sides, and Jena rolled her muscles, trying to find a position that would stop the skin from being rubbed raw yet again.
They were high in the mountains, although not at the level where the lava jumped and spat at unwary travelers. The landscape was typical of the outskirts of the Ember Volcanoes. Barren and rocky, it had only low-lying shrubs offering evidence of life. They hadn’t seen any more Flame Echoes such as the one that had allowed Lothar to find them.
She still ached across her middle from being carried by the giant eagle. Occasionally her breath would hitch in her chest as she remembered the feeling of being clutched in those enormous talons high in the air, completely out of control, and unable to think of a way to escape. Bree had done her best to heal the physical wounds, but the ones inside her head might take a bit longer.
Argus walked in front, holding Bree’s hand. The closer they came to Remus’s house, the slower they seemed to go. It was as if no one really wanted to start the next part of their journey. Would they all stay together? Or would they separate?
Jena had pledged herself to Nate’s cause, and she was going to see that through. It didn’t hurt that it followed the same course as her vow for vengeance. But she didn’t think Bree or Argus would follow them. Argus wouldn’t leave Bree alone, and the idea of taking Bree on a fight like this was too much even for Jena.
Nate trailed last, his mind elsewhere. He’d seemed different somehow, after he climbed down next to them, with no more than a shallow wound on his side from the eagle’s talon. He hadn’t told them how he’d managed to escape the volcano, and Jena couldn’t begin to speculate. Was he able to withstand the heat? A Fire Mage could call on the flames to do their bidding. She shook her head. She just didn’t know.
Overhead, the sky was grey and dull, interrupted only by the occasional red burst of light, the reflected glow of lava erupting out of the volcanoes behind them. Rocks piled up on either side of a rough track that looked like it had been carved into the ground by mage fire.
Jena rounded a corner in the track and almost bumped into Bree and Argus. Ahead of them was a small house made of lava rock that seemed to grow up out of the ground. Smoke puffed out the stone chimney and it was lopsided; rocks had fallen down one side. There were vines growing through much of the outside.
Argus was standing as if stunned, his body stiff.
“This is it?” said Jena, coming to a halt behind him.
“This is it,” Argus replied.
As they watched, the door opened and a tiny man emerged. Feathers fluttered on her stomach, and Jena saw pictures of the same man at full height, standing straight and proud. He had been handsome and had worn his mage robes with a relaxed ease.
The man in front of them had an arrogant pride holding him erect, but he was half the size. His mage robes had been shortened to fit his body, and he tottered on feet that seemed close to their original size.
Argus walked forward. Following behind, Jena was able to study the mage’s face. It was strangely lopsided, like the house, as if his head was too heavy for the rest of his body. One eye seemed lower than the other, and he was ever-so-slightly cross-eyed.
The man in Jena’s head was even-featured and tall. Attractive. Powerful. Argus said he’d had a spell cast on him and was shrinking, but still she marveled at this horrific deterioration. A chill walked her spine. What kind of terrible deeds might a man perform to regain his former glory?
Remus moved awkwardly down the three steps from the veranda and came toward them, swaying and shuffling as he went.
Argus paused for a moment and then strode forward, his long tread eating up the ground. When they met close to the house, Argus bowed his head slightly. “Remus.”
“Have you succeeded, then?” The voice was reedy, created by the combination of a strong will and a deteriorating body. Beady eyes looked past Argus to Nate. “This is the mage Nathaniel?”
“Yes, this is him.” Argus’s voice had a sharp edge to it.
“Good, good.” Remus continued to stare at Nate, a tiny smirk on his face. Then he transferred his gaze to Jena and Bree. A frown appeared, creating a strange furrow between his eyes.
“And who is this? You know how I feel about strangers.” Remus turned back to Argus, his uneven eyes still able to express anger.
Argus bowed his head again. “The High Witch Miara sent them to help me bring Nate safely to you. I would not have made it if they hadn’t accompanied me.”
Remus snorted. “The High Witch Miara is a meddling old woman. How was she? Still crying all the time?”
“She is well.” Argus hesitated. “No crying.”
“Couldn’t get her to shut up at court. You’re here now; you may as well come inside.” He waved his arm, directing them into his home.
Jena exchanged a look with her sister. Bree’s eyes were wide, her expression dubious. She seemed to agree with Jena’s immediate assessment—this tiny, lopsided man wasn’t completely sane.
Shrugging, Jena followed Nate and Argus up the steps and into the house. She’d committed to this path; she wasn’t going to back out now.
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